Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A plot to destroy home education?

I am among the most cynical of men, particularly where politics and politicians are concerned. I always assume that the reasons which we as the public are given for this or that action are not the true reasons, or at least not the whole story. One would think that I would jump at the chance to detect the hallmark of some sinister conspiracy in the introduction of regulations for home education and yet I just can't see it.

I have been looking round the Dare to Know blog over the last day or so and I have to say that some of the individuals who are to be found there are considerably more extreme than most of those who comment here. One famous mother, whose email name is to be seen everywhere, expressed the view that there was a determination to suppress home education and those trying to do so did not care if lives were lost in the process! This seemed to me to be so absolutely barking mad that I had to re-read the thing slowly and see whether or not she meant this seriously. As far as I could make out, she did. Others commenting there apparently shared this belief that the aim of any new legislations was to force home educated children to attend school, no matter what the cost to their lives.

The first thing that strikes one about this sort of belief is, 'What is the motive for such a move?' Why would anybody wish to put an end to home education, especially to the extent that they would not mind children losing their lives in the process? This simply does not make any sense to me. After all, home educating parents and children do not pose any threat to the government. The worst they are likely to do is turn out ill educated and semi-literate teenagers and as God He knows, there are plenty of them leaving school as it is! The few thousand home educated youths are the merest drop in the ocean. I have seen the suggestion that these home educated children are radical free thinkers whom the establishment fears, but that does not quite ring true either. Again, there are plenty of weird teenagers about with crackpot ideas; there always have been. I doubt that a few more each year is likely to alarm the government.

What remains then? The rumour has been spread that Graham Badman is doing all this to drum up business for BECTA, an IT company in which he is involved. If that were the case though, you would hardly think that he would be able to enlist the British government in aiding him to make a few bob on the side. A more plausible hidden reason for the attempt to regulate home education is that the government got the wind up in 2008 when Scarlett Keely and Khyra Ishaq, both home educated children, were killed. It was felt that this sort of thing could turn into a bit of a scandal and that it would be best for the DfCSF to look as though they were on the case. This is entirely possible, but I can't think that it is the whole story. There is also the fear among some local authorities that some time in the future, they will get formerly home educated children pursuing them as adults and trying to sue them because they did not receive proper educations from their parents. This is not an unrealistic fear. We have seen adults attempting legal action for bullying which they endured as children, I can quite see that somebody whose education was supposedly monitored by the local authority might come back in ten or twenty years and say, 'Why didn't you keep a closer eye on my parents; my life has been ruined by my lack of GCSEs!'

One feels though that applying Occam's Razor to the situation brings one to the conclusion that the simplest and most likely explanation which covers all the facts is probably the correct one. That is that there is a certain amount of uneasiness felt about children who are at home and perhaps not seen as regularly as most school children. It took quite some while to establish universal education for children in this country and I suspect that some both in local authorities and the government are worried that this idea might be slipping a little and that people might be getting the idea that they need simply not send their children to school and there is an end to the matter. I don't for a moment think that most home educating parents are like this, but I am pretty sure that there are some. I think that there is a desire to nip this sort of thinking in the bud before it becomes too widespread.

I would be curious to hear of any other sensible explanation for the introduction of regulation into home education. An explanation beyond the obvious one of concern for children.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Will the Children, Schools and Families Bill kill children?

I have been grappling recently with the assertion made on several lists and blogs that the passage of the CSF Bill will result in the death of children who will commit suicide if forced to attend school. It sounded very implausible to me, but I thought it worth looking into the question in a little depth. To begin with, I telephoned an old friend to whom I have not spoken for a couple of years. She is a Community Psychiatric Nurse who works with adolescents. I put to her the thesis that problems at school or the fear of school were major factors in the suicide or attempted suicide of children and young people. I have to report that she laughed unpleasantly at the idea and gave the kind of snort which is usually rendered as, 'Huh!' Her view was that most of the kids who attempt suicide are disturbed and that their parents often blame schools or bullying as a way of diverting attention from problems at home which have actually had more bearing on the matter. She pointed out that an awful lot of bullying actually takes place within families! She then directed me towards a lot of research, which I am bound to say seems to bear out her opinion. I have listed some of this at the bottom of the post for those who wish to check for themselves.

To begin with, over 90% of children and adolescents who attempt suicide are indeed suffering from psychiatric disorders. Chief among these are emotional disorders including anxiety and depression. Mental illness in children is associated with a number of risk factors such as family conflict, living in rented housing, having a parent with mental heath problems and having a low reading age. A very big factor is the child living apart from the father; in other words being part of a fractured family. This increases the risk of mental illness in a child by 40%. Normal, well balanced and healthy adolescents do not tend to attempt suicide in response to stressful life events, whether involving school or anything else.

It seems to me, after looking into this carefully, that the idea that home educated children would kill themselves if sent back to school is pretty unlikely. I suppose that there would be a slight risk with any such child who was already suffering from a mental illness. Since only 4% of children are in this category, I should think that the chances of any child actually dying as a result of the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill is remote in the extreme. It must also be borne in mind that suicide in this age group is very rare, with only eleven cases a year being recorded. This means that on average each year only one child without a psychiatric problem commits suicide. Those wishing to look into this matter for themselves, rather than relying upon Internet gossip, could start by reading Ford, Goodman and Meltzer's article; The relative importance of child, family, school and neighbourhood correlates of childhood psychiatric disorder. This may be found in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 39, 487-96 2004. They might also care to read a publication by the Office of National Statistics called, Mental Health of Children and Young People in Great Britain, 2004.

I am sorry to dispel a popular myth, but suicides of this sort do seem, as my friend suggested, to be connected with psychiatric disorders and unfavourable home circumstances rather than schools. I find it interesting that living with a single mother is the greatest risk factor of all in such conditions and I would be curious to know whether the proportion of home educated children living apart from their fathers is higher than in the general population. The fact that having a low reading age is associated with mental health problems in children and adolescents might also prove of interest to some home educating parents. I think that these would be more productive lines of enquiry than looking at the educational setting itself as a precipitating factor for suicide.

Carlotta and the ad hominem attacks

I have already remarked that I find it a bit thick to be accused by the author of the Dare to Know blog of having blood on my hands and being responsible for the suicide and sterility of young people who have been compelled to attend school. Having posted a personal attack on me, Carlotta then followed it up with this,

"I don't want to get bogged down in unproductive debate with this particular individual who has repeatedly demonstrated an incapacity to argue with a due respect for reality, the rules of logic or with much integrity,"

Harsh words indeed! But what I find utterly astonishing is that she then comments here, saying,

"Go easy on the ad hominems,"

The correct time to reproach somebody for making an ad hominem attack is probably before you have attempted to implicate him in the sterility or death of your friends and accused him of lacking integrity, not after! I can only assume that this complaint about ad hominem attacks was meant humorously. Nothing would please me more than to avoid getting bogged down in an unproductive debate with this lunatic, but I can hardly be expected to ignore it when an open Internet site is mentioning my name in connection with causing suicide and sterility!

(For those who are scratching their heads at this point and wondering what this is all about, the argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy whereby one avoids debating rationally and resorts to personal attacks. For example, rather than debating the continued significance of Bevan V Shears 1911, one might instead say, " I refuse to debate with this person because he has repeatedly demonstrated an incapacity to argue with a due respect for reality, the rules of logic or even much integrity". This, in a nutshell, is the argumentum ad hominem.)

Computers and the home educated child

I suggested yesterday that it would not be a particularly brilliant thing for a home educated teenager to spend all day on the computer. The average child spends about four hours a day glued to electronic media and a lot more than this during the school holidays. I have long had a suspicion that home educated children probably spend far more time on their computers than do those at school, although of course it would be hard to gather data on this. Certainly on the lists, there is a lot of mention of the great benefits of computers. They give children an intrinsic reason to learn to read, they sharpen up maths skills, allow them to research topics which are of interest to them. You wonder really, why schools employ teachers at all! perhaps they should just install banks of computers and let the children get on with it.

I have to say, that whether watching the occasional television programme about home educated children, reading books about it and reading the comments on the lists, computers seem to feature far more than practicing the cello, reading Tolstoy or studying history. They do seem to be the educational method of choice for an awful lot of home educating parents. My daughter and I were amused to hear Fiona Nicholson on Woman's Hour, when asked to describe a typical day in her son's education. It apparently consists of the boy getting up, having breakfast, arguing with his mother and switching on the computer. As my daughter, who is the same age, remarked wryly, "Nice work if you can get it!" She is up at 6.45 each morning in order to take a country bus ten miles to college. Not that either of us were very surprised to hear that this was a typical day. One would have been a good deal more surprised to hear that a home educated youth had breakfast and then opened a textbook!

