Thursday, 31 December 2009

Exam centres and the home educating parent

One of the things that the new Children, Schools and Families Bill should do is to increase the number of home educated children who pass five GCSEs, including mathematics and English, at grades A* -C. Those framing the new legislation have come to the conclusion that not enough home educated children are sitting GCSEs. There are no definite figures available, but most parents would probably agree that fewer home educated children sit GCSEs than do those at school. There are a number of reasons why this should be so.

I have been prompted to reflect on this by a thread on one of the home education lists which is bemoaning the lack of exam centres which will accept private candidates. The perception is that there are fewer such centres now than there have been in recent years. Of course not all the parents of home educated children want their children to take GCSEs. Sometimes this is because they are too idle to put in the necessary work, others have ideological objections to the whole business. In both cases, this is to the detriment of their children. Over 20% of employers, according to a recent survey, said that they would not even consider a job applicant who lacked five GCSEs. Are there other reasons why parents do not enter their children for GCSEs?

For one thing, there is the cost. Typically, parents must pay around £140 per subject for their children to sit these examinations. Ten GCSEs, not uncommon for school educated children, would thus set the parent back about one and a half thousand pounds. This is scandalous, considering that we already pay council tax for the schools! The suspicion voiced in the recent post on one of the lists was that it has become more difficult to find an exam centre because people are trying to assist the government by making life harder for home educating parents. This is absurd; the real reason lies in the behaviour of the home educating parents themselves.

Consider the situation from the point of a school or college. The sitting of GCSEs is a smooth and carefree operation. everybody concerned knows the ropes, teachers know how to put children forward for the various subjects, they know which will take foundation and which will sit higher. The whole process is like a production line in a factory. You are dealing with fifty children for this subject, two hundred for that, all the players know their parts. Enter stage left, a home educating parent. She does not know the ropes at all. She does not know which board she wants, whether Edexcel or Cambridge, she has no idea if her child will sit foundation or higher tier. Worse still, her child has to have special arrangements; extra time, a room to himself, a scribe. This one parent can easily take up more time than two hundred school pupils! There is nothing sinister about the reluctance of a school to put themselves through all this extra aggravation. Why would they do it?

Never the less some, often independent schools, have done so in the past. Some of them do it once or twice and then decide that the game isn't worth the candle. Because in addition to being very labour intensive, some home educating parents can be can we put this politely? Shall we say eccentric and difficult to satisfy? Of course, many parents of schooled children are probably no less awkward, but the beauty of the school system is that you don't have to deal with them when it comes to exams. You just drop them a brief note telling them which exams their little darling will be sitting and that is all there is to it.

I know of one independent school which has stopped taking private candidates this year because of problems with home educating parents. One mother made allegations that the exam conditions were unsuitable and accused the school of condoning cheating. Another could not get precisely the conditions which she felt that her child's condition required and the upshot was that both mothers complained to the exam board. This was a great embarrassment to the school and since the two children had only been sitting three GCSEs between them, they decided that the trouble was greater than the benefit of allowing private candidates. Because from the school's point of view, there is very little advantage in taking private candidates. Most home educating parents only enter their children for one or two subjects at a time anyway. It is not a very profitable enterprise, considered strictly from a business point of view.

It is to be hoped that once the Children, Schools and Families Bill is actually on the statute book, the situation will improve for home educated children who take examinations. As I said above, the parents of such children pay council tax and really should be entitled to the same services as children who are at school. I would not be at all surprised if there were fewer schools and colleges this year who were taking private candidates, but as I say, this is less to do with a conspiracy and more to do with the nature of the parents themselves.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Blogdial and home education

Several people recently have recommended that I check out Blogdial and see what there is on the subject of home education. The impression I gained was that this is a left-leaning, libertarian place with sound views on the subject of freedom. Well I had a look and was quite frankly shocked by what I saw. Here is an example, taken from a piece on home education;

"Lets make something absolutely clear: the German people still love Adolph Hitler and the Nazi philosophy of National Socialism. In their heart of hearts they worship Hitler and they demonstrate their love for him by executing his laws in his honour."

Would that be all Germans? Even those born long after the war? Apparently so, because the writer goes on to say;

"The morality of the German people is once again in question.
They can either say that they 'did not know'‘ that Hitler’s laws on Home Education were being executed today, OR they can say that they agree with them, and that ‘Hitler wasn’t all bad’. Either way, they are guilty of the same crimes that the Germans of WW2 are."

Growing up as I did in the years following World War II, I was familiar enough with this sort of nationalism. My own family were rabidly ant-German, to the extent that my grandfather would not travel in a German car. However, most of us have got over this sort of thing now; after all, the war ended well over sixty years ago! I am surprised to find modern home educators espousing this sort of outdated nationalism.

I read a bit more and was absolutely astounded to find this statement a few lines later;

"As I said before, children are a special form of property. You need to accept this principle as one of absolute truth. They are either your property, or the property of the state."

This is almost beyond belief. Children are not property at all. I most certainly do not own my daughter and I find it horrifying that anybody, let alone a supporter of home education, should think in this way. The author continues;

"This is about who owns children, and if you do not accept that children are property and you as the parent are the absolute owner of that property, then you are declaring that the state is the absolute owner of your children."

How's that for a false dichotomy? If I as a parent do not accept that my children are my property, then I am declaring that they that the state is the absolute owner of them! This is so completely mad that I cannot make out whether it is supposed to be a spoof or what. Is it meant to be taken ironically and am I just being a little slow in catching the joke? Perhaps those who read the author of this stuff, Irdial, could offer some help here and explain why such a lunatic is evidently so popular with home educators?

Monday, 28 December 2009

Home education and the concept of ultra vires

Local authorities in this country are responsible for many of the things that we take for granted; schools and roads, street lights and rubbish disposal, to name just a few. Sometimes, your council needs to be reminded of their duties. On other occasions, they take too much upon themselves and need to be reined in a bit. In the last year or so, it has become common to see the term ultra vires being applied by some home educators to the behaviour of local authorities when they are undertaking the monitoring of home education.

As far as I can discover, it was Ian Dowty the home educating barrister from Leytonstone who first suggested that the idea of ultra vires might be relevant in this area. What in fact is meant by ultra vires? This Latin phrase translates literally as "Beyond the powers". In the case of a local authorities, this can mean that they take actions which are in conflict with the law of the land. How can we decide if this is actually happening? Since most laws are framed in a peculiarly impenetrable jargon which most of us can make little sense of, and since most statute laws are in any case subject to interpretation by the courts; the only way we can know if a local authority is assuming ultra vires powers is when a court rules this to be so.

It is quite true that a barrister such as Ian Dowty might believe that this or that action of a local authority constitutes ultra vires actions by a council. Unfortunately another barrister, perhaps one employed by the council, would argue quite the opposite. A court will consider the matter and deliver its judgement. Until this happens, it is absolutely impossible to say with confidence that any particular action of a local authority is ultra vires.

Incidentally, most actions against local authorities are to make them do things that they are not doing, rather than to restrain them from doing too much. Working as I do in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, I have seen a number of individuals seek a judicial review in order to get the council to perform their duties. Again, this can only be established in court.

As far as I can make out, what is being complained of with respect to local authorities and home educators is that some officers claim to have more powers than they actually do have. Of course, if this is happening, it is most regrettable. As I said above, the other case also happens, that local authorities claim to have fewer powers than they have in order to evade responsibility for a homeless family for example. This is annoying of course, but for a local authority officer to be mistaken about the legal situation or to misinform parents is not in itself a question of ultra vires. If they do something though, perhaps issuing a School Attendance Order in an irregular fashion, then this can be unlawful and the council can be found to have acted "ultra vires". This is pretty rare and I have certainly never heard of it happening in recent years with a case of home education. Before companies began to frame their constitutions in such a way as to allow them to undertake any lawful object, the ultra vires business used to crop up when a company entered into a contract which its own articles of incorporation forbade it to do. The contract could then be ruled ultra vires . It would not have been a case of ultra vires though if the company secretary simply announced the intention of entering into such a contract. In the same way, local authority officers just claiming that they have this power or that is not a matter of ultra vires. If however, they attempt to exercise such powers, then the time may be ripe to seek a judicial review.

I would be curious to hear of a local authority which has actually taken legal action against a home educating family which has subsequently been ruled to be ultra vires. I would also be extremely interested if anybody can point me towards what Ian Dowty said about this. I am guessing off hand that he qualified his opinion by saying "It might be argued" or "This might constitute" or something of that sort.

It is always alarming when the laity get hold of impressive sounding legal expressions in this way! According to Tania Berlow, a third of home educating families live in ultra vires local authorities. I would be very pleased if anybody could explain just what this means.

