Memorandum submitted by Kirsty Alexander

 

We are registered and monitored by our LA and have been home educating our daughter for 3 years following her diagnosis with epilepsy after brain surgery. Hers is a rare form of epilepsy, the stuff of nightmares, called Non-Convulsive Status Epilepticus (NCSE) where a constant stream of electrical activity especially during sleep de-skills the sufferer as they get none of the benefit of sleep. Because of our daughter's unusual profile (her verbal reasoning is in the top 2 percent of the population) home schooling has offered us the chance to throw a valuable lifeline to a brilliant mind as it teeters on the edge of a dark precipice. Her medical team have been fully supportive of our decision to home school and have been astonished at how well she is doing given the depth of her condition.

 

My background is in Higher Education and my submission gives a substantive critique of the Badman Review from that professional background. I am also able to illustrate the diabolical consequences of the application of its proposals for target setting and annual review, and the misinformed sensibilities that underpin them (all of which are already embedded within the practice surrounding SEN) will be to our daughter. It is important that EHE is understood as the education of individual children and that is why I have included the example of an individual child in my submission.

 

The last minute change in status from consultation to review resulted in a rushed process and a report which lacked evidence, analysis and rigour. It is inappropriate, in a liberal democracy, for such a poor level of research and such a woefully inadequate report, to influence policy.

 

The suggestion that disproportionate numbers of EHE children are known to social services is unfounded.

 

The sensibilities of the review serve to conflate equal educational opportunity with standardisation. Our personal case history is presented to illustrate the dangers of such a conflation.

 

Proposals regarding target setting and curriculum planning, evidence a refusal to, or inability to, understand the educational philosophy and pedagogical approaches which underpin the practice in many EHE families.

 

EHE families are discriminated against in comparison to other families who choose to educate their children privately.

 

 

 

 

1. The last minute change in status from consultation to review resulted in a rushed process and a report which lacked evidence, analysis and rigour. It is inappropriate, in a liberal democracy, for such a poor level of research and such a woefully inadequate report, to influence policy. I am deeply shocked by the lack of any meaningful critical analysis in the report. Conclusions drawn and recommendations made bear little or no relation to arguments presented and the arguments presented are themselves not supported by any evidence whatsoever. I work in Higher Education and quite frankly I would fail any student - even at undergraduate level - who presented work for assessment in which the relationship between conclusions drawn and evidence presented was this tenuous. Moreover my discipline is Dance - the very discipline Michael Gove chose to exemplify as a soft subject lacking in academic rigour - yet it is a discipline whose expectations of how research should be conducted are still, apparently, higher than those of the Secretary of State.

 

2. I would have welcomed a well argued, evidence based review, as this would have enabled an engagement.  Instead, the review simply says 'I believe ...' 16 times, and Badman, in paragraph 10.2 even confesses not to accept the findings of research which supports EHE (How can a review be meaningful if whole swathes of evidence can choose to be ignored) solely on the grounds that he is "not convinced". The recent desperate attempt of Badman to secure 'more' evidence to counter criticisms of the review[1] not only serve to illustrate the lack of justification for the review's conclusions, it calls into serious question the review's impartiality.

 

3. To begin the report with an Issiah Berlin quote which suggests we all have to compromise on our values can be interpreted as Badman throwing down the gauntlet to Elective Home Education (EHE) families at the outset, and exemplifies the predetermined tone and hubris which permeates the report and its conclusions. No alternative interpretations of the flimsy facts presented are ever considered or argued against. Quotes are taken out of context and misrepresent their original meaning. For example, there are quotes which I included in my correspondence with Liz Green which are misused in this way, and the Church of England have already confirmed that their submission made the opposite conclusion to that suggested by the out of context quotation from them that the report contains (4.8 Page 16 of Badman's report). Other EHE families have also confirmed that their submissions have been misquoted or quoted out of context, for example the quotation (4.3 Page 11) suggests an animosity between an EHE family and their local authority which did not exist when the quotation is read in full and in its original context.

