Saturday, February 10, 2007

Protecting Children in Home Educating Families

Question: What, if any, new measures should be taken to help assure the safety of home educated children in reference to child abuse and neglect?

1. Home Educators share with the every other right-minded citizen, a strong desire to protect all children from parental abuse or neglect.

It is generally the case that home educating parents, as a group, do not wish for any further regulation of their family's educational choice. Nonetheless, because no one wants to put any child at greater risk of abuse, many home educating parents have sincerely asked themselves the question of what to do about child abuse and neglect. Each time a tragedy occurs that involves a family anywhere in the nation, home educators discuss and analyse at great length the question of what, if any, further regulation would have prevented the tragedies. The end result is that we have never been able to conceive of new measures that would be more successful than the regulations already in place for the general population.

We would be pleased to discuss with the DfES any particular cases of abuse in home educating families of which they are aware, in order to provide the perspective of home educating advocates in examining what steps might have been taken, using available laws and regulations, to prevent such tragedies.

2. Traditionally, and in our legal system, the best way to protect children has been determined to be to presume that parents, rather than an agency of government, are "fit" to act in their child's best interests.

We are all painfully aware that some parents do actually harm their own children. From viewing the horrific tragedies inflicted on some children by their parents, we tend to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of parents fulfill their parental responsibilities in an appropriate and fitting manner, [1]. For this very sound reason, our society has traditionally presumed that parents are the proper agents to make decisions about their own children.

To remove the presumption of "fitness" from the entire class of parents who home educate their children would be to harm the entire class of home educating children, simply because of the parents' educational choice and would also destroy the principle of the presumption of innocence of all families everywhere.

3. We fully concur that parents who have shown themselves unfit have abnegated their responsibility as natural guardians, and therefore the state must intervene in order to protect the children. However, designating the entire class of home educating parents as a group likely to abuse their children has the practical effect of presuming home educating parents are not fit parents simply because of the educational choice they have made.

While we all believe children should be protected, the opposite of protection occurs if a child's parents are presumed by the state to be unfit simply because of an educational choice. The message to home educating children in that instance would be: "Your parents are not trusted by society to take care of you." The message to parents is that they are not to be trusted. This is highly likely to undermine the confidence of the family to detrimental effect. In addition, the resulting state scrutiny and intrusion that the distrust of home educating families will entail, is likely to be highly disruptive, anxiety producing, and counter-productive in parental efforts to provide an appropriate education.

We suspect that most efficient method for unearthing child abuse will remain a system of informal reporting by communities.

4. Parents who home educate their children, as a group, have not been shown to be more likely to abuse or neglect their children than parents who send their children to state or independent school, and whose children are seen on a daily basis by teachers.

In fact, by far the greatest majority of child fatalities occur in children younger than five years of age. These children are not in school, but are at home with their families. Yet, because of the presumption of parental fitness, no one proposes routine investigation of all parents of children under six in order to screen this highest risk category.

Without data clearly indicating that home educating parents are more likely than other parents to abuse their children, special regulation of home educating parents is not warranted. Proposing regulation "just in case" is not advisable, given the adverse effect of such regulation on innocent home educating families, as well as the unjustified costs and burdens of implementing such a program.

5. Seeking to protect all children through removing the presumption of fitness of all parents who home educate their children would be inadvisable for reasons of policy, law, and practicality.

Policy: An agency that seeks to protect children should not have a blanket policy designating an entire class of parents as unfit without indisputable empirical evidence that warrants such a special class designation.

Law: Our legislative system presumes that parents, unless evidence is shown to the contrary, are "fit" to make educational and childrearing decisions for their children.[2]

Practicality: It is virtually impossible to conceive of a regulation that would have the practical effect of sorting out those few parents who might, in the future, victimize their children. Universal "Safe and Well" checks will not achieve anything, since either social workers will have to turn up unannounced, and thereby impinge unduly upon the right of home educating children to a private family life, as prescribed in European Law [3], or the family will have warning of impending visits and in the unlikely situation that they are abusive, will have time to cover up evidence of abuse.

In addition, universal screening will mean that resources, which could have been more usefully used working with families where the risk of abuse is high, will be spread more thinly.

It will also not be helpful for social workers to insist that they should be left alone with all children. Whilst this may be necessary in the situation that there appears to be a genuine suspicion of child abuse, it would disproportionate in the situation that that there was no suggestion of abuse, for it would unduly undermine the assumption of innocence of families and would destroy the principle of respect for family privacy. Many children would prefer not to be left alone with a strange person who has the ultimate power to decide how their lives should be conducted. If the government is serious about listening to the views of children, as is asserted in the Every Child Matters agenda [4], we request that they do not insist upon seeing these children against their will. If the DfES does insist upon this, we will reciprocally insist that sections about listening to children's views and attempting to take these views seriously be moved from any relevant legislation and guidance.

Further, we envisage many a situation where a child will need to be compelled to meet with a state employee against their will, and that the parents will therefore be required to force such a child to attend the meeting, which would therefore constitute a form of abuse. Would the state be happy to concede that their policies, far from solving the problem of abuse, instead perpetuate it?

