Saturday, August 30, 2008

Numbers, especially FIVE. And some music, which is the same thing when it comes down to it, isn't it?

FIVE (five)
Days to go to school
Then you have the weekend
And that’s the rule

... says rap 5 on CBeebies. (Why oh why do I let my children watch such state-sponsored brainwashing rubbish?? Sometimes I think autonomy's not all it's cracked up to be. Catchy tune, though.)

The government also requires us to ingest five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Look! There's even a 5 a day community! Let nobody say that community spirit is dead and buried and now being ghoulishly parodied by the instruments of its demise.

Meanwhile, on another tentacle of the octopus,

The Government's aim is for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to:
  • Be healthy
  • Stay safe
  • Enjoy and achieve
  • Make a positive contribution
  • Achieve economic well-being

The 'support' they speak of, by the way, is not optional. It's the kind of support traditionally offered to little old ladies who will be helped to cross the road, whether they wanted to or not. And:

The five outcomes are universal ambitions for every child and young person, whatever their background or circumstances. Improving outcomes for all children and young people underpins all of the development and work within children's trusts.

though my dictionary contains the following two definitions:

universal adj. of, belonging to, or done etc. by all persons or things in the world or in the class concerned; applicable to all cases.

ambition n. the determination to achieve success or distinction, usu. in a chosen field.

So the government has decided that every child and young person, is determined to achieve success in those five outcomes. But I doubt it. Some children like to take risks: safe is boring, no? And how can we push our limits or try new things, without feeling even a little bit unsafe? Children arguably even need to take risks in order to learn and develop. "The obsessive 'safety-first' culture in schools will rob Britain of the next generation of entrepreneurs just when the country needs them most," as Simon Woodroffe, founder of Yo! Sushi and a judge on the BBC show Dragons' Den said to The Times.

And I can personally relate to the one about economic wellbeing. Does this mean affluence? Because I prefer poverty (of the relative sort, not absolute). I think if my family was being grilled by the FIVE police, we'd have to try to argue that economic wellbeing surely means to stay solvent and to pay one's bills and we do manage that. (But what happens to the people who don't?! Presumably they will be 'supported'..)

The outcomes are mutually reinforcing. For example, children and young people learn and thrive when they are healthy, safe and engaged; and the evidence shows clearly that educational achievement is the most effective route out of poverty.

Hmmm. Reinforcing. I think we're getting the gist, don't you?

Don't get me wrong: if people want to be healthy, safe, engaged, achieving and rich then good luck to them. I might want to be (or already be) some or all of them myself and so might my children. But the point I'm trying to make is that our instincts and urges in this respect - our ambitions - are private, internal, individual and personal affairs. For government to try to jemmy its way into our psyches in this way and to dictate our ambitions for us is (yet another) step too far.

And how have they ascertained that these actually are

the five outcomes that are most important to children and young people


Perhaps they went around the schools holding mass 'consultations'. Altogether now:

"What do we want?"

"To be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and to achieve economic wellbeing!"

"When do we want it?"


But at least the issue of schooling finally seems to be being questioned in a sensible way. In an article titled What is the future for schools?", the BBC's Mike Baker reports on the Horizontal project: "It stands for 'horizon scanning: technology and learning' - a futurology project funded by the Department for Children Schools and Families and organised by Professor Stephen Heppell."

Though I found Mr Baker's essay more interesting than the website blurb about the project itself because it poses the specific question:

But do we still need a national curriculum? And why are schools still based on a 19th century model when we are now several years into the 21st century?

Why indeed. I do hope they work out the answer. And publish it. He continues:

Why, for that matter, are schoolrooms still much the same in terms of size, shape and focus as they were 150 years ago when mass education began in Britain and learning methods were so different? One answer to emerge from the event was that, unlike many industries, education is still firmly in the grip of governments. The consensus was that governments are generally not very good at innovation or risk-taking. Nor do they tend to take the long view (the sponsoring of this event by the DCSF being a notable exception) as they work to four or five year cycles.

Where new technologies have been used they tend to reinforce existing teaching and learning methods rather than taking us off in new directions. The model for schooling still very often involves gathering large numbers of children together into a single building, dividing them into groups by age, and placing an adult with some textbooks in front of them. Yet the evidence around us shows that young people, and increasingly adults too, learn from their peers. If they want to find something out they go on the web, searching for a user group or search engine, rather than asking a nearby figure of authority.

They do. As this excellent video demonstrates, children certainly can and do teach themselves, far more efficiently than a school or other authority can teach them.

People do know this. And yet, we continue with the old system. "The consensus was that governments are generally not very good at innovation or risk-taking," is perhaps a very polite and charitable explanation. Not to say ironic, don't you think?

Mike Baker in his article also champions the 'Not School' initiative, which I think is a more sensible system of education than the classroom-based one, but I'd still like to know more about the extent of the compulsion involved.

Here in our home education this week, our FIVE (nearly six!) year-old has been working with some numbers (including FIVE) on a whiteboard.

We had to practice the number '3' again and she's just learned to hold the pen properly (which, I add depressingly, is probably another box to tick on some required outcomes sheet somewhere..)

