Saturday, 31 October 2009

The way the wind is blowing

One sometimes sees a news item which although seemingly trivial in itself, appears on reflection to indicate something of a sea change in attitudes or opinions. One such appeared a few days ago. It was to the effect that some high profile employers take at least as much notice of the GCSEs which a prospective employee has, as they do of the quality of his or her degree. This could have serious repercussions in the world of home education. A number of universities already set more store than others by GCSEs when making offers; Oxford for example expects as routine, six or eight at A*.

For some years now, the feeling among home educators is that they don’t generally need to bother with GCSEs and if they do then it need only be English and Mathematics. It is common to hear remarks like, “Oh, nobody takes GCSEs seriously now, they’re completely devalued”. Or again, “It’s up to my daughter if she takes any exams”. All the evidence is that precisely the opposite is happening, that is to say rather than becoming less important as the years go by, GCSEs appear to be actually growing in significance for employers, universities and colleges of further education. I have mixed feelings about this trend, but it is undeniably true that this seems to be the way that things are moving.

I have of course remarked before on the number of colleges and sixth forms who will not accept as A level students any teenager who does not have at least five GCSEs. This means in practice that home educated children often end up on arts based courses rather than academic ones. This is because these are the sort of courses which can be accessed by audition or portfolio. Even studying GCSEs when they are sixteen is becoming very hard. Few areas now have colleges which offer GCSE courses and those that do often want the student already to have some GCSEs, a genuine Catch 22 situation! If employers too are going to start grading job applicants, even those who have degrees, by the number of GCSEs, then the prospect for teenagers who have none at all may soon be pretty bleak.

Many parents do not face up to this problem until their children are fourteen. Sometimes they then try and enter them for a few GCSEs, only to discover that the child has not the necessary skills to apply herself for the sustained and methodical study needed to take a formal qualification like the GCSE. Others pin their hopes on Open University points and various non-conventional examinations in basic English. Unfortunately, both colleges and universities tend to be a little sniffy about some of this. They actually want GCSEs.

This is not really leading anywhere in particular, I am just thinking out loud. I can assure readers that I do not myself especially value GCSEs, but many do. I have a strong suspicion that a few years down the line it will be all but impossible for a child to gain access to either a job or post sixteen education without the them. This would of course really make autonomous education impossible, proving even more effective than anything which Graham Badman’s report recommends. The New Diplomas are not really suitable for home educated children and neither is the International Baccalaureate. The bad news is that the GCSEs themselves are moving towards a system where controlled assessments in the classroom will be needed.

I am guessing that pretty soon home educating parents will be faced with two choices. Either they will continue to reject studying as a routine business for GCSEs, in which case their children will not be able to go on to college or university, or indeed get any but the most menial job. Failing this they will be obliged to register their children at least part of the time at schools so that they are able to take GCSEs there and take part in the controlled assessments and so on which must be undertaken in classrooms. Either way, I think that the days of home educators refusing to engage with the educational system at all could well be numbered.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

The offbeat ideologues of home education

Every discipline has its share of mavericks and oddballs, who are generally eyed askance by other professionals in the field. Fred Hoyle the astronomer springs to mind, as does John Allegro the Dead Sea Scrolls expert. Allegro of course was once a respected scholar, until he got it into his head that the early Christians had belonged to a hitherto unknown cult which worshipped hallucinogenic mushrooms. Often these weird individuals are very well known and admired by the general public, while fellow professionals regard them as either harmless cranks or raving lunatics. They are fond of writing popular books expounding their strange ideas, rather than submitting well researched papers to respectable journals for peer review. Such is the case with the half dozen or so academics who have espoused the cause of home education.

In common with wild cards from other fields such as psychology, astronomy, archaeology and so on, they tend to appeal directly to the laity. There is good reason for this. When John Allegro became convinced that Jesus was a magic mushroom, he wrote a book about it which was serialised in the Sunday Mirror. There would of course have been little point in trying to interest other Orientalists and archaeologists in his theory; they would know at once that it was sheer nonsense. Far better to address the readers of a tabloid newspaper. Similarly, when some professor of education convinces himself that children do not need to be taught to read, there would not be much point in getting an academic journal to take up the idea. The readers of such a publication would require detailed and properly conducted research to back up such an astonishing hypothesis. A crazy idea like this would probably not even make it through the peer review. The answer is to talk to ordinary parents, who do not really know enough about these ideas to see them for what they are and will in any case be very receptive to the idea that they do not have to teach their children, that the whole process of education can take place automatically.

Apart from books aimed at the public, these characters present papers to obscure conferences in out of the way places like Latvia. These papers are subsequently quoted as reverently as if they had been published in "Nature"! Some of the most popular assertions about home education can be traced back to this sort of paper. Books on the subject are often based upon a mere dozen or so families, some of whom are close personal friends of the author. Fortunately, the left leaning, libertarian parents reading them know less about the matter than those actually involved in education and child development and so are not likely to spot the glaring holes in the reasoning presented.

Throughout the world there are many thousands of people studying and teaching education, the psychology of childhood and so on. Few parents ever hear about these people. They prefer to listen to the six or seven who say reassuring things like, "Children learn without teachers. Don't bother to teacher Johnny to read, he'll pick it up of his own accord." They either do not know, or more likely do not care, that 99.99% of these experts' own colleagues view them as amiable and well meaning crackpots.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The middle of the road, Part 2

A week ago I was injudicious enough to post a light hearted piece in which I suggested that at either end of the home education spectrum are groups of fanatics whose opinions are diametrically opposed to each other. I gave it as my view that Ed Balls and his cronies are at one end and autonomously educating parents at the other. I also mused that those like the present writer who remain resolutely in the middle of the road are apt to be run over. Ironically, but quite predictably, I was promptly knocked down by a bunch of autonomous educators who took exception to the thesis advanced, which was that they were by way of being extremists!

The fault is of course entirely mine, because I worded a couple of sentences somewhat elliptically and several readers jumped to the wrong conclusions about what I was saying. Referring to autonomous educators, I said that this group thought that children shouldn't be taught. I cannot really complain about readers being literal minded and failing to read between the lines; I am after all a world class pedant in my own right! What I actually meant to imply was, "This group believe that children shouldn't be taught (as a matter of routine and certainly not unless they actually want to be taught)." I did not for a moment suppose that autonomous educators would actually refuse to teach their children if the kids actually asked to be taught.

Mind you, I have to say that in my experience this is a rather rare occurrence. My own daughter has often asked me to take her to the theatre or buy her various magazines. I do not ever recollect her asking me to explain the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in August 1914 or to teach her about the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915. Perhaps she is a very weird and atypical teenager, but I was obliged to arrange this myself and set times when I would teach her that sort of thing. I have a suspicion that had it been left to her, she would not have come to me and asked to be taught about the six specific themes of World War I which she needed for the IGCSE History; I always had to take the initiative. Perhaps other readers have teenagers who are a little more enthusiastic about stuff like that and do actually ask to be taught about it.

To put the case for there being two groups of extremists involved in home educations, I will say this. The vast majority of people, both parents and teachers, believe that children should be taught regularly and that this teaching should take place according to some sort of plan. I myself believe this. I think most of us would agree that this is the commonly held view. Ed Balls and some of his friends go much further than this and believe that teaching can only take place in schools and that a child not at school is a child not being taught, or at least not being taught properly. I imagine that he has reached this conclusion by some exceedingly faulty induction. I guess that he has said to himself, "Teaching takes place in schools, home educated children are not at school; therefore, home educated children are not being taught." That muffled whirring noise which is faintly audible, is Wittgenstein spinning round like a Catherine wheel in his grave.......

In short, the folk at the DCSF are saying that children need teaching and that parents are not really capable of providing it and that the education of their children will suffer as a consequence.
Autonomous educators seem to be saying precisely the opposite. They seem to be saying, from all that I am able to apprehend, that children do not need to be taught, unless they particularly want to be and that they are in any case quite capable of learning without formal teaching or even any sort of plan. Their views thus differ both from that of the Ed Balls faction and also from most ordinary people. My own views lie between both these extremes and firmly with the majority of normal people. I believe that children need to be taught and that this teaching has to be done in a planned and systematic fashion. I don't think it matters much whether the teaching takes place at home or in a school, although it is easier and more effective to do it at home. And that is why I regard myself as a middle of the road type of home educator who has little patience for the extremists whom one finds on the fringes.

Monday, 26 October 2009

What is a curriculum?

So many autonomously educating parents seem to be vehemently opposed to the very idea of a curriculum, that I think it worth considering what we mean by the expression. A curriculum, at its most basic, is no more than a plan of study. It can be as simple as a list of subjects which will be covered over the next year or so. This is in itself hugely controversial, because of course the Badman report recommends that some such plan be compulsory and many parents are determined to have nothing to do with the idea. It has even been suggested that just giving such a plan would render autonomous education impossible. This seems very strange. Let us have a look at a curriculum and see whether or not it really would have this effect.

