What’s the Point?
Many home educators give up careers, two incomes and any number of other things in order to educate their children themselves, but what’s it all for?
What is the purpose of education?
Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash
Rarely do we consider, on either a national or an individual level, what the purpose of education is beyond the vague notion of getting your child to leave home once they are classed as an adult, but the annual LEA Elective Home Education form proves to be a chance for a little reflection…
Many of us have recently had the annual Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC) Local Education Authority (LEA) letter popped through the door asking us to complete the Elective Home Education (EHE) form. Every year I spend a good 45 minutes dutifully filling it in and at least double that amount of time huffing and puffing in between each question, being annoyed by both the ridiculousness of the questions, the irrelevance of them and the personal intrusion into our lives. (Click here for information on the Cambs EHE form.)
The one I find most ridiculous is “Which type of educational visits do you undertake?” After all, how many types are there? Being the unnecessarily facetious creature I am, I opted to answer the “educational type”. It somehow seemed less confrontational than typing in the “un-educational type” of educational visit. Aside from that, what is an ‘educational visit’ anyway? A trip to the supermarket is an ‘educational visit’ if you have learnt something (I learnt no one gives a hoot about social distancing on the discount aisle, last week), and a trip to Legoland to complete the KS1 Under the Ocean ‘lesson’ is, let’s face it, a fun day out.
The LEA doesn’t really want a list of our everyday life activities outside of the home, I think they are more than capable of imagining what those might be for themselves. What the question really means is, what ‘school trips’ have you been on? It does mean the Legoland stuff, as well as the trips to the cinema and theatre, the trips to the museums, trips to the beach, and the National Trust trips that you force your children to do because somehow you started getting annual membership 7 years ago and now you are rather addicted to that oh so middle-class badge of honour, the NT car sticker, and you’re damned if you’re not going to get at least half your money’s worth this year. Stuff many families in the UK consider normal weekend entertainment.
But why would they want to know about a home educator’s weekend entertainment? The fact that these are ‘school trips’ for many schools just goes to show how few families actually do do these activities. Sociology textbooks call it ‘cultural capital’. The stuff that allows you to talk about world culture with the best of them. It’s the same stuff that gets you into Oxbridge and beyond, and ultimately the stuff that helps you move from the ‘us’ to the ‘them’ bracket.
As ever, it comes back to money. The real, real question the LEA is asking is, ‘how much money have you got and are you spending it on the right things?’ This just leaves me wanting to scream ‘ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! WE SPENT EVERY LAST PENNY WE HAVE ON STOCKPILING WHISKEY, VIBRATORS AND A PACK OF TWENTY BENSONS!!!’ Sadly, we haven’t really, we’re far too mainstream, although I did go crazy and bought 4 limes instead of 2 at the start of March, so perhaps I am more rock ’n’ roll than I originally thought…
I doubt the LEA think they are asking this, as any ordinary-minded British citizen (of which the LEA, I assume, has their fair share) would say that this really isn’t a question any state organisation has the right to ask. It can also be reasonably argued that many ‘school trips’ are free anyway, such as going to the local museums. But those trips are pretty limited in number – you can only drag your children around the same museum so many times. It also ignores the price of getting there: a day trip to a free museum in London costs us £50 on the train, with a family rail card; a free museum in Cambridge costs us about £6 for four hours parking or £6 park and ride (such is the way with a child over 16) – and the cost of the coffee and cake you have to bribe them with if it is not an ‘educational visit’ of their choice. When you think about it, the ‘free’ school trip is no more than a fantasy – there is always a cost of some sort somewhere or other.
But the LEA is not made up of stupid people (I’m sure there must be one or two, as there is in all walks of life, but there is no reason to believe that there is an epidemic of stupidity in the Cambridgeshire County Council). They see families from all social groupings and are very well aware that many do not have unlimited means and HE isn’t a lifestyle choice for everyone (‘some have greatness thrust upon them’, as some chap once said), so perhaps it really is wanting to know about our everyday activities outside of the home. After all, what better way to learn about life than through living it!
