Thursday, May 31, 2007

I am the alpha and the omega. But probably not the beta.

A seemingly 'hot' topic at the moment is the existence and relative merits of so-called alpha and beta mothering.

Alpha mothers are apparently the kind who try to hot-house their children.
"Alpha mums are so determined to make a project out of everything, they are not considering or loving the child, who becomes an object of status or self-glorification for the mother," says Brenda Shoshanna, an author of books on family stress."

Whereas beta mums are "not immune to anxieties and hopes about {their children's] education. But [their] concern is that they find it a thrilling, inspiring experience. [They] certainly don't worry about their future career prospects. Their childhood is too precious."

Well I am immune to anxieties and hopes about my children's education. If Alpha mum puts qualifications before happiness and beta mum puts happiness before qualifications, what kind of mother am I, who puts paper qualifications so far at the bottom of the list, they're not even on it?

I think there needs to be a new category: the omega mother. *Googles this to check nobody got there first.*

Ok, someone got there first. See, if I was alpha, this would bother me.

Oh but I do like to invent new concepts. Must try harder.

Nope, not alpha at all. ;-)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


I kind of like this idea in principle, but I don't want to start skip-diving for food. I like the idea of getting real food from the countryside instead. This is a great idea on a sunny day in August when there's plenty of natural food around and when walking for miles to create a tiny, but highly nutritious green salad is a pleasurable experience and less appealing during a February freezing rainstorm with a starving family and Nature is giving us her 'Hungry Gap'.

I'm also toying with the idea of veganism, due to the inability to get my head around the morals of removing a feeding calf from its mother so that I can take the milk. If someone removed our baby from me so they could have my milk I wouldn't be overly chuffed about the idea and nor would our baby, it has to be said. But perhaps I'm falling for a government line in this respect. Got to try everything once.

But freebie living coupled with veganism for ethical reasons.... no. I do want to unhook myself from The System. I do want to live from the land (when I've paid the mortgage of course ;-) and I am getting ready to live out my days in glorious independence from supermarkets and money - effectively sacking the government and all its corporate cronies from having input in my life due to gross mismanagement, BUT... somehow, I dunno...
"Freegans take this a step further by recognizing that in a complex, industrial, mass-production economy driven by profit, abuses of humans, animals, and the earth abound at all levels of production (from acquisition to raw materials to production to transportation) and in just about every product we buy. Sweatshop labor, rainforest destruction, global warming, displacement of indigenous communities, air and water pollution, eradication of wildlife on farmland as "pests", the violent overthrow of popularly elected governments to maintain puppet dictators compliant to big business interests, open-pit strip mining, oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, union busting, child slavery, and payoffs to repressive regimes are just some of the many impacts of the seemingly innocuous consumer products we consume every day."

Hmm. Yes, I suppose I do agree with all of that.

But I'm not going skip-diving for food, I'm just not. I might see a rat, anyway.

I need to invent a new ism. NaturalFoodForFreeWithoutRats-ism. Or something.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dyslexia? I don't care what they think

I don't even care whether some pompous professor has decided that dyslexia is ‘just an excuse for parents’. Tom's dyslexia - and his school's refusal to believe in the condition - was the trigger to our deregistrations from the school system nine years ago and so it was the very best thing to have happened for us.

The thing is, there will always be some schoolteachers - and even professors, no doubt, who fail to realise that parents know their children. And when someone's ten year-old son can explain the theory of relativity to them but not get the six letters of his own name in the right order, that parent would know there was something amiss.

And when the boy in question is generally amenable and obliging but is reported by teachers as lazy and deliberately obstructive, the parent definitely smells a rat. Especially when she has another son who can spell perfectly well but who also does happen to be inclined, on occasion, towards laziness and disruption (constructive disruption, of course...) but no complaints are forthcoming about him at all, she realises that she doesn't have to be Albert Einstein herself to know that there is a major problem.

The school refused to test him, on the gounds that "He's intelligent, so he can't be dyslexic." ??? This was their Special Needs Co-ordinator! But we somehow found the money and commissioned a 15-page report by an Ed Psych to try to convince the school that he was extremely dyslexic and therefore should perhaps be allowed to play out with his friends sometimes instead of being kept in every break and lunchtime for "refusing to get his spellings right". This report the school refused to read. "If you pay someone £180 to find something wrong with your child, they will find it," his teacher famously said.

