Thursday, 28 February 2013

More about flexi-schooling

There are any number of activities of questionable legality which may be safely undertaken; provided of course that you just get on and do them quietly, without shooting your mouth off.  The use of cannabis for relieving the symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis is one of these; registering your child as a pupil at a maintained school and then not sending her every day, so that you can teach her at home for part of the week, is another. As long as you don’t make too much fuss, then neither of these things is likely to attract unfavorable attention and nobody will try and stop you doing them. Of course, if some fool starts shouting about these things in parliament and advertising conferences at which such activities are openly boasted about, then sooner or later, authority will step in and perhaps crack down on things a bit. We have seen this happen in recent days.

      As I have already said, I took my own daughter out of school for two or three days a week and taught her at home on those days. This was around twenty years ago and I was not the only person doing this at that time. The great thing about undertaking a dubious scheme of this sort is not to draw attention to what is going on. Unless that is, you actually want trouble. 

     As is now widely known, the Department for Education has  announced that the practice of flexi-schooling is probably unlawful and will not be allowed in maintained schools. The responsibility for the scuppering of arrangements of this sort may be laid fairly and squarely at the door of one person; namely, Alison Sauer. Now I have been accused of running a vendetta against Alison Sauer, but this is not really true. It is just that the woman is a bit of a nuisance and the harm that she causes home educators greatly outweighs any good she might have done. Take the present case, for instance.

     There was not a huge amount of money to be made by running the occasional training session for local authorities and explaining to them about home education. Alison Sauer decided therefore  that encouraging flexi-schooling was a more practical commercial proposition.  Her partners in this venture were not parents, but schools. The aim of the whole thing was to make money. With this end in mind, she organised a conference in the Midlands last year. Attending this one-day conference cost £150, which showed plainly that it was meant for professionals and not parents. This was the point, I think, at which alarm bells began ringing at the Department for Education. The suggestion was being openly made that schools could get full funding for pupils who were not attending every day. The scope for financial abuse of the system was pretty clear. Schools could end up claiming funding for twice as many pupils as they actually had attending each day. Obviously, this was a situation that would make the Department for Education unhappy. 

     Now as I said earlier, as long as people just get on quietly and do something, it is often the case that nobody will take much notice. So it has been with flexi-schooling over the years. When you start a business with the aim of turning this into an enterprise  on an industrial scale which will affect many schools; then people sit up and take notice, they ask what is going on. So it proved with Alison Sauer’s efforts.

     I think that most of us will remember Alison’s attempts to replace the 2007 Guidelines on Elective Home Education with a set that she wrote herself.  This of course failed. Now though, she has achieved  her aim, in that the 2007 Guidelines are being  rewritten to take into account her activities. Specifically, section 5.6 on page 17 is being changed to reflect the fact that the practice of flexi-schooling has now been declared unlawful. An announcement about this was made the day before yesterday;

It is success  of a sort, I suppose, for Alison Sauer. Her ambition was to change the 2007 Guidelines and now this is actually being done. Nice one, Alison!

      I am sorry for parents who have made arrangements of this kind for their children’s benefit. I think we may safely assume that all such arrangements will soon be coming to an end. Any time now, a circular will be sent from the DfE ‘reminding’ maintained schools that registered pupils must attend the school full-time and that it is not acceptable to allow children to be partly schooled and partly home educated. Readers adversely  affected by this should be sure that the next time they find a useful loophole of this sort, that they do their very best not to let Alison Sauer hear about it!  

Monday, 25 February 2013


As somebody commented here yesterday, many years ago I flexi-schooled one of my daughters. I did not call it that; I simply noticed that she was falling behind academically and started keeping her at home for two or three days a week and teaching her myself until she had caught up. Both the school and an Educational Psychologist from Haringey, the local authority, told me at the time that I was breaking the law and could be prosecuted for condoning truancy. I told them to go ahead and prosecute if they felt like it. This was between 1994 and 1998.

     Readers will probably know by now that the Department for Education have recently announced that this practice is definitely not allowed and that if a child is registered at a school, then he or she must attend full-time.  In the past, many schools have turned a blind eye to this sort of arrangement  or come to an accommodation for parents who wish to educate their children like this. After all, they continue to get the entire Age Weighted Pupil Unit, the money , whether the pupil attends full or part-time.

     Why has the Department for Education suddenly cracked down on flexi-schooling? I think that it might possibly have something to do with our old friend Alison Sauer. As long as this sort of thing was being done informally with just a handful of kids here and there; there was no reason for anybody to be too bothered about it. It is when it started being heavily promoted as an option and represented as a legal alternative that the DfE began to get a little uneasy. You can see their point; there is scope for a few rackets here of various sorts. These might range from schools claiming funding for twice as many pupils as are actually attending, to parents who for reasons other than the purely educational, only want their children to attend school for a few days a week.

     Where does Alison Sauer come into all this? As many readers will know, she runs a company which offers training to local authorities. A while ago, she decided that the future, the real money, lay in flexi-schooling, rather than running the odd training session. She accordingly revamped her company, renamed it and set up a new website which was geared more towards flexi-schooling than it was ordinary home education. See:

     The Department for Education did not like the way that this trend was moving and since more and more schools were entering into arrangements of this sort, which might possible be unlawful, they decided to issue new guidance, which effectively banned the practice. This might be part of a general move towards making sure that pupils spend as much time as possible in school. The new plans for GRT children might tie in with this trend. Had people not shouted about it and held conferences and generally promoted the thing, I have an idea that this would not have happened. It is a classic case of one person spoiling it for everybody else.

