Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Ability to set up and maintain Virtual Learning Environments." ?

I happened upon this job advertisement yesterday, for a full-time Elective Home Education Officer in the city of Wakefield, which is about 15 miles away from where we live. Wakefield has a population of nearly 80,000 of which 88 (according to these figures) are children who are currently being electively home educated. If the new full-time officer spent one day officiating for each of those children (a very generous allowance, considering most registered families are currently visited for about an hour a year, regardless of the number of children, assuming they agree to be visited at all, which is not mandatory) he or she would still only be busy for a quarter of their time. Unless Wakefield LA suspects the unregistered number of home educated children, soon to be flushed out by the new regulations, to be much higher than that. On our local email list - obviously not a conclusive statistical source - I think there are about three.

So, what exactly is Wakefield's incoming full-time EHE officer going to be doing with the other 75% of his or her working week? That's a lot of thumb-twiddling.

Until you start reading the attached 'job specification' in which the required competence:

- sticks out like a sore thumb.

It immediately reminded me of some meetings we had in our town at the end of last year with LA staff, about home education liaison. One of the ideas repeatedly raised there by the resident 'EHE officer' or equivalent (certainly not full-time!) was the setting up by them of a virtual school for electively home educated children.

Now, I know that there are regular regional conferences run by Capita, with the ostensible aim of "providing practical advice and guidance on how to reduce the number of children missing education", all of which are attended by our local LA relevant staff - and, I assume, those in Wakefield. They seem to be very well attended affairs. I notice in the one I just linked, booked for next month in Manchester, that one of the 'benefits of attending' is to:

  • Understand how to execute the recommendations of the Badman Review on elective home education

But wait a minute: the Badman recommendations are just that! They're not supposed to be executed at this point, are they? This is when the inner conspiracy theorist in me wonders again about the hidden agenda: the precise nature of the links between Badman, the DCSF and organisations like Capita. Who is driving the process? What is their brief? From where does this originate?

Going back to the issue of virtual schools, perhaps the best-known of these is, about which my younger son Al wrote a critique some time ago. He wasn't particularly impressed, considering the project to be superfluous, costly and inefficient, but then Alix is a particularly self-driven and highly motivated young man, and I think we both concluded that some students might find that kind of structure to be useful.

Our local EHE officer put it to me that the setting up of virtual school was one way for local authorities to access funding for home educators. Again, I can understand why some families might be interested in this (although why we can't just apply for and be given a share of the AWPU is beyond me) and wouldn't wish to prevent anyone from accessing such a resource, if that was their wish. My worry is, again, that of hidden agenda. Is the concept of virtual schools one that's being quietly discussed across the board at the Capita conferences and/or elsewhere? If so, where did it come from and where is it intended to go? At this stage, it wouldn't be overly paranoid of me to imagine a point in time when registration with a virtual school might be deemed the only officially acceptable kind of home education, any dissenting families to be written off as having the dreaded CME: Children Missing Education. The framework for such a future scenario could be said to be appearing to slide smoothly into place.

So, what do virtual schools do? They provide structure, direction, guidance, funding and tuition to their pupils. All useful services without which some home educating families no doubt feel to be floundering, or at least missing out on something. But it's crucially important for the sake of educational diversity that the alternative options are maintained. There's something really precious and valuable about a completely autodidactic education, such as the one enjoyed by my sons, aged 21 and 19 and both now well able to support themselves financially without need of official qualifications. It flies in the face of what is nowadays the 'normal' way of doing things, but unlike Ali's opinion of Notschool, it is cheap, efficient and extremely effective.

Self-directed learners become self-directed workers and from what I can gather, these are very useful kinds of people in any situation.


Blogger Gill said...

BTW, if you download the brochure of that conference, you can see that one of the elements of the programme is titled: "• Re-engaging home educated pupils into alternative education"

3:53 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Big mamma frog said...

