Friday, September 22, 2006

Rod Liddle on Home Education!

First things first, there was a very positive article in the Spectator last week from James Bartholomew on his decision to home educate his nine year old daughter.

Predictably enough, given the Spectator's history of seeking balance, in this week's edition we have Rod Liddle setting about Bartholomew's article and home education in general. Rod doesn't appear to have changed his position on home education since the time he attempted to ridicule it on The Wright Stuff. Perhaps he still bears a bit of a grudge - the wry smile of a homeschooled girl spoke volumes in response to Rod's attempt to produce a valid criticism of home education on that particular programme. However, to give him his due, Rod has now clearly brushed up on his criticisms since some of them are no longer completely run of the mill. For example, he writes:

"...a growing number of parents from the middle class - and especially the media-monkey, metropolitan middle class - are incalculably pleased with themselves and think that they know everything; enough at least, to think that teachers are useless and that they can do the job themselves a damned sight better.

"Are they right? The obvious answer is a resounding "no" - and simply because a thing is obvious does not mean that it should be treated with suspicion. It is a colossal arrogance- and a self-indulgence - on the part of those 180,000 parents that a) their knowledge of such diverse disciplines as, say fine art and pure maths should exceed that possessed by the specialists; and b) that even were they to possess such encyclopedic knowledge, they may not have the necessary skills to impart the ground rules of those disciplines to children."

(See! My ad hominems were forgivable under the circumstances!) But seriously, where does one start?

First off, Rod, I haven't met a single HE parent who assumes that they have nearly enough knowledge to cope with every problem a child will ever face. (At least we are often clear that helping our children solve whatever problems they may face is something we are attempting to do with an education - an objective that all too often gets lost when maniacally trying to fulfill the often spurious requirements of the National Curriculum - for more on which see below).

What most HE parents do believe is that there are many ways of accessing knowledge that will meet children's needs. In case you hadn't noticed, we do actually live in an information-rich age. We use the internet to get information and feedback on almost anything, often from specialists we would never be able to access in school. We travel to lectures in science museums, art galleries, historical buildings, field trips and libraries and we skill share with other home educating parents, many of whom are teachers themselves. We take courses on-line, use various bits of software, and take exams through the usual boards. We hire tutors when necessary. We go to after school classes and activities.

In case you doubt that this will work, we know of home educated children whose parents never studied anything other than very basic maths, physics and computing, who have got into elite universities, achieving top grades in precisely these subjects and who have even been offered the chance of doing MScs during their first undergraduate year, so something in your argument clearly needn't stack up.

I also think you have the demographic wrong. I don't know any media monkeys. Perhaps it applies to the Notting Hill set, though it certainly doesn't if you go only a mile further north, since the Kilburn set with whom I am very slightly familiar, certainly don't match your description. In my part of the world, I haven't met a single arrogant or over-confident HEor. Most of us spend a lot of time worrying about what we are doing, being intensely self-critical, seeking out resources, wondering if we are providing enough and also fighting our corner, for there is nothing that many educrats would like better than to destroy this last bastion of educational freedom.

Luckily for many new HEors, they can join HE groups and see that Home Education actually works for a large number of children for whom school would often be an unmitigated nightmare and an educational black hole.

I'd say from my experience, that educrats would be most unwise to try to corral many HE children back in through the gates, since the learning style of many of these kids does not suit school. This doesn't mean that they won't be able to find work - simply that their learning style does not suit SCHOOL. Some children, for example, learn at very different speeds to the majority, either much more slowly or more quickly, or slowly to start with and then suddenly much faster; others like to focus intensely upon one area of knowledge, and find it difficult and pretty meaningless to have to be to seen to jump through loads of hoops to acquire a bundle of information that will never be useful to them again. Fitting all of these different learners into a classroom full of conventional pupils would be a nightmare for all concerned. And of course, many of those who HE have found their way there because the school system was failing them so dramatically.

It is a ridiculous meme, (an arrogant assumption if you will), that everyone must be made familiar with the contents of the National Curriculum. The sum total of knowledge is so enormous that restricting everyone to learning the same body of information looks like the most profoundly stupid thing to do, and that is even if you are only thinking about moulding children to suit the workplace, which of course is not the sole purpose of an education.

It is also ridiculous to assume that jobs require workers to jump from subject to subject. In fact, very often precisely the reverse is required, since an employee very often needs to focus attention in one particular area and strive to achieve an exaggerated skill in this, so you could argue that focused learning that is possible in the home is actually FAR MORE appropriate training for the world of work.

Rod also writes:

" There's another section of James's piece which is interesting, the bit where he is aghast that no school is prepared to teach Italian as a foreign language. Well, let us look at this problem rationally: there is a limited opportunity for children to learn foreign languages, particularly at such a young age as nine, and the finite number of languages; say, in Alex's case, 30. So you have to make your choice. Should Alex be taught a foreign language which figures in the top five of the world's most widely spoken tongues, (Hindi, Mandarin, English, Spanish and Bengali)?...

My suspicion is that the National Curriculum has it right and that Italian is about as much use in the wider world as
Inuit or Welsh, although of course your perspective will be very different if you rent a villa in Lucca every year."

