Answer to Rod Liddle on home schooling

Last Sunday I blogged an article from the Spectator by James Bartholomew (now back behind the Spectator’s paywall, but you can find an unedited draft at his own blog) in which he announced that he was going to be home-schooling his nine-year-old daughter Alex for at least the next term. Among other reasons given was the fact that schools in France, where he lives, do not teach basic grammar and because he hoped that he could broaden his daughter’s mind better than the teachers were doing, and impart some enthusiasm about learning. Liddle dismisses him in the latest edition as smug, arrogant, Eurocentric and middle class, suggesting that “a growing number of parents from the middle class — and especially the media-monkey, metropolitan middle class — are incalculably pleased with themselves and think that they know everything; enough, at least, to think that teachers are useless and that they can do the job themselves a damned sight better”. (More: Dare to Know.)

I’m not sure what percentage of children in this country are home-schooled; my guess is it’s pretty small, particularly the percentage of children home-schooled for a long period by choice, rather than because school placements break down or for some other reason. In the USA, the situation is quite different: there is an established, powerful and growing religious home-school sector. On much of the continent of Europe, home-schooling is banned (this is the case in Germany but not France). I’m not a parent or a teacher, but I would defend home schoolers to the hilt in light of my unhappy experience of the British education system.

Liddle starts off by rubbishing Bartholomew’s plans to expose his daughter to the classics by taking her to various museums and the scenes of Cézanne’s paintings:

‘I don’t want to give the impression that I will be a Gradgrind. We will have some fun, too. Alex loves to paint. We will go to the major Cézanne exhibition in Aix and see his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Then we will see the mountain itself from the same viewpoint that he used. I hope we will settle down to paint it ourselves — perhaps copying Cézanne’s technique.’ Those are my italics [not reproduced online], although one fears that, in time, they may well become the italics of Alex Bartholomew. She is nine years old. Perhaps she will enjoy being marched to a mountain and charged with the task of replicating a Cézanne, and even consider it ‘fun’, if she is a bit weird. Hell, perhaps she will knock off a quick Velázquez on the train back to Avignon, before preparing a perfect supper for the family in the rustic tradition of the Cévennes, translate a few pages of Job back into Greek and Hebrew, posit a new theory which unifies quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of relativity, and explain to the entire family why Dvorák is, melodically and structurally, an also-ran. And she may think all that is fun, too.

Perhaps you might consider it a bit much to expect a nine-year-old to reproduce a Cézanne, but never having seen the painting in question I wouldn’t know what that technique was. I don’t think it excessive for a parent to want to instill in his daughter a love of the arts and skills in producing art, which is, I suspect, what Bartholomew is getting at. Children do, after all, learn by copying, at least initially. His point is that the schools he knows, in both the private and public sectors, don’t even attempt to do this anymore, which is a fair point. Liddle doesn’t address the point about French schools not teaching the conjugation of être and avoir and other basic aspects of grammar. I’m sure James Bartholomew is not saying that schools could not teach these things better than he could; his point is simply that they don’t attempt to do it at all, which is why they are inadequate.

Liddle continues:

It is a colossal arrogance — and a self-indulgence — on the part of those 180,000 parents that a) their knowledge of such diverse disciplines as, say, fine art and pure maths should exceed that possessed by the specialists; and b) that even were they to possess such encyclopaedic knowledge, they may not have the necessary skills to impart the ground rules of those disciplines to children. Up Mont Sainte-Victoire indeed. The point, surely, is to entice, to cajole the child with the most primitive tools of artistic technique before charging them with the task of vaulting 10,000 years to a state of exquisite post-Impressionism; the job of the art teacher is to bring out any latent ability within the child, to develop it — and make it truly compelling: i.e., ‘fun’.
We’re talking about nine-year-olds here: primary school teachers do not tend to teach their charges pure maths and fine arts, but perhaps Mr Bartholomew wants his daughter to have an enthusiasm for at least the latter, and clearly he does not notice that his daughter has picked any such enthusiasm up from her school. I might add that a bad art teacher can put children off the subject (this was the case with the art teacher my junior school inflicted on us) and that a fair proportion of the contents of art galleries are landscapes, and you cannot see landscapes from inside the average school: you have to go out, and if schools are not doing this because of high insurance premiums and fear of litigation, the children will quite simply never see a proper landscape. They will not see much in the way of nature or architecture, either.

Liddle then rubbishes Bartholomew’s complaint about schools not teaching Italian, on the grounds that the language is not even in the top 30 of languages spoken in the world and is “about as much use in the wider world as Inuit or Welsh”. If you happen to spend a fair amount of time in Italy, I’d say it’s a pretty important language to learn, but Italy is also an important business destination with a rich classical heritage - richer than Spain’s or Portugal’s despite those countries spreading their language through invading other peoples’ countries - and if you learn it, it becomes easier to learn other Latin-derived languages; the fact is that if you have more than one language under your belt, learning another - any other - is easier.