Virtual learning? Sounds like a nice earner for BECTA then...Badman will be pleased with himself.

Though of course those home edders on low income who are currently excluded from the governments scheme to get access to computers for everyone might have a bit of trouble doing that virtual learning without a pc or internet access.

4:41 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

Yeah, but look: Quango wars!

4:45 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

(Five years out of date though..)

4:46 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Dave H said...

Under current law, if it's considered to be a school and attracting state funding, I think SATs and the National Curriculum are required. Many of us are here because we want to avoid that environment.

I suspect many of these large organisations are aware that this particular gravy train is departing soon, so they want to take advantage before that happens.

5:09 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

According to our LA bod, the criteria are more flexible now.

Also I want to say that I think we underestimate the power of those Capita conferences - I think the plan might be to bring Badman in via dissemenated and widespread LA practice, until it's de facto.

Capita runs SIMS, doesn't it? Seriously huge DCSF contract.

5:16 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

*Meant to say, if the CSF bill or relevant part fails.

5:17 pm, March 28, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The thing that gets me about this is that the virtual learning side of things is something which happens without anyone having to organise it. I don't see the point of it. I mean, you just go online and find and use appropriate resources. And the other thing is, when my children or i am doing that sort of thing, i consider it to be particularly low quality learning. I feel like i'm neglecting them when they do that sort of thing.

6:11 pm, March 28, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things about this:

Virtual learning doesn't need a special extra system to facilitate it: an adult or a child just goes online and uses the appropriate resources.

When i use online resources or have the children do that, i feel it's unusually low quality and a lazy way of helping them to learn. It has its place but i really don't think it actually needs to be encouraged.

This is entirely pointless or counterproductive.

6:15 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

Yes, I think that was essentially Ali's reasoning in his piece about Notschool - but from the student's perspective, not the parent's.

Personally I don't make excessive use of any kind of off-the-peg curricula for my children, as I prefer a more individually tailored approach. But each to their own.

6:40 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger neformore said...

Pah. This is "jobs for the boys" BECTA stuff. Need to follow the money trail here - I bet a couple of the members of the house are shareholders...

6:57 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

Has Becta got shareholders? It's a quango. Capita will have them, but not Becta.

I reckon there probably is a jobs-for-the-boys element to all this, but that can't be the primary motive. I think that's probably got more to do with surveillance and compliance (with ECM), plus some future profit making for the "service" providers.

7:26 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Maire said...

Excuse the lazy sentiment and not adding much but I wish they would just piss off!

captcha cryin, so nearly true.

7:52 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Renegade Parent said...

Hi Gill, nice to see you here. Does this mean that I was being overly paranoid last year?! I like to think of it as being sensible and empirical ;-).

IMO, all of the evidence pointed to the way this now appears to be going: Badman's involvement, given his links; his insistence that the status quo would not remain; Heppell's involvement within the blogging community, his insistence that child protection was a red herring; the continual mention of Tasmania as an ideal model; and a dozen other things that have squirmed out over the woodwork during the past 12 months or so.

Regardless of the eventual provider, you are *not* paranoid to think such things; it is simply how such arrangements happen.

Really, if registration does involve something like this then its implications are far worse (imo) than some of Badman's other recommendations - even the really controversial ones. It is out and out surveillance and control, with absolutely no requirement for even the smallest amount of effort to appear reasonable. I think it would, in most cases, erase autodidacticism.

Sorry if this seems garbled but J woke needing a feed as I was typing. L :)

8:09 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger moley said...

Whilst I agree with everyone else that this is really scary stuff and not something I want for my kids, as someone who actually does "set up and maintain VLEs" for a living can I just say that they are quite frankly living in cloud cuckoo land!

For a start do they mean the front end learning materials or the back end web server stuff. Either way, very few teachers have those skills. Half of them can't even cope with email FFS!

