Monday, 31 May 2010

Money for home educators

My wife, who is a social worker, was laughing recently when I told her of the idea of giving home educating parents the Age Weighted Pupil Unit. She pointed out that a number of the clients with whom she works hate having to get up in the mornings to take their children to school. Their only incentive for doing so is that they can get shot of the kids for the day. If they were to be told that not only did their children not actually have to attend school, but that they would also be entitled to a couple of thousand pounds a year for keeping them at home, then there would be an explosion of 'home education' in some areas.

I am bound to say that this is a good point. I myself work with families for whom fiddling the social and making dubious claims is a way of life. If they thought that it was possible to claim money for not sending their children to school, quite a few of them would be queuing up to deregister their children. Actually, many parents still have the idea that they are obliged by law to send their children to school. In many cases, this is a wholesome, if mistaken, thing for them to believe. I for one would not like it to become common knowledge that they could if they wished simply stop sending their kids to school. For a lot of the children whom I meet, school is the only little bit of order and sanity in their otherwise chaotic and disordered lives. Many of them would be worse off if they were to lose this.

I am not, I hasten to add, suggesting that all the families with whom my wife and I work are greedy and mercenary wretches. I just feel that my wife is right and that the lure of an extra few thousand pound might prompt them to embark upon yet another scam to the detriment of their children. That's the great advantage of being married to a social worker; you get a fresh, if cynical perspective on these matters!

Sunday, 30 May 2010

School Attendance Orders; Part 2

Anonysue raised so many interesting points in answer to my post yesterday, that I thought it worth answering them in detail. Her first point concerned the action taken by local authorities if parents refuse to provide any information about their child's education. She cites the case of Philips V Brown. For those unfamiliar with the case, the background is as follows. In the Summer of 1977 Leeds local education authority became aware that a child called Oak Reah was not attending school. They contacted his parents and asked them what sort of education he was receiving and they more or less told the local authority to mind their own business. After a while, Leeds issued a School Attendance Order and then prosecuted Mr Philips, the father and Ms Reah, the mother. Oak Reah's parents mounted an ingenious defence to this. They argued that the local education authority was wrong to issue the School Attendance Order in the first place, because it could not possibly have appeared to them that Oak was not receiving a suitable education; since they had no information at all about him, how could it appear to them that he wasn't receiving a suitable education?

Although the magistrate decided against them, Oak's parents sought a judicial review of his decision and in 1980 this was heard. Lord Donaldson decided that the LEA was quite justified in making enquiries of the parents and that although they were entitled to refuse to give any information about their son's education, the LEA might then very well decide to issue an SAO. Since then, the parents of home educated children have been well advised to respond to informal enquiries from their local authority.

These days, parents are usually a little more cunning than Oak Reah's mother and father. For those who do not wish either to be served with an SAO or receive a visit from a local authority officer, the most popular gambit is to supply the local authority with an 'Educational Philosophy'. Such a document is particularly favoured by autonomously educating parents. The difficulty with such evidence from the point of view of the local authority is that it does not actually tell them what the child is learning or even doing. It is easy enough to download an Ed Phil, as they are know for short, from an Internet site and then simply to personalise it. The end result might say something along the lines of:

Our approach to John's education is in the main opportunity based,
child led and very flexible. It is impossible to provide a timetable or to
specify in advance which activities we will shall be undertaking.
We work to keep a good balance between child led, informal learning
and a more directed approach. In general, it is our aim to facilitate
learning through John's interests rather than artificially to contrive
situations to reach pre-determined outcomes. We are always vigilant for any gaps which should arise in our provision and ready, willing and able to make the necessary adjustments to fill them.

All that such a document tells the local authority is that an adult is capable of downloading an educational philosophy from Home Education UK and then personalising it. It is impossible to work out from an Ed Phil of this sort whether or not the child really is receiving an education. Sometimes it is accompanied by photographs of the child doing something vaguely educational or a diary detailing all the educational activities. Here again, there is a problem. Jean Turnbull, who used to monitor elective home education for Essex County Council, tells of visiting a family who claimed in a letter that their child used the local library regularly for research and so on. When she actually visited the home and spoke to the child, she discovered that the kid didn't even know where the library was; much less was she a regular visitor there. Other local authority officers report similar experiences with children whom the parents have claimed to be learning French, studying music or working on advanced mathematics. In other words, there is a suspicion that some parents just put down whatever they feel will keep the local authority at bay.

What then are the local authority to do in such circumstances? Often, they have not been given enough information for them to judge whether the child is really being educated. They cannot issue a School Attendance Order, because there is no evidence that the child is not receiving a suitable education. All they have are vague suspicions and a sense of unease. Reading the educational philosophy above, it is hard to know what is actually happening with this child. He could be wheelchair bound and completely non-verbal. On the other hand he could be an infant prodigy. He may be studying for GCSE's, but on the other hand his parents may be using him as a sex slave. One simply cannot tell from the Ed Phil, photographs and diary and yet in many cases this is all the information which parents are prepared to provide.

It is situations like this which local authority officers face every day with children who have been deregistered from school. No doubt most parents who decline visits and send in waffle like that above are actually providing some sort of education. It is equally certain that others are not providing any education at all. There will almost definitely be others who are actively harming their children. It is quite impossible to determine from examining evidence of the sort outlined above and without making further enquiries, which families belong in which group. Should we issue all the families with School Attendance Orders? Or should we simply take everybody's word for what they are doing, in the sure and certain knowledge that this means that a number of children will remain uneducated and a few of them also abused or neglected? It was this dilemma which the Children, Schools and Families Bill was designed to resolve.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

School Attendance Orders

It has been suggested here recently that local authorities who are uneasy about a family who claim to be home educating, might issue a School Attendance Order or SAO for short. The first stage in this process is sending the parents a letter fifteen days before the issuing of an SAO. This is what the law says;

'If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory
school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by
regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in
writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period
specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.'

In theory, having sent such a letter and not having had a satisfactory reply, the way is open for the local authority to issue the SAO. This will name a school to which the parents must send their child and if they fail to do so then the local authority can prosecute the parents for their child's non-attendance. In practice, this procedure is hardly ever used. Some home educators argue that because local authorities already possess this power and don't use it, then they do not yet need any new legal powers.

