Monday, 31 January 2011

Actions and consequences

I wrote yesterday that parents who try and get their kids into college when the children don't have the required qualifications are likely to have a negative effect upon the reputation of home education in general. Judging from the comments, there was scepticism about this. Perhaps I should explain what I meant.

When a child who has been to school applies to an FE college, there are certain criteria to be satisfied before he will get onto the course of his choice. In the case of A levels, this usually means five GCSEs at A*-C and in the case of subjects like mathematics, a higher grade for that subject; typically at least a B at GCSE. Any home educated child applying with these qualifications will be treated precisely the same way as a child who has been to school; there is no prejudice against home educated children. This is not what usually happens though. In all too many cases, the child might have, instead of five GCSEs, a handful of feeble and inferior qualifications of the adult literacy and numeracy type. No matter what is claimed, these are not at all the equivalent of GCSEs in maths and English and everybody at a college will know that. The child might also have ten or twenty points of an Open University course. This too is very hard to translate into GCSE terms. If the OU course is in Ancient History, it tells the college little about the child's mathematical ability.

The result of this is that home educated children and their parents are difficult to deal with from the word go, at least in many cases. They argue, they have a sense of grievance, they suspect others of not recognising how bright their son is; in short, they are a nuisance. This makes colleges and sixth form centres a bit wary when they come into contact with home educating families. They are expecting difficulties and awkward behaviour from the start. They also tend to be a bit suspicious of children who have been at secondary school and then stopped going. This is often an indication of a troubled and troublesome youth. This is, by the way, why many home educators have problems in finding schools where their children can sit GCSEs as private candidates. Home educating parents tend to be very hard work. They are argumentative, they require special conditions for their child during examinations, they have grudges and chips on their shoulders. Many schools find it easier just to avoid dealing with them.

This sort of thing has a bad effect upon home educators generally. Many parents have trouble finding somewhere for their child to sit GCSEs and this is because of the reputation which home educating parents have as being a pain in the arse. This reputation has been created by the behaviour in the past of home educators with whom schools have dealt. The same thing goes for college admissions. For many staff at FE colleges, the news that a home educating parent is trying to get her kid into the college causes a sinking of the heart. Often, the parent wants the kid to start at fourteen, which is irregular and entails extra fuss and paperwork. If the child is sixteen, then the chances are that he will not have the same qualifications to join the course as everybody else. This too requires extra work and often arguments with the parent. These attitudes have been created by past experiences of home educators.

As I said at the beginning, if a home educated child applies to college at the same age as everybody else and with the same qualifications, then there will be no prejudice against him at all. Causing problems and creating fuss at colleges has the long term effect of queering the pitch for all home educating families. It gives people a very negative view of home education. If home educators wish to correct this view, then the best thing that they can do is to stop expecting special treatment and just make the applications to colleges in the same way and at the same time as everybody else. If this were to become the norm, then home education would soon be accepted as a perfectly ordinary choice in education. As long as applications from home educating families mean fuss, bother and unpleasantness, we can expect colleges to have a jaundiced view of home education and those who undertake it. The remedy lies in the hands of home educators. All they need to do is follow the same rules as everybody else.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Time for home educators to stop expecting special treatment

I have remarked before that some home educating parents seem to feel that if all the normal rules are not bent in their favour, then this amounts to wicked discrimination against them! The latest example of this unfortunate mindset, encouraged I am afraid to say by some of the lists and forums, is to be found on the HE-UK list. A mother there, whose son will be sixteen in a few months, is upset because a local college will not admit her son. This is because he has no GCSEs.

The first thing which occurs to one here is to ask why the mother did not find this out years ago and make provision accordingly. Instead, she has a grudge about the business because the college won't take her word for it that her child is bright and self-motivated. Why on earth should they? Parents are the worst possible people to give references for their own children! I am sure that we all know slow witted children whose parents think they are little geniuses. Most of us also know children who are rough bullies, although their parents believe them to be boisterous and forthright. I am the last person in the world to whom anybody should apply if they wish for an objective description of my daughter. This is very right and proper; of course parents should think well of their children and believe them better than they actually are. This is part of human nature. It is also why colleges prefer to have references from teachers and see a bunch of GCSEs, rather than depend upon what Mum says.

A home educating parent of my acquaintance, not on any of the lists, was really pissed off recently when her son was refused a place at Edinburgh University. He has a glittering array of IGCSEs and AS levels, but wished to study history. Anybody doing a Humanity at Edinburgh is required to have a GCSE in a language. There are no exceptions to this rule. Being psychologically healthy, the mother concerned was pissed off not at Edinburgh University, but at herself for not thinking of this years ago and making sure that her son took an IGCSE in a language. She does not expect Edinburgh University to change their admissions criteria for her son.

Those giving advice on the home education lists and forums could do worse than adopt a similar attitude. It does the reputation of home education no good at all if parents are constantly trying to have the rules changed because they have been unable or unwilling to get their kids through the same examinations as everybody else. Instead of complaining about the admissions criteria, whether for an FE College or Russell Group university, parents might do worse than find out all about them years in advance and then make sure that their children are on a level playing field with everybody else. Home educating parents are often seen by education professionals as being a bit of a nuisance and every time somebody plays silly beggars like this, attempting to get her son onto a course for which he is not qualified, it simply reinforces that prejudice. It would be a better advertisement for home education if teenagers were to be turning up at FE colleges with more and better qualifications than the children from the maintained schools. If that happened for a few years, then perhaps it would help home education shake off this image of being something which is usually undertaken by cranks, misfits and troublemakers. This generally is what teachers and lecturers expect when they ecounter a home educating family and it would be nice to see more families which did not conform to this stereotype. This would, in the long run, benefit all home educators.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

A woman after my own heart

Commenting yesterday, somebody suggested that a major theme in my blogposts is 'Women are sillier than men'. I can't think that this is true. I think rather that I have hinted that I find a lot of British home educators whose views appear on the internet silly and the great majority of these are women. I find most politicians silly and they are nearly all men. Perhaps the person who made this comment is no logician and got a bit muddled up. At any rate, it is time to celebrate a woman whose book has recently been published. Amy Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, has written the best book on parenting and education which I have read in a very long while. It is called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and details may be found here;

Here are a couple of reviews;

Chua's thesis is that western parenting methods are utterly useless and tend to produce mediocrity. She cannot understand why any parent would praise their child for getting a grade B, instead of criticising her for not getting an A. As a personal aside, from the time my own daughter was twelve and was doing IGCSEs, the saying in our house was 'As are for losers'. Anything other than an A* was regarded as a failure and when she heard of friends who had gained As or Bs at their GCSEs, we would refer to them as having failed their exams. This motto has been retained for A levels.

Chua was mercilessly strict with her two daughters, allowing no television or computer games for instance. Quite right too. Again, my daughter was not allowed such foolishness either. In fact every page of this book cries out to be quoted. It is one of those books which one reads where somebody expresses views that are seldom heard and yet perfectly true. If there were more mothers around like Amy Chua, I have a suspicion that academic standards in this country would soar, regardless of what was done to schools. Academic success begins in the home and with the right home environment may be achieved whatever the school. I can heartily recommend this book to all home educating parents as a pattern for excellence. Here at least is one woman whom I am unlikely to describe as sillier than a man!

Friday, 28 January 2011

School to be run by home educating parents

It will be interesting to see how this works out:

The idea of a bunch of home educators running a school sounds a bit weird.

In the USA

I dare say that most home educating parents in this country are aware by now that over two million children in the USA are being educated at home. Here is a piece about this;

I was interested to see the bit in this article about home educated children doing better at the SAT and ACT college entrance tests. This has been touted before as evidence that home education is better for children than schooling, but it is worth looking a little closer at this claim.

Students who wish to attend college or university in the USA sit either the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (American College Testing). These give a rough idea of the academic attainment. There are components for reasoning, maths, science, reading and so on. For the last eight or nine years, students have been specifically asked if they are home educated. This allows us to judge the educational standard of home educated kids as opposed to those who have been to school. Because every college student takes these tests, the results are not biased by self-selection. (Of course they are biased by the fact that only those applying for college take the tests; of which, more later)

The ACT is scored from 1 to 36. The average score is 21 and home educated young people average 23. This is a very slight advantage, but the individual parts of the test reveal something interesting. In reading, the home educated teenagers are very much ahead of their peers. They are roughly level in science and a bit behind in maths. This means that the only advantage that home education seems to have given them is a greater fluency and improved comprehension in reading. This is good, but it should be borne in mind when we are told that evidence from America shows that home educated children are in advance of those who went to school.

