Monday, 29 November 2010

On debate

One of the things which tends to make discussion with home educating parents a little heavy going at times is that they often seem to take a debating point about their philosophy as an attack on their parenting skills or general lifestyle. This is I suppose inevitable. As parents, we are naturally sensitive about any implied criticism of the way that we raise our children. When we have chose a somewhat bizarre and heterodox method for bringing up our children, we are bound to be on the lookout for anybody suggesting that it actually is a bizarre and heterodox method!

Somebody commenting yesterday made an observation which others have hinted at but been perhaps too inarticulate to put into words. She said;

' You seem always to put the worst possible interpretation onto things people say.'

This is not at all how I would put the case, but one quite sees what she means by this. Having established what general principle somebody professes adherence to, I exhibit the logical consequences of following that particular belief system. Or, to be exact, I exhibit the possible logical consequences. This does not of course mean that when I show what might follow from sticking strictly to some ideology of child rearing, I assume that this is what really does happen; only that it might and is not forbidden by the system under discussion. The reason that I do this is simple. Most of those who come onto this blog and comment here are perfectly reasonable people who raise their children as responsibly and sensibly as anybody else. They provide them with an education and care for them efficiently. As a matter of fact, I doubt whether any non-home educating parent would be able to tell the difference between the methods which I used to educate my child and the methods which autonomous parents use! In both cases, there is heavy emphasis upon conversation as the primary tool of instruction and a good deal of the education takes place out and about, rather than actually in the home.

What concerns me and what I try to show, is what could result from somebody taking the ideas which are being talked about here and applying them without really understanding what they are doing. I believe that this could result in the neglect of a child's education. Note that I am not saying that it will result in such a neglect, only that it might. Of course, it might be argued that any philosophy or educational method can be misused and some of those who have commented here certainly claim that a strictly followed scheme of formal education in the home might have ill effects for the child. This is why I was asking recently whether anybody had seen such a thing, that is to say formal education at home which does the child harm.

When I point out what may follow from somebody's educational philosophy, this is not at all the same thing as telling them that their educational philosophy is wrong or dangerous. It is more pointing out that it is possible to be misunderstood or misused. The question to ask is, 'How common is that?'. How frequently does the idea of intrinsic motivation as applied to home education result in a poor education or none at all? Some local authorities believe that this is a common occurrence. Autonomous educators would say that it is rare. Without doubt, one sees people posting on some of the home education forums who really seem to have the wrong end of the stick and whom one strongly suspects are not providing much of an education for their children. I have encountered such parents myself. Most of them follow a misunderstood version of autonomous education. What interests me greatly is whether or not anybody has seen a similar thing happening with structured education. In other words, has anybody witnessed structured education causing harm to a child's education? This would be a very good thing to discuss. Can standard theories of education cause harm to a child's education when conducted at home?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Children 'owning' their education

I have in the past read on various forums of children 'owning' their education. I have always dismissed this as the sort of irritating, New Age psychobabble in which some parents seem to delight. (Often the same ones who are against vaccinations, in favour of homeopathy, opposed to teaching and claim to be spiritual rather than religious). A couple of days ago, somebody here explained what is meant by this phrase. It apparently refers to children for whom 'their mind and what they do with it belongs to them as much as their body does.'

This is pretty baffling. Obviously a child's body belongs to her, but does this mean that she can do with it as she will? Are we to deduce from this that if a child wishes to pick her nose at the dinner table, play with matches or torture the cat, we must simply shrug and say, 'Ah, her body and what she does with it belongs to her'? Most parents would not agree with this proposition. They would argue that we have a duty to guide our children in the appropriate use of their bodies; not abdicate responsibility by claiming that she owns her actions. What on earth can this mean, anyway? If we have a duty to encourage some physical actions of our children and teach them to avoid others, then surely we owe them the same duty with mental habits? So we might discourage our children from drinking bleach or running in the road, even though we are not claiming to own their bodies. So too, we try to get them to do certain things with their minds and encourage them to avoid doing other things. This seems quite clear. Of course, what we encourage and discourage will vary from family to family. Some parents insist that their children hold their knives and forks properly, others are more concerned with being kind to animals. These are physical activities. On the mental front, some parents expect their children to work hard academically; for others it is more important that their children adopt a non-judgemental approach to the lives of other people. These are mental activities. Is it being argued that we should not try and influence at all what our children think or believe? This would mean not discouraging cruelty or prejudice, nor encouraging kindness and compassion. A strange sort of education indeed!

I confess myself just as perplexed by this business of a child 'owning her education' as I was before the explanation was posted! Was the person who provided this explanation really saying, as she seemed to be, that whatever a child does with her body and mind should be permitted and not hindered in any way because we do not own a child's body or mind? I wonder what the reaction of this parent would be if her four year-old child attempted to leave the house by herself in the evening. Would she really say to herself, ' the child owns her body and what she does with it'? Or should she prevent the child from leaving, thus effectively imprisoning her? Perhaps the case is altered as the child grows older and that one allows the older child or teenager more freedom as to what she does with her body as she approaches adulthood? This is quite a sensible idea and most parents would agree with it. Obviously, I have no control over what my seventeen year-old daughter does with her body now, whereas when she was little, my control was absolute. It has gradually lessened over the years. Of course, if that is what we believe about the body, then we can apply the same principle to the mind. When she was little, I had a lot of say in how she used her mind for much of the time, whereas now I have no control at all.

If anybody can expand upon this whole idea of a child 'owning her own education', I would be genuinely grateful. As things stand, the whole concept sounds like a nonsense.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Lord Lucas connection

A couple of weeks ago, as I have mentioned before, I received an email containing details of Alison Sauer's accounts. Alison, it will be remembered is a key member of the so-called 'secret group' who are drawing up guidelines on elective home education for the use of local authorities. The email came for an address including the name Kaycee. There was a bit of a fuss about this on the HE-UK list and it was suggested that I had actually sent the email to myself, although why I should do such a thing is not at all clear! Everybody had forgotten about it until Friday, when the genuine Kaycee posted that the email address had been tracked down to St Albans, a town in Southern England. The curious aspect of this is that the email address used to find the location from which the original email was sent was that of a company with which Lord Lucas is associated; The Good Schools Guide. Here it is:

Forwarded Message ----
> > From: " " < > >
> > >
> > To:
> > Sent: Tue, 23 November, 2010 21:51:54
> > Subject: Read Notification:
> >
> > To
> >

Has everybody followed this so far? The obvious question here is who was sending this email and what on earth has Lord Lucas to do with the business? The original email sent to me was a bit of misinformation, trying to throw doubt upon the integrity of both Alison Sauer and a woman who comments here pretty regularly. I cannot for the life of me imagine how Lord Lucas has become mixed up with this. Yesterday, I received an email from the same source as that claiming that the original email was sent from St Albans. It is now claimed that there is not the slightest doubt that the email was in fact sent from Chorley. This is a town in Lancashire about twenty miles from where Alison Sauer lives! Here is what I was sent:

General IP Information
Top of Form 1
ISP: Orange Home UK
Organization: Orange Home UK
Proxy: None detected
Type: Broadband
Assignment: Static IP

Bottom of Form 1
Geolocation Information
untry: United Kingdom 
State/Region: Lancashire
City: Chorley
Latitude: 53.65
Longitude: -2.6167
Area Code:
Postal Code:

There is something decidedly funny about this whole business. Is the suggestion that Alison Sauer herself sent me her accounts under a false name? I am not the only person who has been sent stuff apparently about the 'secret group'. The fact that a commercial company connected with Lord Lucas is mixed up somehow in this, is very puzzling. Is he connected with the drawing up of the new guidelines? Does he have a financial interest in anything to do with home education? Is he a particular chum of Tania Berlow; who is of course the public face of the 'secret group'? I would be grateful to hear from any reader who knows what the connection is between Lord Lucas and the new guidelines. I am especially intrigued to know why somebody editing The Good Schools Guide would be lending his resources in this way to a member of the group drawing up the new guidelines.

The quibbling pedants of autonomous education

One of the things which one observes about cults is the way in which they appropriate ordinary words and phrases and assign to them special meanings of their own. They then go mad if anybody uses these expressions in their usual, everyday sense. I have noticed this tendency a good deal when dealing with autonomous educators and it can make any debate with them time consuming and frustrating.

Let us consider what people mean by the terms 'informal education' and 'formal education'. Informal education is the sort of learning which takes place outside school. Visits to zoos and museums, after-school clubs and conversation with the parents in the home; all these are examples of informal education. Formal education, on the other hand, is what takes place in schools and colleges, where pupils follow a structured course of study in classrooms, typically culminating in the taking of some qualification. The meanings of these expressions is not some piece of teachers' jargon; it is simply what informal and formal education mean. So the education which I provided for my daughter, relying as it did heavily upon trips to museums and so on and a lot of conversation both inside and outside the home, was informal education. Had she gone to school, that would have been formal education. All this is quite clear to all but a tiny handful of quarrelsome and pedantic cranks!