So what is the problem with School Attendance Orders? The problem is of course that before they even begin this process, it must appear to the local authority that, 'a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise'. If the local authority hear of a child who is not at school, it can hardly appear to them that he is not receiving a suitable education. It would be foolish and wrong of them to assume that an education at home is less suitable for a child than one at school. They need a little more evidence than that to start legal action and quite rightly.

How are the local authority to gather evidence so that they can believe that a home educated child is not in receipt of a suitable education? Or for that matter, if they suspect that there is a welfare or safeguarding problem? They can write to the family asking for information of course. This actually happened to one of the parents who regularly comments here. His local authority went so far in the Summer of 2004 as to serve him a notice requiring him to satisfy them as to the education his son was receiving. He did not comply and six years later the authority has taken no action. The problem is that while it is quite easy to issue an SAO, enforcing it in court is another matter entirely. Some parents are bloody minded and refuse to provide any information at all to their local authority. This does not mean that their children are not being educated. Take them to court and they may well provide all the evidence needed to convince the magistrate. The crux of the matter is that the education being given to the child must look OK from the point of view of a reasonable person, not from the perspective of a local authority officer.

There is no power to enter a home and gather evidence, no right to speak to the child to ascertain her wishes. A local authority can be uneasy about a family, but short of issuing a School Attendance Order and then prosecuting the parents, there is little that they can actually do. Magistrates are often more easy to persuade than local authorities. The family will smarten themselves up, perhaps get a solicitor and the local authority cannot simply claim in court that they have a suspicion that things are not right. This is after all a court which deals in hard evidence, not vague suspicions.

The result is that there are plenty of families who are keeping their children at home, about whom local authorities are uneasy. They cannot get any firm evidence to back up their suspicions, there is little point even in getting a social worker to call round, because without hard evidence she will not be allowed to enter the house against the wishes of the family. This is of course how vulnerable children slip through the net and it was one of the reasons why there was an attempt to change the law.

Home education used as a cover for child abuse and neglect

We looked yesterday at the use in America of 'home education' as a way of concealing the true rate of truancy and dropouts in the Texas school system. I speculated that this sort of thing could become more common here as the numbers of nominally home educated children increase. I want to look now at the extent to which home education might be used as a cover for child abuse and neglect. We shall look at the American example again, because of course home education is far more common and generally accepted in that country.

In Britain, cases where home education is associated with sexual abuse and murder are probably quite rare. When they do come to light, they often make the national headlines. In the USA, where there are far more home educated children, such cases have become commonplace. Here are a few recent examples, chosen more or less at random. The police in Monument, Colorado are hunting for Monique Lynch and Hanif Sims. They began home educating their child in 2008 and then moved house recently, leaving the corpse of their child under the floorboards. Police are still investigating a bizarre cult in Baltimore run by a woman who styled herself 'Queen Antoinette'. The group spent a lot of time reading the Bible and home educating their children, one of whom was starved to death as a punishment. In York, Pennsylvania, a man called Nathaniel Craver also starved his home educated child to death. Paradise, California; Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz beat their adopted 11 year old daughter to death. They have nine home educated children, three of them adopted. Home educated Jeanette Marples, aged 15 was tortured to death by her parents in Eugene, Oregon. In Santa Ana an Englishman called David Allen Goddard has been arrested for the terrible sexual abuse of a teenage girl whom he was supposedly home educating.

And so it goes on. These are all cases over the last month or so; none made particularly big headlines. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that the more common that home education becomes, the more common will become such cases of abuse and murder. As home education grows in this country, we can probably expect to see more cases of abuse and murder of supposedly home educated children here. I say 'supposedly' because of course in these cases home education was actually used as a cover for abuse and neglect. As readers will remember, one of the terms of reference of the Badman review of elective home education was to investigate the extent to which claims of home education could be used as a cover for child abuse such as neglect and sexual exploitation. This provoked fury on the part of some home educators, the impression being given that such things were almost unheard of.

The problem is, both here and in the United States, not home educators as such. Parents home educating their children are probably no more likely to abuse or murder them than those who send them to school. The problem is that when regulations and monitoring are ineffective or non-existent, then some people will claim to be home educating in order to harm children. Without investigating the claim that they are home educating, it is all but impossible to detect these people.

What is the response of home educators in this country? It is twofold. Firstly, they try whenever possible to ignore such cases which involve home education. The dreadful affair in Plymouth a month ago, when parents deregistered their thirteen year old daughter from school, declined visits and then used her as a sex slave has been absolutely ignored. Home educators like to think that such things do not happen. When it is impossible to ignore a case involving the cruel mistreatment of a home educated child, such as happened in the case of Khyra Ishaq, the tactic is a little different; they pretend that she was not a home educated child at all. How can this be done? Very simply, if you have the right mindset.

Khyra Ishaq's mother took her children out of school in order to teach them at home. There seems no doubt at all that this was her intention. She bought a lot of exercise books and workbooks for maths and English. She couldn't cope with the task, but that was certainly her intention. Home educators point out though that she failed to comply with the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 2006, which cover the deregistration of children from school to be home educated. Regulation 8 Italic(1)(d) says that a child's name is to be removed from a school's register if: He has ceased to attend the school and the proprietor has received
written notification from the parent that the pupil is receiving
education otherwise than at school.
Ah hah! Angela Gordon was not aware of regulation 8 (1)(d) and gave only verbal notification. Because she did not write a letter, her child was never technically deregistered from school and cannot therefore be considered home educated. How cool is that? So you see, this wasn't the murder of a home educated child at all, but merely the death of a truant. Quite a different matter. One up to the home educators in ridding themselves of an embarrassing fellow home educator in this way. What a bunch of weasels!

