Friday, 20 January 2012

Councils and the Law

Here we go again. From the same place as the last big argument started, too.

A brief bit of home education history, for those who don't already know it. A few years ago, central government's education department, then known as DCSF, commissioned Graham Badman, a former Kent County Council Managing Director for the Children, Families and Education Directorate, to conduct a review of elective home education. The report he produced was accepted in full by Ed Balls, then in charge of DCSF, and was rejected by a large number of home educators. Even the CSF Select Committee wasn't that convinced by the report, nor by the behaviour of DCSF. An attempt at legislation to mandate registration, inspection and monitoring followed, which was fought at every step by home educators, who finally won on a technicality when that section of the CSF Bill was dropped in the wash-up just before Parliament packed up for the election in 2010.

The legacy of this means that many home educators no longer trust the state, and several local councils seem to act as if the home education part of the CSF Bill actually became law and attempt to bully and threaten home educators to comply with the requirements even though they do not have force of law. This obviously does not make for harmonious relations, and much good cooperation between home educators and council officials was lost due to the whole sorry affair.

I just watched the recording of Kent County Council's Education, Learning and Skills Policy Overview and Scrutiny Committee discussing home education, and I'm sorry to say they demonstrated a woeful understanding of the law, and in their concern to track down and identify every home educated child in Kent, failed to realise that perhaps they, and their approach, are part of the problem and the reason why more parents don't volunteer themselves. Home educating parents I know that are unknown to their local council do their best to remain that way because it causes less hassle. Most see the council's actions as interference, providing no benefit to the home educators concerned.

KCC wants to visit every home educating family in Kent once a year, and is taking on more staff to allow it to do so. However, if a family declines a visit, the council have no powers to insist. This possibility was not mentioned in the meeting, nor in the accompanying documents. The home visit was one of Badman's proposals, and outraged home educators. There are very few people who have a right of access to private homes (although more than one might think, and for trivial reasons in some cases), and there is no justification to allow council education inspectors to be part of that group.

Much was made of the monitoring of the quality of the home education, again ignoring the fact that it is actually nothing to do with the council. The DCSF 2007 guidelines to local authorities make this quite clear in section 2.7:

"Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis."

Section 437(1) of the Education Act 1996 allows local authorities to intervene if it appears that parents are not providing a suitable education. This suggests that there is positive evidence of a lack, not merely a negative. We don't all routinely get our houses searched once a year by the police to check for stolen goods, they only come knocking if they have good reason. The same should be true for education - as the law specifies.

The 2007 guidelines also acknowledge in section 3.13 that there are no requirements for what must be taught or when, only that it be suited to the age, ability and aptitude of the child. This has bearing on another subject raised during the KCC meeting, that of comparing progress of home educated children with schoolchildren. This fails at the first hurdle, because it is not a like-for-like comparison. If we all sat our children down each day and taught them the National Curriculum, there might be some merit in this approach. However, many home educators have opted out of the rigid, test-based approach of mainstream schools and take a much more relaxed attitude to learning, and I believe that the number of home educated children rigidly studying the National Curriculum is a minority.

If a child wants to spend three months on a particular interest, then the child is free to do just that. It might mean that in certain traditional subject areas the child is lagging behind schoolchildren of a comparable age, but may be well ahead on matters relevant to the interest area. School is designed for the average pupil, a very Procrustean environment where the very able are chopped back and the less able are stretched to make them fit, breaking many of them in the process. We all learn better when we're interested in a subject, and many home educators adjust their activities to take advantage of this. Much maths and English can be learned as part of other topics, and when presented as necessary for progress, most children will happily put in the effort to learn because they understand why it is necessary.

The number of hours was also raised, and here it is necessary to consider a typical class, where a few minutes are lost at the start and end as children arrive and settle in, then mentally pack up and prepare to leave as the end draws near. Throw in a bit of disruption, and a bit of administration time collecting or setting homework, and the actual useful lesson time goes down. For a typical child it will be even less if there's work to be done because they'll finish in less time than was allocated and have to wait for the slower children to catch up. A study, for which I've lost the reference, once claimed that school was 20% efficient. It may not be that bad, but it certainly isn't going to be anywhere near 100% because it has to handle children with a wide range of abilities. Contrast this to home education, where the learning is tailored to the child and can be near 100%. A couple of hours a day will easily match a whole day at school, and allowing for the fact that many home educating families often continue educating at weekends and during school holidays, useful contact time is easily going to match and exceed that of school. Much of the time, the education is disguised as fun, so children can learn without realising it.