On an unrelated note, I must say a few words about comments made here recently. It has been suggested that I am selectively quoting or misrepresenting those who comment. This is bound to happen, because I literally do not understand a lot of the time what people are trying to say. The words are English alright and the grammar and syntax correct, but the sentences themselves make no sense. Take, as a typical example; ‘Parents usually act from a place of love for their children’. What on earth can this mean? That most parents love their children? If so, why the devil does the writer not simply say so? You see my problem; I am compelled to decode stuff like this and from time to time, I get it wrong . If people would only write in plain English, then this would not happen! Can anybody here tell me what a 'place of love' is?

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Life in the home education bubble

We examined yesterday some very strange beliefs. If the ideas at which we looked  were freakish or rare in the UK home education scene, then it would hardly matter if one or two cranks believed that it was impossible to teach the Alphabet beyond the letter ’C’. After all, any group of people at whom one looks is bound to contain a few members who have weirder or less rational views than most of the group. This was not the case with the beliefs at which we looked yesterday. The basic idea, that it is impossible to teach children, is fairly widespread among British home educators. We need not delve for now into the reasons for this, but it is the case that many home educating parents in this country either believe in  or at least pay lip service to this idea.

A fixed and irrational belief that children cannot be taught is by no means the most alarming of the ideas which pass unchallenged by and large in the world of British home education. For the last month, I have been conducting an informal experiment. I mentioned on this blog a while ago, the case of the home educating parents who did not wish to have any dealings with their local authority. The local authority suspected that the children were not receiving a suitable education and wanted the mother and father  to provide evidence to satisfy them about this point. They would not cooperate with this request and because she thought that local authority officers might visit in person to discuss the matter, the mother instructed her son to fire his rifle at the feet of any visitors from the council.

The story of Iris Harrison is a famous one among home educators in this country. I have never once heard any criticism of her for telling a child to shoot   local authority officers. When I mentioned the case here, there was some quibbling about the type of rifle used and the likely injuries which would result, but nobody thought that she had been wrong to teach her child to do this. The idea of encouraging any  child to point and fire a loaded weapon of any kind at another person, whether this be an air rifle, live-fire .22 or anything else, is so incomprehensible to me, that I thought I would ask those with whom I come into contact what they thought of the matter. Who knows, perhaps I am overly cautious about such things!

For the last month, I have asked friends and family, professional contacts and so on, what they make of this business. I have stated the case plainly; that here are parents  who withdrew their children from school and refused to cooperate with the local authority, an authority anxious about the education being provided by the parents. I then told them of the mother instructing her  child to shoot at anybody from the council who came to visit. I can tell readers now, that every single person to whom I put this case, thought that the mother must have been an irresponsible lunatic to teach her child to behave in such a way.  Some asked whether this person was  typical of home educating parents and I was forced in all honesty to reveal that she is something of a heroine to many home educators, as well as being a founder member of Education Otherwise.

Perhaps readers would like to conduct similar research themselves among non-home educators? Why this is interesting is that the above anecdote is widely known and yet home educators have a completely different view of the case from ordinary people. Their view is so at odds with the normal reaction to such idiocy, that it really is quite disturbing.

What I am seeing here is a community, many of whose members apparently live in a bubble; isolated and cut off from the ordinary world, at least in an intellectual or moral  sense. Across the country, people are teaching their children the whole Alphabet by means of songs and so on. Here in the bubble though, are parents who think that it cannot be done; that children are incapable of memorising the Alphabet beyond the letter ’C’. In the world outside, the notion of a parent teaching her child that it is right to discharge a rifle at another person is regarded with horror. In the bubble though, it is fine and even amusing that parents should carry on in such a way. When home educating parents talk about prejudice against their way of life, they might like to think a little about the impression that all this gives to ordinary parents; those who teach things to their children and would not dream of encouraging their children to shoot anybody. Until the majority of home educating parents state clearly that they reject such lunacy, then the suspicion will surely be that silence means consent and that  they too subscribe to extreme views of this sort.  This will certainly result in not only local authority officers, but also all ordinary people, eying them a little askance.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Ideology v real children

Earlier in the week, readers will have noticed that we were reaching broad agreement on a number of points concerning home education. Of course, this pleasant state of affairs  could hardly be expected to continue indefinitely and in the last day or two, we seem  once again to have descended into acrimony and name-calling. Most of this has come from one or two individuals, people whom we might perhaps not inaptly describe as hardline autonomous educators.

Now I believe that most home educators, whether structured or autonomous, use or used a mixture of educational styles; some direct teaching, some self-directed learning. This was certainly how I worked.  The proportions might vary, but there tends I think to be in general a pragmatic approach, with different techniques being used as and when they prove effective. For some parents though, their educational methods  are  dictated more by ideological than empirical considerations. These are people, often disciples of various writers or philosophers, who pursue one pedagogy remorselessly because that is what they believe must work uniquely, according to Karl Popper or Ayn Rand. I have an idea that if such individuals spent a little more time with real children and a little less reading about education and childhood, then they might change their views. I have never been very keen on reading what Piaget, for example, said about children and their development; preferring to work directly with children. The problem is that if you read too much about the subject, you start to expect the children to fit in with your ideology and when they don’t behave as they are supposed to, it becomes irritating. We have seen this over the last few days.

