Education Thoughts

I have moved here, from my Silencing the Bell website, some of the articles I had written back in 2007. I went through the process when the children were small, and I first discovered the notion of 'education otherwise than by schooling', of reading everything I could find on the subject. The little local library where we lived ended up with a really interesting collection as they bought new books on several occasions, and even acquired things from the British Library for me.

Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich

"The state shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education."

For such a small book it is very densely packed with ideas so all I think I can do is outline some of them and highlight some of the questions that they raise for me. 'Deschooling Society' is not just about schools. Illich uses school as just one example of the way in which the whole of life has become institutionalised, and how "non-material needs are transformed into demands for commodities". (p9) As acquiring an education becomes merely a process of consumption it creates a whole new layer of poverty. People come to see themselves as impoverished if they lack the required amount of attendance at school that is considered appropriate. Poor countries then also take on this notion of school as a commodity that their children should have, and as such artificially create yet another area of deprivation. Nationally school divides people into those who succeed within the system and those who fail. Internationally it creates a caste system amongst countries based on how many years of schooling they provide for their children.

What happens when the state provides a school is that it actually "discourages and disables the poor from taking control of their own learning" (p.15). The more resources a government pours into schooling, the less are available to facilitate other informal, non-school methods of learning. And the easily recognisable failure of schools to adequately 'educate' all young people is seen not as a reason to seek alternatives but as proof that education is a costly and complex business that can only be carried out by certified professionals. Despite ever rising education budgets the outcomes for children from 'disadvantaged' backgrounds does not improve. Illich quotes figures from nearly 40 years ago, but the message is the same, pouring money into the schooling system will not fix it. The aim of 'equal' schooling for all children is economically unfeasible and absurd. Disadvantages that are inherent in the social and political structures cannot be changed by schooling. In many ways Illich sees school as actually reinforcing disadvantage. The role of the school system itself is also reinforced by the rest of society though the insistence on qualifications and certification to do so many jobs, things that people can acquire only through participation in and with the approval of the school system. He argues that there should be an end to employment discrimination based on attendance to the school curriculum, that getting a job should be based on competence tests rather than school certification.

I am not sure how, or even if, Illich would have labeled himself politically but much of the first part of the book seems to imply that school is a part of the mechanism that perpetuates inequality in society. He refers frequently to 'disadvantaged' groups and how school does nothing to improve their chances in life. Deschooling would be really just part of a much larger process of restructuring society.

The purpose of 'deschooling' would be to create a situation where all of life would be an educational experience. He argues that people gain knowledge in school only in so far as they are obliged to be there for such extended periods of time. The alternative is that responsibility for learning has to be passed back to the learner. Illich envisaged a system of 'educational credits' that an individual could spend throughout their life to acquire new knowledge or skills. He distinguished between learning skills and 'liberal education'. Skill acquisition relies on simulation of the situation in which they would be used, and 'education' is the exploratory and creative use of skills. At the end of the first chapter he admits that we cannot rely on the informal incidental education that occurred in pre-industrial societies, where children learned by real participation in their society. We need now in modern society to consciously create educational opportunities. But what is needed first is to break away from the delusion that the school system creates, that some education is necessary and some is not. School has divided the world into 'educational' and 'non-educational' and this is a totally artificial divide. He likens what school has done to education to what organised religion has done to the Biblical message. "It is enlightenment itself that is now being snuffed out in the schools." (p.31) From a Marxist point of view he talks about young people being 'pre-alienated' by their schooling; with knowledge as a mere commodity to be consumed. University should be an environment where there is dissent and real questioning of society and it's values, but instead it has become just the final stage of a very drawn out initiation into the consumer society open only to people who have excelled in the earlier stages of the school system.

School has three functions (not surprisingly education is not one of them): "the repository of society's myth, the institutionalisation of the myth's contradictions, and the locus of the ritual that reproduces and veils the disparities betwwen myth and reality." (p.43) Illich outlines the myths that need to be 'de-mythologised'. Firstly the need for unending consumption, the consumption of 'schooling' being the most firmly entrenched myth. Any self-taught activity is discredited by insistance on qualifications, which creates the 'demand' for schooling. Once schooling is accepted people doubt their own ability to learn things without instruction. Secondly is the notion that everything of value is measurable. Once people have been allocated a 'place' by the system pretty soon they become accustomed to putting themselves into a 'slot'. Over the years the school system has become more and more obsessed with measurement, the testing regime dominates the National Curriculum, starting with Baseline assessment, through three stages of SATs and on to the formal examinations at 16 and 18. Illich contrasts this with the idea that "personal growth is not a measurable entity." (p.45) Thirdly pupils must consume a pre-packaged curriculum. Schooling is supposed to be the place where your critical judgement is formed, but how can learning about yourself be part of a pre-packaged process. Over the years the costs of the curriculum have spiraled; they are now 'scientifically' designed, the more costly and complex the better, giving the illusion that what school provides is something special and that can only be delivered by professional teachers. Illich also points out that interestingly 'learning difficulties' have apparently increased over the years in line with expenditure on curricula, suggesting the explanation that pupils become resistant to the teaching as it becomes progressively more prescriptive.

