When he was three years old, Matthew Crippen was described by a Harley Street educational psychologist as 'the most gifted under-five I've ever tested'. He had the IQ of a nine-year-old, and the psychologist urged his parents to get him into school quickly. After a battle with their local education authority, Matthew eventually started at his local primary in Hemel Hempstead when he was four years and two months old. What should have been an enjoyable experience turned into a nightmare.
'He used to come home from school,' says Matthew's father, Steve, 'disgusted at the simple things they had to do. One day he said: 'We had to count buckets.' He couldn't see the logic in it. He didn't see why you had to count buckets: why couldn't you just count numbers? He said he was really disappointed with school. He thought he was going to learn to read and write, but all they did all day was count buckets and play with sand.' His mother, Gill, adds: 'Yes, he could multiply and divide when he went to school. He couldn't understand why a six-year-old was still drawing a picture of the sun with a face on it. He said: 'Don't they realise it's a star?' - but the more he said, the more he was disliked.'
The dislike turned into bullying, and Matthew frequently returned home with large bruises on his face. Within a few months, Steve and Gill Crippen saw changes in their son's personality. As Gill recalls: 'You would ask him a question and he'd just say 'Don't know' or 'Can't do it', whereas before he was inventing things. I once showed him how magnets attract and repel, and 10 minutes later he said: 'Can't we build an engine and make the pistons go up and down using electro-magnets?' '
After a while, the Crippens began to think that their son had always been grumpy and aggressive. They forgot what a lovely child he had been before he started school. 'I used to help out at the school,' Gill says, 'and they would ask such simple questions that in the end he'd say: 'I don't know.' I'd be willing him to answer because I knew he did know but just couldn't be bothered to answer. In the first week or two he was answering all the questions because he was very keen and wanted to show everyone what he could do, and then the other children used to pick on him in the playground.
'He was really miserable and it got to the stage where he started running out of school. He was four years old and it's three miles away, but he said he'd rather walk round the streets than go in there. He'd be screaming and shouting. The teachers just said: 'Never mind, he'll grow out of it, he'll adjust, it takes time.' On Sports Day he was miserable and crying. Steve just said: 'Right, we'll take him out'.'
The Crippens took Matthew out of school without knowing what the legal situation was. Gill recalled reading a magazine article some years earlier about an organisation called Education Otherwise, which dealt with people
who educated their children at home. She got their phone number from the library and contacted a member of their staff, Jane Lowe.
'The legal situation is quite straightforward,' Jane Lowe explains. 'If your child hasn't yet attended school, then you needn't inform anyone that you intend to educate them at home. If your child has attended school, then you must inform the school and the local education authority. They will send an inspector round to see what arrangements you've made. The inspector will usually visit once a year to see how the children are getting on, but they tend to be more concerned with the older children - and obviously, every authority and every family is a different situation.'
An inspector visited Steve and Gill, who say that pressure was put on them to keep Matthew in school. It was pointed out that as neither of them was a qualified teacher, a private tutor would need to be brought in at an estimated cost of pounds 150 per week. 'It's just tactics,' Gill says. 'It's not the law, and if you know the law you're all right.'
'I think they put pressure on you,' Steve says, 'because they want to know that you are committed to what you're doing. It probably helps weed out the weaker families who maybe aren't quite sure or perhaps aren't doing it for the right reasons. If you're determined to do it, there's nothing they can say to stop you.' The LEA's concern is understandable when you consider that neither Steve nor Gill has any qualifications. Steve left school at 15, and now runs his own site clearance and roofing company. Gill hoped to stay on at school and try for university, but she left at 18 when her parents wanted her to get a job and help with the mortgage. For the last eight months she has taken responsibility for educating Matthew, now five and a half, and their daughter, Sarah, who has just turned four.
So where does Gill go for advice on what she should be teaching? 'I go to the library once a week,' she says, 'and we do project work. If we're doing a water project, then I'll read everything I can on canal locks and how they work; we'll go down to the waterway, watch ripples, work out litres, sit in the bath for hours doing maths . . .'
'We just learn as we go,' Steve adds. 'We learn with the child. Knowledge has to come from somewhere; all educated people have to learn from books . . . it's just as easy for us to go to that source and find out. The teacher who teaches the teachers reads it somewhere.'
Matthew already believes in going to the source, as he uses the family computer to write to people constantly. Having decided he wanted to see a space satellite, he recently wrote to Nasa to ask if he could visit one. Wondering how a ship was built, he wrote to a ship-builder to find out. He also wrote to Education Otherwise. The first paragraph of his letter began this article. The second paragraph went on:
'In EO there are no bullies, just friends. The work is 10 times harder at home which is much nicer for me. When I was at school I used to scream my head off, now I laugh.'
Matthew was recently re-assessed by the same educational psychologist who saw him at three, at the suggestion of Mensa. His IQ is now that of a 12-year-old. 'So I must be doing something right,' says his mother.
Education Otherwise: 0926 886828,
Mensa: 0902 772771