Monday, 28 February 2011

Disowning home educators

I have noticed many times over the last year or two how eager some home educating parents are to distance themselves from other home educators who say or do things which might give a bad impression of home education. This happened to me actually. Because my views were disagreeable to some home educators, it was claimed that I was not really a home educator at all, but a home schooler! More seriously, the claim is frequently made that Khyra Ishaq's mother, Angela Gordon, was not really a home educator. The grounds for making this assertion are that she failed to comply with Regulation 8(1)(d) of the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006. I doubt that many ordinary parents are aware of this regulation and it is widely ignored anyway. Technically, the only way to remove a child's name from a school's register is to deliver written notification to the proprietor. Families moving house seldom bother to do this; they just tell the school that their kids will not be attending there from next term. Because Angela Gordon was not familiar with Regulation 8(1)(d) of the Education (Pupil Registration((England) Regulations 2006, it meant that when she told her child's school verbally that she was removing her daughter, the child remained registered at the school. Theoretically, therefore, Khyra Ishaq continued to be a a pupil at the school and was still on the roll at the time of her death.

This is of course absurd. Angela Gordon was a most unpleasant and deluded woman, but there is no doubt that she did intend to teach her children at home. She bought workbooks and made at least some attempt to start teaching them. The job quickly proved beyond her, but she showed every sign of meaning what she said about educating them at home. It seems rather cruel of other home educators to reject her on the grounds of her unfamiliarity with a minor regulation. Somebody commenting here a couple of days ago also denied that Eunice Spry was a home educator. In this case, the woman was registered with the local authority and received visits twice a year. It seems to me that whenever something goes wrong with home education or when a home educator, as in my case, says things which parents don't like to here, the tendency is to deny that that person is a 'real' home educator at all. This is a dangerous notion! If we were all to adopt that attitude, then each of us would be able to select groups of other parents and deny that they were 'really' home educators; because they had different views to us or did things differently. There are bound to be a few rotten apples in any large group, whether it is home educators or accountants, teachers or travellers. These people do not discredit the group to which they belong, they are simply a universal human phenomenon. There are good people and bad in any class or group.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Waiting for children to learn to read

Whenever I write here about the idea that reading can be acquired with no teaching at all, just picked up as it were, I am sure to be denounced as perpetrating a wicked calumny upon autonomous home educators. This is strange, because most of my own personal experience of this theory has been not with home educators at all, but in schools. The notion that it was possible to 'catch' reading, like a cold, through being surrounded with the written word was for some years the mainstream orthodoxy in quite a few schools.

I will not weary readers with all the background to this business. It is enough to say that during the eighties and nineties, the idea became common among teachers that children could essentially learn to read for themselves just by being exposed to good books. It was thought wrong to correct a child's spelling and damaging to point out if she had read a word wrongly. The reasoning behind this was that reading is all about reconstructing meaning; not just speaking words out loud, which was called by some 'barking at print' and was thought to be a bad thing. Far better that the child gained the sense of a text by guesswork, even if he could not actually read the words. These children were thought of as 'apprentice' readers and the teacher was no longer a teacher but a mentor or facilitator. This might result in the sentence, 'The lion sprang at the antelope' being read out loud by the child, basing his guesses upon the accompanying picture, as, 'A lion jumped on a deer'. Many teachers would smile enthusiastically at this and accept that the child was accurately reconstructing the author's meaning. As readers might guess, this approach did not in general produce good readers.

Some home educators, who often seem to be about ten or fifteen years behind the educational times, still cling on to this style of learning for their children. They are supported by one or two academics who believe that it is indeed possible and desirable for children to learn to read without being taught. Paul Goodman, for example, says in Compulsory Miseducation;

' ...the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to
learn to read. Given the amount of exposure that any urban child gets,
any normal animal should spontaneously catch on to the code. What
prevents? It is almost demonstrable that, for many children, it is
precisely going to school that prevents - because of the school's alien
style, banning of spontaneous interest, extrinsic rewards and

This is music to some home educating parents' ears. Alan Thomas too talks of a similar process. Those following closely the debates on some home education internet lists will see no shortage of parents who feel that they must wait for their children to ask about literacy or express a wish to learn rather than the parents actively promoting the learning of reading and writing. The year before last, I had a couple of pieces on home education published in national newspapers. For the piece in the Independent, I looked at the Education Otherwise website on the section headed, 'How People Home Educate'. I found there a perfect little description of the cultivation of illiteracy by a mother whose seven and ten year-old children were 'night owls', had no bedtimes and got up 'later than I would like'. We are told that, 'Their days are often filled with television and lots of play' What an advertisement for home edcuation; a seven year-old 'night owl' whose days are filled with television and play! Little wonder that neither of these singularly unfortunate children can read, although their mother says that, 'They will read one day and will do so because they want to, not because somebody tells them to.' 'They will read one day'; one wonders upon what this optimism is founded.

Without entering into the question of whether this is a good technique to ensure literacy in children, it certainly demonstrates that the mother who simply waits for her children to decide if and when they will learn to read is not a figment of my imagination. She is alive and well and living in Home Education Land with a number of like-minded compatriots. Incidentally, I can no longer find this particular gem on the EO site. I think that they might have removed it after the bit in the Independent. Perhaps it gave the game away or provided ammunition for those opposed to this type of pedagogy. I noticed that the same thing happened when I analysed Paula Rothermel's PhD thesis which was once on her website. Three days after I mentioned it here, it was taken down from the site. One suspects that some home educators are not wholly in favour of the light of day shining too brightly upon certain of their more outlandish ideas.

More about the situation in America

Cases of death resulting from children being educated at home or not sent to school are, mercifully, very rare in this country. In the last eleven years there has been Victoria Climbie, Khyra Ishaq and the three children of one mother who died last year in Edinburgh. That is three serious cases in over a decade. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to take individual cases involving children and then use them as a platform to demonstrate that wide ranging changes in the law are necessary. So the death of Victoria Climbie precipitated the Every Child Matters programme, the 2004 Children Act and ContactPoint. Clearly, those in government have never heard the old legal saying that hard cases make bad law!

We seem to like personalising laws about children in this way and adopting some photogenic dead kid as the poster girls of any such initiative. How else to explain actually giving laws nicknames associated with dead children; Megan's Law and Sarah's Law for instance?

I have been musing on this recently while watching events unfold in the USA. There are currently moves afoot to introduce compulsory registration of home educated children in a number of states. The latest was Illinois, which has now been abandoned, at least for now. This desire to legislate is being driven in part by the number of cases of cruelty to, neglect and in some cases murder of children who are not attending school. Now there are far more home educated children in America than there are in this country and so one would expect more cases of this sort of thing statistically. Even so, they do seem to be coming thick and fast at the moment. Each one triggers new anxiety among those whose children do go to school. I drew attention to two cases this month in a post a few days ago. Here are three more;

The first of these involves home educated adopted children, which seems to be becoming a regular news item in American papers. The others are also pretty horrible. This makes five widely publicised cases of this sort of abuse this month alone. I dare say there have been others which I have missed. It is this which is making ordinary people in the USA a little uneasy about the practice of home education. Once again, just as in this country, the focus of concerns seems to be not education as such, but rather the dangers of children suffering cruelty and abuse if they do not attend school. It will be interesting to see how things develop across the Atlantic. I have an idea that before long, one particular case of this sort will acquire an identity of its own, the name of some dead little girl, and we will see the passing of something like Megan's Law, compelling home educating parents to register with the state.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Services for home educated children with particular needs

According to all the surveys which have been carried out in this country in recent years, home educated children seem far more likely to have problems of one sort and another than the school population as a whole. In 2003, Education Otherwise asked all its members about their reasons for home educating, in 2006 the National Foundation for Educational Research published Some Perspectives on Home educated Children, in 2007 York Consulting found the same thing and so did the Ofsted survey, whose results were published last year. It seems clear that among children who are educated at home by their parents, there are an awful lot with special educational needs or who are the victims of bullying. It is rare for a child to be withdrawn from school because the education is not up to scratch. The commonest reasons by far for taking children out of school is because the school is seen by the parents as being unable or unwilling to deal with the problems which the child is encountering.

At any rate, whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, the end result is a group of perhaps eighty thousand children with a far higher proportion of autistic spectrum disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Emotional and Behavioural Disorders and so on than an average group of school children. The parents would argue that this situation has arisen because of shortcomings on the part of the school. This may well be so. The fact still remains that we have tens of thousands of children who are often not receiving the help for their children's difficulties which they require and to which they are entitled. The provision of support services often ends when a child is deregistered from school. During the Ofsted survey of local authorities and home educators which was conducted in 2009, one mother said that when she mentioned that she was considering taking her children from school, a child with special educational needs, she was told that it was a case of 'school and services, or home education and no services'. This is not an isolated case.

