The freedom of parents to choose how their children are educated is under threat, says Ruth Barber
The Schools Bill is currently advancing through parliament, and for home educators, it contains some worrying developments.
Apart from the requirement for parents to register to teach their own children, the bill will give local authorities unprecedented power to harvest almost unlimited personal data from families - with heavy fines and prison sentences for those who don’t comply.
The UK has a long history of allowing families to raise their children as they see fit. The 1996 Education Act entrusts parents with the responsibility of ensuring children receive a suitable education - either by regular attendance at school, or otherwise. As Christians, we value the liberty that this grants us to bring up our children "in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Some children are only alive today because their parents had the choice to remove them from mainstream education
If we value freedom of education – which is essentially the freedom to choose an intellectual, moral, social and spiritual curriculum not controlled by the government – the choice to educate other than at a traditional school setting is vital.
While The Schools Bill does not ban home education outright, it is beginning to look increasingly like the old joke – you can have any colour you like…as long as its black. Home educators will be free to choose any colour of education they want, as long as it complies with the latest government guidance.
Much of the problem lies in the current lack of clarity. The introduction of a home education register, which grants local authorities unmitigated power to pry, creates a process wide open for abuse. Since the bill does not specify what details the local authority will require, there are no limits to the possible intrusions into the private lives of home educators. Will they want to know our religion? Our income? Our relationship status? Will they require a book list, and, if so, will they tolerate Christian publishers? Or the Bible?
The government has justified this power grab by talking about safeguarding. They say the local authority registers of children not in school will ensure "no child gets lost from the education system." But as Christian Concern point out, cases of home educated children being badly treated are "very rare... [and] have been accentuated, to justify a local authority register to gain more control."
History tells us that state interference in the private lives of families is generally not to be welcomed. This proposed legislation threatens our human rights and pays no regard to existing data protection laws. In return for almost unlimited powers to request any and all information they want, the bill does not oblige local authorities to offer any actual support. Those who manage the register will require no educational, pedagogical or special needs training but, if they deem a parents’ educational provision unsuitable, a school attendance order could be issued, forcing children back into a school setting – even if that school is failing.
The best choice
This bill is rooted in the erroneous belief that all children are better off in school. There is simply no evidence to suggest that this is true. Studies show that, on average, home-educated children achieve better academically than their school-going friends.
For many, school is simply not a safe, or positive, environment. According to a 2021 Ofsted report, 90 per cent of female students have witnessed or experienced sexual abuse in school. Drug and alcohol use is rife, as is violence, mental health issues and suicide. Academically, the system is failing many: 200,000 primary school students do not have access to a good or excellent school in their area and 43 per cent of children leave primary school without adequate reading, writing or maths.
Conflict is increasing between what children learn in school and in a traditional Christian home
Morally and socially, conflict is increasing between what children learn in school and in a traditional Christian home, especially when it comes to gender, sexuality and marriage. School children have been sent out of class – and even excluded – for disagreeing with the teachings of the government’s latest sex and relationships curriculum.
Usurping parental responsibility traps all children in a system which is proven to be unsuitable for many. No matter what happens in schools, either now or in the future, the freedom to leave an institution – as we now have – will be seriously undermined by these new regulations. Unless parents are free to remove children from school without first having to satisfy a check-list, freedom is but a charade.
Many families are happy with school, and find the provision there satisfactory. But there are hundreds of stories of parents needing to take their children out - due to special needs, physical or mental health, bullying or poor relationships with the school. Some children are only alive today because their parents had the choice to remove them from mainstream education. If the state is not stopped from usurping parental authority, it will leave children vulnerable to whatever curriculum choices are made by this, or future governments. Ultimately, education should have the holistic welfare of children in mind. Jesus said: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36. No matter how toxic school becomes, our children may be stuck there, endangering not only their welfare in this life but their eternity as well.
If you want to take action, please write to your MP or House of Lords representative, but above all, please pray!