Mention was also made of visiting some home educating families. Most of those known to the council will be families that have withdrawn their children from school. Some of these will have done so reluctantly because the system has failed them, and yet they may still want the system to fix things. Others will consider that because the system has failed them, they want nothing more to do with the council. The ones the council does not know about will mostly have decided not to bother with the system, have a good support network of other home educators and want nothing more of the local council than to be left completely alone. As such, it is quite possible to get a biased viewpoint of what home educators want, because only a small subset can be interviewed.

My recommendation to Kent County Council (and to several others) would be to take a good look at the law, do a bit of research into the Badman Review (easy to find on Google, we made enough noise about it) and understand why your approach is wrong. Home educators network very well, and your documents have been read and the content shredded by home educators up and down the country. You're still stuck in the mindset of Nanny Knows Best, but are dealing with a group who, for the most part, worked out several years ago that this is not true. By all means offer services, make it clear on your website that advisers are available by telephone, email or personal visit for those that want them, but do not force your presence on those that do not want it. Hold meetings with home educating parents where names are not asked, offer drop-in educational activities where names are not asked, and you may find that you get to see more children and know they are safe, even if you don't know who they are. Your current approach is only going to antagonise those you are there to serve, which will make their lives less pleasant and your jobs much harder.

Friday, 22 April 2011

No News is Good News, Right?

That's a long gap. I guess things have been quiet and routine with nothing much happening. I was always bad at recording routine things, as the quality of my university notes shows. I'm attempting to make sure C is better at this than I was. It's the curse of a good memory and knowing part of the subject. It's only later that one realises that memory is not quite as good as one thought, plus in amongst all the known bits in a lecture was buried an important nugget of information that was missed due to inattention.

On to more recent things.

When starting at his swimming club almost eighteen months ago, C declared that he wanted to learn to swim better but didn't want to do competitive stuff. Since then, we've observed him checking out the children next to him to see how well he's doing, so he wants to be first despite his competition claims. The club has an internal gala over a couple of weekends at the end of the year and we encouraged C to take part. "It's against your friends, a chance to see what it's like" and various other forms of encouragement. He ended up entering for every race for which he was eligible, which was the four age-group races plus all the open events. The competitive urge is there, albeit well-hidden, because he was twenty seconds faster in his butterfly race than when I was timing him the week before. He came away with three silvers and a bronze medal from the age-group events, and declared he wanted to get a gold medal and a trophy in future. Cue some motivational talks about working hard and getting rewarded for effort.

He had a chance to compete for the club in February, but it coincided with a family holiday in Cornwall, so we declined that one and didn't mention it to him. He got another chance at the start of April, and got very stressed about it and didn't want to do it. We had lots of talks about it all, to determine why he didn't want to do it. It was complicated by the fact that he's reached a level where he was good enough to move up from one group to another at swim club and he was also having trouble with that change, even though we could see he was better than some of those in the higher group. He agreed to do the competition, and we had a stressful week or two leading up to it. He was also placed into a group a year older than him, the club being more interested in giving experience to those who want it rather than those who stand the best chance of winning (not all the local clubs are like that). In a way it was a compliment because if they had to bump someone up, it suggests that they think he's better than the others who were available. He did his couple of races and decided it was really good fun, so he's over that hump now, and signed up for an open event for a couple of months' time.

In other things, C is noticeably more comfortable doing basic arithmetic, and is doing sums in his head with no prompting, he's well into reading, and we're working on his spelling. I saw mention of a DS game called Scribblenauts on one of the home education lists and we got that for him. His spelling has improved noticeably since he got it, so I guess I can recommend it. He's had a play with his chemistry set that he got for Christmas, and is progressing with other science stuff. We even touched on religious education, explaining why I was at home on a Friday today. A while back he read us the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours and I dug out a YouTube video of the song from the musical. I remember singing that at school.

We had fun in Cornwall in February, off season so we ended up with personal tours of places and got to see and do things that wouldn't be possible in the busy season. C had chance to feed penguins which he loved, and to see seals at a sanctuary, and visit the Lizard Lighthouse. Land's End was a disappointment, we didn't stay long. It just seemed too commercial compared to the wilder environment at the Lizard.

So, things progressing happily and mostly smoothly, on all fronts.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Gathering Storm

Storm clouds are gathering over the home education community once more.