The result of all this is that many of the children who have been deregistered from school in this way are not receiving the oversight of professionals. In many cases, the parents are angry and at loggerheads with what they see as the educational establishment and want no more to do with them anyway. In others, they are told bluntly that services will in any case end if they take their children from school. I am not commenting here at all about the rights and wrongs of the actions of either the parents or the schools. It is though a matter of concern that so many children who evidently need extra help in order to fulfil their potential are now effectively cut off from the services which they require. A number of people are uneasy about this, including many professionals, but I can't think that there is a simple solution. I am aware that a number of parents here took their children from school because they believed the school to be failing in their duties towards the children. I wonder if any of them have any ideas about the best way to deliver services to children once they are out of school?

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The rate of illiteracy in the UK

We saw yesterday one of the main ways in which those who do not believe that the teaching of reading to children is a necessary or wise undertaking, manage to justify their actions. Or, what is more to the point in this case, their inaction! The starting point is the claim that one in five children taught to read at school remain illiterate, whatever teaching method is used. This figure of 20% is then used to demonstrate that a certain proportion of children will have difficulties in acquiring literacy and it is therefore not surprising to find a good number of home educated children who also do not learn to read at the age of six or seven. In this approach, the inability to read is treated not as an educational failure but as either a neurological deficit or natural stage in development. This is the biological determinist view of reading!

Now the fact of the matter is that the literacy rate in the UK is not 80% but too all intents and purposes 100%, or at the very least 99.9%. It is incredibly rare to come across anybody who has been to school in this country who is unable to read a popular newspaper like the Daily Mirror or write a shopping list. Perhaps readers would like to ask themselves the last time they met anybody who could only sign his name with a thumbprint, or by making a cross? Teaching reading at school is generally effective and almost every child acquires some degree of proficiency in reading and writing by the age of eleven. Where then does the idea come from that one in five people in this country are functionally illiterate? The answer is that it all depends upon what you mean by illiterate. The old definition of literacy was the ability to read or write a simple note. This level of literacy would enable one to get by in day to day life. One could follow printed instructions, read a simple newspaper, write a shopping list and so on. The vocabulary and syntax of The Sun, for instance, is designed to be accessible to a nine year-old and thus cater for this level of literacy. There are very few people in Britain unable to function at this level. That developed countries like Britain have a near 100% literacy rate is because they have almost universal schooling. Less economically developed countries where schools are not available to much of the population have lower literacy rates. True illiteracy in this country, a complete inability to read or write, is not spread evenly throughout the population. It is very rare and tends to occur in specific communities such as Gypsies and Travellers. These are the same people who often manage to avoid schools.

Every so often though, some body such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will announce that the literacy rates in developed countries are actually very low. They do this by redefining literacy in terms of those who have a high level of so-called 'document literacy'. This means the ability to fathom out tables and charts, read timetables, understand technical documents and so on. This is the level of literacy which one would need to flourish in business. Most ordinary people manage quite well without high levels of 'document literacy'. This an entirely different thing from true illiteracy.

Even so, what about 'dyslexia'? Surely a certain proportion of children both at school and being educated at home are going to have trouble with learning to read? Well, not really. Ofsted's survey Reading by Six more or less disposed of that myth. It may be found below;

I know one of the schools mentioned in this report; Woodberry Down in Hackney. I work nearby and visit this school frequently. It has a huge number of children whose home language is not English, many children with special needs, including some on the autistic spectrum. There is no dyslexia at all in the school; all the children learn to read by six. This is due to good teaching. Nor is this school alone, as you will see from the report.

As a general rule, children who are taught to read properly, learn to read. Those who are not, often fail to do so. The key is in effective teaching. Among some home educators or in communities such as Gypsies or Travellers, or for those who attend lousy schools; there will be reading difficulties and 'dyslexia'. When proper teaching is given; this usually vanishes and is replaced by literacy. The 'treatment' for dyslexia is almost invariably that used for illiteracy; i.e. intensive and highly structured work in phonics. It is this simple equation, that good structured teaching yields good results in literacy, which apparently eludes many home educating parents.

On the acquisition of literacy after the age of eleven

An integral part of the mythos surrounding home education in this country that it does not really matter if a child learns to read far later than is usual at school. Mothers talk of their children not reading until eleven, twelve or even later and the claim is made that they quickly catch up with those children who learnt to read at six or seven. On the face of it, this seems implausible. It is generally the case that the earlier we acquire some skill, whether it is riding a bicycle, swimming or reading; the easier it is and the more proficient we are likely to be at it when we are teenagers. Still, let us look at the evidence objectively and see what it suggests.

We come now to a problem. There is no evidence at all for the assertion that learning to read at twelve has no ill effects upon a child's educational prospects. There is much evidence from schools that the opposite is true and that the educational prospects of a child who is illiterate when starting secondary school are very poor. Still, it might be argued, school and home education are two very different things. Just because an illiterate child in a secondary school is set for failure, that does not mean that the same is true of a child who is being educated at home. I would put the case differently and say that illiteracy will harm a child's education at the age of eleven, but for a child who is not being educated, it won't make any difference. This hypothesis seems to me to make at least as much sense as claiming that illiterate home educated eleven or twelve year-olds are not held back by their inability to read.

Now I can only find two pieces of research on this subject and those are the work of Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas. These are both small scale pieces of work and their conclusions are diametrically opposed to each other, which is not promising to begin with. Paula Rothemel said that the home educated six year-olds whom she looked at were very advanced in their reading ability, with 94% of them in the top band for reading. In the school population, one would expect only 16% to be this good at reading. Unfortunately, this was based on a tiny sample of seventeen children, only one of whom she tested herself. This is such a small sample that we can really not take it seriously. Alan Thomas noted that quite a few home educated children were late in reading, but that their parents said that this did not matter and that they soon caught up when they did start reading. These children were not tested and so it is impossible to know whether or not their reading ability really was on a par in their teenage years with those who learnt to read at six or seven.

This would be a very fruitful area for research, if home educating parents were at all keen on having their children's abilities tested; which many of them are not. The best that one can say is that the jury is still out on this question. Some parents claim that it has not harmed their children to be illiterate until their teenage years and this might conceivably be true. This does remind one though of those people who deny that smoking is harmful by citing some ninety year-old uncle who smoked eighty a day and died of some illness wholly unrelated to smoking! Such a claim, even if true, does not affect the fact that smoking is in general bad for people. This may very well be the case with learning to read and write later than is common in schools. It may from time to time happen that a child learns to read at the age of twelve and that this does not harm his educational prospects. It is hard to see though, how this can be an advantage. In other words, it might just be the case that it did not cause any particular harm, but it is not easy to see why it should have been a good thing for the acquisition of literacy to be delayed until this age. As I said earlier, the evidence from schools suggests strongly that the prognosis is poor for those starting secondary school unable to read and write. If the case is really different for home educated children, then a little evidence might not come amiss.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The one-trick ponies of home education

Regular readers will, I am sure, be familiar with Mr Peter Williams of Alton in Hampshire. He frequently comments here and is apparently obsessed by the fact that his son is not receiving a good education at home, but would be better off at an independent school like Eton. Mr Williams belongs to a small subset of home educators, who wish their children to develop one particular skill to the exclusion of all else; in his case, chess.

I say that this is a subset of home educators, but in fact it was once the only type of home educator of which anybody seemed to hear; people like Harry Lawrence and Laszlo Polgar, determined that their children will be the best in the world at something. Whether it is mathematics, chess, piano playing, singing or tennis; these children must be the best in the world. I have remarked several times before that it is always fathers who seem to be at the back of this type of home education, but today I want to focus upon whether this sort of thing is good for the children themselves.

The great problem with being brought up to be better than anybody else at something is that if you spend all the time with your family and don't attend school, then you may come to believe this to be true, even if it is really no more than an ambition or delusion of your father. The shock of discovering the truth, that there are many better musicians, mathematicians or chess players than you, can be profound. Once in awhile, this kind of enterprise pays off. We have seen it with the Williams sisters, who are the best at what their father taught them. We almost saw it with Judit Polgar, but not quite. In most other cases, it does not turn out that the child being raised like this is anything special. This is where the process can be traumatic. For years, a child has been told by her father that she is brilliant and special, that she will be world famous at whatever it is that the father has chosen for her. Every aspect of life is geared towards the realisation of the father's ambitions and the child herself becomes no more than an extension of the father's own thwarted hopes for his life. Sooner or later the realisation dawns for the child. First, she has sacrificed many of the ordinary pleasures of childhood for the sake of somebody else's goal and secondly, she it has all been in vain because she is not the world's best singer, mathematician or chess player at all. This often leads to an estrangement from the pushy father, coupled with a crisis of identity. If the child is not the world champion whom she believed herself to be; then who is she?