A while ago, some fool called Carlotta on the blog Dare to Know, named me as somebody who would have blood on his hands if the Children, Schools and Families Bill passed into law. I have a suspicion that some of those who opposed this legislation so vociferously are far more likely to be in that state than I am. There can be no doubt that some people claim to be home educating in order to harm children. The attempt was being made to detect and deter these individuals. This was frustrated because it was seen as an infringement of the 'rights' of genuine home educators. Perhaps a little more thought might have been given to the rights of the children and a little less to the 'rights' of the adults involved.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Meanwhile, in the USA....

Where America leads, we in this country tend to follow. Trends seen in the USA in areas as varied as crime, education, pop music and sport, sooner or later seem to find their way across the Atlantic. We have of course seen this happen with home education. From Paul Goodman in the sixties to Holt, Gatto and the Moores in the eighties, the ideology of American home education has had a profound influence on parents here. Some believe that the huge and growing numbers of home educated children in the Unites States are a foretaste of what we can expect in this country in the coming years. If this is so, could there be any lessons which we might learn from the States, any emerging problems with home education there?

A couple of weeks ago, a scandal erupted about home education in the state of Texas. Texas is of course famous for having very laid back and non-intrusive rules regarding home education. All it takes to become a home educator in Texas is a verbal assurance to the local school board and hey presto, that's it. Your child is home educated. Many home educating parents in this country believe this to be a good thing. The claim is made that tighter regulations in the different states of America do not have any effect on academic achievement. This belief is used to justify a slack and ineffective regime of monitoring in Britain. Let's see what has happened in Texas.

The recently released figures suggest that in the last few years home education in Texas has increased exponentially. Even dedicated advocates of home education in America have smelt a rat. Brian Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, has denounced this new statistic as 'Ridiculous'. According to the official figures, there were twenty three thousand new home educated young people in the state in 2008. Of course, this is simply not true. Home education may be growing in America, but not that fast! What had actually happened was that the number of long term truants from middle school and dropouts from high school was getting a bit high. This reflected badly on the local authorities and so they decided to encourage parents and students to claim that they were going to home educate. Readers with long memories might recall Firfield School in Newcastle pulling a similar trick in 1999. They managed to slash their figures for truancy and exclusion by this means. It's still a common practice in this country, largely because the monitoring regime in many local authority areas is useless and has no legal sanctions to back it up. Recommendation 15 of the Badman Report dealt specifically with this problem.

Does it really matter if this sort of thing goes on? Well, for one thing there are now tens of thousands of children and young people in Texas who are probably receiving no education at all because of a combination of slack monitoring and downright dishonesty on the part of teachers and other professionals. Schools are often glad when troublesome pupils drop out and this kind of thing relieves the authorities of having to make any sort of provision for them. The signs are that this is becoming a widespread phenomenon in the USA, involving tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of pupils. The more laid back the monitoring system, the easier it is for this sort of stunt to flourish.

Many home educators are crowing that with the defeat of Badman and the Children, Schools and Families Bill, they can continue to refuse visits and fob their local authority off with some trashy educational philosophy downloaded from HE-UK. There can be little doubt that, as I said to begin with, where America leads we will follow. The greater the number of home educated children in the USA and the more relaxed the regulations, the more likely it is that thousands of children will simply drop out of education entirely. This is probably not a good thing and it would be sad if this sort of scam were to become even more widespread in this country than is already the case.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Encouraging news for home educators

There have been a couple of very encouraging news items recently, suggesting indirectly that home education is a good thing. One was by Nevada University in America. They discovered that a jolly good indicator of how a child will do academically is the number of books in the home. This is more important than class, parents' income or parents' educational attainments. Work by the National literacy Trust in this country pointed in a similar direction. A brief account may be seen here;

Piles of books is often one of the most noticeable features of homes where a child is being educated out of school. I found this research interesting because all too often income and parents' education, whether they went to university and so on, are singled out as important factors in future success of the child. Just having loads of books in the house seems though to be even more important as a predictor of future academic achievement. Often, we get sidetracked into the idea that good teaching at schools is connected with good outcomes for the pupils. It is probably more the case that industrious and well behaved pupils attract the good teachers to the schools in the first place and that home background is really the key to understanding why kids from some schools do well and those from others fail miserably.

In short, it is parents and how keen they are on books and reading which might provide the key to how children get on educationally, regardless of whether they attend school or not. This is very good news for those of us whose homes contain (a.) thousands of books and (b.) a child who did not go to school! I have felt for many years that this is a very important facet of education in both schooled and home educated children; it is nice to see my preconceived ideas confirmed in this way.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Home education in the soap operas

Once again, a soap opera is planning to feature a plotline involving home education. Eastenders ran a story a few months ago in which Ian Beale was preparing to teach his daughter at home, but the idea soon ran out of steam. Now Bianca is going to home educate her son Liam.

While it is good to see home education entering the public consciousness in this way and becoming a feature of popular television programmes, I could wish that it was handled in a slightly different way. Some readers will remember when Waterloo Road ran a story which involved a mad home educating father a while back. Coronation Street too did this, when one of the characters who worked in a factory tried to teach her brother out of school. The message in the narrative is always the same; what are these people thinking of that they feel capable of tackling a child's education single handed? The latest plotline in Eastenders is an absolute classic of this mentality. Bianca is a feckless single mother with a bunch of kids from different fathers. She is loud mouthed and not particularly bright. The audience will be able to laugh at her presumption in undertaking the role of teacher for her son. We know that the enterprise will fail and that she will eventually realise that she is not up to the job. Leave it to the professionals dear!

I don't think that this is cunning pro-teacher propaganda, but it is never the less very irritating. Obviously, none of these television programmes is going to feature a successful, long term example of home education by a dedicated and resourceful parent who manages to make a go of the thing. It is all being done as a novelty turn, so that we the audience can gasp in amazement at the idea of an ordinary mother or father trying to undertake the role of the school. It is significant also that none of these stories feature ideological home educators who choose to teach their own children. It is always presented as a mad, impractical scheme which is the last resort when faced with bullying or the failure to gain the desired secondary school.

