Sunday, 31 October 2010

The advantages of home education

Two of the greatest advantages of home education are the depth in which subjects may be covered and also the spontaneity and choice which is possible with this type of education. For example, at school history is for most of the year restricted to the classroom. There might be the odd visit to a museum or castle, but these are rare exceptions. Mostly the children are limited to watching DVDs, looking at books and so on. How very different is the case for the child being taught at home! If World War II is being studied and the family live near London, then the range of activities is immense. The National Army Museum in Chelsea, HMS Belfast, the cruiser moored in the Thames, the Imperial War Museum, the RAF Museum at Hendon, the Cabinet War Rooms under Whitehall, the Churchill Museum next door, visiting relatives who were alive at the time, hunting out old pill boxes, looking for bomb damage on buildings in central London; the list is endless. Home education is definitely something of a misnomer really; little of it takes place in the home for much of the time.

Because no timetable is involved, visits can be arranged as soon as the child expresses an interest. If the child asks a question about knights or castles, then a visit to a castle can be laid on for the next few days. Any work planned for that day can easily be postponed. The same applies to all subjects. When my daughter was studying biology a few years ago, we were hard at work looking at the physiology of mammals one day when news came through that a whale had become stranded in the Thames. The following day we went down there and watched it for a couple of hours. Straight from textbook to real life marine biology in the space of an hour or two. And all completely unplanned! This sort of spur of the moment trip is of course not really possible with schools. When you have the needs of thirty children to consider, planning any sort of day out is a pretty arduous undertaking.

Of course, living near London made a lot more available than would have been the case if we were living in the middle of the countryside, but then again there are many things in the countryside which are not readily accessible in London. The study of early man can be brought vividly to life if we take our child into a forest and see if we could find enough to eat and drink for the day. How on earth did those hunter-gatherers manage to survive? Can we make a spear or bow and arrow? What about taking flints and trying to fashion them into axes or weapons? Biology is also very easily studied in forests and fields, as are chemistry, physics, theology and geography. Nor need this sort of learning be at all parochial. Observing the eutrophication of a local pond or erosion of a river bank can lead to the discussion of problems faced by those living on the other side of the world in India or South America.

I cannot offhand think of any academic subject which cannot be covered or at the very least enhanced by trips through streets and fields in this way. Theology can just as well be taught in a wood as it can in a cathedral, so to can geography be studied in the centre of a big city or by the side of a stream. This is what I mean by studying a subject in depth. Attacking a question from various angles will allow a child to get to grips with far more effectively than by simply looking at a DVD or book. This is the glory of home education, the ability to move freely through the world learning about first one aspect and then another, seeing how they fit together. One day, one sees evidence for the Deity in the trees of the forest and the next we can watch how men and women worship Him in churches and mosques. Last week we saw a dead rabbit in the wood and this week we visit a zoo to see a live one. Perhaps next week we shall see a rabbit skeleton in a natural history museum.

This then is the great advantage of home education over schools. In schools, every topic must be planned months in advance from a centrally dictated curriculum. There is no flexibility to linger over some aspect of history for a week or two, one cannot wander down a byway in order to investigate how spiders build their webs. The structured nature of mass education can be useful to ensure that various important subjects are not neglected, but it can also be a straitjacket which prevents a child's curiosity from being roused. Clearly, during a chemistry lesson one cannot allow thirty children all to conduct different experiments, but at home one can certainly let a child extend the idea of an experiment and find out what would happen if some constant were varied.

One of the things which I have observed about some home educating parents is that they seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. They start from the same initial premise that I myself hold; that excessive structure and planning in an education can be stifling and kill the curiosity of a bright and inquisitive child. Their deduction is that the remedy lies in no structure or planning at all. My own conclusion is a little less radical; there is a need for less structure and a good deal more flexibility in planning. The mass education of children as it is currently practiced in schools lies at one end of a spectrum. The concept of autonomous home education lies at the opposite end of this spectrum. Somewhere between these two extremes lie most home educators, who both eschew the stultifying National Curriculum and at the same time reject the fanaticism which leads some to avoid even teaching their children to read and write.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A sad, but not unfamiliar, story

I watched the Channel 4 programme Child Genius on Thursday. As I am sure readers know, it featured somebody who comments regularly here, Mr Williams of Alton. I found the section dealing with his son quite depressing. The reason for this is that the situation with young Peter, who is fourteen, is very familiar to me. There are countless thousands of young people in the same position, although most of them are at school rather than being home educated. Let me explain.

All secondary school teachers have teenagers in their class who are not at all interested in studying for GCSEs. This is often because these pupils will not need GCSEs in their chosen career. They are going to be singers/footballers/DJs/models/dancers/actresses and so formal qualifications will not matter to them. They say, 'What good will knowing about Shakespeare be, Miss? I'm going to be on the stage/in the movies/on the football pitch'. The result is that they neglect their GCSEs, typically leave school with few or no qualifications and then end up wholly reliant upon state benefits. Because for every ten thousand teenagers who know in their heart that they can make it as athletes, pop stars, footballers or DJs, only one or two will actually get there and make a career of it. The rest will have to get jobs and earn a mundane living like the rest of us. The only problem is that they will in many cases have handicapped themselves by not securing any qualifications. This makes it far harder for them to get jobs and a lot of them will remain on the dole.

As I say, this is not really a home education problem, although I observe that quite a few home educating parents seem to go along with this sort of idea; that their children are very talented and will not need the GCSEs that all the boring masses are working for. For home educators, the children's goals are more likely to be computer programmers, novelists or chess champions. The end result is likely to be the same as it is for schoolchildren aspiring to be pop stars or models though; another NEET to add to the statistics.

This problem is not restricted to any particular class and, as I say, is probably even more common among schoolchildren than it is with those who are being educated at home. A career in musical theatre seems to be a popular ambition with middle class children at the moment. We have four friends whose children are aiming for this. They know that a glittering future awaits them on the West End stage! The outlook for these kids is not great. My wife works with young people in their early twenties, many of whom have no qualifications and are living in a half-way house while awaiting a council flat. She cannot get them interested in training courses or enrolling at college. This is because they are still waiting for the big break which will launch them into stardom on the catwalk or as DJs. Why would they want to brush up on their maths skills?

And so to fourteen year old Peter Williams. He hopes to be a chess champion some day. It seems fairly plain that there is no question of his doing any formal academic work or studying for GCSEs. Why would he? Once he is world chess champion, there will be no need for such things! The tragedy comes eventually for all but a handful of those hundreds of thousands of children who have dedicated themselves to making it big in sport, entertainment or chess. They find that they have devoted their lives single-mindedly to one aim and have nothing in reserve to fall back upon. There is nothing at all wrong with ambition; still less with having a dream. However, when everything has been invested in that one idea, then a day of reckoning awaits for the vast majority of such hopefuls. In truth, the market for drummers and guitarists, chess champions and footballers, singers and models is pretty limited. It is ten thousand to one against actually becoming a star and it is wise to make some provision against the day that this realisation dawns. A broad and balanced education culminating in a clutch of GCSEs is probably as good an insurance policy as any!

Friday, 29 October 2010

Rent-seeking vulture queens

I adore this expression! It has a weird kind of beauty about it, rather like the term coined for the French when they would not join in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Remember 'Cheese-eating surrender monkeys'? So why would one home educator be so unpleasant about another as to call her a 'Rent-seeking vulture queen'?

As readers no doubt recollect vividly, the last government tried to introduce registration and monitoring of home educated children. The then opposition, including the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, managed to scupper this. Now that he is in government himself, Gove is finding out one or two unpalatable facts. For example, every civil servant at the Department for Education, every local authority, almost every education professional, including teachers, psychologists and so on, most voluntary organisations and many ordinary people; all these wish to see a scheme for the compulsory registration of home educated children. Many home educators are opposed to this. Since he became the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove has seen the publication of the Ofsted report about home education and local authorities and also the Serious Case Review of the Khyra Ishaq business. Both called for registration. This summer, three home educated children died in tragic circumstances in Edinburgh. Their mother is awaiting trial for their murder.

Quite possibly, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, the Minister of State, would like to ignore all this and hope that it goes away. However, one can imagine the headlines in the papers and the gibes in parliament when the Edinburgh case hits the courts. The gutter press love dead children, especially photogenic little girls; they will have a field day. I can just see Ed Balls rising in the house to say, 'Does the Secretary of State for Education agree with me that this tragedy might not have happened if a proper system was in place regarding home education, a system such as we proposed in Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill? Does he now regret blocking this legislation?' It does not bear thinking about!

