Friday, 19 August 2011

My work here is done…

Well folks, this really is the final post I shall be making here. I have been thinking lately about the different ideas that home educators have about education. There are certainly plenty like me who cram their children for exams and whose greatest wish is that their kids get a place at a Russell Group university, but there are also many who regard that sort of carry on as not only not being the best kind of education, but in a sense being the very antithesis of true education. They are of course perfectly right, at least up to a point. Let me explain why I think this and why I nevertheless went ahead with my plans.

Now I certainly think that children should be given a body of basic knowledge so that they can make sense of the modern world. I think that this should be chosen by their parents and handed down to them; this is a curriculum. As far as GCSEs and A levels go though, useful as they are in persuading others that a child has been ’educated’, I have enormous reservations. The knowledge required for these qualifications is mind-numbingly detailed and prescriptive and any sort of independent thought is not only not required but can actually prove dangerous to the passing of the examination. This is definitely not my idea of education! To give an example, twice in her life my daughter has been compelled to study the Schlieffen Plan in World War I in order to pass first IGCSE and then A level history. There are recognised and accepted reasons why the Schlieffen Plan failed. When she was studying for the IGCSE at the age of thirteen, Simone came up with another very plausible reason for its lack of success. If I had been concerned purely with education, I would have been delighted with this and encouraged her to think further about the matter; as it was, I was horrified. To pass the exam with flying colours entails putting down the points that the examiner is looking for. They check these off against a list and anything not on that list is simply ignored. And so to my eternal shame, I stamped at once on the new ideas my daughter was generating, because they might have harmed her success in gaining an A* in the examination! There is something utterly bizarre about a type of education which actually discourages children from thinking for themselves and I freely accept this.

Still, my daughter passed the right exams and this has worked well for now. Fortunately of course, her ability to think independently has not been at all harmed by this weird method of getting on academically. I saw this very clearly when she took the Thinking Skills Assessment, which is part of the process of applying for places at some courses at Oxford. I would imagine that many home educated children would shine at this and it probably explains how Ian Dowty’s son was accepted for law despite having not GCSEs or A levels. He would have taken a similar, but slightly different admission test. Here is an example of a question from the TSA:

There is a proposal to change our passports from the present, rather imposing, book-type
documents to small plastic cards, a proposal which should be rejected. The cards are
seen as having many advantages. For example, they will be easier to fit into people's
pockets, something which will become more important as other countries move towards
compulsory identity cards. But this supposed advantage of smaller size is actually a
disadvantage. It is the very fact that passports cannot be slipped into a holidaymaker's
pocket (and from there into the sand on the beach) that makes us take special care of
them. It is, after all, a very important document.
Which one of the following best expresses the main conclusion of the above argument?
A The advantages of the smaller passports are fewer than people think.
B The proposals to replace our passports with plastic cards should be rejected.
C The importance of passports will diminish if they are small plastic cards.
D People will take less care of passports which are small plastic cards.
E The proposal to change our type of passports should be looked at more

This is not the sort of examination for which one can prepare; it depends entirely on having the kind of mind able to extract the salient points from an argument. The conversational learning style favoured by many home educating parents means that their children are probably used to discussing the news and have in effect been trained to spot the weak points in arguments and so on. I am guessing that many home educated children would achieve well at such tests as these. This type of education, in rhetoric and logic, is to my mind of infinitely greater value than just stuffing the kid's head full of a lot of nonsense that he will forget as soon as the exam season is over. Teaching my child how to think was really the main thrust of my educational technique.

I have for purely pragmatic reasons, been forced to pursue a style of education over the years which was not ideal. Society requires GCSEs and A levels and the child without them is handicapped. One cannot readily demonstrate to a university or potential employer that a young person has been ’educated’ without those vital pieces of paper. This is unfortunate. However, it is how society is currently constituted. I might fight against society myself and disregard its mores, but I had no right to use my own child to fight this battle. Which is of course why we did all those examinations.

Anyway, I shall not be posting here again, although I will of course reply to sensible comments. I shall leave this blog up as a resource for those who might stumble across it in the future. I think that the comments give a very good counter to the views which I have expressed and so in general, the thing is pretty balanced. As I have said before, if anybody wishes to contact me for any reason at all, they are free to do so, using the email adress on the right.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

In which it is shown that home education can deliver at least as good an academic result as that likely to be gained at school

When first I told people that I would not be sending my daughter to school, there were many negative reactions. These ranged from predictions that she would be unable to get a job or go to university, to the fear that she would grow up introverted and weird. None of these things have happened. I have not mentioned it before here, although others have referred to it, but my daughter has a place at Oxford to study philosophy, politics and economics; otherwise known as PPE. Her A level results this morning were as hoped and so she is now assured of starting at Oxford in a month or so.

To my mind, the place at Oxford is not so much an endorsement of my teaching as a recommendation for home education in general. I am far too irritable and impatient to be a good teacher and gaining a place in this way at university was my daughter’s doing, rather than a tribute to my teaching skills. I honestly believe that any family prepared to put in the work and make all the necessary arrangements could do exactly the same as we have done. This proves, to me at least, that home education can be better than any school, even the most prestigious independent ones. Nobody needs qualifications themselves to undertake it, nor do they need much in the way of prior knowledge. All that is needed is the determination to push on with the project and not to be discouraged by anybody else’s opinions. I lost count of the number of people over the years who claimed that it was impossible to study science at home or take GCSEs in history without expert, professional teaching. These people are quite wrong. Anybody can teach their child any subject in the world, even if they know nothing at all about it to begin with. Parents and children learn together.

