the evidence: NSPCC briefing on home education

When I first read the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews I thought the NSPCC had merely got hold of the wrong end of the stick about the legislation relevant to home education. That’s not unusual – many people do just that. But a closer examination showed there was much more to it than a simple misunderstanding.

The briefing claims to consist of ‘learning about child protection pulled from the published versions’ of seven serious case reviews (SCRs) involving children educated at home. But the claims and recommendations made by the briefing aren’t an accurate reflection of what the SCRs tell us – about home education or child protection. The briefing also calls into question the current legislation relevant to home education, but makes no attempt to explain the legislation or the principles on which it’s based. So what ‘learning’ can we ‘pull’ from the NSPCC briefing?

legislation

The legislation and guidance relevant to home education isn’t explained or even cited, so anyone relying on the briefing for information would be aware only of the NSPCC’s view of the law, not what the law actually says or why it says it. Since the NSPCC doesn’t appear to understand the legislation, its view of the law creates a problem for unwitting readers.

claims

I noted 13 claims made by the briefing about the risks to children educated at home. Only one – that children could become isolated – was supported by the evidence in the SCRs, and that indicated only that some of the children involved could have been considered isolated at some times. In other words the risks to home-educated children that the NSPCC is concerned about are hypothetical risks rather than real ones. Laws aren’t and shouldn’t be based on hypothetical risks only, but this important distinction isn’t mentioned.

recommendations

The briefing cites only the 15 recommendations from the SCRs relating directly to home education – and overlooks the other 64. Over 30 of the others involved procedural issues and more than 20 involved healthcare. Two of the healthcare recommendations that the briefing does highlight relate to organisations that were defunct before the briefing was published.

opinion

Although it cites evidence from the SCRs, the briefing isn’t what I’d call evidence-based, that is, derived from a careful evaluation of all relevant, available evidence. It looks more like an opinion backed up by the selection of supporting evidence only.

NSPCC publications

The home education briefing isn’t typical of NSPCC publications. The research report on disabled children, for example, is exactly what you’d expect from a research report. It’s well written, well evidenced and well referenced. Most of the briefings that summarise straightforward legislation, guidance and procedures are what you’d expect to see too. It’s when a topic needs to be thought through from first principles that the charity seems to flounder. A couple of examples:

An earlier version of Checkpoints for Schools discussed at length bullying by children, but failed to mention how teacher behaviour or the way the education system is designed contributed to the problem. But I guess those omissions are understandable; after all most people think of bullying in schools as involving only other children.

The oversights in the briefing about Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) (which I can no longer find on the NSPCC website but is available here) are more serious. A framework drawn up by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been amended so that simple parental anxiety and genuine and unrecognised medical problems both come under the umbrella of FII, which not only renders the concept of FII meaningless, it puts the children of anxious parents and children with undiagnosed medical conditions at risk. Also, despite referring to ‘genuine and unrecognised medical problems’ the briefing fails to alert healthcare professionals to medical conditions known to be under-diagnosed that have a significantly higher prevalence than FII.

I contacted the NSPCC about both documents, but rather than discuss the points I’d raised, the charity simply re-stated its position on bullying and FII. Communication with one of the authors of the FII briefing was more fruitful. Slides from a presentation by the authors are online and paint a rather different picture to the one presented in the briefing.

NSPCC and evidence

The NSPCC is entitled to express its opinion about these issues of course, but the steps that need to be taken to reduce bullying, improve doctors’ diagnostic skills or prevent children coming to serious harm are much more likely to be effective if they’re based on a thorough evaluation of the evidence about what actually happens.

In the UK legislation isn’t based on opinion, either, but again, on evidence. It has to be. Changing the law is a time-consuming and expensive process that can have serious unintended and unwanted consequences if you don’t get it right. And you’re quite likely not to get it right if you base it on people’s opinion about what they think happens instead of evidence about what actually happens.