(Those interested in looking into this a little more deeply, could do worse than consider Boddington V British Transport Police 1995 and also the Wednesbury Unreasonableness test. Both of these cases are very relevant to this debate)

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Schooling versus home education

I have been reading with interest what Tania Berlow has to say on the subject of the supplementary data which Graham Badman solicited from local authorities in September. On the matter of full-time education she says;

"many Home Educators cannot and do not segment their children's learning experiences into time units nor is it timetabled – However many Home Educators consider their children to be learning 24/7."

Presumably many parents of schoolchildren feel the same way and believe that their children too are learning all the time. Why would their education stop promptly when school ends in the afternoon? I have been mulling this over in my mind apropos of the horrifying statistic that a sixth of boys in secondary school score lower for reading at the age of fourteen than they did when they left primary school at eleven. In other words, three years of full-time education seems to have harmed their literacy skills! Is the situation any different with those educated at home? Is it better, worse or pretty much the same?

Of course, children taught at home do not have to do the SATS or take GCSEs and so there is no objective measure of their ability at reading, writing or anything else. We do know however, that the educational attainment of children and young people is inextricably linked with the amount and quality of teaching which they receive. This is why children in good schools with good teachers tend to do better than those being taught poorly in bad schools. The quality of the teaching being the key factor in whether children do badly or well when they are at school.

We also know of course that in many home educating families, teaching is not routinely provided; it is available "on demand" as it were, if and when the child specifically requests it. This means that structured education for such children is likely to be sporadic and intermittent. The onus really is on home educators to demonstrate that this type of on and off instruction is more effective than the steady, day after day teaching which is given to children in schools. It may be a more efficient way of educating children, but this is by no means certain.

A number of local authorities use as their yardstick a figure of twenty hours teaching each week and they categorise those children not receiving this amount as not being in receipt of a full-time education. Is this fair? In her commentary on the statistics, Ms. Berlow claims that many home educating parents cannot segment their children's learning into time units. I am guessing that by time units, she means hours. If so, I am a little puzzled as to why any parent able to count to ten or twenty should be unable to calculate the number of hours spent by their child on various activities. After all, most of us could easily count the hours spent by our children watching television or writing or reading. It might not be precise down to the minute, but it would surely be possible to the nearest hour. This reluctance to count the number of hours spent in various ways is curious.

It seems reasonable to me that local authorities should expect a certain amount of teaching each week for children, whether schooled or home educated. As I say, the quality of teaching seems to be the most important factor in children's educational progress at school and it is difficult to see why this should be any different for children being taught at home. few people would disagree with the proposition that twenty hours or more of high quality teaching each week for a child would be a good thing for the child's education!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

How many home educated children are not receiving an education?

There were quite a few comments made to my recent post about offrolling. A couple of people took issue when I claimed that around 8% of children supposedly being home educated are not in fact receiving a suitable, fulltime education. I gave as my source the statistics from a number of local authorities which were sent to Graham Badman in September. It was suggested that I should take Tania Berlow's compilation of these data as being definitive. I shall work according to her spreadsheet for this post.

Considering the amount of work which she has put into the thing, it seems a little churlish to complain about her misuse of the expression ultra vires. Briefly, this is a legal term which means literally, "Beyond the powers". It is more commonly found in corporate law and refers to a company or other body making arrangements or carrying out actions which are beyond their legal powers. As far as I have been able to see, many home educators use the words to describe a statutory agency who claim to have more extensive powers than is in fact the case. This is ridiculous.

A genuine case of ultra vires action would be if a local authority were to prosecute parents for their child's truancy even though they had deregistered their child from school. What actually is happening is that local authority officers are saying that they must have this or that piece of evidence or claiming that they are entitled to see a child. Such claims alone are nothing to do with ultra vires action. There are several old and well established idiomatic English expressions which cover this sort of nonsense, "Trying it on" is one. Another would be, "Coming the old soldier".

Anyway, according to Tania Berlow's spreadsheet, the LAs claim that 2.35% of the home educated children known to them are not receiving any sort of education at all. Another 3.35% are not receiving a full time education and 1.71% are not receiving a suitable education. This comes to 7.41% of children who are not receiving a suitable, efficient and full time education, at least according to the local authorities. Another 4.51% refuse to have any contact at all or supply any evidence to the local authorities. It is a fair guess that many of those families too are not providing an education. This is why I originally said that according to local authorities 8% of home educated children are not receiving a proper education. I also suggested that we should treat these figures with some caution.


To our local nine lessons and carols yesterday evening, where my daughter was serving. For the uninitiated, this involves processing up the church before the priest, carrying a candle or large crucifix and then standing at the priest's elbow while he mutters special magical words and incantations. For most of the year, I attend church on Sundays and view this whole performance as something which might be found in a textbook on anthropology. The Shaman summons down the dead God and invites the tribe to feats on his body and so take on the attributes of the God themselves. Viewed objectively in this way, it is a fascinating ritual. A couple of times a year though, I wonder if there might perhaps be more to the business than meets the eye. I am reminded of John Betjeman's poem Christmas;

"And is it true? And is it true?
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained glass window's hue,
A Baby in an Ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?"

Sometimes, the whole story of the Gospels seems less like a mythological account, embellished over the centuries until you can hardly make out the original text, and more like a straightforward, historical narrative.

The things that happen in the Gospels are very odd, it is true, but the people in the stories see them as being odd and react much as we would ourselves. In Greek mythology, we encounter minotaurs and various other fairytale monsters and nobody in the stories bats an eyelid. They inhabit a fantasy world where such things are taken for granted. It is clear that this is pure myth. It is quite different in the Gospels. The things that happen there are just that little bit beyond believing and the characters see that they are witnessing something strange. A virgin becomes pregnant and her boyfriend reacts by deciding to wriggle out of the engagement without causing her too much embarrassment . These are real people, dealing with real, if extraordinary, events.

Anyway, I shall probably be posting less frequently over the next few days, as I descend into a frenzy of churchgoing and celebration. I hope that everybody who visits here has a good Christmas.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Research into the autonomous acquisition of literacy

In a comment on the last piece which I posted here, somebody asked whether I could cite any research in support of my statement that autonomously educated children were often late in learning to read. It is, on the face of it, a fair question. Of course there is no research at all worth mentioning on this subject. Such as there is, does indeed support my contention, of which more later.

One of the main reasons which home educating parents give for not sending their children to school is that they object to the constant testing of children and consequent pressure on them to perform. As a result, many parents have an ambivalent or in many cases downright hostile attitude to the idea of their children taking part in a programme of testing. I am of course talking of this country. Whenever I have mentioned the need for extensive research on this Blog, there are objections to the idea as being unnecessary. Because of this, the only research into autonomously educated children tends to be that carried out by sympathetic types like Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas. The idea of an educational psychologist testing autonomously educated children en masse would, I suspect, be anathema to most home educating parents.

We are left with very small scale samples made by "believers". There seems to have been no objective survey of this subject by anybody! Again, I think that most parents would object to their children being tested by a professional who was actually opposed to home education. Under these circumstances, it is almost impossible to gather data. I have looked previously at Paula Rothermel's work on literacy among home educated children. Her response was to pull the original work from her website, thus making it impossible for the casual enquirer to check the methodology. Let us look instead at what Alan Thomas says about late reading.

In his book "How Children Learn at Home", he says, "...many children learned to read 'late' by school norms. Resistance to being taught and late reading both featured in the earlier research." The work in "How Children Learn at home" was with twenty six parents. Whenever he quotes one, he uses a number between one and twenty six to identify the speaker. In the section on late reading, he identifies thirteen out of the twenty six parents as being parents of late readers. This is 50%. Most would see that as a pretty high prevalence of late reading.

In previous comments on this Blog, some have tried to fly the idea that because 20% of children do not reach the government's own targets on literacy, this means that 20% is a base line figure for reading difficulties. It is suggested that this is also the figure among autonomously educated children and that it is therefore somehow a "natural" thing that 20% of children should be late in reading or have difficulties with literacy. This is absurd. A figure of 20% with problems in this crucial area of development tells me that the maintained schools in this country are lousy. (Which was of course why I did not send my child to one!) Quite apart from that, without testing the reading abilities of thousands of autonomously educated children, we cannot really compare their reading with those in state schools.

All of the above strikes me as a very good argument in favour of the large scale testing of autonomously educated children in this country. This way, we would be able to find out what is really going on. A lot of home educating families seemed to be very pleased with the DCSF select committee's report on Graham Badman's report. I hope that they would agree with what the committee said in para. 121, "We call on the Department to fund research into the outcomes of autonomous education among a fully representative sample of home educating families." Now that would really be interesting....

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The great dyslexia swindle

How refreshing to see that the commons science and technology select committee has been blunt in condemning attempts to classify difficulty in learning to read as though it were some sort of illness. This particular bandwagon has been rolling for far too long and it is about time that somebody spoke out against it.

