There are moves afoot to define in law precisely what is meant by terms such "suitable" and "efficient" in relation to the education which a child must receive. With depressing predictability, many of the more reactionary home educators oppose any such move. Perhaps we should see where our current ideas as to what constitutes a "suitable" and "efficient" education come from and then see whether it might be possible to improve upon them.
There are two main types of law in this country; statute and case law. Statute law means laws passed by parliament and when people talk about "the law" it is to this that are usually referring. However, much of the legal position around home education derives not from such statute law, but from precedent or case law. Essentially, this means how the courts have interpreted statute law in the past; the higher the court, the more binding the precedent. It is to this interpretation of statute law that we owe many of what we have come to regard as our established rights with respect to home education. Indeed, statute law has nothing at all to say on the matter, other than those few crucial words to be found in the Education Act 1996;
" either by regular attendance at school or otherwise."
Now the definition of an "efficient" education is to found in an obscure case from very nearly a century ago. An "efficient" education was described by Lord Alverstone in his judgement in Bevan v Shears 1911, one of the key cases for home educators. He said;
"In the absence of anything in the bye-laws providing that a child of a given age shall receive instruction in given subjects, in my view it cannot be said that there is a standard of education by which the child must be taught. The court has to decide whether in their opinion the child is being taught efficiently so far as that particular child is concerned."
Lord Alverstone went on to rule that in the case of a child being taught out of school, that a court could decide for themselves on evidence provided for them by parents or others. It need have no relevance at all to what was being taught in schools. This particular case is the reason why local authorities cannot simply issue a School Attendance Order and enforce it through the courts without any evidence being taken. As a direct consequence of Bevan v Shears, they must prove their own case to the court.
This definition of an "efficient" education was expanded in another case, that of R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust, 1985. Mr. Justice Woolf gave it as his opinion that an "efficient" education was one that "achieves what it sets out to achieve". In the course of the same judgement, he described a "suitable" education as one which;
"Primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole."
The real question is whether or not we wish to stay with these old definitions, which some would argue to be increasingly irrelevant in the modern world, or if we would instead like to place the whole thing on a more rational footing and devise an idea of what most right thinking people could agree to be a "suitable education".
Some home educators have of course their own agenda on this topic. They fear that a definition of an "efficient" or "suitable" education as understood by this Government would include stuff about teaching and standards. This would, they suppose, preclude the possibility of an education which was wholly autonomous. They may well be right about this, but whether this would indeed be a matter for regret is less clear.
In the meantime, rejoining the Twenty First Century for a moment, most people are in favour of having a legal definition a little more considered than Lord Alverstones musings on the subject one afternoon ninety eight years ago!