If the NSPCC were a member of the public passing comment on children’s behaviour, medical diagnosis or an esoteric aspect of education legislation, their failure to evaluate the evidence properly wouldn’t matter so much. But the NSPCC is a major national charity funded by many millions of pounds from the public – and direct from government. It’s also the only organisation other than local authorities and the police that has statutory child protection powers.

The briefing on home education is out of date, sloppily written, poorly presented and pays only lip-service to the evaluation of evidence. It’s pretty clear that the NSPCC doesn’t like the idea of home education, an opinion it’s entitled to hold. But I also got the impression it doesn’t actually value home educating families very highly. Neither the few home-educated children who came to harm, nor the vast majority who won’t, appear to be worth the effort of producing a well written, well presented booklet that contains sound information and a proper evaluation of the evidence.

The NSPCC has no business cherry-picking evidence. Nor does it have any business using its high-profile status to publish advice or recommendations based only on evidence that supports its opinion. It doesn’t always do that so why do it at all?

help: NSPCC briefing on home education

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

In the previous post I mentioned that the primary purpose of legislation is to protect the liberty of the individual. Historically the primary purpose of national government has been to protect liberty by defending the nation from attack from abroad, and of local government to do so by maintaining law and order.

But you’re unlikely to enjoy your liberty very much if you’re starving, sick or homeless. The massive increase in urban populations following the industrial revolution eventually resulted in the UK government, national and local, turning its attention to people’s quality of life. Over the last century or so national education, health and social care systems have been developed. Currently, education and healthcare are universal services, available to all. Significantly, social care isn’t.

social care for children and families

The parent of any child ‘in need’ according to the criteria set out in s.17 of the Children Act 1989 can request a social care assessment. The definition of a child ‘in need’ can be summarised as;

• unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by a local authority
• health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services; or
• disabled.

But there appear to be a number of hoops to jump through before a child ‘in need’ can hope to access support.

The first hoop is meeting the eligibility criteria for an initial assessment. Here, for example, are those of the Royal Borough of Greenwich. I’m not knocking the Royal Borough. Their criteria are explicit and specific. At least you know where you stand.

The second hoop is an initial assessment that determines whether or not the child is sufficiently ‘in need’ to be eligible for a core assessment. For many local authorities, the criterion for a core assessment is not so much about the child’s needs as about whether they are at risk.

The third hoop, the core assessment, presumably identifies what sort of support the child needs. Or not.

Despite s.17 of the Children Act 1989 saying

It shall be the general duty of every local authority…
(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,
by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

the current focus of social care services appears to be on the safeguarding element of their general duties, not on the promotion of welfare element. The initial assessment prioritises safeguarding children already ‘in need’, not on preventing them from becoming ‘in need’ in the first place. This looks rather like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In practice, it means you could be the parent of three children, each with complex disabilities and Statements of Special Educational Needs and repeatedly excluded from school, have a broken marriage and be estranged from your extended family as a consequence, be seriously sleep deprived, suffering from a bunch of mental and physical health problems and be unable to hold down a job because of your caring responsibilities, but if your children are not deemed to be at risk of harm or of harming others, you can still not be eligible for a core assessment.

Local authorities justify rationing support in this way by saying they must prioritise children who are most in need. On the face of it, this looks like a responsible use of taxpayers’ money. It isn’t of course. Low-level social problems don’t just resolve themselves because services are rationed; the costs are simply shifted elsewhere. Parents and children absorb many of the costs – financial and in terms of quality of life. Schools are expected to patch together the children’s lives and parents and children pitch up at GP practices with recurrent health problems. And in many cases social services end up having to support families anyway once their problems have escalated to the point where the children are deemed to be at risk of harm.

safeguarding

The task of safeguarding as presented in the seven SCRs involving home-educated children has three main features;

• identifying children already at risk
• monitoring their welfare
• intervening before they can come to harm

The focus of politicians, the media and the SCRs themselves has been on the failure to intervene in time to stop the children being harmed. The focus of those advocating increased regulation of home education is on monitoring the children’s welfare. The focus of social care assessments is on identifying children already at risk. It’s clear from the SCRs that none of the three features provide any guarantee that a child will stay safe – almost 30% of all children who were the subject of a SCR have had current or discontinued child protection plans. So why the focus on identifying, monitoring and intervention?

