Transcript: the Radio 5 Live home education debate.
Julian Worricker (JW), presenting the show,
Tony Mooney (TM), a 'home education inspector',
Fiona Nicholson (FN), a home educating parent,
Theo Nicholson (TN), Fiona's fourteen year old son,
Ayesha Hazarika (AH), a political commentator and comedian who appears to have been invited on the show to discuss Cherie Blair,
and Nick Watt (NW), political editor of the Observer, who was also there originally to discuss Cherie Blair.
It was unclear why these last two people were included in the debate, because it transpired they both knew even less about home education than Tony Mooney and the result was a rather shameful 'ganging-up' by those four (Tony Mooney, Julian Worriker, Ayesha Hazarika and Nick Watt) on Fiona and Theo, who were stuck in the Sheffield studio away from the four people in London. What doesn't come across in the transcript is the issues with sound engineering, which meant that Fiona and Theo's interjections were often drowned out by the London studio voices.
Here is my transcript of the discussion anyway:
JW: A record number of children are now being educated at home, but concerns are being raised by some officials that some of those being home-schooled are doing little or no work, as parents use it as a front for truancy. A recent government study suggested that 16,000 children are being home educated, that’s three times as many as eight years ago. So is home education simply becoming an excuse for some children to slack off? Well to discuss this, Tony Mooney is here, who is a home education inspector. Tony, good morning. Erm, and Fiona Nicholson is a home educating parent and a Sheffield representative of Education Otherwise and her son Theo is with her..
JW: as well. Erm. Fiona, Theo. Good morning to both of you.
TN & FN: Good morning.
JW: Now, we’ve had quite a lot of correspondence about this already from people just knowing that we were going to talk about it so it’s clearly a burning issue for some. Tony, explain what the rules are at the moment.
TM: The rules are that first of all, if you’ve got a child and it gets to the age of five, and you don’t want to send it to school then that’s it. Nobody can do anything about you. If you send the child to school and then get the child out of school to educate at home then you’ve got to report it to the head teacher and the governing body. Unfortunately the rules are very very slack with regard to home education. First of all, I don’t have the right to see the child or to go to the home. I don’t really have the right to see work that the child’s doing. It’s very difficult. About 80% of the parents don’t cause me any problems. I do go to homes and see the children. But what I’m seeing is a standard of education which I think would be laughed at in schools but as far as the law is concerned it’s adequate for home education.
JW: You say you don’t have the right to do that list of things. Erm, what do you have the right to do at the moment?
TM: Well, when I see the child I talk to the child about the work they're doing and write a report, which I’ve got to do. But if the parent so wishes they can just give me a timetable of what they’ve been doing, present some work.. and I don’t even know if they present the work that.. if the child has been doing it! But most parents do toe the line with me and let me go in and talk to the child and themselves.
JW: OK, Let’s hear Fiona and Theo’s story and then I know they’ve got issues with some of the things you’re saying and vice versa no doubt. Fiona, before we get into the issues, tell us a bit about your decision erm and obviously we’ll talk to Theo as well but why did you decide, I think from the word go, that Theo should be taught at home?
FN: Er yes, I decided that Theo wasn’t going to school. He has never been to school or to nursery. It was a decision I made based on being with Theo all the time thinking that he wouldn’t fit into the system and I just wanted to deliver far more er.. cliché.. personalised learning, at home.
JW: Right. And is it a decision that you have ever regretted?
FN: No. Not for a second.
JW: And how do you go about..?
FN: And this was in 1993, I decided when he was born and he is now 14.
JW: Right. How do you go about structuring a typical day, a typical week, for him?
FN: There isn’t a typical day or a typical week because I facilitate all his learning and I support him in anything he wants to do and I introduce new educational opportunities for him. I make a lot of resources available. We discuss everything very exhaustively, so, you know, I couldn’t possibly give you a typical day – even a typical hour. Except it would probably involve a lot of talking.
JW: Right. Theo, how do you feel about all that?
