IN February when I warned ‘Watch out, home educators, the Left is coming for you’, I had no idea that the Schools Bill Schools Bill [HL] (parliament.uk) would propose such wide-ranging powers to regulate and control parents who teach their children at home, a freedom Britain has always enjoyed.
Home-educating parents are alarmed at the proposals, and frankly perplexed at why a Conservative Government, once so in favour of the family, pursues a basically socialist policy of state control. The Committee stage of the Bill has just started in the House of Lords and there are many amendments on both sides of this debate.
The key question is just what is triggering the zeal with which the Government now pursues home educators for information about their families?
The Schools Bill proposes a register of home-educated children, although local authorities already know about most children in their area. It also proposes that local authorities can ask parents for any information they ‘consider appropriate’. That is basically a power for a civil servant to make unlimited inquiries before deciding whether or not to prosecute parents for not providing a ‘suitable education’.
So what is a suitable education? It has always been, on the balance of probabilities, some form of education that would satisfy a reasonable person that the child is being educated. This is a very old, common law approach that has stood the test of time and not been challenged by Parliament since it was formally acknowledged in the 1944 Education Act. This is the freedom that home educators have enjoyed and want to be left alone with.
So what is the Government really interested in? Curiously, for a Government so obsessed with regulated standards, it is not yet placing any demands on parents for results in literacy and numeracy (the 3 Rs in old money). So why the push for the power to make unlimited inquiries to replace what a bench of magistrates might judge in a few minutes?
A clue possibly lies in the 112 pages of legislation and 286 pages of background briefings for the Schools Bill under the heading Education in accordance with religious beliefs or parental wishes. This is an incursion by the state into the most personal family space, where what the family think, feel, and believe is private to them. The Government refers, in the context of institutions, to ‘new requirements for secular elements to education in circumstances where parental beliefs mean that their children ought to have an exclusively religious education’. It goes further, saying it has a legitimate aim in the ‘protection of health and morals’ of children. After the Schools Bill entered the Lords the Government published further plans to target the education of children in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith, the Muslim faith, some variants of the Christian faith and ‘persons of racial groups most likely to adhere to the faiths listed above’.
Government is aware that if it interferes with religious education then ‘the affected children may end up being home educated’, so the proposal to make unlimited inquiries of home-educating parents neatly applies to children of these faiths wherever they are taught. What Government also wants to know about home-educated children are the ‘reasons behind their parent’s decision to home educate’. There is a clear pathway for devoutly religious parents to be pursued by the local authority from the schools to their homes simply because their child’s education might not meet Whitehall’s secular norms. The ultimate power, of course, is an order to send a child to a school of the local authority’s choosing.
We have, in plain sight, a Government which is prejudiced against people of faith.
This is desperately sensitive territory. What people think, feel, and believe in their own private space is just that – private. Moreover, records of such matters are treated as ‘special category data’ under the Data Protection Act, something which Government has chosen to ignore.
Quite reasonably, many of these parents will feel deeply uncomfortable with the often conflicting values of the secular state.
We are heading for a straight clash between devout families of faith and the secular morals of the state. Further than that, we are perilously close to the regulation of thought itself.