[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.

 

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A child’s eye view

I’m not sure exactly what the catchment area for is for Manor, the free glossy magazine for the South-West, but we receive it on a fairly regular basis. I usually flick through it and read anything of interest (most memorably an awesome article on wild swimming) before passing it on to Sophia to peruse. However, when the most recent edition fell through our letterbox a few weeks ago, Sophia nabbed it first before I had the chance to have a look. Fast forward an hour and I’m washing up in the kitchen and Sophia sweeps in demanding I read an article and that apparently we have to help! I was intrigued and a little confused and proceeded to read, under her impatient gaze, the article she was thrusting under my nose. It was about a wonderful nurse from Cornwall, Anna Norona, who set up a charity, Yezidi Emergency Support, to support Yezidi refugees and is working tirelessly to provide emergency aid for these displaced peoples, especially in regards to their medical needs.

I’ll be honest, if I had read the article first there is a chance I would have filtered it. There was mention of some of the horrendous things that have happened to the Yezidi people since the genocide of thousands of this peaceful minority at the hands of ISIS back in 2014. It’s not necessarily something I would have wanted my 8 year old to read. However, it ignited a spark in her to help these people and I have been so proud of her response to discovering this information.

She was absolutely adamant that we had to do something to support them. She said that she would hate to be separated from me and Dan and be hurt and spoke about how lucky we are to be living somewhere safe with food and our family. After a little brain-storming, she decided to raise money by being sponsored to eat just rice, beans and oats for three whole days. For a girl who likes her food, this is a pretty big deal! Anna identified a particular family currently living in a refugee camp in Kurdistan that she could support, we set up a justgiving page and she is preparing herself for her challenge which she’ll be doing on the 8th, 9th and 10th April.

I am so proud of her and her determination help those less fortunate than herself. But more than that, it has kicked me into action. We are surrounded by such a deluge of depressing and bleak news that it is easy to become numb to the horrors of the world around us. It’s easy to slip into inaction and passivity when we should be using our position of privilege to do something. So I’m resolved to do more to help those that need it. I’ll be fundraising for Yezidi Emergency Support myself and will be raising money through my (baby) ultra-marathon for them and am planning to make a conscious effort to donate regularly to the Exeter Food Bank. My time for volunteering may be stretched thin at the moment but I’m going to do what I can to raise awareness of those in need and help wherever possible. If anything, I owe it to Sophia to show her that I support her with more than just words. I want to follow the example she’s set and show love to my fellow humans with more than just platitudes.

The 4 R’s

Some of you might remember that last July I wrote a column about trying to reduce the use of disposable plastic in my (our) life. I’ve always tried to look for re-usable options where possible anyway but ‘plastic free July’ prompted me to investigate more deeply the role of plastic in my life and identify where we could cut back further. I was also introduced to the concept of the 4 R’s; they are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The idea being that by following these 4 R’s you can do your bit as an individual consumer to further reduce the production and consumption of disposable single-use plastic.

Recently, it’s a subject that has been in the media a lot with Iceland promising that it’s own range of products will be plastic-free and other supermarkets looking like they’ll be following suit. In fact, even here in the Express and Echo, a local plastic-free hero, the wonderful Jen Harris, was interviewed as she has impressively got her families household black-bin waste down to a large crisp packet full every 2 weeks! She has also had a massive impact on the people of Exeter, inspiring many around the city to make a stand against plastic. She is one of the admin on two great facebook groups; ‘Exeter Journey to Zero Waste’ and ‘Compost Connections’, both of which I’d recommend if you’d like local tips on reducing your waste.

One of the biggest sources of plastic waste is in food packaging; dried pasta and rice in plastic bags, vacuum packed cucumbers and broccoli, fruit in plastic cartons, plastic meat trays…the list is endless! Luckily, in Devon, three savvy environmentally conscious entrepreneurs have seen a need for a shop that bucks the plastic-heavy trend. Starting with Earth.Food.Love in Totnes, then followed by the Real Food Store in Exeter and now, excitingly, Nourish of Topsham will be opening on Saturday 24th March. The former is entirely plastic-free and the small shop is lined wall to wall with bulk dispensers full of every kind of dried good you can imagine from grains to coffee, cereal, nuts and even make your own nut butter machines! They also have a range of household cleaning products in large barrels so you can bring your own containers to refill. The Real Food Store has a small selection of bulk dipensers and cleaning products as well as lots of loose fruit and veg for the shoppers in Exeter. And to quote them directly, Nourish of Topsham is ‘a zero-waste provisions store…[selling] whole foods, dry goods and everyday items to make plastic free living a little easier.’ I’m so excited about exploring the latter when they open in a few weeks time and hoping that we can get much of our weekly groceries from them.