And no, I didn't decide on her behalf that her ambition was to develop her skills in numeracy that day. She'd just got a number jigsaw down from a shelf in the living room, completed it, then opted for herself to start doing the whiteboard sums again. I didn't even suggest it: in fact, it's rare I suggest anything - partly because I don't need to and partly because they prefer to do their own thing.

Zara has recently decided she wants to learn how to read music and play the piano. Amongst our sheet music, she found the book I'd learned from when I was sent to piano lessons at a very early age, and started to dilligently work through it, despite its orientation towards very young children. It is an excellent book, though. She asked for my help to verify a few things to her, but apart from that she progressed on her own and after about twenty minutes' work can now read enough music to pick out a simple tune.

The piano and the book have both been available to her all her life, but its only now she's 16 that she actually wants to learn them so her progress is incredibly fast.

I wish I could attend one of the Horizontal project sessions and explain this to anyone who will listen: that children learn best when we let them be in charge of their own ambitions.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Changing times

It seems to me that August is always a bit of a strange time in home ed land. The rest of the world (involving children) is gearing up to the start of the new term: be it returning to school or college or starting new ones. Exam results are out. Some home educators have results; others don't. Some home educated offspring are off to college; others aren't. Many of the usual meetings and activities are postponed for the summer; many home educators go off to camps. Many don't.

And the parks, swimming baths, roads, museums and shops are busy with families! We're used to everywhere being nice and quiet for us ;-) There is a tendency, certainly at our house, to batten down the hatches and to stay even more home-based than usual in the summer holiday weeks.

Anyone who volunteers as a local contact or who is 'known' locally as a home educator will probably notice a sharp increase in enquiries from people thinking about home educating and wanting more information or advice. And from people who are already home educating - often have been for years - and suddenly want to know what's on offer by way of meetings and activities locally. And (sometimes) to complain when it doesn't seem like enough. Sometimes they respond with gratitude to your careful and time-consuming efforts to supply the information they want; more often they don't respond at all.

(One caller this week bad-temperedly hung up on me after she'd asked how did I home educate my children? So I briefly explained how I do it and was going on to say, but of course that's just one way of doing it and there are many others... when she snapped: "Oh no, that's not what I'm looking for at all," and ended the call!)

It's a time of change: for every family at the start of their home ed experience, there's another coming to the end of theirs, one way or another. Some have fallen out with the idea altogether and wish they'd never embarked on it. I've seen posts on some lists and blogs to that effect, blaming problems with or lack of local networks of home educators and/or being disenchanted with whatever learning method they chose because it didn't provide the results for which they were hoping.

My family does tend to be somewhat cocooned from these ups and downs, but they still affect us. They show up on our radar and make us think.

Someone once referred to us as a 'poster home ed family', which made me laugh, because we're far from being that. Yes, we blog and yes, we unschool and yes, there are quite a lot of us and yes, we've done it for a long time and I suppose I have waxed lyrical from time to time about the benefits of living this way. But only because it's seemed to be under attack from the mainstream so much and so the instinct is to speak out in its defence, though I hope I haven't sold this option too well, giving the impression there are no drawbacks involved. Everything in life has its drawbacks, home ed included.

But my three teenagers (16, 18 and 19, all still officially home educating) haven't taken any exams and have no plans to. They work in their own time on their own projects, eat when they're hungry and sleep when they're tired. It is now highly unlikely (but not impossible should the mood take them, I suppose) that any of them will emerge from Oxbridge with an honours degree or even secure a paying job that requires qualifications.

Do I worry about this? Actually, no. I still don't. Everyone I know who has that kind of job for which they needed those kinds of qualifications, hates it. Most of them are stuck in grotesque attendance cultures, in which they're forced to travel through rush hour to sit at a desk in an office. Spinning work out for a whole day that they freely admit they'd be able to do in an hour or two at home, if they were promised the rest of the day off as a reward. I've never laid down any specific ambitions for them, but I do not want that for my children any more than I wanted them to be tied to a desk in a school classroom every day of the week for the duration of their childhoods.

Yes, sometimes it's been difficult. There wasn't a perfect set of home educating local friends always available to them and some of the meetings weren't exactly to their liking. (We ended up starting our own meetings, to be sure of being able to attend the kind that we wanted.) And sometimes it has seemed like they weren't doing much at home. But they kept looking at college and university courses and not finding anything suitable because, to be honest, nothing compares to the complete freedom of being able to follow your passions in education. Especially not some of the lifeless, unenthusiastic tutors and lecturers we've spoken to along the way. They weren't exactly inspiring.

And I hear now that the unemployment rate is rising and every advertised post is being chased after by at least 50 applicants which means that even after jumping through all those academic hoops, the average young person is still doomed to rejection upon rejection and feeling like a failure. And when a job is eventually secured, there is ongoing assessment and evaluation. The feeling of not being trusted to get on with things. A lifetime of continued stress and pressure. I mean, if they want to go down that route then fine, but I do not want that for my children. (And it looks like they didn't want it for themselves either, or one assumes they would have started working towards it by now.)

