Saturday, 31 July 2010

Welcome to the Mad Hatter's Tea-party

I have recently observed that many comments made here tend to create an Alice in Wonderland air, completely divorced from the real world and quite impossible for any normal, sane person to follow . This tendency has accelerated over the last week or so until the comments to my posts are starting to read like a transcript of conversations which might have taken place at the Mad Hatter's Tea-party. The day before yesterday I posted a quite unexceptionable piece about Michael Gove, speculating on the possibility that he might introduce compulsory registration of home educators. I expressed no opinion either way and simply set out a few quotations of his which might shed light upon this possibility. I might mention here that Ian Dowty said precisely the same thing recently and feels that home educators would be wise to suggest this for themselves, so the actual content of the post could hardly be considered daring or controversial. What sort of response was there?

Well, to begin with a woman in Shropshire is anxious about the possibility that I might once have written under a pseudonym. She says;

' I thought you had written under an assumed name for The Lady?'

What makes this enquiry utterly surreal is that she signs her own comment with a pseudonym. I last wrote regularly for The Lady in the eighties, so let's see if I have this straight. A person who habitually uses a pseudonym in order to conceal her identity is worried that I might have used a pseudonym myself over twenty years ago. Have I got that right? Am I really alone in finding this a little odd? (I think Ms Gerrard at No. 8 knows who we're talking about here!) This is nothing though compared with another person who is concerned that,

'really very little of substance is known about him.'.

This was written by a person about whom we know considerably less of substance, because she chooses not to reveal her name or even her gender! You might find it pretty rich that she should then complain about knowing very little of substance about somebody who has always used his real name and widely publicised both his personal email address and a good deal of information about his life. This Anonymous is also bothered because I apparently, 'like to hint at things about himself which might lead one astray as a first time reader, then says things along the lines of "whatever makes you think I'm..." (e.g., christian). She seems to be saying here that she does not know enough about my religious convictions. What bearing this might have upon home education remains obscure.

What else have we got? I said that at one time in the sixties the Guardian had a strong libertarian streak and used to support the Liberal party, as indeed it did. An angry person responded;

'Ha ha Ha - do you know what Libertarian means? Clearly not. FYI, The Guardian is probably the most pro-State, pro-collectivist newspaper in the UK. It is the antithesis of Libertarian.'

A bit of a rant followed about this. I have no idea at all what the paper is like these days, I have not read it for over thirty years; I made it clear that I was referring to the past. The comments just get madder and madder. Mind you, the above seem as sensible as a dictionary compared with the person who wondered whether William Whitelaw might have been my father. Fathom that one out if you can!

These people all have one thing in common; they are wholly incapable of discussing any topic in a rational or coherent fashion. Few of the comments had anything to do with Michael Gove or even home education in general; some of them sound as though those making them are confused and not entirely in their right minds.

It might be worth bearing in mind that a number of people from both the DfE and also various local authorities read this blog regularly. Reading the comments here has had the effect of hardening their views on increased regulation, because they say that some of those posting give the distinct impression that they are not really fit people to undertake sole responsibility for a child's education. I don't say that I agree with this, but I have to say that friends and colleagues of mine who come on here frequently also tell me that some of the people who comment sound a bit loopy. Still and all, that is hardly my business. If people want to come on here and make complete arses of themselves in that way, it's really nothing to me. I just thought that the people commenting might want to stop and think a little sometimes and consider that they are in fact providing a showcase to the general public of what sort of people home educate. I can't help feeling that some are not very good advertisements for the general quality of home educators.

'Simon Webb types are bad for us'

I simply had to mention this gem. At the recent Hes Fes conference, time lay so heavily on the hands of the participants that they apparently fell to talking about me. It was decided that;

'Simon Webb types are bad for us. Although maybe he was shown to be lone voice. Got more publicity than should have.'

'Shown to be lone voice'? Odd that none of those present remembered that of the two thousand two hundred responses from home educating parents which the Badman review received, a third of those who responded were definitely in favour of registration. Hardly a lone voice then. I was also fascinated to learn that I got more publicity than I should have done. What publicity and where is it? Who is providing this publicity? I honestly want to know about this! They surely cannot mean a piddling little blog with a few hundred visits a day? I am especially intrigued by the idea that I have more publicity 'than I should have'. How much publicity should I have and how is this calculated? I am sure that somebody who was present will be happy to explain this to me.

Friday, 30 July 2010

On the passing of GCSEs without systematic study or help from parents

I sometimes think that my daughter must be the only teenager who worked hard to achieve her GCSEs, just as I must be the only parent who put in a lot of effort to help her do so. According to practically all our friends, their children did no revision or studying at all and it is a miracle that they managed to get strings of As and A*s. The parents also generally claim to have done nothing to help the children pass their examinations; they were themselves too busy to do anything to help and so their child's academic success is a mystery to them. These are all children who attended school. It is not to be wondered at that when I hear similar claims being made by the parents of children who were home educated, I raise my eyebrows a little. Yet more children who did not study systematically or revise and yet got good grades. This is very mysterious, because both my daughter and I had to work very hard to achieve the same end. Perhaps she is particularly slow witted and needed a lot of extra coaching!

Now I have no idea about other parents and children, but in the case of many of those known to me personally, these stories of nobody doing much to get the kid to pass a lot of GCSEs at high grades are not really true. Parents who claim to have done nothing seem to forget the tutors they engaged for years, the attending church in order to get the kid into a good school, the piano and ballet lessons, endless visits to museums, rows with the kids to make them do their homework, helping them with their coursework, forbidding them permission to go out during the run-up to the exams so that they revise and all the rest of the efforts which they made.

Why do parents tell these fairy stories to each other about all this lack of effort on both their part and that of their children? Partly I suppose because nobody wants to appear to be a desperate and pushy parent! Much more impressive to be laid back and cool and not to beaver away neurotically for years just to get your kids into a good university. Telling other parents that your kid didn't revise or study and yet still passed a clutch of examinations is a subtle way of boasting. They are saying, in effect, 'My daughter is so talented and bright that she didn't need to work. She simply absorbed the content of the GCSE courses easily and did not have to revise it just before the exam. What a brain-box!' Of course, it is also laying up a brilliant alibi for yourself if your child does muff up her GCSEs. You can simply say, 'Yes, I told you she didn't do any work!' It's a win-win situation really.

How likely is it that a child would really pass GCSEs without studying hard and putting in a lot of work? Not very likely at all I would say. One picks up all sorts of knowledge casually just from ordinary day to day reading of newspapers and magazines, watching television, surfing the net and so on. This means that anybody concerned with the environment, climate change or even science in general is likely to know that plants grow by taking water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining them together in process known as photosynthesis. This is simply the sort of general knowledge that any educated person might be expected to possess. It is not hard to see how anybody, even a person who has never studied for GCSEs or anything else might acquire this sort of information more or les automatically without anybody telling them to do so. However when I meet a teenager who is able to set down the correct balanced formula for this process, that is to say;

6 CO2 + 12 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 6 H2O

then I am pretty sure that she has made a conscious effort to learn it by heart. What possible reason could anybody, even somebody passionately concerned about trees and the environment, have for wanting to know the chemical formula for glucose? This is most definitely not the sort of general knowledge which one picks up casually in the course of reading about plants. It is not the sort of thing which anybody apart from a chemist, biologist or teenager swotting from an examination would ever know! It is of course a vital piece of information if one wants to pass a GCSE in biology, which is pretty well the only reason anyone ever learns it.

The same can be said of the minerals which plants need to grow effectively. Knowing the importance of these minerals is general knowledge which most of us have. The gardeners among us could also talk about NPK fertilisers and be aware that these contain potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. We might even know about their role in eutrophication. We are unlikely though to know the precise proportions for a balanced NPK fertiliser and the symptoms of deficiency in plants of one of these elements. Again, to get an A* at biology, you must know this.

I make no bones at all about the fact that I am myself a pushy and ambitious parent who made damned sure that his daughter studied and got a clutch of good GCSEs. Both of us worked extremely hard towards that end, which, as I say, sets me apart from most of parents whom I know or of whom I have heard. There may perhaps be teenagers who learn for fun about Snell's Law, the formula for photosynthesis and the precise reasons for the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, but I think that they are as rare as rocking-horse shit. About as rare in fact as parents who do not do all that they can to ensure that their children pass these important examinations at the age of fifteen or sixteen. For the rest of us, it is hard slog involving a good deal of work for both parent and child.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Michael Gove and the home educators

I have always taken it rather for granted that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is a bit of a weasel. His appearance is distinctly musteline and he is after all a career politician. Still, he was the darling of the home educators during the run-up to the election. He valiantly denounced Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill and promised that the Tories would always stick by home educators. In January he said:

' I do not believe that the current system is perfect, but it is fundamentally important that we respect the rights of home educators first and that we ensure that any change to legislation is conducted in accordance with their wishes and interests.'

