the recommendations: NSPCC briefing on home education

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews highlights a number of recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children.

The task of SCRs is to examine why a child came to harm, why the harm wasn’t prevented and to make recommendations that should ensure those things don’t happen again. SCRs tend to be detailed and rigorous in their analysis, so I’ve taken the recommendations made in six of the seven serious case reviews (Child 5’s was available only as a brief summary) as a proxy for the factors involved in what happened to the children.

the recommendations

By my reckoning, the six SCRs made a total of 79 core recommendations – although there were additional ones in relation to specific local agencies. Some recommendations were made in more than one review. To get an overall picture of the key factors I ranked the recommendations in order of the frequency with which they occurred. Recommendations from more than one SCR were:

• contact the DfE or equivalent body regarding elective home education (EHE) and safeguarding (5 SCRs)
• issue local multi-agency guidance regarding EHE and safeguarding (3)
• training and development with regard to combative, aggressive or non-engaging parents (3)
• EOTAS teams made aware of safeguarding issue (2)
• monitor health of EHE children (2)
• ensure procedures were followed with feedback to referrers (2)
• ensure agreed actions were taken (2)
• provide evidence of managerial oversight (2)
• promote public awareness about safeguarding other people’s children (2)

23 of the recommendations (about 30% of the total) occur in more than one SCR, but most of those are in only two or three reviews, indicating that there’s quite a lot of variation across the six cases in terms of specific recommendations.

But if the recommendations are grouped together according to the factor they refer to, they cluster into five broad themes:

• children with disabilities – 3 (4%)
• behaviour of parents – 5 (6%)
• elective home education – 14 (18%)
• healthcare – 21 (26%)
• procedural issues – 34 (43%)

In addition, there was one recommendation about developing children’s sense of identity and ethnicity and another about contacting central government about issues outside the scope of the review. (The percentages don’t add up to 100 due to rounding.) In this post I look more closely at the top three factors. I’ll come back to the behaviour of parents and children with disabilities in later posts.

The NSPCC briefing is about home-educated children so it’s not surprising that most of the recommendations it highlights are about legislation relating to home education. But the SCRs are also about home-educated children, and most of their recommendations are not about home education legislation. Almost 70% related to either procedural issues and/or healthcare.

procedural issues

Problems with procedures have been the focus of media attention in recent high profile child abuse cases. In the six SCRs they include some very basic issues such as ensuring staff have appropriate training, making sure procedures are followed, that agreed actions have been carried out and improving communication between agencies. The only reference to procedural issues in the NSPCC briefing is in relation to professional awareness that there isn’t a safeguarding element in education legislation. I’ll return to procedures in a later post.

healthcare

The briefing does mention health services (including, oddly, making recommendations for the Primary Care Trusts that were abolished months before its publication) but doesn’t go into detail about the role played by healthcare in the harm incurred by the children. That looks like a serious omission. Not only were health services actively involved in the lives of the children, in several cases it’s possible they could have contributed to the harm they suffered. Let’s take a closer look the role of health services in the seven SCRs.

Family 1 initially fostered some of the children privately, and later adopted them. The adoptive parent thought some of the children had ADHD/ASD/Asperger syndrome. One has to wonder what circumstances led to the private fostering arrangement and whether the children’s behavioural problems were solely attributable to the adoptive parent’s parenting style as the SCR suggests. Three of the children were prescribed Ritalin for excessive periods of time without the required regular reviews. Over-prescription of medication also featured in the case of Child 2, whose mother had repeatedly raised health concerns about her son. Not only was the dose too high for a child of his age, but Child 2’s mother was able to obtain the medication from her GP after the hospital had said it should be discontinued. Since the parents of Family 1 and Child 2 couldn’t have prescribed the medicines themselves, presumably health practitioners had felt there was a good reason to do so. Child 3’s mother also raised concerns about her daughter’s health before her GP removed the family from his list without following the proper protocol. Child 4’s family had extensive contact with health services. Child 5 had been referred to a clinical psychologist. Child 6’s parents stopped engaging with the authorities when they couldn’t get a clear diagnosis for his developmental problems. The mother of Family 7 had been attempting to artificially inseminate her eldest daughter, A, but the GP they saw after claiming that A (then aged 14) had been sexually assaulted and might be pregnant, failed to follow up her case because he didn’t believe their story.

The SCR also draws attention to the number of medical appointments Child 6 had – as an indicator of his mother’s misplaced focus on his health. She is suspected of fabricating or inducing her son’s illness and FII is referred to repeatedly in the SCR despite nobody appearing to be clear about whether or not Child 6’s health problems were genuine. In contrast, the mother of Child 4 had a track record of missing appointments. Between 1998 and 2008 she missed 129, a third of which were health related. In 2007, the year before Child 4 died, “the pattern of failed appointments escalated dramatically… 26 (20%) appointments were missed, as relationships with professionals deteriorated”. That means that in the course of a year the mother, then a lone parent with six children (several of whom had statements of special educational needs), was expected to attend 130 appointments including medical ones. That’s almost three a week. It’s not surprising that parents of children with disabilities complain that managing appointments with professionals feels like a part-time job. There are clearly some lessons to be learned from a system that expects lone parents to attend three appointments a week but sees missing one in five of them as a danger signal. One of the recommendations of the case review is that agencies should “provide evidence to demonstrate an effective response to missed or failed appointments” – the most obvious solution doesn’t appear to have been considered.

home education recommendations

The third most frequent factor referred to in the SCRs is home education – almost 20% of the total recommendations. Most of the home education recommendations were either about improving agencies’ knowledge of the legislation or about raising awareness of the issue the NSPCC is concerned about; that there isn’t a safeguarding element in education legislation – a concern that, as far as I can see, is based on an inaccurate understanding of the legal principles and on speculation rather than evidence.

The NSPCC briefing frames the recommendations from the SCRs only in terms of home education, so the unwary reader might conclude, wrongly, that the problems with procedures and healthcare arose only because the children were home educated. What the SCRs indicate is that most of the problems with procedures and healthcare – such as checking that actions had been carried out and over-prescription of drugs – were nothing to do with the children being home educated; they could equally well have occurred if the children were at school.

I should point out that I’m not attempting to shift the blame from parents, three of whom clearly neglected and maltreated their children. But if the focus of LSCBs and the NSPCC is on the wellbeing of children, it’s imperative that the real causes of harm are identified – even if public sector services are implicated.

