Dr. Jan Fortune-Wood is a freelance writer and home educator to four children aged 8-15. She is a supporter of ‘Taking Children Seriously’ and writes on home education, autonomous education and non-coercive parenting from a libertarian perspective.
All kinds of disparate and quiet groups become politicised when they are attacked by the state, scapegoated and weakened. That’s what Brian Micklethwait pointed out in an article on August 26th on Samizdata. He cites as an example Britain’s gun owners, who were made to take the blame for the actions of evil people and who as a result “suddenly started to care about things like libertarianism also.”
It’s a point well made, but when he goes on to say that another group who may be about to experience a similar process are ‘home schoolers’ (the British term he was struggling to find is actually ‘home educators’ or ‘home based educators’) he is several years behind the movement. Micklethwait is quite right that across the English-speaking world there are various efforts of “professional state educators” trying to erode the rights of home educators on the grounds that it is “a strange and scandalous legal anomaly.” However, what he has not realised is that we home educators have been on to them for some time and politicisation is well and truly underway, even maturing in certain sectors.
The home education movement in Britain is at least twenty five years old in its established form and the last ten years have seen a massive rise in politicisation, much of it associated with the communication benefits afforded by the Internet. One home education support group (Education Otherwise) was instrumental in getting a change in the law so that parents can now automatically de-register their children from school without the old legal loophole of needing to establish and prove their educational provision before de-registration could take place. Britain has perhaps the most liberal home education law in the world, but far from inducing complacency, there is a constant watch on the actions of over zealous local education authorities (LEAs) and the services of a brilliant home educating lawyer available to families who are mistreated by LEAs. Five years ago I was part of small collective that ignited a huge discussion across the home education community concerning our rights not to have home visits nor to allow local education authorities automatic access to out children. This resulted in a set of legal guidelines being written and distributed to every LEA in the country – they know that we know our rights even when they would like to pretend otherwise. On another occasion I took part in an organised lobby to make amendments to the guidelines to the Crime and Disorder Act, successfully ensuring that there are provisions that prevent home educators from being harassed on the speculated grounds of truancy. LEA officers cannot ask for our names and addresses during truancy sweeps. Many home educated young people now carry ‘truancy cards’ (which are not identity cards in any form) which outline the law and demand that they be allowed to go on their way, a scheme organised by another support group, ‘Choice in Education’.
The news is not all good, but wherever home education is under attack its practitioners are fighting back. In France an appalling piece of legislation ostensibly aimed at curbing so called educational abuse by religious sects has recently made life more difficult for all home educators, but Enfants D’Abord, the national support group in France, are not giving up and going home. In Ireland, new legislation also looks set to make life worse, increasing state intervention into private family life, but once again Irish home educators, united by the Home Education Network and other support groups, are making stands and enlisting the support of home educators across Europe. In Scotland new legislation drafted by the executive two years ago is indeed Draconian, but it is also on hold. The foremost home education group in Scotland – Schoolhouse – has been vociferous in its opposition to the document, which is not even congruent with Scottish education law, and has enlisted the aid of Brian Montreith, MSP, who is introducing a private members bill counteracting the draft guidance.
Brian Micklethwait is quite right to be wary of the push against home education from the European Union. Home Education is illegal in some European countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Cyprus and Spain (though the law is not regularly enforced in Spain) and is under pressure in other places such as France and Ireland. There is, however, no blanket ban and even in the countries where home education is illegal there are ways of making exceptions and people engaged in not only exploiting, but enlarging these exceptions. There are currently challenges in both Dutch and German courts (in Germany the situation is not monolithic, but varies across regions) and European home educators are working together to make sure that the liberal laws of Britain become the model for Europe.
Two years ago at the worlds largest home education gathering, which meets annually in Dorset, a group of home educators got together to begin formulating responses to political pressure. One home educator (Mike Fortune-Wood, who owns the largest UK home education support site) set up a European website as a result to begin to chart the position of home educations across Europe. This year the group adopted the site and a new campaigning identity; ‘learning unlimited’ was formed with the remit of putting an end to routine government intervention in the lives of home educators across Europe. It’s true to say that this remit caused some debate amongst home educators themselves; this is not a homogeneously libertarian group and some argued for the role of the state in family life, but the remit was nonetheless carried and remains.
“Harmonisation” may be causing continental politicians to “want to ban British home schooling, if only to prevent any possibility of the British contagion spreading to the continent.” but the truth is that the genie is already out of the bottle. People in the Netherlands and Germany are finding ways to take control of the educational provision for their own children, they have support networks across Europe and the world and the phenomena of demanding a right to privacy and family life in the arena of education is growing despite the fears of political control freaks.
Sadly, some British home educators don’t want to know – they are content with a system that is on their side for the moment and don’t want to contemplate having to become involved in the messy business of politics. Many also come from strong socialist backgrounds and there is a mixed pull on their loyalties between the rights of privacy and self direction on the one hand as against giving up some of their rights and their children’s rights for the supposed sake of others. Many of us, however, do not share this complacency or naivety and are engaged in acting before we are attacked. We have attuned our antenna to the winds of legal and political change and are not in the business of paying Danegeld or making ourselves easy prey.
Some of us are already libertarians, particularly those also involved in the ‘Taking Children Seriously’ movement, an educational theory which supports consent based, autonomy respecting interaction with children. I number myself in this growing international group and have written three books on its parenting and education theory and another attacking the whole notion of “free” state education. “Bound to Be Free” challenges the idea that freedom can flourish in any state system and charts the costs to individuals of state educational institutions – costs in social, educational, psychological and emotional damage as well as in the obvious theft by tax that is needed to support the state educational system.
Some of us are already working on those libertarian education memes and if the socialist home educators are suspicious of our ideas they at least know what are our arguments are. Home educators are not just good with the talk – some of us are good with the politics too. Politicisation of home education is certainly not complete or homogenous, but neither is it unheard of. Home education is a choice that infiltrates every part of your lifestyle and ideology and causes you to ask continual questions even when there is not pressure from political controllers; I’ve moved from being a socialist vicar to a rationalist libertarian without any threats from government. When the threats come, undoubtedly the movement will be even more galvanised, but the groundwork and networks of communication are well laid and there are more and more libertarians who will hopefully be willing to add their voices, including some of those gun-owners and maybe even some of the farmers and fishermen.
Jan Fortune-Wood, North Wales