Where there is ignorance, prejudice and discrimination tend not to be too far behind.
Despite COVID introducing the concept of ‘home schooling’ to the UK, ‘home education’ remains a mystery to most, leaving myths to be confused with facts, and out-dated, deep-seated prejudices room to find new life.
I was recently asked if I have ever experienced any prejudice or discrimination as a home educator. Instinctively, the response you want to give is ‘yes! All the time!’ But when I tried to articulate it, it was really difficult to give that clear and succinct example others can understand. Like most prejudice, it is rarely that simple, and often near impossible to pin down. And then you start to doubt yourself. I’m a white, middle-class, British born and bred woman, I’m fortunate enough to never have suffered a day’s persecution in my life. Yes, I have been on the receiving end of sexism, but show me a woman in this country who hasn’t, it’s so common we have all just had to normalise it in order to function as a society. As a result, you start to think of prejudice and discrimination as those kind of things that come under the banners of genocide and hate crimes. It is at this point you have to re-evaluate, and ask what is prejudice?
Any preconceived opinion held about a group of people that is incorrect, or not based on reason or adequate experience is prejudice, the problem with home education, however, is that so few people know anything about it or those who do it, that they then try to fit it into other stereotypes that they are already familiar with. Unfortunately for home educators, those stereotypes are rarely positive, and at worst, outright offensive. Which stereotype they choose to group you with generally depends on your superficial attributes and characteristics: religious (any denomination) equals extremist; Muslim equals terrorist; academic children equals helicopter parent; single parent equals dysfunctional; receiving benefits equals work shirker; brightly coloured hair equals anti-establishment; lots of children equals irresponsible, religious nut and/or the beginnings of a cult; one child equals control freak and possibly emotionally abusive; male home educator equals unemployable, lazy, effeminate or dominated by an aggressive, female partner. The list goes on (and on), but you get the picture, and for the most part, these stereotypes generally have sexist or racist under/overtones. Consequently, it becomes very difficult to separate one prejudice from the others and it makes it near impossible to pull together a nice, neat bundle that can be labelled, ‘HomeEduphobic’. There is one question you can ask though, to help clear the muddy waters, and that is, ‘would they think this if my child went to school?’
If I have lost you some way back, let me illustrate with one of my own personal experiences. One of my children needs annual check-ups at the local hospital for an ongoing condition. It’s always in December and has now become an important part of our Christmas ritual, up there with carol singing and putting the decorations on the tree. Every year we go in all smiles and niceness, with the usual ‘how do you do’s and whatnot, and as my child gets ready for their physical examination, the consultant asks, “and remind me again, which school do they go to?” I say they are home educated, and then there is that momentary pause. It’s not a long one (any more), just a split second hesitation, but in that one moment you can feel all the consultant’s braincells lighting up brighter than the Children’s Clinic Christmas tree. We get eyed slightly differently from when we had first entered the room, every movement and interaction is watched slightly more closely than it had been, just small things, subtle things, but significant enough to make you well aware that you are now being judged. Can I call that prejudice or discrimination? Probably not, but as soon as it comes up, we definitely get treated differently, and not in a positive way. The follow up questions are the same for everyone, I imagine, “are they keeping up with their peers?” and “do they do regular exercise?” The answers are then always the same, “Yes, doing fine, absolutely no concerns whatsoever,” and, “Yes, rugby, cricket, swimming, multi-sports, tennis and dance.” (Over explaining is a long-time habit of most home educators, and just another small indication that we regularly have to justify ourselves to others). Then comes the tell-tale sign that *you* (or is it home educators?) can’t quite be taken at your word, “That’s great! But do they do any of those activities with a club?” I appreciate that sport isn’t everyone’s Mastermind subject of choice, but even I know rugby is not a two person sport, and so it is very unlikely that by ‘rugby’ I am meaning an odd-shaped ball thrown between mother and child. As soon as you highlight which organisations you do which activities with, there is almost a palpable relief from the consultant that they are doing ‘proper sport’ with ‘proper people’ for a ‘proper length of time’ each week. And then we always go back to the same question, which again, I assume everyone gets, “And are they’re keeping up with their peers?” Again I say “Yes, no problems,” and the consultant responds with, ‘And no one else has noticed anything or said anything to you?’ I then do remarkably well and just smile and say, “No.” Not once coming out with a ‘because if they had, as a normal person who takes their children’s health seriously, that would have been the first thing I would have come into this room screaming’. Maybe the parents of schooled children also get asked that too, I don’t know, but I do feel very much that somehow my judgement is perhaps impaired in some way, and a second person’s judgement would be preferred.
