Friday, 25 January 2013

A couple of days away...

It is pretty obvious that there is no appetite among readers for learning more about the history of home education in this country. One can always tell when people are becoming twitchy and trying to prevent further information being published here! Yesterday, for example, one person commenting expressed the view that it would be better if I were to discuss the educational system in Prussia. Prussia of course ceased to exist as an independent state on the unification of Germany in 1871! Others then followed with various foolish questions, such as asking if I thought that all those who advocated self-sufficiency were Marxists. The effect of this sort of thing is to render any rational discourse impossible; but then I dare say that  was the purpose.

There is nothing unusual of course about this. Followers of cults, religions, political parties and unconventional belief systems in general, often become anxious when people are looking objectively at their origins. I quite understand this. It is, never the less, a pity. To give one example, we are all familiar with the fuss about home visits and local authority officers requiring sight of children. None of those involved in the current conflict about this aspect of British home education seem to have asked themselves how and why this situation arose. As I explained a couple of days ago, it was once the practice to invite parents to the divisional office, without their children, for a chat. The reasons that this changed in the mid 1970s are fascinating and have a good deal to do with the actions of a tiny minority of home educators. Having precipitated this, these same people promptly went mad and began demanding judicial reviews…

Still, there it is; Vox Populei, Vox Dei. If people prefer to cling to myths and legends, who am I to object? I shall not be answering any comments for the next few days, because I have a signing and some publicity in Colchester for my latest book. Those who wish to meet me in person may turn up at Waterstones at 12:PM on Saturday.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The origin of the British home education 'movement'; Part 1

We looked yesterday at home education in this country during the early 1970s. There was no home education ‘movement’ or ‘community’ at that time and relations between home educators and local authorities were generally amicable. This was to change dramatically over the next decade or two.

To understand the modern British home education movement, it is necessary to examine its roots, which lie in the Alternative Society of the late 60s and early 70s. Many young people and also a few older ones, felt that traditional society was finished and that the future would consist not of a monolithic, capitalist system, but rather of small communes and self-sufficient farms. The people living in such places would grow their own food, make their own furniture and clothes, treat illnesses without conventional doctors or medicine and, above all, avoid schools like the plague. Schools were seen as being quasi-fascist institutions which indoctrinated children into taking their places as cogs in capitalism’s machine. There were many attempts at this time to set up self-sufficient communities. The television sitcom The Good Life mocks this sort of mentality, which was pretty common in the early 1970s.

In 1972, a man called Stanley Windlass was running a Children’s Rights centre in North London. Children’s Rights were another big thing in those days. The idea was that children were being treated as second class citizens and should enjoy the same rights as adults. This movement too was opposed to schools. Windlass took a lease on a farm near Swindon and set it up as an alternative place, where he could grow organic vegetables and prepare for the collapse of conventional society; long predicted by Marxist ideology and now seemingly imminent. The closest parallel to the mindset of people who followed this pattern of thought is perhaps the present-day American survivalists.

Once he had his farm running, Windlass got in touch with a man called Dick Kitto and offered him a job at Lower Shaw Farm. Kitto had run a project at a school in the north of England, working with what we would today call disaffected pupils. The raising of the school leaving age to sixteen in 1972, had caused a bit of a crisis in some schools. Kitto worked with a group of fifteen and sixteen year-olds, providing an ‘alternative’ education which consisted of visits out and and about and practical work with their hands. Kitto was also a keen organic gardener and believer in complementary medicine. He is best know to day for his book; Planning the Organic Vegetable Garden. He also arranged for John Holt's books to be published in this country and drew attention to Gatto.

The two men shared the same views on education. Roughly, these were that school education was hopeless for practical survival. Instead of teaching children about quadratic equations and the date of the Battle of Waterloo, we should instead be showing them how to grow their own food, weave clothes and treat illnesses without needing doctors. They made contact with a half dozen or so parents who were similarly opposed to conventional education and refused to send their children to school. One of these was Iris Harrison. She shared the belief of Windlass and Kitto that children were better off digging the soil, mending furniture and learning about alternative medicine. None of these parents were at all like the average home educator at that time. All were radical unschoolers who, for various reasons, hated school. Iris Harrison’s husband, for example, had truanted a lot as a boy and felt that he had learned more while truanting than he had in the classroom. The overall feeling of this small group was less pro-home education than it was anti-school. It was from this beginning that Education Otherwise grew. From the very start, those involved were a tiny and unrepresentative minority of British home educators.

I think that we have covered enough for one day. I shall continue the story over the next week or so, tracing the development of the home education ‘movement’ in this country and examining whether it has been a force for good or ill. Before we finish, I think that I should address a few words to those who will dismiss all this as an historical curiosity, with no conceivable relevance for today’s home educators. I would like to point out that the ideology which was current in the 1970s is still going strong among many members of the home educating ‘community’. I shall restrict myself to two examples. Commenting on this blog a few days ago, somebody claimed that;

A person who can make their own clothes, grow, cook and preserve their own food, account for and manage money will have a skillset that is not only saleable but will ensure they can ever after provide for their needs without falling back on the public purse. To me, that is what defines a suitable education.

Here is somebody who still thinks that it is possible in this country to achieve self-sufficiency in food and clothing, just like The Good Life! It would be interesting to meet even the most successful farmer who is able to rely only upon the food which he grows to provide for his needs.

Here is another interesting case which shows that the home education movement in this country still tends towards this Utopian vision. A very well known home educator fled to Ireland last year, because social services were about to take action to protect her children. Readers might have seen the appeal for funds to help her, signed by many prominent figures in British home education. How had she fallen foul of social services? We do not know the full story, but she says it was because:

A few months ago I shamefully attended a meeting about how to obtain Organic Food, leaving my young children in the care of their 17yr old brother,

There is of course more to it than that, but it just had to involve ‘organic food’…

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Home Education in the Early 1970s

There is something of a mythology associated with home education in this country. It runs like this. In the early 1970s, there were a tiny handful of home educating parents who were mercilessly pursued by the authorities. They were threatened with the loss of their children and attempts were made to force them to send their children to school. Just look at poor Iris Harrison. Then, a handful of brave parents got together and formed an organisation dedicated to protecting the interests of home educators and fighting to make the practice acceptable. Slowly, they did so; until today we can all enjoy the fruits of their struggle. Key court cases in the early 1980s established the right of parents to home educate.

Like all myths, there is a bit of truth in this, but precious little. In fact home education was an accepted educational option long before legal decisions such as Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson 1981 or Phillips v Brown 1980. I have in front of me several Penguin Education Specials from the early 1970s and they shed an interesting light upon how home education was viewed by local authorities at that time. I can thoroughly recommend School is Dead, by Everett Reimer and Free Way to Learning, by David Head. It is at the latter book that I wish to look, because it tells us a good deal about home education forty years ago.

Parents who did not wish to send their children to school in the early 1970s had various options. Setting up their own schools was a lot easier than it is now and quite a few were established in disused buildings. Freightliners in Camden was one such, as was White Lion Free School in Islington. Up in Manchester there was Parkfield Street in Moss Side. I was on the fringe of a couple of these ‘schools’. I use quotation marks, because these were really just groups of home educating parents who clubbed together and found a place where their children could learn. Local authorities were not at all opposed to this. They even provided premises for such home educating groups to use.

In addition to communal setups of this sort, there were plenty of parents who simply taught their children themselves. Luckily, we have a snapshot of local authority attitudes to such parents, because in Free Way to Learning, David Head interviewed some local authority inspectors and asked them what they thought of home education and how they got on with home educators. Now according to the popular mythology, they should at this time have been bitterly opposed to home education and determined to get the kids back into school. In, fact they were all, without exception, well disposed towards home education. Also, and this again goes against the what many people now seem to believe, all of them knew home educators; there were plenty around. We cannot do better than to look at what these local authority inspectors said;

We used to ask to see timetables, but with the changes in child education today that could be embarrassing. We also ask for samples of work, and again, changes could mean we’d be satisfied with, for example, tape recordings. The interviews are friendly.

