Sunday, 6 November 2011

The home education debate continued

Blogger wouldn't allow Kay's essay as a comment, so I'll reverse things a little by posting her words here, and my own comment below.

What are schools for? Why do we have them? Why do most people assume school is a legal requirement? It's an idea that developed along with the industrial revolution. Suddenly, the people with the power and the momentum of the era wanted most people to be *workers*: people who could read and write and count and, more imporantly, people with a deeply ingrained work ethic. That is, people who feel that going to the same place, to do the same thing, every day, whether you think it's a good idea or not, is necessary, sensible and virtuous. That idea does NOT come naturally to humans. You have to train them to it from a young age.

And once the industrial revolution had put paid to the old ways of families and communities organising themselves, you had a population that mostly lived in towns, and mostly worked. Unwatched kids, hanging around getting up to mischief when the parents and older siblings were at work were a nuisance. Daily school was a way of containing them.

I discussed the school-or-home thing with some of my associates and there were elements of the work ethic in the worries that surfaced. What if the kids don't learn to put up with things, stick at things, find ways of dealing with things? I know what they mean, and it concerns me a bit too but most of the time, the thing that concerns me most is the way most people DO accept things, put up with things - you know, little things like managing to ignore mass murder, state-sponsored torture, the wholesale destruction of the environment, the majority of taxpayers' money being spent by ministers' chums in the city, the cynical destruction of the welfare state...

To the people who say 'how can you teach them everything, you don't know everything' I'd reply, go look up 'education' in the dictionary. It means 'drawing out', not 'stuffing stuff in'. One of the features of the 21st century is the extraordinary amount and variety of information that's available. What kids need is not facts (many of which, I daresay, you won't know) but how to find, judge and make use of facts. Make bags of use of that magic phrase "I don't know, let's find out..." Have lots of projects that explore finding and evaluating information sources. Lots and lots of "who is saying this?" "Why are they saying it?" "What evidence do they have?" "Why *that* evidence?" " Do *I* think that evidence makes their case, or could it be interpreted another way?"

Someone I discussed it all with was worried about the kids not getting maths or scientific method. I love (and have) that idea that all would-be home-educators are artsy and can't count! So yes, make sure they get scientific method - the ability to observe and record events, to experiment, to develop, question and test theories, to evaluate other people's scientific work - especially to evauluate statistics. Most of the people, most of the time, are flummoxed and misled by bad statistics. Bad statistics are all over the internet and the newspapers (remember that newspaper report that said SHOCK, HORROR, MOST UK CHILDREN ARE NOW BELOW AVERAGE IN MATHS!) So, in short, if they've got information and science methodology, they can learn just about anything they want to.

Another worry is that they won't 'fit in', won't have the chance to be 'normal'. Quite a large proportion of life's great oddballs either didn't go to school or went sporadically, or went to a variety of schools. When I say oddballs, I mean writers, movers, thinkers, hackers... anyone who's had to learn to think for themselves, you might say. The big question is what made the fork in the path between the bright, brilliant, world-changing oddballs and the seriously deranged, misfit oddballs. In some cases, you might say they are two sides of the same coin but, if I were you, I'd make a study of it! I suspect the answer might be having the consistent attention of someone who cares and knows how to listen and question. Kids can take quite a long time to voice their concerns, and often need inspired questions - ones they know how to answer - before they know clearly what their concerns are.

There is the danger of claustrophobia - for you and for them - if the family gets too closed and inward, the ideas and the assumptions too easily agreed. Outside influences cause friction and chaos. If there are no compulsory outside influences, it's all too easy to reject troublesome ones, and waste opportunities as a result. I don't think I got much out of being at school, but I did get the experience of having to get along with a wide variety of people with a wide variety of backgrounds and views. You need to make sure the kids get that - not just the 'BBC balance' that says, 'here's the normal way, and here are a couple of whacky alternatives'. I suspect that, if the claustrophobia worry does manifest, it will do so during adolescence, when school is a daily bolt-hole to get away from home and parents (who are, for a while, the fount of all evil) and then at the end of the day, home is the bolt-hole to get away from teachers/peers (who are of course, etc)... mind you, I didn't actually GO to school much at that stage of my life. Er... how do home-educated kids go about playing truant when they're 13?