So why would the NSPCC briefing make claims about home-educated children that aren’t supported by the data? Why would it present recommendations in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect the way they are presented in the SCRs? And why is the most frequently occurring specific recommendation in the SCRs about home education and safeguarding if there isn’t a problem with safeguarding home-educated children?

The answer, I suggest, is that the NSPCC is interpreting the data from the SCRs in the light of its concerns about possible risks due to home education, rather than basing its concerns on evidence about real risks. And the NSPCC’s concerns are, understandably, very influential amongst people who work in child safeguarding; two of the authors of the SCRs worked for the NSPCC at the time they wrote the review or previously.

Possible risk versus real risk; the subject of the next post.

the claims: NSPCC briefing on home education

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews claims to consist of ‘learning about child protection pulled from the published versions’ of seven Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) published between 2008-2013. In this and subsequent posts, I want to focus on the patterns of events that emerge from the case reviews, but I’ll also refer to examples of what happened to specific families or specific children. I’ve numbered the cases to anonymise the children as much as possible, but have linked to the published versions of the SCRs. I’ve listed brief details of each case below for reference.

Family 1 2007 serious maltreatment of adopted children
Child 2 2008 non-accidental poisoning with prescription drug
Child 3 2009 unexplained death
Child 4 2010 death due to severe malnutrition
Child 5 2011 suicide
Child 6 2012 death due to natural causes
Family 7 2013 neglect, and sexual abuse of adopted child

In this post I examine some of the claims about home-educated children made in the briefing and to look at how well they are supported by the evidence in the SCRs.

home education highlighted as a key factor

All the SCRs mention home education but comments range from a brief reference in the case of Child 2, to a lengthy discussion referring to the Badman Review and another high profile case from the anonymous author of Family 7’s review. Overall, the claim that home education was a ‘key factor’ appears to be due to local authorities’ lack of clarity over the distinction between education and safeguarding rather than being a key factor in the harm suffered by the children. I’ll look more closely at the causes of harm in the next post.

becoming invisible

The second claim made by the briefing is that children ‘can become invisible to the authorities’ once they are educated at home. In all cases except one – Child 3 – ‘the authorities’ were aware that families faced challenging circumstances or that children were at risk. Child 3 was visited at home by an officer from the local education department three times in the months prior to her death and no concerns were raised about her welfare. In short, none of the children ‘became invisible’.

being unknown

A third claim is that home-educated children ‘may be completely unknown to the local authority’. This could happen if a child has never attended school or has moved from another area. The implication is that being unknown to the LA in and of itself puts the children at increased risk of harm. ‘Unknown’ children were of great concern to Graham Badman during his 2009 elective home education review. They were the subject of a lively exchange between Mr Badman and the Chair of the then Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, Graham Stuart, that I’ve looked at in more detail here. Again, the SCRs don’t bear out the claim. The people who contacted the authorities about the children included teachers, medical professionals, neighbours and the parents themselves. None of the children were unknown to the LA prior to coming to harm.

A fourth claim is that ‘there are some common threads running through the learning points and recommendations highlighted in these serious case reviews’. The briefing ties together several of the common threads. For clarity, I’ve teased them apart.

isolation

There were clearly no concerns about isolation when the children were adopted into Family 1 and Family 7, and it was members of Family 1’s religious community who alerted the authorities to the maltreatment of the children. Four other children initially attended school and were all seen by ‘the authorities’ whilst being home educated. Child 6, who never attended school, had siblings about whom there were no concerns. In short, the children’s isolation varied considerably.

no right to express views formally and participate in the assessment or decision-making process of home education

There’s been much rhetoric in recent years about the ‘voice of the child’. Despite this, most children don’t get a say in whether or not they go to school, and have little say about how they are educated when they get there. Many home-educated children, in contrast, are educated at home because they have been listened to, and they actively participate in decisions about their education. It’s not clear how much say the children in the seven case reviews had about their education – either at school or at home.

no right to independent access to friends, family or professional agencies

Again, children who attend school don’t have these ‘rights’ either. Most children are dependent on their parents (or teachers) for access to friends and family and most children need parental permission to access professional agencies.

no mechanisms to ensure that they continue to receive a ‘suitable’ education or adequate care without the express consent of their parents/carers

This claim betrays a lack of understanding of the legal framework. One of the services local authorities provide for local people is schools. The ‘mechanisms to ensure that school pupils receive a suitable education and adequate care’ are in place because LAs are providing a service for parents paid for by the community. There are no mechanisms to ensure that parents are providing a suitable education or adequate care because local authorities do not have powers to check up on everyone in their local area to make sure they are all complying with the law. Giving LAs those powers would be a huge waste of resources because the majority of people would be found to be doing nothing wrong. The system we have at present, where LAs have powers to act if they have reason to believe the law has been broken, is consistent with the principles of democracy and is far more cost-effective. How effective it is in protecting children from harm is a point I’ll return to in a later post.

a major safeguarding flaw within home education legislation

This claim rests on an implicit assumption that education legislation requires a safeguarding element. It doesn’t. Welfare and education are separate issues in law, and with respect to each issue, LAs can make enquiries and take further action if necessary. A common thread running through the narrative of ‘the authorities’ concerning home education is a failure to make a distinction between the two areas of legislation and an attempt to piggy-back safeguarding onto education. Of course LA officers making enquiries because it appears a child isn’t getting a suitable education might pick up safeguarding issues. Teachers might do so in respect of children attending school. Whether they should be expected to is another matter. Professionals with education expertise don’t necessarily have expertise in child protection. There’s a risk that giving superficial safeguarding training (or none at all) to educational professionals will lead to false alarms and consequent needless distress for children and their families.

dominant personalities of parents/carers

Many years of my working life have involved ‘interfacing’ with the public. Most people have been polite, reasonable, helpful and friendly. A small minority was deceitful, manipulative, aggressive or violent. People working in child protection are likely to encounter a disproportionate number of the second group, for obvious reasons. But the briefing doesn’t draw attention to them – it warns against parents who are “extremely well-informed, articulate, hostile, aggressive and/or resistant to professional intervention”. These traits, claims Birmingham LCSB, “reinforced a power imbalance that undermined the rights, welfare and protection of home educated children”.