When I wrote yesterday;

' In the event, I put the case for informal education myself. I still feel that autonomous educators could have stated their views better..'

the meaning could hardly be plainer. I was saying that I had put the case for informal education, home education in this context, but felt that autonomous educators could have put the case for their special type of informal education better had they expressed their own views about it. I simply cannot see any other construction which could be put upon these words. Lo and behold, an autonomous educator jumped in, claiming;

'Given that you are still confusing informal education with autonomous education ..........How can you still get this wrong?'

In other words, this person is denying that autonomous home education is actually a type of informal education. According to her, this is an elementary error!

The problem is that when people become deeply involved in some fringe activity like home education, they sometimes forget how ordinary people use language. This can cause difficulties and, as I said above, make debate hard. The same individual went on to claim that autonomous education is virtually identical to what the Americans call unschooling. This is true, but when I said this a few months ago, another autonomous educator immediately denounced me as an idiot, on the grounds that autonomous education can include schooling if the child requests it.

Just so that there is no confusion in the future, the expression 'autonomous education' was originally coined by an Anglican priest called Jan Fortune-Wood. In anything which I write, I follow her definition.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Making a name for myself

The extraordinary suggestion was made in a comment yesterday that I am engaged in a crusade, the supposed reason being that I am determined to make a name for myself. This is a pretty odd idea, but I thought that I would examine it anyway, because this is not the first time that this notion has cropped up here. Just to remind readers, over a year ago I had a couple of short articles published on home education. Since then, I have kept a little blog on the subject. This is hardly 'making a name' for myself! I doubt that anybody other than those who come onto this blog know my name.

Of course, there is my famous book. Another suggestion which has been made is that this blog is acting as publicity for the book, which is all part of a long term plan of mine to make money at the expense of home educating parents. If only that were true! The fact is that academic works of this sort do not make money for their authors. Most people buying it will be professionals working in the field of education. A great deal of work has gone into the thing and I will be lucky to break even. Whatever motive anybody has for writing a book like that; it is certainly not financial.

Why did I write the book, if not for financial gain? Was it just to advertise myself, as some of those who comment here evidently believe? The reason was simpler than that. I wrote it because there is a good deal of ignorance about home education among teachers and local authority officers. as well as ordinary non-home educators, and I wanted to produce something which would provide them with a bit of background knowledge. I am aware that there are already books on home education, but these tend to be either self-published or from very small presses. I wanted something from a major publisher which would be available in big commercial outlets. That way, both professionals and parents could find it freely available without having to hunt through obscure sources to find it. It is being sold everywhere; from WH Smith to The Guardian bookshop and The Stationery Office. For those who fear that this is little more than a collection of my rants, I can assure them that it is nothing of the sort. The first six chapters are an objective survey of the phenomenon of home education, starting with the Sumerians four thousand years ago and covering up to the Ofsted report on local authorities released in the Summer. The seventh chapter is less objective and sets out my own prescription for how home education should be regulated in this country.

I should remind readers that I originally appealed on this blog for any autonomous educators to help, by contributing to a dialogue between local authority officers and home educating parents. I did plan to have a chapter where autonomously educating parents could speak directly to local authorities and local authority officers would put their concerns. I had some people from local authorities who were prepared to be named and give their views, but not a single parent wished to take part, even anonymously. I also emailed a number of the more vociferous people on the Internet lists, but nobody wanted to have their views included. I did not think it fair to allow the local authorities to have their say without a response and so scrapped this idea and put the case for both sides myself. This is shame. It would have been good for autonomous educators to have a platform of this sort in a book which is likely to be widely read by those who shape and implement policy, but obviously I couldn't twist anybody's arm!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The real threat to home education

Over the last year or two, quite a few people seem to have fallen prey to the delusion that some kind of war is being waged against home educators in this country. We hear of a campaign of vilification, attempts to introduce legislation which would limit the freedoms of home educating parents and all sorts of other alarming things. The odd thing is that although I know quite a few teachers, social workers and local authority officers, I have never heard any of them say that they wish to put an end to the practice of home education. Nor have I heard this wish being expressed by anybody else. True, many people have reservations about home education. These often centre around tired old chestnuts like socialisation or a supposed inability to study science without a state-of-the art laboratory. Never once have I heard anyone say that they think that somebody should put a stop to home education.

This is quite curious, in view of the feeling of being beleaguered and menaced by hostile forces ranged against them which quite a few home educators seem to have. What can explain the discrepancy between the way things actually are and the way that some parents think that they are? In order to understand this, we must look to the past.

Home education has never been illegal in this country. Indeed, until the nineteenth century, it was probably the most common form of education in use. Even with the advent of universal schooling in 1870, under the so-called Forster's Act, a loophole was left which meant that those who did not wish to send their children to school would not be compelled to do so. Introducing the Elementary Education Act to the Commons on February 17th 1870, W.E. Forster said:

'We give power to the school boards to frame bye-laws for compulsory
attendance of all children within their district from five to twelve. They
must see that no parent is under a penalty for not sending his child to
school if he can show reasonable excuse; reasonable excuse being
education elsewhere, or sickness...'

Just like the later 'at school or otherwise' which was included in the 1944 and later the 1996 Education Acts, so too with the 1870 Act. Instead of 'education otherwise' this had the get-out clause of 'education elsewhere'.

A mythology has built up around the home education movement in this country. Briefly stated, the standard version is as follows. Apart from one or two brave souls like Joy Baker, home education by parents was all but unheard of in the UK until the 1970s. Then a few daring pioneers like Iris Harrison and the parents of Oak Reah attempted to undertake it and were quickly pounced on by their local authority. As a result of the court cases against these early home educating parents, the practice gradually became established as lawful and local authorities were reluctantly compelled to acknowledge the right of parents to teach their own children. This is a very neat and appealing scenario, but unfortunately it is also wholly untrue and misleading. The legal action against both the Harrisons and the Reahs began in 1977, the same year that Education Otherwise was founded. Iris Harrison was a founding member of education Otherwise. All this helped create the myth that local authorities were at that time bitterly opposed to home education and determined to stamp it out. This was not really the case at all. There were other home educating parents at that time who were known to their LEAs and had perfectly good relations with them. Take Harry Lawrence, for instance. He began home educating his five year-old daughter Ruth officially in 1976 and nobody turned a hair. Why should they? It was obvious that the child was being educated and also clear that he had a perfect right to teach her at home if he wished, rather than sending her to school.

The reason Iris Harrison was taken to court was not because her children were not being sent to school. It was because she was allowing them to spend their time doing pretty much as they wished. If her daughter wished to play the violin all day, that was fine. Her son preferred tinkering with engines; he was allowed to do that rather than studying maths or science. In the case of Oak Reah's parents, it was not because they were home educating that they ended up in court. He was not the only home educated child in Leeds; none of the other parents were having any problems. It was the fact that Oak's parents refused to answer any letters or tell anybody what provision was being made for his education that they were prosecuted.

In short, thirty five years ago, just as now, local authorities were prepared to accept home education. What they were uneasy about were families that would either refuse to tell them what they were doing or were not apparently educating their children. Most teachers are well aware that individualised, one-to-one tuition in a relaxed, domestic setting is a fantastically effective method of teaching. Education professionals know perfectly well that children can do well in such an educational setting. What they are dubious about is the benefits of allowing a child to direct the course of her own learning. Because when those running Internet support lists for home educating parents say things like,

'obviously education takes place all the time and much can be learnt from surfing the net and watching TV! It is impossible for education not to take place, we're all learning all the time!'

then it sets alarm bells ringing. When parents casually assert that they are not worried if their children cannot read at the age of twelve and that this does not matter at all, this too causes massive concern. It is these sort of attitudes which pose the real threat to home education in this country and it is this sort of mentality which makes local authorities demand extra powers so that they can ensure that children aged between five and sixteen are provided with the efficient education which is their legal entitlement. The threat to home education is coming not from the local authorities or the Department for Education, but from those within the home educating community who raise the fear that many children who are not at school are nor really being educated at all.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The problem with false positives

One of the objections raised to the regular monitoring of tens of thousands of home educated children is that large scale operations of this sort are bound to generate many false positives. What are false positives? Really, they are no more than mistakes; thinking that something exists or is happening when it is not. This expression is more commonly used in medicine and the consequences there can be horrific. Suppose that I am screening ten thousand women for breast cancer and I have a rate of false positives of around 1%. This would mean that a hundred women would be wrongly diagnosed with cancer. In a worst case scenario, this could lead to their having unnecessary mastectomies.

Another field where false positives could have terrible results is in the investigation of child abuse. If I look at hundreds of children using a discredited method like the anal dilation test, then I will be claiming that I have found evidence of sexual abuse in children where none exists. The consequence here might be for children to be removed from their families.