There are local authorities who seem to be behaving as if Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill became law, wanting to do spot checks on home educators or who insist that they have a legal duty to monitor home educators. Clearly this is some sort of push by them to shift the boundaries, and there are several reasons why. One is purely to avoid cutbacks. By showing that their staff is busy pursuing all those home educators who might possibly be failing their children, they can claim that everyone is fully occupied and there is no slack to cut. Another may be that they perceive that central government is about to push in the other direction and after thirteen years of the nanny state and lack of trust in parents, local authorities believe that this will harm children. In some cases, both these and other reasons may well be behind a hardening of attitudes within local authorities.

As a group, it appears that we have not had much rest since putting Badman and the CSF Bill in the shredder. There was an expectation of having a couple of years off before the government would even find time to look our way again. Unfortunately, while central government appear to be generally of this mind, local government has decided to fill the void.

Several local authorities have home education literature on their websites that is factually incorrect, claiming statutory duties to intrude in all sorts of ways. When faced with this, a new home educator without sufficient contacts in the community may be overwhelmed by an inspector or educational welfare officer claiming all sorts of things. Clearly we need do to two things here, firstly to make it clear to these authorities that they are in the wrong, and secondly to make sure that as many home educators as possible are given the real facts and are supported by those who are not afraid to call the bluff of an official making these claims.

Much work can be done locally by groups putting pressure on their local authority, writing letters and generally making a nuisance of themselves until the LA cleans up its act and changes procedures to something more in line with what the law actually says. Help and support can be provided as much as possible to those who don't like what the LA does but lack the confidence to stand up and spout legalese at the LA officials and challenge them to back up what they claim. Some people get on just fine with their local inspector because they've got a good inspector who understands their brand of home education, but other do not, especially when the inspector insists on seeing written work or particular milestones that are not appropriate for the educational approach in use.

At a national level, there is also activity. There is the rewrite of guidelines in progress, controversial as that is, which seeks to define things more clearly, and possibly shift the balance back in favour of home educators. Local authorities may still choose to ignore them, but provided it makes the situation clearer for home educators, they can stand their ground and brandish a copy of the guidelines with which they expect the local authority to comply. The other strand, which has a much lower profile, is to attack the Children Missing Education guidelines, which are statutory, and section 436A of the Education Act 1996. I asked Graham Stuart (chairman of the Education Select Committee) a couple of weeks ago if he could dig up some figures about how S.436A was used, how many children were caught up in it and how many of those turned out to be genuine. More recently, AHEd have written to Michael Gove, challenging the existence of S.436A as being in contradiction to the rest of the surrounding legislation, and asking him to remove it.

One piece of positive feedback has been a letter from Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, asking for reports of ultra vires activity by local authorities towards home educators. Let us hope that such reports bring positive action, if not immediately in a quiet word with the offending authority to get back in line, then at least as justification to push through the other national-level activities.

Whatever happens, it appears that there is another fight looming. This one may be more on ground of our choosing, with central government if not actively on our side, then at least willing to listen and undoubtedly open to suggestions that make life easier for us and cost them less.

Friday, 1 October 2010

New Legislation? Pick the Correct Target

The irritating mosquito-like buzz of the child protection industry is still around. Vested interests that grew fat on the state-inspired distrust of anyone who hadn't been approved by the state are attempting to keep the climate of fear and distrust going, despite initial signs from the new government that common sense might return in some measure. This is how they attempt to keep their funding. Fake charities that received huge government grants and spent on advertising about the same as they received in public donations. Consultants and advisers, paid to encourage more and more state interference in private life. The latest incarnation appears to be called early intervention. All delivered with a sinister edge to it, subtly reinforcing the belief that those who disagree are not thinking of the children.

This is the background against which is set the continual sniping at home educators, pushing for more state monitoring and control. Some local authorities, who were looking forward to Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill becoming law, are acting as if parts of it were indeed enacted, ignoring the fact that it was cast on the scrapheap where it belongs. "Changes are coming", we're told. "Just Say No", is a well-repeated response. However, this approach may be as effective as King Canute sitting on the beach. In some respects it is the correct answer; there is nothing wrong with education legislation, which is quite happy with the concept of educating children at home, or that the local authority need not be involved.

A better response, which will be much harder to orchestrate and achieve, is to deal with the situation described in the first paragraph. Home education sits in a river of vested interests and agendas, where all these boulders of suspicion and fear are being strewn, and it is inevitable that some will strike blows, always the risk of a really big one that will squash us. Changing education law, while it might remove us from the river, or at least shift us to a quiet backwater free from boulders, runs the risk of throwing us into the mainstream where there are more boulders, and certainly means that we'd be uprooted. It is much harder to dam or divert the river[*], but by doing so, the boulders will not reach us. We will still be in the same place, doing as we have done, but will no longer need to keep an eye out for these boulders and deflect them. So change the welfare legislation to stop putting everyone under suspicion, encourage people to become proper communities who can support and help each other without the need for everyone to be approved by the state.

