‘Parents bring up children, not governments’. The 2007 national Children’s Plan made that clear. Parents are their children’s prime educators, with parental attitude, support and expectation proving to be key factors in a child’s success. How and where each child is educated is a matter of parental choice.
There is a history of nonconformist Christian education dating back to the 1662 Act of Uniformity – that is a parental right which has continued undisturbed for centuries, and one which is still clearly enshrined in Article 2, Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It says that ‘the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’.
But in 2009, Graham Badman was commissioned to investigate home education, with particular concern for safeguarding. His concluding report, Review of Elective Home Education in England makes a passing acknowledgement of parental rights before turning the spotlight onto the rights of the child, arguing that the ECHR clarified that ‘respect is only due to convictions on the part of parents which do not conflict with the fundamental rights of the child to education … this right by its very nature calls for regulation by the State’. Badman reinforced this shift in focus using Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: ‘Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child’.
Badman further added Article 28 to the mix, which defines it as the responsibility of parents to provide a ‘suitable’ education. According to the 1996 Education Act a ‘suitable education’ is one which ‘primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so’. There can only be State intervention if there is evidence that provision is unsuitable under these terms – ie, non- conformity to the prevalent social orthodoxy is not a reason to intervene.
Nevertheless, Badman made a host of recommendations, including compulsory registration of home educators; Local Authority monitoring, supervision and annual reporting; bringing home education within the remit of Ofsted and the redefinition of ‘suitable’ education. Most controversially, he recommended that Local Authority officers should have the right of access to the home to talk to children alone, claiming that home educated children were twice as likely to be abused as those in school.
His report was quickly followed by one from Ofsted entitled ‘Children Missing from Education’. Note this is not missing from school, but missing from education. The subtext is ominous – school is the only setting in which education can take place, therefore home educated children are ‘missing’ children. It’s a definition that creates a State mandate to intervene.
Fortunately, the Badman Report was stopped in its tracks when an unprecedented 120 petitions were presented by MPs on the grounds 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’.
And that, you might hope, was the end of the matter. Except that it wasn’t, because just a month ago, the Local Government Association (LGA) made a request almost identical in its wording to the Badman proposals. The LGA wants right of access to homes. Justification is offered by Colin Diamond, executive director of education for Birmingham: ‘We feel that any Elective Home Education (EHE) learning situation potentially puts a child in a very vulnerable position … because the child is isolated, they are not visible to their peer group and professionals don’t keep an eye on them’. He also added: ‘It is unacceptable for any child of compulsory school age not to be receiving a suitable education’. Once again, the assertion, based on flawed suppositions, is that home educated children are not safe and that only the State can define ‘suitable’. It chimes with David Cameron’s chilling statement last year, with regard to looked-after children, that ‘we, the State, are their parents’.
In ruling the Scottish Named Person scheme illegal, the Supreme Court judge commented ‘The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world.’ Behind the safeguarding smokescreen, this is exactly what moves against the parental right to educate ‘in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions’ is trying to do.
But in reality, a living child is a learning child, so all parents are home educators from the point of birth. Children are constantly learning and parents are constantly involved in the process of nurturing them. They raise their children in the unique contexts of home, family and community. And if it takes a village to raise a child, school is just one building of many in the village.
Childhood is not the State waiting room for adult life. It is the place where we learn to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to trust and to be trusted. It is the place where we discover who we are, why we are here and how, as we approach adulthood, we want to live. If parents choose to also provide the academic aspects of learning and growing at home, that is their right and their responsibility, and one which cannot be removed.