 

4. The lack of evidence and analysis is compounded by the absence of expertise amongst the review panel. No home educating parent was on the review team and this does not accord with a Government that wishes to listen to the public and empower them. The educational philosophy and pedagogical approach of informal learning is so radically different from the dominant discourses in education that the panel should have included educationalists sympathetic to, and well informed about, such approaches. Expertise in other fields of, or approaches to, education does not amount to expertise in autonomous or informal learning.

 

5. The suggestion that disproportionate numbers of EHE children are known to social services is unfounded. There is a conflation between child welfare concerns and educational issues, in both the terms of reference for the review and in the final report which is not only conceptually incoherent, it has given rise to proposals which would make unwarranted incursions into people's private lives. Somewhat surprisingly given the review's terms of reference there is no analysis of the actual number of suspected and found child abuse cases involving home educators.  Indeed, there are no robust figures or trends presented (even at an aggregated level), instead there is a vague reference to 'local authority evidence and case studies'. Thus it is impossible to tell whether the concerns about possible child abuse are based in fact or merely imagined.  Moreover quotation's from the NSPCC (Section 8 - 8.6) are used to back up these vague assertions and opinions, yet in email correspondence with us, the NSPCC have failed to provide evidence to back up their concerns that Elective Home Education could be used as a cover for abuse, despite 2.3 million calls to ChildLine a year (for which they receive 30 million pounds from government). They have also admitted that they know nothing about Home Education.

 

6. The review rightly points out that the number of parents opting for EHE is unknown.  Yet it also claims that 'the number of children known to children's social care in some local authorities is disproportionately high relative to their home educating population' (section 8:12).  But given that the size of the Elective Home Education population is unknown, it is impossible to calculate the proportion, unless these councils have made up a base for the calculation; in effect the statement is meaningless.  Moreover it is our experience that electing to educate your child at home is used by LA's as a prima facie reason to involve social services. We personally have had a worrying, though completely trivial, visit from our social services child protection officer solely because we electively home educate. When we mentioned this to a senior member of staff at the Royal Marsden Hospital (where our daughter was being treated for a brain tumour) they were horrified because they had been repeatedly begging the very same local authority's social services to intervene on behalf of a child that they had very grave concerns about. It therefore follows that the numbers of Elective Home Education families known to social services will be disproportionately high, because EHE families are already discriminated against.

 

 

7. The review wrongly conflates equal educational opportunity with standardisation. The dominant, though flawed, approach to the issue of equality of educational opportunity is based on principles of distribution. Such an approach is flawed because education (unlike wealth) is not a "thing" that can be distributed, (neither is opportunity) therefore educational inequalities can not be redressed through policies of redistribution.[2] Rather than being a "thing" that people "have," education is a process, a process actualised through relationships, interactions and most of all by the learner's quality of engagement. This simple mistake of according education the properties of a "thing" is prevalent through much educational policy, but, as I will explain, is problematic in the context of EHE. Distributive approaches to problems of equality of opportunity have led to increasing standardisation and increasing measurement /accountability in education. The national curriculum, standardised testing and league tables combine in an attempt to offer every child in every school the same educational opportunities. Their worth lies not in their particular educational value but in their function of increased accountability. Following the national curriculum, for example, has no greater educational worth than a possible alternative curriculum (which is why many private schools do not limit themselves to the national curriculum). Similarly, there is much evidence that an overemphasis on an outcome based approach can be detrimental educationally (despite the pop psychology of goal setting) but the outcome focussed approach persists in the state sector because of its usefulness as a standardising factor.

