When I first wrote about what I'm now calling Agile Learning, just over a year ago, I started off with some quotes from my friend Guy (sample: "learning is simple; it's one of the few things we can't help ourselves from doing"). Guy and his partner Annie educate their two boys, now young teenagers, at home. Having teased them about being anarchists, I thought I should find out a bit more about how home education is (self) organised.
My discussion with Annie is a deliberate switch from the theoretical and occasionally abstract drift of recent Agile Learning interviews (1, 2). We concentrate on the decision to home educate, the variety of approaches and the learning environment (in the broadest sense of that term).
This interview differs in other ways, as well. It was even more relaxed and informal than my usual approach. I've known Annie and her family as friends for seven years; they live a few minutes' walk from my house, and, for this discussion, we met in the nearest pub. My concession to professionalism was to drink in half-pints. I had sent Annie a set of questions in advance, but, as friends in a pub are wont to do, we wandered around the topics. At first, when I listened back to my recording, I felt awkward about this lack of discipline. But by the end it felt like an entirely appropriate approach to the topics: form follows content. Please bear this in mind when when reading. Another factor is that it's important to depersonalise any details relating to children — so I've had to edit the several references Annie and I made to her children.
Other anxieties also stalked me throughout the discussion. As we began, Annie told me how many parents in our social milieu displayed a curiosity, bordering on suspicion and denial, about the home education road her family has gone down. I scanned my memory of previous chats to assess whether she meant me. Then Annie told me how more researchers seem to be taking an interest in home educators recently, dressing up everyday reportage with references to Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn. Another shot across the bows.
Just about every interview I do these days (I've got two more recorded, but not yet transcribed) seems to start with Ivan Illich, and this was no exception. Annie and Guy didn't set out to be home educators, but neither were they unprepared. Annie had read Illich's Deschooling Society at school, although at that stage it was an academic, rather than a personal, interest. A long-term resident of South-East London, Annie's contact with Camberwell Small School and the Sydenham Home Educators group left her, and Guy, with the feeling that, if school didn't work out for their newly born children, there was a viable alternative.
However, Annie and Guy had nothing against school. They both had positive memories of their own schooling, and the nearby primary school in Dulwich had a great reputation. Unfortunately, from the first day, their older son didn't get on well there, and rebelled instinctively against rote handwriting exercises. Still, Annie and Guy kept him there for a year of increasingly fraught episodes with the staff at the school, until they decided to withdraw him. That was over ten years ago, and since then both their children have been educated at home.
Initially it was based on local contacts, such as with the Sydenham group. In 1999, the examples of home education that you could find online were mostly in the US, and those were mostly faith-based, so they didn't feel relevant to us. In the UK, there was an email list that I joined. Over the years that has grown, as more people came online, and it's splintered into lots of smaller, specialist lists.
When I started it felt like, after only a relatively short time, I knew most of the people who were active in home education and interested in sharing experiences. The first time I went to HESFES [the annual week-long summer gathering of home educators], it was such a relief. Just being in a field full of people I didn't have to explain myself to felt liberating and relaxing. Again, HESFES has expanded massively in the time we've been going to it. [Wikipedia says it's grown from around 50 families in 1998 to around 1500 families in 2006.]
Annie Weekes (AW): The same way everyone else of their age does: mobile phones, Facebook, MSN Messenger.
This is actually one of the classic objections to home education that people always come up with is, What about socialisation? I've never quite worked out what they mean by that.
David Jennings (DJ): Do they mean being trained to be a good worker, and say Yes at the right time?
Annie Weekes (AW): They do, but they tend to dress it up as, How do they ever get to meet people? Which has this kind of subtext of, How do you manage to act like a normal human being in the world? Well, we live there, and we probably see more of it than most schoolchildren. It's always framed as, How do you get to meet other kids? rather than, How do you learn to be a "good little worker"?
If you say to people, "We do school at home, I give them tests, we do English 9-10 and Maths 10-11." If you said that, people would probably go, "Oh I couldn't do all that work, but that's fine."
