Home-schooling: the Muslim and autistic perspectives

A young girl of Somali appearance wearing a pink jacket and black and white flower patterned headscarf, running.The Sunday Times reported today (gleefully as you might expect) that Alexandra Spelman, the head of Ofsted, the British schools inspectorate, had announced a plan for her inspectors to ask primary school-age girls who wear hijab to school about who or what had prompted them to wear it in the light of “concern that girls as young as four are being forced to wear the Muslim headscarf” (paywalled, but the story is also on the Guardian website). Earlier today on Radio 4, I heard a discussion about this in which a woman (who had a posh accent and who I would guess was white) was pontificating about how the hijab supposedly sexualises young girls, and there was no Muslim voice in the discussion to point out that this was not actually why a young girl would wear hijab - some Muslim friends of mine mention protection from headlice as a reason, something the media never consider (see earlier entry); it was strictly “about us, without us” as is usual with these arrogant crusading do-gooders. It reminded me of a study I had been alerted to by other friends on Twitter last week, published from Durham university (in England) in late 2000, which revealed that children of all social classes who are educated at home do better than those of similar socio-economic backgrounds who have attended state schools.

The researcher, Paula Rothermel, a lecturer in learning in early childhood at the university, conducted the study through face-to-face interviews with 100 randomly chosen home-educating families across the country and “found that 65 per cent of home-educated children scored more than 75 per cent in a general mathematics and literacy test, compared to a national figure of only 5.1 per cent”. The average score in the test was 81%, compared to 45% for school-educated children. She also found that home-educated working-class children did better than home-educated middle-class children (i.e. those with parents in professional careers), a finding she put down to the latter being more relaxed and “less likely to push their children”.

I know a number of parents of children with special needs, particularly autistic children, on Twitter and Facebook and this study has aroused intense interest. Many of them have said that school was an intensely stressful experience for their children and sometimes caused serious crises, in one case (documented on the blog “It Must Be Mum”) resulting in the child having to be hospitalised, and being out of school for some time allowed the child to get over the crisis and learn at their own pace for a while before being reintroduced to the school environment — a different one to the one that had caused the crisis, obviously. Of the cases I followed a few years ago of teenagers spending years in mental-health units (or in and out of them), the problems that led to this started at school, not at home. Yet the idea that there is something seriously wrong with our school model never seems to occur to anyone.

It’s disturbing that home education is always presented as a problem in the media. Another recent story about home-ed is that the numbers in Wales have doubled in four years, with the Welsh section of the National Autistic Society suggesting that many were autistic and had been struggling to cope in school; the children’s commissioner for Wales, Sally Holland, has said that schools were encouraging parents to home-educate because the presence of their children causes results to drop for their school or the whole local authority. Parents were quoted as saying they would not do this if they did not have to; home education is not being presented as a positive choice but as a last resort. Worse was the recent scare story about Muslim parents home educating, which a senior London policeman called a “breeding-ground for extremists and future terrorists”, despite the total paucity of evidence of it having contributed to any terrorist incident whatever. I answered that claim in a previous entry and gave reasons why parents home-school by choice as well as by necessity. A lot of the same factors influence liberal and conservative parents; the state (and the ruling party’s house media) fears it because it thwarts the other purposes they have for schooling, namely surveillance and propaganda, particularly through their “Prevent” programme or demands even for childminders to teach “British values” to children as young as nursery age.

A number of years ago the American Muslim scholar Hamza Yusuf teamed up with John Taylor Gatto, a home-schooling advocate, to give some lectures with a critique of the modern (American) school system, and among the most important points were that it failed to teach important life skills and discourages individuality. It not only crushes individuality but fosters harmful social attitudes. A few years ago I read an article by a female author who wrote books for teens with strong, female central characters. I can’t remember her name. She said that boys and girls came to her book signings and readings, but that nearly all the boys who came were home-educated. The reason was that boys who attended schools were discouraged by their peer group from being interested in anything written by a woman or with identifying with a girl character. I attended a mixed Catholic junior school and can easily see how this disconnect comes about: boys and girls played in separate playgrounds and ate at different dinner tables and had no contact with each other except in lessons.