Let us examine a couple of statements made here in recent days about children and their learning. These statements shed light upon the thought processes of some of those whom I mentioned above; the ones who take their knowledge of children from books, rather than real life. Here is one such statement;

'Nobody can teach anything to anyone who is not intrinsically motivated to learn it'

Here is another statement, confidently made. I had talked of teaching children the value of Pi by getting them to chant the figures out loud. Somebody then said of this method of teaching;

‘Research indicates that children retain only about 5%-10% of what they learn when "taught" this way’

Observe the quotation marks around the word ‘taught’. This person believes, on purely ideological grounds, that children cannot be taught. They can only learn what they wish to learn. This point was emphasised by somebody when I talked light-heartedly about being compelled to learn under penalty of sanctions, the order of the royal houses of England. The assertion was made that it would have been impossible to teach me this sequence; I secretly wanted to know about the Plantagenet, Tudor and Hanoverian dynasties and the teaching at school was irrelevant. There's an unexpected insight into my early life and no mistake! I just hope that no other readers are entertaining the delusion that they were compelled at school to learn a lot of foolishness which would never be of any practical use to them. You fools! You only learned about the principle exports of Australia because you wanted to! The teachers and school had nothing to do with the case.

I wish to consider one of the first things that children in this country learn in the academic line; that is to say the sequence of letters in the English Alphabet. According to the people whom I quote above, it is all but impossible to teach children to recite the Alphabet. One person asserts that it is impossible to teach anything which a person is not intrinsically motivated to learn and the other thinks that typically only 5% to 10% of material taught by chanting in a rhythmic and sing-song fashion is retained. Looking  at the first of these objections to the idea of children being taught to say the Alphabet, we observe at once that there can be no possible intrinsic motivation for wanting to  know the sequence of letters in the Alphabet at the age of four or five. The only  reason anybody would wish to know the letter order would be so that an index might be consulted. It will be a little while before most four and five year olds will be using indices and so they have no conceivable intrinsic motivation for learning the Alphabet.

The other person to comment states that only 5% to 10% of material taught by means of rote learning and chanting will be retained. This is a less extreme position than the first writer, but still means that it will not be possible to teach the Alphabet to the average child. They will only be able to learn perhaps the first two or three letters of the Alphabet by systematic teaching; say as far as ‘B’ or ‘C’. Teaching children  the whole thing would mean expecting them to retain  not just 5% to 10% of the material, but 100%. This is clearly unrealistic. The conclusion is plain; at least according to the two people who made the claims which we examined above. Teaching the Alphabet to children is impossible.

Here we see the perfect example of where too much ideology may lead us when looking at children and their learning. The people who made the statements above must surely never have had any dealings with real children. Their ideas about how children’s minds work have been taken from books or research papers, rather than by looking at and interacting with the genuine article!

I might mention,  for the benefit of  those who really doubt that teaching the Alphabet is possible, that 80% of five year-olds  this country are able to recite the Alphabet. The rest learn it in the following year. The exceptions are usually those with sequencing problems, dyslexia and other learning difficulties. The child who is unable to learn the Alphabet beyond the letter ‘C’, is actually very rare.

Incidentally, I am not advocating the teaching of children to recite the Alphabet at three. I regard it as a pretty pointless exercise. But believing, as I do, that we should not do it is a quite different thing from asserting on purely ideological grounds that the thing cannot be done.

Friday, 22 February 2013

The uses of jargon

Yesterday, we saw a regrettable outbreak of jargon being used in the comments on this blog. I have not the time to go deeply into the reasons why people use jargon. One common reason is to obscure the meaning of essentially simple ideas and so muddle up those who wish to debate them. Often, as a by-product, those listening to a discussion feel a little confused and overawed; thinking perhaps that because they cannot fully follow what is being said, it must all be very clever and above their heads.

Two assertions were made in the comments to yesterday’s post. One was an obvious, but misleading statement of fact; the other a wholly unwarranted conclusion which was presented as leading logically from the first premise. Needless to say, this initial premise was not stated plainly, but supported by  expressions such as;

‘intrinsically motivated process of identifying one’s impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context,’

‘expanding one’s knowledge into an ever-growing sum’

‘no way of either knowing or controlling what knowledge is integrated nor how it is integrated’

‘driven by someone else's desire to create my inner map of a particular shape.’

What was being said, may be put in far clearer terms than this. What it boiled down to was that when teaching children, we cannot be absolutely sure which parts of the material being taught will be learned and subsequently remembered.

Now this is of course true. The conclusion which was reached though was an astonishing non sequitur. We cannot be sure which parts of what we teach children will be learned and remembered, therefore we should not teach children anything. I have seldom seen such an weak argument in all my life! Of course an equally valid conclusion would have been; we cannot be sure which parts of what we teach children will be learned and remembered, therefore we will take greater care with our teaching methods and try to modify them so that they are more effective. No wonder it had to be disguised with a lot of fancy language, so that that it looked impressive! In any case of course, even the first statement is irrelevant. We cannot, it is true, be 100% certain that the material we set before children will be absorbed, but we can vastly increase the chances of this happening. Let us conduct a little thought experiment. My aim is to cause thirty children to absorb thoroughly the approximate value of Pi. I also wish to ensure that they understand the concept and do not forget it.

