There is great concern over the number of young people in this country who are NEETs. This acronym stands of course for young people over the age of sixteen who are Not in Education Employment or Training. The latest figures collected in the run-up to the select committee hearings next week suggest that roughly four times as many home educated young people are NEETs; 22%, compared with just over 5% of school leavers. I don't doubt for a moment that these figures will be the subject of fierce debate. For example, does the definition of "not in education" include those who are still learning at home? In other words, by "in education", do the local authorities mean only those young people in a college or school setting? But if they were true, would it tell us anything useful about home education as opposed to school education? Almost certainly not. The reasons are fairly straightforward.
Despite all the fuss and anger among the few hundred home educators who are determined to cast themselves in the role of martyrs to a callous, uncaring and monolithic state, nobody is really at all worried about those children who are being educated at home. The target is really quite different. The confusion has arisen because the expression "home educated" is used to cover practically any child who is not at school. Not all of those children are actually receiving an education and it is these who are giving cause for concern.
Well who are these children? I was accused recently of talking too much about council estates and so today I shall be talking about a fairly typical case of a child from a prosperous, middle class home who stopped being educated at the age of fourteen. I know about him because he is my nephew. I think it worth describing his circumstances at some length because he is precisely the sort of child who precipitated the recent review of elective home education conducted by Graham Badman.
When it became clear to my family that I had no intention of sending my daughter to school, there was much shaking of heads, pursing of lips, narrowing of eyes and sad looks. I dare say some readers will also have experienced this! Leader of this faction in my own family was my sister in Manchester. However, by the time her youngest son was thirteen she was having enough trouble with him to cause her to stop worrying about my affairs. He began truanting and unless she could get him off to school before leaving for work, he would simply go back to bed. Soon after his fourteenth birthday, he decided that he would simply not get up in the mornings any more. Since he was over six feet tall by then, there was no question of making him get up and get dressed.
My sister was at a loss to know what to do. My home educated daughter was ten at that time and I had discussed home education often enough with my sister. So she hit upon the luminous idea of de-registering him from school, adapting an educational philosophy from the HE-UK site and then refusing any visit. Well, she is an articulate and forceful woman and this ruse worked a treat, at least from the point of view of preventing her from being sent to prison for her son's truancy. The only slight problem was that the boy now spent all day in bed until about two in the afternoon. He would then get up and play computer games or watch television until the evening, when he would go and hang round the streets with his mates. I need hardly add that he became a NEET as soon as he reached sixteen.
It is children like these who are the problem. It would be foolish to describe him as "home educated" because nobody, least of all my sister who is a very busy woman, was providing him with any education. Nor was he educating himself autonomously, unless you count the acquisition of the ability to buy and sell small amounts of illegal drugs as a useful life skill. Nobody knows how many children there are like this. It would have taken only a single visit and a few questions by a sharp eyed local authority officer to uncover this deception. Of course, if my sister had been in the room, she would have been able to jump in first with the correct answers. This is where speaking to the child alone really comes in handy!
This then is the nature of the problem. Not children being educated autonomously, but children receiving no education of any description whatsoever. I have no idea what the remedy is to this problem. I don't think that sending my sister to prison and putting her son into care would have been a good idea. Nor do I think that it would have suited anybody to force the child back into school, where he would just disrupt the education of those who did wish to learn. It is this sort of situation that the new legislation is intended to deal with. I do not for a moment suppose that it is in anybody's mind, Graham Badman, me or anyone else, that parents who are autonomously educating their children should be the target of some crackdown. It is, as I said above, really only those who are not receiving an education at all who are likely to be affected by any new law.