Sunday, March 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

- sticks out like a sore thumb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 15, 2010

Some thoughts on parenthood, children's rights and Maslow

I've always admired Heidi DeWet's writing, and her opinions never fail to resonate with and educate me. She's kindly given her permission for us to reproduce the following:

Reading some of the commentary on home education in the past few days joined some dots in my head. I don't have a blog to publish this on, and I don't have the gift of writing incisive, well-rounded commentary that some of my awesome friends have, but I'm hoping this will help inform the debate in some small way.

Baroness Deech: “… home educators who have flooded their MPs, and my blog site, with their views … cannot amount to more than 6 or 7 per cent, but the rage and resentment they express, their mishmash of ideological views, their rejection of state interference, their indifference to the rights of the child, their accusations of totalitarianism and their superiority over those who would like to help the child do not paint a good picture of home educators. They made me determined to speak up for the rights of the child, when I had taken hardly any notice of home education until recently.” [my emphasis]

Chris & Ophelia de Serres: “A number of comments questioned why we would want to change the existing system to ’save a few kids’. In our organization, every child counts, and we are committed to saving every one.” [Link]

These people, among others who’ve published their commentary recently, have a perception that home educators are opposed to children’s rights and/or unconcerned about children’s welfare.

As a group, we are no less concerned than most adults with children’s rights – probably more, as all of us are fully engaged with the upbringing of our own children in a way that parents who utilise schools for a significant portion of their children’s waking hours don't have to be. And all of us who take the time to contact our MPs and comment on ill-informed and prejudicial blogs do so precisely out of our concern for the rights and welfare of children – predominantly, but not solely, our own children.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes five types/levels of need which motivate people: physiological needs, safety needs, social needs, esteem needs and self-actualisation. He proposed that it is necessary to fulfil all needs at a lower or more fundamental level before it’s possible to move on to the higher-level needs. Interestingly, “family” appears under Safety needs and Social needs, in both cases in terms of the family satisfying the needs of the person in question; there is no mention of the desire to protect and nurture one’s children, which is a very fundamental drive indeed. There’s a lot of evidence that child-nurturing is influenced by hormones in the parent’s body, particularly the mother’s, and in my opinion it would be no stretch to define this need as a physiological need; if not, it certainly qualifies as a safety need.

A parent is biologically and psychologically designed, programmed, conditioned – call it what you will – to care deeply about the wellbeing of their child. If the child is threatened, or the parent’s ability to nurture the child to the best of their ability is threatened, the parent cannot help but defend themselves, their children and family. Moreover, the parent is unable to be motivated by, and give a normal response to, needs that come higher up the hierarchy until this fundamental need has been satisfied.

Baroness Deech is concerned about the rights of children in an altruistic fashion, that is in the abstract. Perhaps for her it’s at the fifth level of self-actualisation (morality) or perhaps it extends down to the fourth level, esteem (achievement, wanting to make a difference, wanting to be respected). As an abuse survivor, perhaps Ms de Serres’s own second-level safety needs are bound up in her desire to make all other children safe from abuse. I think these observers expect us to respond to the perceived needs or rights of the Abstract Child in the same way they do, and they’re taken aback when we don’t. But it’s not because we don’t care – it’s because as parents we are blocked from responding to the issue of the Abstract Child until our far more basic need to protect our own, absolutely Real Children has been satisfied.

And we are simply not biologically capable of putting the theoretical needs of theoretical children before the concrete needs of our own children, and saying “yes, we’ll open our homes and expose our children to the abuse of educational bigots and potential paedophiles in the tenuous hope that some day, somewhere, it will allow the authorities to detect, and possibly even do something useful about, the abuse of a home-educated child who otherwise would have remained hidden.”

By Heidi DeWet

Saturday, March 06, 2010

What are you doing here?

You should be over there, reading this.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Outcomes and the factors that affect them

The wonderful Grit, who keeps one of my favourite home ed blogs, has exhorted me to keep posting here, although for some reason I'm finding it very difficult to do so these days. But for Grit (and anyone else who wanted it) I will try.