If I announce in a quavering and reedy voice, half way through a maths lesson, that Pi is roughly 3.14; then I doubt many children will learn the fact. Suppose though that I set up a large picture, showing how Pi is derived from the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumference? If I show this visual aid, while talking clearly about Pi and its significance, more of the children might pay attention and remember the lesson. What if I got the whole class to chant ‘Pi equals three point one four’ for half an hour? Does anybody doubt that the information would have a better chance of being retained? Or here’s an even better idea! Suppose that the pupils knew that those who recalled the figure for Pi and could explain to the teacher about how it was calculated, would be rewarded at the end of term with £1000 each? Does anybody doubt that we could make it more likely that this piece of knowledge would be absorbed by the children? What if they knew that their mothers and fathers would be shot if their children failed to learn about Pi? Would this help it stick in their minds better?

I am not of course advocating seriously any of the above ideas. Rather, I am pointing out that while it is impossible to be completely sure of getting a child to learn some information, the process of fixing it in the mind is not, as was suggested here yesterday, random. There are ways of making it more likely that what is taught to children will stay with them; sometimes forever. We only need to examine our own memories to see that this is so. I have information which was presented to me as a child, fifty years or so ago, which I have been unable to forget. It has truly become, to use the jargon, 'part of my inner map'! I never wanted or needed to know that the Plantagenets came before the Tudors, but under the threat of the cane; I managed to do so. I am sure we all have similar knowledge.

The real question is not an educational one, but an ethical consideration. It is not, ‘Can we teach children effectively, so that they retain much of what they are taught?’ It is really, ‘Should we do this?’ Is this better for their development and future lives than not teaching them?

Thursday, 21 February 2013

On bodies of knowledge

A few days ago, somebody commenting here was getting ticked off with me because I would not readily respond to her hectoring tone. Specifically, she wished me to agree that I believed that there existed a body of knowledge which I had to transmit to my daughter and that this was part of what I meant by ‘education’. I did not answer her then for two reasons. First, because it is never wise to give in to bullying tactics of that sort; it only encourages such behaviour in the future. Secondly of course, the very question was meaningless, because all parents believe that they are in possession of a body of knowledge which they should pass on to their children. Whether they formalise their belief in words, makes no difference at all. They still act as though this was so.

Let us see what I mean by this. I used conversation with my young daughter to pass on knowledge and information that I felt she would find interesting or useful. For example, a walk in the country would give me the opportunity to teach her about photosynthesis, the food web and many other concepts with which I felt she should be familiar. I was talking last year to an extreme autonomous educator who found this quite at variance with her own views. She believed that it was unwise to direct conversation in this way, but that it should be allowed to develop according to the child’s interests and her own observations of what interested her. She told me that what I was doing was really teaching, which was quite true; I make no secret of it. The sequel, which came a few weeks later, was revealing.

The mother to whom I had been talking was, unsurprisingly, a keen organic gardener. She believed passionately in recycling and was also a fanatical composter. It turned out that she felt it a moral imperative to explain to her children why as much as possible should be recycled and to emphasise to them the finite nature of the Earth’s resources. So far, so good; many readers will no doubt agree. She never missed an opportunity to show her children why it made sense to recycle things and had recently explained to the nine year-old why it made more sense to put potato peelings on the compost heap, rather than throw them in the rubbish bin as many children might be tempted to do. Brownie point to mum for raising responsible and eco-aware children!

In the course of her explanations, the mother ended up telling the child, without being asked to do so, how the different nutrients such as nitrogen would then pass from the potato peeling to the soil and then later be used by other living things. It was at this point that I realised that here was a mother who had, albeit very gently, denounced me for using a walk in the wood as a chance for a biology lesson, who had herself been teaching her children, unasked, about the nitrogen cycle. There was not the least difference between my explaining photosynthesis on a family walk and her explaining the nitrogen cycle as an after dinner activity. In each case, we both felt that it would be interesting and useful for our children to learn about some aspect of the IGCSE biology curriculum and, without waiting for our children to ask or show any interest in the subject, we launched into lectures.

All parents do this sort of thing all the time. This is because all parents have a body of knowledge that they think should be shared with their children. If a child notices a bird hovering overhead, most parents, if they know what the bird is, will tell the child, ‘It’s a kestrel.’ They will do this, even if the child has not asked what sort of bird it is. They will similarly tell their children unasked a million other things during a walk in a forest. They might explain the difference between an oak tree and a hornbeam; they might point to a stag beetle and tell the child that it is the biggest English insect; they could tell the child how strange it is to think that the clouds in the sky are nothing but water vapour. In every case, the parent is passing on a body of knowledge to which she has access and her child does not. It is precisely the same as my explaining the formula for photosynthesis to my own ten year-old daughter; it is direct teaching.

All parents teach their children, often completely unasked, those things which the parents think would be nice for their children to know. They teach them. More often than not, this is done by means of purposive conversation, which is a very effective way of imparting knowledge to children. To pretend that just because they are not using blackboards and making the children sit down for a lesson, this makes the activity any less of a teaching session is mad. This teaching takes place whether the parent is a dedicated autonomous educator or a highly structured educator.