Dyslexia is a word used to describe difficulty in reading or learning to read. Until a few decades ago, it was only used in connection with patients who had suffered brain damage as a result of trauma or a stroke. Such individuals might develop problems in reading or recognising words. Some of them also suffered from dysgraphia. This can result in people being unable to write coherently, their attempts being largely indecipherable gibberish.
Somewhere down the line, the terms started being used to describe those who had trouble reading and writing for other reasons besides brain damage. Chief of these reasons were poor education or inferior teaching.

Most children learn to read and write fairly easily if they are taught properly. Some have difficulties doing so. These can mean that a child has problems spelling or remembering the correct sequence of letters which make up a word. At one time, we would have described such children as poor readers or even as being illiterate. The remedy was always the same; more and better teaching. Gradually, it became quite the fashion to dignify this sort of illiteracy or semi-literacy as a medical condition. Interestingly though, the remedy for this supposed disability remained exactly the same; more and better teaching.

This is the most fascinating aspect of the whole dyslexia racket. Whatever you call it and whether you think it is an illness or a result of poor teaching, it is treated in the very same way. Systematic instruction in phonics, combined with masses of practice at reading and spelling until the child begins to get the hang of the thing. Since this is so, it is worth asking why on earth it was thought necessary to create something of an industry around reading problems. We know how to help children with such problems, we have known for years, why not just get on teaching them and helping them to become fluent readers? There are two main reasons.

Firstly, by pretending that there is something wrong with the child's brain, it lets teachers off the hook. If all the children in the class have normal faculties and sound brains and yet some of them are not learning to read properly, then the teaching is at fault. We need to ask ourselves if there can be a better way to teach reading. If on the other hand some of the kids in the class have brain damage, then it's not the teacher's fault if those children don't learn to read at the same time as everybody else.

The second reason is that being the parent of a slow or illiterate child is not a particularly appealing prospect. Far better if one's child is struggling bravely against a specific learning disability. So it is in the interest of both teachers and parents to go along with this whole thing, it makes both feel better about it all.

As I say, it does not really signify, because even if there really was a disorder of the brain called dyslexia, the treatment will be pretty much the same as it is for the more common problem known as illiteracy. I am on principle opposed to the multiplication of syndromes in this needless way. It violates both Occam's Razor and my own sense of economy!

Friday, 18 December 2009

A "suitable" and "efficient" education

There are moves afoot to define in law precisely what is meant by terms such "suitable" and "efficient" in relation to the education which a child must receive. With depressing predictability, many of the more reactionary home educators oppose any such move. Perhaps we should see where our current ideas as to what constitutes a "suitable" and "efficient" education come from and then see whether it might be possible to improve upon them.

There are two main types of law in this country; statute and case law. Statute law means laws passed by parliament and when people talk about "the law" it is to this that are usually referring. However, much of the legal position around home education derives not from such statute law, but from precedent or case law. Essentially, this means how the courts have interpreted statute law in the past; the higher the court, the more binding the precedent. It is to this interpretation of statute law that we owe many of what we have come to regard as our established rights with respect to home education. Indeed, statute law has nothing at all to say on the matter, other than those few crucial words to be found in the Education Act 1996;

" either by regular attendance at school or otherwise."

Now the definition of an "efficient" education is to found in an obscure case from very nearly a century ago. An "efficient" education was described by Lord Alverstone in his judgement in Bevan v Shears 1911, one of the key cases for home educators. He said;

"In the absence of anything in the bye-laws providing that a child of a given age shall receive instruction in given subjects, in my view it cannot be said that there is a standard of education by which the child must be taught. The court has to decide whether in their opinion the child is being taught efficiently so far as that particular child is concerned."

Lord Alverstone went on to rule that in the case of a child being taught out of school, that a court could decide for themselves on evidence provided for them by parents or others. It need have no relevance at all to what was being taught in schools. This particular case is the reason why local authorities cannot simply issue a School Attendance Order and enforce it through the courts without any evidence being taken. As a direct consequence of Bevan v Shears, they must prove their own case to the court.

This definition of an "efficient" education was expanded in another case, that of R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust, 1985. Mr. Justice Woolf gave it as his opinion that an "efficient" education was one that "achieves what it sets out to achieve". In the course of the same judgement, he described a "suitable" education as one which;

"Primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole."

The real question is whether or not we wish to stay with these old definitions, which some would argue to be increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, or if we would instead like to place the whole thing on a more rational footing and devise an idea of what most right thinking people could agree to be a "suitable education".

Some home educators have of course their own agenda on this topic. They fear that a definition of an "efficient" or "suitable" education as understood by this Government would include stuff about teaching and standards. This would, they suppose, preclude the possibility of an education which was wholly autonomous. They may well be right about this, but whether this would indeed be a matter for regret is less clear.

In the meantime, rejoining the Twenty First Century for a moment, most people are in favour of having a legal definition a little more considered than Lord Alverstones musings on the subject one afternoon ninety eight years ago!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Every Child Matters

After Victoria Climbie's death at the hand of her aunt, an enquiry was set up with Lord Laming at its head. Victoria Climbie had been known to practically every service provided for children, from social services to the police, from her local hospital to the London Borough of Haringey's education department. Despite this, she had fallen between the cracks and nobody prevented her murder. At the same time that Lord Laming published his report, the Government brought out a Green Paper called Every Child Matters. This was intended to give an outline of what every child in the country should be entitled to; the so-called five outcomes. These are to be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and to achieve economic wellbeing. These outcomes were underpinned by new legislation, the Children Act 2004.

Now we come to the problem as far as some parents of home educated children are concerned. Local authorities had responsibilities, via new Children's Trusts, for seeing to it that all the children in their area were being given the chance to achieve the five outcomes listed above. All the children. Not just all the children at school, but every child, including those educated at home. This of course put local authorities into a bit of a tricky position, because as we all know many parents don't trouble to notify their local authority or Children's Trust that they are educating their children at home. Nor do they tell anybody when they move to another local authority area. Never the less, the local authority is still technically responsible for the wellbeing and safety of all those children who they never see and do not even know about. This is a regular conundrum! If one of these children should be murdered or abused, the local authority will still be held to account, just as they will for any such children who are not achieving the five outcomes.

The solution for local authorities was a simple one; to agitate for new legislation to enable them to keep track of the children in their district. ContactPoint will help, as will the lists of rising fives that they have. These are not infallible though. I can think of half a dozen ways of evading these measures if I had a child and wished to do so. The answer was, as far as local authorities were concerned, compulsory registration of all children in their area who were not at school. Once they were registered, then people could pop round their homes and see what was happening to them.

None of this has anything at all to do with education. It is purely safeguarding and also, of course, local authority officers covering their backs. Peter Traves, from the Association of Directors of Children's Services, summed this up rather neatly when he gave evidence before the Department of Children, Schools and Families select committee in October. He said;

"We have seen recently what happens to director's of Children's Services when things go seriously wrong. It is not only a case of sacking; it is public humiliation. It is a very serious matter."

Of course in the case to which he was referring here, a little boy had his back broken by a homicidal maniac. This is also a very serious matter, but not presumably in the same league as a director of Children's Services being humiliated!

There is not the remotest chance of the current situation with regard to elective home education remaining as it has for the last century or two. Ironically, the main concern is not the standard of education being provided, but the extent to which the children can meet the outcomes of Every Child matters. This is quite irrespective of my view on the matter or what Education Otherwise says or how passionately some parents may feel on the subject. There is going to be a change and by my way of thinking it would make sense for home educators to be part of that change and influence its direction. If they opt out and refuse all co-operation, then the changes will still come, but without the input of the parents themselves. I cannot think that this would be a good or desirable outcome.

The safety of kiddies is a very emotive topic and trumps all else. By playing this card, the Government has ensured that the law on home education will not remain the same. My own concern is purely educational, but this is becoming sidelined by the whole child protection thing. I seriously wonder whether or not a lot of home educators are in tune with the public mood on this. If they were, then I suspect that more of them would be bending with the wind, instead of digging in and taking to the barricades!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The select committee's conclusions and recommendations

There seems to be a general impression that the select committee has given Graham Badman one in the eye with its conclusions, but I can't really see it myself. Badman suggested compulsory registration, and this is taken up in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. The select committee recommends that it be voluntary.......for two years. If all the home educators have not registered by then, it should become compulsory! Since registration is currently voluntary and a lot of parents don't register, I didn't myself, then we know perfectly well that after two years many will still not have done so. In effect, the select committee is also saying that registration should be compulsory.

The rest of the select committee's recommendations are like that. They are against home visits, but they were never mentioned anyway in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. They say that responsibility for revoking registration should not rest with local authority home education advisors, but whoever suggested for a moment that it should? They are in favour of the statement of educational approach and most of the other main planks of the Badman Report.