There is always a risk of false positives with mass screening and the larger the programme; the more likely are we to generate false positives. If we look at forty thousand home educated children, it is a racing certainty that we shall wrongly decide that a fair few of them are not receiving an efficient, fulltime education. This has been put forward as a good reason to avoid the routine monitoring of home education in this country.

The question which we need to ask about this idea is this; would it matter? In other words, if this mass screening resulted in local authority officers wrongly deciding that some of the children whom they saw were not being educated efficiently, what would happen? We saw earlier that in medicine, the result might be a breast or lung being removed unnecessarily, but what would happen in this case? What do local authority officers do if they find a home educated child whom they think is not being properly educated? The answer is of course, that they generally do nothing at all. The issuing of School Attendance Orders to the parents of home educated children is as rare as hen's teeth. Many local authorities never issue them and those that do might manage one or two in a typical year. The worst thing that a parent whose child has been wrongly diagnosed as being uneducated will have to endure is the disapproval of some minor apparatchik from the town hall. This is hardly a disaster!

I keep an eye out for cases of home educated children being forced to attend school and if it were happening, then I think that we would know about it. We know that some local authorities believe that they have a substantial number of children in their district who are not receiving an education, this at least as what they told Graham Badman. They do not however do anything about it.

I do not think that the danger of false positives is a good reason for avoiding the regular monitoring of children who are being educated at home. The consequences are usually non-existent and so I think that we can leave this particular worry out of the equation. I am sure that if every child were to be visited in her home, that some fairly shocking cases would be unearthed, which are currently hidden from view, but for the vast majority of families, it would be business as usual. The obvious question then is this. If there will be no practical consequences when a child is found to be inadequately educated, what is the point of conducting such mass screening in the first place? For one thing, parents may not in general know that there is little chance of legal action. It may be possible to bluff them into action merely by making empty threats. this would be a good thing for their children's education. Another point is that parents currently know that they can take their kids from school and avoid the local authority; refusing even a visit in many areas. if this were no longer possible, it might make them think twice about taking their child out in the first place. Regular monitoring visits of this sort might go some way towards abolishing what Graham Badman called 'home education by default', where parents de-register a child simply because they see no other option.

Interesting article about home education law, written by a barrister

Observing as I have that a number of ill-informed parents on various Internet lists are currently struggling to make sense of the legislation covering elective home education, I thought that this view by a barrister writing for the Local Government Lawyer site might be of interest.

Guilt by association

The idea of guilt by association used to be very popular at one time, particularly in the USA during the McCarthy Era. It has unfortunately fallen out of favour in recent years, which was why I was so pleased to see Mike Fortune-Wood, owner of the HE-UK list revive this fine old tradition the day before yesterday.

As many readers will be aware, I was until last summer a member of the HE-UK Internet list. Following the publication of a couple of articles of mine on the subject of home education in the Independent and Times Education Supplement, I was chucked off ignominiously. Cest la vie! I know enough people who are still members of this list, both parents and local authority employees, that it didn't really matter. People have forwarded me posts of interest and at various times I have been sent all the posts at the end of each day. I have not needed to belong to the list myself, because I hardly think that most of the members would welcome my views an so have not found it necessary to post! However, on Sunday, I was sent a couple of posts which mentioned me by name. The aim of these was to smear me by suggesting that I had sent myself an email message with Alison Sauer's accounts as an attachment. (Yes, I know it sounds completely mad, but you know what autonomous home educators are like). Here is what was said:

'I wouldn't be surprised if Webb made the whole thing up, like he invented that family he spoke about in Hackney on Bragg a while ago.
He is particularly prejudiced against people who are not obviously middle class and educated to his standards'

I simply had to respond to this. I am about as middle class as the Artful Dodger! This is such a delightful piece of snobbery; that the writer assumes that I cannot be working class because I use standard English and correct punctuation. It speaks volumes about the author herself and her own assumptions about matters of language and class. I asked a few people if they would post a response for me via their own membership of the list, but all laughingly declined. The general feeling was that anybody seen to be a friend of mine would also be chucked off HE-UK. It was a conundrum, until I remembered a family with whom I have had quite a few dealings over in Ilford. I spend quite a bit of time there, because that is where my own family live. Ms Amin is the mother of a twelve year-old boy whom she de-registered from school last year. They live opposite my brother and so I have got to know them and helped out with advice. She joined a few lists, but did not think much of HE-UK. Actually, she recognised my name when we met and asked me how I could bear to have such things said about me that she had read on the lists!

To cut a long story short, I emailed her and she agreed to send my response to the post on her account. I thought that I had made it clear that she should provide a covering explanation, but in the event she did not. Mike Fortune-Wood's reaction was very swift. He threw her off the list; presumably for consorting with the enemy. I wonder that he did not email her first and ask what the idea was and find out a little more about it, but so great is the loathing which he evidently feels for me and anybody who speaks to me, he did not do so.

Ms Amin has never passed anything to me herself from the list. She is what you might call a highly structured home educator and cannot understand half of what is posted on HE-UK. This is less because she speaks at home a community language other than English, but because she is passionately dedicated to her child's education and finds the ideas expressed in the HE-UK list incomprehensible. One can sympathise! For this reason, I gather that she is not all that upset to be chucked of this particular Internet list.

Those whom I first asked to post a message on my behalf have been chuckling at all this and congratulating themselves on a narrow escape. There is something rather awful, running a list where a particular individual can be maligned at will without any chance of responding to the foolish and wrong headed things about him which are being said. Still, there is no harm done really. I am sure that Mike Fortune-Wood will not miss Ms Amin, who was as far as I can gather one of the only Muslims on his list. I suspect that the next time though that I try to get somebody to post on my behalf, it will be considerably harder!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Letting the cat out of the bag

Every so often, somebody intimately connected with the world of British home education will make a casual remark which gives the game away as regarding how a lot of home educators really view education. This happened recently on the Badman Review Action Group. A discussion was taking place about the proper response of a local authority which learns that a child in its area is not attending school. The unanimous view among home educating parents seems to be that if the local authority are told that home education is taking place, then that should be the end of the matter. The parents' word should be accepted and unless they have good reason to suspect that something is amiss, the authority should just cross that name of the list of those missing from education. Parents are, after all, the ones responsible for seeing that their children are receiving an education.

I pointed out a couple of cases which I have mentioned here. One was that of a fourteen year-old girl whose mentally ill mother got lonely during the day. Since the daughter hated school, they got together and the child was de-registered. The pair of them spent all day from then on watching television. The girl surfed the net a lot too. Now to any normal person, and I am talking here not about educational professionals but ordinary parents and people in the street, it is plain that here is a young person missing from education. Watching the Jeremy Kyle Show in the morning and then looking at Facebook in the afternoon is not what most people would see as an education. One of the people who founded the BRAG list though, thought that this showed that an education was being provided for the child. She expressed the view that one can learn a lot by watching television and using the Internet.

Now the truth is, most teenagers do all this sort of thing in addition to learning at school. Staring at a succession of photographs of other people's friends leering drunkenly at the camera while sticking their tongues out is what many young people spend hours doing in the evening. It is not particularly educational. A lot of them are addicted to soap operas as well. There is no harm in this either, but it would be hard to claim that viewing Hollyoaks is an educational activity. For a child to do nothing at all but this for the whole day would be an absolute disaster from an educational viewpoint.

I have noticed before that some home educators claim that watching television or surfing the Internet is as good as an education in itself. It was interesting to see this view expressed on one of the major lists. I suppose the rationale behind this is that if one watched BBC2 documentaries all the time or the educational channels on cable television and then spent a lot of time doing research on the Internet, then one could learn a lot. This is true, but is not how the majority of children and teenagers use these media. This sort of thing gives one an insight into the sort of lifestyle that some teenagers who are supposedly being home educated actually live. It is hardly surprising that such parents are reluctant to allow their local authority into the home to observe this!

I also cited the case of an eleven year-old boy working in an illegal factory. Again, there seems to be nothing wrong with that either from some people's point of view. The child might be happy and learning a trade, what's the problem? In other words, all the legislation which has been enacted over the last century and a half to abolish child labour and ensure that children actually have childhoods, is, for these people, a mistake. What's wrong with kids working in factories or down mines and up chimneys? At least they're learning a trade! Who's to say that this is any less educational than sitting at a desk all day?

