Talk to most teachers about home schooling and you usually receive a very negative response. This is understandable, given that parents who opt for it are, by implication at least, expressing a somewhat negative opinion of what formal learning can provide and asserting their belief that they can do better. Obviously, the welfare of children comes first in any such matter, but we should not forget parent welfare either. Choosing how one's own offspring are brought up is a key prerogative and the state should think carefully before it even thinks about denying such a basic right.
Unfortunately, few Scottish authorities seem to give a fig for such niceties and some are remarkably cavalier about existing laws. Particularly shocking is the attitude of South Ayrshire, revealed in recent months in a case involving the Forsyth family of Ayr. The council manifestly failed to answer correspondence and respond to the request for approval to withdraw within the timescales recommended by the Scottish Executive Education Department. Its hostility to the very idea of home schooling was plain.
To add insult to injury, the council introduced a large number of red herrings into the procedure, which included dragging the mother in front of the attendance panel, despite conclusive medical evidence that her children were unfit to attend the school from which she had withdrawn them.
It is little wonder that two MSPs and the Children's Commissioner are now involved in that case. It throws up the whole question of whether Scottish law needs to be changed in order to bolster parent rights. In England, parents can withdraw their children from school by means of a simple request. In Scotland, the permission of the local authority is needed, though present statute says that approval should not normally be withheld.
Parents are required, however, to indicate how they will educate their children outwith a school setting; in many cases, this is used by councils to deter would-be home educators, no matter their skills or experience.
The law also states that a local authority should make available to parents, in simple terms, information about how it will go about making a decision regarding a home education request and indicate what it regards as the essential requirements potential home educators need to put in place.
Needless to say, few Scottish councils do either.
In some places, information is impossible to get hold of. In others, intimidating actions by officials and councillors are clearly designed to put parents off even attempting a withdrawal. In Aberdeenshire, for example, a committee of councillors is involved in a decision-making process that can take up to 15 months. Parents complain of having to wait outside closed committee rooms while elected representatives deliberate in secret on the fate of their children.
Children themselves, despite best practice dictating their active involvement, are rarely, if ever, asked what they want. When they are, their views are sometimes badly misrepresented by those they thought they could trust. In other cases, social workers and health visitors have been pressed into service by the education department to cast aspersions on parental abilities, though subsequent enquiry usually shows such smears to be false.
Some teachers, education directors and councillors may disapprove of home education and may be sceptical about the motives of some of those who wish to undertake it (more than one parent has heard whisperings about "new age hippies", and even "white settlers"). But the law exists to ensure fair treatment for all and to banish prejudice.
If anyone wants to outlaw the right of parents to set their own educational agenda, let them come forward with such a proposal and have it debated. I suspect it would be kicked out without much serious consideration, so it is quite wrong to attempt to achieve the same result by unfair manipulation or even ignoring the law altogether.
A motion before the Scottish Parliament, sponsored by the Green MSP Robin Harper, makes that point by arguing for a legal clarification in Scotland so that parents can exercise their rights without fear of local authority obstruction. Such a change is probably now overdue, given the wide-ranging experience of the home education movement and its dedicated charity, Schoolhouse. Campaigners have accumulated much evidence of malpractice by many, though not all, of Scotland's local authorities.
There may be some who will balk at further legal change and who remain worried that too much home education will undermine the ability of schools to provide a high-quality education for all Scotland's children, as well as damage the prospects for individual young people. While understandable, neither fear is justified. In any case, only a small minority of parents will ever want to take this route. The real implications of the issue lie elsewhere.
If Scotland's councils cannot be open enough to allow parents to make their own choices, how on earth are they going to be open enough to meet the myriad challenges that new technology will soon present to the formal process of education? A wired society will create the ability for pupils to learn at their own pace, in their own homes and by prioritising their own interests. The effort required to tailor today's schooling to the demands of individual pupils will be as nothing when that set of possibilities becomes real.
Local authorities that loosen their tight grip and relax their demands for one-size-fits-all conformity will be in the vanguard of those that can develop their services to maintain high-quality education in such a changed world. Those that still think in terms of rigid control and demand docile acceptance of official diktat will be the losers, as will the citizens who are served by them.
Residents of South Ayrshire, take note.
Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.