[In]visible Children

Before I start, I need to make a disclaimer. This is not a research-based article, there are plenty of those out there that do an incredible job of laying out facts and figures to support what a lot of home educators are saying. This is merely my thoughts as a home-educating parent on what has been in the media over the last week.

When I first saw that Channel 4 had produced a Dispatches programme with the misleading name ‘Skipping School – Britain’s Invisible Kids’ I immediately decided to give it a wide berth. I knew from the ad that it wasn’t going to be a measured and fair representation of home education in the UK. Mainly because that would make for a really boring show. Who wants to watch normal families going about their business with no drama or twist to keep you watching? It might provide a certain level of interest if you work in education or are thinking about home education yourself but it’s certainly not going to rack up big viewing numbers.

At the same time, the Children’s Commissioner released a report, looking at the increase in home-educated children but mostly focusing on the process of ‘off-rolling’ whereby schools essentially exclude children by strongly suggesting their parents home educate. She uses these (approximate) figures to support her call for compulsory registration saying

“Our investigations have revealed thousands of children are ‘off the grid’ because they are being home schooled,”

“The numbers are rocketing and no-one knows how they are doing academically or even if they’re safe. Many are being off-rolled.”

“We need to know who these children are, where they are, whether they are safe and if they are getting the education they need to succeed in life.”

It’s hard to know where to start in addressing this but I will firstly make the important point that there is a huge difference between those being electively home educated by their parents (which I think accounts for the majority of those being home educated) and those who have been forced into home educating by a failing school system. The two cannot be compared and shouldn’t be lumped in the same category. Quite obviously, children who are struggling to thrive in mainstream shouldn’t just be forced out by schools. They, and their parents, should be offered the support they need to succeed, whatever that means and wherever that sees them being placed. However, schools are in crisis with funding cuts and huge levels of teacher stress.  I know many teachers, all of whom share a passion for what they do and frustration at what is happening within the state education system. That is a separate issue and one that needs addressing urgently.

So back to elective home educators and the main accusation being made, are our children “invisible”? The answer is, simply, no! To use my own children as an example; Elijah attends an Ofsted-registered nursery once a week so that I can concentrate on more complicated school work with the older two (last year it was Egypt, this year we’re looking at World War Two and the Victorians, also whilst learning Italian). My older two attend Parkour classes once a month at a company in Marsh Barton, Sophia goes to dance classes weekly, Isaac attends football training with a local FA club every weekend, they all go to Forest School every Friday without me and we go to Church most Sundays where they go to Sunday School. On top of this are the one-off educational visits to the Aquarium, Seaton Wetlands (run by a council-funded educator), Clip n’ Climb, various museums and nature attractions and many many more. We go to the library, to the shops, to the doctors and dentist when needed, to the beach, to the woods…

Every day we are out and about and interacting with people from the average Joe on the street to professionals in their field. If asked, we are always happy to chat about home education, why we do it and how it works for us. My children are far from invisible and having inherited my love of talking, everyone they encounter is engaged in conversation with them (whether they want to be or not!).

And we are not at all unusual for home educators. The activities may vary but all the home educators I know in Devon have similar tales to tell (of which there are many and whilst I’m obviously not friends with everyone, I have probably met hundreds of families over the last 6 years). They are out in their communities, their children go to a range of activities and they certainly do not hide away, in some inner sanctum of their homes. As a friend commented the other day, ‘I don’t know why it’s called ‘home’ education, none of us are ever at home’!

The argument however from those calling for registration is that although this is the case for the majority, what about the minority that this doesn’t apply for?  The Department of Education’s official response to the report states

“Where children are being home educated, we know that in the vast majority of cases parents are doing an excellent job. ”

“We also know, however, that in a very small minority of cases children are not receiving the standard of education they should be, which is why last year we ran a call for evidence on proposals to introduce a register, as well monitoring of provision and support for home educators. We will respond to that in due course.”

So why are so many home educators against compulsory registration? I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few years and read a lot of articles arguing both sides of the coin. But I think what it comes down to is the gradual erosion of our freedom as parents. Because usually, alongside calls for registration are proposals that proof of a suitable education must be made. And that is such an incredibly subjective term that it is bound to be abused or misinterpreted. Children, like adults, learn in a multitude of different ways and suitability is going to hugely vary depending on their age, ability and approach to learning. What doesn’t look like learning to one inspector will be more than satisfactory to another.

One child might learn through ‘traditional’ approaches such as listening to a teacher/parent, reading books and completing worksheets whereas another may learn simply through conversation and physical exploration. Some may need a more visual approach, some hands on, some might need to be left alone to do their own research and experimentation before emerging with a wealth of new knowledge. But what is needed is trust. Trust that parents know what is best for their children and trust that we can do it! And by suggesting inspections, registration and at one point I believe they were suggesting interviewing children as young as 5 without a parent present (something that is wrong on so many levels) you are sewing seeds of doubt into the whole process.

