Saturday, April 28, 2007


We are told that Gloucestershire LA, as a result of the Eunice Spry case which took place in its area, has "tightened up its HE dept" and would apparently like to be given powers to "doorstep" home educating families (i.e. turn up unannounced to see children).

If LAs were given such powers, what effect would this have on the education of electively home educated children?

Looking at my family and household today, right now, I’m thinking about what would happen if there was a knock on the door to check on the children.

1. The presence of unannounced strangers would interrupt the learning that is taking place. Unplanned, unstructured learning in particular flows of its own accord and is difficult to resume, once interrupted. Even scheduled and structured education would suffer from such an interruption. With some notice of a visit, a parent can at least prepare the children and the schedule (if there is one) for the interruption.

2. The nature of the visit would cause alarm for me and the children. The very fact that someone thought there was need to check on my children would make us wonder: what reason could you have for thinking there might be a problem here? The atmosphere of secure contentment which is currently enabling Lyddie to get immersed in the intricate development of today’s complex, imaginary story with her toys, and Zara to work on developing her graphic art skills, would be shattered.

3. We’d start wondering whether what we were doing ‘counted’ as education. It does, but it doesn’t always look like it at first glance. Sometimes I can only assess the children’s educational development afterwards as a result of the progress they make. It’s not always possible to assess the quality of their learning, without notice or time for reflection. So there’s a risk factor involved - that our educational provision might be deemed to be failing or even non-existent, in the eyes of the officials on the doorstep. (Would they stay on the doorstep?)

4. Even if the officials were satisfied on that occasion to see my children safe, well and learning - they would leave behind them an underlying sense of anxiety for us all. We’d suddenly start to look at what we were doing through other people’s (officials’) eyes and the judgmental mindset which might result from this would inevitably change the quality of the children’s education for the worse for a long time. They wouldn’t be able to concentrate as well and I’d have less confidence in my ability to trust, facilitate and interpret their natural learning processes.

My children are safe and well and certainly not being abused. They are well-fed, well cared-for and well-educated. They have the freedom to follow their own interests and the equipment and the wherewithal to do so and our house is a happy one, with no punishment or controlling mechanisms of any nature either imposed or needed. This is partly because of the fact that we are left in peace by the authorities to live the way we choose. But in home-educating households where abuse is happening, I don't think spot checks will help. On the contrary: I think they might make things worse.

I think a child abuser is likely to feel more angry, fearful and threatened and therefore more tempted to abuse as a result of a spot check. He or she will also feel safer to do so immediately after such a check, possibly reasoning that their chances of being checked on again soon afterwards would be slim.

Also I don't rate the chances of even skilled professionals being able to correctly spot signs of abuse during a spot check. I think the chances of them making mistakes either way are too high, and the existing historical evidence of them having done so is extremely alarming.

If the powers that be really want to help protect children from abuse, I think they should put their resources into investigating the real causes of abuse and starting to think about ways of preventing those, instead of conveniently ignoring the causes and only making matters worse by hamfistedly attempting to police the symptoms.

Also, does Gloucestershire not have a fully functioning and pre-existing Child Protection department within its Social Services section? If so, why does it want its LA staff to do Child Protection work instead?

I'd really like to hear how survivors of child abuse would feel they could have been better protected or rescued from their abusers. Surely these people are the only real experts in this matter?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Right *here*, right *now*

This is the principle by which I live, parent and educate because if difficulties arise, they always seem to come from either fears for the future or regret about the past. But we are free to choose where to focus our minds: Past, future - or now!

I don't know whether living entirely, permanently in the NOW is always a good idea. I tried it for a few months once, but found that I had to force my mind not to do anything else, and enforcement tends to only waste energy and to involve a corresponding backlash. So I'm happy to think back sometimes to think about what's happened to learn from it and to remember past events with fondness.

I do find it interesting, though, which particular events I look back on with the most fondness. They're often the times when I was doing something apparently unremarkable - except living in the NOW! The special events like marriage, birthdays and childbirths were often so fraught with complications to do with the specialness of the event, that I obviously found it hard to enjoy them properly.

The more I live in the present moment, the less I fear the future. I have been known to indulge in the occasional panic about things to come to varying degrees, but I suspect this causes a frame of mind that looks for bad news and therefore often finds it. I have images in my mind about the long term future which all involve happiness and contentment. I think we do tend to find what we're looking for, one way or another.

Some thinking about the future is probably sensible though, to avoid danger. But taking action to avoid danger is a different thing entirely to just worrying that it will come and hurt me and mine. But too much focus on taking such action can lead to inertia, or - worse - the wrong sort of action.

I believe the universe is intelligent. Some people call this God, Allah, Jehovah, the Tao or other names relating to their culture and interpretation. This intelligence creates order and I think the key to right action lies in observing and complying with this order. Not being gullible or desperate to find answers or to follow the crowd.

By switching off the noise and finding somewhere quiet, to listen and think and just to be, the right answers arise on their own.

Right answers feel different, like nothing else. They just click into place and feel right, then it's easy to trust them.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Unfooding: an elaboration.

I wrote a very brief post about unfooding a couple of years ago, but the subject came up in comments here, where I promised to expand on what we do here, regarding food and mealtimes.

I'm getting increasingly nervous about blogging what we do here, though, because it's slowly dawning on me, from reading comments and emails and lists, that some people start to feel somehow criticised or pressured for not doing things the same way as someone else does them. This is a bit of a shock to me, who has always carved my own path through life based on what worked for me and mine, and nobody else, which has resulted in me being, I suppose, fairly conventional in some respects and fairly radical in others. The thing is, I don't care whether what I do is usual or unusual, conventional or radical, acceptable or unacceptable to other people. All I care about, in making decisions about how we live, is that my children and I are happy, healthy, strong and safe and that we don't damage or obstruct our neighbours.

I don't write all this stuff about how we live in order to say: "This is the only right way of doing things," because I don't think that's true, and anyway it's none of my business what decisions other people make and I have no wish to influence them. So why do I write it? Mainly because I enjoy writing, also because people seem to enjoy reading. But there is another motive that takes some thinking about. The world seems to be becoming increasingly homogenised, which makes us all nicely predictable and therefore easily managed by governments and big business. Alternative lifestyles are therefore always slightly under threat and I believe this is more true now than ever before. Because of this feeling I have that my decisions are being forever impinged upon, it gives me some slight comfort to keep blogging away those homogenising myths, like the ones about relative poverty, single parenthood, discipline and health. If I keep saying, "My family does it this way and the kids grew up ok," then it adds to the chorus of voices which combine, hopefully, to keep different options open.

But most people often don't do things the way we do them here, and I'd like to take this opportunity to say that in my opinion, if you and your children are as happy and healthy as can be then you're probably doing things in the 'right' way for you. People and families and circumstances are all so different that one way would not work for everyone and we all probably need to do things slightly, or radically differently to the next person. I've changed the way I do things depending on various stages in my life too, and I also think there's nothing wrong with that. So, nothing that I write is intended as a criticism of anyone else, unless I'm clearly saying that's the case. Which is very rare. I should probably paste this into my sidebar!

Now.. what was I originally rambling about? LOL. Unfooding. Right:

There was a time, early in my marriage, when I was teaching myself housekeeping techniques from Mrs Beeton's Household Management, (published in 1861 ^^) and therefore my whole family used to sit down to full 3-course breakfasts, luncheons, high teas and dinners around a fully dressed table on the precise dot of 8am, 12 noon, 4pm and 8pm. Before I went to bed, the kitchen would be cleaned and tidied and the table set for breakfast. This routine lasted for about two years, until I started to get full-blown panic attacks at the threat of every slight alteration to the schedule which meant, I decided, time for a rethink.

I'm glad I learned all that stuff though, because (as many artists confirm) it's good to know the 'proper' technique for doing something before you relax all the rules and start doing it your own way. Having realised it wasn't a matter of life or death for me to serve up four daily three-course meals to my family with military precision timing, I was able to gradually relax my approach to the daily food schedule until, around the time we deregistered from school, only the evening meal was still set in stone.

I think the move towards total unfooding was completed alongside and as a result of our move towards complete unschooling, because it's hard to justify: "You can learn what, how and when you like," with "Oh but you still have to come and sit to the table for half an hour at 5pm."

Curiosity and the motive to learn things seems, for us, to be strongest when we live spontaneously in the moment, and any sort of fixed schedule has the effect of limiting such opportunities. During various phases since deschooling the children have wanted to experiment with eating, sleeping and cooking at different times and in different ways, to see what worked for them. They've learned about nutrition by observing the effects in their own bodies of different foods, for which it was necessary for me to back off and abdicate my total control of the food supplies. Unfooding and unschooling are therefore intertwined and inseparable, twin facets of their autonomous education and childhood.

