Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Home education in Britain is unrestricted and works well

Education in Britain is a mess. The complaints roll in. The children are taught less than their grandparents were, but are more pressured by tests and the meeting of other arbitrary targets. They play truant. They are bullied-around 20 children every year commit suicide because of this. They take too many drugs and have too much sex. They are force-fed political correctness. For the past month, the politicians have been issuing competing promises to sort out the mess-as if they had not made it in the first place.

We can be sure of one thing: nothing will improve. Of course, if you can move to the right catchment area, or join the right religion, your children may get a semi-decent education. If you have the money, you can go private and get them a good education. For everyone else, though, it is a matter of what the Prime Minister, with uncharacteristic honesty, calls the “bog standard comprehensive.”

Or is that it? The answer is no. There is an alternative.

The law on education in Britain is clear. Parents have a legal duty to educate their children, but no duty to send them to school. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 reads: “The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable: (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special education needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.” The meaning of this is that you can educate your children at home.

Until quite recently, home education was a common alternative to school. Noel Coward, for example, was educated almost wholly at home, briefly attending the Chapel Royal Choir School. Agatha Christie had no formal schooling before the age of 16. She later wrote that her mother believed “the best way to bring up girls was to let them run wild as much as possible; to give them food, fresh air and not to force their minds in any way”. C.S. Lewis had only two years of formal schooling as a child-part of this at Wynyard School in Watford-a place he later called “Belsen”.

By the middle of the last century, home education seems largely to have died out. Recently-partly because of the collapse of standards in the state sector, and partly following the American example, where the home schooling movement is huge-there has been a revival of interest. No one knows how many children in England are being educated a home. The estimates range between 84,000 and 150,000. The only agreement is that the numbers are growing fast. They include children who have been bullied or otherwise harmed at school, the children of the devoutly religious, and the children of parents who simply do not like what formal schooling has to offer. They are from all social, educational, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

One reason why we cannot know the numbers is because the law is so astonishingly liberal. You do not have to seek permission from the Local Education Authority to educate “otherwise”; nor inform the Local Education Authority that you have children of school age; nor have regular contact with the Local Education Authority; nor have premises equipped to any specified standard; nor have any teaching or other educational qualifications of your own; nor cover any specific syllabus; nor have any fixed timetable; nor prepare lesson plans of any kind; nor observe normal school hours or terms; nor give formal lessons; nor allow your children to mix with others.

The only requirement is that children receive a “suitable” education. In a landmark decision from 1981, this is defined “one such as to prepare the children in life for modern civilised society, and to enable them to achieve their full potential”. And that is it. You can sit your children down in a room full of books and maps and reproduce a school at home. Or you can tell them Bible stories as they help make bread. Or you can let them run about, picking up whatever learning takes their fancy. There are no controls.

You might suppose that children not committed to the care of professional teachers would become illiterate barbarians. There is no evidence at all that they do. Indeed, what evidence there is shows that children educated at home do significantly better. In 2002, Dr Paula Rothermel of Durham University published the largest study ever made in the United Kingdom. She found that 64 per cent of such children scored over 75 per cent in standard tests, as opposed to only 5.1 children nationally. Other achievement levels were far above the national average. She found that “home educated children were socially adept and without behavioural problems. Overall, the home educated children demonstrated high levels of attainment and good social skills”.

She also notes that the children of working class, poorly-educated parents were doing better than middle class children. While five and six year old children from middle class backgrounds scored only 55.2 per cent in the test, they scored 71 per cent.

Of course, just because it appears to work is no reason for the authorities to approve of it. The law remains unchanged in England. But there is pressure for change. We can be sure the teachers hate anything that shows them in a comparatively poor light. In June this year, one of the main teaching unions heard calls for regulation. Apparently children educated at home were “the only group… who have no consistent level of monitoring or inspection yet are the only group taught in the main by those with no qualifications”. One can almost hear the nervous shuffling of bottoms.

If this were not enough, we live in an age where the authorities just cannot let anything alone. During the ten years to the beginning of October 2004, the phrase “completely unregulated” occurs 153 times in the British newspaper press. In all cases, unless used satirically, the phrase is part of a condemnation of some activity. We are told that the advertising of food to children, residential lettings agents, funeral directors, rock climbing, alleged communication with the dead, salons and tanning shops, contracts for extended warranties on home appliances, and anything to do with the Internet-that these are all “almost completely unregulated” or just “completely unregulated”, and that the authorities had better do something about the fact.

Then there is the ideological agenda. Schooling is only partly about teaching children to read and write and do basic sums. It is mainly about teaching them to think and do as the Establishment desires. When the Establishment was broadly conservative, children were taught how sweet and fitting it was to die for the country: would ten million young men have marched semi willingly to their death in the Great War without the prior conditioning of state education?

Nowadays, the Establishment is almost solidly of the left. Children now are taught how guilty they must feel if they happen to be white or male or middle class, and how they must accept the anti-western, anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment values of political correctness. And this is even thought a basic human right. In its own draft bill of rights, the National Council for Civil Liberties asserts the “right to an education that prepares them… to respect diversity and human rights”.

