Saturday, 30 November 2013

Why are local authorities pursuing home educators when their own schools are in such a terrible state?

A few days ago, we began to look at the question of why local authorities chase home educating parents and seem so keen that all children should be at school. We agreed, I think, that there are many advantages to being literate and well educated and no discernible drawbacks.  Now it is of course perfectly possible for a child to be educated adequately, other than at school. Never the less, school is the best and cheapest way of educating millions of children to a certain standard. 

Before we explore the subject of local authorities wanting almost every child to attend school, I want to look at the one objection which is always raised by home educating parents whenever I touch upon this. Somebody is sure to say, 'Why don't the local authorities fix the school system, before they start worrying about home educated children?  These schools are so dreadful that a fifth of the teenagers leaving school are illiterate! If over 20% of children can go through school for eleven years without learning to read and write, surely there is something wrong with the system of mass education?' This figure of one child in five being unable to read and write is of course quite absurd, but is widely believed by home educators. Let's look at the real situation.

I am currently working a dreadful primary school, where around half the children are entitled to free school dinners. It caters for a very deprived area and the children do not have, on the whole, stimulating homes where parents take an active interest in their education. Yet here's a very interesting thing. Every single child in Year 4 can read and write. I know this, because I have tested them myself; getting them to read from a newspaper,  watching them write and so on. Remember, this is not some highly sought after school in a good district; quite the opposite. The current methods used to teach reading are  astonishingly successful. By the use of synthetic phonics, practically any child can learn to read by the age of seven.

So far, so good. Every eight and nine year old can read and write, yet by the time that they leave school, will a fifth of them have lost these vital skills? Not at all; they will be far better at both reading and writing by the age of sixteen. 

At this point, I sense that some readers are either scratching their heads in bewilderment or foaming at the mouth in fury; depending upon temperament.  Hasn't government research confirmed this finding that rates of illiteracy are rising? Surely the schools can't be working very well? The explanation is very simple. The definition which I use for literacy is the one which was universal until a  few years ago. Literacy was regarded as, 'the ability to read and write a simple note'. In other words, if you could write your friend a message, saying perhaps, 'See you at the pub tonight Jim, at nine' and he could read this; then you were both literate. This is probably the meaning of literacy which most of us still subscribe to. It means being able to read and write in this way.  Using that definition, every school leaver in the United Kingdom, with one or two rare exceptions, is literate. The literacy rate in this country is effectively 100%. However, this is not the definition of literacy which is now in use. The new definition depends upon what we call 'document literacy'; which  means the ability to decode and make sense of rather more complicated written material than a simple note. Reading a train timetable, for example, is one of the measures. Now I am pretty sure that I am not illiterate, but I certainly get in a muddle when looking at timetables of that sort and so do many people.  Reading a map is another instance of 'document literacy'. Again, many well-read and literate people have trouble with map reading.

If I were to  test Year 4 next week, by looking at their ability to read maps or fathom out train timetables, then the literacy rate would plummet from 100% to 0% over the course of the weekend!

Although I am not a fan of schools and the way that they do things, there is no doubt that they do what they set out to do very well. Every child receives an education, all are able to read, write and perform the four basic arithmetical operations by the time that they leave primary school. I might not like the methods, but they work.  In other words, local authorities know that if a child is in school, then he or she is receiving an education. They do not know this about children who are not in school and this is where the problem begins. Next week, we shall look at some of their concerns and how these might be addressed.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Another popular myth among home educators

I was hoping today  to continue looking at the concerns of local authorities, with regard to home education. However, I think that I should first deal with one or two points which have come up elsewhere. The first of these was a comment on this blog a few days ago, the relevant part of which refers to home education;

 30 odd years ago....back in the age where EVERYONE had visits

This is based upon a common misconception; that local authorities in the 1970s and 1980s were constantly chasing home educators and insisting that they had visits at home. This is of course absolutely false and is an old wives’ tale spread by people like Mike Fortune-Wood.  He was at it again today, propagating another ancient myth; this time about Joy Baker. He says:

Joy home educated back in 1960 and went to hell and back to gain the right.
…She is regarded as a pioneer of home education and alongside such people as
Jean Harrison who also fought for the right.  What Joy did is immensely important to home educators today.

Two things strike one about this sort of nonsense. The first is that if Joy Baker really did go to hell and back; it was largely because she chose to do so. There seems to be a widespread belief that Norfolk LEA pursued her during the 1950s because they were opposed to home education and that she stood up to them heroically; thus establishing the legality of home education. This is completely untrue. There were other home educators at that time, people whose names have been forgotten now. They were not taken to court for home educating. What was special about Joy Baker?

In 1952, Norfolk LEA realised that Joy Baker’s seven year-old son was not attending school. They wrote to her and asked if she could let them know a little about the education that she was providing for the child. Any normal person would at this point have reassured the LEA, by giving them some information and explaining what was being done. Mrs Baker decided that she was not going to tell them anything at all. Her attitude was that they should assume that the children were receiving an education, unless the LEA had grounds to think that she was lying. This is a pretty idiotic line to take. She could have avoided all the years of trouble which followed. Other letters followed and still Joy Baker resolutely refused to tell Norfolk LEA about the education that she was providing. The council bent over backwards to avoid taking legal action. They wrote, they sent people round in person; but still Mrs Baker refused to give any information at all about what she was doing. In the end, the LEA lost patience and issued a School Attendance Order. It really needn’t have come to that. 