As for the school teaching matters like ecology by transmitting the views of Friends of the Earth, Liddle merely suggests that Bartholomew impart his own views “at home, over tea (or high tea, whichever)”; the fact is that he may be too tired to do this properly after a long day’s work and that his views may come over as grumbling bigotry and not sink in. As for his kids, he notices that, despite the fact that their grammar is not up to scratch (did his son really say that he had “done a racist”, or merely that “he done a racist”?) but they’re willing to argue over whether the Tudors were better than the Romans or vice versa and have fist-fights over it. That’s enthusiasm for you. Liddle clearly has access to an above-average state school, because history in many state schools, according to recent reports, tends to cover Tudor and Stuart England and Nazi Germany and not much else. He concludes,

My kids go to a state school; I am in awe of their teachers’ ability to convey knowledge and get them enthused about such a vast array of subjects. I attempt to add to that knowledge, by telling them that Valletta is the capital of Malta, and stuff like that. But I would not for a second suppose that I could replace the people who teach them professionally — and who know what they’re doing.
Perhaps you can’t. But scores of parents in this country and abroad are doing just that, it seems, and if they are not, perhaps other advantages they gain from home schooling makes up for it. I’m glad Rod Liddle’s kids have great teachers at their state school, but given that a huge percentage of school leavers go on to get a degree nowadays, it’s worth pointing out that most teachers have either an education degree or a standard degree with a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, which takes a year to complete if done full-time. So they are not that much more highly-trained than the common graduate. If a given parent is himself (or, more likely, herself) a graduate or a generally well-read person, I see no reason why they cannot do the job of educating a small group of children he or she has known intimately since they were born (or since she actually gave birth to them).

While I’m sure there are plenty of teachers well able to impart knowledge and instil enthusiasm, there are also bad apples in the barrel and in some cases more than one of them in the same school. If, for example, one of your children’s teachers has put his hands round a pupil’s throat or punched them in the stomach, you might just want to remove your child from their “care”. Or perhaps one of your children’s teachers is an ignoramus who allows lesson after lesson to degenerate into conversations about football; perhaps one of them was well-travelled decades ago but is now a mine of out-of-date or otherwise erroneous “knowledge”; perhaps one of them displays open hostility to the children and humiliates them for well-intentioned contributions to the class. Perhaps your children are at a school where might is right, where thugs are indulged and victims blamed for acts of violence committed against them, and these same thugs are then appointed as prefects.

Perhaps your children’s school is a dumping ground, full of children who cannot behave because of hyperactivity caused by an excess of processed junk food in their diets or because their parents have never given them firm boundaries and have given in to their demands over the years because it’s easier to do that than to say no. Perhaps your children’s teachers have their teaching made that bit more difficult because too many of the children don’t speak English. Perhaps you don’t like the culture your children are being exposed to in the school - the fact that, for example, certain staff do not dress appropriately and wear trousers which do not conceal their underwear (admittedly this may be less of a problem now than it was a few years ago), or that many of the girls wear a skirt which is barely half thigh length (there is one like that here in New Malden). Perhaps you want your children - particularly daughters - to wear religiously mandated dress, and the uniform which has been cleared with certain local Asian elders doesn’t cut it.

Perhaps your school is too big and therefore impersonal to give your children the care and attention you think they need, and you don’t want your children being bit-part players in a system you have no real input into. Perhaps they are short of staff, perhaps due to long-term stress-related absences. Perhaps you don’t like the culture of the playground, and that there is no choice for your children but to spend their breaks in it. Perhaps you don’t like the junk in the school canteen or the filthy inadequate toilets or the fact that they are locked except at certain times as a precaution against vandalism or drugs. Perhaps you want to decide how your children are brought up and what they are taught, and you want to give them an education something like the one you had and not the radically different one they may be receiving now, and want to actually take them out to learn something rather than getting all their information from (old) books because you are responsible for them and you can’t sue yourself, and you might want the ability to give them a break from school without clearing it with the head teacher, who may be under pressure to reduce absences, first.

I could go on with many reasons why a parent might choose home education over sending them to a school in this day and age. We live in a free society, and while some may criticise the choices of perhaps wealthier parents who use their wealth to ensure that their children get into the best possible schools and are not held back by others’ problems, that is their right in a free society (and by the way, home schooling costs less than private schooling). There are also those children with special needs who simply cannot cope in a large school environment, and since special school provision has been cut back in the last decade and a half because of a mixture of financial constraints and integrationist philosophy (and, perhaps, the latter being used as an excuse for the former), there may simply be no suitable school place for some of them. I would not like to suggest, though, that a special educational need should be the only reason why a parent should be allowed to choose home education for their children: the over-large size or other inadequacy of local schools or the fact that a parent has other ideas about what is good for their children are perfectly good reasons.

At the end of the day, however limited an education a parent can offer his or her children, it may well be better than sending them to bad schools when it isn’t absolutely necessary. As for the jibe about “the working-class equivalent” in which the children are left to watch TV rather than being educated, the law states that children must receive an education, in school or otherwise. For children to be allowed not to go to school, they must be formally withdrawn by their parents and then given a proper education. Of course, there may well be parents who use home education to impart a narrow, dogmatic education and to keep their families isolated from the world, but the excesses of a minority can’t be allowed to bar a perfectly valid, and in some cases vital, form of education for many more people.

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