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.

Don't mention the 'P' word!

A few days ago I was ticked off here, possibly with some justification, for referring to certain  home educators as displaying the signs and symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. I think that the person making this comment felt that it might be offensive to those actually suffering from this disorder. It has also been pointed out recently that one cannot judge British home educators in general  from looking at the nutcases one encounters on the internet; also a fair point. However, the lists and forums of this sort do have thousands of members and some, BRAG and Home Ed Biz for instance, are public. Many local authorities actually direct parents towards Education Otherwise. For this reason, I think it reasonable to say that even if those on the lists are not typical of home educators, they certainly have an influence upon many parents. The atmosphere on these places is so mad, that even if they only affect 10% or 20% of home educators they are a little worrying.

North Yorkshire County Council is well known for reaching out to home educators, not in order to make them register, but simply to offer help and advice. They run sessions where home educating parents can come and talk to education professionals and they also do a lot of work helping home educated children move on to college and university. When a little while ago they contacted parents offering an open meeting to discuss careers and so on for the over 16s, one person at least could smell a rat. She emailed them saying, ‘In order for us to come along we would like an assurance from the County Council that we will not be forced to give personal details and that we will not be pursued after the event into accepting home visits or submitting annual reports’. Now this is, I am determined this time not to use the ‘P’ word, shall we say excessively cautious. ‘Forced’, ‘Pursued’; I mean really!

The person from the local authority responded quite affably, saying, ‘You can have our assurance that we will not force you in to giving any details, there will be a register to sign but you are welcome to sign this anonymously.’ Perfect, you might think; parents may now attend without any anxiety. You fool! What has been deliberately left out of this answer? Let the parent tell us, ‘they have deliberately ignored the part about not pursuing us after the event! This makes me very wary about going’. We will not ask what form this ‘pursuit’ might take. If the organisers are content with a false name, then presumably the fear is that the pursuit will be physical. Will local authority officers  actually chase this poor woman down the road after the meeting or might they engage private detectives to follow her home? Once again, I am restraining myself from making use of the ‘P’ word. Paranoia! Whoops, it just slipped out. Sorry.

The reaction of others on the list was revealing. Instead of telling the woman not to be a bloody fool, they encouraged her in her feelings of persecution. Here are a few of the responses;

something doesn't feel right. I'd suggest staying under the radar.
If you feel like something is amiss - it probably is.

do you have an email address which doesn't give away your real name? If not, now might be the time to create one and arrange for incoming messages to be forwarded to your usual email address. Think about whether you want them to have your mobile number too. You could think up an alias of some sort

. You can always create a spare Yahoo or Gmail account to put down as an email contact point in case they've got anything useful to send out.

I think your right o be on your gurd, given some of the horror stories that happen sometimes

True, some others suggested that it would be OK, but you see what an uphill struggle North Yorkshire County Council are having in helping some home educated children?

This particular list has thousands of members and this is by no means the maddest exchange on there lately. So the next time I inadvertently use the ‘P’ word on this blog, I hope that readers will forgive me; I have searched my thesaurus from cover to cover for a suitable synonym, but none seems quite so apt.

Home education in Sweden

When I criticised the film on Youtube advertising the so-called Walk to Freedom, I was accused of nit-picking for objecting to the use of Hitler’s image to promote this dubious cause. The difficulties with this campaign though run a good deal deeper than just trying to confuse the issue by showing film of a German dictator!

We are told in the film several times that ‘many’ families have fled Sweden because of the new law. Jonas Himmelstrand, President of ROHUS, tells me that the number is actually ‘more than a dozen’. This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘many’. There is a question mark over how many of these families have ’fled’ and how many have simply decided to move to the largely Swedish speaking  Aland islands in the Gulf of Bothnia. A community of Swedish home educators has grown up there and it is within easy reach by ferry of Stockholm. This is not exactly ’fleeing the country’!

The film also falls into that fatal error of championing the rights of parents, as opposed to those of children. The European Convention of Human Rights is cited in support of this notion. This really is deceitful, suggesting that that the rights of these parents are being trampled over in defiance of the convention. This matter was comprehensively dealt with at the Court of Human Rights in 2006. In September that year, the European Court held that:

Schools represent society, and it is in the children’s interest to become part of that society. The parents’ right to education does not go as far as to deprive their children of that experience.

The court went on to state that schools were part of society and that parents’ rights did not allow them to remove them from society by taking them out of school. I do not wish to debate whether the European Court was right to hold this view, merely that they have done so and that no Swedish home educator has any chance of getting anywhere with this line of argument, based upon the Convention of Human Rights.