One can have some sympathy with the local authority in this case, because the girls in particular probably were not receiving a decent education. Mrs Baker thought that girls didn’t need as good an education as boys, because they would only go on to become  housewives. Their education was a good  deal more restricted than that provided to her eldest son.

The second point is that Mike Fortune-Wood  talks of people gaining the ‘right’. Whose rights is he referring to here? Why, the rights of the adults of course! Not a thought for the rights of Joy Baker’s daughters to an education as good as that being provided for the boys! No, the important rights here are those of the adult. Terrible attitude.

Having disposed of this popular misunderstanding, I hope over the weekend to continue looking at the situation today.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Doublethink by home educators

I dare say that readers will be familiar with the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps they will recall the idea of doublethink; whereby two opposite and contradictory views could simultaneously be held?   I was reminded of this recently while reading a post on one of the home education lists by a trustee of Education Otherwise. The idea that I have expressed here in the past;  that children should not be given too much of a say in their lives, in particular that they should not have a free choice about the type of education which  they receive, has caused a lot of irritation. When I have suggested that the decision about whether to take GCSEs is simply too important to be left to a child, who might not fully appreciate the consequences of that choice; I have been put sharply in my place and corrected in no uncertain terms. Similarly, on various lists, such as the HE-UK and EO support groups, it is more or less taken as given, that it is a bad thing that children are compelled to attend school and are given no choice about it. 

A little while ago, a mother posted on one of these lists, saying that her child, who was currently home educated, now wished to go to school. A clear case, surely, for the child to take control of her educational choices?  Apparently not! Education Otherwise's representative in Wales, who is also one of the charity's trustees, said:

I was wondering if it's fair to allow a child to make a decision for which they can only be unaware of the consequences... It's a nice idea that a child chooses his/her way forward but I do have doubts

Just imagine if I had said that, in connection with a child being forced to study for GCSEs! Or suppose that a child at school had asked to be home educated; would the same advice have been tendered? This is a classic example of the way in which some home educators wish for children to be given autonomy and control over their education; provided that they make the choices of which the adults approve. 

There was a slightly puzzling aspect of the post, because the woman also went on to say:

 the ethos of many schools is so consumerist and materialist 

Now of course the ethos is the prevailing values and standards of a culture, group or organisation. I have certainly encountered schools with a Christian ethos and others  whose ethos is humanist. Never yet have I heard of  a school with a materialist and consumerist ethos! I suppose that quite a few pupils at some schools are keen on consumerism, but that wouldn't be enough to give their school an ethos of that sort. Perhaps she meant that society itself is materialist and consumerist, but in that case, surely all schools would have this ethos, which she does not appear to be saying? I would be curious to know what readers think was meant by this strange observation.

Local authorities and education

Over the next few days I want to look at why local authorities wish to see children attending school and the related question of why some authorities are a little dubious about home education.

The first question  to examine is why actually local authorities care at all about whether children are receiving an education. Because many home educators are obsessed with imaginary conspiracies, the obvious answer to this question is hardly ever considered.  Expressions like ‘box tickers’ are used, and ideas put forward along the lines that forcing children to attend school has some sinister motive, which only shrewd and intelligent home educators are able to discern.  Perhaps it is about social control or trying to impose uniformity upon the citizens of the nation?  There is a a fairly vociferous strand in British home education which goes even further and asserts that compulsory education is a wicked plot by some vague and largely invisible cabal; sometimes the Illuminati, for others Jewish plutocrats are the villains.

Actually, the reasons for wanting children to be in school are simplicity itself. It is better for individuals and also better for society as a whole. There is a strong association between  things like illiteracy and poor education and a host of undesirable things; ranging from ending up in prisons or psychiatric hospitals, to early sexual activity and prostitution, from drug use to membership of criminals gangs, depression to  unemployment and premature death.  There are many advantages to being literate and well educated and no disadvantages. Educated people tend to live longer and be happier. So  poorly educated individuals are very expensive for society and tend to  cause problems for  others. The fewer illiterate or ill educated people; the better for us all. Almost invariably, this education is acquired largely at school.

Now of course, some people educate their own children. Very few of us do so, though; for most, education is undertaken by schools. Because of all the bad effects connected with lack of education, the government, both central and local, makes huge efforts to ensure that children do not miss out on their education. This means, in effect, making sure that children spend almost ever week, from Monday to Friday, going to school every day. 

That’s pretty much all there is to the case. There is no hidden agenda, no conspiracy, no deeper motive than to try and make sure that as few people as possible are illiterate or lack a decent education. Because most children’s education takes place in school, there is sometimes a fear that children who are not at school are not receiving an education. Sometimes this is true, of course. Sometimes, it is not true and the child not in school is getting a perfectly adequate education. It is certainly society’s business to make every effort to see that children are being educated, because lack of education is not just a personal disaster, but likely to have ill effects on other people as well. 

Having cleared the ground, tomorrow, we shall look at why local authorities have become uneasy in recent years about children who are not being sent to school and whether their fears might be justified.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

American news

A few cases this week about home education in the USA and Canada. I dare say that readers are aware that pressure is growing in America  for increased regulation.

The Roots of academic failure

Commenting here  today, somebody identified what they saw as two root causes of academic underachievement. These were, supposedly, bad schools and poverty;

Let's not forget the root causes of this problem: the poverty and poor education of the parents of the children Simon is talking about. They, too, were once children, and were probably in school ~10-30 years ago. The school system was little short of a disaster for them.

I want to look a little at these ideas today. 

