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For more information about home education in Sheffield, please use the contact form http://edyourself.org/contact/

Sheffield hosted the first Campaign Workshop at Heeley Institute on Sunday 28 January.

This was run as a pilot project to see what interest we might get and to find out what worked (and what didn't).

It was organised by Fiona Nicholson and Annette Taberner who are both members of Education Otherwise Government Policy Group. In addition Fiona is Local Contact for Education Otherwise in Sheffield and Annette is Chair of SHEN, Sheffield Home Educators' Network (a local support group which has been running in Sheffield for nearly 8 years).

The workshop ran from 11-3, and was held on a Sunday.

Some points about that timing:

  1. It had to be a weekend in order to get as many families as possible. We felt on balance that Sunday was better because it was arranged at very short notice and we were aware that many of our members already had commitments for Saturdays. This would not necessarily be an issue for a workshop with more lead time.
  2. Some home educators are from a religious background and will have issues around meeting on a Sunday or a Saturday or indeed a Friday and it is as well to have a person at grassroots level who is tapped into this local knowledge and who can nominate the least bad day.
  3. Why 11-3? Because we wanted to split the day into two with a lunch break in the middle. And because we also wanted to make it clear that is was a whole day event. We didn't want it to finish late because of families with younger children some of whom would then have to travel a fair way home. On the other hand home educators are not famous for early starts...so this was a compromise
One thing I would like to say straight away about the timing is that the organisers should budget for the meeting to start half an hour late ie if you TELL people 11-3 it will actually start nearer 11.30 and then you have to decide which agenda items to skip or whether to cut the lunch break or run on later in the afternoon ( but you may have to leave the pre-booked venue by a certain time...and people may have other commitments later...and people will not have brought packed lunches even though you begged them to, because they are hoping they can nip out somewhere and pick up some food which is really not compatible with an abbreviated lunch break.

In Sheffield we couldn't get the room keys till 15 minutes before the event was due to begin. This was Bad News. ( But it occurred because we were operating on a shoe string and so we could not call the shots ) Ideally you would book the venue for the hour before AND the hour after the event ie we should have had it from 10-4 .This way people can turn up early and help to set things out and mingle informally all of which helps the meeting proper to start nearer the right time.

We tied signs to lamp posts near the venue and at the main junction road . We also posted the URL to the Google map for the venue and instructions on how to reach the area from major out of town roads and also by various forms of public transport. We also assessed the venue in terms of disabled access and free onsite or adjacent parking.

We did take the precaution of booking two rooms ( even though this doubled our cost ) because You Never Know.

As it turned out we had late confirmation that someone would run a free creche for us so we used the room for the children who did not want to participate in the workshop , which made the meeting much better for all ages.

I would strongly recommend that you organise a creche as soon as possible and give people as much advance notice of this facility as possible.

As to the size of the venue : because we were a pilot project and we weren't able to give people much notice we had no idea how many people would turn up. So we decided that we would rather have a small hall crowded than a big hall three quarters empty ( also of course a big hall tends to be more expensive and cost was more of an issue in Sheffield since Education Otherwise had not yet granted funding for the regional workshops )

As to the meeting itself :

We had about thirty people, I suppose. I lost count but we did have everyone fill in pre-printed registration sheets with contact details for follow up and which included consent forms for being photographed and the photos made available on the internet via this campaign website.

The photographs were taken by a local journalist, Shirley Watson, who has also worked in PR and media teams for local and regional government departments and who is now studying photo-journalism.

Shirley was at the event from the beginning and she also gave a presentation in the afternoon session on how to work with the press and how to get the media on your side.

We all sat round in a circle ; this wasn't decided in advance , but there was a big pile of chairs in the corner and people just decided to arrange them that way.

I opened the meeting with a brief introduction to the Every Child Matters agenda set out by Sheffield Council and I summarised the work we have done in Sheffield on this to date

I didn't go into detail about what Education Otherwise was doing specifically because I knew that Phil Hicks, Chair of the EO Government Policy Group was going to cover this area. But if Phil were unable to attend a workshop ( this is quite likely as he has weekend and other commitments ) then I would undertake to cover this area myself.

At this stage there were no questions from the floor but as the workshop progressed it became far more an exchange of views and ideas with people asking questions of the people doing the presentations.

We then had a local home educating parent who is a social worker in the same Council department which now covers education, ie CYPD or Children and Young People's Directorate. Linda was able to walk us through how the Children Act 2004 has impacted on local services for children and families and also answered questions on the social work perspective on the Information Sharing Index ( the national database )

At this point the workshop opened up quite a bit because Phil Hicks had observations to make about the Education Otherwise perspective on the Children Act and with Children Missing Education since Phil took charge of the EO response to the DfES on CME ( Section 4 of the Education and Inspection Act ) which also happens to be administered centrally from the DfES building in Sheffield.