I suppose that the reason that I am putting posting this, apart from the natural parental pride in my child, is this. I doubt that the fact that a home educated child has secured a place at Oxford University is likely to become widely known. As far as anybody knows, this is the first time that a child who was completely home educated during the statutory ages from five to sixteen has been offered a place at Oxford in recent years. I would like this to become known among other home educators, not as a personal advertisement for my own methods but simply to show other parents that the thing is possible. I firmly believe that any home educating parent could do at least as well as I have managed in this field. Many of them will be able to do better. Home education is perfect for one-to-one tuition and the chances of getting good grades in GCSEs and so on is much higher with this type of education.

Incidentally, I am aware that for some home educating parents, all this is an irrelevance. I do not wish to engage any more in sterile and pointless debates about whether we should or should not teach our children without their initiating the process. The fact is that most parents hope that their children will do well academically. I am making the point here that home educating parents are ideally placed to ensure that their children do do well in GCSEs, A levels, university admissions and so on. Not attending school between the ages of five and sixteen is not only no bar to such achievements, but actually makes them more likely and far easier to attain.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Possible disadvantage with home education which may actually be an advantage

I have never found any disadvantage in home education as far as education itself is concerned. Nor have I ever observed lack of socialisation causing my daughter any problems. One thing that has bothered me over the years is that children like this, who have been the centre of their parents’ lives in a more personal way than those who are sent to school, might come to believe themselves to be more special and important than is actually the case. In other words they might, at worst, grow into spoiled brats and at best grow up thinking that they are frightfully clever/talented/important. I have certainly noticed that my own daughter acts as though she knows more than other people and that her views and opinions are more likely to be correct than anybody else’s. Of course, part of this is adolescence in general and might not be all that different from schooled teenagers. It is something that I have been aware of though and tried actively to discourage. It has not helped that newspapers and radio stations contact her for her views on various things; The Guardian are ringing her tomorrow to ask what she thinks about A levels!

What struck me a few weeks ago is that this mindset might not necessarily be a bad thing. Often, we tend to listen to those who appear to know what they are talking about and confident people have their views taken into account in a way that the more hesitant and timid among us do not. This was brought home to me forcefully when my daughter got a job for the summer. Not for her of course the waitressing or baby-sitting that the daughters of our friends fall back upon for pocket money. She has instead been engaged as the marketing assistant for an ICT company in the city. She is now running their twitter, face book and so on, as well as revamping their email newsletters, ad campaigns and various other things about which I know little. I was slightly staggered that a high profile company should give a job like this to a 17 year-old who has never worked anywhere before. As far as I can make out, she got it by sheer cheek and horrifying confidence. In other words, her feeling that she is clever and important paid off and she was able to persuade others to buy into her own valuation of herself. For a reticent person like me, this kind of thing is hard to understand. Nevertheless, it seems to work and I am reluctantly compelled to conclude that a teenager thinking and acting as though she is clever and talented might not be something to discourage after all. Perhaps what I have always thought of as one of the bad points of home education might instead be one of its strengths!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Some good news for home educators

Many readers will be pleased to hear that I am in the process of winding down this blog, with a view to ending it completely in a fortnight or so. There are two main reasons for this. The first is simply that when my daughter goes off to university in the autumn, I can hardly claim to be a home educator in any way at all. It would be a bit much if I were then to continue writing about the subject and making handy suggestions as to what the government or local authorities should do with regard to home education! It will really be no affair of mine at all from the end of September and so this seems a neat point at which to end my association with the whole business.

There is another reason why I cannot really spend any more time on this blog. I am now churning out books at an industrial rate; another four will be hitting the bookshelves in the next six months. I simply don’t have time any more for expressing my views on or indeed taking any further interest in home education. I shall have a few parting thoughts over the coming days, but after that I am afraid that that will be it. Obviously, my email address is on here and I am quite happy to correspond with anybody on the subject or offer any help or advice which anybody needs.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Interesting piece from The Guardian

My views on education have not in the past been universally applauded and so I thought that it might be a treat for readers to see what I have to say upon another subject. Here is a piece of mine from today's Guardian. I need hardly add that this excellent book is available from all good bookshops!

Friday, 12 August 2011

The teaching of reading without the use of phonics

A few days ago, I wrote a little about the use of synthetic phonics in schools and suggested that it was a more or less perfect way of teaching reading. Some commented, apparently believing that I was saying that this was the only method which should be used. In particular, several people raised the problem of children with hearing difficulties; those with glue ear were mentioned. For these children, who may be unable properly to distinguish between speech sounds such as 'b' and 'p' or 'g' and 'k', other methods are needed. I have put below some of my own writing on this subject. I have written a good deal about this and so have just put a few pages here. If it is well received, I might put some more up tomorrow. If not, I shall simply drop the topic.

With the possible exception of walking and talking, it is the most vital skill that any child growing up in a modern, industrial society will ever acquire. The ability to read fluently is absolutely crucial to every aspect of future educational attainment. Sadly, a large proportion of children and young people never master reading. In Britain, 20% of children leave primary school at the age of eleven still remaining functionally illiterate after six years of full time education. Even worse than this, the reading ability of a sizable percentage of children actually declines during their time at secondary school. This is the case in over a third of our schools! Many leave school at sixteen less able to read than they were at the age of eleven. As adults, many of these children will struggle for the rest of their lives with decoding the printed word. This has a catastrophic effect upon their prospects. It need not be this way.

The problem is essentially that learning to read is being left too late. By the time that children start school at the age of four or five, their brains are already far less receptive to the learning of new skills than they would have been at two or three. The ideal age for picking up the art of reading is probably at the same time that they begin to speak; that is to say around twelve months or so. We shall see later why this should be. Another problem is that the method used to teach reading in British schools , synthetic phonics, makes the whole process vastly more complicated than it need be. In fact learning to read can and should be as easy and natural for a young child as learning to speak.

At this point, some readers are probably scratching their heads and saying, "But you have to teach reading. Nobody teaches babies to speak; it just happens!" Well, yes........and no. It is of course perfectly true that we do not sit our babies down for "Talking Lessons". Never the less, we are in fact teaching them and by the very same method that can be used in order to teach them to read.

