An Open Letter About Home Education and Proposals to Regulate It

There are a lot of negative articles about home education (HE) in the press right now, as local authorities are working together to lobby for greater powers to regulate home education. The debate is being framed as a matter of children’s rights versus parents’ rights. It is not. Children do not, by and large, exercise their rights themselves; they are children. The issue under debate is parents’ rights versus local authority rights. Local authorities (LAs) want more power to decide whether educating a child at home is in the child’s best interests; home educating parents want to make that decision themselves.

Why is this so important, and why are home educating parents so angry about the proposals? Because in many cases, the parents are home educating to defend their children from the local authority. While some parents wish to home educate from birth, increasing numbers have withdrawn their children from school after bullying which the school did not deal with, after mental health issues which pressures like SATs testing exacerbated, or after special educational needs or disability needs (SEND) were not met. And it is now proposed that local authorities are made the arbiter of whether the parent is educating as well or better than the school did. This is a clear conflict of interest.

Some local authorities wish to go so far as to require that parents have their educational plans signed off by a professional to be allowed to home educate. This has obvious cost burdens and would put home education beyond the cost of many middle-income families.

Imagine, for a moment, that your child has been bullied in school and that the school has repeatedly taken no action because there were no witnesses. Imagine that your child has started to self-harm or has talked of suicide, repeatedly, and you fear for their life. You withdraw them from school to get them away from the bullies. You are then visited by someone from the local authority who has no mental health training, who demands that you either provide official certification of the education you’re providing or send your child back to that school again. It is, literally, a parent’s worst nightmare.

It is a fact that while both local authorities and schools are well-meaning, both have had their funding slashed and their workload increased. Their ability to meet the needs of the children in their area has been severely compromised. This is an appalling situation, and they cannot be blamed for struggling to meet all the many demands upon them. However, this is not an argument for giving them greater powers and workload; it is an argument for increasing their funding.

It has been argued that some children in home education may be abused by their parents. It cannot be denied that there have been some cases like this. They are tragic and horrible to read. Unfortunately, there have also been cases of children in schools being abused, and of children below school age being abused. Foster carers and care homes are already regulated and inspected, and yet some horrific abuses have taken place both in the distant past and more recently. It is a tragic fact that we do not yet know how to identify and stop abusers quickly. But I am sure that requiring home educating parents to fill out forms and pay consultancies to advise about how they teach will do nothing to help with this.

Home educating families are very much like any other family, including your own. The parents are doing their very best for their children, dealing with whatever problems and situations arise to the utmost of their abilities. Removing their powers to do so and giving more powers to local authorities – who will see the child perhaps once a year – is very unlikely to improve those children’s lives or education.

One area where HE children are genuinely at a disadvantage compared to in-school children is public examinations. In order to sit GCSEs or A-levels, home educating parents must find a school that is willing to allow the child to sit exams there (schools are not obliged to agree), find a syllabus that includes no coursework or practical assessment (these cannot be done privately), and find the costs of exams themselves (this will likely be over a hundred pounds per subject, perhaps thousands to do a full ten GCSEs). For this reason, some HE children study the material but sit few or no GCSEs, focusing on A-levels which are required for university entrance.

Perhaps those who wish to help HE children receive a good education could look at helping by providing free educational materials online, by giving home educators a grant for exam costs, or by requiring schools to accept private exam candidates so that HE children can sit exams nearer home? Of course, these would not provide lucrative opportunities for consultancies to make money from HE families, so they have not been suggested.

I, and I’m sure most home educating families, would be entirely supportive of any measures which would genuinely help home educated children or protect children from abuse. However, despite what the publicity may suggest, the current proposals do neither and are far more likely to cause harm.

Sympathy for the Fascist

I was reading today about Peter Cvjetanovic, identified as an “angry racist” from the Charlottesville march this weekend, and his claim that he’s “not the angry racist that they see in that photo”. And his classmates’ response that yes, he is.

The guy is clearly a low-life. Many on the left are hoping that he never gets a job, that this taints him for life. And then it occured to me: that’s what the Fascists want, too.

