Friday, 15 January 2010

In Whose Interest?

This is a comment I made on the Guardian website in response to others' comments after Graham Stuart's excellent piece, Home Education: a snooper's charter.

It seemed to be accepted by some people that, as the state has an interest in the education of children, it therefore followed that it should monitor the education of home educated children. Now, I have a certain interest in Jennifer Aniston, but I would be the last person to suggest that I be allowed to monitor her several times a year to make sure she is living up to my expectations!


Anyway, I thought my comment might be of interest, and frankly I stayed up way too late tonight writing it to waste it on a newspaper column amidst a hundred others, so I'm putting it here. Let me know what you think!

The Interests of the State: are they in our children's interest?

It is accepted that the state has an interest in our children. After all, these children grow up to be adults who will be a boon to, or a drain on society. The question really though is whether, just because there is a reason for state to want to monitor or control children (educationally or otherwise), it should have a right to do so. Rather than balancing children's rights against parents' rights, which is a government line which I find rather divisive and sinister, what this is really about is balancing the family's right to act autonomously against the state's right to have influence.

Now, to assess this we first need to agree on what we would expect to be a 'good' outcome for the education of a child. Of course, we cannot know what qualities will be beneficial to the state in 10 or 15 years' time, once a child has passed through the system from beginning to end. We have no real idea what the world will be like, or what specific skills will be needed in order to help the UK economy grow (if that is still desirable) and the country be competitive and successful within the global free market (should a global free market still exist). So we have to instead consider what would be beneficial from the child's point of view.

It would be fair then to presume that a good education would be one which enabled literacy and numeracy. It would provide skills and tools to enable the child to direct their own learning through their teens and on through adulthood, and foster a desire to learn. It would promote creativity, emotional literacy, security, curiosity, adaptability and independent thought. It would develop social skills and an awareness and compassion towards others and a knowledge and understanding of the world in general. It would help develop a facility for critical thinking. It would lead to a certain level of self-knowledge and self-understanding which would take the child forward into adulthood knowing to a large extent their strengths and weaknesses, passions and talents and what they want to do with their lives from that point on. It would develop and enhance those most sought-after properties of a successful life: happiness and contentment.

Notice that I am looking at outcomes here, not methods of achieving those outcomes as these are many and diverse and fashions in pedagogical practice and theory seem to change with every new piece of research that appears. Happily, these outcomes are of benefit of all parts of this triangular relationship between child, parent and state.

Now to the acid test. Whether you believe in this depends on whom you consider to have primary responsibility for a child: the parent or the state. With a few notable exceptions (Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong…) most of the human race has concurred that the parent is the prime party with responsibility for their children and this has been enshrined in English law for centuries. As such one has to see the parent-child relationship as the natural situation and test any intervention by the state to see whether it should be allowed. This is incidentally the fundamental thing which defenders of state-interference in the raising of children misunderstand: state must prove it is necessary that it interferes, and that it is competent to do so.

To see whether the state should have a leading role in saying, through monitoring and subsequent adjustment, how home educated children are able to reach the above outcomes, it is useful to look at the 98% of children of this country for which it is directly responsible and has complete control of their educational provision. This is where the argument for allowing the state to exercise its interest in our children falters. Given that this and previous governments have spent billions of pounds over many decades in various, often conflicting initiatives to improve the way they themselves educate children, the fact that a high proportion of children leave schools seriously deficient in many of these areas throws into doubt the competence of the state to judge whether a particular educational method has merit. Indeed, many of these outcomes don't even appear to be a part of their planning for the education of the children they have been trusted with. To be concise: if state schools were a glowing success it would be hard for home educators to argue against their progenitors having a hand in the education of their children.

Now, that so many children are failed by the state school system says to me that one of two things is true: either the state is incompetent, and despite all the money and the advice of experts and learned institutions over many many years, it has somehow still managed to make a mess of things. Or the state is actually messing things up on purpose for some reason. In either case, it seems foolish to say that the managers of an educational system with such a high failure rate should be allowed anywhere near the children of parents who have opted out of it.


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  2. Jemmo
    Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

  3. Re " is useful to look at the 98% of children of this country for which [the state] is directly responsible and has complete control of their educational provision"
    NB interesting to note the Home-School Agreements which have been rolled out in benign Comic Sans: is this a legally binding document? - it does appear to potentially shift responsibility for potential failures/dereliction-of-duty of the ed system, back on to the parent.
    So they don't want you to Home-school, but they do, to do all the fill-in and maintenance of ed development for the children, and the buck stops with the parent.

    As home-school supporters, and parents generally, we like the buck if we might be granted some status and recognition into the bargain.