Sunday, 31 March 2013

More social history...

A treat for readers who would like to read another review of a book of mine, this time  about the East End in the 1960s;

1960s East End Childhood by Simon Webb

Do you remember playing in East End streets free of traffic? The days when children could play out on their local road free from fears of muggers or sexual molestation? If you do you’re probably recalling a 1960s’ childhood … or you think you are.
Simon Webb’s fascinating new book* opens with the declaration that “this book is not intended to be…an exercise in demythologising or debunking, rather [to] give a more rounded and balanced portrait of children’s lives in the East End of half a century ago”. In fact, it’s all of those things, and is the more entertaining for doing just that, as the author painstakingly takes apart some of the myths clouding our received version of history. His tools? Commonsense, his own memories and (not always the case in local history books) some solid research and hard facts.
We begin in a world which, although only 50 years away, is almost totally unrecognisable. To quote the famous opening lines of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” And how different it was – trolleybuses, steam trains and black and white telly (if you had one). A land where everybody smoked all the time, be it on the tube or in a hospital ward. A land where murderers were hanged, black faces were rare and few of us had phones let alone mobile ones (so used phone boxes instead).
Foreign then, but not necessarily better. Webb admits to finding “the mythology of childhood in the East End…at odds with my own recollections”, and diving into the records he establishes that his memory is the more reliable guide. Take those safe and traffic-free streets for instance. Although there were far fewer vehicles on the roads in 1961, ten times as many children were killed in traffic accidents than in 2010. We should also remember that cars were built like tin cans and seatbelts were a rarity.
And if you lived in a working class area, you were far MORE likely to die in an accident. The children of manual workers were much more liable to die from house fires or car crashes, and the child mortality rate was even more shocking. A decade or so into the new NHS, which should have evened things up between rich and poor, and the percentage of babies dying before their first birthday in East London compared with figures in the developing world today.
Then there are those innocent childhood games. Hopscotch always get a mention in memoirs of sun-soaked cockney childhood, but Simon moves briskly on to Last One Across, where boys would race across a busy road or railway line, ideally (though not unfailingly) beating the onrushing truck or train. Today those kids would be getting their adrenaline rush at Alton Towers or Thorpe Park – just as thrilling but unlikely to be fatal.
East End boys of the early 1960s might well have recognised some of their pastimes in the pages of the Just William books (popular for more than 40 years at this point). Simon remembers airguns and catapults being routinely carried; and almost as routinely, there were trips to hospital, lost eyes and permanent scarring. Then there was a boy at Simon’s school – who built a bomb from bangers one November. Returning to investigate why his bomb had failed to explode, he arrived just as it did so – removing his hand.
With leaky gas fires, yet-to-be-eradicated diseases and a meagre diet, it seems things weren’t much safer at home. We should mention those lead toys which slipped so easily into infants’ mouths. But lest we give the impression that the East End of the early sixties was a sepia-tinted death trap both indoors and out, Simon reminds us that there was much about this simpler and less organised age to admire. Children’s services may not have existed in any coherent form, but it was a given that – on your estate or street – all the children were ‘parented’ (or at least watched over) by all the adults.
And while modern families have an enormous wealth of consumer goods, the difficulty of affording luxuries in the sixties (let alone the lack of any luxuries to be had) meant they were all the more prized. The received mythology is that we all saved industriously in the sixties, living within our means, while drowning in credit. The truth is that today we’re likely to buy that iPod or digital camera outright; half a century ago we were buying our pushbikes and record players on hire purchase, ‘the never never’. God help the clumsy child who broke the radio that still wasn’t paid for. The television, meanwhile, would likely be rented.
In a pervese way, it’s reassuring to remind ourselves that people have always thought that things were getting worse. The 1960s had its moral panics about children’s reading matter. The Children and Young People (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 had tried to stem the flood of lurid and disturbing comics, but go into any East End newsagent and you would find racked Sinister Tales, Creepy Worlds and Tales from the Crypt. And there have always been hysterical crusades about pop musicians and their lyrics, from Elvis through the Rolling Stones and on. To quote another wise head who had seen it all before: “Never ask: ‘Oh why were things so much better in the old days?’ It’s not an intelligent question!” That’s Ecclesiastes, from the second century BC. Rose-tinted spectacles, it seems, have always been around.
*A 1960s East End Childhood by Simon Webb. Published by The History Press, £7.99.

An interesting social history of selective education...

I thought that readers might like to read a review of one of my recent books about education and schooling:

Like it or not, British education post-war was dominated by the 11-plus which divided those pupils who went on to Grammar School at 11, and the vast majority who didn't.
In fact, at least three quarters of children failed the exam and ended up at secondary schools, which is where they stayed until they left to find a job at the age of 15.

