More about parents of children on the autistic spectrum

A few days ago I posted a piece which seemed to me to be pretty sympathetic and uncontroversial. In it, I mentioned that the parents of children on the autistic spectrum had for many decades, at least since 1943, been noticed frequently to be a little strange and somewhat different from other parents. I speculated that this might be due not so much to their also having autistic features or mental illnesses, both popular current ideas, but rather to their experiences as parents of a child who is outwardly ‘normal’ but who behaves bizarrely. As a result, I was called ‘callous’ and accused of ‘ignorant idiocy’.

While I have been away, I have been exchanging emails with professionals in this particular field and last night did a quick trawl of the literature. As I suspected, this was not a new idea and was in fact the most reasonable explanation of what many who work with such families have long observed. One person commenting on the original piece clamed that over 70% of children on the autistic spectrum have a parent who is also on the spectrum. I could not find any reference to this and would be glad to hear more about this idea. I have in front of me volume 15 of Developmental Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry, published by Sage in the USA and written by Laura Schreibman. It is a standard work on the subject of autism. On page 51, we find the following, apropos of the etiology of the disorder:

It has been widely demonstrated that a child’s behaviour has effects on the behaviour of the caretakers (e.g. Bell 1968, 1971; Yarrow Waxler & Scott, 1971). It is certainly reasonable to assume that any lack of social responsiveness evidenced by the parents might be a reaction to the lack of social behaviour, excessive tantrums and bizarre behaviour of their autistic children (e.g. Rimland, 1964; Rutter, 1968; Schopler & Reichler, 1971).

I found other references to this phenomenon but, as I have remarked before, this is a personal blog and not an academic journal and I do not think it necessary to reference these posts too extensively! It is enough to say that this was not some weird idea of mine but is part of mainstream thinking on this subject.

I think that rather than taking issue with what I specifically said about this matter, those objecting wished to close down any discussion about the origin and etiology of the syndrome. This does not strike me as being at all a good idea. I mentioned the old idea that parents were solely responsible for their children’s autism. It is careful research which exploded this notion. I really don’t see that it would be a good idea now to stop any further debate or research on the subject. I have seen this sort of thing happen before with autism. Some years ago, it was noticed that a greatly disproportionate number of African and Caribbean children were presenting with autistic features. In one London borough where I worked, this group represented around 40% of the population and yet about 80% of the children on the autistic spectrum were black. This was such a hot potato politically, that nobody would discuss it and this delayed research, with bad consequences for the families concerned. Suppressing facts and trying to prevent discussion of these things is seldom a good idea and almost inevitably harms the kids themselves in the long run. The more that we discover about this disorder and its causes, the better.

This topic is important for home educators, because autism seems to be commoner among home educated children than in the wider school population. When we find that one particular group has higher incidences of autism, whether it is Nigerians or home educating families; it is of interest. I cannot see that exploration of this could be a bad thing.

The 'joy' of late reading

Those readers whom I succeeded in irritating yesterday will be glad to hear that I am going to be away for a few days and that they will not be exposed to my unpleasant views for a while. It beats me why these types carry on reading my blog if it annoys them as much as all that! Before I go, I must mention that I have been looking through some back issues of the home education magazine produced by Mike Fortune-Wood. One article caught my eye in particular. It was by his wife Jan and was called The Joy of Late Reading. I did not think much of it, but it started me thinking about the frequency with which those who have themselves had reading difficulties might be reluctant to teach their kids to read. Mike Fortune-Wood himself of course had great difficulties in this field and so too did a number of other parents who are keen on not getting their children to read at the same age as everybody else.

Could there be a connection between the satisfaction and pleasure that parents gained from reading as children and their attitude to teaching the skill to their own kids? Could it be that those who struggled to learn to read might have a bad feeling about the whole thing and not wish for their own children to suffer in the same way? This seems quite plausible. Of course, phrasing it like this would not sound very noble; ‘I didn’t enjoy learning to read and so don’t really value it. As a result, I am not bothered about teaching it to my kid, he probably won’t like it much either’. Better by far to trick it out as a high principled educational philosophy, thus making a virtue out of what is essentially a weakness.

Parents of children on the autistic spectrum

This post is not restricted to home educating parents, but is about something which a number of people have noticed. Until a few decades ago, disorders such as schizophrenia and autism were thought of as being produced by strange parents. Leo Kanner, the man who first defined autism in the 1940s, came up with the idea of the so-called ‘Refrigerator Mother’, whose emotional coldness produce autism in her child. The fathers too were supposed to be remote and not join in their children’s lives properly. These ideas are now discredited and we know that both schizophrenia and autism have a genetic component and are essentially neurological problems, rather than a result of bad parenting.

And yet, it has been observed again and again that the parents, particularly the mothers, of autistic children are often a bit odd. They typically present as a little abrupt and not empathetic; slightly disconnected, in fact. Now all this goes very much against the prevailing paradigm and so tends to be ignored. When the subject does come up for discussion, it is assumed that because autism can be passed down through families genetically, perhaps these parents are themselves on the autistic spectrum. There is another possibility and it is an idea about which I would like to hear readers’ opinions. The main emotion towards them encountered by the parents of a child in a wheelchair will be compassion and pity. Irritating, yes, but quite understandable; people feel sorry for a mother whose kid is crippled. The main emotion which many mothers of children on the autistic spectrum come across in others can be hostility and disapproval. This is because their children look normal but apparently behave badly. They are often seen as lax and careless parents, unwilling to tackle their child’s supposed naughtiness. This difference in experience must have some effect upon the parents.

The idea which some of those with whom I have worked came up was that this experience of constantly feeling embarrassed about your child might after a few years result in mothers become a little harder and disregarding what others felt and said. In other words, any perceived oddness in such mothers would be a long term reaction to how they are treated by others, particularly other parents who do not understand autism. I have certainly seen one case of a mother who, I knew both before and after having an autistic child, but since this sample could hardly be smaller, (N=1!), I do not feel able to advance it as evidence. Do readers have any thoughts on this? Have others found the parents of children on the autistic spectrum as being a little strange? If so, can anybody come up with an explanation?

Two people withdraw from the home educating ‘community’

I was a little surprised to see Mike Fortune-Wood announce that Tania Berlow has withdrawn from the home educating community. How does one actually do that? By not home educating any more? By no longer posting on the Badman Review Action Group list? Ali Edgeley, her best friend, clarified matters later by explaining that Tania would no longer be commenting on message boards, lists, forums and so on. She has apparently ’suffered’ from people saying horrible things about her over the Alison Sauer guidelines business. I have to say that this strikes me as absurd. There has not been any shortage of people saying horrid things about me over the last couple of years, but I would not say that I have ’suffered’ as a result! People need to get a sense of perspective.

I must express my unbounded joy at the news that the awful Alison Edgeley will also be withdrawing from the ‘home educating community’. People have in the past been a little sniffy about my commenting on home education, on the grounds that I technically stopped when my daughter turned sixteen in the summer of 2009. What then shall we say about Ali Edgeley, who hoofed her kids back into school when she started up a business in 2007? Three years after she had stopped home educating, she was still pestering the London Borough of Islington with communications like this:

Both woman are active on the Internet in other capacities than as home educators. Ali Edgeley posts as tinpanali and Tania as both Alex Panzeca and catbythetail. Some of the things that both Ali and Tania get up to and say elsewhere, tends to confirm strongly some of my remarks about the general strangeness of many well known figures in the world of home education!

Indigo Children

I have written before of a tendency among British home educators to embrace crackpot beliefs and unconventional ways of thinking. These typically range from homeopathy to the New World Order. Over the last few months, I have been told of another such loopy idea which has apparently become very popular in some quarters. This is the idea of the so-called Indigo Children. Now I have of course heard of the Indigo Children, but was not aware that it was flourishing in this country. Like so many other weird belief systems, it started in the USA. Put briefly, the idea is this. Some children who have been diagnosed as or exhibit the signs of having an attention deficit or being hyperactive, are really very special and misunderstood by the rest of the world. Far from having special educational needs, they are really the forerunners of a new kind of human. This is curious, because others have observed that many home educating parents have the idea that their children are very talented and empathetic; although in ways which cannot be measured by conventional means.

Indigo Children have a number of characteristics. They behave as though they are very special and important. They are intolerant of authority and do not react well to being told what to do. They are amazingly sensitive and talented, but not in ways that schools recognise. They will not submit to the ‘ritualised behaviour of society’; in practice, this means that they refuse to wait their turn in queues and so on. Many of them have been diagnosed as having ADHD.

Now all this is very interesting. There are two possible explanations for conduct of this sort. One is that these kids have been sent to the Earth by a higher power to lead us all into the Age of Aquarius or something of the sort. In other words, they are truly special, but our blinkered eyes are unable to recognise how important and special they are. The second possibility is that these are spoilt brats who have been indulged by their parents and allowed to get away with murder and that when they start school and find that they are not the centre of the universe, they take the news badly!

