I mentioned "rights" yesterday, but without even defining the word! This was a mistake, because it is only by examining what we mean by "rights" that we can see how the concept applies, or not, to home education.
A right is simply an entitlement to have or do something. A few people yesterday sought to muddy the waters somewhat by talking of negative and positive rights, natural rights and so on, but these are the very reddest of herrings. Whether the right is a broad and general one, such as guaranteeing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or of a narrow and specific nature such as the right to a full time education, makes no difference at all to their essential nature. One or two people thought that I was pulling a fast one by saying that the Children Act 2004 gave children certain rights. They had looked through it and couldn't see any mention at all of "rights". Of course not; the act consists really of duties. This brings us neatly to the crux of the matter.
Rights are always associated with duties. If I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then others must have a duty not to deprive me of my liberty or kill me. If a child has the right to an education, then somebody must have a duty to provide him with it. Duties can create rights. In the Education Act 1996, it nowhere says that children have a right to education; merely that parents have a duty to cause them to receive it. This is how most rights are created in law, by setting out duties. For every right, there are corresponding duties. Of course, this does not always work the other way. It is perfectly possible to have a duty without the duty conferring rights upon anybody.
The greatest error into which many of those discussing home education seem to have fallen is to assume that parents have some sort of "rights" in the case. They do not. I have read of parents talking about their "right" to educate their children at home. Even Graham Badman fell into this error, by claiming that it was somehow necessary to balance the rights of parents against the rights of children. This is the most pernicious nonsense imaginable. I as a parent never had any rights at all in connection with my children. I had instead duties. They had all the rights; I had none at all! Unfair, I know, but that's ethics for you.
The fact that the debate around home education is being sometimes framed in terms of parents' "rights" is a sign of the times. A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, the language used would have been very different. Both parents and professionals would have been trying to thrash out the question using the idea of duties, rather than shouting about rights. Actually, I was racking my brains last night , trying to come up with a single right which parents have, or should have. I could not think of any. Is there any right which parents have, which readers can think of? A right which carries a corresponding duty in law which others must respect?
Having cleared the ground a little, we find that matters are now a good deal more easy to understand. Children have a right to an education. Parents have a duty to provide them with this education, either by sending them to school or in some other way. More specifically, they must provide a full time education suitable to their child's age and aptitude, having regard for any special educational needs. This does not give parents a "right" to educate their children at home, as I have seen some argue. It rather allows them a bit of leeway in discharging their legal duty. This duty itself can be altered or modified at any time. For instance, the definition of what constitutes a full time education could be precisely stated or a "suitable education" spelt out in detail. If these things were to be done, it would simply add to a parent's duties, not diminish her rights. To expect parents to submit an annual plan of their child's education would not remove any right either. It would instead become a new duty.
As soon as we realise that parents have no specific rights over their children or their children's education, the current debate on home education becomes very simple and easy to understand. As citizens, we enjoy certain rights. The right not to be cast into prison without trial, for instance. As parents, we enjoy no additional rights. Becoming a parent means that we are suddenly landed with a raft of duties and obligations. this is as it should be and of course nobody is compelled to have children and acquire those duties unless they particularly want to! Introducing this spurious notion of parental rights into discussion of home education has served only to upset and confuse people. A number of parents have now become convinced that any new legislation might diddle them out of their rights! Nothing of the sort. All it would do would be to add a few new duties for them to perform. Amidst all the duties which they already have, most will hardly notice a couple of new ones.