It was, to say the least of it, unfortunate that Michael Gove should have chosen to announce his 'free schools' initiative and trumpet the wonders of the scheme as it works in Sweden, only a few days before the Swedes began moves to abolish home education in their country. It goes without saying that many home educating parents in this country smelt a rat and saw the introduction of free schools as the beginning of the end for British home education. There are no coincidences in Home Education Land and it wasn't long before conspiracy theorists were seeing a sinister pattern. Here's how the theory works out.
The Swedes have free schools which seem to do very well. They also grudgingly allow home education. Then they introduce a law which simultaneously outlaws home education for philosophical or religious reasons and also imposes a state approved curriculum in all schools. Could this be the shape of things to come in this country?
One can see why some home educators might be getting a little twitchy about this sequences of events. Here's the Education Secretary in this country shooting his mouth off about how wonderful Sweden's educational system is and then a few days later their parliament approves a law which effectively bans home education. As if this was not enough, the case of Dominic Johansson also came back into public awareness at pretty much the same time. I am a little dubious about this case. The more we learn about it, the more it seems that the Swedish authorities were acting in the best interest of the child. I think that the Johansson case is really a bit of a red herring; nothing to do with home education in fact.
So what is it about the whole free schools thing that some home educating parents find a little alarming? It seems that the suspicion is that some home educating parents, probably the more structured, organised and middle class ones, will take the opportunity to set up such schools. After a while, more home educated children might be enrolled in free schools and the number actually learning at home could dwindle. This could be a chance for a new government to start trying to discourage the practice and perhaps imposing new restrictions. And then, as we have seen in Sweden, there is nothing to stop a government imposing a very detailed and prescriptive curriculum on the free schools, something a bit like the National Curriculum. In Sweden from now on, every child will be compelled to learn precisely what the government dictates. This will be the case whether they are at a state school or one of the soc-called free schools.
I have to say, I don't see this scenario as being very likely. To begin with, the number of parents who will be setting up schools here is likely to be very tiny indeed. I doubt that many of those who have expressed interest in this scheme will get past even the first stage of the process. Any new schools which are set up are far more likely to be run by charities or churches than they are by groups of parents. Besides, I can't see the government being willing to fund a places like Summerhill. If they do give out taxpayers' money, it will only be to schools which are providing teaching and will have measurable outcomes. I think that might just rule out most autonomous educators right from the start. Secondly, I have never felt that anybody in either this administration or the last is actually opposed to home education. True, there is an uneasiness about some aspects of it and a feeling that new regulations are needed, but I honestly don't think anybody wants to ban it. This is in stark contrast to Sweden, where the practice has always been discouraged and home educators have been viewed as being dangerous cranks.
Personally, I can't see that the free school thing is going to make any difference at all to home education in this country. I suppose that one or two groups of home educators might get it together to start schools, but I find even that pretty unlikely. I certainly don't think that home education is going to be squeezed out of existence by all these new schools and that after a time some new government will begin acting like Sweden.