The fight for children’s rights

The struggle to provide children with rights and end their status as mere chattels or belongings of their parents has been a long and bitter one. At every stage, the cry by parents has been the same; ‘The state has no business intruding in family life and is harming the rights of parents by doing so.’

In the 19th Century, many children were forced to work down mines and up chimneys from an unbelievably early age. They had no rights in the matter at all. Each time some piece of legislation prevented, for example, children under the age of ten from going down coal mines; there was outrage, principally from parents. How dare the state dictate to mothers and fathers what their children should or should not do? This was an assault upon the rights of parents and indeed the very institution of the family. If a father could sell his eight year-old son to a chimney sweep for £5, what on earth business was it of anybody else?

Nowhere was this outrage more indignantly expressed than when the government tried to secure the right of children to receive an education. The 1861 Newcastle Report into the State of Popular Education in England summed the case up neatly. It said:

Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education by a compulsory system, managed by the government, would be met by objections, both political and religious.

Wiser counsels prevailed and in 1870 the Elementary Education Act was passed, popularly known as Forster’s Act. A decade later, education was made compulsory for all children between the ages of five and ten and there was a huge uproar. Parents led the complaints, comparing the British government with that of Prussia; a grave insult indeed! The crux of the matter was that this was an erosion of parents’ rights to raise their children as they saw fit. Compulsory education was an attack on the family. In the ten years following the making of education compulsory for children, prosecutions of parents for the non-attendance at school of their children were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the commonest offence in England, apart from drunkenness.

Every single attempt to increase the rights of children, which of course means giving greater duties to their parents, has been met by strong opposition by parents. The governments of the day have had to lead the way, fighting apathy, sloth and reactionary parents in order to furnish children with more legal rights and protection under the law.

In recent years, we have seen two examples of this tendency. One has been the efforts of the legislature to make it a criminal offence to strike children. This has met with only limited success. Parents have fought ferociously to retain their right to beat children. Incredibly, even now in the 21st Century, there are those in this country who feel that they should enjoy the ’right’ to hit their kids! Any attempt to abolish this ’right’ is met by howls of protest and the familiar claim that the state is intruding where it has no business to be; that is to say into family life.

The other recent example of this reactionary and backward-looking trend is of course the campaign by some parents a few years ago to force the state not to enquire to closely into whether or not children were receiving a suitable education. Again, parental ’rights’ were cited and the government was told that any move to check up if children not attending school were actually being educated was an attack on the family by the state. Just as when the 1870 Elementary Education Act was being planned, the case of Germany was brandished by parents fighting against any diminution of their supposed rights. That this was essentially about the rights of parents and not of children can easily be seen by the language being used. The right of children to an education was scarcely mentioned, it was all about the ’right’ of parents to home educate.

Although the calling of a general election in 2010 ended the hopes for this latest extension of children’s rights, the cause is not entirely lost. A first step would be at the very least the registration of all children who are not attending school. Such a move is now planned by Wales and there are signs that Scotland too has such a scheme in mind. If this happens in those two countries, then introducing such registration in England would be merely an exercise in bringing this country into line with what is happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As has always happened throughout history, the reactionaries will howl their protests, but we must hope that this time they do not get their own way and that one more step is taken in ensuring that the most vulnerable members of society are properly protected and furnished with the rights that they deserve.

Ostensible and real motives for home educating

Something which I have begun to suspect in recent years is that those who choose not to send their children to school are generally  motivated by something a little deeper than the reasons which they give to others. This is certainly the case with me and also with many of the home educating parents who open up about their past lives.

I was looking again at the blog written by the mother who left this country to avoid trouble with social services about her children’s welfare. One entry is written in the third person about a child who, I gather from the comments, is actually her. She says:

Once upon a time there was a 6 year old school-girl...
She was skinny & freckly & a little bit plain & awkward.
She hated school & had few friends. She was always much happier at home.
Sometimes she would be picked on by the other pupils for not being 'typical' or conforming to the 'norms'...