We do not hear of most cases of this sort. The ones of which we generally do hear are people like the Williams sisters, who are the best, or those like Ruth Lawrence, who showed great early promise and went to Oxford at a very early age. For every such case, there are many other children who are coached and pushed by their parents to the exclusion of all else in the search for perfection at the field chosen by their parents. There are psychological dangers in this type of home education, but there are ethical considerations too. Ruth Lawrence was not allowed to associate with children, because this would waste her time. All children who are being groomed for stardom in this way, inevitably miss out on many aspects of childhood. These are often things which however successful they might be in later life, are irreplaceable. The chance to become engrossed in other hobbies apart from the important passion of their fathers. Being able to spend a summer not practising tennis or chess, or even taking up something quite different and focusing their energies on that instead.

I have always been fascinated by this particular strand of home education and I have to say that although to most home educators this kind of thing is seen as very unusual; for the man in the street, it is what home education is all about. They have all heard of the Williams sisters or Ruth Lawrence and the popular perception of home education is largely defined by mad fathers pushing their kids on to become champions! Do any readers know of this sort of thing in real life, apart of course from Peter Williams? I would be curious to hear of modern examples of this practice and to know in what field the kids are being trained.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

American adoptions, home education and abuse

I mentioned a week or two ago that there seem to be a number of cases from the USA of people who adopt children, often foreign children, and then home educate and abuse them. Here are a couple of the latest;

Now I am not drawing any conclusions about this phenomenon, certainly not suggesting that home educators are more likely to abuse their children than anybody else. I am just intrigued by this business. It will be seen that in one of these cases, there are similarities to the Khyra Ishaq case in this country. I suspect that the main factor is not 'home education' but 'adopting foreign children'.

Another school for home educated children

The next generation of home educators

One of the parents commenting here is unusual in that she was herself home educated. I have been wondering lately what the feeling of home educated children is towards not being taught in school like everybody else. In particular, I was curious to know of any of the older home educated children or young people have expressed any interest or desire in educating their own children in this way.

The public pronouncements of some of the more well known home educated children are not encouraging. In recent times , We have heard people like Ruth Lawrence and Edith Stern say that they wish their own children to have 'normal' childhoods; which clearly suggests a degree of dissatisfaction with the way that they were raised. However, such people are probably not typical of home educated children. Like John Stuart Mill, they were taught intensively by their fathers and the education they received was probably not a common one in the British home education scene today. My own daughter does not really care for babies and children and has said that if she had one then she would want others to take care of it as much as possible!

If the experience of home education is a good one for children, then I should think that quite a few would be eager to repeat this sort of childrearing when they had kids of their own. I have heard of one or two cases in the USA and, as I say, one of the people on here belongs to this category, but that seems to be all. Have other people's children ever expressed any thoughts on this? There must be thousands of young people in their early twenties who were educated in this way and the numbers are swelling every year. Will we will be seeing the emergence of a family tradition of home educating? I am thinking that this would be a real endorsement of the practice; that those upon whom it was used, then chose to use it themselves upon their own children. Does anybody know of such cases? With an estimated eighty thousand or so home educated children, it must surely be happening from time to time.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Defining terms

One of the great difficulties one finds when debating with some home educating parents is in the definition of terms. In other words, being sure that you are both talking of the same thing and mean the same thing by the same words. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than with the use of the expression 'autonomous education'. I am regularly denounced for not understanding this concept and many proponents of the practice undertake to explain in simple language exactly what it is. Unfortunately, their definitions are not all identical.

I have been moved to reflect upon this recently by the suggestion made by a few people commenting here that I am myself an autonomous educator! This is an astounding proposition, but one which I am quite prepared to entertain. Let me first outline my educational philosophy. I believe that there exists a body of knowledge and canon of literature which it is my duty to impart to my child. I decided what was important and set out to get her to learn what I had chosen in the most effective ways that I could find. Sometimes this was by means of conversation and experiment; at other times by use of books and visits to lectures and museums. Although I was always happy to explore any by-ways of knowledge which took her fancy, I worked strictly to a curriculum of my own devising. That this system could possibly be described as 'autonomous education', I find astonishing! If it is, then I fear that the very expression is essentially meaningless, or rather can have so many meanings that it is pointless to use it.

For what it is worth, my own understanding of autonomous education is that the child herself is in control of her learning and decides for herself which direction the education should take. This is why so many autonomous educators were opposed to the idea contained in both the Badman report and the CSF BIll, that an annual plan of education should be provided by parents. Since the education was directed by the child, how could the parent predict what would be happening? I would be very interested to hear any other definitions of autonomous education which readers wish to provide. I cannot think it true that I really am, as some suggested a couple of days ago, an autonomous educator, but I am open minded about this.

Perhaps using conversation as the primary educational tool qualifies one to be described in this way, or being prepared to allow the child to investigate all sorts of other areas outside the planned curriculum. It would, after some of the harsh things which I have had to say about this pedagogical technique, be ironic in the extreme should I turn out to be such an educator myself!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The 'new guidelines'

I wonder if I am the only one to notice that the planned 'New Guidelines', intended to replace the 2007 guidelines for local authorities dealing with home education, seem to have vanished without a trace? Readers will recall that in December there was a lot of fuss because a group of people connected with Graham Stuart MP, Chair of the education select committee, were busy rewriting the 2007 guidelines. Some people were angry about this; Tanya Berlow, one of those involved, was banned from the Home Ed Forums as a result. Alison Sauer and Imran Shah were the driving force behind the scheme and according to Tanya Berlow, a first draft would be available after Christmas. Since then, a number of things have happened.

Alison Sauer disappeared from the home education lists and forums for a while and then reappeared without saying anything about the matter. Imran Shah similarly came back after an absence. Tanya Berlow, by contrast, vanished. At one time, her name was prominent on lists such as HE-UK and EO. She no longer posts at all, which is odd. I think that it is a fair guess that those who were mixed up in this scheme realised that it was a bad idea. For one thing, the 2007 guidelines could hardly be more favourable to home educators. For another, the Department for Education keeps muttering that they are looking into whether or not a change is needed in the regulations relating to home education. I would have thought that those who did not want any change in the status quo might have felt that now is a good time to keep quiet! I mentioned a while ago that Graham Stuart has got cold feet about this enterprise as well. Since he was the man with access to Nick Gibb the Schools Minister, nothing much can be done without his help and cooperation. Finally, I think that some of those mixed up in this enterprise were a little shocked to see how much opposition there seemed to be from other home educating parents. Rightly or wrongly, Alison Sauer was viewed as trying to run with the fox and also hunt with the hounds. She was embarrassed by this perception and decided to slip back into regular home educator mode and refuse even to discuss what she had been up to.

I think that it is safe to assume that the plan for the new guidelines has been quietly dropped, which might well be a good thing. The only remaining mystery now is what has become of Tanya Berlow. She has long been one of the most wordy, prolix and vociferous people on the lists and it is strange that she has stopped posting entirely. Perhaps the group drafting the guidelines realised that Tanya could never be silenced and she is now lying in a shallow grave on the Somerset Levels?

Registration of home educators in Illinois

Friday, 18 February 2011

Formal teaching and purposive conversation

I have been reading Roland Meighan lately, on the topic of 'purposive conversation'. Both he and Alan Thomas, as well as many home educating parents, seem to imagine that this is somehow different from 'teaching'. It is not. When Socrates instructed his pupils while strolling about in Athens, he may not have used books and whiteboards but he was still teaching them about ethics and philosophy. He did this through the conversational technique which became known as 'Socratic Dialogue'. This is an early example of purposive conversation. Using this method did not make Socrates any less of a great teacher.

Now 'purposive' suggests that those initiating the conversation have some sort of reason or purpose in mind. This purpose is often in the mind of an adult talking to a child; they want to tell her something. Let us suppose that I think that my eight year-old daughter ought to understand the principle pf photosynthesis. I could get a book out and make her read a passage on the subject, but that would be a very inefficient way of going about it. Far better to wait until we are building a den in the forest and then ask her why she thinks that leaves are green. This is not an example of an adult non-question; most of us genuinely don't know why leaves are green. We might have some vague idea about a substance called chlorophyll, but why is it green and not blue? Children love questions of this sort, because they can then imagine blue leaves and a green sky; it touches their fancy.