It is opinions like this which ring huge alarm bells in the minds of those charged with protecting children and ensuring that they receive an education. I have seen such views expressed before; this is not an isolated case. That parents in the twenty first century should honestly believe that it might be a good thing for an eleven year-old child to leave school and work in factory or for a fourteen year-old girl to slump in front of the television all day is little short of horrifying. One wonders what sort of education the children of those who espouse such views might be receiving. Certainly, it is not to be wondered at that local authorities are uneasy about this sort of thing.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The scourge of secrecy and anonymity in the world of home education

I have remarked several times before, that I have never seen any need personally to say anything on the Internet without signing my real name to it. Anonymous messages always smack to me of poison pen letters. Still, I am in a minority when it comes to this view; most people prefer to hide behind a pseudonym when posting, both here and elsewhere, about home education. This, combined with an almost obsessive desire for secrecy by some, is starting to cause serious divisions among home educators in this country.

As readers are probably aware, a small group of individuals are working with Graham Stuart MP and also possibly Nick Gibb, the Schools' Minister, to draft guidelines for local authorities about elective home education. This is a worthy enough enterprise, but they have chosen to do it in secret and conceal their identities. Why they should carry on like that is a complete mystery to me. According to one of those involved, albeit in the minor role of proofreading, the whole thing is run like a secret society, divided up into cells, the members of which do not know the identities of those engaged in other parts of the operation! This sounds very strange.

I have been receiving emails lately from those who are either opposed to this scheme, or, which is equally likely, part of it and trying to throw people off the trail of the identities of those who are actually involved. For example on November 12th a had an email from headed 'financial motive?' It said; ' You may be interested in the business accounts of Mrs Anon.' Enclosed as an attachment were Alison Sauer's accounts. Somebody had gone to the trouble of paying for these and then sending them to me with the untruthful statement that Alison Sauer was actually Mrs Anon who comments here regularly. I have to say that Kaycee, who is fairly well known elesewhere claims that this was not sent by her. What is fairly plain is that some people in the home educating world are intent upon causing mischief one way and another and the way that this is being done is through more anonymous messages.

On the BRAG list, somebody calling herself Georgie Eden popped up. She seemed to know an awful lot about the business with Graham Stuart but vanished as soon as people asked her who she really was. Another case of anonymity causing problems and suspicion. I honestly think that it would be a good idea if those in the world of home education thought seriously about being a bit more open and revealing their true names. People talk of 'outing' people, as though home education were some shameful perversion to which people are reluctant to admit. I have never felt that way myself!

Another problem is that posting anonymously encourages rudeness. Consider this gem of incisive invective, posted here a few days ago;

''Simon you are a muddle headed bufoon with breath like an pigs bottom '

I seriously doubt whether anybody would say such a thing over their real name. Mind you, to be fair if I were unable to compose a short sentence without two spelling mistakes and two grammatical errors, I would probably be too ashamed to sign it either!

Targeting local authority resources more effectively with regard to elective home education

A couple of people commenting here yesterday made the very sensible suggestion that the way that monitoring of home education in this country is currently carried out is wasteful and inefficient. They asked why visits and so on cannot be more precisely targeted at those who need or would benefit from them, instead of the present scattergun approach, which apart from everything else, risks generating false positives. It is perfectly true that as things stand, over 90% of home visits are a complete waste of everybody's time. Those who deliver a suitable and efficient education often receive just as many visits as those whose children are not receiving any sort of education at all. How can we tackle this problem?

I am assuming that those who commented were not advocating a 'Bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted' kind of system. In other words, I am guessing that they are not saying that visits should only take place once a child has been abused or his education neglected. I imagine that they are really suggesting that local authority resources are directed more effectively so that children can be caught before abuse or educational neglect occurs. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Every year when Essex County Council came to monitor the education which my daughter was receiving, all of us knew that it was a farce and waste of everybody's time. I knew that the education was suitable and that my daughter was safe and well, the local authority officer, who had to make a round trip of sixty miles to come here, knew it, even my daughter knew it. My daughter enjoyed it because it meant that instead of an hour studying mathematics or physics, she had an hour of showing off outrageously to a stranger.

There would be no difficulty about focusing upon those families more likely to be in need of support; I could draw up a list of the 10 or 20 per cent of parents easily enough. I would need to see the children's school records, reasons that they were de-registered, ACORN postcode analysis, anything from social services, Health Visitors records when the kids were small; stuff like that. Sure, I would miss a few cases where there were problems, but I could certainly improve on the way it is currently being done. So why don't local authorities do this? Why do they religiously visit families where they know full well that there are no problems as often as those where they have good reason to suppose that problems do exist?

The system which I outline above is known as profiling and it has a very bad name. Let me give an anecdote from the past. Not long after the 7/7 suicide bombings on the underground, I was stopped by the police as I entered Mile End tube station. I carry a backpack, which by the by is a bit sad for a man of my age; makes me look as though I am trying to be young and with it! The police wanted to search me under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, in case I was a suicide bomber planning to blow myself up on a tube train. Just as with the monitoring visits from Essex County Council, everybody involved knew that this was a nonsense. The police knew that they were wasting their time and that I was not a terrorist and so did I. Nevertheless, we wasted twenty minutes or so, time which the police could have spent trying to catch a real terrorist. Why did they do this? The answer is simple. They knew, as did I, that suicide bombers are young men of black, Asian or Arab appearance. However, in order not to appear prejudiced, they were also stopping and searching an equal number of men and women, black and white, young and old. During the same operation, they stopped an old white woman with her shopping trolley!

Obviously, in a case like the above, the logical thing to do is focus the limited resources of the police upon those most likely to be planning to blow up a train. This would be young black and Asian men with backpacks. Rather than cause upset, the police decided to waste their time. this is the same reason that local authorities do not use profiling to aim their limited resources at the families who are more likely to have difficulties with home education. In Essex, for instance, those with difficulties are likely to be living in places like Basildon. There will be more boys than girls and those particularly at risk of receiving an unsuitable education will have been withdrawn from secondary school and probably living in social housing. Many of them will live only with their mothers A family living in a detached house on the outskirts of Chelmsford in a family with two parents, only one of whom works and where the decision to home educate was taken for ideological reasons rather than in response to trouble at school, is less likely to need help and support.

How long would it take for the howls of protest to start if it were discovered that Essex were monitoring more closely the 'at risk' groups? In other words if they were paying more attention to the single parent families in a Basildon tower block than to the nuclear family in the leafy suburb? I can just imagine what would be said on the HE-UK and EO lists. How dare they stigmatise single parents? Why should working class families be penalised? The result is that just as the police do when hunting terrorists, the local authorities play safe and treat everybody equally. They do this although they know that it means wasting a lot of their time. The reasons are political rather than pragmatic.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Different worldviews

One of the things which those who are not home educating parents sometimes fail to realise is that an awful lot of home educators are very odd people who think completely differently from everybody else. It is not as though home educators are simply a random cross-section of the population who simply failed to send their kids to school. Many home educators conform to a particular type. This does not mean that they are all left wing or all atheists or anything like that. There are many Christian home educators and also many who, if they lived in the USA would probably be anti-Federal Government survivalists. They are all of a type though to the extent that they reject the government's right to intervene in the lives of their families except in the direst need and with clear evidence of neglect and abuse. Those who feel this way can be socialists or fascists, Christians or atheists; this desire to avoid government interference is their common feature.

School and nursery and all that goes with it permeate the lives of most families to such an extent that they hardly notice it. It is like the water surrounding a fish; it is just a fact of life. Government busybodying goes with this way of life as a given. The government gets worked up about climate change, they force it into the curriculum and the result is odious little prigs coming home from school and shouting at their parents because they have left the light on and so are destroying the planet. This might seem like a trivial example, but it is one way that those with children at school find the government poking their nose in. Some parents feel strongly that abstinence from sexual activity is a good thing for teenage children. The government arrange that school nurses will hand out contraceptives and arrange abortions. They also set up the sex education classes in such a way as to avoid criticising early sexual activity. This is another way that the government interferes in family life. As I say, this is simply a background which most parents hardly notice. The government becomes a third parent to their children and they seemingly accept it without question.

Home educators, whether they are devout Christians or rabid atheists, do not approve of government interference in their lives and those of their children. They see it happening and wish it to stop. Now the difficulty is that although the government can be exceedingly annoying and have a habit of sticking their noses in where they have no business and are not wanted, they also have duties to fulfil. In this country, we cannot do what we will with our children. Whether they are at school or home, certain laws apply to them all. They must not be beaten or starved, for instance. Nor must they be murdered or married off at the age of nine. They must be educated between the ages of five and sixteen. The attitude of most home educators about this sort of thing is very straightforward and seems to them to be blindingly obvious. Only if evidence emerges that a child is being starved or her education neglected have the state any right to take an interest in the matter. Otherwise, it should be assumed that parents are the best judges of their children's interests and should be left alone to get on with the job. For many in ordinary society, used as they are to involvement with the school nurse, Health Visitor and so on, this is an odd notion. They cannot see why home educating parents would mind a local government apparatchik asking them about their kid's education or diet. After all, schools routinely confiscate unhealthy food from pupils' lunchboxes, they hand out condoms, monitor the education of the children; surely that is normal? Why are home educators so precious about these things?