One of those commenting on this, also a well-known British home educator, says,

That could have been me, although they did not know I was bright they criticised all the time and I got two years of the bitchiest teacher going, she picked on and exposed the shy ones

Now neither of these two women have said in the past that they decided to home educate their children because they were themselves unhappy at school. In fact I have never seen or heard of such a claim anyway being made by a home educating parent. It is just that when we do hear home educators mentioning their childhood experiences of school, certain patterns seem to emerge. Typically, these include being unhappy at school, having few friends, being isolated and teachers who fail to recognise genius or at the very least talent and high ability. I am not about to name names, but this constellation of life events has been observed in very many high profile home educators, as well as an awful lot of others.

It is fascinating to relate this to my own experiences and apparent motives for home educating. Now I have often said that I was motivated by the realisation that I could give my child a far better individualised education than she would receive at school. I have also said that I believed that God has given us a duty to direct our children’s upbringing and education. Both of these motives are perfectly true, but they are in a sense ’cover stories’. The fact is that I hated school and did not feel inclined to inflict upon my own daughter something which I found so loathsome and distressing. I have noticed just this same phenomenon in so many other parents. You learn that they took their kid out of school because she was being bullied or had some obscure special educational need that was not being effectively catered for. Then, some time later, it comes to light that the parent herself hated school and was very unhappy there.

The truth of the matter is, I think, that so ingrained in our culture is sending your children off to school, that it takes a little more than a calm and balanced decision to break with the tradition of schooling and decide to go it alone. Very many children are bullied, many are on the autistic spectrum or have school phobia; very few of the parents of these children take the step of removing their child from school entirely as a remedy for the problem. It takes something a little extra to prompt such an eccentric move and this is often provided by the flashbacks suffered by the parent about her own school days.

I would be interested to hear what readers think about this. How many thoroughly enjoyed their time at school and who was unhappy; did anybody feel that her ability was overlooked by the teachers? I am not, as I say, going to give names, but I have collected a huge number of personal reminiscences from different sources which cover practically every well-known home educator or researcher of whom most of us have ever heard. All tend in this   same direction.

On the nature of rights

Readers are probably aware of the home educating parent who fled the country a few months ago, with the assistance of Maire Stafford, Neil Taylor and others. She is now settled in Ireland, from which country she writes a blog detailing the persecution which she claims to have suffered in this country. Reading this provides a perfect example of the sort of disordered thinking which afflicts so many British home educators. Here is an extract:

You may THINK you have the right to freedom, privacy, autonomy of thought & deed... water, food shelter... a vote, equality, peace... education, heath care, social welfare, free speech... to not be victimised or offended or endangered or killed... but the 'rights' you believe yourselves to have are not written in stone... & I actually gravely doubt the reality of many of them... they are but a mirage. They are merely privileges accredited to us by others... they are hard won & can be easily lost.

Now there is nothing actually wrong with this; it is more the construction that she places upon the facts that is a little out of kilter. We will leave aside the idea that any of us have a right not to be offended, surely a strange idea, and examine her surprise at the possibility that the ‘rights’ which we are accorded might change over time. This is clearly of course a cunning piece of special pleading. Like so many home educating parents, she believes that she is possessed of a ‘right’ to educate her own children and believes that this ‘right’ could be under threat. It might help if we considered the general idea of rights.

‘Rights’ are not of course a natural phenomenon like gravity or light. It would be absurd to talk of an oak tree’s ‘right’ to water and light. Rights exist only in the human world and are something devised by humans. That is the first point. The second is that ‘rights’ are constantly changing; some appear, while others vanish. So far, I agree with the exiled home educator whom I quote above. Where I differ from her is that she seems to regard this as some alarming discovery to which she must draw our attention so that we can join her in being opposed to the situation. To me though, this continuous varying of rights  it is a very  proper activity. Why is it a good thing? Let us consider a couple of rights which, thankfully, no longer exist.

