Tens of thousands of home-educating parents are in a fury about a government decision to set up an inquiry into home schooling because of fears it could hide child abuse. They say there is no hard evidence, and the investigation smears them all with suspicion. Two thousand parents and organisations have written to the Government in protest at what pressure group Action for Home Education call "vile and unsubstantiated" allegations.
The inquiry is a "clear incitement to hatred of home educators" says Clare Murton, a supporter of Action for Home Education. Many rank and file home educators agree. According to Katie Bell, 45, a mother of two in Croydon, the Government is almost saying that home-educated children are prone to abuse: "It's an attack on our beliefs. If they said something like that about any other minority they would be lynched."
The decision follows a case where 19 years of abuse went unnoticed partly because the three children concerned were home-schooled and no one saw their bruises and broken bones. Last year the children's foster mother, Eunice Spry, was jailed for 14 years. Child welfare agencies say one or two other such cases are in the pipeline.
In addition, education authorities claim that some of the estimated 20,000 parents who home- school do it to avoid being prosecuted for having truanting children, to hide forced marriages, or to mask the fact that a child is babysitting younger siblings. So, in a climate made jumpy by recent high-profile abuse cases, the Government has asked Graham Badman, former director of children's services for Kent County Council, to review the safeguarding and support of home-educated children. Badman has also been appointed chair of Haringey's local safeguarding children board, in place of Sharon Shoesmith, who was sacked after the Baby P inquiry.
"If there are problems we have to look at the evidence," says Baroness Morgan, the Children's Minister. "Home education is a small but important part of keeping children properly safe. Also local authorities have a significant duty to ensure all children are receiving a suitable education and some are saying they don't have the tools for that. But we have no desire to undermine a parent's right to educate their child at home. The vast majority are almost certainly doing a decent job."
But home-schooling families feel persecuted, according to Ann Newstead, of charity Education Otherwise. "The authorities say that if they can see a child every day in school then they can look for subtle changes that indicate abuse, but 99.9 per cent of cases of abuse and neglect are happening to children in school," she says. "There is no evidence of abuse in home-schooled families, and when you push people for this they just say: 'Well, statistically it has to be happening.'"
The Spry case, she claims, was about welfare failure not home schooling. New home education guidelines were brought in only two years ago. "Many of us think that the real aim of this review is to gain educational control over parents. The authorities didn't get the powers they wanted last time, so now they are using welfare as their trump card. They want some form of compulsory monitoring. They are under pressure to get results, and they live by outcomes and performance indicators."
However Tony Mooney, a retired head and home-school adviser for a local authority, says there are good reasons for wanting closer monitoring. He visits families on deprived estates who turn to home schooling after problems with bullying or school attendance. "I'm very worried that a lot of young people are not getting the schooling they ought to," he says. "Authorities have no right to see the child, or to see what they are doing. Parents can just list what they've been doing, and give examples of their work, but who's to say that it's actually the child who has done that work?"
Vijay Patel, policy adviser for the NSPCC children's charity, also sees the need for a review. "Some people use home education to hide. Look at the Victoria Climbié case. No one asked where she was at school. We have no view about home education, but we do know that to find out about abuse someone has to know about the child."
Currently, parents whose children have never been in school are not obliged to inform the local authority of their existence, but pupils withdrawn from school are subject to local authority inspection. Relationships between home schoolers and education authority varies widely. Areas such as Sheffield and Milton Keynes are models of good practice, say others, while others have no idea how to approach it. One authority groups home-educated and vulnerable children under the same heading.
Home-educators vary widely. Some do it for religious or philosophical reasons; others withdraw their children from school because of problems. Some opt for an unstructured approach, while others follow the curriculum closely.
Katie Bell has educated Robin, 12 and Ben, eight, at home for four years. "I was thinking about it for a long time. Then one morning they were unhappy, we were late, everything was wrong, and I just said 'Right, that's it'. We bagged up their uniforms for the charity shop and we've never looked back."
Her sons have been tutored for maths and science, and learned French from another home-schooling mother, but do most of their learning at home.
"We are keen on the freedom of it, they can do what they want, when they want. My older son couldn't sit still at school, or concentrate, but now he plays his guitar or does his Rubik's Cube for hours. My younger son didn't read until about a year-and-a-half ago, so we bought him comics and things he was interested in, and he reads fluently now.
"This review is all about wanting to control how children are taught the curriculum. I personally wouldn't mind if social services were called in to see if children are all right, but if it's about their education – well, for most home-educating parents, education is their greatest passion."
The figures bear this out. US research shows that home-educated children – even less advantaged ones – markedly outperform children in school by the age of 14. Research by Paula Rothermel of Durham University has similar findings. "They do very well compared with the norms for state school children. It may be school dumbs children down, or it may be to do with how the brain works when left to its own devices."
Local authorities already have the power to give parents an attendance order followed by a supervision order if they are dissatisfied by a situation, she points out. "But they seem very frightened to say to a parent 'you have failed'. And if they don't use the powers they've got, why do they need more?"
The only thing everyone agrees on is that the numbers of home-schooling children are rising fast. Katie Bell's children may soon not be counted among them, however. If the authorities take away her freedom to educate her children as she wants she says she's off to Canada. "They even give you money for home schooling there," she says.