To return to and answer the person who was badgering me about this, the day before yesterday, the reason that I did not answer the question, was that the question itself was based upon a false premise. This premise was that some parents attempt to transmit to their children an objective body of knowledge and that others allow their children to discover the wonders of the world for themselves. There are no separate categories of this sort; all parents teach their children from a body of knowledge which they, the parents, wish to impart to their offspring.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013


I find debating with some home educators quite chilling, due to their ability to hold two diametrically opposed views simultaneously; without apparently being aware of what they are doing. It reminds me of the term ’doublethink’ from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There is something a little alarming about the business.

Yesterday, we enjoyed one of those rare moments here when everybody was in agreement. Both I and those commenting accepted that Einstein’s achievements and academic success owed more to his own character and the support which he was given at home, than it did to the teaching which he received at school. As I have said before, this is usually the case. The level of support and amount of resources found in the home are of far greater importance in the academic outcome for children at the age of sixteen than the school which has been attended. Also significant is the character of the child; in Einstein’s case, he had enormous intellectual curiosity which was nurtured and encouraged by his family and their friends. The schooling to which he was subjected played a lesser role in his subsequent achievements.

So far, we still all agree, I suppose. Let us look back a few days though, when I was talking of another schoolboy; one who had achieved very much less than Albert Einstein. In fact this child was barely literate and lacked any intellectual curiosity that could be discerned. Little chance of this boy growing up to revolutionise our understanding of the universe!

In the case of the boy who was not showing academic promise and intellectual achievement, a completely different set of rules were applied. In his case, it was not thought for a moment that his situation had anything at all to do with his own character, his family background or anything else. No, this was all the responsibility of the school and those running it;  the local authority. Those commenting were quick to lay complete responsibility for his development and the academic level at which he found himself, at the door of the school; who had ’failed’ him. We must not ’blame’ the parents, but the school.

All this is very odd! If a schoolchild does really well in his studies, then it is due to his family and home background; the school is of minor importance. If a schoolchild does really badly at his studies, then it is not due to his family and home background; the school is of paramount importance.

I am honestly puzzled by this and invite readers to help us square this particular circle. In short, are the parents and home background of crucial significance in a schoolchild’s academic and intellectual achievements or are they not?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Using Einstein's name

Almost sixty years after his death, Einstein’s name is still a very potent one. Advocates of this or that belief still feel that it is in some way a trump card to claim that Einstein supported their views. The implication is clear; if the world’s greatest brainbox agreed with me, who are you to argue? We see both theists and atheists using the great man’s name to support their positions on religion and Einstein is even quoted as a secret believer in such strange ideas as telepathy and ESP. Forty years ago, when Velikosky’s mad book Worlds in Collision enjoyed a vogue among the less well intellectually endowed, much was made by the publisher of the fact that when he died, Einstein had a copy of this book on his death; as though that in some way endorsed Velikovsky’s theories. Einstein’s name is even used to sell things. I am sure that some readers have come across the Baby Einstein products, designed for those who wish to accelerate their baby’s development.

It was inevitable that home educators would latch on to this trend and try and pretend that Einstein was one of their own! You will regularly see him in lists of famous people who were home educated and a company in America even sells a tee-shirt printed with the slogan, ‘Einstein was home schooled’. He wasn’t of course, but a few days ago we saw people here trying to show that Einstein was in fact an autonomous learner. This is true as far as it goes. Many bright children at school have always  pursued  interests outside the academic curriculum and this is still the case today. Those commenting though went a little further than this and suggested that Einstein learned most of his mathematics and physics at home by himself and that he was somehow a supporter of home education and an opponent of schools. This is less certain.

What we must bear in mind when considering Einstein’s views on schools is that he attended school in Germany during the 1880s and 1890s. This was not a good time for a restless and brilliant intellect to be in one of that country’s schools. The educational system was hugely restrictive and independent thought was discouraged. Einstein’s dislike of formal schooling was rooted deeper than that though. At the age of five he, a Jew, was sent to a Catholic primary school. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism about at that time in Germany and the child experienced the full brunt of it. During a lesson about Jesus’ life, for instance, the teacher handed round six inch long nails and asked the children to consider what it would be like to have these hammered through their ankles and wrists. He then told them that the Jews had caused this to be done to Jesus; whereupon all eyes in the class turned to the little Jewish boy. It is hardly to be wondered at that Einstein grew up with a bad feeling about school!

Like all children, Einstein’s home background played a great part in his later academic success. He was given a book on calculus at the age of twelve and his family used to talk a lot about various topics. There can be little doubt that this conversation served to stimulate the child and awaken his interest in mathematics and physics. Whether this would have been sufficient education in itself, without the teaching he received at school, is doubtful.

I was accused on the thread where this was being discussed of ignoring the points which were made, but this was only because I am not sure really what the points were. Einstein went to school and learned about mathematics and physics. He hated school and felt that his family stimulated his interest in these subjects more than the school did. This was without doubt true. It is still true today. The family attitude to education and learning is of far greater importance than the school attended. It is so and always has been.

I saw nothing controversial in what was said about Einstein and so did not feel the need to dispute any of it. If anybody feels that Einstein’s life, education or later opinions about the schooling which he received has anything useful to tell us about home education, then I would be pleased to hear it.