This can lead naturally to looking closely at leaves and in particular observing the little holes on the underside where carbon dioxide enters and oxygen leaves. Wow, the kid's only eight and already she is learning about gaseous exchange! Most children like learning strange new words and will be enchanted to say 'stomata', the technical name for these holes. This can lead to painting clear nail varnish on the underside of a leaf, thus making a cast which we can examine and making it possible more clearly to see the stomata. We can crush the leaves up in surgical spirit and it will turn green as the chlorophyll dissolves out. Again, I defy anybody to find a child who does not enjoy mucking about in the kitchen like this. Now we can bring in history. People used to dye their clothes in this way with plant juices. Why not try various leaves and then dye little pieces of an old handkerchief ? We see at once that the colours produced in this way are muddy and dull. Let's watch a Hollywood film and see how bright the colours are in Robin Hood. Something wrong there! Perhaps we can visit the Science Museum and see how the first artificial dyes were produced. We can also test the colourless residue of the leaves which have had their chlorophyll removed; test them for starch using iodine.

Two things strike one at once about all this. Firstly, no books or written work at all have been involved. Secondly, although we have only been using what is called purposive conversation, it is still teaching. We have been teaching the child. The idea that there is any difference at all between what some call 'formal teaching' and the methods involving 'purposive conversation' is a myth; it is all teaching.

The second thing to strike us is that this is all stuff that children love. Mucking about with dangerous substances like surgical spirit (one can demonstrate how inflammable it is, this is always fun!), making different colours. One can do this with rose petals too and make an indicator which will change colour in the presence of acids. This is also fun, testing household substances to see whether they are acidic or alkaline. Introducing the idea of proton donors can then happen quite naturally. Many parents will happily suggests to their children that they might want to do some painting this morning; few seem to think of extracting chlorophyll from plants and teaching about gaseous exchange. This is true of the parents of both schooled and home educated children and it is a bit odd.

Teaching chemistry, history, physics and biology in this way is fun. It is fun for the children and believe me, it is fun for adults too. I certainly learned a lot during my daughter's education. Much of the time, we were discovering things together. As I show above, one does not even need any books to do this; it is a natural extension of roaming around in the woods. Teaching by purposive conversation is enormously effective, far more so than dividing subjects up into neat and self-contained categories. It can also lead effortlessly to formal qualifications, although that is not really necessary unless you particularly want to do that. Whether you do or not, it is essential for children to know many things about the world around them. This vital information can be transmitted without the use of any books; simply by means of conversations, playing around in the kitchen and visiting museums, art galleries and other places.

Home educated children and the Open University

The question as to what people might be entitled to if they turn down public services and make their own arrangements with regard to education, is once again rearing its head. We are probably all familiar with the views of somebody who comments regularly here and believes that it is unjust that his son is not provided with money from the public purse to enable him to send his son to Eton. Most of those who come on this blog reject his point of view. A rather subtler, but essentially the same, argument is currently being advanced on some of the British home education support lists.

When we earn money, a certain proportion of it is taken from us in various taxes and used to provide services which are of public benefit. These include hospitals, police forces, fire brigades and of course schools. Nobody is obliged to make use of those services. If I wish to pay for private medical treatment, I am free to do so. If my house catches fire, I can put it out myself instead of ringing the fire brigade. If I don't like the local state school, I can send my child to an independent, fee-paying school or teach her myself. We are not entitled to a cash alternative if we do not use these services. I did not call the fire brigade last year, but I still have to pay a share of their costs in my Council Tax. The same goes for schools, the police and hospitals.

Some home educating parents have advanced the idea that because they don't use schools, they should be given a sum of money as an alternative. This would presumably mean that to be fair, childless people should also receive a similar rebate. It is an unworkable idea and those who advocate this are in the minority. A variation of this idea though is more popular. It is this; because home educators don't send their children to school, they should be allowed to have free education from other sources. The main sources to which they claim they should be entitled are Further Education Colleges and the Open University. There is really no such thing as free education of course and what these people are really asking is that other people pay for their choices. This is exactly the same argument as that used on here by the man who wants £30,000 of public money each year to send his son to Eton!

Free schools are provided for all children between the ages of five and sixteen. After that age, free colleges and sixth form centres are provided. Those who wish can send their children to these places. If local authorities and individual colleges wish, they can allow children under the age of sixteen to use the colleges. This is uncommon and not a right, but something which the college might allow in special circumstances. With the raising of tuition fees at universities, the Open University is now planning to charge more. Some home educating parents are protesting that this is unfair and that because they do not use the free schools, their children should instead be entitled to free university courses! This is a very strange proposition indeed. These courses are not free at all; the rest of us have to pay for them through our taxes. What these parents are really asking is that we subsidise their unconventional lifestyle via our taxes. They are in the position of those whom we mentioned above who have elected not to use the state health service. Having opted not to do so, imagine a family claiming that the state should provide them with some alternative form of health care for them so that they had a better service than those using the NHS, but also, at the same time, had it for nothing. Most of us would regard that as being a bit unfair on those who had stuck with the NHS.

The most grotesque piece of cant which I have seen in connection with this question was the assertion made by one woman that she feels that we are moving towards a position where all learning will be prescribed and that no other learning will be allowed except that sanctioned by the state! Any of us are free to learn anything we wish. We are also free to teach our children anything we wish. We can reject the free school being offered to us for our children, just as we can reject the health service and even the police. The local police are not very often in evidence in my street. If I wished, I could hire a private security guard to patrol my garden at night and deter burglars. I have a perfect right to do this. What I would not have a right to do, would be to expect others to pay for this private arrangement through their taxes. Regardless of how things may have worked in the past, expecting free university tuition for children whose parents have decided to reject the free education already on offer, is precisely the same as hoping that others will pay for private health care. It is not really on.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The value of experiences

Two people made comments yesterday which really tie in neatly together. One person had found, like me, that even with a structured and planned education, it could all be done in a few hours in the morning, leaving the rest of the day free for other things. Another person remarked that I had mentioned the teaching of facts and skills, but not mentioned the value of experiences in a child's education. The fault is definitely mine here, because I have not explored this idea before.

I must say at once that I was an extremely structured home educator, who worked to a dozen syllabuses at once. Nevertheless, I found as others had before me, that I could cover all this by working hard in the morning and then spending the afternoon doing whatever my daughter might want. In addition to that, there were many days when we did no academic work at all; just went out exploring. I regard those expeditions as having been just as valuable a part of my child's education as was studying physics and chemistry.

As a matter of fact, my daughter saw and did far more than any other child of her age. This is the great thing about home education; the freedom to go anywhere with one's child and expose her to things which she would not do if she were stuck in a classroom all day. What sort of things am I talking about here? I have very strong views on the way that gender roles are moulded by the environment and so I took particular care that she should be doing and seeing things which were not gender specific. Not for us the lace exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum! Shooting, for instance. By the age of seven she had fired shotguns, air rifles, crossbows and bows and arrows. At one time, she was considering joining a rifle club. She took up fencing and quickly gravitated towards sabres; which are traditionally only used by males. We visited the Imperial War Museum in London a good deal, as well as the National Army Museum and RAF Museum. HMS Belfast, the warship in the Thames was also favourite. When she took the IGCSE in history, she had to choose which topics she specialised in. She chose World War I and the Changing nature of Twentieth Century Warfare! She is the only young woman I have ever known who could discuss the Schlieffan Plan intelligently or explain how the Fokker Interrupter Gear works.

When she was under five and we lived in Tottenham in north London, I had a season ticket to London Zoo. We used to go there most weeks, as well as many other zoos and aquaria. By her fifth birthday, she had stroked, held, fed from her hand or touched an elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros, tiger, wolf, zebra, reindeer, camel, crocodile, tapir, owl, python, penguin, tarantula and dozens of other species. It used to be a point of honour to see which animals we could get near at zoos. Stroking the tiger and wolf entailed climbing over safety barriers and getting chucked out of one zoo, but boy it was worth it! This is experience.

And don't even get me started on mines and caves. A coal mine, iron mine, lead mine, cave systems, potholing; she absolutley adored going underground. All this was when she was five or six.

I have not gone into this aspect of her education in detail before, because I rather took it for granted that most home educated children were raised this way. I am aware that some do not get as much formal teaching as my own daughter got, but I assume that most spend a lot of time out of doors like this. I am not sure if all this would have been a sufficient education in itself, but it was certainly a valuable part of the education which my daughter received. When she was a baby, I used to joke to my wife that by the time our daughter reached puberty, I wanted her to be able to use a sword, handle a gun, ride and take communion regularly. I have to report that she did so. I saw these things as being just as important as knowing about ionic bonding in molecules or how photosynthesis works!