Besides which, if they do want to set up a NotSchool rival there is NO WAY that one person could possibly do it all. It is an absolutely immense undertaking. I spent probably 6 months designing one level 3 NVQ course and a company we work with spent 2 yrs full time, with at least 3 people to do 3 computer courses.

Pure madness!!!

9:36 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Renegade Parent said...

@moley what you say is perfectly valid - if you are starting from scratch and on a basis of voluntary exchange. But depending on the provider the content is already there to roll out to all families and the back end/infrastructure exists too, maybe even linked into other systems or databases. It is correct to say that government is often ineffective where IT implementation, but where there is corporate crossover the waters become very murky indeed (and indeed regardless of crossover, ineffectiveness is a risk factor for the individual).

10:50 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger moley said...

@renegade parent Well I could be wrong but I'm not convinced the content is there yet unless they are planning to but packages from the USA who seem much further along that road than we are.

Admittedly most of my experience is with FE but we were quite involved with the primary school's computer system before we pulled the kids out and they had bugger all.

But anyway if they wanted to buy in a ready made package why would they need someone to "set up and maintain" a VLE?

11:11 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Renegade Parent said...

@moley - I really hope you are right!

Could they not roll out Notschool, for example, to *all* children not in mainstream education? That exists already. And I would be amazed if there were not other IT consultancies developing prototype products in line with likely future policy/legislation.

Re. the job description, even a centralised VLA would need to be implemented and coordinated in each locality (and likely monitored and managed at a local level in conjunction with face-to-face "support") - this could explain the person specification bumph?

Having had experience of government programme roll outs at a local level - specifically the information management system stuff - all of this sounds pretty feasible to me, hence my speculation.

But obviously speculation is all that it is :-S

11:37 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger moley said...

@renegade parent last time I looked I thought Notschool was quite expensive and quite tailored to each child. I don't think they have an actual curriculum as such. Heavy on staff too!

I certainly don't want to see it imposed on all HEers but as an alternative to the average PRU I think it actually looks quite good (much as it pains me to say that!)

I still can't get my head round it though. Even if they bought in a package, what is the EHE officer going to be doing with the VLE? Are they seriously expecting him/her to monitor and support 88 kids' online learning through the whole gamut of subjects/key stages? How could that work?

11:53 pm, March 28, 2010  
Blogger Renegade Parent said...

Okay, here's an example. See what you think:

If Notschool negotiated with Becta (Heppell and Badman being friends, remember) it would be highly lucrative and reputation enhancing for Heppell and extremely cost effective for Becta (who could easily subsidise or subsume hardware/hosting etc. costs). It would certainly not cost the 5k/annum/person or whatever figure that is bandied around - that is a showy figure of convenience, *not* an accurate representation of actual cost (or worth).

And if learning was condensed into a series of tick box exercises, automatically monitored, assessed and evaluated in the main by technology - then how difficult is it for an individual to manage the academic output of 100 people? You only need to generate a "dashboard" type report to highlight the serious anomalies requiring immediate attention, and then pencil in the other people for standard visits.

You are operating with integrity and working on the assumption that learning is valuable to the individual and difficult (or impossible) to measure. I would argue that the people who are interested in implementing these systems - either for control or financial gain - operate on the assumption that learning is less relevant to the individual than to "society" or the economy as we know it, and that is is easy to measure according to their (subjective) yardsticks. We already see this approach in schools across the country.

The biggest danger here is that as theses children are *not* in schools, this type of learning will be labelled as truly "personalised" or, worse, "autonomous"! When all it is is the online delivery of the world according to an education "expert" who seeks to tell our children what it is they have to learn in order to be "successful" in the 21st century.

12:17 am, March 29, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

Shell, I've just had a long conversation with Al about the unlimited scope for unregulated online learning just now. He made the point that students can just google for information now and that books and teachers are pretty much obsolete. This is the first age in which the potential for self-education, for a person with internet connection, is limitless. Having said that, we ended up agreeing that this degree of freedom is probably happening within a specified window of time, one that will be closed as the Internet is increasingly regulated.