Another point to consider is this. The proportion of home educated young people applying to college is lower than the average population. The obvious explanation for this is that those taught at home are less likely to go to college or university. Those that do go to college do better on average than the schooled, but fewer go in the first place.

Because home education is so well established in the USA, it is a good place to look for evidence of its efficacy. The latest research shows that it is certainly no worse than schooling, but probably not a great deal better. This is encouraging and it would be good to see some research conducted in this country

Thursday, 27 January 2011

'De-schooling' and other matters

Meanwhile, over on one of the Internet lists for home educators, some hapless woman about to take her child out of school is already being targeted by cranks who are determined to sabotage the kids education before the mother has even had a chance to begin. The most idiotic advice being offered to her is about what is known as 'de-schooling' The theory behind this is that once a child comes out of school, the toxicity which has accumulated in his system psychologically (!) should be given a chance to leach out. This means attempting no work or anything even approaching an education for some time after being de-registered from school. The urban myth associated with this mad idea suggests that one month of de-schooling should be allowed for every year that the child has spent at school. Any normal person should at once be able to see the disadvantages of this crazy scheme.

Since the majority of de-registrations take place at secondary age, the time wasted in this way can be considerable. Fourteen is an increasingly popular time to de-register children; right in the run-up to taking GCSEs. How sitting around doing nothing at all for nine months at that critical stage in a child's education is meant to help the education is a very interesting point indeed.

Other advice on offer is equally mischievous, although I am sure not intentionally so. One mother recommends a maximum of twelve hours a week once the education actually starts. Her own child is studying for a GCSE in astronomy (just what employers are looking for!) The mother of a twelve year old girl explains what a success home education has been for her family. Her daughter was a little bad tempered when she had to go to school; these days she is pleased as punch. No word though on any educational benefits which might have accrued to her through the change in educational setting.

The general tone of the comments on this particular thread seems to be about the improvement in mood of the children concerned, rather than education per se. This is fairly common when parents take their kids out of school shortly after they move to secondary. Most children change a little after they leave primary school and few parents welcome these changes. The fact that this is often a sign that the child might be wishing to grow up a little does not seem to occur to these people. I would have been sorry indeed if my own daughter had behaved in the same way at thirteen as she did at ten. Children do change around puberty and there is little point in trying to delay, let alone reverse, these changes. This seems essentially what many of those who take their children from school at that age are trying to do. Of course their children become more cheerful in many cases once they have been taken out of school. No getting up early in the morning to study boring subjects, the chance to loll around watching television or browsing facebook rather than having double maths; most kids at that age would be very pleased with such a lifestyle and would probably feel it worth rewarding their mother with some cute smiles and hugs. Whether this is good for them either educationally or developmentally is quite another thing. It strikes me that the immediate result of such a move at the age of twelve would be to infantilise a child and delay the onset of maturity.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


There is currently a campaign going on in Manchester to try and reduce parent condoned truancy. The aim is discourage parents from going on holiday during term time and the the posters say things such as;

'Taking off during term time could land you with a fine. It counts as truancy. And as a parent, you are legally responsible for making sure your child is at school, or you could face a fine.'

Predictably enough, some home educating parents are angry about this and want the posters amended to remind people that only pupils registered at school are obliged to attend. I rather think that most people know this any way and that the posters are aimed at the 99.5% of parents whose children are registered pupils at a school. I had to laugh about this, because of course Graham Stuart, the home educators friend, said precisely the same thing himself last year. See;

You see? I bet you guys didn't know that it is,'tantamount to child abuse not to make sure your children go to school'? And don't forget that parents should do ' their legal duty and send their children to be educated at school.' I'm sure that if these views are acceptable from Graham Stuart, they should be equally acceptable from Manchester Council!

Dealing with idiots

The world is full of idiots. Whatever one does or says, there is sure to be some fool ready to criticise or offer an ill-informed opinion on the matter. This is the nature of the world and there is little that can be done about it. I became used to people saying silly things about my decision not to send my daughter to school. Sometimes I would respond with reasoned arguments; more often, I would just mutter 'idiot!' to myself and walk off. I have been wondering lately whether this approach is gendered. In other words, are men more likely to ignore or dismiss criticism of home education than women are? There is little doubt that most women prefer to reach consensus and like it better when people around them agree with them and approve of their actions. It is also the case that there are quite a few men who thrive on opposition and seem to revel in doing and saying things that others dislike. I am also thinking that there might be a different attitude towards home educating fathers than there is towards mothers.

I can't help noticing when reading Internet lists and forums about home education that many of the mothers seem to get pretty worked up about the ignorance and negative feelings which they encounter. It really appears to matter to them what others think of their child rearing and educational methods. Perhaps this is because our society expects mothers to know about children and what is good for them. If all the other mothers in an area are doing one thing with their kids and one mother is doing something completely different, then there might be an assumption that the odd one out is doing things wrong. After all, she is going against the collective wisdom of the other mothers. Both from her point of view and that of the other mothers, she must be taking the wrong road. It is quite different with men. People naturally assume that men will screw up when it comes to looking after babies and children. All the sitcoms and soap operas on the television are predicated upon this; that when a man is left in charge of a small child, even his own, trouble is bound to follow. This means that when a man adopts a weird and obviously wrong way of raising a child, people just shrug mentally and say to themselves, 'Well, what can you expect? He's a man, he doesn't know any better'. When a woman apparently makes a foolish decision about child rearing though, she automatically becomes a bad mother; she ought to know better.

There are few home educating fathers, that is to say men who spend all day looking after their child and educating her. I know one or two, but they are rare birds indeed compared with the masses of women who home educate. All the ones I know are completely indifferent to what others think of their lifestyle. I also know a number of women and all of them have been upset at one time or another by the views which their family, friends or even random strangers have expressed about home education. There are so few fathers who home educate during the day, that it is not really possible to find a big enough sample to be meaningful, but I would be keen to hear from any other fathers who come on here. Does society have a different view of home educating fathers than it does of mothers?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Survey on home education

The National Centre for Social Research is conducting a survey about home education. This is what they are doing;

About this study

This study aims to examine the reasons behind the decision to choose home education. The study has been commissioned by Red Balloon Learner Centres, a registered charity.

Potential policy impact

This study hopes to provide information on the reasons behind people's decisions to choose home education to people working in the education and educational policy sectors.


We have sent a short paper self-completion questionnaire to the parents and guardians of pupils named on the Elective Home Education registers in 23 local authorities. These have been sent via local authorities, and so we at NatCen do not know the names or details of anyone selected to take part in the study.

Elizabeth Clery, Christopher Ferguson

Inevitably, some home educating parents are furious about this, because they have been approached via their local authority. One might have supposed that it would be a good chance for parents to explain why they are home educating. At least one parent is angry at the mention of a register. What's wrong with these people? One gets the impression that if one asked the time, some of these types would round on one angrily and ask what you mean by that.

Leave us alone (but keep sending the cheques!)

I was greatly entertained to read a sad appeal recently by a home educating mother who is now being encouraged by her local Job Centre to get a job. She is wholly reliant upon state benefits and hopes to continue in this condition until her child is sixteen. Nice work if you can get it! This started me thinking about the mental agility and sophistry which one would need in order to claim firstly that the state should simply ignore one's educational provision, while at the same time paying for it. In other words, requiring the state to back off and going absolutely mad if any questions are asked, while at the same time expecting regular maintenance payments to be sent to pay for it all.

I remarked yesterday that the state had a stake in home education to the extent that if they were later required to pay benefits to an unemployed and perhaps unemployable young person, then the mode of education which brought the youth to this pass is their proper concern. If one is home educating on a remote island and completely self-sufficient, taking nothing at all from the infrastructure of the state; then one might reasonably tell the state to get lost. Few of us are in this position. Our lives, in one way and another, involve us giving money to the state and the state giving money or other benefits to us. The welfare bill in this country is astronomical and attempts are now being made to reduce it. The welfare bill, in simple terms, means that people who are working support and pay for those who are not working. This is fair enough in the case of those who are unable to work. When one hears of a woman whose inability to work is caused by her refusal to send her child to school, one is entitled to ask, 'Why on earth should I subsidise this person?' In short, if somebody wishes to educate her child out of school, all well and good, but why should she think that I will pay for her to do so? Now if I, as a home educator feel this way, only imagine how those workers who send their children to school will view the situation!

