Saturday, February 21, 2009

Local Authority monitoring and why we hate it

For the benefit of anyone who knows little about elective home education and might - I don't know - be asked to chair a review or sit on an 'expert panel' on the subject, for example, I will now briefly explain why we so resist the imposition of Local Authority monitoring.

Here's how it usually works:

The family of a child who has never been to school, or who was deregistered from school some months or years previously, receives a letter from the Local Authority's EHE liaison person stating that they will be visiting the house to see the family and to review the child's learning at a certain date and time. Such letters are ultra vires, but many parents don't know this, and the phrasing is sufficiently authoritative to convince them that they have no choice. Or perhaps the parents do know that they have a choice, but daren't exercise it for fear of repercussions. So they set about preparing for the visit.

Until this time, the child will have usually been learning quite happily, following her curiosity with the guidance and assistance of her parents, as EHE allows. Not having been restricted by the National Curriculum, lesson plans, or other school requirements, s/he will have been free to explore the world of knowledge, communication and information on her own terms and at her perfect pace. S/he might not be reading or writing yet, but might know a vast amount about dinosaurs, birds or bees, or the science of water, or the engineered structure of buildings, or all or none of the above, or something completely different.

Because this is how natural learning works - it's very focused and individual. It's how such people as Einstein and Newton spent their childhoods - not that we all want to raise mini-Einsteins or Newtons. It's just for the love of our children that we allow them to learn freely and not to be tied down to "You must do half an hour of maths now." Many of us have learned, through trial and error, that when you try to force a child to sit down and "do half an hour of maths now", you engender a hatred of the subject, whereas when you're spontaneously counting flower petals (or spider's legs) in the garden, it's an entirely different matter. And the two activities - the forced maths and the spontaneous counting - are often mutually incompatible.

Our children are the exception to the rule that says "every child must be reading by the age of seven". Lots of our children can read by that age, but many don't choose to learn until the age of nine, ten or eleven and these are often the ones who attend college at sixteen and end up with the best grade in their class. (This happened to a friend of ours: she went from systematically deciphering Mr Men books to Further Education distinction in a little over four years.) Of course, they're not learning nothing before they can read, as they would be at school, because they're with their parents who can read things for them, explain things, answer questions and take part in endless one-to-one discussions about all kinds of things. That kind of education isn't wrong, it's just different - and in many ways superior to the variety that schools are forced to provide.

So the parents receive this letter and straight away they know that their child's learning is about to be judged by someone who probably knows nothing about education other than at school. This person might (or might not) have read something about autonomous learning but even so, the sight of a child not reading, writing, or doing maths and without a pile of 'work' to show, will probably look to them like a child who is not in receipt of a suitable education. The child will have been learning intently all of his life, but how do the parents prove it?

Or there might be some work to show, but the parents will still worry that the work might not reach the school standard for that age group, or it might exceed it. The point is that they're suddenly being judged and the risk of being incorrectly found wanting is very high. It's a sickening feeling, especially when the child was happy and learning well prior to the letter's arrival.

To prepare for the visit they might hastily try to persuade the child to produce some 'work' and in so doing, the child's curiosity and natural love of learning - such a fragile thing - can be lost. When the visitor announces their return in three, six or twelve months, this invariably feels like a threat that if something specific is not produced or achieved before the next visit, the provision will be 'failed' - even if those words are not explicit. In this way, the control of the child's learning passes from the child himself to the Local Authority liaison person and the parents have inadvertently failed in their inherent duty to protect the child's intrinsic motivation, because that is what is at stake.

I've now read several excellent responses to the review questions, many of which contain far more powerful and eloquent explanations than I'm managing to blog here. My concern is that Mr Badman won't get to see the best of them (he can't possibly read them all) and therefore won't have chance to develop a good enough understanding of the issues before he compiles his report. But perhaps the best illustration of our position was conveyed by one home educating parent yesterday in only four words:

You shall not pass.


Blogger these boots said...

Wonderful post, thank you Gill.

In France we have enforced education authority inspections. They are not supposed to 'test' children who do not learn using schooly methods, because it's not applicable (as the tests are purely a comparison with what the average schooled child is achieving at that stage). But they do try and insist on it, because they are not fully informed of the law. I have often felt that the U.K are aiming for this kind of system.

I feel forced into the role of protecting my children's learning from outside influence. I feel that I must try and interpret all the autonomous learning they do into a format that the inspectors will accept and understand. Not to mention making sure that I am familiar enough with the laws to resist their testing on behalf of my children. This takes a lot of time, research, energy and effort. All time taken away from supporting my children with their leaning, and I really resent that.