They want their followers to be nobodies, with no hope, who don’t believe they can think for themselves. They want grunts with no faith in their own abilities, who can be taught to kick down and salute up.

When we tell a Fascist that they’re a nobody, we cement them into their organisations, because they have nowhere else to go.

They would rather be a Fascist than a nobody – that’s already the choice they were faced with, and made, and we’re just confirming it for them.

So: Fascists, if you’re reading this (unlikely, I know) – you can be somebody. You can be anybody. But not on the path you’re on. Because your leaders don’t want you to be somebody. They want you to be a cog in the machine that’s lifting them up – and leaving you stuck right where you are.

They want you to recite the talking points they gave you (yes, James Damore, I’m talking to you too) and not question them. They want you to know that your leaders in your little Fascist club are smarter than you and better than you, and you’d better follow them because no-one else can help you.

But they’re wrong. You can be better than gunfodder, and you can do better things that beat up on women and black people. You just have to decide to do it. This is literally your choice. Be a nobody in the Fascist cause, beating up other people to feel less useless, or start to take control of your own life.

Your choice.

Platt case: inflexibility wins

I’ve been following this case with worry. I’m not entirely comfortable with Jon Platt’s confrontational approach, and I can see the need for schools to have high attendance.

Regardless, I really can’t approve of this judgement. I understand that there is a need to balance (a) parents’ needs for flexibility, (b) schools’ needs to have children there at predictable times, and (c) children’s needs for an education. But this ruling seems to say that rules can/should be enforced rigidly, regardless of circumstance, and that’s rarely helpful.

Remember that the original rule change was the government *removing* headteachers’ rights to agree to absence in term time. This was not a school vs parents case, it was about whether the government rules can override parents’ and teachers’ judgement.

Why aren’t banks called ‘house builders’ any more?

So I just made a joke on Twitter.

And then I realised that, since I used to work in a investment bank, and I know plenty of people who still work in investment banks, I was probably going to have to justify the joke.

So firstly, I’m going to emphasize that this was a joke. Banks have good sides and bad sides, I don’t really think that they’re all the enemy.

But secondly, I think that the joke was totally justified. Because we don’t call banks ‘house-builders’ since 2007-2008. I’m sure you know the joke. It starts “In the winter that I moved here, I built this house from the ground up with my own hands. But they don’t call me ‘Jan the house-builder'”.

Like it or not, in 2007-2008, we had a bad crisis, and the banks played a very large part in that. We’re still suffering the after-effects which include austerity and, possibly, the return of fascism. It’s not a small thing. Sloppy bank risk management and a general attitude of “if we make money, someone else can clear up afterwards” played no small part in creating the problem.

So if anyone in a bank objects to being the butt of a joke, I’m afraid this isn’t going to go away. If you don’t want people making jokes about you, don’t fuck a goat global economy.

Is Trump a Fascist?

I’m figuring this out quite slowly, so apologies if this is all obvious to you. I haven’t lived through something like this before, and it’s a bit startling when it happens. But I have just reached the following conclusions.

After the first few hectic days when Trump took power, and started doing everything he could by executive order, things seem to have settled down to a more stable pattern. Trump’s Muslim ban is on hold, by order of a court. Trump is facing a legal challenge that he is in breach of the constitution.

What is at stake here is this: can the US constitution’s checks and balances actually be enforced? The US model of separation of the powers between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary is well-known. What Trump has done is clearly in breach of conventions and laws designed to put checks on the President’s power. What Trump (or Bannon) are trying to do is find out whether those checks hold.

What is at stake is nothing less than whether the US does actually have rule of law.

As a quick reminder, Bannon’s a pretty unpleasant guy. He’s also linked with the international far-right (neo-Nazis), who he has helped to rebrand as the alt-right. These are the typical racist thugs that in the UK we know as the BNP, historically.

