The real threat to home education

Over the last year or two, quite a few people seem to have fallen prey to the delusion that some kind of war is being waged against home educators in this country. We hear of a campaign of vilification, attempts to introduce legislation which would limit the freedoms of home educating parents and all sorts of other alarming things. The odd thing is that although I know quite a few teachers, social workers and local authority officers, I have never heard any of them say that they wish to put an end to the practice of home education. Nor have I heard this wish being expressed by anybody else. True, many people have reservations about home education. These often centre around tired old chestnuts like socialisation or a supposed inability to study science without a state-of-the art laboratory. Never once have I heard anyone say that they think that somebody should put a stop to home education.

This is quite curious, in view of the feeling of being beleaguered and menaced by hostile forces ranged against them which quite a few home educators seem to have. What can explain the discrepancy between the way things actually are and the way that some parents think that they are? In order to understand this, we must look to the past.

Home education has never been illegal in this country. Indeed, until the nineteenth century, it was probably the most common form of education in use. Even with the advent of universal schooling in 1870, under the so-called Forster's Act, a loophole was left which meant that those who did not wish to send their children to school would not be compelled to do so. Introducing the Elementary Education Act to the Commons on February 17th 1870, W.E. Forster said:

'We give power to the school boards to frame bye-laws for compulsory
attendance of all children within their district from five to twelve. They
must see that no parent is under a penalty for not sending his child to
school if he can show reasonable excuse; reasonable excuse being
education elsewhere, or sickness...'

Just like the later 'at school or otherwise' which was included in the 1944 and later the 1996 Education Acts, so too with the 1870 Act. Instead of 'education otherwise' this had the get-out clause of 'education elsewhere'.

A mythology has built up around the home education movement in this country. Briefly stated, the standard version is as follows. Apart from one or two brave souls like Joy Baker, home education by parents was all but unheard of in the UK until the 1970s. Then a few daring pioneers like Iris Harrison and the parents of Oak Reah attempted to undertake it and were quickly pounced on by their local authority. As a result of the court cases against these early home educating parents, the practice gradually became established as lawful and local authorities were reluctantly compelled to acknowledge the right of parents to teach their own children. This is a very neat and appealing scenario, but unfortunately it is also wholly untrue and misleading. The legal action against both the Harrisons and the Reahs began in 1977, the same year that Education Otherwise was founded. Iris Harrison was a founding member of education Otherwise. All this helped create the myth that local authorities were at that time bitterly opposed to home education and determined to stamp it out. This was not really the case at all. There were other home educating parents at that time who were known to their LEAs and had perfectly good relations with them. Take Harry Lawrence, for instance. He began home educating his five year-old daughter Ruth officially in 1976 and nobody turned a hair. Why should they? It was obvious that the child was being educated and also clear that he had a perfect right to teach her at home if he wished, rather than sending her to school.

The reason Iris Harrison was taken to court was not because her children were not being sent to school. It was because she was allowing them to spend their time doing pretty much as they wished. If her daughter wished to play the violin all day, that was fine. Her son preferred tinkering with engines; he was allowed to do that rather than studying maths or science. In the case of Oak Reah's parents, it was not because they were home educating that they ended up in court. He was not the only home educated child in Leeds; none of the other parents were having any problems. It was the fact that Oak's parents refused to answer any letters or tell anybody what provision was being made for his education that they were prosecuted.

In short, thirty five years ago, just as now, local authorities were prepared to accept home education. What they were uneasy about were families that would either refuse to tell them what they were doing or were not apparently educating their children. Most teachers are well aware that individualised, one-to-one tuition in a relaxed, domestic setting is a fantastically effective method of teaching. Education professionals know perfectly well that children can do well in such an educational setting. What they are dubious about is the benefits of allowing a child to direct the course of her own learning. Because when those running Internet support lists for home educating parents say things like,

'obviously education takes place all the time and much can be learnt from surfing the net and watching TV! It is impossible for education not to take place, we're all learning all the time!'

then it sets alarm bells ringing. When parents casually assert that they are not worried if their children cannot read at the age of twelve and that this does not matter at all, this too causes massive concern. It is these sort of attitudes which pose the real threat to home education in this country and it is this sort of mentality which makes local authorities demand extra powers so that they can ensure that children aged between five and sixteen are provided with the efficient education which is their legal entitlement. The threat to home education is coming not from the local authorities or the Department for Education, but from those within the home educating community who raise the fear that many children who are not at school are nor really being educated at all.