There is always a general anxiety among British home educators that whatever government is in power might suddenly take it into its head to pass a new law; regulating or restricting the practice of home education. I have spoken recently to people working for two local authorities, one in the Midlands and the other in East London, and it seems that there is not the remotest chance of this happening; at least for the foreseeable future. In fact the news is even better than that! A number of local authorities have begged the Department for Education to consider new legislation and the response has been quite brusque. They have been told that their existing powers are quite sufficient to deal with any supposed problems with home educators. This is what many people in the home educating community in this country have been saying for years and so I am sure that there will be a good deal of satisfaction about this development.
Mind you, as with so many things in this world, there is a bad side to this, as well as a good. In this case, it means that local authorities are, in effect, being urged to ensure that all home educating parents are actually teaching their children and working to a curriculum. Those who are not face the prospect of being issued with School Attendance Orders. The reason is simple; those not actively teaching their children to read and write, or instructing them in mathematics are breaching the law as it stands. This is perfectly well-known to most local authorities, but many parents have not the least idea that this is the legal situation. A few words of explanation might be necessary.
Of course, we know that home educators must provide for their children a full-time education which is efficient and suitable for their age and aptitude, but it is popularly supposed among most home educating parents that there exists no legal definition of what constitutes a ‘suitable’ or ’efficient’ education.. There is of course precedent or case law, but that is incredibly vague and waffly; something about an ’efficient’ education being one which achieves what it sets out to achieve. As a result, many parents think that they do not have to follow a curriculum or even teach their children if they don’t want to. They are quite wrong, as they will probably soon be finding out.
In 1981, there was a landmark court case involving a home educating mother called Iris Harrison (Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson (1981) QB (DC) 729/81). This is often seen as a victory by home educators, because they feel that it established their right to educate their children autonomously. In fact, the judgement contained the following words;
We regard the fundamental academic skills of writing, reading and arithmetic as fundamental to any education for life in the modern world - essential for communication, research or self-education. We should not in the ordinary case, regard a system of education as suitable for any child capable of learning such skills, if it failed to instil in the child the ability to read, write or cope with arithmetical problems, leaving it to time, chance and the inclination of the child to determine whether, if ever, the child ever achieved even elementary proficiency in these skills. Efficient education should include a systematic approach to learning the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy.
In other words, the judge in that case ruled that home educated children had to be taught English and mathematics systematically. If this is not done, then the education cannot be regarded as being a suitable one.
A lecturer in law at a London university has been consulted about this and given as his opinion that the judgement in Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson means that local authorities are entitled to access to a child’s work and also that they may require evidence of academic progress from year to year. It is this which the Department for Education has in mind when it advises local authorities that they already have sufficient powers to act in the matter of home education. Any parent who refuses to teach his or her child mathematics is, according to the precedent in this case, not providing a suitable education.
I think that this post is long enough and I will have to continue it in a day or two. The obvious question that readers will be asking is if this is indeed the legal situation, then why has no local authority yet taken any home educating parents to court on the strength of it? This is an interesting point which I will deal with in my next post.