Saturday, 3 November 2012

Time to make a stand

Everyone knows that running a nation’s economy is not like running a household. The way to reduce a national deficit is to invest in jobs so that income from taxation increases, not to cut expenditure to the bone, causing misery and further economic depression.

But managing the finances of a local authority, in England at the current point in history, seems very much like running a household. In fact, listening to Jason Kitcat’s webcast on the Brighton & Hove council website yesterday, it struck me that it is like trying to run a household while under the cruel and heartless control of an abusive partner.

Brighton & Hove council (like any other council) is given a limited amount of income it can use to pay for the vital services it provides. This income is provided by the government, but the amount keeps shrinking, year on year. The government changes its mind on a whim about how much money is available and what it can be spent on. It provides money on condition that councils behave in certain ways. It even makes the rules about how much income councils can generate for themselves through taxation or borrowing.

Imagine if you had £767 a month to live on. Out of that you have to pay your rent, council tax, bills, heat your home, feed and clothe your children. It’s been tight – you’ve had to give up some things you used to be able to afford - but you have just about been able to keep going for the last month.

You had even worked out a plan for how to manage when the income went down to £753 next month. You were trying not to think about the further reductions your partner (let’s call him George) had been threatening. You were trying not to think about Christmas coming up, or what you’d do when the kids need new shoes.

Then George comes home and airily says “Oh by the way, it’s going to be £742 next month. You can manage on that, can’t you?”

You can’t get a job or borrow money – George won’t allow it. What should you do?

Some friends advise you to keep your head down and get through this bad patch. In fact, they are not sure you’ve been handling it right up to now – why did you spend the money on that stairgate for the toddler when the five year old needs a new school uniform? Maybe some of your trouble is of your own making.

Better friends say you should not have to put up with this, and nor should your children.

Of course, here’s where my analogy breaks down, because Brighton & Hove Council can’t walk away from this relationship.

But maybe it can fight back. Gather supporters and evidence that cutting local government funding is hurting real children (not just the made up ones in my story). Use the expertise and knowledge in the city to work out how much we really need to provide excellent services and demand that from George. Work with other local authorities who are doing the same, to make a united stand.

At the very least, maybe councillors on Brighton & Hove Council who oppose the cuts can use next year’s budget process to send a clear message to the government: we don’t support your cuts and we won’t vote for them.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

When was the first Brighton Pride?

Every year it irritates me, the way people are so slapdash about the history of Brighton Pride. This year, the papers are full of a "20th anniversary" story, which is odd, because the current run of Pride events in Brighton began in 1991, 21 years ago. I remember it well. I was there. I helped to organise it.

I know this makes me sound like a mad old aunt in the corner at Christmas, making nitpicking criticisms of other people’s family stories. Maybe that’s who I am, now.

I haven’t been to Pride for a few years now. It’s not really a fun family event for us and our kids. I don’t enjoy getting pissed in the daytime very much. I find the overwhelming commercialism hard to stomach. We might have gone down to watch the parade this year, but family commitments prevented it. As it turned out, I’m quite glad I wasn’t there to see the Queers against the Cuts contingent subjected to heavy-handed policing and treated like troublemakers by the parade organisers, while commercial firms like EDF Energy, Easyjet and Mastercard are welcomed with open arms.

Why does it bother me if people get the dates wrong? I think it’s because Brighton Pride in 1991 is the radical political root of the commercial tourism-fest celebrated today by the Argus, Brighton & Hove City Council and the Conservative Party.

By 1991, we had been campaigning against Section 28 for 3 years. We were tired, still angry, and proud of what we’d achieved. We hadn’t stopped Section 28 from becoming law, but we had begun to build a community that could lessen its pernicious effects.

We had spoken out about homophobia in schools. We had protested about the lacklustre police response to queerbashing. We had publicly remembered and mourned our dead. We had defined family our own way, declaring our relationships with lovers, friends and children to be as real as anyone else’s, whatever the law said about it.

