Sunday, 28 February 2010

Home education or home schooling

Nobody was more surprised last year than me, when I discovered that I had written an article for the Independent called, apparently, Time to get Tough on Home Schooling. Home schooling? It's not an expression which I have ever used in the whole course of my life! (My title for this piece, before the sub-editor got his hands on it was, Home Education; a Need for new Legislation?)

I have been reminded of this over the last few days, reading the coverage of the Khyra Ishaq case. The use of the phrase "home schooling" is definitely on the increase, at least in the mass media and it cannot be long before it altogether replaces the term "home education". As far as I can see, there are two possible explanations for this development. The first is one which I have seen put forward by some autonomous educators. Essentially, the idea is that this is an insidious bit of propaganda being foisted upon us. That the subliminal effect of seeing "home schooling" all the time, rather than "home education" will be to condition people to associate the practice with lessons, teaching, curricula , timetables and all the other paraphernalia of the classroom. After a while we will all of us, home educating parents and ordinary citizens alike, find ourselves thinking automatically in terms of "schooling" and all home education will be see as "school at home". I certainly gained this impression when listening to Fern Britton talking on the radio the other day. She even referred to a home containing a "schoolroom"!

The other possible explanation is a little less sinister. It is simply that we are increasingly adopting American usage, American pronunciation and American vocabulary in our speech. This is a form of cultural imperialism, called by some "Coca Colonialism". Often, this results in the shortening of phrases by a syllable or two. I even had the misfortune to hear my own daughter recently referring to a "train station", rather than a "railway station". I pulled her up pretty sharply, but I fear I am fighting a losing battle on that one. "Home schooling" is the accepted American expression for the activity and it also has one syllable less than "home education". Because of that and the fact that everybody apparently wishes to talk like Americans these days; I suspect that our "home education" is doomed.

I do not particularly care for this trend, I must admit. There is a definite difference between "schooling" and "education", a distinction which I for one am anxious to maintain. I think though, that the battle is almost lost. The company publishing my book on home education, which I supposed might be called Elective Home Education in the United Kingdom, have now decided that Home Schooling in the UK would be a bit catchier! I already expected to be pelted with mouldy vegetables by some home educators when it comes out; imagine the howls of execration when that title hits the shelves!

Saturday, 27 February 2010

The only home educator in favour of Graham Badman's recommendations....

I have noticed lately that I am being referred to as the only home educator who supports Graham Badman. By implication, I am also the only home educator who believes that Khyra Ishaq's life might have been saved had tighter regulations been in force when she was alive. I suppose the idea being, as Goebbals said, that if you tell a lie often enough people will start to believe it! I have to say at once, that even if I were the only person in the world who thought that tighter regulation was needed for home education, that wouldn't bother me at all. There was a time when Galileo was more or less a minority of one in thinking that the earth orbited the Sun, but he was still right. However, am I the only home educator in favour of things like registration? Let's look at the evidence.

There are three main ways of seeing what home educators think about Graham Badman's recommendations and Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009. They are, in ascending order of reliability; petitions, submissions to the Children Schools and Families select committee and the responses made by home educators during Graham Badman's review of elective home education last year.

The least reliable indicator of home educators' opinions must be the various online petitions, such as the ones to Downing Street. Many of those signing are not even home educating parents and it is perfectly possible to rig them by creating any number of hotmail accounts at your local library. I did this as an experiment and signed in a couple of false names. It is impossible to say anything about the opinions of the majority of home educators from these petitions. The submissions to the select committee were interesting, but suffered from other problems. Some people, Tania Berlow for example, made multiple submissions. Some families put in one each for the parents and then two for their children. Plenty of the submissions were by people who were not home educators. I took the trouble to track down and get in touch with some of the people who sent submissions, just to be sure. Which leaves us with the responses to Graham Badman's review.

There were just over two thousand two hundred responses from home educating parents. Sixteen hundred of these were against any sort of change in the current situation for home education. Interestingly enough, almost a third of those home educators who responded were definitely in favour of registration, something which seems to have been forgotten. I am going to assume for the sake of argument that all those sixteen hundred responses against any change in the law represented genuine home educators and that there were no multiple submissions. This is pretty optimistic, but I want to bend over backwards to be fair to these people. What proportion of home educating parents does this represent? This is tricky, because we do not know how many children are being home educated in this country. Around twenty thousand are registered with local authorities, that much we do know. Both local authorities and home education organisations agree that there are many more who are not registered. Local authorities often say as many again who are not known to them officially. Graham Badman suggested that there could be as many as eighty thousand and ten years ago Paula Rothermel thought there could be one hundred and fifty thousand. Just for a ballpark figure, let's assume that there are a little more than twice as many as the number known to local authorities. This would give us about fifty thousand children. Assuming each child has two parents and some families have more than one child, might give us perhaps eighty thousand parents of home educated children in this country. Could be more, might be fewer.

Now the sixteen hundred parents who responded to Graham Badman's review of home education by rejecting any change at all, would represent around 2% of that total. In other words, we do not know what 98% of home educating parents think about the matter. This is a sobering thought indeed. It is true that there are a few hundred people on various lists who are very much opposed to the recommendation made by Graham Badman in his report, but these are often the same people who sent in responses to the review, submissions to the select committee, signed petitions and also come on this Blog and denounce me a fool and a rascal. We must be careful about counting them twice! Anybody who follows article about home education on the Internet will also see the same names cropping up there all the time. One gets the distinct impression that there is a hard core of perhaps five or six hundred at most who work very hard against the proposed changes. For instance, the next time you are reading the comments made about an online article on home education, keep an eye out for firebird 2110. She is very active and there are another half dozen like her, who comment everywhere. This also tends to give the impression to people that opposition to the Graham Badman's recommendations is more widespread than is in fact the case. 70% of the Freedom of Information requests made about home education to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, for example, have been made by just nine people. This is not really a mass movement.

So what do the great majority of home educators think about the Badman report and the new CSF bill? I haven't got a clue and neither does anybody else. Certainly, I know home educating parents in this area who think it is all a lot of fuss about nothing. They get on with teaching their children and if the local authority want to pop round from time to time to make sure the kids aren't starving to death or illiterate, that's fine. A bit of a nuisance, but hardly worth getting worked up about. These parents think I am mad engaging with home educators who hang out on the Internet. They see them as a bit loopy, rather like those unfortunate individuals who write strange letters to newspaper editors in green ink! Are these parents typical? It is impossible to say. There are certainly many others who are opposed to any change and I know a few of them as well.

The truth is, neither I nor anybody else can make any sure pronouncements about what "the great majority" of home educators think about Graham Badman or anything else. All we can say with assurance is that we have no idea what 98% of them think, but that the other 2% feel very strongly about it. Feeling very strongly though, does not make that 2% the great majority.

My personal life

For the last few days a number of people have been trying to draw me into some wildly hypothetical speculations, firstly about my possible future earnings and secondly about my ethical system. I cannot honestly think either of these topics are of any great interest to most of the people who visit this Blog. I rather assume that most people who come here are more interested in objective discussions about home education. However, this subject has now found its way onto three threads and I suppose that I should deal with it. I remember when I was not quick enough off the mark the last time some lunatic dreamed up an idea like this. This was that I was a colleague of Graham Badman. Some fool even wrote to the editor of the Times Educational Supplement with that gem! I notice that the rumour is now being started here that I shall actually be working for Graham Badman.

To answer first the question that is evidently preying upon the mind of one of the people who have commented here. This question seemed to be as follows; whether or not I consider it legitimate for somebody to enquire about my financial affairs if I am campaigning for or against legislation which might at some point in the future benefit or disadvantage me. It is, on the face of it, an extraordinary question. Apart from the Inland revenue, possibly the police and certainly my wife, who can possibly have any legitimate questions about my earnings? Why should a complete stranger, writing anonymously, think that my income was any of her business? My answer to the question is this. A priori, nobody but those mentioned above can have any legitimate interest in my financial affairs. The onus is really upon anybody expressing an interest to demonstrate that their interest is more than vulgar curiosity. I should take a great deal of persuading!

Turning now to the absolutely breathtaking suggestion that I shall be working with, for or on behalf of local authorities if the new legislation is passed, words fail me. I currently run a small charity in east London which provides advocacy and advice for the parents of children with special educational needs. Some of my work entails helping parents deregister their children from school, often in the face of opposition from the local authority. As a result of this I am on pretty bad terms with the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets. When I lived In Haringey I unilaterally withdrew my elder daughter from school for one day each week in order to teach her at home. This resulted in legal action. In Essex, I fell out with the elective home education department to the extent that I made several Freedom of Information requests and then made a complaint to the Information Commissioners office. I have rowed with the education department of every local authority with which I have ever had dealings. These rows have always been about home education. What local authority would possibly wish to employ me in any capacity connected with home education? They all regard me as a crazed fanatic. The idea is absolutely mad.

