Memorandum submitted by
Mr Keir Watson, Secondary School Teacher
· My main thesis is that Badman conflates education with school. The two are not the same, and this leads to unsound recommendations.
· He attacks home education (HE) as if it can be analysed, measured and judged using the same mind-set as school education.
· The philosophical differences between the approaches of state school and HE need to be taken into account in framing any legislation if they are not to lead to emotional and educational harm to the children and families of this important minority group.
SECTION 1: Background to my argument
1.1 I have been a science teacher for nine years working in the state secondary schools, and am now Head of Department. I love my work and like almost every teacher I know, am committed to providing the best opportunity for the students entrusted me. Over the years, however I have become increasingly conscious of the inherent short-comings of the school system. Having a passionate interest in education I am continually reflecting on the question of why children do not make more progress in school. One of the frustrations I have is that almost everyone involved in the education debate believes that education is synonymous with school, and this, I propose, limits their understanding of education.
1.2 The main points which I believe are relevant to the Badman review are laid out below. In what follows I apologise in advance for sounding so negative about schools as I know that there are many dedicated teachers, parents, governors and education ministers trying to make them better places - I am one of them. Unfortunately, most people went through school and find it hard to visualise any alternative which limits their vision when addressing the shortcomings of school. Please bear this in mind when you read on...
1.3 I have been fortunate to meet many home educating families over the last twenty years and they have led me to look at schooling afresh. I believe the Badman review demonstrates the kind of blindness that equates all education with school education and this leads to distortions in his recommendations about HE. His recommendations will damage the HE model which could provide invaluable insight for school education reform - and this is of consequence for the whole country.
SECTION 2: The Limitations of School
4.1 Most children are inherently trusting. They assume we adults know best, so they generally acquiesce to school attendance. They learn to study, not because it necessarily interests them, nor because they really want to, but because they trust that it will be good for them, or they fear what people will do or say if they don't cooperate. They learn to give us what we want. Most try to get the work done and out of their way; some doing the minimum to get by and keep out of trouble; others do more than necessary to seek our approval. Fundamentally, though, the study skills they learn are a pretence, a pale shadow of the deep learning capacity seen in HE children who follow their own interests.
4.2 We make children believe that their future depends on their school attendance. However, we set them up to fail, because in trying to learn by the school method they find it hard to maintain interest, they get bored, they want to go and play - and we teach them to interpret this as their failure. We tell them to concentrate when they can't. At least not for a 6 period day. Some turn against themselves becoming withdrawn, depressed, anxious or switched off, others feel it as an acute injustice, and turn against authority, enjoying the disruption and consequential pantomime they can create around them. Changing these behaviour patterns which they learn at a very young age is very difficult, despite well meaning intervention, and by 16 few leave school as thriving learners - just listen to prospective employers and Universities Admissions Officers.
4.3 Most children hate school. Their uncontrollable excitement at the end of the day, week or year is palpable and symptomatic of released suppression - as a teacher I witness this regularly and it does not feel healthy and is nothing I can be proud of.
4.4 As most pupils equate school with education they become seriously switched off learning. This is a huge disservice to the individual and to society. I am reminded of it daily when pupils say "Here is your homework sir" rather than "Here is my homework sir"; when asked if they study anything outside school time most will look at you as if you are mad: "I already give the best part of my week to school, why would I study anything at home!". HE children often complain that their schooled friends do not have many interests, and do not readily engage in debate for fear of looking 'uncool' - a coping mechanism to deal with school peer pressure. This is evidence of the damage school can do to the natural learning capacity of children. I appreciate how readily some people will dismiss these views as extreme, but I see the evidence day in day out, as do many anxious parents.
4.5 One of the most common misconceptions is that HE children miss out on 'socialising'. Firstly, most HE children have very good social networks and enviable social skills. Secondly, school is a very negative and unnatural social experience for most children. There is pervasive conscious and subconscious peer pressure. This subtle form of bullying is endemic and institutionalised. One example from a school I have taught in is when a well meaning teacher, trying to raise money for an anti-bullying charity proposed that all students should be made to pay £1 to come into school on non-uniform day. When I pointed out that the proposal was in itself a form of bullying - financial extortion using the leverage of peer pressure - most of the staff could not appreciate the irony of the proposal. But for the pupils this is a real issue - they do not want to be the only one turning up in uniform on a non-uniform day, so they will pressure their parents to supply the £1.
4.6 The social organisation of schools into same-age year groups produces many problems, including lack of trust between children of different ages. It also provides a false model for life in the real world. HE children on the other hand are very good at interacting with older and younger children and adults, because they live in the real, natural social context of the everyday world, and interact with all the people around them. At a number of HE events I have attended, children from 5 to 15 mixed freely and interacted in an incredibly supportive and harmonious way, quite unlike anything you will ever see at school.