The two   explanations above  are commonly advanced in this country for the low educational attainment of many children. Often, the preferred of the two explanations  is based  more upon  an individual's political allegiance than on any rational examination of the available  evidence. On the one hand are those who tend to assume that ill educated and badly behaved  pupils are a product of useless schools staffed by ineffective teachers with outdated, child-centred educational theories.  It was this perception of course which led to the introduction of the National Curriculum. The only way to raise standards is to tell the schools precisely what to teach and then to keep a sharp eye on them to make sure that they are actually doing it! At the same time we should use schools to inculcate children and young people with a sense of discipline and teach them good values. Those at the other end of the political spectrum often look towards society itself for the cause of academic failure. For them, poverty and racism are at least as important factors in determining the child's academic achievements as  are teaching methods. Tackling social inequality and eradicating prejudice will help to break the middle class stranglehold on good schools and universities, thus allowing working class children to flourish. 

     These two notions are not  mutually exclusive. Those from both left and right are generally agreed that good teaching produces better achievement in pupils than poor teaching and that there is an association between poverty, as measured for example  by the number of children entitled to free schools meals, and academic results. The problem is to establish a causal link between these associated factors and to avoid falling into the error of arguing  post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Perhaps it is worthwhile at this point to say a few words about this well known logical fallacy, of which we shall be seeing a good deal.

  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc,  which means literally,  'After this, therefore because of this',  entails positing an erroneous cause and effect relationship between two events. Perhaps a man walks under a ladder and is subsequently struck by lightning. Here, there was of course no connection at all between the two events. A superstitious person though, might imagine that the misfortune had actually been caused by walking under the ladder. Usually, the case is a little more complicated than this. There may be a definite association between two events, although it is not at all clear if  one caused the other or whether both were the consequence of a third event. Consider the discovery a few years ago that teetotallers are at increased risk of death from heart disease. Could this mean that total abstention from alcohol can cause heart attacks? Or could there be another fact or at work? In fact, many total abstainers have given up drinking because they have been diagnosed with heart problems. Rather than the teetotalism causing the heart disease, it was the heart disease causing the teetotalism!

     Let's look at another case, this time concerning education. It is perfectly true that the children of parents who have a very low income tend to do  worse at school than those whose parents are affluent professionals. Is the poor performance at school caused by the low income of the parents? It has long been observed that children whose parents are from certain parts of the world such as the far East are more likely to do well, despite the low income, than those whose parents are white  and English. Could it be that being  Chinese  confers some educational benefit upon a child? Might the inheritance from one's parents of an epicanthic eye fold and sallow skin go hand in hand with increased intelligence which enables these children to overcome the economic disadvantage of their home background? Probably not, as we shall later see. It is enough for now to realise that when looking at the reasons for a child's failure to take full advantage of the education he receives, we shall have to be very careful about jumping to this conclusion or that and be particularly alert  to the possibility of post hoc, propter hoc. 

     Before we go any further, it might  be helpful to conduct a couple of simple thought experiments, both of which will start us thinking about the true causes and nature of academic failure. Let us begin by looking at the idea that good schools and good teaching produces good pupils who achieve well academically. We shall take two nearby schools; one a so-called 'bog standard' comprehensive and the other a high performing faith school. This latter is the sort of school where eager parents find it worth their while attending church for a few years in order to ensure that their child is eligible for a place. The pupils here  do brilliantly at their GCSEs, while at the run down Comprehensive down the road, a large proportion leave with no GCSEs at all, let alone the five 'good' GCSEs which represent the current benchmark of a decent education in this country.

     We shall start by taking it for granted that the good school with the good teachers is directly responsible for the fantastically good  GCSEs which the pupils are getting. We shall also assume that the poor results at the other school are caused by poor teaching. I know, let's swap the pupils round and see what happens! In other words, we shall take all the current pupils at the faith school and transfer them to the 'bog standard' comprehensive. The kids at the comprehensive will all be sent instead to the faith school. This is in effect, what is being done in areas where attempts are being made to prevent good schools becoming the exclusive preserve of pushy, middle class families. Will it work? Will the underachieving pupils newly registered at the good school now take advantage of the good teaching and do well at their GCSEs? Will the children who were formerly at the faith school suffer terribly from the poor quality teaching to which they are now being subjected?

     In fact, what will probably happen is that within a few years, the faith school will acquire a dreadful reputation as a 'sink' school and the middle classes will be clamouring to get their children into the formerly poorly performing comprehensive! The fact is that at schools where the pupils muck about a lot and don't want  either to behave properly or learn anything, there tends to be a very high turnover of staff. Good staff avoid getting jobs there and the only teachers they can get are those with little experience. They don't stay long and the constant chopping and changing does little to enhance the quality of the education on offer there. In fact this combination of badly behaved pupils and ineffective teachers can prove absolutely lethal for an educational establishment! Rather than it being a case of poor staff causing the pupils to receive a poor education, it is really a case of poor pupils causing the school to acquire poor staff. The same process operates in  good schools, with the good behaviour and high aspirations of the pupils and their families attracting good staff who would rather work in a good school  These teachers stay put, thus providing continuity for the children, which is in itself good for academic achievement. In fact, rather than good teachers producing good pupils, it is more likely that it is good pupils who attract good teachers! 

     Perhaps then poverty is a clearer example of a factor which obviously causes or precipitates inferior educational outcomes?  Let us begin by assuming that this is indeed the case and that poverty actually causes poor results at school. We shall combat this by massively boosting the incomes of the families whose children attend the poorly performing school. Many of these families are on very low incomes and so every week, we shall take £500 in cash to each of these poor households and simply hand it to them. This will at once double, triple or even quadruple their disposable income. Now what will happen to these families as a consequence of this well meaning piece of benevolent intervention? Will they spend this money on fresh vegetables, books and educational resources? Will the diet of their children improve dramatically? Will they use some of this money to visit museums and opera houses in order to enrich the lives of their children? Are more of the children whose families are part of this programme going to be passing five GCSEs at A* - C? 