I hope that this puts an end to this nonsense. I am always keen to discuss home education, but my financial affairs and moral code I regard as essentially private matters. It has never crossed my mind for a moment to ask whether any of those opposing the Children, schools and families Bill are doing so because they might suffer financially. Although I regard them as mistaken, I have always assumed that they were motivated by concern for vulnerable children. It really did not occur to me that the fact that they were campaigning against a change in the law would give me any "legitimate interest" in their earnings! It's none of my business, any more than my earnings are any of theirs. Perhaps we could get back to the subject of home education now. I really do not feel inclined to respond to any more of this foolishness, but if anybody really does want to know about my income or ethical code, I suppose that they could email me privately at

Friday, 26 February 2010

Why Khyra Ishaq would probably still be alive if the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009 had been in force while she was alive

There cannot be the least doubt that Angela Gordon, Khyra Ishaq's mother, was or at the very least intended to be, a genuine home educator. She withdrew her children from school because she honestly thought that she would be able to teach them herself at home. It was not some cunning ruse. This is plain when reading the transcript of the care proceedings. It is true that she did not send a letter notifying her intention, of which more later, but this is really a technicality; a minor breach of the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006, which cover the deregistration of children from school to be home educated and contains the following provision. Regulation 8 (1)(d) says that a child's name is to be removed from a school's register if;

"He has ceased to attend the school and the proprietor has received written notification from the parent that the pupil is receiving education otherwise than at school ."

The local authority in Birmingham took her verbal assurance, rather than insist on a letter. This in turn led to the fatal confusion which cost Khyra Ishaq her life; a confusion which could not have arisen if there was one clear and unambiguous set of laws covering home education in this country.

The law surrounding home education in this country is, to put it bluntly, a mess; a confusing hodgepodge of Statute and Case law so jumbled up that even legal staff in many local authorities cannot work out which department is responsible for which aspect of home education.
The basic law relating to home education is to be found in Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act. This states that;

"The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable -
(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise."

To work out what is meant by "efficient" , "suitable" and "full-time", it is necessary to delve into various old Case law dating back a century or so; Bevan v Shears 1911, R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust, 1985, Phillips versus Brown in 1980 and Harrison & Harrison versus Stephenson in 1981, together with half a dozen others. In addition to this, attention must be paid to the Education Act 1981 and also the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006. This isn't all. Local authorities have responsibilities beyond the purely educational as far as children living in their area are concerned. They have a duty to see that all the children in its area are safe, well and have access to the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters document. These outcomes, which are legally underpinned by the Children Act are to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution and to achieve economic wellbeing. Local authorities have yet another duty which has brought them into conflict with some home educators. An amendment to the Education Act 1996, Section 436A, laid upon all local authorities a duty to identify children missing from education. Section 437 then goes on to specify that home educated children receiving a suitable education are not to be regarded as being missing from education. So local authorities must seek out children who are not receiving a suitable education, but at the same time must not bother home educating parents who are providing their children with a suitable education.

As things stand, deregistering a child from school is a very simple process which can be and sometime is undertaken on the spur of the moment. Under proposed new legislation, this would no longer be the case. Taking a child out of school would become a formal and pretty serious business. A plan of education would be needed, as well as visits and interviews; no nonsense about just saying something to a teacher and then refusing to engage with the local authority or not answering the door. The very fact that removing her children from school could be done in such a casual fashion was a precipitating factor in the circumstances which led ultimately to Khyra Ishaq's death.

The first thing to strike the impartial reader about this case is that the school seemed to be the only agency which comes out of the business with any credit. They spotted that things were badly wrong, visited the home themselves and did everything in their power to notify other concerned parties of their concerns. Reading the full account of last years court case of the care proceedings shows that the school were on the ball from the very beginning.
This fact has a number of implications when we are considering whether or not schools provide an extra layer of protection for vulnerable children. It is evident that in this case at least, that is precisely what the school did. The fact that Birmingham social services screwed up subsequently and the child became misplaced between the various statutory agencies does not alter this. School is important as a first defence when watching out for abuse, neglect and ill treatment of children. I don't think there can be any doubt about this for anybody who has read the full transcript. One of the teachers, for example, was actually looking closely at the children of this family when they were getting changed for PE, looking out for signs of ill treatment. If we accept that school does often, as in this case, provide a rough and ready early warning system, then it is obviously the case that this system will not be working to keep an eye on home educated children. This is worth thinking about.

Unfortunately, it was this concern about the child which also contributed to her death. Because they did not wish to abandon the child and despite the fact that their local authority accepted that she was actually being home educated, the school kept Khyra on roll. They thought that this might at least give them a stake in her welfare. This was a tragic, but well meant mistake. Because she was on the school roll, social services, misunderstanding the muddled state of current law, assumed that responsibility for Khyra Ishaq' welfare rested with the Education Welfare Service. The school and some local authority officers thought that because she was no longer at school, social services would take over responsibility for the child.

This situation could only arise because of the confused and muddled state of the law surrounding home education. It is high time indeed that every legal aspect of home education is brought together in one piece of legislation. Then everybody, parents, local authority officers and other professionals alike, will know precisely where they stand.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The chances of the CSF bill getting through the Lords in a hurry

I don't intend to comment directly on the case of Khyra Ishaq, although I suspect my conclusions are somewhat different from those of many home educators. I was simply wondering what effect this case would have upon the progress of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. At a guess, I would say that it makes it almost certain that this bill will whizz through the Lords practically unopposed. I wouldn't be surprised if it does not even get entangled now in the wash-up, but passes on a tide of popular indignation with the shortcomings of the present arrangements for monitoring home education. Public opinion will be fiercely against unregulated home education and I can't see many politicians wishing to stand up and claim that there is no need for any change in the current law. The home education angle of the Khyra Ishaq case is likely to be in many people's minds and after a horrible murder like this, a lot of us want some sort of scapegoat. What could provide a better scapegoat than unregulated home education?

I have been watching the Conservative position with a little suspicion. Gove, the Shadow Education Spokesman seemed to be promising one home educator that the bill would not pass while containing the section on home education. The following day though, in the Times, he had varied this to stating that the Tories would not introduce legislation on the home education. Now, according to Mike Fortune-Wood, he has promised that even if the CSF bill is passed, the next Conservative government would repeal it. I find this unlikely. Following the outcry over Khyra Ishaq, I am guessing that most Conservatives will be running for cover, not wanting to appear soft on safeguarding. All this is irrelevant to the facts in the case; the existing powers of social services for example. I am thinking of what will happen, not whether it will be good that it happens, or whether it should happen.

I have said before that I think that the Conservatives will be pleased if this bill goes through, because then they will be relieved of the need to pass a similar bill of their own when they next form a government. This has been a great situation for them. They have been able to curry favour with a section of the electorate and it will not have any practical consequences for them, they know perfectly well that this government can force the bill through regardless. As I say, I think that it will be rather harder to find a Tory MP or Lord after today who is prepared to stand up and be counted on this issue. They will be wanting to appear concerned about vulnerable children, this always plays well with the man in the street. I am expecting most of them to claim that this case has changed things and that they can no longer side with home educators against new regulations.

My own view is quite simple. Wicked people will always find a way to harm children. Everybody, both militant home educators and those opposing unregulated home education, seem intent upon blaming "the system". The home educators are saying that this is a failure by social services to use their existing powers and the professionals are saying that the child died because they lacked the necessary powers. The responsibility for Khyra Ishaq's death actually rests firmly with those who killed her. The guilty party is not Birmingham social services, it is Angela Gordon.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009

This new piece of legislation seems to be the subject of quite a few myths. On television and in newspaper articles, two claims are still being regularly made; local authorities will have a right to enter people's homes and that they will be able to speak to children alone. It is true that both these ideas were suggested by Graham Badman, but there was never the slightest chance of their becoming law. Let's have a look at the reality

Myth 1 Local authorities will be required to visit homes

Here is what the bill actually says;

"Arrangements made by an authority under this section shall include
arrangements made with a view to their—
visiting, at least once in the registration period, the place (or
at least one of the places) where education is provided to the

Unless parents are actually intent upon confrontation, the easiest thing to do will be to arrange to meet in the local library, on the grounds that this is, "one of the places where education is offered to the child". Some parents do this already, so the bill will not make any changes. The very fact that they have included the words, "at least one of the places" suggests that this is going to be fine.

Myth 2 Our children will be interviewed alone

The bill says;

Arrangements made under subsection (3) may, unless the child or a
parent of the child objects, provide for a meeting with the child at
which no parent of the child or other person providing education to
the child is present

In other words, this will only happen if both you and your child are happy for it to happen.