I have been given the names of a number of parents who are well known on the British home educating scene who, it is claimed, believe that their children are Indigo. I have no idea whether any of this is true, but it does seem to tie in neatly with a lot of what I have observed. Quite a few of the home educated children in this country have been diagnosed with special needs of one sort or another. In America, this is the group from whom the majority of the Indigo Children are drawn. Many British home educators do seem to think that their children are fantastically sensitive and have all sorts of abilities which conventional education has failed to recognise. The very idea of their taking GCSEs like all the other kids is absurd; they are far too special for such mundane things as examinations.

I am wondering if any readers have heard about this at all? As I say, I am not claiming that this it is actually the case that the Indigo Children business has taken a hold among British home educators; merely that I have been told by several people that this is the case.

How normal are home educators?

About eleven years ago, a school of thought emerged in this family that my home educated daughter should start seeing more children of her own age. Of course there were those at Woodcraft Folk, ballet lessons, church and so on, but it was still felt that she needed to spend more time playing with other kids and less being experimented on by her father like an educational guinea pig. As a result, I joined Education Otherwise and the Home Education Advisory Service. I received lists of names, addresses and telephone numbers of other members of these organisations in the country and contacted about a dozen, attempting to broaden my child’s social circle.

Interestingly, this was at roughly the same time that Paula Rothermel was doing her research and since 95% of her subjects belonged to Education Otherwise, it is fair to assume that our random dozen were pretty similar to the types that she was working with at that time. Now I am sometimes reproached for suggesting that home educators tend to be a bit odd. The thesis advanced by my critics is that home education is simply an educational choice and says nothing at all about the parent making it. Some people send their kids to one maintained school and some to another. Some parents choose an independent school and others decide to educate their children at home. One cannot generalise about home educators any more than one can about those who send their children to school. I cannot agree with this hypothesis. For one thing, my common sense tells me that the vast majority of parents who have problems with their child’s school, sort out those problems or at the most move the child to another school. Similarly, those who wish for a better education for their four year-old either attend church to get him into a church school, move house to a better area, enage a tutor for a couple of evenings each week or persuade a relative to pay the fees at an independent school. Almost by definition, those who choose not to send their children to school at all are extremely atypical.

Now I have nothing against odd people. After all most people, even my close friends and family, regard me as being a bit mad myself and they may well be right. I doubt if anybody was at all surprised when I chose not to send my young daughter to school; it was exactly the sort of thing that I would do. Is this the case with the average home educator? I have known many in the past, some in connection with my work. It has been suggested here that those whom I have met are likely to be unusual and not at all typical of home educators. Let’s look at those whom I met after joining EO and HEAS. I can tell readers at once that all these parents were strange and not at all like the average parent of a school aged child whom one meets all the time socially. The first whom we visited may have been an extreme case, but she set the tone for the rest of our experiences with home educating parents living in West Essex and North London at that time. I never actually met the daughter. She was so shy that she would not come downstairs. She communicating by speaking to her parents from upstairs, where she always retreated whenever there were visitors. The first time we went to the house with my daughter, none of us actually met the child. My daughter did not want to go upstairs alone, because she thought the house was creepy. She was right! The mother was like a wraith and very nervous and peculiar. The family did not eat or drink anything warm. All food and drinks were cold. The child’s health was apparently very poor, possibly as a consequence of this. On later visits, my daughter did go upstairs, but was not very keen on going to the house.

Other parents were not as weird as this, but I certainly noticed some common trends. Some of the parents belonged to more than one of these categories. There were those with a touch of religious mania, some who were bitterly opposed to all authority, others who had had bad experiences themselves at school and also some who were very protective of their child and seemingly obsessed with her safety or welfare. I formed the impression that the decision to home educate had in many cases stemmed from their characters, rather than from the ostensible circumstances which had led to home education. What I mean by this is that the things they talked about would not have caused an ordinary parent to decide to take their kid out of school. Of course, this was precisely the same with me. On a rational level, my decision to home educate was prompted by purely educational considerations and has proved a great success. However, it was my own past experiences which primed me in that direction and the explanation about education was to some extent a rationalisation; an excuse , if you will.

How does this tie in with local authorities and their desire to visit families and investigate the situation in their homes? Quite a few of these parents were probably known to the schools as being weird individuals. In some cases, their behaviour and conversation would have set alarm bells ringing in any normal person as soon as one met them. Me, I am very broadminded and being pretty strange myself, am less apt to make judgements of this sort. Nevertheless, I can see where there would have been concerns about these children and their parents.

I am curious to know whether readers honestly maintain that the average home educator is not a little peculiar? Is it really the case that the only difference between home educating parents and the average parent of a child at school is that one sends their child to school and the other does not? Hands on hearts now, how many people here educated their children at home for the following reasons: religious convictions, desire to protect the child, opposition to authority or as a result of bad feelings experienced yourself as a child at school? And now, for how many of your was it a purely educational decision?

Home educated children on the autistic spectrum

Anybody pushing a child around in a wheelchair may expect generally to receive favourable treatment from the public. People make allowances, move aside and are tolerant of odd behaviour from the person in the wheelchair. It is clear that a disability is involved and so passers-by wish to appear accepting and compassionate. How very different is the attitude encountered if one is with a child who looks like a little angel but who is prone to snatching things away from other children and pushing them over if they object. The indignant looks which parents or carers receive, particularly if they are trying to extinguish such behaviour by not reacting to it when exhibited by the child in question. The kid may have a disability every bit as real as the child in the wheelchair, but of course autism does not show in the same way. The challenging behaviour is perceived as aggression or sheer naughtiness. An unspoken assumption is that it is being tacitly condoned by the adult caring for the child, especially as I say if the adult reacts calmly to the apparently bad behaviour of the child. Other parents will mutter to each other, ’Little thug! And his mother didn’t say a word to him, didn’t even tell him off!’ Useless to explain that shouting at a child on the autistic spectrum will just make everything ten times worse.

One can see why parents who have to endure this sort of thing every day might get a little ratty with those who do not understand the special difficulties which their children have. One can quite understand why they might get irritated when a local authority officer offers well-meaning but foolish advice for dealing with a syndrome about which she so obviously knows nothing at all. To that extent, one can see why some home educating parents of children on the autistic spectrum resolutely refuse to have any dealings with their local authority. There is however another side to this; one which many home educating parents don’t see.

Living with a an autistic child can be an absolute nightmare. In addition to the autistic features, the child might be hyperactive, need little sleep and have a variety of extremely odd habits. One child might have an obsession with collecting shoes and throwing them out of the window. Just imagine that, if you live on the tenth floor of a tower block and are cooking a meal. Your baby is asleep and you realise that your non-verbal eight year-old has managed to get a window open and throw everybody’s shoes out! What do you do? Do you wake the baby and make a family trip downstairs to collect the shoes? The lift is out of order again, so this is no slight adventure. Although you know he can’t help it, won’t you get the tiniest bit irritated at this sudden emergency caused by your child? Or suppose that your daughter has an obsession with laying bottles on their side, because seeing them standing upright makes her distressed? There you are, just getting ready to watch Eastenders and you discover that she has laid a large bottle of cooking oil on its side and the kitchen floor is now awash with the stuff. Ready to snap yet? Of course, some parents do snap. They hit their children or lock them up out of the way in their room. I have seen an autistic child’s bedroom with a padlock fixed to the outside to keep the kid from wandering in the night. For some of these parents, having the child at school all day is the only thing keeping them from going mad themselves. And on top of this, they also need respite care as often as they can get it at weekends.

Children like this are at a greater risk of being hit by their parents. I am not talking about a measured smack, either. I am talking of all the frustration and grief boiling over until the parents beats the child. This sort of thing happens and is a hazard to children with certain syndromes. If a parent who is just about coping were then to have this difficult child with her all day, it is a racing certainty that she would snap at some point. This is not to say that they do not love their children, but nobody who has not spent time with such children can have the remotest idea of the pressures that are at work. A result of this is that when the parent of such a child announces that she is rejecting all future help and will from now on be spending twenty four hours a day with her child; alarm bells start ringing.

I have spent a good part of my life working with both children and adults with various problems and used to foster a five year-old kid with Heller’s Syndrome; a type of late onset autism. By the end of the weekend, I was almost at my wits end. Often, the fears and behaviours of children and young people on the autistic spectrum are not at all accessible to reason. One cannot sometimes explain to them that there is nothing to be afraid of on an escalator going down to a tube station. They might simply go mad with panic and claw and bite until you take them out of the station. Or it might be something else entirely that causes problems. I know that I could not spend twenty four hours a day with some of the children with whom I have worked and I know also that their parents too would be unable to do so. This is one reason why local authority officers are sometimes a little concerned about a decision to home educate such a child. Some parents here have expressed annoyance at the ignorance of these people, but in a sense, the more that they know, the more that they are likely to be uneasy about the idea of home education.

