Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Local authorities and home educators

Let us try and approach this topic with an open mind and see what common ground there might be; the sort of things with which everybody would agree. In the first place, it is almost certainly true that most home educating parents love and care for their children just as much as parents who send their children to school. Indeed, I would guess that on the whole, home educating parents tend to be even more concerned about their children’s welfare and education than those who do not assume responsibility for their child’s education.

We can probably also agree that among those parents who do not send their children to school, there will be some who neglect their child’s education and others who are abusive and cruel. This is the case with parents who do send their kids to school and so it would be unlikely to be any different with those who don’t.

So far, so good. I think that most home educating parents, as well as most local authority officers would find nothing so far to which they could object.

Local authorities fear that  a substantial number of parents who do not send their children to school are neglectful of their children’s needs and that their children are possibly suffering harm by being at home, rather than at school. Is this likely? In other words, is there any evidence that children kept at home are more likely to be at risk than those sent to school?

The first thing that we must avoid doing is to judge home educators by the type of people one comes across on the Internet. Many of these people are unbalanced and do not give a brilliant impression of home educators to outsiders. One clue about the likely incidence of strange people  is that groups of people committed to what most people would see as weird and far-out ideas do tend to have a pretty high proportion of individuals who range from eccentric to raving mad. This is so with animal rights activists, nudists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, home educators and various other fringe groups. Many of these people will be fairly normal, quite a few will be on the borderline and a good number will be extremely odd. The proportion of very odd people in such groups is likely to be higher than in mainstream organisations such as the Rotarians, a reading group or members of a bowls club.

The tricky part with home educators is that by definition, such people are more intimately associated with children than are the members of most, for want of a better expression, crank movements. This puts them into a different class from those who worship the sun at Stonehenge or drink their own urine.  What adults do to themselves is in general  not, or should not be, any concern of either the government or the local authority. Where children are concerned, the case is altered.

What I have done here is really to clear the ground and set out a few thoughts that most people would agree with. I shall build on tis foundation in the coming days.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Won't Somebody Persecute Me?

One of the great disadvantages of being a middle class, white heterosexual in this country is that you seldom get the chance to play the victim. After all, we hold all the levers of power in the land; we make the very rules. Sure, we can ring our hands about the plight of starving Africans and writhe in synthetic agony at the destruction of the rain forests, but it doesn’t really hit us where we live and we can forget about it all until the next time we feel like chucking Oxfam a couple of quid. This is why Graham Badman's enquiry came as such a boon to some people; it gave them the chance to pose as victims themselves; to present themselves as prisoners of conscience.


For good or ill , the Badman business fell by the wayside and the legal situation remained unchanged, leaving many middle class home educators bereft; they could no longer claim to be on the verge of becoming political prisoners! Whatever was to be done to maintain the illusion? The answer was simple. Any letter from their local authority was to be scrutinised for offence and if that didn’t work then the council’s website would be trawled and Freedom of Information requests made until something turned up to which exception could be taken. Keep this up long enough and sooner or later you will come across some old document or flow-chart which hints that not all local authorities are abiding by every tiny detail of the law. Then you can once again make out that you are a victim; only a step or two down from a deported Jew about to enter a gas chamber.

There is something peculiarly middle class about this whole business of pretending that getting a snotty letter from your local council is on a par with being persecuted for one’s beliefs or ethnicity; middle class and horribly pretentious. Of course local authorities often misquote the law, either because they are in a muddle themselves or because they are trying it on. Normal people laugh it off and get on with their lives. I worked once at an East End market and the council was always sending threatening letters and promising to prosecute stallholders. The standard response was for the men to take the letters with them when they were about to visit the lavatory, telling their mates that they were going to wipe their arse with the council’s latest nonsense. This indicates that ordinary working class people tend to have a much healthier and more robust view of the realities of the world than some neurotic, middle class types!

