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.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Drive and Motivation

One of the articles of faith of autonomous education is that the child wants to learn and will do so happily with minimal coercion, provided there is interest in the subject and appropriate materials and assistance are provided. Even 'downtime' spent playing computer games or watching TV is part of the process, where the brain can organise what it has accumulated. Some computer games and TV programmes are also useful learning in their own right, or can serve as a foundation for a new or renewed interest.

One of the milestones I've looked for in C is a willingness to sit and read non-fiction books for fun, which I remember doing when I was at school, at least in the subjects I enjoyed. It was therefore pleasing to discover that C stayed awake in bed last night until nearly midnight, reading a Horrible Science book from cover to cover. He even remembered it and showed me some of the experiments that he found interesting, so we'll have to do those to reinforce the big step forward. It's also a cue to get some more books at an appropriate level and leave them where he can find them.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

How to Start

One of the things I find hardest, but most satisfying, about unstructured education, is the question that appears at short notice, related to something that C is doing. Then I'm struggling with the 'where do I start?' problem, trying to explain something that is now second nature to me because I've known it so long. Trying to remember back to how I was introduced to the subject is almost impossible, not least because I probably read the text book and learned it that way. C is still a bit young to take to that sort of thing though, so we improvise and try to lay the groundwork for when he's ready to come back and tackle the subject some more.

Over the weekend the HotWheels track came out of wherever it had been stored. This is the one that hooks over the top of a door, with a track that drops down steeply and then angles up so the car flies off the end of the track and hopefully through a hoop some distance away. From this we got to some physics equations, namely v=u+at, s=ut+0.5at^2 and v^2=u^2+2as [*] As a bonus, I managed to link in C's experience of playing the lunar lander game at the National Space Centre as another example of using the equations. In the absence of graph paper (must find some) to add in a lesson in how to plot graphs, I fired up OpenOffice and set up some equations and a graph on the spreadsheet. This gave a nice demonstration of things such as having the launch trajectory at 60 degrees landed in the same place as having it at 30 degrees, and the fact that 45 degrees gave maximum range. We also covered the time taken for the 30/60 trajectories and discussed which one would be easiest to get through a vertical hoop.

I may put together a gadget with a couple of light beams and a timer so that he can set the beams at different heights and record the time taken between the beams for each height. He loves gadgets, and I'm sure that making a few would encourage the learning process somewhat. At some point I might even let him assist in building, if I think he's OK using a soldering iron. One learns very quickly which end to hold and picks up useful tips such as not trying to catch it if it gets knocked off the bench and to pay attention when using it.

[*] no doubt known to those who did physics O-level. The modern GCSE equivalent is probably to write an essay on the evils of speed when it comes to motor vehicles.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Home Education and the New Government

Home education has won a battle. C was watching the TV with us when Gordon Brown made the trip to the Palace to resign. We explained to him that it meant that the Labour government was finished and he responded with "Yippee! Home Education wins!" Unfortunately it is only a battle, not the war. To win that, or at least improve our position for future battles, some low-key preparation needs to be done.

The in-your-face approach adopted to defeat the CSF Bill is not the way forward. We have a new government that is sympathetic to us. Most of the top people know what will happen if they try anything we don't like, and while ultimately they could pass legislation, we'd take up a lot more of their time than they'd like, so it's going to be in everyone's interest to let home education find its own way for a few years. However, if we keep pushing it blatantly, we're likely to end up with legislation, and while we might not get legislation with nasty strings attached, it will almost certainly come with hooks on it, to which a future government would be able to attach those strings quite easily. So be careful what you ask for, it may have unintended consequences in the future. It's worth remembering that having a large, anonymous contingent of home educators makes it harder for a future government to control us because first they have to find us.

Home education is at a point where we need to maintain a watching brief. Certainly the proposed education bill needs a going over to check for anything that might affect us directly or indirectly, but if we're being left alone we can quietly work amongst ourselves to come up with things we might want to see in legislation and good arguments against things that might appear that we don't want. The trick is not to start the next fight, but to be ready with arguments for and against anything good or bad that might come up.

Rather than highlight home education, we would achieve more lasting improvements by trying to change the intrusive nature of state interference. This benefits us by the back door because if we can get the general population and the media to stop expecting the government to do everything for us, pressure on local authorities will be reduced and their culture of an expectation of knowing full details about every child will be changed.

By all means talk to your MP and others, but reduce the emphasis on home education and make it a wider discussion. That way we get to keep the contacts (or make new ones if you have a new MP) in case they're needed for the future, and leave positive memories of home education without being too blatant about it.

If we can change the general attitude towards state control that currently exists, it will be a lot easier to deal with the next attempt to impose legislation on home education and instead of fighting a rear-guard action to stop something bad happening, we will be better positioned to push for something good. Something that has no strings, and no hooks either.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The underwater bit...

Touching back to the name of this blog, C is keen on swimming. The name came about when we were in the US on a nine-month visit in 2008/9. During that time he also got to experience diving lessons at the Santa Clara pool. The diving pool was also used by a synchronised swimming team immediately before his lessons and was only when they were absent one weekend that we realised that they'd gone off to the Olympics. C was probably a bit young for the class, it was only after he'd been in it for a while that we realised that he was the youngest (not quite seven), and wasn't really ready for the competitive, pushy nature of the class. We eventually discussed it with the instructor and agreed that he should probably take time out and come back when he was ready for it, although he really wanted to continue. He had at least picked up the basics by this point and we made jokes about letting small children jump into seventeen feet of water. He did have gymnastic lessons before we went to the US, so some of what was required was at least familiar. It was that plus his express wish that he wanted to learn to dive that let us feel comfortable in offering him the chance although with hindsight he wasn't quite ready, at least for that class.

Back in the UK, he returned to the home education group lessons in the local pool. These were held in a smaller pool with a movable floor, and immediately after his lesson, the floor was lowered for a public diving session. Some weeks, he expressed an interest in having a go, and with his general competence at swimming, plus the lifeguards seeing that he knew the basics, most weeks they were happy to let him practice dives off the side away from the board. Occasionally he'd go and do some off the board itself. He was prepared to accept instructions and guidance from the watching lifeguards, and so could improve his technique. However, it's always been an occasional thing, and he's been concentrating on improving his swimming.