I do not wish to say any more about this film, other than that it is a misleading piece of propaganda. The Swedish law is intended to ensure that any child taught at home is educated to at least as high a standard as he would be, were he to be attending school. This is a tricky proposition for many parents and explains why some have been unable to gain the necessary permission. Those who have not been given permission are often the type of parent who does not believe in teaching or formal education and it is these who are likely to fall foul of the new regulations. People like Jenny Lantz, who wants her children to learn by themselves and is opposed to imposing a plan of education on her three children. This clashes with the Swedish law, that requires the education provided to be as adequate as that in schools and also that it be supervised.

In short, Sweden is tightening up on particular types of home education because they feel that some home educators are not properly equipping their children for a place in society. They feel that some of these children are being shortchanged educationally. Some families have been given permission to home educate, but these are ones who are working hard to ensure that their children are learning at least as much as they would do in school.

British home educators and their susceptibility to propaganda

I had occasion last month to remark how awful it is to see home educators using pastor Niemoller's meditation, the one that begins ‘First they came for the communists’, to support their supposed right to educate their own children. I find it stupendously offensive to see people comparing the persecution of Jews and political opponents by the Nazis with local authority officers in this country checking that children are receiving a suitable education. Yesterday, I drew attention to two other examples of this sort of thing. One was splicing footage of Hitler into a film about home education and the other was the making of an image of Graham Badman reading Mein Kampf, which appeared on the spoof blog, the Dark Lord.

The use of such motifs is of course a form of propaganda. It tells us nothing useful, but associates certain things with negative images. In favour of regulation for home education? Gosh, you must be like the Nazis! Of course, home educators are not the only ones to use propaganda of this sort in their campaigns. One sees it in many emotional and irrational appeals; debates about euthanasia, for example. The argument basically is, ’Hitler approved of this; if you also approve of it, then that makes you like Hitler.’ There is even a term for this nonsense; Godwin’s Law.

In addition to the stick of being compared to Hitler and the Nazis, many home educators also use the carrot of being on the side of the clever and famous. I have lost track of how many lists I have seen of supposedly home educated people who achieved a lot in life. Here the irrational appeal is the opposite of the one involving Hitler. You obviously don’t want to be like Hitler, but surely you would like your children to be as clever as Einstein? Well there you go; Einstein was home educated, therefore if you home educate your kid, he might end up as clever as Einstein. (The fact that Einstein was not home educated is not really relevant here, he certainly appears in many lists of famous home educated people.)

That so many home educators and their self-appointed leaders rely so heavily upon these stereotypes is slightly alarming! There are many good reasons for educating your own child; I can think of a dozen or so offhand, without racking my brains unduly. I am curious to know though  why the Nazis crop up so regularly in British home education. Is it some residual xenophobia from the Second World War; just look at what those Krauts got up to, do you want to be like them? Or might it be that many home educators have not thought overmuch about their motives and seize cheerfully upon the first flimsy excuse that is offered. I suppose that not being like Hitler and the possibility of having a kid as brainy as Einstein are both fairly good motives, if you cannot think of anything better!

Using Hitler’s image to promote home education

I viewed recently on Youtube a short film made by home educators. I mentally counted the seconds until mention was made of Hitler. He duly made an appearance after a mere twenty seven seconds. Here is the film:

The ancient piece of nonsense is trotted out here,  that Hitler banned home education and that Sweden has introduced a law based upon the Nazi one prohibiting home education.  I have remarked before that there is something horribly tacky about using Hitler and the Holocaust to promote some hobby or favourite cause. Perhaps a look at the facts might show us why this business about Hitler banning home education is not true.

 In 1938 the Nazis passed a law about education, the Gesetz über die Schulpflicht im Deutschen Reich. This made school compulsory, but just like the 1944 Education Act in this country, it contained an exemption clause for those who wished to have their children educated at home; (1) Zum Besuch der Volksschule sind alle Kinder verpflichtet, soweit nicht für ihre Erziehung und Unterweisung in anderer Weise ausreichend gesorgt ist. Roughly translated, this means that children had to attend school unless their education and training was otherwise provided out of school.

I hope that this will bring to an end the idea that ‘Hitler banned home education’. There was very little home education in Germany, for  historical reasons.  It was not banned under Hitler and claims that it was are just a trick by home educators to associate laws regulating home education with the Nazis. Just to recap, Hitler did not ban home education in Germany and no law was ever passed by the Nazis to do so; anybody who says that this is the case is deliberately setting out to mislead those who know nothing of German history.

