Saturday, 28 February 2009

Why it’s a mistake to say ‘If we were any other minority, this wouldn’t be allowed’

I have noticed this line of argument coming up with increasing frequency on home education lists and blogs. AHEd included a version of it in their recent press release about the Home Education review.

I can certainly understand the temptation to respond in this way to the repeated government consultations, apparently fuelled by the desire to limit our freedom to home educate in the wonderful and diverse ways required by our individual children.

I am quite used to being in a minority. Indeed, looking at my life choices, you would think I preferred it (maybe I do, subconsciously). I’m a mother who is a lesbian, and a lesbian who is a mother. A middle class parent without a car. A home educator who supports vaccination. Most of these things are a result of my free choices, and I’ve made those choices because they make me happy. If other people misunderstand or disagree with me, that’s up to them. I’m extremely lucky that I live in a place and at a moment in history where I have the freedom to make some of these choices.

Still, being in a minority is sometimes hard, and it does sometimes feel as though nobody understands and everyone is out to get you. When the difference that puts you in a minority is something you passionately identify with, questions and challenges can feel like attacks on your very being.

But I think that for home educators to compare our current predicament unfavourably with the situation of unspecified but better protected “other minorities” is a mistaken and dangerous argument.

First of all, it’s not true. There is no legal protection for all minorities in this country. Some groups have legal protection because of historical injustice, but not all of these are minorities. The Sex Discrimination Act gives some protection to women, but women are not a minority. The legislation was part of a struggle to alter the historical imbalance of power between men and women. It was a question of power, not numbers. There is also no protection in place for most minorities - for example, the minority of people who voted Labour at last general election, or the minority who choose a vegan diet.

When people talk vaguely about “other minorities”, they are of course not talking about pigeon fanciers or ballroom dancers, but about groups whose legal protection against hatred and discrimination has been hard won after decades of struggle. That protection has not been achieved because lawmakers think minorities need protection per se, but because the specific history of those struggles has led to a political recognition of the need to make a stand against racism, homophobia, or prejudice against disabled people.

If we claim that we need protection, just like those other groups, we are not only belittling their specific histories, but also losing an opportunity to talk about our own particular issue. This is my second problem with the argument. When people misunderstand or criticise home educators, it is an opportunity for us to say important things about education, about privacy, and about freedom. Whether they listen or understand what we say is up to them, of course. But if our response is merely to claim special concessions on the grounds of being a minority, we deprive ourselves of the chance to explain why the freedom to home educate is important for every parent.

Keeping educational options open and free of state control is something of immense value to parents who currently use schools, as well as to those of us who are currently home educating. It’s not really about us being treated unfairly, but about everyone’s future choices being restricted.

I think what I am trying to say has been said better in this post, by a talented US blogger I read regularly.

There is an important point to be made about acceptance of difference and diversity, but claiming we are an oppressed minority is not the way to make it. Freedom of choice is not the same as freedom from hatred.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

It wasn’t us! Honest!

I am sitting here with wonderfully toasty feet, because D has finished a pair of woolly slipper socks for me.

Yesterday we had the most glorious weather and a good day. We went to the Brighton Science Festival Bright Sparks day. There were lots of things to do and see. Pearl was very taken with the robot hoover (latest model apparently) that would do your hoovering all by itself while you were out. I wasn’t convinced it would cope with the grot that ends up on our carpets and I think it could be killed by sucking up a Sylvanian shoe. Leo liked the fossils, bones, hooves and skins brought by some people from the Grant Museum. The kids were very good at getting themselves through the crowd to do the things they wanted to do. Pearlie did the egg challenge. She gave her egg some good wrapping but, when she dropped it from a stairwell, it still broke! Leo did a mammal detective thing which he thought was a bit slow but they did give him a mini magnifying glass, so he was happy. He also made a dummy ‘sneeze’ and did a quiz about marine life. I asked him if was interested in the quiz in the microbes room but he told me he was ‘quizzed out’ by that time.

The day was held in the senior bit of a secondary school, so that was quite interesting to nose about. The weather was so good we took chairs from the canteen and ate our packed lunch outside.

After the science festival we went down to the sea. I found I had a desperate urge to be on the beach, which was no doubt brought on by the sun and which appeared to be shared with hundreds of other people. We bought the kids some chips and sat on a groyne looking at the sad hulk of the West Pier. We walked part of the way home along the beach and then hopped on a bus.
Leo had picked up a pebble with a hole, inside which is a little crystal cave. As we were sitting around tonight he was looking at it with a torch when he said,
“Would this be classified as a geode?”

