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