Memorandum submitted by Dani Ahrens (CS 15)


1. This submission covers two points:

Why does the state need to know about the education of each individual child?

2. By analogy with the issue of nutrition, I argue that it is disproportionate and unreasonable for the state to take action to find out about each child's education, if there is no reason to suppose there is a problem

The impossibility of ensuring that children are aware of "the full range of fields of knowledge open to them"

3. The DCSF policy statement, issued yesterday, suggests that such an aim would be included in the redefinition of a suitable education. I argue that this is not only impossible, but indicates a worrying misunderstanding of autonomous education.

Why must 'we' know where each child is educated?

4. While watching the coverage of yesterday's session of the Committee, I noticed that MPs of more than one party seemed sure that it was a problem for the government not to know how many children are educated outside the school system, by their parents.

5. I find this puzzling. I would like to use the analogy of nutrition to explain why.

6. Providing children with enough food, and food which meets their nutritional needs, is a primary duty of parents. In this way, it is similar to the duty of parents to provide their children with an education suitable to their age, aptitude and ability and any special educational needs they may have.

7. While the government is keen to promote healthy eating, it does not take steps to find out details of each child's diet by requiring parents to submit their dietary plans for the year to the local authority, and satisfy a local authority inspector that their children are receiving adequate nutrition.

8. Instead, it is simply expected that parents are doing their best to give their children the food they need.

9. In a few cases, parents fail in this duty, but we do not have a large-scale system of monitoring each family's dietary choices in the hope of identifying these few cases. Such a system would probably be counterproductive, because it would leave parents feeling usurped in a key aspect of their parenting role, and would undermine their confidence in making other key decisions regarding the welfare and upbringing of their children. It would also be a huge waste of resources, discovering merely that almost all parents have their child's best interests at heart, and are doing their best to feed them well - something which is already well known.

10. The approach taken in the case of nutrition is to provide information and guidance to parents, to offer support to families who need it, or ask for it, and to intervene where there is evidence that children are at risk. Until now, this has been (according to the law, if not in practice) the approach taken in the case of education also.

11. I think it strikes the right balance between families' right to privacy and the need to act in defence of children's rights where they are being infringed.

Why the DCSF policy statement does nothing to reassure autonomous educators

12. Autonomous education was mentioned several times in the Committee hearing yesterday. Graham Badman's references to it were particularly misleading and ill-informed.

13. If members of the committee wish to understand this issue - something that is centrally important in the discussion of Schedule 1 - I urge them to read the AEUK submission to the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee.[1]

14. As an autonomous educator, I was astonished to see this statement in the DCSF policy statement issued yesterday, in relation to the Select Committee's report on home education:

15. "However, they also recognise the difficult balance between protecting autonomous education and ensuring that all children have the prospect of gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills and of gaining an awareness of the full range of fields of knowledge open to them."

16. Firstly, these two ambitions are not opposing things, which need to be balanced against one another. The need to protect diversity in educational approaches is one, vitally important, consideration in this debate. As was recognised by dozens of respected academics, educationalists and children's advocates in a letter to The Guardian newspaper last week[2], Schedule 1 represents a real threat to this principle.

17. The idea of ensuring that all children have the prospect of gaining an awareness of the full range of fields of knowledge open to them is, on the other hand, an impossible and ridiculous idea.

18. Despite having been educated myself through the school system and at university to degree level, I am certain that there are many fields of knowledge of which I have only the sketchiest awareness, or none at all. This does not mean that my education was unsuitable.

19. I continue to educate myself, autonomously, by finding out about topics that interest me. This is the approach my children take also. They find it enjoyable and rewarding, and they are learning a great deal.

20. The idea that any educator, at home or at school, could introduce children to the full range of fields of knowledge is preposterous.

21. Applying such a definition to the education of school children would immediately cause big problems. The National Curriculum contains nothing about astronomy or geology, for example. It does not introduce children to the knowledge and skills required in the field of agriculture, nor to the arts of spinning, weaving and dying of fabrics.

22. Everyone who sets out to choose some fields of knowledge to study, necessarily rules out some others. The whole sphere of human knowledge is too vast and diverse for children to be required to know about everything.

23. The government has picked a few areas for inclusion in the National Curriculum. My children have chosen a few of their own, based on what interests them and what they feel is important. I believe that both approaches have the potential to provide a suitable education, though I feel the autonomous approach is more likely to be efficient, as it is based on the learner's intrinsic motivation to learn whatever they have chosen to study.

24. Despite the DCSF policy document's attempts to mollify and reassure home educators, this clear example of the way autonomous education is routinely misunderstood and misrepresented by people steeped in the school system leaves me deeply apprehensive about my children's freedom to direct their own education if Schedule 1 were to become law.

January 2010