Before we look at the teaching of reading, let us look for a moment at the "teaching" of talking. When we listen to people speaking in ordinary situations, it is all but impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. People do not, for example, say, "I am going to go to the shop". They say instead, "I'mgonnergototheshop". Words are slurred together, cut off, mangled and abbreviated until they all run together in a string of sounds. How on earth can a baby make sense of this string of noises? The answer is that she doesn't. She does not have to.

There is a particular style of speaking to infants which has been called "Motherese". The pitch of the voice is raised, the tempo is slowed and key words are stressed slightly, emphasised so that they stand out from the rest. Something like this perhaps, "Can you see the dog? Look, the dog is sitting up. What a nice little dog." Any attempt on the baby's part to reproduce the sound of the emphasised word is met with immediate reward, praise is lavished upon her. She need only make the initial sound and say, "Duh" and her mother will smile broadly and say, "That's right" Clever girl. Yes it's a dog." In effect, the mother is teaching her child how to speak! She models the word she is teaching and then reinforces her child's efforts at saying it herself.

The printed word, like spoken language, is usually presented in a vast jumble of incomprehensible components, only instead of hearing a cacophony of weird noises, the baby sees a forest of black squiggles. Look at any page of a book or newspaper and you will soon see the problem. Just as with so-called "Motherese", the trick is to present individual words so that they may be learnt entire.

Parents are the best people to teach their children to talk, so too are they the best people by far to teach their own children to read. It is not a difficult task, far from it.
The Nature of Language

Before we look at the teaching of reading, it is probably worth stopping to think a little about what language actually is. Once we have done this, we shall be better placed to understand just what is happening when a child learns to read, because of course reading is really just a way of using language.

Broadly speaking, language is the ability to use and understand symbols for thinking and communicating. This covers everything from writing a birthday card to reading War and Peace, from reminding one's self about the important appointment that afternoon to formulating the theory of relativity. What do we mean by symbols? Nothing more than something which stands for or represents something else. Spoken words are symbols, as of course are letters and numbers printed on a page. Pictures are a kind of symbol too and so are toys. Acting or pretending are also symbolic. We shall see in a little while why this is important. For now, all we need to remember is that reading and speaking both entail using symbols; things that stand for other things.

We tend to take it for granted that children operate on the same level of symbolic understanding as we do, but it is not so. Just as they must learn to read words and decode their meaning, so too they have to learn to "read" pictures and toys.

Consider the simple case of a photograph of an orange. We of course see a splodge of orange printers ink on a page and identify it at once with the sweet, slightly tart citrus fruit that we have to peel. To a baby though, all this is nothing more than a patche of colour. It certainly doesn't represent anything. Similarly, we see a toy car and recognise at once its symbolic nature. Although it is small, light and garishly coloured, we know very well that it is meant to represent the large metal object that takes us to work. Again, this is far from obvious to babies.

It has been said that a child's play is his work. That being so, toys are the tools of his trade. Their importance in the development of the growing child's understanding of the concept of symbols cannot be overstated. It is only by such activities as the use of a toy car and the growing realisation that it in some strange way represents Mummy's big car that the baby becomes familiar with the whole idea of one thing standing for another. Since this peculiar notion underpins not only reading, but also speaking and listening, we must make sure that the baby acquires a sound background in the use of symbols. The reason for this is that the interpretation of two dimensional symbols, whether pictures, numbers or words, is the culmination of much mental effort on the child's part. To achieve this breakthrough in symbolic understanding requires a great deal of spadework beforehand. We shall look later at what this might entail.

Learning to read

Let's return now to the subject of reading. There are basically two ways to teach reading. There is the complicated way and the easy method. The complicated way involves studying a lot of strange words and alien ideas such as morphemes and phonemes, blending and sequencing, synthetic phonics and whole language teaching. No need to panic at this point, because we shall be using the easy, and incidentally far more effective, method.

Most traditional techniques for the teaching of reading involve breaking the word down into little pieces and then building it up again. Most of us have some vague idea that the alphabet is the basis of reading and that children must first learn this and try somehow to combine the letters into words. This is the difficult way and it is quite unnecessary. Consider the following sentence;

The little dog ran across the road to his owner.

When you read this sentence, did you laboriously sound out the letters and so decode the meaning of the words? When you read "dog", did you say to yourself, "Duh...oh...guh..spells dog"? I am guessing that nobody who read this did anything of the kind! Instead, we glance at the word as a whole and simply see "dog". We don't even need to know the letters of the alphabet in order to read the word, much less sound it out. It wouldn't really have helped you to do that any way with three of the words in that simple sentence. Look at "the" and try and sound it out. the. Or how about howaboutruh...oh...ah...duh...spells road. Or even owner.
I'm sure that you are getting the idea. We actually read words as wholes. We don't split them up into little pieces to decipher their meaning. We teach children to do this when they are learning to read so that they will have what teachers call "word attack" skills to decode unfamiliar words which they encounter. It is a good aim, but unfortunately it has the effect of making the whole business seem very hard for many small children. Most importantly of all, it is completely unnecessary..