Actually, they go a little further than even Badman did in some respects. For instance in Para. 120, they say; "We note that in the case of school education the quality of teaching is thought to be the key factor in pupil's learning and attainment. In which case, the same must apply to parents and others who are responsible for the education of home educated children." Uh Oh, sounds like they have not entirely understood autonomous education here!

Still, as others have observed, this will all be ignored anyway when the Children, Schools and Families Bill receives its second reading in January.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


The above word, which will probably not to be found in any dictionary, refers to the practice of ridding one's school of undesirable elements. If you find that your school has a lot of truancy, kids that are on the verge of being permanently excluded or likely to do really badly in their GCSEs, then this reflects poorly upon the school. What can be done?

Well one cunning and widespread wheeze is to persuade their parents to take them out of school altogether. They then cease to be your responsibility and become instead the local authority's problem. The best way of achieving this end is to get them to agree to deregister their children in order to home educate them. When some representatives from various local authorities gave evidence to the DCSF select committee, it was found that every single one of them knew about this trick. They all had cases of families who had been referred to them as home educators, but who really had never had any intention of educating their own children. They had been put up to it by the school which their children attended. So common is this practice, that it merited its own recommendation in the Badman report, No. 15.

I have mentioned before Firfield School in Newcastle, which during the late nineties managed to improve their statistics fantastically by typing out letters for the parents of persistent truants and those about to be excluded. These letters stated that the parents wanted to deregister their children in order to teach them at home. They were handed to parents and warned that either they signed or that they would be prosecuted for truancy. Either that or their kid would be chucked out of the school, thus blighting his future prospects. If anything, this sort of scheme seems to be even more popular now than it was ten years ago. Presumably this is because there are now so many home educated children in the country that the schools figure that a few more won't notice.

The latest variation on this theme is to target another group of children apart from the truants and hard cases who are about to be thrown out. These are fourteen and fifteen year olds who look unlikely to get a single GCSE. If their parents can be talked into withdrawing them before they take their examinations, then it boosts the overall pass rate for the school. Traditionally there have been two big surges in the age at which children are withdrawn to be home educated. These are just after starting primary school and just after beginning secondary school. Now there is another peak, a year or two before sitting GCSE's.

The fact that every local authority officer working with children who are electively home educated seems to be coming across children who have been edged out of school like this, suggests that the practice has become rather common. It would be interesting to know what percentage they make up of home educated children in the average local authority area.

The DCSF select committee report

The select committee's review of Badman's review has more or less agreed with everything which he proposed in his report. They came out against compulsory home visits and interviewing children alone, but since this has already been dropped, it isn't really news. They thought that it would all cost more than at first suggested, which is of course true. All the meat of the matter though, the registration and monitoring, statement of educational approach and so on, all that stays. It looks very much like a rubber stamp with a few minor details tweaked. I shall post more on this later today.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Those awfully nice Tories

There seems to be great rejoicing over the fact that the Tories have revealed themselves to be the friends of the home educators. Also, I observe, a good deal is being made of the petitions which have been presented in parliament and how well all this bodes. Well, yes........and no.

In the first place, it has to be borne in mind that Conservative MPs would cheerfully support the Waffen SS and their right to ethnically cleanse Poland, if they thought it would enable them to score a couple of points against the government. Any cause will do at the moment, provided that it makes the Tory party look as though they care about the rights of the ordinary person in this country. Home education fits the bill a treat. Fortunately, none of this makes a blind bit of difference to the actual outcome of the present administration's legislative programme. With the majority they currently enjoy, the Government could force anything through the House at the moment. The Conservatives know this, which is why they feel able to play these games and present themselves as the party of principle.

As far as the high level of support for opposition to the provisions of the new Children, Schools and Families Bill, how many people have actually signed these petitions so far? I know that the latest online petition has two or three thousand signatures, but what of the ones presented by the MPs? Does anybody know the total number there?

I do not wish to appear a Jeremiah, but I would not personally trust the Conservatives too much on this issue, when once they get into power. Being tough on standards of education is very popular these days and I would be very surprised if a similar proposal did not crop up under the next Tory administration. The point to remember with our democracy is that a lot of the time the laws that are brought in do actually reflect the concerns and wishes of the man in the street. Of course, the man in the street might be an idiot, but his vote does count and so governments like to pander to him whenever possible. I can remember many occasions when the opposition has denounced some government move as iniquitous, only to introduce an almost identical law as soon as the keys to ten Downing Street have changed hands. I suspect that this is what is likely to happen if the Conservatives get in before the Children, Schools and Families Bill has reached the Statute Book.

Friday, 11 December 2009

John Holt

I have been re-reading John Holt's seminal work "How Children Fail" and have been struck as never before by what an insincere idiot the man is. Since almost the whole of the book is taken up with his own teaching methods and the anecdotes are all of how these techniques failed to help the children in his class, it might have been more honest had he called the book, "How I Failed Children"! Probably not as catchy a title though.

For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of folksy anecdotes from John Holts teaching days. He gives heart-warming examples of how his insight into the little darlings developed and the entire thing becomes one long and overblown case of arguing from the particular to the universal. One statement at the end of the book struck me as spectacularly foolish even by Holt's standards. he says, "We cannot possibly judge what knowledge will be needed forty, or twenty, or even ten years from now."

I truly cannot imagine anybody making such a statement and not realising as they did so that it was sheer nonsense. In ten, twenty or forty years time the knowledge of percentages and how to calculate them will still be needed, in order that people do not get exploited by unscrupulous shops and banks. Africa will still be pretty much where it is now and the people there will still be fighting over scarce resources, while those from more economically developed nations try and buy them cheaply for their own use. The Earth will still be revolving around the Sun and turning once on its axis every twenty four hours. A knowledge of history will still be vital if one hopes to understand the present. It will still be necessary to know of the Kinetic Theory of Matter if one wishes to make sense of the physical world.

I could go on indefinitely, but the point is made; we can easily set down a body of knowledge which would be of enormous use to a person in ten or twenty years time. It would not be complete and some details might alter, but the knowledge that was on offer in schools and colleges in 1999 or 1989 or even 1969 is still useful and relevant to us today. The fact that John Holt could make such a strange assertion makes me suspect that he is not particularly good guide to the world of childhood learning and that we should be a little cautious in taking what else he says at face value without delving a little deeper.

His challenges to orthodox thinking about childhood development are founded upon such flimsy evidence that it is simply breathtaking. Here he is, doubting what scientists have to say on the subject of small children's co-ordination; "My seventeen month old niece caught sight of my ball-point pen the other day, and reached out for it. It has a plastic cap that fits over the point. She took hold of it, and after some pushing and pulling, got the cap off. After looking it over, she put it back on. A good game! Now, if I want to be able to use my pen, I have to keep it out of sight, for when she sees it, she wants to play with it. She is so deft in putting it back on that it makes me wonder about all I've read about the lack of coordination in infants."

Isn't this great? He spends an afternoon with a toddler and this one incident makes him dream up a new theory of childhood development! I love it. This is no isolated example, the man seems to have spent his whole life watching trifling interactions like that between children and adults, children and their environment. No harm in that you might say, except that it caused him to create and market to the credulous and willing an entirely new and demonstrably false view of children. What is worse, there is a self aware worthiness about his writing which makes it plain that he knew, even as he was writing, that he was a wise and humane man struggling against the hidebound orthodoxy of the old and sterile theories which then held sway. Do not buy this book or give it as a Christmas present!

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The ghost of home education past.....

I went recently with my daughter to see Christmas Carol, which I can thoroughly recommend. Although she is now sixteen, by God's great mercy she is still happy to go to the cinema with me, for which I am grateful. One scene of the film in particular set me thinking. It is the one just after Marley's ghost has visited Scrooge and he looks out of the window into the street outside. There he sees legions of ghosts, all trying desperately to interact with the world of the living. The tragedy is of course that they can no longer do so; they are trapped on Earth, but do not really belong here.

The idea struck a chord with me, because this is what I sometimes feel like. I have been heavily involved in home education for all those years and now the enterprise has ended and I am left roaming aimlessly on the fringes of that world. I cannot quite bring myself to abandon the whole thing. I have a suspicion that this is not an uncommon experience for those who have been devoted to home education for many years. I have at any rate heard of several others in a similar case and I wonder why this should be?

I suppose that home educating a child does have the effect of making one closer than would otherwise be the case. It is not that I am sorry to see my daughter go off to college each morning; quite the opposite. For the first time in years I am able to knuckle down to serious writing again. I am however having to restrain the impulse to read up on Vietnam, which she is studying in history, and arrange for visits to museums and so on to back up what she has been reading. Then I remembered that I am no longer home educating her........

