Memorandum submitted by Cathy Koetsier
1. Introduction: Elective Home Education in Britain
It has always been the duty and inclination of parents to teach and instruct their children in the practise of living; one generation transferring a comprehensive body of knowledge, culture, values and belief and practise to the next. Parents have grand dreams and ambitions for their children, often borne out of their own experiences of life, both positive and negative. Thus parents commonly desire that their children should have better lives and more opportunities than they have had.
Throughout history, societies have organised themselves in different ways in order to arrange for this transmission of culture and knowledge from one generation to another. When one looks at the origins of compulsory education as it is practised throughout the world today, one is surprised to discover that this way of preparing children for adult life by grouping them in a structured age-segregated pedagogical space called a school is fairly recent[i]. In fact, it was only in 1880 that the concept of compulsory education was introduced in England. Previously, children learned what they needed to learn for life and well-being alongside their parents and other members of their community, and in the context of their society. While there may have been some very good reasons for the creation of schools, it seems that the pendulum has now swung too far the opposite way, with the result that modern first world children spend very little time with their parents, and there is little impartation of knowledge between the generations of people within the particular extended family group or community. Increasingly, 'education' is seen as something that happens only in school, and this then becomes a tool that divides rather than unites the members of a family.
True education is far broader than this. It seems such a terrible loss if parents and families lose sight of their mandate to teach their children what they know. Gradual erosion of the family and community results, so that we end up with a vague sense of social responsibility for equally vague people 'out there' rather than deeply committed and meaningful relationships with the members of one's immediate circle of social contact. This erosion of community - and the sense of belonging to and being responsible for one another - contributes to all manner of social ills, including the neglect of the elderly, bullying of those who are weak or different, and indifference to one's heritage and environment.
Concerns such as these lie at the heart of the decision to home educate one's children. Simply, home education is when a child's learning process is facilitated by his parents rather than by a teacher at a school - allowing for a more natural and personalised approach to the education process.
Home education is of course not a new phenomenon in this country. Many well known and successful people were home educated, including the authors Beatrix Potter, Rosemary Sutcliff and Jane Austen; the pioneer of nursing, Florence Nightingale; the nature conservationist Gerald Durrell; and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
2. Motivational factors influencing the choice to home educate
Parents who chose home education for their children do so for a variety of reasons. Overriding these reasons though, is a desire on the part of the parent to educate and equip, and thereby prepare the child for life.
Some of these reasons are very deep seated, and have to do with the way in which families see their world; others may be simply practical or expedient. Parents choose home education for both proactive and reactive reasons:
· Some parents recognise from the start that there are alternative ways of educating children. Commonly, they are inspired by ideas of creating a more supportive learning environment, the use of specific learning methodologies such as kinaesthetic or interest directed approaches, concerns about society and environment, a particular philosophical, cultural or religious worldview, or a specific educational approach not followed in state schools eg Waldorf Steiner education or Montessori education. They may have read the writings of key educational thinkers in Britain such as Charlotte Mason or Roland Meighan, and abroad, such as John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. These parents tend to be well-educated themselves, and are articulate and thoughtful in expressing their reasons for choosing home education. Because they have spent so much time considering the best and most suitable educational approach for their children, they are confident and secure in what they are doing, and they tend to be resistant to outside pressures to conform to more traditional ways of teaching.
· There is recognition of the truth of the statement: 'There is no education but self-education'.[ii] Home education allows the learner to be in control of his learning. The sense of ownership of and responsibility for education is appreciated by the child, allowing him to develop a clear sense of self with regard to motivation and purpose.
· Some parents are unhappy with the education provided in school for one or another reason. Elective home education allows for the educational approach to be adapted and adjusted to meet the needs of the individual child. The pace, format, approach and methodology, and even the content can be tailored to suit the learner. Home educators are able to harness the tools of curiosity, and self-motivated interest because they are not bound by and limited to the National Curriculum. Whereas in school a child must fit in with his peers and keep up with his class and the content of the curriculum as delivered by his teacher and dictated by outsiders who do not know him at all, at home he can learn in a way more suited to his individuality, a way that will assist him in overcoming his particular weaknesses and in developing his particular strengths.
