PARENTS in Britain have historically decided the method and manner of their child’s education; it has been in the child’s best interests for parents to make primary decisions about their needs. This freedom has enabled many parents to home educate, believing that the benefits to doing so would outweigh the significant financial, career and social sacrifices they’d make to facilitate it. Research shows that home-educated children often academically perform as well as, if not better than, their peers in school.
Despite home education rights being codified in statute, parental responsibility in education is steadily losing ground. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has been cropping up repeatedly as a reason to argue that the government, not parents, are best placed to look after a child’s best interests. This puts parental primacy at risk of being at best watered down, and at worst, eroded. Moreover, it’s a misguided argument.
England has faced this pressure in a recent parliamentary inquiry on home education. UNICEF UK submitted that local authorities (LAs) needed to interfere with home education and conduct six-monthly inspections in homes. Using the armour of the CRC’s title, they said ‘child rights’ demanded reform. Implicitly, they argued that parents could not be trusted.
The Welsh Commissioner also recently used similar arguments. In referencing one tragic, but rare, case of parental neglect nearly ten years ago, she claimed that all home-educated children were at safeguarding risks. She cited the Convention (by title only) as the central reason the government needed to regulate and manage home education more energetically.
In Scotland, the CRC was domestically incorporated into law in March. Notwithstanding Westminster’s announcement this week that it is referring the Scottish CRC law to the Supreme Court to consider whether Holyrood acted outside its devolved power in passing it, home educators have a reason to be wary of the Scottish government’s history of attempting to interfere with parental responsibility and private life. A few years ago, it legislated to appoint a state employee for every child to look after his or her wellbeing and happiness (the ‘Named Person Scheme’). Although the scheme was abandoned after a successful legal challenge, the CRC might give new impetus for Scotland to try again to diminish parental primacy.
But these calls for reform are misguided.
First, there is no robust evidence that home-educated children need greater surveillance to protect them from abuse and harm. Independent research shows that such children are half as likely to be subject to Child Protection Plans as children at school.
LAs already have substantial powers to oversee and intervene in homes when concerns are raised about perceived harm or inadequate education, including by removing children at risk from parents. LAs work with other agencies to fulfil these responsibilities, including health bodies and GPs, and are overseen by Ofsted. The Department for Education has maintained that ‘there is no proven correlation between home education and safeguarding risk’.
Second, attempts to limit parental rights in the name of international law is misleading. The CRC does not de facto limit parental rights in education. Its Preamble affirms that the family stands as ‘the fundamental group unit of society and the natural environment for the well-being of all its members, particularly children’, and that it is entitled to ‘protection and assistance’. It does not put qualifiers on home education, nor make the assumption that education and safeguarding are better if supervised by public authorities.
Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document of the human rights movement, clearly affirms parental primacy and responsibility in education. It states that ‘[parents] have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children’ because they ‘have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child’.
So, without cogent reasons to alter the model, there should be no assumption that parental primacy in home education is ‘worse’ than other forms of schooling. Children are well protected in the home, educational standards are often higher than in mainstream schools, and the law protects home education.