This is not really to any purpose, just that I am noticing the feeling strongly lately. One does not need a therapist to point out that this Blog and various other home education related things are really no more than displacement activities. I believe that other home educators have felt the same way and I dare say that the feeling will pass in time.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The Tasmanian Model

During his review of elective home education in this country, Graham Badman floated the idea to a number of home educators of a system rather like that operating in Tasmania since 1993. Few parents found the idea enticing and when he came to write his report, he described it as "A step too far". So what is the "Tasmanian Model"?

Home education in Tasmania is monitored and regulated by a body called the Tasmanian Home Education Advisory Council. This is run by six members. three of them are home educators and three are appointed by the Minister of Education. The THEAC is answerable directly to the Minister and because it was set up and run by home educators themselves it commands a good deal of respect from home educating parents.

It would be interesting to know what objections home educating parents might have to such a body for home educators here. Some were uneasy at the thought of Education Otherwise being regarded as natural partners in such an enterprise. For various reasons, some parents are not over enamoured of EO, seeing it as unrepresentative of home educators. There could well be something to be said for the idea of something like the Tasmanian system and I would be keen to know what others think about it.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Explaining the mystery

As a regular churchgoer, I am every Sunday exposed to a great mystery. A priest waves his hands over a piece of bread and mumbles some incantation and miraculously the host is transformed into something altogether more wonderful than mere flour and water. It has in some sense become the body of Christ. This matter is too deep for a simple man like me and I have at various times asked to have this strange process explained to me. Ultimately, I am told; it is a mystery. One must simply accept that the thing happens and just be jolly glad that it does. Most unsatisfactory for the man of reason!

I am irresistibly reminded of this when trying to get believers to explain to me the essential mystery of autonomous education. The closest that we seem able to get is; "It works and you just have to take people's word for it. If it is measured or observed, then you are apt to destroy the spontaneity of the thing and thus change it!" Now as I say, I am a simple man who is quite prepared to believe improbable things. (After all, if I am able to swallow virgin births and men who come back from the dead, you would think I would have no trouble believing in a little matter like autonomous education. I am like the man in the Bible who swallowed a camel and yet strained at a gnat!)

Almost fifty years ago, Paul Goodman had this to say in Compulsory Miseducation;

"the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to learn to read. Given the amount of exposure that any urban child gets, any normal animal should spontaneously catch on to the code. What prevents? It is almost demonstrable that, for many children, it is precisely going to school that prevents - because of the school's alien style, banning of spontaneous interest, extrinsic rewards and punishments."

Alan Thomas in his books says much the same thing, that the teaching of even so basic a subject as literacy is unnecessary. Children will just pick it up by themselves. Some authors have gone even further. According to John Holt, not only is school not needed for the acquisition of literacy, it can be positively harmful! Both he and Goodman apparently believe that reading problems are actually caused by schools. In other words, they are the disease and not the cure.

For some inexplicable reason, either sheer, bloody minded stubborness or perhaps because they are in thrall to the hidebound orthodoxy of mainstream educationists, almost every teacher, local authority officer and member of staff at the Department of Children, Schools and Families disagree with this perspective. They persist in the belief that it is necessary and desirable that small children are taught how to read. For myself, I remain unconvinced, but open to persuasion. I am unlikely to be persuaded though because Mrs. Smith's son did not go to school and now he reads just fine. Nor am I likely to be swayed by the horror stories of parents whose children have suffered untold misfortunes in maintained schools only to blossom when once they are deregistered. Nor, I'll warrant are those hard headed types at the DCSF likely to change their minds on purely anecdotal evidence of this sort.. They stand there like Mr. Gradgrind, saying, as he did;

" Now what I want are facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else."

(Hard Times, by I am confident enough of my readers' erudition to believe it unnecessary to mention the fact)

Every time somebody offers to examine or measure or look closely at autonomous education, there is a panic. The standard tests are inadequate to do justice to the activity and can even harm it. The local authority are the quite the wrong crowd to be dealing with it. Ofsted are no good, who knows what their motives are? (Of course, strictly speaking it should not matter a damn what the motives are of those doing the testing. I can administer Schonell's reading test to any child and my motives will not affect the outcome.) Essentially, we are told that the thing must be taken on faith and that many parents just know that it works without a lot of tiresome testing. This may be enough for me; as I say I am able to believe a good number of strange and improbable things, but I have a very strong feeling that it will not for much longer be enough for those charged with the monitoring of elective home education. Unless autonomous educators come up with either some solid evidence that this practice is actually educating children, along with some way of assessing the process, then there will soon be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in many home educating families when the provisions of the Children, Schools and Families Bill become law.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Ofsted survey

Ofsted are conducting a survey about home education in fifteen local authority areas, The ostensible idea being that they wish to see what sort of services local authorities are offering to home educating families. To this end, the local authorities have been asked to distribute questionnaires to home educating parents known to them. Needless to say, this move has been treated with considerable suspicion by some parents. Conspiracy theorists were quick off the mark to suggest that the questionnaires were only being sent to structured home educators and that the aim of this was to give a distorted view of home education by writing out autonomous educators. Even the fact that reference numbers were to found on the envelopes was seen as sinister evidence that Ofsted would be trying to identify individual respondents when they collated the information! (The real reason was just to tell Ofsted which local authority area the response concerned.)

I have to say personally that I am all in favour of more information being gathered about home education. I am fascinated by the whole subject, for obvious reasons and a survey of this sort across various types of district might yield some interesting insights into elective home education as it is currently practiced in this country. Ofsted's role is;

"Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills. We regulate and inspect to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages."

Now if parents claim to be educating their children, then I think they must accept that Ofsted will probably end up having a role in their lives in one way or another. A number of parents object strongly to local authorities checking the nature of their educational provision and I would guess that Ofsted is perhaps gearing up to take on some sort of role in that respect. The questionnaire itself is quite unexceptionable, if slightly geared towards a structured approach. It looks to me like a genuine attempt to find out what home educating parents actually do. I cannot imagine what harm could possibly result from telling Ofsted how people home educate.

There has been very little research on home education in this country. For some inexplicable reason, the very idea of systematic and wide ranging research seems to unnerve a number of parents. I am very interested in why this should be. I am aware that Ofsted are far from popular at the moment, due to their ludicrous suggestion of using CRB checks on home educating parents, but I have noticed this reluctance to answer questions as a general thing. Why should this be, I wonder? Surely home educating parents are proud of what they are doing and wish to share their achievements with the wider world?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

CRB checks for home educating parents

I am guessing that it is a rare enough occasion when the average home educating parent finds herself agreeing enthusiastically with something that the Daily Mail has to say on the subject of families. Yesterday was such a time. The Daily Mail drew attention to the proposal by Ofsted that parents who choose to educate their own children should be subject to CRB checks. It is, on the face of it, an absurd idea. Whatever next, all parents in the country being vetted by the new Safeguarding body? Of course, there is more to this than meets the idea and Ofsted does not really want parents to be CRB checked just for supervising their own children's education. So what is going on?

To begin with, a few unpalatable facts. One of the greatest risk factors in a child's life is living with her mother and a man to whom her mother is not married, whether or not this man is the child's biological father. Evidence strongly suggests that children living with their cohabiting parents who are not married are twelve times more likely to be murdered by one of them than if they were in fact married. When the child lives with her mother and a man who is not her biological father, the chance of being murdered by one of these people is seventy four times as great. Of course, the murder of a child by anybody is a pretty rare occurrence. However, the risk of being physically or sexually abused also rises dramatically when a child is living with a man who is not the biological father. In fact, as two American researchers observed, "Having a step-parent is the most powerful risk factor for child maltreatment yet discovered".

Now because we are obliged these days to maintain the polite fiction that all lifestyles are equal and that any sort of family structure is as good as another for children, which is manifestly not the case, nobody can mention out loud that stepfathers can be a real hazard for children. I say stepfathers, because most children live with their mothers. They are thus more likely to share the house with a man who is not their biological parent. Another risk factor of course, because despite several well publicised recent cases, it is men who carry out most of the offences against children.

Which brings us to the subject of CRB checks and home educators. A few days ago, a home educating mother on one of the lists was complaining that she had been asked by somebody from a statutory agency about her marital status. A number of people jumped in to sympathise and say, "There there, dear. It's nothing to do with the nasty people!". Of course what the person asking this question was really trying to do was assess whether or not the children in the family were at risk and if so, to what extent. Live-in boyfriends, or partners as we are supposed to call them, are what are really being looked at a little askance here. I have no idea at all whether home education per se is a risk factor for abuse. I would guess probably not. That isn't really the point though, because a number of people in social services and education believe it to be the case. If you have this risk and then add in other risks, such as having an unrelated male about the place, some social workers get a mite edgy. Having a child with special educational needs is another risk factor, unfortunately. When one family has more than two or three of these factors, then antennae begin to twitch and there might be a request to check out at least one of the factors. This can mean a CRB check of the boyfriend.