"The history of this 75 per cent or more of children who were neither privately educated, nor attended grammar school, has often been neglected and sometimes entirely overlooked," says Simon Webb, the author of a new book on the subject.
"Fictional accounts of childhood during this time, from Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories to C S Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, show a world where independent, fee-paying schools are the norm," he adds.
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"Real life reminisces of school in the late 1940s and Fifties seem to focus upon the lives of children at grammar and private school, rather than exploring life at ordinary primary schools and secondary moderns."
Simon's book, a lively and fascinating mix of personal reminisces and well researched fact, follows the nation's schoolchildren as Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act was translated into reality.
Under Butler's scheme – part of a "brave new world" – every child in the country would have access to free education through a system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools.
As many authorities failed to institute the technical schools, it was left as pretty much a two-tier system.
From 1947, despite considerable opposition, all children were obliged by law to remain in full-time education until they were 15 years old.
Despite the snob appeal of the grammar schools – pupils had to wear a uniform and boys a cap – the Labour Party were strongly in favour of them.
They regarded these establishments – many of which had once been private – as agents of social mobility which would enable bright working-class pupils to "fulfil their potential".
Nevertheless many aspects of the grammar schools – including the use of surnames and teachers wearing gowns – mirrored those of the private schools, on which they were based.
For so-called "late developers" there was access to these schools through 13-plus exams, although in reality this was nothing more than a trickle.
Bright pupils from secondary moderns were either not encouraged, or not able, until 1965, to take CSE or GCE exams.
In fact many left school without any qualifications whatsoever, a situation which barred them from any type of office work, however lowly.
By the 1950s it was becoming obvious, says Simon, that the 11-plus was doing nothing but sort out articulate middle-class children, often not the brightest, and provide them with grammar school places.
"It is worth noting that throughout the 1940s and Fifties half of the children attending grammar schools were from middle-class families," says Simon Webb.
"This was wholly disproportionate to the size of the middle classes at the time and suggested that they were taking up more than their fair share of places.
"Whatever had earlier been claimed the 11-plus examination had little to do with intelligence and everything to do with previous schooling and education."
For those starting out at primary school, which was at five, as it is today, the occasion was either traumatic or eagerly awaited.
In those days mothers were always busy – Monday's washing could take all day and shopping was a daily chore – and with few amusements, such as TV, many children were bored.
If you were lucky enough to find yourself at an infant school which had graduated from chalk and slates to pencils then, at seven, there were dip pens and ink, which could make an awful mess, even with blotting paper. Even after they were being mass produced, in the 1960s, many schools still refused to let their children use Biros.
Age seven, and now in the juniors, pupils would be streamed, A, B or C according to ability, and even moved around in class after a weekly test.
The A stream pupils, many of who, it must be said, had natural ability, would be groomed for the 11-plus and a possible place at grammar school.
Due to a post-war "bulge" there could be as many as 40, or even 50, children in just one class.
Given these high numbers (most private schools aimed for half of this) then perhaps it was in the nature of things that slower pupils were overlooked while attention was focused on the brightest.
Teachers' "pets" were a well- known phenomena.
Such was the division at 11 that many pupils who had passed the 11-plus found themselves cut off socially from the friends that they had grown up with at primary school.
Snobbery, a fact of life in post-war Britain, remained rife.
If you grew up in the post-war years, as I did, then this book will bring the memories – both good and bad – flooding back.
Little did we realise (did anyone, apart from the educationalists) that we were being used as guinea pigs in a huge piece of social engineering.
Just how much the education we got fitted us for life outside the school gates is another question all together, beyond the remit of Simon Webb's book.
One secondary school pupil describes how he learned more from a teacher who let them tinker with (and drive!) his old car than he ever did in the classroom.
The chapters on discipline, uniforms, religion and school buildings I found especially interesting.
The Best Days of our Lives by Simon Webb is published by The History Press at £12.99.

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Saturday, 30 March 2013

The converts to autonomous education

I was interested to see yesterday  one of my most vociferous critics here,  a keen autonomous educator,  mention in passing that he or she had tried to teach a child to read at the age of two. We saw the same thing with David Hough up in Cambridge; the education begins in a way that many people would call hot-housing  and then later, the parents are converted to autonomous education. This even happened with Mike Fortune-Wood, that arch apostle of the autonomous home education movement. He writes that at first he did ‘home at school’, and only  later become a convert to autonomy.  I have seen this sort of thing many times before, not only among home educators, but also with friends of ours who sent their children to school. One notable case was that of a man who began with ante-natal education, involving  a loudspeaker pressed against his wife’s belly during pregnancy. (No, honestly, this was not me!) When the kid was born, he stuck labels on everything, so that the kid was seeing words like table and door at baby eye level. What is curious is that he gave all this up after six months and became strongly opposed to this sort of game.

     I have remarked many times before that there is something a little fanatical and cult-like about some of the more enthusiastic autonomous types. It seems to be less a pedagogy and more a philosophy of life; almost a religion. Now as I am sure that readers know, converts are the very devil for being keen as mustard about their new faith. We see this with Catholics and I have also encountered it with those who convert to Islam and Judaism. Often, these characters are ten times more strict about their faith than those who were born into it. I am wondering if something of the sort might happen with those who are, as it were, converts to autonomous education? Anybody reading what Jan Fortune-Wood has to say about the education of children would surely think that her faith in autonomous education was bred in the bone, but it is nothing of the sort. A few years ago, she too was dead keen on ‘school at home’. She had an epiphany and was converted to the cause of autonomy; of which she is now a champion.

     All this would make sense really. One  notices that those who send their children to school and then change to home education are frequently more fanatical about the business than people like me who have been involved for decades. There definitely seems to be a different mindset among those who deregister their children, which sets them apart from those who did not send their children in the first place. This too has the feeling of a conversion.

     I am not being dogmatic about this, it is just something which I have noticed over the years. Do readers know of any other well known autonomous educators who began by doing ‘school at home’?

Friday, 29 March 2013

Ian Dowty's legal opinion on flexi-schooling

I thought that readers might be interested to hear what Ian Dowty has to say on the subject of flexi-schooling. As readers probably know, he is a lawyer whose own son gained a place at Oxford after being home educated. This is a message that he sent to Alison Sauer;

 Flexi-schooling is legally possible (apparently), but the bottom-line is that it's at the discretion of a school's head who can start it or stop it at any time. You can't make any head do it, whether they "refuse" for good or bad or policy (whether local or central) reasons. That would be the case even if "or otherwise" included flexi-schooling, which is about as far as you can go, surely? If I've missed something, let me know and I'll gladly reconsider.

In my view it is better by far to leave the legal position alone and to win hearts and minds over to flexi-schooling with solid examples of how it works and the projects/schools based on it. If you want to make it something a parent can insist on, it seems to me that you have to address the problem that it might deprive a place to a child whose parents want full-time school. Alternatively you could perhaps argue that it could alleviate the problem of a shortage of places if 2 parents wanting flexi-schooling shared a school place.