Schooled children regularly learn how to spend money in the shops by filling in Twinkl worksheets, where as home-educated children go to the shops to buy the bread for lunch and learn for themselves how currency as a means of exchange works. They learn about nature through sitting in parks and ‘pond’ dipping in the Cam. They learn about current affairs by sitting in a car listening to Woman’s Hour on the way to swimming and Jeremy Vine on the way back. They learn about other cultures and traditions by going to fellow home educators’ houses for bookclub – you don’t get a broader church than HE. They learn about mixing with multiple age groups, including adults, all the time by being part of everything that goes on in a usually functioning society. Every trip out of the house is an ‘educational visit’, because our learning environment is not controlled in the same way as the school environment is.
Admittedly, the world HEed children are exposed to is skewed, they do see more of a ‘woman’s’ world than a ‘man’s’, but given the decisions made with the loosening of restrictions after lockdown, it’s no bad thing if more of our country’s future leaders and decision makers have a deeper understanding and insight into how a large proportion of the largest minority group, which in fact makes up the largest group full-stop, lives and works.
But, even then, most of our children learn so much more in the staying-at-home educational visit. I don’t mean workbooks and the like, although they do feature for many HEors. I mean the educational ‘visits’ all round the home, like the trip to the kitchen to learn how to cook, the cleaning, gardening, the sorting clothes out for the charity shop, putting away the Ocado shop etc. etc. For the young ones, even a trip to the loo can be the start of an impromptu, whole-day lesson on the inner workings of the digestive system. As far as I can make out, an ‘educational visit’ is anything outside of a desk and a workbook.
So what is the LEA really, really, really asking?
‘Have you thought about how your child is learning, what they are learning and why?’
‘Well, of course I have,’ is the obvious reply. ‘I haven’t thought of anything else for the last 10 years!!!’ But in my less defensive moments, I realise that most of us only regularly think about the first two parts of that question. The ‘why?’ element often gets forgotten, because legally it doesn’t matter why our children are learning, they just have to learn because all children in the UK are legally obliged to receive an education and that’s that. But this is part of a much bigger question that all educators, including the Department for Education itself, need to continually ask: what is the purpose of education?
This has been argued since the concept of education itself came into being. The last time we had anything vaguely resembling a national debate on the topic was when there was a Purpose and Quality of Education in England inquiry back in 2015/16.
The then Minister for School, Nick Gibb, said back in 2015, “Education is the engine of our economy, it is the foundation of our culture, and it’s an essential preparation for adult life.”
Is that it? Really?! To fuel an economy, push its culture and to produce yet another adult?!
Then I guess the greatly acknowledged poet, William the Bloody, who forged his name during his early Romantic period, and noted at the turn of the century, that schools are “just factories, spewing out mindless little automatons…who go on to be very valuable and productive members of society…” wasn’t too far off the mark.
The Wellcome Trust gave it a little bit more spirit when it said “The purpose of education is to prepare people for life, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to contribute to a thriving society. It should provide young people with the understanding and motivation for further studies and enable them to make informed decisions in their everyday lives, including about their education and employment.” (https://wellcome.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wtp060177.pdf) But it is still not a particularly inspired answer to give your bog-standard 10-year old who wants to know why they have to complete yet another ‘Maths Made Easy’. What do they care about standing on their own two feet, wanting to complete further studies and contributing to that thriving society? All they care about is having fun, being happy and having a full belly.
Mary Beard chipped in with education being “the process by which screaming babies are turned into the kind of human beings we would like them to be, both individually and en masse”
(https://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Education/Education-Committee-conference-keynote-speech-from-Professor-Mary-Beard.pdf). She then went on to question what kind of human beings those would be. Obviously Mary Beard is an intelligent woman, she has a couple of books out and everything, so she didn’t even try to answer that one herself, but unfortunately, I’m not so smart, so I’m willing to give it a go.
I don’t want my children to come out like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t want them to be like Priti Patel, Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson, Madonna, Katie Hopkins or David Starkey either. I never want them to be related to a Kardashian, a Trump or a Jackson, and heaven help them if they ever get tied up with any royal family anywhere in the world. But outside of that, it all gets a little bit less specific. Ultimately, you want them to have exactly what that little, but oh so wise, 10-year old wants: to have fun, be happy and have a full belly.
