THE PARENTS of a Spanish child who is being educated over the Internet from the United States are being taken to court for refusing to send him to school.
The mother of Gabriel, aged seven, identified only as Lola, said that their decision was prompted by the authoritarian culture of Spanish schools, with their emphasis on discipline and competitiveness.
The parents, who for two years have taught their son at home with the help of Clonlara school, an American home-study institution, are being sued by the education authorities in Almeria, southern Spain.
A typical day for Gabriel consists of PE in the morning and afternoons spent drawing and painting in his farmhouse home just outside the village of Felix.
Lola, a self-employed translator, spent a year preparing herself for the task of becoming his teacher and contacts Clonlara school several times a week via the Internet for guidance.
Clonlara, founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1979, believes education should respect "the natural stages of development" of the child and that a formal education involving textbooks, work books or compulsory testing, is not necessary. Although Gabriel has never set foot in a school, he can read, write and use a computer.
Antonio Dominguez, Almeria's schools inspector and lecturer in educational psychology at
Almeria University, believes Gabriel's parents are not doing him any favours.
"Children need contact with other children," he said. "Leaving aside academic considerations, school is essential as a means of transmitting values such as how to get on with others."
He also pointed out that Clonlara is not a recognised institution in Spain, so Gabriel will have no formal qualifications to help him find work or continue studying later on.
Carlos Frade, director of studies of educational psychology at Cataluna's Internet-based distance-learning Open University, believes that while learning via the Internet is a valid option for adults, it is "a serious mistake" for children.
"When educating a child, the process of socialisation, including contact with a peer group, is vital," he said.
Full-time education is obligatory in Spain between the ages of six and 16. But it is not clear whether Gabriel's parents are acting illegally. A Spanish court recently dismissed the case as it could find no evidence that the boy was suffering from neglect.
The schools inspectorate is determined to appeal and the issue is rapidly becoming a test case for determining parents' rights.
While the government denies there are any other cases similar to that of Gabriel, the Spanish daily paper El Pais recently estimated the parents of at least 25 other school-age children in Spain have gone outside the official education system.
Meanwhile, Gabriel's parents say that they will only send him to school if he asks to go.