I could name several able-bodied high profile home educators on social security, whose children are now also on benefits. I am sure that there are many more of whom I don't know. I am wondering about the implications of such a situation. Of course I have a perfect right to refuse to arrange for my child to gain any qualifications if this forms part of my principles. But this decision does not take place in a vacuum. Actions have consequences and one possible consequence of this particular action might be that the state has to pay, via other people's taxes, to support my child. This is especially unfair for society if it has had to pay for me not to work while I raise an ill educated and unqualified young person who will then go on to claim benefits himself. I am not saying that this is the case with most home educated young people. I know a number of such cases and I am sure that most readers will know a few themselves. Home educators make a lot of fuss about the money which they save the state by not sending their kids to school, but this two or three thousand a year, the Age Weighted Pupil Allowance, is dwarfed by the benefits bill of a non-working family.

I am wondering how these parents are able to square this particular circle. They want to be left alone and become angry if asked any questions about the educational provision which they are providing, but then they wish for plenty of money from other people so that they are free to pursue their unconventional lifestyle. I would be glad to hear what others think about this.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Motives of the state

Underlying much of the debate among home educating parents on the possibility of increased regulation of education outside school is an assumption that there is more to this than meets the idea. One frequently reads that the government or local authorities do not really care about the children and that something else is driving this whole business. I am frankly baffled as to what this might be. I certainly had my differences with Essex County Council and they annoyed me at times, but I never doubted for a moment that they were acting in what they felt to be the interests of my daughter. Similarly, I never had reason to suppose that Ed Balls was motivated by anything other than the anxiety that some children might not have been receiving an adequate education or might have been at risk of abuse. These fears may have been mistaken, but I have no idea what else might have been at the back of the Badman Review apart from genuine, if misplaced, concern for children.

Nevertheless, many home educators feel that there is some sinister agenda of which we are not being told. This varies from an apparent desire on the part of the state to make all children the same and not to allow parents to raise future rebels and malcontents to local authorities wishing to protect themselves against job losses. Although beliefs of this sort are more properly classified as conspiracy theories, there may in some cases be a grain of truth in the anxieties which parents are feeling.

Yesterday, somebody said here that he felt that Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Act was designed for the benefit of the state rather than for children. This is classic wooly thinking; it does not seem to occur to people that what is of benefit to the state is often of benefit to individuals as well; the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. What benefit would the state have received from the passage of Schedule 1? There was no secret about this; it was set out plainly in the accompanying notes when the CSF Bill was published in 2009. One of the benefits would have been that more home educated children would have gained five GCSEs between grades A*-C. This would have raised the average earnings of these children over their lifetimes and made it less likely that they would be claiming benefits. In other words, it would have been of benefit to the child. The state would have benefited too. I say the state, but I should perhaps say society. Society would benefit because there is a direct and strong correlation between children who at the age of sixteen do not have at least five GCSEs between grades A*-C and their future life chances. To give one example. In prisons, it is extremely common to find young people without a single GCSE. Among young professionals, this is unheard of. The more and better GCSEs, the better the outlook in terms of employment and higher education for a young person. This means better earnings over the course of a lifetime. This is not to say that every home educated child without GCSEs will end up in prison of course! It does mean that out of a large group of youngsters, those without GCSEs are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to go into higher education. They are also far more likely to be involved in criminal activity, using drugs and suffering from psychiatric problems. Their health tends to be poorer as well. All this tends to lower their earnings over their lifetime.

Here is one instance where the interests of the state and of the children themselves coincide. If a young person is on benefits or in prison, it is not only bad for the young person, it is expensive for the state which is obliged to support him. When home educating parents are talking of the state not being the parent to their children, it is to be hoped that they are bearing this in mind. In other words, if they are rejecting the state's involvement in the upbringing and welfare of their children now, are they going to be doing so in the future? If their children end up with no qualifications and perhaps unemployable, will they be telling the state to get lost when it comes to providing support in the form of benefits? Here is a definite a stake that the state has in a home educated child. If in the future, society will be expected to shell out for the child when he is an adult, perhaps pay for him to be educated or trained, then I think that it is justifiable to look at his childhood and ask what might have brought him to this point.

Before anybody mentions it, yes, I am aware that many school leavers are poorly qualified and end up in prison or on the dole. And no, I have no reason to suppose that either of these outcomes are more common among home educated children. According to Mike Fortune-Wood, there are over a hundred thousand home educated children in this country. If true, this would be the equivalent of more than a hundred schools full of children. It seems to me reasonable that the state should want to know something of this large number of children, including how many of them might prove to be wholly reliant upon state benefits in the future. Poor educational outcomes are not simply a private matter between parent and child; they affect us all ultimately.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

An historical retrospective

The thesis put forward by many home educating parents is that it is parents who are primarily responsible for their children and not the state. They regard any intrusion by the state into family life as unwarranted and something which should only happen if there is clear evidence of neglect or abuse by parents.

This is not of course a new point of view. Before the introduction of compulsory education in the nineteenth century, a government enquiry was set up which looked into the idea. They decided that it would be a bad thing. The Newcastle Report into the State of Popular Education in England was published in 1861. The authors said;

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

One of the main objections which the enquiry encountered was that government had no business to poke their noses into family life. It was for parents to arrange for their children's education, not the state. Plus ca change....

I think it reasonable to say that this attitude, that the state should keep out of family life, is still going strong and was a major line of argument against the recommendations of the Badman Report in 2009. It is interesting to reflect that precisely the same line has in the past been used to prevent the police investigating allegations of marital rape and domestic abuse of women. For centuries, the legal position was plain. The law should not concern itself with what went on in the marital home. The relationship between man and wife was sacred and the state should not attempt to regulate how marriages ran or look into what went on in the homes of married couples. We no longer follow this principle of course and for very good reason. There is often an imbalance of power within a marriage; the man may be stronger and more aggressive, the home might be in his name, he usually has more money than his wife. Some women will therefore put up with an abusive partner and even if the police are called will refuse to make a statement. That is why the police will now proceed on cases of domestic violence even if the wife does not wish to press charges. It is also why in 1991, it was ruled that a wife can refuse to consent to sex with her husband.

Those now arguing that the state should not involve itself in the relationship between parents and children remind me a lot of the sort of people who were dead against the police being able to intervene in marital disputes. Witness the anger when it is suggested that hitting children should be outlawed. Some parents insist that they have a perfect right to hit their kids; the same argument used in favour of wife-beating. This is more common in the USA, but there are still plenty of parents here who feel that the government should not legislate about this and that hitting children is a private, family matter.

The parallels between the two cases are compelling and disturbing. The emphasis used to be placed upon a husband's 'rights'. Today, we hear talk of a parent's 'rights' in precisely the same way. It was once acceptable for a husband to slap his wife around a bit in order to discipline her; many people claim that this is something that is acceptable for a parent to do to a child.
I think that in the future, we may look back on this current period and see it as being the time when the rights of children began to be recognised seriously by society, just as the rights of women have similarly been recognised in recent decades. I cannot help but notice that when home educating parents talk about rights in connection with the practice, they almost invariably refer to their own 'rights'. We hear all the time from such people of a parent's 'right' to home educate. As I say, this sounds ominously like the old and discredited concept of a husband's 'rights' over his wife.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Seeking the consent of those affected by new laws

Somebody commenting here yesterday put forward an argument which I have seen advanced many times by home educators. It is this. Any change in the legal situation around home education should only take place after consultation with and obtaining the consent of home educators themselves. As the person said;

'You can only get real change about home education if you win over home educators'

Of Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, it was said by the same person;

' I cannot think of one planned change that would have been positive for any home educators '

The idea seems to be that one should only change the law if one can be sure that any new law will not have a negative effect upon any group. If it is likely to do so, one should be sure to ask that group for their views and opinions before introducing legislation. This seems on the face of it reasonable, but the implications are truly terrifying.

When the law is changed, it is because our representatives in the legislature agree to do so. These people are MPs and we vote them in so that they can, among other things, make new laws. They make these laws for what they see as the general good of society. A law which prohibits the private ownership of pistols was made because it was felt that the fewer guns floating around, the better. This law was very unpopular with those belonging to shooting clubs. They were not even consulted; the law was pushed through without anybody asking the group most affected what they thought. Similar things have happened with owning pit-bull terriers, beating children at school, husbands raping their wives, fox hunting; all sorts of things in fact. Nobody suggested that any of these special interest groups should be courted, consulted and carefully won over. That is not how representative democracy works.

With the practice of home education, a new set of rules should, at least according to home educators themselves, be applied. Any new law there should only be made with the permission of those affected by the legislation. The implication is that any attempt to pass a new law redefining paedophilia should only be introduced with the agreement of paedophiles. One should not have banned hare coursing without first asking those involved in killing hares with dogs whether they wanted their activities to be curtailed. Any law which tightens up the principle of consent to sexual activity could only be introduced after consultations with the rapist community.