That community defiance was what we were celebrating in 1991. Joining the Pride march was not a vote-winner in those days. There was no eight-page spread in the Argus. Hell, even the gay clubs didn’t join in. We didn’t have sponsorship money or council funding, we just had each other to rely on.

We had also begun to take our history seriously; the campaign against Section 28 spawned the wonderful Brighton Ourstory project. One of the highlights of Pride in 1991 was a walking tour of queer history in the city, led by Ourstory founder Tom Sargant. We knew that there had been a Pride parade in Brighton in 1973, but that the momentum had been lost and there had been no local Pride events since.

The Brighton Pride events in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 were organised largely by political activists who had been closely involved in the campaign against Section 28. In 1993, after the previous year’s Preston Park event had over-reached itself and gone bust, Pride was coordinated by just two people, who thought it was important to keep the idea alive, to prevent the flame going out for another 20 years. I know this for sure. I was one of those two people.

I know things have changed. I’m not saying I want to turn the clock back. I’m happy that people can get married (if that’s what they want to do) and be out in the police force and win votes by supporting equality.

I guess all I’m saying is, let’s not forget how we got from there to here. Let’s not pretend that attitudes have changed by magic. Brighton Pride started in 1991 with a demo, not in 1992 with a piss-up. When it took some courage to join the Pride march in solidarity with LGBT people, many of the straight people who stood alongside us were socialists, like Queers against the Cuts and their supporters. They have every right to march in the parade now.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Not on the bus

Now I know why my mum suggested a day trip to France in the summer of 1981! It was (in those days at least) a remarkably successful way of avoiding a royal wedding. The parallels with 1981 are hard to miss - here we are in the depths of a grim economic time with cuts aplenty and anger on the streets. So up they pop, "Look at the pretty dress! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain/ bunch of old-school Eton bastards doing over the poorest and most vulnerable again..."

But leaving aside the anger at the ridiculous pomp and forelock tugging, yesterday I found myself pondering the royal life as I sat on the bus to work. I was content, a bit melancholy for one reason and another, but basically content on the bus. Outside there were some late teens/early twenties larking about on the play equipment in the park - at ease with each other. Students on the bus were listening to music and reading their notes. A couple were discussing some complicated arrangement of bank accounts and overdrafts that might see them through to the end of the year. An old woman was pushing a trolley along the pavement with cat food poking out the top. No one wanted me for anything. I was in my home town feeling safe, feeling I belonged, feeling free. And I wondered then if any person born into the royal family can ever have that feeling? I tried to imagine a life where you have never known what it is to be just another person - to never have that invisibility. I wondered how it would be to never get on the bus, pay your fair, sit there and watch the world go by.

I know there are a lot of other things that being royal takes away - like worrying how you might pay the gas bill or wondering if the landlord might decide to sell your flat. No material suffering in such a life. But emotionally? What does it do to a child to be born into such a bizarre life? It's a curse, I reckon. The life of a caged animal. The life of a symbol, a stuffed suit or a face under a hat. No choice and no voice. No opportunity to be a part of society beyond the tiny elite. No chance to get on the bus.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The perils of advice

One of the most exciting things about home education is the feeling of liberation from a dictated path. You really can make your own choices about, not just how your family approaches learning, but how you approach day to day life. I think that can feel quite intoxicating, especially if you are withdrawing your child from school. From observation of others, I think that feeling can be amplified still further if you are withdrawing your child after a long, miserable and frustrating time trying to get the system to meet his/her needs. But what is exciting can also be daunting and doubts and fears are also the lot of the new home educator. That’s when it can be invaluable to have others around with whom to talk. But these interactions can have pitfalls that I’ve come to recognise over the years we’ve been home educating.