Now he appears to have regained his interest to the point of wanting to try lessons again, so he's got a trial with the local diving club later this week. If they take him on and he agrees, that'll be four days a week when he gets to be in a swimming pool when the session is added to his swim club and lesson sessions.

ETA: trial session went very well, he's matured in the two years since the California stuff. Looks like diving is added to the list of regular activities.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Education Policy

Watching the education debate on the BBC today, I came to the conclusion that I don't think any of the three participants have demonstrated that they have what it takes to sort things out.

Gove acts more polished in his manner and tone of voice, and appears to have the gift of calm, reasoned speech that makes sense even if another part of the brain is screaming that it's total rubbish. There's a bias in his favour because he's backed home education against the CSF Bill but, as with much of his education policy, it's very noticeable what he hasn't said.

Balls comes across as very pushy and has a ready supply of facts and figures to back up his claims of what has been done, and is big on his guarantees for schools for the future, but is handicapped by his record of ignoring the opinions and evidence of a large number of home educators because they didn't agree with him. He's already said he'll continue on his quest to regulate home education and generally interfere if he gets back in, no prevarication there.

Laws attempts to be what the others are not. He's more polished than Balls, and seems to be trying to out-Gove with some of his claims and wants to remove politics from front-line education. He did help save home education from the CSF Bill, but has missed the logical consequences of his party's pro-notification stance (see earlier post), so his approach needs to be treated with caution.

Much interplay between Balls, boasting about all his guarantees (that we get to pay for) and missing the point that just throwing money at schools is unlikely to be the way to improve them, and Gove, who won't commit to anything. He did at one point refuse to promise a course of action, and highlighted that because he doesn't know the true spending of DCSF, he's unable to give commitments. That has been a Conservative theme in areas other than education - I assume they don't want to promise anything until they've had chance to look at the books because they suspect it's worse than has been made public.

So, as I said, I'm not convinced by any of them, but from the narrow viewpoint of home education, I'd pick Gove because so far the others have proposed changes with which I do not agree. If he's in the job next week then hopefully he'll be so busy sorting out Ed's state education mess and then unravelling the tangled web of his own replacement that home education will get left well alone. I don't think he's yet ready to embrace the seismic changes required to properly shake up the state system, and it was disappointing that all three appeared to agree to keep digging in certain areas of the hole into which education has fallen.

Sunday, 2 May 2010


When I was single, I usually had music playing from some source of other. I didn't own a TV at the time, so radio and recorded music was it. This tailed off once there were two of us, because other things occupied the time. When there was a small child around, music-related stuff tended to be aimed at the younger age bracket, although it was also a good excuse to play some Mozart.

More recently, I've been playing stuff and asking C what he thinks of it. He seems to enjoy punk and rock music, which is good because that seems to be what we've got a lot of. I have a bunch of classical stuff as well, but I need to organise a project to put that onto the computer from CD so we can listen to it more conveniently. Longer-term, encouraging C to listen to more music is going to be good. He's being taught piano and recorder and can read music, so there's a start to it. At some point I set up my old copy of Cakewalk on his computer and connected it to the Yamaha keyboard. He had some fun writing his own music, and seems to have an ability for it that should be encouraged. I did ask him how he did it and he showed me how he would try different notes until he found the one that sounded 'right'. He shows every indication of being much better at it than I ever was.

Today I decided to answer one of his questions (what's opera?) by playing Carmen. He stuck around for the first CD, but has now vanished off to play. Later, I'll go and ask him a bit about it and see what he thought. I always disliked opera until I got to see Carmen on TV, although I've since realised that what's bad about opera is the excessive vibrato of voices that makes them sound like cats in heat. Not all opera singers are like that, so it's very much a case of choose performances carefully.

It occurred to me that C is probably a bit young to understand the nuances of the story, but it's the only complete opera in the house. The next best thing is a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan, so I might try him on some of that as well if he has the patience to listen.

I'm sure that somewhere it should be possible to work in some history of music, working through different composers, and even expose him to music theory and see if that helps or hinders his tune-writing efforts.

Friday, 9 April 2010

What Do We Want?

I know it's a dangerous thing, because invariably what seems like a good idea to some is a bad idea to others, and any hint of cooperation can be subverted by a later government, but here's a few things to kick around. It is also useful to counteract the LAs, who have definitely not been shy about telling government what they want on the home education front. This started life as a mailing list post but I thought it deserved a bit of rework and posting.

1. A better definition of LA duties towards HE. This is potentially dangerous ground, because a bit of ambiguity can make life easier all round than having to stick to rigidly-defined rules even though they're obviously not appropriate. However, the variation in interpretation of the current rules between LAs suggests that we should make some effort to get them to stick to the same interpretation, we just have to make sure it's one we like.

2. Set up a proper framework to assess and qualify inspectors so that they know what they are inspecting and understand that no, we don't always have workbooks or lesson plans and it works as least as well as school, especially for our children.

3. Keep inspectors and advisers separate, one person cannot do both jobs. There should be a lot more advisers and very little need for inspection and monitoring if it's set up right. They shouldn't be there to fail families and force children into school, they should be working to help make the home education a success if parents request guidance or help and to keep out of the way if not wanted.

4. Make available the money that would have gone to schools to allow LAs to offer services. They can start with the numbers on their books to attract initial finance. I know money is short in government at the moment, but just imagine if we did all say 'screw you' and insisted on all our children being given school places. The money would have to be found then.

5. Make said services available for free to those who have registered (on the basis that the government is paying) but also available on-the-door to anyone for a nominal charge without needing to know any details. This allows those who want no government strings to participate, and also allows schoolchildren to participate in courses offered outside school hours.

6. As part of (4) and (5), allow access to school facilities such as labs and workshops out of hours. The school gets more money, the facilities are better utilised and children have more options, including schoolchildren with a particular interest.