What can Michael Gove do? He would look a bit of a chump now if he introduced his own law to curb home education. Enter stage left, Graham Stuart MP. This man was the scourge of truants and their parents during 2007/2008, never missing a chance to call for tougher penalties for these people. The fact is that it would hardly be possible to have harsher punishments for this than already exist; after all mothers are being sent to prison for it. Last year, he found a new bandwagon to jump on, namely home education. As the Chair of the Commons select committee on Children, Schools and Families, he has a certain amount of influence. Last month he arranged a meeting with Nick Gibb and told him, in effect, 'Trust me, I can help with home education'. He suggested that because the home educators loved him, he would arrange for some of them to endorse new guidelines which he would have drawn up. This would show that the DfE were on the case and have a kind of legitimacy because some home educators would have been involved in them. Central to this project were Alison Sauer, who trains local authorities on home education and Imran Shah, a social worker in the South of England whose children are educated at home. Tania Berlow has bravely said that she too is involved.

This is where we come to the bit about 'rent-seeking vulture queens', because the suspicion among some other home educating parents is that these people are being paid for their efforts. There is also a suspicion that in the future, some of these home educators might be securing consultancy roles or something of that sort with the Department for Education. I have no idea whether any of this is true. There are other motives for becoming involved in this sort of thing apart from money.

Tania Berlow is so far bearing the brunt of other home educating parents' displeasure about this enterprise. This is because, like me, she has never made any effort to conceal her identity or opinions. On one forum, the irritation felt with her is chiefly that she says too much and never seems able to stop rambling, which is a fair point. Even her closest friends would not accuse Tania of brevity. She does however seem to be quite sure that nobody talking to Graham Stuart is in favour of compulsory registration or monitoring, which is surely good news for some home educators.

I think that this particular story is set to run for some while yet. It is, to say the least of it, unfortunate that Alison Sauer does not feel able to come onto some of the forums and explain what she is up to. There is a hole-and-corner feel about the thing which cannot help but make people think that there is something bit dodgy going on. I really think that if others involved, apart from Tania Berlow, came forward and talked about what they were doing, it would stop some of the unpleasantness which is developing. It might also help to kill some of the accusations of 'rent-seeking' which are flying around, is we were told who, if anybody, is being paid and how much they are receiving.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The problem with home education forums

It is no secret that I was chucked off a number of Internet lists for home educators after having a couple of articles published last summer on the subject of home education; the idea being that many parents would not feel comfortable about discussing their problems freely if a supposedly unsympathetic character like me were hanging round. This displays a touching naivete on the part of those running the forums. In fact I would be very surprised to find a single home education list which does not have professionals and other people who are not home educating parents lurking on it. These range from civil servants and local authority officers to psychologists and teachers. This is one of the main ways that people outside the home educating community keep in touch with what is going on.

There are two points to consider here. Firstly, is it possible to restrict membership of any of these lists simply to genuine home educators and secondly, is this this a good idea in the first place? The answer to both these questions is 'no'.

My daughter gave me a quick training session in how to go about joining Internet lists under a false flag. Like all young people, she has been on Over 18 only sites since she was about twelve. She tells me that the simplest way to do it is as follows. If for some reason you wish to conceal your identity or the whereabouts of your computer, then go to the local library and book a session on a computer there. Acquire a free Hotmail account in a made up name. Pick a user name like Dreamcatcher or Flowerfairy; something which makes you sound like a gormless and harmless hippy type. Then all you do is use this email account to join your chosen group. I have no idea if this is what others do, but it sounds about right to me. The reason that such subterfuge is necessary is that some forums, HE-UK for example, are specifically forbidden to employees of local authorities and so on. I have to say, when talking to professionals about home education, I am sometimes astonished at the up-to-the-minute knowledge which they seem to have about the politics of the HE world. This information can only have been acquired on Internet lists.

The take-home message here is that when typing stuff about your difficulties in home educating, you can be reasonably sure that it is not only other home educators who will be reading what you write. There is not really any such thing as privacy on the Internet; you are, in effect, broadcasting to the world. Young people understand this more than adults who did not grow up with the Internet. For anybody over thirty, using the Net will never be second nature in the way that it is to a sixteen year-old. This is why it was idiotic for HE-UK, EO and so on to cast me into the outer darkness.

If we accept that this is actually the case, what is the point of turning the presence of educational professionals on home education groups into a secretive business in this way? Why not simply allow them to join openly and take part in discussions like everybody else? I have to say that I am constantly surprised at the level of ignorance and misunderstanding which many people show on these lists. The people posting clearly do not know a great deal about the topics about which they are pontificating. This situation, where only parents are talking to other parents, is a recipe for the proliferation of myths, half-truths and downright falsehoods. Would it not be better to have local authority officers joining in, so that they could put their point of view and talk about their anxieties? Wouldn't this promote a dialogue which might benefit both sides? When parents are talking about dyslexia, for instance, might it not be handy to hear a teacher or psychologist's perspective on this?

It seems to me that what would be a very useful development would be a forum which could be joined openly by parents and professionals alike. Parents could actually ask local authority officers why they behave in the ways that they do. HE advisors could ask parents why some of them seem so secretive. If psychologists, teachers and parents were all talking together in the same place, it could only be a good thing. I should think that it would be inevitable that both parents and professionals would start to understand each other a little more and start to see each other's point of view. The situation at the moment is that professionals talk to each other about the problems they have with home educating parents and parents only talk to each other about the problems which they are having with the professionals. There is little prospect for any sort of change in attitudes by either party while this is how things are in the main. I am aware that in some places, Hampshire, Somerset and North Yorkshire for example, there is positive contact between parents and home educators, but there still seem to be many on both sides who are not talking to each other. The Internet lists seem to me to be the perfect place to start the process of changing this. The alternative might be home educators living increasingly in a psychological ghetto of their own making.

Wonderful quote from Graham Stuart

I simply had to post this. As readers are probably aware, Graham Stuart, Chair of the Commons Children, Schools and Families select committee, is currently the home educator's best friend. He understands them and wishes them well. He is our favourite MP. A few days ago, Tania Berlow asked me to post a long string of quotations by Graham Stuart. Here is one which we missed, which really should be appended to anything he is currently saying on the subject of home education:

It is 'tantamount to child abuse not to make sure your children go to school'? And is it really the case that parents should do ' their legal duty and send their children to be educated at school.'? Is there such a legal duty? Is this really what the Chair of the Children, Schools and Families select committee believes? And if so, is he the ideal man to help put together new guidelines for home education? Does anybody see any contradiction between these statements and his current stance? Perhaps it's just me, but as I have said before, I would not trust this man further than I can throw him.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Monitoring and inspection of home education

An awful lot of local authority officers inspecting or supporting home educating parents seem to be ex-teachers. This never used to bother me; nearly all our friends are either teachers or social workers, so one more visiting the house didn't make much difference! Many home educators though have very negative feelings towards schools and conventional education. For them, having a teacher come round to check up on what they are doing is intolerable. I wonder if parents would be more agreeable to the idea of other home educators carrying out such visits, following a protocol agreed between home educators and the local authority?

During the review of elective home education which he carried out on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, Graham Badman briefly floated the idea of the 'Tasmanian Model', asking if people thought that such a scheme might work in this country. He later changed his mind, conceding that this might have been 'a step too far'. But was it really?

Tasmania is a state of Australia with a population of around half a million, half of whom live in the capital city of Hobart. In 1993, the Minister of Education in Tasmania set up the Tasmanian Home Education Advisory Council (THEAC). This body oversees home education on the island, including registration and monitoring. It has no connection with the Ministry of Education, but is directly answerable to the Minister of Education in person. The council has six members, three of whom are home educators and three who have been appointed by the Minister of Education from the wider community. They pay a small staff to register and monitor home education. At the last count, there were around seven hundred home educators in Tasmania, about the same number as in an average English county. The THEAC employs two people to visit them and check on the provision which they are making for their children. The whole process is devised and implemented by home educating parents themselves.

It is hardly surprising that this idea of a Home Education Advisory Council was rejected out of hand by most parents in this country when Badman suggested it. For one thing, most home educators hoped that if they stood fast, then things would just carry on as before. For another, Education Otherwise was mooted as being the natural partner in such an enterprise. This alone was enough to damn it in the eyes of many. We need not go into the politics of the thing, but the fact is that some home educators in this country cannot stand Education Otherwise and would be as reluctant to allow them in their house as they would officers from their local authority.

A few days ago, I put forwards the idea of locally elected councils of home educators composed partly of local authority officers and partly of parents who had been vote onto this council by other home educating parents. I am wondering how people would feel about the idea of such a council being responsible for the registration and monitoring of home education in their local authority area? I am perfectly well aware that many parents are not keen on anybody checking what they are doing with their child's education, but there is going to be pressure for this from some quarters for the foreseeable future. I am kicking around an idea and trying to see how many parents would be satisfied to deal with a parent who is or has been a home educator herself and therefore knows about the whole business from the inside. Would this be any more acceptable than having an ex-teacher from the local authority asking questions? Or, which is entirely possible, are both unacceptable to the majority of home educating parents? What if this plan, of having former home educators as advisors, were combined with access to various facilities such as free examinations and use of school sports and music facilities, that kind of thing?