I do not think that there can ever be a satisfactory resolution to some of the things which irritate home educating parents. Their worldview is so completely different from that of parents who send their kids to school, that they might as well be speaking different languages. I find myself torn between these two points of view. Most of my friends are teachers and social workers and their concerns are very real. They are not actuated by malice, but by genuine concern for the welfare of children. In general, the same can be said of local authority officers and those working for the Department for Education. They set up a marvellous system for the benefit of children, a system which provides them with all that they could possibly require and then a handful of cranks not only refuse all these benefits but go mad and threaten legal action if you so much as ask after their kid's welfare! They must be mad. I would be curious to know how this will ultimately work out. Will the government and local authorities back off and abandon any attempt to monitor children who are not at school? Or will the prevailing common view become codified in law and enforced on home educating parents against their wishes? It is an interesting point.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Home educated children and Child Benefit

Over on the EO list, a poor woman is currently shaking and unable to decide whether to scream or cry. A common enough experience indeed for those of us who have had dealings with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs! She has been asked to provide evidence that the child for whom she is claiming Child Benefit actually exists and is resident in this country. This is a common enough event for many in the non-home educating community, for reasons which I shall explain. Few of them are traumatised by being asked questions in this way, unless they are in fact fiddling benefits. If only I had not been thrown off the EO list, I would be able to offer a few words of gentle advice and calm encouragement to this sad and vulnerable individual; something perhaps along the lines of shouting in her ear, 'WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU IDIOT??!!'

As anybody who has not just been revived after a fifty year long coma will be aware, the Coalition are trying to reduce the Child Benefit bill. There are two ways of doing this. One is to ensure that it is only given to people who are not earning so much that the odd £20 a week extra would make little difference to them. The other way is to cut back dramatically on the fiddles associated with this particular benefit. Working as I do with families in London's Inner City, many of whom are refugees and asylum seekers, I am more familiar than most with the scams which go on with Child Benefit. Those from West Africa seem to be among the worst offenders. They lend each other children, have clutches of birth certificates and other documents relating to children in Lagos, have different names according to whom they are dealing with and accuse anybody who asks too many questions of being racist towards them. And of course they forget how to speak English when pressed upon the whereabouts of the kids for whom they are claiming, pretending that they need Yoruba speaking interpreters. The way round some of this is to require not only a birth certificate or passport, but also objective evidence from other agencies that the child actually exists and is in this country. The easiest way is to ask for the name of the school which is being attended, since over 99% of children are at school.

The fear seems to be among some that the local authorities are ganging up with Her majesty's Revenue and Custom in order to track down children who are not at school and are also unknown to their local authority. The woman who posted on the EO list says that the clerical officer from HMRC to whom she spoke cited the Laming Report as the reason for these enquiries, but this sounds a bit odd. This enquiry took place over seven years ago. Even if the local authority were trying to trace children outside the school system, I hardly think that they would have been discussing the Laming Report with a minor clerk in this way.

The worst case scenario as far as I can see is that some parents might have their Child Benefit delayed for a few weeks. It is conceivable that they will also become known to their local authority. Let's keep a sense of perspective here; neither of these things is a disaster. Both have happened to me and I have so far managed not to shake, scream or cry about it! One of the irritating things during the recent talk of cutting Child Benefit to well-off families was that it was being referred to as a benefit 'paid to mothers'. It is not; it is paid to one of a child's parents. In the case of my youngest daughter, I have always been the parent to whom it is paid. Over the years, I have had endless trouble from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs about this. They seem to find something unnatural and downright fishy about the idea of a father claiming Child Benefit and I have had a good deal more than the two telephone calls which the woman on the EO list complains of!

When we moved to Essex, we never got round to notifying the local authority of the fact that we had a child who was being educated at home and it was not until a couple of years after we moved that a truancy patrol stopped us and we became known. This was not of course a catastrophe; certainly not something to start shaking and crying about. I do wish that people would maintain a level head about these matters. Being asked questions about one's Child Benefit is increasingly likely to happen now as attempts are made to reduce the amount spent on this benefit. Local authorities finding out about more and more home educated children is also likely to happen. Neither of these are anything to get worked up about. At worst they are irritations of the sort that everybody has to put up with these days and I honestly do not see why some home educating parents have to make so much of these minor inconveniences. It does rather give the impression of a community of hysterical people, ready to have a fit of the vapours at the least excuse and always willing to row with anybody who asks any questions about their families or lifestyle.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The new trustees at Education Otherwise

Following the Annual General Meeting of education Otherwise, a new set of trustees are in charge. I thought that it might be helpful to provide a little information about them, in order that people could be able to have some idea of the direction which the charity might take in the future.

Fiona Nicholson is still in. She was one of the group who more or less seized control of Education Otherwise three years ago. Fiona lives in Sheffield with her seventeen year-old autonomously educated son, who has never been to school or college. It will be remembered that she provided much innocent amusement during the select committee hearing last October, when she found herself quite unable to decide whether or not she was in favour of the compulsory registration of home educated children. Still, actions speak louder than words and it was observed that Fiona never felt any inclination to notify her own local authority of her intention to home educate her son, only taking this step when the child's father was threatening to do it for her. Annette Taberner, another of the old trustees who has not resigned, also lives in Sheffield and with Fiona is part of the Northern mafia who have exercised such influence on EO for years. For a while, it was thought that Fiona's best friend in Education Otherwise was Ann Newstead, but they do not seem to be as chummy as once they were. This is rumoured to be because Fiona did not share Ann's gung-ho approach to chucking EOs money around on expensive litigation and various other profligate activities which are not really in keeping with the charity's aims. Both Ann Newstead and her husband Alexander Roarke are no longer trustees. Fiona is a great fan of the Molesworth and William books, which must surely show that she is fundamentally sound.

Shena Deuchars is a copy editor who lives in Swindon. Her daughter managed to get a place at Exeter University to study law without having any GCSEs or A levels. The whole thing was achieved by Open University courses, which is encouraging for others. Shena is a very honest and decent person who cannot fail to have a wholesome effect upon EO.

Celia McDonagh remains as a trustee. This surprised some people, who thought that she would resign along with Jo Berry. She was very involved with the Jo Berry business, allegedly passing on emails to her about internal matters at Education Otherwise. This led to threats of libel action and her resignation was demanded. She was forced out at an Extraordinary General meeting in 2006, but returned a short time later.

Some people expected that the trustees who had presided over what looked like the decline and fall of Education Otherwise would stand down en masse, but this has not happened. In fact after the AGM on Saturday, seven of the existing trustees are still around. It remains to be seen whether the reforming zeal of people like Shena Deuchars and Heidi de Wet will be able to change the organisation and bring it back to life.

There has been some talk about the accounts not being approved at the AGM, but this does not really signify. After all, they have already gone to the Charity Commission. There were discrepancies between the amounts listed in the 2008 and 2009 accounts, but this sort of thing does happen sometimes. It will be recalled that EO sacked their last auditor because they were not satisfied with how the financial position was presented in the accounts. The Charity Commission will put the accounts up on their website in due course; they have had them since September.

Free speech about home education

When I wrote a couple of articles on home education last year for national newspapers, I was swiftly chucked off the HE-UK and EO Internet lists. The ostensible reasons for this were that I had used information from the lists to write the articles and that other parents would feel uneasy at my continued presence. I have said several times since that both arguments struck me as weak, which led some of those commenting on this blog to suggest that I must be autistic!

I am observing the same reluctance to tolerate dissent or heterodox opinions now operating on various other home education lists and blogs. I am not the only person whose views are being suppressed; Tania Berlow has also been barred from several places, the Home Ed Forums for example.

There is something deliciously ironic and satisfying about watching stout libertarians imposing censorship in this way. It is not called censorship of course. I have always been perfectly courteous on the Badman Review Action Group list, but that did not stop somebody making an extremely personal attack on me, speculating about my childhood, possible relationship with my parents and resultant hatred of women! When I attempted to respond to this, I was put on moderation. This was done on the grounds that my posts were not helpful, informative or interesting and from then on posts which I have made have been deleted. I have of course stopped posting there, which was the intention of those using moderation in this way. The grounds for censoring Tania Berlow from the Home Ed Forums was that she had been defaming people. Quite untrue of course, but it provided a neat excuse to get rid of her. Kelly Green in Canada, the great defender of civil rights and freedom of speech, simply deletes any posts of mine at once from her blog. This is because she disagrees with what I say and does not wish to have anything on Kelly Green and Gold which suggests less than 100% agreement with her own views.

Sometimes, the censorship is done in a very unpleasant way. On HE-UK, a small group of playground bullies have in the past driven off parents who have asked too many questions or failed to be firm enough in their resolve to refuse visits from their local authority. Several women have contacted me after such episodes, one or two of them very distressed at the treatment which they have received. On other lists, the strategy is a little subtler. Certain people are put on moderation without being told and their posts simply deleted. This means that when somebody posts a message which denounces them, it appears that they are unable to formulate a response! I am not the only person against whom this particular tactic has been successfully used.