Illich defines two categories of institutions; manipulative and convivial. School is top of his list of manipulative institutions because not only does the government compel use of it but it also frustrates alternative methods of learning. He also uses the example of the road system as something that has altered over time from its original purpose. It originated from a need for people to be able to travel from place to place and has been perverted into a need to own cars and the more cars people own the less effective the road system has become. School shapes our understanding of the world in subtle ways. To challenge the idea of institutionalised learning would cause people to lose faith in schools and have wider ramifications for the other manipulative institutions of our society, including the police, prisons, the army and mental institutions, all of which exercise control over aspects of society. Convivial institutions are things like public transport, parks, pavements, libraries, the postal service etc. which are run by government but do exercise any control over people using them. School reform becomes unimaginable for society because of the nature of the dependency and the demand that it creates for other manipulative instituations. It is a crucial part of the perpetuation of consumption as the principal purpose of society. It is then linked to the idea of production and consumption being the root of 'progress'. Illich links in to the nature of capitalist production of goods, defining them as more 'manipulative' depending on how artificial the demand for the product is. The school system is at the root of this demand because of the way it defines success and failure, by the way it offers to pupils the 'promise' of a future of affluence if they do what is asked of them by the system. People are led to believe that by having an 'education' they will be guaranteed access to the desirable consumer goods and a 'better life'. As a result of this people come to aspire to everything that is offered, and the juggernaut that is modern consumerism is fueled by these aspirations. To quote the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) leaflet from the DFES as one tiny example; "skills and qualifications mean you're likely to earn more money when you get a job". This message is dangled as a carrot for young people throughout their school career, and the obvious alternative threat of failure and poverty.

"Even the seemingly radical critics of the school system are not willing to abandon the idea that they have obligations to the young, especially to the poor, an obligation to process them ... into a society which needs disciplined specialisation as much from its producers as its consumers and also their full commitment to the ideology which puts economic growth first." (p.71) Illich argues that research into education that starts from the premise that education is an institutional process will not change anything because all it seeks to do is make the existing framework more efficient, not to change they way they think about education. Lifelong learning does not mean creating new opportunities for real learning but merely a process of "pushing out the walls of the classroom" so that the entire society becomes school. The next chapter outlines his ideas for creating an alternative learning web that would put learners back in control of their learning. His book predates the internet but Illich already recognises the importance of technology and computers, and the role they would play in facilitating connections and communications between people. He sees change happening and comments at one point that schools would be powerless to stop a mass rejection of the system. But I am left wondering what comment he would make on current education policies. Illich's ideas are still around, but I fear like so many things they are tamed to make them more acceptable. 'Individual Learning Plans' sound like something real, a chance for young people to exercise control over their learning, but what they are in effect is merely an illusion of freedom, where choice is still only within the parameters of pre-packaged curriculum and within the confines of the system. A true alternative approach needs to value "the unpredictable outcome of self-chosen personal encounter above the certified quality of professional instruction." (p. 74) It might sound, phrased like that, a somewhat romantic notion, but you just have to look hard at the system we have now to see that an alternative has to be argued for.
In his final essay Illich gives us a lesson in Greek Myth and makes an appeal for change that focusses on moving away from dependence on institutions. In conclusion he finds that the root of everything that is damaging in society, nationally and internationally, is based on the spiral of demand/production/consumption that is never satiated: "The ethos of non-satiety is thus at the root of physical deprivation, social polarisation and psychological passivity." (p.114) But he retains throughout his thinking a basically positive view of human nature and sees that a more hopeful future is there if people are open to it.

All quotes from 'Deschooling Society' by Ivan Illich ISBN 0 14 02.1280 9 (Pelican Books 1976)

John Holt - How Children Fail

John Holt wrote this book over a period of several years while teaching in an american private school. I think it had such an impact because of it's honesty. He takes a close look at his own teaching and that of other teachers in his school and is unflinching in the conclusions he reaches about the effect it has on his students.
The first section discusses at length the strategies that children develop to deal with the demands that teachers make on them. He uses examples of individual children and accounts details of events that demonstrate the tactics used. In school children basically do not find the world meaningful and become trapped by the fear of doing something wrong. They actively resist understanding and prefer to make wild guesses when asked questions. The children do not pay attention to either the question or the answer, wanting only to give an answer, any answer, so as to be able to get it over with. They have no method of checking the answers they write against any notion of common sense or logic because invariably the questions they are asked have no meaning for them. They develop techniques of watching the teacher for clues to the answer, avoiding answering or pretending to know and hoping not to be called on. For most children the process of being in class is a guessing game; the teacher knows the answer to the question, and they want the child to guess what it is they know. The children put on a front of ignorance to get the teacher to give easier and easier questions until they find one they feel safe to answer. Quite early on in his observations Holt realises that the pressure that is placed on the child to get a 'right answer' actually distorts their ability to think about the question. Teachers have in their head a view of the long term, what they are going to teach the children, not just each lesson but for the whole term. Pupils on the other hand are only interested in the immediate situation, how to get to the end of the lesson or end of the day without anything bad happening. The purpose of being at school for them is a process of getting the allotted tasks out of the way as quickly as possible, by any means possible. "School gives encouragement to 'producers', the kids whose idea it is to get 'right answers' by any and all means. In a system that runs on right answers they can hardly help it." (p.38) Teachers think they are encouraging pupils to apply their intelligence to problems, but children are so afraid of failure that their strategies are focused on avoiding failure rather than thinking about the question. Holt regularly uses the game of 20 Questions to get the children to try asking questions to get information, but even in an informal non-threatening situation they seem stuck in a fear of asking a 'stupid' question and being laughed at. They are so worried about right and wrong that they do not see that a 'no' answer (that they think of as wrong) often gives as much real information as a 'yes'.

