Thursday, October 25, 2012

Early reading through play

Most orthodox educationalists, as well as an awful lot of home educators, would be horrified at the idea of teaching a baby to read. This would be particularly the case when it is revealed that the poor mite was given no say in the matter and subjected to the most intensive teaching from the age of three months. This at least is one way of viewing the case.

I mentioned a couple of days ago that many people, both teachers and home educating parents, create a wholly false division between play and structured education and also between teaching and games. Let us ask ourselves what babies like. One of the things that they like is the undivided attention of a kind and friendly adult. They enjoy this all the more if the adult plays simple games with them; things like peek-a-boo. Babies often want the same activities repeated over and over again. Whether it is a game or a favourite book, they like to have things repeated often.

Thinking now about reading, we realise that a lot of it consists of identifying shapes with which we are familiar. I am not talking about letters, but the shapes of words. The word ball has an entirely different shape from the word dog. These distinctive shapes are largely caused by the ascenders and descenders; those parts of the letters which stick up or down. If we want a baby to read, and I can’t imagine why we would not, then the first step will be to teach her to identify different shapes. Most puzzles for children are too complex for our purpose and so we turn to products marketed for children with special educational needs. Here are some which are perfect, being no more than simple, geometric shapes with handles so that a baby or child can grasp them:

A baby of three months will, with help, be able to manipulate these puzzles and learn the difference between circles, squares and triangles. This is a good beginning and after a while we can move on to slightly more complex puzzles; things like this:

From these, it is only a short step to simple conventional jigsaw puzzles.

Now the great thing about this sort of game is that the reward for the baby is intrinsic. Babies love the attention of an adult and they also like to repeat simple games over and over. Doing puzzles of this sort with an adult on hand is unbelievably satisfying to a three or four month old baby. Here is a puzzle which although a little too complex and fussy for my taste, could be used with a year old baby:;5VEMYAGHAJ

Now it is important to realise that it would be no use just leaving these things laying around and hoping for the best. The reward for the baby lies in the attention from the adult. We hope to get the child to associate the identification of shapes with pleasurable interaction with a loving adult.

Any reasonably bright child of eighteen months old can be taught to identify and name individual numbers by this method. By this, I mean that a child of eighteen months will, after a programme of teaching such as this be able to point to and name numbers when she sees them on houses or street signs for example. Once this is done, the process has been established. Here is a baby who can read! What is good about all this is that it has been done only by undertaking the kind of activities with the baby which she would ask for if she were able to do so. Adult attention and simple, repetitive games in which the adult also shows pleasure. All that has happened is that a parent has played with her child in the most natural way possible and the first stage of literacy emerges as a by-product.

In a few days time, I shall talk a little about how to extend this sort of play, with a view to getting the baby to read text.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Who wrote the briefing paper which Education Otherwise is circulating to Welsh Assembly Members?

In September, a series of documents began to be put up on the Home Education UK site about the new legislation being discussed in Wales; that relating to the regulation of home education. Eventually, they were all melded together into one document, which bore the name of Wendy Charles-Warner. It may be found here:

On October 13th, Alison Sauer introduced this briefing paper to the Education Otherwise site, uploading it to their files. She said:

This is the Briefing Document from the Wales Facebook Group with Welsh intro and summary added. Most is in English.

It was at once greeted as her own work. Edwina Theunissen, a trustee of Education Otherwise living in Wales, said;

Thanks Alison, for this. It's the most impressive doc I've seen so far and should be a great help to home edders in Wales. It must have taken a great deal of time and effort so congrats to you and whomsoever your collaborators are.

Alison Sauer did not react by disclaiming responsibility for writing the thing, merely accepted the congratulations as her due. At this point, most people assumed that Alison Sauer was the prime mover behind the briefing paper. A day or two later of course, she initiated a campaign of harassment against me via Facebook; getting people to bombard me with silly emails and publicising my address and urging people to arrange for nuisance deliveries to be made to it. Her supposed grounds for doing this were that she did not feel it right that Wendy Charles-Warner, the supposed author of the briefing paper, should be mentioned publicly in connection with it. It is interesting to see what Alison was saying at this time. In emails to me she uses the expression ‘we’ a lot, which suggests strongly that she was something to do with both the briefing paper and also Mrs Charles-Warner. For example, speaking of Wendy Charles-Warner, she said;

we do try to keep her whereabouts confidential

The newspaper and BBC articles were not supposed to be published online and we do not draw attention to them on purpose.