I found this pretty awful actually, emphasising the rights of parents without mentioning the rights of children, but there, I admit that I have a bee in my bonnet about children's rights. And why on earth should we , ' ensure that any change to legislation is conducted in accordance with their wishes and interests.'? Just because a group of people choose to follow some activity, does that mean that we must always automatically ensure that any legislation affecting them is in accordance with their wishes? Does that apply to fox hunters and vivisectionists as well? Or the owners of shotguns and pit-bull terriers? The logic of this escapes me utterly. In February he was promising that a Conservative government would repeal any legislation on home education which Labour passed. There was no doubt at all that Gove was the people's choice at least as far as the home education community was concerned.

In May Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education. Home education was certainly safe in his hands. We could all breathe a sigh of relief and carry on educating or neglecting our children according to whichever particular strand of home education we favoured. Well at least for the next month or so, until Ofsted's report on Local authorities and home education was released in the middle of June. He suddenly seemed a good deal less sure about his opposition to new legislation about home education. The DfE announced that;

' We note Ofsted's findings and recommendations and ministers will shortly be considering if changes need to be made to the existing arrangements, given the strong views expressed by both home educators and local authorities.'

This was the first hint that Gove might be changing his position slightly. Note the words well, 'considering if changes need to be made'. Observe that crucial word 'if'. A mere five weeks later and the Serious Case Review on Khyra Ishaq's death was published. Michael Gove said;

' We respect the right of parents to educate their children at home and most do a very good job, some of them picking up the pieces where children have had problems at school. Clearly lessons need to be learned by the tragic events in this case, and I will consider the letter I expect to receive from Birmingham shortly, to see what changes need to be made to the existing arrangements and reply in due course.'

What's changed in this picture boys and girls? Can you spot the difference? Well in June he was, ' 'considering if changes need to be made'. Now in July he will, 'see what changes need to be made to the existing arrangements ' See what's changed? The 'if' has vanished. The statement earlier this week is saying in effect that changes need to be made. The only question is what those changes will be, not if they need to be made. In other words, the arrangements around home education are going to change.

You can't altogether blame Gove for this abrupt volte face. Everybody gets upset about dead little girls and the immediate impulse is to do something about it. Now that he is in government, the obvious thing to do is pass a law which will stop any parents in the future torturing their children to death in this way. This is the standard response to such tragedies. Victoria Climbie's death produced the Every Child Matters document, the Soham murders produced the Independent Safeguarding Authority and now Khyra Ishaq's legacy may also be a new law. This is what governments do when they can't think of anything else. I think that matters are now balanced on the edge of a knife and it would only take one more case involving the abuse of a home educated child to tip the balance. The rumour is that just such a high profile case is about to hit the courts in the next month or so.

That there has been a shift in public opinion on the subject of home education seems clear. When Alan Thomas had a piece in the Guardian a couple of days ago, the comments were interesting. Usually one would expect to hear a contrapuntal murmur from Guardian readers of 'creeping surveillance society...statisim.... liberty' and various similar expressions. In fact everybody apart from the home educators seemed to be in favour of a crackdown on home education. I found this surprising.

How would Gove go about changing the law without encountering the same sort of fuss that Ed Balls did with his CSF Bill. Perhaps by going about it piecemeal, instead of demanding everything at once. It would not, at least to begin with, need an entirely new bill. Little bits and pieces are constantly being tacked on to things like the 1996 Education Act, sometimes years later. I should think that something along the lines of The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, Statutory Instrument 2006 No. 1751 might meet the case to begin with. As I say, Gove would be unwise to start a row by doing everything at once. To begin with, a simple requirement for home educating parents to register with their local authority would probably have the support of almost everyone except home educators themselves. Then it would just be a matter of adding other provisions every six months or so. I don't know of course if this is what will happen, but I would not be at all surprised.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A curious case of apparently autonomous education

I am often accused of ignoring evidence for successful autonomous education, although this is not really true. I examine everything in this area closely whenever I get the opportunity. So I was intrigued a couple of days ago when somebody posted the following here;

' My AS child took science GCSE's as a way of consolidating her knowledge, and was very disappointed when she realised that her knowledge already far exceeded that which was necessary for the GCSE course. She got A*s without doing a stroke of work. She is completely self-taught, and was teaching me by the age of 11.'

What are we to make of this? Firstly, it is apparently being touted as a case of autonomous education without any teacher being involved. ' She is completely self-taught' certainly suggests strongly that she taught herself without anybody actually teaching her. For most people, this would indicate that she has not been attending school. Also, this comment was posted following a discussion of autonomous education and home education. The implication is plain. This is certainly the impression which others gained as well. The next comment was;

' well done to your daughter for learning so much without a course, Simon really has no idea, does he?'

This person too seems to have got the impression that the child passed the GCSEs without actually studying a structured course, either at school or anywhere else. She already knew more than enough to pass the GCSEs and barely needed to glance at the syllabus. A clear triumph for the autonomous method.

I found this all very interesting for several reasons. Firstly because I give advice and assistance to some local parents who have withdrawn their children from secondary school. They all want their children to take GCSEs although this is very difficult because of the problems of coursework and practical investigations. If it is possible to take ordinary GCSEs without following a distance learning course or attending school, this would be pretty exciting. Most find GCSEs almost impossible to do out of school unless they have a few hundred pounds to spare on a distance learning course, which these people don't. Science is particularly tricky, because of the practical work. The second point is the use of the plural; ' science GCSE's ' , ' She got A*s '. Obviously, this person's child did not take the usual double award science but instead opted to take separate sciences; biology, physics and chemistry. Now I have to say that I have never heard of any home educated child managing to do this with the standard GCSEs, due to the problems about authenticating coursework and carrying out the practicals in the laboratory. I don't say it has never been done, simply that I have never heard of it, either in those home educators whom I know or on any of the lists. Naturally, I wanted to know more about the business.

Most home educated children who wish to have qualifications in sciences take the International GCSE or IGCSE. This gets round the problem of practical work in the laboratory. There is simply an extra paper which replaces the practical. This is how my daughter took her examinations in physics, biology and chemistry. My daughter of course did not attend school for a single day of her life, nor did she ever follow a distance learning course or anything of that sort; a genuine case of home education.

Now one of the people who commented about this may well have thought that, ' Simon really has no idea, does he?'. I understood this to be a reference to my supposed inability to appreciate the efficacy of autonomous education. Actually, I did have an idea; the idea being that there was more to this case of a child apparently being completely self-taught and breezing through separate sciences at GCSE than met the eye. So it proved, because when I asked about the circumstances, I was told, 'To answer your question on yesterday's post, my child did GCSE's at school.' This is pretty breathtaking. After claiming that the child was, ' completely self-taught, and was teaching me by the age of 11.' we are now told that she actually attended school and took her GCSEs there like everybody else.

It's a good job that I took the trouble to ask about this because otherwise people might have gone off with the impression that here was a child who simply taught herself science by the age of eleven and then passed science GCSEs without studying any course or syllabus. Let's hope that this scotches at least one little myth in the making. In fact this is just the sort of anecdote which many parents of ordinary schoolchildren tell all the time and nothing to do with home education. I have lost track of the number of parents who have told me, 'My daughter is so bright. She already knew everything that the teachers tried to tell her and she didn't do a stroke of work; just sailed through her GCSEs. And she got A* for them all'. My daughter did actually get all A* for her IGCSEs, but it took some pretty hard work by me teaching and her studying! I couldn't truthfully say of her that 'she didn't do a stroke of work'! See;

Shortly after this discussion on the comments, somebody posted a link to a GCSE course in Coventry which they thought might be suitable for home educated children;

I followed this up, but it is really aimed at overseas students from whom fees may be extracted. The person to whom I spoke at the college was surprised at the idea of a teenager without any experience of previous GCSEs starting the course and did not think it very likely. Back to the drawing board I fancy on this one.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Insulting home educators

Over the last couple of days several people commenting here have told me that they have felt insulted. This was because I have in the past said unflattering things about autonomous home education and this means that as autonomous home educators themselves they have been personally maligned. I have to say that this strikes me as absolute nonsense. Three points need to be considered.

The first point is that many parents of autonomously educated children are abnormally sensitive to any criticism of their methods. They see even casual observations as savage attacks. Consider the following statement: many parents of children at secondary schools lie their heads off about their children's academic achievements and make strenuous efforts to deceive their local authority about what their children are actually capable of. I could make this comment anywhere; on a blog, in a newspaper article or speaking in the local pub and nobody would turn a hair or take any offence. The coursework swindle has become so widespread and blatant that even the government has noticed. This is why it is being replaced by controlled assessments in the classroom. I don't know a single parent who has not drawn pictures, sewn garments, composed music, written essays or carried out mathematical investigations for their children's GCSEs. In other words, they are setting out deliberately to deceive others about the true nature of their children's academic achievement. I have never heard of a parent who found it insulting when this is mentioned; parents just laugh. In fact everybody exaggerates or inflates what their children do; it is just how parents are. Everybody claims that their child is gifted/talented/ sensitive/clever/musical/advanced for her age and so on.

