Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Surely we all need standards to make sure we're making progress?"

"Surely, at school.. in the office.. we all need standards to make sure we’re making progress and the trouble with this conversation to some extent is that we’re hearing the stories of the parents who are doing the right thing, how do we make sure that we’re keeping tabs on those who aren’t doing the right things?"
- Julian Worricker, Radio 5 Live Report on Home Education

I think this is one of the main attitudes that underpin the controversy about home education. Julian Worricker used the word 'surely', almost as if the assumption that we all need standards goes without saying now.

The use, in our society, of standards and targets was brilliantly exposed in Part 2 of Adam Curtis's documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dreams of Freedom. Now, three or four decades after such systems were first mooted, developed and introduced, Mr Worricker's 'surely' assumption seems, tragically, to be shared by the population as a whole.

For the record, I certainly do not believe "we all need standards to make sure we’re making progress". To be human is to make progress. We can't help making progress - it's what we're designed to do.

Nobody needs to entice or encourage my 6-month old baby to roll over and to learn to support herself in a sitting position, (despite what some people might try to tell us,) - she just does it, of her own accord. Similarly Lyddie is learning to read and write, and do forward rolls, and roller-skate and draw pictures and navigate the Internet, all without standards, expectations, curricula and tests. She's just learning those skills because she wants to and because it's the right time, for her to personally do so.

If I tried to coerce or even encourage her to do these things, to comply with external standards or for any other reason, I think they'd start to feel like chores for her and she'd be much less keen on doing them.

The other main ill-thought-out assumption that came though in the piece was this, from Philip Parkin of the Professional Association of Teachers:

"I’m sure your children, Janey, do have an education, but what I’m worried about is the 20,000 or the 130,000 out there who we don’t know whether they’re having any kind of an education at all."

This highlights one of the main problems home educators have with the 'professionals' who concern themselves with us. How is Mr Parkin so sure that Janey's children are receiving what he calls an education, on the basis of this one short public radio interview? He presumably has nothing to go by other than her eloquence, her accent and the few snippets of information she gave in the programme. This is NOT enough information for anyone to decide whether a person's children are receiving 'an education', but presumably if she'd sounded a lot less intelligent and thoughtful, this crème-de-la-crème educationalist, and many others besides him, would jump to the instant and prejudiced conclusion that her children probably weren't "having any kind of an education at all."

The Tony Mooneys, Philip Parkins and many others of their ilk that we have to deal with, who think they're making judgements about us based on educational grounds, are actually not. They give themselves away all the time in conversation: they're making judgements on us based on prejudice alone, and it seems that many of them would like to have even more powers to do so.

This has nothing to do with childrens' learning! It's actually based on a subconscious desire, that many of society's natural 'policemen' seem to have, to ensure that everyone complies with the status quo. So people who are good at looking and sounding socially acceptable, like 'one of us', get the freedom to educate their own children and to say with confidence: this is what education looks like and yes, my child is doing this, without being challenged. And people who don't, don't. Pressure is put on them to return their children to school to be forced to comply. Regardless of how much or little the children in either situation are actually learning.

And if, having so remarkably quickly approved Janey's educational provision, Mr Parkin and his colleagues did succeed in tracking down and trying to evaluate "the 20,000 or the 130,000 out there who we don’t know whether they’re having any kind of an education at all," what information would they require to properly convince themselves that the education was 'suitable'?

The answer is this:

Families would be very quickly and unofficially divided into two groups - those who were deemed OK at a glance, based on location, income, marital status, accent, vocabulary and the number of books owned - and those who weren't. Those falling into the first category need only say: "My child is receiving a suitable education," and possibly wave some bit of paper and their word would be accepted. Those falling into the other category would never be believed, no matter how many hoops they jumped through. They could provide every piece of work the child ever compiled and it would never be considered to be good enough.

The thing is, the officials concerned will not admit, probably even to themselves, that they have these prejudices, much less that they act on them. But we hear it all the time: at a meeting with our Local Authority some years ago, some of us were also told:

"Yes we're sure your children's education is fine because you're obviously eloquent and you obviously care about your children, but some families are not fit to home educate and they're the ones we're concerned about."