I am very interested in knowing how strongly parents here are against any sort of involvement at all with anybody and how far they might compromise if they got something from it. This is not, by the way, an attempt at what is being called 'rent seeking'! I have no interest in the matter other than in debating ideas. So nobody need bother to start describing me as 'a rent-seeking vulture queen' or anything of the sort, as I have seen one well known home educator described on a forum recently! Don't you just hate gendered insults of this sort? I have an idea that a new set of guidelines for elective home education in England is likely to emerge soon from the discussions between Alison Sauer, Imran Shah and a few others. It is less a question of whether change is happening, than what that change will be. For my part, I would like to see democratically elected representatives of home educated parents at the heart of policy making, both at the Department for Education and local authorities. This is not possible at the moment and so people have volunteered to step in and help. This is beginning to cause the most terrible divisions among home educators and the only way that I can see this stopping is if those working on behalf of parents can acquire some sort of legitimacy.

Home educated girl offered place at Oxford

On one of the Internet lists to which I belong, it was said recently that a home educated girl had been offered a place at Oxford University without having any A levels or formal qualifications. According to the person who spoke of this, Oxford were, ' more interested in character, personality and extra curricular interests and activities,' This sounds quite odd, because they are in general almost entirely concerned with academic achievement.

Does anybody know anything about this or is it another of those urban myths? I have been asking around and cannot find anything. I also asked Oxford and they don't seem to know of this, which is strange. Does this ring any bells with anybody?

Learning to write autonomously

We were treated the day before yesterday to a splendid example of the truly extraordinary mental contortions which are necessary if one wishes to be an 'autonomous' home educator. Just like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, the dedicated autonomous educator is required to believe six impossible things each day before breakfast!

A couple of days ago somebody whose child still cannot write even though he is in his teens commented here. The fact that he can barely write his own name was attributed by some others who commented, to the fact that he evidently had special educational needs. The mother herself is more inclined to suppose that not being taught systematically and drilled in handwriting practice has something to do with the case. Now most people would agree with the mother about this. When we have a large group of children who are taught a skill which almost all manage to acquire with varying degrees of facility and another group who are not taught and a number of whom simply fail to acquire the skill, most would assume that the teaching has had at least some bearing on the matter. It is so wholly typical of autonomous home educators that they should instead lay the blame on brain damage.

The first thing which occurs to me here is that I have never encountered this phenomenon with any child at school. Some have learning difficulties so severe that they are unable to learn to read and write, but that is not the case here; the mother says that her son is reading. Children at school who are capable of learning to write usually do so. They may have poor handwriting which is virtually illegible, but write they do. I have never seen a teenager of average intelligence at school able to write only in capitals and then hardly anything but his own name. The second thing which strikes one is that rare as this is with school children, it does not seem to be particularly uncommon among autonomously educated children. Without racking my brains, I can remember Fiona Nicholson of Education Otherwise saying that her son was writing laboriously in capital letters when he was a teenager and Janet Ford's son Chris also had a lot of difficulty with writing. I have seen several examples of this myself with older children and all were autonomously educated; that is to say they were not drilled in pre-writing skills and made to draw little circles and up and down strokes repeatedly. Other home educating parents talk about this openly; it is not rare. In other words, although some children may learn to write of their own accord, there do seem to be some who do not and of these, a number end up as teenagers who can only write capital letters and just about spell their own name. Since we do not see this in children of average intelligence who attend school, it is reasonable to assume that it is the type of education which is being provided which causes this, rather than some form of brain damage.

It has been suggested by some that because adults can learn to draw easily, the same should be true of writing. It is not; these are two very different things. When drawing, one can make the line go where one pleases. It can be straight or curved, short or long; the choice is yours. in writing, one is compelled to make lots of fiddly little anti-clockwise circles and loops, quick up and down movements, dots and horizontal bars. This must be second nature to one, it must be done smoothly and automatically. The way that we acquire this ability, which is known as motor learning or muscle memory, is by repeating the same fine motor movements over and over again. After a time, they become transferred to the cerebellum and from then on, this sub-routine can be called up without conscious effort. Riding a bicycle, teeth brushing, playing the piano and various other sub-routines of this sort are also stored in the cerebellum. It would be no use when playing the piano if one searched for C and then E and then G and then formed the hand in such a way as to play the three notes simultaneously. It would be impossible to play the piano like this. In the same way when writing, it would not do if one first tried to remember how to write the letter C and then after that started to think about how to do an A and so on.

The only way that these routines get fixed in the cerebellum is by plenty of practice. Those who were telling this mother that general practice in fine motor control would be helpful for a child were not really right. One can be able to do the most fiddly and exacting work with the fingers, but until those writing movements have become fluent, one will not be able to write properly. The younger one is when this is done, the better. Just as a young person can learn to drive a car more easily and faster than an older person learning, so too with handwriting. One might be able to persuade a four year old to sit at a desk drawing loads of little circles; I doubt that you will manage to get many fourteen year olds to do so! If it is not done when the child is young, then you might be heading for problems later.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Injection of new blood

I was contacted a short while ago by somebody who is running an information day for home educators and professionals involved with home education. She wished to publicise this blog and wondered if I had any objection to this being done. The more the merrier is my general feeling about this and so we should soon be seeing a few new people here. I was going to ask some of the regulars here to try and be a little more civilised and polite, but I have noticed lately that everything seems to be pretty affable here and so that does not seem necessary. It would be good to have some professionals expressing their opinions here, a a counterbalance to some of the loopier views which we sometimes see.

This coming Thursday on Channel 4 at 9PM is a chance to see one of our old regulars. The programme Child Genius is being shown, which includes a bit about Peter Williams, the fourteen year old, home educated chess player. This promises to be worth watching, if only to see more of Mr Williams senior. It is to be hoped that this programme provides the general public with a positive and encouraging picture of home education.

Graham Stuart MP and home education

Most people involved in home education will know by this time that Graham Stuart, who is Chair of the Children, Schools and Families select committee, is trying to draw up a new set of guidelines about home edcuation which the Department for Education could issue. There is of course some controversy about this, not least in that the whole process has apparently been embarked upon on the quiet and has only come to light gradually. However, Tania Berlow has collated all that Graham Stuart has said publicly on this matter and she desires me to publich it here. It may be seen below:

“Local Authorities and Home Education” as “an unpleasant hangover of the last government: a manifesto for more state power at the expense of dedicated home educators and their children”. “It is astonishing that the Chief Inspector of Schools should stray onto home education and get it so wrong. In Ofsted’s official press release she says that “it is extremely challenging for local authorities to meet their statutory duty to ensure children have a suitable education”, when they have no such duty. Parents, not the state, have the statutory duty to ensure that their children have a suitable education.

“I find it deeply concerning that, after months of work, the Chief Inspector should make such a basic mistake and so utterly confuse the duties of local authorities and parents. Parents who home educate deserve our respect and awe at their dedication and achievements, not the relentless suspicion of an over mighty state.”

‘local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis’

“As local authorities do not have the power to demand access to home educated children and cannot insist on parents registering with them, the obvious and correct answer is for local authorities to improve their support for families so that more families make contact with them voluntarily. If they did this and made sure that they employed sympathetic staff who built good reputations, then the number of “unknown” children would be reduced. Such a positive approach would respect the primacy of parents in determining the education of their children and put the onus on local authorities to serve and support, rather than catalogue and monitor, families who home educate.

“Ofsted’s report has little to say about improving local authority support for home educated children and says only that the Department of Education should “consider” funding an entitlement for home-educated children to take public examinations. Ofsted’s report is seriously flawed and damaging to the confidence of home educating parents who had hoped that the relentless disinformation and bullying of the previous regime was over.”

regarding Goves comment after Ishaq case where he said he'd '' see what changes need to be made to the existing arrangements”.'' Graham Stuart answered- I think you have made a mistake by being so unnecessarily alarmist. There is no evidence to justify your headline – certainly not in the Secretary of State’s quote. He is right to see what changes should be made to existing arrangements. He could start by issuing new guidance to local authorities on EHE clarifying their responsibilities and powers and then ensuring that all social workers understand the difference between EHE work and welfare responsibilities through their training. Lots of good changes could be made so as to make the whole invasive licensing programme a non starter even for another Labour government. I hope this government does look at home ed and provides a lasting reinforcement of the lead role for parents rather than the state in determining how their children are educated. It’s always right to be watchful and suspicious of government but it’s best to avoid leaping to conclusions and scaring people without proper justification.