Given this fact, the Establishment sees home education as a challenge to its ideological hegemony. The academic literature is filled with denunciations of “neoliberals, neoconservatives, and authoritarian populists” who seek to frustrate the noble efforts of teachers. Home education is seen as an example of “individualized behaviour” that “threatens to undermine the quality of public education”.

There has been no concerted attack in England There are ugly stories to be found in the newspapers. It seems that some authorities are trying to conflate home schooling with truancy. Individual officials have been accused of threatening parents known to be educating their children at home-saying that their children would be put on the “at-risk” register. There is one story of a school that informed a mother that it was illegal for her to take one child out of school following the suicide of another who had been bullied there. But none of this yet reflects official policy.

There has, however, been an official attempt in Scotland to make home education less easy for parents. In 2002, the Scottish Executive, proposed that local authorities should be able to use details from the United Kingdom Census, from birth registers, from medical records, and from other confidential sources, to identify those children being educated at home. These proposals were bitterly fought by the home education movement-not just in Scotland, but also in the United Kingdom as a whole, and also from America. The law remains unchanged, but the proposals have not gone away.

But, for the moment, home education is perfectly legal in Britain. It is expensive: at least one parent must be at home at least some of the time to look after things. On the other hand, it can be brilliantly successful. So if you are really think your children are not getting the best at school, stop looking to the politicians. They either have no idea how to make things better, or are planning how to make them still worse. Do it yourself-and almost certainly do it better.


Catholic schools in Britain

The Catholic church was Britain's original education provider and still offers high-quality learning to 800,000 pupils of many faiths

It is a key part of the church's mission to offer good quality education as part of our contribution to society as a whole. Catholic schools are always happy to welcome children from all backgrounds whose parents seek a Catholic education for them, where there are sufficient places to meet this demand. In cases of oversubscription, priority is given to Catholic pupils.

The Catholic church was the original provider of education in this country. From the Middle Ages onwards, the church took responsibility for teaching children. Central to this work has always been our dedication to providing education for the poorest in society. Following Catholic emancipation in the 19th century, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales prioritised the building of schools before the building of churches. Then, as now, the church's commitment to education was strong.

As time went on of course the church ceased to be the only provider of schools in this country as state-funded education for all became available. So why have we continued to be involved? We consider education to be crucially important as a means of forming the whole person intellectually, morally and socially and we want to help to give children as good a start in life as we can. Catholic schools strive to offer children a well-rounded education, providing them with a moral basis from which they are free to make their own decisions.

And we all know that Catholic schools have long been a success story. Ofsted rate them more highly in terms of their overall effectiveness than other schools nationally, and they also achieve higher examination results. Of course, the immeasurable benefit of a Catholic education is that students are encouraged to engage with the wider community and to make a positive contribution to society as a whole.

The current government, like previous governments, recognises the value that a Catholic education offers young people, which is why the state continues to fund many of the costs associated with Catholic schools. But the Catholic church doesn't just expect handouts. We own the land on which most of our schools are built. This is no small financial contribution, and it has been made over a long period of time: it is an arrangement that has been in place since the 1944 Education Act when Catholic schools became partners with the state in the provision of education. The financial contribution made by the church comes from Catholics up and down the country, who not only pay their taxes, but who also give generously to the church, thus helping to fund Catholic schools.

Catholic schools are inclusive. Our schools are more ethnically diverse than schools nationally (26% of students in Catholic secondary schools come from ethnic groups other than the "White British" category, compared to only 21% of students in secondary schools nationally). Recently published data also showed that Catholic schools have a higher proportion of students from the most deprived areas compared to schools nationally. Catholic schools are rated more highly by Ofsted when it comes to their commitment to community cohesion than other schools are. Visit your local Catholic school and you're unlikely to find it full of middle-class children with pushy parents.

Central to this is the Catholic ethos and distinctive nature of our schools. This is maintained, in part, by Catholic children having priority in cases of over subscription, defined by local bishops according to local circumstances. Steps are taken to ensure that the system meets the needs of genuine applicants rather than those parents who might try to "play the system". Interestingly, in England around a quarter of pupils in Catholic schools are not Catholics and in Wales the figure is a third.

As Baroness Warsi recognised in a recent speech, the provision of education is a major part of the Catholic church's contribution to British society, part of a centuries-old tradition. We are proud to offer a well-rounded, high-quality education to almost 800,000 pupils and students in England and Wales: Catholics, members of other faiths and none.


Blended approach extends reach of business degrees

The lines between face-to-face teaching and traditional online learning are blurring

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago the most adventurous business schools were experimenting with e-readers РKindles Рto replace paper case studies and textbooks, and Facebook to boost student recruitment. Today, e-readers are passé; Facebook ubiquitous.