Until 1991, a wife could not be raped by her husband. A man had a ‘right’ to have sex with his wife, even when she withheld  her consent. This had been tested a number of times in the courts and upheld. I wonder how many readers were sorry to see the loss of that ‘right’? Helping a slave to escape in this country was as one time a violation of the ‘rights’ of the owner of the slave. It was tantamount to theft of his property. Here again is a ‘right’ which has been abolished. Most of us are glad about this. The right to an education was only guaranteed by law to children in this country in the late 19th century. This right has been modified in the past, with regard to school leaving age and other things and will certainly be changed in the future.

I have remarked before, that many home educating parents in this country are reactionaries in this question of rights. They are fearful of change and see any change in rights as being a bad move and one likely to harm their interests. I am sure that slave owners in the 18th century felt just the same when their ‘rights’ were under threat! Those of us with a more open view of the matter are glad to see change and recognise that rights and duties in a society are always fluctuating in this way; some increasing and others diminishing. New laws about education, immigration, work, social security and many other things will confer new rights and remove others. This is how history progresses. It seems to me that a lot of home educators, like the one in Ireland mentioned above, wish only for things to remain as they are. If they had had their way and a change in the law had been resisted by interested parties, then the 1991 judgement which had the effect of outlawing marital rape would not have taken place. At every touch and turn, they oppose change and ask nothing more than for the current collections of rights to remain fossilised. You will observe that she expresses regret that the rights which we now have are not set in stone. Nothing would be more terrible than for this to happen.

The rights of parents and children with regard to education are not a special catagory which should be immune from change. Sometimes they are extended and at other times restricted. Each change is advocated by some and resited by others. There can never be unanimous approval of any new right or abolition of an old one; the best we can hope for is wide agreement, following which those of us who differ in our view of the matter must go along with the majority.  Instead of digging our heels in and stubbornly fighting against any extension to children's rights or diminuation of the rights of parents, we should  ask ourselves only what best enhances the rights of the vulnerable party in the case. To give one final example, until fairly recently parents had the 'right' to beat their children. This right has now largely been removed. I think that removing this parental  'right' was a good idea, because it had the effect of increasing the rights of children. This is precisely how I see the current debate about home edcuation; as an attempt to decrease parental 'rights' and increase those of their children.

'Cruelty to children

One of the less attractive features of the campaign against Graham Badman’s proposals becoming law, was the psychological cruelty inflicted by a number of parents upon  their children, some of whom had special educational needs. During my own daughter’s childhood, I always conceived it to be a major part of my duty,  to protect her from distress and shield her from worry. To reassure her, in fact, that she was safe and that there was nothing to worry about.  This was not at all the line taken by some home educating parents in the run-up to the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill through parliament! For them, this was a golden opportunity to make their children anxious and in some cases hysterical with fear; simply so that they could claim that their children were being harmed by the very discussion of increased regulation of home education.

This is not a history lesson and if this sort of cruelty had ended with the abandonment of the CSF Bill in 2010, there would be little point in raking over the ashes. Unfortunately, it has not and there are still parents who are determined to exploit vulnerable children in order to make political capital of them. Consider this, which was less than three months ago:

Look at the advice given in the above post:

Always tell your children how much you love them and how, if ever they were taken from you, you would never, ever stop looking for them. Encourage them to respect their instincts and always to question the morality of authority. Make sure they learn their personal details as soon as they are old enough and tell them that wherever they are and whatever the circumstances they can always contact you.

I can imagine nothing more likely to terrify a young child out of her wits than to suggest the possibility that she might be snatched from the security of her family. It is the sort of thing which would cause most children to lay awake at night in terror, waiting to be taken. Why would you do that to your child? The answer is that you can then use your child’s response to brandish at local authorities or other people who wish to discuss a change in the law. ‘Look,’ you can tell them, ‘You have upset my child and she is now nervous and clingy, because she is frightened that social workers are about to snatch her away from her family.’