Fear of failure is the theme that runs through the book. Holt says that what children need in their learning is the experience of doing something well, and knowing it without having to be told or congratulated. But in school children spend most of their time in fear; of failure, of looking stupid, of feeling stupid. "Even in the kindest and gentlest of schools children are afraid, many of them a great deal of the time, some of them almost all the time." (p. 50) Holt then describes how this fear creates a state of tension, which can actually be released by just giving an answer, even a wrong one. Another alternative is daydreaming, which is a mechanism for avoiding the tension by not even engaging with what is going on in the classroom. A person's sense of themselves comes partly from the things they achieve, and being 'bad' at school creates a sense of being a failure. Bright children expect the world to make sense, check what they discover against reality and can bear uncertainty and so think more about the problem presented to them. But for many children in school all they feel is the pressure to provide an answer, not even troubling to think about the question, and their only strategy is to avoid "trouble, embarrassment, punishment, disapproval or loss of status" (p.59) Children can survive only by controlling their fears, living with them and adjusting to them, but the consequence is that their intelligence is crippled by them. For many children the option is to stay as failures because it is safe and familiar, there are low hopes and expectations from teachers and from themselves. If they were to succeed at something all that happens is they are put under the pressure of adult approval. School wants to control what children learn and their behaviour, and it does this by keeping them in afraid. Because the questions and answers have no meaning for the children they do not trust the knowledge to be constant from one day to the next. When children solve a problem in school it has no sense of satisfaction for them, only a relief that it is over with and no longer has to be thought about.

In the section entitled 'Real Learning' we get a slightly more positive picture. Although it takes the same format of diary entries detailing accounts of what happens in his classes Holt includes some snippets that show the difference between how the children normally react to problems, and the rare occasions when he feels that a child has grasped something meaningful. Children often fail because school and teachers present what they do as if it were meaningful, when really it isn't. The world is full of crazy, contradictory things, and this is rarely acknowledged to children. what Holt also acknowledges is that when his pupils do really learn something it is almost by accident, and that more often than not school does not facilitate the type of thinking that allows it. A person who is 'problem centred' concentrates on the problem and uses the information there to work out an answer. But the school system is 'answer centred' and as such the pressure is on pupils to give right answers and the time is not allowed for them to find their own route to the answer, so they fall back on guessing and finding clues from the teacher. Or the teacher provides a 'method' for answering the problem, and children use the method without ever understanding either the question or the answer. He concentrates in this section on maths and discusses use of
 cuisenaire rodsand gives some wonderful stories of the way having something tangible helps children grasp the abstract concepts of number. He contrast these with the notion that maths is so often a series of rote learnt 'number facts' none of which relate to any other and are without meaning in the real world. He discusses how lack of knowledge and hence failure to understand are compounded by testing. Teachers are forced by the system to teach to the test. To prove that their teaching has been effective they must show that children have understood what they have been taught, therefore they must succeed at the tests. So much effort is put in to preparing for the test, the result being that children's results in the test does not actually represent the true level of their understanding. Consequently the teacher proceeds on the basis that they know or understand things that they don't, leaving most pupils further and further behind in their understanding of the basic concepts.

Holt describes the world as being made up of words, and that you cannot just present the words to be learned as a sequence, that it cannot be real learning if all you do is absorb the words and then spit them back out again. There has to be relationships between the knowledge and each learner has to build their own mental model of the world that is constantly changing and growing as they learn. He talks about how important it is for a child to be allowed to use their own methods to reach understanding. He refers again and again to his own helpful 'explanations', which he knows do not help his pupils (but as a teacher he cannot stop himself giving them). It is very difficult for teachers not to impose their own structure on a child's learning, but if you impose school methods of solving problems you do not allow the child to come to their own understanding of the answer. "The only answer that really sticks in a child's mind is the answer to a question he asked or might ask himself." (p. 122) He gives a story of a girl he is helping and how he helps her to see that she can use the knowledge she already has to compare with new answers to see if they make sense in the real world. He emphasises the importance of children working towards their own solution, even if it is at a very basic level of understanding it will be far more significant to them. I think this analogy is very appropriate so I will quote it in full:
"In other words, the invention of the wheel was as big a step forward as the invention of the airplane - bigger, in fact. We teachers will have to learn to recognise when our students are, mathematically speaking, inventing wheels and when they are inventing airplanes; and we have to learn to be as genuinely excited and pleased by wheel-inventors as by airplane-inventors. Above all, we will have to avoid the difficult temptation of showing slow students the wheel so that they may more quickly get to work on the airplanes. In mathematics certainly, and very probably in all subjects, knowledge which is not genuinely discovered by children will very likely prove useless and will be soon forgotten." (p.127)

