Stories of child deaths arouse powerful emotions: too often, they also attract wrong targets for criticism.
An official report into the tragic death from scurvy in 2011 of 8-year-old Dylan Seabridge, never published but leaked last week, records that there had been concerns in Pembrokeshire council about his welfare. This led to newspapers suggesting that the authorities had no powers to insist on seeing the child because he was being educated at home.
Unfortunately, whenever it is suggested that home education is involved in such tragic stories, a witch-hunt against it ensues. In Wales (whose education system is separate from England’s) this story has given rise to calls for a registration system for children taught at home, and even mandatory inspection.
There’s nothing wrong with either suggestion, as long as such moves do not become a means of limiting or suppressing the right of parents to educate their children at home: a right enshrined in UK law (where, since 1944, children must be educated “at school or otherwise”), but it is denied in some European states.
The fact is that acting as society’s watchdog is not the prime purpose of schools, and forcing children into school just so they can be kept an eye on is not a job for teachers: it’s the role of social services.
Critics suggest that home-educators fall into three camps: abusers hiding their children away; nutters embracing an alternative lifestyle; and (occasionally) the wealthy middle-classes who can afford for one of the parents not to work and do the education instead. All three, including the last, attract general disapprobation.
But there’s sloppy thinking in such stereotypes. Lazy media reports of child deaths (from abuse or neglect) too often suggest that the children’s injuries weren’t observed in school because they were home-educated.
Look at the case of Victoria Climbié, who was killed in 2000. The 8-year-old was missing school: yet authorities failed to investigate her absence.
That wasn’t home education, but concealment. Because of inaction and dithering, social and medical services were found to have failed to identify the abuse and protect Victoria.
As for the categories mentioned above, whether you think those seeking an alternative lifestyle are strikingly original or off-the-wall-loony, they are parents exercising their right to provide an education that they believe is better-suited to their child than the mainstream.
Perhaps the most famously home-educated 20th-century figure was violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. Developing that prodigious talent, practising for several hours a day, fitted better with home education than school. It was “an appropriate education”, provided “otherwise”. He didn’t have “social problems”, by the way.
I declare an interest. For a few years in the primary phase we home-educated our children. It was a positive and happy period in our family life and our kids forged ahead with maths, English and all the normal “core” subjects, while enjoying enormous amounts of music and gymnastics. Then they went into secondary school: their choice.
The right to choose the mode of education of one’s child, as long as it is adequate and appropriate, is a democratic and human right. Some may feel registration and inspection would in no way compromise that right. In theory, that’s true, though I mistrust government’s propensity for heavy-handed application of both mechanisms.
Any measure that constrains the ability of home-educating families to take on that vital task freely, creatively and positively risks perpetrating a great wrong.
We don’t scapegoat schools for these tragedies. Don’t hound home-educators either.
Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets as @bernardtrafford
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