Thursday, 10 September 2009
Should children who are not receiving a "suitable education" be sent back to school?
There can be little doubt that many children supposedly being taught at home are actually receiving no sort of education at all. Does this matter? Should the local authority have the power to send such children back to school? It depends, I think, upon the circumstances.
There are at least three completely different groups of children who are not at school and are probably not receiving a "suitable education". The first are older teenagers who have been deregistered from school because they are regular truants, hate school or are in danger of being excluded for bad behaviour. Another group are children with learning difficulties of such severity that there is no realistic chance of their developing much beyond their current capabilities. The last group are the most controversial. They are children who have been withdrawn from school by their parents with the genuine intention of teaching them, but who then find themselves incapable of providing a good education for their children. Let us look at each of these categories in turn.
Fourteen and fifteen year old youths who have no intention of studying at school and are sick of the whole business of being educated are a very difficult case. On the one hand, dragging them back to school would be pointless for them; they won't actually learn anything there. Even if you can force them to sit in a classroom they will disrupt the education of those who do wish to learn. I doubt there is much to be gained by taking their parents to court either. On the other hand, I would be reluctant to accept that we should just write them off and say effectively, "Leave them to it, there's no point bothering with them!" Perhaps more vocational course at FE colleges are the answer.
Some children with severe learning difficulties, global developmental delay combined with autistic features, that sort of thing, are not going to learn much whether they are at school or home. For such children, being at home with a loving parent doing what they please is likely to be a good deal kinder than the constant badgering and attempts to engage them which they are likely to get in a special school. Sometimes, all the specialised teaching in the world will only cause distress, and all to no real purpose. In these cases, the child is perhaps better at home with his parents, no matter what the staff at the school say. I have had some experience of children like this, whose parents just want them safe at home with them and I am wholly on the parents' side. Even when the child is capable of making progress, the distress caused by the whole teaching process often seems, at least to me, to amount to cruelty. Most LAs turn a blind eye to this group and realise that they are happier at home with their families.
The final category are those whose existence most exercised Graham Badman during his review of elective home education. They are the children who are being kept at home with parents who really do not know how to provide them with an education. These children have been deregistered because of bullying, minor special educational needs or because their parents have fallen out with the school. Many of this group are of primary school age and a lot of local authorities are genuinely concerned that they are not being educated and that this will have a bad effect on their prospects in later life. I suppose that ideally such families would be offered support and help from the LA; help with advice on following a curriculum and so on. There are two problems here. First, many of these families have had a lot of conflict with the school and local authority. They do not want anything to do with them, they just want to be left alone. Secondly of course, many of the parents are "autonomous", so they won't want help with any sort of curriculum at all.
It is families like this who are likely to bear the brunt of any new legislation. Ultimately, I suppose, there will be sanctions like fines and prison in order to force parents to engage with the LA, just as is currently the case with the parents of truants. I really cannot think though that sending mothers to prison just because they are not teaching their children effectively would be a just and equitable solution to such a problem. Nor would taking their children into care, another possibility if welfare concerns are invoked. What should we do then, if we are satisfied that a child is not being educated adequately and the parents refuse to discuss the situation and come to a compromise?
I have no answer at all to this. Like many people I am worried about some of the children who are not being sent to school. I am in favour of new laws, but have not the least notion of what we can do ultimately to make parents educate their children. As I say, locking up the parents and putting the kids in care is hardly likely to improve their educational prospects! I think that other home educating parents are aware of this situation, but avoid fretting over it either by denying that such families exist or claiming that they are very rare.