Monday, December 18, 2006

Children in Chancery

I've spent most of the weekend reading Children in Chancery by Joy Baker, who was born in 1923 and educated at school for only 7 years, which she contended to have been 7 years too long. She received most of her education at home from her mother, as was normal in those days. By the time her first son David was born in 1945, Rab Butler's 1944 Education Act was in place and it was against this and the officials paid to impose it, that Joy spent most of her mothering years fighting.

Having tried school herself and found the experience to be damaging, she decided against sending her own children to school and was puzzled, in the first place, to find that carrying out her decision unimpeded by the authorities was no longer a straightforward thing to do.

It wasn't until she first encountered the LEA in 1952 when David was 7, that she even knew about or had cause to read the 1944 Act with which she must comply. She refused to accede to the authority's request for information on the grounds that they should take her word for it that her children were receiving an efficient education suitable to their age, aptitude and abilities, unless they had specific reason to think she might be lying. Having successfully dispatched a succession of cold-calling Truancy Officers, she received a letter, asking that "a copy of the timetable and scheme of work which your sons will follow, together with the qualifications of the tutor, be submitted for the approval of the Local Education Authority."

She refused to comply, received the first in a long series of School Attendance Orders and was in the ensuing years repeatedly summoned to justify herself to various courts, usually representing herself as she couldn't afford legal representation. Joy went on to have 7 children and was often pregnant or nursing a baby during her appearances in court. Her older children were frequently called to give evidence and were questioned and inspected by magistrates, judges and officials and it seems they invariably did her proud.

In court she was magnificent and expressed her views clearly, eloquently, and truthfully, as illustrated by this quote from the book, which is just a small part part of her representation to the bench at one of the hearings:

"I have been told that I have no qualifications for the educating of my children. But I have the one qualification—and the only one—that fits or entitles anyone to undertake the education of a child—love for the children. That love is the first essential in the upbringing of any child is now acknowledged by all authorities on child care; but the present Education Act now decrees that it is only necessary up to the age of five, when a child should be summarily removed from the love which has protected, encouraged, and educated it up to that age, and set in a classroom to be made to receive the most lasting impressions of its life from complete strangers. Only through the understanding interest in the child that arises from love of the child can true education be given. Lord Evershed said in dismissing my last appeal that he “had to consider” the children. I also have considered the children, not for an hour in a law court without seeing them, but unremittingly for thirteen years. I do not believe that Dr. Lincoln Ralphs ever lies awake at night considering whether the steps he is taking are in every way to the utmost benefit of the four individual children concerned; nor do I believe any school-teacher would do so. Nothing that I have done for my children has been done without the utmost searching of my mind, the most vigilant watching of the results, that they should not he mishandled in any way. It is this that gives me the ability and the right to educate my children—that I care for them— that I am in a position to judge the results of what I am doing daily, hourly—that I have no hidebound red-tape system that takes no regard for the effect on the individual—that I can and do devote to their education and to their welfare all the hours of my life."

Joy knew in her heart that schooling was wrong for her children and she decided, having gone so far along the path of home education, that she was committed to seeing it through even though she was sometimes tempted to submit to the authority's wishes, just because of the stress and strain of constantly resisting them. Part of the legal process she was put through involved her inspecting the schools in question and she presented her findings to the court about these schools in a way that made me laugh out loud.

The impressive thing about Joy is that she was so sure of the rightness of what she was doing and so determined, in the face of immense opposition from the whole establishment, to continue doing it.

Here's a typical exchange between herself and the LEA from one of the hearings:

I laid down my papers, and turned to face Mr. Brighton’s crossexamination.
Mr. Brighton was brief. In an exasperated voice he asked, ‘Mrs. Baker, have you any intention of complying with these School Attendance Orders?’
‘None whatsoever,’ I said firmly.
Mr. Brighton sighed. ‘Do you realize that there is a century of experience behind the Education Act?’
I replied, ‘The fundamental right of a parent to educate her own children is even older.’

Joy was constantly threatened with removal of her children - a very real threat since they actually were removed from her by force on at least one occasion.