The NSPCC seems to have a particular problem with parents being articulate and knowledgeable, and takes a quote from Child 4’s review out of context to reinforce the point. The original text blames the shift in focus away from the children’s welfare, on the professionals’ response to the parents’ attitudes and behaviour. The briefing omits the criticism of professionals and in doing so manages to blame the parents for the professionals’ shift in focus. There’s no discussion about why parents and carers might have been well-informed, articulate, hostile, aggressive and/or resistant to professional intervention. I found it baffling that local authorities need to be reminded to train staff involved with child protection to cope with hostile or aggressive parents. But if they need specific training to deal with parents who are ‘well-informed’ and ‘articulate’, there’s something very wrong with the system.

EOTAS services are offered to parents who choose to educate their children at home

EOTAS stands for Education Otherwise Than At School in reference to the 1944 and 1996 Education Acts. You might assume this means LAs have teams waiting in the wings to support parents home-educating their children. You’d be wrong. Some do, but most EOTAS provision is for children registered with schools but unable to attend due to medical and other reasons. LAs don’t have a statutory duty in respect of home-educated children, unless ‘it appears’ the child isn’t being suitably educated, so the services they offer are sometimes not services at all.

In my own case, I was persuaded by my LA to have a visit from an ‘adviser’. When he arrived the adviser told me that he couldn’t advise me on my children’s education because that was my responsibility; his job was check that my educational provision was suitable – even though the LA had no reason to suppose it wasn’t. The Education Select Committee drew attention in 2012 to the finding that only 30 out of 152 local authorities had information on their websites that accurately reflected the legislation relevant to home education. It’s hardly surprising that LA staff are confused.

children educated at home do not have access to school nursing services

True, they don’t. [Apparently they do: see comments below.] But they do have access to the rest of the health service. The children in Family 1 ‘received considerable specialist health interventions’. Child 2 was harmed because of too much medical treatment. Child 3’s GP removed the family from his list without following the proper procedures. Medical services were criticized in Child 4’s review because they intervened too late, despite concerns raised with social services by teachers. Child 5 had seen a clinical psychologist. In Child 6’s case, parents stopped engaging with professionals when they couldn’t get a clear diagnosis for his developmental disorder. Family 7 had a good deal of contact with health professionals. In none of the SCRs does the lack of access to school nursing services appear to have impacted on the child’s health.

current legislation and guidance inadvertently helps the small minority of home educators who use elective home education as a cover to conceal child neglect and abuse

In each of the three cases where there is unambiguous evidence that the parents or carers neglected or abused their children, local authorities were aware of the challenges faced by the families and public sector services were actively involved with them. The only problem posed by the current legislation and guidance appears to be that local authority officers didn’t understand it properly and weren’t clear about who was responsible for what.

elective home education can lead to isolation and obscuring of children from normal services that could act as a monitor of their welfare

The key word here is ‘can’. Elective home education certainly has the potential to lead to isolation and ‘obscuring’ the children from ‘normal services’ in a way that puts their welfare at risk; but so far, there’s no evidence to suggest that that has actually happened. More on that in another post.

Although the NSPCC briefing does indeed pull ‘learning about child protection…from the published versions of the reports’, that learning is based on a flawed understanding of the relevant legislation and the principles underpinning it, and only one of the claims made in the briefing (about isolation) is supported by the evidence from the SCRs – and that support is only partial. The briefing also highlights a number of recommendations, which I’ll look at in the next post.

NSPCC briefing on home education: the law

In March this year the NSPCC published a briefing entitled Home education: learning from case reviews. It’s based on seven Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) published since 2008 ‘where elective home education was highlighted as a key factor’ and ‘consists of learning about child protection pulled from the published versions of the reports’.

I got the impression from the briefing that the seven cases involved tragic situations in which parents had neglected or abused children and that home education had played a significant role in that neglect and abuse. The picture painted by the SCRs themselves is somewhat different. In only three cases was there unambiguous evidence that parents and carers were directly responsible for the harm the child suffered. In only one case were local authorities unaware of the challenges faced by the families or of the risk to children. There were several examples of healthcare actually contributing to the harm. And the claims and recommendations highlighted in the briefing don’t accurately reflect the evidence in the SCRs.

The SCRs highlight important factors in the children coming to harm that the NSPCC briefing fails to mention. In order to understand how home education fits into the bigger picture, it needs to be seen in the context of those other factors. This is the first in a series of posts about the factors touched on but not explored by the briefing, including legislation relevant to home education, the evidence for claims and recommendations, and the systems factors that affect the way public sector services function.

Before I start I should declare an interest. At the beginning of my brief teaching career I taught two children who’d previously been home-educated and through them met home-educating families. I ended up educating both my own children at home for several years – through necessity rather than choice in my case, but it means my perspective on home education might be a bit different to that of people whose job is safeguarding children. Also, I need to point out that I could find some of the SCRs cited in the NSPCC briefing only as executive summaries and one only as an abstract, so my information could be incomplete.

In this post, I look at the legislation relevant to elective home education (EHE) – that is home education that’s undertaken by choice rather than because a child is unable to attend school.

education legislation

Under UK law, parents have primary responsibility for their children’s welfare and education. Unusually for legislation – which tends to prohibit things – the law gives parents a duty in relation to education;

“The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—
(a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b)to any special educational needs he may have,
either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.”
(s.7 Education Act 1996).

Educating children at home is one way of complying with this legal duty.

The criteria set out in s.7 that determine whether or not a child’s education is suitable date back to the 1944 Education Act and have been fairly well defined in rulings in specific cases. People working in education in the post-war period would have been very familiar with the idea that an education should be suitable to an individual child. It seems to be a more difficult concept for people more familiar with a standardized education system and highly specified local authority functions.

There are only two grounds on which a local authority (LA) should get involved with a child’s education, both aspects of the services that it provides. One is with its education services hat on – if the parent asks the LA to educate the child, usually by applying for a school place. The other is with its law enforcement hat on;

“If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.”
(s.437(1) Education Act 1996).

If the parent fails to comply, there are further steps the LA can take including compelling the parent to send the child to a particular school.

That’s a brief summary of the law relevant to home education. In 2007 the Department for Children, Schools and Families issued guidelines for local authorities who were encountering increasing numbers of children being educated at home and were often perplexed about the legal situation. What people working in child protection seem to struggle with is not just the legislation so much as the principles behind it. If the principles are clear, the legislation makes sense. If they’re not clear, it doesn’t. Here’s an outline of the principles.

principles underpinning home education legislation

1. Under UK law, parents have primary responsibility for their children’s welfare and education. There’s a good reason for that, and it’s not just a hangover from an era where women and children were regarded as the property of husbands and fathers. Although some parents do cause their children harm, parents tend to have a much better track record than institutions when it comes to bringing up kids. The history of institutional care is littered with failure, not only to protect vulnerable people from incidental harm, but also to protect them from abuse by the people paid to look after them, and abuse by the institutional system itself – think enforced adoption, sterilization and incarceration.

