Educational Heretics Press

Pages from the Roland Meighan column in Natural Parent magazine

25. Interview with Jan Fortune-Wood

Roland Meighan interviews Rev Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood, a vicar in Birmingham, a home-based educator and author of three books, one on home-based education, another on parenting and a third on the myth of 'free' education.

1.      You are one of the first cohort of female vicars - what is the story here and how is this working out?

Yes, I was ordained at the very first ordination of women in the Church of England in March 1994 in Bristol Cathedral. Before that I had been active in the campaign for women's ordination for about thirteen years, so it was a very important moment for me. My first church job was as a curate in Rotherhithe, London, where our third child was born. I had the first two at theological college and while I was there I completed a PhD in feminist theology.

In the weeks leading up to ordination there was a lot of media interest and a lot focused on me because I was pregnant with our fourth child at the time. In two weeks we gave over seventy interviews to every conceivable form of media from all over the globe. My first Communion service was on Mothering Sunday, which seemed very appropriate.

Since then I have moved to Birmingham and have been in this parish for six years. It is an outer estate with a lot of social deprivation and my main work has been a big fund raising campaign to refurbish our hall, which is one of the very few community spaces locally, and to employ a worker to establish community groups with parents, children and youth. We have raised almost 400,000 and set up a charity to run the hall.

In terms of doing the day-to-day job of being a parish priest, it is probably colleagues, or at least a minority of colleagues, who have more difficulty with my role than people attending church, whether regularly or for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Those on the receiving end of services are more concerned that the ministry is personal, inclusive and speaks to their individual stories than they are about my gender.

2.      Your first book, 'Doing It Their Way', draws on your experience of being a home-educator. How did you become a home-educator?

We started out thinking it was the best educational opportunity we could offer our children and used to share childcare and educating with another family who lived close to us in London. When we moved to Swindon our oldest child was five and half and our next child four. We felt that we needed more than one income, but didn't have the flexible child care arrangements we'd enjoyed in London so home educating seemed less possible and the children were happy to try school. It was a disaster from the start with very severe bullying soon dominating all of our lives. I'm very critical of the school system and of the role institutions can have in people's lives, but the most important thing for us to realize was that whilst we weren't the ones inflicting and ignoring the bullying and misery of our children, we were the ones with the power to stop it. All we had to do was simply deregister our children to open up a whole new world of possibility.

At the beginning of our home educating days we made the very fundamental mistake of thinking that education was some discrete package that could be delivered to children, and thinking that home and school were just alternative delivery systems. We thought we knew exactly what our children should be learning and just had to cram it all in. We were wrong. Our theories have changed a lot since then. We no longer make hard lines between education and life and our educational provision follows the children's intrinsic motivation and autonomy. When we first began I could never have imagined such an educational style, but it has been an incredibly liberating learning experience, not just for the children, but also for Mike and I as parents too.

3.      What was your message in the book?

I think the key concepts are 'autonomy' and 'intrinsic motivation '. In a sense we are constantly becoming home educators. We never arrive, but are always adapting and changing, making new knowledge. We use any resource that seems appropriate at the time - cinemas, TV, computers, books - stories and text books and formal courses, art supplies, museums, historic buildings, parks. We've learnt that it isn't the medium that matters so much as the motivation. If the motivation is intrinsic, then it works.

In the book I try to set out a framework for autonomous education and show that it has the support of a whole strand of educational philosophy and thinking behind it. I also look at some of the questions that people who are supporting their children's autonomy might face; questions about socialisation, about how the basics are learnt and what is meant by the whole notion of 'basics' anyway.

The aim is to give parents the confidence to be able to support their children as autonomous learners in their own right. It takes a lot of swimming against the stream of mainstream educational thinking with all its control techniques and standardised national curriculum, and I think it helps parents to know that they are not just following a whim, but can support their ideas about trusting children with alternative educational beliefs and theories and also that there are other people out there practicing the same kind of education.

The message of 'Doing It Their Way' is that learning and living are indistinguishable and that children know what they need to learn and can flourish by their own lights if their parents actively assist them.

4.      Your second book, 'Without Boundaries', develops a radical philosophy of parenting. Tell us about the 'taking children seriously' approach.