 

8. It is not the purpose of this submission to cast judgements on the wisdom or not of the drive towards standardisation in the state sector. The point here is to establish that standardisation and equality is not the same thing, because education is a process not a thing, and it is a process actualised by the quality of engagement of the learner, and learners are all unique and engage in different things with widely different outcomes. Real equality rests in placing equal value on different focuses of engagement and different processes of engagement. Standardisation perhaps has a useful reporting function in the school system which has a duty to offer every child a similar 'quality' of education, but that function (and therefore the construction of education as a 'thing') is obsolete in the world of EHE where the 'quality' in 'equality' is to be found in the child's quality of engagement and where there are no public funds and no stakeholders to report to. I mention these important philosophical points because unless those in local authorities charged with registering and, more importantly deregistering EHE parents are well versed in these debates, the risk of parents being deregistered under the clause "anything else which may affect their ability to provide a suitable and efficient education" (Recommendation 23 - page 44) because of local authority ignorance and assumption remains a live one. Moreover the reference to target setting and curriculum planning in the Badman report suggest that the vision of an appropriate education that L.A's will adhere to will be a narrow one, and one underpinned with the conflation of equality and standardisation.

 

9. Weight is given to this argument by the way in which current Special Educational Needs guidelines reveal the existing dominance of a standardised approach, already embedding target setting and standardised approach to curriculum. In fact, current practice with regard to SENs serves as an example of how L.A's are likely to implement Badman's proposals. Although SEN's purport to be there to meet the needs of individual children (through the distributive solution of extra input of some sort or another), in fact, where a pupil is assessed for a statement of special educational need the objectives set "relate entirely to the pupil's ability to access the curriculum" (Lambeth, 2008) rather than seeking to explore the circumstances in which the child can offer up their best quality of engagement. Our personal case history, which follows below, hopefully illustrates why the points raised in the preceding paragraphs are so important.

 

10. Our daughter suffers from Non Convulsive Status Epilepticus (ESES). Usually ESES is only suffered by people with existing serious learning differences such as profound autism. However, in our daughter's case the ESES is caused by some scar tissue in the brain as the result of multiple surgeries to treat a brain tumour, and prior to the onset of ESES she was what the medics call "high functioning". In fact she was, and is, very " high functioning", psychometric tests which were undertaken during her tumour treatment revealed her to be in the top 2% of the population in terms of verbal reasoning ability. However, even prior to ESES she had an unusually large difference between her verbal reasoning and her processing skills. A difference of 15% is considered exceptional and her gap was 40%. Nevertheless, prior to ESES her processing skills were still above average, so although her profile was unusual it was not concerning. Post ESES her processing skills were so compromised that they were estimated to be below the bottom percentile of the population, yet her capacity for verbal reasoning - though harder for her to access with any predictability - remained in tact. The result is a 13 year old who can lurch between being unable to put her socks on to critiquing, in extremely sophisticated terms, the work of the artist Frida Khalo and the way in which it reverberates with that of Henri Rousseau.

 

11. By following a pedagogy centred around Michael Bonnett's notion of authenticity[3] we have allowed her to take her own time and initiate her own activities, with the result that she has completed writing an extraordinary volume of poetry. We have had it bound and have distributed it to various artists that we know, many of international repute, who have accepted her as an artist on an equal footing, not as a disabled child. Moreover her medical team have been astounded that a child suffering the constant level of electrical activity she has to deal with can achieve what she achieves and can evidence such a secure sense of well being.

 

12. While visiting the hospital for an appointment with our daughter's consultant we bumped in to the teacher from the hospital school. They invited our daughter to come in whenever she wanted to join in the activities there. We took her a couple of half days a week for a while but discovered that the noise and distraction of working in a group setting, even in this benign and relatively calm school setting (an average of 4 pupils in any session) precipitated multiple grand mal seizures. The hospital school then persuaded us, in good faith, to apply for a statement of special educational need and because we wanted to continue to have a good relationship with the hospital, we complied.