Here is a very simple curriculum; English, Mathematics, History, Geography, Science, Art, Music. How could such a curriculum work in practice? Let's look at one subject, Art. This could involve painting, drawing, making models from plasticine, visiting art galleries, looking at books about artists, watching television programmes, the list is endless. Just by doing one or two of those things each week, Art has been covered. What about science? Visits to zoos, keeping and observing an ant farm, hunting for fossils, watching tadpoles grow, going to a museum, attending a lecture, reading a Horrible Science book, watching television. One or two of those activities each week and science is covered. And so it goes on.

Most of these things are already being done by most home educating parents. In other words, the lifestyle and educational techniques used with their children will not have to change in the slightest degree in order to comply with the recommendation for a "Plan of Work". I am guessing that many parents are following a curriculum already, even if they do not call it by that name and have nothing written down. Most of us arrange a programme of event for out children which cover areas like art and music. Few parents fail to read to their children or discuss aspects of science with them. A curriculum like the one above does not tie a parent down to any particular activity or force the child to do anything against her inclinations. There is nothing scary about it, still less is it likely to destroy the fun of the child's learning!

A good thing about a curriculum is that it can act as an aide-memoire, reminding us of what we hope to do each week. It would not of course be a disaster if we missed out on science one week, or spent more time on Music than on History. The curriculum just tells us what we hope to be covering one way or another. I honestly cannot see why so many people are afraid of it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Some autonomously educated teenagers

I have had some dealings lately with teenagers who have been autonomously educated and never compelled to study anything that they do not wish to. Two things have struck me. The first is that they seem to be confident, articulate and assertive. Many schoolchildren of sixteen and seventeen who are attending college, still call members of staff "Sir" and "Miss". I really cannot imagine any of this young people doing such a thing. It simply does not seem to occur to them that they have not got a perfect right to say and do as they will, just as much as any middle aged person. All this is very well and good. The ones with whom I have had contact also appear to have strong opinions about things and are not afraid to express their views. All this is very good. I am exchanging emails with a number of such teenagers now and find that some of them have strongly held views about things like Global Warming, the environment, the war in Afghanistan and so on.

However, the second thing that I notice is that they seem pretty ill informed about the world. One seventeen year old has read all the "Horrible Science" books and feels that this provides a good grounding in science. If he wants more information, he will look it up on wikipedia. Now there is nothing at all wrong with the "Horrible Science" books. By the time she was ten or eleven, my daughter had read them all and we always bought any new one which was published. The same with the geography and history books in the same series. For a ten year old to be possessed of the scientific knowledge contained in the "Horrible Science" books is quite a good thing. For a seventeen year old to be limited to the same knowledge is less promising. I have found one or two of these young people who have formal qualifications. One has a couple of A levels, for instance. By and large though, they have not seen the need to study for GCSEs and so on. I have not had enough contact to draw any sort of conclusions. I would however definitely say that so far, these young people appear to have less solid, academic knowledge than those from a similar background who attend decent schools. On the other hand, they are able to talk fluently about many different subjects which are not covered by any GCSE syllabus! This is entirely anecdotal and I shall post more on this as I get to know them a little better.

One thing that does strike me is that they seem by and large more concerned about wider issues in the world than the teenagers I know who attend school. All too often, their interests range no further than who will win the X Factor and who is doing it with whom in their form. The trouble is, that having strong view about the environment based upon what one has read in the "Horrible Geography" series of books is not too brilliant. As I say, this is a tiny sample and I am really just musing about it, not making any judgements or drawing conclusions.

Friday, 23 October 2009

What are the advantages and disadvantages for home educated children in collecting half a dozen GCSEs?

There are a number of advantages for a teenager in taking GCSEs. Firstly, the possession of a clutch of GCSEs demonstrates to a college, sixth form or potential employer that a teenager has some kind of basic education and can probably read, write and carry out the four basic arithmetical operations. Another advantage is that a child cannot help but pick up some useful information about science, history and English literature while studying these subjects. It provides a good training ground for the self discipline which will be needed if the teenager decides to go on to college or university. Of course, it is still possible to get a college place or job without any formal qualifications, but it is often much harder. Many of the better universities regard GCSEs as almost as important as A levels. It is of course also possible to acquire general knowledge without studying for formal qualifications, but learning is a habit which can be nurtured and encouraged by regular practice. Systematic study can provide just such practice. Humans are often lazy and many of us avoid thinking about difficult problems if at all possible. Academic study presents the student with a constant series of problems and tasks which must be tackled, whether he wishes to or not. Even if the student does not retain much afterwards, the very act of carrying out calculations involving calculus, say, stretches the brain in a way that it might not otherwise experience. It is like muscle training; the more it is done, the stronger and more agile the brain grows. These are just a few of the benefits which might accrue to the child taking a variety of GCSEs as a teenager. There are of course many others, but these should serve to give some idea of why the project is worthwhile.

The only disadvantage which is immediately apparent to me is that it means a considerable expenditure of time and effort on the part of both parent and child.

Stranger danger - the dangerous myth

Hardly a day seems to pass without somebody raising objections to the idea that all adults working with children, even voluntarily, should be checked in case they pose a danger to children. Letters to newspapers detail sad stories of elderly grandmothers teaching in Sunday School, kind hearted men who give up their Saturdays to coach junior football teams or famous authors visiting schools, all of whom are now apparently required to be checked by the police or some other agency. The complaints are likely to grow a good deal louder in the next year or so, once the Independent Safeguarding Authority is up and running. It is state interference run wild, part of the creeping surveillance society. Or is it?

One of the most enduring and popular myths of our modern society is that of "Stranger Danger". This peculiar idea seeks to persuade children as young as three that the greatest threat to their safety and wellbeing is posed by "The Stranger". Adults too, enthusiastically buy in to this horribly misleading and foolish belief system.

For many people in this country, child abuse is still something perpetrated by unshaven middle aged men who hang around primary schools carrying bags of sweets which they use to lure little girls behind some bushes. The truth is however, that the people who sexually abuse, rape and murder children are, almost invariably, well known to them. Out of the seventy or eighty children who die each year in homicides in Britain, only ten are likely to be killed by strangers. This is a tiny number which has remained constant for over thirty years.

Which brings us to the current fuss about CRB checks. Because if we as adults follow our children in accepting the thesis that stranger equals danger, then we are all too likely to accept the natural corollary; familiar adult equals safety. This means that mothers will eye an unidentified male sitting near the swings with suspicion, but entirely overlook the lifeguard at the swimming pool, the school caretaker and the helper at the Sunday School. In short, it is a recipe for disaster.

One only has to ask young children about hypothetical situations in which they might find themselves, in order to see the problem. When asked what they would do if they were offered sweets or a lift in a car by a stranger, most answer correctly. Almost without exception they would refuse. Now try asking about a situation involving a neighbour or teacher. The certainties have evaporated. Why? Because these are not "Strangers" of course. Yet these very people, the neighbour and teacher, are statistically far more likely to abuse them than any stranger in the park.

It was the murder of two little girls by their school caretaker, no stranger to them and whose home was accordingly perceived by them as safe, which provided the impetus for the setting up of the Independent Safeguarding Authority. This is no overkill. Already most people whose work brings them into contact with children need to have CRB checks. Critics say that these prove nothing and that just because a man has no convictions for sexual offences, this does not prove him to be a safe person as regards children. This is true. However, the experience of voluntary organisations in this field are instructive.

Most groups have had the situation of an individual approaching them who is very enthusiastic about working with children. On the realisation that a CRB check will be necessary, some applicants simply fade away. It is hard not to conclude that a potential abuser has thus been deterred. After all, look at this process from the point of view of the paedophile. For ordinary people, a CRB check is another piece of bureaucratic nonsense, no more than a mild irritation. For the predatory paedophile though, it means actually drawing the attention of the police to him, getting his name into the system. It cannot help but deter an awful lot of unsuitable people from applying to work with children.

Inevitably, some good volunteers will be lost by the introduction of more stringent checks. This is a shame, but it is probably a price worth paying if it stops only a few sexual predators coming into contact with children. We also need to look at our approach to the way that we warn children about the danger of sexual molestation. Less focus upon "The Stranger" and more discussion about inappropriate behaviour by any adult would probably be a good beginning. Things are definitely getting more difficult for abusers, but with a little effort we can make them more difficult still.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Walking in the middle of the road

Those who spend too much time in the middle of the road are apt to get run over from time to time, a familiar enough hazard for the present writer. The problem is that when any ideology or belief system has mad extremists at its fringes, many reasonable folk wish to steer a course somewhere between the opposite ends of the spectrum. In the case of home education, there are two groups connected with it which I tend to avoid as far as possible and with whose opinions I disagree strongly.

The first group are headed by Ed Balls, who suggested recently that children should be removed from their parents to be educated by the state no later than the September after their fourth birthday. He presented this proposal in the form of a classic false dichotomy, telling us that the parents could choose between nursery at that age or a school place. The thought that there is a third way which involves neither of these possibilities honestly did not seem to occur to him. This is mildly alarming coming from an Education Secretary. He typifies a certain sort of person in the field of education who feels that a child out of school is a child at risk of failing academically. One of his acolytes was on Radio 4 on Sunday. A Headmaster called Steve Wright was talking about the idea that parents should teach their own children. He gave it as his opinion that he would himself be unable to provide a full and varied curriculum for a child single-handed, singling out religion and science as subjects that parents would not be able to cover effectively at home. His message was, "Leave it to us professionals!" Regular readers of this Blog will be aware that I always try to discuss matters in a dispassionate and scholarly fashion, but here I feel bound to say that this prize fathead should be set up in a pillory so that right thinking citizens can pelt him with mouldy vegetables.

