Local authority officers visiting home educating families realise full well that an hour or so is not long enough to establish the quality of the education being provided for a child. Traditionally, they really limit themselves to checking three things. Firstly, that the child is not being kept out of school in order to work, secondly that it does not look as though she is being abused in some way and finally that the parents do not seem to be completely mad. When I have talked about this before, several people have pulled me up and asked if I think that a parent with mental health problems should be forbidden to home educate. This is a fair question. After all, we don't usually assume that somebody is unfit to care for her children just because she are bipolar! Still, in the case of home education, things are a little more complicated.
I have been moved to reflect upon this by my observation over the last week or two of the increasingly fragile state of one fairly well known home educating parent. Just as green ink is always a warning sign when used in letters to newspaper editors, so too is a blog whose posts are made in 24 point typeface in alternating Red, green, yellow and magenta. I do have the impression that the home educating community contains rather more than its fair share of people with mental health problems. Mind you, it is a little hard to tell. Few home educators, including the present writer, are completely normal and it is sometimes difficult to know where eccentricity ends and madness begins. In other words, while it is true that many home educators are a bit, or indeed very, odd, it is not easy to gauge the percentage who are actually ill. Anyway, does it matter? There are plenty of parents with varying degrees of mental health problems whose children are at school. Why should home educating families be looked at differently?
I think that the possible consequences of a mentally ill parent educating a child at home are different from one who send the child to school in the usual way. I think that the child of such a parent could be in a sense at risk. I do not mean the sort of risk which we saw in the dreadful case in Edinburgh recently where the three children died in tragic circumstances. One can never guard against such tragedies. I am thinking more of the effect on a child of spending most of their waking hours with a person whose world view might be horribly distorted and irrational. Of course, I recognise straight away that most parents, mentally ill or not, manage to give their children some foolish and wrong headed views about the world, whether they go to school or are taught at home. My own daughter was raised on scripture and some might say that filling a small child's head with a lot of stuff about people being raised from the dead and so on is pretty weird! We also come to the question about the limits of what society may reasonably take an interest in. If I wish to teach my child that somebody was raised from the dead, then what right have I to say that another parent should not teach his child that the Jews are taking over the world or that aliens are eavesdropping on her thoughts via the television? This is not an either/or situation, but rather a spectrum.
There does seem to me though something a little worrying about the idea that somebody displaying the florid symptoms of a bipolar episode could be the only adult influence upon a young child. There has been some concern in the past among local authority officers that the home educated children of such parents are acting in effect as nurse companions. I suspect that these are likely to be isolated cases, but there is the more general fear that children might get caught up in the conspiracy laden atmosphere of certain elements of the home education movement. They might grow up believing that nothing ever happens by chance and that every unfortunate accident is part of a wider and deeply sinister conspiracy against their parents' chosen lifestyle. Link to the 2007 guidelines on home education missing from the DfE website? Oh no, the government are trying to suppress our rights! This sort of low level paranoia is pretty widespread among many home educators. If you throw in a number of dedicated activists with definite psychiatric problems, then you run the risk of creating a feverish backdrop of anxiety and imaginary attacks by government agents which must result in quite a few children being raised in homes which resemble the X Files! This can hardly bode well for the children's own mental health and future prospects of becoming normal, well balanced citizens.
As I say, I would be interested to know if anybody else has the feeling that the proportion of mentally ill parents is higher among home educators than the general population? If so, then this might not only have implications for the children, but also go a long way to explain the extraordinary atmosphere of persecution and government conspiracies which seems to pervade elective home education in this country.