Change the rules. Just make sure you're changing the correct rules.

[*] diverting is better than a dam because otherwise someone may one day breach the dam and we would be inundated and washed away.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Watching the Watchers

Almost five months ago, I attempted to start a project, but promptly ran out of steam. I had intended to lay a bit of groundwork and then throw it open as a collaboration, due to the amount of work involved. So today it's time to explain what I intended without first laying that groundwork.

The project was to go through every LAs website and review all their material relating to EHE, collate it and make it available on-line so that people could immediately see which LAs had it right and which ones had it wrong. It could probably be tied in with the existing database on LAs and staff once it gets far enough, to keep all the information in a single place.

So, I'm looking for volunteers to go through the LAs and read through their stuff and provide a summary of where it is, a brief outline of the problems and a fuller explanation of what's wrong with it. Let me know if you're interested so things can be coordinated to avoid several people all working on the same few LAs. No need to only do your own LA,either.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Cooperation or Collaboration?

Now here's a thorny issue. Is dealing with the state and attempting to help them Get It Right regarding home education considered to be sensible cooperation or nasty, Quisling collaboration?

At one level, we mostly assume that because we've rejected state education, the state can keep its nose out. The previous government with its attitude that parents were not to be trusted and that the Man from Whitehall knows best has certainly strengthened these assumptions and much work needs to be done on both sides before the damage can be repaired.

However, we were nearly flattened by a bulldozer with no steering, and were only saved from it by the fact that it ran out of fuel slightly short of its goal. Had that legislation started a session earlier, we'd have been squashed by bureaucracy. There is nothing to stop a future government (I am hoping that this one, having sided with us when in opposition, will tread much more carefully) starting up another bulldozer to complete the job they tried last time. They're still out there, waiting for another chance.

It's hard to consider any assistance given to such a bulldozer as anything but collaboration - once early efforts to change its course had failed, it was obvious that nothing was going to deflect it from its purpose. The Select Committee helped us in the attempt by pointing out that actually, there was no evidence to suggest that the legislation was necessary, and indeed, there wasn't much evidence of anything in the home education field.

We have an opportunity now, the present government has more pressing things to do than spend money it hasn't got on home education, and the Select Committee observation that there is little research has highlighted to students that it's a field with wide potential for original research.

Now we come to the question. Is cooperating with such researchers a good thing, or is it considered collaboration with the enemy, either real or potential? Researchers will come to the subject with bias (naive, misinformed but willing to learn, we hope), based on what they've read and heard, but if they're not getting government money to provide a particular slant and really want to produce objective work, then it must be in our best interests to assist them, explain why some of the questions they're asking are not right because home education doesn't work that way, and attempt to get some good peer-reviewed work in the field that backs us up. We quite rightly stick two fingers up to politically-motivated stuff, as with the Ofsted survey, but once we get researchers understanding asking the right questions, we get chance to show the right answers in the proper light. Those that refuse to learn find that their source of research subjects dries up.

Let's face it - if we didn't believe that what we're doing is better for our children than sending them to school, then why are we here? And if we believe it, wouldn't it strengthen our position to have documented evidence that we're right?

Of course, it still might not stop the bulldozer, but it gives us a better chance.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The Undead

It's like one of those horror movies where where the evil monster keeps getting killed and yet keeps coming back to life for another battle. Yes, I'm talking about the reincarnation of the Badman Review as an Ofsted Report. Once again, it's a lightweight skim of selective and biased facts and figures that conveniently support the policy of the previous government.

Fortunately, the full moon has passed and the zombie's power is draining. The pro-HE side is gaining strength and indeed, one of our warriors recently obtained a chalice of great power. Today he struck what is hopefully a mortal blow to this irritating zombie, so that it will die and remain, if not dead, then at least comatose for an indefinite period.

With any luck, there will now be a general trend away from quangos attempting to exert more control over not just home educators, but life in general. We have a few years to work to change the prevailing culture of the UK away from the nanny state and back to one where individual responsibility is important, where people don't expect the state to come along and solve their problems but to make the effort to deal with issues with help from friends, family and community. Let's make sure that if that zombie wakes up, it will look around and decide to go back to sleep because all around is a happy, cohesive community with minimal government interference that will unite to keep things that way.