Friday, 18 December 2009

A "suitable" and "efficient" education

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!


  1. Yes, because clearly it's unacceptable that a court should decide such a thing based on looking at the specific evidence and making a judgement based on the facts before them!? Perhaps the law was written the way it was for a reason, in more sensible times?

    But instead, we could have an official from the council make a summary judgement by combining their personal prejudices with some kind of narrow-minded definition laid down by a bunch of bureaucrats. Because they think they know better than parents, and think their views should overrule those of parents.

    I've said this before, but it bears repeating. I don't personally lean towards the "wholly autonomous" (as you put it) end of the scale, but I don't profess to know better about other people's children than the parents of those children. Nor should anyone else. While it's right and proper to state an opinion or engage in a debate about what might constitute a good education, proposing the enforcement of that opinion on all parents is just plain wrong. Worse than that, many those engaged in doing so have a conflict of interest because the matter relates directly to their ticket on the gravy train.

    Also, I can't help noting that as in the previous post where you were in tune with the public mood while anyone with a different opinion wasn't, now you know what most people are in favour of. How do you manage these things, which seem to me to be impossible feats?

  2. "most people are in favour of having a legal definition..."

    I'm curious to see a reference to the survey or other evidence that shows this.

    The whole debate about "suitable and efficient education" is going to very entertaining. One can make a good stab at showing that schools don't deliver this, and many of our political leaders and teachers have not experienced such an education.

    They could be sorry that the decided to enter this territory, particularly in the run up to a general election.

  3. Indeed, Anonymous. Surely nobody could describe as efficient the concept of one teacher practising crowd control on 30+ children with completely different levels of understanding of, and interest in, the subject at hand, along with different learning styles and abilities.

  4. Not to mention, CiaranG, that in the absence of 100% one-to-one tuition in the classroom and given the amount of time most children are left to themselves while teacher concentrates on other things or those in difficulty, one could almost describe learning in schools as semi-autonomous.

  5. " could almost describe learning in schools as semi-autonomous."

    Except, I should add, that in a home education setting, there is some chance a child will have its questions answered, have their reading heard or have all sorts of other stimulation that they wont have in the classroom.

  6. Of course, there are also the principles embedded in statute and case law such as the presumption of innocence, the right to privacy etc. An unwritten constitution has a number of advantages; the most obvious is that you don't have to keep re-writing the thing every five minutes.

    Unless I am very much mistaken, because a new law has to co-exist with extant law, you can't just go changing the meaning of terms willy-nilly because of public opininion or because it doesn't enhance our modern lifestyle. This is because there was once a reason for that law being drafted in those terms. If we change the meaning of a legal term without paying attention to the reason it was there in the first place, that reason might well come back to bite us.

    'Efficient' means that the education works, has the desired effect. It doesn't mean that you set a target and if the target isn't met, you've failed to educate the child. A child might not be able to learn what was initially intended, but might end up learning something just as useful, but different.

    The reason why 'suitable' is not defined more precisely, is because an education has to be suitable to a particular child at each particular time in his or her life, and so has to be pretty flexible.

    These two terms allowed teachers (and parents) scope to exercise their judgement about what it was appropriate for a child, or a class of children, to be learning at any time. This distributed control of education sometimes fails children, but then so does a monolithic, centrally controlled system. The first is a great deal less expensive, more effective overall, and generally more comfortable for everyone.

  7. simon, answer me this is it possible to have some structure to autonomous learning, as this is what i feel i do with ds, ie we have to do maths, english, reading and writng every day, which is set out by me, the rest is ds choice. i know this is proberly off topic to what you have writen, but i have often read your blog, and have noticed that you are not keen on autonomous education, and as i want ds to do well, i need to know that i am doing right by him, many thanks

  8. I don't hold out much hope for the English and writing side of things if that's anything to go by.

  9. anonymous Why do you say that ?

  10. Anonymous at 9.15, as you've probably noticed by now, this isn't the most supportive place to come if you want helpful answers to serious questions. I suggest you have a look at the UK Home Education website and think about joining the email list there; you will find many experienced HErs, autonomous and structured, who will be able to help you. I don't know if you meet up with other HErs locally; this can be very helpful for general support and ideas for you, and for the opportunity to socialise with other HE kids for your son. Spend as much time talking to other HErs as you feel you need to; they are the experts.
    I would describe your approach as semi-structured, which is what many HErs do. As long as your son is happy and learning, and you are committed to him and his education, you are doing a good job. If he loves reading, his spelling and grammar should fall into place with practice, as long as he has no problems such as dyslexia which might need specialist help.
    Hope this helps; don't hesitate to ask more questions if you'd like to.

  11. Many thanx Erica, I will go and look at HE webs like you suggested.
    Again many thanx for that.