Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Just say NO

When I first started home educating, I thought I would be running a school at home, lessons in interesting things in the morning, and activities in the afternoon. I had talked to the local education authority, but they were frankly no help at all, except for the condescending comment that they had been "quite surprised" at how well children had done who had been home educated.

I read everything I could get my hands on, and soon realised that central to the plan of home educating my children was a target - what was I hoping to achieve by home educating?

My sons had been very unhappy at school: my elder son was bored and bullied, my younger son was frustrated physically and overstretched academically. Although my older son had been doing maths with older years, he thought he was bad at it, because he invariably failed to complete the number of sums he was supposed to complete. He did those he did right - he understood the concepts he was being taught, but he didn't do the quantity required. He had begun to think of all learning as boring.

My younger son was lively physically - always running, jumping, climbing, swinging, and the long hours spent sitting on the carpet or at a desk just made him frustrated. He was someone who had to be moving to think, moving to talk, and he needed to be free.

So, I already had a picture of what I wanted, by knowing what I didn't want. I didn't want my sons to be bullied. I didn't want them to be bored. I didn't want them to hate learning. I didn't want them to feel physically restrained all the time.

I thought about what schools use as their targets for children. Basically it comes down to examinations. They may talk grandly about the potential of every child and developing their uniqueness and other such airy-fairy stuff, but in the end a child who has achieved 10 GCSEs or three or four A levels and goes to University has succeeded in their terms. Never mind that I have O levels for things I can't remember a thing about. Never mind that a lot of children study subjects to get the qualification without the slightest interest in what they have been doing. The qualifications were enough. Never mind that a shameful number of bright students commit suicide because of their fear of failure.

I didn't want my children to have empty qualifications. I wanted them to study the things they were interested in and really learn. There's a book-learning sort of knowing, which is what teaches you things to pass exams, a skin-deep sort of learning. Then there's a real knowing, a learning that just becomes part of who you are, that you don't forget because you understand it completely. That's the sort of learning I wanted for them. I wanted them to be able to immerse themselves in the things that were going to be part of their lives forever.

It meant that they had to be free to decide what to learn and how. It meant that what they aimed for, what they wanted, what they did, had to be their own and owned by them.

I worried about this at the time. Isn't there a complete body of knowledge which it is important for a child to learn? Doesn't every educated person have to know certain stuff? I looked at the sorts of things which the national curriculum and schools have decided to teach children, and decided they were mostly crazy. Algebra and fractions may be part of the normal curriculum in most of our schools... but why? When learning how to run a bank account, or how to calculate what you will be paying on a loan or credit card would be so much more useful?

I began to think about other things which children should be able to do. They should be able to shop and cook for themselves, should be able to make phone calls, find information, use the internet. I decided that it was essential for a child to have proper practical skills.

I read avidly about different learning systems, different teaching systems. I talked to people, explored the possibilities. It didn't happen overnight.

If I had been expected to provide a plan for the following year when I first started it would have talked about curricula and timetables - at the beginning I was in a place where I wanted to be fulfilling my duties in the same way that the school had been... I didn't know about the alternatives, and hadn't thought through how much of my attitude to education and schooling - which I thought of as synonymous - were the result of my own schooling.

That journey was a hard one to take, because I realised that much of what I had believed about schools and education was propaganda - that even though I knew from first-hand experience than a lot of what is said about schooling is patently untrue, I had believed the opposite of what I knew, because I had been told to.

People do not learn well in groups. They don't need to "work hard" at school work if they love it. Working hard won't teach you something you don't understand. Working hard is a way of making it seem like the learner's fault if they don't learn something, instead of the teacher's or the teaching method.

Doing well at academic subjects can be an indication that you have applied yourself, or of a natural intelligence and interest in academic subjects - but should that be the ultimate indicator of who you are? What about my younger son, who had loads of intelligence and amazing talents but wasn't interested in academic subjects? Would a school say he was a failure? Probably. Probably if he had stayed in school he would have been labelled with ADHD and got to the point where he was disrupting the class with humorous antics. At home there was no incentive to do that, he was able to indulge his talent for drawing and making things with lego.

