Home Education on Radio 4

The Today programme did a piece, this morning, on home education. It wasn’t exactly news, more of a filler to act as relief against all the “will the children get a place at their chosen school?” hype of the week.

Several things struck me. One was that it wasn’t exactly balanced. I mean, it was, in the sense that they had a pre-recorded bit with a home educating family, talking about what they do and how it works for them, but not much about why they do it, or their relationship with the authorities. Then they did a John Humphrys vs interviewee bit, with a chap called Tony Mooney, who described himself as an “inspector” of home education for “a couple of” local authorities.

The chap was pretty negative. He implied, but didn’t say outright, that the relatively light legislative touch on the subject was the source of no end of problems, and should be fixed ASAP. He certainly suggested that the vast majority of home educators are deceiving the authorities, as an alternative to court over a persistent truant. De-register the child, and the problem goes away – I can imagine it works pretty well, actually, particularly if you’re dealing with an older teenager. It takes a certain amount of time to conclusively demonstrate that you’re not providing an education, and if the child in question is already fourteen or fifteen, there’s every reason to hope that they’ll be too old for anyone to care before the situation is brought to a head.

However, the “inspector” chap (and I suspect the seasoned political types in the HE community would want to discuss that title…) followed this up with the information that (due to the lamentable weakness of the law) he sees most of the families on his list just once a year, unless there is believed to be a serious problem with the educational provision, in which case it might be as often as every two months. So, erm, yeah, you spend six times as long with what Humphrys was pleased to call “a problem family” as you do with the people who are just getting on with it. Perhaps that skews your perception of the problem just a little? For every “problem” family you deal with, you’re fitting six ordinary home educators into your week.

I have it on the authority of a source I’m choosing not to name, that there is a rise in the number of truants being encouraged to de-register from school, and declare themselves home educated – and that this is partly as a result of encouragement to do so by Educational Welfare Officers, who would deny any such conversation if asked. Behind closed doors, though, the LA in that area are mending their truancy stats by getting truants off the school register. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I suppose. Apparently, there is also a notable parish priest in the area, who is similarly encouraging families to pursue this route – presumably on the basis that forced attendance for a child who can’t bring himself to face going, and a court for the parents, benefits the family as a whole not one bit.

The second thing that struck me, is that if the fairly robust legislation about obliging registered pupils to attend hasn’t worked, to the point that the family have de-registered the child rather than get into serious trouble, why does this chap think that increased legislation regarding home education will help? What looks to him like a parental cop-out, and a sinister ploy to dodge the rule of law, looks to me like a way for parents who are struggling to cope with their teens anyway, to avoid a series of events which will only make life worse for everyone involved. The child is going to get no worse an education through a lack of home education than s/he was already getting through a lack of attendance at school. In the meantime, beefing up the rules has a significant impact on home educators who are conscientiously doing the job to the best of their ability, but whose ability might well be encumbered by the new levels of bureaucracy required. It would completely fail to solve the problem, whilst targeting the wrong people.

Then again, I feel the same way about the Children’s Database, Identity Cards, and most of the anti-terror legislation.

It also occurred to me that since this Mooney chap inspects for “a couple” of local authorities, that makes him a contractor, which in turn could well mean that he gets lumped with all the awkward cases. His perception of the ratio of “problem” cases to other home educators may be far from accurate anyway.

At the end, when pushed, the most positive thing he could find to say about home education was that it was too much like hard work, and he couldn’t be induced to attempt it. Well, maybe he lacks the commitment, but that’s no reason to try and stop other people from having a go.

In short, I wasn’t very impressed. There’s a moral panic rising up about home education at the moment, and I expect the BBC to be able to see past the cheap ratings to the fact that the only real research available says it’s a good thing.