The great mojecosie mystery

One of the minor pleasures of my life lies in observing the many home educators on the internet who display the signs and symptoms of Paranoid Schizophrenia. I am of course aware that these characters do not represent all home educating parents, but their mad antics are still pretty entertaining. It's a bit like the old days, when one could pay to see the loonies in Bedlam. The great thing is; this is completely free! The expression ’Conspiracy Theory’ does not even begin to cover the deluded thinking. When the old Department for Children, Schools and Families reorganised their IT system a few years ago, half the links to documents and external sites vanished for a few days. Such things are not uncommon. When a home educator found that the 2007 guidelines on home education were no longer available, she started a panic on a number of lists and forums. It was clearly a plot on the part of the government to deprive home educators of their rights. Some readers might remember this nonsense. I did what any normal person would do and rang up the DfCSF and simply asked them about it. Hopeless to try and tell internet obsessed home educators the truth; they simply wouldn’t have believed it.

A similar thing happened on this blog yesterday. I have noticed in the last year or so that posts from here are turning up in all sorts of strange places. Perhaps because my style is so lucid, many people copy my articles here and use them for their own purposes. Here is an example:

I suppose that I should be flattered. I don’t think that this sort of wholesale lifting of intellectual property is taking place with all blogs on home educating. Hard to imagine people pinching Maire Stafford’s or Niki Harper’s incoherent ramblings and trying to pass them of as their own work! I recently saw that an entire blog has turned up in Poland, consisting of nothing but posts from here;

I noticed it and simply passed on and forgot it. Not so some of the sharp eyed folk who comment here! It was plain to them that this was obviously some cunning ruse of mine, for reasons that even the most demented of them seemed wholly  unable to explain. Perhaps I wanted my views to stand alone without comments? Well then, I could switch off the comments here. Perhaps the title ‘Home education’ is catchier than ‘Home Education Heretic’? Who knows? Why would I have chosen a Polish name for the blog and be promoting it only on Polish lists? Again, one can only guess. Never the less, it was clear that I was at the back of it somehow.

I also find it difficult to believe that someone else is responsible for this blog, yet you claim to be mystified.

If it genuinely has been put up by someone else’

It makes even less sense for someone else to do it.

you might want to give someone a link to your work without comments (understandable after reading some of them), but still want to keep the comments here for your own entertainment

you've intentionally gone off on a tangent. It looks like a tactic to bring a halt to this discussion

Very strange. It would be very easy for you to set up the other account and transfer the articles and there are there are probably loads of good reasons for you to do so, but someone else would literally have to copy and paste over 500 posts individually and I can't think of a reason for it.

See what I mean? I was particularly enchanted to be accused of trying to bring the discussion of this madness to an end.  However, perhaps I was hasty.  I should I suppose give these people their opportunity.  Answers, on a postcard please, to the curious question of why I should set up a parallel blog to this one, containing only posts from here,  and instead of using my own name should pose as a Pole called Evadima. Let’s see those conspiracy theories roll, boys.

Another home educator flees the country...

When I mentioned Lianne Smith here, I pointed to her as the sort of home educator that local authorities hear about and who causes them to be needlessly anxious about other home educating families. Of course, this was the cue for people commenting to portray her as a nonentity of whom nobody had ever heard; the impression being given that in the first place she was insignificant and in the second, her case was atypical. I thought that it was worth mentioning that this sort of thing  does happen. Only last month, an appeal was made on behalf of a very well known home educator who needed money to leave the country one step ahead of the authorities. It begins;

A well-known member of the HE community and trusted friend needs our help. The

person's family is facing a possible court order and they felt the need to leave the

country very quickly in order to protect the children from unfounded interference

based on home education as a risk factor.

The letter was signed by the following people:

Alison Preuss
Barbara Stark
Elaine Kirk
Gill Kilner
Karen Gallant
Lisa Amphlett
Louisa Herbs
Maire Stafford
Michelle Beeny
Neil Taylor Moore
Raquel Toney
Sheila Struthers
Susanna Matthan
Techla Wood

I can assure readers that this is a person whose name they would recognise at once. It is useless for people commenting here to claim that there is not an atmosphere in the main home educating organisations of mistrust and hostility towards local authorities. There is and parents are actively encouraged to buy in to this idea, that cooperating with their local authority is tantamount to being a quisling.

More about why some local authorities are dubious about home education

I think that I made it clear a few days ago that I do not personally regard home education as a risk factor for the abuse of children. I tried yesterday to point out why some people, especially local authorities, do think of it in this way. It was I suppose inevitable that I should be thought to be agreeing with them!