So if we do not actually break words down into little bits when we read, what do we actually do? It is very simple; we look for familiar shapes. We really read by spotting the shapes of words, based largely upon the ascenders and descenders which they contain. This will be the only technical jargon used in the whole of this course and it really is impossible to avoid discussing ascenders and descenders. What are they? Simply the bits of letters which stick up above the rest of the word, in the case of ascenders or hang down below, on the case of descenders. For instance, in the word'


there is an ascender in the letter "d" and a descender in the letter "g". These bits jutting out give words a characteristic shape or pattern. If we look at a few words in the light of this, we will soon see that they most of them have distinctive shapes;

ball, aeroplane, cat, it, and, the, tree

The individual letters which they contain need not concern us and there is certainly no reason at all to tax a small child with untangling these letters and then trying to remember their names, sounds or correct position in the word! How can we be sure that this is what we are doing when we read? Very easily as it happens. If we actually read by looking at the letters and then understanding the words, then the following lines should not be any more difficult to read than the ones which go before. ThE lEtTeRs ArE hErE fOr AlL tO sEe BuT tHE WoRdS tHeMsElVeS aRe NoT aLwAyS iMmEdIaTeLy ApPaReNt. I am pretty sure that even the most fluent readers will have had to slow down in order to make sense of the last sentence. This is purely and simply because the words do not have their usual and characteristic shapes. After all, they contain exactly the same letters as they normally do. Let's look at another example. Here is a passage which specifically leaves out all the letters without ascenders and descenders;

I thxxk thxt xxxt pxxplx xxll bx xblx tx xxxd thxx xlthxxgh x lxt xf lxttxxx xxx xxxxxxg.

Now compare the above sentence, still fairly easy to read because it includes all the ascenders and descenders which give the words their familiar pattern, with this;

xn xxis xassaxe axx xxe xexxers wxicx xux oux axove xxe xine or xexow ix xave xeen xefx oux, maxinx ix mucx xarxer xo reax.

(In this passage all the letters which jut out above the line or below it have been left out, making it much harder to read).

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Home educated prodigies

The history of home education is littered with cases of supposedly brilliant children whose parents were convinced that they would be world champions in some area or another. Sometimes the chosen field is physical; tennis or gymnastics. In other cases it is intellectual; mathematics or chess, for example. Below is a recent piece from The Washington Post about this sort of thing:

I do not think personally that children under the age of fourteen or so are really able to make informed choices about this sort of thing. It often looks as though the parents are fulfilling some need of their own in these experiments. Sometimes, matters seem to turn out well enough, as with the Williams sisters and their tennis. On other occasions, the child’s life seems to have been blighted by the pressure of living up to parental expectations. There is also the unfortunate fact that 99% of children whose parents believe them to be geniuses at tennis, gymnastics, mathematics or chess, turn out after adolescence to be nothing of the sort. This can be very dispiriting for both parent and child. It can also be damaging for the child’s future life. In addition to the loss of self-esteem, having to accustom one’s self to the notion that one is not after all a world champion, there is all the time which has been spent on that one chosen activity to the detriment of the child’s general education.

Home education does seem to be a fertile breeding ground for unbalanced childhoods of this type. Not that they are very common of course, simply that such odd upbringings are possible with home educated children in a way that school would not generally allow. I wonder what the long term prospects are for home educated children who have been raised in this way? I have recently been re-reading Joan Freeman’s book; Gifted Children Growing Up. For those about whom she writes, all of whom went to school, the eventual outcomes seemed to be pretty good. These were children who were objectively very bright. I would be intrigued to know whether the sometimes feverish atmosphere in the homes of the home educated gifted child produces radically different outcomes. Does anybody know of any research on this?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

An historical perspective on 'the state as parent'

A recurring theme in the debate on monitoring of home education is that parents have responsibility for their children and that if we allow local authorities to become too much involved then, it is claimed, we will find the ‘state as parent’ creeping into our society. It is instructive in this context to look at just how local authorities became involved in family life in the first place.

As readers are probably aware, I used to write extensively for magazines such as True Detective and Murder Most Foul Quarterly (Yes, there really is a such a periodical). No normal person buys these things; they cater for the sicko market. At one time I wrote a series on the so-called ’Baby Farmers’ of late Victorian Britain. These were women who for a small lump sum would offer to look after unwanted babies and small children, taking good care of them or finding them decent foster homes. It was really a murderous scam, whereby having taken the money, the women would then either starve the baby to death or sedate it heavily with laudanum until it died of opium poisoning. Some of these characters disposed of hundreds of babies in this way for money. During the late 19th century, foster care and adoption were completely unregulated and when attempts were made through measures such as the 1898 Infant Life Protection Act to introduce monitoring and control over the practice of fostering. There was an outcry from many quarters. The state was trying to intervene in family life and what parents did with their children was their business, not the police or local authority’s. Precisely similar arguments were put forward when compulsory education was introduced and also when the practice of parents essentially selling their small children as apprentices to chimney sweeps and so on was stopped. The age of consent for most of the Victorian Era was twelve; it was only raised to sixteen after it became widely known that poor parents were selling their pre-pubescent daughters to brothels in order to cater for the paedophile market. Once again, there was outrage at what was seen as an unwarrantable intrusion into family life by the state. It was up to parents what arrangements they made for their children; it was no business at all of anybody else.

Now I am not of course suggesting that any home educators are selling their sons to chimney sweeps or their daughters to brothels! I am simply pointing out that local authority involvement with family life began for very good reasons and that those who objected so vociferously to this trend in Victoria’s reign are now generally accepted to have been wrong. It is from this historical perspective that I find myself a little uneasy when once again we hear the cry that we must preserve parents’ rights and not allow the state to take over the role of parent. In every case in the past where this slogan has been used, history shows those using it to have been wrong-headed and wholly mistaken. I wonder what the view will be in a century of those who now use this rationale for fighting against local authority interference in the lives of their families?

Monday, 8 August 2011

The extra responsibilities of home educating parents

One of the great things about home education is that you can pretty well claim responsibility for the good things which your child achieves. I don’t just mean academically, but also when their character turns out well. After all, they have been with you for most of the time and so have picked up your ideas on justice and compassion, kindness and respect for the natural world. We can all feel proud about such traits when we observe them in our children. There is a downside to this though. If we accept that we are largely answerable for the good points in our kids, then it follows naturally that we are often to blame for the bad parts as well. Well it should follow, but many home educating parents seem anxious to evade this responsibility.

