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.