Dreadful abuse of children is mercifully rare and no more common in home educating families than those who send their children to school. That being so and considering that over 99% of children go to school, it is obvious that the vast majority of abuse is against schooled children. So much is true. However, if you are abusing a child, it is easier to conceal it if you live in a caravan miles from the nearest neighbours and don’t send your children to school.

There was another way that the case of Lianne and Martin Smith raised suspicions among professionals. I mentioned yesterday that there has been a lot of criticism from home educating parents of Olaf Hindmarsh in Staffordshire. After his authority appointed a home educator whose children were being beaten and raped, as Head of Children’s Services in Staffordshire, it rather made many in the local authority a little dubious about home education in general. One can quite see why. Similar suspicions were being raised nationally at about the same time.

It is popularly supposed by many home educating parents that it was the Khyra Ishaq case which precipitated the Badman Enquiry. We must also look at what was going on in Education Otherwise at the same time. Lianne Smith was a regional advisor for EO. She also worked in child protection in Cumbria and was vociferous in arguing that parents were the only ones who should be responsible for the welfare of children. She was a high profile campaigner in her professional capacity against anything like compulsory visits or monitoring of home educated children. In retrospect, one can see why she felt so strongly about this. In the same year that she and her partner fled abroad with their children, Education Otherwise had a radical change of management committee. One of the new people, very prominent publicly for other reasons, ended up as Child Protection Officer for the organisation. She then turned out to have a partner with unfortunate proclivities. Despite this, she remained responsible for child protection, even though many in EO knew about the situation.

It began to look to some people as though the main home education support group in the country was harbouring a number of women with abusive and perverted partners and that this rather tainted EO. I do not say that it did; merely that that is how it appeared to some in both central and local government.

When we criticise local authorities, as I do myself, we must always try and bear in mind just why they are feeling this way about home education. Their fears are rooted not so much in prejudice, but in a perhaps exaggerated reaction to real events.

What can happen as a result of home education

I shall return to the theme of my last post in a couple of days time. I want first to examine the kind of thing which can happen with home education and about which local authorities are anxious. This is the enforced isolation of a child from all other adults under circumstances that make abuse easy to carry out. I am not suggesting for a moment that this is common; only that it can and does happen in home educating families.

My own daughter, like many home educated children was actually more visible in the community than children at school. They saw us all the time in the library, shopkeepers knew us and we were familiar figures in the local streets, a tall irritable looking middle aged man with a little girl in tow. I dare say that this is usual in most of the home educating parents who comment here; their children are anything but invisible. This is fine, but let us now see how things can work in such a setup.

Sarah Richardson was four in 1993 and living with her mother and young brother in the north of England, when her mother’s boyfriend moved in. From the beginning, he was unkind to the two children. Two years later, when she was six, the family moved to a caravan in a remote location with no neighbours. Sarah was withdrawn from school at the same time, supposedly in order to be home educated. Shortly afterwards, her mother’s boyfriend began to sexually abuse and then rape her. The family kept on the move, always to out of the way places. This continued until Sarah was sixteen, when she left. What is interesting about this case is that the mother, who was also allegedly working part-time as a prostitute, was not some feckless traveller who was out of touch with ordinary society. In fact she was heavily involved with Education Otherwise. Her name was of course Lianne Smith.

As I said at the beginning, there is no reason to suppose that this sort of thing is common with home educators; only that it can and does happen. Keeping the children out of school and moving frequently from place to place in order to avoid prying neighbours or the possibility of the children making friends, is much easier when you are home educating. There are without doubt other families of this sort and it is this kind of thing which makes many local authorities anxious. Here were two people, one wicked and the other psychologically abnormal, who used home education as part of a lifestyle which facilitated abuse, both sexual and physical. The mother went on to have two children by her boyfriend, both of whom she killed.

Perhaps the next time that home educating parents ridicule the idea that home education could be used as a cover for abuse, they might pause and remember cases like this. Local authorities do not need to invent such scenarios; they are already happening. They may be uncommon, we have no way of knowing how frequently this sort of thing goes on, but wicked home educators do exist; even ones who are working in a voluntary capacity for Education Otherwise!

How strange are home educating parents?

A few days ago, I expressed my irritation at the fact that some health workers evidently believe home education to be a risk factor for abuse. I want to think about this idea a little.

If you wished to inflict certain kinds of abuse on a child, it would certainly be easier to do if you kept the kid away from school. We know that a small number of parents with children at school are cruel to their children and abuse them sexually and it would be strange if a few home educating parents did not do likewise. Preventing the child from speaking freely to others would be a good first step in concealing the mistreatment. That this has happened in the past is not in question; look at Eunice Spry. Could we prevent cases like Spry by limiting or even banning home education? It is unlikely. Such people are very cunning and Eunice Spry managed to deceive various social workers and other staff from the local authority. For every case like this of  wicked home educating parents, we can find many more where the children were at school and the abuse was still concealed.