A 'good' education

Somebody commenting here yesterday asked me how I would describe a 'good' education. It is a fair question. I have offered much criticism of other people's idea; what do I myself regard as an acceptable type of education? Actually, the answer is fairly simple and straightforward. In any company other than that of some home educators and the trendier kind of teacher, my notions on the subject would probably pass without any remark at all.

There is a tendency among some parents and teachers to recoil in horror from the idea of shoving facts into young children. The poor little mites should be allowed to decide for themselves what they wish to learn and if we are to teach them anything, it should be skills rather than facts. In other words, we should equip them with the tools to discover any facts which they want for themselves. This approach has seeped into the mainstream world of education, becoming almost an orthodoxy among many teachers. The problem is, as parents will know, that children might not wish to learn any useful facts when once they have been furnished with the necessary skills. They may only wish to use these 'research skills' to establish what is on the television tonight or to post offensive messages on Facebook! Does this matter? I think that it does, because a person who is not possessed of rudimentary information on various topics is hardly fit to be a citizen at all. Worse, the lack of basic facts can result in a reading deficit in children, which makes it hard for the child to benefit from any education on offer.

What sort of facts am I talking about here? It is hard to escape discussion in modern Britain of climate change, formerly known as 'Global warming'. Anybody talking about anthropogenic climate change will be anxious to reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Unless one knows that the generation of electricity almost invariably entails a coil of wire spinning in a magnetic field, or vice versa, any discussion of the rival merits of wind farms and other so-called renewable sources of energy, will be impossible. Here is a simple fact which is included in any Physics syllabus. Without possession of this fact, one will not be able to talk or offer any opinion about climate change. Teenagers might stumble across this fact by accident, but they may not. It is such a useful piece of information and so important, that we should not rely upon chance; it is something which should be taught.

There are many facts like this which will enable any adult to make sense of the world around them and take an intelligent interest in what is happening. Unless one knows what a gene actually is, a section of DNA which codes for one protein, then one cannot have any opinion on the topic of genetically modified foods. This is another fact which any person in the modern, industrialised world needs to know. It is taught as part of the syllabus of biology.

Here then, is my own idea of a good education. It is one in which adults choose a number of facts and impart them to children. They choose these facts carefully, being aware that the fact that electricity ifsgenerated by spinning a coil of wire in a magnetic field is likely to be more important than the favourite ice cream flavour of some pop singer. Not all facts are equally important and children are not best placed to make this judgement. Unless they have a collection of such facts, they will be stunted and unable to take part in conversations or even vote intelligently.

The very ability to read is hampered by a lack of knowledge. Consider this sentence from my newspaper;

'Across Cairo, 30 years of autocracy are pouring out on streams of tears and screams of joy'.

A ten year old could probably read that sentence, in the sense that she could say the words. But to read it, to understand the meaning of the printed words requires a good deal more than that; it requires a stock of facts. What is an autocracy? Where is Cairo? Has the reader read enough in the past, to be familiar with metaphor? Reading needs many facts to make it possible to decode the meaning of any but the simplest text. Without those facts, a person might be able to pronounce the words out loud in a mechanical way, but he will not be reading.

My thesis is that both a curriculum and teaching are vital for the education of a child. This means that we select certain facts and information and teach it to the child. We do this because we are better able to judge than the child what is necessary and good for her to know. There can be endless debate about the precise nature of the curriculum, but about the need for one I entertain not the slightest doubt. This curriculum must then be taught to the child. This, in short, is what I mean by a 'good' education. I hasten to add that I do not regard this as being all that is necessary for a 'good' education, but it is certainly the foundation upon which all else rises.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Copyright and privacy on the internet

The suggestion has in the past been made that I have behaved illegally, or at the very least unethically, by quoting things which people have posted on home education lists. A few days ago, somebody here compared me to a mugger, while another commented that I was like somebody who intercepted a private letter and broadcast the contents. It might be as well to look at these ideas, because the thinking behind them is distorted and irrational.

The first thing to bear in mind is that precisely the same rules and laws apply to communications on the internet as apply elsewhere. These cover both letters and general publications. The writer of any letter, email, article or book has the copyright for that thing, whether on the internet or anywhere else. This does not mean that people cannot quote the writer, as long as the quotation is within the bounds of 'fair use'. We shall look at this idea in a minute. Before we do so, let us ask ourselves what category posts on a subscriber only list like HE-UK might come under. Are they letters? If so, are they ordinary letters or are they either commercial letters or private and confidential letters? They are very rarely commercial letters and can hardly be regarded as private and confidential. One does not send a private letter to thousands of strangers! They are not really letters at all. The only sensible way of viewing them is as articles in a newsletter which is being distributed to many subscribers.

In ordinary life, the best comparison for lists like this is perhaps a church newsletter or one for a group with a specialist interest. Such things are not really private, many other people read them apart from those to whom they are sent. The copyright position is clear. The writers of the contributions retain their ownership of the copyright and nobody can take their work and try and pass it off as their own. One can quote from it and summarise the contents for others. One should also attribute the thing to whoever wrote it. This sort of thing comes under fair use, which is designed to allow people to comment on articles, review books and so on. As long as an extract is short and one does not try pretend it is one's own work, this is quite legal. If somebody quoted from one of my articles or books, I would have no case against her for breach of copyright in general.

So much for the legal aspects of the thing. What about ethical considerations? Does quoting from such a piece in a newsletter really put one in the same class as a mugger? It is hard to see how. Just as the law on copyright is the same on the internet, so too are the rules of common sense. How much information would one include in an article to the church newsletter? Would one be shocked or surprised if an anonymous piece on one's parenting problems in the church newsletter was mentioned elsewhere; say in the local newspaper? If you wrote for the newsletter under a pseudonym, would it be unethical for others to say, 'Oh, I bet that's Mary Smith'? How angry would one be if one gave details of some personal problem anonymously in the church newsletter and later saw that a newspaper had mentioned that a member of some church had such and such problem?

In short, the legal position for anybody posting on an internet list is clear. They retain the copyright for what they are writing. This also applies for emails in general, although there are special cases. If somebody quotes a piece that you have published on the internet, this is quite acceptable, although they should usually attribute it to you. If you are posting anonymously, there is nothing to stop anybody trying to guess your true identity. There are exceptions to this. In the case of wide publication on an internet list; you must take your chances. If I were to post anonymously and then be unmasked, I would hardly be in a position to complain; I would have done better to be honest and open in the first place.

I hope that this has made things a little clearer for readers. Legally and ethically, the same rules apply on the internet as apply in everyday life. If one considers it unethical to pass on an anecdote from a local church newsletter, then of course one will view a similar action on the internet in the same light. Few of us have such a scrupulous moral code as this! There is always a hazard in publishing an article anywhere, whether on the internet or in a magazine. One of the hazards of publishing an anonymous piece is that people will figure out who you are. This can be awkward for one, but is hardly criminal or even unethical behaviour on the part of the person doing the guessing! Simply use the same rules of common sense on the internet as you would in ordinary life and you will not go far wrong. There are no special rules for home educators in this respect; they have to go by the same code and take the same chances as everyone else.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

From the USA

Positive bit about home education from across the Atlantic:

Pro-home education or anti-school?

I have lately been reading an interesting book which denounces school. It is called School is Dead and was written by an associate of Ivan Illich's called Everett Reimer. It is not a new book; it was published in 1971. The thesis is that schools are little more than tools of capitalist society and that they are useless for education.

Most of the ideologues of home education, those who provide the theoretical underpinning for the practice, are American. I am thinking of Gatto and Holt, the Moores and so on. Their influence though has heavily permeated the British home educating scene and this is a shame. I say this because the core idea expounded by these people is essentially that schools are bad. This negative idea, that 'Schools are bad' seems to have a lot more strength for many home educating parents in this country than does the positive one of 'Home education is good'. In other words, one often gets more of a sense of home educators in this country being anti-school than one does of their being pro-home education.

Now I dare say that a lot of this is caused by the fact that many home educating parents have taken their children out of school following a series of bad experiences; bullying, failure to meet some special educational need and so on. This sort of thing is bound to give one a jaded view of schools. I don't think though that this can be the whole explanation to the trend which one sees of a lot of parents who are not just anti-school, but anti-traditional education in general. Not only do they reject school, they also reject formal qualifications and anything which smacks at all of teaching. This attitude manifests itself in the delight which some home educating parents openly express when a paedophile ring is unmasked at a nursery, or a child dies of an asthma attack because the teacher didn't give him his inhaler at once. In other words, they are pleased about these events because it all goes to show what dreadful places schools are and how wise they have been to take their children from them.