Tom can spell now. And go out when he wants to. And he has his self-respect back too.

But I have to say, the so-called education system we have in this country doesn't seem to know much about learning.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


I'm blogging about Madeleine today because I agree that no stone should be left unturned in the search for her. It's possible that someone from a distant or remote corner of the world might come across one of our blogs, see her picture for the first time and think: "I saw her yesterday near here.." Highly unlikely, but possible I suppose. And anyway, it's by keeping her visible that she'll stay in people's minds and they're more likely to notice anything untoward that might be Madeleine-related.

If you want to put a link about Madeleine in your blog sidebar like the one I'm currently running, you need to find your blog template and paste this coding into the sidebar section:

<a href=""><img src="" width="150" height="120" border="0"></a>

My heart goes out to Madeleine's parents. It's obvious they really love their children and as such they must be going through hell. I'm also glad to hear they're now co-sleeping with their little twins, Shaun and Amelie, because I'm not a fan of separate bedrooms for little children. My own childhood memories go back to when I was about two years old and I can still remember the feelings of abandonment, fear and grief from being put in my own bedroom to sleep. I never got used to it, though they did it from the day I was born.

I've also been a far more conventional mother than I am now, when Tom and Ali were babies, so I can understand the pressure many mothers are under to physically separate themselves from their young children soon after birth. In my case the pressure came from society, from ruthless daily routines and from my own husband who wanted half of his bed and more than half of his wife to himself every night. So I felt the guilt, but did it anyway - sometimes. And many was the night I'd go to bed with my husband, listen for his snores and at first cry from a baby in the next room, I'd dash in there and settle in that bed with them both.

Yes, I led a strange sort of double life trying to please everyone and appease my own instincts too. And yes, single motherhood is easier than that. Having said that I do know some dads who are mature and generous enough to happily share sleeping arrangements with their young children, so that everyone can have the best of all worlds. And to be fair, I know some women who want to sleep separately from their offspring (and/or their husbands!) So is it a gender thing? I don't know.

Back to Madeleine. I think there's a good chance she's still alive and OK, just being hidden somewhere. I don't think anyone should give up hope that's the case.

Also, for all the publicity, Madeleine isn't the only abducted child in the world and nor is she the only child who might be feeling frightened and confused.

My childhood was mostly miserable - not to the extent some are, but nevertheless I can relate and say it's helped me to appreciate the good things and learn how to be happy and how to stay mostly happy as an adult. No, I wouldn't wish problems on any child, of course not. BUT what I'm saying is that sometimes things turn out for the best, one way or another.

Trite, but true.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award

Allie has very kindly tagged me for a Thinking Blogger Award!

The official rules for participation in the Thinking Blogger Awards meme are as follows:
1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme
3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

Yes, I'd have tagged Allie and Dani's Green House by the Sea back if I could! That one often gets me thinking. Actually most blogs I read, especially home ed blogs, make me think so it's going to be very hard to pick out five in particular. But I'll try!

Paula's blog, Aspie Home-Education, always makes me think. It's a mind-blowing compendium of thoughts, ideas, links, quotes, clips etc., mostly with an educational theme - mostly raging against the machine, like myself! I can't read and think and wonder and nod my head in agreement as fast as Paula posts the stuff. I don't know where she finds it all and am frequently amazed by some gem or other that she's found.

Jax and Tim at Making it up, of course, which has just celebrated its 4th blogday and I've really enjoyed reading the blog over the years. I think I love it most for its quirky variety. You never know quite what you might find there next! Also Jax writes sometimes about motherhood, events and decisions with a stark honesty that's often brought tears to my eyes or a big smile to my face.

Gah, I want to tag Tech but she's passworded..

Mother Damnable AKA Sharon, usually gets me thinking. Her posts often trigger a lot of questions in my mind - and in her comments box!

Mieke over at Dutchess Discloses has been making me think recently. She's been to Findhorn - high on my list of real life places to visit! I especially love her mantra: HOLD THE VISION; TRUST THE PROCESS; DO NOTHING.