Still on the theme of computers and home educated children, I have mentioned before a book on home education by a woman called Deborah Durbin. This is officially endorsed by Education Otherwise, who say of it, "Should be in every library in England". (A somewhat skewed and Anglocentric viewpoint, but we shall pass over that!). According to this book, playing online games on a computer are great for many educational purposes, from mathematics and English, to hand-eye coordination. They are even handy for social skills, apparently. Many of us would think that meeting and talking to human beings in the flesh would be better for this, but seemingly a computer screen is a perfectly adequate substitute.

For many children and young people, computers have become the default setting when there is nothing else to do. They browse aimlessly, check out their friend's updates on Facebook, listen to music, play games and so on. Nothing wrong with this of course. It is certainly no worse than their parents slumping on the sofa watching Coronation Street! However, while we accept that watching soap operas and reality television is nothing more than mindless entertainment, we tend to accord a little more respect to our children's similarly brainless activities on the computer. Part of this is that we do not wish to appear backward looking old fuddy duddies. We want to be down with the youth and show that we too are with it. Hey, what does it matter whether they get their information from a leather bound book or from wikipedia, we say. How cool does that make us sound?

The fact is of course that the vast majority of what our children are doing on the Internet has very little to do with research and education. Human nature has not changed that much over the centuries and with so many distractions on offer on the Internet, it is inevitable that the fun things should distract greatly from the educational. Imagine if you will, that when at school you were provided with a pile of academic books and mixed in among them were comics, Enid Blyton books, games and toys. Suppose now that you were left alone in a cubicle and given a free choice of how much time you spent reading the textbooks and how long you spent reading the comics, doing the puzzles and playing with the games. This is precisely the situation faced by young people on the Internet. Human nature being as it is, it is perhaps inevitable that the entertainment and amusement part of the package should dominate their time online.

One of the great advantages of a book on biology is that while a child is reading it he is unlikely to be playing solitaire or Tetris at the same time. Nor is he likely to be texting his friends, looking at pornography or reading about football. The problem with allowing a child to 'learn' mainly from the Internet is that you really have little idea of what the time is actually being spent on. I have a suspicion that the enthusiasm which so many home educators display for computer based learning is that it enables them to get on with things while their children are occupied on something 'educational'. No harm in that, as long as we don't deceive ourselves as to what is really happening.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The best sort of education?

I have been considering this morning a strange and on the face of it utterly weird proposition. Yesterday, somebody commenting on here expressed the following opinion:

"Do you really believe that going to school all day is more beneficial than using Facebook all day? I certainly don't. At least, while using Facebook this girl is enjoying herself and potentially making friends and raising her self esteem. Many children un-school in this way. If she has potential, it is more likely to emerge under these conditions."

I have seen this view put before, indeed it seems to be quite a popular one on some HE lists. If it were not for this, I should be inclined simply to dismiss it as obviously mad and irresponsible. However, let us treat it seriously and see where it takes us. I think we may safely ignore one sentence straight away; the fact that many home educated children spend their days in this way is no sort of recommendation at all. Many children might be starving themselves or taking drugs; this does not mean that these are desirable course of action. What about the assertion that if a teenager has potential, it is more likely to emerge through using Facebook all day? It is an interesting thesis.

Anybody watching a teenager using Facebook will soon notice that this is all too often an essentially sterile pursuit, somewhat akin to leafing idly through a magazine in the dentist's waiting room. A lot of it consists of looking at photographs of other teenagers, generally taken on mobile phones. There is nothing wrong with this, although most of the photographs are very similar; teenagers putting their tongues out or pulling silly faces. I have never personally seen the attraction of this, but then we all have different hobbies. Another popular game is checking up on friends and friends of friends' status updates. Who's in a new relationship, what's written on your friends' walls and so on. Again, quite an innocuous occupation as far as it goes. The question is, is this the best way to bring out a young person's potential? This is far from clear.

What sort of potential is likely to emerge from glancing at other people's photograph albums or reading what teenagers have to say about their relationships? It might well be valuable socially, but bringing out potential? And being more beneficial generally than being in school? These are curious ideas indeed. One can see how school might bring out potential. Perhaps a child will discover a love of creative writing or an interest in literature. Possibly she will find that she is good at painting or sports, a passion for history might emerge as a consequence of learning about the Tudors. She could find that she enjoys music. I can think of many similar examples. I cannot readily think of any example of the emergence of potential which might come about through spending the day browsing Facebook! The potential to be a spiteful gossip, perhaps? The potential to waste one's life by living vicariously the experiences of others? The potential to be some sort of digital peeping Tom?

It is certainly possible that a teenager would enjoy doing this, as the person who commented yesterday said, and that is absolutely fine, although I am a little unsure as to how looking at Facebook would raise anybody's self esteem. It is conceivable that a lonely teenager would be able to make friends like this, although this is not how it usually happens. Most of us would think that real flesh and blood contact with other human beings would be better than clicking on little avatars like this. And of course, at least as much bullying takes place on such sites as in the playground! Hanging out on Facebook might raise a child's self esteem; it might equally well drive her to despair!

I am grateful to the person who made this comment yesterday, because it illustrates perfectly why many professionals in the field of education feel that there is a need for greater oversight of home education. I don't doubt for a moment that it is true, as this person says, that, "Many children un-school in this way" . That many children supposedly being educated out of school are spending their days slumped in front of a computer while they trawl through social networking sites does not surprise me in the least. This may be a harmless enough hobby or pastime; whether or not it is an adequate substitute for an education is rather more open to question. I can very easily understand why parents who are neglecting their children's education in this way should be resolutely opposed to allowing local authority officers into their homes lest they discover this. I strongly suspect that this fear is at the root of much of the uneasiness about the new legislation and it is refreshing to hear the views of somebody who is being honest about the matter.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

A bullied child

The idea that the CSF Bill would be wholly bad news for bullied children who have been taken out of school is so bizarre that I have not yet bothered to deal with it. However, since it has been suggested that I shall be personally responsible for any ensuing suicides, anorexia or sterility, perhaps I should say a few words on the subject!

Let us start by looking at a genuine bullied child who was withdrawn from school due to bullying. She is, I imagine, typical of many. Since the Summer I have been approached by a number of home educating parents locally. They have seen my daughter's picture in the local paper and are very impressed with her IGCSEs. Four parents have stopped me in the street and told me that they have removed their children from school and two of them have solicited my help. I want to look at one particular case.

Kirsty is thirteen years old. She was bullied unmercifully at her secondary school, partly because she has ginger hair and partly because she suffers from rhinitis. This gives her voice an adenoidal sound which apparently irritated the other pupils. In the end, her father took her out of school last June. Now the hope of her parents is that she will take GCSEs in the ordinary way while studying at home. Neither of her parents, both of whom are on incapacity benefit, know anything at all about the National Curriculum, GCSEs or anything else much. They knew only that their daughter was suffering and felt that life was not worth living and so took her from school. Now they simply want her to get the GCSEs while staying at home. A pretty typical example of the situation, I would imagine.

The guy asked me to come and talk to him and his daughter, which I did. First problem; he is very hard up. In order for the child to study IGCSE mathematics, she will need two textbooks costing £15 each. He will also need to download the specification from the Edexcel site. They could not afford a new cartridge for the printer. Apart from the two standard textbooks, he will really need at least one other book on calculus; the textbooks do not cover this well. That's another £15. They will also need to buy paper, pens and so on. Just for this one subject, the bill is already up to £70. Since they are wholly reliant upon state benefits, this is not realistic.
They also want and need plenty of advice on how to go about doing things. I put him in touch with a few HE lists, but he really wants somebody to talk to in person. He joined a group, but they were in the main middle class autonomous educators. He is very working class and did not feel at ease. What he ideally wants is for somebody 'From the council' as he puts it, to come round regularly to help him plan his daughter's education. People moan about the requirement for one visit a year; this man would welcome weekly visits if they were available! Essex County Council has three part-time workers handling EHE. If he is lucky, he will be able to have a brief chat on the phone as well as an annual visit, but that's his lot. Apart from that, he is on his own. There simply isn't the money for the council to provide any sort of effective service for parents like this.

At this point, I can imagine readers getting tetchy with this fellow. After all, the people who comment here are in the main pushy and articulate middle class types who are used to getting what they want and fighting for things. Not a few are actually teachers themselves. The problem is that this man, like other parents I have met is not a rebel or campaigner; he simply wants his child to have a decent education without suffering bullying. He would also, as well as the carrot of funding, welcome the stick of coercion. Why do I say this?

Like many teenagers, his daughter's default setting consists of spending hours on the computer, chatting on MSN, listening to pop music and looking at photographs of other teenagers on Facebook. When not doing this, she watches a lot of television. What her mother and father want is a timetable for her and also a structured curriculum. Like many families, education is something which has always taken place at school and the child is not particularly amenable to the idea of her parents telling her what to read and write. Her father told me that what he really wants is "A lady from the education" to come to the house and put the frighteners on the kid and tell her that unless she follows a strict timetable then she will have to go back to school. The girl would accept such a statement more readily from a teacher or local authority officer than she would from her own parents. Because this has not happened, the child has gradually settled into a routine of spending hours on the computer and only doing any academic work under protest. As things stand, she will be lucky to get one GCSE, let alone five. She wanted to study A levels when she was older, but without GCSEs this prospect is not realistic.