Now I may be wrong, and I am happy to be corrected here, but I fancy that those who do not send their children to school in the first place for ideological reasons are less apt to this wholesale condemnation of school. This would be logical really. if your child has never come home in tears after being bullied by another child or humiliated by a teacher, I suppose you might be able to view school through rose tinted lenses and kid yourself that it's not that bad really. I am certainly not in the least opposed to the institution of school as such. I am aware that it does not suit everybody, which is why I am glad that parents have the option in this country to educate their own children if they wish to do so. I take it as given that children in general need to be educated in reading and writing and taught various things. Schools are a convenient and cost effective way of achieving that end. And it has to be said, most children seem to like school well enough. It does not seem to do them any harm and in most cases actually teaches them a good deal.

I think it a pity that we are compelled to rely upon Americans for our theories of home education. I have of course read the books of people like Jan Fortune-Wood, but they lack the clarity and intellectual strength of John Holt or Raymond and Dorothy Moore's writing. Alan Thomas is better, but still does not quite hit the spot. It would be good to see a British John Holt emerge. I have an idea that the anti-school, anti-examination, anti-teaching and anti-many other aspects of formal education view which is so common among home educators in this country is not doing anybody any favours with the establishment. Most civil servants and MPs, as well as local authority officers, learn about the rationale behind British home education from the internet. If they constantly see things which suggest that parents are motivated by dislike of schools and determination not to teach or enter children for GCSEs, it is liable to alarm them. Actually, it alarms me and you could hardly hope to find a more dedicated home educator than me! When MPs and civil servants become alarmed, their instinctive reaction is to restrict or end some activity, so this could have practical consequences.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Graham Stuart and home education

I received an email a few days ago from somebody claiming to be on the fringe of the group who were drawing up the new guidelines on how local authorities should deal with home education. These, it will be remembered, were going to replace the 2007 guidelines. According to this person, the process has stalled because Graham Stuart has become increasingly disenchanted with the world of home education and is no longer as keen on acting as a conduit to Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister.

I remember clearly the occasion when Graham Stuart became embroiled with home education. He was a member of the Children, Schools and Families select committee and when I gave evidence in October 2009, it was clear that Ann Newstead and Fiona Nicholson had brought along a party of very fresh-faced and engaging young teenagers who had been home educated. I wondered at the time what the purpose of this was. After the session had finished, these amiable young folk all converged on Graham Stuart and love-bombed him with smiles and appeals for support. He is a vain man and was flattered by this attention. It was a shrewd move; I doubt if he would have responded as positively to a crowd of some of the angry parents one encounters on lists like HE-UK!

From then on, Graham Stuart seemed to cast himself in the role of the friend of home education. The fool! He did not seem to realise that the people with whom he was treating were a tiny sub-section of home educators. This often happens when a politician deludes himself that he is on good terms with some 'community' or other, whether it is Muslims, Caribbeans, home educators or any other minority. He clearly did not realise that in the world of British home education, as soon as you make friends with one faction, you automatically alienate ten others! He was apparently quite shocked to realise that a large number of home educators did not buy his act and that the people whom he supposed to be representing home educators were really only representing their own interests.

An even more serious difficulty for Graham Stuart is emerging, one which has caused him to withdraw a bit from the whole home education business. It is all very well being the friend of some persecuted minority. This plays well both in the press and also in Parliament. You become the man whom others seek out when they wish to find out about this subject. It boosts your standing to be an expert on something like this, especially when it is in the news a lot. Newspapers listen to what you have to say and it raises your profile. However, the signs are that what people are more concerned with lately is children missing from education. I am told that this has put the wind up Graham Stuart and made him wish to distance himself a little from home education. I drew attention recently to the stream of questions from MPs on both sides of the house about the numbers of children being home educated. The intention of these questions was to get Michael Gove to admit that nobody had any idea of the number of children not at school. Now we find the Times Educational Supplement making a Freedom of Information request about children missing from education. They have been joined in this enterprise by people like Barnado's and the Children's Society. The danger for Graham Stuart now is that if he is not careful, he will find himself cast not as 'The Friend of Home educators', but rather as 'The Friend of Abusers and Cruel People who are denying their Children an Education'. He is understandably anxious to avoid this.

I have an idea that just as home education was being portrayed a couple of years ago as a cover for forced marriage and so on, it is now about to be depicted as a place where ' the most marginalised children having the most complex needs', to quote the Policy Direct of the Children's Society, are being denied an education. If I were graham Stuart, I too would run a mile from being seen anywhere near this scenario!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Twelve thousand children supposedly missing from education

This is quite interesting. Of course not all those twelve thousand are missing from education, just from school. I wonder once again if there is some sort of campaign to persuade people that thousands of children are going missing and that something must be done. If so, it is a matter of time before people start to muddle up 'missing from school' with 'missing from education'. This will lead inexorably in the direction of home education.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

On the legality of routine monitoring

I think it fair to say that there is considerable opposition among some home educators to the idea of regular or routine monitoring by local authorities of the education which they may be providing for their children. Some parents, and we saw one commenting here yesterday, take the view that having told the local authority that they are home educating should be the end of the matter. Yesterday, somebody said here;

'If the LA knows nothing about a child, and have concerns about the child receiving a suitable education, they are entitled to ask. In most cases, the parent saying that the child is home educated should be sufficient for the LA'

This gambit was tried as long ago as 1977. It was not a success. In the summer of that year, Leeds Local Education Authority became aware that a child called Oak Reah was not attending school. They contacted his parents and asked why. The parents told them that they were teaching him themselves and that his education was nobody's business but theirs. Pretty much the line that some parents still advocate, in fact. Leeds did not go away and mind their business. They served a School Attendance Order and prosecuted the parents. Eventually, in 1980, the parents managed to get a Judicial Review. Lord Donaldson ruled that the LEA was quite justified in making enquiries of the parents about their child's education and that while they were entitled to refuse to provide any information, this might result in the LEA issuing an SAO.

Since Phillips V Brown, most parents have cooperated to some extent with their local authority; if only by providing a so-called 'educational philosophy'. Recently, we have seen a number of parents getting annoyed because their local authority has been coming back after a year or two and asking for an update. These parents are adopting the line that this sort of thing amounts to regular monitoring and that local authorities have been specifically told that they have no duty to this, at least according to the 2007 guidelines for local authorities on elective home education. These were issued by the then DCSF and so should be authoritative as far as the law is concerned. . There are two points to bear in mind about this. Section 2.7 of the guidelines says;

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

This seems clear enough! They have no duties in relation to routine monitoring. Unfortunately, this is completely vague and quite ambiguous. They may have no duties, in the sense that they don't have to do this, but this does not mean to say that they can't do it. All that this means is that they don't have to. In other words, there is nothing in this to suggest that it would actually run counter to the law if they did choose to monitor the quality of home education on a routine basis. This is the first fly in that particular ointment. Local authorities do lots of things that they don't have a statutory duty to do; their statutory duties are a bare minimum that they must do. Many local authorities do more than this legal minimum and most people are very pleased about it. Few people are pleased to ring up their council with some problem, only to be told, in effect, 'We don't have to do that; it's not part of our statutory duties and so we refuse to help you.' In other words most councils go beyond that bare and irreducible minimum.

The second point to consider is this. The 2007 guidelines do not define what is meant by 'routine monitoring'. Many local authorities have sought their own legal advice on this and the generally accepted view is that the passage of time alone constitutes a change in the suitability of the educational provision being made for a child. Let us take an extreme case and see what this means.

Let us suppose that the local authority become aware of a five year-old child who is being educated at home by his parents. They contact the parents who provide them with chapter and verse of a marvellous, structured and appropriate education. they tell them the name of the reading scheme being used, cuisenaire rods, the whole works. That's great; the local authority are quite satisfied that this child is receiving a suitable education. They do nothing for ten years, perhaps they forget about the child. Now he is fifteen. they knew that his parents were teaching him to read and perform basic arithmetical functions at the age of five, but would that still constitute a suitable education at the age of fifteen? Perhaps not and so they contact the family asking for an update. Nobody could say that this was regular monitoring. Now let us suppose that rather than a ten year gap, the gap is five years. Or three years. Or even one or two years. Does this count as routine monitoring? Without a definition of the term 'routine monitoring', it is impossible to say.

There are signs that a number of local authorities are moving in this direction, that is to say coming back to people who have given them educational philosophies and asking for further information after a year or two. This is because of the points which I have outlined above. I make no comment at all on whether they are right to do so, but it is worth bearing in mind that they have taken legal advice before doing so. Those parents who adopt an intransigent attitude towards such requests based upon what they have read on internet support groups may not be acting their own best interests.