The funny thing is of course that while I can say anything at all about the coursework swindle without anybody getting annoyed, the suggestion that autonomously educating parents get up to the same tricks is apparently deeply insulting. This rather makes me think that it is a matter of sensitivity on the part of some parents and not a rational objection at all. If I were to say a similar thing on here or in a newspaper article about home educating parents, there would be cries of protest and general anguish. Let's try: many parents of autonomously educated children lie their heads off about their children's activities and do their best to deceive their local authority as to the true level of their children's academic achievements. Whoa, steady on there! This is deeply offensive to home educating parents. It is an insult!

The second point is that people often say horrible things about subjects which are dear to our hearts. Richard Dawkins for instance has said that a Catholic upbringing is worse than the sexual abuse of a child. As somebody who raised his daughter in the church, should I feel insulted by this? After all, he is saying that the way I raised my child is worse than sexual abuse! Of course I don't actually feel insulted at all. I disagree with his views, but he is perfectly entitled to hold them. I can hardly expect everybody in the world to tiptoe around things which I hold sacred and then accuse them of insulting me if they criticise something which is important to me. If that were the case then nobody would ever be able to say much about religion, education, politics or anything else without upsetting and insulting other people! Most of us take all this in our stride. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have these views and the best thing I can do is just not get too worked up about them. Mind you, they have both been told time and again that they are wrong and they still say gratuitously offensive things without a thought for my feelings. There must be something wrong with them!

A final point is this. If I read books by Richard Dawkins, or look at newspaper articles by him or go on his blog, then I shall encounter views about religion with which I disagree strongly. Whatever can I do? Ah, I know. If I don't want to read his opinions on religion, opinions with which I know in advance that I shall disagree, I could avoid going on his blog or reading what he says about religion in the newspapers. This is actually what I generally do. After all, there would be no point at all in my going on his blog and then fretting because he was saying horrible things about my religion. There would be still less point in claiming to be insulted and suggesting that he must be autistic because he won't listen to my views and does not mind upsetting me. Obviously, I would do better not to read what he says if it is going to wind me up. Some of the people who comment here remind me very much of the little old spinster who rang the police and complained that she was upset because she could see the neighbours getting undressed at night. When the police came round, she showed them up into her bedroom and pointed out of the window. The policeman peered out but could not see into the window of the house opposite. 'Sorry, love', he told her, 'I can't see into your neighbours' bedroom at all' She said, 'Oh you have to climb onto the dressing table and then crane your neck round to see properly...'

I am very happy for anybody to come on here and comment. That's why I don't moderate. But if what I am saying here is really offending anybody, it might be better for people not to read it. When all's said and done, this is a personal blog about my thoughts on home education. I'll be damned if I stop expressing my opinions simply because they are unpalatable to this person or that. There are blogs around which cater especially for autonomous educators, things like Dare to Know and Mairre Stafford's blog. I don't go on them much myself, because they irritate me, but I have an idea that some of the recent commentators here might find the views expressed in such places more in keeping with their own. As it is, they have apparently in the past been offended and insulted by the things which I have said on Internet lists. A year after I was chucked off those lists, they are now coming on here so that they can be insulted and offended all over again! This surely verges on the masochistic.

Monday, 26 July 2010

The terminology of disability

I was faintly taken aback yesterday to find somebody here asking me if I was on the autistic spectrum simply because I had not found something she said offensive. She had written a pastiche of my profile on here which was apparently intended to offend me but which I found mildly amusing and finished off by saying, 'Offensive, isn't it?' I responded in a humorous vein by asking innocently,
'Offensive to whom?'
To which she replied,
'Really? Are you sure you are not on the autistic spectrum? '
I think, although it is difficult to be sure, that she was the same person who said that she thought that I had Asperger's syndrome because I can be a little forthright in expressing my opinions. I have to say, this is a pretty bizarre idea; that somebody who responds good naturedly to something deliberately offensive, should then be diagnosed as having a disability! It really makes me wonder about the mental processes of anyone who could use such peculiar logic.

It is funny how the use of expressions like these changes over the years. We routinely use the word 'idiot' as an insult, but barely a century ago it was a precise clinical diagnosis, being the term used for somebody with an IQ of less than 30. The same applied to the word 'imbecile', (IQ 26 -50) and of course 'moron' (IQ 51-70). These were once very useful words, although few of us would dream of employing them today to describe somebody with learning difficulties! Because people began using them as insults, they became devalued and professionals abandoned them. This is a shame, because of course it is very useful to have exact terms for levels of learning disability like this. Spastic is another clinical description which we rarely use these days. We tend to refer instead to those with cerebral palsy. This is of course because 'spastic' has gone the same way as the words 'idiot' and 'imbecile'; that is to say they have all degenerated into mere abuse. Still, children are usually a step ahead of us when we try to deprive themselves of such handy ways of being rude. Since the Spastics' Society re-branded itself as Scope a few years ago, children in the playground now call each other 'scopers' rather than 'spastics'!

There are two problems with the use of euphemism like this. The first is that the euphemisms quickly become offensive themselves. 'Retarded' went out a few years ago to be replaced with 'mentally handicapped'. We now talk of special needs and learning difficulties. If I referred here to some kid being retarded, I suspect that it might cause offence and yet only a few years ago it would have been perfectly correct and unobjectionable. My daughter tells me that 'retard' is a popular term of abuse at her college. There is a very high turnover in euphemisms in the field of special educational needs and if you use an outdated one then you immediately reveal yourself as at best out of touch and at worst insensitive. How shall we describe that blind kid? Differently abled? Visually impaired? Having seeing difficulties? Fortunately, because I work in Hackney and Haringey I am always on the ball in this respect! The other problem is that useful words and phrases are avoided and everybody gets muddled up. 'Learning difficulties' is used with slightly different meanings by teachers, nurses and social workers and can mean anything from mild dyslexia to catastrophic brain damage. Somebody who is hearing impaired might be a little hard of hearing in one ear or he could be completely deaf.

This is why I object to the use of 'autistic' or 'Asperger's' to describe somebody who appears to be rude or insensitive. There are plenty of rude and insensitive people in the world and very few of them have Asperger's Syndrome. And of course not all those who have Asperger's Syndrome are rude and insensitive. Using the expression in a pejorative way simply has the effect of reinforcing sterotypes. If we sling words like autistic and Asperger's about too freely then they will soon become debased and meaningless. There are any number of ways to describe me without resorting to the terminology of disability. Self-opinionated, arrogant, snobbish, blunt; all these are probably quite adequate! Asperger's Syndrome is a very clear diagnosis and if we are not careful it will go the same way as 'idiot' or 'moron' and we will get up one morning and find that it is no longer in polite usage. In fact, I have heard kids using 'autistic' in the same way that they once used 'spastic', so I suspect that this process might already have begun. Saloon bar pundits regularly suggested that Gordon Brown displayed the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome and I have heard this said of other politicians who lack charm or charisma. It is becoming quite fashionable to dismiss somebody whom you find aloof as probably having Asperger's. To this extent, I am fighting a losing battle here and ten years down the line both 'Asperger's' and 'autistic' will have slipped into the same category as 'spastic' and 'imbecile'. It is just slightly depressing to see the parents of children on the autistic spectrum hastening this process along!

The strange case of facilitated communication

During the late eighties I was working in a residential unit for autistic adults with severe learning difficulties. This was quite exciting because these people had absolutely no spoken language and some of them were prone to launching murderous assaults upon anybody who annoyed them in any way. They had all be recently released from long term institutions such as Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire, as part of the care in the community programme. While I was working there, we were approached by a group of people who offered to help us communicate more effectively with our residents. At that time most of them knew only a few Makaton signs; Makaton is a simplified version of British Sign Language. The method which was now suggested was facilitated communication.

Facilitated communication was very popular among some of those working with non-verbal autistic people at that time. It worked a bit like a Ouija Board. A large piece of cardboard with the alphabet printed on it was used and the autistic person's arm was held by the communicator and they were 'helped' to point to the letters. The person with severe learning difficulties who had never spoken a word in his life could then communicate by spelling out messages; the whole idea being that these people had actually learned to read and spell by themselves, quite unknown to anybody else. In fact they didn't have learning difficulties at all, they were really just normal people locked into bodies which would not obey them.