You might want to point out to the DfE that its latest guidance issued on 22nd March seems to be wrong where it says " Pupils should be marked absent from school during periods when they are receiving home education." Since they are absent with leave of the head they cannot be "absent" and should not be marked as such - s444(3) Education Act 1996 makes it clear that "The child shall not be taken to have failed to attend regularly at the school by reason of his absence from the school— (a) with leave". If a child is marked as absent, the LA can use the register as evidence in court that the child is not attending regularly and this might give rise to an erroneous prosecution of a child who is actually deemed by s444(3) not to be absent. They ought to leave the law alone too :)

More deliberately misleading claims about autonomous education

We looked yesterday at the case of a child  who was taught to read and then advertised as having just ‘picked up’ reading spontaneously. This sort of thing can have a bad effect upon parents who are thinking of home educating, because it gives them an unrealistic idea of what home education entails. It has caused some parents to simply wait for their children to start reading; having formed the impression that this is something which happens naturally as a matter of course. Here is a typical example of such a dupe. This mother’s account of her children’s education was until recently to be found on the Education Otherwise site as an inspiration to others! Here she is, talking of her seven and ten year old children, both of whom are functionally illiterate;

‘Their days are often filled with television and lots of play…They will read one day and will do so because they want to, not because somebody tells them to.’

Here is a mother who is simply waiting for her children to ‘pick up’ reading. She has been gulled into this foolish course of action  by misleading accounts such as that at which we looked yesterday.

Another type of deception is that practiced by those who pretend that their children were pretty backward in various subjects and then suddenly made great leaps at a late age; thus catching up and even overtaking  conventionally schooled children of the same age. We hear of children who could not read until the age of twelve or who were hopeless at maths until they  were thirteen and then in the space of a few years made up for lost time and went to university. Almost invariably, there is more to these cases too than meets the eye.

Two home education success stories which have been doing the rounds now for years and are still regularly trotted out, are the autonomously educated boys; one of whom got into Oxford to study law and the other who went to Manchester to study bio-chemistry. The second of these cases is an absolute classic in deception on the part of the child’s mother and I have recently come across an interesting letter from her dating back to 2007. Here it is;

'The “inspectors” quoted in the BBC article completely do not understand autonomous education, which is practiced by at least one in four home educators in Britain. Autonomous education is child led, with parents facilitating, not dictating and allowing the child to retain the urge to educate themselves, the drive which leads them to teach themselves to walk and talk, and by not supressing that urge allowing them to learn all they need to know to get on in the world they live in. To the LA advisors, this is so far away from the regulated, prescribed curriculums that make up their world, that they see it as no educational provision, because unless the child decides structure is the way they wish to learn, there is often no external way to assess the child’s education. My two children have been lucky enough to decide on their own education, and an inspector making judgements about my son at 13 would have been horrified at this child who had not yet decided writing was an important thing in his life, or maths. However my son was recently the youngest entrant ever at the Manchester School of Medicine’s PhD programme, following his degree.'

What are we to make of this? Well, the mother wants us to believe that her autonomously educated son was not too hot at  maths at the age of thirteen and that a local authority  inspector would have been horrified at his standard in this subject. But then look what happened; he went on to become the youngest ever entrant at the Manchester School of Medicine!  Curious that she omits to mention that the boy had already passed a GCSE in mathematics at the age of twelve, three or four years earlier than the usual age that this is taken in schools. The reality is that far from being horrified at his attainment in maths, any inspector would have been extremely impressed. This can hardly have been an innocent mistake on the part of the mother; she knew perfectly well when she was talking about how horrified an inspector would have been, that her son took his GCSE in this subject at twelve. She tells us here that he had not, at the age of thirteen, decided that maths was an important thing in his life,  when in fact he chose to pursue the subject and take a GCSE in it at twelve!

The result of this sort of deceit is that parents whose teenagers are not doing well at maths or reading are lulled into believing that it does not matter. Just look! Here is a child who is a complete duffer at maths when he is thirteen and then a year later, he is studying it at A level!  In the course of a year, he has caught up with and overtaken the fourteen year-olds at school. Nonsense like this can be very damaging for parents who don’t realise that they should actually be concerned about children unable to read at twelve or carry out basic arithmetical operations at thirteen. They are enabled to kid themselves that some miracle will happen and that their children will soon catch up without any teaching  on their part. 

Why does this bother me? I am hugely enthusiastic about home education. At the moment there are tens of thousands of home educated children in this country, but I would like to see the practice increase at least tenfold. I wish that hundreds of thousands of parents would take full responsibility for the education of their children and reject schools entirely. Educating children though is a full-time task and unless parents are prepared to devote their lives to it for ten or fifteen years, then they had better not attempt it at all. Those who undertake the enterprise believing that their children will be hopeless at maths at the age of thirteen and then suddenly whiz ahead and be at A level standard a year later, all under their own steam, are in for a terrible shock. Untruthful and deliberately misleading reports such as those we have looked at over the last few days are not helping matters. They present a distorted and wholly unrealistic view of home education. Any parents who decide to home educate after having read stuff like this are being set up to fail. Worse still, their children are being primed for failure and that really does bother me.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The autonomous acquisition of literacy in home educated children

One of the most commonly held beliefs among  certain  British home educators  is that it is unnecessary to teach children to read; that they will somehow just ‘pick it up’ naturally, just like walking and talking. I don’t claim that this is impossible, but I can certainly say that in every such case that I have been able to investigate, there is more to the business than at first meets the eye. I want today to look at a classic example of this sort of thing. 

     Here is an item from a local newspaper in Cambridgeshire;

Now let us examine what is said here about the way that this child  supposedly learned to read. This is, according to the parents, an autonomous education.  We are told  that:

‘Kit was not forced to read, but instead started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things.’

We also read that;

‘he didn't want to start learning to read until he was six, and has rejected the system of phonics which is used in many schools.’