I would like to know why home educators feel that their own favoured activity deserves special consideration in this way. If anybody could explain to me why this should be, I would be very grateful.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Opposing change

Everything changes. This is true of flowers and trees, people, societies and political institutions. It is really no more than the nature of the world; even if we do nothing at all, things change of their own accord. They decay, fall apart, mutate into other different things. Those who oppose this sort of change in society and politics are often called conservatives or, in a more pejorative way, reactionaries.

I have been reflecting upon this since Michael Gove announced the latest revamping of the national Curriculum. For a Conservative, he has certainly shown himself eager to change things. (Although his latest ideas suggest that his idea of change is really moving back to the way things were in schools during the 1950s, which is sound Conservative doctrine indeed!) The way that hospitals are run, schools, the police, army, Inland revenue; all our institutions are constantly in a state of flux. Many of us get a little irritable about change, particularly as we get older. There is however one group of people who seem to oppose any and every change to do with their own chosen pastime or lifestyle. These are home educators. It does not matter what is being suggested or by whom it is put forward; you can guarantee that home educators are against it. Change might be taking place in all other aspects of life in modern Britain, but as far as home educators are concerned, any change involving the law or regulations connected with their own practice is bound to be a bad thing.

I have encountered this sort of blind devotion to maintaining the status quo in other groups. Fox hunters for instance have always been convinced that any sort of change to the law about their own hobby would be an unwarrantable intrusion into their private affairs. Members of gun clubs too always seem to find new laws infringing upon their civil liberties. These characters, like home educators, seem to have a Panglossian view of life; that this is the best of all possible worlds and that any change is bound to be for the worse. It is the same attitude which led many Tories to oppose the Great Reform Act in 1832 and I can understand how they feel. I dislike change and new things myself. One observes that in Wales, consultations are now taking place with home educating parents and local authorities with a view to changing the way that home education is regulated in that country. Already, the murmurs of discontent have started and are likely to grow louder in the future. The battle cry is, 'Why change anything? this is the best possible system that human ingenuity could devise!' This has been the rallying call of reactionaries and Conservatives through the ages and the aim is always to stop things changing.

I shall be interested to see what happens in Wales. Somebody emailed me this morning, suggesting that the exercise in Wales has been encouraged from Westminster and is an attempt to see if a new system could be tried in Wales before being introduced to England. I have no idea if this is true, but it is, I suppose, certainly possible.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Regular assessments of the social and emotional wellbeing of under fives

It sometimes seems to me that if it is possible to adopt a muddleheaded and foolish attitude towards some aspect of childhood and learning, then a fair number of home educating parents will do so. Graham Allen MP has produced a report in which he concludes that many children are being raised by parents who do not prepare them for life with other people very well and that one result is that the kids struggle and then fail at school. Anybody working with children will know this to be true. He recommends that between birth and the age of five, children who are at risk of having problems at school should be identified and their families given help and support. I cannot imagine anybody who knows anything about the sort of families of whom he is talking, disagreeing about the need for such an enterprise. Here is an account of the report;

Perhaps it was the implicit assumption in the report that children would all be attending school at the age of five, but Allen's report has annoyed some home educators, who of course regard it as a manifestation of the 'Nanny State'. Since I have for many years been involved in this field, I thought that I would just give one or two examples of the type of parent who is being talked of here.

Last week I was talking to a Friend who is a Community Psychiatric Nurse. She told me of a family she visits, a mother and father with a baby just starting to walk. The mother suffers from depression, nothing major, and the CPN just pops round to see how she is coping. A few weeks ago, she noticed that the baby had bruises on one side of her face and the arm on the same side. She ignored this, because all toddlers have falls. Last week, she noticed a new set of bruises, overlaying the old ones. She mentioned this to the parents and they laughed. It turned out that the child regularly fell out of his high chair and that that was how the bruising was happening. As they said, 'It happens a lot.' These are not bad people, but they lacked the sense to realise that they should do something about the problem, like strapping the kid into the highchair, for instance. My friend gave them a little common sense advice and the problem is now solved. It could of course have gone very badly for the family, with a hospital assuming that the injuries were repeated and non-accidental. There are many parents like this and they are often clustered in certain places.

A few years ago when I helped run a support group for mothers who were struggling, we organised a day at the seaside. None of the children and some of the mothers had never seen the sea before. One mother sat in a deckchair near the water's edge and her eighteen month old child toddled into the sea. She walked in up to her thighs, tripped and then fell face first into the water. The mother simply sat there, completely unable to conceive of the danger to her child. Fortunately, we were all aware of her, what might politely be called 'poor parenting skills'. I and the psychologist who worked with the group both reached the child in about a nanosecond. She was fine, but if left to the mother might well have drowned.

There are many parents like the ones above who welcome help and support. When they are directed to support groups which meet regularly, they are grateful and without such support they risk having their children removed from them and placed in care, which is a terrible thing. Graham Allen's report is suggesting that more help be directed to such mothers and fathers and that an effort is made to identify them and offer help so that their children are not taken away. It is also hoped that with appropriate help, their children will be able to thrive at school. Because a lot of children these days are starting school in such a pitiful condition that they are destined to fail from day one. These are children who have literally never sat at a table. They have never even held a knife or fork, having used their fingers up until now. Increasingly, they are still in nappies at the age of four or five. Some of them do not know how to sit in a chair. We are not talking here about children who have not been taught to read and write before they start school, but of children who can really only communicate in grunts. I suppose I should describe this as a 'delay in the acquisition of expressive language', but the fact is that they do only grunt. This is not a pathological condition caused by a neurological deficit; it is because nobody has ever talked to them normally or attempted to have a conversation. Because they cannot talk and do not know how to listen, they are unable to learn.

That anybody should be opposed to an initiative aimed at helping these children is beyond my comprehension, but then as I said at the beginning, if there is a muddleheaded or foolish attitude to be found about education, one can depend upon a certain type of home educator to put it forward! It is to be hoped that Graham Allen's recommendations are adopted by the coalition and that these wretched and vulnerable children are provided with the help they so desperately need.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Open University points and admissions to other universities

Somebody drew my attention yesterday to a discussion on a forum about getting a place at medical school by using OU points rather than A levels. Quite a few universities specifically say that they are open to this possibility. On most websites for universities, they list a range of other qualifications which might be accepted instead of the conventional GCSEs and A levels. There is no doubt that this happens. We saw the case of Shena Deuchars, the new Treasurer of Education Otherwise, whose daughter is studying law at Exeter on the strength of OU points.

There are one or two aspects of this which need to be considered carefully, before anybody puts too much trust in this route. Most of the alternative qualifications listed by the major universities relate to foreign equivalents of A levels. Run your eye down the lists and you will find that for each country there are lists of matriculations and so on which universities rightly take as being the same value as British A levels. However, when a medical school says that one does not need A levels, this does not actually mean that they admit anybody from this country without them. A while ago Shena Deuchars was promoting as a 'myth' the idea that one needed to have A levels to study as a vet. This claim was made because some places denied that they were restricting their intake to students with A levels and saying that they looked at each candidate on her merits. This is fair enough, but does not really tell us whether or not anybody without A levels in this country has actually qualified as a doctor or vet. This is the crucial question, not whatever guff they stick up on their website! So, as regards to the comment yesterday drawing attention to the supposed use of OU points to get into medical school, does anybody know of a doctor who grew up in this country and did not take GCSEs or A levels? Does anybody know of a vet like this? A solicitor? This is the acid test of such an approach to avoiding the taking of GCSEs and A levels. I certainly know people who have got to university to study drama, art and film without taking these qualifications. I have not heard of anybody who has managed it for physics or medicine. I do not say that it has not happened, which is why I would be keen to hear about such cases.

Another way in which relying upon Open University points can handicap one is in the case of places like Edinburgh, for instance. Anybody wishing to study any of the humanities there will find that it is necessary to have at least a GCSE in a language. This is the sort of thing which one would not guess until actually making an application and it is a deal breaker. You could have six A levels at A* or any number of OU points, but without that GCSE in French, you will not get a place to study politics. Edinburgh is not alone in this sort of thing.

So can we now have a few details of professionals who have grown up in this country without taking A levels or GCSEs, together with the names of the institutions where they studied? This would be far more valuable than any number of quotations from websites asserting that this or that university will consider each case on its merits.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The elephant in the home education room

There seems little doubt that the number of children in the United Kingdom being educated by their parents is growing. Since nobody knows how many there actually are of course, it is impossible to say what the rate of growth is. It is probably not as fast as some have suggested. In a book last year, for instance, Mike Fortune-Wood claimed that something over eighty thousand children in this country were being electively home educated. In a post on his list HE-UK yesterday, the number seems to have grown to over a hundred thousand!