When we pressed them into defining what kind of families weren't 'fit to home educate' we did eventually get the list: social housing, history of mental illness, single parenthood, no books... and we were able to counter it by describing people we knew about who fitted all those criteria and yet had successfully provided their children with a perfectly adequate home education. Since then we've heard of other (albeit rare) cases of families still being persecuted by them on the grounds of this kind of prejudice alone so even when you face them with the truth, they gulp, agree, and continue as before to some extent.

I suppose this is human nature, which is exactly why we have to limit the powers of officials regarding making judgments of this kind.

As the law currently says, unless there are significant, individual and specific reasons to act otherwise, all home-educating families should be left in peace.

19 Comments:

Blogger Dani said...

Thanks for this, Gill. It's a very clear and accurate account of this issue. When we tried to make similar points to officers at our LA recently, they expressed shock and surprise that we could even think such a thing about their staff. But every single family we know of who is having or has had a hard time at the hands of the LA falls into the 'other' category by virtue of their single parenthood, where they live or social background.

The draft guidelines even attempt to enshrine such an approach in the official word of the DfES. LAs are advised to use a "risk-based approach", taking into account the community circumstances of the family they are dealing with, and making sure they get specialist advice if that family happens to be from a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller background.

The specific mention of Travellers is shockingly racist, but even without that, the whole paragraph describes exactly the prejudice-based approach you are talking about here.

3:27 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Em said...

Gill I think you've summed it up just right. I really enjoyed reading it, and was nodding my head all the way through.

Quite how to counter such prejudice I don't know though.

3:56 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Tech said...

Yep, spot on. It's almost as if there is some LA training manual which states that you must try to divide and rule with the immortal line *we know you're alright, but it's the others...* Maybe we should start a collection of LA urban myths along the line of snopes.

4:18 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Ruth said...

"Yes we're sure your children's education is fine because you're obviously eloquent and you obviously care about your children, but some families are not fit to home educate and they're the ones we're concerned about."

I got this too:( The inspector even went as far as to say most families she went to had illiterate parents and, when pressed, admitted it was the families in the wrong locations she was talking about. Grrhh. However - to throw a spanner in sometimes it can be just plain old your face doesn't fit cos I have "the right adress", am eloquent and have books LOL but my L.A hates me.

"For the record, I certainly do not believe "we all need standards to make sure we’re making progress".

I think that they want us all to have the same standards. Progress, in their view, is not progress unless it corresponds to some criteria already decided by the ptb. I have found this with my boys. They are "behind" in the eyes of the LA. The LA can't see they have made progress cos they are "behind" their peer group. Their view is they need to "catch up."

However when did the idea we had to show progress creep in? I noticed it was on a letter I got from the LA thanking me for my report on my children's progress. I never mentioned progress. I only gave them evidence of education provided. I wonder if they are puttign the word in to make it the norm and so twist the law?

4:25 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Tech said...

Ah yes Ruth, function creep again :(

4:37 pm, July 10, 2007  
Anonymous Ginny said...

I’ve been thinking about this one a lot recently. I have friends who were home schooled, who are fantastically well-rounded people; and some went on either through university or other means to have really fulfilling careers. It does seem that there is very little practical or “on the job” training for anything these days, and to do almost anything requires some sort of college course. It does open up a huge divide between those who have natural academic ability and those with more practical and physical abilities.
But then my cousins, who were also home schooled, used their parents’ disagreement with the statutory education bodies to justify their own illegal activities (ie. Growing and supplying weed). In the area they lived in, most children went to school so the only children around for them to socialise with during school hours were those who had been excluded from school, who were not always the best influence. I’m sure they will eventually turn out okay, but recently things have been on a bit of a downward spiral.
I think, as parents, we have to try to find the education which is best for our children, rather than what we as parents think they should have. I was particularly impressed by Veronika Robinson’s recent decision to take her children to a suitable school when they asked to go, despite her strong belief in home schooling. Similarly, I have friends who have recently made the decision to take their child out of school, although this is going to hugely disrupt the parents working hours. I hope when the time comes I’ll be able to be objective enough to respond properly to my children’s educational needs, even if it’s not what I would choose for them.