If you decide to home educate, you are taking a step down a path - walking away from a whole raft of people who will tell you (and your child) what to do and how to do it. You won’t have a book sent home in a book bag and your child will no longer be part of a class or a year group working to a plan. That is swept away at a stroke. The decisions are yours – the mistakes are yours. The happy days are yours and the miserable days are yours. So it’s not surprising that most of us crave interaction with others in the same boat. We want to know what others do. But what I have come to realise is that no amount of talking to others can (or should) replace considered decisions about what is right for us – for our own children. Other people’s enthusiasm, be it for an expensive curriculum or a child-led lifestyle, is not a sales pitch unless we choose to respond to it in that way. If we do, and we don’t like what we buy, then we have only ourselves to blame. That sounds harsh. But I’ve seen people burn their fingers here and there in home education (had a minor singe or two myself!) and it’s often because they clutched up (too readily) what others were saying and doing and assumed that it would surely work for them too. If home education has one huge advantage over mass schooling it’s that it enables us to help our children find paths that are right for them as individuals. Yes we can exchange valuable information and experiences but we need to always have our own children’s needs at the heart of what we do.

Friday, 4 March 2011

‘Doing nothing’ Autonomous home education and what it isn’t

Blowing off the dust I wander blearily back into this blog... It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged and I had started to think that I wouldn’t feel the urge to blog again, but here I am. Life is pretty different to how it was seven years ago when we first started home ed – but also very much the same in some respects.

Recently I have felt a little despairing about autonomous home education – not for us as a family, for us it continues to be what suits. We continue to take a ‘child-led’ approach, though one child is now a teen. We value autonomy and space and living to our own schedule. What has been making me a bit peeved of late is the sense that what we do is so often misunderstood and misrepresented – even within the world of home ed. I don’t want to go into details about our lives because I think that’s an invasion of other family members’ privacy these days. But I do feel the need to share some of what I’ve worked out over the years we’ve been home educating.

I have often heard, in home ed circles, autonomous education characterised as ‘doing nothing.’ Sometimes this is by those who are critical of the concept or those who don’t understand it and don’t want to. At other times I have heard people despairing about engaging with their older children or teens who have been advised by others to ‘say they’re doing autonomous education’. And it’s about then I want to wallop my head on a brick wall.

Autonomous education is not ‘doing nothing’. It doesn’t mean that we (the parents) couldn’t care less if our children grow up literate or numerate or able to function in wider society. It isn’t that we want to give our children a childhood devoid of challenge or progress or goals and ourselves an ‘easy’ life. Equally, it isn’t something to grab as a label if you are trying but failing to do parent-led education or school. It is not a waste or a doss or an excuse. For us, for my family, autonomous home education is engaged, active and busy and all about learning in its widest sense.

So I’m not at all sure if I want any label that relates to how we home educate. Because it makes no sense to claim an identity that’s so poorly understood and so often misapplied. And who’s to say I get the power to define? Perhaps it’s better to just get on with it and not worry about the labels?

So, here’s the core of the whole thing, for me. People are individuals. People love to learn. People crave self-determination. People have a right to support when young to help them access knowledge and to make sure they have the basic tools needed to function in society and respect others’ freedoms. People should be as happy as they can be because we only get one life. That’s it. That’s the ethos behind why I home ed. Call me what you like (within reason!)

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Edinburgh trip

We just spent a few days in Edinburgh. We stayed at a Travelodge for £26 a night and got advance train tickets, so the trip was rather a bargain. Edinburgh is fantastic. We went three years ago and this time we did some of the same stuff - tour of the Vaults (this time with silly ghost hunting equipment!) and yummy vege burger dinners - and some new things - excellent guided tour of the Scottish Parliament building and eating in Edinburgh's oldest vege restaurant.

The breakfasts at the Travelodge don't really compare with the same deal at a Premier Travel Inn. We found that we were always in need of something - milk, bread, knives etc! But the room was really nice and we all enjoyed evenings in bed watching the big tv on the wall or reading our books.

The Scottish Parliament was probably the highlight of the trip for me. The building is really beautiful and we got a free tour from a very sweet, enthusiastic young man. The cafeteria was great and we all sat around eating baked potatoes and avoiding the hideous rain. It rained pretty much non-stop for the whole trip and it was *cold*! When it wasn't raining it was snowing.

We all got lost (in various combinations!) in Jenners department store. I spent an enjoyable ten minutes browsing round the bathroom department imaging what towels I'd buy if I had an unlimited budget!