Are autonomous home educators more prone to anger than other people?

I am constantly amazed at the ferocious anger which seems to bubble away under the surface of some autonomous home educators. It is of a type and degree that one seldom sees in the more structured educators and one has the impression that these are people who are probably simmering away all the time; ready to erupt in a second at some fancied slight or criticism. Of course, one also encounters such people among those who send their children to school, but there they are definitely a tiny minority. Among autonomous home educators, this kind of parent appears to be alarmingly common!

Now I am aware that I can be an irritating person, but the responses to what I say here go beyond all reason. Any normal person stumbling across a blog whose author seems to be an annoying fool, will simply move on and find another, more congenial place, to hang out in cyberspace. Not so the autonomous educators! They pop up here regularly and are always furious. I have remarked before on how curious this is. I am not after all attacking them personally. Indeed, because they are too cowardly in general to sign their names to the rude messages which they leave here, I could hardly do so, even if I wanted. No, they are angry because I express scepticism and ask questions about an educational theory which they favour. This is truly extraordinary.

As a home educator, I took it for granted that many people, especially those who had sent their children to school, would disapprove of my choice. So it proved, with a lot of parents making ill-informed comments about the matter. This never made me angry; why on earth would it? This was my choice and there are bound to be people who have made different choices about education to that which I made. With quite a few autonomous types though, even asking questions is enough to drive them to fury!

On the thread ‘No wonder local authorities are alarmed about home education!’, I was having a little light-hearted discussion yesterday about Albert Einstein and the extent to which his schooling contributed towards his success as a physicist. You would have thought that this was a completely neutral topic about nobody would be likely to grow cross.  You would have thought this, until I tell you that a number of autonomous educators were involved in the debate! I asked a few questions, always a mistake with those people, and even made one or two humorous observations. I recommend readers to have a look at the increasingly heated comments which this provoked. It ended with two people commenting, using the expressions;

'shows himself up to be the arrogant ignoramus that he is.'

' truly repressed, narrow minded & pompously ignorant twonk '

Now all this is very unfortunate. There are serious points to be made here; about the extent to which somebody who attends school from the age of five can be said to be an autonomous learner, how much  formal schooling contributed to Einstein’s education and various other points. It is also worth talking about the way in which Einstein is sometimes invoked as an authority on topics other than physics and his name used to support fringe beliefs. Readers with long memories might recall this being done both with Immanuel Velikovsky’s theories and also the idea of biorhythms. Any attempt to talk reasonably about the topic though, ends in vitriolic rudeness.

I wonder if this says anything useful about the sort of person who chooses autonomous education? Are they more commonly angry individuals than ordinary people? Is it because they are more likely to be opposed to schools and teachers? Or do they perhaps feel sensitive and unsure about their chosen educational technique and believe that when somebody asks questions, then the best defence is attack? If the incident yesterday were a one-off, it would be one thing, but it is not. Nor is the level of anger which we regularly see here, restricted to me. It is directed against all who question this ideology. I have an idea that this is more a psychological or sociological problem than one relating to education per se and I will be turning the matter over in my mind when I have a chance and letting readers know what I conclude.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Beware of the child-catcher!

I felt that I simply had to draw attention to this, which appeared in yesterday’s comments:

I have emailed the picture of me as the child-catcher to various friends and relatives and great amusement it has caused too! The humour was not at first obvious, because of course everybody knows that I was a fanatical home educator, constantly advising people to remove their children from school. I still am like that, actually. As a consequence, I have had to explain to those to whom I sent the image, that there exists a body of people who believe that I want to force children not currently at school into being taken to such institutions.

This is where the humour lies and once I explained this, the grotesqueness of the situation became apparent and was much appreciated. Every time anybody I know has moaned about not getting their child into the desired school, you see, I at once ask why on earth they want to send them in the first place. When a colleague or friend complains that the school will not let their child take a particular combination of subjects for GCSE, I tell them that they would be better off doing the job themselves, rather than letting the school muck them about.

Anyway, this image has certainly provided a good deal of innocent amusement among those who know me. I am sorry to report that the general opinion is that anybody who thinks that I like schools and want to make children go there, must be raving mad. This is of course quite true, but I can assure readers that I did my best to defend them and explain that although they were indeed practically insane to believe such nonsense, they were at least well meaning. In the next week or so, I hope to explore this strange idea that I wish children to be sent to school. It is a marvellous myth and the way that it has grown up among some of the less well balanced and psychologically robust readers of this blog is worth looking at in detail; if only for the light it sheds upon certain  types of disordered and faulty thinking.

Friday, 15 February 2013

No wonder local authorities are alarmed about home education!

I have several times been accused in recent days of asking questions to which I already knew the answers. I have to say that this is quite absurd. Not  only did I not have a ready-made answer up my sleeve, I could not in a million years have guessed how other people would respond to the case which I cited forty eight hours ago. I described a child who was not being educated and yet whose mother claimed that he was.  I fully expected readers to agree that this was something of a problem and to discuss ways that genuine home educators could be distinguished from situations where no education is being provided. This is a problem and I can see why some home educating parents get a little tetchy when their local authority acts as though all home educated children are missing from education. However, this was not at all the way most people saw the example that I gave. Instead of agreeing that here was a child who was not receiving an education, the general view seemed to be that he was doing fine and should be left alone. It was suggested that playing computer games all day and then hanging round the streets with a bunch of kids who were gradually moving further into petty crime was a perfectly adequate education.