School fails because it demeans and patronises children and attacks their self-esteem. Children react with fear, boredom and resistance. School creates rules that are applied for their own sake, not because they have any benefit. School's testing obsession undermines intelligence. Children are forced into defensive strategies. School refuses to listen to wrong answers, or acknowledge the role they might play in learning. Children feel that it is their failure if they do not understand what they have been taught. School is interested in getting through the curriculum and having the appearance of success. Children start out as active intuitive learners, but after a few years in school all questioning and curiosity stops. School thinks all learning is measurable, and must be measured, and that the purpose of measuring is to compare the result to other pupils and to other schools. Children fall into the habit of acting stupid until they can no longer remember what it is to engage with something that interests them. And because school does all these things it forces both teachers and pupils to be dishonest; about what is important, what is worth knowing, what they know and how they feel about their learning. All in all quite a damning indictment.

In conclusion Holt comes back to the significant fallacy of schooling: firstly that of all human knowledge some is essential, secondly that a person is considered educated by how much of this essential knowledge he has, and thirdly that school has a duty to get as much of this essential knowledge as possible into children. As he says unequivocally, "These ideas are absurd and harmful nonsense." (p. 171) But the crux of his conclusion is that school tries to impose this agenda for learning, and to do this will inevitably involve coercion, which will inevitably lead to the crippling fear that characterises the rest of the book. He points out that it makes no difference whether you have a traditional, authoritarian type of school or a 'nice' liberal school, the effect is the same: "Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it is your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don't do what you want." (p. 175) But there is an alternative, and he describes to one of his pupils "a great smorgasbord of intellectual, artistic, creative and athletic activities, from which each child could take whatever he wanted, and as much as he wanted, or as little", and her reaction, of course, "it would be wonderful!" (p. 176)

John Holt - How children fail
Published by Pelican 1976 ISBN 0 14 021115 2
Now published by Penguin Books Ltd

Some reviews of books about learning and schooling. They were written quite some time ago and included on the original site.

'The Underground History of American Education' by John Taylor Gatto

For those of you unfamiliar with the name of John Taylor Gatto he published a book back in 1992 entitled "Dumbing Us Down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling" which outlines the damaging effects of school upon the individual. It has become a classic text for the alternative education movement in general and contains fascinating and useful insights for home educators in particular. In this book, however, his task is much more immense, for he is attempting to demonstrate not only the destructive effect that schooling has had on society, but also that it was meticulously planned and executed by vested business interests and social engineers. The foundation of the movement took place in Prussia during the 18th and early 19th centuries. A schooling system was created that stratified their population into thinkers and leaders at the top, professionals like engineers, doctors and lawyers next and the rest of the population (92-94%) educated only for "obedience, co-operation and correct attitudes along with the rudiments of literacy and official state myths of history." (p. 137) Educationalists and policy makers who had studied these Prussian ideas, backed by the richest and most powerful families of the time (Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, J. D. Rockefella and Henry Ford) created a movement for compulsory schooling that spread, between 1852 and 1918, through every state in the union. Anyone who attended the 1999 Home Education Conference in London and heard him speak will be familiar with the basic premise; then he gave it the title "Fourth Purpose Schooling". Although it is an American history, as he pointed out in his lecture, the same ideas, the same influences, shaped the transformation of schooling in Britain at the same time. Our social and cultural background is somewhat different but I think the main thrust of his argument is equally relevant to this country. Modern compulsory schooling, Gatto argues, is designed to actually foster illiteracy and create, in effect, a caste system within the population. It is designed to turn self-reliant, self-educated, creative and independent individuals into passive consumers and factory fodder for the new world economic order that was being created by the 'Coal Revolution' of the late 19th century. The book is an in-depth social, political and economic history of the America of the last 150 years. It is full of detailed references and historical documentation, and has oblique offshoots into such issues as eugenics, fabianism and the removal of religion from schools, with a smattering of his own personal and family history. It all adds up to a damning indictment of a system that has been inflicted on millions and millions of children world-wide. Although not necessarily a book for home educators it is certainly a book for anyone seriously worried about the nature of schools, anyone still under the illusion that they can be reformed and anyone needing inspiration and reassurance that they have made the right choice to leave the system behind.
Available from John Taylor Gatto's website.