In short, the opinion of the faction led by Ed Balls is that parents cannot teach their children and would be foolish even to try. There is of course another group which holds that parents shouldn't teach their children and that it is harmful to the children to attempt to do so. This party is spearheaded by the so-called autonomous educators. A fairly typical example of the breed is Deborah Durbin, author of Teach Yourself Home Education, without doubt the worst book I have ever read on the subject. Ms. Durbin believes that her children are able to acquire correct grammar and syntax by writing thank you letters by themselves while their mother works on the other side of the room. Rather than teach them history, she feels that researching her family tree should meet the bill. In the face of such idiocy, words fail me. ( I am tempted to suggest that Deborah Durbin should join Steve Wright in the pillory, but since I have recently been accused of misogyny on the Home Education Forums, I shall refrain from doing so).

So there you have it in a nutshell; one group thinking that children cannot be taught at home and the other thinking that they shouldn't be. I cannot decide which of these two groups of extremists irritate me more. Ed Balls and his cronies are pretty annoying, with their absolute mania for prescribing every last, tiny detail of a child's education, but then again so are those parents who are resolutely opposed to anything even remotely approaching structure and planning in their children's education. Those of us who hold more moderate views are constantly at risk of being caught in the crossfire between these two sides. In my own case, for instance, I am regarded by the local authorities with whom I deal, as a dangerous fanatic who encourages the parents of children with special educational needs to withdraw their children from school and keep them at home. To the autonomous educators, on the other hand, I am a stooge of the DCSF and probably an employee of some LA education department to boot!

The problem is of course, that as both sides become more and more entrenched, so they become more and more extreme in their positions. The idea that home education was being used as cover for forced marriage was a ludicrous slur which originated with the DCSF. It was they who got Graham Badman to conduct his review. This rather makes it look as though the DCSF are, at the very least, a little uneasy about the whole business of home education. The autonomous educators are not much better, with their refusal to acknowledge the need for any sort of monitoring, registration or planning for a child's education. In the middle are the average home educators who just want to get on with their children's education and are quite happy to allow the officers from their local authority into their homes and see no reason at all not to share with them the plans that they have for their children's education. It is to this average, middle of the road crowd to which I belong. I suspect that they form the majority of home educators.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The perils and pitfalls of informal learning

Many home educators in this country favour a method known as "informal learning". Alan Thomas, the famous educationalist, has written a great deal about this. The idea is that learning takes place quite naturally during the course of ordinary life, often just through the medium of conversations between the child and her parents. There are advantages and disadvantages to this method of learning.

When our children are small, we all of us probably do this sort of thing quite naturally. Our child might ask what some animal is and we tell them. As they grow older, children might begin to ask more complex questions such as, "Why do people fight wars?" or "Why is the Earth getting hotter?" or even perhaps, "Why are some people born blind?" These are all marvellous and unforced learning opportunities. As a personal example, I remember my daughter at the age of two or three pointing to a rat in the local park and saying interrogatively, "Squirrel?" What a brilliant chance that was to explain about mammals and rodents, herbivores and omnivores, arboreal and ground living animals and so on. Until the age of perhaps nine or ten, this is a fantastically effective and perfectly natural way of educating a child. As they grow a little older, a problem presents itself.

The minds of most adults are a jumble of half understood facts, vague ideas, popular misconceptions, prejudices and a ragbag of facts which we have picked up over the years and are often hopelessly out of date. Very few of us are able to be objective, even about the simplest subject. Of course, if we are just explaining how birds build their nests, it isn't that important if we get it a bit wrong. It is when we attempt to move on to more complex issues that the trouble can begin.

Take for instance the matter of nuclear power. Most people have opinions about this and I am guessing that many people reading this are more or less opposed to it; a common enough view. We muddle it up in our head with nuclear weapons, the CND, Hiroshima, dangerous radioactive waste and a whole lot of other stuff, much of it completely irrelevant to the generation of electricity by using a nuclear reactor. Very few of us have at our fingertips the facts about the proportions of the different isotopes of U238 and U235, the significance of these different isotopes, the actual mechanism of a reactor, the fuel cycle, the methods for storing and disposing of waste, the amount of radioactive exposure that we get from the background as opposed to other sources. The almost inevitable result is that if we are asked about nuclear power in the course of a casual conversation with our child, we will be unable to supply the facts. We are far more likely to trot out our own prejudices and misinformation.

I plead guilty at once to doing this myself and in fact it was noticing that I was doing so which made me realise that it was time for my daughter to study the writings of people who actually knew about these things, rather than be satisfied with some garbled and more or less inaccurate version served up by me.

Most of us have opinions which we have held for many years, often without re-examining them regularly in the light of new evidence. When my daughter actually began studying physics in earnest, I was shocked at the number of things which had changed since I last looked hard at the business. Even the fundamental particles were different! In fact much of what I had transmitted to her in the course of "informal learning" was at least thirty or forty years out of date! The only thing that she had been learning from me about many subjects was a lot of wrong headed nonsense that any sixteen year old would be able easily to refute. This was a sobering realisation.

The problem was, that if I simply left it for my daughter to ask questions or for various topics to be raised spontaneously in the course of ordinary conversation, then I would not be able to tell her the elementary facts that she needed to know. I had to know in advance what she would be "informally" learning, so that I could be sure of giving her the facts rather than misleading her with a lot of nonsense. It was for this reason that I began working out ahead of time what sort of things she might ask about, what she might want or need to know. This gave me a chance to acquire the books that she would need and for me to gen up on the subject myself. I dare say that many home educating parents do exactly the same as this. In effect, this is what a curriculum is; deciding roughly what sort of knowledge will be necessary or desirable and planning to be able to provide accurate information when the time comes.

The alternative is not attractive. It can entail children being limited by our own educational background and general knowledge, influenced by our own prejudices, handicapped by our own lack of understanding of certain aspects of the world. Unless we are keenly aware of this possibility and work to combat it, we risk ending up with children growing up to share our political views, tastes in literature, failure to grasp certain ideas, even our preferences in food and hairstyle! I cannot imagine a worse fate for any child than to be moulded like this in his parents' image.

The curriculum

The very idea of having any sort of curriculum or plan of studies is anathema for autonomous educators. It is seen as robbing the whole educational process of all spontaneity and joy. After all, formal qualifications and university are not the be-all and end-all of education are they? All this is true enough as far as it goes. I want to think a little about the advantages of working to a very broad curriculum and looking at the advantages of this quite apart from gaining GCSEs or A levels or passing this or that test.

In order to illustrate the points I am making, I shall restrict what I am saying to science, although most of it is equally applicable to history, geography, music, English or any other subject. To begin with I want to consider three topics that many people discuss passionately and which regularly crop up in the newspapers and on the television; GM foods, Global warming and renewable energy.

Let us begin with GM foods, something about which many people feel very strongly. Here is a simple question. What is a gene? In other words, before we even start to discuss genetically modified foods, it is necessary to be able to give a succinct answer to the question, "What do we mean by a gene?" Shockingly, almost all the people to whom I have spoken about this, despite having extremely strong views on the subject of GM foods and genetic engineering, are completely unable to explain what a gene is! they thus fall at the first fence, as it were. To be brutally frank, they have no right to hold any sort of opinion on anything to do with genetics at all. Asking very basic questions about the Greenhouse Effect similarly demonstrates an appalling level of ignorance about this subject, with many people convinced that the Greenhouse Effect is a bad thing in itself, rather than being a vital mechanism which make the Earth habitable. Renewable energy? Try asking anybody who has an opinion about this, to explain how a nuclear power station works and to outline the advantages and disadvantages of this method of generating electricity.

None of this is meant to be any sort of argument in favour of traditional schooling. Indeed, almost all those of whom I have asked the above questions attended school and emerged at the end of the process deficient in many important areas. It is however a powerful argument in favour of some species of systematic instruction of children and young people. Without a rudimentary knowledge of genetics, electricity generation and the electromagnetic spectrum, nobody will be able to talk intelligently or even understand some of the most important problems facing the world today.

It is of course perfectly possible for a young person to read up on genetics and study science without being directed to do so. In other words, autonomous education is certainly not impossible. Without some sort of structure though, it would be very difficult for a child to know where to begin. The field of human knowledge is so vast, that the possibility of simply stumbling across the relevant facts about genetics and climatology by chance are vanishingly small. What of those also, whose interests lie not in science but in the arts and humanities? They may be so busy reading about Shakespeare and philosophy that they will just not get round to finding out about the re-emission of electromagnetic energy as infra red radiation and the role of CO2 and water vapour in preventing the escape into space of these rays. If they do not study this, they will never know what all the fuss about global warming amounts to.