So in our house we all decide what food to buy and we make joint decisions about what proportion of the household budget to allocate towards the food bills, even the children who are very young. It's in everyone's interests to store the food safely and the food is then all available to everyone, whenever and however they want to eat it.

You might think this would lead to complete selfishness and isolation, with people living on a nonstop diet of snacks and TV meals consisting of ovenchips and chocolate, but this is absolutely not the case. We end up, by mutual consent, with a full range of affordable and nutritious ingredients. Sometimes meals are preplanned, preprepared and cooked from scratch - as often by the other teens as by me. It's rare for someone to cook for themselves alone. Every few days someone (often me, sometimes Lyddie, sometimes someone else) feels the urge to cook for everyone, then we sit down to a pleasurable meal together. The boys are the only two regular meat eaters and they always cook for each other when a meat meal is being prepared. Sometimes they sit down to eat together at bizarre times like 3am, but they do sit down to eat together.

Unstructured sleep times are another aspect of the spontaneous way of life. What could it be called: unscheduling? The thing is we've found here, by trial and error, that most of us are obsessive about projects once we get our teeth into them, so we're quite likely to want to work late into the night (and through it) on things sometimes. My point of view on this matter is that the project is paramount and people will sleep when tired, just as they will eat when hungry. My teens have been known to survive for a few days on very little sleep when working frantically on something and then catch up by having a few days and nights of almost nonstop sleeping. I would venture to suggest that this would be the natural state of affairs for many people if they didn't have rigid schedules to adhere to. My minimal knowledge of the great works of genius tells me that they came about in this way. The human mind seems to work at its best and most creative when it's free to obsess: to focus exclusively wherever it settles, without forced interruption, until the subject is 'cracked'.

This way of living probably wouldn't work well for everyone. No doubt some people do prefer the comfort of routines. There can be a lot of benefit in routine, and I myself have been known to settle into one from time to time, while it suited me, as have the children. But I've loved having the freedom to free them, in turn, from the necessity of a rigidly adult-imposed schedule.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Wife Swap

We've just watched Wife Swap - the home education one.

I was quite dreading it actually, because I'd seen a warning that the home educated girl apparently treated her horse badly, which we thought might be used, along with the rest of the programme, as an anti-home ed tirade, but the incident with the horse was played down and not, luckily, made a big thing of.

I hardly ever watch this programme, but have seen it before, so I do know how it works. Just in case you don't know, the deal is that the mothers from each of two (usually contrasting) families have to swap places for two weeks. For the first week they live the way the host family normally lives and for the second week, the swapped wife gets to draw up her own rules for the host family, which they then agree to abide by.

One of the issues for me is... why? I can't really understand why anyone would put themselves up for this voluntarily, especially with young-ish children. The families involved are putting themselves up to be judged by the viewing public and by each other and I really struggle to understand the motives for wanting to be involved in the first place. They invariably hate the whole experience and collapse back into their partners' arms sobbing with anguish at the end of the two weeks - so why volunteer for it in the first place?

Anyway, that aside, tonight's programme was a lot better than I'd expected. Tori, the non-HEing wife, runs a strip club with her husband in Brighton and has a 15 year-old daughter, and Paula stays at home with her husband and young daughter, who is about 8 I think. I really liked the two mums, and the strip club dad was great too. I could definitely relate to Paula the home-ed mum: she was calm, relaxed and contented and she gamely went along with the programme's format, even agreeing to do a bar-top dance at the club. The strip club husband obviously made a great effort to help her feel comfortable. When rule change time came in the strip-club house, it was no surprise to hear that Paula had decreed the couple should make more time for their daughter, which they did, and the daughter seemed really pleased. For the strip-club daughter, the programme was a good thing I think.

The concept of home education in the other family wasn't portrayed too badly I don't think, although I did cringe at the kitchen-table hour-a-day worksheets. Still, some people do home ed in that way, so it's valid. A totally autonomous family would have been more of a shock to the viewing public! But on the other hand, the home-educated daughter didn't display the interest in learning and in life that autonomous students tend to have, so they obviously didn't show home ed at its best. However, I know the programme makers have been after a home ed family for ages - we weren't exactly queueing up for the job! So they wouldn't have had a lot of choice.

But in home ed house, it was the husband's stubborn, boorish attitude that let them down: he wouldn't play the game! It looked like the strip club lady was really trying to get along with them - she certainly got along well with the home educated daughter although she didn't like the idea of her being out of school. The husband there seemed set against her right from the beginning. When rule change time came around, she unsurprisingly put the little girl into school and the little girl had a good time. She arranged a night out with the husband and he refused to go. They had a row, Tori hit him and moved into a hotel for the rest of the week.

There was obviously a LOT going on that wasn't shown and it's difficult to work out exactly what happened from the clips we did get to see, but sadly the outstanding point seemed to be the little girl's confusion. She was very keen to go to school, but Tori had spent all of the first week hyping her up about it. Her dad was very anti-school and the only reason he was shown to give was the school bullying the little girl had suffered two years before the filming, before she was deregistered. She wasn't shown to be going anywhere or doing anything other than being with her parents and looking after her horses and she admitted to feeling bored and lonely at home. They filmed her on the first day at school and she did seem happy there, but the school would presumably be making a special effort to make sure she was, and the programme makers would be sure to only show the good bits.

I wondered whether the timing of the argument was significant. Home ed dad obviously really did not like the fact that his daughter had enjoyed school so much. This was the only reason I could think of for his adamant refusal to go out in the evening. He seemed to be spoiling for a fight with strip-club mum, to which she sadly succumbed and then moved out, which put a stop to the school experiment.

On school day two, Tori had already left for the hotel and it was snowing. The little home-educated girl burst into tears, saying she wanted to stay home to play in the snow, but her dad hugged her and said, "No. I know you don't want to go to school, but we did agree to play the game so you have to go," although it transpired that he didn't make her go for the rest of the week. A week wouldn't have been long enough for the little girl to decide whether she really did want to go back to school anyway but the two days she did just seemed to totally confuse her.

I really felt for the home ed daughter. She had her feelings manipulated quite ruthlessly by everyone involved and the whole thing was an absolute roller-coaster for her. She seemed ok at home in her normal home ed routine - not greatly stimulated but happy enough, then along came Wife Swap and Tori, Mummy disappears and she's got Tori trying to convince her that school is great for week one and her dad obviously being against the idea. The child herself just wanted to please the adults. She didn't seem to know what she actually wanted to do. This really worried me. She went along with school in the same way she'd gone along with home ed - just because the prevailing influence wanted her to. Then as soon as Tori left it was like flipping a coin - she was off the idea of school again, as if by magic.

I don't think the programme will have succeeded in changing anyone's ideas about home ed, school or strip clubs. What it did seem to do was to highlight the perils of manipulating children's emotions to suit adult agendas. That's how I saw it, anyway.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Autonomous housework

... because the housework is definitely self-governing! ;-)

And because Allie mentioned something back here about housework, so I thought I'd do another post about how that works here.

I know some people manage it, but I find it impossible to allow the children full autonomy in their learning whilst still insisting they do other things to help out around the house. Maybe it's because I'm an all-or-nothing sort of person, but it seems I can either do non-stop coercion or none at all! And none at all is friendlier, more respectful, nicer, more effective.. just generally better, in my experience.

Well, there's me and Tom here who are both officially adults, and Ali and Zara who are nearly officially adults and Lyddie, who is officially very young and creative, and the baby. And a fair amount of mess and chaos is created. This is exacerbated by the fact that as well as unschooling, we also practice unfooding, (Did Deborah invent that word?) therefore food is being prepared by random people at random times in random ways. And there are no clearing-up rules.

So, what's the end result? Well the house isn't spotless, and I don't do all the work. I think we all do as much as we want to, as much as makes sense to us, enough to keep the place to a standard with which we're comfortable. The trouble is, we all have different standards.

One of the boys shares my taste in cleanliness/tidiness, and quite often washes dishes, hangs clothes and tidies up voluntarily. I'm frequently pleasantly surprised when I go to do a task and find he's already done it and he does it without fanfare and not expecting thanks or praise. His brother, on the other hand, is happier in a more chaotic environment and would wait far longer before he chose to clean or tidy anything. So it's rare he cleans or tidies anything! But he's happy to hold the baby while I do the work, and is always available for unloading or loading the car and other heavy lifting work.

Zara would be the first to admit she's no 'clean freak' either. But she loves to take care of her baby sister at every opportunity, which again frees me up to work on keeping the house within my comfort zone. And Lyddie loves to clean and tidy up, wash dishes and do anything domestic at all. I only have to start a job and she goes to fetch her chair to stand on so that she can join in and/or take over. Washing dishes then becomes a science experiment in the sink, or a game with teaspoon-people in dish-boats, so that's ok.