2. Under UK law, welfare and education are seen as distinct issues and are dealt with by distinct pieces of legislation. That’s because they are different things; a child could have access to good education but be at risk of harm, or be quite safe but poorly educated. Ultimately, welfare is more important than education. If you’re being maltreated you can’t make the most of your education, and you can catch up on missed educational opportunities but you only get one shot at childhood. So, rightly, legislation gives LAs greater powers in respect of safeguarding than in respect of home education.

3. The primary function of a local authority is to provide services for local people. The term ‘authority’ refers to its duties and the powers delegated to it so it can carry out those duties. It doesn’t mean that a local authority is in charge of local people; it’s the other way round – at least in principle. Because LAs have much greater resources at their disposal than individuals, the law is weighted in favour of the individual – LA powers are subject to various limits, checks and balances in order to prevent those powers being abused.

4. Local authorities and government agencies are authorized to intervene in the private lives of individuals without their consent only in a limited set of circumstances. One is if there is reasonable cause to suspect that an individual has broken, or is about to break, the law. In the case of child welfare it’s if an LA has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is at risk of significant harm (s.47 Children Act, 1989). In terms of education it’s if it appears that the child isn’t receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) Education Act 1996). In both sets of circumstances LAs have power only to ‘make enquiries’ initially. If the enquiries show that a child is being harmed or isn’t getting a suitable education, further steps can be taken that could go so far as removing the child from the parent’s care or ordering the parent to send the child to school.

The point at which ‘the authorities’ are entitled to make enquiries has always been a bit of a grey area. It got even greyer with the introduction of the Children Act 2004. S.11 gives various authorities a proactive duty in discharging their functions to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Many LAs appear to have interpreted this as meaning they, rather than parents, have ultimate responsibility for the safeguarding and welfare of children. This perception was reinforced by the aftermath of the Baby P case in Haringey. Not surprisingly, LAs feel uneasy if they can’t keep an eye on children, and that seems to have fuelled calls for increased regulation of home education.

the perspective of the NSPCC briefing

With those main principles in mind, it becomes more apparent where the confusion lies in the perspective taken by the NSPCC briefing. It’s summed up in this quotation from Birmingham Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) claiming that there is a

major safeguarding flaw within home education legislation which focuses on parental choice and rights at the expense of children’s rights, wishes, welfare or protection.

Framing legislation relevant to home education in terms of rights, and conflating safeguarding and education both muddy the water. Let’s look at rights first.

rights

Home education legislation was framed in terms of ‘a balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child’ by Graham Badman in his review of elective home education in 2009. Many local authorities have adopted the same conceptual model. Badman goes on to say ‘I believe that balance is not achieved through current legislation or guidance, and the imbalance must be addressed’ (p.3). I suggest that what’s actually flawed is not the legislation, but some of the assumptions being made about the legal framework it’s based on.

The term ‘rights’ is used several times in the NSPCC briefing. But the rights referred to are not all the same sort of rights, nor do they all carry the same weight in law. They range from rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, through principles underlying recent government policy (e.g. parental choice in education) to powers they would like the local authorities to have (e.g. to enter the home and interview the child alone). Lumping together principles, duties, policies and legally unwarranted powers and calling them all ‘rights’ isn’t at all helpful.

Contrary to the view of the NSPCC briefing and Birmingham LSCB, legislation relating to home education doesn’t focus on ‘parental choice and rights’ but on ensuring that each child gets an education suitable to them as an individual. The parental ‘right’ or ‘choice’ to educate a child at home is derived from that legal duty and is subject to those criteria. It isn’t derived from the principle of consumer ‘choice’ that underpins the market model of education popular with recent governments, and shouldn’t be confused with it. (An education system designed around the performance of the average child of a particular age should take note.)

welfare and education

Under UK law, welfare and education are seen as distinct issues and are dealt with by distinct pieces of legislation. In each case, LAs can make enquiries and take further action if they have reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of significant harm or if it appears they are not receiving a suitable education. In some of the SCRs, local authorities have clearly seen the absence of powers to monitor the way children are educated as an obstacle to their monitoring them on safeguarding grounds. But having no grounds for making enquiries about a child’s education doesn’t prevent LAs from making enquiries if they have reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of significant harm.

The briefing also appears to misunderstand the way the law approaches risk. Before moving on to that point, I want to look more closely at the claims the briefing makes about the risks to home-educated children, and the way it evaluates the recommendations from the SCRs.

Note

Edited to clarify the wording of the legislation.

Kieran Egan’s “The educated mind” 2

The second post in a two-part review of Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding.

For Egan, a key point in the historical development of understanding was the introduction by the Greeks of a fully alphabetic representation of language – it included symbols for vowels as well as consonants. He points out that being able to represent speech accurately in writing gives people a better understanding of how they use language and therefore of the concepts that language represents. Egan attributes the flowering of Greek reasoning and knowledge to their alphabet “from which all alphabetic systems are derived” (p.75).

This claim would be persuasive if it were accurate. But it isn’t. As far as we know, the Phoenicians – renowned traders – invented the first alphabetic representation of language. It was a consonantal alphabet that reflected the structure of Semitic languages and it spread through the Middle East. The Greeks adapted it, introducing symbols for vowels. This wasn’t a stroke of genius on their part – Semitic writing systems also used symbols for vowels where required for disambiguation – but a necessary addition because Greek is an Indo-European language with a syllabic structure. The script used by the Mycenaean civilisation that preceded the Greeks was a syllabic one.

“a distinctive kind of literate thinking”

Egan argues that this alphabet enabled the Greeks to develop “extended discursive writing” that “is not an external copy of a kind of thinking that goes on in the head; it represents a distinctive kind of literate thinking” (p.76). I agree that extended discursive writing changes thinking, but I’m not convinced that it’s distinctive nor that it results from literacy.

