Home-schooling and illegal schools: Mummy and daddy know best?
Education, in a way clearly linked to religion and belief, is again hitting the headlines. Parents of a twelve-year-old actress who starred in the West End production of Matilda have announced that they are prepared to go to prison, rather than comply with the local council’s demand that she attend school. The choice by some parents to educate their children outside of school is one which provokes strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but at present this is unquestionably lawful in England and Wales. Parents must ensure that children receive an efficient full-time education, but this need not be in school, and in many respects, the framework gives families an immense amount of freedom. The concept of an “efficient” education is not defined; no core subjects, curriculum or skills are specified as mandatory, and the adults providing the education do not have to demonstrate any qualification to do so.
Furthermore, provision for state oversight of home-schooled children is somewhat haphazard. If a child has never been to school, parents have no duty to give official notice about the situation, and unless they have reason to be concerned, local authorities have no obligation to monitor his/her education. In fact, the young girl in the Matilda case only came to the attention of the council because the theatre company responsible for the production had needed to apply for a child performance license. Westminster local authority requires that parents of home-schooled children permit an inspection, or provide them with an endorsement from an educator who knows the child. The family in this instance regarded the policy as intrusive and refused to cooperate, and this reluctance on the part of the parents led to the school attendance order.
In the same week, there were fresh news reports about the continuing problem of ‘illegal’ unregistered schools. Many (but not all) of these are run by faith groups, and by definition none are inspected or regulated. Regrettably, there is evidence of damaging hate-filled ideology being taught in some of these institutions, for example that homosexual activity should attract the death penalty, as well as serious concerns about physical abuse, dangerous buildings and squalid kitchens with poor food hygiene. The latest footage and photographic testimony which has emerged in the press is chilling by any standards.
Moreover, Ofsted has explicitly made the link between the law on home-education and the challenge in tackling these illegal schools. As the current regime makes it very difficult for authorities to keep track of individual children, and to ensure that their educational needs are being properly met, it is also hard to monitor their basic welfare. In consequence, occasional tragedies do occur when home-educated children slip through the cracks. In recent years, Dylan Seabridge, died in Pembrokeshire from scurvy at the age of just eight, prompting as yet unsuccessful calls from a register for home-schooled children in Wales. Tragically, 12 months before he died, education officials had visited the farm-house where he lived, but were denied access and had no legal power to demand entry. Had the law been different, and regular local authority checks been made on Dylan, he would almost certainly have been spared a slow and agonising death from a wholly preventable condition.
A Private Member’s Bill is currently going through the House of Lords, and would introduce compulsory monitoring of home educated children if passed into law. This outcome is probably unlikely, as it lacks Government support, current Conservative policy being instead to issue authorities with more robust guidance. However, the merits of a clear statutory framework are apparent in terms of child protection, and if implemented effectively, such a development could eventually be welcomed by the majority of parents who choose to home educate. The oversight introduced could feasibly be supportive and non-prescriptive, and would save families from the kind of stress and wrangling seen in the current Westminster Council case. If home education took place within clearer parameters, such crises of clashing expectations could frequently be avoided altogether.
It should be acknowledged that home-schooling takes many shapes and forms, and for many children it can be a very positive educational pathway, but unfortunately the stark reality is that not all parents are caring, responsible or well-informed. Little Dylan Seabridge should not have died from a vile disease like scurvy, and other children living in the UK today should not have woken up to go to an unregistered school, where they were subjected to physical and emotional ill-treatment, extremist rhetoric and filthy conditions, but nevertheless they were. Irrespective of any social, cultural or religious pressure involved, their parents were deeply culpable in allowing these things, and children in such a situation are being failed by their families, and collectively by us as a society. Surely, we can construct a system where parents providing an appropriate education outside of school can feel helped, rather than hounded, but at the same time where all children can enjoy the start in life which they deserve.
Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a dark fairy tale about a little girl whose love of learning is despised by her philistine parents and battered by an authoritarian headmistress. In the book she triumphs over adversity through anarchic brilliance, punishing the evil grown-ups and finding a new home with love and literature. But this is no more part of our everyday world than the giant peaches, flying glass elevators and friendly giants which inhabit the rest of the Dahl universe, and in real life, children rely on adults to be their protectors and advocates. Our legal policy-makers can’t ignore these compelling situations, the law needs to reflect the responsibility which all of us share in this, parents or otherwise.
Children exposed to extremist material and hate filled views in UK’s illegal schools The Independent (3/3/18)
Abuse concerns over unregistered schools BBC News (26/2/18)
Parents of Matilda Star: We’re prepared to go to jail in home-schooling row The Telegraph (25/2/18)
Lords prepare Bill to monitor home schooled pupils School Weekly (2/2/18)
Give us power to break into illegal schools Ofsted chief says The Telegraph (23/9/17)
Boys scurvy death prompts home-schooling register call BBC News (8/7/16)