The great thing we’d look for used to be some sort of programme, kinds of books read etc. Usually we found that parents’ approach was way-out reactionary and they had no idea of modern methods.

In fact we couldn’t these days really ask that a child covered a particular subject regularly.

These inspectors were speaking in 1972, five years before Education Otherwise began and almost ten years before the judgment in the Iris Harrison case. One thing stands out and that is that they are talking a lot in the past tense. They used to ask for this and that, but now things are a lot more free and easy. One of them is worried that parents tend to be too reactionary in their teaching methods; he says elsewhere that he does not like to see homes being run like schools! It is clear that these local authority officers have had a good deal of experience of home education and are absolutely fine with it. They are also becoming pretty laid back about the type of evidence that they might want to see and they are no longer interested in timetables.

None of this really ties in with the idea that local authorities forty years ago were dead against home education. They were not only familiar with it, but were pretty much in favour of it. In some ways, things were even better for home educators forty years ago than they are now! Can anybody imagine a local authority today leasing a building to home educators at a nominal rent, as Islington did for the White Lion Free School? Even home visits were not the norm. Here is an inspector for ILEA, the Inner London Education Authority;

The practice is for the District Inspector to see the parent at the divisional education offices and inquire into the details of the arrangements that had been made for educating the child.

Parents meeting the LA, without the child being seen and on neutral ground, away from the home! Evidence in the form of tape recordings, rather than written work, providing premises; things certainly seemed to be going pretty smoothly for home education forty years ago. Yet within ten years, there was confrontation, legal cases and all sorts of trouble. What went wrong? It is at this that we shall be looking in a day or two.

Why should I wish to delve about in the past in this way? What possible relevance has it for today's home educators? It will show how we moved from a situation where local authorities were by and large happy to see parents educating their own children to the position today, where there is a good deal of animosity and tension between the two groups. Those who wish to believe that this has nothing to do with the past, may of course simply not read this. I would not wish to shatter too many illusions!

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The origins of Education Otherwise and a major strand of British home education

British home education may be roughly divided into two major strands. These may not inaptly be called the sensible and silly movements. Over the last week or two, we have mainly been looking at the silly movement; founded  by the sort of people who would advise their children to shoot local authority officers, rather than show them what they have been doing lately in history or mathematics. (I think Iris Harrison knows who we’re talking about here!) Many of these early and high profile home educators were associated with, or were fellow travellers of, the so-called ’Children’s Rights’ movement in the early 1970s.

Before we go any further, here is a question for modern home educators. What sort of irresponsible lunatic would say that it is fine for an eight year-old girl to have sex with a grown man? Can nobody guess? Here’s a clue, it is the same person who also thought that children should be allowed to take heroin if they wished, work in factories, vote at the age of six and drive cars at literally any age at all. I am surprised that some readers did not get the answer to this! It was of course that great ideologue and founding father of home education; John Holt.

I know that I have talked before of John Holt and his mad beliefs, but last night I re-read his masterpiece; the book in which he sets out his vision for the future of childhood. This book, Escape from Childhood, E. P. Dutton 1974, is a vision of hell. Children are working in factories and mines, rather than being educated; they are drinking alcohol and using heroin; having sex with adults as and when they feel like. This then is John Holt’s Utopia, his vision of the ideal childhood. Not going to school is only a small part of this new world that he envisages and urges us to bring into being.

John Holt was writing from the same perspective as many of those in this country who became known as militant home educators in the 1970s, the sort of people who founded Education Otherwise. I am not at all sure that those today who speak enthusiastically of John Holt really know what he was up to and the things that he believed. This is relevant to home education in this country today, because the ideas that he espoused are still going strong among some parents. We shall be looking into this in detail in future posts and trying to distinguish this type of political or ideological home educator from the more traditional ones; those whose interest in home education is purely… educational.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Good and bad advice

I have been musing today on the disadvantages for home educated children, particularly the older ones, whose parents refuse to have any dealings with their local authority. I have been prompted to do this by my recent exchanges in the comments on this blog with a person who believes that a teenager who takes no examinations and learns about nothing but housework will be in a better position to gain employment than a graduate of Oxford University. Now before we go any further, I am quite prepared to believe that the person expressing these views is a muddle-headed crank, but there is a little more to the case than that. Let us see what was said and why this has a bearing on home education in general.

After discussing the case of a woman, Joy Baker, who refused to enter her children for any examinations and felt that girls should only learn about cooking and childcare, the comment was made that:

I'll warrant then that Joy's girls would have had to learn cookery, nutrition, household management, child care and basic account keeping - all valuable life skills and skills that would have enabled them to earn a living since these are services people pay for. On the other hand Simon Webb managed to equip his daughter to take a degree in the "non-subject" of philosophy. On balance I know which education seems to have been the most suitable.

He or she then went on to say:

A philosophy graduate may be lucky enough to find a reasonably well paid job. I doubt they will ever actually produce anything and most likely they will forever be a burden on the public purse - I suspect there are not too many openings for philosophy graduates in the private sector.

Now it is plain that here is a person who believes that a child raised at home without taking any examinations, or even studying conventional academic subjects, will be better placed in the job market than an Oxford graduate. This is an utterly bizarre notion and the evidence is wholly against it.

There are several problems with this point of view, which is not a particularly uncommon one to see expressed by some home educating parents. First, it is false. All the evidence is that university graduates in general earn far more over their lifetime than those who do not attend university. There is an added ‘premium’ for universities in the Russell Group. Graduates from these places are viewed with particular favour by potential employers. The subject of the degree is not all that important. Few of those who study history go on to become historians, just as few of those who study philosophy become philosophers! It is the degree itself and the nature of the university from which it was obtained that count highly.

The idea that there could be any advantage in not studying academic subjects or having GCSEs or A levels, is also a strange one. There is a direct and strong correlation between the possession of five GCSEs and employment prospects, to say nothing of life chances in general. The same person who felt that a childhood spent learning domestic drudgery was a better education than one spent at university said;

A person who can make their own clothes, grow, cook and preserve their own food, account for and manage money will have a skillset that is not only saleable but will ensure they can ever after provide for their needs without falling back on the public purse.

This may be true if you are living in the Middle Ages, but for city dwellers in a 21st Century, industrial society, it is something of a fantasy.

Where do visits from the local authority come into this? If a parent were to be in contact with her local authority and having visits from an adviser, she would be far less likely to believe foolish and dangerous nonsense of this sort. At the very least, she would have access to somebody who could explain to her that a girl learning about nothing but cooking and taking care of babies, one who studied no academic subjects nor took any examinations, would not really be receiving a better education than one who went on to university. Nor would she really be in a better situation for getting a job. Although, as I said, the person commenting here was clearly a little strange, this attitude about education is by no means unknown among British home educators.

I suppose that I should at this point remind readers that I am not saying that any child who does not take A levels and go to university is a failure. One of my daughters left school at sixteen and started work at once. The other went to university. Both are successful in their own fields. It would have been sad though if neither had realised the opportunities available to her, if one had wanted to go to college say, and then found that this required GCSEs which she hadn't taken because nobody told her that she would need them.  Fortunately, both girls  had access to careers advice through school and college and were able to weigh up their future options. The home educated teenager who has no contact with either school or the local authority might not have access to impartial advice about further or higher education. It is possible that her parents too will tell her, ‘Don’t worry dear, learning about cookery and childcare at home and not taking any examinations is a much more suitable education for you than trying to get a place at Oxford.’ You couldn’t, as they say, make it up!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The concept of ultra vires and its inapplicability to home education

If there is one expression sure to be used by home educators in letters, blog posts, submissions to select committees and complaints to local authorities; it must surely be ‘ultra vires’! It is brandished like a talisman or magic incantation by many parents, as though the words alone will act to discourage interest or interference in the lifestyle which they have chosen for their children. This is absurd and in this article we shall see why.