There’s been some discussion amongst teachers recently about the claim that committing facts to long-term memory mitigates the limitations of working memory. Thorough memorisation of information certainly helps – we can recall it quickly and easily when we need it – but we can still only juggle half-a-dozen items at a time in working memory. The pre-literate and semi-literate civilisations that preceded the Greeks relied on long-term memory for the storage and transmission of information because they didn’t have an alternative. But long-term memory has its own limitations in the form of errors, biases and decay. Even people who had memorisation down to a fine art were obliged to develop writing in order to have an accurate record of things that long-term memory isn’t good at handling, such as what’s in sealed sacks and jars and how old it is. Being able to represent spoken language in writing takes things a step further. Written language not only circumvents the weaknesses of long-term memory, it helps with the limitations of working memory too. Extended discursive writing can encompass thousands of facts, ideas and arguments that a speaker and a listener would find it impossible to keep track of in conversation. So extended discursive writing doesn’t represent “a distinctive kind of literate thinking” so much as significantly extending pre-literate thinking.

the Greek miracle

It’s true that the sudden arrival in Greece of “democracy, logic, philosophy, history, drama [and] reflective introspection… were explainable in large part as an implication of the development and spread of alphabetic literacy” (p.76). But although alphabetic literacy might be a necessary condition for the “Greek miracle”, it isn’t a sufficient one.

Like all the civilisations that had preceded it, the economy of the Greek city states was predominantly agricultural, although it also supported thriving industries in mining, metalwork, leatherwork and pottery. Over time agricultural communities had figured out more efficient ways of producing, storing and trading food. Communities learn from each other, so sooner or later, one of them would produce enough surplus food to free up some of its members to focus on thinking and problem-solving, and would have the means to make a permanent record of the thoughts and solutions that emerged. The Greeks used agricultural methods employed across the Middle East, adapted the Phoenician alphabet and slavery fuelled the Greek economy as it had previous civilisations. The literate Greeks were standing on the shoulders of pre-literate Middle Eastern giants.

The ability to make a permanent record of thoughts and solutions gave the next generation of thinkers and problem-solvers a head start and created the virtuous cycle of understanding that’s continued almost unabated to the present day. I say almost unabated, because there have been periods during which it’s been impossible for communities to support thinkers and problem-solvers; earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, drought, flood, disease, war and invasion have all had a devastating and long-term impact on food production and on the infrastructure that relies on it.

language, knowledge and understanding

Egan’s types of understanding – Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic and Ironic – have descriptive validity; they do reflect the way understanding has developed historically, and the way it develops in children. But from a causal perspective, although those phases correlate with literacy they also correlate with the complexity of knowledge. As complexity of knowledge increases, so understanding shifts from binary to scalar to systematic to the exceptions to systems; binary classifications, for example, are characteristic of the way people, however literate they are, tend to categorise knowledge in a domain that’s new to them (e.g. Lewandowski et al, 2005).

Egan doesn’t just see literacy as an important factor in the development of understanding, he frames understanding in terms of literacy. What this means is that in Egan’s framework, knowledge (notably pre-verbal and non-verbal knowledge) has to get in line behind literacy when it comes to the development of understanding. It also means that Egan overlooks the key role of agriculture and trade in the development of writing systems and of the cultures that invented them. And that apprenticeship, for millennia widely used as a means of passing on knowledge, is considered only in relation to ‘aboriginal’ cultures (p.49). And that Somatic understanding is relegated to a few pages at the end of the chapter on the Ironic.

non-verbal knowledge

These are significant oversights. Non-verbal knowledge is a sine qua non for designers, artisans, architects, builders, farmers, engineers, mariners, surgeons, physiotherapists, artists, chefs, parfumiers, musicians – the list goes on and on. It’s true that much of the knowledge associated with these occupations is transmitted verbally, but much of it can’t be transmitted through language, but acquired only by looking, listening or doing. Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men attributes the speed at which the industrial revolution took place not to literacy, but to the development of a way to reproduce technical drawings accurately.

Egan appears sceptical about practical people and practical things because when

those who see themselves as practical people engaging in practical things [who] tend not to place any value on acquiring the abstract languages framed to deal with an order than underlies surface diversity” are “powerful in government, education departments and legislatures, pressures mount for an increasingly down-to-earth, real-world curriculum. Abstractions and theories are seen as idle, ivory-tower indulgences removed from the gritty reality of sensible life.” (p.228)

We’re all familiar with the type of people Egan refers to, and I’d agree that the purpose of education isn’t simply to produce a workforce for industry. But there are other practical people engaging in practical things who are noticeable by their absence from this book; farmers, craftspeople, traders and engineers who are very interested in abstractions, theories and the order that underlies surface diversity. The importance of knowledge that’s difficult to verbalise has significant implications for the curriculum and for the traditional academic/vocational divide. Although there is clearly a difference between ‘abstractions and theories’ and their application, theory and application are interdependent; neither is more important than the other, something that policy-makers often find difficult to grasp.

Egan acknowledges that there’s a problem with emphasising the importance of non-verbal knowledge in circles that assume that language underpins understanding. As he points out “Much modernist and postmodernist theory is built on the assumption that human understanding is essentially languaged understanding” (p.166). Egan’s framework elbows aside language to make room for non-verbal knowledge, but it’s a vague, incoherent “ineffable” sort of non-verbal knowledge that’s best expressed linguistically through irony (p.170). It doesn’t appear to include the very coherent, concrete kind of non-verbal knowledge that enables us to grow food, build bridges or carry out heart-transplants.

the internal coherence of what’s out there

Clearly, bodies of knowledge transmitted from person to person via language will be shaped by language and by the thought-processes that produce it, so the knowledge transmitted won’t be 100% complete, objective or error-free. But a vast amount of knowledge refers to what’s out there, and what’s out there has an existence independent of our thought-processes and language. What’s out there also has an internally coherent structure that becomes clearer the more we learn about it, so over time our collective bodies of knowledge more accurately reflect what’s out there and become more internally coherent despite their incompleteness, subjectivity and errors.