Things work best around here when people are left to do their own thing, in their own time and their own way, according to their strengths and weaknesses and their likes and dislikes. I actually like washing dishes and tidying up. But I hate ironing! I think we all do, so none of that gets done. Zara and I were heard pondering the other day whether we actually possess an iron. She thinks we do, somewhere.

Reading all that makes it sounds very peaceful around here, doesn't it? Well it is, but only sometimes ;-) There are days when nobody tidies, washes or cleans anything, or has the inclination to help in any way and if I'm tired when the chaos drops noticeably below my tolerance level I have been known to get upset. Reactions then vary. Out of three teens, two usually keep their heads down and one comes to help me. And Lyddie helps too. And the two helpers are both good at reassuring me that the world doesn't hate me and nor did it mess the house up on purpose. And we rush around cleaning up until I'm happy again.

Hmmm. Is my sometimes being upset about mess coercive, then? Well maybe it is, but not consciously or deliberately. So I wonder if it counts.

Friday, April 20, 2007

On the subject of coercion...

The girls and I were in Boots yesterday, queueing up to pay an extortionate £5 for a baby hair brush. We witnessed the lady in front of us being reprimanded by the cashier for breaking the seal on a lipstick that she was actually buying, then it was our turn.

"Have you got your loyalty card?" asked the matronly cashier, reminding me of our old swimming teacher when someone had forgotten their towel.


Tut. Sigh. "Tell me your name and address and I'll add your points."

"I haven't got a card."

"OK I'll start you off with one. Name?"

"I don't want one, thanks. I just want to pay for the brush."

More sighing. "If you don't have a card, you won't get the special offers."

"We don't come in often enough to get any special offers." (Yesterday was the first time in five years. I didn't realise the staff had mutated since my last visit. They couldn't be bothered to speak to customers once upon a time.)

"It doesn't matter. You'll still get points."

"No thanks, I don't want one."

"Well, I'll start you off with one anyway," she said, and reached for the form and scanned the bar code.

"I SAID I didn't WANT ONE."

Silence. The whole queue held its breath to see what would happen next.

The cashier glared. Stared. I met her gaze thinking: I've got k'ung fu, Lady, and 15 years on you. Do your worst.

She slowly and dramatically ripped the form in half and said, "Ooo kay.. I was only concerned you might miss your special offers..."

"Right. Here's five quid for the brush."

"...And your free things.."

"Do you want this money or not?"

She took the money and handed me my receipt as if I suddenly smelled bad. When we walked away I heard her saying to the next person: "Some people don't know what's good for them, do they?"

I guess I'll be barred from Boots now, for displaying wilful lack of loyalty ;-) Not that I'll notice: it'll be another five years, no doubt, before I'm desperate enough to want to shop there again. (Nowhere else stocked baby brushes.)

So. How much commission are they on for those loyalty cards? Or.. is that cashier just a frustrated swimming teacher, in the wrong job?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Am I unusual?

If I'm free to choose my activities without coercion, I happily apply myself 100% and learn a lot from everything I do.

If coercion is applied - even gentle persuasion or well-meaning trickery - I'll become suspicious and resentful and, although I may submit to undertaking the activity in question, it becomes increasingly unlikely that I will be open to learning much from it.

If I am openly bribed or blackmailed to do something I immediately start looking for an escape route. If I can't see a way out I will focus my energies on learning how to beat the system (of rewards and punishments) rather than happily applying myself to learning from the activity in question.

If I am locked in a room, 'forced' into doing something and given no other choice, I will be angry, upset and will close my mind completely to the activity on offer. If this happened to me every day for years without rescue, I'd probably become increasingly resentful towards the world in general. I would actively seek to avoid the activity in question at every possible opportunity.

Is this how most people would react in those circumstances, or am I unusual?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Debt lessons

"I am sure that no one in the House would dispute that people need to be better educated financially, or that that education should start in our schools and colleges," said Phil Willis (Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate & Knaresborough,) yesterday in Parliament. He proceeded to make a good case for compulsory personal finance lessons in schools, ending with:
"Finally, I make a simple plea to the Minister. Will he look again at the evidence that supports making financial education a compulsory part of the national curriculum? Will he talk to the FSA, the Institute of Financial Services, the Institute of Chartered Accountants, the Finance and Leasing Association and the Council of Mortgage Lenders? Look at the evidence, Minister, and make new plans."

The minister in question, Jim Knight, Minister of State (Schools and 14-19 Learners), Department for Education and Skills, gave a lengthy reply, explaining that no, compulsory lessons in personal financial management would not be on the agenda, but rest assured the government believes the subject to be very important and "that schools and colleges have an important role to play in ensuring that young people go out into the workplace with the skills they need to plan and manage their finances."

I disagree. Schools and colleges have no role to play in this respect. Abstract, theoretical lessons on personal finance delivered by strangers in a classroom will make very little difference to a young person's personal financial management skills or decisions.

Here's how my children have learned about personal financial management:

  • When we want to buy something, we sit together and work out whether, and how, we can afford it.

  • They're here when the postman arrives with the regular bundle of snazzy mailshots from the credit card companies. In their turn, they've asked what those letters are about and I've explained that these companies want to give us money, so that they can have twice as much of our money back in return.

  • In answer to further questions, I've pulled out pens, paper and calculators to explain how interest rates work until the children were satisfied they understood.

  • When my bank statement arrives, it's available for us all to study, so that we can all see where our family money goes.

  • This gives rise to questions like: "Why are the mortgage payments so high?", "For how long will we have to pay them?" and "Do we really use so much electricity? How?" - and the resulting replies and discussions.

  • They all see debt - any kind of debt, for any reason, as being a very bad thing. The boys have just explained to me how they think our whole economy runs on personal debt, and how different our county's financial position would be without it. Student loans, said Ali, deliberately trigger a 'mindset of debt' which often persists throughout adulthood, enslaving people by keeping them trapped in the inescapable loop of wages and debt repayments.

    By separating children from family and home, does the education system prevent this natural, vital learning process and inadvertantly (or otherwise) fuel the debt culture which is necessary for the continued success of our national economy in its current state?

    My parents did not borrow money except for a prudent mortgage which was repaid with interest in its 25-year term. In common with the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate & Knaresborough, I had a parent who regularly quoted Dickens' Mr. Micawber:
    "Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery,"
    enough for it to become entrenched in my mind. It was in my stepfather's interests to keep me out of debt, so I suppose I was lucky to receive my lessons in personal finances from him instead of from the state.

    Last year 107,000 people in the UK became insolvent. 5,300 people a day went to Citizens Advice for debt advice and our combined consumer debt reached £1.3 trillion, which was more than our GDP. I guess the numbers of parents preaching Micawber to their children must be dwindling.

    Tuesday, April 17, 2007

    Dinner table discussions

    Today ours was centred around gun laws, and whether they're a good idea or not in the light of yesterday's university shootings. I kept trying to get the conversation around to what might make some people want to do such a thing, but the boys were more interested in working out the best ways of preventing it.

    International gun crime statistics were cited (how do they know such things? The boys, I mean, not the statisticians) and it seems that the UK is quite low down the list of gun-related homicides. So, despite being a libertarian Tom is in favour of gun laws. I'd say I'm ethically not, because a law is a law and it seems incongruous to suggest that some can be effective and others not. I was trying to remember the points Sarah Fitz-Claridge made in one of her essays on this subject, but couldn't. Can't even find it now. Oh well here's some debate about it. I'm not sure whether that was her post in the first place.

    Ali mentioned the unusual fact that although it's legal to bear arms in many American states, silencers or suppressors are still outlawed. I found the semantics of this quite interesting and we got into a great discussion about what constitutes premeditated crime. The boys got really technical about guns and how they work, (Again: how on earth do they know?) but Zara and I were more interested in the psychology of such a crime and the boys did eventually leave the mechanics alone long enough to join us in wondering about the causes of psychosis and whether certain people do feel empathy or not.

    Ali queried the point that, if a person has no empathy and is therefore unable to comprehend another person's pain - what would be the point of them going on a killing spree? - which got us into the realm of narcissism and sadism and wondering what caused those states of minds. We also got into discussing the effects of drugs (both prescribed and illegal) and diet on the mind, but I was more interested in this than the others I think.

    I do feel very strongly that whenever something like this happens the main consideration afterwards, when everything physically practical has been done, has to be to work out exactly how and why it came to pass. I don't subscribe to the 'sometimes things just are' school of thought, I don't think.

    It's also interesting that Zara and I wanted to discuss the psychology of the crime, whereas Tom and Ali were more interested in the mechanics of it. Is this because of our respective genders, or just our individual interests? We didn't get around to discussing that.