The really steep increase in numbers of such children began some time in the 1990s. The Internet probably played a role in this, as parents could now be in touch instantly with others who could counsel and advice them. Information on court cases and the relevant legislation also became available at the click of a mouse. We all have a tendency to project our own character upon other people. So if we withdrew our children from school because we felt that it was not right for them and we are genuinely providing them with an education, we tend naturally to assume that others who de-register their children or don't send them to school in the first place are working from a perspective similar to our own. This can be a mistake.

Much of the current alarm over home education and calls for something to be done about it have been precipitated not by the sort of home educating parent one sees on Internet lists or meets at groups. It has rather been precipitated by concern about children in the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller 'community'. In late 2005, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned Arthur Ivatts to look into the situation with children in this community who were not attending school. The following year, he produced his report. It was called Elective Home Education: the situation regarding current policy, provision and practice in Elective Home Education for Gypsy, Roma and traveller Children (DfES Research Report RW77). His conclusions can be briefly summed as as follows. First, a large and increasing number of these children were not being sent to school on the grounds that their parents were educating them. Secondly, their parents were not really able to do so and the whole thing was a scam, designed to allow the parents not to bother with their children's education. Thirdly, the law needed to be tightened up to put a stop to this practice.

Home educating parents often seem unsure what has been driving the calls for change in legislation. It really began in earnest with Ivatts' report. In some local authorities, over half the children known to the authority who are supposedly being home educated belong to this group. It will be remembered that one criticism of the York Consulting research was that they had chosen nine local authorities with a disproportionate number of travellers. In fact, many local authorities now believe that this might be the single largest group of home educated children. In other words, the rise in numbers of home educated children might be caused not by the sort of parent who belongs to Education Otherwise, or who posts on HE-UK, but by Gypsies and Travellers who do not want their children to attend school.

The interesting thing about this is that it is seldom discussed openly. This is probably because people are nervous of being accused of racism and bend over backwards to be culturally sensitive. If the girls in this community stop education at primary age and help their mothers round the camp, well that's their custom. Who is to say that this is any the less of an education than that in schools?

Taking action against the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller community about whether their kids are in school or not is frankly impossible. However, the inability to tackle this issue in that particular community will have a knock-on effect on those who do not live in caravans. If a moral panic about elective home education sweeps through local authorities and they feel that they must do something about it on their patch, then most of the EWOs will not be wishing to trudge down to the nearest camp and confront a crowd of angry Gypsies. Far easier and more enjoyable to turn up on the doorstep of a single mother who might be more likely to listen to reason. Much of the present atmosphere about home education began with the Ivatts report. It is certainly worth reading if one wants to know the background to the current debate on the subject.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The purpose of local authority visits to home educating families

On one of the home education Internet lists, a lively debate is taking place about the vexed question of accepting monitoring visits from the local authority. The list owner, Mike Fortune-Wood, has expressed the view that the only reason for such visits is to judge parents and then perhaps issue a School Attendance Order if they decide that the educational provision isn't up to scratch. This seems unlikely. The issuing of School Attendance Orders to home educating families is very rare and usually they are issued only when there are additional welfare concerns. It is exceedingly rare to hear of an SAO being sent purely because the education provided for the child is not of a high enough quality. In a survey conducted by Ofsted at the end of 2009, two thirds of the local authorities had issued no School Attendance Orders at all relating to home education in the previous year and the rest had each issued just one. If the real purpose of home visits was to catch parents out, one would expect SAOs to be flying around all over the shop. This is certainly not the case.

Some parents are vehemently opposed to allowing visits to their home by local authority officers. They feel that what is happening with their children is nobody's business and that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, there should be a general assumption that their children are safe and receiving a suitable education. Others are less bothered about such things and do not mind discussing their ideas with others. I always saw such visits as a chance to be evangelical about home education and to criticise the maintained sector. There are also quite a few parents who actively welcome visits, because they want help and advice.

What is the real purpose of home visits to home educating families? Firstly of course, they wish to check whether the parent seems mad or is keeping the kid at home to work. This is not uncommon in the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller community. Girls past puberty tend to help their mothers and the boys are often learning the lifestyle of their community, rather than studying algebra and writing essays. Since in some counties, this group of home educators amount to a third or a half of known home educators, this is a concern for the local authority officers making visits. Apart from those above categories, local authority officers are also on the lookout for signs that a child is scared of the parent, undernourished or covered in bruises.

Of course it will not be possible to make any certain pronouncement about the mental health of parents or the welfare of children based upon one short visit a year. In cases where there are definite concerns, other agencies often become involved.

A surprisingly large proportion of parents actually welcome visits. They want information from the local authority, advice about examinations, admission to college when the child is sixteen; all sorts of things in fact. Despite the fact that nobody is obliged to have visits and that most local authorities mention this on their websites, it is relatively rare for parents to refuse point blank to have anybody visit their home. This can of course be tricky, because if everybody else is allowing the local authority to come round, one does appear a little out of the ordinary if one refuses to allow it even once. I have no doubt at all that although they shouldn't draw any conclusion from such a stance, some local authority officers will make a note that Mrs Smith, unlike all the other parents in such and such an area, refuses let anybody into her home to see her child. This is regrettable, but is simply human nature.

Of course no parent is forced to permit access to her children, whether or not she is home educating. Most of us do, for various reasons. Most mothers and fathers send their children off to school, invite the Health Visitor in to see their new baby, take the child to clinics and visit the doctor. Some parents on the list where the debate on visits is currently taking place are not registered with doctors because they are worried that their local authority will find out that they are home educating. This sort of behaviour would arouse anybody's suspicions and is practically guaranteed to bring attention in the long run and make it look as though there is something to hide!

I did not invite the local authority to visit us, but nor did I actively discourage them from doing so. It was their time and is they wanted to get somebody to make a round journey of a hundred miles from Colchester just to hear my kid play the guitar or read her poetry, well that's their business. I honestly have never understood this obsession with hiding, fear of truancy patrols and avoidance of doctors and hospitals; the desire in other words to stay 'under the radar'. Why would anybody bother to do that, unless they had a strong motive?

Apropos of School Attendance Orders, I wonder if anybody knows of any which have been issued to home educating parents on purely educational grounds? I am thinking of families who are not known to social services and where there is not other concern than that of the suitability of the education being provided. Such cases would be very interesting to look at.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A new home education initiative

Once in a while one encounters something in the world of British home education which makes one feel like shouting; 'For fuck's sake! What is wrong with these people?' Readers will be relieved to hear that, as usual, they will be spared such vulgarity here. Instead I intend to discuss this matter in the calm and rational manner which has ever been my trademark; merely limiting myself to offering a few words of wise and good advice.

Staffordshire County Council, whose approach to home education has left somewhat to be desired in the past, has announced that they intend to start a support service for home educating parents. It is described like this in a local newspaper;

'Home-Educated children in Staffordshire will soon be able to get resources, tips and other support with their studies from a new online learning service.

Staffordshire County Council is planning to launch the 'Learning Platform' in the summer, initially through a pilot scheme.

It will also include a forum so young people and parents can chat online to other families who educate youngsters at home instead of school.'

I might remark that I advocate something of this sort in my book, Elective Home Education in the UK (Trentham Books, 2010). I said;

'A good many home educating parents would welcome practical help and advice from experts such as teachers and psychologists. Teaching one's child can be a lonely and on occasion unnerving process. Most parents, even the most confident, need reassurance and support from time to time....

Parents with questions about anything from the legal position surrounding home education to the age at which a child should be reading independently could be sure of hearing views from teachers and from other home educators. However, Several of the most popular existing support groups on the Internet bar professionals from membership. So myths, half truths and outright falsehoods proliferate.'

There now, I couldn't have put it better myself!

The news of Staffordshire's new scheme is being described on the HE-UK list as 'registration through the backdoor'. It is worth pointing out that when people are trying to do something 'through the backdoor', they seldom advertise the fact by sending a press release to the local paper. The person who first posted about this, says that it is a 'carrot and stick'. I am baffled as to what the stick might be. We don't even know that those joining this scheme will have to identify themselves to their local authority. In some areas, Hampshire and North Yorkshire for example, it is possible to join in activities and obtain information from the local authority like this without being officially 'known'. Others commenting on HE-UK express the hope that this will be boycotted.

Try as I might, I am unable to grasp the objection to this, although judging by the response it is certainly regarded as a bad thing by some people, including Mike Fortune-Wood. Here is an opportunity for parents who might be isolated, to ask questions of professionals. Perhaps they might want to know what children the same age as theirs who are at school are studying. They might have questions about GCSEs. Maybe some readers here could help me to get a handle on this and explain why anybody in their senses should oppose this enterprise?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Education Otherwise

Shena Deuchars and Heidi de Wet in Swindon continue to stamp their authority on Education Otherwise. They have recently revealed, which will come as little or no surprise to those familiar with the organisation, that two thirds of EO's expenditure has been going on an office in Sheffield. This is now to be closed, marking the complete triumph of the new trustees in Swindon over the old clique in Sheffield.