Leo also blogged about Darwin today, so he must be having a science kick.

I went to work today and came home to the smell of cleaning products. P is on a mission to earn herself jobs money for more materials for mobiles. On my way along the street I had noticed that there was some ‘no cars’ chalking on the pavement. In previous months and years this has been done by our kids but the writing/spelling etc. suggested that this time it was not. The kids confirmed this. Then, this evening, we had a knock on the door from a neighbour who was angry about a ‘no cars’ leaflet – hand drawn by a child – that had come through her door. She was rather deflated when Dani told her it was nothing to do with us! I wish I’d answered the door because I had some bottled indignation from some workplace dealings that I would have liked to vent. I don’t see how any adult could take offence at a leaflet written by a seven year old, for goodness sake. We got one of these leaflets posted back through the door from another neighbour, with the message that he had sold his car and would not be buying another. Well, that’s nice to know but it how can we spread the word that it wasn’t P and L this time? I think it’s really funny how this has caught on with other kids in the street. P and L say they know who it was – some younger kids from across the road.

Right, we have a busy week ahead, so time for a cuppa and then some sleep, I think.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Oh, the irony

Today I am struck today by the fact that our primary reason for home educating our children is out of respect for their choice, for their individuality and for their right to self-determination. Alongside this is our respect for their right to privacy and ownership of their intellectual property. What is bizarre is that this latest review is (apparently) about children’s rights. I could laugh, or possibly weep, or maybe a bit of both. You see, I am not a ‘family rights’ advocate. I don’t think that children are owned by their parents – children are their own people and they deserve the care of all adults who come into contact with them. I think children’s rights as human beings should come first in any civilised society. Trouble is we don’t live in one of those.

So, I’m angry and I’ll just chuck the gloves off for a bit. Who is it who has to send out the police (the POLICE) to capture children back to their place of learning? Is it home educators who are chasing their children through the street with the law in tow? No, it isn’t. It is the local authorities who send out teams of adults to capture children like the childcatcher. And, are these children committing an offence? No, they are not. They have not broken a law.

Oh, but I can hear them say... “The children have a right to an education and they have to be caught and put back in the schools so they can get what’s good for them.” Like animals running wild? “They have to be saved from themselves – before they become ‘failures’. And if that doesn’t work then we’ll offer them the ultimate support of sending their parents to jail.” Yes, that’s great for children, isn’t it? What humanity, what understanding, what ‘care’.

So, let me put it plainly. Don’t come to me talking about children’s rights. I don’t need your lecture. I don’t ride roughshod over the needs, desires, dreams of my children. They are precious and I know it. And, you know what? When children live with that respect they learn like plants growing in fertile soil. They learn with a hunger and joy. Your tick boxes and statistics aren’t needed. But thanks all the same...

Accentuate the Positive

Ok, so I’m feeling that it might be a good time to write something about the good things that have come to our family, and in particular our children, through home education.

1. The opportunity to get to know babies/toddlers/children/teens and adults and spend time in mixed groups of all ages. In our home ed community in this town, my kids know other adults they can turn to for help and support. They can watch older kids and teens and learn by example. I am often struck by the kindly intervention of teens when little ones are in trouble. It is rather lovely to see a boy of thirteen or fourteen pick up a toddler and return him to his mum or dad. Leo likes to talk about the babies he will have and how he will care for them – prompted by seeing the care of babies and toddlers in the home ed community. Pearl can be at a home ed gathering without one of us and I know there are caring adults there who will look out for her.

2. Time for the children to really indulge the things they love. We have a lot of group and social commitments but there is still plenty of ‘spare’ time, in which the children are happily occupied and productive. P is currently really into making mobiles of different kinds – designing, costing, buying and making. L is still a drawing and writing machine. When I got in from work tonight he presented me with a new book he’d written. This one was produced on the pc – typed (pretty speedily now) and illustrated with a mixture of images found on the internet and his own drawings scanned in. Does it need saying that these autonomous activities are crammed with learning? I’m not standing over them saying, “now it’s time for maths/art/ict/literacy”. They are learning in the same way they did as little children playing with a posting box or finger paints – driven by curiosity and creative urges. They work on these things to their own satisfaction and they have high standards.