I agree that we'll "get Badman by default" - we'll be fighting a new rearguard action against it indefinitely.

What do you think is the real financial incentive driving Becta? Logic dictates it's coming from the IT companies, maybe.. I'd like to know whether Becta is one of the quangos that's been using public money to fund professional lobbying firms. Does anyone know whether it is? (Notice New Labour stopping the practice now, at the end of its term in office!)

Maire, oh me too.

Hello Lisa :) No, of course you weren't being overly paranoid there, IMO. The facts are bearing you out now, aren't they? That was an excellent blog post - one of the best I've seen and I regret not saying so at the time. (This more recent one of Merry's is well worth a read too, coming from a more emotive but still powerful position. Just wanted to fit in a plug for it somewhere here!)

Lynn, the impression I got from our local EHE person is that the virtual school, at the beginning anyway, only acts as a sort of funds-providing gateway. Students become registered pupils, which enables the LA to draw down their AWPU and this can then be spent on buying coursework and resources for them. Our LA man couldn't fathom my objection to such a scheme, but of course I see it as being the top of a slippery downward slope, ending in all kinds of compulsory monitoring, serveillance and such nonsense. If the off-the-peg framework isn't currently available, it eventually will be. They're advertising for a full-time worker for just 88 pupils, remember. And if that's the kind of pupil ratio they're looking at for the virtual schools programme, it's surely something the teaching unions ought to be keeping their eye on as well!

It's no secret that I've always wondered about Stephen Heppell's motivation for weighing into the EHE issue. He never did spell out his agenda in that respect, despite being repeatedly asked to do so. But Heppell and Badmen and Balls are just three men, and I think we're actually dealing with a lot more than three behind all of this. Cui bono?

8:37 am, March 29, 2010  
Blogger Sheila said...

Smugness personified...

Glow, which is the electronic component of Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, has been deemed clunky and out of date.

Not that this matters because it is all about control.

The Curriculum for Excellence is an integral part of Getting it right for every child (Girfec) which is out version of Every Child Matters (ECM).

Mentioning this because Scotland seem to be the testing ground for a lot of things these days.

Great to have you back Gill :)

10:24 am, March 29, 2010  
Blogger Tech said...

Gill did you read the beyond current horizons stuff? Cached link as the original seems defunct now!

2:36 pm, March 29, 2010  
Blogger Tech said...

Thankfully I saved a copy of the 2009 report if you want a copy.

2:38 pm, March 29, 2010  
Blogger LPG said...

Hmmm - worth a read over on (and back issues of home education magazine, another USA publication sadly gone with the demise of Borders over here :-( ) on the subject of the 'virtual charter school'. Being enrolled in such makes you an 'attender' but still 'at home' (but not, legally 'home schooled') with the addition of groups meeting for practical study etc. where there are enough attendees in a locality. (so not unlike the bedford scheme here in the UK, but with added computer...)

In short, I believe that S.Heppell's ideas came from looking at this concept (and indeed when asked about him taking it as such I'm told he avoided answering the question... hmmmmm).

11:10 pm, March 29, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

Sheila, I like some of what Heppell says, especially that bit about homework:

"Homework is interesting, you know, 'Children can't be spending their time at home properly, so we'll send them home with a task and parents were sort of nipping into Ikea and buying desks and trying to recreate a vision of the school in the corner of the room and it was 'You should be sitting down with your homework', you know, 'You're not allowed to play music at school, you can't play it now!' and actually what kids were doing in home was they were learning really well - they were chasing after the role model of their older sibling, and reinforcing their understanding by working with younger ones, they were talking to their granny about their memories, I mean they were in the scouts, in the swimming club, in the orchestra, you know, they were heavily engaged in learning but none of that counted in the school because it wasn't - you know.."