5:16 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Elaine said...

It would be interesting if a 'hounded ' family were to quietly ask a local business if they could 'visit 'to see how the business was run and then 'mention' this visit to the LEA officials in an offhand way , and see what the reaction is.
I mention this because I just rang the hosp because they have JR's DLA forms and have not returned them so as the deadline is looming ...
anyway the DIETICIAN answered the phone and was digging I was gritting my teeth because I need the forms until she asked if 'home educators' had holidays I said ''no actually we have just had guests stay and on a field trip they spotted a young shark leading to Dr Rupert from blah coming out and telling them blah which led to JR and I being given a private tour yesterday..'' I would have gone on but she -through obviously gritted teeth- squeaked that she hoped we had a lovely summer blah.
It is not what the children know it is who they know , it seems

6:03 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Dani, yes the draft guidelines are racist in respect of Gypsy, Roam and Travellers aren't they? I keep coming back to that when trying to compile my response. And they do seem to sanction, if not encourage general prejudices too. The thing is, it's unfair to PREjudge us and impossible to properly and fairly judge us, so they should just stick to the current law and assume that if there are no reported problems, we're doing fine! Also the general rubbishing of parents across the board that's been going on recently hasn't helped. The perception of parents as being the group that has children's best interests at heart is being eroded - quite deliberately, IMO.

Em, I don't know either! There probably is no way to effectively counter it, but to bring it out into the open and accept that it exists helps I think.

Tech, yes it's very widespread isn't it? It's the 'We're sure you're ok' that gets me. I always want to shoot myself in the foot by saying, yes but HOW are you sure? I might not be!

Ruth, extremely well-put. And wow yes, 'progress' isn't in the Ed Act is it? ... is it? *Trying to remember..* Is it in case law? Oh, well if it was put before a judge or before parliament now they'd include it anyway, wouldn't they? :-(

Tech we're all being governed by something-creep now aren't we? Does my head in. They know that we know it's happening and they still do it! Shameless.

Ginny, yes. This:
"In the area they lived in, most children went to school so the only children around for them to socialise with during school hours were those who had been excluded from school, who were not always the best influence," is often a problem, isn't it? It's why I suspect the school and truancy problems - i.e. the education industry, before many children can actually get a fair deal.

Just a little job then...! ^^

6:03 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Elaine

"It would be interesting if a 'hounded ' family were to quietly ask a local business if they could 'visit 'to see how the business was run and then 'mention' this visit to the LEA officials in an offhand way , and see what the reaction is."

Yes, it'd be good to link up and measure/compare LA responses to activities in some way, wouldn't it? To maybe try to prove the prejudice? Not sure it's possible 'scientifically' though, sadly.

Ack, you're up against it right now aren't you :'-( xx

6:06 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

And LOL, spelling check:

How did Romany become Roam?

*Rolls eyes @ self some more*

6:08 pm, July 10, 2007  
Anonymous Bishop Hill said...

My reading of this is that you are on the receiving end of an attempt to divide and rule. It might start with the eloquent left in peace, but once it was found that only families on "the wrong side of the tracks" were being inspected, accusations of prejudice would fly and it would be deemed expedient to have all families regularly visited by the local Mooney.

8:51 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger HelenHaricot said...

ght about prejudice. I am sure that we would walk any kind of assessment because of what I do and my husband did for a living [unless some reverse prejudice comes in!] But secretly, we are not at all efficient!! though we are age and aptitude!! I think it is all some dreadful con to have any inspections at all. If I fail terribly at my childs provision, they can yell at me, berate me, adn then put it right. But why would I fail, why would any home-educator fail? we are all working with our child's aptitude and ability, whether autonomous or not, aiming to do the best we can by them accoridng to our motto. it should be good enough.
i am no good at word verification! SB is 'helping me'

8:54 pm, July 10, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi gill

"risk based " is awful and must go. to me, it's about social class.

"progress" isn't in any law about home education. it comes from value-added school assessment mentality. it's got to go !

plus any time the word "reasonable" appears I just know I am going to end up shouting NO NO NO at my computer...

love, fiona

11:48 pm, July 10, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Hi Bishop, yes indeed. There's maybe a brilliant mind or 3 in the vicinity of Westminster with half an eye on us from time to time, thinking: Throw enough mud and something will eventually stick somewhere or other. It's like a game of chess and we're slowly getting cornered in..