3. The opportunity to afford trips and holidays at cheaper times of the year. Trips like our recent one to York (which we took at the cheapest time of year possible!) are great opportunities to broaden the children’s horizons. Our children get to go to museums without clipboards. This might sound a bit silly and a bit smug but it really matters in our family. We always feel a bit sad for the kids on school trips who race through, snatching up answers for their worksheets, with no time to just stop and stare. I will never forget the school children aboard little boats in the Isles of Scilly. Every day they had a sheet to note down the name of the boat, the weather, their destination – and so on. I was mesmerised by the light and the sun on the water and our children were always on the lookout for seals or puffins. We saw both. Our children just love to get out in the world and see things. We do a lot of that.

4. The fact that our children can choose from a range of educational opportunities day to day, month to month and year to year. Sometimes they will enjoy a one-off event at a museum, park or theatre. Sometimes they commit to a short course of sessions in something. P is currently loving a ten week course with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, making fires, whittling a butter knife and creating fairy worlds in the tree stumps and moss. Sometimes they commit to something for months or years. Their band is going strong in its third year. But they can change anything they want to change. They are reflective and serious about the things they do. They learn to deal with the waxing and waning of enthusiasm and differentiate between a tough moment to be worked through and an ending of interest and commitment. I wish I’d got more experience of that when I was young.

This is just a few of the positives. I could go on all night but I’m tired now. In this moment of some stress for home edders in this country, let’s try to share some of the good stuff at the heart of what we do. Let’s point out to anyone from the dcsf who might drop by, what it is that’s so good that we are all prepared to defend it so vociferously.

(And, if that didn’t convince them, here’s a moment from yesterday... L was dismayed to find that I was leaving for work as he really wanted to do some maths with me. This morning he made sure he asked me nice and early so he wouldn’t miss his chance again. How many eight year olds in school come running to their teacher waving a maths book and asking to work on it with the teacher’s support? How many school teachers would be able to make a cup of tea and spend a happy half hour giving one to one support to such a child?)

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Conspiracy or cock-up?

What is going on with the HE review? Is there a master plan dreamed up by a secret cabal somewhere, or are we just being caught in the crossfire of conflicting demands and pressures? Are the millions who work for local councils powerless drones, unknowingly doing the bidding of their faceless masters, or people with the best of intentions trying to make sure the next tragedy or scandal doesn’t happen on their watch? Are “they” trying to bludgeon us into submission with repeated consultations until they get the answer they want, or does the left hand not really know what the right hand is doing?

I think, strangely enough, that the truth is a complex blend of all these things.

The ECM agenda is a powerful idea, which is being strongly pushed by central government, but which has also taken on a life of its own. Anyone who works in any children’s service must by now have the five outcomes virtually tattooed on the inside of their eyelids.

This kind of thing is always happening in local government – new jargon, new buzzwords. One year, it’s all about positive images of minority communities, and a few years later the important thing is mainstreaming equalities initiatives. People who want to get on in the system soon learn to pick up this year’s key phrases and repeat them with conviction. People who’ve been around the block a few times soon learn how to take it all with a pinch of salt, and get on with doing the actual work.

People who don’t fit in with the prevailing orthodoxy are always a problem. It’s unfortunate for home educators that the prevailing orthodoxy of the moment has a lot to do with tracking, counting, checking, and meeting targets (all with reference to the outcomes, of course). I imagine that the people who have been tasked with doing all this counting find the existence of some people who are legitimately not on any list, really rather irritating. How are you supposed to identify the children who are *not* receiving an education if you can’t be sure you know about everyone who *is* receiving one. You’re never going to get your books to balance, and it’s all a bit untidy.

I’ve no doubt that *somebody* is determined to iron out some of these annoying wrinkles, and is hoping the review will enable that to happen. Maybe a group of LAs with the ear of a civil servant at the DCSF. But I’d be extremely surprised if the aims underlying the Enjoy and Achieve outcome were drafted in order to pressurise HE children into schools. It seems clear to me that they were drafted by people who weren’t thinking about HE at all.

Why has ECM pervaded children’s services so thoroughly? Is it because it has been decreed from above? Yes, partly. But also because people who work hard, providing things that families do need and want – like outpatient clinics for children with cystic fibrosis, toddler groups on estates with no other community spaces, or after school clubs for kids whose parents need to go to work – want to be able to offer those families some semblance of a co-ordinated *service*, rather than a disorganised hotch-potch where you have to explain your story over and over again to each new person you meet.

