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'I understand why home educators feel threatened'

Home educators are widely misrepresented, including on the Tes Podcast – and they have the right to react vocally

Vocal home educators

Home educators are widely misrepresented, including on the Tes Podcast – and they have the right to react vocally

Oh dear, oh dear, Ed Dorrell. What were you thinking?

In this week’s Tes podcast, discussion touched on Amanda Spielman’s proposal this week that home educated children should be registered.

This suggestion, said the podcasters, invariably provokes a strong response. Home-educating parents, Ed declared, are “like the gun lobby in America: when they feel threatened they go absolutely mental…They go ape-shit.”

There’s been a fair old backlash. To be fair to Tes’ content editor, he wasn’t comparing home educators themselves to US gun nuts, only their reaction: both become vocal when what they regard as a fundamental right is under threat.

To be honest, I was surprised that four education journalists, undoubtedly better informed than me, believed that response to be so strong. I know of two umbrella/support groups, Education Otherwise and the Centre for Personalised Education, that (as a former home educator) I’ve had a previous connection with: I’m sure other groups have grown up since. But it’s never struck me that such alliances make enough noise to be termed a lobby (apologies if I’ve underestimated them: I’m out of touch).

I understand why home educators feel threatened: calls for a register, (nothing new) betray a deep distrust of such parents and their motives. That suspicion, stemming in the current climate from fears of radicalisation, becomes confused in the popular psyche with unregulated private schools. Previous demands for registration emerged amid fears of abuse, where children (Victoria Climbié and Baby P were two notorious cases) had been removed from school by abusive parents/guardians who subsequently murdered them.

But they weren’t being educated at home. Frequent loose use of language smears parents who home educate not to avoid scrutiny, not to hide abuse or indoctrination, but because they believe they can offer their child something better – or, rather, more suitable. The 1944 Education Act still applies here, requiring that children receive suitable education. Home educators assert their right to determine what is suitable, not leaving it to local or national government.

I was also surprised by Ed’s subsequent assertion that the home education lobby has a strong hold on the Right of the Tory party and on “hard-core Brexiteers who are headcases for home education”. Most home educators I’ve known lean to the Left, and a moderate Left at that: more extreme governments of left or right are authoritarian, curtailing freedoms, not increasing them.

Caught in the crossfire

Home educators reject conventional schooling not from some ultra-Right survivalist ideology, but from grave reservations about the structured nature of school and what they see as regimentation or lack of freedom and choice. They’re alarmed by prominent academies’ boasts of tough, no-nonsense discipline and strict uniform rules, and by press stories about bullying. In such settings, they fear for their children who may be delicate, live with disability or a learning difficulty, or have suffered bullying in the past.

Of course, not all home-educating parents take that path out of dislike of conventional schooling. For many, it’s a positive decision: it’s hard for a child to develop a prodigious, specialised talent within the confines of a full school day. That’s true for outstanding musicians, for example, if they don’t attend a specialist music school where their programme can be tailor-made. Violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin was home-educated, as was Olympic and World Champion gymnast Simone Biles. You can see why.

Currently, home educators risk being caught in the crossfire of yet another societal problem, schools condemned by Spielman for off-rolling underperforming or problem pupils and pushing them into a semblance of home education. By all means register or track such children: similarly, rigorously investigate suspicions of abuse, neglect, indoctrination or unregistered schooling. But such cases shouldn’t be confused with true elective home education.

State mechanisms tend to be clumsy in operation and, while tackling a perceived problem, incidentally harm those who are themselves blameless: the old trap of unintended consequences. Instituting a register for all children not in school risks fuelling suspicion of the motives and actions of genuine, dedicated, sincere and inspirational home educators.

So please don’t blame them for reacting vocally when they feel they’re being demonised: and maybe, Ed Dorrell, play down the analogies with gun-toting nutters.

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