Let us look at a few practical, real-life examples from my own daughter. She has many sterling qualities, but there are also less attractive aspects of her personality. For instance, she is arrogant and self-opinionated. She swears like a trooper and her knowledge of geography is lamentable. I always assumed that this sort of thing was connected with spending so much time in my company as a child. I focused on science when teaching her and therefore neglected geography. I am a famously hard swearer and am know to be arrogant. Judging by some people’s comments yesterday though, perhaps I am off the hook! Take my daughter’s lack of geographical knowledge. Maybe it is not down to poor teaching on my part. Perhaps there is a psychological block to her learning about the capital cities and principle exports of foreign countries? Could this be geographobia? Or might it be a neurological deficit? I am thinking geographexia. And what about all that swearing? I have always thought it is because as a small girl she spent so much time with a foul-mouthed man, but there could be another explanation. Coprolalia can be a symptom of some psychological disturbances or what about Tourette’s?

I wonder if readers can see yet where I am going with this? Yesterday, I discussed reading and advanced the radical idea that when children do not learn to read, it is generally because they have not been taught or have been taught poorly. Just as with my daughter’s lack of geography, I thought that there would be a link between the level and quality of teaching and the child’s skills and abilities in this particular area. It seems though that some parents do not accept this link. They hunt instead for obscure syndromes which might provide another reason for their children’s difficulties. Here is the way that I look at such claims. Mt daughter’s propensity for swearing may have a neurological basis. If I wanted to claim this, I would need to have hard evidence from psychiatrists, brain scans and so on. It would not really be enough if I were to suggest that her use of bad language or lack of geographical knowledge were caused by a physical disorder of her brain. In the same way, for those who comment here about their children’s supposed neurological disorders I must ask how many have evidence of an organic problem? Several people commented, hinting that their child’s reading difficulties were caused by something other than poor or absent teaching. Have these children had PET scans? Who has come up with the diagnosis? Nine times out of ten, the simplest explanation is the correct one. If a child lacks geographical knowledge or easy facility in literacy; the most likely reason is related to teaching. Only when this has definitely been excluded should we reach for other and rarer causes.

An enduring myth among home educators

We all kid ourselves that we behave rationally and make our choices based upon common sense and logic. Sometimes this is true; often it is not. Our decisions are frequently a product of an accumulation of our prejudices and preconceived ideas which generate reflex actions rather than considered and well ordered thoughts. Somebody mentions the death penalty and we say automatically. ‘Oh, I don’t approve of that’. It may be twenty or thirty years since we actually thought the matter through logically and calmly, but it is so much easier to have a set of opinions and beliefs that we can simply repeat like mantras for any debate which arises.

I am like this just as much as anybody else. Take the question of the teaching of reading, for example. I taught my own child by using the Look and Say method, sometimes known as whole word teaching. I used flashcards, built up a sight vocabulary and so on. Now of course, this worked brilliantly; my child could read numbers and individual words at fifteen months and was reading fluently by two years and three months. The fact that I chose this method has less to do with making a careful study of the evidence and then following where it led and more to do with the fact that I have been familiar with Fred Schonell’s books for forty years and his was the first method of learning to read which I ever encountered. Using this method was a reflex action which entailed little conscious thought. There are better and more effective ways to teach reading. Take synthetic phonics, for instance.

One of the most popular and comforting myths to be found on the British home educating scene is that no method of learning to read is any better than another. According to this idea, 20% of children will struggle with the process, no matter what system is adopted. There is accordingly little point in worrying about the business and if your child is one of that 20%, then pushing him to hard will only create stress and be counter-productive. This old wives’ tale is passed around and used as justification for the autonomous learning of reading; whereby the child himself sets the pace for the learning of reading and is essentially in control of the whole business. Not surprisingly, this results in some children being unable to read until their teenage years. It need not be this way. An Ofsted report published last year showed that in some schools, all children are reading by six. This includes children with special needs and those for whom English is not their first language. These schools use synthetic phonics and they have found that when used systematically and effectively it works every time and that all children learn to read. The report may be found here:

What is interesting about the work with this method of teaching reading is that schools using synthetic phonics intelligently find that there is no such thing as dyslexia; all the children learn to read at the expected age. This suggests strongly that failure to learn to read is due to poor teaching rather than any specific disorder in the child herself. In other words, if children fail to read, then their teachers are at fault. This has profound implications for home education, because we are our children’s teachers. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if our children do not learn to read at six or seven, then this is because the education being offered is somehow defective. This report makes sobering reading, not least for somebody like me; who has always championed Look and Say. If a child of twelve is not reading, it is almost certainly because he has not been taught to read properly.

All this puts advocates of autonomous education in rather a tricky situation. The justification for not undertaking formal instruction in the teaching of reading is that no method is perfect and that 20% or so of children will always have difficulties. The evidence from across the country seems to indicate that this is not true and that any child can be taught to read by six or seven. One must now ask what reason any home educating parents could have for failing to teach their children this useful skill, given that we know that it can be done quickly and effectively at a very early age without any trauma to the child? Ideology alone is not sufficiently good reason for holding back on the teaching of reading.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The roots of confrontation between local authorities and home educators

There seems to be pretty general agreement that there is more tension between a number of home educating parents and their local authorities than was once the case. A few days ago, somebody here suggested that this was largely due to the Badman review. This is an interesting idea. There are it seems to me two main ways of looking at the situation today. On the one hand is the perspective that aggressive local authorities, acting in many cases beyond the letter of the law, have provoked peaceful and good natured home educators into becoming militant and uncooperative. By this reading of the matter, the groups of people fighting against any new laws or regulations simply represent the will of the people; they are working on behalf of the majority of home educating parents. Another view would be that those agitating so furiously against supposed local authority infringement of their ’rights’ are a small core of malcontents and trouble makers who are always arguing with various authority figures about anything at all; from fluoridation of drinking water to the vaccination of children, from the export of powdered baby milk to less economically developed nations to building nuclear power stations.