This is  fairly typical of the  kind of claims made by autonomous home educators about the learning of reading. According to this account, at the age of six this boy started to pick up reading because he realised that it would be useful. He was not forced to learn and had no dealings with phonics; that is to say learning the sounds of individual letters.

Really, if it is this easy, you wonder that anybody bothers teaching children to read at all! Why not just let them pick it up naturally like this, in their own time?  All that work in schools on teaching phonics to five and six year-olds and here is a kid who begins to read at the same age as most schoolchildren,  without any fuss; he just learns  by himself when he is ready. A  classic case of the autonomous acquisition of literacy. Except of course, it is all complete nonsense. I happen to know this for a fact. Here is what the child’s mother wrote six years before that newspaper report:

22 December 2003
…has been having a wonderful time of late learning things like numbers and letters. He was transfixed by the Sesame Street DVDs on the subjects, but was restless when I tried to do some alphabet with him today. I wrote letters in his sketchbook and he furiously scribbled them out. We came into the computer room and fired up, which has some lovely games for 2 year olds, in case you never knew. When he knew the very same set of letters in the very same order as Mummy, suddenly it started clicking. Mummy was NOT making this up to be cruel. This is some secret code he needs to learn. As in he thinks he needs to learn it now, not just Mummy thinks he needs to learn it. He's not expert at mouse moving yet, and clicks tend to happen not at all or 30 in a row, but he likes to point to the screen and make choices and have me click on them for him. Today's winners seem to be the letter K and the letter Z. He's always been a big fan of S. 

That entry was made when the child was two years and three months of age and as we can see, one of the parents has already begun teaching her son to read. The method that she is using is of course phonics; teaching her son the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that they make. A month later, in January 2004, when the boy was two years and four months, his mother was using flashcards of letters and numbers to teach him. A month after that, her efforts began to pay off, because by February 3rd 2004, the child could recognise every single letter of the alphabet and the associated sounds. Not bad for a boy who is still only two years and five months old.

Now there is nothing at all wrong with any of this; I did exactly the same with my own daughter. It is called teaching a child to read and, just like me, this parent thought that the earlier that you undertake the process, the better. Let us now look at that newspaper report again;

‘he didn't want to start learning to read until he was six…started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things’

At best, this is exceedingly misleading; at worst, a complete falsehood. He was being  taught to read  systematically four years before he was six, by phonics; the same method used in schools. Anybody think that this might have some bearing on his acquisition of literacy?

Tomorrow, we shall be thinking a little   about this sort of deception. What motivates home educating parents to teach children to read and then pretend that their children have learned to read without any structured teaching? It is common enough and I know of many  such cases. We shall look at why people do this and also consider the ill effects that accounts of such supposedly autonomous learning can have  upon gullible parents who are persuaded that if their children are left to their own devices, then they too will somehow just ‘pick up’ the ability to read.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The problem with the internet for home educated children

I said yesterday that research on the internet posed special problems for some home educated children. Of course, it is not only home educated children who get a lot of their information from the internet and to illustrate the problem clearly, we shall look first at something which happened recently at a secondary school. The pupils had been told to research on the internet about America’s first inhabitants. One girl turned up at the next lesson with a lot of impressive looking stuff from a university website. She had discovered that the ancestors of the native Americans were in fact Jews who arrived in the country about 500 BC. She had also found a link to an academic article about supposed DNA evidence which backed up this mad idea. Here is one of the sources of her knowledge:

     Actually, it all sounds very plausible and if it were not for the fact that I know Mormonism to be raving mad, I might almost be persuaded myself by all this fancy, scientific language!

     Now fortunately, the teacher was able to put her right about this and explain that Brigham Young University was not the best place to go to for information on this topic. For him to do this though, he needed to have a good deal of prior knowledge about the subject. He needed to know about the Clovis People, the land bridge over the Bering Strait and also a bit about the beliefs of Mormonism. In other words, the teacher was able to guide the child to a correct understanding of the implausibility of what she had found during her research; not withstanding the fact that she had been getting the information from a university. Left to herself, the girl had gone hopelessly astray. Of course, she should ideally have cross-checked what she had found at Brigham Young with various other sources and perhaps visited the library as well to look at a few books. Teenagers aren’t always like that though and many take the first thing they read as being true; as long as it is from a university and contains many long words.

     Consider the case of a home educated child whose parents might not know  about the origin of humans in the Americas or anything about Mormonism. If their child announced that she had learned that the aboriginal inhabitants of America were from the Middle East, they might not have the knowledge to set her straight. It is entirely possible that the child could stumble across this nonsense and then go off believing it to be true. Of course, if the child were to be told that this was not the true history of America and urged to look more deeply into the subject, she might be able to get the matter a little clearer. But why would she do so if she believed the first site that she came across?  In other words, just roaming around the internet and picking up information in this way without the guidance of a knowledgeable adult is not really the best way to learn things. This is of course because the internet contains an awful lot of misleading and downright untruthful information. 

     There is a strand in modern British home education which holds that the internet is the ideal place for  children to acquire information. Indeed, some believe that a child can more or less educate herself without any guidance, provided that she is given unlimited access to the internet. This is a mistaken view.  Without a teacher and guide to correct errors and set the child along the right path to knowledge, there are too many pitfalls to make this a suitable mode of education. Certainly, the child might bring some of the idiotic things she learns on the internet to her parents, thus giving them a chance to put her right. But there are still likely to be many things which remain uncorrected; urban myths, old wives’ tales and downright fabrications.  This is why most educators feel the need for a skeleton framework of knowledge to ensure that the child acquires the basics in a sound way. Once this is in place and suitable research techniques have been taught, the child will be less at  hazard from falling into beliefs such as that native Americans are really the descendants of the Children of Israel!

