Changing the law on home education

One gains the distinct impression when reading Internet lists devoted to home education that many, perhaps most, home educators want nothing to change and for the legal situation regarding home education to remain just as it is now. In a way, I can sympathise with this view. I am myself a conservative and more or less opposed to anything new, almost as a matter of principle. It is heartening to see so many others in the world of home education who embrace this basic tenet of conservatism! Still. it seems a little odd to me that the present jumble and complicated mishmash of statute law and precedent should appear to so many parents as the being the best of all possible worlds. After all, in order to establish the position of elective home education in this country, we must routinely consider case law a century old (Bevan v Shears 1911) and also cases which had absolutely nothing at all to do with home education (R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust 1985).

When Badman published his findings, one of the recommendations which annoyed certain home educating parents most was the suggestion that each year they should provide a statement of educational intent; something which looked perilously like a curriculum. Some denounced this proposal on the grounds that it would render autonomous education impossible. This may or may not be true, but there seems little doubt that the law provides already for such a thing, both for schools and home educators.

What actually is the duty of home educating parents as regards their child's education? That's easy! Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 tells us that;

'The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to
receive efficient full-time education'

There now, it couldn't be simpler. Just make sure that you are causing your kid to receive an efficient education to begin with and you should be OK. There is of course no definition in statute law of what is meant by an 'efficient' education. We are compelled to turn to old court cases, particularly the two which I cited above. In the course of one of those cases, R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust 1985, Mr Justice Woof gave it as his opinion that an 'efficient' education was one that 'achieves what it sets out to achieve.' That seems that's quite clear, I hope.

The implications of this piece of precedent are sobering. Forget about home education for a moment. In fact forget about any sort of education and ask yourself this. How in day to day life do I know of any task or undertaking whether I have achieved what I set out to achieve? For example laying out a garden, decorating a room, writing a blogpost or sorting out the sock drawer. The answer is fairly obvious. You will know if you have achieved what you set out to achieve because you knew what you were setting out to achieve. You compare what you were planning to do with what you have actually done and see if the two things match. This seems pretty straightforward. How does this tie in with the definition of an efficient education which we are legally obliged to provide for our children? Plainly, if we do not know what we are setting out to achieve, then we will not know if we have achieved it. So we must have a plan to begin with, before we even embark upon the enterprise. How could it be otherwise?

A plan for providing an education is, essentially, a curriculum. Or, at the very least, it would be a statement of educational intent. It would be what the parent is setting out to achieve. Without this plan, he will be quite unable to fulfil his legal duty of providing an efficient education for his child, because how would he know whether he had achieved what he set out to achieve? There is not the slightest doubt that a plan must exist in the parent's mind if he is to have any hope of providing an efficient education. What is the objection to his sharing this plan with others? In other words, we can see that he must have a collection of aims in his own mind for the education which he proposes to provide. Without these aims, as we have seen, he could not be sure of achieving what he set out to achieve and we know that he is legally obliged to do this.

The case for a statement of educational intent is thus unanswerable as the law stands. Such a statement must exist for every home educator, even if it is not committed to paper. This is just one of the implications contained in the current law. There are a number of others, equally surprising and alarming to some parents.

Because the current legal position which affects home education has built up in a haphazard fashion over the last century and nowhere mentions home education per se, we are bound to find ourselves struggling. The law as it stands leaves plenty of room for abuse by local authorities, as others have observed. It also offers scope for parents who are not providing their children with an education. It is high time that home education became a recognised and legally defined choice for parents. The duties and obligations of both local authorities and parents should be plainly set out in a way which reflects the realities of life in a twenty first century Western democracy. The real risk to home educators lies in the current way that home education is being affected by various new laws as they are added to the statute book, laws which are framed without any thought of home education but which nevertheless have a profound effect upon a home educating parents. Things such as the amendment to the Education Act 1996, Section 436A, which laid upon all local authorities a duty to identify children missing from education. It is in the steady drip of such new laws that the real threat to home education lies, not in regularising the practice and putting it on a proper legal footing.