promoting welfare

The purpose of the seven SCRs was to examine the specific circumstances that led to a child coming to serious harm, not to catalogue all the support families received, so there’s little mention of what help parents asked for and what help they got. Most home educating families don’t want or need help, but in all seven cases cited by the NSPCC briefing parents had approached the authorities voluntarily at some point. That might simply have been impression management on their part, but let’s assume for the moment the approach was a request for help. What did they ask for? The evidence suggests that in six cases it involved specialist expertise; about developmental disorders, complex health problems, special educational needs, mental health and adoption. Specialist expertise isn’t always easy to access. Parents with children not deemed to be at risk have long reported difficulties getting it.

But not all the help needed was so highly specialised. In two cases, there were problems with housing. Child 3’s mother had sold all her furniture in an attempt to avoid the house being repossessed; it was during repossession that her daughter’s body was discovered. The chaos and tragedy into which Child 4’s family was precipitated appears to have been triggered by the mother’s attempts to improve their circumstances; she went on a diet, her partner moved in and she planned to relocate the family to a better neighbourhood. But her ‘healthy eating’ regime deprived her children of food, her partner had a troubled history, and she couldn’t get a tenancy transfer until she had ‘tidied up’ the house – the children had scribbled on the walls. Mrs Justice King, hearing the application for a care order for the surviving children, noted the chaos that the family descended into as a result of the mother’s partner attempting to lay laminate flooring throughout the house. Without wishing to trivialise the tragedy that followed, the outcome might have been very different if a lone parent with six children, some of whom had significant learning difficulties, had had access to old-fashioned services like meals on wheels and home help.

In some cases, the help the families did get appears to have made things worse. One parent experienced frustrating delays getting responses from the EOTAS service. Health interventions included two cases of over-prescription of medication, no conclusive diagnosis, being removed from a GP list and a suspicion of Fabricated or Induced Illness. Parents did get appointments with professionals – 130 in a year in one case, but the focus of social care appeared to be on assessing the risk to the children, rather than providing the support the family needed to lessen the risk. This might go some way to explaining the ‘combative’ and ‘aggressive’ attitude of parents.

Social workers, understandably, point out that a focus on high profile cases where they have failed to prevent children coming to harm doesn’t take into account the thousands of children that they help. That’s undoubtedly true, although I’ve never heard social workers elaborating on what sort of help families get; a recent interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour (from 33m 40s) is a case in point. But I don’t think it’s the social workers who are responsible for the difficulty families have in getting help; the way social care services are designed makes this situation inevitable.

it’s the system

Most of us, at some times in our life, are faced with challenges we can’t cope with on our own. Some people have robust social networks they can call on for help. For others, their social networks are part of the problem. That’s what public sector services are for; to help people cope with those challenges.

In the early 1900s, the first social worker training course offered by the University of Birmingham included topics like British constitution, industrial history, economic analysis, statistics, law, and sanitation and hygiene. The emphasis was on understanding the wider context for the problems families faced. In the intervening decades, the focus has shifted from designing systems that improve people’s lives, to resolving individuals’ specific problems, to, more recently, a preoccupation with procedures.

For example, the 2013 statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children reads less like statutory guidance than a handbook consisting of 97 pages of advice. Some of the advice is probably useful – there are flow charts for different types of cases, for example. But is it really necessary to tell experienced professionals planning a strategy discussion that it “might take the form of a multi-agency meeting or phone calls and more than one discussion may be necessary” (p.33)? It’s not surprising, with this level of micromanagement and the dire consequences of not paying attention to it, that local authorities’ focus is on following the procedures related to safeguarding rather than on promoting children’s welfare.

failure demand

If people don’t get the help they need when they need it, their problems don’t just go away. Services then have to deal with repeat referrals, complaints and worsening problems. This is what John Seddon calls ‘failure demand’ – demand caused solely by a failure to do the job properly in the first place. Successive governments have believed that the obvious way to deal with shortcomings is to use carrots and sticks to get services back on the strait and narrow. Unfortunately, the obvious way isn’t always the most effective. The focus of those working in the public sector has gradually shifted away from serving the public towards collecting the carrots and avoiding the sticks.