Whom do readers suppose that Alison Sauer means by this mysterious ‘we’? We, as in ‘me and Wendy Charles-Warner’? Or perhaps, in light of later developments, 'me and Education Otherwise'?  In any case, it is clear that Alison has a stake in the briefing paper and is in some way very involved in it. As we have seen, trustees at Education Otherwise thought that she had written it and were dealing with it on that basis.

Four days later, on October 18th, Education Otherwise made a surprising announcement. This may be found here:

It will be observed that the briefing paper is now being unambiguously attributed to Wendy Charles-Warner and that she has been appointed Education Otherwise’s official representative in Wales, a role previously held, incidentally, by Edwina Theunnisen. The briefing paper has been officially adopted and is now being printed and sent to all Welsh Assembly Members.

I have not room in this post for a detailed criticism of the paper. It is pretty dreadful and contains many errors and inaccuracies. That is nothing to the purpose here, except to mention that the style is unmistakably Alison Sauer’s. We have seen that it was accepted as such when first it appeared and also that she was using the term ‘we’ when referring, apparently,  to she and Mrs Charles-Warner.

What would Education Otherwise’s motive have been for misleading people in this way as to the authorship? There are two good reasons for concealing publicly the fact that Alison Sauer had a hand in this document. For one thing, her name on the cover would have discredited it at once as far as many home educators were concerned. After the fiasco of the abortive attempt to introduce new guidelines for local authorities about home education, anything with ‘Alison Sauer’ on the cover would be damned in the eyes of many. There is a more serious objection to using her name openly in connection with the briefing paper. Welsh Assembly Members are likely to look more favourably upon such a document if supposedly written by a Welsh home educator than they would if it had been produced by an English businesswoman. Some of them are already getting a little ticked off at the fact that most of the opposition to the proposed Bill is coming from England, rather than Wales.

As if that is not enough, there would be a horrible suspicion, were Alison Sauer to be seen as involved with the briefing document, that she was not completely unbiased and that there was a clear conflict of interest. As readers know, Alison runs an outfit known as SC Education:

This company is working hard to encourage the spread of the flexischooling model of education. Indeed, according to her company website, Alison Sauer is  ' currently liaising with the DfE to promote flexischooling as a recognised and credible system.'  One of the alternatives advocated by the briefing document, instead of the compulsory registration and monitoring of home education,  is of course an expansion of flexischooling. If shown to be the author of this document, the unfortunate impression might be created that a commercial opportunity was being exploited here by Alison Sauer; that by pushing for an increase in flexischooling in Wales, she would be creating future work for her own company.  Another benefit of the system that the briefing paper recommends is, ' Investment in training for LA staff in the law and their duties'. By an uncanny coincidence, training LA staff in the law and their duties  is something else which Alison Sauer provides.

 I shall in another post examine the briefing paper itself in detail, but for now I wonder if Education Otherwise would like to explain in a little more detail the precise provenance of the thing? For some, it is beginning to look rather as though Alison Sauer now has her feet firmly under the table at Education Otherwise; a development which is unlikely to be universally welcomed!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Another ‘briefing paper’ about the Welsh plans for regulating home education

Perhaps I have unfairly focused upon the ‘briefing paper’ produced by Wendy Charles-Warner. After all, she is not the only player in town. Let’s look at the one produced by Fiona Nicholson up in Sheffield. It is to be hoped that I am not casting either the charming Ms Nicholson or her son into hazard by mentioning their general location, as I inadvertently did with Mrs Charles-Warner a fortnight ago. Here is the document produced by Fiona:


I have observed before that in contrast to the campaign against Graham Badman’s proposals, the current agitation against the ideas being mooted in Wales are not concerned with abstract ideas about rights, duties or matters of conscience. Instead, objections to the proposed new law is stated in terms which are calculated to appeal to those who are not themselves home educators; the aim being to make others feel sympathetic to the cause. It is being very cleverly done. For instance the cost of the scheme and the fact that it might draw resources away from other vulnerable children is a popular debating tactic being used.