     Of course, nothing of the sort will happen. In many of the families, the money will be spent on cable television, new mobile telephones, computer games, alcohol, cigarettes and even more take away pizzas.  In fact, the result could well be a decline in educational attainment. More children will have cable television in their bedrooms to keep them awake half the night and their diet will become even more impoverished. They will be getting less sleep and consuming even fewer vitamins than before the increase in disposable income! Once again, our well meaning social engineering has failed wholly to achieve its object.

     We have arrived fairly swiftly at the problem of post hoc, propter hoc, upon which we touched briefly above. In short, the popular and widely accepted  proposition that 'good teaching causes good educational outcomes' is no more likely to be true than the opposite notion that 'good educational outcomes attract good teaching'. In fact, we may well discover that neither of these statements is true and that both are linked by other causes which we have yet to examine. Similarly, the idea so beloved of some politicians that, 'poverty causes poor education' is not a whit more likely to be true than the assertion that, 'poor education causes poverty'. There is a good deal more to all this than meets the eye and it is only by delving a little deeper into the matter that we shall be able to determine the root causes of failure, poverty and educational underachievement in this country.
     The twin notions of good teaching as the remedy to poor academic achievement and of poverty as a prime factor in low educational attainment are deeply entrenched in the popular mind. The introduction of the National Curriculum by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was an attempt to improve the education of the nation's children by forcing teachers to change their ways. Projects  today in which universities are encouraged to offer places to children from deprived backgrounds are predicated on the other main theme in this debate; that poor children are being held back by their poverty and that it is up to the state to give them a 'leg up' as it were. However, unless we are first careful to establish the precise relationship of poverty and the quality of teaching to successful educational outcome, we may well risk at best wasting our time and at worst actually exacerbating the situation.

     For instance, there is a growing feeling that well off parents are somehow managing to monopolise the best state schools by moving into the catchment areas or providing extra tuition for their children. This, it is supposed, deprives the less advantaged children of places at the school. A number of schemes have been tried to prevent this from happening. For example holding lotteries is considered by some to be a fairer and more equitable way of distributing places at sought after schools. Now if it is the good teaching at the school which is solely responsible for the good educational achievements of the pupils, then this is a good idea. It will enable some children from poorer backgrounds to take advantage of the better state schools. If on the other hand, as we considered earlier, the good teachers have actually been lured there because well behaved and industrious students are making this a good school in which to teach; then the result will be a catastrophe for all concerned. Bringing in random children from varying backgrounds could lower the general standard of behaviour at the school and change it from being a good school to a poor one!

     Similar considerations might apply to the method of improving education which is most favoured by some governments of both left and right; increased expenditure and more 'resources'. Spending ever larger amounts of  money on underperforming schools would have little effect  upon academic achievement if the cause of the problem was the pupils and not the state of the building or the amounts of electronic hardware which were to found in the classrooms. 


Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The good thing about local authorities misleading parents regarding the law relating to education

Some home educator or another is always getting worked up to discover that a local authority somewhere is misleading parents about the law. I'm bound to say that I am very glad that they do. I think it safe to assume that the parents at the school where I am working this week, are convinced that it is somehow, 'against the law', not to send their children to school. If they didn't believe this to be so, then I doubt that many of those children would receive any  education at all.

I have been talking to children in the year 4 class where I am working and also others, when I am on playground duty. I have been trying to find out what sort of stimulation or learning experiences they might be exposed to,  outside school. The short answer to that question is; none at all! I began by asking about any hobbies that they had, but I might as well have been speaking Kiswahili for all the sense that such a question meant to them. 'What's hobbies, sir?', they asked.
     'You know, things that you do for fun. Like stamp collecting or knitting; reading perhaps?'
     They look at me with blank incomprehension. They see that I am genuinely interested, but have not the least idea what I am talking about. One girl says, 'We have reading on Tuesdays.' I explain that I mean reading for pleasure, but it is clear that this is a strange and new idea to them. Not one has any books at home. None belong to a library. Reading is something tiresome that you are forced to do at school.

     I ask about bedtimes, but again; the word is incomprehensible. I explain, 'I mean, what time do you go to bed?' The answers are all very similar. They go to bed when their mum goes to bed or when she gets fed up with them. Some of them live in their bedrooms more or less all the time, because they have televisions and games consoles there and can live a separate  life from their parents, without getting on their nerves. These are children aged between eight and eleven! Many of them have dark shadows under their eyes, some fall asleep in class; all look tired. 

     These children live two miles from one of the finest examples of seventeenth century military architecture in the world; but not one has ever visited it. Why would their parents take them to an historic site? I am surprised that the school has not organised a trip there, until I remember that the seventeenth century is not covered by the National Curriculum at that age. If only the fort had been built by the ancient Egyptians, then they might have been taken to visit it!

     The only thing these children really do when they are not at school is to watch television and DVDs and play on the Xbox. That is the sum total of their lives, apart from visits to the big shopping centre a few miles away. If these children did not go to school, then not only would they not learn to read and write; many of them would not even learn to speak coherently in whole sentences.  It is no exaggeration to say that some of these kids start nursery being able only to communicate in grunts and a few basic words. Often, they are also incontinent; not from a disability, but because the parents are happy to let the school toilet-train them. Why should they do it themselves? That's what the authorities are for!