7. Loosen the SATs, Ofsted and National Curriculum strings. Make it possible for private schools to open their doors to home educated children for specific classes on payment of a fee and minimal bureaucracy. This helps the private school be part of the community and retain their
charitable status and gives more options for children to learn.

As a note to (7), we've had practical experience of this in California,
where my son attended half a dozen classes on immunology at a small
private school. It included classroom time and some lab time doing biology
stuff, all age-appropriate for 7yr-olds. No bureaucracy either.

Yes, it is rather one-sided, but that is as it should be - the state is
there to serve and assist us if we ask for it, and to keep out of the way
if we don't.

I can think of some other ideas, but this is a good start, even though a lot of armour-plating might be required on the enabling legislation to stop it being subverted later.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Cultural Bias

I've been reading Enid Blyton's Famous Five books for bedtime stories, and it struck me how very school-biased (boarding school, even), the writing is. I don't hold her to blame for it particularly, but it did make me think how even now, we live in a society that is very focused on the idea that children must go to school. This, of course, is a big part of the problem with which home educators are fighting.

Everyone assumes children go to school, and I guess most home educators are used to the questions about which school, how the children like it and how they're getting on. I'm sure more than a few enjoy the effect of responding with "he doesn't go to school" or similar, even though that usually means rolling out the usual responses about it being legal, how socialisation is not a problem, what about exams, etc. I'm sure we've all done it at least once.

Of course, the government is very school-biased, both at local and national level. I've seen statements to the effect that they consider school is the best place for children to learn, and various bits of government propaganda make out that school is the only option. It's the way that the terms 'education' and 'school' get interchanged, mostly wrongly, that causes a lot of confusion. I've already mentioned Baroness Deech and her particular bias in favour of school, and she's not the only one. Yes, some home educators may claim to be educating children while doing nothing of the sort, but is that really less acceptable than the many schools pulling the same trick?

We have two main options here. Either we can just put up with it, and accept that home education is always going to be viewed as a slightly weird fringe activity by most people, or we can go on a publicity campaign and build on what's already been done as part of fighting Badman and Balls and attempt to pull home education into mainstream acceptance. When parents of pre-school children are generally aware of home education as an alternative to school and are prepared to choose it as a 'normal' option rather than thinking of it as some strange and possibly illegal thing to do, we will have succeeded. The downside of succeeding too well might be that the government decides it wants to impose control, but if there are ten times the number, there would be more than the not-inconsiderable noise we raised this time around. We will undoubtedly have to deal with government again in the future, so preparing and consolidating our position now will make that easier.

Have a good think about how to push home education in your area. Talk to radio stations, newspapers, leave leaflets in your local library, even see if playgroups would be willing to display some. We need to have the usual questions and the usual answers out there and common knowledge, so that we get asked them a lot less. One day I'll be able to respond to the school question from a random stranger when on holiday and instead of being asked a follow-up about socialisation, be asked what sort of home education philosophy we follow, or what C's current study areas are.

As a postscript, I noticed that Blyton's books have been updated a bit. They're now in metric and decimal money and certain bits have been re-written to please the Safely Elf, such as the firework scene in one of the Secret Seven books. They're still sexist though.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Inspection and Monitoring

So, anything from light-touch monitoring (whatever that is) to having to sit SATs and conform to the National Curriculum. Fortunately the SATs and NC have yet to feature in government proposals, but given Michael Gove's love affair with the Swedish system, we need to keep an eye on it.

There seems to be a background expectation of change, whoever wins the imminent election. Home education has had to raise its profile too high to be able to duck back under cover and carry on. I did cover this in an earlier post, So What Comes Next?, where we need to be vigilant and not duck down and get steamrollered by whatever it is that comes next.

So, to the title of this post. The thing that is most likely to hit us is an obligation to make ourselves known to officialdom. Some already are known, whether they like it or not, but a good many of us are still not formally down on paper even though we haven't exactly been hiding, with petitions, visits to Parliament, writing to MPs and DCSF, TV, radio and newspaper interviews, etc. If LAs are quick enough off the mark with ContactPoint, they will be able to pick up on many of those missing from their lists before an incoming Conservative government takes it away from them.

A 'light touch' scheme, as proposed by the LibDems, would merely require us to provide the names and addresses of our children, and probably our own details, to the local authority. What could be lighter and less intrusive? Except it won't end with that. Once the LA has that information, it won't just leave it to sit in a filing cabinet (but might leave it sitting on a train), it will want to use it.

So the education inspector will call and, buoyed up by the CSF Bill proposals, will no doubt want to see an education plan for the coming year. Hang on, that wasn't part of the light touch, was it? More than a few inspectors will probably try to insist on a home visit, now you've told them where it is, even though there's nothing about that in the light touch either. And where are the samples of work, where is the child? Before we know it, we'll be back with all the inspectors who want to implement the law as they'd like it to be rather than as it is, except now they'll have more families to harass. The good inspectors, who've been at it for several years and have experience to do a proper job, will have to be supplemented by untrained and unqualified extra staff, many of whom will come from a school background and are likely to expect to see school at home. That doesn't sound very light touch, more like hassle and arguments.

It will be very difficult to keep a 'light touch' notification scheme down to just that. Local authorities are going to take what's offered and keep pushing for more, because they are burdened down with other legislation that forces them to not trust parents. As we don't trust them either, based on years of examples of power-mad inspectors and social services, it will get messy. The big difference now, however, is that we've been woken up from our slumber and have armed ourselves with a good understanding of the law and an awareness of what we might lose. It may be that we end up with some awful scheme, but we can fight to make sure it doesn't creep forward and trample our families.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Suitable and Efficient

Having seen the writing on the wall for the CSF Bill, the government fired up a plan B, in the form of a consultation into what constitutes a suitable education. There is currently no definition in law, but courts have indicated that education is deemed to be “efficient” if it achieves what it sets out to achieve and “suitable” if it “equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life of the country as a whole, so long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so.”

I suspect that there is no good universal definition of "efficient", so the one that the judge used is likely to stick around. School is certainly not efficient when looked at on the basis of an individual child, who is likely to spend much of the time in class not being educated. So the government may need to tread carefully lest they come up with a definition that shows up their system in a bad light. It can be argued that they fail even this loose definition because school sets out to provide each child with five GCSE passes including English and Maths and most definitely does not achieve that. So, planks and splinters, perhaps the state needs to get its own house in order first.