It sounded odd to me as I knew all these residents very well and simply could not believe that they could really read and write. The thesis was that their aggressive behaviour was caused by their inability to make themselves understood. Anyway, we went along with it and I watched with interest. it soon became clear to me that the whole thing was nonsense. rather than 'helping' the resident to spell out the words, the facilitator was, whether consciously or not, using the persons hand as a pointer and making up the messages herself. I began asking questions and making notes about what was happening, upon which a curious thing happened. The whole thing stopped working at once. It turned out that close observation had the effect of destroying the trust which existed in the room and damaging what was taking place. I agreed to stop taking notes and limited myself to asking questions of the facilitators when we were alone. It then appeared that even the presence of a sceptic was enough to disrupt what was happening. I was banned from even sitting in on the sessions.

I managed to get this stopped in the end, because the residents own money was being spent on this swindle and it was outrageous. Tests were carried out in the USA on this process and it was found that if the facilitator could not hear the questions being asked, then the autistic person could not answer. It was conclusively demonstrated that, as I suspected, the whole thing was ridiculous.

I mentioned Ouija Boards earlier and this was very similar to my experiences with contacting the dead. Because whenever I have taken part in seances or anything similar, exactly the same thing happens. It will not work while I am present. Very odd.

I have for years been suspicious of any unusual phenomenon which people grow angry about when questioned. I am also very suspicious of any sort of activity which is destroyed or disrupted by being watched or which stops taking place when a cynical observer is present. Transcendental Meditation, the transubstantiation of the Host, summoning up the dead, spoon bending, dowsing and so on are all like this in some way. So of course is autonomous education.

While I was allowed on lists such as HE-UK and EO, I asked many questions about autonomous education. The aim was not to make people angry but to try and make some sense of the thing. I soon discovered that people grew angry and defensive very quickly when questioned about this subject. The idea seemed to be that one should take the existence of this on faith and that it was bad form to be sceptical about it. This is how people react when questioned about their religious beliefs. I also noticed that when discussion turned to research, parents claimed that they would not want an unsympathetic observer to conduct research into autonomous education because their cynicism might harm the educational process. Hence the attempt to organise a boycott of the Ofsted survey last year and the determination of many not to take part in the Department for Education's longitudinal study of home education outcomes. This is similar to the way that dowsers will not allow objective observers to test their abilities. Those using telekinesis to bend spoons or clairvoyance to talk to predict the future also dislike being observed by non-believers. Their powers often fade under lack of sympathy!

There is another similarity between facilitated communication and autonomous education. Parents often follow these unconventional treatments when they feel that they have been failed by orthodox medicine and education. So it is in many cases with autonomous education. Conventional schooling has been a flop for their child and so they turn to alternative methods. An alternative method which cannot be measured, assessed or, most important of all, ever disproved. This has to be an attractive prospect. My child was written off as a failure/bullied/struggled/could not cope, but it was nothing to do with her at all; it was the system which failed. I have seen this many times in the field of autism with not only facilitated communication but also Holding Therapy, mega-vitamins and various other things.

Mind, I do not say that autonomous education actually does fall into the same category as some of the other belief systems which I discuss above; only that its adherents behave in the same way. As far as I am concerned, the jury is still out, but I have to say that my own inclination is moving in a certain direction.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Home education and the curse of anecdata

I am grateful to my daughter for teaching me about the word 'anecdata' in recent months. This word could have been coined with home education in mind! Anecdata means presenting various scraps of anecdotal evidence together in such a way as to suggest that it supports some pseudo-scientific idea; in other words presenting random, isolated stories together in such a way as to make them look like proper data.

One of the things that I have noticed time and again when dealing with home educators and talking about home education is that it is very tricky to pin down facts and figures. I am frequently assured, for example, that FE colleges will accept people on to courses without any previous qualifications. The same is said of universities. Whenever I ask for the names of these institutions, they never seem to be forthcoming. This happened during a recent exchange on here. After I had cast doubt upon the chances of studying at university without having any formal qualifications, somebody told me,

'I spoke to a home educator recently whose child has been accepted on a postgraduate course despite not having a degree.'

This is actually quite exciting, but when I tried to find out the details, it turned out that this was another of those cases where it boiled down to the equivalent of, 'A man in the pub told me.....' . No possible way of checking the facts. This is how it is with so many stories about home education; they end up with vague accounts which are impossible to follow up. Now twenty vague stories from unidentified sources do not impress me more than one such story. This is what is meant by anecdata, a collection of anecdotes which together are supposed to be as good as properly collected and verified data. The reason that these sorts of data do not really support any idea or theory is that one unsubstantiated account by itself is worthless. So are two, twenty or a hundred. It is not the case that the more vague and unidentified witnesses one can cite, the more reliable is the thesis being presented. If that were the case then we would all believe in flying saucers or homeopathy!

We see anecdata being used again and again in discussions of home education. This is such a useful word; I am surprised that nobody coined it long ago. The autonomous acquisition of literacy for instance is almost invariably supported by this kind of 'evidence'. people often claim, 'I know that children can learn to read like this because that's how my children learned'. What can one say about this? Without personal knowledge of the family in question, it is hard to judge this claim. is the person making it generally truthful? Does she have a mental health problem? Is she really even a home educator? Did her children learn to read without being taught? It is quite impossible to answer any of these questions. The person is typically anonymous and we are invited to take her word for an extraordinary assertion. Sometimes it is presented in the form of, 'My children and many of those of fellow autonomous educators'. This is no better really, we still don't know how much credence to place upon the word of an unknown stranger.

It is for these reasons that attempts are regularly made to gather real, verifiable data about home education. Such efforts are almost invariably viewed with suspicion and parents urge each other not to take part. The participation rate in such surveys never rises above 20%. This at once rings alarm bells for any objective observer. After all, for years these dramatic claims have been made about the efficacy of this treatment and yet when an attempt is made to examine these claims and verify them; nobody wants to participate. This makes the thing look more like a pseudo-scientific enterprise along the lines of some quack remedy rather than a genuine pedagogic technique. Most practitioners and devotees of proper medical treatments and educational systems are quite happy to allow sceptical researchers in to look at what they are doing. Those who are reluctant to do so are usually followers of some crank ideology who have an inherent fear of opening it up to the gaze of unbelievers. This is fine if what is happening is s religion. For instance in my church, claims are made for the transformation of the host into something different. This is not a scientific claim and no amount of measuring or analysis would reveal the supposed changes. There is nothing wrong with this, it is simply an irrational belief that some of us hold. I recognise this and am quite happy with it. But some home educators make the claim that their ideas produce quantifiable changes in children and their minds. If this is so, then it should be possible to measure and observe these changes. At this pint though, the additional claim is made that to measure these changes would be to destroy them and wreck the whole process. If we are to take them only on trust and not allowed to look too closely for fear of harming the activity, then we can be pretty sure that we are not dealing with a scientific or rational enterprise at all, but something as peculiar as the transubstantiation of the host into the body of Christ. In other words, it makes autonomous education into a religion or faith rather than an educational method.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The 'S' word

It is the one subject which everybody raises when talk turns to home education. Doesn't she get lonely? Aren't you worried that he won't be able to get along with others when he grows up? What do you do about socialisation?

Like almost all home educating parents I find this sort of thing extremely irritating. After all, one only has to observe the way that schoolchildren generally are raised and the way they behave to see that there is something pretty strange about their socialisation, never mind home educated children! I have been thinking about this over the last few days, as my daughter has been at a summer school held at Oxford University. This is a scheme to encourage state school pupils to apply for a place at Oxford, part of their scheme to encourage wider access. This was entirely my daughter's doing and I only saw those bits about it that she wanted to show me. One section, about travel, made her laugh out loud. Oxford pay the train fares of all the participants and there is an appeal to parents along these lines. 'For many students, this will be the first time that they have travelled alone by train. Please allow them the opportunity and don't bring them by car'. These are all Year 12 students, aged sixteen and seventeen, and the idea that many of them have never been on a train alone is pretty staggering. However thinking it over, it is not really at all surprising.

Hardly any parents seem to let their children out alone. They are driven to school until they are teenagers and never have the chance to walk anywhere alone. My own daughter started walking alone to the shops and library when she was nine and I have to say that this was a marvellous way of her becoming confident and independent. She visited charity shops and bought books, chatted to the librarians, spoke to neighbours whom she met in the street and so on. I have to say that one never sees primary school aged children out alone, either here or anywhere else. This means that their opportunities to socialise without the supervision of their parents is strictly limited. I don't really regard the highly artificial atmosphere of schools as proper socialisation. This too is done under the close supervision of adults and the whole thing is very stilted and peculiar. When did you last hear any woman being addressed as 'Miss' in the real world?

After I had given evidence at the select committee in October, I was approached by a group of home educated teenagers, all about the same age as my daughter. They wanted to speak to me about my views. I could not help noticing that all of them had that same maturity and confidence that my daughter displays. They spoke to me with an assumption of equality and expectation that I would treat them as reasonable people, which was quite refreshing. Most teenagers that age are either cocky and challenging or show an awful false deference which they have learned to display at school towards adults. These young people were quite different.