A recent debate on one of the larger Internet lists devoted to home education shed a little light upon which of these two cases is more likely to be correct. It will be recalled that during the Badman review and the framing of Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, one of the proposals which caused the greatest anger was the idea that local authority officers should have a right of entry to the homes of those educating their own children. Of course this idea was really a non-starter; the legal complications of the thing would have tied up the British courts for years to come. It was used as a rallying cry by those who rejected the whole idea of receiving visits from their local authority. Now many local authorities have never insisted anyway on making visits of this kind and have always been content to accept written evidence of the education being provided for a child. Essex, my own local authority, are like this. This never struck me as a big deal, but of course there are those who feel strongly about it.

One might think that with authorities who simply request a written report about a home educated child’s education, that even the most militant parent would feel that there was no cause for confrontation. No visits being asked for; all they want is some idea of what is going on. A couple of days ago, I mentioned the facetious idea that the owner of one of the largest home education lists put forward, for sending a pig’s heart to the local authority. This was of course a joke, but the background to the suggestion is revealing. Somebody posting on this list had been asked by her local authority to provide an account of her child’s education. One might have thought that after all the fuss and bitter opposition to receiving visits, that this would have been welcomed as a good thing. You would be wrong to think that. This request caused a well known figure in home educating circles to suggest sending as much irrelevant material as possible, simply in order to make the whole business more awkward and troublesome for the local authority. Others seconded this, agreeing that they did not want to make the process easy for the local authority and that the more awkawrdly they reacted, the better this was for their purposes. This was bloody-mindedness on an epic scale.

It looks to an objective observer as though even where their demands are fully met and home educating parents are given the option of sending in a written report, rather than being expected to allow a local authority officer into their home, some activists will still try to create a confrontation. I have a strong suspicion that even if all local authorities accepted reports and did not even ask for visits, then the next campaign would be to refuse to provide any account at all of the child’s education, on the grounds that it is no business at all of the local authority. This attitude, and I can see it emerging clearly now as a strand in British home education, suggests that much of the more militant section of the British home education scene actually wants confrontation and conflict. Even when their demands are met, they will come up with fresh grievances. We are seeing the first stirrings of this with the anger over a council’s request for a written report; we shall be seeing more of this in the future. The more reasonable and accommodating become local authorities, the more unreasonable will become the demands of some home educators.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Peer pressure in the world of British home education

Nobody knows how many children in this country are educated at home; nor are we likely to find out in the future. One estimate widely bandied about during the Badman review was 80,000. In a book published last year, Mike Fortune-Wood argued for a figure of 150,000. Let us split the difference and assume that perhaps as many as 115,000 are being educated out of school. Some families contain more than one child and so this might give us roughly 200,000 parents of home educated children in this country. The vast majority of these parents do not belong either to groups which meet physically nor to forums, lists and online support groups. Obviously, a list which boasts 1000 members really represents only 0.5% of British home educators. Since only about 50 members post regularly, the views expressed even on a list such as this are only those of a tiny minority of home educating parents. The same applies to groups of home educating parents who meet in libraries, church halls and so on; they are very much a minority of home educating parents taken as a whole.

Commenting here yesterday, somebody said:

Some of us need the services of the LA, especially those with children with SEND. However on some lists they daren't speak out and say that they are involved with the LA in that way for fear of being attacked.’

It is of course not only on Internet lists and forums that people are nervous of speaking out in favour of visits; the same thing happens at groups which meet. Somebody else commenting, said:

I know, it can be a real pain when you want a visit and people try to talk you out of it.’

All clubs and societies have various unwritten rules to which members are assumed to subscribe. For those belonging to the larger home education lists and forums, one of these is that members are expected to be in opposition to local authority involvement in home education. Those who feel differently are often ridiculed and accused of making life difficult for other parents. An argument frequently advanced is that if some home educating parents accept visits, then the local authority will expect everybody to have them. Parents who have amicable dealings with their local authority are thus represented as traitors and fifth columnists whose actions have an adverse effect on other home educators. This conformity of views is enforced by anti-local authority parents forming impromptu pecking parties and bullying others until they stop expressing their own views. Sometimes, the dissenters are removed by the list owner in order to create the illusion of unanimity. This happened recently on the HE-UK list when a member asked for one person to try and make her posts a little clearer. The owner of the HE-UK list is famous for chucking off people who speak out in favour of either visits from the local authority or even for structured teaching of children.

The result of all this is that many home educating parents feel under pressure to pay lip-service to principles to which they do not subscribe. This enables those with extremist views on the subject of home education to make out that theirs are really the mainstream opinions of British home educators. We have seen a lot of this ’tail wagging the dog’ type activity on the home education scene in this country. Most home educating parents simply get on with the business of educating their children as best they can. An awful lot of them come to some accommodation with their local authority about visits or annual reports and relations are more or less good natured on both sides. When an organisation claims to represent home educating parents and their interests, we must bear in mind that even if it is a fairly large groups by home education standards, one containing say 2000 members, this is still only 1% or so of the parents of home educated children. It is unfortunate that sometimes, as in the case of visits from local authorities, this tiny minority seeks to shape the opinions and actions of others by cold shouldering and bullying those who express what are seen as unorthodox views on the subject.

Of pig's hearts

A couple of days ago, I posted a fairly long piece here about teaching science at home. Nobody commented all day, which prompted one person to ask in the evening, ‘is discussing actual education less popular than some other topics?’ Very perceptive! I have noticed that there is a great difference between parents who actually get on and educate their children and those who belong to organisations and Internet groups concerned with home education. I tended to associate with the first group; individuals who were passionately committed to their children’s education. Most of these did not really have time to spare for belonging to online ’communities’ of other home educators. They might sometimes have joined a list or forum to find something out, but it was not a lifestyle. I might also observe that these people, like me, regarded monitoring by the local authority as one of life’s minor irritations; something which they could cheerfully do without, but which was not really all that important.

