Regular readers will be aware that I have something of a bee in my bonnet about parents' 'rights' as opposed to children's rights. Although it is not always explicitly stated in such terms, much of the debate about British home education hinges around a supposed 'right' of parents to educate their own children. This becomes clear when we examine the sort of problems which parents bring to the attention of the lists and forums which support home educators. Typically, a parent will complain that her local authority is exceeding its legal duties in one way or another, or misleading parents about the law or behaving in some other way which is upsetting to the parents of children who are not at school. The comments which follow are invariably concerned with the behaviour of the council concerned; Are they following the letter of the law? Have they exceeded their powers? Do they understand the precise responsibilities laid upon them by this or that guidance? Nobody asks what seems to me to be the only important question in the case, that is to say enquiring of the parent whether or not she is actually providing her child with an education.
There is no doubt at all that local authorities habitually mislead people about their legal duties and powers. Generally, they do so because they honestly feel that a lot of the children being kept out of school would be better off if they were to be sent to school. However, proving that a local authority has overstepped its powers or even told a lie to a parent does not shed any light upon whether the child in the case is in fact being educated. In other words, the debate is more about the dealings of the local authority with the parent than it is about the child's education. It seems as though if some of those on the lists and forums can only prove to their own satisfaction that a council has not complied with the law, then they feel that the point has been won; another victory for home education! If however the child is not actually being educated, then all the lies in the world being told by some local authority have no more to do with the case than the flowers that bloom in the spring. It is this one crucial question, whether a child is receiving an efficient education suitable to his age and whatever special needs he might have, which is never addressed in these places. Those commenting will tell the mother, 'You should do this' or 'You should quote that piece of the law at them', they never ask outright; 'Is the council right to have these concerns?' The assumption is always that the local authority is wrong and the parent right. By encouraging such parents without taking the trouble first to establish the facts, those who give such advice are sometimes guilty helping a parent to violate a child's rights. It is criminally irresponsible to aid and abet a parent in this way unless you first take the effort to find out whether her child is really being educated.
I suppose that the closest analogy is that of a criminal case in a courtroom. Many of these cases centre around whether or not the police have followed this procedure or that, was their notebook written up at the time of the incident; stuff like that. If the police can be shown to be telling falsehoods in court, we are invited to suppose that a logical conclusion is that the man in the dock is innocent. This is not so at all. Almost invariably, both the police and the defendant are telling lies and misleading the court. Proving that the police have lied does not at all show that the man in the dock is telling the truth.
We need to get away from this obsessive desire to catch out local authorities and start asking ourselves whether or not all the parents whom they are pursuing are giving their children an education. If they are not, then the rights of their children to that education are far more important than some minor lie told by a local authority officer.