My daughter is almost invariably taken as being a older than her chronological age. This is not because her physical appearance is particularly mature, but rather because of the confident way that she talks and behaves. I have a suspicion that this would not be the case had she attended school. It is my belief that school actually harms the ability to socialise and can inflict lifelong damage upon children's ability in this field. The strict hierarchy, not only of adults and children but also between different age groups of children, the formal and structured way that relations are often conducted, the bullying, the being forced to associate with people whom one might actively dislike; none of these strike me as brilliant ways to encourage a child to become a social creature. Certainly, the products of these institutions are often not very good advertisements for the treatment!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Resistance to change

The British are in general a conservative nation. They tend often to oppose change almost as a matter of principle, without weighing the merits of new proposals. This is particularly noticeable with the educational system. When universal, compulsory education was suggested in the nineteenth century it was widely opposed as being 'un-English'. The Newcastle Report in 1861 looked at the state of educational provision in Britain. The authors concluded that:

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

Oddly similar to the sort of things some people were saying about home education in the wake of the Badman Report! When universal compulsory schooling was introduced a few years later, there was an enormous outcry, which took the form of widespread civil disobedience. In the decade after the passing of the 1880 Education Act, prosecutions for the non-attendance of children at school were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the commonest offence in Britain, with the exception of drunkenness. Every attempted change to the educational system has encountered the same mulish obstinacy and insistence that the existing system is the best possible and that any change could only be for the worse. The introduction of free schooling, the raising of the school leaving age to twelve, the introduction of GCSEs, the abolition of GCSEs, the introduction of comprehensives, the raising of the school leaving age to sixteen, the abolition of the 11 plus: all were assumed by many to be bad ideas simply because they were new ideas. This reactionary attitude is not limited to schooling; home educators too are always antagonistic to any change in the existing arrangements. Any new idea is met with shouts of anger and claims that this will mean the end of home education. In some European countries, they are a little more amenable to new ways of doing things. Take France for instance.

In 1998, a law was passed in France which introduced compulsory registration for home educators. The following year, another law was passed which set out what children educated at home should be studying. It also declared that home educated children should be at roughly the same academic standard by the age of sixteen as those who had been taught at school. The subjects studied must include the French language, knowledge of French literature, history and geography, mathematics, science and technology, sport and art. In addition to this, home educated children must be able to demonstrate that they can ask questions, make deductions, be able to reason, evaluate risks and us computers. When this law was passed, many predicted the end of home education in France. In fact numbers of home educators have risen slightly since then and nobody claims that the law is oppressive or infringes upon their human rights. It is still perfectly legal to home educate in France; the government have simply introduced new safeguards to ensure that home educated children are receiving as good an education as those at school.

It is interesting to contrast the situation in France with that in this country when much milder changes in the law were being debated. Of course if you really believe that everything to do with home education in this country is absolutely perfect and incapable on any improvement whatsoever, then there is no more to be said on the subject. Clearly under those circumstances, any change would be a change for the worse. It is hard to imagine how such a perfect setup could have arisen for home education. It depends after all on odd rulings, some of them a century old, along with a few random sentences in educationa acts, none of which specifically mention home education. A miracle indeed that a perfect legal position should thus have been created by accident!

I can quite understand why so many parents are against any change; I feel exactly the same way myself about a lot of things and the older I grow, the less I like any sort of change. I can understand perfectly why people did not like to see the end of the Corn Laws or the dangerous innovation of votes for women. However, I can see why it might not be a bad thing if home education were acknowledged in law for the first time and conditions for its practice set out. Its present, somewhat precarious, position has become established by chance events and was fine when only a few dozen people were doing it. With scores of thousands now involved, it really makes sense to put the thing on a more businesslike and clearly defined footing, unappetising as this might sound to the more reactionary parents.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Providing proof that a suitable education is taking place

According to Ian Dowty, who is of course a lawyer specialising in home education, a recent court case in Oxfordshire ruled that the burden of proof in establishing that a home educated child is receiving a suitable education falls upon the parents. In other words, the onus is not upon the local authority to demonstrate that the child is not receiving an education, but the ball is in the parents' court to show that the child is. This is quite interesting, because many local authorities are dubious about the 'evidence' produced by parents to show that an education is taking place.

Quite a few parents whose children are not at school get irritated to be called upon to prove that they are educating their children. Why can't the local authority just take their word for it? Why do they need evidence at all? Well the reason is of course that everybody lies and an awful lot of home educating parents say anything at all that they think will get the local authority off their backs. Local authorities know this perfectly well and so they require something other than mere words. Parents often tell the local authority officer whose job is to monitor home education a pack of fairy stories and hope for the best. Here is Myra Robinson, a Home Education Advisor from Newcastle;

'Other pupils are unable to produce work samples on demand or demonstrate an understanding of the basics, despite parents' claims about their level of education.
"One girl said she worked in the library, but didn't seem to know where the library was," Ms Robinson said'

This is a fairly typical example of what many local authority officers encounter. Parents send them an educational philosophy, backed up with a diary of supposedly educational activities. Then when they get to meet the kid, it turns out that this is a lot of nonsense. This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that local authorities are so keen to visit. It is often only during such visits that the truth comes to light. Presumably many parents are reluctant to accept visits for the opposite reason; so that they can prevent the truth coming to light. Mind you, maybe Myra Robinson is not telling the truth. After all, she works for a local authority and it could be that she is unjustly maligning home educating parents for sinister reasons of her own. Let's see what a few home educators have to say.

Up in Herefordshire, a well known and vociferous home educating mother gave an interview to her local newspaper recently. During the course of the interview, she repeated what she had already told her local authority;

'Mrs Gxxxx added that Mxxxx is looking to do between six and eight GCSEs at the end of the year.'

Blimey and the kid is only twelve! Small wonder that the local authority have been led to believe that she is a dedicated and fantastically structured home educator. But hang on a moment! What does she say when she is relaxing with her friends of one of her favourite Internet lists?

'We are thinking that GCSE's are going to be a no-no. The stress would stop
his brain working'

See the problem? How can the local authority take seriously what she is telling them? No wonder that they want proof and not just empty words. At the other end of the country, Hampshire County Council served notice of their intention to issue a School Attendance Order upon parents in Alton. Subsequently, they were provided with evidence of this child's academic work. Can you believe it though? They expressed doubts that the work they had been given was actually done by the child. How can people be so suspicious and lacking in trust? What reason could they possibly have had for doubting that the work which they were given was in fact the unaided efforts of the child himself? Well, let's look at another recent example of this same boys work, namely an email which was sent to Penny Jones at the DCSF on November 20th last year. He signed his name and so we can be sure that he wrote the thing. He says;

'I’m not scared of a school attendance order do it go for it. I burn it on the fire like the other one! I’m not scared of you Ed Balls DCSF come on Ed takes us to court I’m soooooooooooo scared! '

All right, stop laughing at the back! It is sheer coincidence that his style of writing is so uncannily similar to that of his father. I am shocked and disgusted that anybody could be so cynical as to assume that the father produced both this email and the written work sent to Hampshire County Council.

I have recently had the impression that some local authorities are becoming a little tougher about the standard of evidence which they require to establish that a suitable education is taking place. Some have attributed this to their behaving as though the Children, Schools and Families Bill was actually passed intact. The case in Oxfordshire which Ian Dowty mentions might well provide another explanation. I have an idea that more local authorities will be adopting a hard line now and requiring a bit more convincing that a suitable education is really being provided to children. I for one find this a very encouraging development.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

A sad but not unusual story

Over on the EO list a few days ago there was a rather sad message which cast light upon two different aspects of home education in this country. Some guy has a sixteen year-old daughter who wishes to go to college. She needs four GCSEs to do the course which she wants and now her father is asking how to go about this. This is the first aspect of home education in the UK which is illuminated. Not just on the Internet lists but among ordinary home educating parents is a vague belief that one can get into college or university without any formal qualifications. Often, parents talk hopefully about portfolios and interviews and the claim is made that colleges and universities actually prefer home educated children without qualifications because they are so original/mature/bright/individual. Parents such as the one I mention above, absorb this nonsense and it is only when their children hit fifteen or sixteen and start asking around about colleges that the awful truth hits them; they cannot get on an academic course like A levels or the equivalent without having GCSEs. There then typically follows a period of panic before the child is persuaded to settle for a less demanding and academic course.