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

A danger in home education

Regular readers will probably know that I am very enthusiastic about home education. There can be difficulties though and we should not allow ourselves to be blind to them. When conducted in a  thoughtful and planned way, home education is astonishingly effective; far more efficient than school based education. When undertaken in a desultory or haphazard fashion though, the  results can be dire. Take history, for example. The great thing about this  for home educators is that it can be brought to life in the most exciting way imaginable  by visits to castles, museums, re-enactments, battlefields and a hundred other different locations. Not for the home educated child, the once a term visit to a museum or stately home! These frequent, even daily visits can be followed up  with Horrible History books and home based activities. The subject is tremendously enjoyable for both parents and children and I defy any school to make history as much fun as it can be for home educated children. On the other hand, learning about history can be absolutely disastrous for home educated children if little or no thought is given to it.

     I was looking yesterday at a blog on home education kept by a fairly well-known parent; her name is not important. She was writing about how she took the opportunity to teach her children some history by reading out to them some interesting facts that she had read on the internet about life in England during the 16th Century. I have actually seen the document she quoted  used before by home educators as a teaching resource. Here it is:

The next time you are washing your hands and complain because the water temperature isn't just how you like it, think about how things used to be. Here are some facts about the 1500s:
Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May, and they still smelled pretty good by June.. However, since they were starting to smell . ...... . Brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor. Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting Married.
Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.. Hence the saying, "Don't throw the baby out with the Bath water!"
Houses had thatched roofs-thick straw-piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof... Hence the saying "It's raining cats and dogs."
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That's how canopy beds came into existence.
The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt. Hence the saying, "Dirt poor." The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh (straw) on floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they added more thresh until, when you opened the door, it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entrance-way. Hence: a thresh hold.
In those old days, they cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire.. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes stew had food in it that had been there for quite a while. Hence the rhyme: Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old. Sometimes they could obtain pork, which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could, "bring home the bacon." They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and chew the fat.
Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.
Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.
Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would Sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial.. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake.
England is old and small and the local folks started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive... So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift.) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, saved by the bell or was considered a dead ringer.
And that's the truth....Now, whoever said History was boring

Now read as a series of jokes; this is quite funny. I won’t go through every point, this is a spoof which has been circulating on the internet for fourteen years or so. It appeared a few months after the film Shakespeare in Love was released and is thought to have been inspired by it. The horrifying thing is, this home educating mother thought that this was a factual account of life in Tudor England and encouraged her children to believe this nonsense. This highlights a danger with home education.

     The history taught in schools is specified by the National Curriculum. For the Tudor period at key Stage 2, this means;

Britain and the wider world in Tudor times
10. A study of some significant events and individuals, including Tudor monarchs, who shaped this period and of the everyday lives of men, women and children from different sections of society.

We can be pretty confident that children being taught about the 16th Century in schools will not be told that wakes were held in case the dead person should wake up! Nor are they likely to be learning that  dogs lived on the roof in old England… This is the problem with home education. There is nothing to prevent ignorant parents from teaching their children all sorts of  rubbish and persuading them that it is true. Some only use the internet, rather than books, and will, as this mother did, regard a history lesson as consisting of passing on collections of urban myths to their kids. 

     What can be done about this, is another matter. I am very much afraid that nothing can be done without interfering to an alarming extent with family life. After all, we would none of us wish to see home educating parents compelled to teach their children set texts and required to follow the National Curriculum. I suppose that this then is the price of freedom; that parents should be at liberty to misinform their kids if they wish to do so. It is a something of a tragedy though, because when this happens, it is the children who suffer and some are bound to grow up with their heads full of foolishness that their parents have fed them in this way. 

     In short, this is the nature of the problem; that at school, children will be exposed to facts and largely accurate information about Tudor England, while at home they may only be encouraged to listen to old wives’ tales and urban myths. As I say, there is nothing to be done about this. Even regular visits would not uncover this sort of thing. It is well though that home educators bear in mind their responsibility towards their children; a far greater moral responsibility than that borne by the parents of children attending school.

Monday, 25 March 2013

The final nail in the coffin of flexi-schooling

You have to give the Department for Education credit for sheer cheek! The latest revised guidance on flexi-schooling provides us with an absolute master class in how to appear to be giving way without in fact budging an inch. Here it is in full;

Clarification on Flexi-Schooling DfE March 22nd 

On 22 February 2013, the Government published revised advice on school attendance. The advice clarified the Government's expectations on how various school attendance codes should be used to record pupil school attendance.

Schools should not mark a pupil as attending school, using the attendance code B for off-site education activity, unless the school is responsible for supervising the off-site education, and can ensure the safety and the welfare of the pupil off-site. Schools are ultimately responsible for the attainment of every child registered on their roll. Whilst being home educated, parents and carers are responsible for pupils, not schools.

Where parents have entered in to flexi-schooling arrangements, schools may continue to offer those arrangements. Pupils should be marked absent from school during periods when they are receiving home education.

The reference in the Government's revised advice on school attendance, that was categorical that a school could not agree to a flexi-schooling arrangement, has been removed.

The first thing to note is that any flexi-schooling arrangement means that the school itself must be responsible for the welfare and safety of the child while he is in his own home. Yes, that's right. If little Jimmy falls over and hurts himself in his bedroom on the day that he is being educated at home, then the school has to take responsibility for the injury!  This single statement is enough to kill any flexi-schooling dead on the spot. No Head is going to agree to this. It would mean that if a child were killed in an accident at home, the Head could face criminal charges for negligence.

Still, not to worry. You will see that existing flexi-schooling arrangements may continue. The pupils will now just be marked absent on those days. Since schools are judged by their absence rates, why would they possibly want to agree to this? What advantage will there be to any school encouraging flexi-schooling?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Wendy Charles-Warner

                                    Wendy Charles Warner
A number of comments have been made in this blog which suggest that Wendy Charles Warner has behaved in a criminal or immoral fashion. I have no personal knowledge of any such behaviour, nor any reason whatsoever to suppose that these suggestions are true. May I ask readers to think very carefully before posting and to refrain from posting  anything which could be interpreted in this way.