Anyway... as to your assessment of what's wrong with schools: for one reason or another, I've spent quite a lot of time in quite a lot of schools in recent years. My conclusion is that there are (or have been) some very good primary schools - but most of what I liked was going on because I was visiting Creative Partnership or Arts Council or Community Regeneration projects, most of which are currently being starved out. Secondary schools I found less attractive - mostly a boring, containment exercise and yes, I was astonished at the frequency and persistence of stuffing the students with sweets, cakes, fizzy drinks and other such garbage. I simply can't figure out how they get away with it, in this era of dietary panics and allergies and diet-related ADS concerns.

Nothing there to make me think they're missing much. So with all that in mind, I suppose my ideal would be for children to have a year or so of primary school education and as much secondary school education as THEY want, plus a plan and an opportunity to get into college/uni later.

And finally - cost and resources. You need to find sources of materials in a wide variety of subjects. There must be courses... oh and, those old-fashioned things, what are they called? Oh yes, BOOKS! (All home educators, in fact all parents, should (in my view) be members of Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book.  Is there any kind of organisation that funds home-educators for buying resources and doing courses? It'd be worth agitation for if not. I mean, now concepts like 'free schools' and 'faith schools' and 'technology academies' allow all kinds of weird people to teach kinds in all kinds of odd ways at the tax payers' expense, I don't see why parents shouldn't get some of that money. That is, I don't see why they *shouldn't* but I can see why they might not - funding parents to teach kids to think doesn't, after all, comply with the original purpose of schools (see para one, above).


I can quite see why you're taking Dawn out of school and I think I would possibly do the same, at least for a while but beware assuming what's right for one sister is right for both. I think I'll suggest you and Dawn working together for now, sort out some of the difficulties she's been having, try out this whole home-study lark, let Min join in as much as she wants and then when the time comes, put Min in school for a year or so, then she'll have the experience, the evidence, and the habit of independent thought, which will allow her to decide whether she wants to go through school or join in the home-study world.


  1. Well, you've said some of the things I was going to leave for another time, regarding the origin of primary schools! The industrial revolution was certainly part of it, but before that I think some non-conformist churches began schools as a way of ensuring that children's education was not entirely in the hands of the priests, and that some of the little people had a chance of learning some of the big things for themselves. All very admirable, but I think those intentions became irrelevant somewhere along the line, as the government became a greater brainwashing and oppression threat than the Church!

    Anyway, I feel that I should point out that I do think schools have a place, and can be very useful. Many people feel a genuine need to work to earn money, especially single parents (who also may just need a break), others simply couldn't cope with the sole responsibility for educating their children. Then there are the children of immigrants whose parents may speak very little English, and who may find it hard finding a place in this culture and country. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples. However, I don't believe these apply to my children, and the reasons I gave in my last post were entirely with my own children in mind.

    Regarding the two sisters, my decision has been with both of them in mind. The original plan was to home-educate Minnie, but to keep Dawn at school, as it seemed to suit her well enough at the time. However, we came to the conclusion that for any of us to be happy, both children had to be doing the same thing. Now it has transpired that Dawn is not happy at school, I feel I have the chance to allow Minnie what I wanted for her in the first place.

    I can't speak for everyone regarding arts vs sciences, though suggesting that homeschoolers are all artsy and innumerate (if that wasn't a word before, it is now) seems like a gross generalisation to me! Either way, it's not an issue for us, as Ali and I are both very mathematically-minded, with a love for logic, reasoning and exploration. Thankfully my children are teaching me to be more creative and free-minded!

    Unfortunately home educators get no financial aid whatsoever. Fortunately, it's not a great issue, as a quick visit to Google will show you. Online resources are limitless, from downloadable activities and worksheets, to countless blogs and home-ed sites full of inspiration, experiences and ideas, to all the websites in the world for researching from. Also, I know they're an endangered species, but I have heard we still have a few books left in our local library. :-)

    Finally, there is no danger of claustrophobia or isolation - there is a greater danger of burnout from all the home ed social groups, classes, sports clubs, music workshops, educational visits and group holidays to choose from! I've already been to the weekly meeting for home educators in Hastings, and joined the Yahoo notification groups for the others in Sussex, which will keep me up to date with all the activities as they are organised.

  2. Re books...libraries: one of our club members, who is a librarian, recently blew a fuse when she saw Kindle extolled as a 'marvellous new source of free reading materials'.

    Yes, most libraries are, to some extent, still there.

    Re everything else - jolly good!