BUT there's a limit on the opponent's play-time before they all have to swap places. Or is there? Depends exactly who the opponent is, I guess.

I still maintain that we're allowed to continue doing what we do because we serve a few useful functions. We give actuality to the glossed-over 'parents' responsibility' in Section 7, and we produce a generation of real creative thinkers, which compulsory education struggles to do. Though obviously we're a potentially dangerous pet to keep - short leash and cage at the ready!

But yes, the blinkered, small-minded 'village policeman' attitude in some (most?) LA officers is presumably seen as a useful tool when it comes to manipulating our situation.

What's that thing about steering big ships? A light touch on the rudder. Feels like there's a master-helmsman up there in the shadows.

Hmm. Is that enough clashing metaphors for one blog comment? I think so ;-)

Helen, so sorry about word verification! (Yet again!) THIS is one of the most useful points I've read for a long time:
"But why would I fail, why would any home-educator fail? we are all working with our child's aptitude and ability, whether autonomous or not, aiming to do the best we can by them accoridng to our motto. it should be good enough."
All I can say is: yes, exactly! You've put your finger right on the thing I was trying to say there.
As for efficient - whatever you're doing you're sure to be a sight more efficient than any school I've ever heard of!

Fiona, yes I quite agree about those 3 terms. They're all potentially subject to misuse, misunderstandings and flexible definitions. The thing is, if you take them out, is there anything left? Still, that's not our problem. I'll have another read through them tomorrow.. and a ponder..

Here's a thing, that might warrant a post of its own tomorrow and that other people keep touching on but nobody seems to have grabbed by the throat - why are schoolteachers home ed stakeholders? I think it was Pete Darby who said something about hangmen being stakeholders in the debate on capital punishment (? I might have remembered that wrong) and I just don't get why PAT gets away with commenting on us and being taken seriously. We've had so much trouble from them before - they've really got an axe to grind re: us, and it's obviously that they see us as being a direct threat to their profession. A few of the things Peter Parkin said in the interview made this very clear, especially his closing words. Out of ALL the things he could have picked to say to sum up, he chose to get defensive about schools.

12:36 am, July 11, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

"Feels like there's a master-helmsman up there in the shadows."

Slept on that and decided I was being paranoid. Too much Tolkien!

9:00 am, July 11, 2007  
Blogger Pete said...

I've been pushed to rant about this over on my blog...

Last time I made the metaphor, it was the butchers assocation invited into a 5live debate on vegetarianism.

12:58 pm, July 11, 2007  
Blogger Dani said...

I agree about "risk-based" and "progress" but I think people are being a bit hard on "reasonable".

The thing is, reasonable has a longstanding place in English law - case law, at any rate. And I think in our particular situation we gain some benefit from the flexibility it entails.

We don't want the definition of a suitable education to be tightly tied up in red tape and targets. We are pretty much happy with the situation where the final decision (in the worst case, where it comes right down to it) is made by a court on the basis of what would persuade a reasonable person that an education is being provided *in that case*.

2:02 pm, July 11, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks Pete, sorry for misquoting you there.

Dani, that's an interesting point. I need to get my draft guidelines printout out and think about this all again I think.

I was hoping my trusty subconscious would have it all worked out by now.

Is it going to come down to horse trading in the end, what comes out and what goes in? If so then I guess we need to start from the tiresome position of nitpicking about as much as possible? :-(

7:27 am, July 12, 2007  
Blogger Dani said...

I think it's not really going to be a matter of nitpicking and horse trading. My feeling is that either we are going to end up with the draft guidelines as they are (or something extremely similar) or we will get something much worse - new regulations, uniform standards, testing, compulsory interviews of children etc. As outlined in the "light touch" consultation paper that never saw the light of day.

I think we should argue for the guidelines we want, but I think our bottom line in this consultation is to defend the existing legal framework and put a strong case that there is no need to change it.

5:09 pm, July 12, 2007  

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