The story above is in many ways a tragedy and this tragedy is largely the responsibility of those who continue to spread the myths about access to higher education. Getting coursework authenticated is all but impossible outside a school or expensive distance learning provider. This makes GCSEs very tricky for home educators. With the introduction of the controlled assessments in a year or two, they will be completely impossible. This leaves IGCSEs. It is hard to find a school or college which allows private candidates to take these and the typical cost will be about £150 per subject. Studying for IGCSEs is far more rigorous than GCSEs and for a sixteen year old starting the syllabus from scratch will take at least a year or two of hard work. Almost certainly, the child mentioned in the post on EO will not now be doing the college course she wishes to do. This is because the father did not make any enquiries earlier and was lulled into complacency by the prevailing myth system perpetuated by many home education activists.

The other interesting part of this business is the response to this question. Three people gave advice to this father. This is about average for educational questions of this sort. Compare this with the responses to a question on another popular home education list, that of HE-UK. A woman posted a question there a few days ago and the gist of it is this. She has de-registered her child from school, in her own words;

'After I followed the correct procedure to withdraw my daughter from school to resume her home education, there was some miscommunication within the LA.'

By the way, one senses that there is a little more to the subsequent story than meets the eye. 'To resume her home education' makes me suspect that this child has probably been taken out of school before and then sent back again. Be that as it may, the local authority served her with a notice giving her fifteen days to show that she was providing a suitable education for her daughter. This might be a little hasty on their part, but I would guess offhand that the last time she was being home educated they had trouble getting evidence of the education. At any rate, there is no difficulty here, all the mother needed to do was contact them and explain the situation. She did so and the matter was cleared up. She is now determined to pursue a complaint against her local authority.

The response to this post has so far generated twelve posts and I have no doubt that there will be at least as many today. This sort of grudge is very dear to the hearts of some home educators and indignation and anger are running high. Two things strike one here. Firstly is that three people answer a question about education on one list, but a dozen respond to a complaint about a local authority on another. Most of those are on both lists and it suggests to me that quite a few people are more interested in grudges against local authorities than they are about education. The other thing which is odd is that if I had just embarked upon the education of my daughter, my energies would be fully occupied with planning and arranging this education. The fact that the local authority sent me an irritating letter would be a minor matter which I could deal with briefly. It seems to be a very big thing for this mother though. I can't help wondering if all the fuss she is generating is designed to distract her local authority and discourage them from asking further questions about the education which she is providing. It would be interesting to know what sort of relations she had with them on the last occasion that she home educated.

There are Internet lists which deal specifically with education and examinations, but many parents get no further than joining Education Otherwise and Home Education UK and then being on their lists. The focus is often upon conflict with local authorities and central government rather than educating one's child. When education is mentioned, it is often only to reassure parents that children are the best judges of what to learn. The father who posted on the EO list has discovered too late that this is not really so. If he had planned a little bit more in advance, his daughter would probably not be in the pickle which she is. Local authorities often try and warn parents about this and this too makes some people angry. Several posts have been made about local authority officers who asked whether children would be taking examinations. The fools! Have they not heard about autonomous education? Perhaps a little more planning for educational outcomes and a little less time spent pursuing grudges and complaints might not be a bad thing on the Internet lists. Otherwise, their influence upon parents is likely to be negative and their ultimate effect upon children harmful.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Michael Gove's dilemma

One has to feel sorry for Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education. He played a blinder when he was in opposition by pretending to be outraged at the plans for regulating home education. Who can blame him? It was such a fantastic chance to embarrass the Labour government and help scupper one of their flagship bills. Still, it is looking increasingly as though this unprincipled piece of realpolitic will be coming back to haunt him in the future.

Gove apparently thought that his Academies Bill, about to be rammed through parliament at breakneck speed, would be a real godsend for home educating parents. The fact that he believed this shows that he no more understands home education than Ed Balls did. Gove is puzzled that so few home educating parents seem interested in setting up so-called free schools. To him, it is the perfect solution and he has told colleagues that he is bewildered that the home educators are not queuing up to start their own schools and abandon this mad idea of educating their own children at home. Combined with the fact that after the passage of his wise and good measures all the schools in England will become world class academies, he really can't understand why anybody wouldn't want their kids to go to school. He does not seem to realise that most home educating parents wish to educate their children at home and not send them to some hastily rebranded comprehensive.

June was not a good month for Michael Gove and his dealings with home education. His announcement that groups of parents would be able to set up free schools on the 'Swedish Model' in disused shops and garages coincided with news from Sweden that home education was to be banned entirely and that the free schools would be obliged to follow a state imposed curriculum. Is that the kind of 'Swedish Model' that he had in mind? At the same time, Ofsted published their survey of home education and local authorities, in which they called for compulsory registration of all home educators. Gove's response was to say that his department was examining the current situation. In the next few days, the Serious Case Review into the death of Khyra Ishaq is due to be published. It is quite possible that this will try and blame unregulated home education for the child's death, thus piling on the pressure for Gove to do something. As if that was not bad enough, the rumour is that another high profile case of abuse in a home educating family is due to hit the headlines in the next month or so.

This then is the bind in which Michael Gove finds himself. On the one hand he has said publicly that he admires the fantastic job done by home educators. On the other hand, there is hardly a teacher, social worker, local authority officer or civil servant in the country who does not believe that the practice of home education needs to be regulated in a new way. This dilemma is matched by another. On the one hand the coalition is talking of handing power back to the people and ending the statist approach which characterised the Labour government, but on the other hand Cameron and his cronies are populists, always seeking to give the people what they think they want. Listening to the reactions to Khyra ishaq's death, I am guessing that what ordinary people want would be increased regulation of home education in order to prevent further tragedies of this sort.

In the normal way of things, this would be the signal for the launch of a government enquiry. But hang on a moment, didn't we have one of those last year? Of course we did and it recommended increased regulation of home education. Any new enquiry would certainly say the same thing, because that is the view of everybody working in the field of education.

I shall be interested to see how Gove deals with the question of home education in the coming months. He would look like a right one if after all he said in opposition he then went ahead with new laws on home education. On the other hand, an announcement in the wake of some new tragedy that the government were determined to take a tough line on this would certainly play well with the vast majority of voters. My guess is that he will, at least for now, sit tight and hope that he can forget about the business entirely.

A note on moderation

The more alert among you will have noticed that I have been moderating comments for the last few days. I have taken this step reluctantly because of one individual. This person, who lives in Hampshire, has a number of problems. Now I have no difficulty at all with people insulting me and disagreeing with me violently. However, this particular person has made some pretty sleazy comments about another home educator in Hampshire and these really were a bit much. I have deleted them. As far as I am able to make out, he wants to be served with a School Attendance Order by Hampshire County Council. I cannot help with this, but he is becoming increasingly aggressive about it. For example;



I can't really help with this at all. He also has an unhealthy interest in the possible sexual abuse of my daughter. For example:



There is also a fair bit of vulgar abuse like this;



I let a few comments through today, just to give a flavour of this man's writing. So until I can install an application which will block his IP number, I'm afraid that I shall have to keep moderating all comments.

Possible disadvantages of giving children too much choice

It is an article of faith for many British home educators that their children should have as much freedom as possible to direct their own lives. It is taken as axiomatic that this freedom to decide upon what is learned, how time is spent and even upon such things as bedtimes is a good thing for the child. I have been thinking this over since my daughter's friend came to stay from America. This girl is twenty one and was raised in a completely free way; not attending school and with a huge amount of responsibility for her own life, starting from when she was a small child. I have to say at once that this lifestyle does not seem to have done her any harm from an educational perspective. She is now at a good university and has no trouble in organising her life and learning. There is a slight problem though and it is one which I have observed with other children raised in this way, whether home educated or schooled.

Many liberal parents, even if they send their children to school, try to give them as much control as possible over their lives in other ways. they allow them to choose what to eat, how they spend their leisure time, what they wear, when they go to bed and a million other things. These choices sometimes start very young; I know parents who allow their three year olds to dictate the course of their lives to a large extent. I suspect that many readers will at this point be nodding their heads approvingly and muttering to themselves, 'Yes, so what?' Young children like to have familiar routines. these are comforting to them; they know what to expect. With the family where the child is in control of matters like bedtime and what he does with his time, such routines can be absent. More than that, a child who has so much power can become scared. Often, he does not really know how to exercise this power and it all becomes a bit much for him. Besides, young children should not have to worry about deciding what they will be eating or studying. This is in any case the adult's job and it can be very disconcerting for a child to have to make decisions of this sort.

I have observed that those children in our own circle who were raised in this way, being allowed lots of choices and making decisions all the time, seem to be more neurotic and anxious than those raised in a more conventional way. This is not of course a scientific survey, I am just thinking the matter over! My daughter's friend is extremely neurotic and I talked to her about her childhood. She says that she felt unhappy as a child at having to make a lot of decisions. She felt that her parents were not in control and this was a scary feeling. This makes sense to me, because most children like to feel that their parents know everything and can always decide what to do for the best. Mind, I am not saying that this is proof of anything. For one thing a circumstance which I have not mentioned is that this young woman's mother is a child psychologist. It is a very strange thing, but I have noticed over the years that the children of specialists in childhood problems always seem to be a lot weirder than other people's kids. One of our friends was a child psychiatrist and his kids were so awful that nobody would ever babysit for him.