Many people have noticed in recent years that Education Otherwise, once noted for being a friendly organisation devoted to helping parents who have chosen to educate their own children, has turned into some sort of aggressive political group, very ready to savage its own volunteers and members and cast them aside if they asked too many questions. It had been noticed that this trend really began around 2007. That this has not been popular with members can perhaps be seen by the fact that membership numbers are down 60% on what they were in 2006. One would have expected the Badman review to drive up membership, but this did not happen. Since the bulk of Education Otherwise's money comes from subscriptions from its members, this means that the organisation is in serious financial difficulties; it is spending far more than it is earning. This is not of course a situation which can continue. It is thought that there will be an attempt to recruit volunteers and try not to have paid staff. Of course, there may well be other reasons for the fall in membership numbers; I look at one possible explanation below.

The question is, has Education otherwise reached the end of the line now? Sometimes, groups which were once very valued and useful, fade away and decline for no other reason than that their time is over. There is no doubt that EO was a tremendous help to parents in the past and that it once had a role to play, particularly when home education was a fringe activity of which few were aware. Now that it is a well known option for parents, perhaps organisations like this have less of a part to play. If one wished to find out about the legalities and practicalities of home education in the early 1990s, then Education otherwise was an invaluable resource. Now, with so much information freely available on the Internet, there is less reason to pay an annual subscription. There are various Intrent lists, such as EO's own list which is free to non-members, for those who wish to ask questions and solicit support.

I used to belong to EO myself, but in recent years simply could not see the point in maintaining my membership. I have an idea that many others feel the same way, which might account in part for the fall in membership. I think that this year will prove crucial for the organisation. The full extent of the financial crisis which has engulfed Education Otherwise is now dawning on the new trustees and I think that the next AGM should be interesting. The rumour circulating is that certain individuals in the north of England were running EO in such a way as to help their own positions, rather than for the ultimate benefit of the membership. Surprise has been expressed at some of the claims for 'expenses' which have come to light. No doubt we shall be hearing more about this sort of thing in the near future. It will also be interesting to see if any of the new trustees decide to pay themselves for the work which they are doing. Many people thought that this was a bit of a slippery slope when the practice began a few years ago.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The unwritten rules of university admission

In order to maximise your chances of getting into one of the best universities, whether you are home educated or at school, there are a number of rules which most people do not even know about. For instance, GCSEs matter a lot. When a group of candidates all have three A levels at grade A, their GCSEs are often used as a tiebreaker. It is not so much the number of GCSEs as the subjects which have been taken. Physics counts for a lot more than media studies. This is not something which a lot of children are told when they choose their options.

There are a whole bunch of A levels like law, business studies, psychology, general studies, film studies and so on which are disregarded by some universities during the admissions process. A child who wishes to study law at university might be encouraged by her school to take A level law, only to find that universities do not want this A level and will not count it in their offer. Again, this is not something which most teenagers or their parents can be expected to know. The decisions made by a child at the age of fourteen or sixteen can thus have a huge impact upon the type of university he gets to study at. This is incidentally why so few state pupils make it to Oxbridge. It is not prejudice against them, simply that they have not got the right academic qualifications to stand a chance. This is the fault of the maintained schools rather than the universities themselves.

More and more home educated children seem to be doing Open University course instead of GCSEs and A levels. One hears from time to time of one such young person getting into Oxford or Exeter to study law. Nobody knows how common this is, but I have an idea that it might be rare. None of the universities that I have specifically asked about this have had such cases. There has been no such admission at Oxford since Alex Dowty and Cambridge don't remember anything of the sort ever happening. I suspect, unless somebody has some evidence to the contrary, that it is not at all common. Most universities prefer to play safe with standard qualifications, despite what they might say on their websites.

The problem with these unwritten rules, like not taking A level law or business studies for example, is that ordinary parents are not likely to be familiar with them. Independent schools know all about them and make sure that their pupils choose their GCSEs and A levels in accordance with the rules.

All this should really give home educated children an advantage if they wish to try and get a place at a Russell Group university. After all, unlike those at a maintained school, they are completely free to choose which GCSEs they take. Having taken a good selection, such as will look impressive on their UCAS form when they are seventeen, they are then in a strong bargaining position to dictate which A levels they wish to take at a sixth form or FE college. I do not know why more home educated children do not seem to take this route. Granted, not every child wishes to pursue an academic course, but with an estimated eighty thousand home educated children in the country, I would have expected quite a few to be using these methods to get to university. I am aware that some people collate information of this sort. Does anybody have any idea how many home educated children are known to have acquired places at Russell Group universities? It would be good if information about the best way to get into some of our more academic universities could be more widely available for home educated children.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

College and sixth form

A friend of my daughter's began sixth form last September. She is not an unintelligent child and perfectly able to pursue academic studies and hopes to attend university. The A levels which she is taking, chosen with the help of her teachers, are; Photography, Health and Social Care, Media Studies and Art. She has no particular interest in any of these subjects but was assured by her teachers that all A levels were equal and that since these were easier to get good grades in, she may as well take them. It need hardly be mentioned that this choice has now meant that she has barred herself from even being considered for a place by many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of home education for our family was the ability to choose freely what was studied. Although I understand very well the rationale behind this, it is still depressing to see a child of fourteen choosing his options at schools and being told that he cannot study both history and geography, or perhaps that if he chooses to study science then he must also study religion. The system as it is currently operated in maintained schools is more often intended to help the school boost their position in the league tables or avoid awkward timetable clashes than it is designed to benefit the pupils. Separate sciences at GCES are avoided because they require more specialised teaching and also because not all that many kids will pass them as compared to double award science. Our priest was touchingly impressed a few years ago at the fact that Religious Studies was becoming so popular as a GCSE. He thought that it was a sign of religious revival in the country. What a mug! Actually of course, it was a sign that schools had found an easy GCSE which could ramp up their scores.

Part of the problem is that there is no general guide to what good universities will want when the child applies to them. For most parents, this means trusting the teachers to advise them wisely. Telling parents that A level Photography or General Studies are just as highly regarded as Mathematics or Physics is a very common dodge on the part of colleges and schools. Universities in the Russell or 94 group have a tendency simply to disregard such A levels when making their decisions. They often use GCSE results as a tiebreaker as well, which nobody tells the kids when they are fourteen. The child's future prospects can therefore be blighted four years before he even applies to university.

The marvellous thing about home education is that one is not constrained by this sort of thing. If one wishes to do Physics, Chemistry and Biology, rather than double award science, then away you go. You can do one or two key GCSEs like Maths and English or you can do a dozen; the choice is completely your own. Come to that, you don't have to do any at all if you feel that your child would do better in life as a crossing sweeper. In maintained schools, most children are compelled to do some subjects at GCSE which they really dislike, are useless at and will not benefit them at all in their future life.

Those whose children go to sixth or Further Education colleges will probably be aware that these places often encourage children to take Photography, Film Studies and so on. This is not of course because the colleges believe that there will be massive opportunities for photographers and film directors in a couple of years time when the kids leave college. It is because these subjects are fairly easy to pass and add to the colleges success rate. In other words, the A levels which are being pushed are those which will benefit the colleges rather than be of any use to the students.

The problem is that for those who do want their children to go to college, one has to abide by the rules which they impose. Some insist that students do at least one useless A level like General Studies. This is an insurance policy on their part, a way of guaranteeing that there is at least one A level per student which will be passed. Doing A levels at home is very difficult, due to things like coursework and even those home educating parents who have negotiated the GCSE paths, sometimes baulk at doing A levels at home. This can mean some hard bargaining with the college in order to get what is best for the child. This is fine for home educators; most of them are used to arguing with educational professionals anyway and most get their own way in these matters. The problem is for the children whose parents are used to relying upon what teachers tell them. These kids are likley to be railroaded into useless subjects which they neither enjoy nor will be any use to them later.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Home education group in Derby

I simply could not resist this story. It is of an independent school which has closed down and some parents are teaching their children themselves as a result. They are meeting in a room in a church for the time being. The picture is what I found astounding. Although they are being home educated, the girls are still apparently wearing school uniform!

Ethnic minority home educators

One cannot help but notice that photographs in British newspapers of home education groups or protests involving home educating parents always feature about 99% white families. I wonder why this should be? The situation seems to be rather different in the USA.

