The problem with home education forums

It is no secret that I was chucked off a number of Internet lists for home educators after having a couple of articles published last summer on the subject of home education; the idea being that many parents would not feel comfortable about discussing their problems freely if a supposedly unsympathetic character like me were hanging round. This displays a touching naivete on the part of those running the forums. In fact I would be very surprised to find a single home education list which does not have professionals and other people who are not home educating parents lurking on it. These range from civil servants and local authority officers to psychologists and teachers. This is one of the main ways that people outside the home educating community keep in touch with what is going on.

There are two points to consider here. Firstly, is it possible to restrict membership of any of these lists simply to genuine home educators and secondly, is this this a good idea in the first place? The answer to both these questions is 'no'.

My daughter gave me a quick training session in how to go about joining Internet lists under a false flag. Like all young people, she has been on Over 18 only sites since she was about twelve. She tells me that the simplest way to do it is as follows. If for some reason you wish to conceal your identity or the whereabouts of your computer, then go to the local library and book a session on a computer there. Acquire a free Hotmail account in a made up name. Pick a user name like Dreamcatcher or Flowerfairy; something which makes you sound like a gormless and harmless hippy type. Then all you do is use this email account to join your chosen group. I have no idea if this is what others do, but it sounds about right to me. The reason that such subterfuge is necessary is that some forums, HE-UK for example, are specifically forbidden to employees of local authorities and so on. I have to say, when talking to professionals about home education, I am sometimes astonished at the up-to-the-minute knowledge which they seem to have about the politics of the HE world. This information can only have been acquired on Internet lists.

The take-home message here is that when typing stuff about your difficulties in home educating, you can be reasonably sure that it is not only other home educators who will be reading what you write. There is not really any such thing as privacy on the Internet; you are, in effect, broadcasting to the world. Young people understand this more than adults who did not grow up with the Internet. For anybody over thirty, using the Net will never be second nature in the way that it is to a sixteen year-old. This is why it was idiotic for HE-UK, EO and so on to cast me into the outer darkness.

If we accept that this is actually the case, what is the point of turning the presence of educational professionals on home education groups into a secretive business in this way? Why not simply allow them to join openly and take part in discussions like everybody else? I have to say that I am constantly surprised at the level of ignorance and misunderstanding which many people show on these lists. The people posting clearly do not know a great deal about the topics about which they are pontificating. This situation, where only parents are talking to other parents, is a recipe for the proliferation of myths, half-truths and downright falsehoods. Would it not be better to have local authority officers joining in, so that they could put their point of view and talk about their anxieties? Wouldn't this promote a dialogue which might benefit both sides? When parents are talking about dyslexia, for instance, might it not be handy to hear a teacher or psychologist's perspective on this?

It seems to me that what would be a very useful development would be a forum which could be joined openly by parents and professionals alike. Parents could actually ask local authority officers why they behave in the ways that they do. HE advisors could ask parents why some of them seem so secretive. If psychologists, teachers and parents were all talking together in the same place, it could only be a good thing. I should think that it would be inevitable that both parents and professionals would start to understand each other a little more and start to see each other's point of view. The situation at the moment is that professionals talk to each other about the problems they have with home educating parents and parents only talk to each other about the problems which they are having with the professionals. There is little prospect for any sort of change in attitudes by either party while this is how things are in the main. I am aware that in some places, Hampshire, Somerset and North Yorkshire for example, there is positive contact between parents and home educators, but there still seem to be many on both sides who are not talking to each other. The Internet lists seem to me to be the perfect place to start the process of changing this. The alternative might be home educators living increasingly in a psychological ghetto of their own making.