What I am saying is that in order to take part in political debate in this country, to understand the news, hold a conversation on the subject of the environment or even read many popular books, it is vital to have a certain amount of background information. Without these basic facts, the world simply does not make sense. All that we would be able to do if we lacked this foundation of knowledge, would be to parrot the views of others or to repeat slogans such as "Nuclear Power, No Thanks!" or "Save the Polar Bears!". Without knowing what a gene actually is, the only honest option would be to remain silent while others were agonising over the implications of human cloning or genetic engineering. We would certainly not be able to express any preference for or against the cultivation of GM crops in the UK.

We cannot realistically expect children to devise their own curriculum. How could they know which aspects of science will be crucial to understanding the modern world and which all but irrelevant? At the very least, they will need a rough plan to which they can work. There is no particular reason why they need to cover World Way II when they are this age or that, or to study the Periodic Table only when they reach their fourteenth birthday. But they do need to be told what they need to know by the time they reach sixteen or seventeen. If we fail to do that, we are short changing them and leaving them liable to be left behind in the world. They will certainly not become full citizens, able to take an intelligent interest in the serious issues of the day.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Why some people don't "get" home education

One of the things which I have noticed over the years, both in my personal and professional life, is the huge number of parents who cannot apparently wait to get their kids into nurseries almost as soon as they are born. I am talking here not of busy professionals on Maternity Leave, but couples where one parent is not working and also unemployed single mothers. I have sometimes felt like saying, although I have never been so rude, "If you are that keen to get shot of him, I wonder you had the bloody kid in the first place!" I have often thought that this strange desire to pack children off to nurseries, schools, play-schemes and holiday clubs might be at the root of many people's suspicious attitude to home education.

When the Summer holidays are beginning, newspapers routinely run jokey articles asking how parents will survive for the next six or eight weeks. Many parents have told me that they dread the holidays because they don't know what to do with their children. I find this truly extraordinary. Like most, probably all, home educating parents I absolutely love my daughter's company and have done so from the moment she was born. Why would I want to miss out on a single minute of her childhood?

My wife an I have friends are utterly foxed by this. They tell us that it would drive them mad to have their children at home all day. They say things like, "I don't know how you do it!" or "Don't you get fed up with just your daughter for company during the day?". We also know mothers who complain that their brains feel as if they are turning to mush because they are stuck with their baby or toddler all day and that they simply can't wait to get the child into a nursery so that they can get on with their life again. Regular readers of this Blog will be aware that my social skills are all but non-existent and I am hardly able to disguise my horror that anybody could speak this way about their child.

Those who feel this way about their children, and they are in the majority, find it unbelievable that there are people who would choose to keep their children by their side for twenty four hours a day. And this was quite literally the case when my daughter was young. I never felt that I wanted to be parted from her for a moment and even now that she is sixteen, I frequently spend the weekend in her company and still find her a constant pleasure. Well, why wouldn't I? As I say, this is how most home educators feel. For those who do not feel like this, I get the impression sometimes that they think that this is a bit fishy, even creepy when they encounter home educators. Normal people are not this attached to their children, there must be something abnormal about it. What are they up to? Are they abusing their kids? Something's not right!

As I said above, I think it possible that these completely different views of children may be the cause of any friction between home educators and normal parents. People who send their kids to school just don't "get" it, the idea of parents and children being so close that they actually enjoy being with one another! I thought in this context, I would again post the link to part of a television programme which my daughter and I appeared on a couple of years ago.

The people talking to us, Matthew Wright and Lowri Turner, seemingly took it quite for granted that Simone's education would be as good as she might get at school. What neither of them could grasp was the idea that a father and his teenage daughter could enjoy being with each other all day and that it was really the most natural thing in the world. Lowri Turner makes one of the most tacky and tasteless remarks I have ever heard in the whole course of my life and says that Simone and I seem unnaturally close and that she seems more like my wife than my daughter! This is fascinating. She had already told the audience that at that age, she would not even sit next to her father on the beach. She evidently believed that this was normal; to me it sounds completely dysfunctional. This shows the enormously wide gulf which can sometimes exist between "ordinary" people and home educators.

It might be as well to remember this when we are talking to those who do not educate their own children. To me and I think other home educating parents, getting on well with your children is the most natural thing in the world. It is not getting on with your kids that is strange and unusual. For many parents of school children, the case is precisely opposite; it is not getting on with your child that is the norm. I can't help wondering whether or not the current demands for tighter control might be caused not by any genuine fears about forced marriage and so on, but rather because so many people, both in government and also in the general population, just can't imagine what we're up to, wanting to have our kids with us all day long!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

The medium and the message

A while ago, somebody here suggested that the vitriol and unpleasantness on some home education lists was due to the nature of the medium, rather than anything specific to home education. I have been thinking about this and it seems to me to be very likely. I am a member of a message board about grammar and the correct usage of English. Some of the exchanges on this list are also very aggressive, even about such relatively trivial matters as gerund forms of verbs and irregular plurals. My wife has had similar experiences on the Ebay sellers advice forum.

At first sight, it seems odd that people should be so aggressive and sometimes even abusive, just because they are typing their words rather than speaking them. After all, in the old days we used to write letters to each other without being like this. What's so different about the internet? I think the answer is that it depends upon whether you are writing to one person or addressing hundreds. Because another thing that I have noticed is that no matter how sharp the exchanges I might have with individuals on a forum, when we email each other personally, everything is perfectly pleasant and friendly. I suppose that when we post a message on a forum, there is bound to be an element of showing off involved. We check the spelling more carefully, make sure there are no typos and perhaps use grander words than we would when emailing a friend. There is always the temptation to play to the gallery as well, a temptation that I have in the past myself succumbed!

When addressing a forum, we also often try to conform to what we know of the views of the other members. After all, few of us wish to be outcasts. I noticed this very clearly last week. The day after the select committee hearing, somebody on one of the home education lists posted a message containing the following reference to me;

"I've had dealings with the person in question ... we need to stop feeding the trolls."

Now this is quite standard for that particular list. "I've had dealings with the person in question", she says darkly. What dealings, you are bound to ask yourself? Has she ticked him off? Has he sent her an abusive offline message? She is at any rate, conforming to what the group expect, expressing the same views as everybody else. Now the curious thing is that a couple of days before she posted this, the person had been exchanging emails with me in a friendly and casual fashion. Here is what she said three days earlier;

"Hi Simon,I don't know what I can believe really. I cannot believe that every single Home Educator is of completely the same mind as me, but I do not agree that one can ...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................If you do happen to remember where you saw the Select Committee submissions posted on the internet then perhaps you'd drop me the links? I am genuinely interested in hearing the alternative viewpoint, debate and discussion being for, rather than against, the intellectual good."

I have removed any identifying bits. As you can see, perfectly amiable. This illustrates neatly the difference between the public and the private email.

I must myself plead guilty to altering my style dramatically depending upon whether the message is for private or public consumption. What's the point of wasting a really witty put-down on an individual who will perhaps just delete it unread? Far better to get it onto a forum, where you will be able to treasure it for all time! Many of us crave attention in this way, at least those of us who hang out on online communities. Few of us would in real life be given the opportunity to address several hundred people and even if we were we might be too nervous to do it. This way we can sit in comfort and see our smart alec remarks preserved for posterity without any risk of muffing our words or becoming tongue tied. How cool is that?

I think that factors such as these might account for a good deal of the unpleasantness one sees on home education fora. After all, most of the home educators one encounters in real life seem OK, why should those on the lists be any worse? The cloak of anonymity plays a role here as well. Some people on the lists are only known by a nom de guerre, which means that they can be as awful as they please. Probably, if one met them in the world outside cyberspace, they would be as normal as anybody else, or at least as normal as other home educators.

What shall we tell the children?

Like most parents, I have always seen it as part of my duty not only to protect my child from harm, but also from worry and anxiety, at least where this is possible. For example, a few years ago it seemed that we might lose our house. This was very worrying for me as an adult, but I could see no earthly reason to make the children upset about the prospect of being turfed out of their home, especially as there was absolutely nothing they could do to help. I accordingly said nothing to them about it. In the event, matters resolved themselves. If it had been inevitable that we would have to move, then I might of course have adopted a slightly different strategy, slowly accustoming them to the idea of moving. I am circuitously approaching the subject of visits by local authority officers to home educating families, something about which many parents are up in arms.

The truth is, coverage of the Badman report in the newspapers and on television has been sparse in the extreme. Unless their parents had made a point of telling their children about it and explaining what they see as the hidden implications in the recommendations, it is unlikely that many children would even know anything of the matter. I find it strange then that so many children are apparently becoming distressed and anxious over the possibility of home visits. Such anxiety must surely be coming from their mothers and fathers?
It is by no means certain at the moment whether the law relating to home education is actually going to change. If and when it does, there will be many months to prepare children for the prospect of a visit by the local authority. What reason can there be to upset children by telling them a lot of scare stories about new laws that have not even been passed yet? It strikes me that it is the parents who are getting worked up about all this and frightened of the idea that people will be entering their homes to assess the quality of the educational provision being made for their children. I make no comment at all on this; I have no idea whether they are right to be concerned about it. What I am quite sure of is that it is, to say the least of it, unfortunate, if their children are roped into the business as well and made to share their parents anxieties. In other words, I think that it is not Graham Badman, the local authority or its agents who are making the children distressed, but their own parents.

