Undermining democracy

I am a great fan of democracy. It has its faults, but as Churchill said, 'Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time'. I am always irritated to see democracy being threatened or sidestepped in this country and unfortunately this is just what is happening at the moment with home education.

I live in a town called Loughton on the edge of London. We have a District Council and Town Council, both run by democratically elected councillors. If they screw up, we can vote them out at the next election. Parking enforcement is a big issue locally and there are usually campaigns being run about where yellow lines should be or which streets should require parking permits. This is all sorted out locally by vigorous debate among residents, councillors and local authority officers. Imagine how annoying it would be if a group of people from Sheffield and Wales invited themselves here and tried to bulldoze and bluster the council into changing their parking policies and arguing that their own ideas on the subject would be much better! I for one would object strongly. I would object even if these outsiders were pushing an agenda which I agreed with. Because they do not live here, are not voters and have not been democratically elected by anybody, they would have no business coming here and poking their nose in!

Perhaps some readers are now seeing where this argument is tending. Mike Fortune-Wood from Wales, Fiona Nicholson from Sheffield and Ian Dowty from London all went to Birmingham recently to try and persuade the local authority there to alter their policy on elective home education. Several points about this strike one immediately. Firstly, none of these people have the least particle of democratic legitimacy. They are, like the present writer, self-appointed pundits, chosen by nobody. This is in stark contrast to Birmingham City Council, who have been elected. As a thought experiment, let us try and imagine what the reaction would be if it came to light that I had invited myself to Birmingham and was trying to get the council to take a more gung ho approach towards monitoring. People would say, and quite rightly, that it was none of my business. Another point to consider is this. When I gave evidence to the Children, Schools and Families select committee last year, a great deal was made of the fact that since my daughter was sixteen, I could not be regarded as a home educator. There were angry comments to this effect on the Internet HE lists and people even contacted the select committee to complain how unfair it was. More recently, the same point has been made by people on the BRAG list; that I am no longer a home educator and therefore that my views on the subject should carry less weight than those who are currently educating their children at home. Precisely the same observation can be made about those meddling in Birmingham, such as Mike Fortune-Wood and Fiona Nicholson. They too, just like me, are not even home educators!

When local residents here in Loughton have meetings with the council to try and thrash something out, it is always done openly. Often, there is a bit in the local paper to the effect that residents are meeting next week with local authority officers or councillors to sort out some dispute. This is very right and proper and I would not like to see any such meetings being done on the quiet. It would make me suspicious. A lot of the stuff currently happening with home education though, is being done in this way. People only learn about meetings after the things have happened and even then the participants refuse to identify themselves openly, let alone say publicly what they have been saying to Birmingham Council or the Chair of the CSF select committee, as the case may be. This is very odd. If I heard that our local residents association had been having secret meetings with the town council and that none of them would talk about what had been going on or even admit to having been present, I would regard this as outrageous. So would most residents in this district.

A final point to consider is this. MPs and councillors have been voted in by the population generally, not just this special interest group or that. If policies, guidelines or laws are liable to be changed then other people have the right to know, not just those likely to be affected. Home education, truancy, children missing education, schools; all these things are matters of general public interest. Others may have points of view which they wish to express. The way that things are currently being done both with Graham Stuart's helpers and the people who went to Birmingham, means that nobody except a tiny handful of self-chosen individuals are involved in these processes. When the former Secretary of State for Education wished to change the law on home education he launched a public review and invited everybody, home educators and everybody else, to contribute their views and opinions. Later, the CSF select committee looked at the matter, again openly and publicly. This is how things are done in a democracy. The scrapping of Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill was a fine example of the democratic process at work. I have no idea what is likely to emerge from the meeting in Birmingham or the enterprise which Graham Stuart has launched. What I am absolutely sure of though is that anything which comes out of all this will have no legitimacy whatsoever. How could it? Most of those concerned on the home education side have not been elected by anybody and have got where they are simply by virtue of having sharper elbows and louder voices than others. This is not democracy.