Chinese whispers

One of the most fascinating aspects of home education as encountered on the Internet is the extent to which fanciful and misleading stories about it have a tendency to multiply like fruit flies. One need only make an untruthful claim such as, 'The Children, Schools and Families Bill would have made it a criminal offence not to register as a home educator' and although there is not a shred of truth in the statement it soon assumes a life of its own and will be endlessly quoted and repeated with various exaggerations. So we read on one site a few months ago that, 'under a new law, children will be removed from their parents and interrogated alone'! I'm sure we all have favourite examples of this sort of thing. A lot of this happens when home educators in Europe contact American groups and ask them to publicise some case or other. These lies and half truths then often find their way into respectable newspapers. I was thinking about this recently in connection with what I have been writing about Sweden. There are some pretty uncanny similarities between the Johansson case and that of the Williams family whom I mentioned the other day. Both are good instances of how the game of Chinese Whispers may be played on the Internet.

Readers are probably quite familiar now with the Johansson business. I have given up trying to get to the bottom of this affair, because as time goes on the stories change and become more elaborate. Those interested in the case also make things up as the mood takes them. It is apparent though that the basic thesis, that Swedish social workers snatched a child from his parents to prevent them from home educating him, is not the full story. Five years ago, a similarly heart-rending story was doing the rounds on American home education sites. This concerned a child in this country of the same age as Dominic Johansson. He was called Peter Williams and the story was that his parents were being persecuted by their local authority in Hampshire because they wished to teach their son at home. Here is one account from an American site;

I received an email from the mother of this chess prodigy asking for a little publicity regarding her fight with her LEA. It seems that being the best under-7 chess player in the country doesn’t count as receiving an education. The LEA is threatening to arrest the parents and to force the kid into a g-school.
I hope that Education Otherwise will set the edu-crats straight.
UPDATE: If you’re particularly inspired to contact the case officer directly, he can be reached at
Ass. Principal Education Welfare Officer
New Forest Local Education Office
United Kingdom
Phone number is XXXXXXXXXXX
I especially like that “Ass.” part. The other potential contact person is
Hampshire County Council
S023 8UG
United Kingdom
Phone number XXXXXXXXXXX

I have removed the personal details. This is spookily similar to the sort of appeal currently being made for the Johanssons. Even the details being given for officials to contact is the same tactic. Note also the untruthful statements included. 'The LEA is threatening to arrest the parents'. Of course this is not true. Nor is it true that the child was the best under 7 player in the country. Three months later, on another American site, this had become, 'An 8-year-old homeschooled British boy who reportedly is the best under-10 chess player in the UK ' How's that for progress? The source of these assertions was the father's claim that his son was the best player of his age in Britain; a claim unsupported by any exteranl evidence and then endlessly exaggerated by others.

Now of course with the perspective afforded by the passage of a few years, we see that this case was not really as advertised. The local authority, Hampshire, was not opposed to either home education or chess, but were in fact worried because the child's father appeared to be both completely mad and also wholly incapable of educating his son. Both fears have been shown to be fully justified over the years. Fortunately, Hampshire have kept on the case, with the result that the child now has private tutors for at least some of the time. I have a feeling that five years down the line, we might well have learned something pretty similar about the Johanssons.

At one time, circulating information about some perceived injustice was a slow and laborious business. Newspapers often used to check what they were told before publishing and gaining access to a world audience was very hard. All that has changed now and a story can be published to the world almost instantly, just as I am doing now! The problem is that many of these stories will be mad or untruthful. This is just as true of stories about home education as any other subject which one comes across while browsing the net.