This was done by quite a few parents during the aftermath of the Badman Review. They used to boast about it on various lists. One mother announced that her son, who had developmental problems and was on the autistic spectrum, had had a ‘major meltdown’ when she told him that the authorities would be able to take  him away from her for interrogation alone! I had hoped that mistreatment of this sort had ended, but judging from some of the things I have been hearing lately, it has not. There are still parents frightening their children in this way and warning them that the government wants to enter their homes and perhaps take them from their families.

I am expecting to see more of this sort of thing when the enquiry starts in Wales about the possibility of registration of home educated children. Incidentally, despite Alison Sauer’s irritation at my mentioning the proposals contained in the bill which the Welsh Assembly hopes  to pass in the next year or so, I observe that others have picked up on the thing since I posted about it here. As I suspected, few people knew of it, but this has now been remedied. I am all in favour of change in the law, but I certainly believe that it should be discussed openly beforehand.

Our opponents…

On one of the major home education lists recently, somebody commenting referred to ‘our opponents’; meaning those in the government and local authorities who seek to introduce measures such as the registration of home educators. This casual remark was revealing in the extreme, because this is just precisely how some parents educating their children at home view the ‘authorities’.

For over twenty years I had professional dealings with local authority officers in various capacities. My wife is a social worker and most of our friends are either social workers or teachers. I can truthfully say that I have never in all that time encountered a single local authority officer or social worker who was opposed in principle to home education. A few teachers are, but that is only to be expected. Having spent years training for what they believe to be a profession, it is irritating to see a bunch of amateurs undertaking the same kind of work with no training. Their reaction is pretty much what you would expect of a federation of plumbers if they heard of a movement which encourage people to carry out their own repairs on pipes. They don’t like it and predict that it will end in disaster!

As for everybody else, all the professionals apart from teachers, many of them  certainly want extra safeguards and checks, but nobody is opposed to home education. I spoke to Graham Badman three years ago and I did not get the least feeling that he was opposed to home education either. I have also met some of the more notorious figures from home education departments in various parts of the country, individuals like Myra Robinson and Tony Mooney. None of these people are ’opponents’ of home education.

The rules, regulations and laws regarding practically every activity known to humanity are changing all the time. This is the case whether we are talking about forestry, smoking in cinemas, commercial kitchens, driving, education or anything else you care to think of. It strikes me that many home educators are having difficulty with the concept of change. They are reactionaries, who want everything to remain just as it has always been in the past. This is not a realistic wish; all things are in a state of flux and nowhere is this more true that of human society and institutions. Instead of treating those who want the law to change as enemies, we would perhaps do better to work with them to hammer out a new set of arrangements which, while not fully satisfying either side, might perhaps be just about acceptable to all. Thinking of those who seek change as ’opponents’ is singularly unhelpful and will, in the long run, prove damaging to the best interests of all home educators.

Conformity and orthodoxy among well-known home educators

I have remarked before that an awful lot of the more well known home educators seem to conform to a fairly rigid stereotype. They tend to be left wing politically, often opposed to vaccination, prone to conspiracy theories, in favour of organic food; that sort of thing. I could draw up a profile of the typical high-profile home educator without too much difficulty. I have come across two recent examples of this tendency to conformity. The first is  that mother who was, allegedly, forced to flee the country in order to protect her children from social services involvement. I am sure that most of us remember the appeal which was circulating on the forums and lists three months ago, beginning;


A well-known member of the HE community and trusted friend needs our help. The person's family is facing a possible court order and they felt the need to leave the country very quickly in order to protect the children from unfounded interference based on home education as a risk factor.