'John Holt: Personalised Education and the Reconstruction of Schooling' by Roland Meighan

John Holt wrote ten books, that's quite a lot to get through, so for those of you with less time but still in need of the basics of his ideas this book offers a useful and very readable introduction. John started in the 60's with 'How children fail', a stunning indictment of what schools do to children and how they destroy the ability and desire to learn. From there he was on a path which led him to question more and more of what we do to children and the results of our treatment of them. In 'Escape from childhood' he outlines a blueprint for children's rights that respects them as people and facilitates their true participation in society, rather than their exclusion from it as is currently the case. To begin with, in his earlier books, he clings on to the idea that school could be changed in some way to make it better but as the years and books go by he reaches an almost inevitable conclusion, that they are beyond repair and that to find an alternative is the only real solution. He founded 'Growing Without Schooling' magazine in 1977 to support families who found home education as their alternative and continued to write to provide support and inspiration to people making that choice. There is something in his writings that touches on a 'truth' about the nature of learning and his thoughtfulness and insight cannot help but open your eyes to all sorts of possibilities.

'The Next Learning System: and why home-schoolers are trailblazers' by Roland Meighan

This book is one of many that Roland Meighan has written looking into alternative ideas in education. He has had links with the home education movement and researched within it for many years. In this book he sets out to show that what home education can offer young people could well become a blueprint for the education of the future. I do not consider it idealistic to hope that the ideas about individuality and flexibility that characterise home education will one day become part of the state sector which at the moment is so suffused with conformity and statistics. He looks in 'The Next Learning System' at a spectrum of research into the effectiveness of home education, what it can offer young people as individuals and how it supports their growth and development, and why it appears that home education is so successful. He outlines the ways in which this approach to learning differs from, and is an improvement on, what schools have to offer. What we know about the human brain, how it works and how we learn has been transformed in recent years, and yet the school model has yet to catch up with many of these ideas. The next learning system that he envisions is one where learners manage their own learning, have access to a variety of places in which to learn and resources to use, and can create their own 'curriculum' from a huge 'catalogue' of choices. He sees flexi-schooling as a positive option that could have much to offer those looking for part formal/part informal education, and a possible area for growth in future years. The book offers a positive image of what could be possible for our education system if the political will were committed to such improvements, until such time, the answer appears to be 'make the change for yourself'.

'Compulsory Schooling Disease' by Chris Shute

The book begins with a quote from Winston Churchill, "Schools have not necessarily much to do with education.... they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school." Chris aims to show that we would be hard put to prove anything much has changed since this was written in 1944. Fascism as an ideology is designed to put and keep people in their appropriate place, disallows the rights of the individual and establishes a system of the many being ruled absolutely by the few, with every aspect of their lives being under control. School mirrors the values of fascism by treating children as if they need controlling, so that the young people that emerge from the other end of the system are people who expect to be controlled. School "is about the business of compelling people to conform to a pattern of behaviour and way of thinking decided by the few who hold power over them."(p.18) Children learn "obedience, conformity and compliance"(p.10) and that punishment for those who follow their own thoughts and ideas is justified While it is a book that is a fundamental critique of the 'system', he emphasises that he is not levelling the blame on teachers themselves, but that they become unwitting partners in the subtext of what schools are designed to achieve. Chris gives this 'normal' explanation for the treatment of children in school: "School is good and necessary for children. Good children realise that and settle down to work. Bad children do not. They are insolent, lazy, noisy and obstructive. This makes it hard for everybody to teach them the important things that we adults know they need to learn. Therefore it is very important that teachers take them in hand and force them to do as they are told. Any teacher who cannot or will not is a weakling and should be hounded out of the profession."(p.48) The establishment idea that adults know what is good for children is so widely accepted by our society that it can be a real leap of imagination to accept what this book argues. This is not a book that pulls it's punches, it is profoundly unsettling in it's analysis of school as an institution.

These three available from Educational Heretics Press.

Anything school can do you can do better by Maire Mullarney

A book that, at the time, had a real impact of how my life has turned out, it is the one that got us into the home education movement. When my husband met Maire at an Esperanto congress many years ago and asked her about this book she said that it was out of print and that she would send us one of the remaining copies, so the chances are you'll only find it second hand. It tells the story of a Irish family of eleven children born over 16 years (the first in 1948), and how Maire chose to let them start their education at home. She was influenced by Montessori in her approach and describes in quite a lot of detail how the children came to reading and writing, and the strangely significant impact of entering art competitions. One by one her children go off to school as they approached eight or nine as Maire and her husband felt unable to provide the input they needed especially in Irish language. Though probably of more use and interest to families with young children she tells an inspirational tale, set in an idyllic rural landscape and you can't help but get caught up, as I did, by her enthusiasm and passion for life. Maire, a genuine home education pioneer, went on to be a major campaigner for contraceptive rights in Ireland and an advocate for Esperanto as a means to international understanding.

Their Own Voices from Education Otherwise

The 'later years', that is secondary age, is often a time when children return to school having been home educated. Parents feel less sure that they can provide what their children need in terms of education. It is also a time when many children are leaving school because of bullying and academic pressure, and their parents are equally unsure about the effect it will have on their future and job prospects. This little book, only 80 pages, provides an interesting and realistic reassurance for people in this position. It is made up of answers from a couple of dozen families who responded to a questionnaire in the EO newsletter. Some answers are written by the parents, others come direct from the young people involved. They come from all walks of life and have a broad range of experiences of and approaches to home education. They are all very honest and many of the pitfalls and downsides are brought to the surface, but they are never seen as insurmountable obstacles, only challenges to be faced. They own up to the fact that home education is not the easy option, one that will change your whole family, but one that appears, from their responses, to be very much worth the effort. Asked if they would do anything different most replied they would not. The young people, almost without exception, felt they had plenty of friends, a good relationship with their family, looked to their past with pleasure and to their future with anticipation. On the subject of whether they would educate their own children at some future date; "I would choose to educate them myself at home but I intend to give them the option of trying school. I want my children to be very independent people with their own opinions who can make their own choices..." It is good to know that home education has a strong future.