Just governmental ignorance I'm afraid.

29 July at 22:34
"I’m hoping new guidance from central government to local authorities might be sufficient to tackle this issue without any change in primary legislation. I’d be interested to know what others think."
The CME guidance superseded the EHE guidance so I don't see any reason, in principle, why the same shouldn't happen in reverse. The way LAs are behaving now just reinforces my belief that we need a new settlement that reasserts the right... of families to be left in peace - whether we'll need primary legislation or not I'm not sure. I'm sorry I haven't got the time at the moment to participate fully in all the discussions but I am trying to read them when I get a chance.

Take the initiative is my answer. I reckon we can get a settlement that is both much better than the current situation (in which LAs routinely overstate their powers and intimidate parents) and stop something even worse coming roun...d the corner later. Some people think we're better sitting tight but I don't. Whether new guidance alone will be enough (see all the discussion over Children Missing Education guidelines) or we'll need primary legislation I don't know. Hopefully guidance will do and the HE community can hone and rework any initial draft into something we could usefully present to government with a reasonable degree of consensus. If not we can always drop the idea and sit tight or think of another approach to stop current abuses and head off future threats.

In response to poster- <>

Graham Stuart says ''I agree'' , in response to poster who had EWO dooorstep- I don't think the Council was breaking the law - after all anyone can knock on your door. It's all too typical, however, of councils treating home educators as potential criminals instead of loving parents. I look forward to seeing your com...plaint. This sort of thing is one of the reasons why we need new guidance so as to put councils back in their place and get them to treat people supportively and with respect. If they came with the humility and helpfulness of health visitors (and the same legal rights of entry - namely, none) then EHE staff from councils would rebuild trust and would be more welcome precisely because they didn't constitute a threat against parents doing the best for their children.See more

08 October
I think we can get new guidance which emphasises that LAs have a duty to support parents (where they want it) and that spells out the limits of the LAs' responsibilities so that they stop hankering after more powers. Just leaving it isn't an option. I want a stake put through the heart of the whole monitoring/licensing approach so that it doesn't ever get resurrected.

From what I've read and observed Clive Soley is immune to all reasonable argument on the subject. I guess we should never stop trying, however, so I'll ask him to have a coffee and a chat with me. Thanks for the prompt.

I've had coffee with Clive Soley and tried my best. Damascene conversion there was not but I hope I may have caused him to question some of his certainties.

Special needs

One of the great things about educating your child at home is that you have almost complete responsibility for the end product. If the child turns out well, you can take a lot of the credit. After all, you provided the education. The downside is that there is no blaming a school if your kid turns out to be ill educated or badly behaved. Nobody else to blame for the slovenly speech or swearing, no peer pressure as a handy alibi if the child starts taking drugs and so on. What your child becomes is largely down to you. So for example, the fact that my daughter swears like a trooper is because I swear myself and she has been used to hearing this all her life. That she is a bit of a know-it-all probably comes from spending much of her early life with somebody who thinks he is cleverer than anybody else. This is a pretty frightening feeling actually; that most of your child's bad points are directly attributable to your parenting deficiencies! Fortunately, there is a way out of this, a brilliant piece of legerdemain which at a stroke can relieve you of much of the responsibility for all those unattractive traits which you see in your child and are anxious to blame on someone or something else.

My own daughter is a bit clumsy, having a tendency to bang into things and knock them over. Potted plants, vases, cups of coffee; all regularly fall victim to her cack-handed ways. I have always assumed that this was simply because her gross motor skills were not given as much practice when she was little as were her skills at recognising shapes. In other words, if we had played more ball games, spent more time with physical activities rather than reading, then I guess her gross motor skills would have developed a little better. The type of education which I provided is responsible for this. Suppose however that it was a neurological deficit? if that were the case and she suffered from some obscure syndrome like dyspraxia, then I would be completely absolved of responsibility. The fact that she didn't get much practice in the gross motor department would have nothing to do with it. I think we might be onto something here! Another home educating parent actually suggested to me some years ago that my daughter did indeed suffer from dyspraxia. In return, I confirmed her own diagnosis of her son's Asperger's. One hand washes the other! My daughter is also pretty standoffish and impatient with other people. She gives the impression of being a bit stuck up. I had always attributed this to the fact that her father, with whom she spent much of her childhood, is an exceedingly arrogant, rude and abrupt man whose social skills are practically non-existent. I took it for granted that I had set her a bad example in how to conduct herself in society. What though if she was on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum? That would both explain her behaviour while at the same time letting me off the hook for being partly responsible for it.

This is all very exciting. Kid really badly behaved and rushes around like a mad thing not doing as he is told? Hmmmm, sounds like a case of ADHD to me! Don't worry mum, it's not just that you haven't taught him how to behave properly. He has a special educational need; it's not your fault. Teenage son spends all day in bed? Could be CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Child lousy at spelling because you have not given him enough drilling in phonics? Not to worry; maybe he is dyslexic. You see how wonderful this is? Just by uttering the magic letters SEN, poor parenting vanishes like a puff of smoke and is replaced by a medical condition!

In fact with a little bit of research it is possible to explain away all the undesirable behaviour of our children in purely medical terms. This can be a great comfort. Nobody wants to think that they have screwed up badly on the parenting front and as I said above, home educating parents have a heavier burden of responsibility in this department than most. A little judicious use of the autistic spectrum though, coupled with a dash of dyscalculia, dyspraxia and a few random groups of letters like CFS, ADHD and ME can make all the difference between being a slack and ineffectual parent and being a mother bravely soldiering on as the carer of a child with special educational needs. The payoffs are tremendous. Just be sure to stick to self-diagnosis though. Professionals will sometimes cooperate in a dodgy diagnosis of special needs when a child is a registered pupil at a school because there is extra funding to be had. They won't generally play this game with a child who is at home; there's no advantage to anybody. The researchers from Ofsted were amazed at the number of self diagnosed conditions which they encountered last year when they produced their report on local authorities and home education. These were in addition to the children who had been previously classified as having special needs at school. In total, almost half the home educated children they saw had some special need or disability. Almost all were neurological deficits of one sort and another. For some reason, nobody self diagnoses things like blindness or spina bifida. This is probably because it's a bit too easy to spot when the diagnosis is not well founded, whereas with dyslexia or dyscalculia, it's your word against anybody else's.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The joys of freedom

Here is a quick quiz for home educators. Which well known advocate of home education was in favour of abolishing the age of consent so that adults and children could have sex without any legal restraint? No? Well it was the same one who argued that children should be able to vote at the age of three. And use heroin if they wished. Anybody guessed yet? Last clue, he did not think that there should be a minimum age for children to be able to drive a car on public roads. Well, I can see that nobody is going to get this one. Step forward John Holt, darling of the home educating parents.

I have never been a particular fan of John Holt's, regarding him as a smug windbag whose writing is unendurably prolix and twee. Still, I am aware that he is enormously popular with many parents. I had forgotten though quite how raving mad he was and it was not until I began leafing through my old copy of Escape from Childhood that I remembered another reason that I dislike him so much; the creepy way he talks about children. The problem with this book, which is not one of his most popular, is that it alternates the fairly reasonable with the completely barking. Reading it is thus a disconcerting experience; like some weird mixture of A S Neil and Aleister Crowley. Some of what he says is pretty unexceptionable, especially to autonomous home educators. For example;

'Young people should have the right to control and direct their own learning, that is to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide if they want to learn in a school and if so which one and for how much of the time'

There, who could object to that? (I am tempted to add, only somebody who actually cared about their child, but we'll leave that for now). Enough to say that many home educators will be applauding such noble sentiments. A couple of chapters later he suggests that we should abolish the age of consent entirely and allow any child to have sex with anybody she pleases, child or adult. He concedes that not everybody would agree with such a move, because:

'Some people have voiced the fear to me that if it were legal for an adult to have sex with a consenting child, many young people would be exploited by unscrupulous older ones'.

Well he got that right! How does he deal with this objection? Well you see it seems that we are 'caught with the remains of old myths'. He says, in effect, that only repressed people or old fuddy duddies would object to this liberating proposal. He does seem to have a bit of a thing about children though. After talking of the ridiculous idea, in his eyes, that small children might not have any sexual urges, he says:

'But we cling to this view of children for many reasons, not the least of which is that pretending they have no sexual feelings makes it easier for us to ignore or deny the sexual part of their attraction for us'.

Have a look at the chapters entitled The Child as Love Object and How Children Exploit Cuteness (The little minxes!) Here is Holt talking about an overweight ten year-old girl he had in his class:

'Now that she was no longer cute, but had become a sugar addict, fat, lazy and inactive, seduction failed more and more. But she had nothing else. Seduction was all she knew.'

