Simon Webb: We must get tough on home schooling

Thursday 30 July 2009 00:00 BST

Most people, if asked about home education, would probably picture a child being tutored at home by his parents; perhaps working at the kitchen table rather than sitting in a classroom. This was indeed the case with my own daughter whom I have taught since she was a baby. Sadly, this image is very much the exception in British home education.

The most popular educational method used by those who withdraw their children from school in this country is known as autonomous education and involves nobody teaching children anything at all! I believe this peculiar technique is causing incalculable damage to the thousands of home educated children upon whom it is used.

Autonomous education is based on a simple principle: that children alone are the best judges of what they should learn and when they should learn it. If a child wishes to spend the day slumped in front of a television or games console, this is not a problem, the choice is his. Many autonomous educators go even further, asserting that it is for the child to decide on bedtimes, diet and other aspects of lifestyle. To see how this works in practice, we cannot do better than look at "How People Home Educate" on the website of Education Otherwise, a registered charity working in the field.

A mother writes about educating her children, aged 10 and seven, whom she describes as "night owls", at home. They apparently have no bedtimes and get up "later than I would like". She says: "Their days are often filled with television and lots of play". There is no academic work at all. Neither child can read but she says: "They will read one day and will do so because they want to, not because somebody tells them to." As a description of the odd week or so during the school holidays, this is perfectly acceptable; as a long-term lifestyle for growing children, it verges upon the neglectful. Yet this account is quoted with evident approval by the largest organisation for home educators in this country.

No wonder such parents are vehemently opposed to new legislation which would enable local education authorities to check up on the education being provided for children taught at home. The disadvantages of this system are probably obvious to most parents. Our children are most decidedly not the best judges of what is wholesome and good for them. Many children and teenagers, if left to their own devices, would not surface until lunchtime. Following a sugary snack of biscuits and fizzy pop, they might spend the afternoon playing computer games or watching television.

It would be a rare child who chose instead to get up at 7am or 8am, eating a healthy breakfast of wholemeal toast washed down with a glass of mineral water before settling down to teach himself algebra! That is why we as adults assume responsibility for the welfare, physical and mental, of our offspring.

As the law stands, any parent can withdraw a child from school simply by notifying the head in writing. The LEA can make informal enquiries about the education being given to the child, but has no right to enter the home or interview the child. For many, this is the end of their education.

According to the recent review of home education conducted by Graham Badman, there may be as many as 80,000 home-educated children in Britain. Under current arrangements, nobody has the slightest idea what sort of education, if any, many of these children are receiving. This is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs. My daughter and I welcomed the representative of our LEA into our home once a year to show what we had been doing, but many parents are determined not to allow the LEA any access to their homes. Under those circumstances, it is impossible for the local authority to have the least idea what is happening with regard to the child's education.

It is high time that LEAs were given the power to check up on the wellbeing and educational attainments of these children. The furious opposition to any change in the law is spearheaded by autonomous educators who are, not surprisingly, anxious to prevent anybody from assessing the efficacy of their educational provision. While fighting for their own "rights", such people are denying their children one of the most important rights that other children in this country enjoy; the right to a proper education.

The writer is a home-educating parent who works with children with special needs in inner London

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