Ultra vires’ is simply a Latin phrase meaning ‘beyond one’s legal power or authority’. It is sometimes translated as ‘beyond the law’ and this has given some parents the idea that an ‘ultra vires’ action is in some sense ‘against the law’ or illegal. Nothing of the sort. To understand the concept of ultra vires, as applied to local authorities, it is necessary to go back a few years, to the situation as it existed before 2000. Until the passing of the Local Government Act 2000, local authorities were very strictly bound in what they could and could not do. Essentially, they could only do those things which legislation specifically gave them the power to do. If they attempted something else, they were open to challenge that their actions were ultra vires. All that was necessary to prove this was to show that the local authority had not been required by law to undertake some duty or project. I worked in the London boroughs of Hackney and Haringey during the 1980s and 1990s and this sort of legal challenge was not uncommon.

The Local Government Act 2000 changed all that. Section 2 gave local authorities the general power to promote well-being socially and economically. They are no longer restricted only to doing what they are legally required to do, but can take any steps they feel necessary in that direction. There are limits of course. They cannot undertake actions which they are specifically forbidden to take by other laws. This act had the effect of making most ultra vires challenges exceedingly hard to sustain against local authorities . In the case of the monitoring of home education, such a challenge is now all but impossible.

Here is the basis for many of the complaints by home educating parents that their local authority is going beyond its authority; further than its legal powers. In the 2007 Guidelines for Local Authorities on Elective Home Education, we find this clear and unambiguous statement of the legal position:

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

We know that some local authorities do monitor the quality of home education on a routine basis, so surely this is ultra vires? They are going beyond their authority? Before 2000, this would almost certainly have been the case and a challenge in the courts might well have succeeded. Not now though. The monitoring of home education is undertaken as part of the general power of pursuing social well-being. There may be no duty to monitor home education, but there is certainly no law forbidding it! As such, local authorities may simply go ahead and do it. To make this a little clearer let us consider the case of a local authority which insures something with a particular company. They have no duty to use that company, but they are free to do so if they wish.

Let us sum things up so that they become clearer.

1. Local authorities have no duty to monitor home education.

2. No legislation forbids local authorities to monitor home education.

3. To undertake a duty intended for social well-being, although not

    specified in any legislation, is permitted under the 2000 Local

    Government Act, as long as the action is not forbidden elsewhere in


Of course, there is nothing to stop anybody from seeking a judicial review of such actions by a local authority. I have heard of three cases where preliminary moves have been made in this direction. In each case, solicitors, and in one case counsel, advised that the case had no legs.

I hope that this has made things a little clearer about the doctrine of ultra vires. Cases of this sort  against local authorities since the 2000 Local Government Act  have gone into freefall and other developments are likely to make a challenge on this ground even less likely to succeed. It might be time for parents to stop scattering the phrase 'ultra vires'  around indiscriminately in their communications, because all it really tells a local authority is that the person making this threat is hopelessly out of touch with the modern world!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Joy Baker

When I wrote a couple of days ago about the mythology of home education in this country, I was reproached by one reader for failing to mention Joy Baker. Since I shall shortly have much more to say about the mythos of British home education, this might be a good place to begin.

The standard story circulating among home educators is that Joy Baker was an ordinary housewife in the English county of Norfolk and that she decided in the early 1950s to educate her own children, rather than sending them to school. The local authority were outraged at the idea that a housewife could think herself competent to educate her children and so tried for years to force her to send the kids to school. She eventually triumphed and her victory in 1961 paved the way for modern home education in this country.

So much for the legend. Let us now look at the real story of Joy Baker. We cannot do better than allow her to speak for herself and explain in her own words what she was up to. Here are two clips of her talking about home education:

Several interesting things strike one about these interviews. The first of course is that Mrs Baker is one of those people about whom I recently wrote, parents who hated school themselves and so decided not to send their children to school. Education does not enter into the question. She describes her own school days as ‘thoroughly unhappy’, says that schools are places of ‘great unhappiness’, dislikes teachers and schools in general and does not seem to wish to talk about her children’s education at all. To this extent, she cuts a familiar enough figure, being typical of many modern home educating parents.

Watching the first of these clips is a sobering experience. I remember those times vividly and I can tell readers that the home shown here is pretty much what would at that time have been called a ‘slum’. There are no books, nothing to indicate that any kind of education is taking place; as indeed it was not. Of which, more later.

So what was the sequence of events which led to Mrs Baker crossing swords with Norfolk County Council? There is no mystery about this. The council became aware that the children were not attending school. This in itself was not alarming; there have always been home educated children in this country. They simply wrote to Mrs Baker and asked her to give an outline of the education that she was providing for her children. She refused, telling them in effect that it was none of their business. This went on for a while and eventually they sent someone to visit. We have seen the film of the home. The council officer found herself in a home which was next door to being a slum and which contained four children who did not appear to be receiving any sort of education. Mrs Baker makes her views clear enough in the interviews. If the children wish to learn about conventional subjects, well they can do that when they are older. It’s not her responsibility. The county council disagreed. It must be borne in mind that it was not home education that Norfolk County Council objected to. They simply wanted to be sure that the children, in particular the girls, really were receiving an education.

It is time now to consider another point, one which is invariably left out of the accounts which modern home educators read. Joy Baker thought that girls did not really need a formal education. As long as they learned to cook, do the laundry, mind small children and so on; this was enough education in itself. Boys needed a richer education, but for girls it was different. It can surprise nobody that when the local authority realised all this, they told Mrs Baker that she would either have to provide a proper education for all her children or send them to school.

It might be argued that attitudes were different in the 1950s and that this sort of view about the inferior education which would be sufficient for girls was not uncommon in those days. Incredibly, there are still home educators today who agree with this point of view; parents who think that girls are better off just learning to cook and clean! I said at the beginning of this piece that somebody commenting here had reproached me for not mentioning Joy Baker. I explained briefly about this case and the person then astounded me by pretty much saying that this was right and that it was better for girls to be taught what used to be called ‘mothercraft’ or ‘domestic science’ than going on to university. Here is the exchange, which may be found on the thread on this blog headed; British home education; examining the mythos. I said:

You do know why Norfolk County Council was uneasy about Mrs Baker educating her children, don't you? I am talking about such things as her view that girls needed only a rudimentary education, because they would only be going on to be housewives, that sort of thing?

The response of the person who had commented was to say:

I'll warrant then that Joy's girls would have had to learn cookery, nutrition, household management, child care and basic account keeping - all valuable life skills and skills that would have enabled them to earn a living since these are services people pay for. On the other hand Simon Webb managed to equip his daughter to take a degree in the "non-subject" of philosophy. On balance I know which education seems to have been the most suitable.

Yes, in this day and age, over half a century after the Joy Baker case, there are still home educating parents in this country who feel that it is more important for girls to learn to cook and look after babies than it is for them to aspire to university! I think that this renders all comment on my part superfluous.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Buzzwords and catchphrases

Anybody at all familiar with the British home education scene will be aware of the way in which certain words and expressions are seized upon and then used and misused to death. Some word will catch the attention of home educating parents who do not really know its meaning and they will then work it into almost everything they write. ‘Conflation’ was one such word which enjoyed a vogue two or three years ago. The problem is that it quickly became apparent that few of those employing the word actually understood its meaning. Conflation means the combining of disparate things into a single entity. We might, for instance talk of, ‘the conflation of military and economic assistance’ to a country. Now possibly because both words began with the same four letters and ended with ‘ion’, many home educators soon persuaded themselves that ‘conflation’ was a synonym for ‘confusion’. This gave their observations a slightly surreal air, to say nothing of making the authors appear, at best, semi-literate.

Another old favourite, still widely used, has been ultra vires. The idiosyncratic way that this legal expression is often used makes me despair. I blame Ian Dowty for its widespread adoption by parents!

