Should home educators face greater scrutiny?

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Two parents put forward contrasting views on home education plans

In the first of a special series of summer debates on education fault-lines, two home-educating parents put forward contrasting views on government plans for local authorities to monitor them more closely:

  • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right
    • Simon Webb is a home-educating parent who fears that some other families are limiting their children's futures, and says `Yes, children deserve better than a scrappy, unbalanced education'

      As the father of a 15-year-old girl who has been educated at home since birth, you might expect me to be a firm supporter of home education. But I have grown increasingly sceptical about it. Many of the children being "home-educated" would probably be better off in school.

      Why? After all, home education can give a child virtually unlimited one- to-one tuition. My daughter, for example, has thrived - she has so far gained eight international GCSEs, all at A*, as well as passing examinations in music and acting. All of this has been achieved without one lesson from anybody outside her immediate family.

      The problem lies not so much with those who teach their children at home as with those who don't teach them - strange as it may sound, a very large number of parents who have withdrawn their children from school are opposed on ideological grounds to teaching them anything at all. They are the so-called autonomous educators, and the cornerstone of their educational philosophy is that their children should be completely free to choose what they learn and when they learn it. This bizarre notion is even applied to basic skills such as reading and writing.

      The idea is that the child should be free to follow their own interests at their own pace. They may, for example, look out of the window and see an unusual bird. This may cause them to investigate ornithology and then study biology generally. Of course, this approach just might work with a bright and inquisitive child whose parents are on hand to facilitate their learning. Equally likely is that the child will see the bird, mutter "So what?" and carry on playing Grand Theft Auto IV.

      Many autonomously educating parents would not be concerned by this; they are enthusiastic about computer games because they give children a reason to want to read. With no formal instruction, though, it is little wonder that many autonomously educated children do not learn to read until very late - some not until the age of 11, 12 or even older.

      Even if a child is enthusiastic about acquiring knowledge, their education is liable to be scrappy and unbalanced. Children raised in this way may well spend months pursuing a favourite topic, but they are unlikely to study a well-rounded curriculum including history, geography, science, mathematics, ICT, religion, music and English, and therefore to acquire formal qualifications.

      Many autonomous educators are dismissive about GCSEs and A-levels, saying, "They can be taken later." However, without at least five GCSEs at C or above, a teenager will find it all but impossible to get into college or sixth form to study for A-levels.

      This in turn will hamper any attempt to gain a university place. Rightly or wrongly, employers too tend to look askance at a job applicant without a single GCSE. It is not until their children are 16 that the reality strikes home for many home-educating parents. They have, in effect, blocked their children's path to careers as engineers, doctors, vets, solicitors, and so on. This restriction of a child's life chances by the early decision of a parent, sometimes when the child is only four or five, must surely be examined.

      Many home-educating parents are furiously asserting their "right" to educate at home. But it is the children who have the right - to receive a proper education. Parents have instead a duty - to make sure our children receive an education.

      Autonomous education is not a fringe faction in home educating. Many of the most strident and vociferous critics of the Badman review - the ones lobbying MPs, writing to the newspapers and involved in groups such as Education Otherwise - are autonomous educators.

      Teaching one's own child is hard work. If I had not taught my daughter maths, history, English, physics, chemistry, music, ICT, religious studies and drama, she would not be about to start college to study for A- levels.

      The arguments in favour of increased monitoring and inspection of home education are compelling. At present, parents can withdraw their children from school, neglect their duty to provide a suitable education and refuse visits from the local authority. Some simply send the LA educational philosophy taken off the internet and decline to give any details of their educational provision.

      The authority can issue a school attendance order, but it must have reasonable grounds for thinking the educational provision is inadequate. Without authority to enter the home or interview the child, it is impossible to assess the quality of the education. With many thousands of children removed from school, this is not a situation that can be permitted to continue. The case for a change in the law is unanswerable.

