View from here - When home school can mean jail

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Germany's ban has parents seeking asylum and the right to educate their children away from teachers. Frances Mechan-Schmidt reports

The Romeikes recently sold their house near Stuttgart in south-western Germany and bought a home in deepest Tennessee. Yet this is no ordinary story of a family emigrating from Europe to the US. The Romeikes were granted asylum in the US earlier this year after fleeing Germany in August 2008 because the authorities would not allow them to educate their children at home.

In an unprecedented case, an American immigration judge ruled in January that the Romeikes, together with their five children, were entitled to political asylum on the grounds that they faced persecution in their native country because of their determination to home school their children.

The ruling sent shock waves throughout Germany's educational establishment, in which each of the 16 states is responsible for its own school policy. In Germany, unlike the UK or the US, or indeed Denmark and France, home schooling is illegal and all children between the ages of six and 18 are required by law to attend a school approved by the education authorities or enrol in some form of vocational training.

Yet many parents are dissatisfied with conditions in regional state schools where classrooms are overcrowded and bullying and drug problems are not uncommon. Others, like the Romeikes, are also deeply devout Christians who feel they can educate their children better than anyone else.

But the German state clamps down hard on those who try to beat the system and keep their children out of school. In Germany, the provision of education is a state matter and school attendance obligatory. Parents who break the law face incremental fines the longer their children stay away from school. They also risk losing custody of their children and, in some cases, incurring jail sentences.

Hence home schooling figures in Germany are comparatively low - only around 1,000 children are taught at home compared with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 in the UK (although the figures are uncertain) and between 1.5 million and two million in the US.

Still, German educationalists are convinced they are acting in children's best interests. In their eyes, school attendance represents a hard-won privilege that heralded a more enlightened age and freed children from hard physical labour so as to get an education.

Nevertheless, despite all the obstacles in Germany, some determined groups have had their way. Like, for example, "Twelve Tribes", a group of fundamentalist Christian parents in Bavaria, who some years ago were granted the right to have their children taught by their own teachers in a private school subject to state supervision. The parents objected to their children learning about sex education and evolutionary theory in state schools.

Meanwhile, back in Tennessee, the Romeikes would eventually like to apply for American citizenship. However, the US Department of Immigration is planning to file an appeal against the initial ruling granting them asylum. Germany's way may be the only way.

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