The Children, Schools and Families Bill would be a Godsend to this family. They actually want masses of support which they cannot currently obtain. They also need that 0.1 of the AWPU which would pay for books and so on. I do not say that all bullied children who have been deregistered from school are like this, only that quite a few are. As things stand, this child's prospects are dismal. With the right help, they would be dramatically improved.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Blood on my hands!

I posted a few days ago about the way that those in favour of new legislation for home education were being accused of having blood on their hands. I now find that I too am in this category. On a blog called Dare to Know, some fool has put the following;

"Wednesday, March 17, 2010
To all supporters of Schedule 1
the CSF bill, Deech, Soley, Badman, Ed Balls, Simon Webb, whoever you may be. Be very aware that by forcing children, either because of some administrative error on the part of parents, or because an ignorant LA officer says so and without any chance to offer a defence in court, back into school, you will almost certainly have blood on your hands"

It is not, as readers of this blog will be aware, my habit to be insulting about others, but I cannot help saying that this ill-informed idiot should be set in the pillory and pelted with offal. I have never read such rubbish in my life. Let's examine her claims.

Firstly she says, 'without any chance to offer a defence in court'. This is sheer nonsense. The mechanism for compelling a child to attend school will remain precisely the same as it is now; the issuing of a School Attendance Order. If this is ignored, then the local authority will have to bring a prosecution to enforce it. This is as a result of the case of Bevan V Shears in 1911, a key case of binding precedent which should be familiar to all home educators. Lord Alverstone, in delivering his judgement said,

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

It is as a result of Lord Alverstone's judgement that schools and local authorities cannot just force a child to go to school. they must go through the courts. This will not change. Indeed, under the new law another layer of protection is added to the parent who does not wish her child to attend school. They will initially, before a School Attendance Order is even issued, be able to appeal against the refusal or revocation of registration as home educators. See,

" 19 G
Appeal against authority’s decision
Regulations made under this section shall—
confer a right of appeal on a parent to whom a local authority
in England have given notice under section 19B(5)(b) or (c) or

This is from Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009.

As far as the suicide rate among young people aged between eleven and seventeen is concerned, the suggestion is made that this might rise as a result of the passage of this bill. I suppose that this is possible, although it would be very hard to make a direct causal link between the passing of an Act of Parliament and the subsequent suicide of a disturbed adolescent. According to the Office of National Statistics eleven young people a year kill themselves in this country. I suppose that another one or two might commit suicide if they were forced to go to school, but this would probably be countered by saving the lives of children who might kill themselves as a result of abuse suffered at the hands of their parents while being kept away from school. In other words, increasing regulation of home education would probably not increase the overall death rate among young people; simply alter the categories in which the deaths occurred. Actually, the numbers are so tiny that it is unlikely that any noticeable difference would be made. One can never reduce rates of suicide, homicide or abuse to zero.

The fact is that whatever we do or don't do, a certain number of children and young people will be murdered and abused. A small number will also commit suicide. If we tightened the regulations of home education or relaxed them, the overall death rate would be unlikely to change. (There is a booby prize waiting for the first person to either use the expression "Bullycide" or cite the figure of sixteen suicides a year caused by bullying).

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Academic research

A short while ago I was trying very hard to track down the sources for the various estimates for the number of home educating families in this country. These estimates vary greatly, as I am sure readers are aware. I wished to be accurate because the book of mine on this subject which is due to be published later this year is an academic work. This means that I can't simply make the sort of sweeping claims and wild statements that I regularly make here; everything has to be referenced. If I say that twenty thousand children are being educated at home, I must give my source for this information, for example (Hopwood et al 2007) or (Fortune-Wood 2005). Then at the end, I give details of the source so that others might check up for themselves later.

I found a couple of interesting things while I was tracking down the figures. One of the things was that people simply invent numbers and then the next person to come along quotes those guesses and references the first person's guess as though it were a piece of proper research. The result is that there is absolutely no reliable estimate of the true numbers of home educated children; just people quoting each other's guesswork. This will come as no surprise to most people. I did find a few curious things though. I was taken to task yesterday for supposedly belittling Paula Rothermel's research and suggesting that she didn't know what she was up to. A couple of people told me plainly that Paula knows more about statistics than I do and that compared with her I was a bit of a dunderhead, or words to that effect. A harsh accusation indeed! Well, let's see. One of the figures that I was very dismissive about was of course the idea that there might be over half a million children not at school. Why was I so scathing about this? I shall explain and in the process show why other academics do not take Paula Rothermel's work at all seriously. This is also why Graham Badman ignored it during his review. Follow carefully and you will see why people don't get excited about Paula Rothermel's claims about home education.
The figure of over half a million children not at school comes from a piece which Rothermel wrote in 2000. It is an apparently academic article, properly referenced. She said:

Moreover, there may be as many as 50,000 children educated outside school (ACE 1999). Combine this with the data that in 1997/98 there were 9,144,000 children aged 5-16 in the population, but only 8,583,400 registered in schools (DfEE 1999c). Where were the other 560,600?

Looks very professional and academic at first sight. Let's look a little closer. Observe the reference for the number of children educated outside school; (ACE 1999). I looked up this reference at the end of the piece and it says:

ACE (1999) Home education: a critical evaluation. ACE Bulletin. Advisory Centre for Education, No. 89, June.

This is promising. Perhaps I will find a source for the figure of up to 50,000 children being taught out of school! I tracked down this source and the opening paragraph says:

Home education: a critical evaluation
Advisory Centre for Education ACE: June 1999 No. 89
Over 50,000 British families are estimated to be educating their children at home. What do we know about home-education? Can ideas be generated that have relevance to education of children generally? Paula Rothermel, of the University of Durham, aims to answer these questions among many others. Her three year study of home-education, involving 1000 families, will be published early in the year 2000. Here ACE describes some of the study's preliminary findings.

Straight away, we have a problem. In the original article, Rothermel says that, 'there may be as many as 50,000 children educated outside school ' In other words, 50,000 children or fewer. The reference leads us to a source which says that, 'Over 50,000 British families are estimated to be educating their children at home.' In other words more than 50,000 children. The two statements are contradictory. Her reference does not back up her statement in the original article. There's more though.

This article is about Paula Rothermel's own research. There is nothing here to substantiate the figure of 50,000; as far as one can tell it is no more than a wild guess. In other words, she has tried to back up one unsubstantiated statement by giving as a source another unsubstantiated statement. Trust me, this is not how one does things in the academic world! The best is yet to come. Although the referenced article refers to Rothermel in the third person as though it is an objective account of her work and it says that ACE describes her work, at the bottom we find, "©P. Rothermel 1998". She actually wrote the thing herself. She has referenced her own work and tried to conceal the fact by giving the name of a magazine and failing to mention that it is an article written by her. Sharp practice indeed!

And just in case anybody has had trouble following all this, let me remind you that we are no nearer to finding out why she thinks that there are more than or fewer than fifty thousand home educated children in this country. Where does she get the number fifty thousand from in the first place? Perhaps now readers will realise why I don't take the rest of her guesswork too seriously. She may be an academic with a grasp of statistics and demographics, but she provides little evidence for it in this sort of work. To be fair, she is not alone. Every single estimate I looked at for the number of home educated children did precisely the same thing, just repeated previous guesses. And the source for the claim of over half a million children out of school? In the article this is given as; (DfEE 1999c). Will this lead us to some statistics which we can examine? No, the reference is in fact to a telephone conversation which Paula Rothermel says she had with an unnamed official in the civil service on an unknown day eleven years ago. No way of checking that figure either! Need I say more?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

How many Jews and Muslims are missing from education?

The idea has been floated on one of the home education forums that there are large numbers of Jewish and Muslim children who might be neither registered pupils at schools or electively home educated. This is an interesting notion. The starting point for this was something which Paula Rothermel wrote in 2000. She said, 'in 1997/98 there were 9,144,000 children aged 5-16 in the population, but only 8,583,400 registered in schools Where were the other 560,600?' Now straight away, most of us will see a problem with this idea that there might be half a million children milling about who are not going to school. This would be a little over 5% of all children. In other words, if you lived near a large comprehensive with a thousand pupils, you could expect to see around fifty children in the area who did not attend school. Unless they are kept locked up indoors, it is something of a mystery just where all these children are on weekdays. Does anybody see scores of children out and about every day who are not at school?