Readers of this blog will know that there is no moderation at all. Anybody can say anything they please and their comments will appear at once. I had to use moderation briefly on two occasions, but that was more for disruption that one person was causing, not because I wished to stop his views appearing. I do not agree with Tania on a number of points, as can be seen from things which I have said here, but I consider it absolutely scandalous that her views are being censored by people who claim to be hard-line libertarians. If these people were to be honest, they would admit that they were taking such a step not because Tania is defaming anybody, but rather due to the fact that she is disagreeing with others. This is a terrible reason for introducing censorship. There have been rumblings of discontent on the BRAG list, which Tania has chosen as her vehicle to put across her motives and plans for the project with Graham Stuart and Alison Sauer. I have a suspicion that if she is not careful, she is going to find herself in difficulty there as well. It is rumoured that Action on Home Education have also thrown her off.

This sort of activity by supposedly liberal and right-on home educators is hard to justify. If these people actually approve of censorship and believe that those holding other opinions should be denied a voice, then they have a perfect right to believe that. What sticks in my craw is the way that people like Kelly Green in Canada and others in this country make such a song and dance about freedom and civil rights and then at the drop of a hat impose censorship upon anybody whose views do not coincide with their own.

Monday, 15 November 2010

The new guidelines; a summary to date

Judging from some of the questions being asked on Internet lists, there is confusion about what these guidelines are which Tania Berlow and her friends are working on. Let me just give a brief outline so that people can see what is going on.

The law relating to home education in this country is very muddled and confusing. So much so, that even lawyers cannot always agree on what the situation actually is. In addition to the basic bit of law which allows home education, Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act, there are various old precedents and also a number of more modern pieces of statute law. The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, Children Act 2004 and of course a new section added years later to the 1996 Education Act. Section 436A, laid upon all local authorities a duty to identify children missing from education. Section 437 goes on to specify that home educated children receiving a suitable education are not to be regarded as being missing from education. The result of all these laws is that local authorities sometimes get a bit mixed up about what their legal duties actually are when it comes to home education. For this reason, in 2006 it was decided to try and produce some guidelines for the local authorities, government approved guidelines which would explain their duties. Between August and November 2006, York Consulting Ltd. undertook a study for the Department of Education and Science, which in May 2010 became the Department for Education. Their brief was to examine elective home education in England and try to identify any perceptible trends.

The result of York Consulting's work was that in 2007 the Department issued the Guidelines for LAs on elective home education. They can be found here:

The aim of Tania Berlow's group is to rewrite these guidelines. There are two difficulties. Firstly, the guidelines are not statutory. This means that local authorities can ignore them is they wish. The second problem is that the current guidelines could hardly be made more favourable to home educators than they already are. For instance, they say;

2.7 Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis.

Some parents may welcome the opportunity to discuss the provision that they are making for the child’s education during a home visit but parents are not legally required to give the local authority access to their home. They may choose to meet a local authority representative at a mutually convenient and neutral location instead, with or without the child being present, or choose not to meet at all.

3.11 Local authorities should bear in mind that, in the early stages, parents’ plans may not be detailed and they may not yet be in a position to demonstrate all the characteristics of an “efficient and suitable” educational provision.

3.14 It is important to recognise that there are many, equally valid, approaches to educational provision. Local authorities should, therefore, consider a wide range of information from home educating parents, in a range of formats. The information may be in the form of specific examples of learning e.g. pictures/paintings/models, diaries of educational activity,
projects, assessments, samples of work, books, educational visits etc.

In fact it is hard to see how these guidelines could be any better from the point of view of home educating parents. They already make it clear to the local authorities what they can and cannot do. Why do they need to be changed? Of course some parents are not happy with the law itself and want that to be changed. This is quite a different matter and there are, as far as we have been told, no plans for this.

So much for the background. The only public face of the changes to the 2007 guidelines is of course Tania Berlow. Two slightly alarming things have been noticed about her more recent posts on the Badman Review Action Group; one relating to form and the other to content. Tania seems to be falling into the habit of emphasising important words by the use of capital letters. Rather like THIS. This is SELDOM a good SIGN and unless she is CAREFUL, she might end up using GREEN or YELLOW ink like another well known home educator! The second and even more chilling feature of her latest post is mention of the New World Order. Now in my experience, once people begin talking of the New World Order it is only a matter of time before we start hearing about Rosslyn Chapel, the Illuminati, Area 51 and Prince Philip being responsible for Diana's murder. It is devoutly to be hoped that there will be no mention of either the New World Order or any of these other topics in the new guidelines!

If Alison Sauer's company, Sauer Consultancy, has been officially commissioned to do some work on behalf of the Department for Education, as York Consulting was in 2006, we should be told. It is high time to drop the secrecy and come out into the open. When York Consulting carried out their work in 2006, work which led to the publication of the 2007 guidelines for local authorities, there was none of this secrecy and I cannot for the life of me see why there should be now. The only reason which I can think which would explain this lack of openess is that something a bit fishy is going on.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Rumour and misinformation

I was accused a couple of days ago of spreading rumours about who might or might not be involved in the drawing up of the new guidelines for home education. The difficulty is that because of the way that this is being done, almost everything to do with this business is rumour and speculation. Now the truth is, many people want to know what is going on about these guidelines. They wish to know who is involved, what their terms of reference are, whose idea the whole thing is, who elected these people to do this job on behalf of other parents and many other things besides. Apart from Tania Berlow, none of those involved are prepared to identify themselves. This means, inevitably, that we must fall back upon guesswork and cloak and dagger to find out what is going on. This is far from satisfactory.

I have been sent various pieces of information and also misinformation about all this. The most recent bit of misinformation was a copy of Alison Sauer's Business accounts and credit rating, together with the claim that Mrs Anon, who regularly posts here, is Alison Sauer's secret identity! This is of course completely untrue, but it does make me ask myself why people would be going to such lengths in order to muddy the waters!

How could this current situation have been avoided? Very easily really. If the people who had agreed to undertake this work had set up a blog specifically devoted to the new guidelines and announced that they welcomed everybody's views on the subject, that would have stopped all rumours before they had even begun. It costs nothing to set up a blog like this one and they could have named themselves and explained precisely what they were doing and why. Such a blog could then have been advertised on the main HE Internet lists and then the whole thing would have been open and above board. This would have stopped all the rumour and speculation from starting. Instead, Tania Berlow has become the public spokesperson of the group and the only source of information about what is actually being done. This is far from satisfactory, because Tania is a woman who never uses one word where twenty will do and despite all he posts on the Badman Review Action Group and elsewhere, we still do not really know what is happening.

As long as the group who are directly involved in putting together the new guidelines are refusing to speak publicly or post on any of the lists, the gossip, rumour and innuendo will continue and indeed increase. I dare say that readers are itching to know what Alison Sauer's accounts said, but the answer is really very little. There is something a little puzzling and that is this. We are told that she has trained fifty local authorities in matters relating to elective home education. According to her accounts though, nothing much has been going on with this company for the last five years or so. It also has a very low credit rating. This is curious. Apart from North Yorkshire and Lancashire, can anybody name a local authority which Sauer Consulting was involved with? I suppose the implication of whoever sent me this document is that Alison is not as successful as we are being told and that in fact she has not really done as much in the way of training as has been claimed. Since the original email was headed 'Financial motive', I guess that we are intended to think that she is desperate to drum up some business. Of course, this informant is not very reliable and has some reason of her own to try and confuse matters by pretending that Mrs Anon and Alison Sauer are one and the same person! This suggests that we should treat anything being hinted at but this person with a good deal of caution.

Just to complicate matters a little further, there is a suggestion that a vacuum will soon be left by the demise of Education Otherwise and that a large Internet group is hoping to fill this gap with a national organisation of their own. It is being hinted that this would be for financial reasons, rather than for the good of home educators. Clearly, the next year or two will prove interesting for those involved in home education and it seems likely that changes are very definitely on the way in one form or another.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Children Missing from Education

On one of the Internet lists concerned with home education there is currently anger and anxiety about a poster put up by the local authority in Derbyshire. It is outside, and inside, schools and nurseries. This is what it says:

Education is vital to ensure that all children get a good start in life.
Every year more than 100 children go missing from the Derbyshire
education system. It's important we get them back into schools.

-Some children simply don't start school - their parents don't enrol
-Other children stop going to school, or don't make the move from
primary to secondary.
-And some families never enrol their children when they move to the
county from elsewhere.

Children not in education might be at risk of harm we want to ensure
that they are safe.

If you think a child is missing out on school call us in confidence on
0845 058058
We can contact the family and help get their child into school.

As usual, some home educators are outraged and view the thing as an attack on their lifestyle. As usual, they are quite wrong.

