The topsy-turvy world of the home educators

It isn't hard to see sometimes why local authority officers get a bit ratty with certain home educating parents. Often, the reason is that these parents are working to a set of standards and beliefs which are pretty well diametrically opposed to what everybody else in the UK thinks. An exaggeration? Not really. let's look at a few specific examples.

Almost everybody in Britain regards education as a way to get on in the world. Formal qualifications are accepted as being a useful tool to demonstrate knowledge and ability and to help in getting a good job, training course or university place. When I suggested this over the last couple of days, I was pounced on at once. In fact, according to several home educators, formal qualifications can actually prevent one from getting a job or advancing into higher education. Some home educating parents see them as a positive hindrance and cannot see why anybody would bother with examinations at all. Here is what one person had to say:

A stack of A*s might help if you intend to compete for places at RG universities or blue chip management trainee places after graduation, but they could reduce your chances with local companies looking for someone who is likely to stay with them, rather than disappear the moment they get a better offer from elsewhere.

Here is somebody else who thinks that having GCSEs might not be a good idea:

gaining one set of qualifications will reduce opportunities to gain others and may close or reduce opportunities in *some* employment routes,

And another;

often people with no or very few exams results is a better bet as he/she is more likely to stay in the job long term!

All these people were commenting on what I thought was the fairly uncontroversial suggestion that having five GCSEs at grades A*-C was better for a teenager's prospects than not having any GCSEs at all! It is this sort of thing which makes some rational people who are sympathetic towards home education (and indeed some dedicated home educators themselves) bang their heads up and down on their desks in frustration.

Here is another instance. Almost without exception, parents and teachers in this country feel that it is a good thing for children to start reading at an early age. Not only does this help in their thinking skills, it also enables them to learn through books and other printed material, as well as expanding their vocabulary, increasing their attention span and enabling them to learn to spell painlessly. Almost every parent and teacher in the country would be worried and disturbed if children were unable to read at the age of twelve or thirteen. Some home educating parents though seem almost to revel in the fact that their children cannot read by the age at which everybody else's kids are starting secondary school. They refuse to see this as a problem and insist that it is the doctrinaire ideologues of the orthodox educational establishment who are at fault for expecting such a thing.

These are just two examples; I could give many more. What this means is that when teachers and local authority officers come into contact with such parents, there is little common ground. This can result in mutual frustration and anger, because even the most rudimentary elements of an education such as a curriculum, are viewed by some of these parents as part of a sinister plot to harm their particular style of education. It is extraordinarily difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with those whose world-view is so different from everybody else. One finds the same thing when talking to Scientologists or Jehovah's Witnesses. Indeed, some of the more extreme and dedicated of these parents put one in mind of the followers of a particularly outlandish religion. Just as I long to say to the person selling the Watchtower 'You don't really believe all that nonsense, do you?', so too I would like to ask these parents 'You don't really think that having five GCSEs at grades A*-C could be a bad thing for a teenager, do you?'. Evidently, they do and there is no more to be said about the matter.

No wonder that most local authorities are calling for additional legal powers to monitor and supervise home education. Parents who believe that the possession of GCSEs might jeopardise or harm employment prospects or hinder progression into higher education. Others who deny the wisdom of teaching children to read and write before they become teenagers. Still others whose ideology brings them into conflict with current case law which touches upon home education. Take the simple need for a statement of educational intent for the coming year, a suggested requirement which provoked howls of protest and a chorus of condemnation in some quarters. What does the law say about this? In the judgement in the case of R v Secretary of State for education, ex Parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust in 1985, Mr Justice Woolf ruled that an 'efficient' education was one which ' 'achieves what it sets out to achieve'. This is one of the key cases of precedent which establish in law what is meant by an 'efficient' and 'suitable' education. Since home educating parents, like all other parents in the UK, must cause their children to receive an efficient education and since this must be one which 'achieves what it sets out to achieve', it follows logically that all home educating parents must be setting out to achieve certain aims in the education which they are providing. Otherwise of course, they could hardly know later whether or not they have achieved 'what they set out to achieve'. This shows clearly that they must have a set of aims and that there can be no objection to them writing those aims down and sharing them with others.

Until some parents make a few alterations to their views on education, I cannot see that conflict with local authorities is likely to diminish. Speaking for myself, I can readily understand why local authority officers find that dealing with certain parents has a nightmarish, Alice in Wonderland quality.