If you admit it's not like that, people are disbelieving. "My kids sit around all day in the holidays and they don't learn anything." That's because they know it's a holiday, and they know that they're going to go back to this "place where they learn", whereas home is a place where they don't learn, other than doing their homework. I don't think my kids would even see the difference there. If they feel like learning something at 1am in their "free time", then they do it. There's no division, whereas for schoolchildren there is and they act accordingly.
DJ: Yet they don't have the same shared physical space in which to make new contacts who evolve into friends?
They meet other kids at home-ed groups, and the older they get, the more diverse those people are. When they were very young, most people they knew had always been home educated. As you get older, more kids come out of school for other practical reasons, rather than an ideological decision. For example, there was a mass exodus from the nearby Steiner School a few years ago, after some hoo-ha with a teacher there. So most home-edders, by the time they're 15, have a network that draws in people from quite a range of backgrounds.
Then the boys go to local youth clubs and the Woodcraft Folk so they meet normal schoolchildren [sic!] there. A lot of the home-ed activities they do — like climbing and Taekwondo — give them time to meet people, rather than doing lessons. They meet people who aren't school friends, in the same way that everyone else meets people who aren't school friends.
DJ: What scope is there to do group learning projects?
AW: There are classes they could go to at a local learning centre on some Mondays and Wednesdays. But if my kids wanted to have lessons, I might as well send them to school.
DJ: I can feel myself backing myself into a corner here, but there's an argument that you learn things by doing a group project, like how to worth together — though I'd be the first to admit we didn't actually do very many at my school.
AW: But didn't you used to hate those group exercises? They were my idea of hell, being bundled together with people you didn't like trying to work how to do things that you didn't want to do…
DJ: Isn't there scope in home education for you to overcome that and let a group of kids define their own group goals?
AW: Yes, I suppose there is. In a way it does happen, in that one of my boys has made films with other people. But that's completely off their own bat. Both animated and live action shorts. He and two of his mates make a film and edit it. They make the props and find the costumes.
Educationally that's a tricky or contentious area, because a lot depends on someone stating explicitly their idea of what's worthwhile and educational. Many might say, "Oh, yeah, but they're only making a film — lots of people could just do that — why aren't they doing a real project?" Loads of parents have a very narrow definition of what's educational and what's not. Even with babies, if they're picking up stones and putting them down, they'll whisk those away and replace them with specially-designed toys.
DJ: People I know who've been to art school talk of the main value coming not from tutoring in fine craft skills, but from learning an attitude of resourcefulness in realising their vision and having to be able to research and pull together all sorts of disparate material and know-how to make it happen.
AW: Do you think art school's still like that? There's a lot that are much more box-ticking than they used to be. Still, there's a lot to be said for that approach.
It's not just being left to fend for yourself, though. You do get people who will deliberately leave their children to figure everything out for themselves, albeit in a benign way. They think knowledge is better and more likely to stick if you don't get taught it, but have to figure it out for yourself. Which on one level is true, but sometimes you want to offer short cuts, if, say, it can save a discovery process that takes hours and hours.
I've always worked on the basis that if they ask for something and just want to know the answer, then I tell them. If your kid wants to know how to spell "table", replying with "How do you think you spell 'table'?" may become wearing and obtuse. Just tell them! Don't try and turn every question into an opportunity for exploration. Why make every request for help into a little test?
AW: At one end you've got people who made an ideological decision to home educate. They've decided they didn't want school. Their reasons may vary, but they've decided to reject that model. They want something different, and that something different may take many forms, but normally they'll be people who've done it from the beginning.
At the other end, there are people whose kids get excluded, or just have problems in secondary school: they've effectively been forced into it. In recent years, the growth in home-edders has come from the latter kind of people. When we were first doing it, as the internet was becoming more popular, there was an expectation that there would be lots more people thinking radically about education. To which Guy used to say, "No, there may be more people doing it, but they'll be the boring ones!" And that's exactly what's happened.