I was not exactly enchanted when Essex LEA notified me that they wanted to come busybodying round the place to see what I was up to with my own daughter. However, as I said at the select committee, I do recognise that society has a stake in my child and so I did not tell them to get lost. Nor did I mention the matter to my eight year old daughter. There would have been no point; it might have made her feel nervous. Instead, I waited until after breakfast on the morning that the visit was due and then said casually, as though I had just remembered it, "Oh by the way, some fool is coming from the council later. They want to make sure that I'm not keeping you chained up in the attic." She laughed and we carried on as usual. the result was that the woman's visit was of no more significance to my daughter than a visit from the man coming to read the gas meter. This is in stark contrast to accounts that have been placed in the comments here from mothers who say that visits from the LA cause the family to be tense for a couple of months in advance and for a month or so afterwards. According to such parents, the whole business causes disruption to their way of life and alters the style of their educational methods. I am pretty sure that tension of this sort is all too often created, or at least greatly exacerbated, by parents.

I rather suspect that as the prospect of new regulations draws ever closer, so we shall be hearing more and more alarming stories of children on the verge of nervous breakdowns at the thought of LA officers entering their homes. I do not for a moment suppose that the children's fears are being encouraged deliberately, but I cannot help but think that it is unnecessary for us to pass our own worries onto our children in this way.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The ethnic diversity of home educators

Working as I do in Inner London, I am used to seeing very mixed and diverse groups, whether in hospitals and schools, shops and markets, local authority offices, tube stations and practically everywhere else. I was therefore mildly surprised to see that the home educators lobbying parliament were almost exclusively white. I say almost exclusively, but for all I know to the contrary there were no black or Asian people present at all, because I certainly saw no visible minorities in the photographs and news coverage of the event. I noticed precisely the same thing at the select committee hearings; everybody connected with home education, in whatever capacity, seems to be white.

I found this a little odd. As I say, in most London boroughs, this would be an unusual circumstance. There are always some black and Asian people around, a few Chinese maybe, the odd orthodox Jew, in any activity. I cannot avoid wondering why this should have been. After all, we are talking about a rally in central London. It is not as though it were held in some out of the way place in the west Country. I am particularly surprised, because many people emphasise the diverse nature of the "Home Educating Community". It is quite true that there are Muslim home educators, I know because I meet them fairly regularly. I also know one or two Hassidim in the same position. I don't know of any Africans or Caribbeans though, or for that matter any Chinese. I also cannot help but notice that most of those who came to the select committee seemed to be well spoken, articulate and mainly middle class. No representatives from the lumpenproletariat. Yet again, I know that such home educators exist, because I visit their homes.

I suppose that since 95% of the population are white, it should not be so surprising if a randomly chosen group of individuals did not contain any visible minorities. It is probably, as I say, because I am used to East London and so it struck me more. I wonder if anybody knows any African or Caribbean home educators? Or Chinese or Hindu? As I say, I know a few Jews and Muslims, but that is all.

The other thing about both the mass lobby and the select committee was that the overwhelming impression was of liberal, left leaning, middle class people. The photographs of the mass lobby are full of families that look like my friends; same clothes, same hairstyles, same facial expressions. Not that my friends are generally home educators, but they have the same look about them. I spoke to some delightful young people at the select committee hearing. They were from some organisation called, I think, HEYS. they were scrupulously polite and very confident, articulate and well spoken. Actually, they were just like my daughter! Clearly, home education does something for such young people; they were like no teenagers that you would meet anywhere else. One thing that puzzles me. Why do so many home educated teenage boys have long hair? Surely it is no longer a sign of rebellion and nonconformity? I mean I had hair down to my shoulders myself in the late sixties, but it is rare enough these days to make such youths stand out.

I suppose that all this tends to confirm my tentative hypothesis that home education is very much a white, middle class phenomenon. As I said above, I do know working class and Asian Muslim home educators, but they do not seem to be involved with organisations at all. Or could it be that there are thousands of such home educators who simply do not take part in online communities or join Education Otherwise and the other support groups? I have no objection on principle to belonging to an exclusively middle class and predominantly white movement, you understand. I am just trying to fathom out what it is about home education that should make it such an attractive prospect to this particular section of society.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The select committee, again.

Some people who skimmed through the video of the session yesterday have told me that they thought at first that I didn't say anything at all! It is true that I spoke infrequently and then only in a sentence or two, but this was still too much for some people. One person commenting after watching, said that I was deliberately allowed to have the final word. More observant viewers will perhaps have noticed that Zena Hodgson and I both signalled our desire to speak and it was a toss-up which of us spoke last. Despite having said about a tenth as much as any other of the witnesses, what I did say was enough to enrage an old friend of mine, Firebird from Godalming. Her account of what was said may be found on the Home Education Forums site. Firebird ends her account with the words, "Simon sticks the knife in". This was in reference to my final words to the select committee. I find this such a peculiar thing to say that I thought I would set out what I actually said at the end and see if anybody disagrees with it;

"Parents might have responsibility for their children's education, but all the rights are with the child. The child has a right to a suitable education. If it's not getting that right, then I think that society has a stake in establishing whether the rights of the child are being respected in regard to the right to receive an education; in which case, parents will have to give way to society's legitimate interest in the case."

"Simon sticks the knife in"......... I am sure that not everybody will agree with me in what I said. That is inevitable. But to suggest that ending such a discussion with a mention of the rights of the child, as opposed to the rights of parents which were talked about earlier in the session, is somehow "sticking the knife in".....

Such an attitude tells me a good deal about the person who would make such a strange statement. It tells me nothing at all about whether or not I was right to bring the discussion to a close by reminding those present that it is the children who have the rights here, rather than the parents.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Active and reactive home educators

Over the last few days I have more than once heard the expression "The home educating community" being used in an apparently serious way. This strikes me as pretty bizarre; I would offhand be hard pressed to come up with a more disparate and eclectic collection of individuals than "The home educating community". In fact anything less like a community is hard to imagine! This set me thinking about what characteristics home educating parents might have in common and what might set one lot apart from another.

The first main division must surely be between those who have chosen home education because it is something they greatly wish to do and those who have, in a sense, been forced into it. The first category includes many famous home educators such as Harry Lawrence, father of Ruth Lawrence the child prodigy. Many "Hot-housing " parents are in this group of home educators and these often tend to be men; most home educating parents being mothers, of course. People like this, who actively choose to educate their own children, typically do not send their children to school at all. It is impossible to say how large this category is. Certainly, among families known to local authorities, they are pretty rare. We might perhaps call such parents "active" home educators, in order to distinguish them from the second "reactive" type of home educator, whom we shall now consider.

This second group of home educated parents are those who send their children to school and then change their minds and de-register them. Almost all the parents in the online communities seem to be like this. It is quite rare to hear of children on the home educating lists and message boards who have never attended school. Why do parents withdraw their children from school? There seem to be two main reasons; bullying and special educational needs which are not being catered for. There are also a smaller number of parents who withdraw their children from school for reasons wholly unconnected with education; for instance to avoid prosecution for truancy.
I can't help wondering if it will make a difference to a parent's attitude to home education if she feels that she has no choice in the matter. Many parents actually say this about de-registering their children, that they "had no choice". On the one hand there is, I suppose, the possibility that parents might at the back of their minds feel a little resentful about being placed in such a position, especially if it is not something which they have considered before. On the other, they may well approach the whole enterprise with a good deal more passion than somebody who has chosen home education in a cool and rational way, making the decision in cold blood as it were. After all, where our children are concerned we are all prepared to make any sort of sacrifice. Perhaps if one takes up home education as a way of rescuing or protecting one's child, then the business will be in a sense more serious, perhaps a matter of life and death. The one who decides ahead of time that there will be no school cannot perhaps fully appreciate the emotions generated in the hearts of those who feel that educating their children is a mission undertaken to save the most precious person in their lives from possible harm or neglect. it is an interesting point.

I have to say that I have, in the parents I have encountered who did not send their children to school in the first place, seen a more relaxed and laid back attitude. Also more humour and a slightly less serious approach generally. They are more ready to laugh at home education and joke about it. It is perhaps not to be wondered if those who have taken on this job because their child was suffering or in danger should not be so apt to see the funny side of things. The first group of home educators, the active ones, are acting from the mind; the second, from the heart. This might well account for the fact that almost all the angry and abusive comments on this Blog come from the "reactive" home educators, who might feel more passionately about the subject. Those like Fiona Nicholson, who belong to the "active" home educators, disagree just as violently with me, but tend to do so in a somewhat more good natured manner. I am curious to know what others think about this hypothesis, which is essentially just musing out loud.

The select committee

I don't think that there is much point in giving a detailed account of this morning's session; I'm sure that most people will have seen it by now. I thought that I would limit myself to a few impressions.