The rise of these kind of shops is a direct response to the increasing awareness of consumers that we are producing and throwing away too much plastic. Everyone has probably seen a shocking photo of a beach covered in plastic or a sea floating with so much debris you can barely see the water. Clearly, we need to do something to protect our environment and the more of us that choose to support these stores and buy less plastic-packaged products, the better! So come down to Topsham on the 24th March for the opening of Nourish, which is happening on Spring Forward Saturday, a day for offers and Spring treats in over 50 local independent shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s the perfect opportunity for a day out to indulge in a little retail therapy and to #shoplocal whilst you’re at it!

An ode to libraries

(Posted a little late but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sing the praises of libraries!)

Even though the kids aren’t in school, we tend to follow the local term dates when it comes to our home education. That means that this week, like families everywhere, we were faced with a week off our normal routine as we took a half term break. This actually came at a good time as everyone had just come down with another heavy cold so it gave us the perfect opportunity to rest and recover. The weather further aided this by being incredibly inclement (again) meaning that lots of time inside playing games, doing puzzles and reading books was welcomed by us all.

However, as the kids started to recover, I found myself puzzling as to how to fill the empty days when we needed to be out of the house but still indoors, and I didn’t want to spend much (or if I’m being honest, any) extra money. On one of these such days I received an email from Devon Libraries with a ‘pre-overdue’ warning and the solution was obvious…a trip to the library was in order!

The love for our libraries is strong in this house. Sophia is currently working her way through the Book Track challenge (reading 100 books and receiving badges along the way to mark various milestone) and the boys are content rummaging through unfamiliar and exciting books for me to read as well as getting to use the fancy new self-checkout machine. And me? Being a bookworm with neither the time or finances to regularly frequent bookshops, a trip to the ‘adult section’ always appeals to me as I look for something interesting to get my teeth into.

Like all public services, libraries are constantly facing the pressure of cuts, loss of funding and threat of closure. But there is a really really easy way to support these amazing community resources, and that is simply…to use them! The more of us that use libraries for borrowing books, going to the various groups and meetings that they hold, using their resources for research or printing, the more it will show those higher up the food chain (and therefore in charge of the purse-strings) that we want libraries to stay.

With World Book Day fast approaching on 1st March, now is the perfect opportunity to dust off your library card and go searching for a good book to lose yourself in at the end of a long day. And if you have small kids don’t forget to check out the various events taking place around the area. Devon Libraries are excellent at providing all manner of fun things to do for the children so it’s always worth keeping an eye out on their facebook pages! Libraries are one of the cornerstones of small communities everywhere and I think it’s fair to say, of vital importance to many. To paraphrase the old adage, if we don’t want to lose it…use it!

Feasting and Famine

Like many people, I’ve heard with increasing horror about the latest emerging famine in Somalia. Tales of children starving to death after more failed harvests have shocked us in a country where food is bountiful and often, wasted. It has only been six years since the last major famine in Somalia which left a quarter of a million people dead, a shocking statistic in these supposedly advanced times that we live in. What I can’t get over though is the huge gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to food.

On one side of the world, a drought occurs and the consequence is so severe that millions of people are displaced, left hungry and searching for food whilst their loved ones die along the way. There is obviously no significant store of food, no back up for when the weather or nature doesn’t behave accordingly. And on the flip-side, here in the UK (and most of Europe), we have food coming out of our ears. Our supermarkets, lit by their bright lights, are eternally stocked, drawing us in with their bargains and offers. The average family in the UK throws away around £500 worth of edible food each year (a staggering 7.3 million tonnes nationwide). Our cupboards are often stacked to the hilt with tins and packets and perishable goods. We have the luxury of choice and not just a little choice but a veritable smorgasbord of delicious edibles are on offer. We can cook from scratch, we can buy ready meals, order take out, eat at restaurants. We can feast on Italian cuisine, Indian delicacies, Mexican street food, seafood…anything our hearts or bellies desire.

We’ve come a long way from the ‘meat and 2 veg’ of earlier decades and even longer since food was simply a necessity for survival, something that was consumed for fuel with little more thought beyond where the next meal was coming from. Obviously I, like most people, am a big fan of food and love the fact that we can enjoy it more than we used to. But when I think about how primitive (and not guaranteed) it still is for millions of people all over the world, I can’t help but feel guilty. As always, I have no answers. Of course there are charities that I could donate to and I intend to try and find out who is able to directly help those suffering the most.