How to attract unfavourable attention from your local authority

Some readers probably feel that they are not yet proper home educators, because they are still on quite amicable terms with their local authority. There is really no need for this, as putting people’s backs up is a fairly straightforward business. It is not hard to draw attention to yourself and make your local authority think that there is something fishy going on. Let’s see the best way to go about this.

Some parents welcome visits from their local authority as a chance to talk over concerns and ask questions about their child’s education. They would ideally like to see their EHE contact more often than once a year. These people are what we call traitors and fifth columnists. Always keep an eye out for such characters on the lists and forums and be sure to denounce them, saying that they are making the lives of genuine home educators a lot harder, by encouraging local authorities to expect visits as a matter of routine. Remember, any professionals who ask questions about the fact that your child is not at school are not really motivated by concern about your child’s welfare or education. Be sure to brush off any questions and remind those asking them of the legal situation. A few friendly words might reassure the person and the matter will end there; that’s not what the true home educator wants at all. Best of all, refuse brusquely to answer any question at a hospital, clinic, GP’s surgery or anywhere else. Become upset and angry if anybody asks the most casual and innocent question about your child’s non-attendance at school.

The fun really begins when having aroused the liveliest suspicions in the minds of concerned professionals about just what is going on with your kid, you then get a letter from the local authority. Typically, this will be couched ina chatty and friendly way, asking if it would be possible for somebody to pop round for a chat. There are Quislings and collaborators who give in to this sort of approach, which is in reality little short of fascism. Do not be one of them. Instead, contact all the Internet lists to which you belong and send an agonised appeal into cyberspace, announcing that you are being hounded and pursued. Explain that your child is so sensitive that he is likely to have a nervous breakdown if any unfamiliar adult enters the home. With luck, you will find other like-minded individuals who will help you to compose a really snotty letter to the local authority. This will achieve the double purpose of both putting their backs up and also leading them to suppose that you have something to hide. The stage is now set for confrontation and you may look forward to an increasingly fraught atmosphere. It would be no bad thing if your child were to pick up on this atmosphere and become distressed himself. Here’s a handy tip. Why not tell him that the bad guys are trying to force him to go to school? If this does not distress him, then why not hint that some people might want to take him away from his mother altogether? His inevitable anxiety will then provide you with yet another grievance. This strategy is particulary effective for children who are on the autistic spectrum.

It is not hard to spend years at daggers drawn with your local authority and the more fighting you manage with them, the more you will know that you are not one of those supine wretches who sell out at the first opportunity to the forces of the state. They may prefer a pleasant relationship with their local authority with a good natured hour once a year to chat things over; you are made of sterner stuff. If you ever have the nagging feeling at the back of your mind that you have turned into a a quarrelsome crackpot who argues for the sake of it, just spend some time on Home Ed Forums or HE-UK. You will soon be reassured that this behaviour is perfectly normal for a good home educator!

Changing paradigms

Much of science is based upon sets of ideas which are generally accepted and which provide good explanations for how the world works. These theories are not dogma; they change when overwhelming evidence emerges which renders them no long viable. We then move from one paradigm to another, say from a Newtonian view of the universe to one in accordance with Einstein’s ideas. Let us look at a couple of ideas which fit in perfectly with modern paradigms; one in the field of medicine and one in education.

In medicine, we believe that smoking cigarettes tends to shorten lives by bringing about lung cancer, heart disease and various other illnesses. The link is not obvious, because these disorders typically take decades to emerge and so we only found out for sure when a lot of people’s medical histories were checked. This does not mean that every smoker will die young, nor that no non-smoker will die of lung cancer. Somebody who lives to a ripe old age while being a heavy smoker does so in spite of, not because of the habit. In education, there is a definite link between high quality, structured and compulsory teaching from a young age and future academic achievement. There is a similar link between the early acquisition of literacy and later academic history. Again, the link is not at once apparent because these consequences also take years to appear. As with cigarettes and lung cancer; there are exceptions. Some people might end up going to university without having been taught methodically. These people are, like the old man who smokes eighty a day with no apparent ill effects, exceptions. They have achieved academic success not because of, but in spite of, the educational treatment which they have received or failed to receive.

Every so often, somebody comes along with ideas which challenge prevailing paradigms. When this happens, the onus if very much upon those with the new ideas to demonstrate that these ideas provide a better explanation for the world than those currently being used. Some people today claim that HIV is not caused by AIDS. Others believe that smoking does not cause lung cancer. There are also those who believe that structured teaching tends to prevent academic achievement rather than promote it. Beliefs such as these are not rational or scientific. I do not propose to reference this article, this is after all a personal blog rather than an academic journal, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against any of the above ideas. Because there is no proper evidence to support either the belief that smoking does not cause lung cancer or the notion that structured and compulsory teaching does not tend to produce good academic results, those championing such things fall back on anecdotal evidence and deny the very need for properly conducted research. We see this with crank cures for cancer, where belief and faith are more important than objective research into the efficacy of what is being claimed. We see it too in some strands of home education, where anecdotal evidence is all and the necessity for research is similarly denied.

What is wrong with anecdotal evidence? Well, I had an elderly relative with a very heavy tobacco habit who lived to old age with no apparent ill effects. I also know somebody whose daughter was a life-long non-smoker and yet died of lung cancer. These cases are freaks; they do not cause me to doubt that smoking is strongly associated with lung cancer. We similarly hear of cases where children have been denied regular and systematic teaching and have then gone on to university. These people too are freakish exceptions. They have succeeded despite, rather than because of, their childhoods. We have good reason to think that this is so. First, because of the fierce opposition among those who embrace such unorthodox educational methods to any sort of objective examination of what they are doing. We know it secondly because the same few cases are paraded over and over again to prove that this type of education works. It has all the appearance of a crank cure for cancer, where most of the patients die, but the few survivors are paraded endlessly to prove that the treatment is effective. This has more in common with the sale of snake oil in the old-time West than with any modern education theory!

When it is claimed that a prevailing paradigm is faulty, and this applies to celestial mechanics, medicine, education or anything else, the onus is upon those making the claim to provide the evidence which backs up their belief. There would be nothing wrong with my claiming that Einstein was quite wrong about relativity and if I came up with a theory which made predictions which could be tested and checked, then people might even listen to me. Simply asserting that something is so, will not do. Nor will producing a half dozen cases and suggesting that these are good reason to abandon all that we currently believe to be true about medicine or education. The ball is in the court of those who espouse a new paradigm of education and if they wish to be taken seriously, they should make their case. It is this which lies at the heart of demands for monitoring and inspection: that a group of people are operating in a way which runs counter to all that we think we know about education. Most teachers and other professionals in the field think that these methods will cause harm to the development of young children and that is why they wish to intervene.

Funding college places for home educated children

Graham Stuart and Nick Gibb do a double act and reveal that local authorities can allow home educated children to attend college and then claim the cost back from central government:

On the idea of home educators inspecting the educational provision of other home educators

I have written before about the so-called ‘Tasmanian Model’. In that Australian state, home educators work with the government to inspect and monitor home education. It seems to work well enough and I think that it would be a good scheme in this country. There are problems though and the appointment of two home educators in Wigan has underlined that a good deal would need to change before this notion would be universally applauded by other home educators here. For one thing, there is the fact that these people will inherit a framework which is already immensely irritating to many home educating parents. Take this bit from Wigan’s policy on Children Missing from Education:

'The Children Act 2004, places a duty on all agencies to work
together to promote the welfare of children and to share
information. This principle underpins this policy and there is an
expectation that all agencies will work together to ensure children
are safely on school rolls.
1.4 There is now considerable research available which identifies the
reason for children and young people being ‘missing from school’.
The most common reasons include:
· failing to be registered at a school at age 5'

We observe the phrase ‘children are safely on school rolls’. Does that mean that children not on school rolls are automatically in danger? As for the idea that a reason for children missing school is that their parents do not send them to school at five, well this is so but blindingly obvious. Children miss school because they are not sent to school!

When we were stopped by a truancy patrol when my daughter was eight and had never been to school, I was fairly OK with the business. This was because the people asking the questions were what I would regard as professional busybodies. Imagine though that after not having sent my daughter to school at the age of five, there was a knock on the door and a home educator stood there. He tells me that it has been noticed that I am not sending my child to school and wants to know why. I might give a home educator shorter shrift than I would a run of the mill local authority officer. Why? Because he ought to know better.

Now consider the following passage, also from Wigan’s CME policy.