As tablet devices such as the iPad replace e-readers for both degree and non-degree learning, personalised electronic textbooks replace their paper counterparts, and web-based seminars – webinars – replace the classroom experience, technology is moving beyond its role in student support and becoming an intrinsic element of the pedagogy.

The lines between traditional face-to-face teaching and traditional distance learning programmes are blurring and “blended learning”, combining virtual with face-to-face teaching, is the latest buzz phrase.

One of the biggest developments over the past year has been the launch of high quality – and expensive – blended degree programmes. Earlier this month Brown University in the US, one of just two Ivy League universities not to have a business school, launched an Executive MBA programme with Spain’s IE Business School.

Half of the EMBA – an “Executive MBA” for senior working managers – will be taught face-to-face, the other half online, says David Bach, dean of programmes at IE. He is an avid supporter of using asynchronous communications to improve quality of participation on these senior programmes.

“Everybody participates, even the shy people. You think twice as hard about writing something as you do about saying it in the classroom.” As a result, a 90-minute classroom exchange can become a three-day threaded discussion, he says.

The 15-month Brown programme will cost $95,000, more expensive than many full-time programmes, but Prof Bach defends the cost. “This is the Starbucks model, not the Walmart model. You don’t economise on faculty. Blended programmes are as expensive as on-campus programmes and they will become more expensive.”

Prof Bach believes people will be prepared to pay for the convenience of blended programmes. But other benefits to this technology include the ability of participants to select the way of studying that suits them.

Recognition that advanced technology can help students learn more effectively is spreading at the very top schools, those not usually associated with e-learning. And it is being regarded as enriching the on-campus experience.

At the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, Karl Ulrich, vice-dean of the school’s innovation initiative, believes that blended learning – or connected learning as Wharton calls it – can respond better to different learning styles.

“You can provide different ways to deliver a module. Our current learning technology is one-size-fits-all. I think we can be more respectful of student’s learning styles,” he says.

But connected learning can also help the school extend its reach. “What I’d like to do is to have students in internships take courses over the summer. If you can separate time and place, we can get our people out into the world a bit more.”

Recognition of different learning styles will be one of the selling points of MBA@UNC, the blended learning programme to be launched in July by the Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina.

Like the IE/Brown programme, MBA@UNC is targeted at the top end of the market, priced at $89,000 for the two years including books, student fees, and food and accommodation for four weekend immersions.

The two programmes are also both limiting the size of their inaugural intake, to 50 for the UNC programme and 24 for the IE Brown EMBA. Although technology has solved the problem of linking students across distance – 12 nationalities are represented in IE’s first cohort of 24 students – it has not enabled business schools to produce quality programmes at scale.

But that may be changing. At Ashridge in the UK, a blended learning master's degree launched in April 2010 is proving that online delivery can result in geographical reach and scaleability, says Roger Delves, director of the programme.

He gives the example of a video lecture he recorded for the current class that could be used for participants on future programmes – there are four intakes each year. In a face-to-face environment, he would have to repeatedly teach the same class.

“The biggest breakthrough [in technology] has been around increased bandwidth,” he says. “People can download materials quickly and the programme works seamlessly.”

By reducing costs, Ashridge has been able to attract participants from countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, says Mr Delves. “This is an attractive product for people in developing countries because the costs are much lower [than on-campus programmes].”

Mr Delves says Ashridge has been particularly successful with this model because of the years of experience it has in developing online modules through its Virtual Learning Resource Centre – recently renamed Virtual Ashridge.

Elsewhere, the latest web technology is breathing new life into established programmes. At Queen’s School of Business in Canada, which has been running a videoconferencing-based EMBA programme for a decade, improvements in web technology have enabled the school to extend its reach, says Michael Darling, programme director of one of the three videoconferencing programmes taught at the school.

Increased bandwidth means students can view the synchronous video lectures from their desktops, eliminating the need to travel to a videoconferencing “boardroom”. Students from Bermuda to British Columbia are participating in the same virtual learning EMBA team.

The UK’s Open University is an established player in delivering programmes at a distance, and it is embracing the latest technology.

Martin Bean, its vice-chancellor, believes the ideal scenario is for students to consume content and undergo a comprehension assessment at a distance and then use the face-to-face meetings with tutors and professors to actively engage in discussion.

He thinks this is particularly appropriate in business education. “I think the real value of a business school is the community of learning.”

Prof Bean says the demand for management education is growing to such an extent that online and blended learning will be increasingly popular globally. “The world simply can’t build enough brick-and-mortar institutions to meet demand.”

And, he believes its popularity will grow as the technology becomes more personal. “The technology is coming our way; it’s now a lot more social, which works well with education.”

That said, the success of blended learning – “supported open learning” as the OU calls it – will always depend on the quality of the teaching, he says.

For the OU, where fewer than 10 per cent of the 265,000 enrolled students live outside the UK, using technology to spearhead expansion overseas is a priority.

It has had some success, though, with podcasting, through iTunes University. Some 89 per cent of the 31m downloads of OU material on iTunes has come from outside the UK, says Prof Bean. “It’s an amazing base of informal learning.


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