Sadly, he didn't finish that last sentence! I wish he had. But what he said there was an excellent explanation of autonomous education, how it works and how useful and effective it is and to some extent the damage done to this natural and healthy process by schooling.

He's so nearly on our side! If only he didn't have his own school-substitute ideas to interfere with instead of leaving us to get on with facilitating the above for our children. Having said that, perhaps he has got the 'leave us alone' message from us now? I haven't seen or heard his name in the context of EHE for a long time. Has anyone else?

And did you get the bit about ".. and your mum and your granny is in your classroom.."? That intrigued me.

"Schools can't own it all, but they can inspire it all and that's a much better role."

Yes, I do agree with this, and if schools were completely open as drop-in centres in the same way as public libraries currently are then I think they'd be fantastic institutions. There's something of the creepy treehouse about the idea of bringing computer games into schools though. Why not just give children the choice about going to school, then make school so good that they do want to go? If they were so sure of their ground, they'd be working towards doing that. Maybe.

"Not that this matters because it is all about control."

Yep, you've got it sussed, Sheila.

I promised Ali some time ago I'd have a look at Girfec, but life went on and I got sidetracked a million different ways. I still mean to, but not today! We're out on home ed group activities all day. Mañana.. (Not sure how much use I'd be any way. Brain not focused enough, somehow.)

8:08 am, March 31, 2010  
Blogger Gill said...

What is wrong with my blog? It won't accept long comments any more!

Continuing on then..

Thanks for the link to the Conservative blog. Have you had a look at Capita's SIMS package? From Wikipedia:

"SIMS (Schools Information Management System) is a management information system used by more than 22,000 schools in 120 local authorities across the United Kingdom boasting from 80% to 90% of the market share"

I've had a bit of a look around the site itself, but I'd need more time to properly understand how it works. At first glance, phrases like this: "Sharing data in real time on key student information such as attendance, behaviour and medical needs," leap off the page at me. I'm thinking, if every school child from now on grows up being accustomed to being part of a system like this, then it will be much easier to gradually impose it on the whole population as they grow up.

Tech, I think I did but have forgotten the detail now. Would be grateful for another look, thanks.

LPG, you look familiar! Maybe it's the name.. ;-) Seems like avoiding answering certain questions might be a speciality of his then!

8:09 am, March 31, 2010  
Blogger LPG said...

Once upon a time, there was an organisation called 'ethical junction'. They held a networking evening, and I had a lovely chat with someone about the learning schemes that he was investigating that were out in India... I introduced him to someone else who was involved with Pestalozi.... and between us we had a short conversation about the whole charter virtual school thing that was a huge issue in the USA at the time. Chap seemed to understand the concept of AE, at the time.

Some years later, lol, this chap called Heppell appeared with an 'interesting' out-of-school scheme... I can no longer find the card from this chap from the evening some years before but the name rings bells... I'm still trying to confirm whether they are/were one and the same bloke. I'm awfully worried that I, um, may have inadvertently pushed into this whole thing, as is the lovely lady who was the Pestalozi person who was also there. But if they are one and the same person, then they've definately been got to in the meantime because what they now do, and what was discussed that evening are a good 90 degrees out!

12:23 am, April 02, 2010  
Blogger Sheila said...

Copied curriculum is a compliment

"Amid the current uncertainty around Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) - calls for yet another delay, marches demanding more resources, the studied inability of a prominent academic on Newsnight Scotland to give a rational explanation of the new curriculum - one thing is true: England has been looking northwards at what we are doing … and clearly it likes what it sees.

For the first time since Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the comprehensive system in the early 1980s, it would appear that the two countries have a similar vision of the curriculum.

A visit to the national curriculum website ( indicates that not only has the new framework in England incorporated many of the aims and principles of CfE, but, with the benefit of having looked at our documents, it has come up with some of the elements which are implicit in ours."

7:22 pm, April 02, 2010  

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