The association of flexi-schooling and child abuse: the parent of a persistent truant writes…

I have  written before of the flexi-schooling of my older daughter. She loved school, particularly the social side, but was not receiving there what I regarded as a suitable education and so we began taking her out for a day or two each week and teaching her at home. This was a reasonable compromise, with which the child was quite happy. She did not wish to be entirely home educated.  The school though were not happy about this arrangement and we were on more than one occasion threatened with prosecution. The technical situation was that our daughter was truanting once or twice a week and that we were condoning her truancy. 

     I mention this because yesterday I drew attention to Graham Stuart’s views about this sort of thing. He feels that schooling and education are more or less synonymous and that failing to send a child registered at school to school regularly is ‘tantamount to child abuse’. I do not think now and nor did I at the time, that we were abusing our child by flexi-schooling. This attitude on the part of an MP who is supposed to be home education’s greatest supporter in parliament in worrying. It is especially worrying at the moment, since a man who is allegedly fighting for the right of parents to flexi-school holds such views. I believe that I was flexi-schooling for a couple of years; Graham Stuart regards it as child abuse. Am I really the only one who can see a problem with that?

     We have had parents on here who talked about the awful situation of dragging a school refuser to school against her wishes and the trauma that this entailed. Some parents feel that it is less traumatic for the child to let her remain at home and only attend school when she is able to. This too is child abuse, apparently. 

     I am certainly not the only parent that I know who was in this position; that of taking a child out of school regularly in order to teach her at home. Some of these children were marked down as Code B, that is to say educated off-site. Others, like my own, were marked as being absent without permission; in other words, truanting. This has always been a bit  of a theme in flexi-schooling  where the school is uncooperative.   The same goes for holidays. We often used to take our daughter from school in order to go and stay in Wales. She learned far more on those stays up in the mountains  than she did in the classroom. Again, this was technically truanting. The idea that education equates with school and that a child out of school is being neglected is an absurd one. I am merely pointing out that one needs to be very careful relying upon a person with such views to support home education. I have seen my own flexi-schooling condemned by this person as child abuse; I cannot help but wonder what other strange views he holds on this subject.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A great supporter of home education...

Now I am aware that home educators need to have supporters in parliament, but I cannot help thinking that they might be a little more cautious sometimes about whom they get into bed with; metaphorically speaking, of course. I wonder if anybody would care to guess who said the following at the beginning of 2010? Just to remind ourselves, this was when the recommendations of Graham Badman looked as though they were on the point of becoming law and there had been a huge amount of fuss about the whole business of home education. Anyway, this individual claimed at that time  that it was;

'tantamount to child abuse not to make sure your children go to school.  Without education no child has a chance of competing in the world and being able to make a decent, honest living.'

Notice the neat way that lack of school is equated with lack of education! He then went on to urge parents to remember how vitally important school was if you wanted your child to be educated. He suggested strongly that parents should

 'follow their legal duty and send their children to be educated at school.'

Strong words indeed! Do many readers here agree that it is 'tantamount to child abuse not to make sure your children go to school'? A more important question might be, would you rely upon an MP with views such as these to represent your interests to the Department for Education? 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

How to irritate over 99% of parents

One of the things which I notice time and again is the way that many of the more vociferous home educating parents do not give a brilliant impression to the rest of the world. A small number of such people patrol the internet, supposedly defending the practice of home education, but in reality putting up the backs  of thousands of people who have before this been quite indifferent to home education. This can be a problem for the more normal type of home educator, those with no axe to grind and who just wish to get on with educating their children.  The militant characters who start rows on the internet are usually those who have had bad experiences with schools and so could be said to have chips on their shoulders about the school system. The latest example of this sort of thing has happened on the Cbeebies face book page:

There is a new ten minute slot on cbeebies, called ‘What’s the Big Idea’ and they were foolish enough to talk about school. You can see the programme here:

 Obviously, this programme is aimed at under fives, over 99% of whom will be going to school in a matter of months, so it made sense for them to talk about school as a place where the children would learn. This was a big mistake! Dawn Todd said:

‘The adverts for the new show "what's the big idea" say the programme will cover the question "what does it mean to learn something?" Please tell me that will be covered in a future episode, as today's offering, about school, displayed a very narrow understanding of "learning". (Not to mention the factual inaccuracies around why children "have to" go to school’

Here is Danyele Hidderley:

‘ I thought it was awful. It didn't really explain what learning was. It lied that you 'have' to go to school to learn because 'that's where the teachers are'! What about the best teachers (IMO) the parents? You cant learn unless you go to school? And if you go to school you will get a good job. What if you learn elsewhere? I thought it totally excluded home educated children who may have been watching.’

Here is Dawn Todd again,

‘very few people "have to go to school". Is this programme intended only for people who have been issued school attendance orders? ‘

Rachel Yarworth is concerned that in ten minute programme aimed at three and four year-olds, the BBC did not explore the legal situation in more depth. She said:

with more and more people choosing to home educate every day, isn't it about time CBeebies recognised that as a legal and valid choice? ‘

I could go on, but I urge readers to check this out for themselves. The producers responded to the complaints of home educating parents by explaining, quite reasonably, that they had simplified things a little because of the under fives age group at which the programme was aimed, but this only provoked more anger. Morag Davidson said;

‘Simplifying to the point of lying isn't doing well by anyone's standards…it doesn't meet home educators standards. Might be good enough for schools though I suppose. ‘

It should of course be mentioned that when a  child says, 'I have to clean my teeth' or 'I have to go to school', he is not really talking about a legal duty; merely that he is being compelled to do something. Clearly, this escaped those whose comments I quote above. Nobody watching this programme would really think that the child featured was under a legal obligation to attend school; it was more that he was being made to go by his parents.