     School for these children is their only, exceedingly slender, chance of being rescued from this sort of life. It is the window on the world of learning for them; the chance to catch a glimpse of a wider world. I can tell you now that the parents grumble like mad about having to get dressed in the morning in order take the children to school. Often, at the weekend, they don't bother to get dressed and the whole family spend all Saturday and Sunday in their pyjamas; watching endless television and DVDs. It is not hard to see that this lifestyle would readily be adopted for the rest of the week, were the mothers not scared of getting into trouble for not sending their children to school. The next time somebody complains about a local authority misrepresenting the law; they might spare a thought for these children. This mistaken impression about the legal situation is the only thing at the moment which ensures that these children receive even the most rudimentary education!

Monday, 25 November 2013

Lisa Amphlett's open letter to Graham Stuart

One of the women who signed the appeal for money to help a mother skip the country, at which we looked yesterday, has now published an open letter to Graham Stuart:

A necessary evil

I  find myself this week enduring torments worse than those accorded to traitors and oath-breakers in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno. I have, in short, been working in a school! This is perhaps a just punishment for me and I dare say that I may expect little sympathy from readers. 

Two things struck me today, while working with a group of ordinary nine year-olds in an unremarkable maintained school. The first was that while much of what was being done was worthwhile and sensible, it took an enormous length of time. For example, a large part of the day was taken up in teaching the children about newspapers. They were encouraged to distinguish between fact and opinion, look for direct quotations and identify various other aspects of newspaper reporting. They did this by looking at old newspapers and highlighting things like facts and opinion with felt tips. This is brilliant and is of course the sort of thing that many home educating parents might do with their children. After that, the kids had to write an imaginary news item about the discovery of a new planet.

Now all this is absolutely fine and very good for children of that age. The trouble was that this activity began at ten past nine and did not end until twenty to two in the afternoon. Each child produced perhaps half a page of written work in this time.  Working with one child, this whole thing would have taken no more than an hour; perhaps an hour and a half at most, if done at home. 

This wasted time was  the first thing that struck me very forcibly, but as for suggesting a remedy; that is quite beyond me. Twenty seven children, two of whom speak no English at all, four of whom have learning difficulties, four more who were so tired that they kept falling asleep and at least half the children simply did not have vocabularies great enough to be able to understand much in the way of ordinary language. Believe me, getting anything done with these children is slow and tedious work.  I can’t think of any way to improve this system of education, unless we were suddenly able to allocate every child an individual tutor.

The second matter which occurred to me was this. Most of those children would be hopelessly lost without this daily experience. It is wasteful, inefficient and hideously boring; but at least it imparts the rudiments of literacy and numeracy to those children.   Would it better for them if the school wasn’t there or the parents told that they were themselves responsible for their children’s education? Almost certainly not. Many of these kids come from homes where there is quite literally no printed material of any descriptions; not even a magazine or newspaper.  They have no set bedtime, routinely staying up until midnight or one in the morning. The only thing they know is a constant diet of television and games consoles. All their vocabulary is taken from television and computer games. Their language is impaired and impoverished, because their parents seldom hold conversations with them. I used to do a lot of home visiting and was able to see the results of this. Small flats where three televisions blaring out in different rooms vie for attention,  where nobody actually talks to anybody else. 

The chances of the parents of these children being willing or able to assume responsibility for their children’s education is virtually non-existent. Take school out of the equation and these children will probably not learn to read or handle fractions. Imperfect and inefficient as it is; school represents the only hope for these children of rising beyond their day to day life. 

So there it is. I cannot abide schools and would not have dreamed of letting my daughter go to the sort of establishment at which I am working this week. On the other hand, places like that fulfill a very useful and necessary function in society and it would be a tragedy for many children if they were to be deprived of the opportunities present there. Squaring this particular circle is beyond me, but perhaps readers might have some thoughts on the subject?

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Another possible cloud on the horizon for home educating parents opposed to registration

It is no secret that I have many dealings with social workers and teachers. Indeed, such people comprise almost the whole of my family and social circle; an alarming admission! Yesterday evening, I was talking to somebody who works for an inner London local authority. This person felt that her department had been handed a veritable gift from the gods, as far as trying to campaign for the registration of home educated children was concerned. 

I dare say that most readers will have seen about the case of the three women who were apparently held at the house in south London:

One of these women was thirty years of age and had never been to school. In other words, she had been born and then vanished entirely from sight, with nobody asking about her education or indeed anything else. She spent her entire life in this situation, from birth onwards. This is thought by some to be something of a knockdown argument in favour of at least registering children and then looking at what provision has been made for their education. It will be interesting to see what comes of this. Coming so quickly after Ofsted's report on children missing from education, it is seemingly already causing some people to rub their hands together.

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens

I have lately been engaged in a soul-destroying and utter pointless exchange with a home educating parent. This contained so many of the familiar elements of the disputes that others have had with the more militant type of home educating parent, that I thought it worth rescuing from the relative obscurity of a thread on the comments and promoting it to a post of its own! Some readers might recollect that last year, the following appeal was circulated:

A well-known member of the HE community and trusted friend needs our help. The 
person's family is facing a possible court order and they felt the need to leave the country very quickly in order to protect the children from unfounded interference based on home education as a risk factor. 