Mike Fortune-Wood explains about 'honour and personal integrity'

Now I think that some of the old hands on the HE-UK list, should not be saying too much about people who take posts from that list and disseminate them to third parties. We saw Wendy Crickard make a fool of herself doing this a few days ago and now it is the turn of the list owner, Mike Fortune-Wood. He says, referring to me;

'I rely largely upon the sense of honour and personal integrity
of those who apply for membership. Unfortunately these values are not
universally held notions'

This is shamelessness upon an heroic scale! Just to remind readers, I belonged to this list for a couple of years before being chucked off at the end of July 2009 because I had written newspaper articles supporting the recommendations of the Badman review. Immediately, the HE-UK list became a clearing house for all sorts of rumours and downright lies about me. Cheerleader for this campaign was Mike Fortune-Wood who, posting as Maesk123 on the website of a national newspaper, published the details of a post which I had made to his list, a post which I had assumed was being made to a private list. He also used the same place to try and spread the story that I was a colleague of Graham Badman's. So let's get this straight, it is compatible with 'honour and personal integrity' to use a false identity to spread untruthful rumours about people in the press and publish private posts from this list to a newspaper? As my daughter would say, please!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

A breathtaking piece of effrontery

A couple of days ago I mentioned here that a mother was reluctant to send back to her local authority a questionnaire which they had asked her to complete. I gave no details of the list which this was on, let alone the woman's name. However, it appears that she feels upset by my use of her case here. Other members of the list are now expressing annoyance that I have taken a private message and spread the contents around. Wendy Crickard, a former teacher, had this to say;

' What a pathetic creep it is - perhaps 'Get a life' is the appropriate advice
to him or is it that he can't get a friend anywhere? WendyC'

Strong words indeed! But wait a minute. Wendy Crickard, where have we heard this name before? Oh yes, that's right. Back in October 2009, after I have been chucked off the HE-UK list and almost forgotten about it, she posted there explaining that she was meeting an MP and wished to show her details of a private message which I had sent to the list. Up until this point, I rather assumed that messages which people posted on HE-UK were private and should not be quoted or shown to others. I had certainly not done so myself. Here is what Wendy Crickard said on October 7th 2009;

'Does anyone have copy of the email to this site in which S.W. boasted of
misrepresenting himself in order to further his journalistic career? I’ll
happily wave it at Linda Waltho on Friday. WendyC'

A number of those on the list helped by producing other messages of mine for her to take to Linda Waltho MP and show her. Not one person said anything at all about these messages being private. The impression one gained was that this behaviour by Wendy Crickard was absolutely fine and acceptable. From that time, I have not been at all fussed about the privacy of messages on that particular list. It was Wendy Crickard's actions and the enthusiastic response of others on the list which rid me of any inhibitions which I might otherwise have felt about this. For her now to start complaining about anybody passing on details of a post from the HE-UK list is really a bit rich!

It is odd, incidentally, that converts to a cause are always more extreme in their support than those who have been supporters of that cause all their lives. One notices this with Catholic converts and others who join religions or political parties in later life. I suppose that Wendy, having spent all those years as a teacher, now feels that she must be more gung ho than other home educators in order to demonstrate her changed allegiance. It is an interesting psychological point.

Heading for a confrontation

The more militant home educating parents in this country have constructed for themselves a mythos regarding the legal situation which surrounds home education. They have been supported in this by one lawyer, whose own child was educated at home. The problem is that it is becoming increasingly apparent that other lawyers do not agree with the interpretation which has become accepted by home educators. Let us take the case of monitoring home education.

The standard view among members of some home education groups is that the local authority should not trouble home educating families of whom they become aware, unless they have evidence that a suitable education is not being provided. They further believe that the local authority has no justification for returning every year or two for updates on the educational provision. This view is based partly upon the advice to local authorities contained in the 2007 guidelines. This particular point of view has become ossified and is now taken as fact by many less informed parents. They are founding their belief in general, not upon examining the law for themselves but by reading what people post on internet lists and forums. This is a mistake. If I wished to know where I stand with any legal problem, I would not rely upon what people were saying on the internet; I would consult a solicitor.

The consequences of this part of home educating mythology may be seen regularly on the lists and forums. I gave an example a couple of days ago of a woman who is indignant that her local authority has asked her to fill in a form. The impression that many of these parents now have is that they can adopt an intransigent attitude to their local authorities about requests for information and that the law supports them in this. Unfortunately, or fortunately for those of us who have the welfare of children at heart, both the majority of local authorities and also the Department for Education have quite a different opinion on the legal situation. Since they all have lawyers at their disposal, especially the Department for Education, it is starting to look as though Ian Dowty's interpretation of the law might be a minority view. What is the current position of the Department for Education about local authorities asking folk to fill out forms and answer questions? It is this:

' The current position is that local authorities have no statutory powers to monitor home education on a routine basis. However, they are required to make arrangements to establish (so far as it is possible to do so) the identities of children who are not pupils at school and who are not otherwise receiving suitable education. In order to
comply with this duty, local authorities need to make arrangements which will,
as far as possible, enable them to determine whether any children who are not
pupils at schools, such as those being educated at home, are receiving a
suitable education. In order to do this, local authorities should make
inquiries with parents educating children at home about the educational
provision being made for them.'

Note well, local authorities 'should make enquiries with parents educating their children at home about the educational provision made for them'. The use of the word 'should' suggests that local authorities are thought to have a duty to make such enquiries.

After all the fuss since Badman about home education, the Department for Education are very unlikely to be saying things like this without having taken extensive legal advice. This presents home educating parents with a bit of a problem. I have noticed in recent months a hardening of the position of some parents. They have been encouraged by Ian Dowty' interpretation of the law, as well as the views of the various barrack-room lawyers and malcontents who hang out on some forums. This is leading some parents to believe that they can ignore their local authority and take the position that unless the authority has good reason to believe that a suitable education is not being provided, then they should not concern themselves with home educated children. This is causing parents to receive advice such as that a questionnaire sent by the local authority should not be filled in.

All this is leading inexorably to a confrontation between some home educating parents and their local authorities. The authorities feel that the law is on their side. Their opinion is based upon advice which they have received from their own legal advisors and also from the Department for Education. Some parents are determined to be uncooperative. Their view of the legal situation is based upon stuff they have read on the internet, mainly by people who are not lawyers. It is fairly clear to me that if I got into a fight with my local authority about anything at all and I was basing by position solely upon things that I had read in internet chat-rooms, then I would probably be heading for a fall. If I were going to go head to head with my local authority, the very least I should do is see a solicitor to see if my interpretation of the law is the correct one or whether the local authority have a stronger case. I rather think that we are going to see a few court cases in the near future about this. There is currently one pending in Birmingham and there are others in the pipeline. This should prove interesting.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Possible action ahead on the home education legislation front

I am not, as regular readers will know, in general a great fan of home education conspiracy theories. However, I am beginning to wonder whether something is afoot in parliament. Consider this question, asked on January 19th of Michael Gove by Laurence Robertson, Conservative MP for Tewksbury ;

'To ask the Secretary of State for Education what estimate he has made of the number of children who were home-schooled in each constituency in the latest year for which figures are available'

A few days later, on January 24th, Pat Glass, Labour North east Durham, asked Michael Gove;

'What recent estimate he had made of the number of children in the North east Durham constituency who are home schooled'

On February 3rd, another Conservative MP, Gareth Johnson of Dartford, asked Gove;

'What estimate he has made of the number of children who are home schooled in the Dartford constituency'

In each case, Gove simply told the MPs that the Department for Education does not collect information about the number of home-schooled children and has not made a recent estimate of the number of home-schooled children in Dartford, North east Durham or Tewksbury. This is all a bit odd, especially since there was a similar string of questions last year. Sometimes, governments will get backbenchers to submit questions in this way in order to pretend that there is widespread public anxiety to which the government intends to respond with a new law. What is curious here is that these are a mixed bag of Labour and Tory, all asking precisely the same questions, to which they almost certainly already know the answer.

We know that Gove is supposedly considering what changes, if any, need to be made to current arrangements for the regulation of home education. It is odd that he should be receiving all these questions about the subject, questions which are designed to show that the government has no idea how many home educated children there are. This is something which many people, both MPs and others, find alarming. Unless we assume that this is all sheer coincidence and that all these MPs have spontaneously come up with identically worded questions for the Secretary of State for Education, then I think it a fair guess that something is about to happen.

