The 2007 Children’s Plan could not have made it clearer: parents bring up children, not governments. That didn’t stop the government of the day commissioning Graham Badman to investigate home education, with a particular emphasis on safeguarding; the introduction of compulsory registration; home monitoring inspections, and the definition of ‘suitable’ education. Unprecedented protests that the proposals would ‘for the first time in our history, tear away from parents and give to the State the responsibility for a child’s education’ kicked the issue into the long grass.
Despite that, Louise Casey regurgitated the same arguments against home education in her report into opportunity and integration just a year ago. And here we are, yet again, with exactly the same proposals in a private members’ bill introduced by Lord Soley, which recently received its second reading. At first sight, Lord Soley’s thoughts seem entirely reasonable, particularly after Colin Diamond, Birmingham’s corporate director for children and young people, warned that a recent court ruling could drive Muslim children into radicalising settings. Surely compulsory registration would be a good step?
Except that here’s the thing. Lord Soley is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society so their lobbying is probably behind the latest attempt to place home education under state control. The October ADCS Elective Home Education survey still talks about safeguarding, but the NSS is taking a new tack this time – it’s all about children’s rights. The survey finds that most long term home educators do so for philosophical or religious reasons, so the NSS is leaping into action to demonstrate that children’s rights are being abused by parents’ religious worldviews, although they have no problem with philosophical ones.
‘If children are raised and educated only within the context of a religious community’, they declaim, ‘they are left unprepared for life in modern Britain’. Well, if you want to raise your child to know and love God and live according to biblical standards then yes, that’s probably correct. But then, those parents don’t want to raise their children to engage in casual sexual encounters; to engage with sexting and revenge porn; to lie drunk in the gutter after a night out with friends or to live in ways that are all about ‘What’s in it for me?’ rather than God’s design for us as uniquely created in His image.
Modern Britain is not what every parent wants for their child. What right does the NSS have to tell them that they’re wrong? However, with an apparent benevolence which belies the underpinning arrogance, the NSS claims that they have an interest in opening opportunities for children, not closing them. So a lobbying organisation with a membership similar to that of the British Sausage Appreciation Society knows better than parents?
It might seem that paying so much attention to less than 0.5% of the school-age population is excessive. But combined with other opinions raised in the media, it suddenly takes on a much more ominous tone. Because this week, Humanists UK has complained to the DfE about Catholic schools ‘unlawfully promoting political action’ by encouraging parents to campaign against the admissions cap that prevents the Catholic Education Service from opening free schools. The irony seems to elude Humanists UK that its own campaigning against faith in the public square is a partisan political action. Or is this a case of double standards? Humanists UK can campaign about what they believe in, but parents can’t.
They also seem to have missed the point of a liberal, democratic society, which is one where all worldviews can be freely expressed. Every child’s upbringing is rooted in parental and community worldviews and part of growing up is to decide what to embrace and what to reject. What both secularists and humanists refuse to accept is that theirs are also worldviews. So why, in a liberal democracy, should the worldview of just 1% of the population prevail over all others? The answer, of course, is because they assume themselves to be right not only for themselves, but for everyone else.
Andrew Copson is quoted as saying that, ‘For too long, religious organisations have hijacked our state education system to further their own vested religious interests’. When I pointed out to him that without church schools, there would have been no free or universal education until well into the nineteenth century, he responded with, ‘And if it weren’t for churches in the 19th century then state education would have come more quickly – they blocked it for a long time fearing a loss of control’. Spot the irony yet again – Humanists UK wants to enforce its ‘neutral’ worldview in every school and on every home educator in the country. If that isn’t control and vested interest, what is?
However much these groups lobby the DfE and bend the ear of Ofsted, they cannot escape from two powerful facts. The most persuasive is that considerably more than a third of parents choose faith settings and these schools are always massively oversubscribed. Try telling all those parents that they’re wrong. The other fact is that our education system couldn’t function without church money – the state simply couldn’t afford to maintain all the lands and buildings that are owned by the church. The answer to that one is for the NSS and the BHA to stop sniping and to open free schools of their own.
Nothing has changed since the last attempt to impose state control on home educators: this is just another round of faith cleansing. If humanists and secularists want a seat at the education table, they should spend their time talking about what they are for, rather than what they are against. It’s getting hard to discern what they believe in through the white noise of anti-faith rhetoric.
When it comes to education, the Bible doesn’t talk about rights, it talks about responsibility. Parents alone are responsible for educating their children, so it is for parents to choose how they do so and with whom they partner in the process – ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6—7).
It is not the business of the state to remove that responsibility.