The regulatory frameworks governing home educators in some parts of Europe are so severe that lobbying for change is the only realistic option. But to do so without careful preparation would doom us to failure.
To enter into negotiation within a hostile political environment is at best hazardous and at worst foolhardy. Outcomes may not only fail to meet our hopes and expectations they can, and often do, put us in a worse position than before. Those considering a campaign for change must therefore balance the pros and cons of the situation very carefully. Does the probability of the hoped for gain outweigh the possible cost of loss?
It is for this reason that home educators in the UK, who have much to loose, have rightly refrained from approaching their government for further concessions.
When legislation is proposed, all those with an interest in education or children, become involved in the process. Organisations that home educators almost never come into contact with, as well as those who are well known adversaries, enter the debate.
During the recent attempt by the UK Government to introduce new legislation in England, under what has become known as the Badman Reforms, organisations such as the NSPCC, a children’s welfare charity; the Church of England; St Barnardo’s, who run children’s homes; several teachers unions; the Parents Teachers Association, which represents those who volunteer as school governors; local education authorities; The Probation Service; Connexions, who offer careers advice and government monitoring of teenagers in the UK and even the Crown Prosecution service; to name but a few, all wrote, quite often statistically erroneous and misinformed statements, to government ministers, members of parliament and possibly most damagingly to the press, denouncing home educators and all our works.
By the time the review had ended, many members of the public had the idea that home educating parents were all paedophiles even to the extent that a few families reported that their children had been subjected to very damaging and hurtful taunting from other children who had no doubt overheard conversations between their parents.
The accusations ranged from forced marriages to criminality, abuse to neglect. None of which had any foundation in reality. Since then there has been a noticeable rise in the interest paid by Social Services departments to home educating families.
As legislation passes through the legislature many organisations lobby its members, adding damaging amendments, we had one such amendment to a regulation recently in the UK that would have led to a significant delay between a family asking for a deregistration to obtaining one, something we have worked hard to prevent for many years. An article in the HEM magazine from the USA – an article that I recommend people to read – shows that this problem is also well known in their;
“it is usually a mistake for minorities like homeschoolers to try to have legislation introduced to support them. In the first place, as discussed above, statutes generally do not grant freedom; they limit it. In addition, it is very difficult to control legislation, which can easily be radically changed by amendments. Introducing homeschooling legislation provides a great opportunity for opponents of homeschooling to add amendments that increase government regulation of homeschooling.”
An additional complication is the behaviour of ones allies, which may not be all that one could hope for. During the same ‘Badman’ review in the UK, the government considered what became known as the Tasmanian Model. This was a scheme based upon home education regulation in Tasmania.
Basically a government appointed committee made up of representatives of the home education community and government appointees; would appoint inspectors to regulate and monitor those who would be permitted to home educate.
The effect of this in Tasmania was to incorporate the only home education support group families had into the government apparatus thereby effectively removing any and all opposition to government control of how home education is undertaken. The last time I spoke to a Tasmanian home educator I was told the government had decided to do without the home educators on the regulatory panel and staff it with state officials, thus completing the takeover. All that remains now is for them to step by step remove parent’s rights to home educate with little or no organised opposition.
The suggestion to adopt this structure in the UK was pounced upon by a small group of home educators – the very same group who were widely seen as those best placed to become that committee. They presented a paper detailing how it might be done. This was produced without consultation with any other group or even their own membership. The sense of shock and betrayal was immense and it's effect was to undermine the strategies being followed by other groups.
In the USA HSLDA has itself been accused of negotiating rights away. From the same HEM article we have;
“HSLDA's actions have eroded the foundations of our freedoms. From the beginning, HSLDA has relied on statutes in two ways. First, in its misguided attempts to get statutes it mistakenly thought were necessary to make homeschooling "legal," HSLDA has made compromises that have reduced the freedoms of homeschoolers in several states. Second, in initiating court cases to overthrow statutes, HSLDA has contributed to the development of a body of case law that supports unnecessary government regulation of homeschooling.”
Similarly it can be argued that HSLDAs involvement in European court cases have led to weak, doomed cases2, being taken to the highest European courts and the European home education community being stuck with the resulting poor, restrictive case law that effects all families throughout the European Community.
Cases brought in Germany have led to the popular conception there that the issue of home education is one entirely associated with extreme religious views to the extent that a few years ago a national newspaper ran a poll conflagrating the issue of home education with religious extremism. When I debated the issue of home education on the BBC world service with a German professor of education a few years ago I was told home education was anti democratic (which I eventually understood to mean anti socialist) and socially divisive – what Germans call ‘parallel societies’.
Once an idea has established itself in the popular mind, it is extremely difficult to alter it. Taking controversial and difficult cases to the European courts has, in my view, skewed the popular view of home education in some parts of Europe and put the cause of home education back by decades.
The history of legislative change in home education regulation is peppered with examples of how one group or another has negotiated away rights and freedoms because they were not seen as important to the needs and requirements of that particular group.
Oppressive governments pounce upon those divisions and bit by bit negotiate away freedoms necessary to autonomously educate our children. What then might an alternative approach look like?
I think a great deal of ground work is necessary before we attempt to change anything. The watershed in the UK came in 2001 when one of our national TV channels covered home education allowing families to talk about their experiences following families as they lived their lives.
It showed home educators as normal families, caring about the future of their children. It showed intelligent, aware, well socialised kids in whom their parents could be justly proud. The programme was aired on a Friday evening and by the following Monday home education support websites were reporting visitor stats as doubling. This interest in home education never fell back; it continued to steadily rise from that date on.
From then on when a family mentioned home education to friends and family, or even strangers asking why they children were not in school, there was a fair chance that the other person had at least heard about home education and were far less likely to be openly hostile. From this point on Home Educators were able to take a stronger line with the authorities. In the few cases taken against families magistrates were less likely to take openly critical positions against families and local authorities began to invite representatives from local home education groups to speak to them.
The trick is to gain the empathy of the public. A campaign should not primarily be a legal fight, but one conducted in the press and over the internet. The purpose is to embarrass the authorities, making it hard for them to fall back upon ignorance and prejudice when justifying their poor treatment of us and make it difficult for them to prove tangible harm.
We need to engage the sympathy of members of local and national legislature to further weaken the authority’s position. Where we do ultimately take cases to court, only the strongest cases should be taken on. We should not take on causes we cannot win and certainly not take them to the highest courts where rulings can have such devastating effects.
We first need to establish links to the media and offer interviews all to clear the way for a sympathetic hearing. We cannot expect to win cases, change the law and take back control of our families by simply taking a case to court. We need to prepare the ground so as to make calls to prejudice more obvious and politically risky.
1 The Politics of Survival: Home Schoolers and the Law by Scott Somerville (HSLDA staff attorney and professor of Government at Patrick Henry College founded by HSLDA president Michael Farris)
2 www.alliancealert.org/2006/20060926.pdf Konrad case 2006
3 monk paper Leuffen case Germany eprints.bbk.ac.uk/312/1/Binder1.pdf