Within a couple of months, we changed to project work. The children chose projects and were supposed to work on them, with or without my help. The chose good things, and started working on them, but I soon realised that although they might not have done any work on the project in a week, they had been doing things that were just as educational. I started to relax. After a few more weeks we were unschooling.

I'd realised by then how powerful a group activity is in a home education context. Any sort of joint activity could go in any direction, whether it was making biscuits together or building a papier mache dinosaur. The children could take the discussion in any direction - science, history, language and literature, sociology... if hey were interested in learning more we could take it further in the direction they wanted to go. Sometimes just a casual discussion about something would resurface a few weeks later and we would explore it in more depth.

None of this looks like learning from a traditional schooling point of view. There were no lesson plans, no course work, no timetable. And yet just by talking to each other, finding things out, using their natural curiosity, we were learning a lot. I began to understand things I had never understood at school. I did five years of chemistry without understanding how molecule bonding was supposed to work.

I learned that human children are learning machines - they are curious, constantly testing out their world and learning from it. In an information-rich society, with computers and the internet at their disposal, they could take anything that interested them as far as they wanted. They didn't need to go through hours of maths lessons to understand counting and numbers, and they didn't need lots of English lessons to learn about writing and communication. In fact, it worked better if they didn't have those lessons, because then they learned the appropriate information at an appropriate pace for themselves.

If I had been asked, as the government propose to ask parents, to plan out the activities for the following year, it would have changed the very nature of the free form home education that we achieved. It would have put pressure on me to know what we were supposed to be doing and to do it. For a teacher in school, for parents with children in school, that sounds like nonsense because of course when you have 30 children to teach, there has to be some sort of plan that can be inflicted on the children and a standard up to which you hope to get them. Of course you need records of what the children have done, so that you will understand how far they have travelled along that route.

At home, it is easy for you to see how well or poorly a child has understood something, and to talk about it from where they are. You don't have 30 children to assess, you have one or two or three. It is easy to understand how the child is feeling about what they are doing, because they are talking to you, telling you if you are paying them the attention they need.

Unschooling isn't unparenting - you don't just leave the children to run riot while reading novels and polishing your nails. It is the hardest work, because you never know where the children are going to take you or what challenges you are going to face, but at the same time it is tremendously rewarding.

The problem I see with the inspection regime which the government is proposing to impose on home educators, is that they have never properly understood how it is different from schooling, and therefore they don't know how to assess it properly. They assume that as trained teachers they will know what parents do not know: The Right Way To Do It. It's immensely arrogant, actually, because nine times out of ten, they have never had any direct experience of home education, or assume that because they have children of their own and have done things in he holiday with them, that they will understand what it is.

They don't. There is, as many home educator who has withdrawn their children from school will tell you, a thousand miles between doing the odd fun activity with your children in the holidays, and being a home educator. The attitude of the children, the attitude of the parent, and the context make such a difference that they may look identical, but they are not. You have to experience the difference to understand it, because it is very difficult to explain. I would say it is like the difference between visiting a country for a holiday and living there permanently. The significance and the level of communication are entirely different, and all down to context.

If I had been required to conform to the government's proposed requirements for home educators, I have no doubt that I would have been brought into conflict with the authorities over my inability to say what we would be doing for the following 12 months, and my unwillingness to provide samples of work or lists of books read. The only route that makes any sense to me, if they impose these regulations, is just to say NO. I have only a year left of home educating a child of compulsory educational age, but for all those families desperate to break out of school and home educate, I have to Just Say No.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


I used to think of boredom as A Bad Thing. When my children were at school, I remember one Easter break when Ali had a task to do over the course of a week. His teacher had asked him to record every use of water in the family in the form of a tally chart. So, every time someone in the family went to the bathroom, or made a cup of tea, or washed up, Ali was supposed to mark a chart which listed all the activities.

