Most readers will probably be aware by now that the Annual General Meeting of Education Otherwise was held in Oxford on Saturday. Because not enough people turned up, it was adjourned. Only four of the thirteen trustees of the charity turned up, which is very odd. I don't intend to go into all the ins and outs of the troubles which have beset the organisation over the last few years, but the bottom line is that many think that EO has reached the end of the line and that when the AGM is reconvened this coming Saturday, it is possible that it might simply mean that it will be to wind up the charity. The question is, would this matter to most home educators? Whom would it affect?
Like many home educating parents, I joined Education Otherwise at one stage. And, again like so many others, I allowed my subscription to lapse after a year. I couldn't see what I was getting from the thing, nor how my money was being used to help other home educators. There are currently four or five thousand members and it would be interesting to know how many of these have only joined for a year or so. I think that this is probably very common and that there is a relatively small core membership which belongs to EO for years on end. Many local authorities push Education Otherwise to parents who de-register their kids from school and it appears on the websites of an awful lot of councils. For many people outside the world of home education too, Education Otherwise is synonymous with home education in this country. The claim is frequently made that EO have succeeded in making home education an acceptable alternative to schooling for British children and that without their efforts over the years, parents in this country would face a much harder time from their local authorities. Is this true?
Section 36 of the 1944 education Act laid down that parents must cause their children to receive a suitable education, 'either by regular attendance at school or otherwise'. This was included as a nod to those, like the Royal family, who traditionally engaged governesses and tutors for their children rather than sending them to school. Without this section, the prospect would have been raised of the Truancy Officer banging on the door of Buckingham Palace! It was to be ten years or so before an 'ordinary' parent thought to take advantage of this loophole and not send her children to school. In 1952, Joy baker took this step and spent the next nine years fighting against Norfolk County Council to secure this right. During the seventies and eighties there were other key cases which secured the ground for other parents who wished to educate their children at home and defined what is meant by a 'suitable' and 'efficient' education; Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson (1981) QB (DC) 729/81, Phillips v Brown (1980) Divisional Court June 20th and of course R v Secretary of State for education, ex Parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust.
Now while it is true that one of these cases, Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson, involved Iris Harrison, who was a founder member of Education Otherwise in 1977, she and her husband fought and won the case pretty well single-handedly. In other words, all the key cases of precedent which have established the legality of home education have had nothing at all to do with Education Otherwise or any other organisation. Throughout the seventies and eighties, parents were starting to home educate their children and fought to ensure that local authorities did not prevent them from doing so. This would have happened with or without the existence of Education Otherwise.
Still, there must be other good things about EO. They provide a lot of information to parents on their website and through newsletters, don't they? This of course is quite true, but in the modern world almost completely irrelevant. In the eighties, when key court cases were being heard such as that of the Harrisons, it was necessary to spread the news of judgements like the one at Worcester by means of letters and telephone calls. Unless you belonged to Education Otherwise, you might simply not have heard about Iris Harrison's triumph at the Crown Court; it was not widely reported. Similarly, the legal position, relevant parts of the 1944 Education Act and so on, were not freely available. A parent living in a remote rural area might have needed to travel to London to track down such documents and pay for photo-copies. These days, the case is altogether different.
The Internet alone has probably made groups like Education Otherwise unnecessary. All the information one could possibly require on anything at all to do with home education, anywhere in the world, is freely available at the click of a mouse. One can join groups and lists, chat on forums, arrange to meet other parents; it really is not necessary to join formally any organisation at all. There are plenty of people who are happy to provide information and advice without paying an annual subscription.
In short, it seems to me that the world has moved on somewhat since 1977 when Education Otherwise was founded. They may once have made a contribution to the struggle of parents to establish their legal right to educate their children at home, but this would probably have happened anyway, even if Education Otherwise never existed. It is always sad when an old newspaper, comic, chain of shops and so on folds up. Still, the sadness does not usually last long and I suspect that in ten years time Education Otherwise will be fondly remembered as an historical curiosity rather than being an active and vibrant part of the twenty first century home educating community.