The implication is that in education, the internal coherence of knowledge itself should play at least some part in shaping the curriculum. But because the driving force behind Egan’s framework is literacy rather than knowledge, the internal coherence of knowledge can’t get a word in edgeways. During the Romantic phase of children’s thinking, for example, Egan recommends introducing topics randomly to induce ‘wonder and awe’ (p.218), rather than introducing them systematically to help children make sense of the world. To me this doesn’t look very different from the “gradual extension from what is already familiar” (p.86) approach of which Egan is pretty critical. I thought the chapter on Philosophic understanding might have something to say about this but it’s about how people think about knowledge rather than the internal coherence of knowledge itself – not quite the same thing.

the cherries on the straw hat of society

The sociologist Jacques Ellul once described hippies as the cherries on the straw hat of society* meaning that they were in a position to be critical of society only because of the nature of the society of which they were critical. I think this also serves as an analogy for Egan’s educational framework. He’s free to construct an educational theory framed solely in terms of literacy only because of the non-literate knowledge of practical people like farmers, craftspeople, traders and engineers. That brings me back to my original agricultural analogy; wonder and awe, like apple blossom and the aroma of hops, might make might make our experience of education and of agriculture transcendent, but if it wasn’t for coherent bodies of non-verbal knowledge and potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts, we wouldn’t be in a position to appreciate transcendence at all.

References

Lewandowski G, Gutschow A, McCartney R, Sanders K, Shinners-Kennedy D (2005). What novice programmers don’t know. Proceedings of the first international workshop on computing education research, 1-12. ACM New York, NY.

Uglow, J (2003). The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future. Faber & Faber.

Note
*I can’t remember which of Ellul’s books this reference is from and can’t find it quoted anywhere. If anyone knows, I’d be grateful for the source.

Kieran Egan’s “The educated mind” 1

I grew up in a small hamlet on the edge of the English Fens. The clay soil it was built on retains nutrients and moisture, so, well-drained, it provides an ideal medium for arable farming. Arable crops aren’t very romantic. The backdrop to my childhood wasn’t acres of lacy apple blossom in spring or aromatic hops in summer, although there were a few fields of waving golden wheat. I grew up amongst potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts. Not romantic at all, but the produce of East Anglia has long contributed to the UK population getting through the winter.

A few weeks ago on Twitter Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) asked me what I thought about Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding . This book is widely cited by teachers, so I read it. It reminded me of the sticky clay and root vegetables of my childhood because such things are noticeable by their absence from his educational and cultural framework. For Egan, minds aren’t grounded in the earth, but in language. To me the educational model he proposes is the equivalent of clouds of apple blossom and heady hops; breathtakingly beautiful and dizzying, but only if you’ve managed to get through the winter living on swedes and potatoes. My agricultural allusion isn’t just a simile.

recapitulation

Egan begins by claiming there’s a crisis in mass education systems in the West due to their being shaped by three fundamentally incompatible ideas; socialisation, Plato’s concept of reason and knowledge, and Rousseau’s focus on the fulfilment of individual potential. To resolve this inherent conflict, Egan proposes an alternative educational framework based on the concept of recapitulation. Recapitulation was a popular idea in the 19th century, fuelled by the theory of evolution and the discovery that during gestation human embryos go through phases that look remarkably like transformations from simple life forms to more complex ones. As Ernst Haeckel put it ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’.

The theory of recapitulation has been largely abandoned by biologists, but is still influential in other domains. Egan applies it to the intellectual tools – the sign systems that children first encounter in others and then internalise – that Vygotsky claimed shape our understanding of the world. Egan maps the historical ‘culturally accumulated complexity in language’ onto the ways that children’s understanding changes as they get older and proposes that what children are taught and the way they are taught should be shaped by five distinct, though not always separate, phases of understanding:

Somatic; pre-linguistic understanding
Mythic; binary opposites – good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong
Romantic; transcendent qualities – heroism, bravery, wickedness
Philosophic; the principles underlying patterns in information
Ironic; being able to challenge philosophic principles – seeing alternatives.

At first glance Egan’s arguments appear persuasive but I think they have several fundamental weaknesses, all originating in flawed implicit assumptions. First, the crisis in education.

crisis? what crisis?

I can see why a fundamentally incoherent education system might run into difficulties, but Egan observes:

“…today we are puzzled by the schools’ difficulty in providing even the most rudimentary education to students”… “the costs of…social alienation, psychological rootlessness and ignorance of the world and possibilities of human experience within it, are incalculable and heartbreaking.” (p.1)

Wait a minute. There’s no doubt that Western education systems fail to provide even the most rudimentary education for some students, but those form a tiny minority. And although some school pupils could be described as socially alienated, psychologically rootless or ignorant of the world and possibilities of human experience within it, that description wouldn’t apply to many others. So what exactly is the crisis Egan refers to? The only clue I could find was on page 2 where he describes ‘the educational ineffectiveness of our schools’ as a ‘modern social puzzle’ and defines ‘modern’ as beginning with the ‘late nineteenth century development of mass schooling’.

To claim an educational system is in crisis, you have to compare it to something. Critics often make comparisons with other nations, with the best schools (depending on how you define ‘best’) or with what they think the education system should be like. Egan appears to fall into the last category, but to overlook the fact that prior to mass schooling children did well if they manage to learn to read and write at all, and that girls and children with disabilities often didn’t get any education at all.

Critics often miss a crucial point. Mass education systems, unlike specific schools, cater for entire populations, with all their genetic variation, socio-economic fluctuations, dysfunctional families, unexpected illnesses and disruptive life events. In a recent radio interview, Tony Little headmaster of Eton College was asked if he thought the very successful Eton model could be rolled out elsewhere. He pointed out, dryly, that Eton is a highly selective school, which might just be a factor in its academic success. One obvious reason for the perceived success of schools outside state systems is that those schools are not obliged to teach whichever children happen to live nearby. Even the best education system won’t be problem-free because life is complex and problems are inextricably woven into the fabric of life itself. I’m not suggesting that we tolerate bad schools or have low aspirations. What I am suggesting is that our expectations for mass education systems need to be realistic, not based on idealised speculation.

incompatible ideas

Speculation also comes into play with regard to the incompatibility of the three ideas Egan claims shape mass education in the West. They have certainly shaped education historically and you could see them as in tension. But the ideas are incompatible only if you believe that one idea should predominate or that the aims inherent in each idea can be perfectly met. There’s no reason why schools shouldn’t inculcate social values, teach reason and knowledge and develop individual potential. Indeed, it would be difficult for any school that taught reasoning and knowledge to avoid socialisation because of the nature of schools, and in developing reasoning and knowledge children would move towards realising their potential anyway.

If, as Egan argues, Western mass education systems have been ineffective since they started, his complaint appears to be rooted in assumptions about what the system should be like rather than in evidence about how it actually has the potential to function. And as long as different constituencies have different opinions about the aims of the education system, someone somewhere will be calling ‘Crisis!’. That doesn’t mean there is one. But Egan believes there is, hence his new framework. The framework is based on the development of written language and its impact on thinking and understanding. For Egan, written language marked a crucial turning point in human history.

why write?