There is no doubt at all that the man in the street is now more aware of home education than was the case a couple of years ago. The soap operas are simply reflecting this new awareness. It is a pity that they cannot consult a few genuine home educators before they embark upon these projects. I am sure that many viewers will have a few laughs at Bianca's hopeless attempts to furnish her son with a decent education, but the end result will simply be to reinforce the idea that this is not a job for anybody other than trained professionals and that for a parent to undertake the role of educator is a recipe for disaster.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Loving children

Home educators vary tremendously in their aims and methods for achieving those aims. Some are like me, parents who are getting restless if their child cannot read by her second birthday. Others are not bothered if their son can only write in large, scrawled capital letters at the age of twelve. Most fall somewhere between these two extremes. All however have one thing in common; they like their children and enjoy their company.

I find it absolutely extraordinary to hear mothers with a babe in arms talking eagerly of how soon they will be able to get a nursery place for their child. I am similarly astonished when parents report that they are dreading the Summer holidays; it will mean spending a lot of time with their kids. My own daughter was not born until I had already turned forty. Perhaps this had the effect of making her very precious to me, I had more or less accepted by that age that I would never be a father. Whatever the reason, I loved every second of the time I spent with her as a baby. I certainly never tired of her or wished for anybody else to look after her. it seemed the most natural thing in the world not to send her to school. Why wouldn't I want to spend all the available time with her? I think that many parents of school children find this attitude a bit weird. they say things like, 'I'd go mad if I was stuck in the house with him all day!' or 'Don't you ever get fed up?'. I have felt in the past that there is a hint that there must be something a little unnatural about a parent who is content to have his child by his side all day long.

I wonder if this might be at the back of the suggestion that home educated children might be more at risk of abuse than those who are sent to school? Could it be that most parents simply can't imagine mothers and father who love their children so much that they do not wish to be parted from them? Perhaps some people find this so unusual that they feel that there must be something sinister or unhealthy at the back of it.

I have noticed another thing when talking to parents of teenagers who are at school. They are all amazed when I tell them that my daughter and I never argue. It is as though this whole set-up of parents arguing furiously with their teenage offspring is supposed to be the normal state of affairs and a relaxed, peaceful home is somehow an oddity. But I can't for the life of me see why I would want to fall out with my daughter.

Perhaps it is this which really lies at the heart of the reservations which others have about home education. Clearly, the objections cannot really be based upon purely educational concerns. It is perfectly easy to teach a kid at home and provide at least as efficient education as is likely to be on offer at the local maintained school. The real problems that some people have with the idea of home education must lie elsewhere and I would not be at all surprised if this were part of the explanation.

Sunday, 23 May 2010


In an email to the Guardian a few days ago, Mike Fortune-Wood claimed that only a 'vanishing few' among home educators were of the 'hothouser' type, people like Harry Lawrence. He may well be right, although it is hard to know where he gets his information. After all, the vast majority of home educating parents belong to no support groups or other organisations. However, whether or no, it set me thinking upon this subject.

The year before Education Otherwise was founded, a parent began home educating his daughter. Following in the tradition of John Stuart Mill's father, James, Harry Lawrence wished to turn his child into a genius. Fathers like this, for such people almost invariably are fathers, have seldom presented any particular problem for the authorities. It is always quite obvious that an education is taking place and the proud parent is rarely reluctant to talk about the project or describe his child's achievements. The provision of highly structured and carefully planned education of this sort, delivered in the form of one-to-one tutoring has never alarmed local authorities in the way that the softer and less rigorous teaching which many mothers favour does. Whether this is due to sexism is an open question.

Until relatively recently, this sort of intense education was probably the commonest form of home education. This is partly because it is a form of education readily recognisable and accepted by local authority officers. The academic results of the home education which Ruth Lawrence received were astonishing. Like John Stuart Mill, she was kept by her father from contact with other children. At the age of eleven she began studying Mathematics at Oxford University, completing her degree in two years rather than the more usual three. Her final marks would have been enough to earn her two Firsts! Her father lived with her while she was at Oxford and when she was offered posts first at Harvard and later at Michigan University, he went with her to the United States. While there, she fell in love with a man almost thirty years her senior, about her father's age in fact. They married and moved to Israel. There are rumours that she actually resents her childhood education and feels that it was not a good idea.

I think it fair to say that this sort of highly structured and academically demanding education is the exception these days, at least in British home education. I don't know whether or not I would go as far as Mike Fortune-Wood in describing it as being limited to a 'vanishing few', but one certainly does not encounter such parents as often as one does the more laid back autonomous educators. The Internet list HE-Exams has a lot of people who enter their children for GCSEs and A levels, but even there, few of them seem to be the hothouser type. I can think of two possible explanations for the relative rarity of this breed of home educating parent.

In the first place, the great majority of home educators now seem to be women. These schemes, where young children are crammed full of knowledge and their skills accelerated, simply do not appeal to women in general the way that they do to some men. Perhaps they don't often regard their children like racing cars which have to be tuned, tested and raced round the track faster and better than anybody else's kid! It could be that that attitude is simply a male trait.

The other reason for the decline of the hothouser is of course that it is very hard work. According to the available research in this country, the majority of home educating parents are keen on home education because of the lifestyle and freedom which it provides for their families. Hothousing is most definitely not a relaxing lifestyle; it is far more taxing than sending a child to school. It is easy to see why a parent would avoid this way of life if lifestyle were the deciding factor in choosing to home educate. Of course, it may be that both Mike Fortune-Wood and I are quite wrong about this. After all, there are tens of thousands of home educators unknown to their local authorities and not belonging to any support groups. For all we know, the majority of them could be loopy and eccentric men who are busily engaged in trying to turn their young children into geniuses.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Another advantage of home education

One of the most awful things which one observes about school children is the casual prejudices that they seemingly acquire as a matter of routine. Using 'gay' as a pejorative term, for example. Talking about 'pikeys' or 'gyppos' is also exceedingly common. My own daughter, who is now at college, is currently engaged in a furious, single handed campaign to stop the use of the word 'retard'. Apparently, this most offensive word is almost universally bandied about by the sixteen and seventeen year olds with whom she associates, being applied both to those with genuine learning difficulties and also as a term of abuse, as in 'He's such a retard!'.