    Monday, April 16, 2007

    Children are not performing poodles

    Teachers reflect on disciplining this week, according to the BBC news at the NASUWT conference in Belfast, by outlining several ingenious ways of bribing and blackmailing children to obey them.

    It makes me weary to rant on about this again, because it seems so blindingly obvious that I really shouldn't have to, but is this it? The pinnacle of modern civilisation?
    "A system through which behaviour that is above and beyond what is expected is rewarded with bonus points which build up into vouchers for stores like WH Smith and Argos." ?

    This is not education, by any understanding of the word. Surely, teaching is not just a matter of having a bunch of kids compelled to stay in a room with you, while you bribe them to fulfil a paperwork quota, earn a salary and go home again? It doesn't exactly further the sum of human knowledge, does it?

    I dunno, maybe I'm wrong about all this, but what about a natural love of learning? The basic curiosity about life all children are born with and never lose - at least not until someone tells them they HAVE to learn. Did this country lose touch with its children so much that it forgot they love to learn anyway?

    If education wasn't compulsory, you'd have to pay children to stop learning, not pay them to start.

    The emporer has no clothes on! What happened to that little boy anyway? Hmmm.. something horrible, I bet! ^^

    Sunday, April 15, 2007

    My visual DNA

    Civitas blog post revisited: Amazing autonomy

    I happened upon Anastasia De Waal's Civitas blog post again this morning: Who's Truanting?, about which I blogged last Sunday and it has since generated some great comments.

    I'm particularly impressed by Janet Ford's children, about whom she says:
    "My two children have been lucky enough to decide on their own education, and an inspector making judgements about my son at 13 would have been horrified at this child who had not yet decided writing was an important thing in his life, or maths. However my son was recently the youngest entrant ever at the Manchester School of Medicine's PhD programme, following his degree. My 11 year old daughter is currently writing her first novel, but has not yet decided that maths is interesting enough to spend time on. She will, because it will be a necessary skill that she will realise she needs, and at that time, because she herself sees the need, she will cover it quickly and thoroughly, just as my son did when he was 14, taking a GCSE in Higher maths after 6 months study."

    This is an amazing testimony of autonomous learning - in fact I think Janet was one of the people with whom I was exchanging list posts with when I was first thinking about deschooling for Tom, Ali and Zara, 7/8 years ago. So far mine haven't gone down the route of exams and qualifications and it doesn't seem as if the boys ever will. But they still push themselves hard to develop their skills, widen their business contacts and stretch their abilities, so their respective careers are definitely on track.

    I love the fact that they don't worry about 'earning a living' - though they can and do earn money. Instead, they're far more focused on pursuing their intellectual and creative passions. One thing leads to another: they work on developing a project then get talking with people who are doing similar things, which feeds in different ideas so they in turn develop some more. I don't think they could switch their minds off if they wanted to, and it seems that they don't want to.

    I worry sometimes whether they missed out on some necessary structure - some vital information, perhaps, needed to underpin their current work but when I ask specific questions along those lines it turned out that of course they learned everything necessary to get to where they are, because it was the natural order of learning. They wouldn't be at the stage they were at without doing everything along the way to get there. I didn't notice them learning it but they learned so much, so fast that I couldn't possibly witness it all, or even most of it. But learn it they did.

    So what are they doing, exactly? I'm not 100% sure, to be honest! They don't need, and wouldn't want, me to pry into their activities all the time and they're past the age of [pointless, counterproductive] compulsory education so I don't have to, thank goodness. But Ali "does bits of coding" for some people and "bits of translation" for others, for which he apparently randomly receives cheques through the post and payment by various other means. Tom "does bits of building work" when he needs money and spends the rest of his time developing his graphic arts skills. He sometimes shows me what he's working on and it is amazing.

    The other thing I like is that they work together. Usually this happens when Ali is stuck with a hardware issue, which Tom always sorts out for him; or when Tom is stuck on a piece of coding, which Ali solves and further explains. Tom will quite happily go and ask his younger brother for coding tuition and Ali quite happily supplies it without arrogance and vice versa with hardware, compatability or platform issues.

    Zara is also 'working hard' - though it seems strange to call it that when it's fun and completely voluntary. But she's also into graphic art - adapting rather than creating, which (they tell me) is a completely different thing to what Tom does. And she reads and posts to all kinds of forums and develops her thinking and her ideas in that way.

    It's just natural living. I wish it wasn't so unusual and under such threat of extinction that those of us who dare, have to publicly write about it. Perhaps one day it won't be and we can quietly get on with living our lives in complete, protected, accepted and safe privacy.

    Saturday, April 14, 2007

    Go on then ;-)

    Since raising the concerns I was raising last week was deemed in some circles to be unduly critical - even though I didn't mean to be that way, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I think this is a great article, about which I'm very pleased, especially the title and intro:
    "School's out, for ever

    You don't have to be rich or a hippie to educate your children at home."

    Keeping a blog is a very strange exercise sometimes though. Some people pretend not to be reading - certainly never comment, but then make a big fuss elsewhere about something you say, thereby denying you the right of reply. You can find yourself to be perceived in all kinds of bizarre ways, and having all kinds of weird motives attributed to you. So I don't expect my opinion of the above to rock any boats and indeed I hope it doesn't and since I dread to think how it will be perceived I won't even dwell on it. Suffice to say, I had serious and genuine concerns about the Traveller issue and was not out to take sides or score points. Come to think of it I still do have those genuine serious concerns, because they were never discussed or dealt with. Not with me, anyway.

    Still, today's another day and that is a great article which does the UK home educating community proud.

    Friday, April 13, 2007

    Children: "An investment of very doubtful value."

    This blog title is a quote from last night's Analysis: Miserable Children on Radio 4, which seems to be the Establishment's response to the UNICEF report: Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries about which I blogged in February.

    The programme was presented by Andrew Brown, and included contributions from 'the renowned child care expert Penelope Leach, Professor Richard Layard, politically influential advocate of the "science of happiness", the Swedish Children's Ombudsman Lena Nyberg and the minister with responsibility for children in Britain, Beverley Hughes,' and its precis reads as follows:
    "A recent UNICEF report prompted accusations that the UK is failing its children. So are we breeding a uniquely unhappy youngest generation? Or are we allowing adult angst and an idealised image of childhood to distort our view? In this week's 'Analysis', Andrew Brown investigates how factors such as a more commercially driven and status-conscious society, prolonged adolescence, and parental uncertainty about how best to bring up children are challenging assumptions about ever more contented children."

    It was the opening five minutes of the programme that made me think: "Oh, this is the establishment's answer to that report," because it began with Leach and Willets both saying, in round about ways, that happiness doesn't really matter much anyway, followed by Beverley Hughes pricelessly critising the report as being outdated ("The children in question didn't grow up under Labour." !) and using questionable methodology.

    The presenter then showed his bias, in my opinion, by repeating her suggestion: (" matter what may be the validity of the criticisms levelled at its methods.") and then redeemed himself with the words: "Even poverty does not seem to make children miserable on its own," and "But perhaps it is higher expectations which are themselves the problem."

    Penelope Leach then said something with which I fundamentally disagree: "I think to be a poor child in a society as aspirant as ours and as materialistic as ours is very, very difficult. Children are herd animals - they want to do what other children do, they want to have what other children have - and therefore to be much poorer than the average probably does make you bloody miserable." Children are NOT herd animals! Yes, they like to play with other children some of the time - but the mistake we make is in forcibly herding them together ALL of the time, and giving them no choice in the matter. Then, yes, comparisions between richer and poorer are more likely and have more chance to do damage. But only because we forced them to herd together in the first place.

    Economist Richard Layard spoke in defence of the integrity of the survey, thank goodness, and suggested that the problem in the UK is our level of trust in one another. He suggested that "we need to move towards a society in which people think their job is to contribute to the welfare of other people," - which may well be true, but he offered no suggestions as to how to bring this about. The insanely paradoxical idea of enforced volunteering perhaps? I can't see this furthering trust between people, even if someone is mad enough to make it happen.

    Julia Margo for the IPPR, then came in and blamed people's - especially 'vulnerable' children's lack of contentment on advertising and corporate brands: "Children react to messages from advertisers about kinds of products and lifestyles associated with a high status in society much more than adults do. They’re much more susceptible to these kinds of messages and ideas and they’re much more prone to anxiety about their status," and again I would argue that this is because they're forced out of the mixed-age family environment with (hopefully) its unconditional acceptance of their unadorned status. This also removes the child from daily familiarity with the family routine - possibly including the financial calculations which would make the child more realistically aware about the real cost of things, the funds available, and what could and couldn't be afforded.

    She went on to say: "What’s quite worrying actually is that the most recent research suggests that British children are more brand aware than their US counterparts even, which gives some indication of our kind of children’s brand awareness. It’s a very serious problem here," which made me think of Gatto and his explanation of British schooling being directly founded and financed by industrialists. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose..