This leaves us with "suitable". Once again, for school this can probably be expressed in terms of government targets, because that is how they think. Five GCSEs at A-C and half of children going on to university where they can build up huge debts while gaining devalued or worthless degrees.

However, many home educators reject those targets, or at least prefer to place them in a wider context. The government position is simple: it considers academic achievement to be the only metric, forever stressing how many children have achieved their targets. Home educators tend to be more focused on the overall quality of life, which is much harder to assess and is definitely not amenable to a simple tick-box approach. The government introduced its Every Child Matters programme, but this seems to be a bit of an afterthought, and certainly doesn't appear to apply much in some schools. It is very much a product of the nanny state, trying to remove common sense and replace it with a set of rules. "You will enjoy yourselves and you will do it like this."

Anyway, back to "suitable". This is a very individual metric. Bill Gates decided that he didn't need a university degree, and given his career, one can argue with him. Alan Sugar and Richard Branson gained much of their education in the school of life and have been very successful. Yes, these are three extreme examples, but they are part of a spectrum of people who succeeded with a wide range of educational achievements at 16. Looking the other way, there are doubtless people with good university degrees who are unsuccessful, and more who achieved the magic five GCSEs. For whatever reason, academic achievement failed to equip them for their situation.

This is where home education scores more highly, because by the nature of it, children are expose to the world and are actively encouraged to pursue their ideas, often to the short-term exclusion of all else. Here's another term: "balanced curriculum". This is a very misleading thing, which the government defines as advancing equally in all subjects each year. Why does this have to happen for an education to be suitable? In the limit, a child could learn one subject per year with a GCSE at the end for eleven years and come out at the end of compulsory school with eleven passes. However, a snapshot at age eight would see that child as lacking in certain areas despite the three or four exam passes. In practice there has to be overlap between subjects because basics such as maths and English will find their way into other areas of life and no one subject is an island, so it is inevitable that advancement is required along a broad front.

To follow this overlap thread a bit further, ask why we have to have arbitrary boundaries of subjects? The sciences are all inter-related, and maths features in all of them. A child studying chemistry will be exposed to aspects of physics and biology and will use maths as a tool. An interest in volcanoes can be expanded to include history - dealing with effects of volcanic action, geography - pinpointing locations of volcanic activity, geology - discovering rock types and plate tectonics, and more. Astronomy can be handled in a similar manner, plenty of rich history with religion and the centre of the universe, a bit of maths and physics to explain the motion of bodies, etc.

So what is "suitable"? To go back to that judicial definition, it pretty much hits the spot. A child who has, by adulthood, mastered enough skills to see him through the next stages of his life, but is also equipped to learn new ones as the need arises, meets that definition perfectly. For each child the skill set will be different according to interests and upbringing, but that is because we are not cookie-cutter clones to be assessed with a standard set of tick boxes.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Full-Time Education

The regulations regarding home education are vague on the subject of full-time, but acknowledge that it doesn't have to match a school day. However, what is a full-time education? Certainly not the five hours a child spends in class each day at school. That's full-time attendance at school, but most people would agree that it doesn't equate to five hours of education. The actual useful education received during that time will vary by child, depending on many factors such as the child's interest in the subject matter, the teacher, other children, etc.

So let's look at an hour-long lesson in a school where children don't just remain in the same room all the time. Some time will be lost at the start of the lesson as children arrive from their previous class, possibly at slightly different times depending on how far they had to walk from the previous class and when they were released from that class. So the first five minutes are for settling down. The teacher will introduce the day's activities, possibly with a recap of the previous lesson, which takes another five minutes. Then we come to where the real education starts, the subject matter for the day. Typically there will be a mix of verbal explanation and visual aids, followed by the children doing their own work on the day's topic. At some point the children will complete the exercise, there will be time spent collecting and setting homework and the children will be packing up ready to leave for the next lesson. So in that hour, there could be as little as fifteen minutes of useful education.

This suggests that school is about 25% efficient, so that five hours of sitting in a classroom yields about one and a quarter hours of education for a typical child. The bright ones will no doubt receive less, and the less able will receive more. As regards on-on-one time, with thirty children in a class they can have no more than two minutes on average of the teacher's time in that hour. Then we come to school terms, which limit the official education to about forty weeks a year, which is 1,000 hours in the classroom and 250 hours of education.

Now, home educators don't really take long breaks because educating at home takes place at all times and even when on holiday there are opportunities for education. So, 250 hours in 365 days (yes, we educate at weekends too) is about 41 minutes of education a day to match the effective full-time education offered by state schools. Want a day off? Easy, just spend a bit longer each day for the next couple of days and the time is made up.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

So What Comes Next?

So the CSF Bill is nearly dead. There's an outside chance that if Gordon Brown hung on for a 3rd June election it could scrape through, but that's not likely. So we can assume that home educators have won this battle and can look forward.

There is undoubtedly more to come, whoever wins the election. If it's Labour, or they are at least in charge of education, we will have to deal with Schedule 1 again, and soon, which may mean concentrating on the Lords to get them to amend it to tone it down. We would be unlikely to be able to do much in the short term (i.e. the next Parliament) if this happens.

If the LibDems have any say then they will be pushing for their notification scheme, although they may be on our side for the rest.

If the Conservatives are running education then we still have to be careful. They are on our side in getting rid of the CSF Bill because they don't really want to be stuck with implementing it, but at some point after the election they will turn their attention to us as part of whatever they do on education.

It is therefore important to keep working hard to convince them to leave us alone and make it clear that we will fight them as hard as we fought Ed Balls if we don't like what they propose, and it is important that we consider carefully the effects on all aspects of HE before agreeing with them. We are indeed a diverse group, but united really well to fight the current battle, but we must be careful that the unity is not shattered by the government picking off particular groups with bribes and leaving others less well off

We also need to be mindful of what happens in five years time. What may seem a good idea with a benign and friendly government who are willing to provide support and facilities for minimal sacrifice on our part may let whoever wins in 2014/5 cut all of that as expensive and be left with a helpful database containing everything we've tried to avoid them getting this time. Government is very Jekyll and Hyde by its nature.

