I must begin this piece with a confession, a confession which may perhaps not come as any great surprise to my readers; I am not a normal person. Of course, by definition, anybody who fails to send his child to school must be abnormal. After all, if 99% of the population are all pursuing one course of action which is seen as being wise and good and I am one of the 1% who refuse to do so, this automatically makes me an oddity. There is though, a little more to it than that. I was a strange and atypical individual long before I officially began to home educate in 1998. In a sense, my abnormality can be said to have resulted in my home educating; not the other way around. In short, I would still be a strange person, even if I had sent my kid to school.
I have met quite a few home educators over the years, as well as reading the views of many on various lists. Some of them of course present as being raving mad. We have one or two such people commenting on here. These people are the exception. All the home educators whom I met in person were far from being average people. They were not all as weird as me, but I certainly recognised many of my own characteristics in a lot of them. They had unconventional beliefs, quite a few were religious, they did not approve of vaccinations, they had been unhappy at school, there was a strong anti-establishment streak, they valued real life experience over book learning; this sort of thing. Not all had every one of these traits and some had none of them at all. However, by and large I would say that they tended to be odder than those people I know who do not home educate. I am bound to say that reading the posts of home educating parents on the home education lists and forums suggests to me that the parents whom I have met personally were not exceptional and that they were probably fairly typical of home educating parents across the country.
I have been musing on this recently when considering the notion that home educating families should receive some sort of oversight from the local authority. The classic argument advanced against this proposal is that we assume that children are generally safe with their parents. We do not worry that something will happen to children over the summer holidays, just because they are not being seen every day by professionals at the school. We take it for granted that children under five may safely be left with their parents, without making demands for annual visits to check that they are still alive and well. We allow children to go home to their parents at the weekend and do not worry that their parents are going to abuse or mistreat them. Superficially at least, this reasoning is convincing. If home educating parents are just like anybody else, except that they are not sending their kids to school, then we should regard them just as we do parents whose children do attend school.
I am not wholly persuaded by this argument. I have a strong suspicion that the overall group of home educating parents contains a higher percentage of very strange people than does the reference group of ordinary parents who send their children to school. If this were to be the case, then we would be justified in paying closer attention to these families than we would of a typical family whose children are at school. I have no doubt that in the main, these odd people are no more of a threat to their children's wellbeing and safety than any other parents. They are, if you like, harmless cranks. I am one such; a crank who rows with authority a lot and is always ready to argue with anybody who seems to oppose the interests of my family. This is not unusual in home educating parents! Interestingly, I am also quite sure that my daughter was more at hazard in her childhood than other children. I do not mean that she was at risk of being abused, starved or neglected. I have told readers before, I think, that when my daughter was two, I climbed over the barrier at Paradise Park zoo in Hertfordshire so that she could put her hand through the bars of an enclosure and stroke a tiger. We did the same trick with a wolf at London Zoo before they packed them all off to Whipsnade. I first sent her down a slide in the park when she was four days old, just as an experiment. (I of course caught her at the bottom!). She first went on a 'big' swing in the park, the kind where you have to hold on, when she was a year old. I had a theory that the movement would make a baby tighten her grip and thus prevent her from toppling off the thing when it was moving. My theory was vindicated, but I have wondered what would have happened had I been wrong. These are all minor things, but she was definitely at more risk than would have been the case with a child in a nursery.
I am not suggesting that the average home educator is in the habit of putting her child in with the lions or anything of that sort! Perhaps they do even more dangerous things like failing to vaccinate their children against common childhood diseases. What I am saying is that many home educating parents start off from the position of being rather odd people and that when we are judging the risks to their children from being all day in their parents' company, we might not be wise to assume that those risks are precisely the same as for children whose parents send them to school. I think that the risks, of many sorts, are likely to be higher. To what extent society is justified in taking notice of this and acting is a controversial question.