And last but not least Tammy at Zen Pizza is right on my wavelength, this post on happiness being a perfect example. She writes with clarity and thoughtfulness and I'm dead impressed.

Interestingly, some of the blogs that make me think the most tend not to be the blogs I read very often! I think I often sit to visit my regular read blogs when I'm quite tired and don't want to be coaxed into complicated mental gymnastics at that time. I do enough of that on my own blog! I do love reading those kind of blogs when I've had loads of sleep and/or a decent shot of caffeine ;-) Otherwise I'm more often roaming around my regular read blogs that sometimes make me think but in a less drastic kind of way! They're often blogs run by people I know in real life, or people who are just deliciously blogging their day-to-day stuff. Blogs that are invariably thought-provoking tend to be posted to less often, maybe? I don't know, I might be generalising too much there.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Family life, UK, 2007

I'm relieved to see that the new, thriving industry of professional parenting advisors finally came in for serious criticism recently, from various quarters.

The Independent, in its piece The Nanny State: Monstering of the modern mother, says: "The nanny state [is] turning mums into victims with an army of parenting gurus, healthcare experts and government campaigners poised to pounce. As a result many British mothers are feeling anxious, demoralised and unable to trust their own natural instincts."

Professor Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, author of Paranoid Parenting thinks that: "Parents are treated as bumbling amateurs. We are disempowering them. It's a form of mind control." and: "The main thing is that it leads to estrangement. Mothers and fathers become estranged from each other and from their children. Rather than a family developing a strong sense of itself, it is looking too much to the outside. Over the last ten years, virtually every aspect of childrearing is turned into a problem that requires their support or intervention. This undermines parents' confidence. Targeting parents has become a national sport. New Labour politicians appear to take the view that almost every social problem is caused by bad parenting. This allows failed politicians to avoid confronting their policy failures in health, education and community building."

All very true, and I would also argue, of course, that the proliferation of massive impersonal schools and childcare centres exacerbates the problem of alienation between parents and children.

Motivation of students in schools is, as ever, noted as being a problem. This piece on the BBC website, entitled: How to get pupils learning again quotes Maggie Walker of educational charity Asdan: "A lot of pupils who become disengaged lack encouragement from home. In a typical middle class home people are given pats on the back, they're given books. There was an area where I worked where they had very few books - people had maybe 10 books in the home."

Educational achievement (i.e.: learning), in this instance, is seen as being directly related to the social class to which a student belongs, and the number of books in the house. I can pop that particular bubble of a myth straight away: we have over 2000 books, easily accessible in this house and at least one out of three of my teens never even glances at any of them. He learns best from a screen and sources most of his information on the Internet. But even if we had no books in the house at all, we'd have the whole world to explore outside. The children would still receive a good education.

However, Ms Walker's class- and book-related prejudiced observations led me to start wondering what family life, childhood and education all really mean to the vast proportion of UK citizens in 2007.

Frank Furedi again: "All dictating does is to estrange mothers from their role as child-rearers. What they really need is better-resourced childcare and more flexible working." [My italics.]

... So they don't actually want to do parenting at all?

Another BBC news website story, Reluctant pushy parent confesses, cites an unnamed Buckinghamshire mother as follows: "Pushy parent? Who me? I don't think so. But I might occasionally test my daughter's knowledge of the times tables by asking random questions during longer car journeys. Or say, 'Can you look at the clock and tell me what time it is - and what's that in digital?' And maybe I'll test the occasional spelling or three. All parents do that, don't they? But in recent months I've also started timing her on how many trees or pieces of furniture she can name in a minute. Does she know both meanings of words, like guard and lock? And what is the relationship between other words, like wax and wane, ebb and flow? Not to mention Saturday mornings spent slaving over test papers, Monday and Wednesday evening coaching sessions and finally, this week after a certain amount of soul-searching, I've signed her up for a week-long intensive summer school. Oh yes, I nearly forgot. I hear that extra-curricular music lessons are something else that pushy parents pay for. So, yes, she plays the oboe! But I'm not pushy, not by Buckinghamshire standards. ... All we want is for our children 'to achieve their potential' "

