I had an unsettling conversation this week with a young woman, a survivor of fundamentalist evangelical religion, who was homeschooled in the US, against her will, in such a way as to severely hamper her life chances due both to the paucity of the education, and the fact that – as anti-government fundamentalists – her parents had failed to obtain any documentation for her, including even birth certificate or social security number.
The discussion thread where this exchange took place was eventually shut down as it turned a little bit nasty, with all the homeschool parents defending their decision and defending homeschooling generally as superior to public (state) schooling, and all the damaged homeschool children shouting that the parents had no right to comment on the children’s stories.
I’ll admit that it did bring out the defensive in me. I remember, years ago, fighting battles to protect the rights of home educating parents in the UK against a government that was claiming it needed extra powers due to the risk of home education being used as a cover for abuse generally or child marriage specifically.
We won that last round of the battle, by showing that firstly the government and local authorities already have perfectly sufficient powers to act to protect children, and secondly that the allegation of home education being used to cover up child marriage was nonsense, since that particular abuse was being visited upon schooled children who were simply being taken abroad during the summer holidays.
Here is the thing though. I have no doubt that children are being abused under the cover of home education by religious fundamentalists in the UK even though the law is sufficient to prevent physical abuse, and here is why.
The kind of abuse that is most likely is neither viewed as abuse nor legally defined as abuse. The abuse is forcing children to be schooled in a way to which they do not consent.
Legally, children do not need to consent to education, either at home or at school. I’m sure that it’s clear that many if not most children who go to state school do not consent to it, and many would choose not to if they had a choice. But they do not have a choice.
School does not suit every child, and it is crucially important to have a legal alternative to school. Equally, home education does not suit every child and it is vitally important that parents do not force children to stay at home if they want to go to school.
I absolutely support responsible home education (although defining what constitutes ‘responsible’ warrants further discussion, as the option for unschooling or education which does not need to traditional qualifications needs to be taken into consideration), and I absolutely do not support any kind of home education which employs coercion or keeps children at home against their will.
It is important that we take these stories of homeschooled children seriously, and that we taken them on board when considering what kind, if any, regulation should be in place, whilst at the same time being aware that most parents protect the best interests of their children, and government regulation is often a very blunt instrument that can do more harm than good.
What is the best way to ensure children are safe? It is a continuing discussion. But I suspect that encouraging integration is helpful. One of the allegations made against us was that our children were “hidden”, but again we showed the claim to be false – we are out and about and in the world far more than schooled children.
One of the homeschooling mothers in the discussion mentioned that the state of Ohio has an open policy which enables homeschooled children to access all kinds of classes and resources through the schools. Sadly, the way things are set up in this country means that unless a child is registered at a school (and therefore under the school’s authority), we cannot access anything at all, despite the fact that we pay our taxes to fund schools in exactly the same way as other parents do.
Flexi-schooling is a rarely available compromise which requires the parents to register their children at school, but which allows them leave to attend part-time or intermittently. Sadly it is rare because it is not a right in law, but is up to the discretion of the head of the individual school. Some parents, additionally, are reluctant to register their children since it effectively means giving up authority.
Ultimately, it seems to me that the biggest problem lies in government viewing parents as the enemy (and obviously fundamentalist parents view the government as the enemy). It would be far more helpful if we were able to work together to make resources available for the benefit of all children – both those who thrive at school, and those who do not.