4.7 Most children adopt coping strategies, more or less successfully, to deal with the pressures of school, e.g. studious interest (which should not be confused with genuine interest); avoidance techniques (chatting, doodling, daydreaming); social excess; withdrawal; depression; rebellion; emotional breakdown. The signs are everywhere, and we, to our shame, accept them as normal.
4.8 Government strategies are beginning to realise aspects of the above, and so we have 'every child matters' - as if anyone ever thought otherwise - and are targeted to make lessons 'fun', to 'personalise the curriculum', to encourage students to 'take responsibility for their learning'. All aim for the desired result, but none address the fundamental problem.
4.9 Many teachers see the symptoms, but cannot see the underlying cause (that children are in effect imprisoned at school against their wishes). Most parents assume it is a necessary 'evil' which we all have to go through if we are to have a chance in this world, so many continue to put their children through the daily ordeal even when it may be breaking their hearts to see their child so unhappy.
4.10 If we are to understand the problems that school causes for children we need to be brave enough to look wider, and understand the reasons why parents often reluctantly opt for HE, and why it is so successful.
4.11 The above problems can be summarised thus:
· The element of compulsion inherent in school education damages children's' learning.
· As most of us do not know any other kind of education we find it hard to understand or accept the cause of these damaging effects.
SECTION 3: Elective Home Education
3.1 I have seen many pupils over the years, withdrawn from school for emotional, or behavioural reasons, or simply because they are underperforming. Many have gone on to be very successfully educated at home. I have met well over 50 HE families and continue to meet new HE children (or adults) every month. What always strikes me is how confident, alert and interesting HE children are.
3.2 One home educated boy who only did six years schooling in his life is now in his final year at Oxford; another is a top Chef in Hastings; another has become a doctor - no small feat for students who were going off the rails at school and have managed exceptionally well without teachers, timetable or lessons! Anyone who knows HE families see this happen all the time. Badman does not reflect this reality, but focuses on imaginary problems instead.
3.3 All of the stated aims of school education, including citizenship, participation in the community, functional literacy and maths, independent learning, emotional well being, independent thinking, enquiry and interest are manifest in these young people. From talking to them and their parents I have become convinced of the supreme effectiveness of this form of learning.
3.4 However, it does take time to adjust one's mindset to understand how elective HE works. Those not familiar with it assume it involves duplicating the teacher-pupil role at home. Many parents of school children assume they are not qualified to do it. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is far more about letting children simply live in an extended family setting, with caring parents to facilitate and guide. All home educating parents I have talked to have stories of how their child has acquired insight or skills 'out of thin air' without specific direction. How does this happen? The same way we all learned to talk and walk perhaps? Research has yet to catch up.
3.5 Many parents of children withdrawn from school tell of a kind of healing process that takes place for a period (6 months to a year) while children get over the experience of school. Some parents, also, need this time to stop feeling they need to replicate school. (Not a good time to demand an education plan as Badman recommends, yet he must have heard this common experience from HE families?) After this recovery period children remember how to play and keep themselves busy all day. Rapidly then arises a great sense of inquiry and confidence. From this point on a parent may find that keeping up with the child's interest becomes a full time occupation and learning really takes off. You can't stop them learning it would seem, even though the learning appears chaotic, non-linear and non-school-like.
3.6 Perhaps the main thing Home Educated children can show us is just how easily, remarkably, and incredibly children learn when they are free to follow their interests. It is such an extraordinary, unexpected phenomena, that the public is completely oblivious of the possibilities. The few educational researchers who have looked into HE soon realise that they have to adopt entirely different research approaches to understand and measure it. Under the current regulations, HE provides an invaluable sample group for understanding how children learn - it would be criminal to the whole of education to damage it in any way before we have understood it.
3.7 The above points can be summarised thus:
· Home education is effective and efficient, often incredibly so.
· It operates in a totally different mode and context to school and under a different philosophy of learning and progress.
· Consequently, its fitness for purpose cannot be assumed, or assessed using the conventional school measures. Badman does not appear to recognise this.
· We should proceed with caution lest we restrict or damage it.
SECTION 4: The problem with Badman's Recommendations
4.1 The fundamental problem is that Badman equates the breadth of education with narrow school based education. This is unacceptable as school notions of progress are fundamentally bound up with the limitations of institutionalised (formal) learning.
4.2 Badman suggests the DCSF reviews what constitutes a 'suitable' education and ensures it is 'sufficiently defined'. He is clearly suggesting the beginnings of an imposed curriculum - totally anathema to the home education ethos. The absence of curricula and formal pathway is what allows HE children to thrive.