At secondary level, of course, boys and girls see even less of each other as many go to sex-segregated schools, most of the more prestigious schools (state and private) falling into this category — all while mixed religious schools run by minorities are hounded for separating boys and girls. One of the issues that has come out of the exposure of widespread sexual harassment and abuse since the Weinstein scandal broke last month is how little men understand about the realities of being a woman, of how much effort some women — even their wives or sisters — have to put into avoiding or appeasing abusive men, yet the cut-off starts in childhood, when boys are steered away from doing or reading anything ‘girly’. Some commentators have remarked on this, but the model of school itself is, again, never questioned.

I have no answers as to how most children will be educated if not at school; not all parents have the ability, the resources or the inclination to home educate, especially not throughout their children’s school life. It would have been more possible in the time I was growing up, when more families had a single wage earner (usually the husband) who earned enough to pay for the rent or mortgage and other living expenses while the other parent (usually the mother) would work one day a week if that. The cost of living in some parts of the UK, particularly London, makes that impossible for most families today; the cost of an average house today is the same as the cost of a detached five-bedroom house in an exclusive estate set in an acre or more of land in the late 1980s. What I do believe is that the state should be helping home-schooling families, especially those who home-school by necessity because the mainstream schools available are unsuitable given the child’s special needs and the only option is a boarding school. (History shows, however, there are also parents who are just unwilling, not unable, to do this for their children, whatever special needs they have and however damaging school is to them.)

Is the problem school per se or is it the way Britain does school? It would be interesting to see how home-schooled British children fare compared to those on the continent, particularly in those countries where home-schooling is illegal but also where multiple models of school are available and have state funding — for example, Germany, where (some) Steiner schools are available, or Scandinavia where much of the learning in the early years is through play. Our school system is too fragmented (it was even before academies were introduced) and too routinely subject to political interference, and we have a class system which means the political and media élite do not send their children to the same schools as the majority of people. British state schooling has been described as a colonial system of education for other people’s children. One exchange that highlights who exactly dominates our media was between Mic Wright, who formerly wrote for the Daily Telegraph, and Nick Cohen of the Observer, a liberal Sunday newspaper:

Grammar schools in the UK are selective state schools, currently favoured in areas where ‘hard times’ mean that some middle-class parents can no longer afford private school fees. They are, and always were, notorious for favouring the children of middle-class families. According to Peter Wilby of the New Statesman:

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

There is also a lack of choice — more than one institution in most areas, but all of basically the same type: large, uniformed and impersonal, and schools without uniforms have decreased in number.They function as if they were communities in their own right rather than something which serves the whole community. There is an imperious attitude from on high, with heads allowed to play power games (e.g. splitting up friends for no good reason) and parents lectured to support the school (e.g. by acquiescing to demands about such matters as homework) and forbidden to take their children out during term-time on the supposed basis that it would impact their education permanently; it is as if they were there to support the school, rather than the other way around. There is no access, in many communities, to a smallish, friendly school which does not have a uniform, prefects or pointless rules. Private schools generally offer more of the same, with added snobbery. Alternative forms of education are commonly dismissed as failed experiments or misguided idealism. These attitudes have become more prevalent since the Rothermel study was published in the early years of the Blair government, not less.

So, there are different groups of families who have something particular to gain from moving to home-schooling. The state school system benefits from families of autistic children pulling them out of schools as it saves them providing extra learning and behaviour support to those children (which, if done properly, requires an extra trained member of staff — not just someone’s mum) or the cost of a boarding school which, as anyone who has been in one will know, may do more harm than good; the state should provide support for them, perhaps including flexible part-time schooling or school-based or community-based support. For us Muslims, however, home-schooling is our way of avoiding our children being targeted for surveillance or propaganda without our consent, such that we may talk freely around them without worrying that they may repeat something they hear to a teacher or be interrogated about it by a school inspector, or worse, that something they say may be misinterpreted. We should, as a community, be helping each other do this for their children so that parents do not have to do it on their own (for example, groups of parents banding together to educate all their children, not just their own, although there is a limit on how many children can be taught this way at a time).

I personally would be very reluctant to send a child into a mainstream school after my experience of it, and wouldn’t raise children in a country where home-schooling was not an option. Anyone who is able to should seriously consider it, but especially if you fear school is impacting your child’s mental health, teaching them bad habits or attitudes, or turning them into somebody you don’t recognise. It is my belief that herding hundreds of teenagers into the same space for six hours every day to be taught and (minimally) supervised by strangers is a bad idea; it’s not natural and, as presently imposed on everyone, is a very recent innovation yet one that society does not question when its ill-effects are reported on. Right now, we have the right to withdraw our children from it, and it’s a right we should make use of while we still have it.

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