 

13. The team of professionals who assessed our daughter, Doctors, Educational Physiatrists, etc. for the forthcoming Proposed Statement all agreed that home schooling was the most suitable education for her as it allowed the flexibility to respond to how she was at any given moment and to focus on her extraordinary talents as well as responding to her extraordinary challenges. However when we were sent the Proposed Statement it was apparent that our LA had ignored all the input from ourselves and the advisory team of professionals. We responded (with the help of the educational psychologist) with a detailed list of amendments - such as removing references to school and the suggestion that she should /could engage in group and whole class learning. More than 12 months later, we received a Final Statement identical to the original Proposed one (with references to school, group and whole class learning in tact) and containing none of our submission and none of the advice of the professional team. The one change to the final statement is that the local authourity now voiced its opinion of the most suitable education - a specialist school - though they noted we were not choosing to do this but were exercising our right to EHE. Their recommended provision would not only be educationally stifling it would be medically dangerous, as our previous experience at the hospital school illustrates. Nobody who has met our daughter advises this. But the SEN team have to (under their guidelines) name a type of school provision and include reference to the national curriculum, school, group work[4], the setting of targets etc. (how do you set targets for someone who might be well enough to read Sylvia Plath or might be so ill they cannot feed themselves, and when you have no idea which of these states is going to be the dominant one. Moreover how do you set targets for someone for whom the existence of a preset agenda disables her learning - she cannot process external set tasks, she has to initiate her own activities).

 

14. Badman's proposals in the report regarding target setting and curriculum planning, evidence a refusal to, or inability to, understand the educational philosophy and pedagogical approaches which underpin the practice in many EHE families. The inclusion of our personal case history is important, because the language in Badman's recommendations shares much with the existing SEN guidelines. Our experience exemplifies that the misappropriation of a standardised approach in SEN practice prevents attending to the needs of individual children and displays complete unwillingness to engage with, and failure to understand, the philosophical and pedagogical approaches that are often used in EHE - approaches equally disregarded and / or misunderstood in the language of Badman's recommendations.

 

15. EHE families are discriminated against in comparison to other families who choose to educate their children privately. My neighbour sends her son to Eton. None of his teachers have QTS and they do not follow the national curriculum. Yet Eton is accepted as offering those who go there an unrivalled opportunity to do well in life, and she is not accused of abusing or neglecting her child. Why are those of us who choose to privately educate our children through the mechanism of EHE discriminated against in comparison to others who chose to privately educate? Were any other minority group treated in this way, by LAs or by government, it would most surely be illegal. Using "rights of the child" as an argument to discriminate against EHE parents is incoherent. For example, it is the parent, not the child, who has the right to withdraw the child from the daily act of collective worship of a broadly Christian character which is compulsory in all state schools, and by in large it is the parents who decide what school a child will go to. Nobody is balancing the 'rights of the child' against these parents' rights. And nobody is proposing the right of forced entry into the homes of all preschool children or schooled children in the holidays (when the teachers are not there to protect them from their families). The "rights of the child" argument is being used in a discriminatory away against EHE families and sets a terrifying precedent for the future of family life in this country.[5]

 

September 2009



[1] http://www.cypnow.co.uk/bulletins/Daily-Bulletin/news/939601/?DCMP=EMC-DailyBulletin

[2] see, for example: Young, I.M. (1990) Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press

[3] see for example: Bonnett, M.& Cupyers, S. (2003). Autonomy and authenticity in education. In Blake, Smeyers, Smith, & Standish (eds.) The Blackwell guide to the philosophy of education. London: Blackwell. Also, Bonnett, M (1994) Children's thinking, promoting understanding in the primary school. London: Cassell

 

 

 

[4] The inappropriateness of formal group learning does not mean our daughter is isolated from other children. There are numerous informal learning experiences that she engages in with other EHE children and with her friends who live locally (e.g. visits to museums, galleries, performances, parliament).

[5] Brighouse and Swift argue that the logical conclusion of the rights of the child argument is to take all children away from their parents at birth and to redistribute them to more suitable parents or to some state run childcare centre. (Brighouse, H. and Swift, A. (2006) 'Parents' rights and the value of the family',

Ethics 117: 80-108)