"All parents do that, don't they?" Erm.... no. Not this one. Had it done to me as a child. Felt the stress of non-stop education pressure from home and school and even on car journeys between the two. And yes, I also played oboe. And no, I didn't want to. I had chronic stress-related insomnia by the time I was nine, and was being diagnosed with a congenital spine disorder by the age of fourteen, which also turned out to be stress-related. These are not signs of a healthy, happy family life. And what does she mean by "achieving their potential", I wonder? Educational potential, in terms of qualifications? Financial potential, in terms of salary? Do such parents even spend sufficient time getting to know their children to actually find out what their true potential, in its broadest, most genuine sense, really might be? Or do they just spew out terms like "achieving their potential" as euphemisms for "getting loads of qualifications and then a very big salary"?

Do people really choose have children for this? To apply pressure (sorry, encouragement) to succeed, to compete, to achieve and to attain? To attain what, exactly? Social standing I presume, which - according to my parents - is everything that matters in this life. But I disagree. Social standing does not bring happiness or contentment. It doesn't even engender real learning, or trust or communication or love.

I don't actually object to earning lots of money or having decent social standing per se, if that's how a person freely chooses to spend their life. But I think it's when parents harbour such ambitions on behalf of their children, without even taking the time to ascertain whether said children might prefer a different kind of life, that things can go badly wrong in families because children can start to feel like commodities themselves, expected to perform to a certain standard and branded as defective when they don't.

These are the parenting techniques, I find, which do tend to have the best results:

  • Respect for the child's wishes, preferences and interests;

  • Listening, conversing and asking questions. Nice questions, I mean. Not: "Six sevens?" barked, sergeant-major style, from the front seat of the car. ("Forty-two," squawks the parrot in my head, even now..) No, I mean questions like: "How are you?" "What do you think about this?" and "What would you like to do today?" - and the answers paid attention to and taken seriously.

  • Eye-contact and friendliness. Even genuine compliments, because why wouldn't we actually like our children? I really like mine. They're fantastic company and great fun.

  • Those work for us here, but no doubt every family works out their own way and so they should. I don't want to swell the burgeoning ranks of parenting gurus. They're ten to the dozen nowadays. Common as muck! But somehow, somehow family life has to be about more than rushing around at breakneck speed frantically trying to secure the best qualifications and the best job and best house, car, holiday, sun tan, plastic surgery... jewelry... snippets of silly achievements for the grandparents to boast to their friends about. It's not really about that. When we think about family life, we surely think about shared meals, shared work and shared play time. When does the modern UK school and work system allow for those things?

    I'll leave the last words to Bob Black, in his brilliant Abolition of Work. "Finally, we must do away with far and away the largest occupation, the one with the longest hours, the lowest pay and some of the most tedious tasks around. I refer to housewives doing housework and child-rearing. By abolishing wage-labor and achieving full unemployment we undermine the sexual division of labor. The nuclear family as we know it is an inevitable adaptation to the division of labor imposed by modern wage-work. Like it or not, as things have been for the last century or two it is economically rational for the man to bring home the bacon, for the woman to do the shitwork to provide him with a haven in a heartless world, and for the children to be marched off to youth concentration camps called 'schools,' primarily to keep them out of Mom's hair but still under control, but incidentally to acquire the habits of obedience and punctuality so necessary for workers. If you would be rid of patriarchy, get rid of the nuclear family whose unpaid "shadow work," as Ivan Illich says, makes possible the work-system that makes it necessary. Bound up with this no-nukes strategy is the abolition of childhood and the closing of the schools. There are more full-time students than full-time workers in this country. We need children as teachers, not students. They have a lot to contribute to the ludic revolution because they're better at playing than grown-ups are. Adults and children are not identical but they will become equal through interdependence. Only play can bridge the generation gap."

    Saturday, May 19, 2007


    Our day-to-day systems for living have been under review here recently. We don't have compulsory recycling in this area yet but the sighting of a rat around our dustbins a few weeks ago has made us think about what we throw away and how. We're paying much more attention to packaging, containers and recycling and our black binbag output is now much reduced.