Her views and principles about education were wholly autonomous and as such, very similar to my own and throughout the book - and indeed, throughout the court hearings - she transmitted and justified these in an amazingly powerful, coherent and comprehensive way. I found myself reading the exact same argument I've made myself about age, aptitude and ability: how can learning at the child's own pace and on the child's own terms be anything other than precisely tailored for that individual learner's unique age, aptitude and ability? And how can any off-the-peg curriculum, - or in fact any teacher-imposed lesson - ever possibly compare in terms of complying with those three criteria?

There are so many excerpts from the book that I'd like to quote here. I'd actually like to blog the whole book! because Joy explains herself so much better than I or anyone else ever could. Her amazing personality and the absolute depth of her principles comes through in every word. She was on her own and defenceless, fighting single-handedly for her own children and for all our children against the same forces that still threaten us now, in almost identical ways, in some cases word-for-word.

Here's how she concluded one of her court appearences:

‘I have not been trying to prove that these children are receiving the same kind of education as they would receive in school. The Education Act does not make any mention of that. I have been trying to prove that these children are receiving a better education — with regard to their ages, abilities, and aptitudes — than they could at school; that it is producing better results, in their individual cases, than education at school would.
‘You are not being asked to decide whether you think these children ought to be at school, or should receive any other method of education. You are being asked to decide whether they are receiving an efficient full-time education within the meaning of the Act.
‘I am asking you to say that these children are being properly educated within the meaning of the Act; to dismiss these summonses which threaten the children’s future, and leave me to educate my children in peace.'
I sat down; and Police Inspector Goldthorpe got up and gave details of my previous convictions under the Education Act in November 1957 and June 1953. Then I stood up as the magistrates left the court: and sat down again to wait.

Because of her educational stance, Joy was very famous at the time and as well as contending with the legal processes imposed by the LEA and the courts, and single-handedly rearing and educating 7 children, she also gracefully dealt with a constant stream of reporters and photographers in their house. She and the children because very used to being photographed and appearing in the national and international press, to the extent that it was almost part of normal family life for them all. I think I would find this very stressful, but Joy seemed to take it all in her stride - making good use of it, in fact, when offers of lifts home from court on wet, windy days were made by reporters!

The 1944 Act has been updated several times since its conception but we are still essentially dealing with the same situation and the same wording. We have several weapons in our armoury that weren't available to Joy though. The ones that spring immediately to mind being the Internet (enabling us to research and communicate better), the Children Act (which requires that children's views be taken into account in matters which affect them) and the European Human Rights legislation. If I was facing court again I would make the best possible use of all three. The Children Act was very useful to me the last time and I think it would be to anyone else in similar circumstances, but proceedings must be held off for as long as possible for this to be most effective, as the child's age is taken into account when the decision is made as to how much weight to attach to its opinions.

Now that I have almost finished reading Children in Chancery, I know that Joy Baker will be my inspiration too and I'm supremely grateful to Neil TM for his untiring efforts to make us aware of her and making her writing available to us to read.

The authorities gave her much to fear and many reasons to capitulate to their demands, but she stuck to the path that she knew to be the right, truthful one, regardless. From what I gather, she prevailed in the end, although exactly how she did this I won't know until I finish the book.


Blogger Tech said...

Thanks for posting that Gill, it's made me determined to read it. I've had it sitting on my desktop for a couple of months, but the format puts me off reading it - not good at reading stuff for too long on the screen. Think I'll print it off on the back of those excellent excerpts :-)

11:28 am, December 18, 2006  
Blogger Tibetan Star said...

I'll email you in a min.

6:43 pm, December 18, 2006  
Anonymous Jax said...

Sounds fascinating. Isn't there any way of getting it back into print?

9:26 pm, December 18, 2006  
Anonymous ar76 said...

I'm planning to track down a copy that is supposedly in the stacks of a local uni library where I can get access.

If anyone would like to read it as an actual book then you could ask for an inter-library loan from your public library. They can then apply to the British Library document supply centre, which owns a copy. Most public libraries do charge for this service but I'm not sure how much.

Takes off librarian hat and sits down...

12:36 am, December 19, 2006  
Blogger Allie said...

Sorry, that mysterious person is me, Allie!

12:38 am, December 19, 2006  
Blogger Gill said...

There are two used copies for sale at Amazon - both £25! I'm saving up :-)

9:32 am, December 19, 2006  
Blogger Carlotta said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:11 am, December 20, 2006  
Blogger SuchSmallHands said...

There are two copies currently on Amazon

9:20 pm, September 10, 2015  

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