    Swedish Children's Ombudsman Lena Nyberg actually cited schools and stress as being a primary factor, and mentioned that even in Sweden there is a huge problem with mental illness. Lord Layard then came back with a direct recommendation (apparently serious,) that the whole problem could be solved by dispensing more happy pills! [Note to self: check Layard's declared business interests.] He went further by making it clear that he wasn't just referring to mental illness per se, but the full range of anxiety disorders which may, he said, be massively underdiagnosed. This made me laugh when I heard it, but then I realised it's not funny: it's spooky, if not terrifying.

    The conversation then sidetracked into the invention of adolescence which is surely a factor, but one shared, presumably, by all the other countries featured in the report, but Julia Margo said that she has in her research discovered that British
    children have less adult guidance than children elsewhere in Europe. This I can believe, and agree is relevant. This got confused with talk about adult authority, which I think is not relevant, and then the subject of parental age came up for debate.

    Penelope Leach very tentatively, and somewhat garbledly, suggested that it might be better for parenting to begin at a much earlier age, but she then immediately contradicted this by saying: "Though I would be the first to be bursting into tears if young people that I knew were saying well we’re going to have our family now at 18, 19, 20 because it wouldn’t work." Why not? She didn't say, but she's referring to the economical factors I think. She seemed to be battling with herself on the issue, and I think it is a general dichotomy of our modern world (which in my view would be solved by less family separation and therefore more support from the other generations.)

    Julia Margo came back with the contrary point, which she claimed to have gleaned from the UNICEF research, that high teenage fertility was an indicator of unhappy children. This is an interesting point to me, because I myself was an unhappy adolescent and had a strong urge to have children from about the age of fifteen. I think this is because we instinctively know that the family environment is the healthiest, and we therefore seek to create our own family if our current environment is not good for us.

    The presenter then introduced a political angle, by asking David Willets whether he was in favour of government intervention into this problem ("No government can avoid stepping in when children’s unhappiness has consequences for all of society,") even though the Conservatives traditionally avoided intervention.

    David Willets said: "I think that if we could all just allow, create a little bit more space in which children are allowed to be children and then know there are boundaries for their behaviour and boundaries that can be set by adults who don’t necessarily all have to be in some sort of professional position," which seemed like an accurate description of home education, to me!

    And then Beverley Hughes uttered another one of her golden, priceless, coffee-spluttering statements: "I’m absolutely clear and so is the government that it is parents who bring up children and there’s no way we would want to transgress in terms of that responsibility or infantilise parents," which I'm in the process of printing, framing and mounting on my wall ;-)

    The topic returned to the necessary time spent with parents, involvement of other generations, a useful point by Penelope Leach: "I don’t think we can make rules for bringing up children because I don’t think we know what we want children to be like," and a spot of single-mother bashing by the Swede, although she did go on to say that too much non-school activity was also unhelpful, with which I did concur.

    The debate drew to a close with Brown questioning why people have children at all, including the above quoted phrase: "an investment of very doubtful value," which Layard developed into the interesting idea that fewer children makes for more parental attention and more pressure for each child to succeed in order for their parents to justify the child's existence!

    Brown then took this further: "Yet the more important success becomes, the less likely it is that all children can hope for happiness, since the unsuccessful must always be a majority and so increasingly miserable." Which is possibly true BUT it depends entirely on your definition of success.

    Penelope Leach ended with a well-aimed criticism of government: "They know we have a lot of families who are much poorer than they should be and that this in a sense predicts disaster later and they seem to have decided that you can kind of legislate and arrange for change," well-aimed because of course legislation of this kind is pointless at best and very harmful at worst.

    And the programme finished on a far more balanced note, in my opinion, than it had begun, with the presenter's words: "But [a change] in which status is measured only by material success makes us, and our children, needlessly miserable."

    On this point, I fully agree.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    Blogging as evidence?

    Someone seems to think we home educators who blog are doing so just to provide evidence for LAs. And we don't value our families' privacy. And we think our responsibility is to the state, not to our children. And that it's dangerous for us to blog about our lives because it puts home educators at risk who don't do that.

    Why do people jump to conclusions about other people's motives? If I want to provide evidence to my LA I send them a report. If they want to seek information about my home ed provision they write and ask for a report. They don't read my blog instead. Even if they did read my blog, they wouldn't find out much about my home education provision, they'd just find out about my opinions on a few things, and one or two selected incidents regarding my children. Keeping a blog doesn't somehow make me safer than someone who doesn't keep one, and nor does it put them at risk, in my opinion.

    This argument is as logical as me saying: I educate autonomously, therefore anyone who imposes structure or lessons on their children is threatening my position, because if some people do that, then we'll all be expected to do it. Of course I disagree: everyone should be and is free to home educate in whichever way suits their family best, regardless of how it affects me. And it doesn't affect me.

    If I thought my responsibility was to the state rather than my children, my children would be in school. In fact, I'd have put them in state care as soon as they were born. In fact, I wouldn't have had any children: I'd have just worked for the state, for free.

    Human nature is such a strange thing. Why does some people doing something make some of the people who aren't doing that thing, feel bad about it? Freedom, diversity, respect and choice are essential components to a healthy society I think. If we all made the same choices all the time, what kind of world would we live in?

    I wonder how many people sit quietly chuntering and anonymously commenting on other people's decisions. Is this a rare phenomena, or a common one? It shocks me when I come across it. Then again, you could say that's me commenting on someone else's choice. Not anonymously though.

    I don't, personally, like to think that my decisions about my life might affect people I don't even know about. I don't see why they should. It's certainly not my motive for doing anything, or not doing it.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    "Ignorance is not bliss, it’s annoying and must be dealt with."

    I'm not going to obsess about this blog forever, but I did find the above quote in this post from 26th February, which made me think. I'm really glad 'OldAndrew' likes teaching. He certainly writes very fluently, so it's a pleasure to read him even though I often find myself taking exception to some of the things he says! But from what I've gleaned from his writing I'd have preferred his teaching to much of what I did receive in school.

    However... ;-)
    "I do find that children have a particular fault: they don’t know very much. I have never met a child who couldn’t be improved by learning more. I get the most satisfaction out of my relationship with the children I teach when I cause them to learn. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s annoying and must be dealt with. That is the purpose of my work."
    has spurred me into blogging him once more.

    I don't know what subject he teaches, but I do know there will be some children in his classes who naturally love the subject, and some who have no interest in it whatsoever - as well as all the shades of grey in between those two extremes. Falling into the first category, no doubt, will be those who have a natural affinity for understanding it and the latter group will, no doubt, include some people for whom it will always be boring gobbledegook no matter how well it's taught.

    This is the nature of the human race. Our strength lies in our diversity. Some people are brilliant mathematicians, others are natural writers, some are artists. Some of us are great athletes, musicians, or scientists. Some people are just good at teaching or preaching or parenting. For every person who exists in society, there is a job that needs doing which is a role for which they are precisely suited. This applies to all jobs - paid and unpaid, taught and untaught. And it applies to all people. And sometimes it might vary throughout their lives. But we need everyone, and we need all the positions filled.

    So how can schools, governments, or anyone else decide what every child must learn? What if they get it wrong, and try to force an artist to learn too much maths, or a mathematician to do too much athletics training? What if that person needed to spend that time developing a different ability to the one they were timetabled to learn? What if that person's specialist subject doesn't appear on the timetable at all?

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Oh dear

    This teacher's blog post is a description of what home educated children are missing out on. I don't know how any LA can know that's a typical example of a school lesson and yet still threaten a HEing family with a School Attendance Order.

    Also, I think I'd 'strop' if I had to spend my days subjected to some elements of this list of 'triggers' - wouldn't you?:

    • Arguing with them.
    • Enforcing the rules.
    • Reminding them of the rules.
    • Asking them not to interrupt you when you are talking to another child.
    • Setting work.
    • Correcting their mistakes.
    • Asking to see their work.
    • Looking at their work.
    • Talking to them.
    I wouldn't mind being talked to or even argued with, but I'd find it very patronising and provoking to be constantly reminded of an externally-imposed set of rules, as if I couldn't be trusted to behave reasonably well without them. As for being instructed to produce 'work' to prove I'd learned something: I'd be asking them to explain how my learning might benefit from this, and if they constantly looked over my shoulder and criticised my efforts, yes, I'd be tempted to 'strop' also.

    My sympathies are with the students and the teachers. This is not education. This is a sick parody of education that bears no resemblance to the development of intellect as I understand it.

    Looking at the comments, I liked this one though:
    "Once I'd reminded them I got paid anyway and started to read my book they'd sometimes demand that I taught them just to annoy me.

    It made me wonder if there is some hope, after all.

    Monday, April 09, 2007

    Do we still need handwriting?

