A blog I wrote as part of a series called Right to Learn on the Human Rights in Ireland blog.
Autonomous education is a form of education which respects the child’s right to determine its own learning journey. Autonomous educators believe that learning is as natural to humans as breathing and children do not need to be forced to engage in it in the way they traditionally are. Without coercion learning just continues throughout life and a child picks up ideas and skills which are significant in their culture in the same way as they learn to walk and talk. For most children this endeavour is interrupted by school where the child has to follow someone else’s agenda whether they like (or can take advantage of it) or not, which can lead to a loss of enthusiasm for learning that can last for life.
For autonomous educators such coercive education is not only wrong, it is far less effective because over a childhood the autodidactic child will, as a side effect of following their own interests, cover everything they will need to become a well functioning citizen in the society to which they belong. But a parent doesn’t just stand back; providing a rich and stimulating environment, together with outings and resources is an essential part of the package.
These ideas grew out of, and have been informed by, the writings of radical educational thinkers such as Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society and from the States writers such as John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. Sandra Dodd is currently one of the most influential thinkers and writers on unschooling with her book Moving a Puddle and other Essays and her website on Radical Unschooling which applies the principles of the child’s autonomy to the whole lifecourse. Jan Fortune Wood who has written an introduction to autonomous learning, Doing it Their Way and Roland Meighan promote the principles of natural learning in Britain.
There are examples of autonomously educated children going to university sometimes on the basis of an interview alone, although if a child wishes they can take GCSEs, iGCSE’s, A levels or Open University courses often at a young age. But traditional academic outcomes are not the holy grail, those lucky enough to have been enabled to learn in this way from the start have not only had the opportunity to thoroughly explore their interests, but have been living in the real world and experiencing the consequences of their choices all their lives.
However here in England we have recently weathered the severest threat to autonomous education for some time. At the moment local authorities have no monitoring role and home educators known to them are free to provide an education in line with their own philosophical beliefs as long as there is no evidence that an education is not being provided.
If a child doesn’t start school there is no obligation to let the local authority know that you are home educating any more than there is an obligation to inform some authority that you have adopted a vegetarian diet However some local authorities have difficulty understanding their legal position and because of this, and lobbying from the Directors of Children’s Services who fear the consequences to themselves if something were to happen to a child on their watch; plus a desire on the part of the DCSF to find a scapegoat for the death of poor Khyra Ishaq - a devastating failure of Birmingham Social Services - a review of home education was commissioned from former Managing Director of the Children, Families and Education Directorate for Kent County Council Graham Badman in January 2009.
Despite an overwhelming response from stakeholders against any change Badman recommended a draconian regime of registration and monitoring which included a plan of education for the year ahead. This in itself would have put an end to truly autonomous education which depends on the educator responding to the child’s interests of the moment and can change course at any time.
These recommendations caused vigorous protest amongst home educators in, England and elsewhere, carrying out their duty to provide an education for their children ‘either by regular attendance at school or otherwise’, as required by the Section7, Education Act 1996. Registration for carrying out a legal duty together with the right of access to the home with no cause to suspect harm was an assault on our civil liberties and a reversion of the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
Thankfully due to very effective communication from home educators Schedule 1 of the Children Schools and Families Bill which included these recommendations was opposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties and was thrown out when the recent general election was called.
Yet there is forever a threat from those who, like Graham Badman, think they know what education should look like and feel it is their duty to impose their model on all in the name of the rights of a child to an education. There is much discussion amongst home educators at the moment as to how best limit this threat and ensure that home education including autonomous education becomes an accepted alternative to school.