Yuk! Would you want this man to baby sit for you? I find something deeply odd about a man of over fifty who refers to 'a six year-old friend of mine.' In view of whjat he had to say about the age of consent, one cannot help but wonder whether this friendship entailed his taking the kid to the pictures and then back to his place for coffee! In the chapter The Right to Use Drugs, he makes the surprising claim that:

'Most children have smoked tobacco (probably marijuana) before they are twelve years old.'

He wrote this in 1974 and I don't suppose that it was true then that most eleven year olds were smoking dope any more than it is today. He is all in favour of children taking heroin. The irrational objections to this drug are a caused by people believing more old myths.

'What really enraged people about heroin and marijuana was and is the belief that when people take it they don't want to work. So the public was sold the idea that heroin use was a terrible danger.'

In other words, just like those of us who would not want to see our eight year old daughters in the sack with a man of thirty, so too only old stick-in-the-muds would wish to prevent their children from fixing up some heroin. It's sheer repression! I won't even quote from the chapters which urge that three year olds should be able to vote and that there is no reason why an eleven year old should not take a car on the roads.

The truth is that John Holt was a very strange, some would say completely mad individual. He certainly said a few interesting things about education, if you can be bothered to wade through all the folksy anecdotes. His attitude to children in general though is appalling and dangerous.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The need for democratic legitimacy for representatives of home educators

Every single person in this country who claims to speak on behalf of home educating parents is doing so because they have appointed themselves to this role. This applies to me, Mike Fortune-Wood, Education Otherwise, Alison Sauer; every single one of us. Not one of us has any democratic legitimacy whatsoever. In fact, looked at from that point of view, the only person during the debate about home education last year who had any claim to being appointed in a democratic fashion was Ed Balls. This is a sobering but inescapable conclusion.

What can we do about this problem? For problem it most certainly is. While we are in a situation where nobody has been chosen democratically, the field is open for anybody to claim that he or she represents the interests of home educators. Politicians cannot deal with every one of the estimated eighty thousand or so parents of home educated children in this country. They have to deal with one or two people. Unfortunately, the people who put themselves forward in this way do not really represent anybody except themselves and their own interests. They may have manoeuvred themselves into this position simply because they are articulate, plausible and know how to approach MPs. They are not accountable. This is far from satisfactory. It is a recipe for behind the scenes deals which will then be presented to other home educating parents as a fait accompli.

A related problem is that home educating parents are powerless to affect all the various things supposedly being done on their behalf or for their benefit. They were powerless to prevent Graham Badman's recommendations and they were also powerless to prevent people like me or Fiona Nicholson putting ourselves forward and shooting our mouths off at the select committee. They are currently powerless to know, or have any influence upon, what is being done on their behalf by others who are now negotiating with MPs. Until all home educating parents have a chance to choose representatives who speak on their behalf, the anger and frustration which many in that community feel is likely to remain.

The only way around this which I can see would be if every single home educator were known to local authorities. If that were to be the case then an outside body, somebody like the Electoral reform Society, could supervise the distribution of nominations and ballots so that each local area could elect two or three people who would genuinely speak for home educating parents in that part of the country. Doing it locally like this would prevent a national organisation like Education Otherwise from dominating the process. If representatives could be democratically elected in this way, then the way would be open to forming local councils consisting of home educators, local authority officers and perhaps independent members of the wider community who could supervise anything to do with home education in each local authority area. Having independent members on such a council would prevent either the local authority or home educators from having too much control. Only those who were currently home educating their children would be eligable to stand for this council or vote. This would also remove a number of self appointed experts from any position of influence.

It will not have escaped notice that a scheme of this sort would require the compulsory registration of home educators and I am aware that many are not in favour of this. The advantage of such local councils would be that the local authority would become accountable in a way that they are not presently. Democratically elected home educators would be able to speak on behalf of other home educating parents and they would have real power in the shaping of policy and practice in their area. This would introduce a new era of openness in the way that local authorities operate with regard to home education. There are frequent complaints about so-called ultras vires practices. If every aspect of the local authority's approach to home education had been hammered out in the presence of elected and accountable members of the home educating community, this would not be possible. Every detail would be worked on openly by both local authority officers and home educating parents together. The independent members would ensure that objective witnesses were present at all discussions between the two sides.

This scheme would only work if every home educator was involved; if every home educating parent had the chance to stand for office and vote. Hence the need for compulsory registration. Home educating parents with a grievance about their local authority's actions would be able to take it to a democratic representative who could raise the matter at the next meeting of the Home Education Council. It would work just as local councillors now work on behalf of people in their ward.

Different areas have very different concerns about home education. For example, a parent in the Western Isles might have a very different set of problems about home education than a mother in a large metropolitan district. For this reason, a national council or anything run by a national organisation would not really work. The essence of this scheme is that it would be operated by local home educators for local home educators. The sticking point would be the need for compulsory registration, but I fancy that that particular point is already under active discussion with MPs. I would be surprised if this does not appear on the scene shortly whatever else happens. Until every single home educating parent has a say, via democratically elected and accountable representatives with equal power to the officers of the local authority, there will continue to be conflict over the whole question of home education.

Who is attempting to limit the freedoms of home educators?

Yesterday I was accused by one person who commented here of seeking adulation! I really can't be going about this in the right way, because I have yet to notice that I have received any adulation at all here over the last year. Come on guys, you are welcome to be adulatory if you want; don't be shy!

I was thinking a little more about the idea of people like me wanting to restrict the freedoms of home educators. I was perhaps a little harsh about this, saying that I had no interest at all in such freedoms. Let us look at the freedoms of home educators and how they might be being restricted at the moment.

One of the problems that I have always found with very gung ho liberal and left wing types is that they are often very eager to impose their own ideology upon others. Frequently, they are readier to do this than right wing conservatives. So it is not enough for one of these people to boycott Israeli fruit or academic exchanges. That is fair enough, we can all choose with whom we do business. That is freedom. These sort of people often try to get everybody else to do the same as them and attempt to make anybody not taking part in the boycott to feel like child murderers or Nazis. I have observed this process time and again. For one person to avoid wearing a fur coat is fine; that is freedom. To try and stop anybody else wearing fur coats is an attempt to restrict the freedom of others to make choices.

How does this relate to the restriction of freedom for home educators? Some home educating parents are happy for officers from their local authority to visit them. Actually some enjoy the visits. I have remarked before that there are parents who attend home educating groups who feel obliged to keep quiet about the visits they receive. On the HE-UK list, we can see why this should be. Somebody there articulates what might perhaps be called the 'Party Line' on visits and friendly relations with the local authority; i.e. that this is a despicable form of collaboration and those who allow it are no better than Quislings. She writes;

'I live in an area with quite a number of home educators who like to show off to the LA - it's really annoying because whilst I wouldn't want to curb their freedom, their actions mean that the LA expects it off all home educators. Every time one of us gives extra to a LA, no matter how proud you may be, it takes away more of all our choices.'

I simply adore the sneering attempt to belittle those who enjoy visits, they 'like to show off'. This is a fairly common attitude among those on both the lists and in some home educating groups. All local authorities are liars and up to no good. Anybody who accepts a visit or sends more than the bare minimum to their LA is letting the side down. In short, by applying psychological pressure, attempts are being made to stop others from allowing local authority officers into their home. This has been explicitly stated on a number of lists and those who have admitted having happy visits have been exposed as traitors who make life more difficult for other parents.

I observe that on one of the larger lists, a poll was conducted just after the publication of the Badman Review. the question asked was whether people were in favour of compulsory registration. 17% were in favour; between a fifth and a sixth. A minority, but a substantial one. Of the seven hundred people on this particular list, well over a hundred are likely to be in favour of compulsory registration. And this was a list set up to oppose Graham Badman and all his works! Roughly the same percentage were in favour of this when making submissions during the review itself. I have an idea that if parents were to be offered practical help such as free paper and pens, ink for their printers, access to examinations, school music rooms and science rooms, this percentage would soar. We will never know, because nobody at all feels able to admit to being in favour of compulsory registration. Not on that list or HE-UK, EO or the other main ones. Their freedom to express this view has been eroded by the vociferous shouting and unpleasant behaviour of others. One needs to read what John Stuart Mill had to say about the Tyranny of the Majority!