But we are talking about the future here this week, in common with many other families. Especially in relation to Tom, whose home education officially comes to an end on his 20th birthday, which falls in six months' time. He has to be bringing in some money by then, because we didn't get the eco house built in time, unsurprisingly. So there's still a mortgage and bills to be paid here and we'll be missing his share.

Their time at home, while their peers were beavering away at exams, was not wasted. Far from it. The boys have both developed saleable skills, doing things they enjoy and find easy. Tom, for example, has been installing and maintaining the computer networks of friends and relations for years now, as well as providing instructions for people where needed. His patience for this work is endless, and his knowledge and experience is now extensive. He already has workshop space, testing beds and equipment. All he needs to go into business is a website and/or some advertising. He's going to spend the next six months looking into start-up grants to see if there's anything useful for him but if not, he'll just start up anyway. He's also got to decide whether to register as a sole trader or to set up a limited company to trade under. Or whether to deliberately keep his earnings sufficiently low so that he doesn't need to register with the tax man.

It seems ideal. He enjoys the work. It's not tieing or limiting, and he can put in as few or as many hours as he likes, depending on how much money or spare time he wants that week. We don't think there will be a shortage of work for him, especially if he's offering competitive rates. We've been surprised by the number of people who can't build or repair their own systems. Apparently it is a rare skill.

Ironically, Tom's abilities in this field came about because we were home educating and the children wanted computers but we couldn't afford them, so they built their own out of scrap parts. Then, for a specific game they were playing, they wanted to network the systems here so they had to learn how to set one up and they've always had to source and use the cheapest parts. Tom can process information and make decisions about the compatability of dozens of computer parts faster than I can think about what to cook for breakfast.

He might change his mind again before the six months is up, but working for yourself seems like the best kind of employment to me. There's no boss breathing down your neck, no attendance culture and no job interview. From what he's said so far, I think Ali will make the same kind of decision when he's 20, and Zara probably will in her time too. But I've always said that I don't mind what they do, as long as they're happy. And they've all indicated that they see their economic future in those terms: finding gaps in markets and plugging them on their own terms. My parents, by virtue of me being 'the intelligent one' wanted me to get a degree and some kind of an executive position, but it wasn't for me and I've never regretted the life decisions I've made - only the pressure they put me under to make the ones they thought I should.

I sometimes wonder if my brood will ever resent me for not putting them under pressure. But there are no signs of that yet: all three say they're still very grateful that I didn't. Freedom is perhaps a way of thinking that needs to be learned through experience from an early age, in much the same way as its opposite does also.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Computer kids #2

Lyddie, nearly 6, cutting a piece off an apple:

"Mum, can you help? I want the skin off but I don't know how to delete it!"

Thursday, August 14, 2008

*More* at risk of not receiving suitable education?

In yet another public consultation relating to home education (Revised Statutory Guidance for local authorities in England to identify children not receiving a suitable education, closing date: Friday 24th October 2008) home educated children are quite bizarrely listed, along with children who have been bullied, children who have been trafficked to or within the UK, children at risk of forced marriage, looked after children/children in care, children who are privately fostered, young carers, teenage mothers and others, as being specifically more at risk of not receiving suitable education.

I suppose it depends on your definition of a 'suitable education'. The legal definition, as set out by the Judge in the case of Harrison & Harrison v Stephenson (appeal to Worcester Crown Court 1981) is as follows:

A 'suitable education' is one which enables the children ‘to achieve their full potential’, and is such as ‘to prepare the children for life in modern civilised society’.

(Although to me this looks oxymoronic, since life in modern society seems to demand that we do anything but achieve our full potential.)

Does sitting in a school classroom for 14 years enable children to achieve their full potential? It might, if they were allowed to study those subjects they were passionate about. On the other hand, if they were forced instead to follow a one-size-fits-all National Curriculum then I doubt very much whether many of them would achieve their full potential.

I'd like this 'full potential' test to be applied to school students, if it's to be applied to home educating ones. I'd like to see some proof that home educating students are "more at risk of not receiving suitable education" before the statement is carelessly bandied around in draft documents any more. Research by Paula Rothermel (Durham, 2002) proves in fact that home educated children are less at risk of not receiving suitable education than their school educated peers:

The results show that 64% of the home-educated Reception aged children scored over 75% on their PIPS Baseline Assessments as opposed to 5.1% of children nationally. The National Literacy Project (Years 1,3,5) assessment results reveal that 80.4% of the home-educated children scored within the top 16% band (of a normal distribution bell curve), whilst 77.4% of the PIPS Year 2 home-educated cohort scored similarly. Results from the psychosocial instruments confirm the home-educated children were socially adept and without behavioural problems. Overall, the home-educated children demonstrated high levels of attainment and good social skills.

Terms like 'vulnerable' and 'at risk' (as people have pointed out in list posts about this) are potentially dangerous ones with which to be tagged - ask any parents of children with Special Needs, or those who are unfortunate enough to have come to the attention of Social Services. They are gateway terms, which expose families to an avalanche of paid 'experts' with licence to provide 'help', with all its associated checks, structure, tick-boxes and sanctions. A legal minefield. An emotional nightmare.

I think this threatened change to our status will be resisted by home educators most robustly - and rightfully so.