The Department for Children, Schools and Families announced last year that the question of what constitutes a 'suitable education' was under active consideration. What is meant by this expression? Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act states that:
The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to
receive efficient full-time education suitable -
(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular
attendance at school or otherwise
What does this mean in practice? Nobody knows because there is no legal definition of either 'full-time' or 'suitable'. Although statute law has nothing to say about it, there are some hints in precedent or case law. An 'efficient' education was described in this way 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
The 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.' He went on to say that this education should not foreclose a child's options in later life.
None of this is very helpful for working out whether a home educated child is receiving an education. It is specifically stated that the local authority cannot use the standard of education in schools as a yardstick. Each child must be educated efficiently, 'so far as that particular child is
concerned'. many local authorities want a clear definition that can be used when monitoring the education provided to children at home. The idea is that certain skills and knowledge would be expected to be acquired by the child at particular ages. This could mean that the child should be able to read at eight, carry out the four arithmetical operations at eleven and so on. This would take into account any special educational needs which the child had. There is great opposition to this scheme form autonomous educators. They feel that this would harm their method of education.
It would be curious to speculate upon what a legal definition of a suitable and efficient education might look like. It would include reading and writing by a certain age and also arithmetic. It might also include the study of science and history. I shouldn't think anybody could object to a framework like this, as long as it wasn't prescriptive. If the history to be taught was set out in detail; the Tudors at this age, the Romans at that, World War II next, then I can see why people might object. If though the requirement was just to expose the child to history, whether by teaching or just by visits to castles and museums, then I don't think that this would be a problem.
In the same way, if the definition of a suitable education was that the intention would be that the child could read by twelve, I should think that most parents would find that acceptable. After all I am sure that most home educating parents hope that their children will be reading by this age. In other words, although some home educating parents would be unhappy at the idea that they were compelled to teach their child, they might be agreeable to the notion that there were certain milestones which were desirable and that these would be borne in mind. Before anybody asks the question, no I am not suggesting that if such milestones were not reached then the child should be forced to return to school.
Of course I am quite sure that many home educating parents, whether autonomous or not, are already aware of these things. I am also sure that most already expose their children to various stimulating and educational activities. It might not be a bad idea though to have this set out in a formal way, simply as a set of guidelines by which an education might be judged. Obviously, the quality of education being received by home educated children in this country varies enormously. Some are receiving a good education, while others are barely being educated at all. It would be handy to have some sort of rough and ready guide to distinguish between these two cases.