    Nikki's got me thinking :-)

    I posted this comment here:

    As regards the development of handwriting: do we still need this?

    I won't be sitting Lyddie down and insisting she produces writing ever, so the writing she does will only be that which she wants to do - at the moment this consists of signing cards, (as Em said re: her girls,) labelling pictures and adding to shopping lists etc.

    I wonder if this will ever develop
    [of its own accord] into scripted narrative, in our keyboard age? Tom, Ali and Zara express themselves in text extensively, but all via computer keyboard. They all can produce legible handwriting, but it certainly isn't something they practice.

    I myself still do pages of handwriting most days in my diary, but I think this is through force of habit more than anything - if I was 20 years younger I've no doubt I'd be doing it on computer.

    Reliance on machines for writing does make me feel concerned about us developing too much dependence on such things, but having said that I think the handwriting ability comes back very quickly after a short amount of practice, so I'm not too worried. I think if Tom, Ali and Zara were suddenly deprived of their computers they'd be handwriting very well within a few days.

    And it should have been a blog post really, because I'd love to know what other people think about this. Do we still need handwriting?

    Sunday, April 08, 2007

    Computer games are educational

    I've been talking about the educational benefits of computer games for ages and now it seems that other people are thinking along the same lines.

    School Matters has made a Teachers' TV programme called The Games Children Play, [Google video link] which looks at the idea of using computer games in schools.

    Here are some excerpts from the video:
    'We know even from research in neuroscience that engagement with that part of the brain that gives affect to things - that is, it says: "This matters. Something is at stake here. Pay attention," (which is in part the amygdala but not just the amygdala,) means that human beings will process the information much more deeply than when you don't trigger that part of the brain and one thing games are certainly very good at doing is triggering that part of the brain. And schools ought to be.'

    - that explains why, then!

    'If you ask a kid what's the worst thing about a bad game, he'll say: "It's too easy." Ask him what's the worst thing about a bad assignment and he'll say, "It's too hard." That tells you the gap, right there. Because, for whatever it is, the kids are willing to stay up all night to solve a level on a game and aren't willing to spend an extra ten minutes on doing their homework. Now that should tell you about some gap. Parents say, "Well it's because its pleasurable, or fun, or easy," - but it's actually hard work to do these games well. Kids are willing to work hard to beat a game and are not willing to work hard to beat school. That's the fundamental dillema - the paradox - we have to look at, and figure out why that is.'

    I think I know why that is. The child is in control, on a computer game. He can determine the outcomes and set his own goals. Success is based on truly impartial criteria and if he fails, he can just keep trying again (if he wishes) until he succeeds, without being humiliated infront of his friends and lectured about how he 'could do better'. There is no power struggle against another person or group of people, as there usually is with school learning.

    I think it would be a good idea for schools to use computer games - if they're going to let the children choose them and have free, uninterrupted, unjudged, unhindered play sessions on them when the mood arises. Sadly, I can't really imagine it happening that way - which is a pity (or not, depending on your viewpoint) because it might have been the saving of the school system.

    Oh and Happy Easter :-)

    We've just watched The Darling Buds of May again. Perfick!

    Civitas on the TES piece

    It's difficult for me to calmly review anything in connection with Civitas, the great single parent-haters, but someone on AHEd flagged up this post on the Civitas blog entitled 'Who's truanting?', by Anastasia de Waal, based on last week's piece in the TES. So I thought I'd have a look.

    Most of the post simply concurs with Tony Mooney's depressing view that the lack of an enforced curriculum and required teaching hours is cause for alarm. I think it's really sad that so many people associate enforcement with education when it's blatantly not true. But they have no experience or evidence, presumably, of learning happening on a voluntary basis, so there's no reason for them to believe it does. The post also talks about truancy and deregistration in relation to bullying, as if the bullied child should just go right back for more on a daily basis ad infinitum, compelled by its parent. If that passes for logical thought nowadays, I'm on the wrong planet.

    The last paragraph particularly interested me:
    'It is ironic that excessively stringent regulation in formal schooling is countered with home-school regulation so minimal that no education at all is a possibility. But perhaps it isn’t all that ironic: that the activities of children in school are almost obsessively monitored, but that those outside the system are left to their own devices, lends credence to the theory that national inspection and Whitehall directives are more about government accountability than they are about child welfare.'

    Government accountability? To the people, does she mean? Hmmm, I'm not sure national inspection and Whitehall directives are about that. Increasing central control, I'd have thought. Job creation. Change for the sake of change. Looking like they're doing something.. yes, that could be classed as government accountability I suppose.

    My chldren spent time (about 3-4 years altogether) in two different schools before we deregistered. The first was an old-fashioned village school which focused more on the children's happiness than their educational results and the second, in a commuter-belt, was far more driven - determined to preserve its place at the top of the league table. Needless to say, the children at the first school were learning far more than the children at the second. The difference was astounding and is enough proof to me that national inspection, Whitehall directives and all the other rules, regulations and meddling interventions that government imposes on education - are so counterproductive that their true purpose must be the dumbing-down of society.

    The fact that so many people don't see it seems to me to prove how well it's working.

    Saturday, April 07, 2007

    Writing and Waldorf-curious

    Lyddie has just written her name perfectly for the first time, without any help or prompting. It's been coming for a few days: she's wanted to do more and more writing and been taking greater interest in the letters and their sounds. Yesterday morning she was working out the letter sounds of all the family's names, by saying the name out loud, breaking it down into sounds and then writing each letter sound. She only got a few 'wrong'. When she asked for help or confirmation I gave it, but otherwise she worked it out for herself and the end result was perfectly legible.

    It's interesting that the writing has come before the reading, and it's a profound experience, listening to her sounding the words out and working out the letter sounds and corresponding shapes. I feel privileged to witness it.

    Someone - probably Rosie - told me that Rudolph Steiner was of the opinion that the ability to write develops naturally before the ability to read. I'd like to read more about him, just out of interest. No, I'm not going to throw out all our televisions and plastic toys ;-) Just do some reading. (Does it always start this way..?) Any suggestions as to which of his books I should start on?

    I can almost hear EF from over the North Sea, shouting "Nooooo!"

    Do Steiner people take charge of the learning process? I won't be doing that. But if he was right about the order of learning, it makes me wonder what else he had to say.

    Just to clarify

    When Tony Mooney talks about the 'national scandal' of 'a quarter of home-schooled children doing little or no work,' do we think he's referring to autonomous educators, or educational neglecters?

    My understanding of his views from recent radio interviews, (transcribed here and here) especially:

    TM: The children are in control, yes. That's my experience. They are dictating how their education should go and what they want to do and what they don't want to do.

    EN: That's not a child's place though is it?

    TM: I don't think it is. I think when youngsters get out of the primary stage [they] should be following a logical, structured course of study and it's not the case in many of the families I go to.

    is that he's definitely referring to the legitimate practice of autonomous learning. Tony Mooney obviously puts no faith in the method and has little or no understanding of how it works.

    Given that the mainstream media seems to be queueing up to provide him with a platform to assert this view, should we not be presenting information to the contrary, to be used in our defence?

    He's been given three opportunities to proclaim his opinion about this 'scandal', as he calls it, and yet I have not seen autonomous learning defended on any of those occasions. Is this deliberate? Do the people 'on our side' who are being asked for their view not think autonomous learning is publicly defendable? Because I beg to differ.

    Many of us can and will, if necessary, produce our autonomously-educated adult offspring to prove him wrong. Both my sons have said they would argue the case for autonomous learning to anyone on any occasion and they would do so very well. I know of other young adults who would do so equally well. Many, if not most autonomously educating parents keep diaries and/or blogs to chart their children's undeniable educational progress and the method has been more than adequately explained in various books, journals and educational reports over the years. LA personnel who properly research educational methodology and have been lucky enough to see it in action and observe the results, are invariably understanding and supportive of autonomous learning.

    I think Mr Mooney is being used by the mainstream media to assert his view on this matter in order to raise the profile of the home education issue in a negative way and to cast doubt about it in the minds of the general public. I think this should be rigourously defended at every opportunity - not just because of the risk to autonomous learning, but because this is obviously being done as a precursor to the consultation, in order to add weight and support to the view that we should all be monitored and regulated on an ongoing basis. I think Tony Mooney should be publicly counter-attacked by us for his obvious lack of professional knowledge about educational methodology. In drawing public funds for "inspecting" (a job which currently has no basis in law) home educating families without proper understanding of what it is that many of us do, is he not being fraudulent, actually?

    I strongly disagree - if this is what happened - with the policy of blaming the lack of work seen by home education "inspectors" (and until their role has proper legitimacy I will continue to use inverted commas,) on those families who may or may not have been coerced by schools into deregistering against their wishes and who may or may not belong to the legally recognised race of people which is officially known as Gypsy/Roma and Travellers of Irish heritage.