Increasing regulation in response to service failures, which is how government has responded and what the SCRs and the NSPCC recommend, won’t help. It will simply add to the services’ workload and make it even more difficult for them to help the people who need it. Counter-intuitively, what would reduce demand and service failures is making social care universally accessible and ensuring that front line professionals have the expertise, resources and flexibility to help prevent minor problems escalating into major ones. Not only is that likely to reduce overall demand but it could also make people’s lives better.

risk: NSPCC briefing on home education

This is the fourth in a series of posts prompted by the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews. The briefing highlights recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children. In my view, the briefing’s perspective on home education legislation is based on a misunderstanding of the legal framework that underpins it. I think the briefing also misunderstands how the law tackles risk.

legislation and education

In a democracy, the primary function of legislation is to protect the liberty of individuals. But there’s a tension inherent in that principle because protecting the liberty of one person usually means limiting the liberty of another. So legislators have to weigh up the costs and benefits of legislation to different people. I think this is what Graham Badman was getting at when he opened his 2009 report on elective home education (EHE) with a quotation from Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty:

The need to choose, to sacrifice some ultimate values to others, turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament

But Badman then goes on to frame UK education legislation relevant to EHE in terms of a “balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child” (p.3). Not only is the legislation not about ‘balance’, it’s not framed in terms of ‘rights’ either, although its purpose is to protect children’s liberty; it’s about parents and local authorities having specific duties that they are required to carry out in certain circumstances. Giving people duties doesn’t sound like it protects anyone’s liberty. It does in the case of education because education should help people understand how the world works and understanding how the world works helps people protect their own liberty and that of others. Under UK law, parents have primary responsibility with regard to educating children and local authorities have powers to step in if the parent asks them to or if it appears that the parent is in breach of the law.

What Badman, the NSPCC and many local authorities are most concerned about is the risk of harm to children educated at home. They argue that home-educated children are denied safeguards applied to children who attend school. In their view, home-educated children are by definition at risk of suffering harm that ‘the authorities’ wouldn’t be able to prevent because they wouldn’t know about it. What they are concerned about is a hypothetical risk.

legislation and the risk of harm

The law takes a dim view of harm and much legislation is about protecting people from it. But hypothetical risks pose a problem for the law because there’s an almost infinite number of them and it would be impossible (and sometimes counterproductive) to legislate against them all. As a consequence, legislation is almost invariably based on evidence of real risk.

For example, Mr A might take it into his head to go on a shooting spree and kill and injure several passers-by. To say that there’s substantial evidence that being killed or injured constitutes a real risk of harm is a something of an understatement, so the law prohibits people from killing and injuring each other. The real risks associated with people being killed or injured are pretty clear-cut. Other risks aren’t so straightforward, such as the consequences of not wearing a seat belt when motoring.

In the 1970s Ms B might have argued that she’d been driving in the UK for forty years without a seat belt and had come to no harm – and even if she did it would be her lookout, so making the use of seat belts compulsory was nothing more than an infringement of her liberty. All that Ms B’s evidence tells us is that not wearing a seat belt doesn’t inevitably lead to harm. As for it being only her business, if she’d been thrown through the windscreen she wouldn’t be the one picking up the pieces; personal tragedies have a wide impact.

