The triumph of autonomous education!

There are still a few misguided souls who have the vague idea that autonomous education has something to do with home schooling! Nothing could be further from the truth. Autonomous of course means self-directed and really relates to the fact that a child is able to choose for herself what form or direction her learning should take. This can include choosing to study structured courses via the Open University or even going to school or college. This much, all advocates of autonomous education would agree upon. As a number of irate parents who commented on my piece a few days ago called ' A curious case of apparently autonomous education' asserted very strongly, one must always take the parents' word for what the child has chosen to do. Raising one's eyebrows at what a mother calls the decision of an autonomously educated child to study for GCSEs is rude and disrespectful of the whole idea of autonomous education. This seems reasonable because, as I remarked yesterday, we never get to hear what the kids themselves want; so we are compelled to take their parents' word for it.

Having cleared the ground a little, I have to tell readers that I have glorious news for them. Autonomous education seems to be far and away the most popular form of educational technique used in the United Kingdom today! How have I discovered this and what is my evidence for this astonishing assertion? I started from the viewpoint that if, as many of those posting comments here have told me time and again, an autonomously educated child can choose to attend school or college at the age of fourteen in order to gain GCSEs or A levels, then it must logically be the case that a child could also make this choice at thirteen and still remain autonomously educated. And why stop at thirteen? Surely a child of eleven or twelve who wishes to go to school must also be regarded as following autonomous education? I see no reason at all why this principle should not apply right down to four or five.

The beginning of my research was with my friends and colleagues. I only spoke to parents of course, because as we established here a few days ago, one must not doubt the word of parents when it comes to judging the wishes of their children. They know best. I therefore asked parents known to me personally the following questions; 'Did your child want to go to school?' and 'If you gave your child a choice now, would she rather attend school or be taught at home by you?' These questions were asked of seventeen parents having between them thirty six children between the ages of five and sixteen. The results were interesting. All but three of the children apparently wanted to go to school. Only one would choose not to attend now if given the choice. This suggests to me that these four children out of a total of thirty six, amount to a little over 10% of the sample; that is to say that almost 90% chose to go to school and are choosing to remain there and study formally. This is very heartening, but the immediate objection will of course be; how representative do I think my friends are? I have anticipated this. Only two of our friends are not white and most are middle class. Luckily, my wife works with a very working class client group in Barking and I have quite a few parents whom I visit in LB Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Since I was helping out by organising activities at my wife's place of work this week, I had the opportunity to speak to eleven parents there. Between them, they had fourteen children between the ages of five and sixteen. Over half this group are black and minority ethnic. Only one child in this group was reported by his mother to have not wanted to attend school. One would like to leave now. Again, almost a 90% rate of autonomy among the children; they are choosing their own preferred method of education. I repeated this survey with similar results among a group of black and Asian parents in Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

I can see two possible explanations for these findings. The first is that I should take them at face value and assume that autonomous education is the most popular method of education in the United Kingdom today. In other words, most children are actively choosing the educational setting which they wish. I have to say that this does not seem likely to me. The other possibility is less palatable to some parents. It is this. Parents themselves choose the educational setting which they would prefer for their children, whether it is school or home education. After they have taken this decision, they persuade both themselves, their children and everybody else that this is what the children really wanted in the first place. In effect, they rewrite history and kid everybody that the child has had a choice in the matter. I will at once put my own hand up to having done this! Talking to close friends and exploring the questions which I posed to them recently reveals that a similar process has taken place with at least some children who have been sent to school.

Many parents who send their children to school effectively brainwash them into accepting their fate. They buy them books called 'Jimmy has lots of fun at school' or 'Jemima's happy first day at school'. They repeat over and over again, the mantras 'You will make lots of new friends at school' and 'You will have a good time at school'. By the time they get there, the children have been hypnotised and are incapable of resisting all this psychological conditioning. Of course home educating parents do exactly the same thing. I used to point out to my daughter how lucky she was not to be cooped up indoors on a lovely sunny day and how many enjoyable things we did which she couldn't have done if she had gone to school. I know other home educators who did the same thing. In some cases, the kid actually wanted to go to school and the mothers have discouraged them and worked hard to make them change their minds! One reads of such cases on the Internet lists; mothers who say that their child wants to go to school and they want advice on how they can discourage her. Oddly, I have never seen a response to questions like this where the parent is urged to respect the child's autonomous wishes! Instead, a variety of handy tips are offered to get the kid to change his mind. This is just what some parents do who persuade their children against their inclination that they really do want to go to school.

Perhaps we are all of us deceiving ourselves. I think that what really happens might be that rather than carefully respecting our children's choices, we simply make what seems to us the best decision for them and forge ahead regardless. I rather think that home educating parents are just as apt to do this as anybody else. I'm sure that if I carried out a survey among home educating parents I should find just the same results as I did among the parents of school children. I've no reason at all though to think it any more likely that these children were really having their own free and unfettered choices acted upon.