Now you might easily suppose that most home educating parents were like this; primarily concerned with education and ensuring that their children learn at least enough to prepare them for adult life. You would be wrong. There is far more interest on the larger lists and forums in working out ingenious ways to frustrate attempts by the local authority to find out about the education being provided for children. In fact one of the people who worked on the guidelines for local authorities prepared by Alison Sauer is currently incensed at the very idea that a ’suitable education’ might be defined as one which prepares a child for adult life. What the purpose of a child’s education, other than this, could possibly be is something of a mystery to me. To give readers a flavour of the sort of discussions which occupy most of the time on the main home education lists, I might mention a debate which is currently taking place about the best way to make life difficult for local authority officers who are not insisting on visits, but are instead happy to accept written reports. The list owner put forward the idea of deluging them with all sorts of paperwork and seeing how inconvenient parents are able to make the whole process of sending in an annual report. He also made the facetious suggestion that a parent should send a pig’s heart to the officer requesting information about her child’s education. This might well raise a chuckle in north Wales, where the person proposing this lives. Working as I do in the inner London borough of Hackney, I found this apparently humorous notion stupendously offensive. Perhaps this is because there are so many Muslims and Jews working for the local authority, that even a joke about sending one of them a pig’s heart would be liable to result in disciplinary proceedings. As I say, things are probably a little different the further one gets from the capital.

It is perhaps this mindset, of people more interested in making their own and other people’s lives difficult, which explains the lack of interest in discussing education per se. When there are so many amusing schemes to be discussed for getting one over on local authority officers, why would one wish to waste time thinking about the boring idea of teaching science?

Thursday, 4 August 2011

A black mark for Lincolnshire County Council

I had the misfortune to be in Lincolnshire over the weekend. For those unfamiliar with this ghastly part of the country, it provides a glimpse of Britain before the Industrial Revolution; peopled as it is in the main by half-witted agricultural workers. My wife’s family live there and so we have to visit the county pretty regularly. Mind you, they live in Grimsby, which is positively cosmopolitan and sophisticated compared with the little hamlets one finds tucked away between the potato fields. Most of the inhabitants of these places look like inbred mutants who might have wandered off the set of The Hills have Eyes. Still, enough about my daughter’s family. While we were there, I looked in on a family I know who teach their own children. I don’t really mind this myth that I never meet real-life home educators, as long as people realise that it is a complete nonsense. I was given a copy of a letter which they recently received. Blogger won’t let me put pictures here at the moment and so I shall have to type it out. It says:

Dear Mrs. XXXX,
We are doing a review of children electively home educated from XXX, to ascertain if sufficient support is being provided to yourselves and child/ren from Lincolnshire County Council. It is also important that we understand that the educational provision your child is receiving is an appropriate and comprehensive one.
In order to undertake this review we have agreed that an Education Welfare Officer will visit you at a time convenient to yourself. It would be helpful if you are in agreement, that this officer talk to your child to hear from her first hand how they are finding the education provided, and whether there is anything else we need to assist them in providing additional support services.
It is also important that we understand whether there are any additional needs in relation to your child and whether we can provide any assistance.
I am sure that you will find these visits helpful to your family.

Seldom have I seen such a horror! If somebody wished to check on the education which I was providing for a child, the very least I might require is that the people doing the checking were themselves educated to a reasonably high standard. This is manifestly not the case here; the letter being written by somebody unable to express herself in ordinary, plain English. This communication is couched in what I call ‘ill-educated formal’. This is a style of writing beloved of the barely literate, who use odd constructions which they fondly imagine deceives readers into believing that the letter has been penned by an educated and intelligent person! Almost unbelievably, the above letter was signed by the Assistant Director of Children's Services! Let us look at this monstrosity in a little detail.

It begins ‘Dear Mrs. XXX’ and then goes on to refer to ‘yourselves’. This is of course an illicit concordance between the singular ‘Mrs. XXX’ and plural ‘yourselves’. The same solecism occurs a few lines down with ‘your child’, singular, and ‘how they are finding’, plural. Awful basic grammatical error, which alone suggests that the writer has not been educated beyond primary school. And why on earth talk of support being provided to ‘yourselves’? The correct word here is ‘you’; not ‘to ascertain if sufficient support is being provided to yourselves’, but rather ‘to ascertain if sufficient support is being provided to you’. The use of ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’ is of course another turn of phrase popular with the illiterate and inarticulate. This is also to be found a few lines later, ’ at a time convenient to yourself’. Why not simply, ’at a convenient time’?

The second sentence begins, ‘It is also important that we ..’ In order to use the word ‘also’ in this way, it must first have been show that a previous item was important. This was not even hinted at during mention of the review of electively home educated children. On another note, one is tempted to ask to whom all this is important. Important for the child? The parent? Lincolnshire County Council? It is heartening, if a little surprising, that Lincolnshire will be talking to these children to find out, ‘how they are finding the education provided, and whether there is anything else we need to assist them in providing additional support services‘. Are only home educated children to be favoured in this way, or will the local authority be speaking to children at their schools to see how they are finding their education and whether there are any additional services which they could do with?

All in all, I do not think that this letter would encourage me to engage with Lincolnshire County Council. It is semi-literate and incoherent; not at all a good advertisement for an education department!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The advantages of studying science at home

I have noticed over the years that although a fair number of teachers will concede that parents might be able to impart the basics of literacy and numeracy to their own children, there is a pretty general assumption that secondary education is beyond the ability of the average mother or father. Baroness Deech touched upon this last year, when she gave as a knock-down argument against home education, that it would not be possible to teach chemistry in this way. During the course of the weekend I met a retired teacher who does not know me and he said precisely the same when he heard that my daughter had been taught at home, ’Well you couldn’t teach chemistry or physics at home, could you?’ The pleasure of casually mentioning my daughter’s A* IGCSEs in both these subjects!

