The press hysteria surrounding home education shows no sign of abating – if anything, it seems to be getting worse. Following the introduction of a Private Members’ Bill by Lord Soley last autumn, which attempts to introduce registration and enforce home inspections, pressure has been building from a range of sources.
The Times appears to have been a focal point for much of the media coverage. An article entitled ‘Hunt begins for legion of ‘missing’ children being educated at home’ talked about the case of a fifth girl from Bethnal Green Academy who was on her way to become a jihadi bride when she was removed from a British Airways flight. The difference between this girl, about whom little has been written, and the other four girls, is that the fifth was home educated. A search of her home revealed ‘radicalising materials’. What was found at the homes of the others girls isn’t known, so it’s easy to build the spurious ‘home education dangerous, school safe’ argument.
Somehow, home education has become the enemy, as parents who have simply exercised their right to educate their children as they wish find themselves suspected of abuse, neglect or, in the words of the Secretary of State for Education, allowing their children to grow up ignorant. The problem with these kinds of accusations is, of course, that they aren’t based on evidence of any sort. So, because the state can’t monitor children who don’t attend a registered school, an automatic assumption is made that they aren’t being educated properly.
The irony of it all is that a huge increase in home education figures in the last couple of years is probably due to the number of parents removing their children from school because the state isn’t meeting their child’s needs – this is particularly the case for children with special needs and those who are victims of unresolved bullying. Another group of students have fallen prey to the highly questionable practice of off-rolling, where their parents agree to remove them to home education in exchange for not being suspended or expelled.
The BBC has joined in, too, with an item about concern over unregistered schools. The concern was reinforced by a further article the following day, and the Chief Inspector of Schools appearing on the Six O’Clock News to bemoan the issue of unregistered and illegal schools. Nobody doubts that some children are at risk in schools that are dirty, where extremist views are the staple learning diet, or where safeguarding is not seen as an important part of the schools’ duty of care. But to tar every child who is not registered in a school with the same brush is nonsense.
It is, however, dangerous nonsense, because if Lord Soley’s Bill makes it into law (and he seems confident that it stands a good chance) then children will be registered and tracked as if they were criminals. That kind of assault on the freedom of tens of thousands of parents to educate their children as they deem appropriate is not acceptable in a society which claims to be a democracy.
This government loves to say that it is aiming to be the best in the world at all kinds of things – the safest place in the world for children to go online; learn phonics; get a good education; be prepared for life in modern Britain. The claims are relentless. If the government heads down the road of tracking every child in the country, it may well find itself up there as a world leader in totalitarian control of its citizens. Perhaps Lord Soley would like to ponder that.