The style of education that evolved in our family obviously had a lot of spin offs for our whole lifestyle. It became more and more clear that once we had let education out of its narrow box, every area of life was going to be affected, so it was wonderful when we came across the 'Taking Children Seriously' philosophy.

Taking Children Seriously (TCS) is an educational and parenting philosophy founded by Sarah Lawrence that proposes that we can live consensually with our children. In essence, the theory is that we can and should eradicate coercion from parent-child relationships and instead seek common preferences, that is, solutions to the problems of daily living together which everyone genuinely prefers and in which everyone wins.

TCS is a whole lifestyle and we are constantly learning and growing along with it, but it is also very clearly an educational theory, suggesting that coercion sabotages our ability to think rationally and creatively and solve problems optimally. It is the most liberating and life changing theory I have ever come across and it is also a really practical way to live. 'Without Boundaries' is an attempt to set out the basic theories of TCS and answer some of the pressing questions that parents face when they try to live without coercion, really respecting and supporting their children's autonomy in all spheres of their life.

TCS is not a recipe for parental self-sacrifice, but for everyone in the family getting what they want - children and parents. It takes a lot of engagement and creativity, but it's my belief that all important relationships take work and are worth the work. I've also found that an awful lot of energy that used to go into conflict and compromise now gets used much more positively.

5.      How does it differ from 'laissez-faire' or 'anything goes'?

Laissez-faire parenting is actually very coercive in that it relies on neglect and parental negation of responsibility. TCS is not like that. TCS parents are very involved in their children's lives and TCS does not condone neglect, however dressed up in liberal philosophy.

The model of the TCS parent is someone who acts as a trusted adviser. Children can afford to listen, knowing that advice is simply the parent's best theories and that the parent doesn't consider him or herself infallible and isn't going to impose a solution. Abandoning children to their own devices without the constant input of information, moral beliefs and the gift of criticism is a failure of parental duty.

Not making the final decision about what another human being puts into his body is not the same as not offering our theories about nutrition, offering to do internet searches with the child on diet, and taking the child to lots of different eating establishments so that he can have fun experimenting with taste.

Giving our children privacy is not the same as ignoring them for several years and telling them to go away whenever they intrude on our space. Helping our children to learn about food preparation, because this is one of their areas of interest, is not an excuse never to cook for them, and so on.

TCS parents are very engaged parents. They don't simply 'leave their offspring to it'; rather they aim to ensure that their children have what they need to make well-informed decisions about their own lives. Of course, whatever path we choose in life comes with a certain amount of risks, but I feel that laissez-faire parenting is particularly risky because children have so little input and information on which to make decisions.

Believing that our children are autonomous human beings in their own right doesn't absolve us from caring deeply and I think parents have a very important obligation to be there for their children and help them find and meet their preferences.

6.      Your third book, 'Bound to be Free', is to be published shortly - what is your theme?

This book it slightly different in that it's a critical appraisal of how education, when institutionalised, can have very negative costs in people's lives, whereas, I argue, that home-education not only avoids those costs, but offers substantial benefits which are simply not available in institutional settings. In 'Bound to be Free' I explore the myth that compulsory, state-provided education is 'free' education and look at the impact this provision has on our freedom and autonomy, as children, parents or society.

In this book I am particularly trying to address two questions: 'If schooling is provided by the state, whose interests does it serve?' And, 'Is 'free' schooling really free, or does the apparent freedom mask a range of hidden costs over which consumers of education have very little control?' I also go on to look at some of those hidden costs in detail.

There is a lot of misery being inflicted on children in order to get them to conform to certain educational agendas. There is an enormous rise in medical, psychological and civil liberty intervention into children's lives and families under the guise of education. Conformity has a high price tag and the emotional costs of bullying and labelling which often accompany school experiences may prove too expensive to both individuality and free society. I am also concerned with how parents and children are deskilled in favour of 'experts'. I want to argue that the cult of expert teachers should be replaced by a culture of mentors and resources.

For autonomy and true freedom in education to flourish, I think we need to look to the Do-It-Yourself positive alternative of home education, whether undertaken by individual families or by voluntary communities. In the book I look at how home education retains philosophical control and personal accountability in the family; retains choice over the content of education; builds an educational culture which respects civil liberties; promotes divergence, individuality and emotional health; and focuses the skills base in families.

First published in Natural Parent in the November/December 2001 under the title of 'A different way'.

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Page last updated 12th April 2002