A word which has been gaining ground in the vocabulary of home educating parents over the course of the last year or two is ‘statist’. This is invariably used in a pejorative sense, as in ‘That Ed Balls; what a statist!’. Once again, it is clear that few of those using the word have the least idea what it means. They evidently believe that a ‘statist’ is somebody who wants more state intervention in the lives of citizens! I imagine that this meaning has been arrived at by a neat bit of folk etymology. ‘Statism’ sounds a bit like ‘state’ and must therefore indicate state control, right? Well, no. Wrong, actually!

Over the last fifteen years or so, we have witnessed a massive increase in state interference in our private lives. This is absolutely undeniable and we have now reached a point where applying for a job can require the production of one’s passport; a situation unthinkable even a few years ago. The state seems determined to poke about in every aspect of our affairs. Side by side with this rise in state intervention in our lives has been a corresponding and dramatic decline in statism. Statism is the doctrine that strong and centralised control is beneficial for society; control of the police, social policy, economic affairs and so on. The political developments which we have seen over the last decade and a half are the opposite of statism. From the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, to the recent introduction of locally elected Police Commissioners; everywhere we look, statism is on the run.

Why does it matter to me if many home educating parents use words and phrases in a bizarre fashion? I suppose the main reason is that it casts home educators in a poor light. These are supposedly fulltime educators and they do not apparently even own dictionaries which would enable them to check the meanings of unfamiliar words! I am not of course the only person to notice this. Many of the submissions made to select committees, letters to newspapers, public statements by people on behalf of other home educators and so on, are riddled with elementary errors of language and grammar. Since, as I say, these are people claiming to be educating the younger generation, it does tend to give a poor impression. If they cannot write coherent English, some might say, how on earth can they hope to provide a decent education for their children?

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

British home education; examining the mythos

Most political, religious and social movements have their heroes and martyrs; people who stood up for what they believed in, no matter what the cost. British home education is no exception to this general rule. Many home educating parents today are able glibly to quote the judgements upon which they believe their ‘right’ to home educate is founded; Phillips v Brown 1980, Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson 1981 and the rest. These are the key cases which a lot of home educators today feel established home education in this country as a recognised alternative to school. This is not really true and the fact that the idea has become ossified into almost an article of faith sheds an interesting light upon home education as it is often practiced today.

The first thing to remember is that parents in this country have been home educating without any problem for centuries. That parents were the best people to teach their children was taken for granted. It has often been remarked that our present queen was home educated, but the practice was not restricted to the wealthy and privileged. Throughout the years following the Second World War, there were parents who taught their children at home quite openly and with no interference from their local authorities. This continued up to the 1970s. It was then that things took a turn for the worse or became immeasurably better, depending upon your point of view.

During the 1970s, there were quite a few people teaching their own children. Some did not send their children in the first place, while others took them out of school to teach them at home. The general attitude of local authorities was that as long as the kids were being taught at least as well as they would be at school, there was no problem. In the early 1970s, a number of parents of this sort banded together to rent premises and start home educating groups. I was involved in one or two projects of this sort.

Some of the home educators at that time later became famous. Harry Lawrence, father of Ruth was one such. Home education was being undertaken openly and without conflict with the authorities. Until that is, several high profile cases which created confrontation with local authorities and made them suspicious of the whole business. At about the same time that Harry Lawrence was home educating his daughter, two parents in Leeds were asked by their local authority for some account of the education which they were providing for their son, whose name was Oak. The local authority had no problem with home education as such, there were others doing it in Leeds. They just wanted to assure themselves that the child was receiving an education and not being left to his own devices. The parents refused to say anything at all about the education being provided and as a result, the case came to court.

While this was going on, Iris Harrison’s children were also not attending school. She made it clear that she was not teaching her children, preferring for them to decide for themselves what they wished to do. It is worth bearing in mind that the local authority were worried about her children because they had been diagnosed as being educationally sub-normal. They were thought to be in need of specialised education and the authority was concerned that they might not be receiving this.

There were other reasons to be concerned. Mrs Harrison had told the children that they should fire a rifle at the feet of any local authority officers who tried to approach the home. With the best will in the world, any local authority which failed to investigate children with special educational needs whose parents were encouraging this sort of reckless behaviour would be negligent. We must also remember that the Harrison children were very unusual in other ways. As adults, they told their mother that if they had not been home educated, then they would all have been in mental hospitals or prisons when they grew up. There was more to this story than met the eye.

In short, up until around 1980, local authorities accepted the right of parents to teach their own children at home and the practice was viewed as being unremarkable. All that was asked was that some account of the education should be given and that parents would be prepared to discuss the matter. People like Harry Lawrence had no problems with his local authority because rather than urging Ruth to shoot at local authority officers, he was teaching her mathematics.

The main thing that the cases in the late 1970s and early 1980s were about was not home education as such. That ’right’ was never in doubt. These landmark cases were to do with whether or not parents had to teach their children and also tell their local authorities what they were teaching. This is quite a different matter and it is perfectly possible to be a fervent supporter of home education, while at the same time accepting that local authorities need to know what is going on.   It was, according to the views of some, at this point that things began to go wrong. Up until that time, home education had been concerned only with the teaching and education of children. It was in the late 1970s that not sending children to school became a political act; frequently undertaken by those with an axe to grind and who tended to be opposed, as a matter of principle, to authority in general.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Putting it all together

In the first post that I made this year, I remarked upon the extraordinary levels of anger displayed by quite a few home educators in the public sphere. Now if this were anger directed only  at me, it would be nothing remarkable. I am an unusually irritating person, given to asking questions and expressing strong opinions. A natural consequence of this is that I do tend to piss off a fair few people! However, the anger of which I wrote is also aimed by these home educators at others. Their targets include teachers, schools, local authorities, doctors, psychologists, newspaper reporters and other home educators; to name but a few. Many of them appear to be in a permanent state of tension, ready to erupt in fury at the least provocation.

We have over the last couple of weeks examined one or two causes of this perpetual anger. Some of those at whom we looked have neurological difficulties, wiring problems in the brain if you like, which make it hard for them to understand what others are getting at. This naturally results in their growing frustrated and angry at things which make no sense to them. Others, who have no obvious disorder, cannot follow logical trains of thought. They are incapable of separating ideas into the correct category. This means that they are unable to distinguish between sensible and foolish arguments. This has the effect of making them angry, because they simply don’t get what people are trying to say.

Yesterday, I touched upon another source of anger in quite a few of the home educators who are familiar to us from lists and blogs. These are people whose experiences at school were bad and have therefore picked up from an early age a dislike of and opposition to authority in general. This colours all that they do, say and believe. Combined with an inability to weigh evidence and follow a coherent line of thought, it all makes for a pretty lethal combination! This dislike and distrust of authority makes such people prone to following all sorts of fringe beliefs, some of which may be harmful to their children. How does this work in practice? Well, two obvious examples are teaching and vaccination. The authorities and practically everybody else for the last four thousand years or so have always believed that children need to be taught. We will reject the authorities, while at the same time giving one in the eye to those teachers we so dislike, say such individuals. We will not teach our children as a matter of routine, but only if they specifically ask us to do so. There, that’s put one over on authority and no mistake! We are doing the opposite to what the authorities say we should do.

This attitude can lead to worse courses of action than this though. Authority says that vaccinations are a good idea and will protect your child from German Measles or Mumps. Ha, you fool! Don’t you realise that you will give your kids mercury poisoning or autism if you obey authority? Readers might care to correlate the most angry home educators with those who express the most opposition to the MMR vaccine. The initial dislike of authority, combined with the fact that these people cannot understand how to evaluate evidence, means that they end up hazarding the health of their children.