I have an idea that it makes children uneasy if they have not got a loving adult nearby who always knows what is best and usually tells them what they should do. I would not be at all surprised if this was a recipe for anxiety and neurosis, because instead of simply enjoying childhood such children are constantly being bombarded with choices and decisions. 'Shall I wear my red shirt or my blue one? Or shall I wear something else? Should I clean my teeth? Do I want toast or cereal? If cereal, which kind?' A great part of the pleasure of growing up is the gradual acquisition of power over one's life. For a four year old, a familiar routine and not being worried over too many choices is probably the best thing psychologically. Because for many children, these choices are a worry and I have observed that some grow up a little odd about making choices in later life.

I am not laying down any dogma here, rather mulling over what I have observed about the children whom I have known and worked with. And I have to say that those from 'progressive', middle class homes where Penelope leach was the Bible seem to me to have been on the whole more highly strung and anxious from those where more conventional and authoritative child rearing practices were the norm. There is a reason why for most of recorded hsitory parents have been authority figures and before we ditch that archetype I think that we should be very sure that a new system is as good for our children as the old one.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Coercive education

It is curious that the term 'coercive' education or learning should be used in a pejorative sense, as many home educating parents in this country seem to do. I can offhand think of no better way to introduce children to a wide variety of new ideas and experiences.

Before we go any further, a personal anecdote. A few years ago the local authority had money to spare for activities for young people during the summer holidays. These ranged from archery and kayaking to assertiveness training and musical workshops. My daughter signed up for everything she could. Unfortunately, so few children wanted to do some of these things that they had to be cancelled. this, despite the fact that they were all completely free and local kids are always moaning that there is nothing to do round here. I took the trouble to ask a few young people why they had not signed up for these activities and the answers were very revealing. 'I'm no good at sports', 'I can't act', 'I've never done anything like that before', 'I'm not musical' were all typical responses, in addition to the predictable, 'I wouldn't know anybody there'. In other words, some of these kids rejected new experiences because they were new and others didn't like the idea because they felt it might be something which they wouldn't be any good at. Had this programme been laid on during the term as part of a school project and the kids given no choice about participating, many of them would have thoroughly enjoyed themselves and perhaps found new interests and hobbies. This often happens when children are not given the option about whether or not they join in something.

An awful lot of people first acquire a taste for Shakespeare, Dickens or other great literature at school. They are not consulted about this, they simply have to study these writers and learn about their works. As a result, many a child has come to love literature and the theatre. A lot of these children would have declined to read Charles Dickens if they were offered a choice, or refused to watch a play by Shakespeare. Because they were not given the choice, they have become familiar with the works and come to appreciate them. In the same way, many children have found a love of art or music, history or mathematics, by being exposed to them as part of an education over which they were able to exercise no control at all. This also happens in some home educating families of the more structured type; it is not limited to schools.

The younger that this exposure to a wide range of academic and other activities occurs, the better. Many young children, even by the time they enter formal education, have a visceral distaste for certain things. For example many dislike anything which smacks of high culture; opera, classical music, theatre and so on. Many of these children would never voluntarily take part in anything like this, although many enjoy these activities when they actually do encounter Shakespeare and Beethoven. Others don't like books and reading or feel that they will find history boring, mathematics difficult and so on. A number of these children will, because they have been given no choice in the matter, find that they enjoy reading and history and go on to become enthusiastic about them.

These childish prejudices can become entrenched if not tackled young and it is as well that they are dealt with at a very early age. Otherwise the result can be an adult who says, 'I've never liked books' or 'I've always been hopeless at art'. It is only by being exposed to all these things and taking part in them when young that they are likely to overcome these feelings. Allowing a child who says that she does not like sums to avoid mathematics, or a child who claims to dislike books to avoid reading, will allow these childish feelings to become lifelong and irrational prejudices: something which I have no doubt happens frequently with children who have been educated autonomously and allowed to avoid academic subjects and experiences which they claim to dislike.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Chinese whispers

One of the most fascinating aspects of home education as encountered on the Internet is the extent to which fanciful and misleading stories about it have a tendency to multiply like fruit flies. One need only make an untruthful claim such as, 'The Children, Schools and Families Bill would have made it a criminal offence not to register as a home educator' and although there is not a shred of truth in the statement it soon assumes a life of its own and will be endlessly quoted and repeated with various exaggerations. So we read on one site a few months ago that, 'under a new law, children will be removed from their parents and interrogated alone'! I'm sure we all have favourite examples of this sort of thing. A lot of this happens when home educators in Europe contact American groups and ask them to publicise some case or other. These lies and half truths then often find their way into respectable newspapers. I was thinking about this recently in connection with what I have been writing about Sweden. There are some pretty uncanny similarities between the Johansson case and that of the Williams family whom I mentioned the other day. Both are good instances of how the game of Chinese Whispers may be played on the Internet.

Readers are probably quite familiar now with the Johansson business. I have given up trying to get to the bottom of this affair, because as time goes on the stories change and become more elaborate. Those interested in the case also make things up as the mood takes them. It is apparent though that the basic thesis, that Swedish social workers snatched a child from his parents to prevent them from home educating him, is not the full story. Five years ago, a similarly heart-rending story was doing the rounds on American home education sites. This concerned a child in this country of the same age as Dominic Johansson. He was called Peter Williams and the story was that his parents were being persecuted by their local authority in Hampshire because they wished to teach their son at home. Here is one account from an American site;

I received an email from the mother of this chess prodigy asking for a little publicity regarding her fight with her LEA. It seems that being the best under-7 chess player in the country doesn’t count as receiving an education. The LEA is threatening to arrest the parents and to force the kid into a g-school.
I hope that Education Otherwise will set the edu-crats straight.
UPDATE: If you’re particularly inspired to contact the case officer directly, he can be reached at
Ass. Principal Education Welfare Officer
New Forest Local Education Office
United Kingdom
Phone number is XXXXXXXXXXX
I especially like that “Ass.” part. The other potential contact person is
Hampshire County Council
S023 8UG
United Kingdom
Phone number XXXXXXXXXXX

I have removed the personal details. This is spookily similar to the sort of appeal currently being made for the Johanssons. Even the details being given for officials to contact is the same tactic. Note also the untruthful statements included. 'The LEA is threatening to arrest the parents'. Of course this is not true. Nor is it true that the child was the best under 7 player in the country. Three months later, on another American site, this had become, 'An 8-year-old homeschooled British boy who reportedly is the best under-10 chess player in the UK ' How's that for progress? The source of these assertions was the father's claim that his son was the best player of his age in Britain; a claim unsupported by any exteranl evidence and then endlessly exaggerated by others.

Now of course with the perspective afforded by the passage of a few years, we see that this case was not really as advertised. The local authority, Hampshire, was not opposed to either home education or chess, but were in fact worried because the child's father appeared to be both completely mad and also wholly incapable of educating his son. Both fears have been shown to be fully justified over the years. Fortunately, Hampshire have kept on the case, with the result that the child now has private tutors for at least some of the time. I have a feeling that five years down the line, we might well have learned something pretty similar about the Johanssons.

At one time, circulating information about some perceived injustice was a slow and laborious business. Newspapers often used to check what they were told before publishing and gaining access to a world audience was very hard. All that has changed now and a story can be published to the world almost instantly, just as I am doing now! The problem is that many of these stories will be mad or untruthful. This is just as true of stories about home education as any other subject which one comes across while browsing the net.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Giving children a shove

Every time I write here about a curriculum or indeed any sort of planned structure for a child's education, I am sure to be told of the innate curiosity which children exhibit. This sense of wonder and longing to find out about the world is portrayed by autonomous educators and unschoolers as a holy thing, a spark which must be carefully fanned into flame rather than being smothered beneath the dead weight of a formal curriculum. This is all fair enough and there is a good deal in it. Children are inherently curious and do have a huge desire to explore the world and discover things about it. What is less certain is if this wish to explore their environment and find out about things would be enough in itself to lead them to discover Shakespeare and Milton, calculus and the lives of the Tudors, photosynthesis and the nature of radioactive decay. I don't want to go into the question of whether it is desirable for children to be offered a 'broad and balanced curriculum'; I am aware that for many unschoolers and autonomous educators, the very idea is little more than a sinister and coercive tool of central government. The very idea of prescribing a body of knowledge is, for some of these parents, anathema. I am just thinking for now about the child's chance of stumbling across these various topics by accident while she is exploring her own interests.

