Monday, December 01, 2014

Home Education under threat again

I've heard from several contacts now that Home Education is once again coming under the spotlight because the authorities, OFSTED and NSPCC believe that it is possible for home education to be used as a cover for abuse. 

Local authorities have been agitating for more control over home educated children for a long time, but the last time that the NSPCC proposed that there should be more controls, we successfully fought off but it seems that they are going to try again.

One of the first things any home educating family has to do when they start home education, is to decide upon their educational philosophy.  This is partly because case law has established that education is efficient if it achieves what it sets out to achieve, and it is pretty much impossible to work out if that is true withoutfirst deciding what you are setting out to do.  When I first thought about home education, that seemed like a simple prospect.  Of course, I wanted my children to be educated... didn't I?  But soon you realise that you have to sit down and work out what that actually means. 

Those of us who went to school were squeezed through a system which assumes all children have the same basic ability to learn how to read and calculate, and that if you only apply yourself, you can succeed.  Except this isn't true, as anyone who has been through school knows.  You have different levels of ability to concentrate on different things, you have different attitudes to sitting still, to being quiet, to learning about the Romans.  What inspires and excites one will bore another. 

The education system assumes that anyone will want to achieve five GCSEs, go on to A levels and then to university.  Indeed, as Sir Ken Robinson says, the ulitmate aim of the educational system seems to be to become a professor and remain forever trapped in the education system.  Success in the terms of school, is success at school, which is the achievement of exams.  But many children who pass through the school system fail to achieve exam success, and still go on to live useful lives.  Don't we also need people willng to work in shops and cleaning offices and hospitals? For some people their pleasure in is helping people, serving people, selling things - all things whih school measures very poorly.

More sadly, many children do succeed at exams, and have a bright future ahead of them but then become depressed and suicidal because of the risk of failure, or because they are unhappy people who happen to have succeeded at school stuff while feeling a failure at everything else.  Or have been bullied, or have been made to feel that their owly worth is their academic success. 

Education, in its purest sense of the word, I realised, is not about pushing in a lot of facts and figures and letting a child regurgitate them in an exam.  It is about drawing out of the child the potential that is there in the first place.  Which a school cannot know, because it is a psychopathic institution, as Peter Senge says.   He means by that, a school is not a learning institution, adapting its procedures to fit the pupils within its walls.  It is, like justice, blind to the people who are currently within it, and blind to the differences in those people, treating all the same.  This equality can be presented as a positive, but it can most surely be presented as a negative... especially if you are one of the people whose skills are not valued or tested by school.

So I decided when I came to think about my educational philosophy,  that first, I wanted my children to be happy, secure in themselves, not bullied (as bullying had been a feature of my son's school days) and able to know themselves, and grounded in a life where they weren't coerced into doing English when they longed to run around the park, or made to do Maths when they longed to play football.  Responding to their interests, accessing maths through daily life, shopping for food, English through the spoken word, leaving them free to learn at their own paces, was my aim.

Of course, this presents the authorities with a problem.  They are not empowered to test a home educator in the way that they can test a school against the national curriculum, because home educators are not obliged to follow the national curriculum, any more than private schools are.  Without their tick boxes and national curriculum they feel lost, and so a lot of local authorities use the same tick boxes they use in schools, to establish that parents are teaching their children more or less the same curriculum they'd be learning in school.  Except, they don't have to. 

I had an inspection once.  I'd been lied to and told that I had to have one, which I did not.  I was completely and utterly honest with the inspectors.  When they asked me about maths I said I didn't teach the children in that sense at all.  We did maths when it came up in everyday life, counting change and calculating weights and measure for cookery.  The fact that my daughter outperformed her peers when helping out at a jumble sale, showed that her mental arithmetic was far better at five and six than those who had been subjected to maths lessons each week was irrelevant, apparently.

I learned from the inspectors that they had no knowledge of home education at all.  They weren't even interested in it - the differences, the benefits, the drawbacks.  They hadn't read any of the authors which home educators are directed to when they begin to home educate - John Taylor Gatto, John Holt ("Oh I might have read something by him in college..."said our inspector), Roland Meighan and Alan Thomas.  They were ignorant of the differences between a teacher and thirty pupils and a parent and three.  They not only didn't know, they didn't want to know.  A more perfect example of a non-learning organization it would be hard to imagine.  And their business is assessing education.  It's a nice irony.