TN: Oh it’s pretty cool it, like, works. I know stuff and, like, I’m learning.. things.. erm. It seems.. yes, it works pretty well. I’ve not felt disadvantaged or anything like that.
JW: But what about the standard assumption that you miss out on the fact that you’re not in a classroom with lots of other kids of the same age..
FN: Yeah, he certainly misses out on that..
JW: .. mixing with, learning to mix with them and all that. Is that not something you feel that you’re missing out on?
TN: No Not really. I mean there’s like groups of like people that I socialise with but it’s not really my scene in all. It’s not like I’m missing out on socialising if I wanted to.
JW: And are there things that you’re worried that you’re not learning that you ought to be learning because you’re at home rather than in a slightly more structured school environment?
TN: No because I know I could just like go and find stuff out if I was inclined to so I don’t really feel like I couldn’t learn stuff if I wanted to.
JW: And what about exams? Are you taking exams in the near future?
TN: Erm, we’ve not decided yet, but we’ve got it set up so that I could if I wanted to.
FN: He’s not going to do GCSEs. If he wanted he could go to college at level 3 at 16 without GCSE.
JW: Was that a joint decision that you’ve taken, Fiona, with Theo?
FN: Er, yes. With Theo and with his father.
JW: Right. Cos there comes a point, doesn’t there, and this I think is where the doubt lies, that whether you like it or not there’s a system in place in this country that says if you take this exam you get this far or you do that or you do the next thing..
FN: GCSEs are being scrapped though.
JW: Yeah, ok, but there are other exams along the way. At some point if you don’t fit in, you might have to pay the penalty, is the point I’m getting at.
FN: Erm, sorry, I don’t really understand the point you’re getting at. If you can go to level 3 at college when you’re 16, if you can do Open University or university entrance on a level 3 qualification or on an interview and portfolio then why does the fact that you haven’t taken SATs at 7 and 11 disadvantage you? I’m not following.
JW: Tony, where do you stand on what you’ve heard from Fiona and Theo?
TM: Well, again, you’ve got someone who’s very articulate, obviously had a good education herself. The great majority of the children I see are not from that kind of background. They’re from working class estates. The parents have pulled..
FN: I live on a council estate.
TM: Right, but you’re very articulate. But they’re working class estates where the parents have had difficulty getting their children into school, or they’ve been bullied or things like that and they take them out as a last resort or a way of not being taken to court because of truancy.
FN: And so what support do you offer them at that point?
TM: Well this is the point. I’m not supposed to give any support at all, although I do..
FN: You could do what you weren’t supposed to if you wanted to though, couldn’t you?
TM: Oh yes. Yes, let me finish. I’m I’m I do give a lot of support.
FN: That’s great.
TM: I advise them on the books to buy, how to, especially the books which erm are self-help books which give the answers and how to do and approach the problems. But even so, the kind of families I’m dealing with most of the time, the support is not there. It may last for six months erm, but at secondary level the parents find it really difficult to sustain the teaching.
FN: I’m sorry, are you making a distinction between working class people and middle class people here?
TM: I’m not making a distinction at all, I’m telling you what I’m finding..
FN: What’s your shorthand for, you know, council estates and the kind of people who aren’t articulate? I don’t really understand what you’re saying..
TM: Well, what I’m saying is that the parents who are pulling them out have got no idea about educating at home. Not like you.
FN: And, and you help them?
TM: I try to give them as much help as I can.
JW: Fiona, it’s surely better. It’s surely better, if somebody does take the decision that you have that they are proven, under some sort of system, that they can actually handle it. That they can actually teach their child as effectively as that child surely deserves to be taught?
FN: Well I’d like to remove the word ‘teach’ because I think that children learn and that’s completely different from being taught, but yes, I agree that families who home educate should be given as much support as they want in order to make as effective a job as they need.
JW: Right. Let me put this email to you, Tony. Richard House writes: “Home education is burgeoning because families are voting with their feet and rejecting the appalling state of the testing-obsessed anxiety-saturated, mainstream system.” He has more to say, but that’s the crucial point that he wants to get across.