While it is true that children are by nature curious about the world around them, many have another characteristic, one which is seldom even mentioned by autonomously educating parents. This is a desire for the same thing regularly, a wish for the familiar rather than the strange. This can manifest itself in a conservative attitude to food; many children will only eat certain foods, sometimes only if prepared in a particular way. It can also be seen in children who only want to do the same things every day. Perhaps they prefer to learn only from the Internet rather than books or maybe they dislike leaving the house to visit museums and want to stay in their own home and garden. One of the great things about school of course is that children are, often against their will, obliged to join in activities which they feel that they will not enjoy. These can range from playing teams games to reading poetry, from studying the Romans to moulding clay, learning about the planets to discovering other religions. Why should this be a good thing? Because often a child finds that she actually enjoys some of these things, even though she was at first reluctant to become involved in them. By giving the children a gentle shove, they are given the oportunity to get to know about things in which they not only have no interest, but might actively dislike.

The suggestion above that children should be compelled to take part in learning and other activities against their will probably go against the grain for many home educating parents. After all, their whole theory of education is predicated upon children not being pushed to do things that they don't want to do. Sometimes though, we need to look beyond the wishes of a child and consider his ultimate welfare, think about a future which he may not be able to visualise himself. Just as a small child might not be able to foresee the consequences of not brushing his teeth, so too he may be quite unable to realise that his lack of interest in physical activity may harm his body in the future. He might not be able to see that it is necessary to know about geography and percentages in order to make sense of his world in the future. More to the point, he may miss out on some things which he would very much enjoy. Unless an effort is made to insist that he listen to poetry and plays, he may reject these out of hand and characterise himself as somebody who does not like poetry. This can mean that he will end up missing out on a lot in later life.

For many children embracing the familiar and rejecting the strange and new is a way of life. They may well be curious about the world, but they are also a little nervous and prefer to play safe and stick to what they know. Sometimes they need to be encouraged, even forced to join in things and at least get a taste of something which they do not like. Bad habits can grow stronger if left unchecked and while it is quite true that the habit of curiosity and wonder can grow as a child develops, so to is it the case that some children can become less willing to try new things and new ideas as they grow older. It is part of our duties as parents to see that they do, for their own sake.

Chess parents and others

There has always been a fairly strong tradition in home education for parents to push their children to develop one talent or ability to the exclusion of all other interests. The intention is usually to create some sort of genius in a particular field. Ruth Lawrence and mathematics, Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, Judit Polgar in chess; there are many examples of this, all overseen by home educating fathers. Now there is a fine line between encouraging a child in a pre-existing interests or hobby, as opposed to deciding on the child's behalf that this is what will happen. When a parent remarks of his child, ' These children are like racehorses, You've got to look after them very carefully to bring the best out of them' , one feels instinctively that this line has been crossed!

The above comment was made by the father of a home educated 'chess genius', Peter Williams of England. He is typical of the intensive, genius producing school of home educators and the path which he has chosen for his son is of course that of chess. Chess has, over the last decade or so, become very popular for this sort of thing. There are good rewards to be gained, not least a Chess Scholarship at Millfields independent school in the West Country. I used to be pretty involved in the chess world myself; my daughter used to attend tournaments and win trophies regularly, although it was never more than a hobby. There were a fair few home educators in the game at that time, many of them parading their kids like racehorses or greyhounds. For these people, chess was anything but a hobby; it was a matter of life and death. I cannot tell readers the feverish atmosphere at these tournaments. The child who lost a game would be interrogated and berated by the father. 'Why didn't you move your rook to E8? How could you have been so stupid as to lose your bishop so early on?' A not unnatural consequence was that the child who lost a game would be devastated and reduced to tears.

There are two problem with these single interest upbringings of the kind that the chess playing Williams family of Alton go in for. Firstly, there is no plan B. The child's education is typically focused upon just the one subject and everything else is very sketchy. For Ruth Lawrence, mathematics was the main thing in her life as a child and nothing was allowed to interfere with it. No wasting time playing with children her own age, or learning about the Tudors! There can only ever be a very few top people at tennis, chess or mathematics. For every child who makes it right to the top, there are many who do not. We seldom hear about these kids. The outlook for them is not very good. This brings us neatly to the second problem. When a child has been praised and told how wonderful he is and what a fantastic future career he has in the field chosen by his father, he often begins to value himself not for who he is, but for what he can do. A large part of his identity becomes bound up in being able to play chess, tennis or the violin really well. If he then fails to become the best, if he begins to lose ground, then this strikes at the very heart of who he is. And often, because of the unbalanced nature of such an upbringing, there is nothing to fall back on. Without the chess, there is nothing else; he is nothing else.

This can result in tragedy. The first child to win the Chess Scholarship to Millfields for example was one of four siblings, all of whom had been groomed for chess stardom by their mother. I attended the same chess club as them when they lived in Chigwell. They did not reach the pinnacles at which she had aimed and the result was that there was a good deal of psychological disturbance. The oldest son, as soon as he was bigger than his mother, began knocking her about in revenge for the times that she had shouted at him for losing chess matches.

There is always a risk in setting out to produce a genius. The risk is greatest when the child himself is told of the plans and begins to define himself as a genius. Those who watched the Channel 4 programme Child Genius will have seen some very peculiar children with some even more peculiar parents. The home life of Peter Williams and his son was featured on this programme and very odd it looked too. Nothing except chess and mathematics, the mathematics taught by a computer with a speech synthesiser. His only playmates were his father and grandfather; both chess fanatics. We were told that none of the children with whom the child had been at school would talk to him now and he himself said how sad this made him. Still, as he later remarked, looking at his father for approval as he said it, 'If you can play chess, you don't need school'. All the signs are that this child is not naturally gifted at chess, but that his talent is the result of many hours of intensive tuition by his father and grandfather. Despite some early promise, commentators in the chess world are dubious about his prospects for the future. Without a Plan B, things might not be looking so rosy for this child in a couple of years time. He could well be on course to become another victim of the genius producing, home educating fathers.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Johansson case - a correction

A few days ago I was wondering about the reasons for Dominic Johansson being taken into care. I picked up on this comment by somebody close to the family;

''Christer was once involved in an alternative on-line news mag that expressed politically incorrect ideas and as near as anyone can tell, this was the reason his home schooling plans were opposed.'

I speculated in a post that this on-line magazine might have had something to do with the physical punishment of children, but am now happy to make it clear that it was nothing of the sort. It is in fact called Vaken which means 'awake' or 'wake up' and I don't think one could really call it 'politically incorrect' at all. Raving mad and anti-Semitic, yes; but not politically incorrect! After all, they replace the word 'Jew' most of the time with 'Zionist', thus conforming to the most up-to-date and acceptable left wing version of anti-Semitism. It is full of the most outlandish conspiracy theories about the Jews taking over the world, the freemasons, 9/11, all the usual nonsense in fact. I am not over keen on anti-Semitism, but I really cannot see anything on this site to justify taking a man's child from him. Which still leaves the central mystery of this whole affair unchanged; why was Dominic Johansson taken by social workers?

It is intriguing to see the rather ambiguous statements by Jonas Himmelstrand, the president of the Swedish National Association for Home Education, (ROHUS). He said of this case;

'Homeschooling was not the only issue regarding taking Dominic Johansson in custody by the social services. But having read the court verdict with all the issues, there stills seems to be no reason for this severe action. The young boy has most likely been much more hurt by the custody action than the conditions in his family. One cannot avoid the thought that the prejudices and lack of knowledge about homeschooling, could have been the pivotal reason for the custody action.'

Home schooling was 'not the only issue'. We have heard that the child had some tooth decay, but this was only discovered after he had been taken into care. He had not had the usual vaccinations, but while this is a little unusual it would not be grounds for taking somebody's child. The Vaken website is barking mad, but I can't see this being a reason. Notice that Himmelstrand says, ' prejudices and lack of knowledge about homeschooling, could have been the pivotal reason'. Once again, it is hinted that the home education was not the only or even the main reason. On the Friends of Dominic Johansson site, there is this curious statement;

'By December 2009, the Johansson family had been terrorized by the Social Board of Gotland for more than sixteen months; had their home swarmed and searched by armed Swedish police'

Now why on earth did the police raid the Johanssons' home? What were they looking for? This could hardly have been in connection with home education; there must have been something else going on. There are tantalising hints about this business scattered all over the place. One thing which I have noticed is that the people who are writing about the case a long way from Sweden always seem to think that it is only about home education. Those actually in Sweden, particularly those who have dealings with the family, are saying that home education was not the only reason for the actions of the social workers. Irritatingly though, they never tell us what those other reasons were.

Incidentally, people have contacted Google in an attempt to have this blog taken down. This is not the first time that this has been done; in fact it is the fifth. The first person to try this stunt was our own Mike Fortune-Wood of Home Education UK last year. This is usually done by telling a lot of lies and accusing me of all sorts of bizarre things.. Google are used to this now and they never take any action. Judging by what has been said, I gather that the latest effort was by somebody connected with the Johansson case.