Talking with lions

Wittgenstein famously claimed that even if a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand what it said. By this he meant not that it would speak in a foreign language, but that the experience of being a lion would be so different from that of being a human that the same words would mean completely different things to the lion and the human. I have been reminded of this recently when people have been debating the Child Risk Assessment Matrix, a checklist that the Metropolitan Police use when investigating supposed cases of abuse. A number of risk factors are listed, including 'co-sleeping' and being 'home educated'.

For almost everybody in the world of home education, those two expressions have very clear meanings. For the average member of a Child Abuse Investigation Team or social worker investigating possible sexual abuse, they also have very clear meanings. Unfortunately, the meanings that the two groups have are so absolutely different that meaningful dialogue is rendered all but impossible!

Let us begin with 'co-sleeping'. To me and probably every other normal parent, this means the practice of allowing a baby or small child to sleep in the parents' bedroom, sometimes actually in their bed. What could possibly be wrong with this? How dare the police suggest that it could be a risk factor for child abuse! The problem is that police officers investigating child abuse are not encountering normal people. In their world, things are a little bit different. Let us think a bit first about co-sleeping. Like many parents, we had the baby in the bedroom with us. It was reassuring to be able to reach down to the Moses basket in the middle of the night and touch my baby. Surely this can't be regarded as a risk of child abuse! Well no, and no police officer or social worker would even bother to note such a thing on any checklist. However, let's suppose that a little girl of five is still sharing her mother's bed. Now let's imagine that there is a stepfather to whom the child is not related. Is this OK? Well yes. It might just raise eyebrows though. What about a girls of eleven or twelve sleeping next to an adult male to whom she is not related? Is that OK? This is where 'co-sleeping' gets a little tricky!

We have two friends, both single mothers, whose daughters shared their bed until teenage years. It was a habit that did not stop. Nothing wrong with that, I have heard of other mothers and daughters living together where this happened, so it's not that unusual. I have also heard of a case, via a social worker friend in another part of the country of the following. A young mother lived with her thirteen year-old daughter. They shared the bed, because the daughter's room was used as storage space for various bits of junk. The mother acquired a boyfriend slightly younger than her; he was twenty four. Almost incredibly, the thirteen year old girl continued to share the bed! The mother was called away to some family crisis for a week and the twenty four-year old man and the thirteen year-old girl continued to share the bed. What, you think this a dangerous situation? Shame on you! Are you really saying that 'co-sleeping' can be a risk factor in child abuse? The fact that I heard about this from a social worker probably tells readers the direction this particular case of co-sleeping took.

This then is lions talking to humans. A police checklist mentions 'co-sleeping' and a home educating parent becomes outraged because she thinks that the police are hinting that having her baby sleep in the same bedroom as a parent is abusive. The police though are talking about young teenage girls sharing a bed with an adult male to whom they are not related.

Precisely the same semantic difficulty arises with the expression 'home education'. How on earth did that find its way onto this checklist for risk factors? Again, the two groups are speaking a different language. For home educating parents, home education mean parents keeping their own children with them and allowing them to learn at home and in the community. How could this be more risky than sending them to school? Police officers and social workers though are dealing with scenarios like the following. A twelve year old girl is de-registered from school because the family live in a cottage in the countryside from where it takes ages to get to the school. The girl does not really receive much of an education from her mother and her mother's boyfriend, but since the primary objective was saving them trouble and avoiding a prosecution for truancy, this does not really matter. The boyfriend has a son aged twenty. A twelve or thirteen year-old girl spending all day with a group of other kids of the same age as a certain risk of being drawn into an abusive relationship. A child of the same age who is spending all day alone in a remote cottage with a virile twenty year old man to whom she is not related has another sort of risk level. If the parents are out all day, then this risk increases.

Again, when social workers or police officers are talking of 'home education', it is the sort of situation above that they are thinking of. Not a single mother teaching her seven year-old at home because she is passionately devoted to the idea of home education.

There is not the least chance of some home educating parents ever reaching a truce with local authorities, social workers, Barnardo's or the police. The reason for this is that they are simply speaking the same language but meaning utterly different things by the words which they are using. We already know from Garham Stuart that new regulations relating to home education are going to be drawn up. I can see that without a shadow of a doubt that some time within the next few months, there is going to be another huge and unnecessary explosion of anger from certain home educators about this. It is rather like watching a Greek tragedy, where one sees well ahead of the characters what is about to occur.