    I fear the intended damage to our case has already been done, but nevertheless it's crucial that we work together and discuss our policy to prevent this plan of discreditation of autonomous learning and the raising of concern about it in the public mind, from continuing to be so alarmingly successful.

    Unless there are good reasons not to do so? If you can think of any, please do tell me.

    Friday, April 06, 2007

    Real Teaching

    'As far as I can see, this whole "problem" has its basis in the compulsory element of education. How different all this would be if facilities were invitational!'
    - Barbara Stark, Chair of AHEd

    'Something is going seriously wrong when more than half of children are deteriorating in their education despite turning up at school every day for three years.'
    - Nick Gibb, Conservative party School Spokesman

    'We regret that the drive towards full employment in an expanding economy will result in a greater institutionalisation of children.'
    - The Association of Teachers and Lecturers Annual Conference

    'We have an increasing number of kids who are deciding that they don't want to do either a certain subject or a certain teacher's lessons.'
    - Teacher, TES message board

    'It is part of the mythology of childhood itself that children hate learning and will avoid it at all costs.'
    - Daniel Quinn, Schooling: The Hidden Agenda

    It's not only children and families who are poorly served by a compulsory education system - I really feel for the teachers too. I think it's tragic that so much expertise and natural teaching ability is wasted in trying to force children to comply with this counterproductive law.

    There is nothing more demoralising and frustrating than trying to teach someone who doesn't want to learn that thing, at that time, from you. They struggle to pay attention, they're not interested in asking questions or learning the answers and all their thoughts are focused on escape. In that way it's worse than prison. Prison only seeks to contain a person's body. Compulsory schooling also seeks to contain their mind.

    Very good teachers can sometimes succeed in capturing a student's interest in something by finding creative ways to draw people in and make things look exciting, but this is impossible to maintain on a full-time basis, in respect of every student. Especially when the teacher has to produce a certain quota of paperwork from the class every term. We take people who passionately want to teach, and then ask the impossible of them. And give them no option other than resignation or sick leave.

    Natural teachers love to teach just as much as willing students love to learn. This is a magical, powerful, essential relationship in our society, but we repeatedly thwart its development by making education compulsory.

    I have in my mind an image of an 'invitational facility', as Barbara puts it so well and how very different its teachers' lives would be.

    Such a teacher would be free to convert his/her classroom into an inspirational space: a physical demonstration of their specialist subject. There would be time for the teacher to study more, and freedom to make the space comfortable for everyone. Students would come when they wanted to learn from the teacher - and they would certainly want to learn from a teacher who wanted to teach and did it well.

    Instead of standing infront of a class of unwilling, increasingly unruly captives, exhaustingly battling against closed minds, the 'invitational' teacher would wait until someone came with questions or requests:

    "Can you tell me about...?" "Can you show me how to..?" "Can you help me work out..?" And the teacher wouldn't be expected to know all the answers like an endless encyclopaedia (although some might!) but would instead provide resources, guidance and a shared enthusiasm to help the student learn from the point he or she was at, to the point he or she wanted to know.

    There would be no problem with teacher recruitment, student behaviour, truancy, quality or quantity of work... or monitoring home educators! In fact, such a solution would solve a great many of society's problems in one fell swoop.

    So why isn't it happening?

    Thursday, April 05, 2007

    Don't be silly

    First: politely questioning something someone has said on behalf of home educators to the national media and inviting them to respond does not constitute an attack on that person. If the person thinks it does, I've got to wonder why they're doing that most crucial and important job.

    Second: here's what I think about the Ivatts report:

    Reports do not get commissioned and published by government departments for fun, or because the government is genuinely curious about what the report might recommend IMO. Anyone who thinks they do is being gullible. Reports are commissioned and published by government departments in order to specifically recommend the changes in the law that the government wanted in the first place. This is how the government 'drives change'.

    Laming was 'supposed' to be all about Victoria Climbie. It ended up being about compelling the indiscriminate storing and sharing of information about families and children. In my view and the view of many other people, this was the aim all along and is standard practice in politics throughout the Western world.

    Why, for example, has DfES not commissioned a report into the monitoring of home education from EO, HEAS or AHEd? Or from any of the individuals who publicly represent, speak about and advise us on what we do? Because such a report would not contain the recommendations that the powers that be wished to enact.

    This isn't rocket science, or even conspiracy theory. It's just simple logic and common knowledge.

    So the Ivatts report, which happens to have been commissioned and published by the DfES, makes the following recommendations:

    "Legislation should apply uniformly to all families with children currently being educated at home and those wishing to elect for home education in the future. It is suggest that the legislation should ensure that: a) a standardised national system of registration be implemented by each local education authority in terms of assessment criteria; monitoring/inspection visits; and the time sequence related to these events b) the wishes of children are established and taken into account in the assessment process."

    "A clear curriculum entitlement is defined which is broad and balanced. All children to be registered (irrespective of whether they have ever been registered with a school), and that all children registered under EHE are seen initially and in the teaching and learning situation on a regular basis defined in law and a standard format for post visit reports and their distribution all children registered under EHE are assessed on a regular basis in relation to expectations of educational progress."

    - carefully enmeshed in a confusing mass of information about School Census data on the attainment of Gypsy/Roma and Travellers of Irish heritage. I feel to be stating the obvious here but will say it anyway. These are the recommendations Ivatts was expected to make, and DfES wanted him to make them because it wants to use them.

    Given this fact, I do feel entitled to express my alarm about the apparent raising of the EHE Traveller issue in the national press by an official HE spokesperson. I don't personally know any of the people concerned or anything about them. I'd be querying this, whoever had said it.

    There is - stating the blatantly obvious again - a reason why the recommendations above were 'hidden' in the Traveller issue rather than simply commissioned from someone like Tony Mooney, who (I assume) would have gladly supplied the required conclusions. The Gypsy/Roma/Traveller issue is complicated and requires the kind of delicate handling which conveniently confuses everything. We could confidently argue against a Mooney report with a reasonable chance of success. An Ivatts report - making the same recommendations - is much harder.

    So what I wanted to know is, given all this, why are some of us - in key positions - (trying my best to be non-personal here!) appearing to publicly sanction Ivatts?

    If it was an accident, I'd just like to urgently request more caution, for all our sakes.

    If it was deliberate, I think the home education community needs an explanation.

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    ‘Learning’ does not equal ‘work’, Mr Mooney

    Since the TES obviously doesn't want to use this (quelle surprise!) I may as well publish it here :-) You never know, he might be reading!

    Most of us home educators read Tony Mooney’s opinions with alarm in last week’s Times Educational Supplement. What worries us, I think, is that Mr Mooney (a self-avowed home education inspector with seven years’ experience) does not seem to understand the concept of autonomous learning, which is the way many of us choose, quite legally, to educate our children at home.

    Far from being negligent, or even odd, in our informed decision to employ this learning method (Tony Blair has recently called for a more personalised system in schools,) we’re simply ahead of the trend: trailblazers, if you like. If Mr Mooney is using public funds to inspect us, it’s very important that he learns more about what it is that many of us do.

    In some ways it’s not difficult to understand how the confusion arises. Learning in schools is invariably logged, registered and assessed in the form of ‘work’. An inspector of schools could reasonably assume that an absence of ‘work’ indicated an absence of learning. But this is only the case with such a high pupil: teacher ratio, where the teacher needs the evidence on paper to demonstrate each child’s understanding of the information conveyed.

    Home educators, with far fewer children, need no such proof. We know whether our children are learning or not because we know them so well, and we’re with them most – if not all - of the time. So, just because Mr Mooney and his colleagues are not seeing ‘work’ on paper when they visit home educating families, this does not mean the educational provision is unsuitable. Most home education ‘inspectors’ understand this very well. I’m amazed that some still don’t seem to, and yet still draw public funds for the work they do.

    But how, I imagine Mr Mooney and other conscientious ‘inspectors’ asking, are we to properly assess the provision, if there is no work to inspect? How can we tell whether the child is learning at an appropriate pace? Whether the parent is delivering a suitable curriculum?

    There are many ways to tell the difference between an autonomously educated child and one who is educationally neglected. For the benefit of Mr Mooney and any other concerned parties, here’s a list of the indicators.