One solution put forward is that these are children of orthodox Jews and religious Muslims who do not send them to school. I suppose that this could conceivably account for some children. I lived for some years in Stamford Hill, the main orthodox area in London and still work round there. About twenty thousand orthodox Jews live in Stamford Hill and many of their children attend private schools, some of which are not registered as schools. Not all of them, of course. There are two or three excellent schools which the orthodox children go to. I don't suppose for a moment we could be talking more than a thousand or so children who are not attending proper schools. Most Jewish kids who are not from the orthodox community go to the same schools as everybody else of course. There is also a large community in Manchester, in areas like Crumsall, but there are far fewer orthodox than in Stamford Hill. I can't see more than a few hundred missing children being in Manchester. I can't really buy the idea that there might be hundreds of thousands of such children.

Then there are Muslim children. There are without doubt Muslim children who are not attending school for various reasons, but I could not say how many. A lot of Muslim children attend Madrassas at weekends and some evenings. These are rather like Sunday Schools. The kids learn about Islam, how to read Arabic and things like that. They are not a substitute for school: the children attending them are usually going to school as well. I don't doubt for a moment that there are Muslim children not registered at schools or being home educated, but I would be surprised to hear that the numbers are very high.

More to the point are the number of children whose parents have no right to be in the country at all. I certainly know quite a few of them and it is very tricky to know what to do about them. Their parents are anxious not to draw attention to themselves and enrolling a child at school involves paperwork which some of these types do not have. One solution is for a relative who does have a right to be here to pretend that the child is theirs and that their birth was registered abroad. This is not uncommon and most of the children only seem to spend a few weeks or months without a school place until something of this sort can be arranged.

In short, I cannot really believe that half a million children are on the streets on weekdays without anybody noticing. We would be even more likely to notice if it were half a million orthodox Jewish or Asian kids!

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Blood on their hands

I remarked a few days ago that those opposed to wholly unregulated home education are once again being told that they will have "blood on their hands". Baroness Deech is the latest such person. This phrase was first used of Graham Badman of course and quickly proved counter-productive when it led to the denial of several Freedom of Information requests. The idea behind this accusation about "blood on their hands" is that vulnerable children are liable to die if any obstacles are placed in their parents' path when they wish to deregister them from school. This may be so, but what is absolutely undeniable is that children have already died as a direct result of the ease with which it is currently possible to withdraw a child from school.

Khyra Ishaq is of course one such child and another was fifteen year old Scarlett Keeling, whose mother withdrew her from school supposedly in order to home educate her. Her pedagogic technique consisted of wandering off to India with the child, who subsequently had the most educational experience of having sex on a beach in Goa with a number of men, one of whom killed her. From a purely educational viewpoint and leaving aside all safeguarding issues, I surely cannot be alone in thinking that she would have received a better education in an English classroom.

Now of course, this is not to suggest for a moment that home educated children are any more likely than those at school to be murdered. They are not. I am just pointing out that although restricting the practice of home education may lead to the deaths of children, not restricting it already has caused such deaths.

If those who agitate for regulation of home education are supposed to have "blood on their hands" for any resultant deaths, then I suppose that the same must logically apply to the people who have been campaigning for years for the practice to be completely free and unrestricted. The best parallel I can think of is with rock climbing. Traditionally, people climb with ropes and safety harnesses, everything is done in a particular way and the aim is to take as much care as is humanly possible. Then there are free climbers, who simply climb up without any precautions and take a lot of risks. Now I think that is absolutely fine; if somebody wishes to take chances like that, that's their business. I have done things like that myself and it was nobody's business but mine. Suppose though, that I had encouraged others to follow my lead and started discouraging people from using ropes and other safety aids? I might be alright on a rock face, but suppose some of those who followed me were not able to cope? What if they took their kids up there in the same way? I would be at least partly responsible for any subsequent accident.

This is pretty much what has happened with home education. The existing school system, while certainly not perfect, has grown over the years with the aim of doing the best for the greatest possible number of children. Inevitably, it fails children from time to time. Those who take their children out of school are like the free climbers whom I spoke of above. There is no reason why they should not take a risk like this, although of course when their gamble involves the education of children, other considerations must apply. But by starting organisations which encourage others to take this serious step, they must share responsibility when an atmosphere is created in which any parent can simply pull her kid out of school with no prior warning, whether or not she is capable of providing an education for her child. There is no doubt that whatever happened subsequently, Khyra Ishaq's mother genuinely intended to teach her own children. She bought workbooks and other educational resources, but of course found that she was not up to the job. This is an extreme case, but I have seen other children whose parents have deregistered them and then found that they can't really ensure that their child is being educated.

Thirty or forty years ago, mothers like Khyra Ishaq's would not have considered for a moment taking their children out of school. They would have been afraid of the truancy officer knocking on the door. The current climate, where parents feel able to remove their children from school willy nilly, has been created by groups such as Education Otherwise. If Graham Badman and Baroness Deech really can be said to have "blood on their hands" because they wish to rein in home education a little, then those who helped create the situation where Scarlett Keeling's mother could just take her out of school and whisk her off to India, must also be thought to have blood on their hands due to the unintended consequences of their actions.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

How many parents choose to home educate?

When my daughter went for an interview after applying to go to college, the man who saw her was interested to hear that she had been home educated. He asked her what school she had attended before being taught at home and seemed astonished when my daughter told him that she had never attended school at all. He asked, "But what about primary School?" In the end, he wrote on my daughter's form, "NEVER BEEN TO SCHOOL!!!" There was nothing unpleasant about it all, according to my daughter. He had interviewed home educated children before, just had not met one who had never been to school at all.

I was thinking of this recently when looking at the various statistics, such as they are, for home education in this country. According to Paula Rothermel, for example, almost of third of parents claimed that their decision to home educate was ideological; they had always intended to home educate. This is a bit strange, because nearly all the home educated children one comes across have been in school at some point. You'd think that if a third of the parents had always intended to home educate, then a third of the kids one came across would not have been to school. As far as I can see, it is far commoner for children to start primary or secondary school and then to stop after a while for one reason or another. Bullying, school refusal, anxiety and stress are all reasons frequently given, as is the school's apparent inability to make suitable provision for some special educational need such as dyslexia or ADHD. These are the parents who home educate 'by default' as Graham Badman described it. They send their children to school, something goes wrong and then they take them out of school.

I am wondering whether these parents represent the majority of home educators. I rather suspect that they do. The fact is, apart from my own daughter I only know of one other sixteen year old who has never spent a day in school. This rather tends to confirm my suspicions that most parents do not, at least initially have any deep rooted objections to schools, but that these develop as a result of the experiences they and their children have once they have started there.

The implications for this, if true are profound. It would suggest that most of the parents whose children are at home are not committed, ideological home educators. Rather, they are ordinary parents who have hit upon what seems to them to be the best method of dealing with a problem which their child has. A natural corollary would be that if the schools were so structured that these problems had not arisen, then the parents would not have thought of home education at all. In short, it seems possible that most of the home education in this country would probably fade away quite naturally without the need for any new legislation, if only the schools were run properly! This is a sobering thought. Now I am a complete crank. I would not have sent my daughter to school under any circumstances and could certainly be seen as an ideological home educator. Interestingly enough though, it was my experiences with my first child which caused me to choose home education for the second. So I too have chosen home education in a sense because of the failings of the educational system which I have witnessed. It is entirely possible that if my elder daughter's school life had been happy and productive, I should have sent her sister to school as well.

I think that if I were a government which was growing uneasy about the inexorable rise in the numbers of children being home educated, I might stop to think about just why this was happening. Rather than introduce new laws to regulate the practice, I would be trying to improve the maintained schools to which most children are sent and tackle the problem at the root, instead of pruning the tip. As any gardener knows, this just increases new growth in any case!

Local authority funding for home educated children

There seems to be a good deal of confusion about what funding is available from local authorities to help children who are educated at home; not least among the local authorities themselves. The latest information is contained in The Review of Elective Home Education: Government Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2009-10. This was published ten days ago and presumably supersedes all previous advice.

The way that the funding works is that central government gives the local authorities a certain amount each year for each child registered at a school. This amount, the Age Weighted Pupil Unit or AWPU varies currently from £2152 a year for children in Year 1 to £3530 for those in Year 11. This money comes through the Dedicated Schools Grant or DSG for short. In January, the Department for Children, Schools and Families sent a memo to local authorities, reminding them that they can claim in the DSG for home educated children who either have a statement or who have significant special needs, even though they may not have a statement. In the response published on March 11th, the DCSF reiterate this and then go on to say that;

"Authorities are already able to include pupils whom they fund to attend college for post-14 qualifications including GCSEs and Diplomas."

This seems to be quite clear; local authorities can get, or "draw down" in the jargon, funding for pupils who are at college. But wait! Are they continuing to refer here to those pupils with special needs, or are they talking about all home educated pupils? Because some parents are still having actually to pay for their fourteen and fifteen year old children's college courses. Is this a breakdown in communications? Reading this, it says nothing about waiting for the law to change, or this help not being available until 2011. It says, "Authorities are already able to include pupils".