    I'm glad to see Asda is finally running a recycling service for its carrier bags. Whether you subscribe to the global warming theory or not, I like the idea of thoughtful waste disposal. It appeals to my organisational instincts. Like playing with a giant shape-sorter! Dumping it all in landfill is far too messy ;-) Here's our recycling tower:

    Posted by Picasa

    We're collecting tins, plastic bottles, newspaper, cardboard and glass. We were doing most of that before but we're doing a bit more now. We still can't recycle plastic packaging around here though. And I remember in my childhood things like silver foil milk bottle tops being collected for recycling, but nobody seems to do that any more.

    Looking at the waste system made us think about how much food we buy and how we could reduce that by growing more fresh produce and composting more to help the plants. It's a good time of year to be thinking along those lines isn't it?

    So we have peas, tomatoes and potatoes on the go and we might plant more this week. It means we need to cut back paths and repair walls and generally do more outdoor stuff, which is better for our health, no doubt. We've also been thinking about our water and energy systems here and wondering if these can be improved.

    All this from one little (big) rat who is long gone, presumably oblivious to the major effects of his visit!

    Tuesday, May 15, 2007

    Bean-counting and Mr Men

    Imagine adding up your monthly expenditure using only beans? It's how Lyddie and I spent half the morning. We needed to work out how much money there was to spend and she wanted to help. So that's how we did it. Hmm. I'll be glad when she's ready to do it the quicker way! As our fellow home educator Will Smith says: "Reading, writing and arithmetic .. those are the languages of our country." Different country, I know. But same languages - kind of!

    So, we worked it out and she decided we could afford yet another Mr Men book, which we went off to buy, amongst other things. I wish she'd buy different books though: I'm not too keen on Mr Men. Their names, their houses, their lives and raisons d'être are based on their main characteristic - which nobody likes! The stories are all based on how Mr Whatever was cured of being Whatever. What I want to know is - what was he after that then? Little Miss Bossy stops being bossy: what do they call her after that? Samantha? And poor old Mr Noisy. He should have just handed ear plugs around for Christmas and had done with it.

    But the one I really feel sorry for is Mr Nosy. They hit his nose with a hammer! And threatened to cut it off! I refuse to read it to her any more, it's just too upsetting. She'll have to learn to read it herself or persuade one of her more blood-thirsty siblings if she wants to hear that one again. We got Little Miss Twins today. I dread to think what's going to happen to them. Enforced separate adoptions?!

    Charlie and Lola - now there's a good set of books. Lyddie managed to read one of those to the baby this morning when I was downstairs making my morning cuppa. They meet with full approval from everyone - baby included.

    Free-range book selection is one of the downsides of autonomous learning though. Here I am, trying to raise my children with good healthy values regarding problem-solving, tolerance and compassion and there's Roger Hargreaves merrily undoing all my good work. And I pay for the privilege! Ah well. It's a good job I don't practice censorship really. There's no knowing where I'd stop.

    Sunday, May 13, 2007

    Transcript: the Radio 5 Live home education debate.

    Debating home education this morning on Julian Worricker's BBC Radio Five Live programme were:

    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:

    ----Transcript begins------

    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..

    FN: Hello

    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.

    -----Transcript ends------

    Thursday, May 10, 2007

    So, what do we think is really going on?

    This week...

  • We've had some startlingly HE-friendly draft guidelines from DfES for local authorities;

  • This was immediately followed yesterday by a startlingly correct and pro-HE write up on the BBC news website;

  • And today we've seen examples of the kind of tripe we're more accustomed to in The Telegraph and The Guardian.

  • I'm wondering what home educators think might be behind these developments. I've been thinking it might be one or more of the following:

    1. Staff and/or politicians at DfES are feeling so punch drunk/ relieved/ jubilant about the imminent change of PM that they decided to share this benevolence with we poor, embattled home educators..? ;-)

    2. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines as an opening shot in an attempt to provoke a strong response from LAs and some more difficult (for us) end results?

    3. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines as an opening shot in an attempt to lull home educators into a false sense of security to minimise our consultation responses?

    4. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines and orchestrated the resulting news stories in an attempt to provoke anti-HE sentiment/outrage in the general public?

    5. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines because they're running out of of funding for education and would actually quite like to increase the numbers of HErs because we save the country a fortune?