To follow up on an analogy I used elsewhere, we're in the castle and they're trying to get in. At the moment we're doing OK, we've repelled them from the walls and they didn't have time to assemble catapults or a ram. However, the next Parliament will have plenty of time to breach the walls. If that looks likely, then we need to be ready with the boiling oil and rocks to drop, and know in advance whether we can make an effort and divert them in a direction we prefer. Obviously we'd prefer them to be outside, but once in, what happens next?

I have my own personal list for when just saying NO is no longer going to work, and high on it are demands that we can also shout from the castle walls if a breach is imminent. These are on such matters as LA behaviour, qualification of inspectors, what they think they are inspecting, etc. I am reluctant to put forward my ideas because I am aware that they would not be acceptable to some, I don't want to make government think that even I would be happy with them and I'm mindful that Mr Hyde may turn up shortly so any ground given may later be used against us. The best we can do is attempt to make them pay a high price for any concessions we are forced to give.

It is a great shame that we have come to this - I blame Ed Balls and his department for destroying trust and for mindlessly parroting their balance of rights speech over and over again. Whether it was deliberate or not, home educators are going to be very reluctant to engage with the government for a long time. We are a minority, we are not understood by many people who also fail to realise the full implications of what they so blithely post in newspaper comment sections, we were doing a good job before all this started - certainly better than the government is doing with schools and we would just like to be left alone to continue doing that job.

So my message to whoever is in office after the election is this: Leave us alone, we've managed for many years with no support or assistance and we don't like all those nasty strings on what you're offering. Go and sort out schools and when you've managed to get bullying and abuse down to our levels, pupil satisfaction and happiness up to our levels and academic achievement up to even your target levels, then perhaps you will be better qualified to understand why we home educate and how it works. Then we might be ready to talk to you.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Today we went to the Cambridge Science Festival. Last year we spent an entire day looking at biology stuff, largely on the back of C's interest in such things when we were in the US. This time I was keen to try chemistry. Suggestions that he might like it have been ignored up to now, so the idea was to dangle it in front of him and see whether he liked it.

We got kitted out with white lab coats and safety goggles for the first bit, and had a play with coloured slime. The slime was quite simple - PVA glue, a bit of food colouring, mix well in a ziplock bag and then add some 4% borax solution. It sets to a workable slime.

Next was the crazy chemistry section, where we started with a simple volcano using sodium bicarbonate and and vinegar. There was a slightly different type of volcano on an adjacent bench, made with water, washing-up liquid, mix well in a conical flask and throw in some dry ice. C discovered that he could make a column of soap bubbles almost as high as he could reach before the weight of the water overcame the surface tension and it collapsed. Other experiments of interest were the salt and vinegar cleaning copper coins, zinc-plating twopence pieces and some fun stuff with catalysts. C also got to melt a polystyrene cup in acetone.

We gave back the lab coats and glasses and headed for safer areas. A bit of crystal growth, plus looking at some impressively-large crystals and some really small ones under a microscope. Then another fun bit - a bunch of students with vats of liquid nitrogen, so C got to smash a daffodil and observe bananas, apples and carrots meet the same fate. Other fun was had by immersing balloons into liquid nitrogen, whereupon they would be almost deflated when removed and would re-inflate to full size as they warmed up. I assume that the gas in the balloons had condensed to liquid to make them shrink that much.

C put together a model of a menthol molecule, then we had a break for a drink and some biscuits, followed by more liquid nitrogen fun, making ice cream.

Then it was pretty much closing time - where did the time go?

The final comment is that yes, he appears hooked on chemistry, so we stopped off in a bookshop and have acquired a suitable book to start working from. Now if only we could get a proper chemistry set, as seen back in the 70s with real chemicals in it.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

To respond more fully to the points raised by Baroness Deech, here are a few notes.

The scheme proposed by the Bill requires registration in a form to be defined, providing information that has yet to be defined, and followed by monitoring in a form to be defined, and the requirement to submit in advance a plan for the following year, again in a format to be defined. Any disagreement with the opinion of the local authority inspector is via an appeals procedure which is yet to be defined. It appears that the government have not thought this through very far, and have left themselves plenty of provision to make the requirements very onerous indeed. If we are to have a light-touch scheme then why isn't that explicitly defined in the Bill? Surely that's what it's there for and to leave everything to secondary legislation that does not appear to require Parliamentary scrutiny does not inspire confidence. To me, light-touch would at most be providing them with the name of a child and the address at which the child lives. As child benefit is pretty universal in England, the government actually has all this information anyway, so why a whole new bureaucratic structure to collect it again?

On the subject of being representative, many organisations that receive unsolicted complaints usually consider that for every person that does complain, there are at least ten more who didn't. The consultation on the home education proposals received over five thousand responses, compared to a DCSF average of less than a hundred, based on a quick scan through their website. Ninety-five percent of those responses were opposed to the government proposals, which was translated by Ed Balls as a majority in favour. It seems that the Baroness learned her maths at the same school.

On the subject of rights of the child, I would put it to her that she is ignoring the rights of the huge majority of children. It is all very well to ask home educated children whether they would prefer to go to school, and indeed many of us do make it clear to our children that should they wish to attend school, they are free to do so. However, no one asks schoolchildren whether they would prefer to be educated otherwise than at school, so there is an implicit bias in the approach. If the rights of the child are so important, why are they not mentioned anywhere in the home education section of the Bill? The only language there is for the benefit of the authority, not the child. Attempts to amend this oversight failed in the Commons committee stage, so we assume that the government does not consider the rights of home educated children to be that important, unlike the parents.

Mention of the UNCRC has largely ignored the section which requires states to respect that the parents have primary duty with regard to the child. Indeed, state involvement in child care in the UK fails many and is best avoided except in very few cases, and even then, the state continues to fail even with all the evidence presented and recorded.