Alison Preuss Barbara Stark Elaine Kirk Gill Kilner Karen Gallant Lisa Amphlett Louisa Herbs Maire StaffordMichelle BeenyNeil Taylor MooreRaquel ToneySheila StruthersSusanna MatthanTechla Wood

All the usual suspects there, and no mistake! A few months later, once the subject of this appeal was safely settled in Ireland, she began blogging about the reasons for her misfortunes. She was an autonomous home educator and mentioned some of the things that had irritated local authority officers about her lifestyle. Then, she explained about the incident which sparked the need to flee the country. She said:

A few months ago I shamefully attended a meeting about how to obtain Organic Food, leaving my young children in the care of their 17yr old brother.

Now the only possible construction which can be put upon those words is that the mother left her children alone in the house and that later on, it was judged that the seventeen year-old was not a competent person to be entrusted with the care of the younger children. I have no idea whether the local authority officers were justified in their beliefs about this; in other words, I do not know if  the boy was  sensible and reliable, a fit person to be left in charge of his younger siblings. However, it is certainly the case, at least according to the mother, that it was this which  triggered the supposed need for the  flight to Ireland.

One of the signatories  of the above letter was on here recently. It doesn't matter which one; they are all much of a muchness, in many ways. I recognised her name and said light-heartedly that:

I have just remembered, weren't you one of that gang who helped somebody slip out of the country and relocate to Ireland, in order to avoid answering all those awkward questions from social services about leaving her kids alone in the house?

So far, nothing to complain about; she was part of the group and the mother herself claims that it was leaving her kids alone in the house which led to awkward questions from social services. It was the reaction to this which I found fascinating!  This is what the woman who had signed the appeal said:

my friend did NOT leave her children alone in the house! She made good provision for their care, always has and always would. 

I think it's your propensity to make such unfounded and damaging assumptions about people that probably triggers the use of adjectives like 'demonic' about your writing. 

It's very neatly done, isn't it? I particularly like the bit about my, 'propensity to make unfounded and damaging assumptions'! Note too, the claim that the mother did NOT leave her children alone in the house. A couple of things strike one about this. The first is that the writer is, to all intents and purposes, telling a complete lie. She is inviting readers to think that I am making an unfounded assumption, when of course she knows perfectly well that it was leaving her children alone in the house which precipitated the crisis which led to this woman leaving the country. I think that she was gambling upon my not having read the mother's own account of the whole affair and thought that this lie would pass unremarked! Once she has been rumbled, she tries various other tactics, for example saying:

You assumed she left the children without appropriate care. 

Of course, I made no assumptions of any  sort; I simply reported what the mother herself had said! Then she claims that:

You are reaching wrong conclusions about this because you're not in full possession of the facts

You're reading what she said wrongly

It's hard to make any sense of this. The mother says that her troubles were brought about by leaving her children alone in the house and that this led to accusations by social services. Which is all that I said.

I have observed these tactics so often in the past; sometimes used against me, but also very often against anybody who asks too many questions about anything to do with home education.  Initially there is complete denial, frequently combined with a direct lie.  When that doesn't serve,  the wriggling and reproaches begin, ending invariably with a statement to the effect of; I'm simply not going to discuss this with you, because you're too horrible. It is worth bearing in mind that although I make allowances for this sort of nonsense, many of those against whom these methods are used do not; they are not home educators like me. When these people encounter foolishness, lies and deliberate evasion, they tend to make unfavourable judgments  about home educating parents in general. This can sometimes have unfortunate consequences, because it means that even normal and well-balanced parents get tarred with the same brush as some of the more, shall we say excitable, of the breed.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The problem with school

I dare say that most readers will be aware that I am not a particular fan of schools! There are two problems with sending children to school in this country and I want today to look briefly at one of these problems.  The first reason for avoiding British schools, particularly  those in the maintained sector, is that a lot of them are really poor. You can’t always discover this just from looking at their position in the so-called ‘league tables’ and so choosing a school for your child is immediately a bit of a gamble. Since the consequences of losing that particular gamble can be so profound ad far-reaching,  and because I am not  in general a betting man; I decided not to have a punt on this. There is another and deeper problem with schools though; one which affects not this school or that, but is rather endemic in the organised educational system in this country.

One of the things that many parents observe about school, is that the focus of their children’s efforts seem to be on school, with its tests and examinations, rather than with the real world. Here, for instance is a scenario which any parent who has had a child at primary school will recognise at once. Mary brings home a list of a dozen words; the spelling of which she must memorise, because the class will be tested on them at the end of the week. The child does really well and the following week has a new batch of words to learn. While testing her on them, her mother slips in a few words from previous weeks, only to find her daughter getting upset about this. She has already learned those words; they are no longer important. Her mother notices that her daughter has actually forgotten how to spell the words that she learned a couple of weeks ago. This does not matter to the child at all, because learning how to spell words has, in her mind, no other purpose than to pass a test at school. 

Or consider another situation, this time in secondary school. Mrs Smith notices that her fourteen year-old daughter is getting around a third of the maths questions which she does wrong. This is worrying; after all an average mark of six out of ten isn’t too brilliant, is it? How will the child manage her money when she leaves school, work out interest rates and so on?  What’s puzzling, is that the teacher writes things like ‘well done’ and ‘good’ after these lousy results. The mother makes an appointment to see the teacher, only to be astonished when the teacher tells her there is nothing to worry about. Mary is in line to get a grade ‘B’ at her GCSE! At the very least, she will get a ‘C’. The mother, you see, is worrying about how the child will get along in the real world with her deficient maths skills, but all the teacher cares about is an examination. To her, this is the whole object of studying mathematics; so that a good mark is achieved in an examination.