The next paragraph on page 15 of the Government Response says that local authorities will from 2011 be able to claim 0.1 of the AWPU for each home educated pupil. This is specifically so that such children should be able to take examinations. It does not sound a great deal, only about £300 a year, but this should be enough to pay for GCSEs. It only costs schools £25 or £30 to enter children for these examinations. the fact that those of us who entered our children through independent schools had to pay upwards of £100 is of course a complete racket! Whether this money is dependent upon the passing of the Children Schools and Families Bill is not clear; I suspect that it is. The final paragraph is a little confusing. It says;

"The reason that the Department has clarified the guidance on home educated pupils for January 2010 is that it had not until that point received representations from the LAs that clarification was needed. We believe that the guidance already makes it clear that LAs could enter home educated pupils on the Alternative Provision Return where pupils were receiving significant financial support."

This sounds to me as though this might be referring only to children with special needs. I must confess that I cannot really follow all this. On the one hand, the DCSF seems to be saying that local authorities can get money from the Government to pay for home educated pupils who attend college. They further seem to be saying that from next year, they will give the local authorities enough money to pay for home educated children to sit GCSEs as private candidates. However, the final paragraph obscures it all. In the first paragraph, there is mention of including for DSG purposes pupils they are supporting as a result of a statement. Then, they end by saying that home educated pupils can be entered on the Alternative Provision return where they are receiving significant financial support. Are they saying that only children with special needs are eligible for funding, in other words those already receiving financial support? What about those who are not currently receiving financial support but wish to start doing so?? I should be happy to know what interpretation others put upon all this.

Friday, 19 March 2010

College for fourteen year olds

The Government Response to the select committee's recommendations sets out the provision which would be made for funding if and when the Children, Schools and Families Bill is passed. For those who will be taking examinations as private candidates, there will be about £300 a year from central government. There should also be additional funding for those who wish to study for GCSEs and other qualifications at a Further Education College from the age of fourteen. The claim being made is that this funding is already available, although in practice it is not easy to obtain.

I have to say that I find this idea of rejecting school in favour of a college very strange. I know that it happens and that some well known home educated teenagers have taken this route. Never the less, I simply can't see why anybody would want this. I can perfectly well understand why people would wish to avoid schools; my daughter and I felt this way ourselves. But if you feel that way, wishing to reject the state system in favour of your own educational methods, why would you then want to send your fourteen year old off to college? There are quite a few reasons not to do this. If you have taken your child out of school due to bullying, then college is likely to be a really bad idea. In some colleges, the bullying is worse than anything at school. The main problem is the age difference. Most of the students are aged sixteen to eighteen, but there is usually a fair sprinkling of nineteen year olds and even some twenty year olds. This is a great age difference for a fourteen year old to cope with, particularly girls! I am bound to say that when my daughter was fourteen, I should not have wanted her to go off and spend the day with a load of eighteen year old boys! This is one advantage of schools, that the children tend to stay in their own age group. In many ways this is safer for them. A lot of the older students at colleges go to the pub at lunchtime, or even smoke dope. This is not really the social scene many of us would wish our fourteen year old children to get drawn into.

There can be other problems. Often, the other fourteen and fifteen year old students at college are likely to be fairly rough types who may have been sent there as an alternative to being excluded from school. Some are from Pupil Referral Units. All in all, not necessarily the sort of crowd whom many of us would wish our fourteen year old children to fall in with! So what motivates parents to take this step?

Sometimes parents find their children approaching fourteen, the age when schoolchildren are beginning to work seriously for GCSE's, and realise that they are simply not going to be able to coach the child through a batch of GCSE's. Some home educating parents have a problem not so much with formal education as specifically with school. They and their children have the idea that they will be treated more as adults if they go to college than would be the case if they returned to school. Then again, if you are lucky enough to have a cooperative local authority, college can be a sight cheaper for GCSE's than entering the child as a private candidate somewhere. If the local authority will play ball, then the whole enterprise shouldn't cost one a penny.

I do have, as I said, a slight difficulty understanding this whole business with colleges. I mean if you want your child to study for GCSE's in a formal educational setting funded by the local authority, there's no problem finding such a placement; it's called school! I can in a way see why local authorities get a little awkward and irritable with parents who do this. After all, they have plenty of custom built establishments where fourteen year olds can study for and take GCSEs and then somebody comes along who wants to stick their fourteen year old in a place specially designed for sixteen to eighteen year olds. You can see where that looks like bloody mindedness from one point of view. I mean why be so awkward? Why not just let the kid learn with all the others of the same age? I rather suspect this is why some local authorities make it hard for home educated children to go to college. It just makes things that little bit more complicated for everybody and is completely unnecessary.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

How many home educated children are there in this country?

I was a little irritated to hear Graham Badman on the radio yesterday, talking about home education. He said that local authorities know of twenty thousand children who are being home educated, but that "there are at least another twenty thousand known about who are not within their purview". This strikes me as nonsense. With one or two exceptions, when local authorities hear of children who are not at school, they contact them and at the very least want a few details. I do not believe for a moment that local authorities "know" about another twenty thousand. They might suspect or have reason to suppose; they certainly don't "know". So how many children in total are being taught at home? (What sort of person uses words like purview, anyway? Answer, a teacher.)

York Consulting were charged with investigating the feasibility of counting the number of home educated children in Britain. They concluded that it was simply not possible to do this. Which means that all we are left with are various guesses and estimates. The problem is of course that different groups have their own reason for exaggerating or underestimating the numbers of home educated children. Some groups, home educators for example, on some occasions try and make the number high and on others reduce it as much as possible. Let's have a look at a few of these estimates and see what we can make of them.

Ten years ago, home educators felt that it was in their best interests to make the numbers of home educated children seem very great. Perhaps they thought that if they were seen as an unstoppable mass movement, it would have the effect of discouraging local authorities from giving them a hard time. It was a tactical error. Governments sometimes ignore a handful of cranks, but if they think that hundreds of thousands of people are undertaking some strange activity and perhaps flouting the law, they feel bound to take action. Perhaps the highest figure ever suggested for the number of children not at school was that calculated by Paula Rothermel ten years ago. She wrote that, " in 1997/98 there were 9,144,000 children aged 5-16 in the population, but only 8,583,400 registered in schools Where were the other 560,600?" In other words, she was hinting that over 5% of the children aged between five and sixteen were missing from school. A few years later in 2003, an article in the Times educational Supplement, the back pedalling had begun. the numbers were going down! "87,000 children, with some experts claiming numbers nearer to 200,000 if the children of Travellers are included". Most estimated today are much more modest than this. The problem is, as I mentioned above, that people have good reasons for lying about this subject and altering their guesses according to what they wish to prove. For instance, in the Impact assessment published with the Children, Schools and Families Bill, the DCSF were very keen to dismiss the idea that there could be eighty thousand home educated children in total. Why? Purely and simply because they wished to make the estimated cost of their schemes for monitoring as low as they possibly could. Home educators on the other hand have at times wished to portray home education as a mass movement with many scores of thousands of children involved. At other times, they wish to reduce the numbers in order to persuade the government that so few are involved that it is not worth bothering about. The fact is, everybody has motives for being deceitful about this matter.

So what do we actually know? We can be fairly sure that around twenty thousand home educated children are known to local authorities. This is the irreducible minimum number. It is also common knowledge that some home educated children are not registered with their local authorities, those who are, as it is sometimes called, "under the radar". The $64,000 dollar question is, how many more of these unknown children are there? Some home educating parents who are associated with groups, claim that half the children they see are not known to their local authority. If true, this would double the total number of children and give us around forty thousand for the whole country. We must be a little cautious about taking this as being an objective estimate though. After all, a few years ago many home educators were saying that there were far more than this. It is entirely possible that the current guesses are being kept deliberately low for some reason. I have looked at the motive for the DCSF to keep the numbers low, I rather think that home educators feel pretty much the same way.

Of course ultimately, we have not a clue. There are many, many families who have no contact at all either with their local authority or other home educating parents. Nobody has a clue how many children in the Gypsy/Roma community are not attending school, nor does anybody particularly want to know. Poking about there is more trouble than it's worth. As ContactPoint becomes live, we shall probably begin to have some idea about this, but until then all we can really do is guess!

Home education - more, or less, than another educational method

I have been interested to note over the last few days that while people have had a good deal to remark about the pilot study being set up by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, not one person has touched upon the real reason for the vehement opposition to this new research. It's the wrong time, it's the wrong people arranging it, we have been vilified and insulted; all more or less decent excuses for avoiding the thing like the plague, but all skirting around the real objection.

Whatever their original motivations, there is no doubt at all that after a few months many home educators in this country continue to keep their children at home for reasons wholly unconnected from education. This was a major finding of both the Education Otherwise survey of its members in 2003 and also Paula Rothermel's work in 1997/1998. Now of course I have in the past had some harsh things to say about Paula Rothemel's research on literacy and so on, but there's no reason to doubt the raw data from the thousand or so questionnaires which she received. Parents cited the benefits of home education in both surveys as closer family relationships, the opportunity to do more things together, a relaxed lifestyle and things like that.