Home education does not have minimum hours because it takes place on a continuous spectrum, where children are learning all the time as opportunity presents. Indeed, at the APPG meeting where the Baroness appears to have finally closed her mind to the good of home education, my son was sat on a bench quietly doing arithmetic exercises while the adults were discussing his future. This was after having spent time in Parliament, watching debate in the Commons and noting other points of interest that can be used to cover history in the coming months. School children spend up to twenty-five hours a week in class, but probably have about five hours of
useful instruction in that time, with the rest being taken up with the start and end of classes, disruption from other pupils, not understanding the task and so sitting idle (or disrupting the class) waiting for attention from the teacher, or having finished the exercise early and waiting for the end of class.

It is possible to get into Cambridge, having been home educated, so even top universities recognise that home education works. Indeed, given the way many home educated children are taught to think for themselves and find out information on subjects they wish to learn, they are probably better equipped for university life than many schoolchildren, who will have been taught how to pass tests, often by rote and with no deeper understanding of the subject. Universities often complain about this problem.

On the subject of the ECHR and Germany, the ban dates back to the Nazi era where it was considered desirable that all children should receive state indoctrination. Modern Germany obviously prefers to maintain conformance to a state ideal, whereas British history values independence of thought, even when that independence is under attack, as now.

The Baroness has a misunderstanding of autonomous education. It does not involve absense of teaching, it merely directs that teaching to subjects in which the child has expressed an interest. So a child wishing to learn physics will receive assistance from a parent or, if the parent feels it is necessary, from another person. The same is true of any subject, and often different families will have lessons in a small group to pool resources. The important point which the Baroness has failed to grasp is that we are teaching our children how to learn, a skill that is sadly not on the National Curriculum and has sadly died a death in schools, smothered by paperwork. If a child knows how to learn then he is equipped for anything that the future may throw his way because he has the tools to adapt to his situation.

As for contempt for the state, I doubt very much if this is restricted to the middle classes. It probably shows more because they have more confidence and resources to fight back against state intrusion, but many children are successfully educated at home by working-class families and indeed, research elsewhere has shown that these children are likely to do better than their school-attending peers. No, the real issue with the state is that it has attacked us as a group with misleading and inaccurate statements, flawed research that rejects evidence that did not support its conclusions, has failed to listen to the huge level of objection to the subsequent proposals and patronisingly repeats the same platitudes whenever challenged. Is it any wonder that home educators currently have a low opinion of the state and will remember how bad it can be for many years to come?

Once again the Baroness is worried about forced marriages. This is a total red herring, because many children go abroad on holiday and it is trivial for a family wishing to force a child into marriage to take that child overseas at the start of the summer holiday and by the time school restarts, it will be too late to do much. Even Graham Badman found no evidence of home education being used as cover for forced marriages.

The NSPCC is out of touch with current law, which is surprising. Social workers do have powers to gain access to children considered to be at risk. However, many schoolchildren suffer abuse and are not picked up even by adults who see them regularly in the classrooms. It is notable that social workers themselves do not want to have routine access as called for by the NSPCC because it lays them open to accusations of abuse or of asking leading questions of a child. There have already been too many cases of adults in positions of power abusing those positions and it is not surprising that parents are reluctant to allow hostile strangers such access to their children.

Habeus Corpus. What a good idea, especially when the government in the recent past has wanted to detain suspects for ninety days without trial. Let's have some evidence first. Most home educated children are out and about a lot, seeing other families, going on visits to places such as libraries and museums and yes, going to the supermarket. They are not confined to a room with thirty other people for five hours a day and are not hidden. Any who were hidden to avoid authorities would remain so with their parents not bothering to register them.

On the subject of visits, yes it would be expensive to visit three or four times a year. The level of resources required, and the reduction in services to other children would put far more at risk than could possibly be saved. Two weeks notice is the minimum required - it is common for families to go on holidays of that duration, so extra bureaucracy and stress would be created if a single week's notice was given that arrived just after a family had commenced such a holiday, because the inspector would turn up to an empty house the following week. it is also important
that inpsections be fitted in around normal learning, so that the child does not miss out on an activity that was already arranged for the day.

As for presenting work, the Baroness is assuming that there is work to present in a particular form. She has already expressed her dislike of autonomous education, but it is a popular approach with many children and so she would need to guarantee that inspectors are properly trained to understand and assess progress fairly and competently. Current evidence from around the country shows significant variation in the approach of local authorities and individual inspectors and we object to having such people in a position of power over us.

I am somewhat horrified by the attitude of the Baroness to force children back to school while an appeal is in progress. What happened to the rights of the child that she was espousing earlier in her speech?

Lords Second Reading

Watching the second reading of the CSF Bill in the Lords, I was heartened by the fact that many Lords were expressing reservations about the home education provision. We will undoubtedly have unfinished business with them during the next Parliament because several consider that something must change. However, they seemed to understand our concerns and will hopefully be open to an informed debate.

However, Baroness Deech gets a special mention. She produced an amazing outburst of bile and vitriol against home educators. She expressed several opinions that were totally irrelevant to home education, including a concern about forced marriages, which can happen to any child, regardless of educational status. She has managed to demonstrate all the reasons why home educators do not wish to engage with government, with a very statist and totalitarian viewpoint wanting us to be inspected four times a year and under a very tight regime of how we could educate our children. She has totally missed the point of why we opt out of the state system and has proposed to penalise us even more for doing so. I think she's our new poster child(!) highlighting why we don't want state interference because she represents all that is bad about state control.

It is notable that they are all of the opinion that change is coming, and it is up to us to drive that change and make sure that whatever surfaces next is acceptable to all of us.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Education is a Journey

It's well known that education doesn't stop when you leave school or university. I know that several things that I found boring at school have become interesting to me over the years, such as history. Of course, there are others that I hated at school and have yet to really overcome the dislike despite the passage of many years, but that's probably just as well because I haven't got time for them at the moment.

While this is primarily about C's education, I find that my experiences over the past year are not what I would have expected had you asked me back in March 2009.

Then Badman hit the fan. In common with a lot of the home education community, I was horrified, and started my media career that week by means of a radio interview with the local radio station. I've always been low-profile, so it was novel to put myself up for such a thing. It was only afterwards that I remembered that the presenter was a former teacher.