Of course, we quickly realised what a pain in the neck the exercise was going to be, and decided to try to do one day as accurately as possible, and then extrapolate the results for seven days. We were at their grandparents' house, I remember, and we tried as well as we could to work out how many times we made drinks or used the bathroom. I declined to cross question my parents-in-law about specifically what they had been doing in the bathroom, and just guessed.

At the end of the day we had a neat form with a lot of tally marks on it, but boy, it was boring in a must-pay-attention-to-do-this-properly even though it took hardly any brain to do.

We multiplied the results by seven to get a week's figures, and then looked at the second part of the exercise... to translate the results into a bar chart. This infuriated me, because the exercise was such an empty one. You couldn't get any different information from the bar chart than you could from the tally chart - and both were pretty useless at telling you how much water had been used, as there were no quantities involved at all.

I could think of so many ways in which the exercise could have been made easier, more interesting, more relevant, and it infuriated me that the teacher had set the exercise without really a thought to the impact on families who didn't think to do one day and multiply the results... or the fear which it might engender in a child who forgot to do the observations at all and tried to make them up, simply because it was such an uninspired exercise.

The main exercise would still have been tedious, but if there had been a translation chart for the amounts of water involved in each activity (say 250 mls for a drink, four litres for washing up, etc) then the bar chart could have approximated the quantity of water used for each activity. Or the children could have simply been asked to think which activity over the holiday had taken the most water... whether washing, or swimming or drinking... something which made them think.

This sort of activity engenders what I think of a poisonous boredom, because it fills you with ennui, and means that altough you don't actually want to think about the necessity of filling in the next tally on the chart, you can't properly think about anything else or you will fail in the task. This is the boredom I recognise from my own experience of school, when the lesson didn't challenge or interest me, but I dared not think about anything else in case it was my turn to answer a question next.

The other sort of boredom I have gradually come to recognise as positive. The boredom that overtakes you when you want to be doing something but can't think what to do, is the sort of boredom that makes you get off your sofa and find something interesting to do. It's the sort of boredom that overcomes me when I hear football commentary on the television, when I will do anything -- ANYTHING -- to get away from the sound. It harks back for me to wet, cold afternoons stuck in the living room at my grandparents' house, listening to the tv blaring away on a Saturday afternoon. It's a motivator, in the end, because you have to use your initiative and find something to end the boredom.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Finding your own style

If you hang out with home educators for any time, you will soon realise that each family has its own style of home education, and they vary enormously. For those outside the community, there are home educating families who do not seem that different from schools, using commercially available or home made curricula, having set lesson times, homework, tutors.

There are those families who don't appear to be that different from the feckless layabout uneducating families so feared by the authorities... they don't lay down any rules about how their children should learn, don't follow any set plan, and simply talk about a lot of stuff in an informal way.

The vast majority of home educators fall somewhere in the middle, between full-on school, and full-on autonomous education.

Choosing which style of home education is right for your family means examining your own educational philosophy and family style, and deciding what fits in with your personalities, your likes and dislikes and your parenting dynamic too. Everyone is different, every family is different.

Home education is a journey in which you learn more about yourselves, and so it is possible that you will start off in one way and finish quite differently. Some people home educate as a stop gap, between schools, or waiting for a place at their chosen school, and obviously that family needs to consider keeping up with the national curriculum in order to ensure that their child hasn't dropped behind when they rejoin the school system.

You need to look at your personal style of parenting, what other activities have to fit into your week, your relationship with your children, your relationship with learning and education, what resources you have, what resources you think you need, who else can help, who your children are, and who they want to be.