· For many children, this is the only way they can learn. Sensitive, highly strung children are not able to cope with the pressure and expectation and measurement of a results orientated environment. Stressed children cannot learn at school, and this initiates a negative spiral in their lives as they are quickly feel incompetent and less than the other children because of their failure. A child learning in the secure and loving environment called home has space and time to expand into his world, rather than feeling overwhelmed and intruded upon by it. Parents are responsive to the need to protect the child.
· Children, for all their sweetness, can also be very cruel, and the issues and effects of bullying in our British schools have been well documented over the years. For a child who is being bullied, the being forced to remain in a compulsory school environment is very damaging. School is not a safe place for him, and he also does not have the choice to remove himself from the toxic environment. Children who come home to learn after having suffered the traumas of bullying take a long time to heal and may never again be comfortable in large groups of people. In the home, these very real psychological problems can be addressed with sensitivity.
· Home educated children have opportunity to socialise with people across a broad spectrum of ages, and they are not limited to their peer group. Many parents have concerns about the artificial environment created when children are grouped in same age sets. There are few other contexts in society in which people relate primarily to their peers, and the effects of peer influence are mixed. Home educators are better positioned to assist their children in managing the negative aspects of peer group pressure. The children also have more freedom in choosing to whom to relate. For example, they may be part of specific interest groups that share common goals. And they gain experience in developing relational skills in a context where perseverance is required - you can choose your friends but not your family. Home educated children are challenged to get along with people who may be very different to themselves; in personality, age and perspective on life.
· The learning experience of children with special educational needs can be supported and provided for in a unique way. For such children, school can be a bewildering and soul-destroying experience. For instance the child with dyslexia can be allowed to learn to read later than the norm. A child with ADHD has less distraction as a quiet environment can be created and maintained. Hyperactive or tactile children are able to move around without bothering other children. The familiarity of home creates an oasis of calm for the child with Aspergers or Autism, where life patterns are predictable and regular.
· Home education is particularly helpful for children who are gifted with a particular ability. The one-on-one tutor relationship allows the child to be stretched and developed at a suitable pace. And the freeing up of time because learning in other areas is concentrated and focused allows the child to invest more in the development of the ability. For example, a child who is particularly good at a sport will have more time to train and develop his body.
· Some parents end up home educating as a second choice - for example, because they were unable to get their children into the school they would have preferred. For many of these parents, home education is a short-term option. Some however, enjoy the lifestyle so much that they continue home educating even when a school place becomes available.
There are many other reasons why parents choose home education for their children, but these are the most common factors influencing their choice.
3. Response to the Home Education Review
In January, Mr Graham Badman was asked to conduct a consultation into home education. This was the third consultation in less than four years, with the latest guidelines having only been issued in 2007. The review was conducted in the space of four months, and the results of the Review were published on Thursday, 11 June 2009.
On the whole, home educators are shocked and dismayed by the results of the Review. It is not surprising that many home educators have reacted to the recommendations of the Review with defensiveness and emotion. It seems that the government, whilst claiming to be working to foster respectful working relationships between home educators and local authorities, is in fact determined to treat home educating parents with suspicion and mistrust. Our submissions, proven educational philosophies, and the results of research into home education are ignored or discounted. The democratic process is frustrated when the input of vested parties is ignored, and confidence in government is undermined.
The Review is preceded by a quote by Isaiah Berlin: "The need to choose, to sacrifice some ultimate values to others, turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament". One wonders: 'What is the point of this quote?' In the content, Mr Badman proceeds to imply that parental rights are somehow in opposition to the child's rights. He develops this argument, proposing that the state is the mediator, protecting the rights of children in their interactions with their parents. This is dangerous nonsense. Such an idea undermines the whole concept of family, and ultimately positions the state in the same elevated and fundamentally harmful position that lead to the development of fascism and Hitler's Germany. The truth is that parents are committed to the protection of their children's rights on a deeper and more emotional level than any rule of law. It is the duty of the state to uphold, defend and strengthen parents in their task, not to replace them.
