Most political, religious and social movements have their heroes and martyrs; people who stood up for what they believed in, no matter what the cost. British home education is no exception to this general rule. Many home educating parents today are able glibly to quote the judgements upon which they believe their ‘right’ to home educate is founded; Phillips v Brown 1980, Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson 1981 and the rest. These are the key cases which a lot of home educators today feel established home education in this country as a recognised alternative to school. This is not really true and the fact that the idea has become ossified into almost an article of faith sheds an interesting light upon home education as it is often practiced today.
The first thing to remember is that parents in this country have been home educating without any problem for centuries. That parents were the best people to teach their children was taken for granted. It has often been remarked that our present queen was home educated, but the practice was not restricted to the wealthy and privileged. Throughout the years following the Second World War, there were parents who taught their children at home quite openly and with no interference from their local authorities. This continued up to the 1970s. It was then that things took a turn for the worse or became immeasurably better, depending upon your point of view.
During the 1970s, there were quite a few people teaching their own children. Some did not send their children in the first place, while others took them out of school to teach them at home. The general attitude of local authorities was that as long as the kids were being taught at least as well as they would be at school, there was no problem. In the early 1970s, a number of parents of this sort banded together to rent premises and start home educating groups. I was involved in one or two projects of this sort.
Some of the home educators at that time later became famous. Harry Lawrence, father of Ruth was one such. Home education was being undertaken openly and without conflict with the authorities. Until that is, several high profile cases which created confrontation with local authorities and made them suspicious of the whole business. At about the same time that Harry Lawrence was home educating his daughter, two parents in Leeds were asked by their local authority for some account of the education which they were providing for their son, whose name was Oak. The local authority had no problem with home education as such, there were others doing it in Leeds. They just wanted to assure themselves that the child was receiving an education and not being left to his own devices. The parents refused to say anything at all about the education being provided and as a result, the case came to court.
While this was going on, Iris Harrison’s children were also not attending school. She made it clear that she was not teaching her children, preferring for them to decide for themselves what they wished to do. It is worth bearing in mind that the local authority were worried about her children because they had been diagnosed as being educationally sub-normal. They were thought to be in need of specialised education and the authority was concerned that they might not be receiving this.
There were other reasons to be concerned. Mrs Harrison had told the children that they should fire a rifle at the feet of any local authority officers who tried to approach the home. With the best will in the world, any local authority which failed to investigate children with special educational needs whose parents were encouraging this sort of reckless behaviour would be negligent. We must also remember that the Harrison children were very unusual in other ways. As adults, they told their mother that if they had not been home educated, then they would all have been in mental hospitals or prisons when they grew up. There was more to this story than met the eye.
In short, up until around 1980, local authorities accepted the right of parents to teach their own children at home and the practice was viewed as being unremarkable. All that was asked was that some account of the education should be given and that parents would be prepared to discuss the matter. People like Harry Lawrence had no problems with his local authority because rather than urging Ruth to shoot at local authority officers, he was teaching her mathematics.
The main thing that the cases in the late 1970s and early 1980s were about was not home education as such. That ’right’ was never in doubt. These landmark cases were to do with whether or not parents had to teach their children and also tell their local authorities what they were teaching. This is quite a different matter and it is perfectly possible to be a fervent supporter of home education, while at the same time accepting that local authorities need to know what is going on. It was, according to the views of some, at this point that things began to go wrong. Up until that time, home education had been concerned only with the teaching and education of children. It was in the late 1970s that not sending children to school became a political act; frequently undertaken by those with an axe to grind and who tended to be opposed, as a matter of principle, to authority in general.