We then smoothly move on to academia and socialising, which I defend as well as any reasonably well-educated, reasonably self-confident, home-educating woman can, and it is generally enough to satisfy (at least for this conversation) a professional who knows that the education of my child is actually outside their remit. I must admit, some of my profile works in my favour, were I to speak with regional grammar, have crippling shyness, obvious autistic or ADHD traits, or wore clothes that denoted some religious faith, for instance, I think the questions may well have been more grilling, however, I also think that as a man or a trained teacher I would have an easier ride, as I doubt I would continue to get type-cast as the ‘the woman who can’t cut the apron strings, won’t stop wrapping her child in cotton wool, and has plans to carry on changing their nappies and breastfeeding them until they are 75’. You may think I’m paranoid, I used to too, but I get this a huge amount from all sorts of different medical professionals in very different fields. The end result is that it completely affects the way you behave around all medical professionals. You become really self-conscious and start to over-analyse every small thing you say and do. As soon as we enter a hospital, surgery or whatever, I now immediately distance myself from my children, I never help them in any way, as one normally would for anyone else, such as holding their coat for them as they sit down in the dentists chair, I won’t hold their hands or do anything that might suggest I am the overly-fussing mother hen, and most of all, I don’t answer any questions for them unless I absolutely have to. It started subconsciously, I wasn’t really aware that I was doing it, but then you start to notice because it actually works. The medical professionals really do ease off watching you quite so intently. You don’t overdo it because then you move into the ‘neglectful’ home educator camp, but on the whole, I’m condemned in the eyes of medical professionals and other state employees to be the ‘death-by-mother-love’ home educator.
It’s not entirely the medical professionals’ fault, they just don’t know anything about home education. It’s not talked about in any helpful way in their training, they have never looked into the philosophies and motivations behind most people’s decisions to HE, they generally haven’t mixed, socialised or grown up with home-educating families and it just doesn’t turn up on their radar unless something goes wrong. So when a medical professional tries to make sense of it, they can only fit it into terms they already know, if I am not the white, middle-class woman who sends their child to a good state school, I must be the mollycoddling sort, after all, what other type is there?
We leave the appointment with as many smiles and manners as we went in with and await the follow-up letter. The letter goes to us, the big cheese consultant (he’s a bit like the wizard in the Wizard of Oz – rarely see him, but behind everything) and our local GP. It is always two short paragraphs, stating the current health condition, ongoing treatment, and ‘as you know XXX is home educated.’ This time we actually had it written twice in the one five-line paragraph. They may have well just stuck a massive red flag on the front of it. And that is what it is to many health workers and state employees: a red flag for a safeguarding issue.
Let’s be very clear on this from the beginning, home education is not, I repeat not, a safeguarding issue. Not in law or in fact. To say you are home educating your child is no more an indication that your child is in danger of being harmed than to say you eat at McDonalds. Actually, if I am going to get really picky about this, 1 in 5 year 6 pupils are classed as clinically obese, a condition that can reduce life expectancy by 10-20 years (https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/england-2020), with many people believing fast-food outlets to be a key part of the problem (https://www.rsph.org.uk/our-work/policy/obesity/the-child-s-obesity-strategy-.html). There is absolutely no data to suggest any kind of link between home education and child abuse. And yet, home education is systematically treated with the same suspicion and red-flag waving one would generally reserve for the most blatant examples of dereliction of parental responsibility, such as extreme neglect (https://www.gov.uk/parental-rights-responsibilities). Far from being a failure to meet the legal responsibility of choosing and providing for a child’s education, home education is as active a choice as signing up to a school. It is not something you do by default, as the default for not choosing school or HE is ‘missing education’. HE is a conscious decision, and not one home educators make lightly.
As highlighted in the December 2020 Education Otherwise report on Home Education Trends, 38% of parents referred to negative reasons relating to schools as their main reason for home educating their children, with parents frequently referring to safeguarding concerns related to school. (https://www.educationotherwise.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Report-home-education-Trends-preliminary-report.pdf)
With this being the case, one would think that the Department for Education would be busy tidying up their own documented in-house safeguarding issues, rather than looking to home education as the major safeguarding concern… Is this prejudice? Discrimination? An easy political victory of being the ones to ‘save’ children from (imaginary) home-educating monsters? Or perhaps an effort to deflect eyes away from their own political failings? I haven’t got a clue, but I’m fairly sure policies based on hearsay are never going to be the ones that make the world a better place.