Fiona, in a pretty deft and cunning piece of sophistry, manages unfortunately to pander to homophobes. I am sure that this was not intentional, but never the less, that is what has happened. In an attempt to alarm Christians and get them on the side of home educators, she says this:

Sex Education

Concerns have been raised over the requirement for home education to "prepare [children] for the responsibilities of adulthood" [67] interpreted as meaning that the parent has to teach children about sex and contraception by a particular age. Some parents who are home educating because of particular religious or philosophical convictions would find themselves unable to comply and would not wish their children to be asked about sex education during the mandatory interview.

Now most of us, when we talk of ‘preparing children for the responsibilities of adulthood’ might well think in terms of things like teaching about income tax and mortgages; Fiona thinks, or purports to think, that it means that home educated children will have to be taught about contraception by a certain age. Worse still, a man from the council will be coming round and checking our children’s knowledge of contraceptive methods, in order to make sure that we have been fulfilling out duty around sex education. It is a chilling prospect! Well, it would be, if there was any truth in it.

Where does the homophobia come into this? Take a look at this piece about the new Welsh proposals on a Christian website:

Now look to the right and check out Related Articles. See the one about ‘compulsory Sex Education ‘undermines’ free society? This was a hot topic among many Christians at the same time that some home educators were fighting against certain parts of the Children, Schools and Families Bill in 2009 and 2010. One of the reasons for this is that quite a few Christians are bitterly opposed to their children being taught about homosexuality; in particular the notion that gay relationships can in any way be regarded as being as valid as heterosexual marriages. In fact, any sort of sex education, of the kind likely to be approved by a local authority,  is regarded by many Christians as a wicked plot which will end up with their children being taught how to commit sodomy or obtain abortions. Sex education, from this perspective, is designed to persuade innocent, God-fearing children that unnatural, same-sex unions are as holy as Christian marriage and that promiscuity is normal.  What about contraception? Why has Fiona mentioned that specifically? Are you a Catholic and so opposed to artificial birth control? You fool, the council will force you to teach your child about the use of contraception!   It is perhaps no coincidence that the campaign against the Welsh proposals has now attracted the favourable attention of the American Home School Legal Defense Association; a notoriously reactionary,  homophobic and right-wing group.

I suppose the real question to ask is whether Fiona Nicholson or anybody else has the least particle of evidence that local authorities really will be interrogating children about their knowledge of contraception and sex if this bill goes through. How will it work? Will it be like having the man round to read the gas meter? One imagines somebody from the council knocking on the door with a clipboard, saying, ‘Morning madam, I’ve come to check your daughter’s knowledge of contraception.' He is shown the poor little mite of eleven or whatever age it is by which Fiona thinks that children will have to be taught about sex and contraception. ‘Now Mary, can you give me three reasons why withdrawal is not a safe method of contraception? Do you know about the Dutch Cap?’

Is this really what any sane person imagines will be happening if the registration and monitoring of home education in Wales becomes law? If so, could we be given some evidence for this belief? Otherwise, it will look to many as though this is just one more of the ridiculous scare stories being put about to enlist the support of even the most unsavoury types in the campaign against the proposed legislation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Trahison des clercs

Some children will succeed academically despite their environment. No matter how dreadful the school or impoverished the home, there will always be those who overcome these disadvantages and become brilliant scholars or famous scientists. This is the case whether they attend a strict school or are raised in the most progressive of households. The mistake would be then, to attribute their subsequent success to the factors which they overcame by their intellectual ability or the force of their personality; in other words, to say that the child succeeded because of the terrible school or as a result of the poor home background. I am reminded of the truth of this whenever my attention is drawn to children who have supposedly flourished as a consequence of autonomous education.

A couple of weeks ago, this piece appeared in the Huffington Post:

Inevitably, one of the comments is about a success story of autonomous education. This is of course one of the two cases who are invariably cited when discussion turns to this topic; the boy who studied biochemistry at Manchester. Before we go further, it is worth noting one or two things. The first is that for ten years, this case has been endlessly recycled as firm evidence of the efficacy of autonomous education. You might have expected by now to see one or two new names appearing.  The second is that the mother always manages to leave out key aspects of the story, in such a way as to mislead others into thinking that the bizarre experimental techniques to which her children were subjected, actually caused the desirable outcomes which followed. To give a couple of examples, in the comment on the above article, we find the following:

I have autonomously home educated my children who both chose not to do any kind of formal work until they were about 14

This of course is not true; one of the children chose to attend secondary school at eleven, although it did not work out. No mention is made of taking GCSEs at twelve either.