We are almost ready to pull all the threads together and put together an overview of the home education movement in this country. This will enable us to understand a number of things which do not make any sense to those with children at school. Things such as a dislike of regular teaching, the refusal to allow any monitoring of children, widespread adherence to unconventional ideas and the toxic levels of anger which are on show wherever one looks; not only on the internet, but in the day to day dealings of many of these parents with others.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Another strand in British home education

We have looked in the course of the last week or two at a couple of major strands in British home education. There are of course others, including the one I wish to examine today.

A sizeable proportion of home educating parents in this country have worked as school teachers. This is also the case in the USA. In contrast to this group is another, perhaps as large, whose members hate schools, teachers and anything which smacks in the least of formal education. Of course, there is a good deal of overlap between these groups and the others of which I have lately been writing. For example, I mentioned the mother/daughter pairs with neurological disorders a little while ago. A well known member in this group comes from a family of teachers and was herself married to a teacher. Another parent in this category, on the other hand, belongs to the group who hate schools and had unhappy experiences there.

Let us look at one of the parents whose decision to home educate was motivated less by the needs of her child than by residual anger felt by her towards authority figures in her childhood. Some readers may recollect that there was a campaign last year to raise money so that a home educating parent could skip the country before social services moved in on her and her children. This appeal was signed by many of the usual suspects; Barbara Stark, Neil Taylor, Alison Preuss, Maire Stafford and so on. Their efforts were successful and the woman was able to flee to Ireland. Her name will be familiar to many, but I cannot mention it for legal reasons.  She kept for a while a blog and one of the posts there shows precisely the sort of thing that I am talking about:

‘She hated school and had few friends, she was always much happier at home’ Nothing could more clearly illustrate the type of parent whose own past makes her likely to whip her child out of school at the first sign of any difficulty. We see Maire Stafford in the comments, saying, ‘That could have been me, although they did not know I was bright they criticised all the time and I got two years of the bitchiest teacher going, she picked on and exposed the shy ones.’ She is also a member of this group of home educators who hated school and still feel angry about their time there; even half a century later.

Now a thing that I have noticed is that those parents who home educate because of their own childhood misery tend to be a lot angrier than ordinary home educators. Their anger is directed not only against teachers and schools, but also against authority in general. They are also very often the ones at the centre of schisms and rows within the home educating community. Maire Stafford is of course famous for falling out with anybody who disagrees with her views on home education. She is a bitter enemy of Cheryl Moy, whose blog I drew attention to a little while ago.

This type of parent spearheads the opposition to visits from local authorities and is keen to spread news of any problems in schools; shortcomings in academic standards or cases of abuse by teachers for instance. Readers may have noticed the awful pleasure with which incidents of sexual abuse in nurseries, say, are advertised on blogs and lists run by such people. I have an idea, although I am of course quite ready to be proved wrong, that much of the anger which one sees simmering beneath the surface of some home educators is driven not by contemporary events in British education, but rather stems from childhood memories of perceived ill treatment from teachers. I need hardly add that parents in this group are, almost without exception, opponents of teaching and firm advocates of child-centred education. The extent to which this is a rational choice is open to question and it is perfectly possible that their chosen pedagogy is instead a Pavlovian response to reflexes which have their roots in childhood.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

GCSEs.... again.

I officially became a home educator in 1998, when my daughter turned five. I had of course been taking her sister out of school for a few days a week to teach her, before this, but 1998 was when I assumed sole responsibility for the education of a child of ‘school age’.

At that time, it was commonly supposed among many home educators that GCSEs would not be around for much longer and that there was little point in getting their children to sit them. After all, there were other options. Studying with the Open University was one of these, another was going to a further education college at fourteen or fifteen to take GCSEs and then A levels;  if the child wished to go on to university that is. Fifteen years later and some parents whose children are not at school have much the same kind of attitude; that GCSEs are on the way out and that even if they weren’t, they are not that important anyway.

Now I am not one who thinks that university is the be-all and end-all, the ultimate aim, of a child’s education. One of my children took A levels and went to university and the other did not. I regard both as successful, in that they both decided when they were young what it was that they wished to do. They then went on to achieve their very different goals. It was however important to me that both had the option of going to university if that was what they wanted. Which of course is where GCSEs enter the picture.

There was a time when many colleges ran GCSE courses in various subjects and if you wanted to skip GCSEs entirely and study for A levels at an FE college; well, that was also possible. You might have to work at it a little, but it was often possible to find a way round the entrance requirements. Many teenagers managed to study A levels without having very many or indeed any GCSEs or GCEs at all. Times change, of course. I have been prompted to reflect upon this by looking at the college to which my younger daughter went in 2009.

Harlow College used to be, to put the case bluntly, a really shit place. It was full of kids who were just marking time and the drop-out rate was astronomical. When my daughter applied, the college was just raising their standards. Nobody was allowed on any A level course, under any circumstances, unless they had at least five GCSEs, all at grade C or higher. There were no exceptions to this rule and it had the effect of fewer students dropping out of A levels half way through the course. A few home educated children tried to get in without GCSEs and were turned away. Even so, three years ago, there were still colleges where you could get onto an A level course without GCSEs; it was still happening.

I have dealings with Harlow College and I see now that anybody wanting to study for A level mathematics there now needs six GCSEs, one of which must be mathematics with at least a grade B. I am sure that this will reduce the drop-out rate still further, but it has the side effect of making the place even less accessible to home educated children. Ringing around, I have found the same kind of thing happening in other colleges in various parts of the country. We are moving towards a situation where sixteen year-old home educated children simply will not be able to study for A levels at colleges or sixth forms unless they have a clutch of GCSEs. This has serious implications for those who might wish to go on to university.

Of course, there are other routes into university apart from A levels. There is the IB, but this cannot be done at home. There is that old standby, the Open University, but anybody using this method stands a good chance of queering the pitch for a later application to the student loans people. Some courses, mainly those in the arts, can be entered through portfolios or auditions, but A levels are by far the commonest way in. It is worth parents bearing these factors in mind if their children are not at school. Obviously, it would be an unfortunate situation if a decision about not doing GCSEs had the later effect of preventing a child from going to university at eighteen if she wished to.

As I said earlier, fifteen years after I began as a home educator, some people are saying precisely the same things as were being said about GCSEs in 1998. Things have changed radically since then though and this must be borne in mind when reading success stories from the past of children without qualifications who managed to get into colleges and universities anyway. These routes are closing down rapidly and the time may come when formal qualifications such as GCSEs are absolutely vital if a child wishes to go into further or higher education.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Debating Lizard People

Nothing could more clearly illustrate the disordered thinking of some home educators than the adherence of many to various conspiracy theories. These range from the supposed connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, all the way through to plots by aliens or Jews to take over the world. Yes, you did read that correctly; one of the most famous figures in British home education believes that the Jews are taking over the world according to a blueprint which sounds remarkably similar to that first propounded in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Another well known figure from recent years thinks that reptiles from outer space are undertaking the same mission, by disguising themselves as heads of state, including our own dear monarch!

The attitude of  people commenting on this blog when I mentioned this sort of thing was revealing. They evidently found the notion that the British royal family were shape-shifting lizards who fed on human flesh no more unlikely than the claims of major religions such as Christianity and Islam. This too is an indication of disordered thinking and tells us a good deal about the worldview of these people, who presumably have sole responsibility for the education of their children. A chilling thought, indeed!

I think that I should briefly outline the differences between mainstream religions and crazy conspiracy theories. This will help explain why those who are unable to distinguish between the two types of belief have unscientific worldviews which might not make them the most suitable people to be undertaking the education of children.

The claims of religions such as Christianity and Islam are not scientific hypotheses. They can neither be proved nor falsified. Even if we had in theory unlimited resources and there were the most extraordinary scientific advances in the future, the existence of the Deity is not accessible to verification. The same thing goes for the various stories, myths and legends which are associated with these belief systems. I do not personally believe that Jesus rose from the dead and neither do I believe that the Prophet rode to heaven from Jerusalem on his magic horse, El Burak. Many people do believe these things and there is no conceivable way, even in theory, of testing the truth of such assertions. They are not scientific claims.