People bought books and yarn and other stuff. I read a Patrick Gale book I'd borrowed from my mum. I am always completely absorbed and full of admiration when reading one of his books. This one was excellent. I like the way he sometimes writes himself a lovely man into the work - a farmer this time!

We returned to a museum we'd liked before and which featured in a book we've read since our last trip there. There was an exhibition that was very much to my taste - Treasured. It had various beautiful objects, from insects in amber to exquisite glass models of undersea creatures.

The journey home was rather loopy. We weren't due to leave until 1pm but we decided to go to the station early as heavy snow had fallen across Scotland. Most of it had melted in Edinburgh but we rightly surmised that the trains would be affected. At first we thought we were looking at a bus to Newcastle! Eeek! But then we were advised to get a train heading for Birmingham using the west coast line. We changed trains at Carlisle and got a fast train to London. The whole business probably only added a couple of hours to our journey time but was a bit worrying. We were never entirely sure our tickets would continue to be accepted as we headed further south by a strange route. But it was fine. We didn't have reserved seats (of course) so we were sometimes a bit squashed up - but I've had far worse journeys!

I really love to get away. We live a rather relentless schedule as a family and getting away just changes the pace entirely.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Leo is ten!

Nearly three years ago we did a blog post on our old blog in honour of P's tenth birthday. It's hard to believe that it's time to do the same for L. But it is!

Here he is aged nine months. A lovely, happy chap!

By his second birthday he was well into two of his first passions - frogs and The Singing Kettle. That birthday he got frogs from nearly everyone and he was thrilled. He also had a selection of little kettles.

Here he is aged three. The bits of paper were claws and scales. We spent a lot of our time helping with costume.

Eating his fourth birthday cake. He was dressed as Batman and we all sang the Batman theme instead of the traditional song.

On the beach in the Isles of Scilly - aged five.

Here he is is at six - reading an Edge Chronicles book.

Seven years old and being The Doctor.

Drawing and writing and always creating. Here he is doing it age eight.


Ten years old with birthday bag and leather notebook bound for him by P.

Happy Birthday to our lovely boy!

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Last ditch letter to MP

We sent this to our MP today. There's still time to write to MPs before the Third Reading of the CSF Bill on 23rd Feb. Hope someone might find this useful/inspiring when composing their own letter - sorry it's so long!

Dear David,

Thank you for sending the DCSF response to the Parliamentary Petition you presented on behalf of your constituents in December, and for your letter dated 9th February.

Unfortunately, you are mistaken about the process of the Bill; there have been no successful amendments to Schedule 1 or to any other parts of the Bill which affect home educators. The effect on our lives would still be just as we described in our previous correspondence.

For the DCSF simply to repeat their assertion that the proposed monitoring would be "light touch" and that guidance would provide for it to be "proportionate and focused on support and encouragement for home educating families" does not alter the wording of the Bill, which contains no such guarantees.

It is very poor legislative practice for laws to be passed which rely so heavily on guidance for their implementation. Once the law is passed, there is no need for the guidance to be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. There is nothing in the proposed Bill that protects home educating families from local authorities or future national governments who may choose to implement the provisions in a much more draconian and intrusive way than the DCSF's pronouncements would suggest.

It was pointed out to the Public Bill Committee in a submission from Canadian home educator Kelly Green, that Graham Badman's review of the legal position in other countries was highly selective. There is evidence from North America that the degree of regulation of home education in different jurisdictions makes no difference to the outcomes for home educated children. Ms Green's short submission can be seen at

The DCSF response to the Parliamentary Petition is simply the latest in a series of misleading statments made by DCSF representatives over the last year. We attach a short document outlining some of the others we have identified, and would be grateful if you would take a few minutes to read it.

You will be asked to vote again on the Children, Schools and Families Bill at its Third Reading on February 23rd. Following a truncated Committee stage, the Bill is almost unchanged. The Committee did make time to discuss a large number of amendments to Schedule 1 and other amendments regarding home education at its final session on February 4th. Although the session ran out of time before most of the amendments could be voted on, the debate was very interesting, and we would urge you to read the transcript. You can find it at

In particular, the contribution of Caroline Flint MP (beginning at Col. 493 in the Hansard record) was thoughtful and striking.