Just like a country run solely by men will never reach its full potential or adequately meet the needs of women (and, consequently, often the children) in a society (if you only do one thing in 2021, read Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez), people with minimal knowledge of learning and education, let alone home education, are never going to be coming to the decision-making table with an impartial, universal and prejudice-free eye. And that brings us nicely to the current Education Select Committee’s Inquiry into home education.
Robert Halfon MP for Harlow was put in charge of the Education Select Committee by Parliament in 2017. Select committees, on the whole, are a great idea. They are cross-party, independent panels that hold the government to account, research policy in their special area of interest and informally influence future policy. As an MP, you choose to stand to be a part of a select committee based on interest, but it can also be a stepping stone for MPs to make a name for themselves. There are no special criteria you need to meet in order to sit on these committees beyond the desire to be there. Robert Halfon was elected to the position of chair of the Education Select Committee by other members of that committee. He has no specific prior experience in education, learning, or home education, and launched the inquiry into home education on the 30th September 2020, with written submissions of evidence being accepted until 6th November 2020 (https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/203/education-committee/news/119651/education-committee-launch-home-education-inquiry/).
Robert Halfon very much pushed the idea of the inquiry as being about ‘support’.
“A parent will always know what is best for their child but we want to make sure that the right support is in place for home learning to ensure every pupil in the country, whatever their background and wherever they are taught, can receive the education they deserve.”
Despite Halfon’s lack of first-hand experience with regard to the topic in question, it was entirely possible that he could maintain a detached and critical eye over events, allowing the evidence to build up and reach logical conclusions based on that information. As he said at the launch of this inquiry, this was an opportunity to “examine” the role of local authorities and inspections with regard to home education, and whether or not a “more active role” will “ensure every child is safe and not missing out on the chance to climb the educational ladder of opportunity.”
However, when Robert Halfon was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme on 16th November 2020, just ten days after interested parties could submit evidence and long before any conclusions were to be drawn by the committee, that impartial ‘examination’ appeared to be more ‘personal agenda’ than anything else…
“What I think needs to happen is, first of all, there needs to be a national register, there should be data collected by the Department for Education so not only do we know for sure how many children are being home educated, we can look at their attainment and progress.”
“We need accountability, we need transparency, we need the data, we need proper inspection regime.”
“they should be inspected, perhaps they should be linked with a school, my own personal preference is that children do go to school, because it is not just about education but also the support networks, the socialisation they get and all the other benefits.”
“children must be inspected and there must be a register and the Department for Education must gather the data.”
(https://protectinghomeeducationwales.wordpress.com/2020/11/18/commons-inquiry-on-home-education-decided-on-radio-4-programme/, https://scothomeed.co.uk/independent-commons-committee-chair-accused-of-breaking-parliamentary-rules, https://www.educationotherwise.org/eo-response-to-the-misinformation-of-mr-halfon-and-mr-watts/)
Are these really the words of an impartial chair?
If there is prejudice and bias ingrained from the beginning how can home education and home educators ever be seen in a fair light, or indeed have decisions made regarding them that are appropriate for either them or for society as a whole.
How different would it be if Robert Halfon was collecting his thoughts behind John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, instead of in the armchair of preconceived ideas based on… what? Stereotypes fed to him by the media? Ideas given to him by other anti-home educators in politics? His own imaginings of what a home educator is and why they do it? I have no idea where his thoughts come from, but it is most certainly not from mixing with home educators, seeing what they do, how they do it, why they do it or any thing else that reflects reality.
Most of us don’t start family life thinking ‘home education’, and many of us come to it as a last resort, when all other options have been exhausted. You can call it a choice, and for well over half of us it is a lovely, positive decision, but for a significant minority of home educators, when it is your child’s life on the line, it is the sort of choice one makes at gun point. None of us know how our children will fare throughout their schooling, all could be fine and then next minute your child has been reduced to a shell of their former self, in a constant state of distress and ready to give up on life. It is agonising, and until you have been through it, you really can’t imagine what it is like. Were Halfon to go through this himself, forced into the position of home education and making the most of it as best one can when one’s child is broken, while at the same time being pressurised and undermined by a school that insist your child is better off in their care, despite school being the very place where the damage was done, perhaps he would be coming at this inquiry from a very different angle.