Children Missing from education or CME is an attempt to find children who are not attending school or receiving an adequate education elsewhere. According to the report Out of School, which Ofsted produced in 2004, there might be ten thousand such children in this country. Some of these are children who are kept at home in order to work or look after the home. They are at increased risk of abuse and involvement in crime. Others are teenagers who have simply dropped out of school. The parents move to another area perhaps and the child is not registered at a new school. Some vanish during the transition from primary to secondary. Reading the outrage among some home educating parents about the CME initiative, one rather gets the feeling that they do not really believe in the existence of such children. They see it all as part of a sinister plot by Ofsted and the local authorities to force home educated children to go to school. Last year, I gave a couple of examples of the sort of case that CME is actually designed to detect and since there are many new readers here, I think I should describe one of these cases again. The target for CME is not home education at all. It is children missing from education. In order to identify these children it might be necessary to visit the homes of children who are not at school in order to see whether or not they are being educated. There is strong opposition to such visits by some home educating parents, but they are a vital tool in rescuing vulnerable young children.

This case is from the London Borough of Waltham Forest. An eleven year old boy left primary school and there was no record of his being registered with a secondary school. The family were Sylhetis and the suspicion was that they had returned to their country of origin. An Education Welfare Officer was sent to the house after a number of letters had remained unanswered. There was no reply when he knocked on the door, but he could hear activity and voices round the back. He wandered round there and discovered a garage/workshop which had been converted into a small factory. The eleven year old boy for whom he was searching was there, evidently running errands for those operating the machines. The place was an absolute nightmare and was clearing being run without any regard to the Factory Acts or other relevant regulations. As far as could be established, the child's mother had returned to Bangladesh and left the boy behind. His father was using him to both keep house and also act as errand boy for his business. It did not take much to persuade the father that he would be prosecuted unless his son was sent to school. In this case, there was a happy outcome.

It is cases such as this which prompt unannounced visits from EWOs. The point to consider here is that had the father sent a letter stating that he was educating his son at home and did not wish to accept a visit, then the child could very well have continued being denied an education. Some home educating parents are adamant that all that should be required for them is to state that they are providing an education and that local authority interest in them and their children should stop at once. If that policy were to be generally adopted, then it would leave many children at hazard. I have a fund of anecdotes like the one above, all involving children who were not at school but were not receiving an education elsewhere. Without conducting enquiries, some of which might be thought of as intrusive, it would be impossible for the local authority to discover that the children were not being educated. This is the purpose of CME; not the persecution of home educators. If some home educating parents refuse to answer questions or allow visits, then it is very hard to distinguish them from the parents of children, like the one above, who are not receiving an adequate education. It is then not at all unlikely that they might receive an unannounced visit from an EWO. In such a case, they will have only themselves to blame.

More about the new guidelines

Others have noticed that in the last week or so three questions about home education have been asked in Parliament by Tory MPs. Two of the questions were identical;

'To ask the Secretary of State for Education what his policy is on home education; and if he will make a statement'

A third concerned the A levels and GCSEs passed by home educated children. There are two possible explanations for this flurry of interest in home education. One is that individual MPs are taking an interest in the topic of home education because their constituents are expressing concerns about it. The other and more likely explanation is that these questions have been 'planted' by government whips in order to suggest that people are worried about home education. The planted question of this kind is of course a very popular device in Westminster. If this is the case, then it suggests strongly that the Coalition is intending to do something about home education. The questions is, what are they going to do?

This brings us back to the only activity involving home education which we know is connected with Parliament; the famous new guidelines. Before we go any further, I would like to make it clear that I have no reason at all to doubt that all those dealing with Graham Stuart are doing so for the best of motives. I am sure that they genuinely believe that what they are doing will be for the best interests of home educating parents. This does not of course mean that they are right, nor that they are not being used unwittingly as fall guys or patsies. How could this be?

Here is what seems to me a very plausible scenario. Michael Gove, because of cases like Khyra Ishaq and the Riggi children in Edinburgh, wishes to introduce as a bare minimum compulsory registration for home educators. He is strengthened in this view by the fact that every report and almost all education professionals are in favour of such a move. He encourages, via Nick Gibb and Graham Stuart, a dialogue with various prominent home educators. ideas are generated and provisional rules drawn up. Then registration is included in a White Paper on education, with the intention of making it law. Michael Gove can then claim that a number of MPs have expressed anxiety about home education (via the planted questions) and that home educators themselves have been helping with the process of framing new legislation. Any resultant outrage will be largely limited to the Internet lists and so invisible to the general public. It will be all but impossible to ever establish what the members of the secret group did and did not agree to, because of course everything has been done on the quiet. I doubt whether newspapers are going to bother cooperating with another campaign by home educators against regulation as they did last year.

In order to see whether or not the above scenario is likely, it would help if we had the answers to one or two questions. I know that the people who are actually involved with Graham Stuart are reading this and so they could, if the wished, comment anonymously and reassure those who are worried that this is an undemocratic process likely to have a substantial impact upon home educating parents. The sort of questions that we need to ask are as follows.

Did the initiative for drawing up these guidelines come directly from Graham Stuart or was he encouraged to start this by Michael Gove or Nick Gibb?

Is there any intention, as Tania Berlow has hinted at on the BRAG list, of including anything about home education in a White Paper on education?

Has Graham Stuart given any written assurance that the law on home education will not change as a result of anything currently being done?

Graham Stuart has said that 'leaving things as they are is not an option'. What grounds did he have for saying this? What has he heard about government intentions in the area of home education?

These are four very simple and straightforward questions which could be answered in a dozen words. If the initiative for the guidelines came from Nick Gibb and there is an intention to include something about home education in a White Paper, then the chances are that new legislation is on the cards. Mike Fortune-Wood recently mentioned that he has held training sessions for local authorities and advised them soundly upon the law. They then go off and draw up procedures whish he has advised against and said were not lawful. A similar thing could very easily take place with these present discussions unless they have written minutes of meetings and a clear and unambiguous mandate.

I said in yesterday's post, 'Betsy Anderson, an American lawyer is not directly involved, but gives the odd bit of advice.' This is perfectly true. Without going into any details, Betsy Anderson has suffered something of a disaster which has effectively rendered her homeless. She according has little time to concern herself with these guidelines. She has not had any contact with Alison Sauer for months. Nevertheless, some of those involved with the guidelines have asked her opinion on specific points which are troubling them and she has replied. This is all that I meant and I am happy to clarify this.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A problem with the new guidelines.....

As I am sure most readers are aware, a small group of home educators and former home educators are currently putting together guidelines on home education which, it is hoped, will be adopted by the Department for Children. These may replace the 2007 guidelines which at the moment tell local authorities how they should behave towards home educators. There is of course a little more to it than this. There has also been some talk of including something drawn up by this group in a forthcoming White Paper on education. This raises the possibility that some of what they are doing could eventually find its way onto the statute book. There is a problem at the heart of this whole process, a problem which is now becoming apparent to others. It is this. When Graham Badman was given the job of looking at elective home education in this country and making any recommendations for change that he found to be necessary, there was an announcement to the press. It was on the BBC news, in the newspapers and so on. The reaction of Education Otherwise and other groups was also in the newspapers. It was a public affair. That has very definitely not been the case with the present 'consultation'.

The situation currently is that a small group of unknown people are formulating some sort of document, at whose nature we can only guess. The only member of this group whose name we know is of course Tania Berlow. Judging by the way that she is weighing into the debate, it is a fair guess that Ali Edgley is also involved in the business. She of course has not been a home educating parent for some years now. Alison Sauer is also connected with the thing, as is Imran Shah. Betsy Anderson, an American lawyer is not directly involved, but gives the odd bit of advice. What's wrong with this picture? What is wrong is that unless one were to join up to various Internet lists and make a deliberate effort to find out about this, nobody would even know that it was happening. Most of those Internet lists have only a few hundred members, which means that the vast majority of the eighty thousand or so home educating parents in this country have absolutely no idea at all that this is happening. Which of course means that even when the guidelines have been written and others are invited to contribute, the overwhelming majority of home educators simply will not hear about them. Tania Berlow's chosen list for discussing all this is the Badman Review Action Group, which only has about seven hundred members, not all of whom are home educating parents.

With the Badman review of elective home education, we knew who instigated the thing; the Secretary of State for Education, Ed Balls. We knew the terms of reference for the enquiry. Everybody who wished was free to contact Graham Badman and contribute their views. It was a transparent and open democratic process. This is very far from being the case here. Who instigated the present 'consultation'? What are the terms of reference? Is the aim simply to produce new guidelines and if so, will these definitely replace the 2007 guidelines? Have the Department for Education asked for this to be done or is it simply a private project of Graham Stuart's? What is all this about putting stuff in a White Paper? Why are we not given the names of those working on the guidelines? Who chose them? Why was no announcement made that this was happening and why has it been necessary to engage in detective work to find out about the thing? Is this an official activity and if so, who authorised it?