My own feeling is that there are risks to home educated children, but that these are not risks of serious injury or death. Rather, there is a danger that children raised by home educators might grow up a bit weird. This in itself is not of course a disaster. Many weird people lead perfectly normal lives, nor were most weird people educated at home. Most of them went to school. I would guess though that the chance of a child growing into a strange adult are probably higher for the home educated than for those sent to school.

One thing that is noticeable about home educators is that not sending their children to school is seldom the only out of the ordinary thing about their lives. It is not the case that the typical home educating parent is a perfectly normal and average person who just happens to decide to educate her own child. Almost invariably, there is a constellation of unusual beliefs, remarkable previous experiences and strange attitudes, particularly to authority. In a sense, it could hardly be otherwise. The pressure to conform with the mores of twenty first century, British society and pack your kid off to school is immense. Most parents cave in to it, even if they have doubts about the wisdom or efficacy of compulsory schooling. Those who resist the system must, by definition, be odd.

There may not be such a thing as a typical home educator, but themes emerge if you listen to enough parents. There is often hostility towards or at the very least, mistrust of authority. These parents frequently had bad experiences at school themselves. This mistrust of authority extends from teachers to the medical profession; many home educating parents are fans of alternative medicine. There is often a tendency to believe in conspiracies. These can range from vaccines to the Royal family, from the motives of local authorities to the war in Iraq. This seems to be the case even among those who have no dealings with other home educators and do not hang out with the loonies on the HE-UK list. Home education just seems to be associated with strange parents.

I suppose that even if it we could be sure that home educated children had an increased risk of growing up to be strange adults, we might not be justified in taking action about it. For one thing of course, if they have strange parents, then making the kids go to school will still leave them in the company of these people for a large chunk of time. I want to explore this topic at greater length over the next few days, as I feel that it is not a field that many people seem to have looked at before.

Home educated children in danger...

Readers will perhaps be aware by now that I am more in favour of the monitoring of home education than some home educators and former home educators. I also have an idea that there are types of abuse which might be easier to carry out against children who are not attending school. Even I gasped though, when I read the following on the website of the South West Safeguarding and Child Protection Group (is it me, or does this have a faintly sinister ring about?)

Anyway, the South West Safeguarding and Child Protection Group have identified a number of dangers to children, which they discuss here:

One observes that Elective Home Education is listed as a child protection concern, coming immediately before Exploitation and Trafficking of Children, Female Genital Mutilation and Forced Marriage. This is very irritating. Don’t take my word for it; read it for yourselves. Some of the concerns that they cite around home education are frankly ludicrous. Take this one, for example:

Children who are home educated may be taught by other adults. Not all parents will exercise their responsibility to ensure that employment checks, including CRB checks have been carried out.

There is huge industry in providing tutoring for schoolchildren, aimed at getting them up to scratch for entrance examinations, GCSEs and A levels. Home educating parents are probably a good deal less likely to be using services such as these anyway, but if the concern is that tutors without CRB checks are gaining access to children, then they should start with the main bulk of such teaching, which is, as I say, undertaken with schoolchildren. A complete red herring.

If I lived in Devon or Somerset, I would be inclined to be a little annoyed at this sort of nonsense. On a slightly more pedantic note, I would be angry that a publicly funded body of this sort were using ‘safeguarding’ as a gerund verb. This is unforgivable and deserves the strictest censure.

Home educators of yesteryear

I have been musing lately about the recent past; a sad habit of many as they approach their twilight years. Those able to remember the fuss over the publication of Graham Badman’s report will perhaps recall that shortly after it came out, I had a couple of articles published in newspapers about home education. These were my personal views on the subject and they provoked a storm of protest from some other home educators.

I did not understand then and still do not to this day, why reading the views of another home educator who disagreed with one’s own views could cause so much rage, but we will let that pass. What I have found curious over the three years or so since this happened is that the most aggressive of my critics have shown that they were actually following a fad at the time and had no real commitment to home education. I am not going to name any names here, but am talking about mothers who became heroines of to home educators for their Freedom of Information requests and so on.

One of the most well known figures in the campaign against Badman was only home educating her daughter because she had not been able to persuade her well-off family to shell out for a private school. This has since been done and the child is now attending a good, independent school. Another only ever wanted to keep her child at home until she was 11, always having the aim of getting her into a grammar school. She has now done this. Three other women who were both extremely active in fighting Badman and also very angry with me, have now sent their children to school.