And I had issues with the benign Local Authority view on the ISI since I had piloted the Education Otherwise consultation response on this to the DfES only a month ago and I outlined some of the many many agencies which the DfES suggested might be drawn into the database as active participants ( up to half a million registered users having access to the database )

Unsurprisingly, there were many questions from the people at the meeting about how this might affect ordinary home educators in the short medium and long term and many people spoke of the impact they anticipated it might have on their families and what we might be able to do about it.

Phil Hicks, Chair of EO Government Policy Group who had come specially from London to take part in this pilot workshop then gave an overview of how Education Otherwise was moving into the regions to reach people who did not come to Gatherings. He also gave us an account of the meeting between Peter Walsh at the DfES and members of EO Government Policy Group shortly before Christmas when the DfES explained the rationale for the imminent consultation on "light touch changes to the monitoring of home education "

Again there were many opportunities for people to ask questions and make comments during this part of the workshop.

This free exchange of views continued during the lunch break. We asked parents who had children in the creche to go and collect their children so that the creche volunteers could be liberated for their own lunch and have a chance to catch up with what everyone was doing. The lunch time had to be shortened because we started late, but this could be prevented with better planning and earlier access to the venue at subsequent workshops.

In the afternoon we wanted to cover working with the press and getting a positive representation of home education in the media . It was generally agreed that there was mistrust based on ignorance among the wider population. We circulated copies of a positive two page feature on home education from the local Sheffield evening paper (both families interviewed and photographed for the article were present at the workshop).

We also wanted to cover establishing a relationship with your MP and getting him/her to work for you.

The first thing we did was to split into groups of four and discuss what home education meant to us and how we might dispel common misconceptions. This talking amongst ourselves lasted maybe ten minutes and we then went round the room with Annette writing feedback on a flipchart board.

Our friendly local journalist Shirley then outlined how we could work with the press : local papers, trade and professional journals, the national press, specialist educational press, local and national radio and so on. She gave tips on how to write a press release and how to build up a positive working relationship with friendly journalists. Her main points were to do with our keeping or taking control of the process so that we were not caught unprepared or unawares or pushed into doing something we didn't feel comfortable with .

There is a fuller report on this elsewhere but one of Shirley's main recommendations was that we draw up a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and agree on some common ground so that we had a sort of "crib sheet " and we knew that anyone who elected to speak to the media was briefed on the pitfalls of certain types of responses to journalists' questions.

Shirley advised us that we should be prepared particularly when dealing with the local newspapers that we would be photographed in a clearly identifiable way and with our full names, addresses and ages printed in the paper as well as those of our children.

One suggestion which we did not have time to follow up at the workshop was to consider role playing exercises in the local groups , ideally filmed on digital camera and then replayed with each person then taking the opposite side and playing devil's advocate. This pressed home the theme of being prepared and taking control.

Local home ed parent Jayne Roscamp , who is also Local Contact for Education Otherwise in Rotherham then spoke about her family's media experiences last Autumn from appearing in a feature and studio debate on home education for The Politics Show Northern Region on BBC One, to appearing in the Breakfast Show on Radio Sheffield and featuring in a two page spread on home education in the local paper.

As it happened, the day before the workshop a local home educating parent, Carole had been with Annette to see her local MP at a constituency surgery. This was the first time that Carole had done anything like this before and she was very fired up about it and delivered an impassioned speech about how she felt there were injustices in respect of provision for 14-16 year olds ( the funding for this in Sheffield is about to be cut ) The MP, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat ( former MEP ) had no prior knowledge of home education. Carole had been warned that he could only give her five or ten minutes but in the end they were there for half an hour and Nick Clegg undertook to speak to Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education about Carole's concerns.

It was impossible in such a short space of time to cover all the issues raised by the proposed threat to the changes in monitoring home education but we did want at least to touch on the subject of children with Special Educational Needs where it can be virtually impossible to access any kind of funding or provision if the child is outside the maintained school system and does not have the per capita funding.

We had a local home ed parent talk about her deaf pre-school-age child and the difficulties she faced in accessing any help and how she felt she was being pushed into special school provision because the system was just not geared up to help home educators. We could have spent much longer on the whole area of SEN and home education and I understand that this may be covered in much more depth at subsequent regional workshops.

The last fifteen minutes or so of the meeting was taken up with exchange of news and view and resolutions to keep up the momentum generated by the workshop.

During the meeting various papers were given out to form part of a Workshop Briefing Pack.

It is a matter for the local organisers to decide whether they want to make this material available all at once or whether they hand it out during the meeting. We chose the latter because we felt people would pay more attention to separate items than they would to receiving a ton of information at once.

For future regional workshops the EO Government Policy Co-ordinator would supply this printed material if requested and it will also become available to download from this site in advance.

Fiona Nicholson
Education Otherwise Government Policy Group
Monday 29th January 2007

Food for Thought:
Home Education for Teenagers

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