Home schooling: what is the liberal approach?

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2010

It’s an issue that arouses passions on either side. For some, home schooling is an absolute right, for parents to be able to educate their children in the manner of their choosing without interference from the state. For others, the concern is to ensure that children whose parents are not suitable to home school do not suffer for the rest of their lives as a result.

Where, as liberals, do we draw the line between the rights of parents to know better than the state; and the rights of children to achieve the best possible education?

Lynne Featherstone wrote about home schooling on her blog in October, concluding:

a really interesting conundrum – where everyone is trying to do their best by the children – but the state feels it isn’t safe to leave them to their parents alone and the parents think the state should butt out.

I do think that home schooling is something that parents should have a right to choose – but despite the protestations from my visitors that all home schooled children are happy and safe – I have heard about less happy outcomes.

I suppose it’s getting that balance right – that’s the challenge.

Home schooling is currently under debate in the House of Commons, as Labour pushes its Children, Schools and Families Bill into a second reading. Lib Dem shadow schools and families secretary David Laws this week had the task of setting out the party’s position on home schooling, moving an amendment stating that “its proposals for the regulation of home education introduce powers which are excessive and risk undermining key freedoms for home educators”.

Here’s what he said about the issue, as recorded in Hansard:

We accept the Government’s good intent in seeking to ensure high-quality home education for all children, and we recognise the evidence that was given by the local authorities. Obviously, it is extremely controversial evidence, and it is very difficult to get a reliable data set, but it is argued that 8 per cent. of home-educated children may not be receiving a good education, and that 20 per cent. may be receiving a poor education. We recognise, as I think all Opposition Members do, that local authorities already have a duty to ensure that all children receive a suitable education. … We agree that there is a real issue, but the challenge for the Government is to get the balance right, and we do not believe that they have done so. …

… we have concerns about two issues. The first is the nature of the registration process and whether the Government are in danger of presuming to be able to judge, at this stage, what a suitable education is, and of presuming to give individuals in local authorities the power to take away people’s ability to home educate when there is no clarity about what a suitable home education is. Under the Government’s proposals, individuals will not only be required to notify local authorities, but effectively be registering, and by registering, will be required to prove their ability to home educate and prove that they are delivering a suitable education.

I put it to the Secretary of State that the only way that local authorities can reasonably do that job is by having a set of very detailed criteria about what home education is. Necessarily, the concern of home educators is that if the Government or local authorities seek to do that job without any agreement on what a suitable home education is, many individuals could suddenly find themselves having to comply with exactly the type of rigid state education that they have tried to escape by leaving formal schooling and going into home education.

Secondly, it is very regrettable that education and safeguarding have become so mixed up in the Badman report. An assumption that local authority inspectors should have to check whether all home educators meet safeguarding requirements is inappropriate. The scope for local authorities is to consider whether a suitable education, however defined, is being given, not to assume automatically that local authority inspectors should look at the safeguarding circumstances. The intrusiveness in that part of the Bill is quite extraordinary.

Under the Bill, a local authority must ascertain the child’s wishes in relation to home education in all circumstances. It must check on the child’s welfare in all circumstances, automatically assuming therefore the duty to prove that there are no welfare concerns, rather than simply picking up any that arise. In addition, a local authority must make at least one home visit and hold one meeting with the child each year. The cost-benefit analysis assumes that 100 per cent. of children will receive one in-year visit, with 50 per cent. receiving additional monitoring. There is a description of the statement of education, which has not yet been clarified in its detail but must be produced. In other words, the change in the regulation of home education is very significant and will mean that home education is regulated as never before.

We would like to suggest a way to improve the current regime, without perhaps creating some of the problems of the disproportionate response that are involved in the Government’s proposals. First, we do not support the voluntary approach that the Select Committee advocates, but we suggest in the first instance that the Secretary of State ought to consider whether the scheme could involve notification, rather than registration. Notification would oblige everyone who is home educating to declare that information, without undertaking a registration process initially that proves in some way the suitability of the education.

Secondly, we suggest that a review over a longer time scale is needed, to consider what suitability means in home education. It would be dangerous to give local authority officials the responsibility for making judgments on suitability without any detailed guidance. I put it to the Secretary of State that we are simply not able to give that guidance, based on the debate so far and those that we are likely to have in Committee.

Thirdly, we obviously want more support for home educators and more training for those local authority staff who must oversee such things, and we will debate that in Committee. I should have thought that that was an area of common ground. The Government would have a better chance of gaining a consensus if we separated educational inspection from safeguarding. That has been one of the things that home educators have found most provocative. We would like the process to focus on the quality of education, not on safeguarding. We would like the Government to reflect again on how they can introduce a much lighter touch inspection regime, where the actions taken by local authorities are proportionate to the perceived risk, rather than presuming that every home-educating household in the country must be inspected in the ways set out in the Bill.

I hope that the Secretary of State is willing to take those proposals seriously. Outside the Committee’s proceedings, we would be willing to take part in cross-party talks with himself and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath [Michael Gove] if that is necessary to try to reach an agreement on proposals that could command cross-party support.

What do Lib Dem Voice readers think? Has David stuck the right, liberal balance on home schooling? Should the state simply leave well alone, not even requiring notification? Or does government have the right to ensure minimun educational standards are being met to ensure all children receive an education that enables them to live their lives to the full?