Systemic discrimination has accidentally (I’m a faith-in-human-nature kind of optimist) happened to home educators over years of them just not being taken into consideration when systems were put in place, the most recent example being the cancellation of 2020 summer exams, where 20,000 external candidates were unable to get graded and had to wait until the next academic year to get their qualifications (https://he-byte.uk/england/20000-private-exam-candidates-without-grades-but-still-pushing-for-a-he-register-what-an-oxymoron/, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-cancellation-of-gcses-as-and-a-levels-in-2020/coronavirus-covid-19-cancellation-of-gcses-as-and-a-levels-in-2020#external-candidates-in-2020). Aside from this, the whole of the higher and further education system has increasingly been geared towards taking only those with qualifications (can’t do much without GCSE maths and English these days), regardless of experience or other beneficial attributes, at the same time, nothing has been done to make it easier for external students to sit public examinations. In fact, it remains as impossible as ever for the vast majority of home educators to sit subjects that have any course work, including GCSE art, cookery, textiles, music, drama, dance, and sport. It is also the case that sadly, but not surprisingly, as demand for exam centres has increased (partly due to the need for exams in order to move on to higher education/further education/apprenticeships/jobs etc., but also due to the increasing numbers of home educators), so have the prices that external candidates have to pay. Those needing access arrangements have had the double hit of finding it even harder to find exam centres that are willing to take them, as over the last three years further red tape has been introduced with regard to those who are granted assess arrangements, and rather than negotiate their way through it, many exam centres have chosen to avoid the problems altogether by not accepting external candidates who require these types of provisions. Consequently, and as is generally the way in society as a whole, those that are the poorest and most vulnerable in our community have had the most difficulty in trying to gain the qualifications they need in order to fulfil their future career and academic aspirations.
Another form of systemic discrimination that home educators face, and I doubt ever crosses the mind of those within the system, are the forms one has to fill in to apply for colleges and sixth forms. They are designed for those who have come straight from school and are impossible to fill as a home educator. I don’t for a second think this is a conscious attempt at discrimination, but just another small oversight made by people who can’t, through no fault of their own, see the world outside of mainstream education.
The type of discrimination home educators face that has a less palatable face is the type that was recently (2nd Oct 2020) highlighted by a job advert on greater.jobs for an Elective Home Education Officer for the Blackpool LEA.
“The successful candidate will monitor and scrutinies all EHE referrals to ensure that children’s needs are identified and that appropriate education provision continues speedily and effectively. A key element of the role is to prevent children from moving to inappropriate provision or from missing education. Close working with Children’s Service colleagues will be essential — including the Schools Admissions Team and Pupil Welfare Service. You must have the ability to assess the reasons for each referral and the potential safeguarding circumstances. The strategic aim will be to reduce the number of EHE cases within the area.”
To a home educator, this is outright offensive. No wonder many home educators have problems with LEAs overstepping their legal boundaries. No wonder home educators feel unsupported, marginalised and undermined in their job as primary carers of their own children. To actively want to stop people from home educating is as good as saying that parents cannot be trusted with the 24/7 care, education and well-being of their own children. It isn’t just home educators who should feel threatened by this, it should be every parent in the UK. This is an out and out attack on the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent as stated by law (https://www.gov.uk/parental-rights-responsibilities).
School and the state curriculum is not a *suitable* [a key component of the legal guidance for education – http://edyourself.org/articles/helaw.php] education for everyone. School is not, for instance, suitable for a child suffering from schoolphobia, for someone who needs to work in a quieter atmosphere or perhaps on a different timeframe for reasons of mental or ill health. The exclusively white, British history found in the national curriculum is not ‘suitable’ for (I would argue anyone, but definitely) those of other ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, the predominantly white, western, male literature found in the English curriculum is unsuitable for the vast majority of students. But while we live in a country where school is pushed as the best place for a child to be (“the Department for Education said: “We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55471095), and false information is pushed about safeguarding concerns, home education will never get the fair hearing it deserves and home educators will continue to be the recipients of prejudice and discrimination. This obviously has a direct impact on those that experience it first hand, but the nastiness of prejudice and discrimination never just stays where it is thrown. It trickles into a society, polluting the very fabric of a country. If we are trying to build a tolerant, inclusive and equal society, we have to start with education, but not just of our children, of our country’s decision-makers too.