Even weirder, most of those commenting seemed to place responsibility for truanting upon the local authority, rather than the child’s parents. This is very curious! Home educators are always talking about the sanctity of parental responsibility and then as soon as a kid truants, it is no longer the parents’ responsibility, but  that of the local authority.

Having found that not one reader feels that anything needs to be done to help a child who does not attend school and is not receiving an education from either his parents or anybody else; there is little more to say. This was a genuinely unexpected turn of events and I am sure that any local authority officers reading this blog will draw their own conclusions about the matter. The conclusion is, as far as I am able to make it out, that a number of home educators believe that if a child truants and is then withdrawn from school by his mother in order to avoid prosecution; then that is fine and the child should simply be ignored. Any child who is claimed to be home educated should face no further attention from the local authority, regardless of whether or not this is really the case. Parents should not be responsible for ensuring that their children attend a school at which they are registered and if the child fails to attend then this is the fault of the local authority. Playing computer games all day, after not getting up until after lunchtime is a pefectly adequate eduction for a fourteen year-old.  I can assure readers that my open ended questions a couple of days ago were not intended to elicit such views as this! I am frankly taken aback at what has been said.

I cannot help remembering the newspaper articles which I wrote on the subject of home education a few years ago; the ones that first made me an object of hatred for the loopier type of home educating parent. In one passage, which caused particular anger, I said:

Autonomous education is based on a simple principle: that children alone are the best judges of what they should learn and when they should learn it. If a child wishes to spend the day slumped in front of a television or games console, this is not a problem, the choice is his. Many autonomous educators go even further, asserting that it is for the child to decide on bedtimes, diet and other aspects of lifestyle.

I can still recall the fury which this caused. I was told that I knew nothing of autonomous education and that the idea of supposedly home educated children sitting around all day playing Grand Theft Auto was ridiculous. I knew then that it was not, of course, and it is interesting to find it being confirmed here that quite a few home edcautors see nothing wrong with this lifestyle.  Indeed, although I never used the expression, somebody reading about the child whom I described who was missing from education, did in fact call this autonomous education. I think that there is nothing more that I can add to this debate. Obviously, if a child hates school and truants, then I think that a parent should be able to provide an education for the child at home. I am a fanatical supporter of home education. When this is not done though and a child is left to his or her own devices, then I believe that the local authority should intervene and help the parents to provide an education for their child.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Identifying children missing from education; Part 2

This will be a brief post, for I am very busy today. I am constantly enchanted at the way that asking simple questions of home educators provokes such bizarre responses by some of those who comment here. Apparently, asking open ended questions like this  is symptomatic of great fear and narrow mindedness in those asking them!

I am glad that I had an opportunity yesterday of seeing what readers thought when confronted with a genuine case of a child missing from education. Not one felt that anything should be done about the child and many seemed to think that he was actually better off  as a long term truant than he would have been if he had remained at school. One person even thought that getting up at one in the afternoon, spending the next few hours playing computer games, before hanging out with a bunch of kids who were drifting into petty crime, actually constituted an acceptable education! I can see that most readers feel that such children should be left alone, because the alternative might involve them personally in some slight inconvenience, if, that is,  local authorities began trying to sort out genuinely home educated children from long term truants and those missing from education.

I was asked yesterday by more than one person what I would do about such children; those who drop out of school in this way. The general feeling seemed to be that the local authority was somehow responsible for children like this who truant. This is unlikely. Most children do not truant or drop out of school. There are a few who do, even in the best schools. We need to ask ourselves why most pupils remain at school and a few do not. Often, there are common factors in the home lives of truants; it is more likely that these are responsible for the problem than that it is the fault of the school. As I am sure readers know, academic success or failure has far more to do with home background than which school is attended; five times as much, according to some research. From this perspective, truanting is more often than not a sign of something wrong at home than  a problem at school.

What can be done about such children? Making the process of becoming a home educator a little more complex would be helpful. Many of the sort of parents like Jack’s mother, whom we met yesterday, would think twice if they knew that they would be interviewed before being able to deregister their children from school. I have seen a few parents who would be discouraged from sending off that letter if they knew that they would be visited regularly and have to explain to somebody just what they were doing about their son or daughter’s education. True, this would be irritating for genuine home educators, but it would only be a minor inconvenience for most.

Some children simply do not wish to learn about photosynthesis or 19th century poetry. Often, this too says something about their home background, but what can we actually do about it? A local college has a scheme now where ‘disaffected’ boys of fourteen and fifteen can learn about vehicle maintenance for a few days a week. A deal is struck with the boys whereby if they attend school on the other days, they get to muck about with engines for two days a week. This approach is worth expanding.

Already, this post has eaten into my time and so I must call a halt for now.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Home educated children missing from education

As some readers may be aware, there has recently been a consultation about revising the statutory guidance on Children Missing from Education or CME. Needless to say, this has provoked anger among certain home educators who are concerned that the CME agenda might end up with local authorities chasing home educating parents. This would be absurd, wouldn’t it, because home educated children are not missing from education at all?