DJ: Before meeting you, I did a quick google of resources for home education and came across Structured Home Learning which appears to be just course books for use in the home.
AW: Yes, and there's so much more of that now. With growth in online learning, a friend of mine found about twelve companies who are currently offering something aimed at home educators — they vary, but a couple look more interesting, trying to do interactive learning online, like a Virtual Learning Environment, with forums and that kind of stuff.
They're trying to work out if they can get anything from the government's Free School funding. The more basic ones are just straight-down-the-line curriculum deliverers, for people who are dissatisfied with school, or whose kids have been excluded. That kind of home education is now the most common. There aren't enough of us doing anything different for there to be critical mass, and influence enough people's practice.
It's really quite hard to say. For the first few years I was quite evangelical about it, naturally. You've only known me in my later, more jaded years! In a way, I don't even think of myself as a home educator now. I don't identify myself as one. School seems like a weird idea now: I can't imagine why people do it.
DJ: Don't they do it because they like their careers, and they want someone to babysit their kids?
AW: There is the free childcare aspect, obviously. But especially when I see little kids going off to school, I think, What's the point, really? A child who can barely keep their knickers dry all day: is it so important that they don't miss a day of schooling? In the rest of Europe, where admittedly they have more nurseries, kids aren't taken into formal schooling until they're six or seven, which makes much more sense. I think there'd be a lot fewer people home educating here if that were the case, because I think a lot of the problems that kids have later wouldn't be problems if they didn't go to school until then.
DJ: For you personally, to be at home, with your kids, there must be things you gain from that, and probably other drawbacks? It can't all be fun!?
AW: The only thing that isn't fun is that you're never off duty. There have been times obviously where I've gone through a little of a panic, and think, Oh, I must do some workbooks for a while. It's a nightmare, though. You have to sit there every day trying to work out what you're going to do the next day, how you're going to make it interesting. So it used to be, about once a year, the kids would go, "Oh no, she's got that bee in her bonnet again." We'll do it for about three weeks, and then it'll be abandoned. I'd go back to it a year later, look at the book, and go, That's funny because they learnt everything that's in the book without me doing anything about it! So what would have been the point?
It's difficult to say, because your life changes so much when you're a parent anyway, in terms of time off and all the rest. There was friend of mine who I used to work with from before we had children, and her daughter's about the same age as our elder son. I think the last time we met they were about five and Guy and I were thinking about home education. She said she could never do that because "I need some me-time".
On one level I know what she meant. Free time is important, but who's this person who has separate identities according to whether they're with their child. I don't really understand that. If you're a parent, you change, and change because of the extra person or people in your life. There's no going back on that. The idea that you can maintain some untainted Dorian Gray version of yourself that runs in tandem, is just bizarre. Attractive, but bizarre!
AW: [laughing] I love the way you put attainment in inverted commas when you emailed me the questions — what exactly do you mean by attainment…? I know what you're getting it, it's just that it begs so many other questions. How much is what they attain in school worth anything anyway? I mean, if you set my kids head-to-head with someone who's just been taught GCSE Science at school, of course they'll be worse on that syllabus. But that presupposes that a GCSE in Science is a worthwhile indicator of anything.
To look at my kids and think of the stage they'd be at if they were in school, you'd think they must be older than that. They seem quite grown up to me.
DJ: So that's an implicit measure of "attainment" right there, isn't it?
AW: In some ways they're vastly ahead; in some ways they're vastly behind. Handwriting may not be a strong point, but they type really fast! The one that home-edders always laugh about is that there are so many things they should know, but don't — things like the months of the year, which every school child can recite.
At the same time, there are things they do with information that are years ahead of the level they're supposed to be at. There was a case recently where a home educated boy was working on a folk songs project that had captured his interest, reading up on the web about the Aarne-Thompson classification of fairy tales. He sits their with these volumes of different countries' fairy tales, finding out the archetypes. His dad passed by and chipped in, "You should read some Bruno Bettelheim" — which the boy promptly noted and did! I was left thinking, That's insane; he's thirteen!. At the same time, his maths could have been abominable, but, you know, people go through school and that happens, as well. The question about attainment assumes that everyone at school does very well, which is not true.