Myth 3 The bill will not become law

When this bill was introduced in the Queen's speech in November, the government knew perfectly well that an election would have to be called by June this year. They took that into account when announcing their programme. The Children, Schools and Families Bill has raced through the Commons with no changes at all to the bits on home education. It will probably clear the Lords in the same way. If it does not do so, then there may be a bit of haggling during the so called "Wash up". Some of the bills introduced in the Queen's speech would then need to be dropped. It is unlikely that the government will want to ditch a bill about improving schools . More likely is that they will abandon some of the less important stuff such as the Cluster Munitions Prohibition Bill or the Digital Economy Bill. The Conservatives are far more anxious to prevent the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill from getting onto the Statute Book, especially now that it includes a provision for the a referendum on AV. At a pinch, the government could force the thing through anyway in one day.

Something which I find a little odd is that home educators do not seem at all interested in any other aspect of this bill. They are very keen to sabotage it if possible and I get the impression that hardly anybody is bothered whether or not the proposals contained in it will actually be good for children. I am thinking of the reform of the primary curriculum following Jim Rose's review, the new pupil parent guarantees, the reform of schools, annual parent satisfaction surveys, wider reporting of proceedings in family courts and so on. One gets the impression that some home educators think that this bill is all about home education, but this is of course nonsense; that takes up a tiny part. Yet these other measure are at least as important for most parents, even home educating parents. I say that because very few children never attend school at all. It is quite possible that if the education system changed a little, fewer parents would feel the need to deregister their kids. From that point of view, the CSF bill is of interest to all parents.

Checking up on home educators

Responsibility in this country for seeing that a child is educated rests firmly with the parents. About that, there is no argument on either side of the home education debate; parents have a duty to cause their children to be educated. The next question to ask is how do parents come to have this duty, where does it come from? The answer to this question will shed light upon the vexed question of monitoring visits.

For myself, the answer is quite simple and straightforward. I believe this duty comes from God and is part of his instructions to humanity, along with the prohibition on adultery, admonition to love my neighbour and various other commandments. However, it's often a little tricky to claim that one is doing something just because the Lord says so. After all, the Lord apparently told Peter Sutcliffe to hack up prostitutes with a screwdriver, so we need to be a bit cautious about using divine commands alone as a justification for our actions! Fortunately, in this case we don't need to. We also have the Education Act 1996 to fall back on. This too says that parents have a duty to cause their children to receive an education.

Most irreligious people are, even if they are unaware of the fact, legal positivists. Let's face it, if duties and rights don't come from God, then they must come from men and women. In the case of our society, these duties and rights are codified and then formed into laws. In other words, the duty to see that our children are educated has been bestowed upon us by law. We have many other duties and responsibilities like this, duties that parliament has given us. Paying a certain proportion of our income to the government is one such duty. Keeping your gun locked up securely in a steel cabinet if you have a firearms certificate is another. Now just because these duties have been laid upon us by parliament, does not necessarily mean that everybody will abide by them all the time. Take tax, for instance. You might think that it would be enough for the law to say that we have to pay part of our earnings and that would be the end of it. Why can't the government just trust us to do it? Why do they have to check up on us? The answer is fairly obvious. Even though we have been given a duty by law, some people will try and evade it. That is why we have tax inspectors and why the Inland Revenue have a huge range of powers to enter our homes and look at our documents.

If I wish to keep a shotgun in my house, then I must by law obtain a firearms certificate. This is my duty. I must also keep it locked up safely when I'm not actually using it. The police make regular visits to the homes of those holding firearms certificates in order to check that their arrangements are in keeping with the law. If you refuse to let them in the house, that's fine; you just lose your firearms certificate. Why can't they just take shooters' word for it? They have a duty, surely the police should just assume that people are observing this duty? It's outrageous, they won't take anybody's word for it, but insist on checking their homes regularly!

It is, when you think about it, quite sensible. Parliament thrusts these duties upon us whether we want them or not. Clearly, some of us will try to wriggle out of our duties if the state isn't watching. And so the next logical step is that if parliament lays a duty or responsibilty upon us, they will also want to check that we are actually undertaking this duty and not shirking it because we think we can get away with it. Makes sense really. So when we have a duty to pay tax, the government appoint people to check that we are doing so. Otherwise some people might be tempted not to pay the full amount. Similarly, the law lays a duty on those holding firearms certificates to keep their weapons securely locked up. To make sure that some fool isn't leaving a loaded twelve bore leaning against the wall in the living room, the government gets the police to pop round from time to time to make sure that this particular duty is being adhered to. And of course in precisely the same way, when we are given a duty by parliament to see that our children are being educated, the government assumes that some people will avoid this duty. They want to get somebody to visit every so often to see whether citizens are also undertaking this duty.

The duties which we have are, if not from God, then simply the free creation of human minds. The implications of this idea are profound and I have sketched some of them above. The conclusion is inescapable, if the duty has been devised by men and women and imposed upon us, then it is perfectly reasonable for those same men and women to check that we are fulfilling this duty. Causing our children to receive a suitable education is just one of many duties which we have under law. As with many other of those duties, the government likes to check up from time to time that we are actually doing it and following the law.

Monday, 22 February 2010

"This autonomous thing works"

Last week I suggested that there was a need for a new Internet list for home educators, one where parents could get accurate and objective advice from professionals as well as other parents. I said that some of the current lists tend to perpetuate myths, half truths and old wives tales. The title of this post is a thread on the HE-UK list which perfectly illustrates this point.

A mother started this thread, saying that she did not teach her child to write and that he has spontaneously begun to do so. This is heartening. It is indisputable that some children will learn to read and write without instruction, although I doubt it is particularly common. At any rate, this was one such child. The theory behind this type of education was neatly expressed by Paul Goodman in his book Compulsory Miseducation , published in 1962. He said;

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

The suspicion must be that this is a pretty hit and miss affair and that many children learn to read and write despite this treatment, rather than because of it. Be that as it may, after the mother had posted her success story, another parent posted sadly, explaining that her son was now thirteen and could only write one word - his own name. I found this shocking, that a child's education could have been so neglected that he was wholly unable to write as a teenager, but not so some others on the list. Here is one response;

"I know of children far older than 13 who don't write, but it hasn't stopped them being successful. Why are you worried about him not writing? "

This leaves me almost breathless with horror. Just to remind ourselves again, this child cannot even form the letters of the alphabet. He can write his own name slowly in capital letters and that is the limit of his writing ability. It is true that many children leave school with poor literacy skills, but I would be surprised to hear of a thirteen year old in a mainstream school who could only write one word. Here is another comment from a helpful mother;

"My son is also 13 and only learnt to read when 10/11. His dad is trying to get him to write but I am convinced that he will do so when it is important to him. He finds it difficult as he has dyslexia and can't spell so has to think very hard to write anything."

This is awful. The child's dyslexia may of course be unconnected with the fact that he did not learn to read until he was ten or eleven and is still unable to write. On the other hand an inability to spell might very well have been caused by, or at the very least exacerbated by this bizarre educational method. It is writing words down and thinking of the correct order of letters which helps young children to spell. They need a lot of practice at this from an early age and if they don't get it, they are apt to be poor spellers as they get older. Even using a keyboard does not help sometimes, especially if they have no idea at all how to spell the words they wish to type. I have seen children like this. The spellchecker hasn't got a clue what they are trying to type and the result is complete gibberish.

Being unable to write is a devastating handicap in later life. Why any parent would set out to inflict this upon a child is a complete and utter mystery to me. One of my uncles was a Gypsy who was unable even to write his own name; he had to sign for his wages with a cross. He had never been to school and his family were also illiterate and so had not taught him to read. Funny really, you'd think that the whole bunch of them would just have picked it up automatically from the printed text which surrounds us, but it didn't happen. I cannot tell readers what menial jobs this restricted him to.

It is quite possible that some children will learn to read and write if given no formal instruction. It is equally certain that many will not. What ails these parents that they would deliberately play Russian Roulette with their children's future prospects in this fashion, I really could not say. And still, some people are puzzled that the DCSF and local authorities wish to check that children are actually learning to read and write.......

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Home education - pedagogic technique or alternative lifestyle?

Those who have not themselves been home educators, which includes I suppose about 99.99% of the population, do not generally realise how the effects of home education tend to pervade every aspect of one's life. Those used to the "School run", who take for granted the shouting at the children in the morning, the hurried breakfast and the mad rush to get to the school on time, do not know how relaxed the morning of the average home educating parent is by comparison. On the downside, neither can they fully appreciate the loneliness and isolation felt by many home educators. Not for them the regular gossip at the school gates, the social circle formed of the parents of the child's classmates and so on.

