A Socialist Case Against Persecuting Home-Educators

Inspired by The Guardian

At five and six respectively, my sister and I were removed from the British school system. Two younger siblings were fortunate to evade it completely. My sister was penalised because she could read at a higher level than her grade, making her restless when forced to undergo futile lessons. My experiences were different — as a young boy with undiagnosed AS, I suffered relentless bullying, which included violent assault and an unsympathetic institution that did nothing to help. Afterwards, I was home-educated and benefited tremendously, which afforded me the chance to meet others like myself from whom I gleamed, albeit anecdotally, that my experiences were typical or even quite mild compared to many.

I met children who had been dragged across concrete playgrounds until their bones were left exposed, others locked up by teachers in rooms with their bullies and tormenters to ‘resolve their differences,’ vulnerable young people who reported a litany of suicidal ideation, ostracisation, misogyny, sexual harassment (including from teachers), homophobia and racism. Therefore, I was not surprised when in 2005 the Children’s Commissioner for England, Al Aynsley-Green, stated:

I have had hundreds of in-depth conversations with children since accepting this post and I can tell you that the one thing every child I have met has been affected by, with virtually no exceptions, is bullying[…] want to pay tribute to much of the extremely good work going on in schools, but from what children are telling me, there is still a lot of denial about the existence, severity and effect of bullying.

Home-education is a lifeline. The abject failure of the school system to develop a robust anti-bullying (or welfare) policy is demonstrable; research shows that 83% of young people say bullying has a negative impact on their self-esteem, 30% self-harm as a result of bullying, 10% attempt to commit suicide as a result of bullying. These are likely to be contributing factors as to why the UK is listed amongst the worst developed countries in the world in which to be a child by the KidsRights Foundation, a HSBC survey of expatriates, The Children’s Society, Unicef and so on.

There is no case to be made that schools adequately cater to the psychological and welfare needs of their pupils. Teachers are remarkable; they work long hours and are motivated by a selfless vocation. And there are undoubtedly many reasons for this failure of schools: class sizes, poor government guidance, insufficient funding for specialist training and pastoral care. The reality remains: schools are presently rife with abuse and neglect and the long-term harm to children is highly evidenced.

As a committed socialist, I want the school system elevated by investment, a pedagogic philosophy to liberate children from constraints and to help them in their self-formation — not as a means to an economic end, but as an incommensurable good. Freeing teachers from the constraints of an inadequate institution to dedicate themselves to their calling is vital. Nonetheless, as someone saved from the school system status quo, I want children who go through my experiences to have options. And I want alternatives to school to permanently flourish, as checks on that monolithic institution and its repeated catastrophes, as an acknowledgement of the right of families to autonomy from the state, as a celebration of educational pluralism.

This brings me at last to why I felt the need to write this article. This morning, I read a tiresome hit piece editorial against the rights of home-educators published by the Guardian, which attempted to demonise families by associating them with abuse and conflated welfare and educational concerns to frame an unevidenced and feebly argued position in emotionally charged terms. Sophists have the advantage that it is easier to construct a bad, unreasoned argument than it is to pull it apart, so I ask that you consider my case carefully.

The Guardian start by raising the appalling death of Jordan Burling; this eighteen year old’s mother and grandmother left him to die in horrific conditions, for which they have justly been charged with manslaughter. He was also removed from school at twelve, which has elicited a safeguarding review into how the authorities lost sight of him. So far, we have a tragedy and a review, but no link is established between the criminal neglect, the clear failure of the authorities and home-education more broadly. And let us not for a moment exonerate the authorities, they were fully aware (or should have been) that Jordan Burling existed and that he was at significant risk, as reports on the court case make clear.

The court heard that he attended his local primary school, where he soiled himself and defecated on the floor. Teachers noted he had head lice and his teeth were in a very poor state.

Even the Guardian acknowledges, as reason dictates:

There is no evidence that being home schooled leads to an increased risk of abuse or neglect. The government believes most home-educators do a good job.

Nonetheless, despite an admitted lack of evidence, The Guardian argues for intrusive surveillance of families and a mandatory register; this liberal paper argues that for home-educators, a presumption of guilt is permissible on the most tenuous grounds. The editorial also cites two other cases that are similar to Jordan Burling’s, in that they also fail to substantiate its agenda for imposing sweeping and unhelpful reforms on families. The rhetoric around the deaths of Dylan Seabridge and Khyra Ishaq are like that rhetoric applied to the death of Jordan Burling in that it fits a general pattern in which children fully known to the relevant authorities are then inexplicably cited as examples of children who were put at risk precisely because authorities did not know of them. This obvious contradiction is glossed over in what can only be described as journalistic negligence or outright deceit.

Wendy Charles-Warner has rigorously analysed this ploy in the piece, Home Education and the Safeguarding Myth: Analysing the Facts Behind the Rhetoric. Rather than restate this meticulously researched argument, it is more helpful to quote Charles-Warner’s conclusion directly:

This research clearly demonstrates that home educated children, rather than being hidden or isolated, are uniquely visible, leading to them being twice as likely to be referred to Social Services as children aged 0–4 years and children aged 5–16 who attend school. Further, the perception of risk is based on SCRs, for which in every case in which home education is cited as a factor, professional involvement is already present for the child or children involved. Those SCRs do not demonstrate a need for more professional involvement, but a need for those professionals involved with all families, no matter their education choices, to act correctly within the remit of their respective roles.
That perception of risk is also demonstrated to be false by the current research, which indicates that home educated children, whilst twice as likely to be referred to Social Services, are between 3.5–5 times less likely to have that referral lead to a CPP than are schooled children aged 5–16, and 5–7 times less likely than children aged 0–4 years. Further, the risk of a home educated child being subject to abuse is lower than the risk of an educational professional employed in a school being found guilty of abusing a child or children in their care.
A lack of research using statistical evidence has contributed to misconceptions of home educated children being children at risk. This research addresses that gap and demonstrates that monitoring of home educated children would not only be unnecessary, but unreasonably add to the burden of Social Services who are already found to be ‘missing opportunities’ in cases where children are at risk of harm.

The implicit suggestion the Guardian is making (having failed to make their case explicitly), is that home-educated children are at risk compared to their school attending peers. This is not even seriously debatable, it is a risible lie: the state school system should be the focus of media scrutiny for the bullying and abuse it harbours, but instead families who opt to find an alternative to having their children abused at school become the targets of this vilification. Journalists misrepresent isolated examples to attack home education, while the well-documented failures of the school system are excused — this is the privilege afforded to a model of school provision whose assumptions are accepted without question against a model of education whose very existence is scrutinised.

As a socialist, I believe in strengthening communities against the predation of either the state or capitalism (which are two sides of the same coin), protecting the vulnerable and constantly subjecting power (in all its duplicity) to suspicion. Neither the prevailing condition of children in schools nor the attempt to divert blame for the incompetence of authorities on innocent people should be tolerated by anyone who identifies with the left. Socialists ought to stand up for home-educating families as valuable members of society and robustly demand that the Social Services, school system and government fulfil their essential duties to children rather than making excuses and looking for scapegoats.