TM: I think the majority of people who take their child out of school don’t have that as a major issue. Erm.. Cer.. A few might, but not the majority that I visit.
JW: We’ve had several emails echoing that though.
TM: Well, you might be taking.. you might be taking a sample of people who want to get back in touch with it. A lot of the people that, that, that I go and visit won’t be listening to Radio 5 Live for a start. [Laughs]
JW: Well, that, that obviously we can’t test here and now. Erm, Ayesha and Nick are listening to this. Ayesha. Thoughts on what you’ve heard.
AH: Well it’s ver.. I mean.. [sigh] The.. I.. I guess my, just, my, my worry is, you know, how.. how do you know that your child is gonna be ok and how do you, you know from getting into uni..
FN: How does anybody ever know that?
AH: I’m sorry. Just let me finish. And er.. even with employers as well, I mean.. in a fiercely sort of competitive labour market now, you know, when employers are looking through people’s CVs.. their education is very important and if your kid’s up against someone who’s got straight As right throughout their kind of education history, and your child, you know, may be, you know, brilliant, erm, in many respects, but they’re, like, well.. I did, you know, me and my mum had great chats around the kitchen and I feel like a very rounded person. I think, you know, the the the child with the better education is probably going to get the job.
FN: Sorry, define education?
JW: Er, Nick, you, and then I’ll come back to you Fiona.
NW: I mean, I’m sure that, I’m sure that erm, well, you know, Fiona is doing what she thinks is right and Fiona sounds highly articulate and we, we obviously don’t know the circumstances there, but, I would just, I mean, agree with Ayesha that on, on two points really. We may not like the examination system. We may think it’s too controlled. We may think it’s too centralised, but at the end of the day if you don’t have exams you will not get such a good job in life and you will not be as successful as you could have been. That is just the reality. And the second point about schools is that it’s a really really important part of growing up, of socialising, of interacting with society. It’s not just about doing exams. It’s about learning to get on with boys, learning to get on with girls. Having rows, falling in love.. erm, that’s life.
JW: Fiona, deal with.. erm, an awful lot of points there, er.. heading, [laughs].. largely in your direction..
FN: Yeah. I’d just like to ask if people have seen the recent Nesta survey for people for 15-16 year olds staying, in the 21st century the UK needs to develop an economy based on creative skills, life skills, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, and that those are all identified by FTSE companies as a bigger skills shortage area than literacy or numeracy.
NW: And that’s why you need to develop those skills in school, with kids, with other kids. It’s called social interaction.
FN: And you develop those..?
TN: But if everybody goes to school and gets all exactly the same qualifications then what is to identify somebody who is more creative or whatever..
FN: And you socialise with your peers in school?
TN: .. if everybody’s just got the same exams, got them through the school system the same way, then employers are actually going to have to have something else to identify erm, them by.
FN: Yeah, you need something you mark you out.
AH: I mean, you're right, creativity is very important and creative industries are now one of the fastest parts, growing parts of the economy and erm, but underpinning all of that are very very kind of core educational skills like literacy and Numeracy and science projects. And I know many CEOs in FTSE.. er.. companies.. and, as well as the creative, and you’re right, the creativity and the softer skills are stuff that people are looking at for when er, but those core, core skills are still very very important to this country..
FN: Well, of course they are, of course they are.
JW: Erm, Tony. To you, finally. Erm. You’ve talked about the system we’ve, I think, generally acknowledged around the table that Fiona is not a problem here, it’s the wider picture that you are worried about. Do you think that is going to change?
TM: No I don’t. I think more people are going to pull their children out of school as well, erm, as the government gets tighter on truancy. But the government has got to really look at what’s going on. I think it’s lax. It’s got a, it’s got a policy of every child matters, based on the UN convention on the rights of the child which says we’ve got to secure the best outcome for all children and young people who are under 18. They’re turning a blind eye to what’s going on at home.
JW: Ok. We will have to leave it there, but thank you all very much for taking part. Thanks to Tony. Thanks to Fiona and Theo in our Sheffield studio as well. A huge amount of correspondence on that. 10:53.