The need for democratic legitimacy for representatives of home educators

Every single person in this country who claims to speak on behalf of home educating parents is doing so because they have appointed themselves to this role. This applies to me, Mike Fortune-Wood, Education Otherwise, Alison Sauer; every single one of us. Not one of us has any democratic legitimacy whatsoever. In fact, looked at from that point of view, the only person during the debate about home education last year who had any claim to being appointed in a democratic fashion was Ed Balls. This is a sobering but inescapable conclusion.

What can we do about this problem? For problem it most certainly is. While we are in a situation where nobody has been chosen democratically, the field is open for anybody to claim that he or she represents the interests of home educators. Politicians cannot deal with every one of the estimated eighty thousand or so parents of home educated children in this country. They have to deal with one or two people. Unfortunately, the people who put themselves forward in this way do not really represent anybody except themselves and their own interests. They may have manoeuvred themselves into this position simply because they are articulate, plausible and know how to approach MPs. They are not accountable. This is far from satisfactory. It is a recipe for behind the scenes deals which will then be presented to other home educating parents as a fait accompli.

A related problem is that home educating parents are powerless to affect all the various things supposedly being done on their behalf or for their benefit. They were powerless to prevent Graham Badman's recommendations and they were also powerless to prevent people like me or Fiona Nicholson putting ourselves forward and shooting our mouths off at the select committee. They are currently powerless to know, or have any influence upon, what is being done on their behalf by others who are now negotiating with MPs. Until all home educating parents have a chance to choose representatives who speak on their behalf, the anger and frustration which many in that community feel is likely to remain.

The only way around this which I can see would be if every single home educator were known to local authorities. If that were to be the case then an outside body, somebody like the Electoral reform Society, could supervise the distribution of nominations and ballots so that each local area could elect two or three people who would genuinely speak for home educating parents in that part of the country. Doing it locally like this would prevent a national organisation like Education Otherwise from dominating the process. If representatives could be democratically elected in this way, then the way would be open to forming local councils consisting of home educators, local authority officers and perhaps independent members of the wider community who could supervise anything to do with home education in each local authority area. Having independent members on such a council would prevent either the local authority or home educators from having too much control. Only those who were currently home educating their children would be eligable to stand for this council or vote. This would also remove a number of self appointed experts from any position of influence.

It will not have escaped notice that a scheme of this sort would require the compulsory registration of home educators and I am aware that many are not in favour of this. The advantage of such local councils would be that the local authority would become accountable in a way that they are not presently. Democratically elected home educators would be able to speak on behalf of other home educating parents and they would have real power in the shaping of policy and practice in their area. This would introduce a new era of openness in the way that local authorities operate with regard to home education. There are frequent complaints about so-called ultras vires practices. If every aspect of the local authority's approach to home education had been hammered out in the presence of elected and accountable members of the home educating community, this would not be possible. Every detail would be worked on openly by both local authority officers and home educating parents together. The independent members would ensure that objective witnesses were present at all discussions between the two sides.

This scheme would only work if every home educator was involved; if every home educating parent had the chance to stand for office and vote. Hence the need for compulsory registration. Home educating parents with a grievance about their local authority's actions would be able to take it to a democratic representative who could raise the matter at the next meeting of the Home Education Council. It would work just as local councillors now work on behalf of people in their ward.

Different areas have very different concerns about home education. For example, a parent in the Western Isles might have a very different set of problems about home education than a mother in a large metropolitan district. For this reason, a national council or anything run by a national organisation would not really work. The essence of this scheme is that it would be operated by local home educators for local home educators. The sticking point would be the need for compulsory registration, but I fancy that that particular point is already under active discussion with MPs. I would be surprised if this does not appear on the scene shortly whatever else happens. Until every single home educating parent has a say, via democratically elected and accountable representatives with equal power to the officers of the local authority, there will continue to be conflict over the whole question of home education.