In a sense then, any attempt to study home education in this country will be pointless and irrelevant unless this is taken into account. After all, if you are comparing independent schools with maintained schools in the state sector, you don't generally ask about how the family relationships of the pupils are going, nor as to whether they feel more relaxed in this or that setting. You ask instead about how much PE they're doing, which examinations they have passed, who's learning the piano and stuff like that. And so we arrive, in a pleasant and roundabout way, at the heart of the problem. Because however good their family relationships and despite the fact that home educated children are supposedly kinder, more altruistic, more compassionate and concerned than children attending school, the fact is that they don't in general take Grade 6 Clarinet or pass GCSE's early, as many schooled children do.

In short, many parents are simply nervous about what such a study would reveal. I have no doubt at all that much of the opposition to serious research on home education is motivated by this fear. After all, it is one thing reading about some home educated kid who goes to Cambridge at fifteen or Oxford at twelve or gets an A level at nine, but most of us don't have children like that. I certainly don't! The awful possibility strikes some parents that if an outsider started to look at her child and test his abilities, then perhaps he would shake his head sadly and say, "Sorry Mrs. Smith, but your Johnny is at least three years behind other children of his age, particularly in reading". In other words, a study might show that academically, many home educated children are not doing as well as those at school. I think this anxiety is very prevalent among autonomous educators and I strongly suspect that this is at the root of many of the objections to participating in any sort of research.

Let's face it, none of us want a complete stranger sitting in judgement over us and our lifestyle! Many home educated children do learn to read and write later than those at school. It is quite possible that, for whatever reason, home educated children don't tend to take eleven or twelve GCSE's when they are fifteen. I am regarded by many as a fanatical "school at home" type and I can assure readers right now that it never for a moment crossed my mind to enter my daughter for eleven GCSE's! So the first result of any sort of study might be to reveal that home educated children are not doing as well academically as those at school, at least as far as the yardsticks used in schools are concerned.

Of course, there may well be another yardstick entirely by which home education should be measured; one which does not depend upon GCSE results and access to higher education. if so, then it is high time for home educators to share these benchmarks with those who are about to start investigating home education. Because otherwise, the end product of such a study is likely to be a set of graphs and statistics which demonstrate infallibly that home education is often absolutely useless compared with school and that many home educated children would benefit from returning to school as promptly as possible.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Studying home education

I am a great enthusiast for home education. I take any and every opportunity to talk about it and defend it and I get very irritated when people display ignorance about it by, for example, claiming that one cannot learn chemistry at home or that socialisation would be a problem. I would like home education to be regarded by everybody as being at least as effective as school. The only way that the educational establishment are likely to accept this is by being provided with plenty of solid evidence.

School has become so ingrained into our culture that for most people it is synonymous with learning. No school = no learning, is how many people think. I have a horrible suspicion that this mindset might not be uncommon in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is certainly prevalent among many teachers and local authority officers. I would very much like to see this crazy idea proved wrong. Now of course, I know perfectly well that home education can be an astonishingly efficient way of teaching. I know this for one thing because of my own daughter's educational attainment. Still, that's only one child. Maybe she's some sort of geek who would have flourished academically anywhere? One child does not prove anything. The way to show that home education is working and can be a viable alternative for school is to look at a lot of children and see how well they do in this educational setting.

This is precisely what the Department for Children, Schools and Families are hoping to do and yet there are already murmurings of discontent about the idea among home educators. This is very strange. Home educators are quite happy to quote from various research, both in this country and the USA. They are also ready to talk about the achievements of home educated young people who have gained places at Oxford or Cambridge. It is quite possible of course that such academic outcomes are quite common among home educated children. It is equally possible that they are vanishingly rare. We simply don't know. We have a pretty good idea of how effective schools are. We know that independent schools usually give better results than maintained schools. We have a good idea of how effective one to one tutoring is and various other aspects of education. By and large, when it comes to home education, we don't have a clue as to how effective it is. I for one am not satisfied with this situation.

The study currently being arranged by the DCSF will be a longitudinal one. This means that instead of just examining a cross section of home educated children at a certain point, perhaps after their GCSEs, it will look at their lives and achievements at intervals. This way it will be possible to see what progress they make, whether it is faster than those children at school or slower, whether it results in more GCSEs or fewer, things like that. I can see only good coming from such a study. Perhaps those who stand to gain most from such a study are autonomous educators. There is, in educational circles, a good deal of scepticism about the advantages of autonomous education. Indeed, I share these misgivings. I am however quite prepared to be proved wrong. This will be the perfect opportunity for autonomous education to be examined and possibly proved to be at least as effective as any other pedagogical technique. There has not been any proper and rigorous research of this sort, which will compare and contrast different methods of home education and then track the children over the course of years. My own feeling is that this will be a triumphant vindication of home education.

As I said, home educating parents are quite willing to cite research which apparently shows home education to be an effective means of teaching a child. Now the chance is being presented to take part in a modern and up to date study which will look closely at the whole business. This is exciting and it is to be hoped that parents will take the opportunity to show that home education is as good as and probably better than schooling. When I posted on this a couple of days ago, two objections were raised. one was that it was bad timing and the other was that the DCSF did not have a good record at this sort of thing. When York Consulting carried out some research on home education for the DCSF in 2006, the result was the the 2007 Guidelines. These were very favourable to home educators, so favourable in fact that many local authorities were livid with rage. The Guidelines emphasised the lack of duties and powers of the local authorities. That being so, there is no reason to think that something good will not emerge from the projected pilot research.

Graham Badman and others, myself included, have criticised much of the existing research on home education. If the DCSF carry out a study and this finds that home education is a brilliantly successful way of educating children, I can see that as being only a good thing.

"Campaign" style responses

I honestly wonder whether or not some home educators are suffering from multiple personality disorder! That is the charitable view; the alternative would be deliberate deception. This reflection has been prompted by the latest accusations being made against the Department for Children, Schools and Families; that they are linking Education Otherwise to the British National Party. It certainly seems an implausible hypothesis. Let's see what the fuss is about.

Following the publication of the Badman Report and the outcry which followed, the DCSF opened a consultation on the subject of Home Education – registration and monitoring proposals. This ran until October 19th and 5211 responses were received. 2222 of these were from home educating parents and 436 from children who were being taught at home. The great majority of these responses were opposed to the proposed new regulations. There were also some responses from organisations, but the largest group was made up of "others", that is to say anonymous or people who did not say whether they were home educators. It is this large group which has caused the recent fuss. About them, the DCSF said;

"A further 2,390 replies fell into the “other” category including anonymous responses, those who did not specify a respondent type; and “campaign” type responses which were received after groups including the Christian Institute, Education Otherwise and the British National Party lobbied their members to reply to the consultation via their own websites"

Well I know perfectly well that the Christian Institute did encourage people to send in responses to the consultation. They suggested the sort of things people should say. For example;

"Under new proposals a government official could enter your home, and question your child about what you teach them - and all without you being present. At the moment, this is being proposed for home-schooling families. But which families will be next? Children do not belong to the state. Even if you don’t home school, tell the Government to keep families free."

Eerily similar to the letter which I quoted recently from the Market Drayton Advertiser! There is no doubt at all that the Christian Institute was behind some of the "other" responses. The BNP site said much the same thing and certainly encouraged members to respond to the consultation along the same lines. What about Education Otherwise? I think that anybody who watched the Education Otherwise and HE-UK lists carefully at that time, as did I, would find it hard to deny that a co-ordinated effort was being made to flood the DCSF with responses to this consultation. People gave each other ideas of the line to take, they posted the number of responses which had been reached; there is not the slightest doubt that a campaign was under way.

A natural result of all this was that many of the "other" responses were very similar; same phrases and expressions, same concerns, even the same sentences in some. The DCSF smelt a rat and thought it worth pointing out that this had been happening. Plus of course, staff there also visit the EO, HE-UK and BRAG lists. They already knew what was going on.

The peculiar thing is that even though the game was clearly up and it was obvious that the DCSF had twigged, many home educators indignantly denied that a campaign had been conducted at all! This extraordinary denial is still going on. I can't decide if these people, most of whom belong to the HE lists and who knew very well about the campaign being run, have genuinely forgotten what they were up to or if they are simply cold blooded liars. These can surely be the only two explanations. Freedom of Information requests have been made by individuals who were themselves involved in the campaign and have apparently forgotten about it. They are now claiming that the DCSF have maligned Education Otherwise by mentioning them in the same breath as the British National Party. I don't see this at all. The only similarity is that both co-ordinated campaigns to get people to respond to the consultation, I don't think that the DCSF were suggesting for a moment that EO have any other similarities with a neo-Nazi group.