As a matter of fact, teaching chemistry at home is actually better for a child. Pupils at school learn in a rote fashion, with very little genuine experimentation. Any experiments which are conducted have to be done in a set way, with a predetermined outcome which the teacher will judge as correct or not. This is not really science at all and it certainly does not encourage the growth of general thinking and problem solving in a child. Nor does it enable the child properly to get to grips with the underlying principles of the subject. This is where home education scores highly. Take for example the test for the presence of protein, using the biuret reagent. School textbooks state unequivocally that this is made from a mixture of potassium hydroxide and copper sulphate. If protein is present, the solution changes from blue to violet. Now I would be hard pressed to know where I might obtain potassium hydroxide locally! Common sense tells us though that this should not be necessary. In fact when my daughter was twelve and we were doing biology, this problem arose. I asked her what she thought might act as an adequate substitute for potassium hydroxide and she at once suggested sodium hydroxide. Obvious, really; having studied the periodic table, she knew that potassium and sodium share many qualities. And of course sodium hydroxide is none other than caustic soda; available from any high street chemist's shop. By tackling problems such as these, a natural consequence of doing science in a domestic setting rather than a well equipped laboratory, my daughter was able to work out solutions to chemical problems that no textbook would ever pose. Instead of mechanically following a set of instructions, even the carrying out of the biuret test became a series of little problems in both chemistry and real life. We discovered, for instance, that the cheapest way to obtain copper sulphate was from a garden centre; thus learning its role as a fungicide.

The sterile procedures carried out in schools cannot match the ingenuity needed to conduct scientific experiments in the kitchen. Bunsen burners are of course useful as a readily controlled source of heat, but spirit lamps, candles and the gas cooker can all be substituted with greater or lesser success. Julie Webb wrote about this over twenty years ago in Children Learning at Home. She found that studying science at home presented no handicap at all academically.

As with all professionals, teachers like to pretend that what they are doing is fantastically clever and that a lay person attempting to do the same thing will result in disaster. Solicitors and doctors behave in just the same way; so for that matter do electricians, plumbers and garage mechanics. In all these cases, the people involved are really protecting their own interests, rather than those of the customer. They do not want ordinary people to do these jobs for themselves, because it would do them out of work. Teachers are no different. They are well aware that what they are doing is not really so very complicated and that any fool can teach chemistry in the kitchen of a council flat just as easily as they are able to do with a well resourced laboratory.

The ingenuity needed to study science subjects at GCSE level at home is part of the learning experience for the child. Instead of having the whole thing laid out and arranged for them as happens at school, they need to work with their parents to find solutions. This typically involves ringing an expert, visiting a museum or just using their common sense. I have not the slightest doubt that the underlying grasp of the principles of chemistry acquired in this way is far stronger and more deeply rooted than the superficial, spoon-fed approach which is so prevalent now in modern schools.

Monday, 1 August 2011

In which I confess to having been in error

Never let it be said that I am a man who refuses to admit when he has been wrong. I have been musing lately about my daughter and coming to the reluctant conclusion that I have been mistaken in an opinion which I have several times expressed warmly on this blog. Let me explain.

I posted a link yesterday to a couple of pieces which my daughter wrote for The Guardian. Somebody then drew attention to her blog. In fact my daughter is well known in some quarters, as two recent examples will show. She had lined up an internship over the summer in a magazine. It fell through and she felt that she had been shabbily treated. I was hardly aware of this; it just seemed to me the sort of thing which happens in the life of any seventeen year-old. Imagine my surprise, when the next thing I knew was that she was up at Westminster and contacted me, telling me to turn on the Parliament channel. I did so and saw a Conservative MP asking the following of the Business Secretary:

I was more than a little staggered to find that the Early Day Motion had been signed by MPs like Glenda Jackson!

Last Wednesday we were having tea, when the BBC World Service rang her on quite another matter. They wished her to take part in a live debate about young people. For some reason, they regard her as being the voice of youth; the BBC have rung her before, asking for her views on this or that aspect of modern society. Readers are now probably asking themselves where all this is leading. Why on earth, they are wondering, is he droning on about his wretched daughter in this way? A fair point indeed. I have several times expressed doubts as to the number of home educated children who go on to become professionals such as doctors, engineers or lawyers. I have suggested that if there were such adults around, surely they would have spoken out during the debates last year regarding Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. It occurred to me a few days ago though, that despite the fact that my daughter is pretty well known in various ways, the fact that she didn’t attend school for a single day never seems to come up or be mentioned. Last year she was part of Ed Balls leadership campaign; working in his office and meeting him socially as well. Incredibly, she never once thought to mention to him that she had been educated at home.

Actually, I think that my daughter should tell people about her home education sometimes, if only as a riposte to those who claim that home educated children end up shy, lacking in confidence and with a social skills deficit. But there, we cannot dictate what our teenage children do and say. The point is that if there is one home educated young person charging around the world and being noticed in this way without letting on that she was taught at home; there are probably others as well. I think that I was wrong to assume that home educated solicitors and vets would necessarily stand up and be counted when the subject of home education is being debated publicly. There now, I hope that readers will relish this moment; it is seldom enough that I concede that I have been mistaken. Make the most of it, for it is not likely to happen again in a hurry!

Like father, like daughter...

It struck me that those who enjoy reading my own pieces might well find it a pleasure to have some more of the family's writing to look at. Here are a couple of short articles by my daughter, whose ability to irritate people seems to be second only to my own: