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Home education a cover for abuse? Supporters denounce 'slur'

Calls for improved monitoring of children in home education have been given added weight by the jailing of a woman for abuse of her foster children who were being taught outside the school system. Adi Bloom reports

Alloma Gilbert regularly had a stick shoved down her throat to stop her from screaming. Her mouth held open, she would be beaten on the soles of her feet with a metal bar, her toes battered until they broke.

"I learnt not to wriggle, but just to endure the pain," said Alloma, now 21. "I was always black and blue. I was told I was evil scum, and any day Armageddon would come and I would burn because I was a sinner."

Ms Gilbert was one of three children abused by her foster mother, Eunice Spry, over 19 years. The abuse went unnoticed - in part because Spry chose to educate the children at home.

Last spring, Spry was imprisoned for 14 years by Bristol Crown Court. And this month, the Government has announced it will conduct a review into the rules governing home-schooling. It will examine whether local authorities should be entitled to monitor all home-educated children to ensure they are properly taught and treated.

The response has been widespread outrage among home-educators, incensed at being tarred with the same brush as Spry.

"You're starting with the premise that some parents might be home- schooling as cover for abuse and exploitation," said James Conroy, professor of education at Glasgow University, who has researched home- education extensively.

"But you could state the same premise with any residential school in the country. There are all kinds of abuses taking place in regular schooling. Does that mean we should do away with residential schools? Absolutely not."

It is an emotive debate, each side invoking the horrors of abuse to make their point.

Junior minister for children Baroness Morgan, who announced the review, has Spry as her trump card. "There are concerns that some children are not receiving the education they need," she said. "In extreme cases, home- education could be used as a cover for abuse. We cannot allow this to happen."

She suggested that parents might take children out of school to look after younger siblings, act as domestic servants or earn money for the family. Other parents, unable or unwilling to press-gang obstreperous teens into school, protect themselves from prosecution by withdrawing their offspring.

Or parents might use home-schooling as a cover for a forced marriage. Vijay Patel, policy adviser for the NSPCC, the children's charity, believes this has become increasingly common. The problem, he says, is not that they are more likely to abuse their children, but that they can hide it more easily.

"With home-educated children who are being abused, they often don't go outside the house," he said. "It's very hard then. If the local authority don't know about the child, they don't know there's anything to be worried about."

But advocates of home-education argue that this penalises parents for the failures of the social services system. Those whose children have never been to school are not legally obliged to inform the local authority of their decision. Unless they choose to contact their local town hall, officials have no idea of the child's existence, although he or she might be seen by doctors, nurses and health visitors.

But when pupils are taken out of school, the situation is different. As they were initially registered with a school, the local authority is aware of their presence and sends regular representatives to check that the child is making suitable progress. So most home-educated children are already being monitored.

Parents educate their children at home for various reasons. Some are motivated by religion: they fear their children will be corrupted by the godless ways of the state school system.

Others opt out for philosophical reasons. Fiona Nicholson, a single mother from Sheffield, has always educated her son Theo, now 15, at home. "It's about square pegs and round holes," she said. "He's very strong-minded. If 29 children are moving in one direction, it would be a matter of principle for him to move in the opposite direction. So he seemed better served by home-education."

Theo's education follows his own interests: an eavesdropped conversation on a bus can lead to hours of reading and internet research. And while school pupils might baulk at the finer points of geometry or algebra, Theo embraces them.

"He has a pretty 1950s idea of what a curriculum should be," Ms Nicholson said. "So he decided it was a matter of self-respect that he needed to know about things like quadratic equations. He's hugely curious about everything. He doesn't ever think it would be inappropriate for him to be interested in something, that it might be a girly subject, for example."

But most of England's estimated 20,000 home-educated pupils are actually school drop-outs. Jane Lowe, of the Home Education Advisory Service, says 60 per cent of the parents who approach her are in the process of pulling their child out of formal education.

"These are children who have suffered pretty severely in school," she said. "There's been bullying, and in some cases physical assault. Some have special needs.

"Parents feel their children aren't safe in school, so they find it difficult to accept that children at home need to be safeguarded."

Ms Lowe concedes that this category will include some negligent parents masquerading as home-educators to avoid confrontation with their truanting offspring.

"Doubtless there are some families who take their children out of school when they start playing truant," she said. "But they will be known about to local authorities because the children were at school. So why is it necessary to attack decent, law-abiding home-educators?"

Professor Conroy of Glasgow University agrees. "The danger of undermining parents through a culture of suspicion is politically and socially injurious," he said. "It's bizarre to pathologise others purely because they are other."

Meanwhile, there are those who question how useful local authority inspections really are. "You get retired headteachers who see home- education as their own little fiefdom," Ms Nicholson said. "They just say, `I'm going to report you if you don't do this, this and this - if you don't know the capital of Brazil and write in joined-up handwriting.' It's like your grandad inspecting you."

Research in the US shows home-schooled pupils are likely to perform at a standard four grades higher than the national average by the age of 14. This can be explained in part by the typically middle-class background of home-educators. But children from less advantaged backgrounds who are educated at home also outperform their middle-class, school-educated peers.

Even so, many home-educators believe they need to produce prodigies to justify their decision.

"For me and Theo, it's all right because we're arrogant," Ms Nicholson said. "Theo might choose not to perform, but he can. But a lot of new home-educators think they've got to do better than school, that they've got to perform to an incredibly high standard in every subject. It's very, very stressful."

This, many home educators believe, is the problem with the new review. While the NSPCC argues that it will merely close a loophole, Ms Lowe insists it is the other home-educators who will suffer.

"The hard cases are always the ones that evade capture," she said. "That's why they're hard cases. But families who have just entered home-education, feeling bruised by school experiences, will be threatened by these measures. The irony is that if local authorities are given swingeing powers, it is the children who will suffer, and the children's education."

On the home front

There are approximately 20,000 home-educated pupils in Britain. Of these, about 60 per cent have been withdrawn from school because of bullying, assault or special needs, according to the Home Education Advisory Service.

This month, Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, the junior children's minister, announced a review of the rules governing the practice.

Pupils withdrawn from school are subject to local authority inspection, but there is no obligation for parents to inform the local tiwn hall if their child has never attended school.

US research shows that by the age of 14, home-schooled pupils are likely to perform at a standard four grades higher than their conventionally educated peers.

Vijay Patel, policy adviser for the NSPCC, said cases of abuse can be difficult to spot if the abused child is being home-educated. "If the local authority don't know about the child, then they don't know there's anything to be worried about," he said.

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