Male and female home educators

I have been looking through some old material recently which relates to historic cases of home education. It will probably surprise nobody to hear that all the home educators of whom anybody has ever heard are men. James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, Harry Lawrence, father of Ruth Lawrence, Laszlo Polgar, father of Judit Polgar. Then of course there is the present writer! Now while the many readers have heard of people like the fifteen year old boy who won a place at Cambridge recently and of course Ruth Lawrence, both educated by their fathers, few seem to be aware that this style of education is very much the exception in this country today. I think it fair to say that for the vast majority of home educated children, the main person concerned with the education is the mother.

I am sure that economic factors are at least partly responsible for the fact that most fathers are not the primary force in their children's home education. I have speculated before though as to why those fathers who are involved often seem to take to the business in a very intense and methodical way. Is it an authority thing? Could such fathers be determined simply to take control and be uneasy about the idea of their child doing more or less as she pleases? Perhaps it is that men prefer to organise things and do not like things to be haphazard and with no clear plan laid out? Whatever the reason, men do seem to prefer a structured type of education with definite goals and outcomes; at least when they are undertaking the task themselves.

I mentioned three well known home educated children above, plus the one who has just got a place at Cambridge. I was wondering if anybody knows anything similar which a mother has been responsible for. I mean a chess champion, maths genius, famous utilitarian philosopher type outcome for a home educated child? There are a few cases where the mother spent time encouraging a child at home; Thomas Edison for instance. I would be interested to hear of anything in that line that anybody knows about.

Monday, 10 January 2011

The wisdom of children

I regularly read stuff written by home educating parents of young children in which they talk of 'trusting my child's instincts' or 'knowing that she knows best', or similar nonsense. It is pretty plain to me that those saying this sort of thing are working from a fixed religious or ideological perspective, rather than basing their belief system pragmatically upon observation of the real world.

In some cultures, children are held to be the repositories of the collective wisdom of the tribe or nation; they are somehow assumed to have access to the collective unconsciousness or something of that sort. Elders might thus believe that a very young child will be able to guide them in a way that an older person may not. We saw this sort of mentality with the choice of the present Dalai Lama in the 1930s. This notion has not been popular in the industrialised west, at least not generally. The reason why few people today subscribe to such ideas is not hard to find. If my boiler packs up, I would not ask my eight year old daughter what is to be done about it. She would know little about the matter and it would not be fair to thrust responsibility for the business onto her. The same would apply if I were considering re-mortgaging my home; she would be the last person I would ask. The reason for this attitude is that children do not know as much as adults. they are less apt to view the world rationally and have little experience of solving practical, real life problems. For the same reason, an eight year old child would not be in a good position to decide upon the course of either her own or anybody else's education, nor the best course of her own or anybody else's future life. These things are beyond her experience and it would be unfair to pass this responsibility to her. Just as with the case of the new boiler or the re-mortgaging of the house, she would not have enough information or insight to make a sensible and informed decision upon this question.

There are nevertheless, parents to whom this seems a good idea. They claim that their child 'knows best' what she should be learning and they wish to trust their child's 'instincts'. As I said above, this touching faith in the ability of small child to make a rational and far-sighted choice about matters affecting her whole future life cannot possibly be founded upon observation of the thought processes of real children. Nobody in their senses would rely upon a child of six deciding what was wise and good , either for herself or others. These parents are usually following the advice that others have doled out to them. The people handing out this advice are seldom psychologists or researchers in the developmental processes of children. Rather they are parents themselves who have acquired their insight into the nature of childhood not by the patient collecting and collation of masses of data, but by a sudden, blinding insight. This is not science, but mysticism.

I have nothing against mysticism, but it is as well to be aware that this is what we are dealing here. The way that a conventional view about the way that the world works, including how children's minds work and how they are best able to learn, is the result of thousands upon thousands of pieces of observation and research. These individual pieces of data find their way into peer reviewed journals and books and are examined there by others, who then offer their criticism. In this way, a broad consensus is gradually built up. This is not of course an infallible process! Scientists make mistakes as well and sometimes a false theory will flourish for decades before it is demolished. However, when somebody comes along and tells scientists that they are completely wrong about something or other, whether it is Plate Tectonics, the necessity of vitamins or the uselessness of directing a child's education externally; the onus is upon those claiming that science has got it wrong to provide their evidence and let others see what they have.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Possible changes in the way that local authorities behave towards home educators

The day after Graham Badman's report was published last year, a time when many home educating parents were very worked up and angry about the recommendations which it contained, somebody wrote the following opinion on the Badman report for Walsall local authority in the West Midlands;

'Having read the Home Education Review written by Graham Badman and published by the DCSF yesterday it appears that the proposed legislative changes adopted by the DCSF and now in consultation until late October will involve changes in primary legislation. There are two basic changes 1. Compulsory registration and 2. Compulsory home visits, including the right of the authority to speak to the child alone.

The first is expected and except for roughly doubling your workload, it will not change the way the system operates. I expect this change will take 12-24 months to enact'

Thank goodness that at least one person was able to keep her head about this while all those around her were losing theirs! Who was this calm and sensible person who looked forward to the implementation of compulsory registration so phlegmatically? Was it a civil servant? A member of the the legal department at Walsall Council? No, it was none of these people. It was in fact a home educator called Alison Sauer. As soon as the Badman report came out, she saw a business opportunity and began touting her services to local authorities with renewed vigour. Increased regulation meant increased training, which in turn meant more business for the company which she and her husband run.

We are currently all waiting to see the new guidelines for local authorities which Alison Sauer and her chums are producing. It is interesting to note that the White Paper due to published soon might well be encouraging local authorities to adopt a more gung-ho approach towards children outside mainstream education. I was not at all opposed to the provisions of Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill, as readers will no doubt recollect! This is however something else entirely. By giving vague encouragement to local authorities to be 'strong champions' and use their 'wider children's services' with regard to those children outside mainstream education, Michael Gove could actually effect a change in the way that local authorities operate without all the bother of changing primary legislation or allowing a select committee to scrutinise what is proposed. If this were to be combined with new guidelines for local authorities which were vaguer and less clear than the 2007 ones currently in use, there could be a great change in no time at all for home educating families who wish to have no contact with their local authority.

Supporting a public enquiry which was scrutinised by a select committee is one thing. I certainly was part of that process and when it was defeated, I was happy to accept that the democratic system had worked, even if I did not agree with the outcome. I am very dubious about what now seems to be happening, which could prove to be a change in the way things operate being made by the back door.

Knocking copy

One of the things which one cannot help but notice, both when talking to individual home educators and also while looking at Internet lists and forums, is that many home educating parents are more concerned with how awful schools are, rather than with how great home education is. Often, they will regale one with horror stories of their child's experience at school and also the terrible things that have happened at other schools and nurseries. It is quite possible to talk to a home educator about education for half an hour without the subject of home education per se being mentioned at all. It's all about school. This is what advertisers call 'knocking copy', when rather than extolling the virtues of your own product, you focus instead on the shortcoming of what your competitor has to offer.

There is no doubt that many home educators in this country have not chosen home education as a positive decision, but feel that they have been driven into it by circumstances at their kid's nursery or school. This is, I suppose, bound to give one a jaded view of mainstream education. I think that there is a little more to it though than this. The more one learns about the backgrounds of many home educating parents, the more one discovers that many of them had an unhappy time at school. Joy Baker, for example, one of the early pioneers of elective home education who struggled with Norfolk council during the 1950s, had a bad time at school herself and this was certainly a key factor in her decision not to send her children to school. The same is definitely true of quite a few of the more vociferous types whom one sees on the Internet. I am not going to name any names here, but this also applies to well known researchers in the field of home education, which is why I take their work with a pinch of salt. Many of those who set out apparently to investigate home education are doing so from the perspective of people who hate schools and are seeking to validate their own prejudices.

You can observe this underlying theme when some scandal erupts about schools or education. There is glee among home educating parents and they say, in effect, 'There you go, that's why I wouldn't send my own precious child to such places'. This happens with anything from poor academic results to the discovery of a paedophile gang connected with a nursery.

I did not have a brilliant time at school myself, but I have always thought that this was more to do with flaws in my own character, rather than anything wrong with the educational system as such! Readers may not be over-surprised to hear that I was just as much an irritating know-it-all as a child and adolescent as is the case today. This might have influenced my own decision not to send my child to school, but I have an idea that it was more the obvious educational advantages of unlimited one to one tuition in a relaxed domestic setting which recommended the scheme to me.