This case, which always seems to crop up, is fascinating, because we are able to trace the ill effects of this type of education and see their origin in the methods used. The children’s mother has given the game away in various interviews. In 2003, for example, she told of her daughter attending a ‘tester’ day at the local infants’ school. Apparently the child was asked by a teacher to write out the numbers from one to nine and when she did so, the teacher told her that she had reversed two of them. This sort of thing was against the principle of the mother and, supposedly, put the kid off mathematics for years. In other words, number and letter reversals were not to be remarked upon, let alone corrected.

Elsewhere, and apparently oblivious to the implications of what she was saying, the mother tells us that her eldest son’s handwriting was practically indecipherable when he began college at fourteen. She find this amusing and does not apparently tie it in with an ideology which dictates that wrongly formed letters should not be corrected!

My problem is that people like this then go on to encourage others to follow suit and behave in the same way. Now in their case, things worked out OK; the father was a teacher and so were the mother’s parents and this no doubt mitigated some of the ill effects of their crank methods. Other children are not so lucky. They read of this sort of case, with of course key parts edited out, and think that they too can achieve the same ends by allowing their children to choose to do no formal work until the age of fourteen. This sort of thing, when educated people who really should know better, go out of their way to mislead others who might not have had their advantages is truly trahison de clercs of the most culpable kind.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A minor mystery

Since the recent unpleasantness with Alison Sauer, I have been puzzling something over in my mind and it is this. As soon as I came across reference to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the compulsory registration and monitoring of home education, I felt that I should alert others to what was in the wind. I read about the plans on the night of August 4th and then posted about them the following morning. At that time, there had been no mention of this on any of the lists such as HE-UK or EO. Even Fiona Nicholson seemed to have missed it. As soon as I mentioned it here, on the morning of August 5th, others picked it up and started spreading the word to various lists and forums. I found this deliciously ironic, that I, who am viewed by some as the arch-enemy of home education, should be the one to tip people the wink about this development!

Once I had mentioned it, the news spread like wildfire and is of course now being talked about everywhere. I dare say that this would have happened soon anough, even without my intervention; I am not taking credit for that! Here is the mystery though. Soon after I had posted about this, Alison Sauer came on here and commented scathingly about several minor errors in what I had said. She seemed very tetchy with me and, I thought, annoyed to see the Welsh proposals being talked about. Judging from her comments, she knew all about the thing, certainly she knew far more about it than I did. Yet she had not said a word about this on any of the lists to which she belongs and if it had not been for my mentioning it, I gained the impression that Alison Sauer would have sat on the news herself. Why should this be? Why did it take me to alert home educators to what was going on, when Alison Sauer already knew all about it? I am puzzled by this and would be interested to hear of any theories.

Work or play?

In the next week or so, I want to think a little about academic achievement in early childhood; that is to say before the age of four or five. I have told readers before that my daughter was reading at fifteen months and was fluent by two years and three months. This is very early and many people, particularly education professionals, were horrified about what I was doing. It would cause the child to develop an aversion to literacy, I was not considering ‘reading readiness’, it was cruel to push a baby in this way and a hundred other objections. They were of course idiots and the reason that they adopted this foolish position was because they had created in their own minds a dichotomy between learning and play.

In fact of course, children learn through play and do so almost from the moment of birth. This is only natural; mammals in general play and this often the way in which the young of a species gain the vital skills that they will need as adults. In lions, for example, this can take the form of mock fights and pretend ambushes among the cubs. With humans, this same process can be guided to encourage the young human to acquire the literacy and mathematical ability which will be indispensable in later life.