The overall impression left here was of stuck-up and bad tempered people who do not know how children use language.  This was certainly how the other, non-home educating parents, saw them. There were ratty remarks about the home educators and I don't blame them.  Most people come on that face book page to chat about the programmes and talk about the bits their children enjoyed. Here were a group of aggressive and opinionated people clogging the place up with sarcastic remarks about the lifestyle chosen by the vast majority of parents. Most parents send their children to school and remarks such as:

‘I'm amused that school educated children need to be encouraged/taught to develop critical thinking and discussion skills. HE families do this instinctively all the time’

just sound snotty and superior.

     This is only one example of this happening.  We see the same type of home educators commenting on the online editions of newspapers, on blogs and elsewhere on the internet. It is easy to spot them, because they are usually angry and almost invariably have the air of people who think that they care more for their children than other parents do.  No wonder that some people have a poor idea about home educators and get irritated at the mention of home education!

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Graham Stuart out of the picture for a long while

I thought that I would just let readers know that Graham Stuart, upon whom many home educating parents have been placing their hopes for dealing with the flexi-schooling business, has been involved in a serious car crash. He is badly hurt and will not be dealing with anything,  other than recovering his own health,  for  the foreseeable future.

Home educators refusing visits

I have over the years watched with interest the tremendous lengths to which  some parents will go  in order to avoid allowing a local authority officer to visit their home in connection with the education that they are providing for their children.  Very often, the reason for this reluctance is the claim that the children themselves would be distressed,  frightened or upset by such  a visit. I am bound to say that if I was a local authority officer, this would immediately rouse my suspicions that all was not well in the household! Ordinary children meet all sorts of adults under a variety of circumstances; both out and about and also in their homes. A knock at the door by the man who wishes to read the gas meter should not be traumatic for any reasonably well-balanced child and nor should the entry of an officer from the council. Unless a child has a learning difficulty or is on the autistic spectrum, there is something odd and a little alarming about a child who is disturbed by the presence of strangers in her home.

     I think that the problem when a child displays behaviour of this sort usually lies with the parent, rather than the child. Some parents hold up the local authority to their children as a species of bogyman. They tell the child that the council want to drag them away from their parents and make them go to school, for instance. This naturally worries the child and makes the prospect of a visit  scary.  We saw this during the Badman enquiry, when some parents with children on the spectrum were warning their children of the possibility that they would be forced to go to school. More than one mother reported with satisfaction that her child had had a meltdown as a consequence of this.

     I have an idea that if parents stopped being silly about the local authority and just treated visits as being of no greater importance than a visit from the postman or the man to read the meter, then most of these problems would melt away. The average child is not scared of meeting unknown adults in her own home and if she is, then there is generally something wrong. 

     Sometimes the spectre is summoned up that the local authority officer might actually wish to speak to the home educated child or, worse still, ask her questions! I am irresistibly reminded of the incident in Kent when Graham Badman visited a group of home educating parents and their children. He asked one child what she wished to be when she grew up. A normal enough question from a random adult of the kind that most children encounter regularly without becoming hysterical. She replied that she wanted to be vet, whereupon Badman reminded her that she would need a very high standard of mathematical knowledge for such a job. He asked whether the child knew, for example, about square roots; a reasonable enough question given her age and professed ambition. The result of all this was that with increasing  anxiety being displayed on the part of the parents and the extreme timidity of the children, that some of the children burst into tears and began fleeing in terror. This is not normal behaviour on the part of children asked casual questions of this sort and itself raises serious doubts about the type of life that they had been leading.

     Normal, well balanced children are perfectly capable of withstanding unknown adults asking them what they want to be when they grow up or  how much they know about maths. There is, to my mind at least, something a little unsettling about the idea of ten or eleven year-olds who are so protected from everyday life that this sort of thing could cause them to run away in fear. When parents decline visits on such grounds as these, that is to say that it would upset their children, I tend to assume that their children have perhaps led very sheltered and protected lives, not acquiring the ability to withstand the rough and tumble of everyday life.  I do not see this as a good thing, to teach children to fear strangers and become distressed if asked questions. As I said earlier, if I was a local authority officer, this sort of thing might cause me to ask just what sort of lifestyle these children are living that they would be unable to cope with meeting new people and speaking to them about their lives. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The government's response to the select committee recommendations regarding support for home educators


HE Angels

I have written before about the way that some home educators are convinced that there must be money to be made from their expertise in this subject and their attempts to cash in on the market. Sadly, nearly all fail. Most home educating parents are too hard-up and suspicious to pay somebody to tell them how to go about educating their own child or dealing with their local authority. A few enterprising souls try to get money from local authorities by training them about home education. Both Mike Fortune-Wood and Alison Sauer do this of course. I want to write today about a scheme which is running in the midlands and north of England and which is supposed to be a cross between a support group and, it is hoped, a source of employment for one or two lucky souls. I am referring of course to the HE Angels.

     Some years ago, Alison Sauer was briefly a director of a company with the strange name of the Little Angels Support and Wellbeing Community Interest Company. She filed away the word ‘angels’ in her memory and decided to use it for a new project of hers, which was to be called ‘HE Angels’. This has not been set up as a company, although the idea has been mooted, nor is it a registered charity. Essentially, it consists of Alison Sauer, Cheryl Moy, the Hafod Witch and one or two other like-minded souls. Cheryl Moy, AKA ‘Pink’, is of course Alison Sauer’s current best friend. 

     The idea is that Cheryl will raise her profile as a home education activist by making a nuisance of herself with various local authorities many miles from her home in Doncaster. She also lets people know on a one-to-one basis about HE Angels and explains how this group can help them. The impression given is that this is a thing of the future. One optimistic person even claimed that it could one day rival Education Otherwise! The association with Alison Sauer is enough to put many people off and for this reason, Cheryl plays that aspect down a little. A few months ago, it cost her the friendship of Maire Stafford, who was one of her chums, but hates Alison Sauer like the plague. When she realised that Cheryl was working hand in glove with Alison, it led to a falling out.

