Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Home Education Parliament Debate

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I recognise that the Minister is making her debut here, and that this matter is work in progress for her Department. I contacted her civil servants, and made it clear that the bulk of this half-hour debate will be taken up by my contribution, but that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) may wish to intervene.

In the middle of January, the Department for Children, Schools and Families launched an independent review of home education by Graham Badman, the former director of children and educational services at Kent county council. Mr. Badman has been charged with investigating the current system for supporting and monitoring home education, and was asked to consider how any concerns about children’s safety, welfare or education are dealt with. From the outset, the Government have emphasised that they have no plans to change parents’ well-established right to educate their children at home.

All that sounds harmless enough, and in light of recent child abuse cases it is little wonder that the Government want to safeguard children who are not visibly in the system, and to keep tabs on parents. It is right for any Government to want evidence that each and every child receives a suitable education, and genuine home educators have nothing to fear. However, the message coming loud and clear from home educators in my constituency is that that hype should not be believed. Their worry is that the Government are manipulating current anxiety about child abuse to intrude further into home education when they have little legal right to do so.

The latest review will mark the third such consultation pertaining to home education over the past four years. Any action stemming from it could affect the balance of power between civil liberties and state intervention, whether one is innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent, and whether the state or parents have ultimate responsibility for their children. The ability to be free from an all-knowing, all-seeing state’s ideas of education, welfare and standards forms the fundamental appeal for many of those who choose home education for their children. Any attempt to alter what is very much a matter of balance would undermine the entire ethos of education.

I became interested, involved and engaged in home education some months back when I met two articulate and passionate local mothers in the Pimlico area of my constituency who had decided to educate their children themselves. One made that decision as a result of her son’s unhappy and unproductive first 18 months in the state school sector. The other had seen home education work brilliantly for family friends, and made the positive decision to take on that task for her daughters. The matter is a Cinderella area, and I approached my meeting with those two mothers with some standard misconceptions that a home education might produce an unsocialised, precocious child who is unable to interact with their peers and perhaps shielded from all negative experiences. However, the more I listened to the two mothers, the more impressed and excited I was by their passion and enthusiasm for home education. Each was able to provide an individualised learning experience tailored to the child’s abilities and interests. Far from having an isolated and insulated existence, the children of those two mothers frequently attended classes with other home schoolers, interacted with children of different ages and abilities, and experienced a wide range of activities from practising judo and learning Japanese to visiting galleries and museums during quieter times of day.

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