There is something quite weird about this business, an Alice in Wonderland quality. People spend four months fighting a campaign and then erase it from their memory. It is so completely erased, that they then argue up hill and down dale that no such campaign ever took place! Decidedly odd.

Monday, 15 March 2010

A personal reminiscence

I was stunned a few days ago when suzyg commented on here, saying;

You don't strike me as a campaigning type of man Simon, so it's quite likely you haven't. Though you must have gone round with your eyes shut in the 60s and 70s."

It only goes to show how difficult it is to make an accurate estimate of a person's character on the Internet without actually meeting them. In fact I was involved in many campaigns in the sixties and seventies. Anti-War demonstrations in Grosvener Square in 1968, CND in the early seventies before it became a fashionable cause during the Thatcher years, the Springbok Tour of 1970 in the days when Peter Hain was a young Liberal and not a government minister, joining Friends of the Earth in 1971, the year it started in this country; you name it and I was there. While you were dreaming your life away in the groves of Academe suzyg, gassing away to Max Coltheart about cognitive psychology, some of us were on the streets, fighting to change the world. Going through the sixties and seventies with my eyes shut indeed!

The point which I was trying to make when I said that I had never encountered a campaign like this, was not that people had not in the past fought fiercely for things in which they believed. Of course they have done that. The difference which I have noticed about this particular campaign is that it seems to be conducted in a less open truthful manner than the ones which I remember participating in myself. I have seen quite a few lies being passed round and many attempts to distort the truth and mislead people. Now I remember in the days that we were fighting against the war in Vietnam and protesting about Rhodesia and South Africa , we faced some world class liars; governments and intelligence agencies who would not think twice about smearing anybody in their way and telling any sort of lie to achieve their ends. I can remember discussions as to whether it might be justified to use the same tactics when fighting these people. The decision was always that it would be disastrous to descend to their level and that it would besmirch our own cause if we were to adopt the same methods as the American government or BOSS, the South African intelligence service.

What I have noticed is that many of those fighting for home education seem to have no such scruples. They seem to believe that because the DCSF, NSPCC and local authorities are using questionable methods and dodgy statistics, then it is alright for those opposing them to resort to similar tactics. Hence the efforts to smear Graham Badman and his family, the dissemination of untruthful accounts of the Children, Schools and Families Bill to newspapers and so on. The lies come as readily from many of these people as the truth. After I had a couple of pieces published in the papers last Summer, several people wrote to the papers in question claiming that I had lied in order to gain access to HE lists and used a false identity. This was not true of course; I had joined under my own name and made no secret of the fact that I wrote occasionally for the papers. Writing to the editors was done by people who knew that they were lying, but justified it to themselves because they felt their cause was right. The same logic has been used to justify smears against members of Graham Badman’s family and also a number of other sleazy activities.

Baroness Deech, who was silly enough to wonder whether it was possible to teach chemistry and physics at home, has become the latest hate figure for this campaign. Instead of writing to her, as I did, and pointing out the mistakes in her opinions, she is being demonised and insulted. On a number of lists now, it is being said that she will, "have blood on her hands". This is a fairly typical example of how far some home educating parents are prepared to go to attack anybody who expresses scepticism about their pet cause.

I dare say that this is how political campaigns are routinely fought these days. It is after all many years since I was involved in this sort of thing and times change. But drawing attention to the changes which I have noticed definitely does not mean that I have never been a campaigning sort of man, let alone that I went through the sixties and seventies with my eyes shut! It just means that the campaigns which I supported and fought for used rather different methods.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

New research commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families is due to start on May 12th

In the last few years there have been several attempts to make a serious study of home educated children in this country. None have succeeded. Home educators seem resolutely opposed to allowing complete strangers to talk to them about their children's achievements! Even when sympathetic people or organisations such as Education Otherwise or Paula Rothermel distribute questionnaires, 80% of parents refuse to answer any questions. Ofsted met somewhat of a blank wall last Autumn when they tried to find out about children being educated home and this new piece of research will probably do no better.

It's a pity really. Home educators are often saying that research shows that home education is better than schooling, but as soon as they are offered the chance to demonstrate the truth of this assertion, they run for cover! There are several possible explanations for this shyness. One is that the DCSF and Ofsted are such a tricksy bunch of bastards that nobody can trust them not to twist their findings. They are after all ultimately working for the government and everybody knows that the government is resolutely opposed to home education. There is also the argument that such research would be an invasion of privacy. A third possibility is that many of these children are not doing very well academically and their parents don't want anybody to find out. Let's look at these ideas a little.

It's quite true that the DCSF will be funding this new research, but that does not mean that it will be biased. Whoever gets the job will carry out the work and then publish a report. I have no doubt that the results will be open to exploitation by both sides in order to argue their case, but I can't see what harm having the facts could do anybody. Suppose that it was found that half of all home educated children had no GCSE's. Of course the government could use this to argue that home education needed close monitoring. On the other hand, home educators could point out that fewer than 50% of children in schools gain five good GCSE's. The raw data itself would still be good to have, even if it could be manipulated subsequently by either side.

As far as the idea that this would be an invasion of privacy goes, this could easily be met by meeting parents in the local McDonalds and seeing copies of GCSE certificates and so on. Or the whole thing could be conducted by post, with parents just sending details of the boards which their children sat for examinations. This leaves us with the final possibility; that parents are worried that their children are under-achieving academically. This is perhaps more plausible than the other reasons for objecting to research about educational outcomes. Let's face it, hardly any parent is backward in talking of her child's achievements. They all boast about the early GCSE's , the guitar examinations, the place at university. Even those whose children have special educational needs are pleased to talk about what their children have managed to do; the place at college, the music examinations passed and so on. The only parents I know who keep quiet about all this are those whose kids aren't doing too well at school. Is this the case with home educating parents? Could this be the true explanation for their curious reluctance to participate in research in this subject?

I have to say that home educators are often keen to talk about research from America which shows how well home educated children are doing. They are also happy to go on about Paula Rothermel's findings. One sees this sort of thing mentioned a lot when people are trying to justify their decision to home educate. The one thing they don't want to do is let anybody look at their kids now and see how well home education is doing for them. I would be keen to hear of other explanations for this, besides the obvious one which I outline above.

Friday, 12 March 2010

lobbying and campaigns

One of the things that those not involved in home education sometimes fail to realise is the extent to which so many of the apparently spontaneous protests against any criticism of the practice are carefully planned. Baroness Deech in her speech on March 8th made reference to "lobbying", a suggestion which was indignantly dismissed by those on the HE lists. Lobbying? Organised campaigns? What ridiculous notions! Why, the woman must be paranoid. The truth is that Baroness Deech doesn't know the half of it. In the same speech she mentioned in passing something which Janet Ford had said about her daughter's social life. As a result of this, no fewer than nine women spent two days planning a response. Various texts were composed and redrafted until the final version was posted on Baroness Deech's Blog by somebody whose name was relatively unknown. This was incidentally quite a shrewd move. Had it been signed by firebird 2110 say, or Mehetable or Tania Berlow, the chances are that anybody reading it would have just dismissed it as the product of one of the usual suspects! I am pretty much up to speed with personalities, but I must confess that the name Norma Wilshaw is a new one to me. It puts one very much in mind of habitual criminals using somebody without a record to carry out some task.

Anybody who writes an article on home education, or mentions it on their Blog or makes a speech about it can expect to be deluged with abusive comments if what they have said deviates much from what a fairly small group of mainly autonomous educators regard as acceptable. There are not all that many of these people, but they make sure that they overwhelm the comments sections on Blogs and newspapers, thus giving the impression that the people's voice is firmly in favour of unregulated home education. Often, these comments are co-ordinated via HE lists such as HE-UK and BRAG. People will post suggestions for a response; others will help shape the tone of the comments, which aspects should be emphasised and so on. The end result looks very natural when the comments go up, but it is actually driven by no more than a dozen or so individuals. Just glancing at the comments though, gives a very authentic impression of an outpouring of spontaneous, popular anger. If a newspaper, national or local, has an article about home education, this same small group will post comments denouncing the author if he is insufficiently enthusiastic about home education. Anybody who says anything on these same comments pages even vaguely in favour of new regulations for home education is quickly shouted down.

That this is a fairly small band of activists is pretty plain from a number of clues. For one thing, it is always the same names which crop up. For some of these people, patrolling the Internet in this way looking for a scrap must be practically a full-time job. Lord knows when they find the time to educate their children! I have mentioned before firebird 2110, whose aggressive comments may be found in local newspapers as far apart as Portsmouth and Lancashire. I will not name personal names, but I think that we all know who I am talking about here! Often, it is the same nine people who made 70% of the Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Children, Schools and Families last year.