I got the feeling that with one or two exceptions, the committee was not opposed to home education in the slightest. However, I also got the distinct impression that they did not really "get" it a lot of the time. They honestly couldn't seem to see why anybody would object to registration. Similarly, they seemed a little puzzled about the fears that some parents had about visits. I at least understand the concerns, even if I don't share them; some of the MPs such as David Chaytor just didn't seem to get it at all.

I was interested to see the reactions of the other witnesses to a simple question about registration. I of course have no problem with this. Jane Lowe, Zena Hodgson and Carole Rutherford were opposed to them. The oddest performance when responding to this queston came from Fiona Nicholson of Education Otherwise. She seemed so dithery about the issue that in the end the Chair rather impatiently said words to the effect of, "You don't know", before moving on to the next person. I really cannot believe that in the four months since the Badman Report was published, Fiona Nicholson has not been able to make up her mind on this subject. I can only assume that she was hedging her bets and did not want to reveal her position on registration publicly just at the moment.

I have to say that I felt that the other witnessess did not really present their case very well, particularly Zena Hodgson. Too much waffle and wandering from the point, not enough simple, plain sentences. Still, that's really no affair of mine. I also noticed that like many enthusiasts, home educators seem to slip into the way of assuming that other people are quite familiar with their own special interest. I shall probably post a little more on this subject tomorrow.

A note on moderation

For the second time, I have had to start moderating comments. This is a pain and I have done so for two reasons. Firstly, somebody has posted a comment which I feel goes well beyond anything acceptable. Apropos of which, may I ask those posting comments to exercise particular care when typing words like "punt" and "runt"? Typing the wrong initial letter can have unfortunate results. I dare say that this is what happened with the post this morning and that somebody simply wished to describe me as a long, narrow flat bottomed boat. Mind you, that sounds a bit strange. Perhaps they really wished to intimate that I was a small pig or other animal and inadvertantly hit the key which lies below the D and F.

The other slight problem is that a regular commentator called Joely has started to copy and paste the same comment beneath different articles. I fully realise that some autonomous educators have fewer words at their disposal than the rest of us, but surely it is not beyond the wit of such individuals simply to rearrange their words in a different order each time they post a new comment? The gist of it was that I am a bad person and nobody should comment on my Blog. I hope that after a day or two I shall be able to remove the moderation again and things will be back to normal.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The select committee - another conspiracy?

Many autonomously educating parents seem to be furious that I have been called to give evidence at the House of Commons select committee hearing on October 14th. Inevitably, they feel that this is yet another conspiracy by the educational establishment to suppress their entire way of life! A Stitch-up is the demotic expression most popular among these people to describe what they see as happening. The more rational of us are inclined to apply Occam's Razor to the situation and assume that the simplest explanation is probably the most likely. Here is what I think has happened.

The staff sifting through the submissions to the DCSF select committee are not themselves employed by the DCSF. The select committee is completely independent and is as likely to criticise the government as applaud it. The clerical staff sorting out the submissions have probably been told that many home educators are angry about the Badman Report and that the composition of the witnesses called should perhaps reflect that. So among the five people called in the first session on the morning of October 14th, we see Fiona Nicholson from Education Otherwise, Jane Lowe from the Home Education Advisory Service and Zena Hodgson from the Home Education Centre in Somerset. All these organisations have responded unfavourably to Graham Badman's recommendations. To balance this, the staff probably thought that they should give a space to somebody who is not opposed to the recommendations.

Another reason that my submission might have caught the eye and been chosen for further attention is that it was very short. I sent a single sheet of A4 paper, with half a dozen points, each of no more than one or two sentences. I used a crisp,14 point typeface and double spacing. Others have apparently written thousands of words. In my experience, nobody in these circumstances usually reads past the first page and so my submission was bound to stand out. As a matter of interest, did any of the people who have been complaining about not being called to give evidence stop to think of this? In other words, was I the only one who sent in a single A4 sheet double spaced and making only five brief points? if so, then that is the most likely explanation as to why mine caught the eye and I was chosen to give evidence. As scripture says, when dealing with people such as civil servants one should be as cunning as a serpent and as gentle as a dove! (Well, the Bible does not actually specify civil servants in that passage, but you take my point. You have to box clever with them)

Perhaps if the people who are now moaning about me had given the same amount of thought as I did, as to the correct way of approaching matters such as a House of Commons select committee or a DCSF enquiry, then they might have got a little further and actually had their own views taken into account. That I did so and have had my opinions considered by both Graham Badman and the select committee is evidence not of some sinister conspiracy, but rather of the fact that most civil servants and government employees would rather deal with a short, easily digestible summary, as opposed to closely packed pages of print totalling several thousand words. I do not make the rules, nor do I control human nature. I just work according to what I know of both and hope for the best.

Incidentally, quite a few people coming on to this Blog lately seem to be disgusted or shocked at what they find here. The following day they come back again and are offended all over again! They remind me of a prudish old woman who deliberately goes for a walk in a red-light district, purely for the pleasurable thrill of being horrified at what she sees. May I suggest that those who genuinely find my views distasteful, simply stay away? I am not exactly dragging people in here from off the streets. Or should I attach a warning on the first page; "Sensitive home educators may find material here which will criticise autonomous education"? I would be glad of constructive suggestions for how to deal with this vexing problem.

The HE-UK list, again

I have once again been reproached for quoting posts from the HE-UK list. When I wrote those two notorious articles I was careful only to quote from public sections of EO's website and also from published books and Blogs. I included nothing from either the HE-UK or EO lists to which I then belonged. Imagine then my surprise, when Mike Fortune-Wood himself put up one of my posts on the Times Educational Supplement website. Since then, posts of mine made to this list have appeared all over the internet and are frequently quoted, as for example in submissions to the select committee.

People on the HE-UK list have also announced their intention of showing my posts from there to MPs and anybody else they feel might be interested in seeing them. See Wendy Crickard's threat to wave one of my posts under Lynda Waltho MP's nose! I can only assume that messages posted there are to be regarded as public property rather than private communications. After all, if everybody on this list, including the owner, behave like this with posts made there, what else can one think? I must also point out that despite my retaining the copyright of all material published on this Blog, a number of individuals from the HE-UK list plunder it at will for quotations. Of course, I have no objection to people using small quotations, but it is generally considered courteous to ask first. I am quite happy to come to some arrangement about this whole matter, just as soon as Mike Fortune-wood has apologised for starting the process by putting my messages into the public domain.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Where are those with other opinions?

I have remarked before that the behaviour of certain autonomously educating parents is like nothing I have ever encountered anywhere else in the world. The venom and spite evinced is positively uncanny. Most of it seems to be directed not against the ideas and arguments of opponents but against individuals and their families. Attempts have in the past been made to attack Graham Badman through his daughter, for instance, and this seems to be happening again. Some of the comments about my own daughter have been pretty close to the knuckle as well, but fortunately she finds the whole thing funny and as long as she is not upset, then neither am I. I still find it baffling though that people would try to get at those with a different educational philosophy in this way.

It cannot be just that people's lifestyles are felt to be under threat. I am a Zionist and have discussed Middle Eastern politics with Palestinian refugees in Gaza with less animosity than is currently being shown in the world of HE! There is a ruthlessness and cold determination about the whole business that even I find a little unnerving. These people will lie, cheat, attack somebody's family, try and damage their livelihood; any tactic is seen as acceptable in the cause. This is scary stuff and I am not at all surprised that many people simply stop posting on HE-UK and other lists for fear of the response. Others withdraw entirely from the home education "community" and just focus on their own children. Not to worry though friends, I am made of sterner stuff and I shall be here for a long time to come yet!

Somebody on the CYP message board asked why structured home educators and those in favour of the Badman recommendations are not seen more often on the internet. She seemed to see this as evidence that parents like me are rare. Ha, the fool! Does she really not realise how such people are driven off many message boards by the aggressive attitudes of some of the autonomous educators there? A group of autonomous educators roam round cyberspace looking for anything to do with home education. As soon as they find somewhere, they move in and start trashing everybody else's views. I will not name the person concerned, but one of the regular contributors on the HE-UK list lives in Godalming, the Surrey Stockbroker Belt. Incredibly, her name appears frequently in the comments sections of local newspapers as far afield as Lancashire and Portsmouth. She is not the only one.

The overall effect is that as soon as a debate starts about home education anywhere on the internet, the autonomous educators swarm in and try and overwhelm it, frequently resorting to personal abuse if nothing else will work. As soon as I was chucked off HE-UK and EO I set this place up to muse out loud on the subject of home education. I wanted to make it a chatty sort of a place where I could talk about my family openly and discuss things to do with home education . Even so, I have had to remove a couple of pieces which I wrote recently which mentioned my children, because people were gathering information from them in order to try and persuade the select committee that I should not be a witness. Others have been exchanging messages wondering if they can use information from here to damage me with my employers! I briefly began moderating the messages when one person called me a dog and others suggested that I was mentally ill or autistic.. That's the sort of people I am talking about; humourless fanatics who will take any steps to promote their own view of education. No wonder that we don't see many people "putting their heads above the parapet", as one mother who was driven off the HE lists called it. The current behaviour on the HE-UK list reminds me of nothing so much as Soviet Russia during the Stalin years. The hunt for spies and traitors, the suppression of heterodox views, the sudden disappearance of well known figures; it is a perfect microcosm of a particularly unsavoury kind of political system.