4.3 Badman suggests that HE children need to 'have sufficient information to enable them to expand their talents and make choices about likely careers' - this is a good example of the back to front thinking that is arrived at when school is conflated with education. Information is really the least important part of the equation here. The problem with careers advice in schools is not lack of information; it is the lack of direction that comes because school children have not been able to adequately develop their interests leaving them unsure of what they want to do with their lives. For home educated children the reverse is true: they will be passionate about their interests, and fully engaged in finding ways to develop them - when they need careers information they will find it easily - as they do with any information they require.
4.4 Schools measure pupils' performance, against targets, curricula, standards and 'normal' progress - inevitable perhaps in such an institutional setting. Home education works because it rejects these approaches.
4.5 Badman recommends that a 'broad, balanced, relevant and differentiated curriculum' is defined for HE children. I do not see that he or any government agency has the capacity or right to determine what such terms mean in relation to HE. As a teacher I understand how these terms are used within schools, but they are simply part of one particular kind of educational philosophy - state educational thinking - which has no absolute validity: It changes as the political climate changes, and is often challenged by academics, teachers and parents alike. It is arguable that it is suitable for determining what teaching should look like in state schools, because the government runs those schools and has the authority to make those decisions, but it is completely unacceptable to impose this on any other educational systems. Home educating families opt out of the state-school philosophy to be able to follow their own educational philosophy - surely this is a fundamental right, whether the authorities is able to measure how 'broad, balanced or differentiated' it is?
4.6 Before imposing the states' idea of good education on HE children it would seem sensible to research the effectiveness of the alternative approaches. Such research, however, would be biased and blind to the methods of HE if it tried to impose age-related goals, such as 'should be able to read by 7', as these are simply part of the current State model, which have no validity outside the State controlled schools. Rudolf Steiner schools for example do not adhere to this target, believing it is actually detrimental to the child's development. (Has the research been done to determine if they are right or wrong? or are their views dismissed out of prejudice?) Similarly, many European countries do not begin any formal education until 6 or 7 years old. Yet they achieve as highly as our children, and without the levels of depression we apparently create in our young people.
4.7 Some possible ways to fairly assess the effectiveness of HE compared to state school:
a. Which produces the best life outcome? Compare life outcomes among adults that were school compared to those home educated - their economic wellbeing, career paths, family stability etc. The research I have seen demonstrates that HE is 'at least as effective as State Education' - embarrassing but true apparently.
b. Which provides the better experience through the school years? -compare stress levels of children at School and HE kids. Alternatively, do a survey of their views. (As Badman says in the review, paragraph 3.3, children have a right for their views to be taken into account - So compare the voice of HE and school children - 'would you prefer to be taught in school or be home educated?' . But Badman only wants to ask the HE children as he assumes school is the better educational model)
c. Which provides the better value for money - again HE would come out on top.
The fact that Badman ignores such fair assessment indicates his philosophical bias.
4.8 Perhaps a way to avoid the inherent bias and ignorance that inspectors bring would be to insist that all local authority HE inspectors were themselves home educated, or at very least had been home educating parents for many years.
'That parents be required to allow the child through exhibition or other means to demonstrate both attainment and progress in accord with the statement of intent lodged at the time of registration'
4.9 Again, we have the state-school ideals being imposed on HE educational philosophy. The state is not qualified to assess attainment and progress of HE children in a fair, meaningful or unbiased way. The fact that it even entertains the possibility shows just how deep its ignorance of HE (and education generally) is.
4.10 In a very real sense all families home educate their children part time. That is what takes place between 0 and 4 years old, during holidays, before and after school and at weekends. Picture in your mind what might take place during a typical family weekend - for example, going swimming, shopping, socialising, walking, playing in the park, visiting relatives. Are we saying that there is no learning taking place? Of course there is, (and I would contest that there may well be more learning taking place than during school time). In any case, it is surely evident that trying to measure this kind of non-formal learning would be extremely difficult if not impossible. HE works because it has considerably more of this kind of non-formal learning. Badman appears oblivious of the value of non-formal learning.
4.11 Surely, as HE is a legal right that parents have in Law, it is ridiculous (or possibly sinister) if schools are not allowed to educate parents and pupils about a fundamental right?
4.12 SEN provision in schools is woefully inadequate. Many parents opting for HE do so because schools fail to provide for their child's needs. Intrusive 'SEN support' for HE children is likely to do more harm than good. Offering support is one thing, but don't impose it. I have seen a range of SEN children thrive under elective home education - surely Badman saw this during the review? Where is the evidence otherwise?
4.12 Final points:
· HE cannot be assessed adequately by the current school-education mind-set.
· Targets, progress and curricula are antithetical to HE which manages without these concepts, yet produces happier, young adults with better life outcomes.