Now speaking for myself, I don't particularly mind this sort of thing. It's true that I had my own share of harsh comments for my pieces in the TES and Independent last year, but hey, that's OK. The danger that I can see is that those who are not aware of what is going on might be tricked into thinking that these extreme views are typical of home educators and not the mutterings of a tiny band of, perhaps fanatics is the wrong word, shall we say dedicated enthusiasts for their own lifestyle? This worries me, because it could so easily end up with the autonomous tail wagging the home education dog. I rather suspect that one or two Peers and MPs have been sucked into the debate on regulation because they have been persuaded that these militant types are typical of home educating parents and represent the majority. Perhaps if they were to start scrutinising the comments on a few blogs and online editions of newspapers and making a note of the names they see all the time, it would help disabuse them of this notion.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The select committee recommendations

Graham Stuart commented on here yesterday, claiming that the select committee, of which he was a member, had opposed compulsory registration. What a shameless rascal he is! He said;

" The select committee disagreed with both you and the government by saying that any registration system should be voluntary. I believe that if a voluntary system backed by proper support for HE parents and children was put in place no government would decide to make it compulsory."

Perhaps it is time to nail a few myths about the recommendations made by the select committee, of which this is one. I really am a little surprised that an MP who was actually on the committee should try to peddle this line! Let's see what the select committee actually recommended about such things as compulsory registration, monitoring and so forth. We shall begin with registration. The committee said;

"In our view it is unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated or are otherwise not in school"

So far, so good. They went on to suggest that initially registration should be voluntary. Of course, we already have such a voluntary system; anybody can register with their local authority if they wish. Many parents choose not to do so. Regarding this, the select committee said;

"The success of a system of voluntary registration..... should be reviewed after two years. If it is found not to have met expectations- in terms of assisting local authorities in identifying and working with the families of children who are being home educated and those of children otherwise than in school- we believe that a system of compulsory registration should be introduced."

All perfectly clear? You have two years to volunteer to be registered and then, unless all home educators have signed up, it becomes compulsory. How Graham Stuart can have the cheek to tout this as a voluntary system of registration is utterly beyond me. What about compulsory annual inspections by the local authority? Surely, the select committee decided against them? Well, no. They said of home educating families;

"We believe that local authorities need a guaranteed means of engaging with these families."

I like this! Not that the local authorities want to engage, they need to. And the means has to be "guaranteed". The committee went on to recommend;

"Accordingly we recommend that home educating families be required to meet with their local authority officer within three months of the child's home education commencing and thereafter on an annual basis."

Hands up anybody who can tell the difference between this and Graham Badman's recommendation? What the select committee actually did was to take Graham Badman's recommendations, tweak them a little and then embed them in a load of waffle and pretend that they were courageously sticking up for home educating parents. But surely they were sympathetic to the concerns of autonomous educators? Well, let's see what they said;

"The specification of "suitable" education must enable local authority officers to tackle situations where the child has no prospect of gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills efficiently or where there is no breadth to their education."

Or, even better, how about this;

"We recommend that at the point of registration families should need only set out their reasons for choosing to home educate and to outline in broad terms how the education would initially be provided."

After three months, the family should;

"Be required to submit a statement on an annual basis, which includes a brief record of the child's achievement and progress"

I do hope that all the autonomous educators who believe that Graham Stuart is on their side are reading this. Local authority officers "tackling" situations where there isn't a broad enough education. I wonder how they will do that? Or what about those not gaining literacy skills "efficiently"? I am guessing here that the select committee thinks that reading and writing should be taught, rather than just being acquired autonomously. I'm not sure what else they could have meant by "gaining literacy skills efficiently". I am really puzzled as to why anybody should think that the select committee was any more favourably disposed to autonomous home education than Graham Badman. Stripped of the verbiage, their recommendations are almost identical.

Baroness Deech and habeas corpus

Over on the Badman Review Action Group forum and elsewhere, a number of people are running round like headless chickens as a result of a passing remark by Baroness Deech during the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill on Monday. She said;

"In Britain, we pride ourselves on the law of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus must extend to our children as well."

Two things strike one about this. Firstly, Baroness Deech is one of the most well known legal minds in the country. When she talks about habeas corpus, we'd best listen carefully and try and work out what she is hinting at. The second point is that most of those expressing opinions about this subject on the various lists display a lamentable ignorance on the topic. The problem is that in this country we associate habeas corpus with prisoners being held illegally and so many parents jumped to the conclusion that she was comparing their little darlings with unfortunate individuals being held captive in dungeons and waiting for the provisions of Magna Charta to free them. What idiots! Here is a typical comment from the Home Education Forums, admittedly not a place where one really expects to see rational opinions;

"Baroness Deech proudly furthered her claims of compassion toward the poor home educated children she is so very worried about, by comparing their right to be seen to the law of 'Habeus Corpus'..."Habeas corpus must extend to our children as well."In short, this means that she views home educated children as 'prisoner's who deserve the right to be to "produce"(d) in order to ascertain their well being & to have the validity of their detention determined by those in authority."

To see the real relevance of habeas corpus in the context of home education, it is necessary to turn to the United States. Although we are pretty sparing in the use of this principle, the Americans are far keener on it. And it is there, in America, that habeas corpus has for well over a century been applied to home education. After the American Civil War, the fourteenth amendment to the constitution was passed in 1868. To this was added the Bill of Rights and Writ of Habeas Corpus, stating that;

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Although this was primarily aimed at the institution of slavery, a subsequent court case ruled that ;

"Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children,"

It is upon the fact that habeas corpus in this context gives freedom to a citizen to decide how to bring up his children that it becomes involved in home education. In fact the Fourteenth Amendment and habeas corpus have been cited many times when people have fought in America for the right to educate their own children free from government control. Anybody interested in this should look into the Parental Liberty Doctrine and see its connection with habeas corpus. In the way that Baroness Deech was using it, she was probably also referring to the sort of child custody cases which regularly crop up in the States and where habeas corpus is used by one parent against another. It has also been used, and this is of particular interest, by children against their parents, where the child feels that the parents way of bringing them up is unreasonable!

Habeas corpus is very relevant to home education. Where it has been used in the USA, it has usually been used by parents against the state trying to dictate how they raise their children. In other words, home educators could and have used it. It could also be used by a child who did not want to be kept at home and wished to assert her right to attend school. It has absolutely nothing to do with prisoners in the way that Baroness Deech was speaking of it.

The wind is changing....

I remarked in earlier post that those enlisted by home educators to support their cause in Parliament all seem to be saying that new legislation is inevitable. During the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill this week, Lord Lucas said this quite clearly and unambiguously ;

"I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, that legislation in this area is inevitable,"

Graham Stuart MP, another supporter, is of the same mind. He has told home educators that change in the law is coming. What is also very encouraging is that many of the more militant home educators, what one might not inaptly term the rejectionist wing of autonomous education, are now starting to accept this. Take the issue of registration, for example. Six months ago, every single person on the lists seemed to be bitterly opposed to the idea of compulsory registration. During the select committee hearing Zena Hodges, Jane Lowe and Carole Rutherford were firmly against the idea. (Fiona Nicholson of Education Otherwise provided much innocent entertainment of course, by being unable to decide whether she was for or against compusory registration.) Ultimately, the select committee went along with Fiona's view, recommending that compulsory registration both should and should not be introduced. They favoured voluntary registration for two years and then the imposition of compulsory registration for anybody who hadn't signed up voluntarily!

Now I have recently noticed a number of diehard autonomous educators tacitly conceding not only that registration is coming, but also admitting that it might be a good thing. This view has been cropping up on the HE lists, but also I have had dealings in the last week or so with a couple of the more well known campaigners, whose names are always appearing on the subject of home education. Both mentioned unprompted that they thought that registration was not such a bad idea after all.

Of course, this volte-face is not being presented as a change of heart. It is being casually alluded to as if that has always been the accepted viewpoint. It reminds me very much of 1984, where once the war was no longer against Eurasia, but East Asia, everybody simply pretended that that had always been the case. That's fine by me; at least it shows that people are becoming a little more realistic about the business. The question now, is what else will autonomous home educators be prepared to compromise over? Both they and their supporters seem to be coming round to the point of view that a change in the law is coming and many have evidently come to the conclusion that they can live with a scheme of compulsory registration.

I am guessing that most parents would be prepared to meet with local authorities, although not necessarily in their homes. Maybe Family Centres would be good places for such meetings. I doubt that most such meetings will result in a request to see the child alone, but those that did could also be held in either Family Centres or perhaps somewhere like some of the places where I have worked, where there is a two way mirror for observation. That way, parents could watch and listen to the whole interview. If such meetings were recorded, then there would be no danger of the person conducting the interview popping out ten minutes later and announcing, "Johnny says he hates being educated at home and wants to go to school!"

I suspect that many home educating parents are now thinking along more realistic lines and that we shall see more coming out in the coming months and dropping into posts various measures that they might feel that they can live with. It is all very heartening and suggests that maybe with a little good will, the various parties might manage to thrash out some system that all would be reasonably happy with.