Combine what I have said above with the fact that many home educating parents are simply too busy educating their children to spend hours on the internet attacking those whose views differ slightly from their own and you might see why few but the autonomously educating will be seen much on the internet. Maybe the autonomous educators simply have more time on their hands. While other parents are teaching their children to read, the autonomous types are all too often crouched over a keyboard denouncing anybody who disagrees with them.

I have in the past seen many debates take place about the best educational methods. There used to be pretty fierce articles about comprehensive schools versus selective education, to give one example, although this debate is more or less over now. I can't remember such viciousness as in the present business though. I don't remember anybody trying to attack people through their children, simply because they had written newspaper articles in favour of comprehensive schools. Something is happening here, where anybody who criticises autonomous education is being regarded as fair game for any unpleasantness. I am the first to concede that I may be an ill informed fool who was talking through his hat in those articles I wrote. I don't believe I was, but I must of course be open to the possibility. That still does not explain the fierce anger displayed by these people. I shall write further, after the select committee hearing, about what I feel that it is about some autonomous educators which causes them to conduct themselves in this way.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A religious upbringing

The fact that I attend church regularly has led several people to become uneasy, both as to my suitability as a witness before a House of Commons select committee and also about the sort of childhood the daughter of such a person might have endured. I therefore thought it worth writing a little about the religious upbringing of children and what it might entail, particularly with regard to home education.

The first thing to do is clear the ground a little and consider what such a childhood is not. It is not or should not be about having one's head crammed with a lot of rules and ideas from outside. Rather, it ideally consists of being taught to listen to one's own inner voice, which can easily be drowned out by the clamour of the world. What do I mean by an inner voice? I mean the conscience. I believe that God places within every human a guiding device, rather like a compass, which enables us, if we will only pay heed to it, to distinguish right from wrong. To use a modern analogy, it is like a Satnav system, which we can either obey or ignore. I do not for a moment think that the Lord God has fitted the children of different races and religions with different versions of this Satnav; I think there is one model for the whole human race. It tells us the basic route to take, on the one hand for instance to avoid adultery and theft and on the other to take every opportunity to help the widow and orphan. If we are perplexed, listening carefully to this internal guidance system will help us to find the right way.

The problem is of course, that without practice and training, children may get out of the habit of listening to this voice, which is hardly ever louder than a whisper in any case. Some adults have lost the knack entirely of heeding this God given mechanism. It is not so much a matter of waving a Bible or Qur'an at a child and insisting that he learn the word of God. Rather, it is a case of explaining to the child the rules of conduct and urging him to listen hard both to his own conscience and also for any instructions from God. In other words, we are trying to develop a talent or skill within the growing child, not impose a set of instructions from without. At the same time we can explain to the child that there are universal rules such as honesty and justice, avoiding adultery and theft, being kind to those weaker than ourselves. It is not so much a question of warning them that God will punish them, as showing the child that adultery brings unhappiness more or less as a matter of course. So of course does theft and murder. I doubt that many of us know any happy thieves, murderers or adulterers. This tendency, for certain types of behaviour to bring misery, seems to be built into the fabric of the universe, rather like gravity. One could even compare it to the principle of dharma and karma.

Children naturally break these rules if they have not been taught to listen to their conscience. Not because they are inherently wicked, but for the same reason that they might break the rules of chess when they first learn to play. It is simple ignorance. This is not "original sin", as one of the people who comments on this Blog calls it. Our job as parents is to teach them the rules and encourage them to cultivate the habit of listening to their inner guidance. This regular listening for guidance can be called, meditation, prayer or many other things.

Home educating a child makes this whole process a lot simpler. The average child is likely to find the still small voice of conscience drowned out when she is with other children. This can cause the child to take a wrong turn. Imagine you are driving a car containing half a dozen noisy passengers. As you approach a roundabout, the Satnav says quietly, "turn left". At the same time, all the passengers in the car are shouting at the top of their voices, "Turn right!". This is what happens sometimes if a God fearing child is with a group of other kids who decide say, to steal makeup from Boots. Because the group are shouting the wrong instructions, the child's conscience can be drowned out.

I consider the teaching of children about right and wrong to be of crucial importance. It is certainly easier and more effective to undertake such teaching in a quiet, one-to-one setting rather than in a crowded, noisy classroom. Just for the record, I am not really a Christian. I attend church because that is the form of worship with which I grew up. I don't believe that any religion has a monopoly on truth and I also believe in the essential goodness of humanity. I do not think that anybody will be damned and I feel sure that all will be saved and brought to God ultimately.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Home educators are angry/dismayed/up in arms/furious/worried............

We have been seeing headlines of this sort pretty regularly since January, when the DCSF announced an enquiry into elective home education. Of course, we cannot expect the writers of newspaper headlines, who all too often appear to be illiterate maniacs, to abide by the strict rules of Aristotelian Logic. Never the less, it would surely be helpful if they occasionally inserted check-words into their headlines such as "all", "some", "many", "few" or "none". The reason I say this is probably obvious. If a newspaper reporter goes to Tottenham and speaks to half a dozen disaffected Afro-Caribbean youths, he is hardly justified in writing an article with the headline "Black people angry about...". Unfortunately, this seems to be precisely what is being done with newspaper articles about home education in this country.

Nobody really knows how many children in this country are educated at home. We know that roughly twenty thousand such children are registered with local authorities as being electively home educated. We also know that some are not registered with their local authorities. Graham Badman, in his report, speculated that there could be another sixty thousand. Home education organisations often suggest that the figure is more like thirty thousand children unknown to the authorities. This would give us about fifty thousand home educated children in total and I propose to use this figure a rough estimate. Assuming that each child has two parents and that some parents have more than one child, might give us a very rough figure of eighty thousand parents in this country with children who are educated at home. It may be more, it may be less, but I shall work with this figure, at least until more data emerge.

Now, here is a question. What percentage of these eighty thousand home educating parents feel that the arrangements for monitoring home education need to change? Well, obviously it must be a tiny minority. The vast majority of home educating parents are furious about Badman's proposals, surely? They are overwhelmingly in favour of the situation remaining unchanged. Hardly any home educating parents want new and tougher monitoring of home education. This is, as it were, the standard view of the reaction of home educating parents to the Badman Report. Actually, it is a lot of nonsense. In fact fewer than 1% of home educating parents have objected to the idea of a new system of monitoring home education! The other 99% have remained resolutely silent, an interesting point to which I shall return later. First, the facts.

Despite all the shouting by an increasingly hysterical and vociferous faction of mainly autonomous home educators, the best indicator of the reaction of ordinary home educators to the proposal for a change in monitoring arrangements remains the responses of those who took part in the review which Graham Badman conducted. In answer to Question 5; "Do you think there should be any changes made to the current system for monitoring home educating families?", a mere seven hundred and eighty one parents said that they either wanted the situation to remain the same or called for the abolition of monitoring entirely. This represents just under 1% of our ballpark figure of eighty thousand home educating parents. Interesting, no? The rest wanted, among other things, better training for local authority officers. This desire has been reflected in Recommendation 9 of the Badman report.

Of course there are also various petitions, but as I have said before, since these contain the names of many people who are not home educators and are also open to abuse by multiple signing, it is impossible to know whether or not more than that same 1% of home educating parents have signed them. It is also true that a number of people have written to MPs and made submissions to the select committee, but I have a strong suspicion that this is that same 1% again.

The Badman review of elective home education ran from January until May. It was widely publicised in the newspapers and on the television and I suspect that few home educating parents were unaware of it. The fact that only 1% responded by rejecting the need for a change in monitoring is very suggestive. Silence means consent. The truth is that when most of us hear about some new legislation which is likely to have a direct impact upon our lifestyle, then we only complain if we disagree with it. If we hear of it, shrug and do nothing, we are pretty well accepting that we agree with the idea or at the very least that we can live with it. This seems to have been what happened with the Badman review. Over 99% of home educators simply saw no reason at all to get worked up about it. The thousand or so who did, are a very small minority of the home education community.

Of course we must be very careful when legislating, that we do not disregard the views of small minorities. On the other hand we cannot let the existence of tiny pressure groups prevent us passing laws for the greater good. The Lord's Day Observance Society has many more than a thousand members, but I doubt if most of us would want their views to be taken overmuch into account when the decisions are being made about licensing laws and the opening of cinemas on Sunday? It is true that the passage of a new Safeguarding Bill may well cause considerable inconvenience to a small number of home educating parents. This inconvenience must however be carefully weighed against the good that such new legislation might achieve.

