Bernard's pieces for The Guardian

Why point the finger at home-educators?

31st March 2009

It is commonplace nowadays to talk about the surveillance society. One agency after another becomes part of the mechanism, so we should not be surprised that schools are now becoming the latest designated instrument for checking up on families.  This is not a purpose formally determined by ministerial decree, rather a semi-official line coalescing among various offices and organisations with an axe to grind.  Bowing to their combined pressure after the succession of notorious child abuse cases that has the media screaming for action and policymakers devising ever more layers of safeguarding procedures, the government has asked Graham Badman, former director of children's services for Kent County Council – and now chair of Haringey's local safeguarding children board, replacing Sharon Shoesmith, sacked after the Baby P inquiry - to review the safeguarding and support of home-educated children.   A recent article in the Independent (Is the government right to be concerned about home-schooling?  February 26, 2009) quoted Children's Minister Baroness Morgan: "If there are problems we have to look at the evidence. Home education is a small but important part of keeping children properly safe.”

Lynch-mobs need scapegoats so, in the storm of outrage that followed the tragedy of Baby P so soon after Victoria Climbié, fingers were bound to be pointed. Inexplicably they are now being pointed at home educators.  The estimated 20,000 parents who choose to educate their children themselves rather than in school currently stand accused of motives that are suspect at best and abusive at worst.

Why they are suddenly a target is unclear. Outrageous allegations are made and apparently accepted without proper examination. Thus the Independent report described education authorities’ fears that parents home educate to mask their children’s truancy; to hide forced marriages or children babysitting younger siblings.  A NSPCC spokesperson observed, "We have no view about home education, but we do know that to find out about abuse someone has to know about the child."  The inference is made.  Mud sticks.

The suggestion is that only if children are in schools can we be sure that their parents are not abusing them, but the smug moralising surrounding the issue is unjust and inaccurate.  Victoria Climbié was not in school at the time of her death: but she was not being home-educated.  Eunice Spry was jailed after abusing her foster children for 19 years: no one noticed the three children's bruises and broken bones because, it is said, they were home-educated.  But they were fostered!  Where were the social workers in both cases?  OFSTED gave Haringey children's services a positive inspection report only months before the death of Baby P.  One failure after another: yet this attack centres on individuals and families, not the agencies or system that have demonstrably failed.

Home educators deserve better treatment.  I know, because I've been one.  Between 1991 and 1996, when I was a newly-appointed secondary school head, my wife taught our two daughters at home. Those five years were some of the happiest we have known, full of the joy of discovery and learning. The girls went back into the system for the secondary phase (their choice) and are now happy, self-confident, well-qualified young adults with jobs.

It worked for us, but we were regarded as odd. Some friends and colleagues were profoundly uncomfortable with our decision.  People are wary of difference, of course: but parents often turn to home education in desperation precisely because their children are different in some way and are bullied in school as a result. Others do it on principle or, as we did, because they reckon they can offer something better: what decided us was the newly-imposed National Curriculum which we felt had blitzed primary education.

The image often painted of a reclusive, secretive approach is misleading: most home educators do it openly and network widely.  I guess some do hide their children away from the world: there are religious fundamentalists among them, too.  I don't like either approach, but I claim no right to ban them. Perhaps a tiny minority of home educators are indeed abusive. Statistically a minute percentage of judges, politicians, doctors, lawyers, church leaders, teachers and even social workers must also abuse children: but we don’t proscribe all those jobs in response. And, remember, home educators are already inspected.

Paranoia about systemic failure in safeguarding is leading society to demonise a few free spirits. And schools, which should be the cradle of creativity and personal development, are now set to be the mechanisms of control and supervision.

We should not be surprised. We inhabit a world where police keep our DNA on file even if we are innocent of any wrongdoing and where we are filmed on CCTV wherever we go.  Amid the hysterical reaction to abject failures in child protection, the rights of a few families on the fringes will be seen as an acceptable sacrifice on the altar of obsessive security.


We’re not all toffs

19th June 2009

So is it class war, then, as the Independent Schools Council's departed CEO, Chris Parry, suggested to the Education Select Committee?  A great and unbridgeable divide, as the press likes to suggest?  Even educational apartheid, pace Anthony Seldon? Or are we all just getting a bit carried away and insisting on taking someone's throw-away line as a definitive statement on behalf of (or against) the whole independent sector?  Maybe we all need just to calm down.