I don’t think those people are interested in persecuting home educators. I’m sure they’d rather the funding for the review was being spent on some more staff. I think they’ve been sold ContactPoint as the answer to their problems and I’m sure most of them know it will be nothing of the kind. I think they’ve been sold ECM as a way to get everybody pulling together for some evidently worthy aims, and they have more urgent things to do than to wonder whether some awkward oddballs are not convinced by the whole concept of ‘outcomes’.

In some ways, this is an ideological attack on us, and we do need to continue to make clear our objections to the ECM orthodoxy. But it’s not really possible to win or lose this kind of ideological struggle in a straightforward way. I cut my campaigning teeth on Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which said:

“A local authority shall not:
a) Intentionally promote homosexuality
b) Intentionally promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

It was entirely ideological, and made its way onto the statute books as part of some complicated horse trading within the Conservative Party, I think.

At the height of the campaign against this, people were genuinely fearful that books by gay authors would be removed from public libraries, gay teachers would be sacked, and lesbian mothers would lose custody of their children. But what happened in the end was that the law had no real teeth, partly just because our time had come. Putting this hate speech in the Local Government Act was horrible, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to stop the change that was coming anyway.

I think the review is partly an attempt to slow down the rapid increase in home education. I suspect that the recommendations, when they eventually come, will include compulsory registration, prior consent for deregistration, and annual visits with a right of access to HE children. All of these are the opportunities already taken by unfriendly Local Authority staff to dissuade, intimidate or harass families they think should not be home educating.

While we certainly need to continue to state our objections to the ECM orthodoxy, I think we also need to give some thought to ways in which we as a community can effectively resist and subvert this attempt to keep HE confined to those of us with backgrounds deemed acceptable by the educational establishment.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Pearl's Mobile

Pearlie has asked us to blog about the mobile she has made recently. She’s now working on another one – fish based. Anyway here is her lovely spoon mobile. She conceived, designed and made this entirely independently, including buying the necessary things like wire and spoons. You can't tell from the picture, but each spoon has a glass 'pebble' glued into the bowl. I think this looks like each spoon contains a drop of some magic liquid. Cool, eh?


Gosh, is anyone else feeling the need of spring? I have been getting off the bus early on my way to work, so I can seek out buds and those little blunt, green knives of spring bulbs popping up. I need to know warmth and light are on their way. It was certainly heartening to find it still light when leaving work this weekend.

We’ve been back in the swing again since returning from York but are now having a different week because it’s half-term and several of the kids’ groups stop during school holidays. The grandmothers are also away on an exciting trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, so no-one is going to see them. The kids seem to be starting this week with a lie in as they haven’t appeared yet.

Everyone in the family is really busy these days. There is a lot going on and a lot being produced in the way of art, craft, writing and blogging. Dani, I and some other local home edders have been reading and commenting on a new draft EHE policy from the local authority. We feed back to the local community regularly and don’t claim to be representing anyone, BTW. We are also independent of any national home ed organisation. It’s taken more than three years since we first asked to see the policy and were told it was all going to be updated. With the new review in the air we have no way of knowing if it will ever be adopted or if it will be changed again. It is all very tedious. I have reason to be believe that what happens IRL is only ever vaguely related to policies anyway, so it does feel a little frustrating, to say the least.

Work on our roof is going to start in a couple of weeks, which is good, if a little frightening. I am hoping for a dry, mild spring to make it easier for the people doing the work.

Dani finished my new cardigan, which is lovely and warm and fits me really well. It is lovely to have something that fits my shoulders and arms as most garments dangle off my hands by several inches. Have a look at her knitting notes for photos.

Right, well I guess I should get on with something more useful than this.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

We went to York

We got back, yesterday, from a week in York. It was cold and snowy – much like the rest of the country - but we had a good time. Here’s a selection of the things we did there. We didn’t take loads of photos because it was too cold and/or snowy to stop and get out the camera!

We were staying in a house with a table tennis table in the cellar, so we played with that. The games were not played to any rules – you just had to keep the ball in play. So it involved much leaping about getting the ball off the floor, steps or other family members.

We played in the snow. I discovered that my middle aged bum, clad in waterproof trousers, negates the need for any type of sledge.