Those Unschooled Minds: home educated children grow up by Julie Webb
Ten years ago Julie Webb did some research into home education, resulting in a book entitled 'Children Learning at Home'. This book is a follow up and talks to a group of 20 people mostly in their twenties and thirties who were home educated as children. She looks at such questions as how they were educated, the levels of flexibility they had in their learning, how they felt about their social lives and emotional development, how they went about finding work and the long term effect on their general outlook. The book has lengthy quotes from the interviews and basically she allow the interviewees to make the point in their own way, and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions from the experiences of these people. They are people who come from a variety of different family situations and lifestyles and who's parents all took varied approaches to home education. As with all research into the nature of human experience it can only tell you how these particular people experienced it, but they are honest about the ups and downs of their lives and it is as realistic a picture as you could hope for. Julie's tentative conclusions are positive and encouraging. Although the people found that home education did have an impact (most often positive) on their attempts to gain university places and in their early jobs in the more long term they did not see it as something significant in itself, but that it gave them a different perspective and the ability to 'think outside the box' particularly where educational and work choices are concerned.

The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn
How to quit school and get a real life and education, the book's subtitle, tells you pretty much the whole story. I must start by saying that to read this book as an adult is a somewhat saddening experience, because images keep coming to you of of all that wasted time and things you could have done with your teenage years instead of sitting in school and doing what was expected of you. But for anyone under about 18 it will be a source of inspiration. The review on the front cover states: 'It contradicts all the conventional wisdom about dropouts and the importance of a formal education'. It is at it's root quite a revolutionary book, challenging all the commonly held assumptions about what young people are and are not capable of and whether adults have the right to tell them what is important. Sometimes she seems to shout at you from the pages, trying to get you to see the reality of what school is really designed to do, telling you to get up off your backside and do something better. But you never feel you are being lectured at adult-to-child style. She really believes her readers are more capable than they are usually given credit for, and all she wants is for you to believe it too. There is no blueprint for what it means to be an 'unschooler', her book is just jam packed with ideas and experiences of others to show you what is possible. In the first part, without being patronising, Grace talks you through all the downsides of school, things that you can see for yourself but things that you get so used to putting up with that you cease to notice them. She includes some words of wisdom for parents and sound advice on tackling reluctant ones. She gives advice on the change of lifestyle that will follow leaving school and how to cope with it, how to sustain your social life and how to develop new relationships with adults. The next section goes on to give a variety of examples of new ways of looking at 'school' subjects, suggestions for places to go to further your interests and how to incorporate your own interests and pursuits into an 'education'. There are also ideas on getting to college, finding work, volunteering, starting your own business and apprenticeships. It all adds up to a comprehensive source of information, ideas and inspiration; Grace wants to inspire young people to think they can make their own education and be in control of their own destiny, that you can make a life "that doesn't require bringing the ugliness of school into your home, or transforming your parents into teachers. Nor, for that matter, does it require that you stay at home. The idea is to catch more of the world, not less."(p. 15) She certainly inspires me. What more can I say, read it!

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
For many people to abilty to represent what they see on paper never really progresses beyond what they could do at age 7 or 8. The 'I can't draw' self-image is very widespread. Betty Edwards' book takes the view that this is not a lack of skill with a pencil but a lack of skill with your eyes, and the fact that often from a young age people get locked in to drawing as merely a system of 'symbols' that represent things rather than actually drawing what you see. It is really worth taking the time to work through the exercises as they are set out, it is a book about changing your perceptions not really a drawing 'technique' book. She shows you how to shut down the half of your brain that talks to you in words, and get access to the side that pays attention to shapes, shadows, lines and colours. Using a technique she calls 'pure contour drawing' she makes you draw your own hand in a such a way that you have never seen it before, noticing and drawing every crinkle in the skin. Her explanations of perspective are very understandable and she goes into great detail for the 'bugbear' of drawing, the human face, moving from profiles to full face portraits. Betty starts you off making a record of the way you draw and within a few days of following the exercises you can see a startling contrast in your ability to perceive details and shapes. The examples she includes showing the transformation of her pupils' abilities are inspirational. My husband criticises the book because it has an essentially 'classical' idea of good drawing, that it assumes that 'representational' drawing is the only real drawing and is what you should aspire to, and it is therefore part of an elitist tradition in Art. My own feeling is that it is not a formula telling you how to 'draw' but a window on a different way of seeing. So many people are dissatisfied with their abilities and this book says that anyone can develop their skills to a level that is satisfying and this gives you the confidence to move on and develop your own style and self-expression.