'4.6 If a school learns of a school aged pupil without a school place
(e.g. a sibling or friend of a current pupil etc) the school must
inform the LA of the child / young person. This can be done via
the dedicated e mail address www., by
telephone or in writing to the EWS Admin Team located at Wigan
Investment Centre, Waterside Drive, Wigan WN3 5BA. Tel:
01942 705405 Fax: 01942 705408'

Some of this home educating parent's work will entail knocking on doors following reports of this sort from teachers who have noticed that one of their pupils has a friend who does not appear to be attending school. Would this not make some home educators feel a little uneasy, to find themselves acting on information of this sort from schools?

I think that this whole thing could work and is definitely an improvement, but will need a sea-change in thinking. If home educators are going to be checking up on other home educators in this way, then all policies will need to be revised accordingly. I find this quite an exciting development and will be interested to see if other local authorities try it out.

More about Wigan and their new approach to home education

Here is the job description for the new post of inspecting home education in Wigan. The new people will be starting work in September.

A certain amount of anger is building over the fact that any home educator should feel able to follow this specification. Some of the points mentioned in passing, about the supposed duties of the local authority, are controversial. Many home educators believe that councils do not possess the duties outlined here. As a result, the home educating parents who have now been appointed to this post are being viewed by some as little better than Quislings.

A number of other local authorities have expressed interest in the whole notion of the 'Tasmanian Model', where home educators themselves carry out inspections and assess the suitability of provision. Personally, I think that this might be a way forward, but judging by initial reactions to the situation in Wigan, it might just create more ill feeling. At any rate, Wigan are blazing a trail and it seems possible that other local authorities will try the same idea out. Here are the minutes of the meeting at which the decision was made to allow home educators to apply for the job of monitoring the educational provision of other parents:

Wigan appoints home educating parents to monitor home education

It looks as though Wigan has decided to adopt the so-called 'Tasmanian Model' of monitoring home education. They have appointed two parents who are themselves home educators and who will be inspecting the provision of other parents. This is in sharp contrast to the usual sort of person doing this job, who is typically a former teacher. The fun and recriminations have already begun and we shall have to see how this new scheme actually works in practice.

Here is how Wigan, a town in Greater Manchester, went about finding somebody to do the job for them:

In the interests of lively debate, I thought that readers might care to know that Wigan feels that:

' we have a duty to ask for evidence that a suitable education is being

I seem to recollect that some parents do not believe this to be true...

Associating with other home educators

Something which has been said of me in the past, and the same idea cropped up yesterday, was that I have not had much to do with other home educators and base my opinions mainly on what I read on Internet lists and forums. This notion says little about me and my life, but a great deal about the attitudes of those making the suggestion. I think that what people who make such assertions are really saying is that there is an Education Otherwise group which meets in North London and a strong home educating scene in Colchester. Because I have not been a member of either set; I cannot have met many home educating parents in real life. This shows a very strange and distorted perspective of home education.

It is true that there are quite a number of groups for home educating parents and that thousands of people belong to them. It is also the case that many more home educators simply get on with the business of home educating without joining groups or making any effort to seek out other home educating parents. I am one such person. Nevertheless, one way and another, I have still come across many home educators while teaching my daughter. Some of these were parents with whom I had professional dealings. This sample were not really typical of anything other than dysfunctional families in Inner London and may perhaps be disregarded for our purposes. How else does somebody who avoids groups get to meet home educators? Well, one bumps into them at meetings of the National Association for Gifted Children, to give one example. We used to belong to this and there is no shortage of home educators at some events and activities. One meets other parents with ‘school age’ children out and about locally and soon realises that these children too are home educated. We have got to know people in this way. A couple of our friends were so impressed with what they saw of my daughter’s experience that they tried it for themselves. This did not work out too well, although one persevered for a year before admitting defeat. Belonging to HEAS and Education Otherwise provided lists of individual parents who could be telephoned and arrangements made to meet up. Many of these parents too did not attend meetings. Finally, because my daughter and I have the habit of appearing in newspapers both local and national, some parents approach me in the street and reveal that they have just taken their children out of school and seek my advice.

Without knowing how many home educated children there are in the country and also knowing the number that attend groups intended exclusively for home educated children, one cannot make any confident statements about the matter, but I strongly suspect that the majority of home educators do not belong to groups. I think that most home educating parents simply plough their own furrow, neither seeking out nor avoiding other home educators. In other words, I think that I am pretty typical in this respect. The great thing about home education is that it is a collection of individuals of all sorts, linked only by the practice of home education. There are of course trends and distinct strands, but there is no such thing as a typical home educator. I might have something in common with other church goers or people who read Sartre and Camus. In the same way, I might have something in common with another person who does not send her child to school. However just because I share one interest with a person, church-going or home edcucting, does not mean that this is somebody with whom I will get on. We may well have very little else to connect us. I never thought of home edcuation as being in any way a defining chracteristic of mine. It was simply what I did and there was no reason why it should provide any sort of link to or common ground with others. For some parents though, it was more like a hobby or shred interest, something like birdwatching ot supporting a particular football team. These people joined together into clubs to meet others who shared their enthusiasm for the pursuit. This is fine, but it is not how I ever worked. I suspect that those who accuse me of not having met many home edcuators in real life belong to this group of people.

The exclusivity of some home educators

I am, as is generally known, a great enthusiasm for home education. Properly conducted, it can deliver at least as good education that offered by any school, independent or maintained. That for me is all that there is to the matter. I do not think that home educated children are special in any way, nor that they should stick to ‘their own kind’ in any way. For some parents though, there is a pleasing sense of exclusivity about being home educators. There are those who do not even like their kids to play with children who attend school, lest they are contaminated; tempted from the path of righteousness and end up wishing to attend school themselves! It is their duty, as these parents see it, to keep their children from following the broad, primrose path to destruction which schools represent and the best way to do this is to make sure that they only associate with other home educating families.

On one of the home education lists recently, a mother who is about to withdraw her child from school posted that she was feeling nervous about the decision; as well she might. Luckily, her child’s school was well disposed to the whole business and there was every prospect that her kid would be able to maintain friendly relations with those children with whom she had been attending school. Many dedicated home educators must have shook their heads in dismay at this point, wondering what could have possessed this woman even to consider such a course of action. Somebody decided to set her straight, saying:

we see other families almost every day) get-togethers with
other HE families and your daughter will thrive.(If you just spend time
socialising with families whose children are in school, your daughter will
very likely conclude that school is where all the really interesting stuff

Now the fact is that over 99% of children go to school. If you wish for your child to grow up normally and be able to relate to other young people of her age, she needs to know what is going on in school and be able to talk about it with her peers. It is definitely the case though that with some home educators, they feel that their way of education is somehow more virtuous and enlightened that school. Their children are special and spending too much time with ordinary children might have the effect of making them less so. They might even, horror of horrors, want to go to school themselves if they see too much of schooled children. I don’t see this air of being special and somehow separate from others as being at all healthy for a child. It is likely to breed snobbishness and make them look down on others and regard themselves as being specially favoured in some sense.

When I read the comment which I quote above, it put me in mind of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I know a few home educators who are also Witnesses and their children feel doubly set apart from the ordinary world; saved in two senses. Perhaps the fact that the woman who made the comment is a fanatically devout Catholic has some bearing on the matter, maybe she is used to thinking of herself and her family as being specially blessed in some way. I have certainly encountered this perception among other home educating parents; a cult-like satisfaction about being on the right side against a generally corrupt world. Perhaps it ties in with what I wrote a few weeks ago about conspiracy theories. Maybe some home educators feel that they are right in a far deeper sense than the purely educational.

For me, the tremendous thing about home education was that it was an effective method of educating my child. I think that were I to have ended up feeling that she should not have been spending too much time with ordinary children who were at school, then I should perhaps have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I wonder if readers have come across this attitude themselves? I have an idea that it is far from uncommon, particularly among the more militant and well organised home educators.

The ‘private worlds of independent reading’

Allie, who comments here fairly regularly, used the above phrase during a recent discussion on the desirability or not of getting children to read earlier rather than later. I found this very interesting. Much of the debate among home educators when it comes to reading, seems to centre around the academic advantages or not of reading at the same age as children generally do at school. I remember the owner of one of the major home educating lists remarking that he could not think why a child of seven would ‘need’ to be able to read. Alan Thomas evidently has the same attitude, talking in his books of the way that reading is necessary in schools to engage with the primary curriculum, but that this is not needed at home. He goes on to say, using a particularly ghastly piece of jargon:

Children may not perceive a need to read if they are busy with other things and have adults or children around who are willing to fulfil their literacy needs’

I have not the remotest idea what is meant by fulfilling ‘literacy needs’, unless he means people reading to a child. The very use of the expression ’literacy needs’ makes the thing sound like something tiresome which can be done of somebody else’s behalf to save them the trouble.