The very expression "Home education" can be a little misleading. It suggests that this is essentially just a different way of educating a child. It is not. The decision to home educate has a profound and all pervasive effect on every part of a family's life. It is an interesting and debateable point whether or not this lifestyle is simply a by-product of home education, or whether home education is a by-product of the desire for this alternative lifestyle! Research in this country suggests strongly that the desire for better family relationships and being able to choose the pace of life are among the things that parents value most about home education. I have, apropos of family relationships, noticed that home educating parents seem to get on better with their children. A lot of the parents of school children whom I know seem to be in a state of semi-permanent conflict with their kids. The atmosphere in home educating homes is certainly more restful and loving. I realise that this is merely anecdotal evidence, but I know others have observed the same thing. Perhaps it is due to the fact that home educating parents like their children and want to spend time with them. They are not desperately anxious to pack them off to nursery as soon as they can walk, nor do they view the Summer with dread, bring with it as it does the prospect of spending weeks in the company of their children.

There also seems to be something mildly addictive about the whole home education thing, something which makes parents reluctant to drop the whole thing, even when they are no longer officially home educators. This thought was precipitated by my constantly seeing Fiona Nicholson's name still cropping up all over the place in connection with home education. Like me, Fiona ceased to be a bona fide home educator on Friday, June 26th 2009. And yet, again like me, she seems quite unable to tear herself away from the world of home education. Readers at this point are probably snorting with derision and remarking to themselves that this is a bit rich coming from me. After all, months after I stopped being a home educator myself I am still appearing before select committees and shooting my mouth off on television! Where do I get off drawing attention to Fiona Nicholson's inability to break loose of the whole home education thing?

Fiona and I are of course not the only ones who find it hard to move on. I shall not name any more names, but a few of the people one sees on the lists are of parents whose children have either returned to school or have turned sixteen some while since. Why should this be? After all, those whose children have left secondary school do not hang round the school gates like restless ghosts. That stage of their children's lives has ended and they forget about it. This makes me think that home education means more to most of us than just education.

Clearly, my own methods of home education are not those of a large section of the home educating community. They have more in common with Mr. Gradgrind's utilitarian philosophy as expressed in Hard Times. All the same, I cannot just forget about home education and treat it as of no more significance than as though my daughter had been at some school. Quite clearly, the whole thing meant something to me, something more than mere education. I am pretty sure that a lot of other parents feel the same about this enterprise. Whatever methods of education they used, whether fanatically structured or completely autonomous, the whole lifestyle which went along with the education must surely have been at least as important to parents as the learning itself?

Saturday, 20 February 2010

But is it good for the Jews?

Members of minority groups often become very restricted in their view of the world. Every item of news and any event is of interest only in as far as it impacts upon the group itself. Hence the title of this piece. There is a story of an old American Jew whose little grandson was telling him excitedly about the achievements of Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player. The old guy listened carefully to an account of Babe Ruth's prowess on the pitch and finally asked, "This Babe Ruth, is he good for the Jews?" Home educators seem a bit like this sometimes.

I remember when the 1981 Education Act was passed. It was regarded by everybody, parents and professionals alike, as a huge step forward in the way children with difficulties were viewed and treated. A definite improvement on the situation before that time. Yet when the DCSF wrote to local authorities recently, reminding local authorities of their duties under this act, the only question asked by some people was, "Is it good for home educators?" The idea being that the attempt to ensure that children with special educational needs received the provision to which they were entitled should be abandoned if it was likely to queer the pitch for home educators! It is almost as though they believe that the sole, immediate and direct object in passing the 1981 Education Act was to make their lives difficult thirty years later!

I have noticed this tendency before, to treat every Act of Parliament with suspicion and contempt if it infringes, however slightly, upon the interests of home educating parents. This does have the unfortunate effect of making home educators seem a little parochial. Wider issues apparently pass them by. If a nursery worker or Ofsted inspector is caught with child pornography, then the immediate reaction of many home educators is to cry, "There you are, see how those school children are not safe! No wonder we won't let people like that near our children!" In other words, a dreadful situation which has the most ghastly implications for an unknown number of children becomes a mere debating point and weapon in the hands of some home educators.

Another skewed perspective which I have observed time and again is as follows. I have an optimistic and upbeat view of humanity in general. Almost all the people in the world are basically good and usually try to do the right thing. Of course, a lot of the time our actions cause harm and distress to others, but few of us set out with that in mind. This applies to our legislature as well. Generally they pass laws which seem at the time to be for the common good. Of course a lot of these laws are badly thought out and cause trouble for people, but this was not the original intention. It is just that this is an imperfect world inhabited by weak and fallible people.

If one listened to some home educators though, one would come to believe that the motivations behind the actions of MPs and local authority officers were actually sinister and ill intentioned to begin with. The feeling is that home educators are in some way the victims of a conspiracy. For my own part, I believe and so I think do most ordinary people, that laws about schools and education are passed with the intention of improving the lot of children and young people. They don't always succeed, not by a long chalk, but they are well meant. I have an idea that if many home educators could only shed themselves of this mindset of home education as being the target of hostility, then they would be better able to view current developments with a little more clear-sighted detachment

Friday, 19 February 2010

The DCSF letter about home educated children with special needs

The irritation with the DCSF about the letter which they sent to local authorities is still rumbling on. The main concern seems to be, as far as I can make out, that they state plainly that if a child with a statement is not seen once a year at the annual review, then a School Attendance Order should be issued. This is what they say in Paragraph 12 of the letter;

"If local authorities are denied access to the child and are unable to see the provision that is being made they cannot fulfil their duty of ensuring that the provision is suitable for the child and meets his or her SEN and should issue a school attendance order."

It is suspected that by offering this advice, the DCSF are in a sense jumping the gun a bit on the new law and setting a dangerous precedent as far as those parents whose children do not have statements are concerned. In other words, today they are advising this about kids with special needs, tomorrow they'll be saying that any child not seen once a year should be the subject of a School Attendance Order. This is nonsense.

The statement of special educational needs is a legal document which sets out a child's requirements. It names a school and also details such things as, for example, speech and language therapy. Every year, the statement must be reviewed. This is a statutory duty which the local authority has. Now if the statement names a particular school and a range of provision which a child requires, then it is the responsibility of the local authority to see that the child has these things. If the child is removed from school, then the local authority has a duty to see that the child is still getting those things as long as the statement remains in force; that is to say that the child is in receipt of as good an education and the same range of services as would have been the case if he was still at school. They are still in that sense responsible for the child. If the family won't let anybody see the child or visit the educational setting, then obviously the local authority will not be able to decide that the provision in the statement is being made for the child. In such a case, they must assume that they remain responsible for providing the education and services set out in the statement. The correct course of action is for them to return the child to the school named in Part 4. This has always been the case; it is not some sinister new plot by the DCSF! It certainly has nothing to do with the new Children, Schools and Families Bill.

This is the case legally and one can also see why the local authority would issue an SAO in those circumstances. They have a duty to see that this child is getting those services and if he isn't, then they are legally at fault. If for no other reason than covering their own backs, it would make sense for them to be a sure of this. I also think that there is a case to be made ethically for them to see the child in the educational setting and assure themselves that the education and services being received by the child is as set out in the statement. Failing to do this would mean an abdication by the local authorities of their responsibilities, both statutory and moral. I am certainly aware myself of cases where the local authority has not seen a child with a statement during the annual review and neither have they issued an SAO as a result. The DCSF are simply reminding them of their existing duty and telling them what they should do under these circumstances.

All this has absolutely nothing at all to do with possible annual visits to the educational setting of home educated children without special educational needs, as suggested in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. The only similarity between the two cases is that both the annual review of the statement and the proposed monitoring visits in the new law are both taking place once a year.

It is beginning to look as though some home educating parents of children without special educational needs have seized upon this letter as some sort of bargaining chip or weapon to use against the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Specifically they seem to be seeing it as a way to help prevent the introduction of the new act. This is unfortunate. Children with special needs can be horribly vulnerable, far more so than most children of comparable age. It is debateable whether or not local authorities should have the right to see regularly all home educated children. The general duty for parents to provide children with a suitable, full-time education is so vague that it would be hard for most parents to be proved not to be doing so. With children who have a statement, the case is far more detailed and specific. Rather than the wooly definition set out in cases such as Bevan v Sheers, there are explicit instructions about where a child with a statement should be educated and what extra provision should be made for her. Since the duty for providing these things devolves legally upon the local authority, it is not at all unreasonable that they should seek to establish that the terms of the statement are actually being adhered to.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

An historical excursion

Reading what Julie has to say about her tuition group in Hampshire and also what Mrs Anon said about the idea of the home educating community rallying round and providing something like bursaries, has put me in mind of the situation forty years or so ago, before home education became a widely accepted option. In particular, I was remembering the so-called "Free Schools", with one of which I had some dealings in the early seventies. I am wondering whether something of the sort might not suit some home educating parents today.