'To Have or To Be' by Erich Fromm
"Literacy is by no means the blessing it is advertised to be, especially if people use it to read material that impoverishes their capacity to experience and imagine." Erich Fromm
This is only a slim volume (for a philosophy book) but it took me several months to feel that I had got some measure of what he is trying to say. The book identifies two 'modes of being', namely the 'having mode' and the 'being mode'. Fromm argues that most human beings are locked into the 'having' mode of existence and that our economic system, social customs and also our education system are all designed to perpetuate this way of living. The 'having' mode is basically at the root of all hedonistic philosophical approaches, i.e. that satisfying every human desire is the route to happiness and the actual purpose of life itself. But his definition goes further than that. 'Having mode' is about defining yourself in terms of what you have and what you consume, and that your experiences are simply to be added to a list which makes the sum total of your life. Conversation is merely an exchange of information rather than a real dialogue because your opinions are like possessions that you fear losing. Reading is about consuming books rather than active engagement with the ideas in the book. Schooling becomes simply getting students to consume certain outputs of our culture that others have also consumed and thus consider important. Knowledge becomes a mere commodity. High status is given to people who have large amounts of 'intellectual property', not necessarily those who use and understand it and are changed by what they learn. The 'having mode' is at the root of the desire to control others. Relationships with others, especially in a patriarchal society, are defined by ownership, of wife or children, even friends become possessions. The 'being mode' on the other hand incorporates very closely the ideas of growth and change, 'becoming' as it were as well as 'being'. 'Being' is about engaging actively with experiences and ideas you encounter in the world, especially where new learning is concerned, knowledge being a process of productive thinking rather than consumption. 'Being' is also about 'productive activity' not mere busyness, though he is pains to point out this does not refer to having a physical 'product' from your activity but is about inner activity. He turns on it's head the meaning of 'passivity' and of 'activity'. 'Busyness' or 'activity' as defined by society i.e. filling your life with meaningless stuff so you are always 'doing', is actually what he defines as 'passivity', whereas what society sees as 'passivity', doing nothing, can actually be 'activity' when it is about engaging in genuine 'non-alienated activity'. 'Being mode' is not however about material deprivation. Fromm distinguishes between 'existential having', to provide for the physical needs for our bodies to survive, and 'characterological having' where the person's life focus is possession and consumption. This books looks at the human condition and it's impact on the society we create, and equally at the impact our society has on the human condition. If you have ever wanted an answer to the 'meaning of life' question, or wondered 'is this all there is to it?' then this book can give some small insight and possibly some hope.

These last three are articles I wrote, the first in 2008, the others back in the 1990's. I used to write for the EO newsletter on a regular basis and might one day trawl through the collection and gather all of them together.


Over the years I have subscribed to a magazine called ‘The New Internationalist’, a political magazine focussing on global issues. They used to advertise with the slogan “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything”. As a passionately committed and long standing member I am coming to the conclusion that Education Otherwise must decide what it stands for before the upcoming government consultation tries to impose it’s definition on the whole concept of “education” and force all young people into an educational straight jacket dictated by government policy.

The roots of Education Otherwise sprang from the notion that school is not what we want for our children; that we do not want their experience of learning and growing to be dictated by the state. The school model of what education is dominates our society and most people’s way of thinking about learning. I see EO as standing in opposition to this thinking, part of a grand tradition of non-conformity. It is all very well taking your children out of the school building but how much does it really help if you don’t take your thinking out of the schooling box.

Part of EO’s role has been to challenge people’s ideas, making them consider why they do what they do and why they think what they think. If you look at EO publications or on the web site you will see everywhere the guidance that education doesn’t have to be like school; you don’t have to give formal lessons and you don’t have to take exams. And yet over the years this appears to have become just a token gesture that gets lost amid the queries about “how many hours schoolwork a week is enough?” and “how can my child do GCSEs at home?” EO started out convincing each new generation of parents that it is okay to trust their children and to guide them through their learning. What we do now is recommend maths schemes to each other and discuss the best age to start teaching reading.

In gearing up to challenge whatever new regulations the government may have planned for EOers we have to be able to say what we believe in. While EO has always stood by the notion that we do not tell parents how they should go about educating their children, that we offer support to all comers, I believe we have to take our stand on the issue that learning is a unique and uncontrollable process for each individual, and that children have a right to a unique education. Some people chose to fit what they do at home neatly within the school model of education, and I am not trying to oppose their right to do this, but EO must stand for the right to have control over all aspects of the style, content and process of learning. It is not just a matter of the choice of school or not school, we have to challenge government assumptions about education and focus the debate on the real nature of learning.

The government wants to lump us all together into a homogenous group of ‘home educators’ and impose a narrow definition of what they will allow us to do for our children. Section 7 of the Education Act does in effect recognise the unique nature of learning. In theory the act offers a personalized education to all children, and what we need is an education policy that lives up to the requirements specified there. Are we going to spend the next thirty years debating the merits of the Oxford Reading Tree or do we want to make a real impact on thinking about education?

The worst change in the UK education system in the last 20 years.