I do not say that it is wrong to send children to school, but it is odd to see people who are one moment utterly gung-ho in favour of home education and the next packing their kids off to school. This has confirmed what I suspected at the time, that the real cause of their anger at me was that I had decided to home educate my child for no other reason than that I wished to home educate. This was and still is rare in the British home educating scene.

Meanwhile, back at the asylum...

Sometimes, one despairs utterly of British home educators. Consider the following collection of dangerous eccentrics:

Reading this actually makes me wonder whether some of these people might genuinely be paranoid schizophrenics. Two suggestions, plucked at random from this nonsense, will illustrate what I mean.

Is your child feeling safe and secure and appearing to be psychologically healthy? Here’s a handy little hint that will soon put a stop to that! Try this:

Always tell your children how much you love them and how, if ever they were taken from you, you would never, ever stop looking for them.

It has probably never occurred to your child before that they might be taken from you. Plant the seeds of doubt in their mind and they will soon be laying awake at night, needlessly worrying about this.

Or try this;

If you are innocent and feel that your family is facing a truly significant threat, consider leaving the country before the case goes to court.

Thee is something quite terrifying about madness like this. One recognises some of the usual suspects here, people like Nikki Harper from Lincolnshire who is quoted.  I do hope that local authorities are reading this stuff, so that they have an idea of the sort of disordered thinking which affects some parents supposedly capable of delivering an education to their children.

Innocent until proven guilty part 2

I have been more than half persuaded by the arguments presented here by those who feel that the presumption of innocence should be paramount and that we should not treat people as being likely to be involved in the commission of illegal acts, unless there is strong evidence to suggest such a thing. As a result of this, I have become uneasy in my mind lately about the activities of the Inland Revenue.

As readers are perhaps aware, the tax inspectors are constantly on the lookout for those fiddling their taxes. They insist on comprehensive and detailed forms being filled out and make many visits to businesses on a random basis, just on the off chance that offences are being committed. This is outrageous.

What would be far fairer, as well as more in keeping with the spirit of English jurisprudence, would be if a network of Honesty Boxes were established on street corners. These would be rather like pillar boxes and instead of tax being deducted automatically by employers or our having to fill out complex forms regularly, we would all be responsible for calculating our own tax and then putting it in these Honesty Boxes. Of course, if the Inland Revenue had sound reason to suspect that somebody was not paying enough tax, they could still make a visit, but the automatic assumption that citizens would be guilty of fiddling their taxes unless closely supervised would be done away with. Remember, ’Innocent until proven guilty’!

More about the monitoring of home education

When I wrote recently on this topic, I was surprised to find that there was broad agreement about many points. Here are a few more points with which few home educators will disagree. First, there will always be cases of cruel or abusive people mistreating or even murdering their children. Most of these children are at school and a few are home educated. Such abusers can be very cunning and a brief visit once a year will almost certainly miss some of these wicked parents.

A second point is that annual visits for every home educating family is an expensive and not particularly effective way of keeping an eye on the situation. To give an example, one need only look at my own case. Essex County Council chose to involve themselves and start visiting our home when my daughter was eight. We live in Loughton and their office is in Colchester. Each visit entailed a seventy mile round trip for the woman. By the time my daughter was thirteen and taking IGCSEs, it was clear to both us and the local authority that such visits were a waste of their time and ours. There are many similar cases. This sort of thing is not a good use of resources.

On the other hand, I do not believe that we should just assume that every parent is capable of undertaking this civic duty. Just as somebody who volunteers to undertake the duty of policing, as special constables do, is required first to demonstrate his or her fitness to undertake the task; so to with those who would educate a child. The easiest way to assess the suitability for exercising this duty is for somebody from the local authority to make an initial visit to the home and speak to both the parent and child. In this way, I would guess that a chat and a look around the home would make it clear that a large proportion of those parents were quite capable of taking on this duty. The remaining people, I am thinking a ballpark figure of perhaps 10% to 20% could be offered the choice of continuing to home educate with some involvement and monitoring by the local authority or, if they declined, a School Attendance Order would be issued.

Of course, such a rough and ready method would result in some unfit parents being overlooked and other perfectly capable parents being offered closer supervision. On the whole though, I think that this would work better than the current system, where some parents are never seen at all. The beauty of a system like this is that it would require no new legislation. All that would be necessary would be for local authorities to tell parents that they could not be convinced that a suitable education was taking place without visiting their home. Of course, parents have no duty in law to comply with this and those that refused would automatically be issued with a School Attendance Order.