Around 1970, home education by individual parents was not really seen as a viable alternative to sending your child to the local school. Some parents who wanted a different style of education for their children got together in various places and set up very small groups, often no more than half a dozen children, and then secured premises. These were often crumbling ruins, buildings which were all but derelict. They would then announce that they were a school and take their children from the state schools and set up taking responsibility for their education. One family even registered a bedroom in their house as a school! Of course, it was a bit of a game, because these were not really schools in any real meaning of the word. In effect, it was home education of the autonomous type. The whole point was that the children should have the freedom to choose for themselves what they learned and when. One of these "schools", the New School in West London, defined its educational aims thus;

"To allow the child to make a free choice in its acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills, in an environment which stimulates imagination, awareness and expression. This implies confidence on the part of teachers and parents in the child's innate drive towards discovery, self-improvement, resourcefulness and fulfilment. It also implies considerable freedom for the child to explore its own capabilities and needs"

This could almost have been written by a modern day autonomous home educator! The LEAs were not at all happy about these places, as they guessed quite correctly that very little teaching went on in them. Never the less, they did seem to fill a gap. Teenagers who had been truanting from state schools started attending, as did a few who had actually been expelled from other schools. The whole point of the Free Schools was that the kids could choose when they came and what they did when they came. Famous Free Schools were White Lion Street Free School in Islington, Freightliners and Parkfield Street Free School in Manchester.

There was a lot of trouble to begin with, with parents being routinely threatened with School Attendance Orders and so on. The turnover of children was very high and there were quite a few unruly kids at some of these places. Never the less, some lasted for a few years. White Lion Street eventually became funded by ILEA and did not close down until the mid eighties. It was groups like this that helped pave the way for the home education movement and the establishment of Education Otherwise in the mid seventies.

I was thinking that this sort of enterprise might be worth trying again. Nobody in the Free Schools had a definite role. One day somebody would be cleaning and the next day running a workshop on painting. As I expect people know, a group of parents in Essex got money from the local authority in order to set themselves up as a school. Perhaps other groups of parents might be able to try a similar move? Those able to teach or instruct the children could do that and those who felt more comfortable doing other stuff could also help. I am aware of some informal arrangements of this sort, but I would be curious to know if any home educators have actually thought about registering themselves as a school? Of course the regulations and paperwork now is a lot more complicated than it was forty years ago. Some of the Free Schools became recognised officially in very unsuitable premises and the whole process only took a couple of months.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Funding for home educators

The recent letter which the DCSF sent to local authorities regarding home educated children with special needs, contained a tantalising hint as to what home educating parents might be able to expect in the way of funding, at least once the new legislation comes into force. Before we look at this, it might be as well to run over the financial situation for local authorities and their schools.

Some home educators get quite irritable with their local authority when told there is no money available for home educated children. They have the idea that their council is sitting on a big bag of money which they are wilfully refusing to share with home educating parents! It's not like that at all really. Running schools is very expensive and the money collected in Council Tax wouldn't cover it. Instead, the government in Westminster sends local authorities a big sum of money each year to pay for their schools. This is called the Direct Schools Grant or DSG for short. It is calculated by counting all the children who are registered at the maintained schools in the local authority area and then multiplying this number by the Age Weighted Pupil Units, known by the hideous acronym of AWPUs. This figure ranges from £2152 a year for children in Year 1 to £3530 for those in Year 11. So a secondary school containing six hundred children might receive about £2,000,000. This money, the DSG, is only provided for children who are registered pupils.

Those of us who have decided to teach our own children, opt out of this system completely. We have to pay for everything, from pencils to sitting GCSEs. Personally, this strikes me as perfectly reasonable, although I know that some would disagree. In the letter to local authorities, the DCSF says, apropos of home educated children;

"We would count each such pupil as 0.1 for DSG funding purposes, and review towards the end of the next spending review period whether this is an appropriate level. We plan to make this change for the 2011-12 DSG period."

Now the interpretation which I put upon this is that the DSG will be increased in 2011/2012 by a tenth of the relevant AWPU for each home educated pupil registered with the local authority. The bulk of the DSG goes of course towards salaries and running costs of schools, so we can't really expect the government to give the full AWPU for each home educated pupil. The big question is, what will happen to this money when the local authorities get it? How much of it will filter down to families for the things they need? The short answer is probably not a lot. To see why, I shall look at Essex, my own local authority.

There are roughly six hundred home educated children known to the local authority in Essex. It is possible that there are as many as this again who are unknown. To monitor those children of whom it is aware, Essex employs three workers and one part-time office administrator. The three members of staff who visit homes are all experienced teachers. Their aim is to visit each family once a year for an hour or so, but they don't manage it all the time. Let's give them, say, £35,000 per annum each. Let's give the administrator £12,000 per annum. Lets us also allow each inspector around £5,000 a year for travel costs. We have a budget here of a little under £135,000 each year. This is very modest for a whole department; no wonder elective home education is often seen as the Cinderella of education departments!

Now let's introduce a law which makes visible the other six hundred or so children who are being educated at home and let's tell the inspectors that they have to see those children as well. In fact they must visit every child at least once a year. It won't work of course; they will have to engage some new staff. Hang on a minute though! If we are being given 0.1 of the AWPU for all those kids, that comes to twelve hundred times £300. An extra £360,000 a year. Hell, money's no object now! We can engage new staff, move to bigger premises. For the first time ever, the Elective Home Education Unit is now properly resourced.

I am guessing, and I might be quite wrong, that most of the money will end up being swallowed by new salaries and so on in this way. It's human nature really. The GCSEs that have been promised will not cost much. Although when arranged privately they cost around £150 a throw, schools only pay £30 or so. Access to laboratories and sports fields will not cost the local authority much either. What else would they do with the extra money, but spend it on hiring new staff?

All that I have written above is very speculative and based only upon the evidence available to everybody. If anybody has any firmer information, I should be interested and it is entirely possible that I have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The new funding might, for instance, be ring-fenced and to be spent solely on home educating families. This is to forestall any comments to the effect that I don't know what I'm talking about! In this case, it may be true.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The DCSF writes to local authorities.....

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has written to local authorities updating them on the situation regarding home educated children with special educational needs. This is being done in light of the Badman Review and the proposed new legislation. Most of us would see this as a fairly good idea; keeping the LAs posted and reminding them of the new duties which will possibly devolve upon them with the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009. Most of us, but not a number of home educators. The response of one mother posting on a list sums up their reaction, "OMG, how dare they!" Another cries, "Completely outrageous!"

So what do the DCSF actually say which provokes such anger? Well, to begin with they want to make sure that children withdrawn from school do not lose the specialist services which they are getting, just because they are going to be taught at home;

"In some cases it may be that parents on their own would not be able to make suitable
provision for their children but could do so with some support from the local authority. Under
section 319 of the Education Act 1996 local authorities have the power, after consulting the child’s
parent, to make special education provision otherwise than at school, including in the child’s home
The Government expects local authorities to consider whether such provision could help home
educating parents to make suitable provision when decisions are being taken concerning the
suitability of home provision for children with SEN. Where local authorities make such provision for
a home educated child with an SEN statement then the provision can be recorded on the statement
(SEN Code of Practice, paragraph 8.96)."

This is, I think, a timely reminder. Many parents have found that services have a habit of stopping once they deregister their child and it is good that the DCSF is aware of this. There is also talk of funding children to take GCSEs if they wish and also having access to some school facilities;

"We are also planning to allow local authorities to access DSG funding where they do not
provide significant financial support but permit young people to access some school services and
fund them to take their GCSEs if they opt to enter as private candidates. We would count each such
pupil as 0.1 for DSG funding purposes, and review towards the end of the next spending review
period whether this is an appropriate level. We plan to make this change for the 2011-12 DSG

Apart from that, the DCSF remind the local authorities that if the child has a statement then there must be an annual review. If it is impossible to establish that the child's needs are properly provided for in the course of the review, then a School Attendance Order should be issued.

We must of course bear in mind that some children with special educational needs are among the most vulnerable of individuals. Some suffer from global developmental delay, for example and are pretty well helpless; unable to speak, understand much, take care of themselves in even the most rudimentary fashion or express any needs or wishes at all. I really cannot see that when such a child has a statement, that it would be unreasonable when reviewing it for the child herself to be seen and her situation assessed. Some parents, despite the fact that they love and cherish their child, are actually not capable of looking after them and providing for their education single-handed.