I'm writing this as current Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).  Actually, I'm writing quite a personal view of the alleged divide which I happen to think is a lot narrower than has been recently claimed.  Still, I wasn't born yesterday and I know that, if I choose to say anything controversial, my comments will be characterised as coming from “a top school head”.  In fact, nowadays I'm more likely to be reported as “Toff Schools’ Leader Speaks out”.

That's comical, really, because none of the pupils at WolverhamptonGrammar  School, where I have been head for 18 years, would recognize the description either of me or of their school.  The ordinary, unassuming boys and girls who attend the school wouldn't see themselves as privileged or elite, though they might concede that they're lucky to be at what I know is a good school. They wouldn't be offended by being accused of being toffs: they would simply see the label as laughable.  Yet the media perpetuates the myth that the independent sector is entirely for toffs - often by reprinting that same old picture, snapped around 1890, of two Eton boys with top hats and canes and three street urchins, just to reinforce the stereotype.

The independent sector isn’t just about schools like Eton andHarrow, though they are flagships.  There are large and small day schools, some of them former direct grant or grammar schools like mine, others offering a very different, alternative to the academically selective model.  There are rural boarding schools of all sizes, and their interpretation of boarding ranges from full seven-day-a-week provision to a a bit of flexi-boarding in a largely day school.  There are nursery schools, pre-preps, junior schools, senior schools and institutions that take children from age 2 to 18.  There is an extraordinary breadth.  But the toff stereotype is peddled time and again.

So what of the great divide?  It’s true that independent schools are mostly generously resourced: what else can they be, when parents are stumping up fees from taxed income?  There’s no logic in some kind of bargain-basement education provision.  And why should we not give children the best?  The voices that resent higher levels of provision presumably find some kind of virtue in the bad old days of peeling paint and buckets placed under leaky roofs - and are presumably affronted by the £25-£40 million spent by government on new build, not just Academies but rebuilt neighbourhood schools too.

Few, if any of us, in the independent sector recognize the “educational apartheid” described recently by Anthony Seldon.  We work our socks off to fund bursaries.  They don’t go to the people so often caricatured by the press as the “distressed middle classes”: nor did they from 1981-1998 when 40% of my school’s students were on Government Assisted Places.  They go to children who are far from affluent and will value them and make the most of them: or is that somehow a deplorably middle-class virtue? And at the same time we work hard to be good neighbours to our local schools and communities – just because it’s right to. 

We admire what our neighbour maintained schools achieve, often against the odds. Government picks winners and losers. If you’re a winner, you’re lauded and given extra money, maybe a new building. If you’re a loser – like one of the 638 schools now named, shamed and harried - you’re judged failing regardless of your setting. You can be aKentsecondary modern dealing with the bottom 60% of the ability range and still be persecuted because you don’t hit an arbitrary Government figure. If you’re in the middle, neither a start nor a problem, you’re likely to be ignored: the Building Schools for the Future programme has been put back, so you’d better get those buckets out under the dodgy gym roof again.

I served on the Council of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) from 1995 to 2006. As HMC Chairman I recently returned as a guest, and was shocked to see that what my maintained sector colleagues have to deal with is worse than ever. I watched them wrestling with a response to the latest Government consultation, yet another drive to bring together a host of incoherent funding and administrative strands. A fine paper theory, it will prove in practice as tortuous and ungovernable as its predecessors. Government and the DCSF will see some progress towards the ends that we all want to achieve – raised aspirations and better outcomes for all children are aims that are not exclusive to policy-makers: they’re why we all became teachers – but it is the schools that will make it work to a considerable extent, yet again, in spite, not because, of the grand plan.

I’m not alone in the independent sector in the deep respect I hold for my maintained sector colleagues, nor in the contempt I feel for the way they are treated by government through micro-management and over-prescription. Our sector too is feeling the draught of excessive regulation, though to a much smaller extent. But there is no divide, and there’s certainly no class war. Those who want to create them do us all, and particularly our children, a deep disservice.