One of the problems with children and young people is that while they can be very charming individually, as a crowd they are frequently obnoxious. One might call it 'Lord of the Flies' syndrome. Because most teenagers spend a very large part of the day at school with other teenagers, they must either try and fit in or become lonely and isolated. One of the ways of fitting in is of course by adopting the mores of the group, including its prejudices and hatreds. These prejudices are loathsome enough in themselves, but they can also have a damaging effect upon the child's very education. In many secondary schools there is an anti-academic ethos among the pupils. There are special sneering terms for those who wish to study, work hard and achieve. Those who do the homework and attempt to take an intelligent interest in what is being taught may be stigmatised as 'boffins', 'swots' or 'crawlers'.

It takes a good deal of character to resist these pressures to conform. Even when it is done, the result can all too often be a child who feels lonely and left out at best and becomes at worst the victim of bullying. Yet another reason for those of us who did not send our children to school to feel confident that we made the right decision!

Friday, 21 May 2010

Should home educators receive money from the council?

A number of home educating parents feel an obscure sense of grievance that once they take their children out of school, they become entirely responsible for their children's education. At the back of their minds, they perhaps feel that the local authority has vast sums of money which they spend on schools and that they are wilfully denying home educated children their rightful share of this pot. It's not really like that at all.

Schools are very expensive places to run and the money raised through Council tax is nowhere near enough to pay for them. Instead, the money for schools is provided by central government in London. It comes from Income Tax and Corporation Tax. Each year, the local authority counts how many school children it has and then asks the government for the appropriate amount of money. For each child registered at a school, the local authority receives a fixed sum.. 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.

Would it be just and equitable for home educating parents to be included in the annual returns and then handed the AWPU each year in order to pay for their children's education? The problem is that the great bulk of this money is spent upon the salaries of teachers and upkeep of school buildings. As parents, we do not really expect a salary for teaching our own children, nor is it easy to see why the local authority should help us with the upkeep of our homes! The idea has been suggested that a voucher system should be established, so that all parents receive a credit note for the AWPU which they would then be free to spend where they wished. This would mean that they could shop around schools and nurseries or even use the money to contribute to a private education for their child. If such a scheme were to operate, then it would I suppose be reasonable for home educating parents to be a part of it.

The main difficulty though is that the majority of home educators simply wish to be left alone and have as little to do with their local authority as possible. Nobody gives out money without wanting to see what they have got in exchange and if local authorities did start handing out cash to home educating families, they would be sure to keep a much closer eye on them than is presently the case. My own daughter's examinations cost me the best part of £1000. That was my affair and I really don't see that the taxpayer should be expected to fund the enterprise. I had a free choice in which subjects she took and when she took them. Had we wished, she need not have sat any examinations at all. It is precisely this freedom which many home educating parents value and I can't see many being keen to sacrifice it for a lot of interference from their local authority.

The truth is that anybody who wishes for their child to be educated for free is able to do so. Indeed, children have a legal right to this free education. Those of us who choose not to avail ourselves of this right can hardly expect to be offered a cash alternative! The schools are there and we can use them or not as we decide.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

The death of ContactPoint

I have a strong suspicion that few in the home educating community will be mourning the end of the ContactPoint system. The idea behind this database was of course that the details of every child in the country would be recorded, together with information about their education, allegations by social services and so on. The plan was that no child would be able to 'slip between the cracks' and become hidden from view. Depending upon one's point of view, this was either a very necessary tool for protecting vulnerable children from harm or a piece of the most frightful busy-bodying ever seen in this country. It has of course now been announced that ContactPoint will be going the same way as Identity Cards. I imagine that this will now leave the way open for home educating families to remain 'under the radar' as some of them call it.

I think that there is something to be said both for and against a scheme like ContactPoint. I cannot myself see any harm in various agencies knowing how many children there are in this country and where they are being educated. On the other hand, many parents feel that it is no concern at all of the state even to wonder about such a thing. I shall be curious to see what will be contained in the Education Bill which is due to be described in the Queen's Speech on Tuesday. The official Liberal view before the election was that home education needed to be looked at again via another enquiry; a kind of Graham Badman Review Mark II. Whether they feel strongly enough about this to insist on its inclusion in the new bill remains to be seen. I rather think that the Tories, having been so vociferous in their opposition to Labour's Children, Schools and Families Bill, will be a bit hesitant about tackling the subject for a little while. My guess is that there will be no mention at all of home education for at least a year or so. Unless that is, there are a few more high profile cases like the Khyra Ishaq business.

Everybody seems to have calmed down generally now that the CSF Bill has gone. This can only be a good thing. As well as being able to focus a little more on their children's education, it will give parents a chance to mull over what has happened since the publication of the Badman Report and perhaps see that there is at least some merit in a few of the suggestions which were made. On the local authority side, I think that it has been realised that home education is an area which must be approached with extreme caution. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that both sides will take stock and give some thought to the next stage. Because even the most optimistic of home educating parents probably realises that this is not the end of the matter; that things will be changing at some point in the future. The only real question is how will they change and what is the best possible outcome which would satisfy both parents and local authorities.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

"Home schooled geeks"

Not for the first time, I find myself taken aback at the astonishing capacity possessed by some home educating parents to make a lot of fuss about nothing. An article in the Guardian on Saturday about child prodigies contained the following quotation from the mother of a gifted three year old;

"Stories of home-schooled geeks scare her. "What every parent wants for their children is to give them a happy, balanced, enjoyable childhood. I don't think any adult is ever going to go, 'Damn, I didn't do my GCSEs aged nine'."

No suggestion of course that home educated children were in general 'geeks'. The only mention of home education in a pretty long article of almost four thousand words; hardly something to worry about, one would have thought. Several mothers were furious, though. One woman was 'absolutely fizzing with anger'! Fortunately, Mike Fortune-Wood was quickly on the case. He dashed off a long and bizarrely phrased email to the editor of the Guardian, saying among other things;

"Formal educational methods, of the sort employed by pushyparents attempting to hot house their kids are so rare as to bestatistically insignificant, yet your article has left the public with theimpression that this is the predominant methodology."

