The NSPCC has already been rebuked by the Victoria Climbie Foundation for seeking to mislead the public into believing that Victoria was home educated when she was not. Now the vultures are circling again, citing the dreadful but isolated case of Eunice Spry (a council approved foster carer and adoptive parent) to justify a call for powers to invade private family homes and interrogate young children. Mary Rose, a teacher and home educator from Gloucestershire, warns against blame shifting in the wake of the Spry case.
Eunice Spry’s motives for de-registering her children from school in favour of a home-based education can only be imagined. Suffice to say, in choosing to take responsibility for the education of her children, Spry exercised her right under the 1996 Education Act – a right under which many thousands of children in England and Wales receive their education outside school.
To call the phenomenon “Home Education” is misleading, as it suggests children learning exclusively within the home. Other terms are little better: the American “Home Schooling” is reminiscent of an episode of “The Simpsons”, where Bart is seen seated at a toy desk in garage-cum-schoolroom and mom struts before a big blackboard. “Education Otherwise”, taken directly from the Education Act and adopted by one support group sounds vague and mysterious, while “Out of School Education” implies coach trips or ‘crocodiles’ to museums and libraries.
“Home-based Education” perhaps best describes how and what happens in most families who opt out of the school system. Home becomes a base for learning, which takes place everywhere and anywhere, and, free of an imposed curriculum, encompasses everything and anything. It is one-to-one personalised education, driven and managed by the learner.
Home educated children are visible. They are part of their communities, socially aware, and expect to be treated as valued members of society. The idea that home educated children are shielded from the world and all its warts by over-protective parents, kept and coddled within a narrow, inward-looking community, and surrounded by a hand-picked social group nodding approval is, for the vast majority, false to the point of pure fiction.
Thanks first to the 1944, then the 1996 Education Act, plus the UK’s alliance with and influence from the US, home-based education has grown from being a choice exercised by handful of ‘alternative’ families in the 1970s to a common-place lifestyle choice today. If you don’t know a home educator yourself, it is likely that one of your friends or colleagues does.
The Spry family were conspicuous. Lots of people visited their home. Friends, acquaintances, professionals, including Social Services and presumably education officials, had access to the house; the children were seen by their GP, attended church and continued to live an apparently normal life, going to the supermarket and being seen at dances and social events. Yet no one suspected…or if they did, no one acted.
Gloucestershire Council’s policy regarding home educators is more stringent than many, which is hardly surprising as, courtesy of Fred and Rosemary West, their officials are not unfamiliar with ‘disappearing young people’ scenarios. Home educators known to the local authority are contacted promptly, and (to the irritation of support groups) pressure is applied to facilitate access to homes and children. Gloucestershire routinely contact home educators annually, and more frequently than that if there are any concerns over child welfare or education.
In 2003 my own private research survey of English and Welsh Local Authorities revealed the common practice of contacting home educators once every Key Stage, i.e. once in three years, so Gloucestershire was already more diligent than many of its local authority counterparts. Far from preserving and fiercely defending their privacy (as many home educators aware of their rights tend to do) the Spry family accepted home visits by officials. As we now know, a whole army of child welfare professionals were successfully outwitted by this grossly inadequate, scheming mother who invited them into her home. However, Gloucestershire Council has still leapt opportunistically on to the bandwagon to condemn home educators in the latest consultation circus: “We aren’t even allowed into family homes” and “We can’t even see the children on demand”, they lament.
There is still such a thing as privacy, and its value is enshrined in law. The day the homes of elective home-based educators can be routinely invaded by state officials, small children interviewed alone by strangers and value judgements made on others’ lifestyles is the day no one is safe. It is the day when the home of every Muslim will be searched for bomb-making equipment in case they happen to be terrorists; the day every teacher’s home computer will be investigated in case they might be paedophiles. It’s the day the clocks will be striking thirteen and the Orwellian vision in “Nineteen Eighty-four” will be upon us.
The tragic case of one family, whatever the motives or intentions of the abuser may have been, takes on an even grimmer dimension when used for political gain or social control. Eunice Spry, evil though she may have been, was open to inspection, yet her activities went undiscovered. To blanket condemn a whole community on the basis of a few isolated cases is both ludicrous and outrageous, yet this is what is happening.
There is no denying of the possibility that abuse happens in home-based educators’ homes, or that the option could potentially be exploited by some individuals for their own evil purposes, but there is no evidence to suggest abuse is any more likely than in schooling families. Child abuse happens – everywhere. Local authority home education advisors may suspect abuse, as may teachers, and their role – like yours and mine – is to report suspicions to the child protection agencies whose responsibility it is to act. Put bluntly, all children are at risk, all children are vulnerable, simply because they are children and one of the weaker groups in society. Every adult has a social responsibility to act on any suspicions of maltreatment or abuse of any individual by taking the appropriate action.
To suggest, as the government and NSPCC have done, that home educators are covert abusers is a reprehensible smear which is designed to shift attention from a system in which the cracks are widening at an alarming rate. Let us not forget that the NSPCC was too busy partying to save Victoria Climbie, while the multitude of ‘professionals’ who visited Eunice Spry ignored her children’s cries for help and were evidently all too gullible to pick up the neon signs of abuse. How dare these people throw stones at a law abiding minority group!