Ms Flint described the Government's proposals as "bureaucratic and overburdening to families and local authorities".

Having listened to her constituents and other home educating families who made submissions to the Public Bill Committee, she expressed her concern that the information required of parents would be excessive; that the provisions of the Bill would be applied inconsistently across the country; and that the Bill, as currently worded, could leave the government open to legal challenge.

She concluded by calling on the Government to step back from the proposals in the Bill:

"There must be a way forward that can bring the relevant communities together, whether they are parents, local government or the Department. I hope that we can find a way forward, because I am concerned that we will otherwise end up with something that cannot be delivered on the ground and that will create division when people
should be coming together, and I am sure that that is not what this Committee or the House want to achieve"

During the whole debate, no MP other than Diana Johnson made a substantive speech in support of the provisions outlined in Schedule 1.

There is one last opportunity for the House of Commons to remove these ill-considered proposals from the Bill. Amendments 63, 64 and 66 would remove Clauses 26 and 27, and Schedule 1, giving everyone an opportunity to step back and consider the best way forward. As Caroline Flint said, "for a number of different reasons, there has been a breakdown in confidence and trust on the issue." The first step in rebuilding trust with the home educating community would be for these amendments to be carried at the Third Reading.

We believe there is widespread agreement, even among Labour MPs, that Schedule 1 is now an obstacle to the Government's stated objective of working in cooperation with home educating parents, in the best interests of children.

We urge you to represent our views on this once again to ministers, in the hope that they will agree to accept the amendments. If the government refuses to be swayed, even by the arguments of its own loyal backbenchers, we would urge you to vote for the amendments when they come before the House.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Consent and the Ticky Boxy World

It’s been a long time since we posted anything on this blog and, I suspect, that will be the case from here on in. Having older children, who spend a fair amount of their time online, makes it just too weird to be blogging our day to day lives. But, with today’s second reading of the bill in parliament, I had a vague spark of the anger that has got me blogging before.

The truth is that I’m worn out with the whole business of the government’s intention to start licensing our lives. Most of the time I just heave a sigh and shrug. They can’t bear to have us all out here just living our lives. Not with *children* who we (without any proper qualifications to do so, you understand) claim to be *educating*. What if we aren’t doing it properly? Surely we must be counted and checked and monitored – on and on and on and on, I suspect. Because that way they can make sure we are doing it properly...

Well, we’re not, of course, doing it properly. I know about properly. Properly would involve us (the adults) making plans all about what they (the children) will learn and then teaching it to them and testing them to make sure they were listening. Any spare time not devoted to paragraphs or fractions should probably be spent telling them not to get pregnant/get anyone else pregnant, abuse substances, carry knives or run up debts on credit cards.( That people insist on doing these stupid and feckless things is obviously down to the fact that no-one ever gave them in a lesson about the consequences.) Of course, even if we did it all as properly as properly then it would still be a substandard education because the children aren’t properly socialised. No, they suffer from the lack of the normal social environment of an over-heated room packed with twenty nine other souls who were born in the same academic year. So we are, I think, doomed when it comes to a passable level on the Scale of Normality.

There’s no way the Ticky Boxy World will let any of us pass without something that needs to be addressed and improved upon. No doubt, we will all be encouraged to live every moment in a *reflective* way, questioning how we could do it all better next time. So that when the Ticky Boxy Lady comes round again we can move up a level on her Ticky Boxy Sheet and enjoy a sense of *achievement.* Or, alternatively, they might just decide that we’re all failing and need to be put in special measures, which will probably mean School Attendance Orders aplenty.

