Sunday, 16 September 2012
Do parents in this country have a right to educate their children at home?
The debate about the Welsh proposals to regulate home education have inevitably brought forth the usual talk of a parental ’right’ to home educate. This is so at odds with the actual state of affairs in England and Wales that I feel it is time once more to shoot down this absurd notion.
We have various rights in this country; for example the right to a fair trial. We are the passive recipients of this right no matter who or what we are. We can be clever or stupid, deaf or blind, confined to a wheelchair or mentally ill, foreign or British; we all have a right, guaranteed by law, to receive a fair trial. The same situation applies to children and education. They have a right, guaranteed under law, to a full-time education. This is irrespective of whether they are clever or stupid, disabled, foreign or anything else; it is a right they all enjoy between the ages of five and sixteen.
Rights are enjoyed by all, but this is not the case with duties. These often entail some activity on the part of those upon whom they are imposed. Take sitting as a juror. This is not a right but a duty. If a potential juror were to be unable to undertake the duty, then he would not be called upon to perform it. Suppose somebody called for jury service were to be deaf, blind, unable to speak and also suffering from a psychosis. Few of us would want such a person to sit in judgement upon us. A person of this sort would not be allowed to undertake the duty of jury service. This is because sitting on a jury is a duty and not a right. Because it entails an activity, it is quite reasonable to enquire whether or not the person concerned is capable of fulfilling the duty. Of course, being deaf, blind, unable to speak and being also mentally ill would not affect somebody’s right to a fair trial. This is the difference between a right and a duty.
Wherever there is a right, there are corresponding duties. In other words, if we have a right to a fair trial, then others have a duty to make sure that we get it. If I have a right to walk down the street, then that right must be protected and others have a duty not to impede me as I stroll down the high road. Rights and duties again, you see; two very different things.
Now if children in this country have a right to an efficient, full-time education, then others must have a duty to see that they get it. The people who have this duty are usually the parents. They have a duty, which means that they must take active steps to ensure that the child’s rights are granted to it. Some undertake this duty by registering the child at school, others prefer to provide the education themselves. They are fulfilling a duty by doing this, not exercising a right.
Since, just as in the case of the disabled juror at whom we looked above, undertaking the duty of providing the child with an education is an active thing, something which parents do, not something to which they are entitled, it is perfectly reasonable that society check that they are in fact capable of carrying out this duty. We would not wish to impose a duty upon somebody who was not up to the job, would we? So it is that society, in the form of local authorities, might wish to reassure themselves that parents are able to perform what is a very arduous duty. Providing a full-time education for a child should not be lightly undertaken and our common sense tells us that just as in the case of the juror who could not be expected to fulfil his duty during a trial, so too will there be parents who are not really up to the job of providing an education for their child. That there should be a presumption that all parents are able to fulfil their duty in this way, would be ridiculous. Many would clearly not be able to do so.
All that is being proposed in Wales is that society enquire a little into the extent to which individual parents are able personally to provide their children with an education, rather than fulfilling their duty towards their child by handing the job over to trained professionals. This has nothing at all to do with the ’rights’ of the parents; they have none in this case. It is concerned solely and simply with protecting the right of the child to a suitable education. In other words, the aim will be to ensure that those charged with the duty of causing the child to receive an education, that is to say the parents, are in fact discharging this duty.
Any debate about the Welsh proposals which makes any mention whatsoever of the ’rights’ of parents has already taken a wrong turn. The only debate about the matter should be whether or not it is being claimed that all parents are actually capable of undertaking this duty, that of educating their children themselves at home. If we agree that some are not, and most of us would concede this, then the question arises as to the extent to which society is entitled to make enquiries and take action to safeguard the rights of children.