There’s no doubt that written language is an important factor in knowledge and understanding. Spoken language enables us to communicate ideas about things that aren’t right here right now. Written language enables us to communicate with people who aren’t right here right now. The increasing sophistication of written language as it developed from pictograms to syllabaries to alphabets enabled increasingly sophisticated ideas to be communicated. But the widely held belief that language is the determining factor when it comes to knowledge and understanding is open to question.

The earliest known examples of writing were not representations of language as such but records of agricultural products; noting whether it was wheat or barley in the sacks, wine or oil in the jars, when the produce was harvested and how many sacks and jars were stored where. Early writing consisted of pictograms (images of what the symbols represent) and ideograms (symbols for ideas). It was centuries before these were to develop into the alphabetic representations of language we’re familiar with today. To understand why it took so long, we need to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the early adopters of agriculture.

food is wealth

Farming provides a more reliable food supply than hunting and gathering. Food that’s surplus to requirements can be stored in case the next harvest is a bad one, or it can be traded. Surplus food enables a community to support people who aren’t directly involved in food production; rulers, administrators, artisans, traders, scribes, teachers, a militia to defend its territory. The militia has other uses too. Conquering and enslaving neighbouring peoples has for millennia been a popular way of increasing food production in order to support a complex infrastructure.

But for surplus food to be turned into wealth, storage and trade are required. Storage and trade require written records and writing is labour-intensive. While scribes are being trained and are maintaining records they can’t do much farming; writing is costly. So communities that can’t predict when a series of bad harvests will next result in them living hand-to-mouth, will focus on writing about things that are difficult to remember – what’s in a sealed container, when it was harvested etc. They won’t need to keep records of how to grow food, look after animals, histories, myths, poems or general knowledge if that information can be transmitted reliably from person to person orally. It’s only when oral transmission stops being reliable that written language as distinct from record-keeping, starts to look like a good idea. And the more you trade, the more oral transmission gets to be a problem. Travellers might need detailed written descriptions of people, places and things. Builders and engineers using imported designs or materials might need precise instructions.

Spoken language wasn’t the only driving force behind the development of written language – economic and technical factors played a significant role. I don’t think Egan gives these factors sufficient weight in his account of the development of human understanding nor in his model for education, as I explain in the next post.

the new SEN legislation and the Dunkirk spirit

In less than a week an event will take place that’s been awaited with excitement, apprehension, or in some cases with something approaching the Dunkirk spirit. On 1 September part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 comes into force. It’s been described as the biggest change to special educational needs in 30 years.

It won’t work
. If I were a betting sort of person, I’d put money on the next government having to review the system again in a couple of years. How can I be so sure? Or so pessimistic? It’s because the ‘problem’ with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) isn’t the special educational needs and disabilities, it’s the education system. And not just the SEN bit of it – it’s the education system as a whole. To find out why we need to go back in time…

we have a history

Education became compulsory in England in 1870. The new education system was essentially a one-size-fits-all affair focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic. Or more accurately one-size-fits-most; what took the government by surprise was the number of children turning up to school who didn’t fit the education system. Government essentially saw these ‘handicapped’ children as a problem, and its solution was to provide special schools for them. Although the solution made perfect sense, it wasn’t entirely successful. Handicapped children often ended up socially marginalised and sometimes institutionalised, and there were still children in mainstream schools who were struggling.

By the 1970s, the education system had changed considerably. There was more emphasis on an individualised education and local education authorities (LEAs), schools and teachers had a good deal of flexibility in the education they provided. The time was right for Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State for Education to commission a review of the education of handicapped children, headed by Mary Warnock. The Warnock Committee reported in 1978. It defined special education as ‘provision not generally available in normal schools’ (p.45). In other words it saw the ‘problem’ of special education not as the children but as the educational provision available in mainstream schools. The committee’s recommendations fed into the 1981 Education Act that:

• assumed children would attend mainstream schools where possible
• did away with the old categories of handicap
• introduced the concept of ‘special educational needs’
• gave LEAs a duty to assess children’s special educational needs and to fund the additional provision required for their education.

The Act had the potential to transform the lives of children marginalised by the education system, but it clearly hasn’t done so – not in a good way, anyway. In the last 20 years we’ve had three SEN Codes of Practice, numerous inquiries, reports and tinkerings with SEN legislation and regulations. One select committee described the system as not fit for purpose. So…

what went wrong?

The Warnock recommendations were made in the context of a highly flexible education system. A contemporary account describes a fruitful collaboration between a school for children with visual impairment (VI) and a mainstream junior school, pioneered by a keen LEA officer (Hegarty & Pocklington, 1981). Children with VI were gradually integrated into the mainstream school and teachers trained each other. Everybody won.

In order to undertake such a project, LEAs, schools and teachers needed a fair amount of control over their time and budgets. Projects like this might have eventually been rolled out nationwide, except that within a decade the introduction of a compulsory national curriculum and standardised testing had begun to steer the education system back towards a one-size-fits-all approach. Within a few short years central government had essentially wrested the responsibility for education and its funding from local authorities and education had become a serious ‘political football’. Successive governments have focused on raising educational attainment as an indicator of their own effectiveness as a government and ironically that’s what’s resulted in SEN becoming a problem again in recent years.

Essentially, if you want an efficient one-size-fits-all education system and world-beating exam results it makes perfect sense to remove from the equation children who don’t fit into the system and are unlikely to do well in exams however hard everyone tries. That’s what the government did in the 1890s. If you want an education system that provides all children with an education suitable to their individual needs, you can forget about one-size-fits-all and world-beating exam results; you’ll need a lot of flexibility. That’s what the education system had developed into by the time of the Warnock committee. If you want both you’re likely to end up where we are now.

"Relativity" by MC Escher

“Relativity” by MC Escher

The Warnock committee defined special educational needs in terms of the educational provision ‘generally available in normal schools’. By definition, the better the provision in normal schools, the smaller the number of children who would be deemed to have special educational needs. The committee couldn’t have emphasised the need for SEN training for all teachers more strongly if it had tried, but perversely, the education system appears to have taken a step in the opposite direction.

teacher training

The Warnock committee recommended the inclusion of SEN training in the initial teacher training (ITT) for all teachers. Following the 1981 Education Act, the assumption that many children with SEN would be taught in mainstream schools and that all teachers would be trained in SEN led to the cessation of many special needs teacher training courses. They obviously haven’t been replaced with comparable training in ITT. This, coupled with the retirement of special education teachers and a reduction of the number of children in special schools, has meant that the education system as a whole has suffered a considerable loss of SEN expertise.