It was signed by many of the usual suspects, including Maire Stafford, Barbara Stark, Alison Preuss and Neil Taylor. Readers will be relieved to hear that this unfortunate and persecuted woman made it safely to Ireland. What precipitated her flight? Let her tell us in her own words:

A few months ago I shamefully attended a meeting about how to obtain Organic Food, leaving my young children in the care of their 17yr old brother, when I should have been at home washing the clothes... This led to scrutiny from 'authority' figures & caused me to commit a further sin of defying that 'authority' when it sought to persecute myself & my family for my wayward ways, particularly my disgraceful choice to educate my children outside of the state system or allow my parenting, educational provision, or moral scruples to be inspected & dictated by dubiously qualified 'experts'

It just had to be a meeting about organic food! Mind, one feels instinctively that there is more to the case than meets the eye. Leaving a seventeen year-old babysitting is a fairly common thing to do; how did the ‘authorities’ even hear of this?  The whole of this explanantion appears to be written in code. I have heard of local authorities wishing to check on educational provision, but when was the last time you had a man from the council knocking on the door because he wanted to inspect your 'moral scruples'? It would be interesting to know if anything happened to any of the younger children being looked after by the seventeen year-old and how this family first came to the attention of social services in the first place.

The other well-known home educator whose views are exceedingly orthodox for this type of individual is Alison Sauer. While idly looking at her Facebook page, I noticed that her interests include attachment parenting and support of Dr Wakefield; the maniac who started off the whole autism and vaccination scare. Alison Sauer, needless to say, thinks he was right and is opposed to the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella…

As others have pointed out here before, we cannot judge all home educators by those whom we see on the Internet; for which I thank the Lord! However, these people are influential and thousands of people belong to lists and forums where their views are propagated. Their bizarre thoughts and weird belief-systems therefore have a way of filtering down to other home educating parents, via groups composed in the main of normal people. It only takes one of two evangelical mothers who spend a lot of time on Home Ed Biz or HE-UK to spread alarm about things from a particular slant in an ordinary home educating support group. It is certainly worth keeping an eye on the ideas to which many of them subscribe, for this reason alone.

The Christian connection

I hope that readers will forgive my dropping out of sight for a few days at a time when things get really busy on the writing front. I habitually write more than one book at a time theses days, which can make things pretty hairy as deadlines approach

I observed some rather virulent ant-Christian comments on a recent thread, which is interesting. Whenever a group like the Home School Legal Defense Association tries to get a foothold in this country, there are cries of protest from some British home educators. The general basis for those the objections is that the HSLDA are mad Christians who believe in Adam and Eve, hate gays and beat their children. Such people are contrasted unfavourably with our own liberal and progressive home education movement. Why, you only have to look at the terminology; home ‘school’, indeed!

I find all this curious, because of course home education in this country is also packed to the gunwales with Christians on all levels. This Christian influence is evident from top to bottom in the main organisations and is also pretty obvious at a local level too. To give a few random examples, the Chair of Education Otherwise is a very devout woman who is closely involved with her local Congregational chapel and Mike Fortune-Wood of HE-UK was until recently married to an Anglican priest. On a regional level, home educators in one southern English county have a strong and productive relationship with their local authority. Arrangements are made in this way for children to take GCSEs if their parents wish them to do so. All this is largely the work of two women; one of whom is a Jehovah’s Witness and the other a staunch Calvinist.

Not all Christians make a song and dance about their faith on the lists and forums and sometimes it only comes to light in passing that this person or that is religious. There are of course many home educating parents who have no dealings at all with the Internet groups and Christianity is often a strong feature there too. In my own county of Essex, for instance, there are probably more home educators who do not attend home educating groups or hang around on the net than those who do. Up near the port of Harwich there are many Witnesses who educate their own children and there is also a community of Hutterites living out in the sticks whose children never go to school.

I have a strong suspicion that Christianity is as powerful a motive for home education in this country as it is in the USA. Perhaps because church going is not as common in the United Kingdom, some of these parents do not make quite such a production of their faith as many Americans are apt to do. At any rate, I think it would be a mistake to assume that home education is mainly secular in this country and to contrast it in this way with the situation in the USA.