EDUCATION IS NOT COMPULSORY
What do you think of when you picture children being educated at home? Middle class creative parents taking time out to lavish attention on their precious offspring? The reality can be very different.
All parents have the right to educate their children at home. Currently at least 16,000 youngsters, but probably twice that figure (no one seems to know) are home educated. In urban areas especially, an LEA’s list of children educated “otherwise than at school” (1996 Education Act) will cover the full spectrum, from affluent homes with every resource imaginable, to families where the only source of stimulus appears to be the TV set.
Why do parents choose to educate their own children? In some cases, they are dissatisfied with the school’s academic standards or its discipline. Friends of mine recently moved to another part of the country and approached a Head about admitting their children to his school. He actually said he wouldn’t recommend his own school. As it was the only option within reasonable travelling distance, they’re now educating their sons outside the system.
Some parents withdraw their children from school on religious grounds, often when a child leaves the primary sector. In my Authority we have several Muslim girls on our list, all working diligently and apparently happy with their lot. They tend to have paid tutors who leave them with lots of homework between visits.
All these parents strive to do their best for their children and make enormous sacrifices in time and earning potential. But this is the tip of the iceberg.
One school in the city had terrible discipline problems a few years ago, but didn’t want to increase its already high exclusion figures. They devised a ruse of suggesting to the parents of disruptive children that they withdrew their children to educate them at home: otherwise they would be excluded. This practice isn’t widespread any more, but it still happens in individual cases from time to time.
All too often, I encounter a family – usually with just a mother – where there is antipathy to authority figures. Typically, the child will have been withdrawn from school following an argument with the Head teacher, often about his (it is usually a he) disruptive behaviour in school.
“All right, then. I’ll learn him mysel’” is the usual reaction.
The poor boy is then left with no routine and no learning programme. Some parents in such situations do try, it’s true, but many are simply not capable of teaching their offspring, yet they have the right to deprive them of an education which could extend their life opportunities.
Consider these recent examples:
- A mother and three children in a dirty smoke-filled sitting room strewn with take-away packaging. The child concerned wasn’t even dressed at eleven in the morning, though they were expecting me.
- A family where the father appeared to be in a persistent vegetative state in his armchair, watching the television and taking no part in the conversation I was having with the mother and teenage daughter about her education. When I asked about opportunities for physical exercise, they improbably told me that she goes cycling with her father.
- A mother, a pleasant woman, who has been though a painful divorce. Her 9 year-old is taught at home – rather well – but I suspect that it’s more to keep her mother company than out of a positive decision that home education is best. The little girl is very socially isolated.
- A house I’ve visited many times but no one is ever in. The Education Welfare Officer reports sightings of the girl, usually wrapped around some youth, but her mother never responds to calls or letters.
- A recent referral currently beyond reach. The family are under witness protection and their whereabouts are confidential.
- A more serious case of a girl with a Statement of Special Educational Need. Her Statement should be reviewed annually, but since her parents withdrew her three years ago, I’ve been unable to establish any contact at all. Sometimes the curtains twitch and a dog barks. It’s rumoured that the house is used for drug dealing so I always visit with a minder – and put a note through the door when they don’t respond. Such cases are of course passed on to relevant authorities, but you can’t help feeling worried and frustrated.
- A family I’ve come to know quite well who spent last winter in Spain on the proceeds of dealing in scrap metal. The 12 year-old is barely literate, but loved and cared for. I dare say he had a wonderful time, but their home in the city has now been demolished and I am unable to trace the family.
Elective home education is so easy. All a parent has to do is to write to the Head expressing a wish to do it. The school informs the Local Education Authority, and I, as the LEA representative, then make arrangements to discuss with the parents the education of their children. They do not have to meet me, they do not have to follow the National Curriculum, and I have no legal right to visit the home. However, we feel it is good practice to maintain a database and have regular half yearly contact. After all, there could be child protection issues if no one outside the family ever sees the child.
Perhaps my most problematic case is that of a little boy who has never been to school. He was referred by his GP, who was concerned about his low weight and his mother’s mental health problems. She deeply resented being “shopped”. On my first visit, when he was six, I couldn’t understand Connor at all, and said so, suggesting he might have speech and language difficulties.
“But I can understand him,” said his mother.
So that was all right, then. The problem was clearly mine. I try, gently but persistently, on every visit, to persuade his mother to allow Connor to go to school. She won’t hear of it, of course, so I leave very clear simple outlines of what I think they should be working on together. Sadly, his mother isn’t capable of carrying them out. Six years down the line I still can’t understand him and he is still illiterate. The few recognisable words in his vocabulary are spoken with an American accent, the influence of the countless TV programmes he watches each day. He doesn’t even know his address. What will happen to him in the years ahead?
Home education is a good option for many children. What worries me is the undue emphasis on the rights of the parent over the rights of the child to receive “an efficient education suitable to age, ability and aptitude”. (1996 Education Act) In other words, the emphasis is wrong. It shouldn’t be that parents always have the right to withdraw children from school, but that children always have the right to be educated.