I have an idea that a system of this sort would sift out quite a few parents who are not really educating their children, while leaving the 80% or so who are to get on with the job without any interference. For those who doubt that it would be possible to judge in the course of a two hour or so visit, which parents and homes were suitable for the education of a child; there are various strong indicators. The presence of many books is one. A home with no books on display is almost certainly a home where parents are not valuing learning and education. This would be easily spotted within the first few minutes of a visit.

Innocent until proven guilty...

Every so often home educators catch hold of some phrase and before you know it you are seeing it on every blog, list and forum. Ultra vires is one of these, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is another. Local authorities must be reminded that home educating parents are ’innocent until proven guilty’ if they should happen to ask about a child’s education. Most home educating parents simply parrot this expression without having the least idea what they mean by it. It ties in with the idea which I explored in a recent post, that many home educators like to feel that they are being persecuted. The idea that the government or local authority should wrongly be treating them as guilty of something fits in neatly with this craving for persecution. Let us look at the idea of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and see just what these characters think they mean by it.

Commenting on a recent post of mine, somebody said:

There is a law that states that we must provide a suitable education. You are either
innocent or guilty of breaking that law. What's so difficult to understand about


This is of course, complete nonsense. Nobody is breaking any law by not providing her child with a suitable education and I have no idea why anybody would believe this. Still, many home educators appear to think that this is so. Perhaps we can clear up this misunderstanding. If I have care of a child aged between five and sixteen and do not cause him to receive an education, I am not committing any sort of offence, either criminal or civil. If somebody suggests that my child might not be receiving an education, this cannot mean that they are accusing me of being ‘guilty’; there is nothing to be guilty of. I am not breaking any law by failing to educate a child, nor can I be arrested nor any civil proceedings be brought against me by anybody. The whole concept of innocence or guilt simply does not apply under those circumstances. Guilty of what, exactly? The thing is meaningless. I am not, even theoretically, guilty of breaking any law.

The only time that the idea of innocence or guilt could possibly enter into a discussion of a child’s education in this country is if the child is enrolled at a school or the subject of a School Attendance Order which names a specific school which he should attend. None of this applies to home educators. Their children are not enrolled at school and as many Freedom of Information requests have established, School Attendance Orders are issued my most local authorities perhaps once every couple of years and even then, hardly ever to home educating parents. Here is the wording used in School Attendance Orders:

It will be seen that the offence would be not failing the duty to provide the child with a suitable education, but one of ignoring the order itself. The offence is created and comes into being only by the serving of the order and relates only to that. No SAO, no offence.

Nobody in this country could ever be taken to court for not providing a child with an education; it is not an offence. Therefore even the most zealous local authority officer could not suspect a home educating parent of committing an offence. The idea of ’innocence’ or ’guilt’ is utterly without meaning. The only time that any offence could ever be taking place would be if the local authority issued an SAO and that simply does not happen. It would only be at the moment that a School Attendance Order was served on a parent  that even the very possibility of an offence was created.

As I said at the beginning, this really has more to do with the widespread desire of many home educators to believe themselves victims of persecution than anything else. They want to believe that heartless officials are falsely  accusing them of breaking the law. One more time; it is not against the law to keep your child from school and fail to educate him. Nobody could, even in theory, be taken to court for this. The only way that you could fall foul of the law is if your child is a registered pupil at a school or fails to attend the school named in a School Attendance Order. Unless this is happening, you are not breaking any law, nor could anybody even suspect you of breaking any law regarding the education of your child.

One final time, unless any readers have actually been served with a School Attendance Order or have children who are registered pupils at a school and are not being sent regularly, there can be no possibility of any offence and consequently no talk of innocence or guilt. Forget the expression 'innocent until proven guilty'; it does not and cannot apply to you. No mechanism exists for prosecuting anybody for failing to abide by the duty of causing a child to receive a suitable education. Prosecutions can only be brought with regard to failing to send a child to school.

Why local authorities must be allowed to visit home educating families

It is time to draw together the threads of the various themes at which we have recently been looking. In the first place, it is clear that some parents are less able than others to provide an education for their children by themselves. A quadraplegic mother, for instance, who is also deaf, blind, unable to speak and has severe learning difficulties, would not be able to educate her own child. An extreme case, but there are plenty of less afflicted individuals who are unable personally to educate their own children in a satisfactory fashion. (It is important though to remember that the child in a similar condition would still have the right to an education, a point to which we shall shortly return.)