However, I suspect the problem is bigger, it’s systemic. I’m sure I’ve read that there is enough food for everyone in the world to survive and more. But it is not distributed evenly, not at all. And I don’t know how we can change that. It can only happen if led by governments and international governing organisations. I don’t think though that that is an excuse to bury our heads in the sand, ignore and carry on though. We can at least try to adjust our own consumer habits to make our tiny difference to things. We can stop buying food that we don’t need, stop throwing away things that we can still eat. We can try to buy food that is in season or produced locally. It’s not always possible but perhaps if we were all just a little bit more considered in our approach to food, we would start to see things shift for the better. Call me a naïve optimist if you will but I’d rather try than not. There must be a healthy mid point between feasting and famine.

Behind Closed Doors

Ever since Sophia entered the world, my children have been splashed all over the internet. Pictures on facebook, funny ancedotes on my blog, I’ve not been shy of sharing their lives to all and sundry on the world wide web. I’ve come across parents with a much more conservative approach to posting pictures of their children online and although have respected their opinion, have never had any issues with doing so myself.

However, having watched the Snowden documentary recently, a request from Dan and with the introduction of the Snoopers Charter, I’m starting to rethink  personal privacy policy for my children when it comes to sharing their lives online. What I learnt about the sophistication of facial recognition technology and the lengths that security agencies can go to to keep an eye on you scared me. Although me and my family have nothing to hide, surely we have a right to privacy and living how we like without being watched. Call me paranoid but I’m starting to trust governments less and less in light of recent political events.

Even if you put aside potential secret surveillance, I started to think about how I would have felt if, when I reached my teenage years, I had discovered that my early years were broadcast publicly for anyone to see. I think I probably wouldn’t have been best pleased. Sharing an embarrassing story with family members when you see them is one thing but your future employer knowing about the time you ate a rabbit poo thinking it was a chocolate raisin (one of my children but I won’t say which one!) or how long it took you to stop wetting the bed is a whole ‘nother level of privacy invasion.

I’ve read about bloggers who stop writing explicitly about their children when they turn five or others who ask older children to vet what they’ve written. For me, I’ve spoken to the kids and they’re quite happy for me to keep writing about them for now. But we have decided to reduce or stop posting photos of the kids online where you can obviously see their faces and I’ll keep checking in with them in regards to writing about them. Call us paranoid but I’m always trying to embrace a step back from technology and it’s pervasive creeping into our lives and think this is a good way to make moves in that direction. Now if I could just work on my compulsive facebook checking…

Closing Thoughts

The presents have been put away, the mince pies are almost gone and as we quickly approach the last day of the year, it seemed only fitting (or perhaps a bit of a cliché?!) to pull together some thoughts about the tumultuous year that has been 2016. To be fair, on an incredibly selfish and personal level, it’s not been half bad. It’s not been particularly eventful either but if I cast my mind over the last 12 months I mostly have positive memories and they definitely override the few bad ones (walking out on Mothers Day wasn’t my finest moment but we can talk about that another time). On a global scale though, it’s been a bit of a stinker hasn’t it?! Brexit (regardless of which side you were on, I think we can all agree it was a bit of a drama), Donald Trump, the escalating war in Syria, a plethora of well loved celebrities leaving us, an increase in terror attacks across Europe….I could go on. It’d be hard to argue that this year was an average year when you think of all this.

But (and I’m so glad there is a but!), I came across an article the other day which listed 99 positive things that occurred this year with little or no fanfare in the mainstream media. The list included such wonderful news such as the facts that this year more than 20 countries pledged more than $5.3 billion for ocean conservation, that for the first time ever, the amount of money it would take to end poverty dropped below the amount of money spent on foreign aid, that world hunger reached its lowest point in 25 years, that a new survey showed the ozone hole has shrunk by more than 3.9 million square km since 2006 and the news that humpback whales, green sea turtles and white-tailed deer were taken off endangered species list. And that’s only to mention a handful!

So I guess that whilst I completely understand the thoughts of those wishing that 2016 would hurry up and end, I also think that if you look for it, there are a lot of good things happening that you can get behind and celebrate. It’s easy to fixate on the negative news that dominates the headlines and our newsfeeds but I reckon that next year, we should all try and make a little more effort to search out the things that will lift us up and start sharing all the amazing things that mankind is achieving instead. If I can say this without sounding cheesy (and I probably can’t!) let’s build each other up and get inspired for all the good that we can do in the world around us, both on a local and wider scale. Let’s make 2017 a year that is remembered in history, not as a year full of political turmoil and deaths (sorry 2016!) but as a year where we all worked together to help each other, protect the environment and generally were bloody brilliant.