I have not the time adequately to explore this thesis today, but hope to do so over the course of the next few days. I am frantically busy at the moment with revising a book. When I wrote a book on the 1970s earlier this year, it seemed a great idea to give it the sub-title; When flares were cool and Jim could fix it. This would hardly be what one wish to appear on the cover of any book following recent revelations and so the cover and some of the book will need to be changed before publication in the spring, which is exceedingly time-consuming.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A case of Heller’s Syndrome

As I have mentioned here before, I have had a good deal of experience one way and another with autism and similar disorders. This ranges from the short-term fostering of children to working with adults in a residential setting. I was preparing to write about the acquisition of literacy this morning, when I got sidetracked; this means that I shall instead be writing a little about autism.

I touched yesterday upon the aversion felt by some parents to the MMR vaccine and its supposed role in precipitating autistic spectrum disorders. Much of this anxiety was caused by a rather slippery customer called Andrew Wakefield, whose research has been revealed to have been utterly dreadful and possibly dishonest. He tapped in though to two very powerful undercurrents in the psyche of parents. One of these was a general fear of vaccination and the other the compulsive and thoroughly understandable desire to find a rational explanation for a child’s disability.

Long before Wakefield’s work, there were parents who were uneasy at the thought of their children being injected with germs. This has always been the case and is from time to time made worse by disasters such as that at Lubeck in 1930. I certainly remember mothers in the 1970s who refused to have their children inoculated, on the grounds that it was ‘unnatural’. Where Wakefield touched another chord was that he sought to associate a particular vaccination with a specific ill effect; the MMR with the development of autistic features in  small children  who had, until that time, been developing normally.

Back in the 1980s, I was fostering a boy of five who had all the signs of a particularly severe form of autism. He had almost no expressive speech, echolalia was present, persistent head banging, an IQ so low that it was impossible to measure, obsessive adherence to rituals and routines, along with various other things. You might, had you not know the child’s history, have supposed this to be almost a textbook case of Kanner’s Syndrome or autism. It was in fact nothing of the sort. This child had developed normally up to the age of three and a half. According to his parents, he had been bright, alert and very vocal. Then, he began to lose all the skills which he had acquired. They went over the course of nine months or so. Today, he is in long term care and never recovered any of those skills.

This was in fact a case of Heller’s Syndrome, otherwise known as a disintegrative psychosis. Nobody knows what causes it and there is no cure. Heller described all this decades before the work of Kanner and Asperger. In many ways, the disintegrative psychosis is all but indistinguishable from late-onset autism. No know cause, no cure.

Now if there is one thing more distressing than the death or disability of a member of our family, especially if that person is a child, it is something which has apparently a wholly random origin. At least if a child is born with Down’s, you can understand the chromosomal abnormality which has caused the condition, perhaps agree that the mother was elderly and that this might be implicated to some extent. Even if your child is killed on a level crossing, you can see what happened and perhaps campaign for improved safety at level crossings. In the case of late onset autism, disintegrative psychoses and so on; there is no know cause. One moment you have a healthy, happy child who is reaching all his milestones at the right age and developing normally in every way; then suddenly it stops and he goes backwards. This is the cruellest and most incomprehensible thing which could possible befall a parent. When somebody came along with a simple explanation which tapped into a pre-existing fear, little wonder that he found many takers for this theory. The thing is, Heller’s and sometimes Kanner’s Syndromes manifest in early childhood and they often appear coincidentally after some vaccination. It does not take much to see that as causation and blame the vaccine itself for a completely random act of nature which would have struck in any case.

All of which has of course very little to do with home education, other than the fact that there does seem to be more autism among home educating families than the general population. If though, as is possibly so, between a quarter and a third of home educated children have special needs of one sort or another; this should not surprise us too much. Nor should it come as a surprise that many members of home educating support groups should be vehemently opposed to vaccination; especially the MMR.

The lasting legacy of the fear of vaccines and their supposed association with autism has of course been the death of children. As the end of the millennium approached, measles was becoming a rare illness in childhood. Those, like the present author, who recollect vividly the epidemics of the 1950s, were glad of this. At that time, children were routinely dying and suffering brain damage from the disease. Good news indeed that it was almost conquered. In the year that Wakefield started the panic, there were just fifty six cases of measles in this country. Ten years later, the numbers had risen twenty five fold and we were again seeing deaths from measles. An old enemy had returned, thanks to bad science and spectacularly ill-advised parents.