Similar things happen with those who believe in structured education and teaching of children. They do not feel free to express their own views on this among other home educators sometimes. If we are going to talk about restricting the freedoms of home educators, then this is the sort of thing which comes to my mind. That some home educating parents are made to feel unwelcome at a group because they believe in structured teaching. That some parents keep quiet about receiving visits in case others condemn them. That almost a fifth of parents on the HE lists are in favour of compulsory registration, but would not dare to say so because they would be pounced upon. Such insidious, psychological pressure acts to restrict the freedoms of some home educating parents just as seriously as anything being done by local authorities.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Funding for home educated children

Over on the HE-UK list, there is some discussion about the idea that local authorities will have 10% of the funding available for school children, which they can use for children who are educated at home. It is being suggested that this is some new scheme, but that is ridiculous. Eight months ago, on February 17th, I posted about this subject. It is pretty widely known. I said;

'In the letter to local authorities, the DCSF says, apropos of home educated children;

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

0.1 is of course 10%. I cannot imagine why people are pretending that this is a startling new development. Mike Fortune-Wood is apparently anxious because this money has been referred to by one local authority as relating to a 'pupil'. He feels there is something sinister about this, saying,

' this is something new, not yet funded. I would be careful of them calling your children pupils as a whole different set of rules apply to pupils as opposed to HE children.'

Nothing of the sort.The reason that the word 'pupil' is used is that this is 10% of the Age Weighted Pupil Unit or AWPU. They have to talk of pupils, because the finance is a percentage of a pupil related allowance from the DSG.

This post illustrates the other side of the phenomenon to which I draw attention below. Just as local authorities and the Department for Education are to be portrayed in a poor light wherever possible and the worst motives attributed to them, so too when they do something good, we must be suspicious and mistrustful of them. I have not the least doubt that this initiative of the DCSF was known to Mike Fortune-Wood months ago, just as it was to many others. However, this is good news, showing the DfE doing something worthwhile for home educators. Better keep quiet about it! If some parent does ask, then we had best sound a note of caution and make her think that there may be a catch. For instance, why are they calling this woman's kid a 'pupil'? Something fishy there. I know, I'll wind her up about this and suggest that there might be something to worry about in this innocent terminology. Perhaps I can persuade her to forget about the money being supplied for her child's education and instead promote an atmosphere of suspicion and animosity between her and her local authority.

Cherishing illusions

I still belong to one or two Internet lists for home educators, although my relations with those on the lists is not always what one might describe as cordial! I tend to limit myself these days to supplying information, but even that seems to provoke people. About a month ago, for example, there was a panic because some parents seemed to believe that the Metropolitan Police were treating both co-sleeping and home education as risk factors for abuse. I found out about this and passed on what I had learned. More recently, others were saying that local authority staff were in league with the NHS in two areas, Oldham in the North of England and Aberystwyth in Wales, and demanding that home educated children should be weighed and measured regularly lest they were being starved to death. This was so mad, that it didn't take five minutes to sort out.

Now of course, I neither need nor want thanks for this sort of thing. I choose to do it and then pass on any information which I can unearth. I have though been surprised that not only do I get no thanks for this, but that people are actually hostile and aggressive about it. At first I found this puzzling, but I think that I have found the correct explanation. Let me give a couple of examples of what people have said when I looked into the business of school nurses insisting on weighing home educated children. Somebody on one of the lists thought that I might be lying about contacting the school nurse in Oldham for, as he put it, my own 'aggrandizement'. Now it is quite true that like everybody else I sometimes exaggerate my achievements in order to make myself sound important, but really! Does anybody seriously imagine that the limit of my self-aggrandizement would be to pretend to have exchanged emails with a school nurse in Oldham? I think my ambition might reach a little further than this. It conjures up such a delicious image. One can imagine two fashionably dressed young women walking down Piccadilly.

'Don't stare,' says one, ' But did you see that man who just passed? My dear, that was Simon Webb. They say he has one of the most brilliant minds in Essex. He was the man who emailed the school nurse in Oldham!' Her friend turns to gaze longingly at this famous man.
'Gosh, how I wish that I could meet him! Fancy his actually emailing a school nurse like that!'

I'm sure that readers will agree that as aggrandizement goes, this is pretty tame stuff.

Less amusing was the woman who said that I must be suffering from 'mental retardation' for doing this. I have no objection to being insulted, but for somebody to use this as a term of abuse in this day and age struck me as quite extraordinary. Even more extraordinary was the fact that despite this being on an Internet list for home educators with over seven hundred members, including most of the well known names in home education in this country, not one person objected. Presumably, they are all happy to see expressions like this bandied around in a pejorative way, as long as the target is somebody like me! One feels that tomorrow somebody will post on that list saying, 'Ed Balls, what a spastic!" or perhaps, 'See that Graham Badman? Doesn't he look like a Mongol?' I am sure that these terms too will pass without remark. Shocking.

Other members of the list were not as offensive as this, but there was still an impression that I was poking my nose in and should really just mind my own business. It was almost as though they didn't want to know the truth and would prefer to believe that some local authority somewhere was strangling home educated children and boiling them down for glue. Very strange.

Now I will let readers into a little secret. I have always found that asking questions is very useful if you want to find something out. So while I have been investigating these scare stories, I have asked the people to whom I talk, 'Has anybody else asked about this lately?' Invariably, the answer is 'yes' and I often recognise the names of those who have already discovered that these rumours are untrue. This is why I mentioned that Fiona Nicholson of Education Otherwise had been dealing with Fran Lees in Oldham; to see if I could prompt her to acknowledge that what I was saying was true. She did so some hours later, but without my having mentioned her name, I suspect that we would never have heard about this.

So what do with have? Silly scare stories circulate on home education lists, stories which allege that some local authority or police force is operating a policy which in some way harms home educating families. Home educators get worked up and indignant about the rumours and do not want anybody to shatter their illusions. They get angry if anybody tells them the truth about the matter; they want to believe that these anti-home education stories are true. Well known people from organisations like Education Otherwise and Home Education UK look into the matter, discover that it is all nonsense and then keep quiet about it, allowing ordinary parents to continue believing a lot of rubbish. Why would they do that? Having found out that the rumours are false, why don't these people do what I have been doing, that is to say spread the information around where other home educators can see it?

The best comparison I can make is the situation in this country during World War I when everybody believed that the Kaiser's army were committing horrible atrocities. From time to time, somebody would demonstrate that these stories were ludicrous and would supply the facts to discredit them. This provoked anger in ordinary people who wanted to believe that the Germans were mad beasts. There was thought to be something disloyal and unpatriotic in casting doubt upon such atrocity stories. Even intelligent politicians who knew that the rumours were baseless, took care not to show their disbelief publicly. Just like the home education organisations now! The problem is that home educating parents have been encouraged to swallow any foolishness about local authorities and the Department for Education. They feel that they are at war with these people and wish to think them capable of any wicked act. These crazy tales which entail conspiracies involving local authorities, the police and NHS staff have become a form of mass hysteria. Those raising objections to these fantasies are regarded by other parents as traitors and saboteurs.

For this reason, I shall not be posting any more information about this sort of thing on any of the Internet lists. Firstly, it is a waste of time and secondly it just winds people up and makes them behave irrationally. I may from time to time put stuff on this blog about such things, but that is all. As I said above, some of the well known people on those lists find out about these things for themselves and then for their own reasons keep quiet about it. In future, I shall just leave others to find out for themselves.

Changing the law on home education

One gains the distinct impression when reading Internet lists devoted to home education that many, perhaps most, home educators want nothing to change and for the legal situation regarding home education to remain just as it is now. In a way, I can sympathise with this view. I am myself a conservative and more or less opposed to anything new, almost as a matter of principle. It is heartening to see so many others in the world of home education who embrace this basic tenet of conservatism! Still. it seems a little odd to me that the present jumble and complicated mishmash of statute law and precedent should appear to so many parents as the being the best of all possible worlds. After all, in order to establish the position of elective home education in this country, we must routinely consider case law a century old (Bevan v Shears 1911) and also cases which had absolutely nothing at all to do with home education (R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust 1985).

When Badman published his findings, one of the recommendations which annoyed certain home educating parents most was the suggestion that each year they should provide a statement of educational intent; something which looked perilously like a curriculum. Some denounced this proposal on the grounds that it would render autonomous education impossible. This may or may not be true, but there seems little doubt that the law provides already for such a thing, both for schools and home educators.

What actually is the duty of home educating parents as regards their child's education? That's easy! Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 tells us that;

'The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to
receive efficient full-time education'

There now, it couldn't be simpler. Just make sure that you are causing your kid to receive an efficient education to begin with and you should be OK. There is of course no definition in statute law of what is meant by an 'efficient' education. We are compelled to turn to old court cases, particularly the two which I cited above. In the course of one of those cases, R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust 1985, Mr Justice Woof gave it as his opinion that an 'efficient' education was one that 'achieves what it sets out to achieve.' That seems that's quite clear, I hope.