First, I hate the word 'outcomes'. It speaks about the end result of a process: feed this in and in the end, you get that out, which will be why it's so well-used by conventional educationalists. But I think of education as a self-motivated thing, based on seeking knowledge. When this is a healthy, natural process it doesn't stop at the age of 16 or 18 or 21, or whenever a particular set course finishes, or when the government decides it should. It's a lifelong thing and I think this is another reason why I struggle to think in terms of educational 'outcomes'.

But this seems to be, politically, a momentous time for home education. We're in the news this week and we're being debated in the House of Lords. Two of my children are now over the age of 18, so I thought I'd say something here about their educational 'outcomes' and how I think these have been achieved.

Tom's business is still going well, although it's had its ups and downs over the year since he set it up. Crucially, it answers both the requirements he always had of it:

  1. It allows him lots of spare time to do other things: he works for about 10 hours a week; and
  2. It pays for his keep. Just about, usually. Although he knows full well, having proved it to himself time and again, that his input determines his output.

He enjoys the work because it takes him around the neighbourhood, meeting and enjoying discussions with lots of other people. He also derives great satisfaction from being able to resolve whatever problem was preventing them from getting the best use from their technical equipment. But fixing computers isn't his true vocation in life, good as he is at it. His real passion is CGI, which he's teaching himself to do and from which he might one day earn his living.

Ali is still enjoying his home educated status, which officially ends this June, on his 20th birthday which is the last day for which I can claim Child Benefit for him. He has to pay for his keep after that, as they all will: I don't have extra income for funding my adult children and even though I've had to claim single parent benefits as they've grown up, living off the state isn't something any of us have considered for them as adults. If they claimed unemployment benefits, they'd be compelled to take whatever jobs they were offered and they've never wanted to be employees, as such.

The thing is, they've had so much freedom as children that the concept of full-time employment in the same place doing the same kind of thing all day every day is unpalatable to them. They'd do it if their lives depended on it, but I don't think it's ever going to be their preference, now that they know what the alternatives are. They are not at all institutionalised.

Ali has options in the pipeline for the second half of this year and thereafter, for funding his keep. He really wants to do some interpreting and/or translation work, languages having always been his main line of interest and activity and this seems quite likely to come to pass for him, but if not he will join his brother in business, working to bring in enough extra custom to pay for them both. In the event, a combination of the two will probably happen - at least to start with.

The conventional 'grow up, move away' pattern hasn't happened for us and still might not. It's not an ethos I'd sign up to because extended family living makes more sense to me. This way, we share our resources and we all benefit: I make living cheaper and easier for them by providing a living environment which is bigger, nicer, more efficiently-run and friendlier than anything they'd be able to afford on their own and they make living cheaper and easier for me by helping out with jobs and tasks, providing a free baby-sitting service and saving me the expense of using tradesmen etc.

This is bad for the national and global economy. Not as bad as it could be though: in a few years' time, only the younger children will be living on benefits [child tax credits] and even they might not be. We might not reach the income threshold for paying income tax, but we will all pay our own way and provide what we need for ourselves. It's a cheap, wholesome, happy way of living, in which we still have that priceless and sanity-saving luxury of waking up in the morning thinking: "What do I want to do today?" - and then doing it.

"But this isn't feasible for everyone," some people say. "So it can't be promoted as a general ideal. Most people will have to go and get a full-time job." I can't quite see the logic of this though. I know it might be hard to believe in this day and age, but I still think we all have some saleable skill, gift or talent which - even if it doesn't make us rich, will provide enough for us to get by.

The differentiating factor is probably the nature of the family home, which underpins my sons' whole lives and their way of life. When I was their age, I was married with children but younger than them I remember working three jobs to pay my rent and bills because I was living away from the family home, having been 'encouraged' to move out. I didn't want them to feel trapped into either one of those outcomes before they felt truly ready for them.