Home education and special educational needs

I suppose that I should say a few words about special educational needs. The reason for this is that some idiots have seized upon a post I put up here on the subject and are now using it to try and prove that I have an unacceptable attitude to disability. Firstly, let us look at the relevant section upon which these complaints are founded. The context is that I was questioning the often made claim that a disproportionate number of home educated children have special educational needs;

"Almost none of these children have what most people would describe as a special need or disability. There do not appear to be quadraplegics, children with spina bifida or Down's Syndrome, the deaf or the blind, those with moderate to severe learning difficulties. Instead, they apparently suffer from a variety of problems which are usually alluded to by a few cryptic letters; AS, ADHD,ME,ODD,OCD and so on. Since many of these mothers, for those on these message boards are almost invariably female, present as articulate, anxious and middle class, it is interesting to speculate about the reason for the sorts of problem which they claim their children are afflicted with.It is a long standing joke among those with whom I work that middle class children are never illiterate. They "suffer" instead from dyslexia. Nor are they naughty and badly behaved; it is that they are displaying the symptoms of ADHD. Clumsy and ill co-ordinated middle class kid? Must be dyspraxia. And so on and so forth. In other words, there is a good chance that there is actually nothing much wrong with many of these children other than the usual childhood problems; namely that they are reluctant to learn, they drop and break things and don't do as they are told."

Observe that I am talking here about problems which some mothers "claim their children are afflicted". I am referring to some of the people one reads on the lists who say that they think that their child must have Aspergers because he is so shy and socially inept. Others have claimed that they suspect that their husband also suffers from Aspergers or AS for short. From this, one recent poster on the HE-UK list has concluded that I am denying the very existence of Asperger's Syndrome. I am actually talking about parents who have been specifically told that their child does not have this syndrome, or whose children have not even been seen by a doctor or psychologist and then use this relatively rare disorder to explain their child's behaviour. I might mention that in the eighties I not only worked for the Alice Hoffmann Homes in this area, but I also fostered a child with autism for a project run by Barnados and LB Tower Hamlets. To suggest that I do not accept the existence of Asperger's Syndrome is utterly mad. I do find it offensive though to see genuine medical conditions used glibly to explain or excuse some child's behaviour.

As for some of the other Alphabet Soup syndromes I mentioned, well, don't even get me started on ODD or oppositional Defiance Disorder. This means that your kid does not do as he is told when you want him to do something. My own children suffered from a particularly intractable form of this syndrome, although I never sought medical help! Just to recap, I was talking about the parents one hears who claim that their child must have ADHD because he is so inattentive. Or those who believe their child to be dyspraxic because he has trouble doing up his shoe laces. I am very happy to discuss disability and special needs at length with anybody, but to try and make out on the strength of the above paragraphs that I am have a poor attitude to disability is ridiculous. A poor attitude to neurotic parents who seize on fashionable syndromes to excuse ordinary childhood behaviour, certainly, I will plead guilty to that!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Home educated NEETs

There is great concern over the number of young people in this country who are NEETs. This acronym stands of course for young people over the age of sixteen who are Not in Education Employment or Training. The latest figures collected in the run-up to the select committee hearings next week suggest that roughly four times as many home educated young people are NEETs; 22%, compared with just over 5% of school leavers. I don't doubt for a moment that these figures will be the subject of fierce debate. For example, does the definition of "not in education" include those who are still learning at home? In other words, by "in education", do the local authorities mean only those young people in a college or school setting? But if they were true, would it tell us anything useful about home education as opposed to school education? Almost certainly not. The reasons are fairly straightforward.

Despite all the fuss and anger among the few hundred home educators who are determined to cast themselves in the role of martyrs to a callous, uncaring and monolithic state, nobody is really at all worried about those children who are being educated at home. The target is really quite different. The confusion has arisen because the expression "home educated" is used to cover practically any child who is not at school. Not all of those children are actually receiving an education and it is these who are giving cause for concern.

Well who are these children? I was accused recently of talking too much about council estates and so today I shall be talking about a fairly typical case of a child from a prosperous, middle class home who stopped being educated at the age of fourteen. I know about him because he is my nephew. I think it worth describing his circumstances at some length because he is precisely the sort of child who precipitated the recent review of elective home education conducted by Graham Badman.

When it became clear to my family that I had no intention of sending my daughter to school, there was much shaking of heads, pursing of lips, narrowing of eyes and sad looks. I dare say some readers will also have experienced this! Leader of this faction in my own family was my sister in Manchester. However, by the time her youngest son was thirteen she was having enough trouble with him to cause her to stop worrying about my affairs. He began truanting and unless she could get him off to school before leaving for work, he would simply go back to bed. Soon after his fourteenth birthday, he decided that he would simply not get up in the mornings any more. Since he was over six feet tall by then, there was no question of making him get up and get dressed.

My sister was at a loss to know what to do. My home educated daughter was ten at that time and I had discussed home education often enough with my sister. So she hit upon the luminous idea of de-registering him from school, adapting an educational philosophy from the HE-UK site and then refusing any visit. Well, she is an articulate and forceful woman and this ruse worked a treat, at least from the point of view of preventing her from being sent to prison for her son's truancy. The only slight problem was that the boy now spent all day in bed until about two in the afternoon. He would then get up and play computer games or watch television until the evening, when he would go and hang round the streets with his mates. I need hardly add that he became a NEET as soon as he reached sixteen.

It is children like these who are the problem. It would be foolish to describe him as "home educated" because nobody, least of all my sister who is a very busy woman, was providing him with any education. Nor was he educating himself autonomously, unless you count the acquisition of the ability to buy and sell small amounts of illegal drugs as a useful life skill. Nobody knows how many children there are like this. It would have taken only a single visit and a few questions by a sharp eyed local authority officer to uncover this deception. Of course, if my sister had been in the room, she would have been able to jump in first with the correct answers. This is where speaking to the child alone really comes in handy!

This then is the nature of the problem. Not children being educated autonomously, but children receiving no education of any description whatsoever. I have no idea what the remedy is to this problem. I don't think that sending my sister to prison and putting her son into care would have been a good idea. Nor do I think that it would have suited anybody to force the child back into school, where he would just disrupt the education of those who did wish to learn. It is this sort of situation that the new legislation is intended to deal with. I do not for a moment suppose that it is in anybody's mind, Graham Badman, me or anyone else, that parents who are autonomously educating their children should be the target of some crackdown. It is, as I said above, really only those who are not receiving an education at all who are likely to be affected by any new law.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The angry autonomous

As a home educator, I have encountered many negative attitudes to the idea of home education over the years. These have come from members of my own family, neighbours, colleagues, passers by, librarians, shop assistants; in fact all sorts of different people. The methods which I have used have also attracted unfavourable comment. For instance, I have always been a great believer in the Look and Say technique of teaching reading. This goes very much against the grain today, with the emphasis being firmly upon synthetic phonics. I mention all this for a reason.

The conversations which I have had with other people about my daughter's education, although often lively and spirited, have in the main been good natured. Amicable relations have continued, even with those who bitterly oppose my lifestyle and educational methods. The same is true of all my email exchanges and telephone conversations about education. This is as it should be. I am always happy to debate robustly my beliefs about education and indeed almost any aspect of my life. The only group of people who seem consistently unable to behave like rational human beings when it comes to discussing education are certain autonomous educators. I have never known an advocate of synthetic phonics grow angry or abusive because I prefer to use Look and Say. Certainly, none of them have made offensive remarks about my family or relationship with my daughter or launched internet campaigns to smear me! I cannot help but wonder why this should be. Let me give an example of the sort of thing I mean.
In June, I said something which Maire Stafford, who else, objected to on the EO list. She posted as follows;

"You sound like a /%&*^"

Well, it's not the wittiest thing I've ever heard, but I responded good humouredly;

"Sorry Maire, I'm not sure what an /%&*^ is. Could you be a little more specific?"

Imagine my surprise when I received the following message as a personal email;

From: maetuga Subject: Re: [eo] Re: Targets? Showing proof of work?To: simon.webb14@btinternet.comDate: Friday, 12 June, 2009, 8:58 AM
"I think she meant to say "authoritarian motherfucker son of a bitch asshole." Just a guess, though."

Now I can assure readers that I have never had an email like that from an enthusiast for synthetic phonics or Real Books! Only an autonomous educator could have sent such a message. This is not, by the way, an isolated example.

I am not suggesting of course that all autonomous educators are as vulgar and abusive as that. What I am saying is that any sort of abuse, personal attack, lies and innuendo always comes from autonomous educators and nobody else. I find this a little strange. Why should it be that not a single person who disapproves of home education should be violently rude to me about my decision to home educate and yet many autonomous home educators become furious when I disagree with their methods? Why is it that I can have a good natured exchange of emails with somebody who believes strongly that synthetic phonics are the only effective way of teaching reading and that I am a complete idiot for championing Look and Say, but when I express doubts about the autonomous acquisition of literacy, the abuse is sure to start?

I am honestly puzzled about this. I am quite used to disagreeing with many different people about education. These include teachers, local authority officers, psychologists, academics, even Graham Badman. All these disagreements have been very pleasantly expressed and at the end of the discussion I have invariably parted on good terms with the person concerned. With autonomous educators, this never happens. Almost invariably, they become rude and personal. I don't think it can just be me, because otherwise I would be on bad terms with all those other people with whom I disagree about education. I am also far from being the only person to experience this sort of thing when dealing with autonomous educators. Perhaps this is destined to remain a mystery!