They will arrive in our lives, I suspect, from Ticky Boxy World, and gasp in horror at the chaos of it all. The child who has reams of writing scattered around the house, all illustrated with mythical creatures and not a sheet of it marked! And, where is the child? In the garden playing with fire... The other one is out at a fundraiser down at the local anarchist club – talking to adults we have not met, vetted or barred. And, no, you won’t be reading her essay because, actually, it’s not really very useful to her if you do...

You see, the thing is, that out there in Ticky Boxy World, the people never do like it, you know. The Ticky Boxy Ladies and Men that come and inspect, they’re never welcome. No-one quite knows what to do about it, of course. Everyone is very used to a structure where no-one is asked if they consent. Not the children sitting on the mat doing their Jolly Phonics, not the bored teenagers doing as little as possible, not the teachers sitting in long meetings about strategies and approaches, not the head teachers burning the midnight oil before the Ticky Boxy People arrive. Being asked if this is what you want, if this is useful for you, if you can even agree to this as part of a deal – that doesn’t really happen much out there. You are in the Ticky Boxy Structure and you do as you are told.

And yet we have pottered merrily on – picking and choosing and not worrying too much. That is what they don’t like. I’m pretty sure of it. However they dress it up with concerns over this or that. It doesn’t wash with me. The truth is that they can’t let us be. It just doesn’t fit. Having sold their souls to the Devil of Inspection they cannot let anyone escape. But I think they might find that people used to living by common consent will not be as easily awed by the Ticky Boxy Lady. I hope not.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Another letter to our MP

Dear David,

As we are sure you are aware, the Children, Schools and Families Bill received its first reading in the Commons last week. The Bill contains several of the most disturbing elements of the Badman Review recommendations.

We were dismayed to find that even before the results of the recent public consultation have been published, the government proposes to implement a licensing system for home education. More than 5000 people responded to the consultation. Among them were many home educating families, concerned at this rush to legislation that redefines the legal position of something so central to their lives.

The Bill proposes that any home educated child who is not ‘registered’ with the local authority will be the subject of a School Attendance Order, should they be discovered. In such a situation, the Bill states that “an authority shall disregard any education being provided to the child as a home- educated child.”

Though the government has clearly decided to back away from the idea of creating a new criminal offence of failing to register, it is attempting to create a compulsory system by threatening to force home educated children into school if their parents do not comply.

Similarly, the Bill states that there will be no automatic right of entry to homes or to see children alone. However, the proposed new Section 19F(1)(e) would give local authorities the right to remove a child’s name from the home education register if it appears to them that:

“by reason of a failure to co-operate with the authority in arrangements made by them under section 19E, or an objection to a meeting as mentioned in section 19E(4), the authority have not had an adequate opportunity to ascertain the matters referred to in section 19E(1)”

Our interpretation of this is that the system of monitoring will be determined by the local authority, and any objections raised by a home educating family could easily lead to their child’s removal from the register and a consequent School Attendance Order.

These sections in particular, especially combined with the proposed new section 19C (which allows for the issuing of regulations on various key aspects of the registration system) would have the effect of locking home educating families into a monitoring system, which can be amended without Parliamentary scrutiny by any future government.

We feel that our family’s decision to follow an alternative educational path has been defined from the outset of this process as a problem for the government to solve. This was clear to us from the moment the Terms of Reference for Graham Badman’s Review were published in January this year.
In spite of thousands of critical responses from home educating families both to the initial Review and the public consultation, this premise does not appear to have changed.

To us, this premise is mystifying. Our children’s education has, so far, been made up of largely unplanned, self-directed learning. As parents, we have seen this working. The children are curious, enthusiastic, engaged learners. They are learning to plan for themselves and to set their own goals. They are learning about the world and their place in it. They are happy.

We cannot see any benefit to them in an ever-escalating process of government intervention in their lives. After witnessing what has happened in state schools over the last twenty years, we cannot help but feel that any system of monitoring imposed on home educating families, no matter how “light touch” the government may claim it to be, will follow this same path of ever more control.

Please do all you can to represent our concerns in Parliament, including by voting for any amendments to the Bill which seek to delete Clauses 26 and 27 and Schedule 1.

Yours sincerely,

Dani Ahrens and Allie Rogers