This idea, that many home educating parents are very anti-school and had a bad time were unhappy themselves at school, could shed light on home education in this country. It is particularly noticeable that often the reasons given by parents in Britain for home educating have more to do with things other than education; family life, relaxed and stress-free life for their children and so on.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Home education on the increase in Australia

Michael Gove writes to the local authorities

Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has written to all local authorities, tipping them the wink about the new White Paper on education. He expects local authorities to act as 'strong champions', looking in particular at the needs of 'vulnerable children' in their area. Gove says that they will have a strengthened role;

'Supporting vulnerable children – acting on behalf of groups of children who need extra support, including children with special educational needs, looked after children and those outside mainstream education. Local authorities will use wider children’s services responsibilities to ensure that children are able to get the most from their schooling.'

Using 'wider children's services' to support children 'outside mainstream education'. There may not be much appetite at the Department for Education for another crack at primary legislation after the fiasco of Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill, but encouraging local authorities to use 'wider children's services' in this way could very well have much the same effect. Without entering into a long debate about this, many local authorities already feel that they have a duty to ensure that home educated children have access to the five ECM outcomes. This could prove very interesting.

Researching into the acquisition of literacy

In my local newspaper this week is the story of a woman who has just celebrated her hundredth birthday. She is a lifelong smoker and attributes her longevity in part to this habit. This reminds me somewhat of those home educating parents who claim that their children did not start reading until they were fifteen and yet still went to university. The point being of course that the hundred year old woman did not live that long because of, but in spite of her smoking. There is no doubt that some home educated children do not learn to read until quite late by school standards, but whether this is a desirable state of affairs or helped contribute to their later success is debatable.

Part of the problem when discussing home educated children in this country and how and when they learned to read is that almost no research has been done on the subject. That which has been done is based upon grotesquely small, self-selected samples and the results of each such piece of research often contradict all that which has gone before. I mentioned yesterday Paula Rothermel's testing of five children using the NLS tests and this irritated somebody who commented here. Let us look at two pieces of work carried out in this country about the reading abilities of home educated children.

Writing in his book How Children learn at Home (Continuum, 2007), Alan Thomas had this to say;

'Some children did learn to read early by school standards, but many were spread out in the seven to twelve age range and a few were even older than this'

This is, I will not say the standard view in British home education, nothing is that, but it is certainly a commonly held view. The idea being that if children are not made to learn formally at the age of five or six, they might acquire literacy a little later, but are not at all disadvantaged by this. We see this opinion expressed pretty regularly. We turn now to another piece of work which indicated precisely the opposite of this. In February 1997 Paula Rothermel, a student at Durham University, sent out 2500 questionnaires to home educators belonging to Education Otherwise. The following year she sent out the same number again and a small number to Local Education Authorities and a few other places. She received over a thousand responses. This work was carried out as part of her studies and subsequently formed the subject of her PhD thesis. One claim which emerged from this work was that home educated children scored far higher on standard tests of literacy than children of similar age at school. 'Far higher' is understating the case. Using the assessments for literacy which Rothermel did, one would expect to find 16% of children in the top band. According to Rothermel, no fewer than 94% of home educated six year olds were in this band.

In other words, according to Thomas and many home educating parents, it is common for children educated at home to be a little later than school children in learning to read. Rothermel claimed however that over 90% of the children she tested were doing brilliantly at reading at a very early age. It has not been possible to replicate these results; a fatal flaw in any sort of research.

Interestingly, a lot of the research in this field is carried out by students. The Otago work from New Zealand was by a student, as was the work on the sixteen pupils at Sudbury Valley which I discussed yesterday. Paula Rothermel's work too was that of a student. It would be very good to see a properly designed survey carried out of a large group of home educated children in this country, looking at the methods used and the long term results; ie, after the age of sixteen. Until this is done, we must really keep an open mind on the matter; the evidence so far being scrappy and unreliable.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Learning to read independently

Every so often, home educating parents in this country come across a piece of research which seems to confirm that they are doing the right thing in not teaching their kids how to read and write. Many people regard this approach as a form of educational Russian Roulette but, as I say, once in a while something crops up which apparently suggest otherwise. The latest such is a blogpost by a semi-retired professor of psychology at Boston College in the USA. It may be found here;

It is certainly interesting, but repays a little closer attention. It puts me in mind rather of the research from Otago in New Zealand that was being touted on home education Internet lists some time ago as proof positive that the teaching of reading is unnecessary. Just as with that case, there is a little more to this than meets the eye.

To begin with, the conclusions which Peter Grey draws in this piece, radically different it must be said from almost every other educationalist in the western world, is that reading may simply be picked up in much the same way that oral language is acquired. So far, so good. It is not exactly an original thesis, but one followed as dogma by many home educators. He bases this belief upon work carried out by a couple of students at one school involving sixteen children. This is such an incredibly small sample, that already one cannot help but be a little dubious about being able to extrapolate from those sixteen children to a general principle in the teaching, or not, of reading. There is more though. These children were all pupils at Sudbury Valley School, a kind of American Summerhill. Grey forgets to mention in the article that he has been a trustee of this school since 1984; he sent his own son there. This at once tends to indicate a certain lack of objectivity about the methods being used at Sudbury Valley. It is a private, fee paying school, which at once means that only a certain type of family will be sending their child there. We know that a professor of psychology sent his son to the school; are there many other children of academics there? Are the children there from prosperous homes where there are many books? What is the ethnic background? Many questions of this sort occur to one immediately. How fair a sample is this? Sixteen children from one private school.

True, Grey then goes on to bolster his argument by citing another eighteen cases. Unfortunately, these are all anonymous people who commented on his blog! Come on guys, I am sure that we can all see the nature of the problem with that approach. Looking at this blog, we have some people commenting who are frankly barking mad. Would I be prepared to base a new theory of education upon the testimony of some of the types who come on here and comment? Probably not.

It would be interesting in the extreme to see a large-scale piece of research conducted into this business. Nobody doubts for a moment that some children acquire literacy informally; the question to ask is how frequent this is and what the common factors are in the lives of such children. Parents are notoriously unreliable witnesses when it comes to describing their children's attainments and most of us cannot remember clearly the process whereby we ourselves learned to read. There is, it seems to me, scope here for a properly conducted piece of work among home educating parents. We have of course see one or two attempts in this country at such a thing, most notably Paula Rothermel's twelve years ago. Unfortunately, she only carried out five tests of reading ability herself, an even smaller sample than that at Sudbury Valley. For the time being, we must enter a verdict of 'Not proven' on this question and hope for some work to be carried out in the future.

Vested interests

I get enormous pleasure from listening to the supposedly disinterested and objective criticism of home education by those who have a professional and financial interest in its abolition. In 2009, for example, the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers said:

'The NASUWT maintains the existence of a right to home educate is
anomalous with the clear emphasis in Government policy of ensuring
that all children and young people can benefit from educational
provision where teaching and learning is led by qualified teachers in well
resourced and fit for purpose modern educational settings.'

This is shamelessness on an heroic scale! If we accept that there are currently eighty thousand children in this country being educated by their parents out of school, then this means in effect the loss of a hundred schools, with all the associated teaching and other posts. By the way, those of us who have regular involvement with schools might laugh a little hollowly at their being casually described as, 'well resourced and fit for purpose modern educational settings'! The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has stated much the same thing as the NASUWT;

'The ATL believes schools are the best place for a rounded education - including social education'

Now this does not of course mean that the NASUWT and the ATL are wrong about this; merely that they have a stake in the matter which is not immediately apparent. Eighty thousand children is not really that many, but there are indications that the numbers are still rising steadily. In the USA, the number of children being educated at home, according to some reports, now exceeds two and a half million. See;

The American National Education Association, the union which represents teachers and professional educators and incidentally the largest and most powerful union in the country, has raised a number of objections to home education. Among them are some with which we are all familiar; concern about socialisation with those of other races or faiths, the potential for the development of religious extremism and the possibility of poor academic achievement. They are also concerned about 'reduced funding for public schools'. Home educators in America view this anxiety as meaning that teachers are worried about the loss of jobs.

None of this means that teachers and their unions are not genuinely concerned for the welfare and academic attainment of home educated children. I think that they are. But since those opposed to the practice of home education are so ready to seize upon any minor points that they feel are not being fully considered in the debate on home education, I think it only fair that we should look at their own motives in context and see if they have any reason for being generally against home education. When investigating a crime, the ancient Romans would first pose the question 'Cui bono?'; who benefits from this thing? In the case of home education, the beneficiaries from its curtailment would in the first instance be local authority staff, including teachers themselves. Brand new pupil Referral Units, more Educational Psychologists, thousands of teaching posts, there would need to be a huge cash boost to pay for all the new resources needed if eighty thousand children, many of them vulnerable and with special educational needs, were to be returned to the school system. As I say, I do not for a moment suppose that this is the only or even the main motive for opposition to home education by teachers, but it must surely have some bearing on the matter.