Reviews of SEN provision have repeatedly reported concerns about there being insufficient emphasis on SEN in ITT. But it’s only been since 2009 that Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SENCOs) have been required to be trained teachers, and only new SENCOs have been required to have SEN training. The current government has allocated additional funding for SEN qualifications (para 53) but only up until last year. This isn’t going to touch the problem. DfE figures for 2011 show that only around 7% of the total education workforce has SEN experience and/or training, and most of those people are concentrated in special schools. And special schools report ongoing difficulties recruiting suitably trained staff. This, despite the fact that the Warnock report 35 years ago pointed out that based on historical data, around 20% of the school population could be expected to need additional educational provision at some time during their school career. The report made it clear that all teachers are teachers of children with special educational needs.

Teachers’ expertise, or lack of it, will have a big impact on the attainment of children with SEN, but that hasn’t prevented government from developing unrealistic targets for all children under the guise of raising aspirations.

expectations of attainment

I mentioned earlier that over the last three decades education has become a ‘political football’. Concern is often expressed over the proportion of young people who leave school functionally illiterate or innumerate or without qualifications, despite evidence that this proportion has remained pretty constant for many years. In the case of literacy, it’s remained stubbornly at around 17%, by bizarre coincidence not far from the equally stubborn 20% figure for children with SEN.

But the possibility that some of those young people might be in the position they’re in because of lack of expertise in the education system – or even because they are never going to meet government’s arbitrary attainment targets and that that might actually be OK – doesn’t seem to have occurred to successive governments. In her keynote address to the inaugural national conference of the Autism Education Trust in 2009 the then Minister for Schools and Learning Sarah McCarthy-Fry, saw no reason why young people with autism shouldn’t achieve 5 A-C grade GCSEs. Some of course might do just that. For others such an aspiration bears no relation to their ability or aptitude, part of the definition for the ‘suitable education’ each child is required, by law, to receive.

Currently, funding for post-16 education requires young people to have or be studying for A-C grade GCSEs in both English and Maths. Post-16 providers are rolling their eyes. Although I can understand the reasoning behind this requirement, it’s an arbitrary target bearing no relation to the legal definition of a suitable education.

it’s the system

Currently, local authorities, schools and teachers are under pressure from the SEN system to make personalised, specialised educational provision for a small group of children, whilst at the same time the education system as a whole is pushing them in the opposite direction, towards a one-size-fits-all approach. This is a daft way to design a system and no matter how much effort individual professionals put in, it can’t work. But it isn’t the SEN system itself that needs changing, it’s teacher expertise and government expectations.

Over recent decades, successive governments have approached education legislation (and legislation in general, for that matter) not by careful consideration of the historical data and ensuring that the whole system is designed to produce the desired outcomes, but essentially by edict. A bit of the education system is wrong, so government has decreed that it should be put right, regardless of what’s causing the problem or the impact of changing part of the system without considering the likely consequences elsewhere.

In systems theory terms, this is known as sub-system optimization at the expense of systems optimization. That mouthful basically means that because all the parts of a system are connected, if you tweak one bit of it another bit will change, but not necessarily in a good way. Policy-makers refer to the not-in-a-good-way changes as unintended and unwanted outcomes.

The new SEN legislation is a classic case of an attempt at sub-system optimization that’s doomed to fail. It requires the education, health and social care sectors to do some joined up thinking and extend the support offered to children with SEND for a further decade – until they are 25 – at a time when all three sectors are undergoing massive organisational change and simultaneously having their budgets cut. It introduces personal budgets at a time when all three sectors are changing their commissioning arrangements. It fails to address the lack of expertise in all three systems. (Recent reports have pointed out that teachers aren’t trained in SEN, GPs don’t have paediatric training and children’s social workers don’t know about child development.) It fails to address the fundamental systems design problems inherent in all three sectors; a one-size-fits-all education system, and health and social care sectors that focus on cure rather than prevention.

This approach to systems design isn’t just daft, it’s incompetent and reprehensively irresponsible. People who have made hopeful noises about the new SEN system have tended to focus on the good intentions behind the legislation. I have no doubt about the good intentions or the integrity of the ministers responsible – Sarah Teather and Edward Timpson – but they have been swimming against a strong tide. Getting through the next few years will be tough. Fortunately, in the world of SEN there’s a lot of Dunkirk spirit – we’re going to need it.

References
Hegarty, S & Pocklington, K (1981). A junior school resource area for the visually impaired. In Swann, W (ed.) The Practice of Special Education. Open University Press/Basil Blackwell.
Warnock, H M (1978). Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People. HMSO.

truth and knowledge

A couple of days ago I became embroiled in a long-running Twitter debate about the nature of truth and knowledge, during which at least one person fell asleep. @EdSacredProfane has asked me where I ‘sit’ on truth. So, for the record, here’s what I think about truth and knowledge.

1. I think it’s safe to assume that reality and truth are out there. Even if they’re not out there and we’re all experiencing a collective hallucination we might as well assume that reality is real and that truth is true because if we don’t, our experience – whether real or imagined – is likely to get pretty unpleasant.

2. I’m comfortable with the definition of knowledge as justified true belief. But that’s a definition of an abstract concept. The extent to which people can actually justify or demonstrate the truth of their beliefs (collectively or individually) varies considerably.

3. The reason for this is the way perception works. All incoming sensory information is interpreted by our brains, and brains aren’t entirely reliable when it comes to interpreting sensory information. So we’ve devised methods of cross-checking what our senses tell us to make sure we haven’t got it disastrously wrong. One approach is known as the scientific method.

4. Science works on the basis of probability. We can never say for sure that A or B exists or that C definitely causes D. But for the purposes of getting on with our lives if there’s enough evidence suggesting that A or B exists and that C causes D, we assume those things to be true and justified to varying extents.

5. Even though our perception is a bit flaky and we can’t be 100% sure of anything, it doesn’t follow that reality is flaky or not 100% real. Just that our knowledge about it isn’t 100% reliable. The more evidence we’ve gathered, the more consistent and predictable reality looks. Unfortunately it’s also complicated, which, coupled with our flaky and uncertain perceptions, makes life challenging.