There are signs that this kind of thing is starting to subside a little. It coincides with the latest figures, which show that home education is no longer on the increase. Perhaps in a year or two it will all be over. Those who seized upon home education as an alternative remedy like homeopathy will send their kids back to school and get on with their lives. The only remaining home educators will be those who genuinely want to home educate; those who choose to undertake their child’s education for positive and ideological reasons.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Trivialising the Holocaust

One of the most awful consequences of Graham Badman’s enquiry into home educating was that quite a few home educating parents began quoting Pastor Niemoller; the anti-Nazi church leader who was imprisoned in a concentration camp for years. I am sure that we are all familiar with what he said, which is often phrased in the form of a poem, ‘First they came for the…’ More particularly, reference is made to the Jews,

Then they came for the Jews,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

That anybody could be so hideously crass as to compare the extermination of six million Jews with receiving a circular from the council defies all belief and yet it is still happening. The latest example is on a blog about home education and it may be found here:

The author of the blog, Nikki Harper, was, like all home educators known to Lincolnshire County Council, sent a letter outlining their new policy and it was this which prompted her to compare her suffering to that of Pastor Niemoller and the Jews who died in the Holocaust. It is little wonder that many local authorities regard home educating parents askance when this sort of nonsense is common. Of course, she is not the first home educator to compare herself to Pastor Niemoller, nor I suspect will she be the last. I urge home educating parents to consider how offensive this sort of thing is to Jews and how monumentally tacky it appears to those who are not.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Parental 'rights'

Does anybody else ever feel like hunting down certain home educators and beating them round the head with a rolled up copy of the Guardian, until they stop talking like idiots? No? maybe it’s just me. Once again, I have encountered somebody who suggests that there are such things as ‘parents’ rights’. Needless to say, a very important ‘right’ is the ‘right to home educate’. Let me try one last despairing time to make this clear; children have rights and the adults around them, including their parents, have duties. These are two completely different things.

To see the absurdity of the notion of a ‘right to home educate’, let us look at some of the  rights which children enjoy. Among these are the right to be sheltered and fed, the right to an education, the right to protection from abuse and exploitation, as well as a number of others. Parents have a duty to ensure that these rights of their children are observed. Education and protection from abuse are precisely the same sort of rights, but some parents get muddled up and start thinking that education is some sort of right of theirs; this is why you will sometimes hear foolish and misguided people talking about their ’right to home educate’ their child. This is dangerous nonsense and to see why, it is only necessary to think what we would say if a parent began appropriating some other of the children’s rights and claiming that they were actually parental rights. How would this work?

Well, children in this country have a right not to be sexually abused or trafficked. Suppose I decide that this is in fact my right. I might say, ’As Mary’s father, I have a right to decide whether she is sexually abused or trafficked.’ This sounds wrong, because of course this is not a parental right, but a duty. In the same way, I could not claim that I had a right to decide whether my child had access to food or not. She has a right to be fed and I have a duty to see that she receives food. Claims such as, 'I have a right to home educate my child', are wrong for precisely the same reason. The parent has a duty to ensure that the child recieves an education; this is very different from having a right.  

As soon as parents start talking about ’rights’ over their children, they fall into error. We have no rights at all; just duties. Our children have a right to an education and parents have a duty to see that they get it. We can fulfil this duty in a number of different ways and as long as we see it in that light, as a duty and not a right, we will not go far wrong. Any talk of parental rights, whether about education, food, sex or anything else, is abhorrent and shows a horrible misunderstanding of both the legal and ethical situation.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Oxford University and home education

My daughter has now been at Oxford University for eight months or so; long enough for me to make a few tentative observations on the matter. The first thing I have noticed is that the tutorial system used at Oxford suits home educated young people very well. At most universities, large groups of students attend lectures in what is essentially another version of the classroom teaching which most of them experienced at school. At Oxford, on the other hand, one professor meets with a few students in a normal room to discuss the subject under consideration. Some of these meetings are one to one.

This method of education is very similar to the conversational teaching which most home educating parents use routinely with their children. The child expresses a view and the parent responds. Instead of one person being a teacher and the other a pupil, it is a cooperative process. This was certainly the way that things were done when my daughter was being educated at home and it worked brilliantly. The Oxford system is simply a natural extension of this.

One thing that my daughter has remarked upon is that many of the students seem to have the same attitudes as those at school. She herself chose to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics because she had always been fascinated by philosophy and, to a lesser extent, by politics and economics. This does not at all seem to be the case with many of the other students. They have evidently chosen to do PPE not because they are interested in philosophy, but rather because this subject is likely to help them get on in the future. When my daughter attempts to discuss some aspect of politics, she has been told on more than one occasion, ‘Oh, don’t talk about work; we want to have fun.’ This struck her, and me, as quite extraordinary. These are young people who still think in school terms of being made to learn things that they don’t want to so that they can get the right qualification.