Meanwhile, with the Welsh referendum on the March 3rd, which could grant new power to the Welsh Assembly to direct education, there is another attempt to 'do' something about home education. If the referendum goes in favour of increased powers for the Welsh Assembly, I can see something happening pretty swiftly there. This might in effect mean trialling a new system of regulation which could then be adopted in England as well. Interesting times.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The strange lifestyle of school

I have probably remarked before on how bizarre I find it when people claim that school is a good preparation for life and that children who don't attend are likely to become asocial misfits. I sometimes wonder if those expressing such views have ever really stopped to think about what school is like.

When my daughter began studying A levels at an FE college, she had never spent a day in school. She was thus able to approach formal education from a fresh and unbiased perspective. I asked her casually, a few days after she had started at college, what she made of it all. She told me that it was the strangest atmosphere that she had ever encountered in her life. For one thing, many of the children, all of whom had been at school from the age of four or five, kept calling the lecturers 'Sir' or 'Miss'. They simply could not grasp the idea that they were now to address these individuals by their Christian names. Some of them told my daughter that it just felt wrong to call somebody in the position of a teacher by their given name. This alone should alert us to the archaic nature of education in this country. At one time, it was common for people to be addressed as Sir or Miss. This was routine in the workplace, to call one's superior 'Sir'. Shop assistants or bank clerks would call women 'Miss' as a mark of formal respect. I cannot remember when last I heard anybody called 'Miss', except of course on Upstairs, Downstairs.

I asked my daughter if the other students were enjoying being at college and she told me with disbelief that the single most exciting aspect of tertiary education for the girls in her group was the ability to visit the lavatory when they wished, without first seeking permission. She found this such a peculiar notion, the idea of not being able to void one's bladder when one wished, that she simply could not grasp what sort of lifestyle these young people had been experiencing, day in, day out, for the last eleven or twelve years.

Another feature of the students that she noticed is that they did not seem to have individual opinions. Their tastes in music, clothes and television programmes seemed to be a reflection of what others liked. All the girls dressed in the same style, all had the same type of makeup, their hair was done in the same way; it reminded us both of the Stepford Wives.

I am not attempting to draw any particular conclusion from all this and it is possible that the college which she attends if not at all typical, but I have observed a number of these features now when I look around. For example, my daughter wanted her hair to be cut short when she was eleven. It's no affair of mine and so I was happy for her to do this. Looking around though, I could not help but notice that short hair is an absolute taboo before the age of eighteen or nineteen. All the teenage girls one sees conform to certain standards. Those who don't stick to the regular standard, Goths or Emos for instance, conform to other standards, those of their own small group. There seems to be no individuality at all. I am not suggesting that this is actually caused by school, but it is interesting to see that home educated children often do look, dress and behave differently from those at school. I have remarked before on the tendency for home educated teenage boys to have very long hair.

Personally, I regard the urge to conform as a dangerous scourge which at worst leads to things like the Nuremburg rallies. Even in its mildest forms it crushes individual taste and character. I don't think schools create this desire to be the same as everybody else, but they certainly exacerbate it. Quite apart from any educational benefit, I am glad that my daughter was freed from this need to look and act like everybody around her.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Why won't the local authority take my word for the education which I am providing?

A regular complaint from some home educating parents is that their local authority wishes to visit them and discuss the education which they are providing for their child. Failing that, an increasing number are now asking to see samples of the child's work. Why won't they just accept the word of the parents for what is going on? Why do they wish to check for themselves?

The answers to these questions are pretty obvious to everybody except home educators. First, parents seldom tell, or even know, the unvarnished truth about their own kids. One rarely meets a parent who says that her child is spiteful and sly or admits that her son is a bully. Similarly, most parents try to put a gloss on their child's academic achievements. They usually want to pretend that their children are doing better than is actually the case. This is not limited of course to home educating parents; it is a pretty general thing. Parents are really very unreliable witnesses when it comes to telling other people what their children are like. How could it be otherwise? We are not, nor should we be, objective about our own children. For this reason, local authority officers tend to take the educational philosophies, diaries and photographs which home educating parents send them with a large pinch of salt. They would rather see work which the child himself has done or ideally speak to him in person.

They are right to be cautious about accepting at face value what they are told by parents. Some of the most vociferous advocates of informal education, parents who resolutely refuse to do anything at all in the way of formal, school-type work, often make the most ludicrous claims to their local authority about what they are doing. This is done to keep the local authority from asking too many questions. This is especially common when the child has a special need and the parents are anxious to avoid the involvement of other agencies. Local authorities sometimes get uneasy that SEN children's needs are not being met by education at home. They are perfectly aware that many parents spin them tall stories about the sort of education which their child is receiving and the wonderful achievements of the kid now he is out of school. In short, some home educators lie their heards off about what their children are achieving.

On several of the home education lists is an aggressive woman from the village of Eardisley in Herefordshire who is a very strong advocate of not allowing the local authority to visit. She regularly advises other parents to be firm in refusing visits and tells them that they do not need to show anybody the child's work or provide anything but the minimum of information about the education being provided. Her own son's education consists, by his mother's own account, largely of watching television, spending time on the internet and talking to his mother. So far, so good; a fairly typical case. However, what she tells the local authority is so completely at odds with this that one cannot help but wonder if it is the same person! Last year when her son was twelve, she claimed that he would be taking eight GCSEs within a year; even repeating this ridiculous story to the local paper. Eight GCSEs at the age of twelve! Even a mad, fanatically structured home educator like me would think twice about this!

This is admittedly an extreme case, but none the less not uncommon in that a mother who provides only the sketchiest education is claiming to be teaching her child with a view to taking formal examinations. Local authorities come across this a lot and one way that they can find out is really happening is to chat to the child and see what he says he is studying. It is this desire to know what is happening on the educational front which lies at the heart of many requests for visits. Speaking for myself, I seldom take anything a parent tells me about her kid at face value . A lot of mothers think that their children are unrecognised geniuses and few parents spot character traits like cruelty or dishonesty in their own kids. Strangers can often form a better and more accurate opinion about a child's capabilities and potential than can the child's parents.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Not home educated!

I found this quite amusing, in view of the way that home educators try to rope in as many famous people as possible whom they claim to have been educated at home.

Another interesting American case

Here is another case about Christian home education in the USA. Just so that British readers can understand waht is going on here, there have been a number of cases where seemingly devout Christians have adopted or fostered children, home educated them and then subsequently the children have died or there have been allegations of abuse. Often this abuse centres around the practice of spanking; for which some Christians apparently find Biblical justification. This case seems to fit the pattern here, featuring as it does the death of a foster child and mention of spanking.

A Matter of Conscience

I have finally managed to finish Kelly Green's book A Matter of Conscience. I feel a sense of overwhelming achievement, the way one does upon having completed some worthy but exceptionally dull piece of good literature. A bit like finishing Finnegan's Wake, but with fewer laughs. Also, James Joyce is considerably more accessible than Kelly Green; his use of language is clearer and less ambiguous. But hey, don't take my word for it. What do you think that the following sentence is meant to convey?

'Germany seems to be a society in constant struggle with the idea of difference, an interesting case study in irony and backlash when it comes to tolerance and the acceptance of minority groups'

One of the great problems with vanity publishing of this sort is that there is no editor ready with a red pencil to cross through the long and wordy paragraph, the irrelevant anecdote, the pretentious phrase. Without this, any writer is liable to ramble a little and produce prose which is all but indigestible. One can often recognise this sort of writing when the author mentions his great, great grandmother for no apparent reason. A writer like Graham Greene might just be able to get away with this; for the rest of us, it is to be avoided at all costs. How my heart sank when on page 1 of Kelly Green's book, we duly find a reference to her great, great grandmother! (Whose only claim to fame, seemingly, is to have been a Red Indian).

The problems with this book begin on the cover. The blurb reads;

'A family's decisions about the education of children and young people are an intense expression of their very deepest beliefs, aspirations and identity, both collectively and individually'

This is complete nonsense. Most families don't give the matter more than a moment's thought; they just send the kid to the nearest school. Deep aspirations don't enter into the matter at all. Still on the back cover, I notice that the book is endorsed by Diana Varty, who is described as a writer. I have certainly seen her comments around lists and forums, but in what sense is she a writer? More research needed on that one.

Perhaps the most deadly aspect of A matter of Conscience is that it consists of little but blogposts from Kelly Green's blog, Kelly Green and Gold. One can read all this for free; why on earth would you shell out eight or ten pounds to do so? Perhaps I should stick all my posts from here in a book and take them down to a vanity publishers! The problem is that what works well enough in a brief blogpost is not always suitable for printing in a book. There are rare individuals whose journalism and day to day comments on things are worth putting between the covers of a book. Such people are however few and far between. I am not one of them and neither, I am very much afraid, is Kelly Green.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Christian education at home

And while we are on the subject of the education of girls at home, this case from America is very interesting;