I have complained before of the apparent inability of some home educators to distinguish between rights and duties. The unfortunate individual cited above gives us a perfect opportunity to do so. No matter how disabled a person in this country, he or she is entitled to a fair trial. He has a right to a fair trial. Consider now the case of a juror, though. We have a duty to sit on juries if called to do so. A duty, not a right. Jurors must fulfil certain criteria and if they do not do so, they are not allowed to undertake this duty. Think now of the case of the paralysed woman whom I mentioned above. She cannot see, hear, speak or even think clearly and logically. Such a person would still have the right to a fair trial, obviously. She would not though have a right to be in a jury. This is a duty which she is not competent to undertake. I am sure that none of us would want this person to be deciding on our guilt or innocence.

This case is precisely similar to home education. If parents had a right to educate their children at home, then clearly the mother who could not move, hear, speak, see or think properly, would enjoy that right; just as she enjoys the right to a fair trial. If on the other hand, she has a duty to her child, then it would be reasonable for us to assess whether or not she was capable of undertaking that duty. Another way of looking at this is to consider the child with similar problems. He still has a right to an education, no matter what difficulties he has. Rights are not dependent upon any external circumstances; they exist automatically. We test people for their ability to undertake duties though and quite rightly so.

In short, it is both logically and ethically  correct for a local authority to wish to satisfy itself that somebody wishing to undertake the duty of educating their own child is in fact capable of undertaking this duty. The legal situation is a little more complex, but ethically and logically, the case could hardly be clearer. To assess this competence, local authority officers need at the very least to interview the parent and form some judgement of the person's ability to undertake this duty; just as a court will routinely assess the suitability of jurors. Anything less than this would be a gross betrayal of the rights of the children concerned in the matter. To sum up, if we were thinking of checking up on people to decide whether or not they should have certain rights; this would be absolutely dreadful. If we are checking that they are able to fulfill some duty or other, this is not only acceptable; it is necessary. Some home educating parents feel that threats are being made to deprive them of a right. In fact, checks are being made to see if they are able to undertake a duty. The two cases could hardly be more different.

Why do some local authorities lie to and mislead parents about home education?

One of the things which irritates some home educating parents is the apparent willingness of local authorities to lie to them and misrepresent the law about education. This is a recurring theme on some forums and lists.What motive could  local authorities have for doing this? Hatred of home educators?  Sheer wickedness? I want today to look at an example of this sort of thing known to me and to consider why such tactics may be quite justifiable and in the best interests of children.

 In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where until recently I was doing a lot of home visiting, there are many Bangladeshis and British people of Bangladeshi origin. A lot of them are from the Surma valley and speak not Bengali but Sylheti. It is not at all uncommon for the children of such parents, even those born in this country, to speak only Sylheti when they start school. This is a problem, but not one that anybody will discuss openly, for fear of being called racist. If the parents were not told constantly that the law required them to send their children to school at the age of five, many would not do so. The result could easily be young people who not only could not speak English at five, but could reach the age of twelve or so without speaking anything but Sylheti. This is especially the case with girls.

Here is a perfect example of why I feel that local authorities are both justified in giving out untruthful and misleading information to families and also paying more attention to one minority group, having different rules for them if your like, than are applied to white, English families. The chances of a white child born in this country reaching the age of five without learning to speak English are effectively zero. The chances of a child from a Sylheti speaking family in East London doing so can be high. This is a disaster for the child’s future prospects and he may never be able to take full advantage of the free education which he receives. The educational outcome for children of Sylheti origin is awful. It is disguised by the fact that monitoring often does not distinguish such children from other ’Asians’. Gujarati children tend to do brilliantly at school, better than white English kids and so they raise the average attainment for ’Asians’.

This is one example where a local authority needs to apply stricter rules to one ethnic group than another. It is also why in some areas, parents are told that the law requires them to send their children to school. In coming days, we shall be looking further at the implications of this sort of situation and what it can tell us about the reasons that local authorities often tell lies about the legal position of home education and do their best to discourage some people from undertaking it. 
To recap, if a Sylheti family in Stepney decided not to send their daughter  to school at the age of five, there is every chance that this child would not learn to speak English. She could remain in the home and marry young, never being able fully to participate in ordinary life. The local authority wishes to prevent this from happening. Should they tell these families that the law requires them to send their children to school at the age of five, which is not true? Or perhaps  they should not discriminate in this way against one cultural group. Maybe they should crack down upon anybody who failed to send a child to school and start insisting that they can visit the family and talk to them in person? This sort of stratagy, where all parents are treated in the same way has caused a lot of trouble and ill feeling in some parts of the country, because it treats loving parents who genuinely wish to educate their own children as being potentially negligent. What do readers think? Should we go out of our way to protect girls who are at risk of never receiving a proper education and remaining second class citizens? Or should we on the other hand pursue all parents who do not send their children to school at the age of five and behave as though they are all careless of their children's welfare?
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