As I said above, people are very touchy these days about appearing "Judgemental", although why this should be perceived as a bad thing in itself is quite beyond me. So in order to conceal the fact that they are really zeroing in on a suspicious boyfriend, everybody in the house will be required to have a CRB check. I think that left to themselves, nobody would be thinking about CRB checking all boyfriends; only those who for some reason gave cause for concern. But then the families who were asked to undergo a CRB check would cut up rough and claim that they were being victimised. Hence the new idea for blanket CRB checks for all home educating families. Annoying certainly, but no more than one more irritating by product of chronic inability in today's society to call a spade a spade.

Monday, 30 November 2009

UK home education - the need for new research

Very little research has been conducted on home education in this country. There is a good deal of research relating to home education in the USA, but much of this is largely irrelevant as far as home education in the United Kingdom is concerned. The main reason for this is that the primary motivations for home education are completely different in the two countries. In America, the main reason parents give for choosing to educate their own children is, according to the latest surveys, "Being able to give a child a better education at home than would be received at school." Paula Rothermel analysed the thousand or so responses which she received to a mail-shot in the late nineties. The two most popular reasons for home educating in Britain were given as, "Having close family relationships and being together" and "having freedom and flexibility to do what we want, when we want". In other words, in America the main reason for home educating is education. In this country it is not.

Attempts to carry out research on the subject in this country though, often run into trouble. Ofsted are currently trying to find out about how home educators actually conduct their educational activities and what methods they favour. Most of the questions are fairly innocuous, and yet some parents have taken against the questionnaires to the extent that a boycott is being urged. This is a strange and unfortunate development for two reasons.

In the first place, most parents are only too happy to talk about their children's achievements and academic progress. Just start them off and they will go on interminably about their wretched children. "Janet is taking her maths GCSE two years early, John has been chosen for the rugby team" and much more in a similar vein. Those who do not talk like this are often those whose children are having problems at school. When parents respond to enquiries about how their children are doing by saying, "Oh, don't ask. You know what they're like at that age!" they are generally the ones whose children are not doing well educationally. When home educating parents behave like this and become prickly and defensive about questions, it gives the unfortunate impression that they too are reluctant to talk of their children's achievements for the same reason.

The second reason why it is an unfortunate position to take is that if home education is really successful, by whatever criteria, not just by counting GCSEs, then surely it is in the interests of home educators to publicise it? Why not share the achievements of home educated children? Once it is demonstrated as efficient, this will strengthen the hand of home educating parents when dealing with local authorities. They will be able to point to the evidence and say, "Look, it works! Here is the proof." As I said above, refusing to discuss the subject with either Ofsted, local authorities or anybody else who might be sceptical of the benefits of this method of education, just leads people to suppose that it is not a success or even worse, that there is something to hide
At a time when home education is increasingly being mentioned in newspapers, magazines and even in parliament, I think it frankly mad to refuse all engagement with what might be termed the educational establishment. A good beginning would be a well constructed project designed to look at the long term outcomes for all the home educated children in a single area, something along the lines of Rutter's work on the Isle of Wight. This would give us a strong basis for defending the practice against those who oppose home education. The Ofsted survey of the fifteen local authority areas looks to me very much as though it would be a good start in this direction.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Paula Rothermel and the mystery of the missing methodology!

On November 8th, I posted a short piece about Paula Rothermel's research on home education. I made the point that the assessments of academic ability only involved thirty five children. I also mentioned that of the literacy assessments, only five were conducted under controlled conditions. This information was contained in Dr. Rothermel's PhD thesis, which was to be found on her website. Three days after I posted the piece, the thesis was withdrawn from the website. This is an extraordinary development and I shall explain why.

Practically anybody discussing home education in this country quotes, or at the very least mentions, the research carried out by Paula Rothermel. It is used to substantiate claims such as that working class children taught at home do better than schooled children and that home educated children tend to make better progress in the acquisition of literacy than those who are taught at school. Almost invariably, those talking about this work say that it involved hundreds of children. It is impossible to overstate the significance attached to this work. Here is how it is frequently presented. This bit claims that home educated children are good readers;

Working with the idea of a normal bell curve distribution, we expect to find 16% of children in the top band. Percentages of home-educated children within this score band for literature were as follows:
94% of 6 year olds
77.4% of 7 year olds
73.3% of 8 year olds
82.3% of 10 year olds

It looks impressive until you understand that we are talking about fewer than fifty children who were tested and that only five were actually tested by the researcher herself; the rest of the assessments were sent out by post for the families to do. This information about the methodology is only to found in the original thesis which Paula Rothermel did for her PhD. Now that this has been removed, nobody else can examine in detail just how the work was carried out and the conclusions reached. This is a far from satisfactory state of affairs. The fact that it was removed so promptly after I drew attention to the methodology on this Blog, argues strongly that my criticism was well founded and that this work will not bear close examination. I can see no other reason why it should have been taken from the website.

Another point which those interested in home education should bear in mind is that there was only one piece of research, which was carried out over twelve years ago. All the other papers which one sees bearing Dr. Rothermel's name and presented at various conferences are not new research, but simply extracts and summaries of sections of the PhD thesis. In other words, every single reference to Paula Rothermel's work concerns only those same handful of children twelve years ago; there has been nothing since then.

I think it worth looking hard at this matter for the simple reason that so much has been made of this research. It has been quoted everywhere and the most extravagant conclusions drawn from the flimsiest evidence imaginable. If the methodology used in this work does not stand scrutiny, and the fact that Paula Rothermel pulled it from her site soon after I posted my piece suggests that this might well be so, then the foundation for much of what is routinely claimed about the benefits of home education in Britain could be called into question.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Special interest groups

There are a lot of good things about living in a representative democracy such as we have in this country and there are some bad things. A good thing is that we actually get a chance every few years to change the government. In practice, this means choosing between Labour and Conservative of course. We do not directly make the laws, we elect representatives to do it on our behalf. These are our MPs. By and large, the system works pretty well. It works at least as well as any other method and better than most, although it has its drawbacks. One of these is that it is easy for minority groups to get trampled down.

Sometimes governments decide to be tough on some minority or other deliberately, because it will be popular with everybody else and the actions they take distract people from the failure of the government in other areas. Cracking down on asylum seekers or benefit cheats are an example of this. It can serve to make your government look tough and determined to look after the interests of the ordinary citizen. It can also grab the headlines and make the voters forget how you are screwing up the economy or launching illegal wars. Banning hunting or the keeping of certain breeds of dog were also measures of this sort. Almost always, before they act in this way, the government of the day finds out how the masses will view this attack on a small, special interest group. The idea is to gain votes, not lose them!

Some of these attacks on small groups are greeted with wide approval. The ban on hunting was very popular with people living in the cities. Often, the members of the special interest group under attack are baffled by the public reaction. They are so used to belonging to this group and identify so closely with its aims and purposes, that they are honestly surprised to hear that many people do not like what they are doing and think it should be stopped. However, governments are quite clever at this sort of thing. In many cases, whatever their motives, and these are often cynical and populist, the end results of their clamping down on some group or other do tend towards the common good. This is how many people, including I am guessing many people who read this Blog, felt about the law on fox hunting.

Which brings us neatly to home education and the Children, Schools and Families Bill. There are two important points to consider here. Firstly, the present administration is onto a winner with this. Examining teachers' fitness to do their job regularly is likely to play very well with the electorate. So are pledges to raise educational standards in general. So to are action on safeguarding concerns about children taught at home. Now I have made it fairly plain I think that I do not believe that this is really a valid point at all, but that does not matter in the slightest. Everybody else send their kids to school and there is bound to be a certain amount of suspicion attached to those who don't. If they are making sure that schools and teachers are up to scratch, then why not check out those parents who are teaching their kids at the same time? Sounds good to Joe Public. When you combine this with spurious safeguarding fears, it becomes a classic case of working up a fear about the safety of kiddies and old folk, always a winner with voters.

Just as those who went hunting foxes did not really see the public mood, so too home educators appear to be a little out of touch. This is in the nature of special interest groups in any case; they assume everybody understands and shares their concerns. The Badman review of elective home education was very big news for home educators, for instance, but 99% of the public had not even heard of it. The Queen's speech was anxiously awaited to see what she would have to say on the subject of home education, but the newspapers and television did not bother overmuch with that aspect; it didn't matter to most people. Most coverage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill made no mention at all of the new regulations regarding home education. It was of little interest.

I suppose that I am observing this developing situation with a certain amount of detachment and wish that home educating parents would be a little more accommodating to local authorities. I suspect that if the bill does get passed before June, parents are going to find a system imposed upon that that they will have had no part in shaping. Many local authorities are prepared to work with home educators towards a new regimen, but the feeling seems to be that if everybody flatly rejects change, then it simply will not happen. I find this unduly optimistic.

A way forward?