The fact of the matter is that listening to somebody read a story is a completely different experience from being immersed in a book yourself. One only has to watch a child who is deep in a book and then compare him with a child having a story read to him to see the difference. And both are vastly different from watching television or going to the cinema. These are not slightly altered versions of the same thing; they are completely different activities. The main reason that I got my daughter to read as early as possible was not so that she could engage with a primary curriculum! It was so that she could share in what is to me the greatest pleasure in my life. Reading is for me not a means to an end, although it is of course a very useful skill if you wish to get on in life. It is an end in itself; an activity, pastime or passion for which there is simply no substitute. I love the film of Gone With the Wind, but watching it is altogether separate from reading the book.

There is also a great difference between mechanical reading of the kind that we use when looking at the instructions on a can of soup and the sustained reading that we use when losing ourselves in a novel. It is rather like those three dimensional pictures which were popular a few years ago, which initially look like a random collection of dots. If you stare in the right way, they resolve themselves into solid images. This is what true reading is like. One stares at the page of little black squiggles and after a while they too resolve themselves into images and pictures. This experience is for me, far more gripping than gawping at the television or listening to somebody reading a story on the wireless. It was this that I wished my daughters to share and it was for this that I wished reading to become second nature to them from a very early age.

Talking of somebody fulfilling ‘literacy needs’ is so completely beside the point, that it makes me wonder whether or not people like Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison are even thinking about the same thing as me when they write about children reading!

Modern schools

I don’t know whether anybody else watched the recent BBC programme which installed cameras in a primary school classroom and filmed what went on for a week or so. It may be seen here:

Obviously, some of the children were more badly behaved than others, but it was the overall, chaotic nature of the lessons which was the really shocking revelation; at least for those unfamiliar with modern classrooms. One can well understand why children on the autistic spectrum might have difficulties in such places, but even for those with no problems, the experience hardly looks educative. I particularly liked the school’s strategy for helping the children who did not want to learn. They put next to these children, a child who did want to learn and wished to work quietly. Needless to say, the result was then two children not learning, as the disruptive child prevented the one who wanted to learn from getting on with his work!

I cannot imagine who in their senses could possibly imagine that this noisy bedlam would be a better environment for a child to learn than a quiet home. And mark you, this school is rated ’good’ by Ofsted! This programmes was the best recommendation for home education which I have seen in years.

Evading visits from the local authority

On several home education lists, parents still seem to be working hard to prevent local authority officers from visiting their homes to talk about home education. You might think that most parents would relish the opportunity to capture such a person for an hour or so and tell her about home education, but apparently some people are not eager to do this. I know that I have covered this before, but I am still wholly at a loss to see what all the fuss is about here.

Just to remind readers, I never made any effort to notify our local authority of the fact that my daughter was not at school. Haringey were vaguely aware of this, but were too lazy and inefficient to do anything about it. When we moved to Essex, I thought of telling them, but did not get round to it. It was not until my daughter was eight that we ran into a truancy patrol and because I was not particularly bothered about it, I gave them our address. Why would I have been anxious to avoid a visit? In my case it was because I was too busy with teaching my daughter to waste time on such nonsense. Some parents evidently have other motives. Let’s look at some of the objections which people raise and see if we can make any sense of this business. I certainly had better things to be doing than entertaining a local authority officer for an hour, but the reluctance to allow visits seems to go a good deal beyond this with some people.

One of the main objections to having a visit is that the person assessing the educational provision might make various judgements about the family and their lifestyle, based not upon purely educational criteria but upon their personal prejudices. Remember that a lot of these people are former teachers and so likely to be in favour of school. This is of course quite true and I am sure that it happens a lot. The question is, so what? We all pass judgements on other people’s homes all the time. Our own house is pleasingly casual and Bohemian; our friend’s place is a filthy hovel. It is hard to avoid making subjective value judgements of this sort and I don’t see why local authority officers would be any different. Another reason for not letting these people in is that they may try to persuade us to send our children to school. They might ask loaded questions to the kids and then claim that the children really want to go to school, but that we have brainwashed them into being home educated. Again, this may well happen; again, so what?

I have to say that I did not encounter anything of this sort in Essex. All the people I actually met were pleasant and ineffective enough, one of them had home educated for a time herself and spent most of the time telling me how her daughter was bullied at school. I am trying to work out what I would have done if any of them had tried to tell me that my daughter would have been better off at school. It would not much have bothered me, really. Likewise if they thought that our house was too clean or dirty, tidy or untidy. The reason for this indifference is that none of that would find its way into the report anyway. If any of them thought, as they might well have done, that our home was dirty and untidy and I was a very strict parent who expected fanatically high standards of behaviour and academic achievement from my daughter, then they would have been perfectly entitled to their opinions. Their only official concern was that my child was receiving a suitable education and their personal views of me did not really matter.

I can quite understand why somebody would object to some particular individual entering their home. I did myself with one of the ’inspectors’ and discouraged him from coming here. It is this general principle which I cannot quite grasp. A visit from an EWO or home education ’inspector’ is a chance to advertise home education and try to persuade others that it is a good thing. I can’t say that I cared much on a personal level what these people thought of me, but it was certainly an opportunity to show that home education was better than what they were offering at the local schools. I used to gen up on the figures relating to the schools in the area and point out how they were falling down on the job. I was able to explain in great detail precisely why I was not about to send my child to one of those places.

Ultimately, the local authority officers who come to a home educating home are only concerned with education. They might very well disagree with autonomous education or think that your child would be better off in school; that’s only to be expected. Their views cannot really harm anybody though. Local authorities are desperately keen to avoid issuing School Attendance Orders and having issued them are even more reluctant to prosecute. It seems to me that what most people are worried about here is not the prospect that their child will be forced back to school. They are rather fretting about a purely social matter; that somebody will secretly disapprove of their lifestyle and the choices which they have made for their children.

Why do you think it's important to have 'properly conducted research'?

Every so often, somebody commenting on here will say something so fat-headed as to make me reel back in disbelief. Such a comment was made yesterday; I quote it above. Two contentions are regularly made about the informal learning of reading. One is that it does not handicap a child educationally if he or she learns to read much later than is usual in school. The other is that having once learnt to read, the child soon catches up with contemporaries who have been reading for seven or eight years. Both these assertions are counter-intuitive.

A child of twelve who only at that age begins to read, has of course been absorbing a huge amount of information in many other ways throughout his life. This comes from conversation, television, the Internet, real-life experiences and so on. This is of course also the case with the child who began to read a decade earlier at the age of two. However, in addition to all the information gathered by the same methods as the ’late’ reader, the child who learnt to read at two has had the advantage of being able to get information by means of another channel; that of the printed word. So as well as learning through conversation, television and the other methods we talked of above, the child who began to read at two has also spent ten years reading newspapers, books and magazines. One feels instinctively that this additional means of finding things out would give the early reader an educational edge on his illiterate peer, but we are assured that this is not the case. Why not?

When we are asked to accept a proposition which seems to run counter to common sense in this way, it is quite reasonable to ask for evidence which backs up the assertion being made. In this case there is none. Similarly, if one has two children of fourteen, one of whom has been practising the violin for twelve years, since the age of two and the other who only began playing eighteen months ago, one feels instinctively that all else being equal, the one who has been playing for a dozen years is likely to be more skilful. We are assured that this is not the case. Again, this is a strange claim and one which requires something other than people assuring us that it is true.

A few individual cases where this sort of thing may have happened do not really constitute any sort of evidence. The children concerned might be exceptionally intelligent and able to overcome the handicap of not receiving formal teaching in reading. What we need is a fairly large cohort of children, the development of most of whom confirms this hypothesis. It may be true that illiterate twelve year olds somehow gather as much information from the world around them as those who can read, but this is likely to be a compensation for a disadvantage which has been imposed upon them by the lack of teaching; much in the same way that the other senses of a blind person are sharpened to replace sight. It is suggested that this is actually a good thing for the child, but we are singularly lacking in any evidence to show that this is the case! Is a fourteen year-old boy who only began reading eighteen months ago really as good and fluent a reader as a child who began to read at two? It sounds improbable in the extreme, but if we can see a couple of hundred tests conducted on such children and compare them with tests upon a group of early readers, I am quite prepared to believe that it may be so. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and when claims such as this are being made which are in opposition to what most of us would regard as common sense, it is quite reasonable to ask why anybody should subscribe to the theories being offered.

The lack of properly conducted research on home education

Regular readers of this Blog will be aware that I frequently bemoan the fact that there is no properly conducted research on home education in this country. That which has been undertaken is either lamentably poor in construction, like that of Paula Rothermel or centres around grotesquely small, self-selected samples, as in the case of Alan Thomas. While re-reading Thomas’ books recently, it occurred to me that what I would describe as ’proper’ research never will be carried out on home educating families. It might be literally impossible.