There is the recommendation that home educated children be interviewed by local authorities without their parents present.[iii] Traditionally, parents are seen as the first defenders and protectors of their children's interests; providing a safe place and a refuge for their children. It is only when the parents default in this duty that other adults take their place. It is of great concern to parents to discover that Mr Balls has agreed that "home educated children must be seen regularly in their education setting, on their own, or with an independant person present as appropriate, so that the LA can verify that the evidence of progress presented to them is up to date and accurate, and confirm that these children are safe." This practise is normally only advocated in situations where there is known or suspected abuse. Thus an assumption is made that home educating parents are defaulting in their duties towards their children. The Review seeks to diminish and undermine parental power, supposedly in the name of child protection. However, it is the power of parents that keeps children safe. Needless to say, home educators are very unhappy about the idea that their children, for whom they are responsible, should be subjected to this kind of treatment. For many sensitive children, and especially children who have been traumatised by negative school experiences, this experience could be frightening and could exacerbate their problems. And their parents, who wish to protect them, will be powerless to do so. And this, apparently, so that local authorities can satisfy themselves that children are not suffering abuse in their own homes.
Many of the recommendations [iv]transfer the power to choose home education into the hands of the LA rather than the parent. Again, the state would normally override the choice of a parent only in circumstances where there were real concerns about the well being of a child. If these recommendations were to be implemented, home educating families - not just parents, but also the children - would potentially live in an atmosphere of fear, uncertain from one year to the next whether their lifestyle and educational choices would be respected. The children would be under a lot of pressure to 'perform', knowing that their educational environment was at stake. Thus the home would be compromised as a place of safety and security.
Requirements that registration be annual, and that parents submit lesson plans a year in advance and that their right to home educate for the next year be determined by their adherence to those lesson plans is impractical and largely contrary to the methodology of home education. Home education is very different to school education, and while this form of accountability may work in a school environment, the recommendation that it be implemented in a home educating context serves only to confirm suspicions on the part of home educators that there is no true understanding of home educational methodology and practise.
The influence of the Review recommendations is potentially far reaching. There are many questions: What are the implications for English society in general if we allow the law to be made to fit the idea rather than the other way around? What happens to democracy and good government if the interests of certain groups are ignored? Where are the limits - to what extent should the state be allowed to invade the private lives of its citizens, and for what reasons? What are the implications for other, non home educating, families? Will all families eventually be subjected to inspection in the name of child welfare? In considering the recommendations for the Review, it is essential to question not just the viability but also the limits - and the morality - of doing so.
I am very unhappy with the results of the Review, and with the way in which it was conducted. It feels like a form of harassment to be subjected to one consultation after another, each one implying that we parents who choose not to place our children in the school system cannot and do not have our children's best interests at heart. Like the rest of my fellow home educators, I am very busy with the education and upbringing of my children. However, at regular intervals I find myself in a position where I need to defend and justify the educational freedom enjoyed by my children. This ultimately detracts from their education.
Our government has many educational issues to deal with. Recently I read a newspaper claim that approximately 25,000 children left school this August, after 12 years of schooling, with no qualifications whatsoever. Can such a claim be true? If so, would the government not be better served addressing problems such as these - which are in its own back yard after all - before attempting to assist me with mine? I have been involved with home education for almost twenty years. The effect on my family has been meaningful and profound. Two of my children are now beyond compulsory schooling age. One is at university, and the other is working and studying part-time. Home education has successfully equipped them for the next phase of their lives. My other children are thriving and happy. The home is able to be what it should be - a safe and nurturing environment.
I feel we would all be better served if the government would be less controlling and less forceful in its approach and attitude; addressing its attention to making its schools safe, enjoyable and interesting places where children WANT to be, and leaving the families who choose to educate their children outside of its system in peace.
[i] Gatto, John Taylor, (1992). "Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education," New Society Publishers
[ii] Charlotte Mason, (1993). "Original Homeschooling Series ,Volume 6", Charlotte Mason Research & Supply
[iii] Recommendation 7, pg 18 of the Review