      Jeremy Yallop is a home-educating parent who thinks attempts to intervene are based on faulty evidence, and says `No, learning is both more enjoyable and effective without coercion'

      Some parents, we are told, believe that their children should be free to follow their own interests at their own pace. Mr Webb finds this "bizarre"; he apparently prefers to force them to learn things of no interest to them at a pace outside their control.

      In fact, the autonomous educators so despised by Mr Webb simply practise what most people know instinctively: that learning is both more enjoyable and more effective without coercion. Every teacher knows the impossibility of teaching disaffected pupils; anyone with a hobby knows the joy and effortlessness of learning when the interest is engaged. Such learning may involve teaching, books, conversations, experiments and whatever else proves helpful. Extensive research by Dr Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison at the Institute of Education in London has shown the autonomous approach to be "astonishingly effective".

      Chris Ford, now completing a biomedical research PhD, was autonomously educated from birth until he went to college, aged 14, to take A- levels.

      Alex Dowty, autonomously educated from the age of eight, decided against GCSEs and A-levels; instead, he took Open University courses in politics and humanities, which led to an unconditional offer to read law at Oxford. So autonomous education does not bar children from the professions, as Mr Webb fears.

      Graham Badman's review of home education is a striking example of what happens when there is no interest in the subject studied. He has produced a pitiful excuse of a report, the shortcomings of which include an embarrassing failure to understand the existing law. The confusion between rights and duties that Mr Webb rightly deplores does not reside with home educators but with Mr Badman, who assures us that he will not argue against "the rights of parents as set out in section 7 of the Education Act 1996", although he does imagine a need to balance these with the rights of children. In fact, the passage he refers to does not confer rights at all; instead, it imposes a duty on parents to provide a suitable education. The propaganda about "balance" fails in the face of this simple truth. Nobody will believe that parents' duties are incompatible with children's rights.

      Mr Badman wishes to appear very concerned for children's rights, especially their right to have a "voice". Strangely, he did not consider giving them a voice in his report. There are quotes from vested interests (teachers' unions) and irrelevant campaign groups (the British Humanist Association). There is a quote from the Church of England's submission, carefully cropped to conceal the fact that it opposes the report's recommendations. Yet, although he received about 2,000 submissions from "home-educating parents or children", Mr Badman fails to mention the view of a single child. The charity Education Otherwise surveyed 588 such children, who overwhelmingly rejected Mr Badman's proposals.

      What are these proposals that children reject so strongly? One of the most shocking gives local authorities the power to enter the homes of every home-educating family and take children from their parents for interrogation. A second abolishes the freedom to educate at home without official permission. Instead, a licence is required, which may be refused.

      Politicians of all parties are joining home-educated children in condemning the proposals. Fifty-six MPs have signed early day motions expressing concern. A parliamentary inquiry into the review is already under way.

      Mr Badman was tasked with linking home education and child abuse in order to justify a change in the law. He failed spectacularly, producing only a single sentence of evidence, which falls apart under scrutiny: "the number of children known to children's social care in some LAs is disproportionately high relative to the size of their home educating population". In fact, talk of proportions is meaningless, as the number of home educators is unknown, and the statistic itself is irrelevant, since children may be "known to social care" because of poor health, referrals by neighbours alarmed by children not at school, or many other reasons. Freedom of information requests submitted to all local authorities by Action for Home Education reveal that abuse is actually significantly rarer among home educators than in the general population.

      Ill-informed prejudice and shoddy statistics are poor grounds for changing the law. Mr Webb's and Mr Badman's failed arguments only confirm there is no convincing case to be made.

      Back story.

      • Hundreds of parents have complained about the Government's review of home education, led by Graham Badman, which proposes that families register to educate at home and that local authorities can enter their homes and speak to children alone about how they are taught.
      • There is confusion over the number of children being educated at home. Only about 20,000 are known to local authorities, but Mr Badman stated that the real figure could be more than 80,000. Previous estimates have ranged from 45,250 to 150,000.
      • Legislation based on the review's proposals is expected this autumn.


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