Rule 20: The state should stay out of home schooling

The UK plan to clamp down on home-schooling, partly to ensure children aren’t being abused, is a serious assault on parental autonomy.

Jennie Bristow

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Speaking personally, I find it hard to imagine a worse way of educating my children than trying to do it myself, at home. I don’t have the patience, inclination or energy for that kind of thing; and I also think state education, in principle, is brilliant.

It is good to have education provided by trained professionals who specialise in their subject knowledge. School is a great opportunity for children to socialise with kids of different ages and backgrounds to their own. The school day provides an opportunity, however limited, for parents to work – or at least to be relieved of their childcare responsibilities for several hours. The fact that all of this is provided by the state means that parents do not have to suffer hefty financial penalties for wanting their kids not to grow up ignorant. The list could go on.

But for all that, I can see why some parents might want to educate their children at home. And the recent UK government proposals to clamp down on home schooling represent a major blow to the principle of parental autonomy (1).

On 11 June, the children’s minister Delyth Morgan accepted in full the recommendations made by the Review of Elective Home Education in England, carried out in January by Graham Badman, former director of children’s services in Kent, England. Some of the recommendations seem practical and positive: for example, that local authorities should provide more help with accessing the national examination system, sports facilities, and so on. But the majority of the proposals made by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) in its press release are to do with bureaucratic regulation of home-educating families, with the clear aim of whittling down parents’ ability to make this choice (2).

So what has hit the headlines is that a compulsory annual registration scheme be established, in which all parents who plan to home educate have to inform their local authority. At the time of registration, parents will be asked to submit a statement of their intended approach to the child’s education – including a plan of what they aim to achieve over the following year. Having registered, parents will have to submit to checks by ‘properly trained local authority officials’, who will be given ‘the right of access to the home, following a minimum two-week notification to the parents’. These officials will check the child’s progress against their learning statement, and ‘they will also have the right to speak to the child, to ensure they are safe and well’. A key justification for this increased monitoring is that ‘there are a small number of extreme cases’ in which home education has been used as a cover for child abuse.

It is not surprising that Education Otherwise, the vocal home education support charity, has reacted against these proposals. But why should the rest of us care? Home-educated children are in a minority, and often in unusual circumstances – estimates of the numbers range from 20,000 to 80,000, and a relatively high proportion of these children have special needs that are not easily catered for by schools. By contrast, the majority of parents in the UK access state education, and have come to take for granted that their children’s education and welfare will be closely monitored by the authorities.

Parents and teachers are all too familiar with the regime of fear and conformity that invades state schools every few years when the Ofsted inspector comes to call, and the way that the success or failure of one inspection determines the degree of intervention and regulation to which the school is then subjected. Thanks to such initiatives as the free early years entitlement for three- and four-year olds, and the Early Years Foundation Stage policy framework (the ‘toddlers’ curriculum) introduced in September 2008 (3), private day nurseries and childminders are also targeted for monitoring by the official educational inspectorate – despite the fact that pre-schoolers cannot be said to be receiving ‘education’ in any meaningful sense.

In this context, it would be peculiar if the state decided not to extend its reach to home-schooled children. However, that does not mean that it is right that it should do so.

Education Otherwise has organised a petition against the tightening government regulations. Its author, Roxane Featherstone, argues: ‘The essence of totalitarianism is that the state maintains that it has all the answers to life and that virtually every sphere of human activity: education, the family, child welfare as well as every other area of existence needs the controlling and guiding hand of the state.’ (4) This kind of rhetoric seems unfashionably alarmist: accusations of totalitarianism sit uneasily with a government that poses its interventions in terms of supporting families and protecting children from harm, and in any case most parents do not want to opt out of state education.

But the idea that there should be no opt-out available – that all parents have no choice but to submit to official control over their children’s education – cuts to the heart of the question of parental autonomy. The acceptance that parents can choose to educate their children themselves if they want to is a tacit recognition that state education is a service that parents can access for the benefit of their families. The new proposals shift that balance of power, so that state-monitored education becomes something that all children must receive – and in the case of home schooling, parents are mere practitioners, delivering an officially approved scheme of work. This means that the scope for parents to decide that, actually, the curriculum or teaching practice on offer within schools is not the best for their child, becomes much more limited.

It is not only home schooling that has become subject in recent years to increased state regulation. Ofsted has the independent (private) school sector well within its sights (5), and, as noted above, privately provided pre-school provision is already subject to the myriad regulations of the Early Years Foundation Stage and Every Child Matters. The high-profile legal battle between Ofsted and the famously alternative, ‘child-centred’ Summerhill School back in March 2000 illustrated the state’s determination to bring alternative approaches to education and child-rearing into line (6).

Fortunately, Summerhill won this particular case. But it shows that the issue at stake here is not about home schooling versus school, so much as about how much parents and educators are permitted to deviate from the official orthodoxy. From private childcare to home schooling of disabled children, the clear message is not just that the state knows best, but that even those who profoundly disagree with this sentiment should be dragged along with the programme of state-controlled education. The review of home schooling makes plain how far the authorities are prepared to go in making home-educating parents play ball: those who refuse may find themselves under suspicion of using home education as a cover for abusing their own children.

The irony is that this comes at a time when public and professional faith in state education is at an all-time low. One piece of propaganda produced by Education Otherwise systematically takes apart the claim that ‘school is the best place to educate a child’ by linking to numerous articles from the mainstream press bemoaning the failings of the testing regime, the problem of bullying, the lack of the right kind of provision for children with special needs, the way that increasing numbers of parents are employing private tutors to compensate for the inadequacies of school education… (7). As an argument as to why opting out is better, this doesn’t work for me. But as an example of the worry and disdain that state education today inspires amongst teachers and parents alike, it is extremely effective.

The more ground that is lost in the argument as to why state education is better for children than its alternatives, the more the state attempts to bully families and professionals into compulsory inclusion in its agenda. This is an expression of the state’s weakness rather than its ‘totalitarian’ intentions, but it is no less damaging for that. When the state resorts to bully tactics to make people toe the line, it destroys the basis for positive support.

As for parents: whatever our own views about home schooling, the principle of parental autonomy in relation to education is crucial for all of us, for the simple reason that it provides a clear demarcation between being able to do what we think is best for our children, and having to do what officials decree is best for them. For all the nonsense talked about choice in education, our only real choice as parents comes from the knowledge that if our children’s schooling becomes really bad, we can always pull them out of it.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude, and runs the writing and editing service Punctuate!

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) Home educators made to register, BBC News, 11 June 2009

(2) Better monitoring and support for home educated children in England, DCSF, 11 June 2009

(3) See Down with the Early Years blueprint! Parents With Attitude, 27 May 2008

(4) Home Educators’ Petition Rejecting the State as Parent of First Resort Strikes a Chord, Freedom for Children to Grow, 9 March 2009

(5) For example: Private schools warn over ‘rottweiler’ Ofsted, Evening Standard, 1 October 2007

(6) Summerhill’s fight with the UK government Summerhill School, Accessed 13 June 2009

(7) The Best Place to Educate a Child, Freedom for Children to Grow, Accessed 13 June 2009

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