I scribbled away on my clipboard and then peered at the children over my glasses. I always find this conveys a sense of wisdom and authority that children respond to. It invokes a sensation of awe and respect usually rendering them silent and attentive.
Robert Smith appeared to be picking his nose...
“I would like to ask you some basic questions to ascertain the level of education you are receiving. Who can tell me what two times five is, hmmm?”
Miranda looked shyly up through her fringe. “Ten,” she said.
I nodded solemnly and wrote on my clipboard. “Smith, I’m frankly concerned that your son wasn’t able to answer a question that simple.”
“Eh…? I knew the answer!” Robert protested. “I left if for Miranda because it was too easy.”
“Six times eight?”
“Forty-eight!” Robert snapped.
“Forty-two!” Robert again.
“Sixty-three!” Robert was clearly reciting the times tables parrot fashion with no real understanding of the computation involved. I addressed his father.
“You realise your daughter has only answered a question from the five times table? Why is that, I wonder?”
Smith Snr glowered at me, “Because Robert is answering so fast she hasn’t had a chance.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “All right, Robert – don’t answer the next question. Miranda, this is a question just for you. Are you ready?”
The little girl nodded, eyes like saucers. I leaned down towards her.
“What is the square root of 24.798?”
Smith let out an irritated gasp. “Now you’re being ridiculous.”
“What’s the answer?” asked Miranda.
“Never mind… We’ll try something else.”
“No, hang on. What IS the answer Mr Badman?” Smith demanded.
I favoured him with a withering stare. “It isn’t MY educational standards in question here, Smith. It is not necessary for me to provide the answer.”
“You don’t know, that’s why!” laughed Robert. The boy’s attitude certainly leaves a lot to be desired. I might need to inform social services.
“Can you spell ‘dog’?” I asked Miranda.
“I asked you to spell ‘dog’.”
“Does she suffer from hearing disability, Smith?”
“She is trying to spell it, Mr Badman. You’re not giving her the chance to finish!”
“Duh… Ogh… Guh?” Miranda intoned.
“Phonetic alphabet,” Smith explained. I made a tutting noise as I wrote on my clipboard.
“Kuh… Agh... Tuh”
To my surprise she glanced at her father and fled the room. I imagine the prospect of having to demonstrate her lack of education was too overwhelming. I wrote that down on my clipboard. Smith and son seemed to find it terribly amusing, which I simply don’t understand. I turned to Robert.
“Can you spell ‘regulation’?”
As he did so the phone rang and Smith left the room to answer it. I smiled at Robert.
“Now spell ‘existentialism’ for me.”
“Come on quick… OK, spell ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ then… come on…!”
“A-N-T-I…wait, what was it again?”
“Oh dear,” I shook my head as I put crosses on my form. I spelled it out correctly for him from my list.
“Now then, what about R.I. / R.E?”
“What’s that supposed to spell? What’s a ‘rire’ I’ve never heard of it?”
“No – we’re finished with spellings now. I want to know about your religious instruction or education. Are you religious at all? I know some of you home educated children are brought up as Jedi or some such nonsense. Have you any normal religious knowledge? Have you heard of Jesus for example?”
“Of course I have. Christians believe he was the son of God. He was put to death on a cross and they believe he rose from the dead two days later.”
“Excellent. And what do you think Jesus would have been like?”
Robert thought for a few moments with a look of concentration etched into his features.
“I think he might have been black.”
“Well… dark skinned, anyway. Probably with dark woolly sort of hair.”
“How dare you!”
“Well he grew up in the middle east didn’t he, of Jewish parents, under the hot sun..”
“You see this is why I am so concerned about standards in home education. For your information, young man, Jesus was white with long straight fair hair.”
Smith had come back into the room and caught the tail end of the conversation.
“Yes, of course,” he chimed in. “White, middle class, read the Daily Mail and voted Tory! Mr Badman, we provide the children with the facts, but allow them to reason things out in their own way. Part of the trouble with formal schooling is that children are taught what to think, but not how.”
“It is not for parents to question the methods of state education.” I informed him, scribbling furiously on my clipboard.
Miranda’s head appeared around the door. She was red in the face and panting.
“Can I stop running now, Dark Lord Badman?” she asked.
“You told me to run and I have been. Can I stop now, I’m tired?”
I looked at Smith in bewilderment. What odd children. If this is typical of home education then I’m not surprised I gave it the bad report I did.
Smith handed me a pile of drawings and paintings. He also indicated some pottery work on a nearby cabinet.
“All examples of the children’s artwork, Mr Badman.”
I glanced through them. I have to admit they really were very good. Robert in particular had fine attention for detail and a surprisingly mature style. His work encompassed a range of materials with imaginative use of colour.
“How long do the children spend doing art?”
“However long they want. They’ll keep at it until it’s finished – or they feel they’ve done enough for the day. That piece you’re looking at took Robert a day and a half.”
“A whole day and a half?! What about his other studies?”
Smith shrugged. “He was working intently on that. I didn’t want to break his muse.”
“You didn’t want to break his muse? What kind of educational policy is that? You allowed him to spend an entire day and half painting?”
“Robert cares passionately about art so his education is biased towards it. I really think it could be where his future lays.”
“Painting?! How many people make a career out of painting, Smith! Drawing and painting are all well and good, but they’re only recreational pursuits really. No, you’d be far better off confining this sort of thing to a Friday afternoon and concentrating more of your efforts on proper subjects.”
I made a few more notes while Robert was asking his father what percentage of people leaving state secondary schools get jobs as historians, physicists, biologists, chemists or mathematicians.
I put down my pen and shook my head at him. “The purpose of secondary education is to achieve good qualifications,” I told him. “It isn't supposed to be about equipping you for the job market.”
“Then why are qualifications important?”
“So the school can demonstrate how well it is achieving its performance targets.”
Robert and his father both looked blankly at me.
I sighed. “So parents can determine which school to send their children to!”
TO BE CONTINUED…