I have been thinking today about the seemingly implacable hostility that exists between certain home educating parents and their local authorities. Without considering the rights and wrongs of the case, because I have not the slightest doubt that there are faults on both sides, I was wondering if there is any way of finding a compromise.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the Children, Schools and Families Bill will be passed before the next general election. There may be one or two MPs and Lords who are prepared for various reasons to oppose this measure and help try to prevent it reaching the Statute Book, but I would not think that they will be able to do this. A bill full of provisions designed to crack down on inefficient schools and useless teachers is not likely to face widespread opposition in either the Lords or Commons. Most of our legislature will hardly notice the few paragraphs which introduce registration and monitoring of home educators. Those who do spot them will probably approve.

Let us assume for a moment the bill actually becomes law. I am well aware that many parents are determined not to co-operate with local authority officers on various aspects of it. Is there room for meeting half way though? On the subject of registration, this is more or less a done deal. When ContactPoint is switched on, any child who has a blank field for "Educational Setting" will be receiving a letter from her local authority making enquiries. This will be de facto registration in itself. But what about the requirement for a statement of educational intent and so on?

I think I am right in saying that hardly any parents object to sending their local authority an educational philosophy. It seem to be a pretty standard response to enquiries and often used as a way to fend off a visit. It seems possible that this will not be considered sufficient in the future. An awful lot of parents are very much opposed to providing a curriculum, claiming that this would destroy the whole basis of autonomous education. Without going into the rights and wrongs of this position, is there a way that something more than an educational philosophy could be put together, which was a little more detailed as regards what the education was intended to provide for the child? Something less than a curriculum, certainly, but a good deal more than the sort of vague waffle which some parents currently submit to their LA? How far would parents be prepared to go in order to accommodate their local authority and avoid conflict on this particular matter?

At the moment, a lot of parents, perhaps the majority, seem to be against visits. I say the majority, because of course all those who are not at the moment known to their local authority presumably do not want visits. According to most estimates, these are at least as numerous as the parents who are known to local authorities. I can see that there will be trouble if local authority officers march into such homes and demand that little Johnny demonstrate that he knows his multiplication tables or has read Great Expectations . However, they will want to see the child and probably talk to him. What sort of model for these encounters would satisfy home educating parents? Assuming that is, that non-compliance is not an option and that a blanket refusal to engage with the LA might lead to court? Have parents any idea how this conflict could be resolved in a way which would satisfy both themselves and their local authorities?

I cannot think that an adversarial approach to these new regulations will benefit anybody, least of all the children concerned. If we take as given that change is coming and that home education in this country will be regulated and governed for the first time by laws which explicitly recognise its existence, then the only question remaining is how parents adapt to those laws and help mould the local authority practice. I do not wish to be a Cassandra, but I can easily see that if home educating parents launch a campaign of non-cooperation, this will ultimately lead to court proceedings and trauma for children who have been withdrawn from school for bullying. I don't think this will be to anybody's advantage.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Compulsory education

I have been reading the Newcastle Report, a Royal Commission set up in 1858 in order to examine and report on the state of education in Britain. Some of its findings and recommendations are surprising, particularly when you bear in mind that only ten years later compulsory education was introduced in this country. The Newcastle Report had this to say on the subject;

"Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education with a compulsory system, managed by the Government, would be met by objections, both religious and political."

Today most people view school as such a natural and integral part of modern life that it seems incredible that a Royal Commission could have come down so firmly against the idea of compulsory education. Interestingly, the words that they used to dismiss the idea could be used to today by the opponents of the regulations about home education contained in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. What would be the practical results if the element of compulsion were to be wholly removed from education? I suppose that we and our children are in general so used to the concept of kids having to go to school or at the very least be educated, that it would throw everyone into confusion at first!

Would parents continue to send their children to school if compulsory education were abolished? Probably they would. An awful lot of the parents to whom one talks look forward to the day that their children will be going to school. many of them dislike the school holidays, especially the long Summer holiday. There is also the popular belief that children have to go to school to learn. Most parents would be frightened of the consequences of a child not being taught at school. Indeed, we know this to be true, because of course parents do not have to send their children to school as things currently stand. A very tiny minority fail to do so. School is popular with parents.

School is also, by and large, popular with the children themselves. They like the opportunity to get away from their parents, to meet their friends and so on. I believe that some of them even learn there!

In other words, despite the fact that school is not compulsory and never has been, the overwhelming majority of parents and children seem to like it just fine. At a guess, the situation would not change at all if a new law was passed which abolished the compulsory element from education altogether. Things would carry on just as they do now.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

What motivates local authorities?

A couple of days ago, I looked at the idea that there might be a plan to destroy home education by burdening parents with so many restrictions and regulations as eventually to stifle it entirely. I concluded and most people I think agreed, that there was no such overall plan, more a number of separate trends which all tended to make life difficult, particularly for autonomously educating parents. Today, I want to look at a similar point. Why do local authorities wish to interfere in the matter at all? Why can't they just leave home educators to get on with it?

Well, why do local authorities, some more than others, actually fuss about home education? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. One is that this is just busybodying for the sake of it. Another explanation would be that local authorities wish to promote schools as the only appropriate places for educating children; that they are opposed on principle to home education. A third possibility is that they genuinely care about home educated children and worry that they are either at hazard or are not receiving a good education. Let us look at these hypotheses in turn.

There is no doubt at all that local authorities like to poke their nose in other people's business. They do it all the time. Whether it is how we are disposing of our rubbish or the height of out hedges, it seems that the council are always hovering about ready and willing to interfere. Could it be that this is at the bottom of their interest in home education? Just a mania to regulate for the sake of regulation? If this were the case, then I would expect local authorities to pester all home educating parents with forms and paperwork and generally to make a nuisance of themselves with all home educators. They do not.

Rather, they focus usually on those about whom there are concerns from other agencies, those known to children's social care for example. They make a point often of making early contact with families who withdraw their children from school and about whom the school has expressed unease. A number of local authorities take more interest in uneducated parents who intend to educated their children and also in those who say that they are doing so autonomously. All this looks as though local authorities target those children who, rightly or wrongly, they feel to be at risk of failing educationally or to be at some sort of risk for reasons unconnected with home education. In other words, it does not look as though they are determined to crack down on home education as such, but only specific groups of home educators.

What of the idea that local authorities see school as the best and most appropriate place for children to be educated? Again, the evidence for this is weak. Even LAs where some parents have had problems, seem quite happy for certain parents to home educate. Most local authorities now have a bit about home education on their websites and are happy to provide parents with information about this option. There is no feeling that home education as such is a cause for concern. The fact that so few home educating parents are made the subject of School Attendance Orders also argues strongly for the idea that most local authorities do not have a problem with home education as such. Only perhaps with certain types of home education or particular groups.

Lastly, what of the possibility that local authorities act as they do out of genuine worries about some home educated children? Here, the evidence is stronger. Some militant autonomous educators complain of local authorities taking actions which are, strictly speaking, ultra vires. For instance, they may urge parents to follow a curriculum, ask for a plan of work, insist on home visits and so on. I cannot offhand think of any reason for such behaviour other than that they are concerned about a number of particular children being taught at home. The concern may be misplaced. They may be wrong to feel anxious about children whose parents are opposed on principle to teaching them or deciding what their children should learn. It is however these families that many LAs focus upon. This makes it look as though the officers in these authorities are targetting those very children who they feel will not thrive academically through home education. In short, they do so because they are anxious about the welfare of these children. It is this which has motivated them to appeal for stricter regulation of home education. They may be wrong, but they have no motive more sinister than the desire to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society - our children.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Finding a curriculum

I have been exploring the QCA website, further to the suggestion by the DCSF that parents would find easy to download curricula there. Actually, some of this stuff for primary pupils is not that bad and could probably be adapted fairly easily by parents, should they wish to do so. First, one must pass the portal of the National Curriculum site though, which begins with the exhortation;

The curriculum should be treasured. There should be real pride in our curriculum: the learning that the nation has decided to set before its young. Teachers, parents, employers, the media and the public should all see the curriculum as something to embrace, support and celebrate. Most of all, young people should relish the opportunity for discovery and achievement that the curriculum offers.

This is a bit creepy! Who are they to be instructing the media what they should embrace and celebrate? It puts me in mind of Star Wars and embracing the dark side. However, some of the actual content is OK. For instance in Key Stage 1 science, there is stuff like this;

Life processes
1 Pupils should be taught:
a the differences between things that are living and things that have never
been alive
b that animals, including humans, move, feed, grow, use their senses and
c to relate life processes to animals and plants found in the local environment.
Humans and other animals
2 Pupils should be taught:
a to recognise and compare the main external parts of the bodies of humans
and other animals
b that humans and other animals need food and water to stay alive
c that taking exercise and eating the right types and amounts of food help
humans to keep healthy
d about the role of drugs as medicines
e how to treat animals with care and sensitivity
f that humans and other animals can produce offspring and that these
offspring grow into adults
g about the senses that enable humans and other animals to be aware
of the world around them.