Curious indeed. How on earth does he know this? We are not told. Besides, all the wretched mother apparently said was that stories of home schooled geeks scared her. Understandable really; many people are made uneasy by cases such as Ruth Lawrence. It would be absurd to deny that there are actually home schooled geeks. If anybody should take offence at such a remark, I would have thought it should be incredibly structured home educators whose children are pushed through a clutch of IGCSE's early.......

I suppose that the truth is that with a change in the law on home education very much on the back burner at the moment, parents have to look harder at the newspapers in order to find things to be upset about. As a matter of fact, the Internet lists seem pretty quiet at the moment. We must hope that this is because all those parents who were spending so much time posting on them in the run-up to the election are now concerning themselves with the education of their children.

Life imitating art

During the debate about the home education parts of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, some parents drew attention to what they saw as the ridiculous idea that their children were not safe at home by asking facetiously whether or not all homes containing children under five should be checked regularly to make sure that the kids were safe. An amusing idea.....except that this is precisely what is now being proposed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. In draft guidance which was published on May 17th, NICE suggested that because two million children a year were admitted to A & E departments each year, something needed to be done about all those slack and ineffective parents who are allowing their children to come to harm. They believe that all parents of children under five should allow health inspectors into their homes to check that windows and doors are safe and that there is no danger of the children falling down stairs. Cookers and hot taps would also get the once over.

Now although one instinctively recoils from such an idea, I can see why they feel that the state has an interest in this. All those hospital visits come to about £146 million a year and parents do not hesitate to use the National Health Service in this way, even if they themselves were partly responsible for their children's injuries. Mike Kelly, Director of NICE's Centre for Public Health Excellence, said that health officials had a duty to prevent accidents to children.

I must confess that I am in two minds about this. On the one hand, it is not really anybody else's business if my house is a crumbling ruin and barely fit for human habitation. On the other hand, if a child came to harm as a result of my attitude, I would rush down to A & E and expect the public purse to be freely available to make things better. It's a tricky ethical dilemma.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Good news for some home educators

As our politicians rake through the wreckage of the recent election, looking for something to salvage from the shambles, there is excellent news for those parents who believe that government should not concern itself overmuch with home education. We may be in the middle of a constitutional crisis, but there is one very bright spot for such people; the chances of new legislation on home education are becoming vanishingly small.

Picture the scene for the leaders of the three main parties. Here you are, trying to piece together an administration, perhaps the first formal coalition since World War II. So many important things to worry about! So much to do! Here are a few of the problems facing you; immigration, the financial deficit, Europe, Trident, the war in Afghanistan, electoral reform, MPs' expenses, the possibility that fewer than 50% of children educated at home gain five GCSEs at grades A*-C and the consequent effect on their future earnings. Where to start? So many difficulties and you're going to have to fight each one through the commons in order to get a consensus.

Obviously, different politicians will have different priorities; one will be more concerned with immigration, another with the economy. I think it a fair guess though that few of them are likely to be putting the monitoring of home education up at the top of the list next to the war in Afghanistan. The chances are that all this deal making will be occupying everybody for some considerable time. There will probably be another election later this year, for which the campaigning will begin almost as soon as the next Prime Minister is installed in Downing Street. I really can't think that anybody is going to be giving any thought at all to changing the law on home education for the time being. There are simply more important things to consider.

The danger for home educators is always going to be during quiet periods in political life, when people are sitting about idly, making chains out of paper clips and asking themselves, 'What can I meddle with next?' Anybody in the Department for Children, Schools and Families who is at a loose end in the near future though, might be better engaged in asking themselves why a fifth of school leavers can neither read nor carry out any but the simplest arithmetical operations. The recent research on this from Sheffield University makes horrifying reading.

So at least for the next year or two, there is probably nothing to worry about for those parents who are determined to remain fanatically secretive about their children's lifestyle and academic achievement. The only threat to this somewhat eccentric way of life is likely to come from various local authorities, some of whom are evidently behaving as though the CSF Bill was actually passed in its entirety. I rather think that it will be some while before central government gets round to examining this issue again, unless of course too many cases of home educated children being abused or murdered by their parents crop up in the national press.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Research on home education

Once again, somebody commenting here has suggested that I look at the research on home education, research which apparently shows autonomous education to be a wise and good course of action for parents who wish to educate their own children. There are three problems with research in this country on autonomous home education. These are that the research is confusing and contradictory, that it involves ridiculously small numbers and that those conducting the research are usually very biased in favour of home education. Let's look a little at these points.

The work of two people invariably comes up when this subject is discussed; Alan Thomas and Paula Rothermel. Indeed, I have yet to read anything about autonomous home education in this country which fails to mention one or both of these two researchers. This should at once set alarm bells ringing. If we look at, say for example, the acquisition of literacy in schools; hundreds of different names will crop up. The same goes for any aspect of education; there are always hundreds, if not thousands of people's work to look at. Not so with autonomous home education; it is Rothermel or Thomas and that is pretty much it.

Why do I say that much of the research on the subject of autonomous home education is confusing and contradictory? To take one example, the standard view among many home educators is that children who learn in this way may read later than children at school, but it does not matter, because when they do start they soon catch up. This is a point of view which Alan Thomas shares. Paula Rothermel though, when conducting research among much the same families at the same time, discovered that over 90% of the home educated children were actually fantastically early readers. On the tests used, one would have expected 16% of the six year olds to be in the top band, whereas 94% were on that level! Both beliefs cannot be correct. If many home educated children start reading a little later than children at school, then clearly 94% of them cannot also start reading fluently very early. More research needed there, I fancy.

That the numbers involved in this sort of research are ludicrously small is self evident. Thomas examined a hundred or so home educated children. Rothermel's literacy tests were with a sample of thirty five. Research on the academic achievements of schooled children runs into millions every year from all over the country.

I remarked a few days ago that many home educating parents seemed reluctant to become involved in objective testing of their children's abilities. The only people with whom they will work are researchers who are enthusiastic about home education and who assure parents that they think that it is a good thing. This means that such researchers often abandon all objectivity and become friends with the families. The results of work under these conditions is automatically suspect. Whenever the possibility presents itself that home educated children might be examined or their educational attainment tested by anybody who is not a dedicated supporter of the home education movement, parents refuse to have anything to do with it. Witness the reaction to the DCSF's proposed longitudinal study recently.