The claim that Queen Elizabeth is not a human being at all but an ancient reptile from outer space is a scientific hypothesis. It can be tested. We could in theory take DNA samples of her majesty or even carry out exploratory operations to establish her true nature. We could also carry out excavations underground to seek for the bases of these aliens and look around Area 51 for their spaceships. This is the difference between the conspiracy theories so beloved of simple folk and the claims of mainstream religion.

When I see people commenting on this blog who are unable to grasp this fundamental difference between a scientific and non-scientific hypothesis, it fills me with dread, particularly if they are home educators. If they cannot think straight themselves, how on earth are they going to be able to teach their children to think clearly?

Of course, it may be that those commenting here are themselves members of the lizard people community. If this should be the case, then I must apologise for any inadvertent offence which I might have caused. Sensitivity is not, as my regular readers will readily concede, my long suit.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Why the thought processes of well known home educators and former home educators matter to all who educate their children at home.

I never cease to be amazed at the slippery way that the more vociferous members of what some describe as the ‘home educating community’ operate! I have talked in the last week or so about the fact that many of these characters have or claim to have neurological deficits or one sort or another. There seem to be two chief objections to my making this claim. Some say that it is untrue and others assert that even if it were true, then it is irrelevant and an attempt to smear individuals. Today, I wish to address the second of these objections; that it does not matter if prominent home educators are adherents of the New World Order conspiracy theory or are bipolar or whatever else I have been discussing here. Why would I even raise this as a topic to be debated?

The first thing to realise is that campaigns to change the regulations governing home education in this country or to ensure that it remains the same are undertaken by a fairly small number of activists. This is of course not restricted to home education; the same thing is true of most campaigns to change or not change the law. I am not sure if readers realise though, just how few are involved in the case of home education. The current guidance on the law relating to home education was issued in 2007 and affects everybody who is home educating and also those who come into contact with them professionally, such as local authorities and so on. A couple of years ago, an attempt was made to change these guidelines completely and replace them with a new set. This project was undertaken by a mere eight home educators, together with one MP, who happened to be Chair of a select committee. This means that eight people might have been able to push through regulations which would have affected every single home educating parent in this country.

Looking a little further back, those organising the opposition to the Graham Badman proposals numbered perhaps two or three hundred out of the fifteen to thirty thousand home educating parents in England and Wales. They were led by a hard core of no more than forty or fifty. Yet these people managed to prevent a law being passed. It does not matter whether we see this was a good or bad thing; the fact is that it happened. This too affected every home educating parent in the country.

When a small number of people undertake activities of this sort which affect tens of thousands of other people, I think it quite reasonable to look into their motives and ask whether all is as it appears on the surface. Frankly,  I am taken aback to discover that most of those commenting here do not agree with this idea. It was seen as perfectly acceptable to make personal enquiries about the background, life, family and motives of Graham Badman in an effort to stop his proposals being adopted. He was accused of stupidity, laziness, cruelty, incompetence, greed and corruption, to mention but a few of the things said about him on lists and in the comments on online articles. The rule seems to be that if somebody is perceived as being opposed to home education, then it is fine to delve into their background and ask the most searching questions, attributing base motives to them. If questions are asked of those who campaign to leave the law on home education unchanged however, such questions are regarded as unsporting!

This then is why I feel that it important to know why people are fighting either to change the law or leave it unchanged. In either case, there will be an effect upon tens of thousands of children. I have a pretty good grasp of the motives of those who seek closer control over the practice of home education, but the reasons advanced by those who oppose change do not always stack up and so I wish to look at their beliefs and see if anything else in their lives might be behind their attitudes towards schools, social workers or society in general, to explain why they feel as they do.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Non-professional diagnoses

I was interested to see yesterday a couple of people making diagnoses of mental disorders without even meeting the person upon whom they were passing judgement. This is not uncommon in some home educating circles. On Cheryl Moy’s blog, at which we looked yesterday, somebody left a comment about the psychologist whom her son saw. She said;

This guy sounds like he is on the autistic spectrum in a big way.

There is something stupendously offensive about this sort of casual use of ‘autistic’ being used just to indicate a person who seems to lack empathy! And of course on here, somebody commented, calling me;

a man who displays such obvious traits of serious personality disorder

Now of course when adults engage in name calling of this sort, it is a bit of harmless fun, although some people will obviously be offended at the idea of using ‘autistic’ as a catch-all phrase for people they don’t like the sound of, as we saw done on Cheryl’s blog yesterday. Doing it to children can be a little more serious.

I think that most of us have come across home educating parents who say that their children are on the spectrum or dyslectic, despite never having been properly diagnosed. It is pretty common and I am not of course the only one to remark upon it. What motive could any parent have for doing this?

Nobody likes to think that they have a stupid, lazy or unpopular child. Of course we all like to kid ourselves that our children are talented, well liked and creative. As long as they are at home with us, we can continue to believe this; it is when they go off to school that we find that others do not share our own unrealistic views of our children! It can be something of a shock to find that your gifted child is falling behind in reading or has no friends. Is it because your parenting skills were defective? Is the kid idle; is that why he is not achieving academically? Why has he no friends? Perhaps he is surly or spiteful and that is why nobody wants to play with him…

There is a far better explanation than this; one which lets us off the hook entirely! My kid has no friends because he has Asperger’s. Or he is struggling with reading because he is dyslectic. This sort of thing removes at a stroke the possibility that your parenting was at fault or that you have a slow witted or unpleasant child.

Middle class children of course tend to be informally diagnosed in this way more than working class kids, simply because their parents are more prone to anxiety and guilt. They are also more likely to be familiar with disorders like ASD and so are able to tailor the symptoms to fit their children. This is a fascinating topic and one of which I have had a good deal of experience from the quarter century that I was working in East London with children with special educational needs. I wonder if anybody has any particularly interesting examples of this syndrome which they would like to share?

Monday, 7 January 2013

A good example of a leader of the home educating community

I began the first post of this year by saying;

One of the things which I have observed over the years is the peculiar levels of anger displayed by many of the more high profile home educators in this country.

I then went on to elaborate on this theme, describing the various common factors which I had noticed in those who put themselves forward as being the representatives of the home educating community. I have been called upon to provide evidence for my claims, but that is not really possible without naming all the individuals concerned and matching them up with their disorders. This would have the appearance of a witch-hunt and I shall not be doing it. I am however prepared to give a link to the public and unprompted account of the life of one parent who, while not yet well known outside Doncaster, is Alison Sauer’s latest best friend.

As readers will be aware, Alison Sauer is a genuinely high profile home educator. There is a high turnover in those she trusts and regards as her lieutenants; both Tania Berlow and Jacqui Cox having served in this role at different times. Her latest confidante is a woman called Cheryl Moy. The two of them are currently working on a scheme provisionally called “HE Angels”, in which help and advice is provided to home educating parents who are struggling to cope. The good Lord alone have mercy upon the recipients of such ‘help’!

Here then, in her own words, is the life of a home educating parent who will be familiar to many in Yorkshire. Those who want an unvarnished portrait of British home education could do no better than to read this woman’s personal account of her life and those of her children. As will be seen, she is a very angry woman. Her anger is directed against almost everybody; teachers, psychologists, the fathers of her children and other home educators, to give a few examples. The damage that people like this inflict upon the cause of home education in this country is immense and anybody wondering why local authorities feel uneasy sometimes about children being educated at home would do well to study this. It also provides a lucid account of autonomous education in practice, as opposed to how this pedagogy is presented to outsiders.

But enough of me. Without further ado, let me present to you Cheryl Moy, alias Pink, AKA Chez:

Sunday, 6 January 2013

What was the purpose of the recent posts here?