When one has millions of children all being taught in very similar ways to learn roughly the same things, as is the case with the maintained sector in Britain, then one only needs to take a couple of hundred pupils at random to get a flavour of the process. Two hundred kids drawn at random from a variety of schools in one part of the country are likely to be pretty much the same in their attainments and knowledge as a couple of hundred drawn from elsewhere. This is not at all the case with home educated children. In the group of children from state schools, most will be of broadly similar achievement. There will be outliers; children who are doing very much better or a good deal worse than average, but these will be exceptions and will not skew the overall picture. The problem is with home education is that any sample group is likely to consist of nothing but outliers!

For instance there are quite a number of home educating parents like me; slave drivers who expect their kids to be reading at two and to have mastered calculus by the age of eleven. (Both perfectly true, I regret to say). There are also those whose children are unable to read at twelve and can barely write their own name at fourteen. Both these types of children would be very much the exception in state schools. There would be few of them and one could disregard their achievements as being wildly atypical. In the crazy world of home education though, these children are not so much rarities as archetypes! In other words, whereas in an average school one would have look hard for a child able to read at two, it is not at all uncommon among a certain type of home educator. In the same way, a boy who cannot read at twelve is unusual in schools but not among home educated children.

The point which I am making here is that because there is no standardised curriculum and indeed in many cases no curriculum at all, it is probably not possible to find a ‘typical’ home educated child. Some such children would, if compared with schooled children, present as being very much advanced. Others would appear to be far behind, at least when compared to children of the same age at school. What we lack and are never likely to have, is a reference group of average home educated children with whom other home educated children may be compared. Such a group almost certainly does not exist.

Request for large home educating family

I have had a request from a television producer who is looking for a home edcuating family with a lot of children. She wants one with at least seven or eight kids and may be contacted here:

I’m working on a Channel 4 documentary about big families. We have a couple of families that are home educators and we would like to find other families who might do the same. We are looking for families with 10 or more children.

Do you know of any? Your help would be most appreciated.

Best Wishes

Jane Hosking

Senior Development Producer

Lion Television

0208 846 2123

Alan Thomas and How Children Learn at Home

Many home educators are very sensitive about any criticism of the ideologues whose writings underpin their chosen lifestyle and educational methods. I mentioned a few days ago that AS Neill was brought up in Scotland and believed that children should be free to have a sex life; I was promptly accused by one person commenting here of ‘slandering’ him! Many of the more outlandish beliefs and practices of British home educators are justified by them on the grounds of supposed research. Often, claims are made about the academic attainments of home educated children or the acceptability of not teaching them to read formally. These claims are usually supported by reference to the work of Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas. I have dealt with Rothermel’s research in the past. Time now to look in a little detail at that of Alan Thomas.

A popular belief among those who think that children are able to acquire literacy informally is that although they may be later than school children in learning to read, it does not matter because they will soon catch up when they do start. The only research which supports this contention is that of Alan Thomas. Let us look at what he said. The chapter on reading in the book which he co-authored with Harriet Pattison contains the clearest account of his work in this field (How Children Learn at Home, Thomas and Pattison, Continuum 2007).

The chapter in question, chapter 8 of the book, begins unexceptionally enough by suggesting that there are various ways of teaching reading and that no single method has been found to be the best in all cases. The authors then go on to say that home educating parents are very flexible at moving from one method to another as seems best. This is a little misleading and obviously put in to lull any professionals reading the book into a state of quiescence. The thrust of the rest of the chapter is not that various methods are successful, but that success may be achieved by using no method at all and just relying upon the child to teach herself. On page 94, Thomas and Pattison claim that ’Resistance to being taught and late reading both featured in earlier research’. They mean of course Thomas own research in 1998. Talking of parents teaching their children to read, Thomas and Pattison say:

’the outcome of parents’ best efforts in this direction was rarely successful. Children frequently resisted any form of structured teaching..

They go on to describe how parents gave up on the whole thing. This is very strange. For almost the whole of recorded history, children have been taught to read by their parents. In early 19th Century America, a time when there were few schools, the practice was universal. It was said by a contemporary observer that a child unable to read was, ’as rare as the appearance of a comet’. Many home educating parents today teach their children to read, as do many other parents. I was taught to read by my own parents before starting school. The idea that children commonly resist the teaching of reading is not borne out either by history, any research or common experience. Perhaps the fact that Thomas’ sample here, the twenty six families about whom he is writing in this book, were handpicked and dedicated autonomous educators has some bearing on the matter? At any rate, there is something clearly odd and atypical about these parents if their children are proving so resistant to being taught to read.

After acknowledging that not teaching children to read means that they are likely not to read until later than those who have been taught, which is perhaps not entirely surprising, Thomas says this:

Not only does late reading at home appear to hold no knock on educational disadvantage but it also seems to have no long-term consequences for reading ability’

It is this assertion which has been eagerly seized upon by parents who refuse to teach their children to read. It is of course absolute nonsense. Thomas does not define what he means by ’educational disadvantage’. Nor does he explain how it might be measured, nor by whom the decision was made that it was not present in any of these children. How on earth does he know that there was no ’educational disadvantage’? We are not told; it is sheer waffle. Similarly, his remark about long-term reading ability. Where are his data for making this claim? Were the kids tested? Did he rely upon the parents’ information? Again, we are not told. This much quoted statement may accordingly be ignored.

On page 100 he tries to revive the tired old notion of reading readiness, citing a number of factors which must supposedly be present before a child can learn to read. It is a daunting list, including recognising and being able to name letters, being able to distinguish different sounds in speech and many other things. The implication is that some children will not acquire all this supposedly vital knowledge until a later age. Again, this is nonsense. A child of eighteen months does not need to know the letters of the alphabet, let alone be able to name them, in order to see the word ’cat’ and read it. We do not spell out words letter by letter in that way. One only has to look at Chinese ideograms to see that it is possible to learn to read without synthetic phonics!

The problem with Alan Thomas’ work is that it has been seized upon and his ideas followed slavishly by people who do not really understand what they are doing. This is dangerous, although to be fair to Thomas, it is not really his fault. There are many excellent books available on the subject of learning to read; How Children learn at Home is not one of them.

Reactions to my home educating

When first it became apparent to my friends and professional acquaintances that I had no intention of sending my daughter to school when she was four or five, there was a general feeling that the experiment would soon fail. As she grew older and started becoming obnoxious, as schoolchildren so often do, I would surely find that spending so much time with the child would drive me mad. Or just wait until she hit puberty! Then I would find the whole thing intolerable, with my daughter screaming abuse at me and refusing point-blank to do as I asked. Even if I could stick at it, what of the poor child’s future? She would have no GCSEs, no prospect of going into higher education, no friends, no social skills. A pretty bleak prospect, all in all!

Of course, a dozen or so years down the road and none of these gloomy predictions have proved to be anything near the mark. The reaction has now changed to one of sourness and my being told that I have been ‘lucky’. Lucky that I have avoided the adolescent rows that nearly all our friends have endured from their children, lucky that my daughter studied hard and did well in her exams, lucky that she has a place at a good university, lucky that she does not lie to us, steal from us, smoke dope; the list is endless. Of course ’luck’ does not really enter into the matter at all. I thought that a lot of the problems of childhood and adolescence are caused by allowing other children to become the dominant influence, rather than the family. I do not think that most schools are up to the job of teaching effectively and so avoided them. These are not questions of luck, I made a series of what seemed to me to be rational choices. Like most home educating parents, we had to make considerable sacrifices to achieve our object. Both of us could only work part-time, which meant a greatly reduced income. I certainly had less freedom than most of the fathers whom I knew. Still, the rewards were also correspondingly greater as well, so I don’t think that I have got the raw end of the deal. Most of those who predicted disaster for my own daughter, view their own adolescent daughters with despair and there seem to be terrible breaches between them and their children.

All in all, the whole home educating enterprise has been a huge success for our family and I shall in a way be sorry to see it end in the autumn. However, all good things come to an end and I shall have plenty with which to occupy myself in the coming years. Which brings me neatly to another point. I observe that some people seem dismayed at the amount that I am writing on this blog. Why this should be, I really could not say; nobody is, after all, compelled to come here and read what I have to say. Indeed, judging by the apoplexy which my views evidently provoke in others, it would perhaps be best if some of my readers gave this place a wide berth! Others seem concerned that I am spending too much time replying to comments here. One hardly knows how to answer such a criticism. It seems to me only courteous that if somebody has taken the trouble to respond to what I have said, then I should listen to their criticism and reply. The fact is, I write tens of thousands of words each week and a few hundred expended on this blog and the other one which I write is neither here nor there among all the other writing in which I am engage. Like many people, I constantly flick back and forth while writing between google, my blogs, the news, spotify and a dozen other places. I suppose that the only remedy which I am able to suggest for those who either dislike my views or are anxious about how frequently I express those views, is not to come here so often themselves. Reading what I have to say does not seem to be a pleasant experience for some and their continued presence here strikes me as being more than a little perverse. Resist the temptation to read this blog, you guys. You know you will feel all the better for abstaining from this pernicious habit!