     Although accounts are not published for this group, sporadic attempts are made at fundraising; for example to pay for Cheryl Moy’s car to be repaired and that sort of thing. A Facebook group was set up for HE Angels, claiming that it was a company, but nothing yet seems to have come of this. I would be interested to hear of anybody’s experiences with HE Angels, either good or bad.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Why home education is not more popular

I sometimes used to be puzzled why more of the parents we knew didn’t just keep their kids at home, rather than sending them to school. After all, they used to moan enough about the shortcomings of the  schools! My wife and I gained a good deal of pleasure from hearing those who had been sniffiest about our decision not to send a child to school, later complaining about the fact that schools today seemed to be dreadful and their children were not thriving there. So why don’t more parents just educate their own children?  I think that there are two main reasons.

       First, there is the great confidence trick or swindle perpetrated by teachers;  that nobody but a trained professional can undertake the education of a child. This is of course a lot of nonsense. It is perfectly possible for any person of average intelligence  to teach physics, chemistry, music, acting, sport and anything else that is wanted. All that is necessary is to download the subject specification and away you go. For this reason, that particular objection holds little water.

      The real explanation for the lack of popularity of home education is economic, rather than educational. The thing which makes home education so astonishingly effective is the unlimited, one-to-one tuition which can be provided in a relaxed, domestic setting. For this to be successful, whether by means of direct teaching or purposive conversation, it is necessary to have an adult available at all times who is able to give the child his or her undivided attention. And this is where things get a little tricky.

     One of the most obvious differences between our family and those with whom we used to associate was that we were a lot poorer than everybody else we knew. No holidays abroad for us; or for that matter decent cars, new carpets, 48 inch plasma screen televisions, games consoles or any of the other trappings that many families take for granted these days. This is because in order to ensure that our daughter had one adult with her at all times, each of her parents was only working part-time. We took it in turns to spend time with her. Instead of two salaries coming into the family, there was only one. Which meant, in effect, that we had half as much money as most of the other families we knew.  As it happened, this presented no real hardship to us. As long as there was enough money for books from charity shops and the occasional weekend in Wales, we were quite happy. True, our televisions have never exceeded fourteen inches, even today, but this has not seemed too important.  

     For many families, material trappings such as new refrigerators, cars, ipads, clothes and so on, are important. The idea of an income suddenly halved is horrifying to them and so both parents must continue to work so that all these things must be paid for. This means that school becomes a kind of childminding service which enables adults to get on with the serious business of earning money. It is this which prevents most families from even considering home education as an option.
     Of course, single parents also home educate, but this creates a new set of economic difficulties. If the mother is on benefits, then the pressure from the Job Centre to find work or training  can be pretty intense from when the child is still fairly young. If the parent is not on benefits, then there is an inevitable clash between the need to earn a living and the necessity of providing a child with undivided attention whenever needed.

     The American situation is rather different from this country. There, research indicates that much home education takes place in more traditional families, where the father goes out to work, while the mother stays home and looks after the children. This is an ideal arrangement, with the children having unlimited contact with one adult  all day long. Families constituted in this way are not as common in this country as they once were and again, this is driven by economic pressures. Couples  feel that they need so much stuff these days, that one salary is just not enough to provide it all. It is only by having both parents working that the expected standard of living can be maintained. Of course, the irony is that when asked, children say that they would far rather have their parents’ attention than they would expensive holidays or new computers.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Interpreting the law on home education

I am not at all sure that many home educating parents in this country have fully grasped the implications of the Department for Education’s recent change of stance concerning flexi-schooling. I suspect that there may be similar shocks to this in store,  in the not too distant future.

     The trouble is, most home educators have little experience with the law and fail to  realise the extent to which the law in this country is often a matter of opinion, rather than fact. That is to say that two lawyers or judges looking at the same passage in an Act of Parliament  can and do interpret the thing in quite different and contradictory ways. The same is true when examining precedent.  In the world of British home education, one interpretation of the law around home education is commonly held. Many local authorities have different views on the matter and which set of opinions is the correct one is open to question. 

     Returning to the matter of flexi-schooling, let us see what has happened and what could easily happen in the future. A few weeks ago the 2007 Elective Home Education, Guidelines for Local Authorities said of flexi-schooling;

‘“Flexi-schooling” is a legal option’ (5.6, page 17)

Following the revision of the guidelines, section 5.6 on page 17 now says:

Where parents decide to educate their child at a school,  parents have a legal duty to ensure their child attends regularly. If they fail to do this they may be  committing an offence’

It is important to bear in mind that the law  has not changed in the last few weeks. What has changed is the interpretation of the  law. A few years ago, the various legislation was thought to indicate one thing and now it is suggested that it actually indicates the complete opposite. In 2007 flexi-schooling was said to be legal; now it might mean that parents are breaking the law. I make no comment on which of these views is the correct one; I only point out that this is what has happened.

     Precisely the same thing could be done with any other part of the 2007 guidelines. For example, at the moment many home educating parents believe,  and frequently quote,  section 2.7 on page 5 of these same guidelines:

‘Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home  education on a routine basis. ‘

Just as with the claim that flexi-schooling is a legal option, this is no more than an opinion. It does not have the force of law; it is one particular view of a complex legal situation. As I said above, many local authorities have taken legal advice and arrived at a completely different opinion. What happened with the section about flexi-schooling could happen tomorrow with the bit about the statutory duties of local authorities. It could be changed to read:

‘Local authorities have  statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home  education on a routine basis.’

There would be very little that anybody could do about this, short of seeking a judicial review.  This would be a dangerous game, because a court could rule that local authorities had extensive duties in this field. Just as with flexi-schooling, some lawyers will have one view and others quite another.