Sunday, March 12, 2006

The tyranny of the standard

At HE group on Friday I heard an inspiring account of an autonomously educated HE child who learned to read in two weeks at the age of eleven and is now an avid reader. I was, once again, blown away by the courage of HE parents who manage to resist the pressure of age related 'standards'. It got me thinking about the peculiarly prescriptive nature of the current education system and the wonderful opportunity that HE gives us to allow our children a childhood free from this fashion.

One of the many consequences of education policy over the last twenty years has been the spread of the notion of a ‘standard level’ for children of certain ages. Children may be measured and classified at any point on a scale of ‘attainment’ that covers the things deemed important by the current education system. It is no surprise that the system makes frequent reference to the scale. There are SATS at regular intervals and the language of the scale works its way into discussion of strategies and methods used in schools. But it is not just in schools that the targets and measures have an effect – they seep out of the walls and infect the culture!

I am astonished at the power of these measures, at the way they are accepted and employed throughout the country – as if they had existed from time immemorial. As if they were the standards of some ‘education god’ who is looking down on all the children of the land. Yet it was not so long ago that there was no national curriculum, no SATS, no literacy or numeracy hours in the schools.

I look back on my primary education (in the 1970s and early 1980s) and remember great differences in approach and style taken by different teachers. If a teacher had a passion (history, story telling, art) you knew about it – it was allowed to influence everyone’s experience. I can well remember the am dram enthusiast who performed the ‘wishing chair’ stories to the whole year group (90 kids) – every day for months! I remember the teacher who loved history and taught all ‘her’ ten year olds about ‘the enclosures’ – in great detail. Kids from different schools were taught different stuff, in different ways – and nobody turned a hair. It is hard to believe that this was so – but it was. Now, we live at a time when the education system does not tolerate this. The national curriculum dictates almost everything – and the children are judged with reference to it.

So, what does this matter to home educating parents? I think it matters because this dictatorial, narrow approach influences British childhood. If you look for a puzzle book (hell, even a comic from the corner shop!) for your child, you will see a bit of waffle about ‘learning goals’ and ‘complying with the National Curriculum’. This is, of course, a marketing ploy to make parents feel that they are buying something really 'educational'. If a book, game or toy doesn't have this kind of blurb on it then it is not 'educational' and is, therefore, 'only for play'. As home educators we are, perhaps, even more vulnerable to this kind of marketing than other parents.

We are very lucky in this country to have the freedom to home educate without having to concern ourselves with the current educational orthodoxy. We have the privilege of being able to step aside and look at the current trends from a position outside the tyranny of the standard. We can consider the different theories and approaches to learning that are taken internationally, that have been taken at different times in history, or that are evolving in the lives of our own families. We can remember that the current system is just a very recent approach being taken in a very small country. It may be the orthodoxy right here and just now – but I think it unlikely that it will be in twenty years. Most of our children have a life expectancy that will take them to the end of this century. Will anyone care in 2070 that they never adopted a neat cursive script, or that they were not a ‘level three’ in maths when they were eight?

We are free to ignore the ‘targets’ that exist in the current education system – and the schools are not. So, if we worry about what our children ‘would be doing’ in school we need to remember that those things are being controlled, tightly, by the currently desired ‘targets’ for the children. And those ‘targets’ are MADE UP! They are just some words, no matter how many experts may have contributed to them. They are often general to the point of useless and are pretty pathetic as a way of interpreting anyone’s knowledge and skills – and yes, I have read many of them. There is no research to show that they are of any meaningful benefit in the lives of the people striving to meet them.

If we seek to reassure ourselves about our children's development by referring to the 'attainment levels' of the national curriculum we are accepting that those levels are a valid measure. Our kids do many, many wonderful things that wouldn't be valued in school – but they value them, and we are free to do so too. We don't need to be influenced by the narrow categories of the national curriculum, the levels or measures, the things they 'would be' doing in schools.

There are many tales out there of home educated children who have done amazing things in their own time, and in their own ways. I hold those tales dear and hope that we never lose the freedom to give our children the space to develop away from the tyranny of the standard.


Lucy said...

Fantastic post - the deeper we move into home ed the more I see the children becoming 'themselves' now they are freed from that stringent, unflexible curriculum. Surely the greatest learning comes from moments of spontaneity where everyone is engaged and excited in the moment.

The system basically safeguards against substandard teachers who are unable to think up effective lessons themselves. And there are so many of these teachers in schools :( I remember the lady in my own Primary 4 who used to just plop a pile of cheap paper on each table and tell us to draw everyday while she read the paper! (my art did really develop in that year though...)