The implications of this piece of precedent are sobering. Forget about home education for a moment. In fact forget about any sort of education and ask yourself this. How in day to day life do I know of any task or undertaking whether I have achieved what I set out to achieve? For example laying out a garden, decorating a room, writing a blogpost or sorting out the sock drawer. The answer is fairly obvious. You will know if you have achieved what you set out to achieve because you knew what you were setting out to achieve. You compare what you were planning to do with what you have actually done and see if the two things match. This seems pretty straightforward. How does this tie in with the definition of an efficient education which we are legally obliged to provide for our children? Plainly, if we do not know what we are setting out to achieve, then we will not know if we have achieved it. So we must have a plan to begin with, before we even embark upon the enterprise. How could it be otherwise?

A plan for providing an education is, essentially, a curriculum. Or, at the very least, it would be a statement of educational intent. It would be what the parent is setting out to achieve. Without this plan, he will be quite unable to fulfil his legal duty of providing an efficient education for his child, because how would he know whether he had achieved what he set out to achieve? There is not the slightest doubt that a plan must exist in the parent's mind if he is to have any hope of providing an efficient education. What is the objection to his sharing this plan with others? In other words, we can see that he must have a collection of aims in his own mind for the education which he proposes to provide. Without these aims, as we have seen, he could not be sure of achieving what he set out to achieve and we know that he is legally obliged to do this.

The case for a statement of educational intent is thus unanswerable as the law stands. Such a statement must exist for every home educator, even if it is not committed to paper. This is just one of the implications contained in the current law. There are a number of others, equally surprising and alarming to some parents.

Because the current legal position which affects home education has built up in a haphazard fashion over the last century and nowhere mentions home education per se, we are bound to find ourselves struggling. The law as it stands leaves plenty of room for abuse by local authorities, as others have observed. It also offers scope for parents who are not providing their children with an education. It is high time that home education became a recognised and legally defined choice for parents. The duties and obligations of both local authorities and parents should be plainly set out in a way which reflects the realities of life in a twenty first century Western democracy. The real risk to home educators lies in the current way that home education is being affected by various new laws as they are added to the statute book, laws which are framed without any thought of home education but which nevertheless have a profound effect upon a home educating parents. Things such as the amendment to the Education Act 1996, Section 436A, which laid upon all local authorities a duty to identify children missing from education. It is in the steady drip of such new laws that the real threat to home education lies, not in regularising the practice and putting it on a proper legal footing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Update about weighing and measuring home educated children in Oldham

I have been in contact with Francesca Lees, who is the School Health Advisor for Oldham Primary Care Trust. She says;

' I would only weigh/measure a child regularly if there were possible concerns about a child's weigh or growth, or if a child is subject to safeguarding procedures i.e
a child protection or 'child in need' plan. '

She is very keen to discover who is making up these ridiculous stories and what the motive is for frightening parents in this way. Does anybody here have any ideas about this? Fiona Nicholson has also been in touch about this and I hope that Education Otherwise will also act to dispel this rumour.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Attempting to limit the freedoms of home educators

Yesterday I posted a humorous piece about the fact that I am often being told that I have no place in the debate on home education because I am no longer a home educator; the reason for this being that my daughter is now seventeen and attending a Further Education College. Somebody commented with the surprising news that those who make this objection are not really saying this at all. They are rather complaining that I am 'attempting to limit the freedoms of current and future home educators', instead of trying to maintain these freedoms or offering help to other home educators. Apparently, by not understanding this convoluted metaphor, I am 'displaying my ignorance'! Well it sounds a bit odd to me. Why can't these people just say what they mean? Why not say, 'You are attempting to limit the freedoms of home educators', rather than 'You are no longer a home educator'? Still, let us assume that this is true and see where such a claim might lead us.

The first thing to say at once is that although I am pretty nifty with words, I doubt if there exist in the English language adjectives powerful enough adequately to convey the depth of my indifference to the 'freedoms of home educators', if by these are meant the freedoms of those adults responsible for furnishing children with an education. Those supposed freedoms are right down there with 'parents' rights'. I have no interest in them whatsoever and never have had. My only concern as far as home education goes lies in the right of children to receive an education. Nothing else really matters to me in this debate. So anybody hoping to engage me on the topic of 'home educators' freedoms' or 'parents' rights' might as well spare their breath.

Let me set out the perspective from which I have always worked and then explain why I feel that my aim is actually precisely congruent with that of all other home educators. (And for that matter every local authority officer and civil servant at the Department for Education). I educated my own child. I did so because I felt that I could provide her with a better education than that on offer at the local maintained schools. For this reason, I would have fought hard against any attempt to make her go to school. She was entitled to the best education available and was receiving it. This had nothing whatsoever to do with my 'freedom as a home educator'. She had a right to an education and was getting it. If I had not been able to provide an education at least as good as that on offer at a nearby school, then her right would have been to go to school. This seems to me to be quite clear. My freedom to educate her would not have entered the question. She was entitled to the best education available.

Because parents have a legal duty to cause their children to receive an education, a right is created for the child to receive an education. Duties create rights and rights create duties. In this case the duty creates a right for the child, but no corresponding right for the parent is created. Talk of the 'freedoms of home educators' is absurd.

The current system is not perfect; no human invention can ever be that. Some children are not receiving a good education. This is the case with those at school and it is also the case with children being educated at home. If we change the law or revise the 2007 guidelines for local authorities, there will still be some children who are not receiving a decent education. There is nothing we can do about this; it is in the nature of the Universe. I assume that everybody concerned with home education in whatever capacity is acting with good will. I assume this of the local authority officers, the autonomous home educators who despise me for a Quisling and also of people like Graham Badman. I take it for granted that they all hope that as many children as possible will receive a good education. I believe that the home educators who oppose any change in the status quo want this and I also assume that the people at the Department for Education want the same thing. I certainly want this very strongly. In other words, all parties acknowledge the right of children to receive a good education. Everybody also knows that some children are not getting an education. This is what I meant earlier when I said that my aims were congruent with those of other home educators.

As things stand, some home educated children are receiving a good education while others are not. If we change things, then some home educated children will begin to receive a better education than they had been doing. Of course at the same time, the education of some other children will be compromised and their education will be worse than it was before. We cannot fully foresee the consequences of any action or inaction. All parties want the greatest number of children to be receiving an education; they have different ideas on how to go about achieving this end.

I have been accused of wishing to erode the 'freedoms of home educators'. As I think that I have made clear, this simply does not enter my thinking for a moment. As things stand, the current system with regard to home education is letting down a number of children. I think that there is scope for improvement; I do not believe that the system we now have is the best that can be possibly devised by men and women. It has arisen accidentally and owes more to Edwardian court cases than it does to any rational consideration of the situation in the twenty first century. I would like to see a new arrangement, one which would more robustly secure for children their right to a good education.

We are all of us working towards the same aim. I feel that the measures which I support would maximise the numbers of home educated children who received a good education. Those who oppose any change feel the same thing. Local authorities believe that their own policies will also tend towards this end. I feel just as strongly as others about this subject; the only difference being perhaps that I am able to behave in a fairly good natured way over it. Those who claim that I am attempting to limit the freedoms of home educators are quite wrong; I simply do not care about these so-called freedoms. I care about the right of children to an education and have in the past worked hard to secure this right, both for my own child and the children of others. I shall continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Portraying this current debate as some Manichaean struggle between the forces of darkness on the one hand and a noble and heroical band of parents fighting for their ancient liberties on the other, is too silly for words. Everybody wants the greatest possible number of children to receive an education; we differ only in how this may be achieved.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

No longer a home educator

I am still on one or two home education lists and a short while ago an old friend of mine, firebird2110, expressed surprise at this. She gave it as her opinion that since I was no longer a home educator, she could not see why I was on any HE lists at all. This is a fair point. Before I explore it a little, I must mention one thing which puzzles me about the woman who raised this question. She describes herself as a 'wool crafter'. I have racked my brains trying to work out what this might be. I even went to the length of sending her an email asking about this, which she was churlish enough to ignore. My best guess is that this is simply a New Age way of describing somebody whose hobby is knitting. I would be grateful to anybody who can shed light upon this.

The suggestion that I am no longer a home educator is clearly predicated upon the assumption that a genuine home educator is one who has a child aged between five and sixteen who is not a registered pupil at a school. People have in the past said of me, 'It does not matter to him, any new law would not affect him and his child'. It is a very curious thing, but that using this as a definition of a home educator would cut the regular numbers on some of the Internet lists by about half! I am not going to name any names, but a large number of those who post regularly on those places, and here if it comes to that, either have children over the age of sixteen or children under sixteen who are at school. This is the case with some of the most vociferous 'home educators', some of whom have not technically been home educators for years. Others have children who are not yet five, into which category firebird2110 herself fell when first she began posting on the lists.