    6. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines because they're running out of ideas for containing the growing discipline problems in schools?

    7. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines because they know full well such guidelines are not enforceable and therefore not really all that useful against really awkward LAs?

    8. They deliberately produced 'generous' guidelines because they're actually very nice people and they wish us well/ might want to home educate, themselves?

    9. They accidentally produced 'generous' guidelines because they absolutely couldn't care less whether people home educate or not and what they do or don't do, if they do.

    Suggested answers on a postcard please or, better still, in the comments box. Cast your vote(s) or spoil your ballot paper, and score extra if you even managed to understand number 9, let alone decided whether you agree or not.

    Tony Blair: I kind of like him now he's off

    He looks much better from the back, doesn't he? ;-)

    It's only when he's not actually running the country that I'm starting to admire his impish little pixie face, as if he skipped magically out of some enchanted forest ten years ago, played some little pixie pranks on us all and is now skipping away again.

    *Sigh*. Back to normality, then. Dull, old, staid old Gordon Brown. He means well, I'm sure. And look where magic pixie tricks got us anyway. War in Iraq and politics by spin machine, like so much candy floss.

    He did what he thought was right, eh? Yes, it was a good swan song. I quite enjoyed it, especially the bit about Britain being special.

    Hmmmm. Oh well, bye then, Tony!


    A Scotsman in Downing Street and the SNP in Holyrood! We're not boring, anyway.

    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    BBC Scotland: Give Me a Voice - on home education

    Here's a radio programme made by and about a home educating family in Scotland. It's very inspiring, reassuring and informative, especially for any families who might be wondering whether to take the plunge and home educate.

    The law relating to deregistration is different in Scotland and families have to apply for permission to deregister, which is of course not the case south of the border.

    Tuesday, May 08, 2007

    I'm in heaven....

    From the DfES proposed guidelines for local authorities on elective home education [opens pdf]:

    Providing a full-time education

    3.11 Parents are required to provide an efficient education suitable to the age, ability and aptitude of the child. There is currently no legal definition of “full-time”. Children normally attend school for between 22 and 25 hours a week for 39 weeks of the year, but this measurement of ‘contact time’ is not relevant to home education where there is often almost continuous one-to-one contact and education may take place outside normal ‘school hours’. The type of educational activity can be varied and flexible. Home-educating parents are not required to:

    · teach the National Curriculum
    · have a timetable
    · have premises equipped to any particular standard
    · set hours during which education will take place
    · have any specific qualifications
    · make detailed plans in advance
    · observe school hours, days or terms
    · give formal lessons
    · reproduce school type peer group socialisation
    · match school, age-specific standards.

    However, local authorities should offer advice and support to parents on these matters if requested.

    3.12 It is important to recognise that there are many, equally valid, approaches to educational provision. Local authorities should therefore consider a wide range of information from home educating parents, in a range of formats. The information may be in the form of specific examples of learning e.g. pictures/paintings/models, diaries of work, projects, assessments, samples of work, books, educational visits etc.

    3.13 In their consideration of parents’ provision of education at home, local authorities may reasonably expect the provision to include the following characteristics:

    · consistent involvement of parents or other significant carers – it is expected that parents or significant carers would play a substantial role, although not necessarily constantly or actively involved in providing education
    · recognition of the child’s needs, attitudes and aspirations
    · opportunities for the child to be stimulated by their learning experiences
    · access to resources/materials required to provide home education for the child – such as paper and pens, books and libraries, arts and crafts materials, physical activity, ICT and the opportunity for appropriate interaction with other children and other adults.

    3.14 If, on considering the educational provision, one or more of the above characteristics appear to be lacking, local authorities may choose to further investigate whether or not an efficient and suitable education is, in fact, being provided. A full written report of the findings should be made and copied to the parents promptly, specifying the grounds for concern and any reasons for concluding that provision is unsuitable. If the authority is not satisfied that efficient education is being provided, and the parents, having been given a reasonable opportunity to improve their provision and report back to the authority, have not done so, the authority should consider serving a School Attendance Order (see section 2.7).