The new biological determinism

I tentatively suggested yesterday that some developmental problems in childhood might not be entirely biological in origin. It says something about the modern world that the very idea was greeted by some with anger and disbelief! Why should this be? The answer is historical.

Fifty years ago, practically any mental or development problem was thought to be a consequence of the environment. Autistic children became that way because of remote and unaffectionate parents. Schizophrenia was produced by bad family dynamics. Reading problems were caused by poor teaching, badly behaved children had not received any discipline and all other childhood disorders could generally be traced back to the mother’s actions or lack of action. In the wider field, homosexuality was a result of too much motherly love and alcoholics were weak people who lacked self control. This then was the prevailing paradigm until a few decades ago.

Then it was discovered that certain disorders and syndromes were associated with a distinctive arrangement of genes. The pendulum swung right away from social and psychological explanations for the things mentioned above and we found a genetic cause for practically everything; even stealing and rape were thought initially to have a genetic ’cause’. Obviously, this ’hard’ version of genetic causation is absurd. To give an example from my own life; both my parents were alcoholics, as are my brother and sister. I was myself a little too fond of alcohol and so thirty years ago, I stopped drinking. No doubt in anybody’s mind that if anyone carries the alcoholic gene, it’s me! Now if I went down to the off licence this afternoon and bought a bottle of whiskey and got drunk; would that be caused by my genes? Of course not, it would be my own idiocy to blame. Even when genes give a certain predisposition, there is plenty of leeway for individual choice and the effect of the environment. So too with childhood disorders.

Commenting here yesterday, somebody said apropos of a certain childhood syndrome:

Or shall we accept that research is showing that some peoples brains are wired differently and respond to stimuli differently.’

Well of course we shall accept that! It is without doubt true. However it does not explain anything at all. When the baby is born, this wiring is not really in place. The neurones are all there and they are getting ready to make the connections. It is quite true that in the case of children with ADHD or dyslexia the wiring is sometimes, although not always, a little different. How did this come to be? Was it a predetermined response to the genetic instructions or was it caused by the first years of life and the lifestyle of the developing infant? Or, which is far more likely, was it a subtle combination of both? Might it be that the newborn baby had a slight inclination in a certain direction, an inclination which the early environment might bring out and allow to flourish?

The difficulty in accepting that everything, from Heller’s Syndrome to dyslexia, is caused by biological factors is that the families of children presenting with certain disorders do often seem to have certain characteristics. Of course, this does not mean that the families have caused the problem in the first place. Children who are very poor readers often have parents who are semi-literate. Is this environment or heredity? Hard to say. Perhaps the parents have a genetic tendency to dyslexia and it is this which makes them poor readers. They might simply have passed this genetic disorder on to their child. On the other hand, perhaps not having good role models for reading has had a bad effect on the growing child and not taught him the value of literacy.

One thing is clear to me and that is that this is not a popular line of enquiry! Vox populi, vox dei! I shall accordingly drop this particular musing and return to the more practical and vastly less controversial topic of home education. We are as parents eager to take the credit for all the good aspects of our children's characters and often try to unload the less desirable traits onto the influence of others. Sometimes the blame can be laid at the door of fellow schoolchildren who have led them astray, but genetics allows us to lay responsibility for certain parts of our child's behaviour on long dead relatives! It's not Jimmy's fault or mine; his grandfather must have given him the poor reading/hyperactive/bad behaviour/night owl/alcoholic gene.

Early childhood experiences and their possible role in the creation of childhood disorders such as ADHD and so on

I wrote briefly yesterday about the hugely dysfunctional families with which I worked some years ago. The children of these families all had various problems and these were caused, or at the very least greatly exacerbated, by the way that they were raised. It was not until I had been thinking about the common factors in these families that I noticed an eerie similarity to the way that some home educators recommend that children be treated in childhood.

A lot of the things which afflict children, ranging from dyslexia to ADHD, are not random bolts from the blue. These syndromes are all too often associated with common factors in early childhood. Take ADHD, for example. The impulsiveness, sleep disturbances and other features of attention deficit are often noted in children who have no sort of consistent parental discipline in their lives. It is also connected with kids who do not have regular and age appropriate bedtimes. In other words, if a child’s wishes are never thwarted and he is allowed to do what he likes; he is far more likely to grow up displaying low levels of ability to control his behaviour and more liable to grow angry if his immediate wishes are frustrated. If his internal body clock has not been properly set by regular bedtimes, then he might end up being frantically active at midnight and very sleepy during school the next day. This is one example; there are many others. The way that parents raise their children has an impact upon the type of disorders with which they later present. A chaotic and disorganised lifestyle is often coupled with problems like ADHD.

Of course the trend these days is to pretend that children’s problems are like illnesses which have struck for no apparent reason; certainly nothing to do with parenting. Anybody who works with kids knows that this is nonsense. Now the sort of chaotic families with whom I worked would allow their children to stay up to all hours. This was part of their lifestyle. They would go visiting friends until one or two in the morning and took the kids with them. The result would be that the kids would not get enough sleep and their body rhythms would become screwed up. They would always be tired during the day, but wide awake at night. Even at home, the concept of ’bedtime’ was unknown. They would sit up with their parents until they fell asleep on the sofa and then be put to bed when the parents themselves went to bed, perhaps at two in the morning. Discipline was frequently non-existent. The child ate on demand, was very often allowed to do anything at all, as long as it did not irritate the parents.

It is not hard to see how this kind of lifestyle caused problems when the child began school. The kid would be unable to follow instructions and sit still for story time. Nobody had ever made him sit still quietly; of course he would have trouble starting now. He would fall asleep during lessons and be unable to obey simple requests. If he couldn’t get his way, he would scream and become aggressive. Many of these kids were diagnosed with ADHD as a consequence.

The treatment to which these children were subjected had no underlying ideological rationale. Their parents simply carried on their own lives and left the children to their own devices; expecting them to fit in with the parents’ lives. It is odd though how similar themes emerge in some home educated children. Some home educating parents refuse to enforce a bedtime. They allow their children to decide what they should do, when and what they should eat. There is minimal or wholly non-existent discipline and structure. One cannot help but wonder whether the high number of home educated children with special educational needs of the ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia type could be a by-product of certain kinds of parenting. In other words, do they end up being home educated because certain syndromes strike their children at random or are the disorders themselves precipitated by the style of upbringing? I shall explore this thesis further over the next few days.

Testing children at two

It is an unfortunate fact of life that one can always rely upon some of the more vociferous home educating types to oppose anything sensible and support any crackpot idea going the rounds. Some of them seem to have a positively uncanny knack for attacking any initiative likely to benefit children. This is particularly so with things concerning very young children. The so-called ’nappy curriculum’ and the recent announcement that children will be ‘tested’ at two to see how they are doing, being good examples of this tendency.

So why is a it a good idea to check how children are developing when they are two? What possible business of the state’s is it, if my two year-old boy is ’playing nicely’ with other children? This is statism gone mad! Well no, not really. Apart from the obvious advantages to small children of picking up very early any signs of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, language delay, hearing loss and so on; there are other reasons for this move. These are the need to protect the weak and vulnerable in society. Not just the children who are being tested in this way, but also those whom they may later encounter in life. Let me explain.

Twenty years ago, I helped run a support group in East London for mothers with babies and small children. These were parents who were not coping and wanted support. There was a psychologist, a Community Psychiatric Nurse, a social worker and me. The mothers went off for a discussion led by the social worker and CPN, while the rest of us, which included some creche workers, organised activities for the children. (This is of course how why it was possible for me to take my baby to work with me from the age of three weeks old!)

It was often possible to predict fairly accurately what would become of these children when they grew up. This is depressing, but quite true. I have subsequently heard of how these children ended up in their early twenties; I still have a lot of dealings in the area. For instance, one boy of three was ferociously angry and aggressive with all females. He would kick and punch his mother, who did not resist, simply saying feebly: ’Oh, Jadon, don’t’ (His name was not really Jadon, by the way). Jadon would target any little girls in the group, rushing at them and knocking them over. He would spit at women and lash out at them. I was the only man working in this project and consequently the only person there whom he respected or would allow to have anything to do with him. We need not go into the reasons for his behaviour, which was not really his fault. He had witnessed his mother being beaten by various men, for one thing. The point about Jadon is that we all knew perfectly well that unless drastic action was taken, he would go on to be abusive to girls in later life. The mother stopped coming and we lost track of her. A couple of years ago, when he was twenty one, Jadon was convicted of a particularly brutal rape. Nobody who knew him as a three year-old was the least bit surprised.