So what does that look like for an adult? Fun comes in all shapes and sizes. Hedonism may be fun in the short term, but it ultimately always leads to misery, self-loathing and a complete sense of emptiness, or so A Picture of Dorian Gray would lead me to believe, and I suppose if anyone should know it would be Oscar Wilde. So we are looking at fun in the bigger sense of the word, ‘pleasure in life’ if you will. We therefore want our children to grow up to enjoy life, to enjoy what they do and the people that they choose to surround themselves with. This in turn ties in with happiness, finding the contentment and joy in themselves and the life they live. And of course very little of this can be achieved without a full belly at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter if they stock shelves in supermarkets, mend cars, examine balance sheets, or run the world, just so long as they are happy, can take pleasure in life and can eat.
So how do you ensure all that? It’s corny, and actually makes me wince as I say it because it’s thoroughly un-British and far too 1960s, but it comes back to the age old concept of love. Love for one’s self, one’s family, one’s world and life in general. With it you can achieve anything, even the academic. Just think back to when you were in school. The subjects you loved the most were either the ones you had a natural aptitude for or the ones where you loved the teacher. If you loved the subject, that would reflect in your work and finally your marks, your teacher would then respond to you positively and your sense of self worth would increase. If perhaps a subject didn’t come naturally to you but you loved the teacher, their enthusiasm for the subject would ultimately rub off on you. Again you would try harder, because the subject starts to have some meaning, but also because you wanted to please the teacher as much as yourself. This would then start to reflect in your marks and, in turn, you would find a greater sense of self-worth and achievement – who knew business studies could give you all that?! The subjects where the teacher hated you (and I had a few), you gave up as soon as you could. You felt a failure, that then went on to affect every other aspect of your life including relationships.
But worse than whether we are shown love and respect by our teachers, the education system itself interferes with relationships between friends too. The entire system is based on competition. We pit our children against each other like an academic Hunger Games. Our exam system ranks us, not by what we can do, but how well we have done in comparison to everyone else that has taken that subject, and this year we’re going one step further and judging our exam-takers by past academic years to boot (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/07/25/a-level-gcse-results-will-decided-computer-modelling-not-teachers/). How can you wish your best friend well when you know their success is ultimately your failure? This is messed up!!
This is not what education is. Education is not there to try and make our children better than other people’s children or, worse still, to teach them how to kick others down so they can climb that ladder faster, it is there to give them something much more valuable, it is there to teach them how to love. To love life, learning and their fellow man.
Absolutely, we want our children to stand on their own two feet, but not so that they don’t have to rely on anyone else, it’s so that others can rely on them. So they can support their own families, the environment, those who are struggling in society and generally add to the overall love fest.
Whether you go to school or learn at home, education starts and finishes with the family. School can fill in one or two of the blanks, but ultimately our families teach us how to love and everything else builds on that. Love for others and love for one’s self, taught at home, can override even the biggest obstacles, including that less-than-loving teacher.
Imagine if every decision in this country was based on love, and I don’t mean the self-serving kind. How many Black Lives Matter protests would we need then? How many School Strikes 4 Climate protests? How many Grenfell Tower petitions? How many homeless? How many under-paid nurses and teachers would we have then…?
So what did come of that inquiry into the purpose of education in England? A big fat nothing. No report, no shake up of the school system, no better-educated children. Not even better-educated government ministers. Why? Well, why would it? Nationwide decisions are, on the whole, made by those who excelled in the present system. If the system worked for you, you don’t see what is wrong with it, just what is wrong with those that fail to prosper in it. At least, that is the only explanation that could ever account for people like Michael Gove, who, against all reason, is still in politics despite what he did to education in the UK between 2010 and 2014.
Obviously, I can’t change the school system, but I absolutely can define the purpose of education in my own home, and for this home-educating family at least, the purpose of education is to learn how to love, everything else is just an extension of this simple goal. But, to be honest, I can’t see any LEA or Daily Mail reader being contented with that answer so, for the foreseeable future, our education system will continue to ‘spew out’ more of the same, and we will continue to look on the Boris Johnsons, Jacob Rees-Moggs, and David Camerons as examples of a successful system.
I get why those EHE questions are asked. The LEA has a job to do and is there to consider the best interests of children based on the values that we as a country decide to hold, but wouldn’t it be nice if one day those values changed and instead of asking me and my fellow home educators ‘which type of educational visits do you undertake?’ they asked, ‘what do you do that is fun, makes your child happy and ensures a full belly all round?’ Alas, I feel that is something of a pipe dream, for this generation of home educators at least, so for now, we will just have to be content with calling a family film and some pop-corn an educational visit to the sitting room.