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!