So bland and anodyne is this document, that it is hard to see why anybody should take exception to it. As far as I can see, the main objection seems to be that the DCSF are preparing in advance for the implementation of a new law, rather than leaving it until the last moment. This would be a bad thing, because?

One is inescapably driven to the conclusion that the people who are kicking up a fuss about this letter are doing so purely and simply because it is something which looks new. In fact all the duties to which the DCSF draw the attention of local authorities are existing duties. They are alerting them to things which may change in the next few months. It is very depressing to think that some people are so opposed to change that they would start shouting about something like this as a matter of principle. It seems that anything which comes from the DCSF or mentions new legislation automatically causes fury and opposition from a certain section of the home educating community! Even more intriguing is the fact that none of the vociferous people on the lists who are complaining about this letter, actually seem to have children with special educational needs! There is a frantic effort to find anybody who actually knows about the law on special needs, just so that complaints may be made that the DCSF is overstepping the mark.

I have said before and I will say again, that this attitude, that of opposing everything suggested as a matter of principle, is likely to backfire badly. If home educators continue to refuse to deal with them, the DCSF will simply find other partners. I cannot see how this would be of any benefit at all to home educating parents. Even the new piece of research being suggested is likely to be boycotted by some parents. The effect of all this will be that the DCSF may decide that there is little point in even attempting to ascertain the views and opinions of home educators.

Monday, 15 February 2010

The DCSF feasibility study

As expected, opposition among home educators is stiffening towards the proposed feasibility study for which the Department for Children, Schools and Families has invited expressions of interest. Let's see exactly what the DCSF are trying to do and why. In the Impact Assessment connected with the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009, it was suggested that it would be a good thing if more home educated children were to gain five GCSEs at grades A*-C. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether that would really be a good thing, let us see first why no effort has yet been made to establish a baseline. In other words, why don't the DCSF know to begin with how many home educated children are passing these examinations? Can't they find out without setting up some research project?

The problem with gathering the data on even such a simple thing as the number of GCSEs is as follows. To begin with of course, nobody has any real idea how many children are being home educated in this country. The York Consulting study carried out in 2006 concluded that it was impossible to find out, so the first job of the new study is to see if anything has changed, whether it will now be possible to count the number of home educated children accurately. I think most people would agree that there is nothing wrong in that. Now we come to the matter of GCSEs taken by home educated children.

Children currently leave compulsory education on the last Friday in June of the academic year in which they turn sixteen. After that day, no parent need have anything more to do with their local authority's education department, unless they choose to do so. Unfortunately, the GCSE results don't come through until a couple of months later, in August. Since almost all these are taken as private candidates, the results will not reach the local authority unless the parents go to the trouble of telling them. I certainly did not bother notifying Essex County Council about my daughter's IGCSE results; why would I? I dare say most parents feel the same and so local authorities simply don't find out about GCSEs passed by such children. Two things will be changing in this respect pretty soon.

The first thing to change is that the school leaving age is going up to eighteen. This will mean that local authorities will be in contact with home educating families for a year or two after the children are sixteen and should therefore get to hear about their GCSE results. The other thing likely to happen is that when the Children, Schools and Families Bill comes into force in April 2011, local authorities will probably start arranging for home educated children to sit GCSEs if they want to. This will probably mean a dramatic drop in the number of GCSEs which are sat as private candidates. These two events will mean that it will be a lot easier to find out how many children not at school are passing GCSEs. Of course many of them will still sit International GCSEs, and local authorities won't learn about these as a matter of course, but they will certainly be better informed than is now the case about educational attainment.

I would assume that these data will be collected without reference to parents, otherwise, the whole thing would become a nonsense. If the local authority are actively involved with all home educating families until the children are eighteen and if they mainly sit GCSEs via the maintained schools, then it will be easy enough to count how many home educated children are achieving that Holy grail of modern education; five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and Mathematics.

Personally, I would be curious to know about this. At the very least, I cannot see how it would cause any harm for people to know what the rough proportion is. For those in maintained schools it is about half the pupils. Will it be more or fewer for those taught at home? Instinctively, I feel that it will be many fewer, but I would be happy to be proved wrong.

The one thing which really puzzles me is why some parents are already getting worked up about this. Why would anybody object to having solid data about the educational attainment of home educated children? I quite see that many parents feel that those five GCSEs are irrelevant and that is fine; they are entitled to their opinions. I simply don't understand why they would be opposed to the information being made available for those who are interested. After all, home educating parents are happy enough to make disparaging remarks about the quality of education offered by state schools. And so indeed are those connected with the educational system not averse to hinting that home educated children receive an inferior education to those at school. Surely having the data about GCSEs, college, sixth form and university admissions would enable the discussion on the rival merits of these very different educational methods to move to a more measured and rational level?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

More about educational attainment

I have mentioned that self selection has been a bit of a devil, both here and in the USA, when it comes to looking at the academic achievement of children educated at home. In recent years, a new way of looking at the situation has emerged, one which is objective and enables us to check the attainment of home educated children against those who have been taught at school. Best of all, it does not depend upon self selection, at least not directly. The only problem is that this information is restricted to America.

Americans wishing to gain admission to colleges and universities sit either the SAT or ACT test. In the last few years, students taking these two tests have been specifically asked whether or not they have been home educated. The results of these tests have, as with other tests, shown home educated students to be ahead of those who attended school, but with a far narrower margin than has previously been claimed by some researchers. On the ACT college entrance test, for instance, it is possible to score from one to thirty six. Schooled students average about twenty one, while those who have been home educated come in at just under twenty three. The individual components however are revealing. In reading, the home educated are greatly ahead of average, they are roughly level in science and slightly behind in mathematics.

The slightly higher score for home educated teenagers is almost entirely due to their having a richer vocabulary and being more fluent readers. When other academic areas are looked at, they are either dead level or a little behind their schooled peers. These data from colleges throw up another statistic which may perhaps be significant. The proportion of home educated students actually taking the SAT and ACT tests for college entrance is lower than expected, given the numbers of home educated children in the Unites States. In other words, it looks as though home educated children are less likely than those who have attended school to apply for a place at college or university. This might mean that overall, children educated at home tend to be academically behind schooled children and that those who apply for college are a minority. It might equally well mean of course that they are starting businesses, writing or working at more creative and satisfying jobs and see no need to go to college or university. We can only guess about that.

Home education organisations in America are not happy with the assertion that home educated children are less likely to apply for college and seek to explain it by suggesting that some home educated children seek to conceal the fact when they apply to college. It is said that they might do this because they are afraid of prejudice. This is possible but unlikely. Some universities actually give preference now to such students. Of course, the tests taken by those wishing to go to college or university are also in a sense self selected; only those who feel that they wish to study at college take them. There are some difficulties with accepting these data at face value. We have no idea how long those who said they were home educated were actually taught at home. It could have been a year or it might have been from birth; we simply don't know. It is not hard to see how this could distort the figures.

The statistics from the SATS and ACT tests are interesting. They seem to show that home educated children who wish to apply for higher education are at least as accomplished generally as the children who have been in school. To that extent, it is an endorsement of home education, albeit not a dramatic one. More work is needed though to find out why home educated children are apparently less likely to apply for college or university in the first place. I have a suspicion that something of this sort is likely to be happening in this country before too long. The DCSF feasibility study, which I have mentioned before, looks to me as though it could lead to the gathering of this sort of information here, which would be very interesting.

Home education lists on the Internet

Regular readers will probably be aware that six months ago I was thrown off all the home education lists of which I was a member. Perhaps there was some justification for this, although I obviously have a different and rather biased view of the matter! I still keep in touch with the lists though and I feel that it is time to say something about them.

I quite understand that these lists are in a sense a safe place for home educating parents; a place where they can express their fears and anxieties free of meddlesome and judgemental professionals. This is fair enough. The problem arises when parents join the lists who genuinely want objective information. Since these places are really just for parents and often ban professionals who are not actually home educating, this means inevitably that myths, old wives' tales, half-truths and downright lies proliferate. Perhaps this is inevitable. Another feature of the lists is that members soon learn that to ask too many questions or express scepticism about any aspect of home education is to invite at best derision and at worst anger. Anybody who says that she is thinking about deregistering her child is told that this is the best possible course of action and that she must go ahead and do it, regardless of the reservations felt by her family and friend.

Now of course, deregistering a bullied child may be the best course of action a parent can take. On the other hand, it may be a dreadful mistake, the consequences of which will exacerbate an already bad situation for a family. Without knowing all the details, it is quite impossible to say. Some bullied children are better out of school, others are not. Those offering advice though, always seem perfectly sure of themselves.