It would be nice to see some large scale research by objective or even sceptical workers looking at home education in general and autonomous home education in particular. It could well show, as many parents claim, that this is a brilliant scheme. However, until this happens, the rest of us will have to suspend judgement. One thing is for sure, it would be fatal to rely upon the anecdotal evidence from parents themselves. All parents tend to have grossly exaggerated and wildly optimistic views and opinions about their children's abilities. I would be the worst possible person to ask about my own daughter's achievements!

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Tory plans for home education

I suspect that some of those home educating parents who were playing kiss-in-the-ring with the Tories over the Badman Review and the attempt to block the CSF Bill, must be kicking themselves now! It is becoming quite clear that the Conservatives plan something for home education as soon as they are able to form a government. Here is what Nick Gibbs, Conservative Spokesman for Schools says;

"It is important that the need for monitoring does not become a barrier for parents who wish to home educate their children, nor should it damage the important working relationship that home educators have with their local authorities."

Note the reference to the, "need for monitoring". Surely that was the one thing that many home educating parents believed was not needed? It is, I think, fair to assume that this means that the Conservatives plan to introduce legislation of their own in this field. Nick Gibbs, by the way, does not seem very well informed about home education. He says;

" I hope that the hostility between local authorities and home educators, which the Government created with the publication of the Badman report..."

I wonder if he really believes this? Does he not know of the hostility which existed before Graham Badman had even been heard of by most people? He also says;

"We do believe that there is a need for greater support for home-educating families"

What does this mean? The sort of support that Graham Badman was keen to offer? I don't think that home education is going to be forgotten by whoever wins the election today. There are rumours that a number of cases involving home education are gradually moving towards the courts. The recent trial in Plymouth has, of course, been completely ignored by home educators.
There is something of a tradition of opposition parties helping to scupper government legislation and then bringing in pretty much identical measures once they have their feet under the table in Downing Street. Anybody here old enough to remember Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife White paper, the one which was to crack down on trade unions and strikes? the Tories under Heath fought it tooth and nail. As soon as the 1970 election had been won, they passed the Industrial relations Act 1971, which was practically identical. I would not be particularly surprised to see the same thing happen with the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

The Department for Children, Schools and families announced recently;

Parents of home educated young people between the age of 14 and 16
who have the offer of a place at college 2010-2011 subject to funding can
ask their local authority to pay the college fees. In all cases where the LA
agrees to pay the fees, the LA is guaranteed to be able to recoup the
money by including the young person in the Alternative Provision census
in January 2011

At which, there was much rejoicing among home educating parents, many of whom thought that this would mean their children being given free places at colleges. One has to wonder if that is how it is going to work out in practice. Now leaving aside the question of just why so many home educating parents seem so keen to get their kids into college rather than school, what is actually happening about this?

Reading this directive carefully, we notice at once a curious thing. There is no suggestion whatsoever that the local authority will, let alone must pay the fees for these children. Parents may ask and the LA may agree. Knowing how uncooperative some local authorities can be, I hope that I am not being unduly cynical if I observe that asking is not getting. It is made very clear by the reference to, ' In all cases where the LA agrees to pay the fees', that the DCSF expects there to be other cases where the LA does not agree to pay the fees. How are parents to know? Are they to enrol their child at college and then ask the college to approach the local authority? What happens if their local authority says 'no'?

I have rung around a few friends who work at various colleges and I think I can see why many colleges will be very reluctant to become involved in this and actually offer places to home educated children. In short, I can see, if not what is going on, at least what some colleges think might be going on. It is this. They fear that certain local authorities are going to start getting them to take hard cases who cannot be managed at school. This could be done without any sort of prior consultation simply by the schools advising parents to deregister their kids from school and then to apply for a place at college because they are now home educators. This would mean that local authorities could, in effect, transfer difficult and unmanageable pupils from schools to colleges. If they set this up officially, they might be compelled to offer extra funding to colleges in order to help with these kids. This way, it could be done for very little.

Mind, I don't say that this is what the local authorities are up to or that this will be the result of the directive from the DCSF, simply that some people think that this could be the case. At the very least, it does not look as though access to colleges will be automatic for home educated children. I can foresee that many parents will still end up having to pay. Those hoping for such places could perhaps do worse than bear in mind the old German proverb; blessed are those who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed......

Comparisons between the outcome of autonomous learning and conventional teaching

A few days ago, somebody posted a comment here asking if I could provide links to any research comparing the outcomes of conventional teaching with the results of autonomous learning. Of course I cannot do any such thing. Nobody who knows anything at all about autonomous education will be the least bit surprised at this.

For at least three thousand years, it has been generally accepted that the best way for children to learn is for them to be taught. There exists an enormous body of evidence to back up this belief. This has been gathered over the centuries by scientists, teachers and statisticians. A small group of people today challenge this and argue that children are perfectly capable of learning what they wish by themselves, enlisting the aid of adults as and when it is needed. This is a perfectly good theory and there may well be something in it. Unfortunately, like so many 'alternative' ideas whether in education, medicine or science, it is not possible to prove it.

In order to demonstrate the efficacy of traditional education, we measure, test and examine children. We look at their abilities at point X and then test them two years later to see if they have changed. This is done with millions of children across the world and the results compared and adjusted for cultural differences and so on. There was an opportunity for work of this sort to be conducted with autonomously educated children in this country. It was called the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009. This would have examined the outcomes of autonomously educated children objectively. Baselines would have been established and the intentions of their parents compared with eventual achievement. There can be little doubt that this would have been a great chance to test the autonomous education hypothesis in detail. It was the parents of autonomously educated children who led the opposition to this scheme.