Since then there have been other things - I didn't go to the picnic, but because I'd sent in an email to the radio station that morning wishing luck to those who were going, I got contacted and ended up arranging for them to interview someone from the area who did go, having found her contact details, called, passed on the radio station's number, called them back to say she'd contact them when in a better place. I hate making phone calls, but I managed it.

Then there was the select committee inquiry. I put something into that at the eleventh hour, sitting in a hotel room in Hawaii, and the consultation. I managed to organise a meeting between some locals and our MP, and conveniently passed over some petition signatures. Watching the select committee interviewing witnesses courtesy of Parliament TV.

Then it was onto the Bill itself, and I saw the draconian section on home education that had nothing to do with the best interests of the child and everything to do with bureaucracy and making people obey or else. I've learned an awful lot about how Parliament works, and how the reality is often far removed from what we'd like it to be. Vigorous debate, followed by slavish obedience to the party line regardless of evidence and concerns. MPs voting despite not having heard a word of what was said in the chamber, delegating their thought processes to the whips.

Somewhere in there I had a go at working through the Bill and writing up amendments. They were a bit cautious wanting to disarm the worst of the proposals rather than propose anything new because I know that what's OK with me may not be with others. Having seen what MPs submitted, I could have been a lot more radical about ripping the guts out of Schedule 1. I guess there's the opportunity of the Lords for that.

I volunteered the family to be filmed by the BBC. It was an interesting experience, seeing how a programme is put together from the inside. C enjoyed being on TV and the cats showed how creative they could be at disrupting interviews. It also gave me an idea for a scrutiny committee submission, which was duly submitted almost at the deadline. It turned out to be useful because it provided Graham Stuart with some of the material for his piece in committee on the last day.

We've just had the Khyra Ishaq media blitz, and I was listening to Badman and then Ann Newstead on BBC Radio WM via iPlayer. I overcame my dislike of telephones and called in and got to say my piece on-air.

Now we're engaging with the Lords, and need to get enough of them interested in debating the Bill to hold it up until Gordon Brown gathers enough bottle to go and see the Queen.

I look back over the past year and there seems to be a lot of distance covered between then and now. I'm sure that many other home educators have made similar journeys in knowledge and achievements as we all pull together to get this awful legislation thrown out.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Dealing with the Lords

So the CSF Bill has reached the Lords. It had its first reading on 24th February, the day after it cleared the Commons with great chunks of the Bill left unscrutinised. The second reading is on 8th March. Given the unseemly haste, which smacks of desperation, I fully expect the government to push for the committee stage to start on the 22nd, that being the earliest possible date under the normal Lords operating procedures.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Home Education is holding a meeting and inviting peers along to learn more about the subject. It is clear from postings by some members of the Lords that they hold many of the same misconceptions and misunderstandings as everyone else and the hard work that home educators did in educating MPs and some media people is going to have to be done again.

The bad publicity and falsehoods paraded after the Khyra Ishaq case might have made the job a bit harder, because we now also need to demonstrate that the assertions of Ed Balls and the BBC are false and would probably make things worse. As such, I'm going to try and turn the tables and argue that because hard cases make bad laws, now is actually a very bad time to be discussing regulation of home education because of all the media hype, the lack of time for proper scrutiny of the legislation, poor LA performance and anything else. Such important legislation should be considered away from hype and knee-jerk reactions, so if anything, the Lords ought to either delay the committee stages or agree to remove the home education clauses from the Bill so that they may be properly considered later.

Of course, this does set us up for 'later', but given the raised profile over the past year, it is likely that we'd get stuck with that anyway. If Labour win then we're all screwed anyway, because we'll get exactly the same stuff pushed at us, but hopefully the Conservatives and LibDems now know that this is a hornets' nest to be approached with extreme caution.

So, in response to the Something Must Be Done lobby, I propose to counter with But Now Is Not The Right Time!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Reading and trust

When we first looked into home education, I read a lot of books. The first one I read was The Unschooling Handbook, by Mary Griffith. I was doubtful. In it, she suggested that children were naturally curious and would want to learn things if left to wonder. I used to be a child. I remember! There is no way I would have spontaneously approached adults with my questions, my curiosities, my ponderings. With so much on the line, how could I trust my child to do it when I could not? I set that book aside and read others. Books about how to structure a day. Books about how to plan a curriculum. There were books by John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. Eye opening. By the time I got to the bottom of the stack, I realized that if we didn't put C into school, he wouldn't lose his curiosity. And he didn't. Unschooling was the method that made the very most sense for our little child, then only 2.75 years old.

We sent him to playgroup, having visited half a dozen. Having seen the ones with time out in a different room, the ones where the workers talked about the children as if they weren't there, the ones with shouty cross adults, I finally chose one for C which was run by adults who talked to the children like people and helped them work out their problems rather than punishing them without concern for their feelings. It was nice for C to be able to go play along side other kids, since that's what they do at that age.

The problem came in the second year. The children, then four or nearly four, were going to have sessions separate from the younger kids. The bigger ones were going to start learning to read because the schools wanted them to. Phonics. C hated phonics. And by hated, I mean if I mentioned letter sounds at all he would cover his ears, scream, and leave the room. Literally. It was spectacular. This child did not want to be taught to read, at least not with phonics. He turned out to be a whole word man. What made sense to him was to memorize every word in the English language, one at a time.

I have to say, I see the sense of it. Is there a single letter in English which always makes the same sound? There are more exceptions to the rules than there are adherents to the rules. It's a lot of work, but it's his way.

I told playgroup that if he was at all stressed by the teaching of phonics, I would pull him out of those sessions. What sense is there in stressing a little child over letter sounds? Fortunately, all went well. He got the special job of telling the other children the letter NAMES each time. A lot of the other little kids knew letters aah, buh, and cuh, but had never heard of A, B, and C. Our C got to be the one to enlighten them. And he learned the letter sounds, but he wouldn't let anyone talk to him about them or ask him questions about them. Totally off limits.

