Smoke and mirrors in informal education

The type of home education to which my daughter was subjected is that popularly known as ‘hot housing’; whereby the intellectual development of a child is ‘forced’ by intensive stimulation according to a programme devised by the parent, almost invariably the father. She was reading fluently at two and took IGCSEs earlier than is usual. This kind of approach has been contrasted unfavourably with the more relaxed and laid back way adopted by those who believe in  informal, child-led education. I want to look at two cases of how this latter kind of education is represented by those who undertake it, one of them very well known.  I will not use real names, but both the parents involved are well known in home educating circles, having  appeared in newspapers and on television and radio. Both are fierce opponents of monitoring and advocates of autonomous education.

A few years ago, I expressed certain views on home education in the Times Educational Supplement. Among other things, I said:

Many autonomous educators are dismissive about GCSEs and A-levels, saying, “They can be taken later.” However, without at least five GCSEs at C or above, a teenager will find it all but impossible to get into college or sixth form to study for A-levels.

Before we continue, yes I am aware that an autonomously educated child might choose to take GCSEs, but this is not at issue here. The point is that I am suggesting that without GCSEs, it will be difficult to get a place at college. A rebuttal was written of this piece, which said:

XXXX, now completing a biomedical research PhD, was autonomously educated from birth until he went to college, aged 14, to take A- levels.

Since this is being written to refute my own claim about the necessity of GCSEs, the impression is that this boy got into college to study A levels without needing GCSEs. I thought when first I heard this story that there was something deeply fishy about it, as who would not; of which, more later.

Here is another case of autonomous education. A child who taught himself to read for the intrinsic motivation of the process. He needed to read to pursue his hobby and so at the age of six, he ‘picked it up’. How much better than my own mad scheme of teaching a two year-old with flash cards! This is a natural type of learning, where the whole thing is initiated by the child himself. From a newspaper report:

he didn't want to start learning to read until he was six, and has rejected the system of phonics which is used in many schools. XXXX was not forced to read, but instead started to pick it up when he realised it would be useful for him to learn about other things.

There now, the wonders of a child-led approach. It really does seem that it is not necessary to teach a child to read; he can just pick it up on his own! Fancy me fussing around with flash cards when my daughter was two, rather than just letting her develop at her own pace!

Now for the missing elements in these two accounts. I feel a bit like one of those spoilsports who explains how some baffling magic trick was performed, so those who wish to retain their illusions should look away at this point.  For several years, those like me who suggested that home educated children without GCSEs would find it hard to get into college were referred to the case of the boy mentioned above, who got a place at college to take A levels at the age of fourteen. You see, it can be done! There's me, getting my daughter to sit IGCSEs early; all quite unnecessary. The part which we were not told when this particular account was going the rounds was that this boy’s mother had arranged for him to take GCSEs years before he started at college. He took his first GCSE at the age of twelve. This fact was somehow left out of the anecdote until it had been circulating on the internet and in newspapers for several years.

As for the boy who taught himself to read; this is on the face of it a classic case of intrinsic, rather than extrinsic motivation for learning. He was eight when the article appeared in the newspaper. Six years earlier, when he was two, his mother had actually taught him to read systematically in precisely the same way that I hot housed my daughter; by the use of flash cards of numbers and letters. Here is a lesson from January 29th, 2004

Here is one from five days later, where he is being taught to recognise individual letters:

Anybody think that this teaching, four years before he ‘started to pick it up’ might have had some bearing on his learning to read?

Many of the cases of informal and child-led education that one hears about are similar to this. Crucial bits are left out of the story and the result is a misleading account of a child getting into college without GCSEs or teaching himself to read. I wonder whether any of those who comment here can guess the motivation for these deceptions? It is not a sinister one and if nobody can hit upon it, then I shall post another piece on this subject in a few days time.


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