A friend of mine recently had her inspection in France. The inspector was friendly and supportive. My friend had already stated in writing that she did not want her child to be tested, as he is learning autonomously. The inspector asked her child if he would like to do a few little tests with her, and told him he could stop as soon as he wanted to. He agreed, and did take part in the tests. All went 'well' in that my friend's son was judged to be on a par with his schooled peers. However, the inspector then said that by the next inspection (next year) her son would have to be able to write, in the accepted French style. My friend now feels pressured to conform to this, otherwise she feels there will be problems with the authorities. Her stress is compounded because her son, just like my children, resists 'teaching' from the top down.

I find myself frequently having to defend our position, even to people who are genuinely interested in and supportive of autonomous home education. They all seem to think that anyone who really wanted to know whether their education system is 'working', would be happy to have their children inspected and tested. :-(

8:12 am, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks for that illustration of where UK home education might be heading, Ms Boots! Not a good place. The freedom to learn exactly according to age, ability and attribute is definitely worth fighting for, but the reasons are difficult to convey to people who haven't seen it for themselves.

It must all be so much more difficult in your second language - hard enough in your first! :-(

8:44 am, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Mieke said...

Great post, Gill. You've put into words exactly how I feel and think about it.
I feel lucky to be in a position where I actually *know* and have proof of the fact that autonomous education works. I am so glad that there was nobody to interfere with i.e. my son's process of learning to write.
At fourteen he could type well enough, both in English and Dutch, but writing wasn't happening. IF he did it, it would be all in capitals, no spaces, no interpunction. And it would take him ages. But he was quite happy doing whatever written communication was required on typewriter or computer. From other things he was doing - sports, very detailed figure painting, music - I knew there was nothing wrong with his motor skills, so I didn't worry.
He's seventeen now and last week he showed me a poem he'd (hand!)written in the middle of the night. Not only was it a beautiful poem, word by word expressing his innermost feelings, but it was beautifully written. Eight verses, all capitals - because he likes them better. But it was in English, there were no spelling or grammar mistakes, neat spaces between the words and interpunction perfectly in place.
There is no way in the world I would show that poem to anybody else without him asking me to do so. I wouldn't even ask him if I could. I know he let me read that poem because he wanted to share it with me, his mother, because he trusts me and he loves me.

This is just one of the reasons why I know autonomous learning is working and my children are happy, healthly, feel safe, enjoy their own achievements and make a positive contribution.
But to show and discuss this with somebody other than people who have a genuine love and care for my children would to me be the same as discussing the intimate details of my marital life with a stranger.
No way.

10:48 am, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Allie said...

When we were visited - just once as we now send a written report - there was a lot of satisfied noises about the things we had been doing.
Our daughter was happy to show her creations, but then - seemingly out of the blue - she was asked to read aloud. It was clear from what we had been discussing that our daughter could read but it seemed to all of us that this was being questioned by the demand to see her doing it. This was insulting and clearly changed the power relationship. The atmosphere changed from 'please share some info about what you've been doing' to 'prove it!'. This is what happens when people who are trained in systems heavy with inspection come to look at something that does not include inspection. It seems they cannot help but insert their agenda and it does damage.

10:58 am, February 21, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this post Gill. It's really difficult to get across to people who are in the school/testing mindset how detrimental testing etc is to real learning. And they sound like the reasonable ones with their, "if you have nothing to hide, surely you can't object to a visit now and then?" sort of attitude. But you've said it really well here, so thanks.

12:20 pm, February 21, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's this sort of thing I mean, coming from a Johann Hari in the Independent last year:

"The Untaught One: the "home schooled." Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to send your kids to school in Britain. If you decide to keep you child indoors and uneducated, you don't have to inform the local authority – and nobody will come looking. As a result, we have no idea how many children are kept at home. Nobody is counting. But the current estimate is 50,000.

Of course, some of these kids are well-taught – but there is disturbing evidence they are a minority. When the investigative journalist Rob Blackhurst journeyed into the world of British home-schooling, he discovered 12-year-old children who had not been taught to read. The most detailed survey of British parents teaching their kids at home found that 50 per cent don't believe in teaching literacy to eight-year-olds. This leaves Britain with a weirdly divided school system. The majority of kids are constantly cooking on the SAT-grill, endlessly tested and Ofsted-ed – while this minority are totally unwatched."