So many changes, so few words to address them. Though on the other hand, have there really been any changes. I wish to argue that the worst change in the education system over the last 20 years is that there has been no real change at all.
Things have been introduced into the system over the last 20 years, supposedly 'drastic, sweeping changes' that will 'revolutionise' education and improve it for everyone, raise standards and counter truancy. The National Curriculum came in so that we could be sure that wherever you lived you were getting the same 'quality' of education; Key Stages and testing were designed to monitor progress and make sure all children reach their potential; getting children into school younger and making them take 'school' home with them; standardising the training of teachers and centralising inspection services attempts to create uniformity of experience for children These things have all just been tinkering round the edges of a system that does not respect children as learners. The system has as its basis the idea that children are there to be formed and moulded into the compliant citizens and workers and enthusiastic consumers.
Moves in the 60's to make our education system more child centred never truly took off, and the experiment petered out through lack of commitment and misunderstanding of the nature of child led learning. (As G.K. Chesterton might have put it; it is not that it has been tried and failed - rather it has been found difficult and left untried.) Professionals use this 'failure' as an argument for the continuation of a system that does not, for many children, even achieve it's superficial aims of literacy and numeracy. A system that professes to know all about the nature of how children learn but appears not to act on this knowledge; research is done and evidence presented, but the relevant government department continually chooses to follow its own agenda for the young people of this country and ignore advice or evidence that contradicts them.

During 18 years of Conservative government differences of opinion were ridden roughshod over, people who disagreed were simply disregarded. Now what we have is far more subtle and dangerous. The present government's policy of 'social inclusion' aims to simply bring everyone into their fold, with the same result that there will be no publicly expressed differences of opinion. This policy filters down through all areas of society, including the education system. They saw that to their delight the education system already did what they were after; it produced people who knew the same thing, held the same attitudes and were quite comfortable with being told what to think. If it is done for long enough, and hard enough, the ability to think that there are other ways of thinking will disappear. People will no longer be able to imagine that learning could be about something real, rather than just the enforced absorption of a government dictated view of how society should be. So they just do MORE of what was already being done; more control of curriculum; earlier entry into formal schooling (catch them young); more homework, inflicted on younger and younger children (infringing on children's precious free time); more uniforms (that give the outward appearance of conformity to go with the conformity of thought); more government dictats about method as well as content; more assessment and inspections; just more.
There have been no REAL alterations to the way the education system operates. The worst change is the complete lack of change. Please, please, give us some change.

Printed in Education Now Issue 25.
(Education Now a newsletter published by Roland Meighan but now gone. This was written in response to a competition he ran following the Home Education Conference in London 1999)

Harry Potter and the Perpetuation of the Myth.

We're reading them in our house. In fact they're being read in thousands of houses round the country. They're exciting adventure stories full of mystery and magic, and kids are loving them. But they're also school books, books that pass on the message that whatever you want to do in life, even if it's being a wizard, the only place you can learn how to do it is school.
Harry Potter lives a horrendous life, shut in the cupboard under the stairs by night, and shut in a muggle school by day, and then a glimpse of light is given to him when he learns that he is actually from a wizard family. He's not normal, he's extraordinary, and a completely different life is opened up to him, the reader starts to imagine all the possibilities... but what do we get... a school. Well, you hope, it can't be like a normal school, it'll be different, wizards are magical and their way of doing things will be so unusual that it will not seem like a school at all. But it's not a nice, free, child-friendly, democratic school. Imagine a Hogwarts run like Summerhill, now that might be a school worth going to. But no, it's a backwards-looking, authoritarian school, with petty rules and adults whose words are law, no argument, no discussion, no excuses, and take your punishment silently. It's a school full of tedious teachers, incompetent teachers, intimidating teachers and teachers who enjoy humiliating you, boring lessons, rote learning and stressful exams. And then there's those manipulative and conformity-enforcing 'house points', given for good behaviour and teacher-pleasing answers and removed for disobedience of the rules. It's a school where you are fed information as the teachers judge fit, in the order they see fit, where an area of the library is restricted because it contains inappropriate material, where first years are not allowed to own broomsticks, where expelled pupils will never really make anything of themselves and where Harry suffers from that most mysterious of conditions, 'summer learning loss'. Harry and his friends have their best adventures outside of lessons of course, but they are never allowed to forget that the adults know better than them, know what is good for them and hold all the power, in both senses of the word!
Children are fed with school ideas of learning right from the earliest age but I am coming to the conclusion that reinforcement of the school-equals-learning equation is one that takes place to an equal extent through the stories that they read and are read to them. Harry Potter is only one book, but one of many, too numerous to list, where the assumptions about children, learning, growing up, education and schooling are the ones that our society is so fond of perpetuating. The myth is that you go to school to do your learning, and it's the only place it can happen; that it's hard to learn things, complicated, too difficult a process for children to grasp alone. If you perpetuate this myth effectively enough soon even the children whose lives are being stolen by the system come to believe it is the only way. To quote John Taylor Gatto, "It is the triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students' parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things."

Published in the December '99 issue of Choice in Education newsletter.