If he had gone to school the next year, he would have been made to learn to read, and he would have been made to learn to use phonics. It was the only way the schools were approved to teach them. We would have had a little boy who possibly could read at the age of five, but who would have no love of it. It would have highlighted what he wasn't ready for. It would have made him behind, slow, and in need of special help. It would have hurt his soul.

In the mean time, he had loads of questions. Loads. We learned science, math, and I read to him a lot. He loved books, and he wanted to read, but he flat out refused to be taught to read. He got his hands on a calculator and asked what the square root symbol was. I told him it was square roots. Not good enough. He wanted to learn more. He wanted a real answer. So I sat down with paper and pencil and explained it to him. He understood. He could explain it back to me, and to others. In time he forgot, but then he asked again, and I explained it again, and I threw in squares as well. He absorbed it much more easily than the first time.

I didn't really need my (then) five year old to know square roots. What I did need him to know is that I take his curiosity seriously. I need him to know that if I don't have an answer I'll find one, or I will find someone who can explain it.

In the mean time, he still did not want to be taught to read. He had questions about where babies come from, which is natural since he quite recently was one. We read books, and he got really interested in cells and cell division. I found a way for him to learn some immunology, which he absorbed greedily. He learned some physics and chemistry, and some other biology.

I started to get nervous about the reading thing. He was getting to be six, then seven. Yes, I know that the Scandanavian countries which start their kids reading at seven or eight have the best adult literacy, but this trusting your kids to want to learn business can take nerves of steel, and mine were faltering.

I tried to be sneaky and teach him little bits. In the car he would see signs and ask what they said. I told him that as driver I couldn't look, but if he could read me the letters, I would tell him what it said. So we did a lot of that. I was thinking it would all go into his brain and help the concept of reading gel a bit.

What finally got him reading was electronic games. He wanted to know what the instructions said. We'd read some, but he might have to wait for someone to help him. I'm not sure exactly when it was, but some time in that year he was seven, he just started reading things to us. He taught himself to read the same way he learned to speak, just by listening to other people doing it. He makes some mistakes because he still likes the whole word method, but now at eight he will accept some help. I tell him that English is actually really tricky, and that sometimes you just need to be told things about words and how they're said. He takes it in.

But he reads. We let him take his own path, and he got to about the place schools would have wanted him to be by now, but without making him feel bad about having his own time for learning it. We trusted him, and it paid off. When they want to know you can't stop them. Not unless you teach them that what they want doesn't matter.

And he still understands squares and square roots. I asked him to explain them to someone just the other day, and he got it right.

Monday, 22 February 2010

So tired of the socialisation question

So, seriously. I don't get it. How does school make kids social? It surrounds them with a bunch of kids about their age. It tells them what to do and when to do it. It tells them when they can be social and when they cannot.

We hear a lot about how home educated children are not socialised. It's the main point most people want to make when the topic comes up. They won't have friends! Poor children! They won't know how to make friends or be with other kids or any of that essential life stuff.

A few weeks ago, C and I went to the dentist. We were new patients at that practice, so we went early to fill in paperwork. Armed with forms and a pen, we went to the waiting room. I sat at the table to do the writing. C nearly sat next to me, but asked if he could go sit over there. On the couch next to two waiting children. A boy of about 11 and a girl, probably 7, both in school uniforms. C is drawn to children. They have a lot in common: Childhood. I said it was fine with me if it was fine with them.

So he went over and politely asked permission to join them. They shrugged and grunted okay. He sat and showed the kids his DS Lite, pointing out that it actually does have a microphone, just like a DSi does, so you can do games that want speech. Cool, eh? There was a nature DVD on about reptiles, and C commented on interesting things. The older boy picked up a magazine and occasionally glanced over at C with an uh-huh.

Eventually the boy was called in to see the dentist. C slid over and asked the girl if she'd like to see his game. She shrugged and looked down. Over the next 10 or 15 minutes, she started warming up, getting closer to C and carefully observing everything he did. His game. His getting a cup of water. His cleaning up his spilled water. By the time she was called out, they were sitting an inch apart, heads together, sharing attention on his game. She never said a word.

So which child was "properly socialised"? Mine was friendly and outgoing, but clearly wasn't put off by the disinterest of the school kids. He ignored social signals, so I suppose we could argue that he's missed out on some social training. At 8, does he need that particular training? But what about the other kids who wouldn't engage with him? All right, the boy was older, and might not want to talk to younger kids, but the girl was age-appropriate, and seemed interested, but had no idea what to do about it. She was afraid to talk to C. She couldn't accept friendliness.

It's entirely possible that the girl was just naturally like that, and would be like that in school or out. And that C is just naturally like that, in school or out. And if that's the case, home education has nothing to do with it. Moot point, can we drop it now, please? No, it seems we can't. It always comes up. Always. Evidence changes nothing.

C was also very friendly with the dentist, and asked a thousand questions about how things work. I was very pleased that she answered him and thought his interest was great.

Today we returned to the dentist for a quick repair to my work done last week. When we were called upstairs, C asked the assistant if he could please bring the display book on teeth with him as he didn't want to stop reading it. Asking permission sounds very social to me. Afterward, he returned the book to the waiting room, but on his way noticed a second staircase. He asked me where it went. No idea. He asked me if he could ask someone who works there. Yes, but they might not tell you. So he went to the receptionist on his own. He asked politely and got a polite answer.

C found some foreign currency from a recent holiday. I'd told him we could change it for him, or he could go to the Post Office and do it himself. He chose the Post Office. He walked up to the counter (I was behind him, just in case), and told the woman he would like to change US dollars for British pounds. He was told the value he'd get, and he accepted it. Able to conduct his own transactions sounds very social to me.

So we have a boy who makes friends easily, isn't afraid to ask questions of people he knows have the answers, will talk to children just because they are children, and can conduct his own business. Honestly, what was school supposed to give him that he didn't get anyway?

All right. That's all sort of rambling. Bottom line: Some kids are just not social no matter where they are. Some kids are social and go to school and follow school rules. Some kids are social and don't go to school. It's not the same thing, but why is anyone assuming that school social is superior to unschool social?