On the face of it, the campaign for seat belt legislation and motorists’ objections to it look remarkably like calls to tighten up home education legislation and parents’ objections to that. One obvious difference is that they involve very different activities. A less obvious difference is whether there is evidence showing that not wearing a seat belt or educating children at home constitute real risks as distinct from hypothetical ones. Evidence of the real risk involved in not wearing a seat belt could be seen in casualty departments in hospitals up and down the land in the 1970s. Evidence shows that the real risk attached to being home educated is so vanishingly small that it’s non-existent.

major incidents and serious cases

In the BBC documentary Baby P: The Untold Story, Edi Carmi, who led the serious case review, observed that all the agencies involved made mistakes, but it was when they all happened at the same time that tragedy struck. Mistakes happening at the same time is a familiar scenario in risk management. It was a key factor in the Three Mile Island and Bhopal disasters. The people who design safety-critical systems like those in nuclear power stations and factories handling toxic chemicals take it for granted that mistakes will happen. But they design systems to ensure that if and when mistakes happen, they are very unlikely to happen at the same time. The key phrase is ‘very unlikely’. Systems designers can only minimise risk – they can’t eliminate it entirely.

One characteristic of major incidents is several rare events happening simultaneously; a plane crashes because two engines fail at the same time as a pilot is taken ill and a passenger has a heart attack. I expected to see a similar pattern of rare events coinciding in the seven SCRs; a social worker crashes her car on the way to visit a parent who’s just received a diagnosis of cancer and whose eldest child has just been arrested.

Instead, the SCRs paint a picture of long-term challenging circumstances for the families, coinciding with a series of commonplace mistakes on the part of the agencies supposed to be supporting them. The children in the seven SCRs were adopted, chronically sick, disabled, bereaved, had special educational needs or faced housing crises. The mistakes made by the agencies were typical of those made in organisations that are overstretched; staff lacked relevant knowledge or experience, there was high turnover and problems with cover. Information wasn’t passed on promptly, or wasn’t passed on at all. No one had an overview of individual cases and no one had time to check that procedures were being followed and agreed actions carried out.

home-education and risk

According to the NSPCC, there were seven cases of home-educated children coming to serious harm between 2008-2013 – around 1% of the total number of SCRs for the equivalent period. In the University of East Anglia’s biennial surveys of SCRs I could find no mention of any additional cases between 2003-2007 involving home-educated children. If those seven cases are the only ones in the last decade, the 1% proportion would be more or less halved. In other words, only very small proportion of children coming to serious harm were home-educated.

A closer look at the seven SCRs shows that being home educated doesn’t itself constitute a real risk to children – and that monitoring home-educated children doesn’t guarantee that they won’t come to harm. What characterized the part played by home education in the seven case reviews is local authority confusion about it. LA officers were unclear about the law, their statutory duties or about who was responsible for doing what. But the fact that home education posed a problem for ‘the authorities’ doesn’t mean that it put the children at risk. If there is no evidence of home education posing a real risk to children, why do some people working in child safeguarding think there is one?

risk perception

Child safeguarding, like any other specialist area, is a small world, and people working in a small world tend to use that world, rather than the wider context, as their frame of reference. Child safeguarding is also a difficult and stressful occupation and agencies are clearly overstretched and have been for some time. Professionals working under intense pressure with inadequate resources are likely to perceive unusual family circumstances such as children being educated at home, coupled with an inadequate understanding of the relevant legislation, the ensuing confusion about what procedures to follow, and the risk of serious consequences if they fail to protect a child, as a real risk when in fact it’s a hypothetical one. Research into risk perception suggests that people find it difficult to make a distinction between hypothetical risks and real ones. That’s why basing policy on evidence rather than opinion is so important.

The evidence shows that there are particular groups of children at real increased risk of harm; being a young child or using roads for example. Over 60% of all SCRs involve under-5s and around 2,000 children are killed or seriously injured on UK roads every year. Steps have been taken to reduce those risks through legislation, but legislators are aware that they are risks that are unlikely ever to be eliminated completely. By contrast the evidence indicates that that being home educated isn’t something that poses a real risk to children. Tightening up the legislation might make the people worried about a hypothetical risk feel better, but it can’t reduce a risk that doesn’t exist.

What did put the children in the seven SCRs at risk was a combination of challenging circumstances for their families and mistakes on the part of the agencies whose job is supposed to be to help them. In the next post I look at something the NSPCC briefing and the SCRs mention only in passing – what services were on offer to help the families with the challenges they faced.

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.