There is a pretty general assumption among many home educating parents in this country that any attempt to check that they are actually able to undertake their children's education is a gross restriction on their liberty as parents and probably an infringement of their rights into the bargain. So it was a couple of years ago, when the old Department for Children, Schools and Families proposed that all parents should have to engage with their local authorities and demonstrate that they had at least given home education some thought before they began it, there was an almighty fuss. Scandalous! How dare any government try to interfere with our right to home educate? This struck me at the time as a foolish, if not downright mischievous, perspective on the whole business.
The opposition to any compulsory registration and monitoring of home education is founded upon two misconceptions; one practical and the other theoretical. The practical consideration is that it is absurd to suppose that every discontented parent in the country is able to provide an education for her child as good as that generally available in schools. Many parents simply do not know where to begin and having deregistered their children from school are quite at a loss to know how to proceed. A natural consequence of this is that many children who are supposedly being educated at home do not receive an education at all, at least as judged by any of the usual external standards which we apply to the matter. The only way that it is possible to conclude that a lot of these children are being educated is by adopting the sort of soft measurements which we habitually use for satisfying ourselves of the validity of some crank belief system. In other words, instead of objective measures such as literacy, mathematical ability, knowledge of science, understanding of history and so on; we rely instead upon subjective judgements as to the child's happiness, curiosity, love of learning and so on. This means that it is impossible for anybody but the parent herself to establish what sort of education, if any, has been furnished for the child.
The theoretical opposition to registration and monitoring is based upon the misconception that parents have some sort of 'right' to educate their children at home. No such right exists, nor could it ever in a properly regulated society. Children have a right to an education, it is true. Parents have both a legal and moral duty to provide or cause them to receive that education. To talk of a parent's 'right' to home educate is a shocking distortion of the true situation.
These two things together, the refusal to acknowledge that not every parent is capable, single-handedly, of providing a good education for her child, combined with the misunderstanding of the difference between duties and rights, caused so much confusion and uproar in the aftermath of Graham Badman's review of elective home education in England, that our legislators themselves got into a muddle and gave the thing up as a bad job. This was a pity, because an opportunity presented itself for society to take a hand in protecting the interests of one of its most vulnerable groups of members; young children in desperate need of receiving a good education.
The mix-up between duties and rights has become so entrenched now in the wooly minds not only of home educators, but also of certain MPs and lawyers; that it is probably hopeless at this late stage to try and explain the difference between these two very different things. Similarly, the superficially egalitarian notion that all parents can educate their children efficiently has also become dogma for some involved in the debate. All that those of us who are concerned with the rights of children to receive a good education can do, is sit on the sidelines and shake our heads in amazement at the way that foolish and misguided notions can take a grip of even the most level headed people, until they apparently surrender themselves to absolute nonsense. This surely is how Scientology or the Flat Earth Society first became established!