I have been thinking that it is a pity that a list could not be set up by the DCSF, for example, where parents who were home educating or who were considering this as an option could go. In addition to parents, various professionals would also spend a certain amount of time there, answering questions and offering advice. I would think that psychologists, speech therapists, teachers, social workers and local authority officers would all be good people to have on such a list. Then, when a parent asked about the idea of home education, apart from parents there would be people who could provide a few facts and perhaps point out the other side of any argument in favour of home education. For example, I frequently see people on the lists who say things which are hopelessly wrong and misinformed, and as things stand, nobody seems to correct them. Indeed, hopelessly wrong is putting the case mildly; some of them seem certifiably mad!

Many anxious and vulnerable parents join lists such HE-UK and EO because they really do not know what to do next. Invariably, they are encouraged to go ahead and take their kids out of school. I can't remember the last time anybody on either of those lists was advised to stop and think very carefully before taking such a serious step. (I did so once on the EO list and the moderator would not let my post through!)

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Changing the paradigm

The folk wisdom in this country, both among professionals in the field of education and also ordinary people, is that education is something which may only take place effectively in purpose built establishments staffed by professional educators. As a home educator myself, I know this to be quite false. When challenging the accepted and almost universally held view on some topic, the onus is very definitely upon those determined to overturn the existing paradigm to show why it should be abandoned. This can only be done by producing convincing evidence.

I think it fair to say that the evidence for the academic efficacy of British home education is not taken seriously by many professionals. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, existing studies of educational attainment among home educated children have been of very small samples, typically no more than twenty or thirty families. Secondly, the existing research is all horribly biased and skewed by self selection. Both with Paula Rothermel's research in 1997/1998 and also with Education Otherwise's survey in 2003, which involved sending out two and a half thousand questionnaires, around 80% of parents refused to have anything at all to do with the business. The one in five who did respond tended to be weird and atypical individuals like the present writer! The third reason that nobody takes the existing research seriously is because none of it has been objective.

In order to gain access to home educating families, it is first necessary to demonstrate that one is not at all hostile, or even sceptical, towards the whole idea of home education. Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas both, in effect, made friends with the home educators whom they studied. As soon as this happens, as soon as the researchers are sharing meals with those whom they are studying, or helping in the kitchen, playing with the children and so on; objectivity goes out of the window. In 1990, Julie Webb published an excellent book on the subject of home education called Children Learning at Home. In order to write this, she became incredibly close to a number of home educating families. When a person looking into a particular lifestyle becomes in effect one of the family, then any pretence at scholarly detachment is lost. Most professionals will treat the resulting work with either suspicion or at best condescension.

Last Autumn, Ofsted attempted to gather data in fifteen local authority areas. This project was not a notable success. It was perhaps unfortunate that such an exercise was conducted only a few months after the end of the Badman review of elective home education. The level of cooperation was not high. Now the DCSF has announced that they too wish to carry out a long term project, this time one which will track a cohort of home educated children and see what their educational experience and attainments amount to over the course of some years. I am expecting this to become hugely controversial and for home educating parents to boycott the whole thing.

It is about time that some information was gathered about the long term consequences of elective home education in this country. For my own part, I am convinced that home education is at least as effective as that provided in maintained schools and I would be delighted to see confirmation of this. We must hope that many parents agree to take part in this new DCSF sponsored exercise. If a large enough number of participants are enlisted and they are not given overmuch choice in the matter, then the bugbear of small samples, self selection, bias and personal prejudice, which as I mentioned above has bedevilled previous research, could be disposed of entirely. I think also that we can expect anybody engaged by the DCSF to undertake such a task to be fairly professional and impartial. They are unlikely to fall into the trap of climbing into bed, metaphorically speaking, with the home educators! Until such work is carried out, we cannot expect to see the received wisdom regarding education in this country change significantly. The result will be that home education will continue to be viewed with disfavour and that school based education will carry on being the model to which we should all aspire.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Watching a Greek tragedy

Many years ago and a long way from England, I once watched a man for whom I had no particular liking walk unwittingly towards a minefield. Those who think that I am a pretty unpleasant sort of fellow these days, should have known me in those days! I very nearly didn't warn the man and honestly considered telling myself that it was no affair of mine if he were to blow himself to bits! What causes me to tell this story? Early onset Alzheimer's perhaps, which would also account neatly for all my crazy ideas about home education?

I am irresistibly reminded of the chap who unknowingly lurched towards almost certain destruction, by the way things are currently moving in the world of British home education. Watching home educators in this country today as they deal, or fail to deal with unfolding events fills me with a sense of deja vu . I really should warn them!

A year ago, as everybody knows, the DCSF set up an enquiry run by Graham Badman which looked into elective home education in this country. The almost universal response from home educators, both individuals and organisations, was to tell him to get lost. If one summed up in demotic English what the general attitude towards Graham Badman and his enquiry was, it could be put thus, "Piss off, you freak and leave us alone! We're happy as we are and don't want any change." This was of course a tactical error. Badman's enquiry was what we call in legal terms an "Invitation to treat". In other words, he put forward some ideas and then others put forward slightly different ideas. A dialectical process would then take place and from the thesis and antithesis would emerge a synthesis which might perhaps be satisfactory to both sides. This did not happen. Unable to tell which way the wind was blowing, home educators simply rejected all idea of change and thought that if they stood firm the thing would blow over, as had the York Consulting exercise a couple of years earlier.

Because nobody would put forward any practical suggestions for change, and since change was coming, Badman's ideas alone went forward to the DCSF and were immediately adopted. Graham Badman is no lawyer and so some of his ideas, such as local authorities having a right of access to homes, were unrealistic; they were quietly dropped, but everything else which he suggested was accepted without question. Because of the refusal of home educators to offer any ideas of their own, Badman's recommendations were all his own work.

In October, the DCSF select committee looked briefly at the conduct of the review. Once again, the attitude of home educators was "No Surrender!" and they continued to reject all idea of change and put forward no practical proposals of their own which might have formed the basis for a compromise. In November, the Queen's speech contained a new Children, Schools and Families Bill which included the recommendations contained in the Badman Report.
And still, home educators refuse to negotiate or move an inch from the position that the whole idea of change in the arrangements for home education is unacceptable and must be dropped. The bill has cleared the commons intact and will sail through the Lords in the same way. By June at the latest, it will have become law. As it stands, home educators have had no say at all in what is contained within it. Diana Johnson, Under-Secretary of State for Schools, tried as recently as last month to invite education Otherwise to meet with her and discuss the new legislation, but they refused point blank.

Things are now unfolding with the horrible inevitability of a Greek tragedy. As others have probably noticed, the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009, says little in detail of what it will actually require. The statement of educational intent is vague, nobody really knows what a suitable education will be. It is, in effect, an enabling bill. The details will be filled in later by a series of Statutory Instruments which parliament will not need to scrutinise. We have reached the endgame.

There is still an opportunity for home educators to influence this bill. The DCSF are planning to set up a project to monitor the educational attainments and long term outcomes of a cohort of home educated children. If home educators start to cooperate with this process, it could have the effect of opening up a dialogue with the DCSF. Before these various Statutory Instruments are enacted, the DCSF will try and consult with interested parties. If home educators refuse to become engaged then the DCSF will turn to the education departments of local authorities and make them their partners. This would be a catastrophe, because many teachers and other local authority officers are actually opposed to the very notion of home education. If they become the DCSF's partners in deciding the ultimate nature of the provisions for home education made in the Children, Schools and Families Bill, then the long term lookout for home education in this country will really not be very good.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Paula Rothermel and Deborah Durbin; a couple of puzzling points

In Chapter 3 of her book on home education, Deborah Durbin collaborated with Paula Rothermel for a section about recent research. Since this was done with Dr. Rothermel's cooperation, it is reasonable to assume that she stands by all that was said there. The second paragraph states;

"In 2002, Paula Rothermel at the University of Durham set about exploring the aims and practices of home-educating families from different social backgrounds in the UK"

I cannot help but wonder in what sense Paula Rothermel, "Set about exploring the aims and practices..." in 2002. By that year, the work had been completed. As early as 1998, Dr Rothermel was delivering a paper at Exeter which gave chapter and verse of the PIPS assessments and NLP tests. It is true that her thesis was not actually published until 2002, but that is a little different from that being the year that she, "Set about exploring" ! The most likely explanation is that any work from before the turn of the millennium is starting to look a little elderly now. By claiming that she "Set about exploring" in 2002, it makes the whole thing look a little more modern and up to date.

Even more curiously, Dr. Rothermel introduces herself by writing of, "the findings by me, Educational Psychologist Dr Rothermel of the University of Durham". Now most people would take that as meaning that she was actually working for Durham University. According to the Human Resources department at the university though, Dr Rothermel stopped working there in 2006. The piece in the book for Deborah Durbin is marked as being copyrighted for Paula Rothermel in 2008. Was she actually "Dr Rothermel of the University of Durham" at that time? More research needed there.