We went to the York Castle Museum twice. This was great. It has a reconstructed Victorian Street – all brilliantly lit and with sound and people dressed up in character. It also had a Sixties exhibition which the children really enjoyed. I spent a long while listening to peoples’ memories of that decade. It also had weaponry and cells – including the one Dick Turpin was held in. A room furnished in Fifties style was full of things I remembered from my grandparents’ house and that has given me an urge to write about that house.

We went to the Minster. We climbed the 275 steps of the main tower to look down on snow covered York. This made me and Dani feel quite sick! Leo is nervous of heights but he was brave. P counted all the steps, of course, but was not able to confirm that it was 275 – she made it 261. The crypt was great, with bits of Roman remains on display and original Norman Minster building etc. The Minster had tombs of Archbishops who all seem to be portrayed lounging about – very odd.

Dani and Pearl went to the Quilt Museum, which they enjoyed, while Leo and I went to York Dungeon. I must say I was unimpressed with the Dungeon. They are a chain and we went to the one in Edinburgh, which didn’t really impress me either, but Leo wanted to go. I don’t mind all the spooky stuff (though Leo claims I was trembling throughout) but I don’t like all the silly, suggestive humour.

We went to Jorvik. The kids both loved this and I thought it was good too. We managed to largely avoid a school trip, which meant there was more peace and space to look around.

We spent a lot of time in bookshops, where people spent money and browsed.
We went to Clifford’s Tower, which has a grim and grisly past.

We spent too much money eating in cafes and escaping the cold. The real drawback of a trip at this time of year is that, I think. We usually do a lot of eating outside when we’re in a city. But it was just too cold to contemplate that.

We watched a lot of The Simpsons and Friends. Pearlie is really into Friends at the moment. I must confess I can’t stand it, so I got lots of time reading. I finished Unless, by Carol Shields, which I have been reading rather cautiously, fearful of what might be revealed. Dani was reading a book about Pi (also A Mathematician's Apology by G.H. Hardy and Lyra's Oxford by Phillip Pullman) and Pearlie finished the latest Lady Grace book – Keys. Leo is still ploughing his way through Inkheart but was also reading a new book he bought in York – Encyclopedia Horrifica. I read him some stuff about UFOs when he was in the bath and it took me back to the kind of books enjoyed by one of my brothers, when we were kids. We also got the Terry Deary book about York and shared bits of that.

We had a great time at the National Railway Museum. I was very taken with the carriages from Royal Trains and decided I’d like to go home that way. Pearlie and Leo got lots out of it too. While sitting in the Japanese Bullet Train, watching a wordless film of people sitting in a Bullet Train, we reminded Pearlie of a video she loved when tiny. I can’t remember what it was called – we just called it the trains video – and we had it over and over again from the Mobile Library. It consisted of about an hour of facts and film about trains all over the world – narrated in a lovely ‘documentary’ voice. Pearlie was able to remember it – vaguely. I think D and I will remember it forever!

Leo made a lovely book about ghosts, while we were there. Pearlie did some fab drawings too. Dani got close to finishing my new cardy. I fell asleep on the sofa a few times! I was plagued by nightmares while we were there, as I have bad memories of York, but I am glad I went.

Things we couldn’t do because of time of year and weather were a boat trip and a ghost walk. I would have liked to have been able to walk more slowly and look up more – but a face full of snow/sleet makes that tricky! It was annoying that the walls were closed for the whole week, once the snow had fallen. Little bits were open but we wanted to do a complete walk around.

One of the things we realised is how quickly we can get to York by train – it’s only two hours from London – so we could even do a day trip. Certainly, a single night away would fit in quite a lot, so we can go back.

The journey home was a bit tough because we were next to a frustrated toddler. He didn’t have anything much to do and was very into throwing things, which was hard for his mum and sister – but he did an awful lot of miserable crying for about two hours. We also got very slow because people were trespassing on the line to see a steam train that was due to go by! But we were home soon enough and the grandmothers had been in to leave us bread, butter and milk and turn up our thermostat. That was lovely.

Here are a selection of photos. I hope these are all taken by me and apologies to P if I've used any taken by her.

On Dick Turpin's bed - in the condemned cell.

At Railway Museum.

Pretty, eh?

York Castle Museum, weaponry displays. Some people enjoyed this more than others!