James wasn't aghast at the fact that Italian isn't taught in any London preparatory school. He was merely making the point that it isn't. It seemed to me that his inference was almost exactly the same as the point you make above, namely that utilitarian judgments about the greatest relevance to the greatest number have to be made when it comes to choosing which languages will be taught in schools. He seemed to me to be concluding that personalized learning is the only way to overcome the problem of needing to acquire a specific kind of information that isn't available in schools.

It is the case, as you in fact at least partially concede in your last sentence, that there may be significant reason to learn an unusual subject. By way of an example, a chunk of my close family are Italian, many of them not speaking any English at all, which actually makes Italian a very attractive option for us, but we'd have to forget all that, should we choose to go to school where we would have to learn French.

Incidentally, a number of HE children in our part of the world do learn Mandarin (rather than the less, by your standards, useful French), so in this case, by your own argument, home education wins.

As to your point that the choice of subjects in the National Curriculum is usually wise, just over the border from us, school children are compelled to learn Welsh, despite the fact that almost no-one in this part of Wales actually speaks it. Many familles there grumble considerably about having to learn it.

Sorry, Rod, your arguments still don't stack up.


Becky said...

Beautifully done, Carlotta.

The Spectator may have been seeking balanced, but so many of the comments in Rod Liddle's column verged on the absolutely unbalanced.

P.S. Must have been Kismet that I have a poet from a Welshwoman today :)

Becky said...

Erm, that should be "balance" in sentence two, just before the comma...

Georgia said...

An obvious flaw (or at least one of them)that jumps out at me in Rod's argument is when he says:

(It's a colossal arrogance for the middle classes to think that their knowledge of...) "say fine art and pure maths should exceed that possessed by the specialists".

Where, I wonder, are these specialists?

Is he really talking about the average teacher in the average school? The PGCE course seems to take pretty well anyone prepared to consider teaching.

The training consists largely of classroom management and how to identify and praise knowledge when they spot information that replicates the keys stages. Teachers are a specialist in these things and rarely, it seems to me, are they are allowed to really engage in their subject areas.

Also a teacher with a PGCE can go on to teach any subject and often does, regardless of his lack of expertise.

Gone are the days when a teacher can wax lyrical because he loves his subject!

I have lost count of the number of teachers who have left the profession because of the restrictions of teaching the NC. Bored, and often highly stressed, teachers are hardly going to be enthusiastic specialists.

It is quite possible that the real specialists of a subject are to be found elsewhere - in a tv programme, in a book, a friend's parent or in a weekend course.

Carlotta said...

Hi Georgia...

I wonder if you would consider sending your comment to > -


JoVE said...

My main criticism of Rod's piece was the same as Georgia's. In my limited experience of teaching university students, it is not the most able who go on to a PGCE. And there has certainly never been a glut of "specialists" in elementary schools.

As for the National Curriculum, and all the copycat versions out there like the americal SOL's or whatever they are called, the main problem with them is precisely that they deprofessionalize teachers. They are based on the notion that teachers cannot be trusted to help our children learn and must thus be given incredibly detailed guidelines about the skills and knowledge required at every step of the way.

That said, I think we need to recognize that both pieces are written for a particular audience and in a particular authorial style. the first piece was recognizably elitist and speaking to the Spectator audience. Rod is playing up his lefty guardian reader image for the gallery in his response.

But he makes some good points, particularly about how it seems that no matter what teachers do folks will criticize them. So where Bartholomew sees the teaching of enviroment as being akin to Greenpeace indoctrination and that schools are overly anti-business, Guardian-reading lefties like myself think that schools teach a very wishy-washy environmentalism based on small actions that can be performed at home (like recycling) and have completely redesigned their curricula to meet the "needs of business".

An interesting pair of articles though.

David said...

I don't believe anyone has ever produced a valid criticism of anything on The Wright Stuff. I can't watch it incase my groans of disbelief force me into actually phoning them and airing my talent for creative swearing at such a time in the morning.


I'd write, only a) I'm not subscribed (though to be fair, the liberry gets in copies; it's just if I didn't think I had better things to do there than read the latest Spectator, I'd go peculiar) and, more importantly b)not even Rod Liddle takes Rod Liddle seriously. He obviously has some compromising pictures of someone to be given any sort of platform. I'm pro home education, and I could write a better anti home education argument. This:

"...a growing number of parents from the middle class - and especially the media-monkey, metropolitan middle class"

very nearly broke my jaw, such was the force with which it dropped. Good old Rod, voice of the proles.

True, he's doubtless playing up to an image (having taken a break from sitting naked in front of a full length mirror, smearing himself in baby oil), but... I mean, who commissioned the piece. Jeezy Creezy, who commissioned Rod?

He was quite good on Call My Bluff, though.

Anonymous said...

re James...can't wait to see how much got done in a year! Just because your child is passionate about something doesn't mean they necessarily want to be made or even "encouraged" to learn about it! Very well written post, by the way....

Lisa at

Leo said...

"media-monkey, metropolitan middle class"

Excuse the foreigner but... what is this?

Carlotta said...

I think, from what I have read of Rod's opinion of his own profession that he regards them mostly as huge media monkey would be anybody who is involved in the media primarily to inflate their ego and who jump about accordingly.

By metropolitan, I assume he means sophisticated, knowing and superior but somehow vacuous too -missing things of real value (but these last bits are probably pushing the definition.)