I dare say that there are those who have been wondering why I have been going on about high profile home educators, their neurological problems and strange beliefs. Is it just a protracted outburst of malice and spite on my part, or could there be a rational explanation? The reason is simple and uncomplicated. Many of those who represent or claim to represent home education in this country do more harm than good. Whatever their actual mental state, they give the impression of being odd and irrational. This negative image reflects badly on ordinary, sane and well balanced home educating parents, who find themselves being viewed askance because of the behaviour of a vociferous lunatic fringe.

The problem is that the sort of things that I have been writing about here over the last few days are pretty well known to those in local authorities, government departments and so on who have an interest in children who are being educated at home. They are alarmed by the antics of the well known home educators and former home educators and wish to bring in tighter controls, in case most home educating parents are as crazy as those one sees in the public spotlight. Let me give one or two examples of how this works.

When Graham Badman asked Paula Rothermel whether she thought that many home educating parents were suffering from Munchausen’s by proxy, it was not a random question or one intended to smear an entire community. It was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask, based upon what we see among the people about whom I have been writing; those home educating parents who appear in newspapers, magazines, on the radio and television and so on. I mentioned a specific case yesterday of a mother with a neurological condition which defied diagnosis and whose daughter went on to present with a similar disorder. I know of two other mother/daughter pairs of the same type; both involving very well known home educators. There are also a fair number of such people who claim that their children are on the autistic spectrum, have dyslexia or ADHD, either without a diagnosis or in spite of a professional diagnosis that these syndromes are not present.

Another point is that when a well known home educator, whom local authorities and so on are treating as being a leader of the home educating community, turns out to believe that the queen is a shape shifting lizard or that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion should be in the non-fiction section at the library, then it makes ordinary people wonder what other madness is lurking beneath the surface! Some people take these weird characters to be typical examples of home educators and jump to the conclusion that most home educating parents must be mad.

This is an unfortunate situation for home education in this country, that most of the well known people involved in it come across as being the kind of lunatics that one would hesitate to trust with the care of a child. I have no idea what the remedy might be, but the next time that people are complaining that some government department or charity is acting as though home educators need to be watched and supervised, we might stop and think what sort of example some of these prominent figures are setting. It is by them that many people judge home educating parents as a group.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

What does he mean, high profile home educators? What constitutes bizarre beliefs?

It was perhaps inevitable that as soon as I mentioned ‘high profile home educators’, a contrapuntal murmur should rise in the comments here, to the effect that nobody had ever heard of any high profile home educators. It was similarly predictable then when I mentioned mad belief systems, I would be accused of imposing my own standards upon others. After all, where do I get off calling other people’s worldviews barking mad? The easiest way of dealing with this is to give one or two real-life examples, being careful not to identify the individuals concerned.

Whenever home education, particularly the autonomous strand, is put forward as a successful alternative to school; two examples are sure to be cited. One of these is a boy from Leytonstone in East London who was home educated and then gained a place at Oxford University and the other is a young man in the north of England who studied bio-chemistry at Manchester. It is at the second of these two cases that I wish to look.

The mother of the boy who went to Manchester is one of those I have mentioned before, who spent years patrolling the internet to defend home education against sceptics.  She has appeared in a national magazine under her own name as well as many provincial newspapers. She has also been interviewed on the wireless. I think it fair to say that she is a high profile home educator. She is also one of the mother/daughter pairs that I mentioned a few days ago, where the mother develops an unidentifiable neurological problem and the daughter duly follows suit at puberty.

This is one instance of what I meant when I talked of high profile home educators; a woman and her son of whom most of the people commenting here are likely to have heard.

As regards bizarre belief systems, I am by no means the most conventional of men myself. It takes a lot for me to view somebody else’s beliefs as barking mad, but I have my limits. One of those who helped Alison Sauer produce her famous guidelines was also one of those nine people who were barred by the Department of Children, Schools and Families from making any further Freedom of Information requests. Her name appeared on every internet list to do with home education and she also commented constantly on the online versions of newspaper articles about home education. Another one who could well be described as a high profile home educator. She also happens to be a follower of David Icke. A well respected man whose initials are NT, one of the most well known figures on the British home education scene, is a devout believer in the New World Order. When I meet people who believe that the royal family are really lizards or that the Jews are taking over the world, I have no hesitation in calling their beliefs barking mad.

I have given a few examples here of both high profile home educators and also made beliefs. I hope that readers now understand what I mean by both phrases.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Visits and disordered thinking

I have talked over the last few days about the fact that almost every high profile home educator in this country, those who appear in the newspapers, on the television, lead support groups and constantly pop up on blogs and lists; have or claim to have malfunctioning brains. This sets home education apart from various other minority interests. Does this matter though? I think that it does, because it has a bearing on the agenda that that they push forward and urge others to adopt.

It is important to realise that those characters who hand out press releases and so on or appear on radio or television news programmes, have not been chosen by the majority of home educators to represent their interests. They are creating opinion, rather than merely reflecting it. We saw this very clearly with the reaction to the Graham Badman enquiry. It was announced on January 19th, 2009. That same day, a press release went out from Sheffield, which the BBC mentions here:

‘Home educators are angry’! Of course only one home educator is angry, but she wishes to stir up others so that they share her anger and desire not to allow regular monitoring of home educated children. This is a classic example of how the supposed leaders of the home educating ‘community’ try deliberately  to create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. There is no evidence that any other home educators had even heard about the proposed review at that point, let alone that they were angry about it!

There is not room, nor do I have the time, to examine every aspect of how and why these prominent home educating parents shape the views and opinions of others to their own ends. I want to look at just one part of this; the campaign against visits from local authority officers.

Nobody except a home educating parent can understand why anybody would object to someone from the local authority checking on the educational  achievement and welfare of a child who is not at school. Yet this has become almost the orthodox position among many parents who educate their own children; they don't want visits. Why should this be so?

This opposition to visits has been spearheaded and coordinated by no more than hundred or so militant home educators or former home educators, most of whom, as I have said, have either learning difficulties or mental illnesses. This might explain why they feel so strongly about this subject and why they urge others to join in their own, almost pathological,  desire to avoid having visitors in their home from the local authority.

Let us take the case of a parent who is bipolar or schizophrenic. Without debating the rights or wrongs of the case, many people, including local authority officers, would think that such a parent would need closer monitoring and a sharper eye kept on her child than one who was not mentally ill. Such parents therefore wish to avoid local authority involvement in their lives as far as possible, lest they are told that they are not well enough to look after and teach their children. I know of a number of well known home educators in this position and their opposition to monitoring is a direct consequence of their medical condition.

Some parents with dyslexia or ADHD had terrible experience at school twenty, thirty or forty years ago, before such conditions were really understood. They are very quick to pull their children out of school at the first sign of trouble, because they think that the kids will suffer as they did themselves. A lot of them have a hatred and mistrust of teachers and schools, caused by their own experiences. Once they have the child at home, they are not prepared to allow any former teachers to come round and monitor their children’s progress. This scenario is enormously common among well known home educating parents.

I wrote yesterday about the way that bizarre belief systems are often associated with home educators with mental illnesses or learning difficulties. These provide another reason why parents do not want home visits from the local authority. Consider the case of the mother who blogs enthusiastically about her nine year old daughter’s enjoyment of spelling. What’s that? You can’t see why that would discourage anybody from wanting monitoring visits? Spelling is a part of literacy, why would you want to keep that hidden from a local authority officer? Not that sort of spelling, you fool! I mean spelling as in casting magical enchantments. The mother is witch and encourages her daughter to spend her time learning magic.  When you combine this with the fact that the father is a professional medium who raises the dead in the back parlour, you can see just why the parents are dead against having anybody from the County Council poking round the house and asking how their kid spends her days! Again, this is a pretty common theme among prominent home educators; children being at best exposed to and at worst indoctrinated in barking-mad worldviews.