There does seem to be something about home education which causes people to remain hanging about the scene even when their kids have turned sixteen and gone to college. All of which confirms what I have long known; that home education is about more than just education. If it were just another form of education, then people would drop it as soon as their kids were no longer involved. You would find it a little odd if a parent carried on hanging round the school gates once their child had grown up, but this sort of thing seems to be pretty common with home education. I wonder if anybody can shed any light upon this curious phenomenon? Of course some former home educators see a chance to make a few bob out of the business now that their children are older. We can see that with one or two people who are making a living out training local authorities and of course others writing books about it! Any thoughts about this phenomenon would be good to hear.

I must mention that after Firebird2110 and I had had this little disagreement, another anonymous poster weighed in with a post in which she claimed that I hated women. Her grounds for believing this were that she had noticed that I was more often scathing to women than I am to men. What nonsense! I am rude and unpleasant to everybody in equal measure. The fact is that there are roughly ten times as many female home educators on blogs and lists as there are men. This means that I am horrible to about ten times as many women as I am men; it is a statistical artefact. Unless it was being suggested of course that I should be more polite and deferential to women than I am to men. If so, I cannot really go along with this Victorian view of the proper relations between the sexes.

Home educated children and access to health services

I have, as I have said in the past, been involved in helping parents of children with special educational needs to de-register their children from special schools. This can be a little more complicated than de-registering from an ordinary maintained school, because of Regulation 8 (2) of the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, which specifies that the permission of the local authority is required before a child at a special school can be removed from roll. In practice, this is seldom withheld, but a variety of tactics are used to try and discourage parents from taking this step. These gambits are not used maliciously, but are brought into play because the school and local authority genuinely believe that the child's needs can be better catered for in an institutional setting rather than at home. Needless to say, I feel that they are mistaken in this.

A popular way of discouraging parents from taking a child with special educational needs out of school is to claim that the services which she needs can only be provided within a school setting. The Ofsted survey undertaken in 2009 (Local authorities and home education Ref. 0902670) found this practice to be widespread. A mother whose child was receiving physiotherapy while registered at school, mentioned that she was considering home education. She was told that it was a case of, 'either school and services or home education and nothing'. Nor is this an isolated example. Statements like this by a school are scandalous and often untrue. Many health services such as speech therapy and special dentists are available by open referral; in other words no professional is needed to arrange them, it can be done by a parent or friend. This is not widely known. I get pretty angry about this sort of nonsense.

Nor is this problem limited to home educated children with special needs. When I wanted my daughter to have the meningitis C vaccination some years ago, I was initially told that the whole programme only took place at school and that it was not possible to provide it for any child except through a school. It was quite a struggle to prove to them that they were mistaken about this! I had a similar difficulty with the HPV vaccination. These practices vary a good deal between different health services and local authorities. It was for this reason that I was extremely irritated to see that when a local authority like that in the area of Aberystwyth goes out of their way to ensure that home educated children have equal access to these things, it becomes the subject of untruthful rumours on home education lists. Access to all the health services which children at school enjoy should be and is a basic entitlement of all children, not withheld from those who do not attend school.

The School Entry Health Check is given to all children starting school. Obviously it is done with the permission of the parents, but I can't imagine any refusing. It picks up on hearing and sight problems, stuff like that. Children who do not go to school can miss out on this and some do not ever have their hearing tested. This could be a problem, because apart from deafness, which most parents would notice, the sweep hearing test can uncover problems with hearing certain frequencies. So a child might have good hearing but be unable to hear high frequency speech sounds such as 'S' and 'C'. This can harm his language development. School nurses routinely tell parents that 'all children have to have these tests'. I am sure that they say the same thing to the parents of home educated children and this might be where the ludicrous stories originate of children being dragged off to the school nurse against their will so that they can be weighed and measured.

All children are entitled to every health service which is on offer. When local authorities work towards this and try to make sure that a full range of such services is available, they should be commended. If when some LA makes an initiative in this direction they are at once bombarded with Freedom of Information requests, it will make other local authorities less likely to offer these services to home educated children. This would be a very bad thing and I cannot for the life of me see how it would be to the advantage of any home educated child.

Friday, 15 October 2010

More about weighing and measuring

While some are still sharpening their coloured pencils in readiness for firing off strangely worded demands for information from local authorities, I have been speaking to the people involved with home education at Oldham. The suggestion has been made that home educated children in this area are being forced to have their children wieghed and their height measured every six months in order to ensure that they are not being starved to death. This move was supposedly in response to the death of Khyra Ishaq in Birmingham.

Fortunately, I have a sister in Manchester who used to home educate her own son, as I have perhaps mentioned in the past. She knows one or two people and I am pretty sharp at ferreting people out myself and so today I can report that this does not seem to be a cause for concern. The nurse doing the weighing and measuring is called Fran Lees and the woman who visits home educating families is Sue Casella. Nobody seems to have any complaints about them and, like the home education service in Ceridigon, they simply offer the services of the school nurse and so on. I have no idea at all anyway how anybody would force a parent to allow their child to be weighed. Is the suggestion that Sue Casella is dragging them into a car and then thrusting the child at the nurse and demanding, 'Weigh this one, Fran!'

It all seems very unlikely and until any further evidence emerges, I don't think that there is anything to be worried about. More details needed, including the testimony of parents whose children have actually been subjected to this treatment. It is certainly the case that Sue Casella has advised people that it is wise to have their child's health checked regularly in some cases and she has made appointments for them to see the nurse, but I have no reason to suppose this was done against anybody's wishes.

Internet lists and home education

A couple of people have pointed out lately that just because one or two people on Internet lists relating to home education are fretting about some topic or other, does not mean to say that this is representative of home educating parents in general. This is of course absolutely true. The main lists might typically have a few hundred people on them and only forty or fifty who regularly take part in debates there. If we assume that there are eighty thousand parents of home educated children in this country, these forty or fifty individuals, many of whom are not technically home educators anyway, are not indicative of the feelings and concerns of ordinary parents. I have myself made this point strongly in the past, including to the Children, Schools and Families select committee.

The problem is that those handful of people on the Internet lists tend to be pretty powerful in shaping opinion among home educators, even the opinions of those who do not hang out on the Internet overmuch. They are a major source of rumour and misinformation. It only takes one person to visit the HE-UK list, for example, and pick up a story about local authorities demanding to weigh and measure home educated children, and before you know it she has told people in the home educating group which she goes to with her child. From there, these fantasies take on a life of their own. So even people who do not even own a computer can get to hear that there is a sinister plan by local authorities to weigh and measure their children in order to check whether they are being starved to death.

To ignore the influence of the home education Internet lists would be a great mistake. It is true, as I have remarked, that they contain a fairly high percentage of cranks and nutcases, far higher than in the home educating community generally, but the nonsense which they come up with there filters through to the wider community. Some of those on these lists make it their life's work to spread the stories dreamed up their fellow conspiracy theorists into the outside world. Every time an article on home education appears, whether in a national or local newspaper, members of those lists will fill the comments section of any online editions with the latest rumour from the lists to which they belong. This means that people outside the home educating community also become affected by the foolishness which is frequently on display in places like the EO and HE-UK lists. The delusions of what somebody here called, 'four or five people on the Internet' thus end up becoming a background to any debate on home education.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Councils checking the health of home educated children

A current concern on some of the Internet lists ties in perfectly with my post earlier about the readiness of some home educators to believe any old rubbish as long as it shows a local authority in a bad light. The latest story is that some local authorities, Oldham in the North of England and Ceridigon in Wales have been mentioned, are insisting that home educated children are weighed and measured or forced to see school nurses regularly. I shall be posting more fully on this tomorrow, because these rumours are actually damaging the provision for children with special educational needs, some of whose parents have fought hard to gain access to health services.

In the meantime I will only say this. We used to spend a lot of time in the Brecons until a few years ago and so I know Aberystwyth and so on pretty well. I also know some home educating families there. So as far as the local authority in Ceridigon making home educated children see the school nurse, I can absolutely assure readers that it is a lot of nonsense. The man responsible for Elective Home Education in the district is Stuart Bradley and he may be contacted on 01970-633656. Before ringing him, I spoke to a home educating parent so that I could compare what I was told with what Stuart Bradley said. There was a perfect match. In fact Ceridigon have a policy of not making visits as a routine procedure. When a family comes to their attention, they send out a form and if when it is returned, there does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary, that's it. No visit. They don't want to make visits, because it would mean driving up into the mountains and all over the countryside. The school nurse is available for those parents who specifically request an appointment. Some do and some don't.

This is a typical example of what I was talking about earlier today, in which the home educators work themselves up into an indignant frenzy about nothing. As I say, I shall post more about this topic tomorrow.