I mean, the level of ignorance is astounding, but I remember when challenged on it (I can't remember who by) he said something like, "Why would any reasonable person object to a check up on their child's education?" It's the same sort of argument people use in support of ID cards, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." As though these people have never heard of human rights or civil liberties, confidentiality or privacy.

Sorry, will shut up now!

12:36 pm, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Ron Tomlinson said...

It's impossible for an inspector to visit without performing some tests and/or asking some questions, otherwise his forms will remain empty (which in bureaucratic terms means the visit never occurred.)

Since they're using the health and safety as an excuse to meddle with us, could we not call their bluffs and supply them with an annual doctor's certificate or something?

It would be problematic, but perhaps less so than visits and/or interviews.

2:41 pm, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Mieke said...

Debs, thank you for that link. I've linked to it in my post of today because it proves a very important point.

5:24 pm, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Tech said...

A doctor's certificate??? After the 7 months we've had with our GP that idea fills me with almost more dread than the LA!!

5:54 pm, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

I've heard a very good riposte to that "if you've nothing to hide..." line, which is, "why are you wearing trousers?"

6:48 pm, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Betula said...

I'm going to link to this wonderful post! Thank you!

6:49 pm, February 21, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Dani
answer "because he doesn't have anything to hide" ;-)

8:02 pm, February 21, 2009  
Blogger Heidi said...

Brilliant post, Gill! Hearing "If you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" always fills me with impotent, spluttering rage. Now at least I have a link to send them to.

12:02 am, February 22, 2009  
Blogger Sandra Dodd said...

The phrase about children not choosing to learn to read could be a problem. A child can want to learn to read and still not be ready. When they're ready, the reading come pretty quickly, when they learn on their own.

Mine learned at 8, 9 and 11. I've collected lots of stories of children learning to read naturally.

5:53 am, February 22, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Mieke, your son's poem alone is a reason to resist monitoring. Presumably it wouldn't exist if you hadn't protected his intrinsic motivation and had the strength to trust his individual learning process.

Allie, a similar thing happened to us. Tom was asked to demonstrate that he could write, and then sternly chastised for mistakes in spelling and style. If the inspector had bothered to read our notes before the visit though, he would have known about Tom's severe dyslexia, but obviously he didn't. I was too stunned to deal with it particularly well and just said, "Erm... you do know he's dyslexic?" and there was a flurry and a fluster and a quick change of subject.

Debs, no need to shut up! Long comments are very welcome here, especially ranty ones ;-) I agree, that Johann Hari piece was particularly bad but if you haven't home educated or seen it at close quarters, it must be difficult to understand the problem we have with inspections. Most people see education in one way only: the pouring of facts into empty heads and the training of skills, don't they? And I think it's quite unusual nowadays for people to really understand the value of liberty and privacy.

Tom: "It's impossible for an inspector to visit without performing some tests and/or asking some questions, otherwise his forms will remain empty (which in bureaucratic terms means the visit never occurred.)" I quite agree, but mandatory doctors' certificates would open a whole other can of worms to do with vaccination, diagnosis and medication. You only have to look at the Nice draft guidelines to get an idea of the problems that are already starting to develop with regard to familial interactions with medical staff. You might be right though: in some cases it could be an easier route to verification than the educational one but ideally I'd want to resist both.

My children don't have routine health screening: I feel the same way about health monitoring as I do about the educational variety: they can be equally damaging, I think. My position is to allow access at the home to any professional with real concerns about their health or wellbeing (there have been none, so far) but to state my preference to only use services if problems develop. So far this stance has been respected, but I don't know for how long it can continue to be so, because it certainly doesn't fit with the ECM programme.

Mieke, your post of the day looks well worth a read! Will be over there shortly, perhaps after breakfast :-)

Tech, yeah, you said that so much better than me ;-)

Dani: R.O.F.L.!!

Clare, thanks for the link :-)

Ruth, LOL @ you too ;-)

Heidi, it's taken me years to be able to put it into words. I'm very glad you think it might be useful to you.

Sandra Dodd! What a pleasure to see you here :-) Thanks very much for your comment and useful link.

9:37 am, February 22, 2009  
Blogger Annkrozeika said...

Really great post Gill, thanks. Will link to it so I know where to find it again next time someone asks why we don't want inspecting :o)

Absolutely love Dani's "why are you wearing trousers" and can't wait to use it!!

9:57 pm, February 22, 2009  
Blogger Pete Darby said...


... but do you HAVE to dress as Gandalf whiil eyou say it?

1:03 pm, February 24, 2009  

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