Andrew Penman disappoints

When we were in England last Fall, I picked up the book School Daze: Searching for a decent state education by Andrew Penman.   Penman, a respected investigative journalist for The Daily Mirror (or so his bio states) writes about his own struggle to find a decent state (we would say ‘public’) school for his two children.   The book covers roughly 7 months and is written as a journal.    It details the problem in England’s school system today, which boils down to the fact that the best public schools are the faith schools, which require their students and the parents of their students to be practicing members of whatever faith they represent even though they are funded by taxpayer money.   Apparently many people in England, Penman included,  fake adherence to Catholicism or CofE (that’s Church of England – or Protestant) just to get their kids into a decent school.   Additionally, as  Penman and his wife also did, they move to a town where they can find a house within the district (they say ‘catchment area’) of a good school.    Private schools are of course very expensive, and the other public schools are failing, according to their test results and number of expulsions each year.

The debate rages on as to whether faith schools should be allowed to select based on the religious faith of their students since they are funded with government money.    I’m 146 pages into the book, which is 203 pages long, and at about page 100 I started thinking, “You know, all Andrew Penman’s problems regarding schools and the financial strain he’s put himself and his family under to move to a better district would all be solved if they would homeschool.”   I wondered why this option hadn’t been mentioned, because I know homeschooling is legal in England.   My good friend who lives in Yorkshire homeschooled her daughter for two years.    Penman goes on an on about every other conceivable route parents take to avoid the lesser schools, and then, on page 138, he finally gets to it.   There is a two page section, separate from the journaled entries, titled “Home Education”.   Finally!


There are approximately 60 million people in the England according to Penman’s book, and the government knows of about 20,000 homeschoolers.     The government requires no formal registration for homeschoolers, so the numbers are pure guesswork.   Rather than attempt to paraphrase what he wrote, I’ve decided to quote directly from the book:

The issue [of home education] became a national debate after the murder of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq and the suggestion she slipped through the usual safety nets because she was being taught at home, although presumably little teaching actually occurred.  Since her mother and stepfather were convicted of manslaughter for letting Khyra starve to death, they can’t have been that fussed about her education.  Graham Badman, who produced a government report on home-education, told Radio 4 Today programme:

“I did find significant evidence that the children who are home-educated are significantly more vulnerable and I therefore argued that there should be legislation to at least give local authorities the power to intervene more appropriately than they can do at the moment.  It is foolish to continue to berate local authorities for not intervening in such case and yet deny them the powers that would enable them to do so.”

Talking before the 2010 election Mark Field, a conservative on the All-Parliamentary Group on Home Education said:

“The worry I have is that the Government is manipulating some of the current anxiety about child abuse to perhaps intrude further into home education when they have little legal right to do so.”

He says he became interested in the subject a year earlier when approached by two mothers in his constituency who had decided to educate their children at home.

“I guess like many people I approached that meeting with some standard misconceptions that a home education might produce an unsocialised precocious child unable to interact with its peers.  The more I listened to those two mothers who came to see me the more impressed and excited I was with the passion and enthusiasm they had for home education.”

Badman replies:

“Mark has spoken of two parents, the problem is we don’t know how many are out there.  My report relates to the 20,000 we do know about, estimates vary there are 40,000 or more.  Is he equally confident about the well-being and quality education of all the rest?   My suggestion to him would be ‘no’ and certainly that is the view of the local authorities.”

I imagine the two of them, and most listeners, can agree with Badman when he says:

“There are a whole group of people who choose to home-educate sometimes at real cost to themselves and do so out of absolute despair at the system and one of my recommendations is very clearly that the local authorities should analyze the reasons why parents are electing to take their children out of school.”

Wow.   I’ve read this at least 5 times now.   So many things about it bother me.   First among them is that it appears in a book that details at great length the desperate measures to which parents in England will resort to try and get their children into good schools.  They will move house, they will join a church they don’t believe in, they will beg, borrow and sometimes literally steal.    And if you are unlucky enough to be among the lower incomes who don’t have the option of picking up and moving to a new town, well then you are basically screwed.    Couldn’t homeschooling be seen as a less expensive, more viable alternative for at least some of those people?     There is nothing in what Penman writes about home-education to suggest that.   He starts with a murder – lovely – and basically sides with the guy who thinks homeschooled children are ‘more vulnerable’ to abuse.    How is it that one family abuses their daughter – a horrible tragedy to be sure – and that means that all homeschooling families are suspect, but two other families impress their MP with their dedication to home-education and that is dismissed as insignificant?

Penman clearly does not consider homeschooling a ‘real’ education.  He is in love with test scores and is an atheist member of a Catholic Church because the Catholic primary school was best.    I was willing to wade through page after page after page of arguments for and against state funded faith schools, ever-changing catchment areas and a whole slew of back and forth about the pros and cons of moving just to get kids into a better school and the consequences for those students unfortunate enough to have no better school options.    But I’ll be skimming through the rest of the book.  Penman has no solutions to offer.   The one solution he might have considered was dismissed as a haven for would-be abusers.   Tell me Mr. Penman, do you think YOU would not be dedicated to your children’s education if they learned at home?   I was hoping for some sort of acknowledgment as to why he and his wife didn’t think homeschooling would work for them.   Instead, the Home-Education section ends with a quote about how families should be required to let the authorities know why they want to homeschool and that those reasons should be analyzed, and that’s it.   The following page of the book begins with his next journal entry and the revelation that their move to a new town has cost them 40,000 GBP (around $70,000).

I have a suggestion for Andrew Penman.  Stop lying about your faith, moving your kids around and whining about the lack of good public schools while offering zero in the way of possible solutions.   $70,000 would have been better spent educating your kids at home.    Hey, maybe you could have used it to take time to write a book about the experience of seeing your kids get the best education possible from the people who know and love them best (that would be you and your wife, Mr. Penman – not the local vicar or Catholic headmaster).

School daze, indeed.

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