The reasons for this opposition were fairly straightforward. Like so many fringe activities, from ESP to homeopathy, spiritualism to Steiner schools,; this form of education must not and cannot be examined too closely without breaking the spell and damaging that which is being tested. It has been compared, by Ann Newsome of Education Otherwise, to a quantum system, where the very act of observation will alter that which is being observed! In short, it is not possible, even in theory, to test the effectiveness of autonomous education. The methods routinely used in schools and colleges throughout the world would place such children under intolerable stress and their education would be altered as a result.

We are left in a peculiar situation. It is roughly comparable to that faced by conventional medicine when challenged by some new crackpot cure. For example the traditional way of dealing with cancer is to cut out the tumour and then bombard the site with radiation and often use poison as well to rid the body of the remains of the cancerous cells. Some opponents of these methods characterise the treatment as 'slash, burn and poison'. Sometimes 'alternative' practitioners offer gentler methods, involving diet, exercise and meditation. None of these alternative methods can be examined closely though by doctors or statisticians. This would hinder the healing process and in any case the presence of sceptics can have a bad effect upon the whole thing.

One is reminded of the sort of thing the autonomously educating parents claim about their own methods. Measuring their child's progress would be harmful. Sceptical teachers or local authority officers would damage their child's learning if they were to be allowed access. It is all so eerily similar to other crank belief systems that one wonders that the practitioners are unable to see this for themselves!

This is however, why no body of evidence exists which has compared the outcomes of autonomously educated children with those at school. No such body exists, nor is it ever likely to do so. This does not of course mean that autonomous education does not work, merely that there is little evidence that it does. The only evidence is, like that for cures of cancer by carrot juice or meditation, a handful of vague and subjective accounts by one or two dedicated enthusiasts for the ideas. The rest of us will have to reserve judgement until the autonomous educators agree to a little research.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Motives for home education

I have written before about the large number of home educating parents who seem to undertake the education of their own children in reaction to problems at school, rather than because they are keen on home education. Typical problems which precipitate this decision are bullying and the school's inability to cater for some special educational need. I am thinking today about another factor which might cause parents to choose home education; their own experiences in the school system.

I have noticed that an awful lot of well known figures in the home educating scene have negative views about schools in general. A lot of the time, these are based upon their own childhood experiences. Paula Rothermel is of course one such individual whose own life dictated her interest in home education; there are many others. I shall not give any names, but the kind of things I am talking about are as follows. One well known person from Education Otherwise was subjected to sexual abuse and still feels bitter many years later because the teachers at her school were unsympathetic to her resulting depression. Another woman was withdrawn from a boarding school and sent to a comprehensive, where the teachers were a little suspicious of her, seeing her as snobbish. Both these women taught their own children at home for a while and in both cases, the decision to home educate was directly connected with their own childhoods. I can think of quite a few others in a similar position.

The reason that I have been musing about this is because I get the feeling sometimes that many home educators are not so much pro-home education as they are anti-school. Listening to parents, I seem to hear far more about the iniquities of the educational system than I do the joys of teaching one's own children. This is curious. I did not particularly enjoy school myself, but I don't think that this affected my decision to home educate. I certainly have nothing against conventional education, except that it can be a bit inefficient. With a lot of home educating parents though, even those who have chosen to do it and not just been forced into it by bullying and so on, there is a repugnance for the very idea of conventional teaching. Such things as broad and balanced curricula are regarded as the Devil's work, as is the very idea of planning an education at all. It strikes me that these people are opposed ideologically to ordinary education.
Of course, it might simply be that a lot of these parents have sat down, researched the literature and then concluded that traditional teaching is a dead loss. I can't think that likely though. After all, apart from a handful of cranks like John Holt and Roland Meighan, academics in the field of education are pretty unanimous about what tends to make a good education. Teaching is certainly a big part of it.

It is definitely the case that many on the Internet lists seem to have some kind of grudge against schools and local authorities. I can certainly understand this is a school has let down their child and failed to provide a good education. It also makes sense if the child has been exposed to harm and the school has not protected her. Even so, this would really only suggest that a particular school was falling down on the job; not that the entire educational system was based upon a faulty theory. The dedication with which some parents embrace crank ideas such as homeopathy, autonomous learning or the dangers of vaccination, cause me to think that there is more to this than meets the eye. Whether it is simply one aspect of an anti-scientific world view, or if it is because they and their families were badly let down in the past by doctors or teachers, it is fairly plain to me that there is more going here than people just examining the evidence and then making a rational and objective choice. After all, if they examined the evidence in an unbiassed way, they would plump every time for conventional teaching! There are clearly other factors at play and I would very much like to know what they are.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

The Plymouth Case

Interesting case heard at Plymouth Crown Court this week. A girl whose parents have been noticed a number of times by social services was withdrawn from school at the age of thirteen in order to be home educated. Before this happened, her brother had been taken into care and later adopted due to abuse by the father. The girl herself had been seen at school with a bite mark on her arm and had told social workers that she wanted to get away from her father so she could be safe. She was briefly sent to a foster family, but had to leave because of her sexualised behaviour.

By the age of fourteen, after she had been removed from school, her parents were sexually abusing her regularly and had photographed her pretending to have sex with a dog and also groping her own mother. One need hardly add that there had been no home visits to the family by the local authority after she had been deregistered from school. The case may be seen here;

There are of course two ways of looking at this. Some home educating parents will no doubt take the line that since the child was already known to social services, they are at fault for not taking more of an interest in her after she had been withdrawn from school. Another point of view would be that this might be the tip of an unsavoury iceberg and that there may be many other children in this position whose parents have just been a little more cunning about hiding their activities from the local authority. I have a strong suspicion that if this girl's family had been required to discuss sensibly their plans with the local authority and explain their educational approach, then this would probably have discouraged them from taking the child out of school. I also think that the prospect of regular visits from anybody might have caused them to scale back on their abusive activities a little.

Although, as in the Khyra Ishaq case, we see that social services have fallen down on the job, this case does show once again the important role of schools as a first line of defence in spotting abuse. It was teachers who saw bruises on her arm and then later a bite mark. This is one safeguarding advantage of school for the average child. Obviously, with an election only a week away, a case like this is not attracting as much publicity as it deserves. I have a suspicion though that it will not take a new Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families very long in office before he or she decides that the whole business of home education needs to be looked at again.