We don't live in each others' pockets though. They have their own lives and their own friends and interests. Their bedrooms are very much their own territory and there are sometimes issues about who's doing the washing up and so on, but the longer we live like this and the older we all get, the easier it becomes. Things have settled down. We are each others' mutual support network and this is something I cherish more than all the money and shiny new things in the world.

The younger children sort of have four parents, because of the age gap, and I feel like they need them! It was the nearest I could get to having a whole village to raise the child. (Perhaps my grandchildren - or even their children - will have the village.) And it's much easier, this time around, to the feeling of isolation I had when the first three were little, even though I was married then. Perhaps especially because I was married then.

And the older children still have their parent when they need one, which they sometimes still do. I like to be able to help them and to facilitate their lives to the relatively small extent that I now do.

It's not always easy and there are sometimes problems, but I've looked at a lot of different living arrangements in my life - experienced quite a few myself - and so far this one is by far the best of all, for all concerned. It will no doubt change as and when other people join the mix and one or more of our own leave it - they might even all choose to leave it - but the key priority for me is that people should have the choice: to be free to make their own decisions and not pressured or persuaded into positions they don't want to take.

I think extended family living and self employment might be the natural outcomes to autonomous home education and I don't see anything wrong with them in principle, if everyone involved is happy and doing what they want to do. Yes, the nation's current economy would collapse if everyone did it, but we're hardly going to start a revolution, are we? I don't think it's ever going to be a mainstream way of life and there is room for pockets of people living in more flexible ways than the norm, although it seems that there are some forces who would prefer us to keep quiet about the whole thing. But really, I don't know why they feel so threatened.

In general, I love the fact that Tom and Ali have achieved their current positions without the need for conventional qualifications and/or college courses. At various times they looked into both, but found them wanting in terms of enthusiasm, inclusivity and focus. The main problem was the lack of enthusiasm exhibited by tutors, to be honest. I don't think either of them met anyone who sounded like he really wanted to be there, doing that job and so they baulked at signing to do courses with them, in case the gloom might be contagious. In the end, it wasn't a problem and they both say that any other kind of education than the self-driven one they had would have wasted their time and probably side-tracked them from what they really wanted to do.

They're both very satisfied with the education they had at home, which was autonomous but with support. I wanted them to find their own motivation and to enable this I had to stop trying to motivate them myself, but having done that, there was no stopping them. Yes, they've had fun, they've played computer games and messed around (they still do. Don't we all, to some extent?) But they're still choosing to learn and improve their marketable skills, I'm noticing, for most of their waking hours.

Their autonomous home education has been an unmitigated success: they are able and willing to earn as much money as they need or want, always dependent on their chosen level of input. They are healthy, happy, solvent, creative, stable and secure and they provide a useful service for the local community.

Outcomes for home educated children do vary, as they do for every other kind of education and section of society. Every family is different: every child is different. There's no reason for all outcomes to be the same or even similar, and probably no way to ensure they can be. I'm trying to think what I've done for the boys to help to bring them to this point, and I think it was to keep having faith in them and to respect their choices and wishes throughout as much as was humanly possible: a respect they seem happy to return in their treatment of me, without being asked. I don't know what factors affect other autonomously home educated children's 'outcomes', but I do know that these will be many and varied.

If we'd have been forced to home educate according to the Badman recommendations and/or the requirements contained in the CSF bill, Tom and Ali's outcomes would have been very different, because the amount of autonomy and freedom in education they enjoyed would have been impossible. It saddens us all greatly that we're having to prepare their seven year-old and even their three year-old sister for annual education inspections instead of relying only on their self-motivation to learn. I will do everything I can to ensure that as much of their freedom and curiosity can be protected as legally possible, but under the proposed new regime which allows for trust of neither child nor parent, this will be difficult and I anticipate that their 'outcomes' will be negatively affected to some degree because of it.

If anyone in government or the DCSF cares. Which, it seems, they don't.