Examining your own attitudes to learning and education, and discovering that although it is a word you have used probably thousands of times, when you REALLY come to think about education it is not an easy thing to explain or define... all these will help to shape the sort of home education which is appropriate for your family. Nowadays there is a lot of information online for you to use, and you can tell if something speaks to you, or seems completely bonkers.

I'd say setting down your educational philosophy is a very important first step, especially in the UK. One of the judgements in court cases reating to home education, set out the idea that home education should be efficient... and it was decided that efficient meant that it achieved what it set out to do. In order to judge the efficiency of your home education in those terms, it is necessary to know
what you are setting out to do. That's where your educatinal philosophy comes in. And that's what may vary from family to family.

Some families may start out thinking that achieving the same sort of qualifications as a schooled child would hope to achieve might be a very important aim for their education. Their educational philosophy and approach would be quite different from a family which rejected examinations because they encourage children to learn to pass exams rather than learning and loving a subject for itself.

Some families will have religious reasons for trying to prevent their children from learning about evolution, computers, sexually transmitted diseases or horoscopes. Others will want their children to gain the widest possible experience of all age-appropriate material. This will all influence your educational philosophy.

Although I know it is tempting to want someone else to tell you what to do and what to think about your educational philosophy, it isn't possible for someone else to tell you what you think... you need to work it out for yourself. And write it down. Then keep looking at it and revise it when your ideas change.

Friday, June 20, 2008

How I came to home educate

My sons were very unhappy at school, for entirely different reasons. My elder son was bullied, bored, beginning to think that he was bad at everything, and withdrawing into himself. He had got to the stage where he didn't even feel able to answer safe questions, like "do you have a pet?" or "have you any brothers or sisters?".

My younger son was the youngest in his class, and struggling to keep up. The school recognised this and wanted to institute an individual eduational plan for him because he wasn't look-and-saying all the words a seven year old should be looking-and-saying in order to get an average mark in the key stage 1 SATS. That's probably because he was going to be just six and a half when he took his SATs. For their purposes, however, he was seven.

The younger boy, Thomas had always been a very lively child - running and climbing, swinging and spinning all the time, constantly full of energy and moving all the time. At school he hated being "on the carpet" in front of the teacher, having to sit still.

What worried me the most was the attitudes that they were picking up towards learning. They thought of it as boring, hard work and something that they were forced to do. Some thing separate from the ways that they enjoyed themselves. That saddened me a lot. I don't have many paper qualifications, and I didn't do a degree, but I am very well read, and interesed in nearly everything, except country music and football.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that I had to do something, but what? I didn't have the money for private schools, and I don't drive. In any case, the good schools in the area I live in, which is on the edge of greater London, are all oversubscribed.

I had come into contact with a home educating American family through a friend, and wondered if that might be an answer. I phoned the local council to establish that it was legal for me to home educate and then set about finding out as much as I could about it. I joined mailing lists, scoured mnessage boards... but this was 1998 and there was hardly any information available online for the UK. I began to be interested in what I was reading, however.

If you had asked me then how I forsaw my home education, I think I would have called upon the film of the Railway Children for inspiration. I imagined us around a table, studying geography or history, before the children scampered off into the garden to run about and identify wildlife.

Initially I lacked confidence, and wanted someone to be telling me what I ought to be doing with my children, what was appropriate to the ages and their abilities. I set out a timetable and drew up lessons for them.

I found that early part quite difficult, until I decided on the advice of a mailing list, to give them some space to unschool. I developed different lists of places to go and things to do, we went on a lot of nature rambles, visits to the library, trips out to the museums.

I started changing the way I organised things, thinking that maybe a project-based system would do better, individualised for each child, because I found it impossible to decide on a level appropriate to a 9, 7 and 5 year old child. That did work better than a timetable and lessons, but it still didn't work well. What I found was that the children wouldn't be doing what I had laid down they should do, but they were doing things that were equally valid.

