Parents who educate their children at home should be monitored.
Home schooling is on the rise. In itself this is no cause for alarm, but it raises important questions about the law and children’s welfare. Research points to a 45 per cent increase in the number educated at home in the past five years. Concerns have been raised by the family courts and the NSPCC. Parents’ right to educate their children as they wish must be balanced against children’s right to receive a safe and suitable education.
The vast majority of parents who choose to home school do so successfully and from the best of motives. However, the case of Dylan Seabridge, a home-schooled eight-year-old who died of scurvy, is a tragic example of what can happen when a child becomes, as his local authority complained, invisible.
Currently parents do not have to register their child as being home schooled. Many, like Dylan, live effectively beneath the radar. A family court judge who conducted an inquiry into his death concluded that the laws surrounding home education had failed him. There can be little doubt of that. The state, the judge said, “should do much more to check that a child is being educated according to their needs, and is not suffering from neglect”. The challenge is to enlist the state as a safety net, not as a nanny.
Ofsted supports a registration scheme, and the NSPCC has called on the government to increase powers to monitor the welfare of home-schooled children. The government should consider making registration mandatory. Furthermore, parents must accept that the right to home school their children carries with it certain responsibilities, including the need to accept assessments at home of the suitability and quality of their child’s education. Children who are educated at school have their teachers and premises inspected by Ofsted. So too should those who are educated at home.
Parents may choose to keep their children at home for a variety of reasons. Their child may have special needs, or be a victim of bullying. They may have concerns about class size, or want him or her to have more one-on-one attention, or freedom from the constraints of the national curriculum. They may believe that their talents cannot flourish within the confines of a school, and they may be right. The singer Taylor Swift has credited some of her success to the fact that her last two years of education were at home. Venus and Serena Williams were home schooled so as to maximise the time they could spend perfecting their forehands. Few who watch them today would conclude that their parents were mistaken.
Not all parents are as trustworthy or level- headed. With freedom comes the opportunity to inculcate a particular religious or cultural ideology, or to foster extremism. At present local authorities are allowed to conduct an informal inquiry if concerns are raised. The government should press ahead with granting greater powers to monitor a child’s education and development and, where necessary, to intervene.
Previous attempts to regulate home education have fallen foul of human rights law or been met with opposition from parents who believe registration is the thin end of a wedge that ends in monitoring and official inspections. Both, alas, are sometimes necessary. A parent’s right to choose must be subordinate to a child’s wellbeing. Once this is guaranteed, let freedom reign.