DJ: If, as a home educator parent, you recognised a problem with maths, would you feel the need to take remedial action?
AW: As a slight tangent to that, as you're not working like a teacher in a school, you don't compare your kids in the same way a teacher would.
If I say a child's maths is poor, what I really mean is he or she doesn't have a great gift for maths. One of our boys has a quite different set of aptitudes to the other. But any comparison I make is to me, or Guy — and we both happen to have A-level Maths — so we're above average in that area. We have our own subjective impression of what we consider to be normal, whereas a teacher has a set of age-defined criteria.
[Annie's kids were visiting family at the time of the interview.]
AW: No. They haven't "stopped". Some people organise things with holidays, but we don't.
DJ: So it's heavily improvised?
AW: Entirely improvised. It's driven by what they're interested in. As I say, that's what can make it hard. Someone will appear downstairs at 11pm and say, "So, the Italians were invading Abyssinia in whenever, and…?" You think, Oh my god! Isn't Google working this evening? They don't really see the difference between learning and not learning any more than most adults do.
DJ: That's an important observation in itself.
AW: Is it?
DJ: Most people say that messing around on the internet to find stuff out is not learning. To which I say, Why not? And they say, "I suppose… but it's not really the same." Because the correspondence they've made is to pre-structured blocks of activity that lead to a qualification.
AW: A) you can't get a qualification for it, and B) almost the definition of learning seems to be that you don't enjoy doing it. Those are the two things that make it learning.
DJ: Or that someone other than you defines the outcome you're supposed to aim for.
AW: Exactly, and that seems to be what makes it real learning. There was a nice quote someone sent me by John Holt — the educator, not the reggae singer — "The difficulty with learning to trust our children is that first we have to learn to trust ourselves" in terms of defining their learning. And that's the same with adults.
The example I use when trying to convince people that it can work is, Who ever taught you to use computers? People will say they had half a day's training on some software or other at work, and it was rubbish. Yet they've worked it out. If you're our age [Annie and I are both mid-40s], you won't have done computers at school, or not in a way that relates how we use them today. And yet, here we are, not just using the net, but actually having quite a good idea of how it works and what its potential is. People have learnt to do that without anyone helping them, without anyone setting a syllabus. Computers have changed continually in the 25 years since we first encountered them. But we can use them quite competently.
And people still say you can't learn anything without a teacher. What about everything you've learnt about your workplace, what about everything you've learnt about parenting — virtually everything you learn as an adult. People object that adults are happy to pick things up this way, while children need to be forced to. Why? What's this magic thing that happens?
DJ: Trusting yourself can be a big challenge though, if you're all on your own. I believe professional counsellors have a network of peers with whom they can review tricky cases and judgements. Most of us in our jobs feel, at some point or other, completely inadequate in the face of our tasks and responsibilities — and need someone to bounce ideas and feelings off.
AW: Yeah, I suppose you tend to use your friends who are similarly inclined. If I'm having my once-a-year panic, there's not a lot of point my going to someone whose kids are at school, or who does the [national] curriculum at home, because they're more likely to amplify my anxieties than to calm them. You know you're just having a wobble — what you want is someone to validate your wobbling really.
So you go round and say, Oh my god, I was in Smiths today, looking at these workbooks. They'll reply, "Don't worry, I was exactly the same a while ago. I've got some old workbooks that the kids did just one page of." So it's all quite informal.
When you sent me the question about support, I thought you meant help from the Local Authority. And… no. Although some people would like it.
DJ: Does the Local Authority come round and inspect you?
AW: As the law stands, they're meant to come and look if there's the appearance of no education taking place — which can be somewhat liberally interpreted. Some will say, If you're child's not in school, that's an appearance of education not taking place.
DJ: Do they support you financially?