    Section 3.13 in particular is music to my ears. Whoever is responsible for bringing this about - thank you! I don't know who or how it happened, but if this guidance goes through in its present form I'll be delighted, because it will improve and clarify the situation for home educators throughout the country who are doing an excellent job for their children, often despite being under unfair, unhelpful and unwarranted pressure from their local authority.

    You can see the details about this and other DfES consultations here.

    Monday, May 07, 2007

    "So what do you do in the holidays?"

    ... said the supermarket cashier today, after I'd just spent five minutes explaining how the children learn through normal life, every day, without me having to specifically *teach* them.

    I was lost for words after that. Kind of wish I'd just muttered something about "September" when she asked Lyddie when she was starting school, and stuck to exchanging inanities about the weather instead. Ah well.

    Sunday, May 06, 2007

    Gatto film: sheer brilliance :-)

    Big thanks to Tibetan Star for finding and posting this. Coming across it on her blog and watching it just now has absolutely made my day. John Taylor Gatto is one of very few people who actually deserve the title: 'Teacher', IMO.

    Nettle soup

    The stinging nettle is a much maligned plant, but is actually very useful and highly nutritious. They contain high quantities of iron and also vitamin C, which is needed for our bodies to make proper use of the iron, so they're great for correcting anaemia. They're also good for arthritis, rheumatism, gout and eczema. Free food and medicine! They make great soup, which is what we did yesterday:

    You need to harvest them in the spring or early summer - any later and they taste slightly bitter. Just pick the sweet tops and discard any woody stems. And if you don't like being stung, wear gloves and long sleeves of course.

    First we found a good healthy crop:

    And we picked a couple of baskets full:

    Next we warmed some olive oil in a big pan:

    ... chopped onions and cooked those in the oil on a medium heat until soft:

    Next we chopped about 4 cloves of garlic and about 8 medium sized potatoes, cut into cubes about an inch wide, added these to the pan and stirred:

    Next we put a couple of stock cubes in. We used vegetarian ones to cater for our non-meateaters, but meat stock is just as good:

    Sprinkled them on...

    And washed the nettles and put those in too.

    Finally we added boiling water from the kettle - about 2 pints, but this would depend on the size of your pan obviously. We stirred it, then put the lid on and cooked for about 15 mins until the potatoes were soft.

    Next it all got blended:

    Until it looked like this:

    And here's our chief taster, who went from "Ewww, I'm not eating nettles!" to "Mmmmm! Can I have some more please?" in about 3 minutes flat ;-)

    Friday, May 04, 2007

    Mad conversations with BT #2

    "This is BT. Could I speak to the account holder please?"


    "Oh hello. I'm just phoning to remind you about your outstanding bill with us of £102 and to ask you to make immediate arrangements to pay."

    "Yes, I have, twice. Last quarter I cancelled my direct debit due to being in credit. This quarter, on receiving that bill, I phoned to set up a new direct debit. I was told to expect the mandate through the post. Three weeks ago I received a call like this one and heard that the new direct debit had NOT been set up for some reason, so I went through the process of setting up a new direct debit mandate with your company again. Now are you telling me that one hasn't been processed either? I think it has, because I got the paperwork this time."

    "Hmmm. Let me check. Oh yes, I see there is a monthly payment of £38 coming out of your account on the 15th."

    "That'd be the one."

    "AND that you have a credit balance of £101."

    "...... ...... ........ I have a credit balance of £101 and a debit balance of £102?"


    "..... ...... ...... Why?"

    "I don't know. I'll have to go and ask my superior."

    "Wait a sec. How about you use my credit balance... to pay my debit balance?!"

    "Ah yes ok, I can do that for you, yes."

    "And here's another novel idea. You could do that every month!"

    ".... ..... Yes. OK. Thanks, Mrs Account Holder. Goodbye."

    You know when you carefully replace the handset and wonder whether it's plausable that a whole conglomerate has lost its marbles? This was (another) one of those times. Maybe it's a conspiracy to drive us all mad.

    This week, we have been mostly.....

  • Learning about abscesses, because I've had one. This led onto discussions about septicaemia, septic shock, antibiotics (intravenous and oral), and intensive care. Luckily discussions were all that was needed, but the teenaged children of single parents need contingency plans: one adult down makes them the (temporary) adults! We also covered issues like the workings of the immune system, the theory of homoeopathy and the procedure in medical emergencies. They knew most of it, but a refresher course is always handy.