These two examples will probably strike a chord with anybody foolish enough to entrust their child’s education to a school! For schools, the purpose of education is only to do well at school; all too often, it has no relevance at all to the outside world.  I think that this is in the nature of the system itself and is one of those things which cause me to encourage every parent I meet to take responsibility for their own children’s education and not leave it in the hands of teachers.

Just ask!

I have been looking lately at the facebook pages and twitter feeds of various angry and discontented home educators. Much of their annoyance is directed currently not at local authorities, but rather towards the All-Party Parliamentary Group for home education. We have seen comments posted here, expressing these same feelings. 

Now there are, it seems to me, two entirely different points to consider. The first is that the people who now form the secretariat of that group were not elected to the post. This is a perfectly fair matter to debate and I have mentioned it here. The second point is that some people are now complaining that they have all sorts of questions that they wish to ask of the APPG, but that these remain unanswered.  Hints are made that Fiona Nicholson and Jane Lowe are blocking their enquiries and that Graham Stuart  won’t answer their questions. I have seen quite a few exchanges on facebook saying this kind of thing. The only problem is, none of these people will say, even when chatting to their mates on the internet, just what it is that they wish to know! Generally speaking, when people wish to find out about things like this, a straightforward question will receive an answer. I have always found it so and we saw Anne who comments here, using the same strategy successfully a few days ago.

I know that Graham Stuart comes on this blog and so does Fiona Nicholson. Here is what I suggest. Those who have any sort of question to ask the APPG, why not put it on the comments here? Tell us what it is that you would know and then I strongly suspect that somebody else commenting, will be able to answer. If the answer is not forthcoming in a day or two, then I will ask the relevant people in the APPG and, if need be, badger them until I find out. There’s no point in a whispering campaign, whereby people are complaining that they are being shut out and not told what they wish to know, unless a chance is given for others to answer the questions. So let’s all just explain clearly what it is that we wish to know of the APPG and that might be the best way to bring forth the information.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

I think my son must be autistic…

Reading the Ofsted publication, Local Authorities and Home Education, 090267,  2010; something rather curious strikes one. After mentioning that a quarter of the parents who spoke to the inspectors had children with special educational needs, the report continues;

There were also those whose parents, often supported by medical diagnosis, identified the children (many of whom were very able) as having some form of autistic spectrum disorder. 

I understand this to mean that among the parents who met the inspectors were those who had themselves diagnosed their own children as being on the autistic spectrum, without any clinical input by a doctor,  educational psychologist  or anybody else. This is not in the least surprising; claiming that their children are autistic, dyslectic or are  suffering from dyspraxia,  is something of a theme running through large swathes of the British home education scene. How many readers have either heard at groups or read on blogs and internet lists, statements such as;

I’m sure my son has Aspergers

I told his teacher that I thought she was dyslectic

I think he may be on the spectrum

Now it’s entirely possible that some of these children will go on to be diagnosed with such syndromes, but an awful lot won’t. In fact  some of these parents admit that their son or daughter has seen a psychologist who has found no signs of autism or dyslexia. This does not shake their conviction that there is a neurological reason for their child’s inability to learn to read or get on with other kids.

This seems to be a particularly home educating thing. Most of the parents that I have dealings with at schools,  commonly resist any suggestion that their children are different; let alone that they have some kind of learning difficulty.  Home educating parents, by contrast, often  embrace the idea with a strange fervor! I am not at all sure why this should be, but there is no doubt at all that it is something which crops often in  home education in this country.  Even more curious is the way in which some home educating parents then adopt autism as an identity for themselves. They suddenly  realise that the reason that they didn’t have many friends when they were at school was because they were autistic. Obviously, they were geniuses,  savants on the spectrum  who went unrecognised by their stupid teachers! This really is a home educating thing; in the sense that I have never encountered it in any other parents. This self-identification with people with Kanner’s and Asperger’s syndromes can be taken to weird extremes. The woman running the biggest face book group for home educators, she lives in Doncaster, even signed up to an Aspies’ dating site a couple of years back.

None of this is to suggest that many home educated children are not on the autistic spectrum.  I am merely observing that whereas in the schooled population there is often a reluctance to accept such a diagnosis, among home educators it seems almost to be a badge of honour; allowing them to join the club, as it were!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Stoke-on-Trent and home education

As readers will know, I am all in favour of local authorities visiting home educating families and meeting the kids, but this seems a bit extreme; even by my standards. Stoke-on-Trent's Safeguarding Children Board appear to regard home educated children automatically as being 'vulnerable'. Here are their guidelines;

This part in particular caught my eye;

N.B. If the education at home monitoring officer has concerns for a child’s 
safety or a child’s wellbeing (or if the child has not been seen during a home 
visit) an immediate referral to Children & Young People’s Department 
Vulnerable Children and Corporate Parenting Division will be made and 
confirmed using the Safeguarding Children Board Multi-agency Referral Form 
(see Section K5)). 

In other words, if there is a visit by the local authority and the kid happens not to be present, whatever the reason, it is immediately a safeguarding matter. And what on earth is this expression, 'Corporate Parenting'? This sounds distinctly sinister!

The testosterone factor in home education

One of the things which one noticed during most of the recent history of home education, is that it was dominated by women. This was perhaps only natural; anything to do with raising children has always been viewed as a naturally feminine matter. Men were few and far between on the British home educating scene until the beginning  of the present  century. At about this time, men like Ian Dowty and Mike Fortune-Wood began to become well-known in some home educating circles. Contemporaneously and possibly coincidentally, this was the very time that serious confrontation also became a notable feature of the home education in this country. Before that time, the default setting for parents was allowing local authority officers to visit their homes, speak to their children and look through the child’s work.  From roughly 2000 onwards, a trend developed strongly in some quarters which was opposed to local authorities having anything much to do with home educating families. A mood of bellicosity and confrontation began to replace the generally easy-going relationships which had previously characterised  home education.