This is the kind of thing that children should probably be knowing at that age and it is no bad idea to have a plan to work to, even if it is not rigidly adhered to. Anybody working with a young child could do a lot worse than to use this section of the National Curriculum as a rough guide. I am not so sure about religion; this is an entirely personal matter. Similarly music and PE. As long as a child is getting exercise and being exposed to different styles of music, I would think that enough. But to teach according to a general framework in science, history and mathematics seems to me a sound scheme.

Of course, the National Curriculum is not the only curriculum that parents could use, but the basic idea of having some notion of what the child will cover over the next year or so is a pretty sensible one. The only problem might come if this curriculum became a type of strait-jacket, preventing one from being spontaneous and going off in unexpected directions. This has of course nothing at all to do with examinations or testing. It is good for children to think about life and what it means to be alive, purely for the sake of it. A curriculum really acts as an aide-memoire, reminding one of what needs to be covered.

I cannot make out when I see people denouncing the National Curriculum, whether they are dissatisfied with this particular curriculum or if there is some deep seated objection to all curricula. If the former, then I can sympathise. The National Curriculum needs drastic pruning and revision. But if the objection is a more general one against any sort of curriculum or plan of study, then I confess myself puzzled. A curriculum is a bit like a map, which shows the broad territory one hopes to traverse. It should not tell you precisely which route you will take, only the area that you will be travelling. As such, it is quite invaluable for those teaching their own child. I hope that the DCSF will issue more detailed instructions regarding curricula, including some which are not connected with the National Curriculum.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A plot to destroy home education in this country?

Ever since Graham Badman's review of elective home education was launched in January, suggestions have been made that it was all part of a sinister and deeply laid plot, having as its ultimate aim the abolition of home education in this country. The publication of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which contains draft regulations relating to home education, seems to have provoked even normally rational people into wild speculations upon the eventual outcome for home educators if things carry on like this. So let us bring this idea out into the open and examine it carefully to see if there might be any substance in the notion that certain members of the government actually hope to make home education impossible in England and Wales.

The first question we must ask is that classic enquiry when a suspected crime has occurred; cui bono? Who benefits from this thing? Well who would benefit if home education stopped being a viable option for parents in this country? In order to answer that, we might begin by asking ourselves what the practical consequences would be of the abolition of home education.

With schools currently at bursting point, the immediate result of something like 80,000 extra children suddenly being registered at school would be a demand for somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 new teachers. (Assuming roughly one teacher per thirty new pupils.) In the long term, fifty or sixty new schools would need to be built to accommodate all these pupils; so the first beneficiary might be the teaching profession. New jobs, new schools and an acknowledgement that education is a state monopoly, not something any Tom, Dick or Harry can just do in their kitchens whenever they feel like it! This is an interesting hypothesis, but it does not really hold water.

The new regulations regarding home education are contained in the Children, School and Families Bill. They are only a small part of it. Much is taken up with various initiatives designed to raise standards in schools. If the teaching profession were behind this new bill, and I have to say that I don't really buy into the idea of a teachers lobby forcing the government's hand, then it is surprising that so many of the bill's provisions are designed to make life more difficult for teachers. For example, the idea that teachers will need in to be re-examined every few years to see if they are still fit to teach. Why on earth would teachers wish to force measures like this onto the Statute Book? I'm not sure either how keen I would be as a teacher to have a load of home educated children suddenly foisted off on me. All those weird parents causing trouble and making complaints at every touch and turn! I would have thought that most teachers could do without the aggravation. So I must conclude that if there really is a plot, then teachers are not at the back of it.

Who else might be implicated? Could it be that the government, or even just an individual member of the cabinet like Ed Balls, is dead set on getting rid of home education? What would the government get out of it? How would they benefit? I suppose that it could serve to make them look as though they were very concerned about vulnerable children and determined to take robust steps to protect them. The only problem here is that most of the electorate have not even noticed that home education is facing new controls. If it was done as a publicity stunt, then I would have expected to see a little more publicity associated with it. In the event, it has been simply slipped past in a few obscure pages of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Hardly anybody apart from home educating parents themselves even know that it has happened. For that reason, I think we can acquit the government of playing to the gallery on the child protection issue. They have not drawn enough attention to what they are doing for that to be the case.

What other culprits could be in the frame for this? It is hard to identify any one group or even a combination of groups who would benefit enough from the destruction of home education to make it worth their while. The medical profession? Big Pharma? Psychiatrists? The military-industrial complex? Area 51? I am quite open to hearing any suggestions as to who or what could be behind a plan to get rid of home education in Britain.

In the meantime, I shall continue to assume that the stated aim is the true one; to ensure that children withdrawn from school are in fact educated at home. I am quite prepared to believe that many parents disagree violently with Graham Badman, Ed Balls and many of the officers working for local authorities. I am also able to accept that people like Badman and Balls might be mistaken in what they think about home education and wrongheaded in their whole approach. I do not happen to believe personally that this is the case, but I am certainly open to the possibility that they, and of course me, are quite wrong. However, unless strong and convincing evidence emerges, I shall continue to think that they are actually acting honestly and that they have the best interests of children at heart.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A short, word-processed document......

I have been looking into the question of what sort of plan of education the local authorities will be expecting, always assuming the Children, Schools and Families Bill becomes law. The information on this, such as it is, is contained in the Impact Assessment published by the DCSF. Unfortunately, this document itself was apparently written by a particularly crafty and dishonest weasel. I say this for several reasons.

Firstly, have a look at this. After some waffle about the use of curricula and how good it would be if home educators could be persuaded to use them, the author of the Impact assessment has this to say;

"We assume that with this new legislation this pupils will progress from obtaining 1 -4 A*-C to 5 + A*-C GCSEs. In this case, the lifetime returns amount to £88,500 for each child. Assuming that 46.8% of these children achieve this level, the total benefits of the proposal is £99.5m for those affected in the first year."

I am always suspicious of such precise percentages, especially when they are to be "assumed". Why assume 46.8%? Why not 47% or even 50%? Why exactly 46.8%? The answer is revealing. Observe if you will that if we assume 46.8% of children now get five good GCSEs then the financial benefits in the first year will be £99.5m. Earlier in the Impact Assessment we are told that the costs in the first year are likely to be;

"Costs in the first year are estimated to be between £20 million and £99 million."

The upper limit of £99m was chosen for the same reason that shops would rather price a television at £99.99 instead of £100. It looks so much less. So in order to show that the whole scheme will be effectively self-financing, the benefits must be just a shade over the initial outlay. What a coincidence. It will cost £99m in the first year, but the financial benefits will be £99.5m! What has actually happened, and I won't weary anybody with the detailed calculations, is that the person writing this has been told to demonstrate how it will all cost nothing at all in the long run. He has added half a million to the initial years costs and then reverse-engineered the figures back from this to calculate how many kids would need to get five good GCSEs to make it all worthwhile. Hence that eerily exact figure. You have got to admire the nerve of somebody who can be so cunning.

To return to the plan of education that parents will be required to submit. The same person who made those clever calculations earlier says;

"we have not yet defined the content or rigour of a "statement of education", but it is likely to be a short, word-processed document. Exemplar curricula which parents could use successfully are freely available from the DCSF and QCA websites".

This is a barefaced and categorical lie. You will not find "curricula" on either the QCA or DCSF sites. Instead, you will find material relating to only one single curriculum. Which curriculum is that? Anybody? Gentleman in the back row? Yes sir, that's right. The National Curriculum. Regular readers of this column will know that I am not a fan of the National Curriculum. It is very big, unwieldy and bloated. It is also massively prescriptive, covering in great detail all that must be covered in every aspect of every subject. This is not the only objection to the idea of parents being directed to the DCSF and QCA sites in search of a curriculum for their children.
Anybody looking there will indeed find a lot of material, but it is in the main designed for teachers instructing a classroom full of children. The various schemes of work and lesson plans would be utterly useless and irrelevant for any home educator. As God he knows, I was the most meticulously structured home educator in the world, but even I would have found no use for such detailed instructions. I do not believe for a moment that any parent would be able to make use of them. Except of course, unless you just wanted a load of impressive stuff to show the local authority officer when she called. In that case, a cut and paste job from those sites would be great.

The reason that I find this all so irritating is that I am a great believer in a curriculum for the home educating parents. Nothing fancy, just the basics and some rough idea of what might be covered at different ages. What will in fact happen from all this is that parents will end up producing some sort of cobbled together nonsense from these two sites and presenting it as their "curriculum". Since their kids will not be taking the SATS, there will be no way to verify any of the alleged outcomes and the whole thing is likely to become an exercise in deception. This is a complete waste of time for all concerned and will not benefit the children in the slightest degree.