This may well seem to dedicated home educators as mere nitpicking. However, when a particular piece of research is as extensively quoted as the 1997/1998 work in this case, it is vital that both it and it's author are examined closely before making any judgement upon the validity of the findings.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Paula Rothermel's research

I think that it is time once again to take a close look at the work of Paula Rothermel. In practically every book, website, newspaper article or debate on home education in this country, sooner or later the research which Paula Rothermel carried out will be cited. It is impossible to overstate the significance of this work. Of course the author of the work cannot be blamed if others exaggerate or distort her findings. For this reason, I propose to limit myself to examining what she herself has to say about her own work. In Home Education by Deborah Durbin, (Hodder Headline, 2009), Paula Rothermel contributed a section about her findings. All that follows will be taken from this account.

The piece begins on page 26 with what one might term the standard story of the thousand responses to the questionnaires which she received and the four hundred and nineteen of these which were examined in greater detail. Dr. Rothermel goes on to say;

"This study remains the largest and most important of its kind, including as it did, a very broad section of the home-educating community. Access is always a problem with home education and my original survey was distributed through a number of home-educating organisations as well as religious groups, Local Authorities and Internet sites."

This is, whether by accident or design, more than a little misleading. Figure 4.1, to be found in Chapter 4 of Dr. Rothermel's thesis, reveals that in fact five thousand, three hundred and eighteen questionnaires were distributed. Of these, five thousand were sent to Education Otherwise. "A very broad section of the home-educating community" and "a number of home-educating organisations" does not really give the impression that 95% of the questionnaires were sent to just one organisation.

There follows an overview of the study. This talks about what the families valued, socialisation and so on. It is understood that this information comes from the four hundred and nineteen families whose responses were examined in detail. Then, without breaking step, Rothermel segues smoothly into the statement;

"Children aged between four and five years old were tested twice over a 'school' year"

Nothing is said to indicate that we are no longer talking about the four hundred and nineteen families. Any reader would naturally assume that this was the case. In fact, Dr. Rothermel is now talking about a mere thirty five assessments. (Chapter 6, 5.1) Without reading the original thesis, it is impossible to know this.

Later on, Rothermel mentions the literacy assessments which were conducted. These results are given as, for example, 94% of six year olds scoring in the top band. This is indeed impressive, until you learn that only seventeen six year olds are involved here; a very small sample indeed. (Chapter 4, Table 4.1) Even more interestingly, these tests were not carried out by the researcher herself; they were posted to the parents. This does not of course invalidate the results, but it is certainly the sort of thing one would wish to know about when evaluating the scores. I have mentioned in previous posts some possible disadvantages of such a method.

On page 31 of Durbin's book, Paula Rothermel talks of "The social and psychological data" We read that;

"The purpose of these assessments was to establish whether home-educated children experienced social or behavioural problems"

There were one hundred and three participants in this part of the research and three standard instruments were used to gather data, including the Children's Assertiveness Scale. In Chapter 4, 8.3 of the thesis, we learn that only four of these assessments were conducted in the presence of the researcher. The rest were posted out to families and done by the parents and children themselves. At this point, anybody who has actually had any dealings with real human beings will probably see a problem.

Parents are in general the worst possible people to be expected to make objective judgements about their own children's behaviour! I am sure that we have all met absolutely vile children whose behaviour is deplorable, yet the parents dote on them and apparently cannot see how badly their kid is acting. We are all a bit like this. I certainly have never been the least bit objective about my own children; their behaviour has always been perfect in my eyes! I think we can safely take the social and psychological data with a large pinch of salt.

As a vignette of British home education in the late nineteen nineties, this thesis is fascinating. It is when one treats it as a piece of serious academic research that the problems begin to emerge. The idea that to look too closely at a piece of research associated with a major university should render one liable to legal action is, quite frankly, preposterous. Durham University evidently know nothing about this and the person to whom I spoke there was a little alarmed to hear that they were about to become embroiled in such an affair. The correct way to deal with criticism of this sort is by calm and reasoned rebuttal, but I have a suspicion that this is not the approach that the author favours.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

How well do home educated children do academically?

I have in the past warned of the caution that must be exercised before making sweeping statements based upon extravagant extrapolations from grotesquely small, self selected samples consisting of a few dozen home educated children. In order to see properly conducted, large scale research on the subject of home education, it is of course necessary to turn to the United States.

In 1998, the academic achievements and home backgrounds of over twenty thousand home educated children were examined in the largest project of this kind ever conducted. All the children were tested using the same instrument, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The results, when collated, were fascinating. These children out performed schooled children in all areas. Interestingly, the longer they had been home educated, the better the academic results. A clear and ringing endorsement of home education, perhaps. Hey, if it works in America, I suppose that must mean that it works here as well? Well, maybe.

It is true that these children were home educated, but were there any other factors in their lives which could go some of the way to explaining their educational success? There were a number of clues. In the first place, the parents in such families were educated to a higher level than average. In a quarter of families, one or both parents were qualified teachers. The percentage of parents who were married was higher than the national average, perhaps not unconnected with the fact that many of these families were devoutly religious; evangelical Christianity being the most common denomination. The mothers tended to stay at home and those
who did work only did so part-time. Again, this is not really a surprise. These look like very conventional families, where the father goes out to work and the mother stays home with the children. The whole family worship in church on Sundays. This is a lifestyle and family structure which is perhaps a little less common in this country. Overall, only 6% of the families belonged to ethnic minorities, compared with around 30% nationally.

A picture emerges of stable and traditional families where the parents are dissatisfied with the schools system because it does not educate children effectively and also transmits poor ethical values to the pupils. The parents in these families are sure that they can do better themselves and so they set to and get on with the job. One cannot help wondering whether this kind of family structure produces children who would thrive academically in any setting and that the fact they are home educated might be something of a red herring.

It would be intriguing to see how British home educating families would compare if all these factors were to be ascertained and compared. Are there any differences? Are home educated children more likely to be living with single mothers in this country? Would this affect the amount of time and attention that their parent could give them? Does having a man living in the household have any effect upon educational outcomes? Is religion a factor? Are home educated children raised in a home with two parents who are married to each other, more likely to do well as regards GCSEs and so on? These are all fair questions.

It has often been noted that even when a group of children are all receiving precisely the same education in a school, there is wide variation between their academic attainment. Some of this is of course due to differing intelligence. However there is also a definite link with family circumstances and lifestyle. It is possible to speculate that the same applies to home educated children, only far more so. Since these children are immersed in the family circumstances for far longer than the school educated ones, it would not be at all surprising were the family to have a greater effect upon them. In short, the American work described above might well be an endorsement of traditional family life, rather than a reflection of the efficacy of elective home education per se. This strikes me as a rich field for future research.

Paula Rothermel and the apparently defamatory statements

Readers of this blog will know that I try wherever possible to avoid making defamatory statements about people. After Paula Rothermel's extraordinary email yesterday, I contacted her and asked which references she felt were defamatory. Her reply is worth repeating in full;

"Most of them are defamatory I believe. I have asked for the removal of all defamatory and other references to me immediately."

In other words, she wants me to remove all references to her from this blog! Imagine if Graham Badman became so sensitive when home education was being discussed and that every time he was mentioned on the Internet or had his figures questioned, he began threatening legal action. This would be of course be outrageous. So is this attempt to stifle debate on home education. Actually, the whole thing is a bit of a mare's nest. Yesterday afternoon Paula Rothermel was relaxing in Gerlafingen and, being at a loose end, decided to google her own name. She was disgusted to find that the first page that came up had several pieces from this blog on it and thought it worth trying to bluff me into removing them. The fool! Does she not realise that this sort of thing just serves to draw attention to the original statements?

Just to remind readers, I drew attention a few months ago to the fact that Paula Rothermel's research was based upon very small samples. Some of the results of this research were so strange that it had me scratching my head in bewilderment. When I looked into the matter, I found that nearly all the tests had actually been carried out not by Dr. Rothermel herself, but by the parents. This did not seem to be generally known and so I examined and talked about the implications. A few days later, on November 11th 2009, the doctoral thesis upon which all this was based was removed from Rothermel's website. I suggested that this may have been connected with the fact that I was inviting people to check there for themselves what I was saying.

I cannot for the life of me see how this can be thought defamatory, but of course there is a remedy in the courts if anybody really feels that it is so. I spoke to a friend of mine who is a reporter on one of the Sunday broadsheets and he was more than a little staggered to hear about this threat. I have a suspicion that these matters will soon be receiving an even wider audience than my little blog!

For those who wish to look into the methodology of Paula Rothermel's research for themselves, it may be found here;