Ordinary people, the ones who have gone to school and now put their own children through school are nearly always highly critical of the idea of home education, and see it as a slur on their parenting that you have chosen to home educate your children.  But if you can talk to them about their own school days - the teacher they hated, the subjects they hated, the bullying, the feeling of not fitting in - it seems these are universal experiences and then, people begin to understand and see the situation rather more openly and less critically.

If you look at the history of state education, you will find that it was never the aim of it to educate the masses to the best of their ability.  It was to get the urchins off the streets, and to educate the masses to be useful to the industrial machine, that's all.  And although it has only been about a numder and forty years out of the length of human history, the authorities have been pretty damne successful at persuading the people that school is best and that it is dangerous or difficult to educate your own children unless you have a degree in education... and sometimes, even when you do, given that I have supported a number of qualified teachers also having problems with local authorities.

Those same people can immediately see, as the NSPCC and the inspectors can see, how it would be possible to neglect or abuse your children if you withdraw them from the public eye.  And of course, that *is* possible - in fact it is happening in every town in the country, after school.  Most abused children are attending school, and the fact that they are seen by teachers and other pupils may mean that their abuse is picked up... but for many it doesn't.  If being in the public eye was an antidote to abuse, then no school children would be abused.  Sadly, that's not the case.

There have indeed been some cases where children who were allegedly being home educated were abused and in some cases murdered by their parents or carers.  But if you look into the detail of those cases, most of the children abused and murdered by their children while "home educating" were already known to the authorities before they began to home educate.  The authorities have the ability to go into a home where they suspect a child is abused, whether that fmily is schooling or home educating their child.  They don't need new powers to do that, they already have them.  The problem is not that parents use home education as cover for abuse.  The problem is that even when concerns have been expressed about a child, the authorities do not use their powers to protect children.

It's possible to shoplift when you go into a shop, but I don't do that and I'm sure you don't either.  We'd be pretty annoyed if all shops insisted on searching our bags and turning out our pockets on the off-chance we might have done.   It's possible to drop your wife off the cross channel ferry in the middle of the journey because she insists on clearing away your meals befre you're ready, but most of us will put up with the annoyance and not murder our spouses... not because we are watched or checked up on, but because we're nice people.  Most people are nice, love their children, want what's best for them.  Which isn't regular inspections by strangers who don't understand how their intervention may change the dynamic in the family.

The NSPCC is talking about welfare inspections to ensure a parent has not been abusing a child out of school.  The inspections the local authorities are talking about are inspections to ensure a child is being educated, in line with the education act.  They're different things.  Do we send inspectors in to check that parents with children under five are not abusing them?  No, not unless concerns have been expressed by someone that the children may not be OK.  Why should children in home education be different from that?  If we spend all our money in checking up on all the parents who are not abusing their children, how much money will be left for checking up on those who *do*.

The inspections the local authorities talk about, are the impossible inspection of a child against an unknown aim selected by the parent - for that is, literally what the authorities have to inspect against.  It is perfectly OK in home education for a child to aim to be a horse rider, an astronomer, a dentist or an artist at the end of their education, and if they can be shown to have talent and to have ability in that area, it would be hard for the authorities to argue that a child wasn't being educated according to their age, ability and aptitude, but at the same time, very difficult for an inspector to assess.  They usually fall back nowadays on looking at the core subjects of the national curriculum and trying to check that the education a child is receiving is covering that. Which it may not be, even though absolutely compliant with the education act.  Most children pursuing their dream will learn the core subjects simply because they are needed to fully understand nearly everything in our informational age.  But not necessarily because the parents have been offering lessons in it.

That's without the additional problems that some inspectors don't know the law, and try to exceed their powers.  One told me that maybe the local education authority was allowed to "vary" the law, as they are able to do in housing law.  I pointed out that this housing variation is actually written into the law, which it is not in the case of education.

Periodically, it seems, the NSPCC decides to stir up trouble by suggesting that home education is a cover for abuse, and periodically we all have to cease what we are doing and fight that idea, to retain the freedoms which have made home education such a joy in England, and such a pain in many other European and Scandinavian countries.  So here we go again....

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