Bannon and his ilk see the checks and balances on power as things that stand in their way. The idea that there are legal restrictions protecting other people’s rights are simply blocks to be overcome. This is a concerted effort to overcome them. It seems long-planned and co-ordinated. The fact that Trump’s first executive orders were illegal is not impetuousness or incompetence, it’s essential. Because the first thing that Trump needs to do is manage to break the rule of law, to defy the courts and win.

And that is what he is trying to do now. He will not be bothered that a court case is being brought against him; that’s part of the plan. He probably expects to lose. The decisive question is, when the courts rule against him, can they enforce that?

If not, then the rule of law is broken and Trump can do what he likes.

The answer to the question in the title is: Is Trump fascist? He’s trying to be. Let’s hope he fails.

Morgan vs McGregor, or the problem of trolls

I’m sure that if you’re alive, you’ve heard about the row between Piers Morgan and Ewan McGregor.

What’s interesting is the outcome for each person.

For Piers Morgan, he already has a reputation as a nasty guy, and he boosts his popularity amongst his followers by attacking anyone who disagrees with him. Because, let’s face it, his followers are people who like seeing him attack anyone who disagrees with him. The overall outcome for him is positive.

For Ewan McGregor, very few people are likely to boycott his films because of his politics so long as he makes good films. And anyone who actually would bother to boycott his films probably already does, because his politics are fairly well-known. So the overall outcome is unlikely to be negative.

And this, friends, is why trolls exist. No-one is actually suffering from this exchange. Well, no men. Women’s rights are still being held back, but Piers Morgan doesn’t care and Ewan McGregor can say that he’s done what he can.

If there’s a moral to all this, it’s don’t bother reading the celebrity gossip, get out and protest.

Free Speech Faces Empirical Test #Trump

I have been witness to a lot of arguments about free speech over the years, and I haven’t made up my mind where I stand. On the one hand, there are strong arguments that freedom of speech preserves other essential freedoms, and that we must be able to speak truth to power. However, there are also strong arguments that hate speech is harmful and that ‘free’ speech embodies and exaggerates existing power imbalances. However, it occurs to me that with the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, we have a unique opportunity to see an empirical test on the key arguments for and against free speech.

Here are a few of the key arguments for free speech.

  1. Free speech by itself is not, and can never be, harmful. If free speech encourages people to violence, the laws already exist to deal with the violence itself, there is no need to criminalise free speech.
  2. Free speech can be used to air extreme positions, but it can also be used to argue against them. Allowing extremists and zealots to speak freely will show up the inherent flaws in their arguments and weaken them in the long run.
  3. Free speech must be protected because any limitations on free speech would inevitably be used by authoritarian leaders to limit their opposition. We must therefore protect free speech in its purest form to prevent authoritarians from silencing speech against them.
  4. Freedom of speech is a Good Thing in its own right, needing no purpose to justify its existence.

If these hold, then I would predict:

  1. Donald Trump’s campaign and election should not cause an uptick in racial violence, or if there is such an uptick it should lead to successful prosecutions which suppress the violence quickly. (See also Brexit).
  2. Donald Trump’s racist arguments should have led to widespread ridicule in the media and amongst the populace, and weakened his campaign whenever he made them.
  3. Donald Trump will be unable to limit or restrict criticism or opposition in the media or by the public because free speech is an important right in the US and limiting it would not be tolerated.
  4. Okay, so #4 isn’t really empirically testable. We’ll let this one pass for now.

So how does the evidence look?

I would argue that currently there is strong evidence against #2, and strong evidence from the UK (Brexit) against #1. There is also starting to be evidence from the US against #1. We don’t know as yet about #3; we will have to wait for Donald Trump to actually take power. I will be interested to see the results.

By the middle of next year, we may be in a good position to be able to decide empirically whether it is acceptable to ban hate speech. Although by then it may be too late to do anything about it.

Note: I am not against freedom of speech broadly. I do feel that there should be limits on speech inciting hatred or violence. I broadly believe that anything taken to its extreme,tends to be a bad idea, and that includes defending freedom of speech with absolutely no limitations. However, *if* Trump is unable to prevent criticism or limit the media, then maybe it was all worth it.