    No, I didn't make them sit down and learn this stuff, but the left side of my face being swollen up led to lots of questions along the lines of: "What's the matter with your face?" (Sometimes they do act like typical teenagers. They ask each other that question all the time.) And: "Well, what are you doing about it?" and "Why?" and "How does that work then?" and, "Oh, so what are the symptoms of septic shock?" We actually sat together en famille and made the joint decision, well in advance, at what point to call in medical help based on the pros and cons of doing so.

    I'm frequently amazed by the difference between my own childhood and that of my children, and that was definitely one of those times. I'd have been told nothing. If I'd have asked questions, I'd have been told to go away, as would the children of many families at times of stress I think.

  • Learning about politics - specifically the electoral system, because we went to vote yesterday. Lyddie misheard and thought we were going on a boat! I said no, we're going to vote, which triggered another "What's that?" and "Why?" question and answer session. She was fascinated with the whole concept and very excited about the voting procedure itself. I think it was the secrecy of the ballot and the reasons for that which especially captured her interest.

    Tom, voting for the first time, asked how he was supposed to know who to vote for. I suggested Google and he went off to search, but came back disgusted with the paucity of online information about local candidates' views and plans. All he could find were their names, addresses and phone numbers. He even tried Googling their names: nothing. We dug out a couple of leaflets we'd received from the Lib Dems and Labour local offices recently, so he could look at those. We've received nothing from the Conservative candidate or local office, so they lost any chance they may have had of receiving his vote, I assume.

    No party has been canvassing up here, as usual. I was telling the children that ten years ago, when we moved in here, they came up our street knocking on doors and chatting to householders, but never since. I miss that. It made me feel like someone might be interested in what individual voters actually thought, beyond the cross on the ballot paper. I'm increasingly disillusioned by the depersonalisation that results from party politics.

  • Creating works of art, on paper. Lyddie and Zara did, anyway. Zara was suddenly curious to wonder what people drew and wrote with in the days before mass production, which set her off on a series of experiments with charred sticks, coal and charcoal. She eventually found that she could produce a good picture with the charred end of an incense stick. "What did they use before the mass production of incense sticks?" I asked and waas told to hush, because, "This works." Hmph, so much for my autonomous learning!

    Lyddie discovered a box full of art and craft stuff on our bookshelves and has been quietly filling our dining table with fascinating pictures. She's splodged paint on paper, covered it with other paper and peeled off to see the effects. This, in various forms, kept her busy for about a day and a half. Then she started painting with her fingers, hands and feet. Finally she discovered the glue and started collaging. The brilliant thing is that all this was totally self-directed and we could clearly see her thinking it all through: "What happens if I try this?" "Oh wow, look at that," etc. She kept bringing the end results to show us.

    We've found that natural learning is strikingly different in terms of intensity, from adult-directed learning. Lyddie has been using the craft box for about 5 days in a row now and is passionate about working out what she can do next and improving on what she's doing now. She's totally immersed and involved in the process of developing these ideas and producing the results that she sticks with it for hours without rest. I predict that she'll reach a natural finishing point sometimes in the next few days, and possibly not want to do any art work again for a few weeks or so, when she'll start another intensive few days' work on it.

    Prior to that she was writing incessantly: names, mostly, but any words would do. And I've just heard her reading a story to herself, so she is still doing other things besides.

  • Discussing the history, workings and effects of the UK education system over dinner yesterday, which we ate outdoors in the sunshine. The boys are both looking at college and uni from the outside, through various friends' eyes, and giving them consideration. Ali has one friend who is studying programming at uni and Ali is quite impressed by the course and his friend's progress on it. I asked if he was tempted to apply for the course himself and he isn't at present. Neither Tom nor Ali likes the idea of trying to study in a large group when there might be a lot of distractions. "Would it not help to have inspiring tutors?" I asked. "Yes but that's pot luck isn't it?" they said, and went on to criticise the system of employing and allocating tutors and developing syllabi, about which they both knew a surprising amount.

    It was one of those discussions that went on for ages and covered the issue from many angles and considerations. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. They really are excellent company.