Thursday, 30 August 2012

It's All Over

That's it.  We're finished.  Next week, our younger child goes to college, a year early.  I'm writing this without a plan or anything, so it'll be a bit stream of consciousness.  So what's new?  Also, probably too wordy.

Right.  Way back in the 1970s, there was a boy who went to an overcrowded primary school in a village in Kent and a young woman studying for a degree in French and English.  Since it's the boy who's writing this, a lot of this will mainly be his story until they get to meet sometime in the distant future from this starting point.  The boy was disappointed to note that his teachers weren't covering the kind of things he was interested in, like biochemistry, plate tectonics and nuclear physics and tended to spell things wrong, make mistakes about life in Antarctica, but he liked them anyway.  Unfortunately, for some reason he was never able to fathom, one of his teachers started to do things to him he wasn't very keen on.  Two of the most notable things were to lock him in a cupboard every day for months on end and make him stand outside in his underwear in the snow.  Clearly he must have done something wrong because these seemed to be punishments, but he was never able to work out what that was.  However, his parents were conscientious and happy to encourage his learning and interests at home, and also concerned at what was happening at the school when they found out, so they moved him to a small school in the next village which was much smaller and friendlier.  He passed his 11+ there and went to secondary school.

In the meantime, the young woman graduated and went to teacher training college, where the now well-known autonomous education advocate John Holt actually had some of his books on the syllabus.  She gained her PGCE and started teaching at a comprehensive in Birmingham.  She found that the nature of the classes was such that it was not really feasible to practice as she would have hoped in that kind of environment, and moreover that whereas the children tended to bully the teachers, the level of pettiness and sophistication of the bullying mind games pursued by the head and the other teachers was far lower.  Clearly they had learnt much from their experience of school.  So eventually she decided to quit.  Sadly, at this point she leaves our story for a while.

In the meantime, the boy was at secondary school.  Although he was very happy to see his friends, some of whom were also his teachers, he had given up any kind of engagement at school work in most areas because he no longer expected it to be anywhere near the level he expected, although it had also to be said that much of it was still worthwhile because the school was an ex-technical school and stressed the practical quite strongly, such as annealing aluminium, worming sheep and making stopped dovetail joints.  There were also plenty of other interesting subjects, but on the whole, the teachers had little choice but to teach to the syllabus, which was extremely dumbed down.  A new problem emerged:  the harder he tried, the worse  his school reports became.  Even so, school became a useful escape to him and it was good to have to learn things which were useful despite his lack of interest in them.  The worst aspect of all was that of homework, because it was a time-consuming and boring distraction from his reading and other studying which he did when not at school, in the library, the college library and to a lesser extent in the school library itself.  He also felt that many of the teachers were on his side but their hands were tied by the nature of school itself.

Finally, he got to do A-levels, which he found a challenge, but the atmosphere of the sixth form was better than that of the lower school.  He got them, rather poorly because he had chosen subjects over a wide range, and went to university, where he found that his education was broader and the opportunity for political activism, among other things, considerable.  During this time, he joined the Green Party but was disappointed to note that they supported home education, which he believed at the time should be illegal because it gave families too much power and he felt that families were an anti-social influence on children which made them selfish, materialistic and intolerant.

However, as time went by, the government did various things to education and schools which took them ever further from the child-centred ideals pursued a decade earlier, although he paid relatively little attention to this because he had no plans to have children or start a family.

The young woman became an English teacher for speakers of other languages, an activity in which he also participated, though they never met.  They met in 1990 but she then moved to Madrid, where she continued to teach English.  Then, in 1993 she returned to England and they married.  At the time, he assumed that he was sterile and therefore that children were not a prospect.  He was wrong.  A child was soon on the way and they realised that in keeping with their beliefs, they wanted to have a natural pregnancy, natural childbirth, practice co-sleeping, use the principles of the continuum concept and then - what?  This question was answered at the Lib-Ed conference shortly after the birth of their first child.  They decided that the fairest thing to do would be to make their children aware that they could opt to go to school or not, and that they could change that decision at any time with no pressure.  For a while, their elder child wanted to go but in the end, never made that decision to go, and their younger child seemed just to assume that he would not be attending school.  Therefore, the early years of their parenting, which they shared in common with many other parents who went to parent and toddler groups and the like, and generally interacted with their children as any parents would as they learned to walk, talk, dress themselves, eat, sing, play and make friends, continued.  As the children's friends and cousins reached school age, they simply continued in the same vein, making progress, gradually becoming more independent, attending the same birthday parties and clubs as the other children along with social and educational groups their parents and other adults and older children organised.  They learned and played at all sorts of things, since the business of a child is to learn and to play.