For me, home education is freedom. Freedom to learn how we wish, when we wish and where we wish.

To those arguing about that minority, I would say that some of the most famous cases of child neglect/abuse/death..etc have occurred to children who are known to the system. School is not the only place where children are acknowledged. Doctors, nurses, health visitors, midwives, dentists and many more professionals are in regular contact with home educated children and anyone can raise a concern, it doesn’t have to be a teacher. Where sadly neglect or severe harm is going to occur, the warning signs are often there from day one and flagged. Unfortunately, the problem is austerity and the huge cuts to public services which means that our amazing free services are being squeezed on every side. Thousands or incredible hardworking staff are overworked, stressed and simply cannot do everything that they pledged to when taking their jobs, despite trying their absolute best to look after everyone in their caseload.

I’m not quite sure what the obsession is with targeting home educators. Maybe it’s because we’re seen as an ‘other’, a group of people not fitting neatly into the normal societal boxes. Often we branded as hippies or oddities but the majority of home educators I know are simply normal people, continuing the education of their children that we do from the day they are born, at their own pace and in their own unique and interesting ways. We are simply choosing to educate our children in an alternative manner, outside of the state education system.

I wasn’t going to get involved with this latest furor. In fact I told a friend yesterday that I was tired just thinking about it. But I woke up this morning realising that like with any fight for justice, if we all buried our heads in the sand then nothing good would be accomplished. If all of us meekly went about our business, ignoring this chatter at higher levels, it is likely that we’ll be forced to undergo unwanted, intrusive and wholly unnecessary measures before we know it. I also woke up angry.  Invisible? My children are most certainly not. They are inquisitive, engaged, confident, outgoing, active and talkative. Invisible is quite literally the last word I would use to ever describe them.

 

Bu

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Stepping Away From The Tech

For the last two years, I’ve been working for The Outdoors Group, an amazing company the delivers outdoor education across five sites around Devon from toddler groups and home education sessions to specialist 1:1 intervention for those struggling to thrive in mainstream and adult training to send more Forest School Leaders into the world. We also host birthday parties and team building events. And excitingly, this year we are opening The Outdoors School, an independent special one-of-it’s-kind outdoor school, especially for ASD and SEHM learners.  I work in an administrative capacity, sat behind my laptop or on the phone, either at home or in our cosy office at West Town Farm. I never thought I’d enjoy doing admin so much but I think it’s a combination of loving being organised and being passionate about the business that means that I really do love my job and mostly find it a pleasure, rather than a chore. I like problem solving and I like helping people, both important parts of the role.

However, I’ve always said to folk when talking about what I do that I’d love to do the Forest School Leader training itself one day. ‘One Day’ was a vague concept, some magical time in the future when it would be appropriate and I’d found the courage. But excitingly/nervewrackingly, ‘one day’ has come sooner than I anticipated. At the end of February I’ll be joining a bunch of other aspiring Forest School leaders at our site just outside Exmouth for a week’s practical course to kick off the year of training required for this qualification. I am equal parts thrilled and terrified. I love learning and I love being outside but….after many years of living in houses with stoves and open fireplaces and having attended Forest School with the kids for the last 6 years, I still can’t reliably light a fire! Hopefully this week will solve that…

I’m also feeling rather nervous about the concept of actually running sessions. Sure I run activities at our Home Education group nearly every week but I’m not technically in charge there. I can corral a group of rowdy children aged 2-11 and get them involved in a structured activity but that is indoors, without the added factors of everything that the outdoors brings, including the health and safety element of it. Folk aren’t paying to be at the Home Ed group and if I muck it up, it matters not one jot!

It’s a bit of a moot point though at the moment as I’m not actually going to be in the woods doing delivery for the forseeable future I think but I like to think ahead to when that day comes. I know really, that the whole point of doing the training is to equip the learners with the skills, knowledge and confidence to be able to successfully plan and deliver sessions but still, eep!

Turning off the laptop, putting on my boots and waterproof trousers and stepping outside feels like a bold move. But one that I’m looking forward to. And even if I don’t use the training in the woods for a while, I’m hoping that it will better inform me for my role within the metaphorical ‘office’. However, even in order to make the week’s training happen has been a bit of an undertaking in terms of childcare and I owe a huge thank you to one particularly special friend and my Mum and Dad for helping Dan keep the kids occupied that week whilst he’s working from home. It really does take a village and I’m so grateful for my little one.  So here’s to stepping out of my comfort zone of inboxes and spreadsheets and entering a whole new world of outdoor learning and adventure…I’ll keep you updated as to how I get on!

Hannah-Bio-Pic

Cutting bits of string, I’ve got that. Fire lighting, watch this space…