Home truths

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Some parents' idea of teaching their children stretches little further than switching on the TV. Isn't it time we put pupils' rights first, asks Myra Robinson

what do you think of when you picture children being educated at home? Middle-class creative types taking time out to lavish attention on their precious children? The reality can be very different.

All parents have the right to educate their children at home. Thousands of youngsters are, and the numbers have more than doubled since 2000. The children involved cover the full spectrum, from affluent homes with every resource imaginable, to families where the only source of stimulus appears to be the television set.

So why do parents choose to educate their own children? In some cases, they are dissatisfied with the school's academic standards. Sometimes it is because school discipline has become an issue. Many parents are concerned about bullying, which they feel the school has not dealt with efficiently.

Some parents withdraw their children on religious grounds, often at the point when a child leaves primary school. In my authority we have several Muslim girls on our list. They tend to have paid tutors, who leave them with lots of homework between visits.

All these parents strive to do their best for their children and make enormous sacrifices in time and earning potential. But this is the tip of the iceberg.

All too often, I encounter a family - usually with just a mother - where there is antipathy to authority figures. Typically, the child will have been withdrawn from school following an argument with the headteacher, often about his - usually it is a boy - disruptive behaviour.

Recently I visited a mother and three children in a smoke-filled sitting room strewn with takeaway food packaging. The child concerned was not dressed at 11am, although they were expecting me.

Then there was a family where the father sat in his armchair watching television, taking no part in the conversation I was having with the mother and teenage daughter about her education. When I asked about opportunities for physical exercise, they told me, improbably, that she went cycling with her father.

At the other end of the scale, I know of a pleasant woman in her mid-30s who has been though a painful divorce. Her eight-year-old is taught at home rather well, but I suspect that it is more to keep her mother company than a positive choice for home schooling.

Sometimes the impetus for home-education comes from school. One city school had terrible discipline problems but didn't want to increase its already high exclusion figures. It suggested to the parents of disruptive children that they educate them at home, or face exclusion. This practice is not widespread, but I suspect it still happens from time to time.

What is surprising is how easy elective home-education is to arrange. All a parent has to do is write to the headteacher expressing a wish to do it.

The school informs the local authority and I, as the authority representative, then make arrangements to discuss the child's education with the parents. They are not obliged to meet me, I have no legal right to visit the home and they do not have to follow the national curriculum.

Several of the families on my patch are currently a cause for concern.

There is the case of a girl with a statement of special educational need.

Her statement should be reviewed annually, but since her parents withdrew her from school two years ago I have been unable to establish contact.

Sometimes when I visit, the curtains twitch and a dog barks. It is rumoured the house is used for drug dealing, so I always visit with a minder - and put a note through the door when there is no response.

Such cases are, of course, passed on to the relevant authorities, but you cannot help feeling worried and frustrated.

Home-education is a good option for many children. What worries me is the undue emphasis on the rights of the parent over the rights of the child to receive "an efficient education suitable to age, ability and aptitude", as stated in the 1996 Education Act. It should not be the case that parents always have the right to withdraw children from school. Instead, children should always have the right to be educated.

The question is, are any politicians who believe in education, education, education listening?

* Myra Robinson oversees home education for an urban authority

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