Until we know a good deal more about what is going on with these secret negotiations with Graham Stuart and the Department for Education, I think that home educating parents are right to feel a little wary about this. When the document is finished and others are invited for their views, how will this be done? Will an attempt be made to publicise the chance to contribute, publicised beyond a casual message on a small Internet list? Here is something which could affect every home educator in the country, now and for years to come. That it is being conducted on the quiet, with every bit of information having to be extracted by guesswork and cloak and dagger means, is absolutely incredible. It is time that this was opened up by means of a public announcement; telling all home educators who is involved, what is being done, what is planned to be done and how they can become involved themselves. Of considerable concern is the fact that some of those involved are not themselves home educating parents. They are, in effect, drawing up rules which will not affect them in the least. For many parents, this is unacceptable. At the very least, anybody concerned in this should be a genuine home educator.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

More about Education Otherwise

Somebody yesterday wanted to know a little more about the background to Education Otherwise's current problems. I thought that I would post a brief outline, particularly as some people elsewhere seem to be getting a little worked up.

In early 2007, there was something of an upheaval among the trustees of Education Otherwise. On February 10th that year, eleven trustees resigned and eight new ones were appointed in their place. One of these new trustees was a woman called Joanna Cynthia Berry. Up until that time, Education Otherwise had always filed their accounts and annual return promptly with the Charity Commission. Since that time, they never have done so. The latest accounts, for the year ended June 30th 2009, were finally filed on September 17th this year. This was very late. The annual return for that year has still not been filed and the Charity Commission are getting quite tetchy about this. The annual return is simply a document detailing any changes in trustees over the last year. It can be done online with a few clicks of the mouse and the only reason that I can see for the failure to submit it is that EO are not sure who to put down as currently being trustees. They have a very high turnover of trustees due to internal wrangles and some people resign almost as soon as they have been appointed. Some, like Fiona Nicholson, are in and out like Jack-in-the-boxes. She was appointed as a trustee on February 15th 2008, resigned three weeks later on March 6th and less than a week later was appointed again! Companies House have also had to put the frighteners on EO in order to get the information which is legally required to be supplied to them.

There was a good deal of controversy about one of the trustees appointed in 2007, Jo Berry who was mentioned above. There was an unfortunate incident in her domestic life and the suggestion was made that she was perhaps not the best person to assume responsibility for child protection for the charity. Certainly, the fact that she was a trustee caused raised eyebrows in some local authorities. At one point, there was a threat of legal action against former members of Education Otherwise for things which were said concerning her. Quite a few people thought that her continued presence as a trustee made Education Otherwise look as though it had a cavalier attitude towards child protection. Another suggestion being made was that the new trustees were behaving in a vindictive fashion and forcing out of the organisation people who had served it loyally for years.

At the end of 2008, two members of Education Otherwise requested a list of members. This was part of another bout on infighting in the organisation. Because EO is a limited company as well as being a charity, they were legally obliged to provide this information, but refused to do so. Instead, they became embroiled in a court action to prevent the release of the names of the Signed Up Members of the company. This row continued after Graham Badman had started his review of elective home education and the whole business of safeguarding and the possible abuse of home educated children was a major issue. Education Otherwise then decided that one of the reasons that they would not release the list of members names was that many parents were home educating because of child abuse. They said, in a submission to the court that they would not allow anybody to see the list of members because:

' one reason for this is that individuals who home educate their children comprise a significant proportion of individuals who were abused as children, this often being the motivating factor in that individual deciding to home educate their child.'

It was, to say the least of it, unfortunate that this became known just as Badman was asking about child abuse among home educators! Some people thought that this, combined with the controversy over Jo Berry, gave an odd and undesirable impression of EO to the outside world.

The latest attempt to hold an Annual General Meeting and get the accounts approved was held last Saturday, November 6th. It was a bit of a flop, because few trustees turned up. Another AGM is to be attempted this Saturday in Oxford. Supposedly, Jo Berry is going to stand down as a trustee at this meeting. People on some lists have made much of the fact that the accounts have been very late for the third year running and that the annual return has yet to be made to the Charity Commission. It is now about seven months late. I do not personally attach much importance to this. Many charities are slack about filing their annual returns. There seems to be a suspicion that the court case cost a lot more than has been thought and that this is why the accounts took so long to prepare. A figure running into tens of thousands of pounds for lawyers fees has been mentioned, but until the accounts can be examined, this is only rumour.

There are two main reasons why charities have difficulty getting their accounts done on time. these are (a.) useless and incompetent trustees and (b.) some sort of funny business going on. My own view is that the probable explanation lies in a bunch of people managing to seize control of EO in 2007/2008 and not altogether realising just what was entailed in running the company. I believe that inefficiency lies at the heart of the matter rather than crookedness.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Education Otherwise

Most readers will probably be aware by now that the Annual General Meeting of Education Otherwise was held in Oxford on Saturday. Because not enough people turned up, it was adjourned. Only four of the thirteen trustees of the charity turned up, which is very odd. I don't intend to go into all the ins and outs of the troubles which have beset the organisation over the last few years, but the bottom line is that many think that EO has reached the end of the line and that when the AGM is reconvened this coming Saturday, it is possible that it might simply mean that it will be to wind up the charity. The question is, would this matter to most home educators? Whom would it affect?

Like many home educating parents, I joined Education Otherwise at one stage. And, again like so many others, I allowed my subscription to lapse after a year. I couldn't see what I was getting from the thing, nor how my money was being used to help other home educators. There are currently four or five thousand members and it would be interesting to know how many of these have only joined for a year or so. I think that this is probably very common and that there is a relatively small core membership which belongs to EO for years on end. Many local authorities push Education Otherwise to parents who de-register their kids from school and it appears on the websites of an awful lot of councils. For many people outside the world of home education too, Education Otherwise is synonymous with home education in this country. The claim is frequently made that EO have succeeded in making home education an acceptable alternative to schooling for British children and that without their efforts over the years, parents in this country would face a much harder time from their local authorities. Is this true?

Section 36 of the 1944 education Act laid down that parents must cause their children to receive a suitable education, 'either by regular attendance at school or otherwise'. This was included as a nod to those, like the Royal family, who traditionally engaged governesses and tutors for their children rather than sending them to school. Without this section, the prospect would have been raised of the Truancy Officer banging on the door of Buckingham Palace! It was to be ten years or so before an 'ordinary' parent thought to take advantage of this loophole and not send her children to school. In 1952, Joy baker took this step and spent the next nine years fighting against Norfolk County Council to secure this right. During the seventies and eighties there were other key cases which secured the ground for other parents who wished to educate their children at home and defined what is meant by a 'suitable' and 'efficient' education; Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson (1981) QB (DC) 729/81, Phillips v Brown (1980) Divisional Court June 20th and of course R v Secretary of State for education, ex Parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust.

Now while it is true that one of these cases, Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson, involved Iris Harrison, who was a founder member of Education Otherwise in 1977, she and her husband fought and won the case pretty well single-handedly. In other words, all the key cases of precedent which have established the legality of home education have had nothing at all to do with Education Otherwise or any other organisation. Throughout the seventies and eighties, parents were starting to home educate their children and fought to ensure that local authorities did not prevent them from doing so. This would have happened with or without the existence of Education Otherwise.

Still, there must be other good things about EO. They provide a lot of information to parents on their website and through newsletters, don't they? This of course is quite true, but in the modern world almost completely irrelevant. In the eighties, when key court cases were being heard such as that of the Harrisons, it was necessary to spread the news of judgements like the one at Worcester by means of letters and telephone calls. Unless you belonged to Education Otherwise, you might simply not have heard about Iris Harrison's triumph at the Crown Court; it was not widely reported. Similarly, the legal position, relevant parts of the 1944 Education Act and so on, were not freely available. A parent living in a remote rural area might have needed to travel to London to track down such documents and pay for photo-copies. These days, the case is altogether different.

The Internet alone has probably made groups like Education Otherwise unnecessary. All the information one could possibly require on anything at all to do with home education, anywhere in the world, is freely available at the click of a mouse. One can join groups and lists, chat on forums, arrange to meet other parents; it really is not necessary to join formally any organisation at all. There are plenty of people who are happy to provide information and advice without paying an annual subscription.

In short, it seems to me that the world has moved on somewhat since 1977 when Education Otherwise was founded. They may once have made a contribution to the struggle of parents to establish their legal right to educate their children at home, but this would probably have happened anyway, even if Education Otherwise never existed. It is always sad when an old newspaper, comic, chain of shops and so on folds up. Still, the sadness does not usually last long and I suspect that in ten years time Education Otherwise will be fondly remembered as an historical curiosity rather than being an active and vibrant part of the twenty first century home educating community.