Commenting here a few days ago, somebody hinted that there might be a direct causal link between certain men becoming involved in home education and the air of tension and confrontation which we now see. This is an interesting hypothesis. Women who worked in nursing during the 1970s and 1980s noticed very clearly the effect of men getting mixed up in what was before that an almost exclusively female domain. For one thing, they tend to take over and for another, the whole atmosphere of the profession changed subtly. Where women tend often to work cooperatively, avoiding conflict where possible; men simply thrive upon confrontation and argument. I wonder if something along these lines could be at work in home education? One of the largest internet lists is run by a man; Mike Fortune-Wood’s HE-UK list. This list has  been enormously active and the posters tremendously aggressive at various times, such as in 2009, during the Badman business. A lot of campaigning was loosely coordinated here. Mike Fortune-Wood encourages this list to be in opposition to any cooperation with local authorities, by banning those whose views do not agree with his own hard line and imposing moderation on others, to prevent more moderate voices from being heard. In other words, he shapes it in his own, masculine, image.  Ian Dowty’s influence has also been towards opposition to local authorities, rather than consensus. Being a barrister has given him a lot of clout in this respect.

This is only a tentative idea, but a rather interesting one. Relations between home educators and local authorities can be pretty delicate at times and I have yet to encounter any situation which is improved by the addition of half a bucket of testosterone. The more cynical among my readers might even be prompted to speculate upon the extent that I too might perhaps be a part of this syndrome, if it exists.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Ofsted find 10,000 children who are not at school

The famous scandal about home education  which Barry Sheerman tweeted about recently, now seems to have become public. As he suggested, Ofsted are involved.  The only problem is that this is not  about home education at all. As expected, Gypsies and travellers are mentioned, but the only mention of home education is made in a footnote on Page 7, which  states unambiguously, 'This report does not apply to pupils whose parents have taken the decision to electively home educate them'.  In other words, this is nothing at all to do with home education. The language used by the BBC and newspapers is misleading. Reports in the media talk of children missing from school, but what they really mean is that they are missing from education; which is quite a different matter. My own daughter was definitely missing from school, but it would have been a rash person indeed who asserted that she was missing from education. 

The main thing which strikes me about this report, is that most of the children mentioned are missing from school due to the ineptitude or laziness of those whose job it is to provide them with an education. They are children who have been excluded, children with special educational needs for which schools were unable or unwilling to cater, kids with physical and mental problems and also those of asylum seekers. There is no suggestion that any are home educated children, whose parents are  not fulfilling their legal duties; more that local authorities are ignoring children who need school provision.  

On the whole, I am pleased to see this report, because it ties in with what I have been looking at recently, which is to say children who are not being sent to school and are consequently at risk of harm. As long as nobody muddles this problem up with home education, then I shall be glad to see action taken to tackle what really is a scandal.  A scandal it may be, but it it is not, as Barry Sheerman would have us believe, a scandal involving home education. The fifteen boroughs visited for this survey were Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Bristol, LB Camden, Derbyshire, East Sussex, Halton, Lancashire, North East Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Peterborough, Southampton, Telford and Wrekin, LB Wansworth and Wolverhampton.

The report, Children Missing Out on Education,  may be found here:

Home Education Heretic; The first stop for information about home education

Readers will, I am sure,  forgive a little vanity on my part. It is hardly to wondered at, since I discovered over the last week or so that some of those who could scarcely be numbered as members of my fan club, turn  first to this blog when  seeking up-to-the-minute and stunningly accurate information and commentary about home education in this country. 

I first noticed this tendency for those active in British home education to take their cue from me, back in August, last year. On August 5th, 2012,  I drew attention to the Welsh Government Assembly plans to introduce the registration of home educated children in the Principality. This was the first time that anybody in the home educating community appeared to have noticed what was being planned. I fancy I even stole a march there on La Nicholson! Certainly, organisations such as Education Otherwise and Home Education UK didn't seem to know about what was planned, until that is, I told them. Imagine that; the whole campaign about the Welsh proposals began here!

Of course, not all those who pick up on what I have to say are quoting directly from this blog. We saw an example of this, the other day, when somebody  was googling  Alison Sauer and Cheryl Moy’s names and came up with this;

This is only one of a number of sites which apparently cut and paste masses of entries from here and create new blogs from the material. In some of these cases, there are advertisements on the blogs, which might provide some motive for the enterprise, but in others there are not. Take this one, for example:

Here are a few others:

The result of all this is that people searching for information on specific subjects or people connected with home education in this country are increasingly likely to  stumble across my own views, although not of course attached to my name. I find this pretty amusing, because I am constantly seeing my own ideas circulating through home educating lists and blogs, with many of those writing, not having the faintest notion that they are propagating the views of the famous Simon Webb!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Maire Stafford becomes a fan of mine...

I genuinely am beginning to wonder how many  people are using this blog as their primary source of information about home education! Since I wrote here about Graham Stuart's idea for an 'expert' group of local authority officers, there has been frantic activity on twitter about this very topic. The suggestion was made on October 22nd, but only since I blogged about it, the other day, have people been badgering Graham Stuart and asking what is going on. Another scoop for Home Education Heretic! Astonishingly, even Maire Stafford thinks that I am the boy to watch:

  1. @ema_flutterbyit is the end days indeed when Simon Webb is largely spot on with his commentary on this issue Indeed