The thesis put forward by many home educating parents is that it is parents who are primarily responsible for their children and not the state. They regard any intrusion by the state into family life as unwarranted and something which should only happen if there is clear evidence of neglect or abuse by parents.
This is not of course a new point of view. Before the introduction of compulsory education in the nineteenth century, a government enquiry was set up which looked into the idea. They decided that it would be a bad thing. The Newcastle Report into the State of Popular Education in England was published in 1861. The authors said;
'Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor
desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education by
a compulsory system, managed by the government, would be met by
objections, both religious and political...'
One of the main objections which the enquiry encountered was that government had no business to poke their noses into family life. It was for parents to arrange for their children's education, not the state. Plus ca change....
I think it reasonable to say that this attitude, that the state should keep out of family life, is still going strong and was a major line of argument against the recommendations of the Badman Report in 2009. It is interesting to reflect that precisely the same line has in the past been used to prevent the police investigating allegations of marital rape and domestic abuse of women. For centuries, the legal position was plain. The law should not concern itself with what went on in the marital home. The relationship between man and wife was sacred and the state should not attempt to regulate how marriages ran or look into what went on in the homes of married couples. We no longer follow this principle of course and for very good reason. There is often an imbalance of power within a marriage; the man may be stronger and more aggressive, the home might be in his name, he usually has more money than his wife. Some women will therefore put up with an abusive partner and even if the police are called will refuse to make a statement. That is why the police will now proceed on cases of domestic violence even if the wife does not wish to press charges. It is also why in 1991, it was ruled that a wife can refuse to consent to sex with her husband.
Those now arguing that the state should not involve itself in the relationship between parents and children remind me a lot of the sort of people who were dead against the police being able to intervene in marital disputes. Witness the anger when it is suggested that hitting children should be outlawed. Some parents insist that they have a perfect right to hit their kids; the same argument used in favour of wife-beating. This is more common in the USA, but there are still plenty of parents here who feel that the government should not legislate about this and that hitting children is a private, family matter.
The parallels between the two cases are compelling and disturbing. The emphasis used to be placed upon a husband's 'rights'. Today, we hear talk of a parent's 'rights' in precisely the same way. It was once acceptable for a husband to slap his wife around a bit in order to discipline her; many people claim that this is something that is acceptable for a parent to do to a child.
I think that in the future, we may look back on this current period and see it as being the time when the rights of children began to be recognised seriously by society, just as the rights of women have similarly been recognised in recent decades. I cannot help but notice that when home educating parents talk about rights in connection with the practice, they almost invariably refer to their own 'rights'. We hear all the time from such people of a parent's 'right' to home educate. As I say, this sounds ominously like the old and discredited concept of a husband's 'rights' over his wife.