AW: No, nothing at all. There was one controversial scheme in Bedford, where they had some kids who were supposedly home educated, but they're actually registered at a school, as "off-site learners". They have some kind of interactive learning environment. But the kids have to turn up, they have to log on, they have to show improvement — so again you're working back to a very school-like model, even if they're not actually in a school.
Towards the end of the end of the last government, following the Badman report, they had a bill that would have meant that all home education would have had to be monitored, and you would have to be registered (though they dropped the extremes like fining people for not being registered). This was under the Every Child Matters umbrella, meaning the government has to know where every child is.
A lot of the consultation was rigged around people like Stephen Heppell being brought in as experts, and pushing their online learning solutions. His notschool thing was flogged to Local Authorities as a means of engaging the disaffected youth through online learning.
It's still "logging on, showing improvement"… Similar to a lot of the stuff you've collected together on your various blogs, asking how we can do this autonomous learning effectively.
There was a talk we went to at the RSA where the main guy [David Price of the Hamlyn Foundation] was really good and extremely interesting. His project was Musical Futures, but he was clearly into autonomous learning more generally.
But as soon as people see that this kind of learning works, they want some way to control it. The whole point of it is that you can't control it. It's like, "That's a wonderful way to learn, but how do we check up on what they've learnt?" Unfortunately, you can't — that's the nature of the experience. The focus of a lot of the Stephen Heppell, and Becta, stuff is on how you can quantify the learning. Guy would be even more cynical and say it's about how do we get to gear this up to a money stream.
AW: Not as such. The only thing that's frustrating is that I'm looking for non-school solutions in a school world. For instance, soon we're going to hit the issue of work and work experience. The world revolves around school and school ages. Large employers won't consider young people who haven't been through that age-and-benchmarks regime. We'd have to look to smaller employers for job opportunities, which would be fine.
Partly that's a reflection of the increased infantilisation of kids nowadays, where a university degree has become an extension of school, meaning that they're now effectively children until they're 21, whereas in my father's generation, they were virtually adults at 14. So they've lost seven years of adulthood. What happens if your child wants to go to work — while also recognising that getting a job probably won't be the last he sees of education? Many teenagers of school-leaving age are forced through school activities that they screw up, for the simple reason that they don't want to be there or do that.
AW: On the email lists people post resources, highlighting the worksheets that are available, but I'm not really interested in that approach, whether its in print or online.
DJ: Yet, as in the case of your quick response to the Italy-invading-Abyssinia question, the fact that there's Google, that there's a backdrop which is an environment where you can learn stuff in an on-demand, self-directed way must be a help?
AW: Yes, yes, and that's without them looking into areas as closely as they could. Though, increasingly, after they've started with Google and Wikipedia, they join email lists and other online communities and ask people who know about an area. So they're starting to draw on other people's knowledge now, in a way that — back at the beginning, when Guy and I were talking about home education — wasn't an option. Being able to call on expertise, on people who are really good at something and love it, rather than someone who's just going through the motions. My kids know that I can answer certain questions, but there's only so much I know, and it'll be my version, which may differ from others'. They're quite happy to search out those people, find out what they can from them, and then move on in their own direction — which is what you'd do as an adult.
One objection I hear is, "It's all right for people like you to home educate, but what about people who can't?" Meaning, "You're nice middle-class and well-educated yourself, but what if you were a single mum in Peckham?" That's probably been what's behind the growing clampdown on home education. It was OK while it was just people like me home educating, with a few funny ideas, but unlikely to do any real harm. As the internet made information about home education accessible to everybody, well, it's a bit like people in The Guardian complaining about there being "Support our boys in Afghanistan" groups on Facebook. Really what it comes down is whingeing that now there are working class people on the internet!
And it's a bit the same with home education. Up until now, there's been a reliance on people who are educated, motivated and organised being the only people to bother with home education. Suddenly the cat's out of the bag and all sorts of people might be getting in on the game, with just a click of the mouse from finding all this stuff. It's not just a tiny group of harmless but well-meaning eccentrics any more, and that might be a threat.
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