    In autonomous home education:

    · There's at least one adult parent/facilitator who is available to help the child with learning at all times, on child's request;

    · Learning is completely child-led, so the adult is responsive to the child's interests without demanding a set result;

    · The child's expressed educational needs are met. This means access to books, Internet, software, equipment, libraries, museums, courses, tutors etc., as and when child requests them;

    · The child is aware of the above points and options, as much as possible;

    · Learning can take place any time, anywhere, in any form and is not restricted to one area, room, house or building. It happens in all of the child's waking moments, so it really is 'full-time' in every sense;

    · Education is therefore uniquely personalised to suit each individual child;

    · The child learns only according to his/her interests, so is always fully engaged and working to full potential;

    · The child's wish to learn can be damaged by being held to account over issues like output and progress;

    · Learning isn't usually divided into subject skills: these develop as and when the child requires them;

    · Learning naturally ebbs and flows, so periods of rest and passive thinking or processing usually follow more active phases;

    · Low adult: child ratio enables constant assessment and feedback, so 'work' on paper (or any other format) is not an essential requirement and therefore may or may not result from learning;

    · The learning process is fully owned by the learner, and as such any work (should any exist) belongs to the child and not the parent/facilitator;

    · Progress is not usually as predictable or regular as it is in schooled learning. It can be sometimes very fast and sometimes very slow, depending on the child and his/her stage in the process;

    · The child is offered opportunities to socialise and is free to choose how and when this takes place.

    With this information, it should be a simple matter for a home education ‘inspector’ – or anyone else - to weed out the educational neglecters from the autonomous home-educators.

    One final concern to address, which I suspect Mr Mooney would raise. Even if you use the above list to successfully identify autonomously home-educating families, how can you determine whether the child’s learning is of the right quantity and quality and covering the right subjects in the right way? If he asked this, Mr Mooney would once again betray his considerable expertise in schooling, and his considerable ignorance of autonomous learning.

    In this, the ultimate personalised learning system, the child’s own curiosity and will to learn is carefully preserved and utilised to drive the learning process. If we over-ride this and start trying to dictate what the child should learn and how it should be learned, we snuff out the spark of curiosity and go right back to schooling and all it’s associated problems with disengaged learners.

    Autonomously home-educated children are usually learning non-stop and are passionate about what they learn. They tend to grow up to be highly motivated, successful workers, as many of us with adult children brought up in this way can attest. But when it comes to producing a pile of assessable paperwork, our kids are usually – thankfully - at the bottom of the class.

    Joined AHEd :-)

    I've bided my time since writing this, in which I said:

    "I will not become a member of an org who 'represents' me whilst making behind-closed-doors political decisions and uses my membership (as a number) to add weight to its political clout without actually consulting each member and gaining agreement from all about the exact nature of its representations."

    And I'm now convinced that AHEd won't do this, so I've joined them.

    You'll see a link to the AHEd website in my sidebar now. I seem to have inadvertantly messed up some other coding in the process of adding it though.

    Gah, time for a coffee.

    That deregistration issue

    I've been thinking and reading some more about this, and I think it's something that really should be debated, respectfully and constructively before people go off - possibly unknowingly or unguardedly - colluding with PTB plans to try to discredit and/or further control deregistration and elective home education.

    I'd like to fully understand the general consensus on our position here. What are we saying, exactly?

    Gypsy/traveller families should not be allowed to deregister? I disagree, as I suspect most of us would.

    Persistent truants should not be allowed to be deregistered? Again, I totally disagree with this view. I hope it's not what we're saying.

    Schools and LAs have a legal responsibility to inform all parents about the right to home educate. (Anyone got the legal reference for that please?) and I believe that any parent has and should continue to have the legal right to deregister their child from school. If we allowed any kind of selective deregistration, the line between who was allowed to home educate and who wasn't allowed would creep very quickly to the point that only qualified school teachers were allowed, under close supervision, to keep their children out of school. Therefore it's very dangerous for the rights of everyone who home educates or might want to in future, to be seen to be promoting or colluding with any moves in that direction. I think most of us who have been around the home education scene, lists etc., for any length of time would be well aware of this danger.

    The specific issue seems to be the accusation that some schools are witholding information about deregistration until the last minute and then presenting it to parents in the form of a threat, i.e. "Sign this form or we'll prosecute you/expel your child," so that the parents in question aren't actually making an informed decision to home educate and - what are we saying? - that they don't want to do it?

    If this is happening, then I agree that it might not be a good thing for the children involved. But only if the child's home life was such that he or she never got any peace to think or learn.

    I'm trying to think how it might be bad for the home education community as a whole if this was happening and I'm not getting it. Someone explain please?

    From the point of view of the child in question, deregistration could be a lifesaver - however it happens. Why are we talking about denying this right to some of our most vulnerable children?

    OK, there will be a proportion of 'feral' children who go off in gangs when not in school and contribute to the destabilisation of communities, but we should get real about what proportion this is, and what exactly do we think these kids are doing in the evenings and at weekends, even if they do attend school fulltime? Preventing their parents from deregistering is not the answer to this problem.

    If some schools are attaching threats to pre-typed deregistration letters, the only viable solution is for schools and LEAs to fulfil their legal responsibility to prominently publicise the home education option. If everyone knows from the start that home education is an option for all, deregistration couldn't be forced on them as a last-ditch inevitability.

    The real solutions go far deeper than this, into the realm of family cohesion - a fact that government does seem to realise. I strongly believe that encouraging the separation of children from their parents with full-time employment for all adults, full-time mass childcare of very young children by people who are strangers to them, and ever-increasing school hours and ages of attendance will not do anything to help family cohesion at all. Family life can only be damaged by these measures, because what time do families have left to be together?

    Our innate instincts further the survival of our species. These instincts are strongest in parents with very young children. If this bond is allowed to develop healthily, much generational damage can be healed. Every parent's natural instinct is to teach our young how to survive, so even after years of disassociation and truancy, family life and a child's education can be saved by deregistration.

    What are we, as home educators, really scared of in this respect?

    Please explain this to me if you can, because I'm really struggling to understand some people's viewpoints and I know I'm not the only one.

    Monday, April 02, 2007

    So, how did you find out?

    Following on from the conversation in comments here, I've been wondering how other people found out about the option to home educate.

    I guess for some people, it wasn't so much a 'finding out' as a determination not to send their child to school, whatever the law said. Are such people increasingly rare now? Do most people assume school registration isn't optional?

    I first came across the legal right to home educate in Moira Bremner's Enquire Within Upon Everything, published in 1988, in which she said:

    Teaching at home

    There are three aspects to teaching at home: teaching a child totally at home because you have an objection to schooling, teaching a child at home because illness or absence abroad makes it impossible to attend school, and simply boosting what is done in school by doing a certain amount yourself. The reasons, and the age of the child, will affect what you teach, but there are certain principles which apply to all teaching whatever the age of the child. Those I briefly cover below.

    Should parents teach their children?

    Many teachers lack confidence and feel threatened by the thought of children being taught by their parents. After all, if any old parent can teach, what price the teacher's training and experience? This is understandable, but it is not only a good idea for parents to teach their children, it is essential. And I speak as a teacher.

    The best and easiest time for anyone - child or adult - to learn anything is when they feel like doing it. Yet teachers simply aren't there in the vital early years and even the best teacher with the smallest class cannot notice and stimulate the special interests of every schoolchild every day. And with children, there is more to learning at the right moment than just pleasure. They are marvellous learning machines and a confident child keeps pushing back the frontiers of his or her achievements, step by step, always progressing to the next thing which can just be managed. You can see them doing it physically: walking along the tops of walls as soon as they are sure of level ground. They also do it mentally, unerringly choosing the next activity they are ready to master. If we can follow a child's leads and teach it what it wants to know, the child is learning what it is ready to learn. It doesn't matter a jot whether the activity is 'right' for its age, where learning is concerned what a child wants to learn is right for that child. If it points to words at one year old and asks what they are, it wants to read - so teach it. And if stacking bricks is its great delight, give it bricks to stack. The child is the best judge of what it needs to do.

    A child learns more between birth and five than at any other time in its life - and its parents are the main teachers, even when they don't realise it. This doesn't mean that if you are educating your child at home, you sit there waiting for it to take an interest in nuclear physics. Adults have to try out topics and ideas on children and see which ones they latch onto. Only if you play them music will you discover whether they enjoy it. If nothing excites them, and you are educating a child entirely at home, some basic teaching will do no harm at all if it's done the right way.

    And she goes on to explain her ideas about 'the right way', which are also very interesting and useful, but would take me all evening to type out!

    So after reading this, when my stepson couldn't get on with his designated schoolteacher in 1992 when he was 8, and it looked like all his considerable intelligence and potential was going to be wasted because he was switching off from school, I deregistered him and schooled him for the 11+, which he passed three years later. I thought Tom, Ali and Zara might be ok at school but they weren't in the end, so I deregistered them in 1998 and proceeded to try and school them at home too. It was only after that, because of the UKHE list, that I learned about autonomous learning (although re-reading Moira Bremner above, I actually knew about it all along! That is what she's describing. Such a sensible woman!)

    I've only just realised I've actually been home educating for 12 years out of the past 15, albeit with different children, and in very different ways.

    So how did you find out about home education?