In the glare of the Every Child Matters' spotlight, we increasingly hear of more and more children who are educationally neglected one way or another.
For example, in the inside pages of this week's TES, LA HE inspector Myra Robinson writes of a home educating family:
" Recently I visited a mother and three children in a smoke-filled sitting room strewn with takeaway food packaging. The child concerned was not dressed at 11am although they were expecting me"
We hear of situations were parents are strongly encouraged to take their children out of school to be home educated, the implication being that because the parents are doing it reluctantly, that these children risk being educationally neglected.
We hear of traveller children who miss out on huge chunks of schooling and who are horrendously bullied when they are in it.
And the answer to all this? It seems that LAs imagine that heavier monitoring and greater prescription is the way forward. But is it? After all, even teachers are complaining about the negative effect of Ofsted inspections.
"Teachers fear and loathe Ofsted because of its slash and burn approach - air-lift in the inspector, pore over the school-level data, have a cursory look around, come to a judgement, and then air-lift out, leaving the school to pick up the pieces."
And this is in a public space, where one could quite reasonably expect to be held extensively accountable. Just imagine how this sort of investigation would feel it it were to be translated into a home visit. Imagine if you where you compelled to have a complete stranger decide upon the whole future of your way of life, on the basis of an hour of knowing you.
Only Friday, we hear of a family visited by their health visitor. She asked the mum about how well her two-year old son was doing with his speech. This boy, as a rule, demonstrates precocity in speaking skills, is unusually fluent, with a huge vocabulary for a child of his age. His mum, naturally enough, reported that he was doing OK in this regard. However, the child, very unusually, completely refused to utter a word throughout the whole encounter. Mum sensed the HV simply oozing disbelief.
I too remember taking Ds for his year check. HV asked me if he was walking. " Yep, he's fine. He's been walking for three months now". Would he walk during the time we were there? For some reason, he chose to lay down on his stomach as if he was still at the pre-sitting age. I too sensed the HV beginning to think I was somehow off the wall in a way that would warrant further investigation.
If LA inspectors are to decide our futures on so little evidence, no wonder we are scared. No wonder we have problems with authority figures. See Myra Robinson again:
"All too often, I encounter a family - usually with just a mother - where there is antipathy to authority figures. "
Could there, just could there be a good reason for such antipathy? Perhaps there really is due cause. Given that as Ms. Robinson also goes on to say:
"Typically, the child will have been withdrawn from school following an argument with the headteacher, often about his - usually it is a boy - disruptive behaviour",
is it really sensible to continue to impose an authoritarian, prescriptive school-type model on such a child? Will more of same solve the problem with authority figures or of educational neglect? Why are people who have suffered at the hands of authority figures not rational to have a problem with them? Authority figures, after all, do get it wrong! People should be right to question officials and to worry about the powers they have. I would suggest that Myra go read Karl Popper on the "Open Society and it's Enemies". Any authority figure who assumes they have an automatic right to deference and respect will rightly have a problem with people being antipathetic, in my book.
Why can we not think more imaginatively about how to solve these sorts of problems? Forcing a child who has been failed by the school system to accept school at home seems likely not to work. Forcing a child who learns better in an unstressful environment (as is apparently the case for many dyslexics and those who suffer from dyscalculia) to present their work to an inspector who really could decide their whole way of life on the basis of what they see, is likely to profoundly damage the learning process.
LA inspectors need to search their souls and realise that they may well be inflicting more damage than providing solutions. They should be thinking more creatively about how to offer their services. They need to realise that the best thing they can do for many home educating families is to leave well alone, since inspection for these families will be hugely disruptive, anxiety producing and will distract enormously from the process of learning.
With families who are suffering from educational neglect, they need to think of other creative solutions. They shouldn't be imagining that offering more of same will work.
Yet are they doing this? With regard to traveller children, for example, we have heard from various sources, including The Traveller Education Service, that they are being told to withdraw from supporting children of school age at home, because it is seducing traveller children away from the classroom. This seemed to some working on the ground as patently ridiculous, since what it actually meant was that some traveller children continued to refuse to go to school and yet were now not receiving any education support from workers who could specifically offer these services. The DfES then takes as evidence reports from people such as Prof Ivatts where they say that traveller HEd kids are being educationally neglected. That's right. Create a problem, so that you can meet your pre-prescribed agenda of marshaling all home educators into a system that has already failed so many children. Really, does this make any sense?
Why not give traveller children the £300,000 -worth of laptops to help them with their education, (as also reported in this week's TES)? Why not engage them and other children who are suffering from educational neglect in schemes such as Not School.net. Why should a School Attendance Order and calls for more intrusive and prescriptive monitoring be the knee-jerk reactions? We live in an information rich society, after all. We could do it. If you want to spend money on education, close some schools and get the BBC to put out some top-notch software that has a chance of engaging all kinds of learners. Let HEors get on with supporting each other and otherwise leave them alone as far as possible.
That's my prescription for the next decade.