I had seen emails from people who were autonomous educators on the mailing lists, and frankly I thought they were completely crazy when I first came across them. Here were people who were allowing the inmates to run the asylum; who made no distinction between reading a book and playing a computer game, beween gardening for vegetables and plaiting your hair. Surely their children needed to be told what to do, or they would play computer games for the next ten years?

While I was shaking my head over the crazies on the mailing list, I was at the same time reading everything I could lay my hands on... articles about home education, about the way things are learned, about how different people learn in different ways. I began to understand the nature of autonomy, and how compelling someone to do anything changes their way of viewing it. This was what I had already recognised in my sons... that making them do things at school turned them into work and made them bored with them.

By the end of my first year as a home educator, I had become a radical unschooler, fervently committed to autonomous education for my children.

Monday, July 03, 2006

My thoughts on DfES reply

Dear Alex,
Thank you for your letter and the attached reply from Jim Knight, Minister of State for Schools, in reference to my recent enquiry about changes to the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations. I am afraid that I found the information contained in this letter far from reassuring, and I hasten to make a renewed request for
information on how the changes to the deregistration of pupils can be halted.

This is my personal reply to the letter: I am also soliciting views from home education support groups and mailing lists all over the country - many of whom have written to their own MPs to express concern. I will certainly make you aware of the feedback that I have from other people over the next few days.

As you know my original concern was that the two-day delay was being introduced in order to "approve" or "disapprove" the applications to home educate. While denying that this is what is happening, the reply from Mr Knight appears to confirm that suspicion:

"Whilst we accept that the majority of parents who educate their children at home do so well, there is a small minority who do not. It is important that local authorities are able to intervene as early as possible to protect these children’s education. The requirement for advance notice of the deletion ensures that the
authorities are aware of such cases and, only where necessary, are able to intervene."

Does this not sound as though the school and the LEA are going to collaborate in order to make a judgement about whether or not a parent is able to home educate? Does it seem likely that "intervene as early as possible to protect these children's education" means anything else?

It seems to me that it is common for the DfES and the LEA to take the view that a middle-class and well-educated parent IS capable of home educating their children, and that a parent of lower socio-economic class and education is not. Despite a lot of good research showing the contrary, that home educated children from all socio-economic groups, but especially those with a lower level of education do better than their schooled counterparts, the authorities seem to be dividing parents into the deserving and the undeserving of their legal right to home educate. If his letter can be read in any other way, I would be glad to hear another interpretation.

The law of England is very clear that it is parents, and not LEAs or the DfES who are responsible for the education of their children. Parents are responsible for their children's education, whether the child is schooled or educated at home, and I deplore the way that the government continually fiddles with guidance and regulations in order to make it seem that this is not the case.

I am appalled by the idea that a home education group or any other, would think it is right that a family with poor attendance should be prosecuted and jailed rather than learn of their right to home educate. If school were a universally successful education solution for the children and young people of the UK, then perhaps I
would understand the zeal with which the authorities try to prevent the people of this country from learning of their right to opt out of it. If Mr Knight requires supporting information for the efficacy and efficiency of home education, even when parents may not have a high level of education themselves, I will be pleased to
supply it.

I am seriously alarmed by the idea that the DfES thought, after several months of consultation over this legislation, that this measure would be a good idea, and that home educators would be in favour of it. It will confuse headteachers, LEAs and parents far more than the current arrangement of immediate deregistration, the potential "intervention" of the LEA will have no basis in law, and I honestly believe it will be a retrograde step for the relationship of home educators and the authorities.

If it is possible to object to this going into the statutory instrument before it is laid before parliament, I would ask you to ask Mr Knight how this can be done. I am prepared to come to Westminster to make my concerns plain in person, if necessary.
Yours sincerely
Fiona Berry
As from

Reply from Jim Knight on Education (pupil registration) regulations

Covering letter from my MP:
Further to our previous correspondence, I now enclose a letter I have received from Jim Knight, the Minister of state for Schools, about the proposed revisions to the Education (pupil registration) regulations.