Thank you for this well thought out posting :)

Nic said...

Inspirational as always! Allie, your posts make me want to make a banner about HE and go out marching the streets right now! :-)

Will come back and read it again more slowly later but I adore the way your writing can instill such passion and confidence

Jax said...

It is a fascinating and well thought out post - but what about ppl who are being visited by lea personnel?

What does an education suitable to age ability and aptitude mean in these terms - have you had cause to defend your beliefs in this situation?

I'm not attacking your point of view, I thoroughly agree with it, as evidenced by the comment on bonkers blog earlier this week. But I am wondering how we defend it if we have cause to.

peri said...

A very interesting post, Allie. We both enjoyed reading it and you do make some very good points. We so enjoy being led by J and his interests would never fit into a prescribed system. He never needs to feel inadequate or to compare himself to others because he can see that all his friends are individuals doing their own stuff which is different to his. I actually think the children appreciate each others diversity, something there is litte opportunity to do in a curriculum.

Carlotta said...

Beautifully put.

Tech said...

Most excellent post!

merry said...

All so true.

Sometimes it is so hard to feel confident in my ability to open doors to my children at a time when those doors will have the right "something" behind them. it is a process i sort of feel i have to learn; by the time Josie is fully grown i believe i will have got there.

In areas where i feel confident i am supremely confident, in areas like maths and science, i still feel the need for a crutch and some guidance. But i am able to apply my general philosophy and use it, not be ruled by it, if you see what i mean?

Fran's late reading knocked my confidence to some extent, but watching her love reading and that however much i interfered in the process hasn't affected her love of it, has boosted it. I may not have trusted the process, but i barged in in a good way :)

Your post is great; a timely reminder as well.

Allie said...

Thanks for all the comments!

Jax, you make a good point about LEA contact. I actually think that not making any reference to 'their' standards is the best way of defending our current position. If we start to do SATS papers just to re-assure ourselves I think this may get used as a weapon against us. If we concede that testing (just to 'make sure') is a good idea if done by us then I think it is a much shorter step to testing done by 'them'. If we do do it I think we shouldn't mention it to the LEA!

I think that many people who have kids that don't do things at the 'approved' age do avoid disclosing this to the LEA. It may be that there will be a court case somewhere over the issue - it seems likely in the current climate. But I think that the HE community can present some excellent case stories that show that the age specific standards applied by the education system are not relevant in HE. I hope there would be a reasonable outcome...

We have to provide an education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude but we can have a totally different definition of that than the education system one. The law gives us that freedom - to define our own philosophy. Personally, we sent a detailed philosophy to the LEA when they first contacted us. Our philosophy made it clear that we were not attempting to replicate school 'standards'. I believe that the education has to be 'efficient', which means that it achieves that which it sets out to achieve. So, I would argue that they cannot use comparisons with schooled children in assessing our provision - as matching school was never our aim.

I hope I have understood the law properly on this - I think I have. I think this freedom is at the heart of HE in this country and we need to champion it. We sent a very positive report to the LEA this year and they happily accepted it.

Clare said...

What a wonderful post. I'd like to add to it though...the fact that we are conditioned to compare our children from birth by the pressure to have our children weighed regularly and marked on a chart that is frequently meaningless, particularly when it comes to exclusively breastfed babies. And then there are the standard checks at 9 & 24 months which look at sometimes ridiculous measures of development. Testing children begins at birth and breaking free from the mindset into which that places us is extremely difficult to do.


a said...

Oh I enjoyed that post - please could you summarize it in 4 witty words and put it on a T-shirt for me right now.
Just over a year ago I would have read and only half-understood, or half-agreed with it, but now that I've lived HE for that time, I'm right there with you. My views on all this stuff have changed hugely.

And Merry - my experience of reading Fran's experience of reading on your blog has done wonders for my ability to 'let go' in that area. To see Fran having gone from disinterest/reluctance to avid readership has been a huge influence on me.

I'm currently reading Free Range Education and have just finished How Children Learn, so I'm all fired up at the moment.

Joyce said...

That was excellent, and just what I needed :-)

Jules said...

Brilliant, just brilliant.

Very well put, and I nodded along with it throughout.


Leo said...

You tell the truth and have bunnies as pets, therefor I like you. :D

I find it very hard as a parent not to fall prey to the standard mentality. It's all around us now. :(

Elder Faery said...

Brilliant post..thanks very much.