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Is it best for a child to learn in isolation?

Mike McCabe responds to Michael Russell's views on home education.

The article by Michael Russell on home education (Platform, February 10) raised the important issue of parent rights and the importance of the local authority's role with regard to requests for home education. I do not propose to discuss any particular case here, but wish to extend the discussion to other important considerations which merit inclusion in any review of current guidance to education authorities.

Section 14 of the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc (Scotland) Act 2000 offered guidance to education authorities on the circumstances in which parents may choose to educate their children at home. It is worth recording that this piece of legislation imposed a duty on local authorities to "secure that the education is directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential".

The italics are mine and have been added to emphasise the significance and ambition of that commitment. The 2000 Act set a benchmark against which provision should be judged.

I do not propose to devote limited column inches to challenging Michael Russell's assertion that there appears to be hostility within education authorities to home education or that local authority responses to applications for home education are characterised by "intimidating actions by officials and councillors that are designed to put people off". I am confident that my colleague directors across Scotland would agree that our energy and effort is best directed towards improving provision in order to convince people of the benefits of remaining in the system, rather than attempting to frustrate their efforts to leave it behind.

In my experience, local authorities accept the majority of applications for home education can be approved in the knowledge that the parent or guardian is alert to the responsibility and challenge of catering for the diverse educational, social and emotional needs of their child. However, any review of home education should take account of the valuable research by Chris Lubienski who, in an article in the Evaluation and Research in Education journal in 2003, concludes that home education often amplified the advantages and disadvantages of students' background characteristics.

The issues in home education do not centre around those socially advantaged children who are lost to the system, but who continue to flourish. We should be much more concerned with the minority of vulnerable children who may lose out because of inappropriate decisions by their parent or guardian operating in an area where the legislative safeguards are not sufficiently defined.

I absolutely agree with Michael Russell's statement that "the law exists to ensure fair treatment for all", which is why I would contest the supposition that home education can be determined, primarily, on the basis of parent rights as set out in section 30 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Surely children have rights too. Parental rights are crucially important, but there are already circumstances where the state reserves the right to intervene in order to protect the child against the consequences of potentially damaging decisions by their parents.

I would therefore suggest that any revision to the guidelines on home education requires to balance the rights of the parent and guardian with the rights of the child and the responsibility that the state has to protect the welfare of the child.

A recent Scottish Executive publication, Improving Outcomes for Children and Young People, states: "In order to become confident individuals, effective contributors, successful learners and responsible citizens, all Scotland's children need to be: safe, nurtured, healthy, achieving, active, included, respected and responsible".

The document makes no distinction in standard between school provision and home education. The reality is that the existing guidance does little more than reduce the role of the local authority to rubber-stamping requests for home education. As a consequence, the life chances of some already vulnerable children may be impeded and some children could even be exposed to unnecessary risk.

It is difficult to reconcile the emphasis given to audits and inspections of child welfare issues in the state system with the absence of any counterpart in relation to home education. I would suggest that there are inherent dangers in the current guidance. There is a potential that children who are removed from the school simply disappear from the radar screen and are effectively lost to the various agencies that would normally be available to oversee their welfare.

It is also worth recording that parents and guardians who remove their child may find themselves in a position whereby they receive no information or advice on educational thinking, curricular changes or examination practice. The home educating parent is effectively cut adrift from the rest of the educational community and the advances it makes over the period when their child would have been at school. I am not aware of any arrangement whereby home educating parents receive official publications or curricular advice. In choosing to educate at home, they are effectively left to their own devices.

The fact that the guidance to local authorities is bedded into a piece of legislation that commits to developing the ability and talents of each individual child to their fullest potential is significant. In my view, any arrangement that demonstrably falls well below that level of ambition leaves the local authority vulnerable. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a young person who can demonstrate that they were disadvantaged by home education, because the local authority did not exercise due care in granting permission, might seek legal redress.

I welcome the fact that some MSPs are suggesting that there is a need to review the guidance on home education. Sensitively handled, a fresh review could introduce safeguards that are currently missing, without jeopardising the rights of the vast majority of applicants who are both convincing and committed. Furthermore, a review might also help generate the productive relationship that was envisaged when the guidance was drawn up.

Home education must not be treated as an issue of dogma. It is all too easy to portray other perspectives as irresponsible or negatively bureaucratic, and miss the importance of balance and sensitivity. I would hope that this article will be seen as a plea, rather than a protest.

Mike McCabe is director of education, culture and lifelong learning in South Ayrshire.

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