Then, almost sooner than anyone realised, the first child was too old for school and went to college.  Then the younger child took his decision to enter formal education, in the same college a year earlier than his peers at school.  It was all over.  They had somehow never got round to going to school, and everything had worked out better than it might have done if they had, though of course that was the route not taken.

It goes without saying that the young woman was called Liz Gray, the boy and man was called Mark Ure, and the children were called Holly Gray and Daniel Ure.

Some people call this form of parenting home education, others home schooling.  It's neither.  It's simply parenting, and everyone does it wrong and tries really hard to do it right.  Some people also send children to school for a small fraction of their childhood, often because they both have to go places which don't welcome children to work to get enough money for their children, so they need childcare which their isolation means they cannot easily find in any other way.  These circumstances are new and unusual, having arisen in something like the last 0.5% or less of human history.  Nor does it just occur in the home.  It occurs in the Universe.  We live on a particular tiny blue dot, so most of what we experience is to do with that tiny blue dot and in a way it's Earth Education when we're not looking at the sky or flying to other galaxies in our minds, but there are no premises for learning, whether children are at school, at home or somewhere else, other than the human central nervous system and specific immune response.  Nor does learning begin at 9 am and end at 4 pm, or at the age of five and end at eighteen.  Learning is just what we do because we are human.

Schools have their place.  If there is no-one to care for a child because all members of that child's extended family and all appropriate neighbours and friends really have to do something else in a place where the child is not welcome, the child needs to go somewhere to be cared for, and that place is school.  However, no-one should mistake a school for a place of education which is somehow better at facilitating any particular child's learning.  It is for childcare.  For a small minority of children, it's possible that they will also learn other positive things better at school than they would elsewhere because all children are unique and they cannot be generalised about.

So that's the situation.  The children God lent us are going back into the world and we will be taking a smaller role in their parenting from now on.  We did what we felt was the responsible thing - we parented and raised our children without expecting anyone else who wasn't well-known to them to take them on when they had never asked for the job and might not know them well enough to care for them appropriately.  Now they have become adults and are making their own way in the world.

It's over.

No it's not.  It's just beginning.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Notes on plans for Working Tax Credit and Universal Credit

These are a few ad hoc notes on the question of WTC and UC:

For a couple of years now, the Government has had plans to change the benefits system considerably by introducing Universal Credit.  My concern here is with the aspect of that policy which is most likely to affect me personally - the changes in Working Families Tax Credit.  This is a benefit paid to people who are in work but on a low income.  The Government is concerned that this benefit is being used as a way of avoiding paid work.  More specifically, it is suggested that people tend not to do enough paid work because they know they can fall back on WTC.  This is also seen as applying to some self-employed people on a low income.  I am of course a person who is self-employed with a low income.

First, a preliminary comment:  I am aware that i'm underemployed.  I have less paid work than i would like to have and i think this is probably partly linked to psychological factors.  It is in fact possible that this change in policy is exactly what i need and that it will motivate me to find a means of increasing my income through paid work.  All of this may be predicated on an unrealistic doubt that i can achieve this.  However, even if this is so, there will be other people who lack that luxury, so whether or not i can extricate myself from this predicament, my comments are still relevant.

The people who will be assessing how self-employed people are performing may not have experience of small businesses themselves and this should be a requirement of anyone whose job involves doing this. Otherwise they risk making poor decisions.

Our first priority must be to our customers. If we are expected to attend interviews at short notice when these clash with appointments or other work which needs to be done on time, it will reduce the quality of our service to them and impair our ability to grow the business.

Formerly self-employed people do not make good employees and employers know this. This implies that, whether or not they are visible in the unemployment figures, the fact is that they are more likely to become long-term unemployed. This can of course be hidden by taking them on as trainees, but again they will be poorly motivated and this will impair the productivity of larger employers.

It usually takes well over a year for a start-up to make a consistent profit. Expecting a newly self-employed person to do so in such a short period of time will scupper their chances of making it work in many cases. I would expect this to be clearly understood by a party which aims to support the private sector.

Causing businesses to fold will lead to costs to the taxpayer in the long term and an increase in unemployment because they will be unable to grow and the self-employed person who would have taken on new employees after their business has been given a few years to grow will not now do so.

The senior party in the government has a long history of opposing the minimum wage for various reasons, one of which is that it makes it more expensive to employ people. By insisting that self-employed people pay themselves the minimum wage, it is introducing an excessive expense to many people who may prefer instead to invest the profits from their work in their business, and there is no clear argument consistent with a Conservative outlook to insist on this being so.

Self-employed people are more likely to vote Conservative than employees. By reducing the number of self-employed people, the government is reducing the number of Conservative voters. If formerly self-employed people are given jobs or reduced to complete dependence on benefits, they won't be as aware of how much of their income goes to the government and are therefore less likely to support a party which aims to lower taxation on principle. They will be low-paid employees or unemployed instead and therefore natural Labour voters.