This is the sort of thing which make it a really good idea to see how children are behaving socially at two; one can often tell how they will then be behaving at twenty two. For many of us, the measure of a good society is the extent to which it protects and looks out for the interests of its weaker members. Too give another reason why it is good to identify children who are unable to play appropriately and interact well with other children at the age of two, one need only look at schools. It only takes one or two disruptive children who are unable to sit down and listen to a story being read, to make teaching in a primary school class very difficult. If in addition to being unable to sit down, these children wander round the room physically attacking other children, then all teaching will become impossible. The teacher and any assistants will simply have to focus on these disruptive children and the quiet and well behaved kids who want to learn, will end up being ignored. This happens a lot. This means that other children’s education is damaged, which is not fair, unless we spot these children early on and take steps to help them. One can often identify these children too at the age of two.

I have an idea that many of those home educating parents who object to identifying children of this sort early on, come from nice homes and find it impossible to imagine the sorts of things about which I have been talking. Believe me, it is possible to spot children who will lead chaotic, disorganised lives very early and it is sometimes possible to do something about it.

Respecting childhood autonomy

I explained yesterday that one of the most beloved figures in British home education was a raving lunatic who publicly advocated small children being able to work down coal mines, drive cars on public roads and have sex with any adult they cared to. I pointed out that these views made him very popular with the more thoughtful type of paedophile; the kind of man who seeks justification for his depravity. As a result of this, I was told by one person commenting that I had sunk to a new low! The most curious comment was by Elizabeth, who felt that my post was ‘beyond the pale’. She went on to say that ‘It would not be taking a child seriously to stand by and watch while they make a bad choice‘. In other words, if her child makes a sensible and wholesome choice, she allows it. If the choice is bad, she will seek to prevent the child from exercising this choice. How this differs in any way from conventional parenting, I have no idea.

At any rate, the general view seemed to be that no parent would follow Holt‘s advice on matters relating to sex. Let us assume for the moment that this is true. If parents who advocate childhood autonomy would not go as far as to allow their child to choose to go to bed with an adult, how far would they be prepared to go down the road of childhood autonomy? An apparently innocuous example which several parents have mentioned on this blog is the question of teeth cleaning. I have seen this topic crop up elsewhere on home education blogs, forums and lists. Let us then take it that some home educating parents who allow their children autonomy do not compel them to clean their teeth. This is of course not in the same league as allowing them to have sex with adults, is it? Indeed it is not; it can be worse.

Like most adults, I was forced to clean my teeth twice a day as a child. I did not always want to, but this made no difference. Many children, particularly two and three year-olds dislike teeth cleaning and parents almost invariably ride roughshod over these objections. Not some home educating parents though. They believe that children should be allowed to ‘choose’ not to undergo teeth cleaning if they are strongly opposed to the practice.

When I reach for the toothbrush last thing at night, it is not because I have been thinking about dental hygiene and the latest research on caries. It is rather a conditioned reflex. I have been trained, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, to clean my teeth before I get into bed. This is what parents generally do with their kids around teeth cleaning. They make the child get into a fixed routine of doing the thing every night until it becomes a part of the child’s innermost being. Eventually, the child will internalise the procedure and feel guilty if he fails to clean his teeth regularly. This is excellent. The results of neglecting teeth cleaning can extend far beyond a few cavities in the baby teeth. Only recently, a piece of research was published which suggested that regular teeth cleaning is associated with enhanced female fertility:

There is also a well established link between heart disease and poor oral hygiene. This is quite apart from the obvious danger that decayed teeth can lead to abscesses in the gums and below teeth. This can bring about blood poisoning and every year, people in this country die from such things.

A three year-old child is quite unable to make an informed choice about the long term implications of failing to maintain healthy teeth and gums. He is unlikely to be concerned about fertility or heart disease. All he cares about is the momentary irritation of the sensation of the tooth brush tickling his gums. Establishing a routine of dental hygiene is vital in early childhood and must become second nature to the child. Only then will he be sure to maintain the practice into adult life. It must become a conditioned reflex, a Pavlovian response to getting ready for bed at night.

Failure to instil the teeth cleaning habit in small children, while being done on the grounds of respecting their ‘rights’ and autonomy, runs the risk of shortening their lives and impairing their fertility. This is dangerously irresponsible. This is one example of respecting the autonomy of the child which we all know is currently practiced by some home educators. There are others, equally damaging to their child’s future physical and mental heath. The failure to set the developing child’s body clock correctly for a diurnal life, caused by not insisting on regular bedtimes, for example. Under the guise of being liberal and right-on, these parents are harming their children and laying up problems for their future. Holt’s ideas about all this are monstrously wrong and following any of his advice is likely to harm children. Chuck out How Children fail and destroy any copies you come across of Escape from Childhood! The man was a dangerous crank.

The ultimate autonomy

No suggestion made during Graham Badman’s review of elective home education caused more anger than the idea that home educated children might be at increased risk of sexual abuse than those at school. Why do professionals suspect this? There are probably two main reasons. First, home educated children often seem closer to their parents than those at school. Antagonism between parents and children, common with school children and which typically reaches a climax during adolescence, is thought to be normal. When people see a teenager getting on amicably with her father, they think it is a bit creepy! One only has to look at the clip on Youtube of me and my then fourteen year-old daughter, when it was hinted that there was something unnatural about a girl of that age who seemed to be happy in her father’s company!

There is another reason why some professionals are uneasy about home education, which has to do with its ideological basis. Two of the big influences on British home education are AS Neill, who ran Summerhill school and John Holt, an American teacher. Both had strange ideas about children and sex. Neill believed that children should be free to have sex whenever they wanted to and without restriction. This was part of his school’s ethos and probably a reaction to his Scottish upbringing during the late 19th Century. John Holt is something else and since he is so popular with home educators, his ideas are still influential. He is actually very popular and influential with another minority group, which I only found out last week.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is involved in child protection; it does not matter in what capacity. She is quite interested in and not in the least hostile towards home education. During a conversation, I happened to mention John Holt’s name and she wrinkled up her nose. ’Oh, you mean the paedophile’s best friend’, she said. I was a little puzzled about this. I know the views which Holt expresses in books like Escape from Childhood, but this was the first I had heard of paedophilia. She showed me some sites advocating paedophilia. These were not pornography sites, but places where adults argue the theoretical basis for their being able to enjoy sexual relations with children. I will not provide links; I dare say that those interested enough will be able to find them. She then showed me John Holt’s name scattered about on these awful sites. Militant paedophiles seem to have adopted him as their guru! His writings provide, just as they do for home education, justification for the practice of paedophilia. This is, to say the least of it, unfortunate.

Now I don’t know whether any readers here are aware of Escape from Childhood, but I have a copy in front of me. It is not the best known of Holt’s work. In it, he says that not only should children not be compelled to attend school, but that they should also be free to have sex with adults if they wish. He explains the reasoning behind this; I don’t personally find it convincing. And yet here is a rather alarming thing. There are essentially two types of autonomous home educator in this country. One type imposes the normal rules of childhood upon children, with the proviso that education is the child’s choice and that the kid is free to choose what and when she learns. In the more extreme form, that advocated by the Taking Children Seriously movement for instance, the child has complete freedom to choose everything. There are no bedtimes, the child is not made to clean his teeth, wear clothes, get up in the morning. If he wishes, he can eat nothing but sugar. Children are completely masters of their own lives. We have had people on here supporting this type of lifestyle.

The problem is that if you give children that degree of autonomy, then it is only a short step to giving them the freedoms which John Holt supports. That is to say the ability to choose to go to bed with anybody of any age. Holt does not see why a nine year-old girl should not have sex with a forty year old man and this too is the logical extension of the arguments advanced by some militant autonomous educators. Now I have no reason to suppose that any of them actually put John Holt’s advice into practice, but the very fact that one of home education's favourite writers is also the darling of the more articulate paedophiles might be enough to raise eyebrows. When people start following his advice on childhood autonomy, you have to ask yourself how far they are prepared to go along the road which he advocates. I have an idea that Holt’s popularity with both home educators and paedophiles might be the cause of some of the child abuse notions which have in the past gone the rounds.

The need for more doctrinal diversity

I cannot help but notice that a number of people commenting here lately subscribe to the doctrine of predestination. Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are Calvinists, but there do seem to be more than an average number here. Mind, there are Calvinists and Calvinists. I have noticed that the further north they come from, the stricter they tend to be about condemning others to perdition. It is to be hoped that those commenting on here have been living in the south long enough to soften their views on matters such as unconditional election and reprobation!

If this trend continues, I might have to start a recruiting drive for Arminians, but I am hoping that matters will not reach this point. Can any non-Calvinists on here now declare themselves? I have an idea that C is a Christian, but we know nothing yet of her theological stance. She seems a reasonable and enlightened woman and I have great hopes that she will turn out to be a Universalist of some sort.
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