This is really an etymological and perhaps philosophical problem. Can we change the essential nature of a thing by altering its name? To make this clear, I want to look at a specific case and then invite readers to suggest their own solutions. Local authority officers read this blog, as do civil servants working for the Department for Education; so this is an opportunity to explain to them where they are going wrong!

Fourteen year-old Jack has a history of playing truant and under-achieving at school. He has very limited literacy; barely enough to read the simplest of texts. This is not caused by dyslexia, he has been tested for this, but because he mucks about in class and misses a lot of school. His mother has to leave for work early and Jack is left to get himself up and to school. He often does not manage to do so. Soon after his fourteenth birthday, Jack stopped going to school altogether. He is over six feet tall and his mother cannot physically make him get up. He usually rises at about one or two in the afternoon and then watches TV or plays on the Xbox until his mates finish school. Then he hangs round with them. He seldom gets to bed before two or three in the morning.

Naturally, his mother was  worried about being prosecuted for truancy, but a friend told her that if Jack was registered as being home educated, then she won’t need to worry. She accordingly downloaded a template for a deregistration letter from an internet site and sent it to the school. When the local authority asked to visit, she also downloaded and adapted an educational philosophy for an autonomous education and then sent them that, declining a visit.

Here then is the real situation. A semi-literate child is receiving no education of any sort whatsoever. He will not only pass no GCSEs, he is unlikely to attend college and his mother is not the type to arrange an Open University course. His older friends are all unemployed and make a living from a combination of benefits and petty crime. Jack is moving in the same direction. He is, without a shadow of a doubt, a child missing from education. The question is, should describing a child missing from education in this way as being ‘home educated’ be enough to prevent the local authority from taking any further action?

I invite readers now to take the role of a local authority officer and decide what to do next. Should they issue a School Attendance Order? On what grounds could they do so? They have no solid evidence that Jack is not receiving an education. Should they turn up on the doorstep and try to speak to the mother or child? We all know how some home educators view the practice of ‘doorstepping’! Perhaps they should simply write the kid off and forget him? Do we really want local authorities to abandon a vulnerable child in this way? Should they send another letter?

I will be interested to know how readers think that a local authority should actually deal with a child of this sort who is missing from education. As I said earlier, this is a golden opportunity for you to tell local authority officers where they are going wrong and how they should deal with cases like this without resorting to doorstepping or other unacceptable strategies.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Why am I interested in the history of home education?

A week or so ago, somebody commenting here asked why I was so interested in the origin of home education in this country. It was a reasonable question and the answer is that it might help us to understand how the present conflict arose between home educating parents and their local authorities. I remarked in a recent post that there seems little appetite for investigations of this sort, but before I leave the subject for good, let us consider one or two points.

There is currently a lot of friction between some home educators and their local authorities. Some local authorities try to insist upon home visits and wish to see the children. Others want detailed evidence of the work being done, including written samples which are dated. The insistence on home visits in particular creates an awful lot of ill feeling. I doubt that anybody would disagree with any of this.

The situation in the early 1970s was very different. There were no home visits, parents instead being invited to visit an office without their children. The demands for timetables were a thing of the past by then, as was any insistence that particular academic subjects should be covered in the education. In fact the situation in 1972 contained all the elements that the more militant home educators are now demanding. The question we need to ask is why did things change during the 1970s and the early 1980s? Everything used to be fine and then it all went wrong. If we could establish what happened during those years to make local authorities less amenable to the idea of home education, then we might get a line on how to reverse the situation and return things to the way that they used to be forty years ago; when local authorities were more laid back about home education.

None of this matters to me personally, but it might help those who seem to spend much of their lives rowing with their local authorities.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Home education and traffic lights

Commenting here a couple of weeks ago, somebody expressed the view that it would be a fine thing if   I were to leave the planet and never again be heard from. The implication seemed to be that I am the only  fly in the ointment and that if it were not for me and my unwelcome opinions, then everything would be united and happy in the world of British home education. Alas, it appears now that I am not the only schismatic in Homeeducationville. An exceedingly well know home educator has recently divided home educating parents into the following categories:

"Pleasantly mad but thinking and competent;

 The Real Loonies aka two short planks;

The God squad (very strict religious and we barely ever talk to them or hear of them);

Fluffy (very autonomous but a little vague);

Yes sir no sir (UK homeschoolers their ilk who do everything they are told by the LA and live in a bubble);

The government listen to this woman on the subject of home education, so perhaps we should do so as well.  There is a little more about this here:

I am interested also in what I have heard lately about the idea that local authorities should operate a ‘traffic light’ system. This means that they should ignore the right sort of home educator, that is to say those from well educated, articulate and middle class backgrounds, and focus all their attentions upon those awful parents living on council estates. This sounds a grand idea and I can well see why another well known and high profile home educator has suggested such a scheme to her local authority. The day before yesterday Barbara Stark, a familiar name to many readers, wrote to Nottingham County Council about this idea, asking,


Regarding the policy for Education (EHE) department dealings with
families where children are being educated at home by their

1. Do professionals working with home educating families within NCC
use the traffic light system of Red, Amber, Green

a) in relation to safeguarding and promoting welfare

b) in relation to the standard/suitability of educational

Yours faithfully,

Mrs B Stark

I have an idea that we are going to be hearing more about this ‘traffic light’ scheme in the future.