The attached will be self-explanatory and I trust you will find it of interest. However, if there are any further points you would like me to raise with the minister, I hope you will not hesitate to get in touch with me again.

Letter to my MP from Jim Knight:
Thank you for your letter of 12 June 2006 enclosing correspondence from Fiona Berry of (my address) about the proposed revisions to the Education (Pupil Registration) regulations. She is concerned about the possible impact of the changes on parents who would to educate (sic) their child otherwise than at school.

First, it may be helpful if I explain that we are planning to revise the Regulations, which have been in place since 1985 (with subsequent amendments) to make them easier for local authorities and schools to use; to clarify one or two ambiguities in them; and to bring them up-to-date. We therefore carried out a full public consultation on the review of the Regulations which ran between September and December 2005. Responses were received from a range of organisations and individuals including those with an interest in home education.

Mrs Berry expresses concern that we “appear” to be introducing two-day delay in deleting children who are to be educated at home from the school registers. What we are planning is to introduce a requirement that schools give local authorities advance notice of when a child is to be deleted for this reason. I do not believe that this will in practice cause a delay between the child leaving school and being deleted from the register. In most cases schools will be aware that the children are leaving before they do so; either because a school is waiting for parents to confirm verbal notification in writing or because they have given their school advance warning of the withdrawal. This will give schools ample opportunity to advise their local authority of the deletion before a child leaves and the deletion becomes necessary.

On those occasions where the parents do not give the school advance notice that they are withdrawing their child there will be a short delay. This is simply to allow time for the school’s notice to reach the local authority and the length of the delay will depend on the method used to give it. The guidance that will accompany the regulations reminds schools that they must send the notice immediately and allow reasonable time for it to arrive. The example in the guidance is that they should allow two days for a letter to arrive by post. This will not affect the parent’s ability to educate their child at home: the requirement is solely concerned with the school notifying the authority of the child’s withdrawal and deletion from the register. Nor is their (sic) any intention that the authority will have to “approve” the parent’s wish to educate their child at home or the school’s deletion of that pupil from the register.

I should explain that one of the reasons that we have introduced the requirement for schools to notify their local authority of deletions in these circumstances is the concerns raised by home educators’ groups and others about parents being persuaded to withdraw their child in order to avoid either exclusion or prosecution for poor attendance. We believe that the requirement for advance notice will discourage the practice and allow local authorities the opportunity to offer support to those parents who want it.

Whilst we accept that the majority of parents who educate their children at home do so well, there is a small minority who do not. It is important that local authorities are able to intervene as early as possible to protect these children’s education. The requirement for advance notice of the deletion ensures that the authorities are aware of such cases and, only where necessary, are able to intervene.

Another reason is our belief that some decisions, such as those made in the circumstances that I outlined above and disputes between parents and school, are made in the heat of the moment. A gap between the parents advising the school of the withdrawal and the deletion, whether before the child leaves or after, will allow parents to re-consider their decision and, if they wish, change their minds before the child loses their school place.

Mrs Berry also expresses concern that we are changing the regulations in relation to the deletion of children with special needs. I can confirm that we are not changing the regulations in relation to children with special needs.

We have no intention to change the right of parents to educate their children outside the school system. Nor do we intend introducing further requirements for English local authorities to approve parents’ decisions to withdraw their children from school in order to educate them at home. The proposed regulations are explicit that it is mandatory for the school to delete the child from the registers in these circumstances and place no requirements on the local authority to acknowledge the advance notice. Indeed, the accompanying guidance makes it clear that schools should not wait for an acknowledgement.

Mrs Berry asks about the Parliamentary procedure associated with making the new Regulations. Our intention is to present them to the House in the normal way in July and subject to the wishes of parliament for them to come into force on September 1, 2006.

I hope this is helpful and reassures Mrs Berry on her points of concern.