Those home educators who are influential in British home education are nearly all like those I have described above. They have, or think they have, good reasons for avoiding visits from their local authority. They work hard to try and persuade others to share their odd approach to home education, which has of course the effect of creating tension and confrontation between local authorities and home educating parents. At the root of the problem is the disordered thinking of a fairly small number of militant home educators,  who  have managed to make their own weird  belief system the  default setting for many other parents who do not really know what is going on.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Prominent British home educators

I suggested yesterday that the great majority of those prominent in the world of British home education have either learning difficulties or mental illnesses. Two questions spring immediately to mind. First, is this true? Secondly, if it is true; does it matter? I want this morning to talk about the first of these questions.

I have been involved in home education in one way or another for decades. One of the things which I have noticed in recent years is that those whose names crop up over and over again often hold very strange views and tend to be very aggressive in defending these against anybody who shows any doubt that they are right. Of course, many people hold unconventional views and opinions, but those of the more well known home educators seem a little more off the wall than most and they will go to the most extraordinary lengths to attack those who believe differently from them. It is this which sets home education apart from most other fringe interests; its leaders behave as though they are protecting the interests of a cult or religion, rather than simply debating an unusual mode of education.

Obviously, when I have been the subject of attacks and smear campaigns by such people, my curiosity has been aroused and I try to find out what can possibly motivate such hatred and venom. It is not every day that I am the victim of a conspiracy to have me arrested because I am a believer in orthodox educational theories! Obviously I want to know what is going on. This has led me to examine the backgrounds of some of these people in a little detail.

Here are a few random examples of the sort of people I am talking about. All these people will be familiar to anybody who belongs to the HE-UK or EO lists. No fewer than three mother-daughter combinations, where the mother suffers from an unknown neurological disorder which defies medical science to diagnose. Alarmingly, their daughters too begin to display similar symptoms at puberty; necessitating crank diets and quacks remedies which both mother and daughter undertake together. Many cases of self-diagnosed autistic spectrum disorder in parents who often claim that their own children are autistic too. In many cases, there has been no actual diagnosis of either parent or child. A similar picture for dyslexia and also ADHD. A well known mother, now sixty, who went to great lengths a couple of years ago to have herself medically diagnosed, at the age of fifty eight, with attention deficit disorder. Having found an obliging psychologist, she then declared that all her children must have suffered from the same syndrome.

Often, when I watch what is going on the British home education scene, I mentally tick off the disorders of those involved. There is a certain amount of head-butting currently taking place between the (dyslectic) founder of a major home education list and a (bipolar) former leader of Education Otherwise. I see this all the time; situations where every single person involved either has or claims to have a mental illness or learning difficulty.

Another feature of those home educators who draw frequent attention to themselves is very weird beliefs about other things, such as conspiracy theories. There is a good deal of overlap between this and those who also have mental illnesses and learning difficulties. The dyslectic founder of the home education list mentioned above subscribes to some really odd conspiracy theories. One of those regarded as a founding father of home education in this country is not only bipolar, but is also a fanatical believer in the idea of the New World Order.

I could go on further, giving more and more examples, but I think that readers are getting the idea. The majority of those in the public eye because of home education have either learning difficulties or mental illnesses. In many cases, these disorders are self-diagnosed; often, it is claimed that their children have the same thing. This frequently goes hand in hand with beliefs that most people would dismiss as being a bit loopy. There is a lot of overlap between the groups, so that a good number of these people have learning difficulties combined with an unconventional belief system.

In the next few days I shall be looking at whether any of this matters. In other words, should we care if those leading home educators in this country and setting the agenda for other parents have a high prevalence of problems of this sort?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Community leaders

One of the things which has amused me over the years is the way in which  individuals manage to portray themselves as the leaders of some community or other. It happens with Caribbeans, Muslims, Jews and various other minorities. All too often, these people are chancers who are really speaking only for themselves and a small group of like-minded friends. The same thing has happened with home education and the result is that the pushiest and most vociferous end up representing the majority of parents; at least in the eyes of the government, local authorities and so on. Why else would so many local authorities advise newly home educating parents to contact Education Otherwise?

In fact, a very small group of people make most of the noise about home education in this country. Talking to most ordinary parents, those who do not belong to so-called ‘support groups’, you will find, for example,  that almost all of them regard monitoring by their local authority in much the way that I did myself; that is to say as a necessary nuisance. If you ask any of those whom we might call the ‘community leaders’ though, you will find a very different view being put forward. This is the case with a number of other aspects of home education; a tiny group manages to make their own odd agenda appear to be the consensus view.

Now although there is only a small core of very militant home educators or former home educators involved in this business, they are very well organised and work constantly to ensure that their extreme views are accepted as being the norm. I have explained before how this is done and I do not want to go into it again now. It is enough to say that perhaps fifty or a hundred people at most manage to create the illusion that they speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of home educating parents in Britain. This is a very small and self-selected group and what I have noticed is that almost all of those whom I have learned anything about, share certain characteristics. I do not think that they are typical of home educators in general. One of the things which I have observed is that almost without exception, the high profile home educators have certain difficulties. I shall go into this in detail either tomorrow or the next day, but for now I will say that nearly all the people one sees representing themselves as speaking on behalf of home educators either have, or claim to have, some kind of learning difficulty or mental illness. These range from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder to being bipolar and autistic. In many cases, these problems have been self-diagnosed, but that in itself is interesting.

I shall not be naming names, but talking in general terms. Mind, the way that some of these people boast of their problems through the medium of blogs and so on, there is no real need for secrecy! I want to explore the possibility that much of what is being done by the leaders, or apparent leaders, of home education in this country is actually counter productive and causes more trouble than it is worth for ordinary parents. I also want to look at the extent to which their activities might be influenced by, or even a direct consequence of, their own disorders.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The mental state of some of the more high profile British home educators

One of the things which I have observed over the years is the peculiar levels of anger displayed by many of the more high profile home educators in this country. This is directed not only towards me, but also towards anybody in the comments section of online newspaper articles, for example, who is at all dubious about the supposed benefits of home education; to say nothing of teachers and others who are worried about the educational attainment of children who are not at school.

On a personal note, I have in this blog expressed strong views in favour of home education. I have also advocated the ‘look and say’ method of teaching reading, as well as criticising autonomous education. Now here is an odd thing. Some people who read this blog are less than enthusiastic about home education. They do not however become furiously angry about the fact that I believe it to be a good idea. Similarly, the orthodoxy today,  as regards learning to read, is in favour of synthetic phonics; a method of  which I have never thought highly. Now I find it perfectly easy and pleasant to discuss learning to read with people who hold very different views to my own. In the same way, I can debate the pros and cons of home education and school education with those who strongly disapprove of home education. I do not fall out with people who are opposed to home education and they do not become angry about my point of view. These discussions are good natured and often quite fruitful. How very different is the case with many of the more well known home educators.

In subsequent pieces here, I shall be looking at the campaigns run by a small core of what might not inaptly be termed militant home educators. I shall also be trying to see if these characters have anything in common; if there is some explanation for their apparently fragile mental states. In the meantime, I wish to put forward this thought. When  teachers or local authority officers  read on this blog that I am a strong advocate for the ‘look and say’ or whole word technique for acquiring literacy, does anybody imagine that several of these teachers would band together and try to have me arrested because of this? Are there really supporters of synthetic phonics who feel this strongly about the matter?  When somebody feels that I am wrong about the advantages of home education, is it likely that this person will encourage others to arrange nuisance deliveries to my home or to harass my family?

It is this kind of pathological behaviour which marks some of those who are most well known publicly in this country for their enthusiasm for home education and I want to look into this in a little detail. Why do some of these people wish to have those with whom they disagree arrested? What can motivate them to instigate campaigns of online harassment against anybody who feels differently about home education to them? These are curious points and if we can find the source of the anger and malice which some of these people regularly display, then it might give us a little insight into why some other people feel uneasy about the situation of children trapped in the homes of such parents; exposed constantly and unremittingly to their distorted worldview, without the escape valve of being able to get away from their mothers and fathers for six hours or so each day. It is at this that the next few posts will be aimed.