Finally, on this point of practicality, we suspect that universal screening of a reluctant child population risks social workers diagnosing abuse where none exists. The problem of false accusations of abuse looks set to become a much bigger problem than it already is, and according to the descriptions of the situation from charities set up to support victims of false allegations of abuse, the situation is currently very frightening, [5]. Earl Howe, in the House of Lords, described the situation thus:

"Children are made to live in constant fear of being parted from their parents.The climate is like that of a witchhunt in which the voice of reason and all sense of proportion is lost." [6]

Suggestions for Positive Steps the DfES Might Consider

There is a commonly held concern that home educating families can too easily maintain their children in social isolation. However, home educators do not share that concern since we are well aware of the numerous social activities of most home educators. Home educators have developed their own broad networks through which to arrange for group activities, sports, field trips, small group classes, textbook exchanges, and so forth.

Nonetheless, there are some ways a government agency might contribute to a reduction in the potential isolation of some home educating families by speaking out against some current policies and practices that actually serve to promote isolation of home educating families from the rest of the community. We are thinking here, for example, of the problems home educators experience with truancy sweeps and other measures to curtail the free movement of children, since this can unnecessarily limit the involvement of home educating children in the life of the community. Such a welcoming attitude from the community would do much to reduce the feeling that some home educating families have that they should keep out of public view during school hours. Older home educating children, in age appropriate ways, might be much more likely to visit libraries, stores, parks or other public facilities were it not for fear of the unfriendly questioning by truancy sweeps and curfew laws and unfriendly questioning.

Communities can welcome home educating families through library programs given during school hours, or courses given at the community center. Many families would not necessarily choose to avail themselves of such services. Any lack of interest in participation should not be viewed as cause for alarm; rather, it may simply be an indication that the children's social needs are otherwise being met through the vast array of activities in which home educators are already involved. But, whether or not they choose to participate, all families would know the community was not profiling them as child abusers, but rather welcoming them and respecting their educational choices

The DfES could also encourage more LAs to follow the example of Dudley LA who have offered home educators GCSE courses in maths and English, without any significant attendant bureaucratic difficulties. [7]

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General Information on Home Education.

Number of Home Educators Nationwide

There are no accurate figures for how many families or individual children homeschool in the UK. Estimates vary, the average guess being around 50, 000, [8].

Profile of Home Educating Families

Families choose to home educate for a wide variety of reasons, including being able to give their child a better and more individualized education at home, the opportunity to create a better learning environment and the ability to more fully integrate their religious beliefs into their children’s education.

Home Educators Academically and Socially

Home Educators, in general, compare well with their state schooled counterparts on standardized tests.[9]

These findings are not surprising since many studies have indicated that parental involvement in a child’s education is highly correlated with academic achievement. Home educated children are accepted into the most prestigious universities and colleges. And it is not only academically talented students who benefit from home education. Many parents attest to the remarkable gains of their special-education children, who flourish at home, gaining skills to help them become productive adults capable of living independently.

Home educators often chuckle when they are asked what they refer to as “the S (socialization) question.” Social skills, home educating parents quickly realize, are best learned not from a classroom of 29 other eight year olds, but in a caring family and community setting. Home educating children learn social skills in surroundings that more accurately reflect society as a whole. The limited research on the social skills of home educating students, compared to their public school counterparts, supports our collective belief that home educating children have at least as high self-esteem as children in school. [10]. As more homes educators grow to adulthood they are gaining recognition as involved citizens, creative entrepreneurs, good parents and reliable employees.

All indicators, and our own accumulated experience, reveal that home educated children as a group can certainly hold their own in terms of academic, social, and life skills.

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Footnotes:

[1] Statistically, parents who abuse their children represent a very small fraction of all parents.
From the NSPCC website, we read that the rate of abuse of children in England in 2002 - 2003, was 2.7 per 1000 children. Of these cases of abuse, neglect constituted 39% of cases, physical abuse 19%, emotional abuse 18%, sexual abuse 10%.

[2] ARTICLE 2 of Protocols in the ECHR

[3] European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8


"In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions."

This is confirmed in The UN Convention on Human Rights

[4] Every Child Matters - Building a Culture of Participation

[5]FASO. Charity to support victims of false allegations of abuse.

[6] Earl Howe. House of Lords "Child Abuse" Hansard 17 Oct. 2001 FULL TEXT

[7] GCSE's For Home Educated Children in Dudley

[8] Home Education Research. Conclusions re: numbers of home educators.

[9] Dr. Paula Rothermel: Home Education: Rationales, Practices and Outcomes
To the extent this issue has been studied, it has not been studied in a completely random sample. Many home educators have no interest in participating in studies, perceiving that participation might bring their program under inordinate scrutiny. Many home educators perceive that they are expected to make exemplary progress in order to continue home educating and this may be difficult to impossible for families who have chosen to educate because their children have special needs. If a child in a state school scored below a certain centile, they would not be removed from school, though this is precisely what many home educators fear will happen in a highly regulated sitaution. It is the case, however, that many home educating children score well above average in standardized tests, but they have no wish to have their children’s scores become part of a database on home education, since they are convinced that high test scores, while perhaps a side effect, are not the goal of a home educating program.

Our subjective perception, as experienced home educators in contact with home educators across the nation, is that we can safely say that home educators can hold their own with their public and private schooled contemporaries in terms of academic achievement. We see no need to make a larger claim, that home educators consistently score higher than their contemporaries, though all the studies that we know of show that result.

[10] Paula Rothermel.
One of the most unnatural aspects of the state school environment is the age segregation. Learning to get on with peers does not necessarily prepare the student for interactions with older and younger people in real life. In the home educating family, on the other hand, people of various ages and generations mix easily together in a variety that more accurately mirrors the outside society. There is an emphasis on service and responsibility that turns differences into opportunities for compassion. Younger siblings are best friends, not embarrassments. When 100+ home school kids get together, the crowd is noteworthy for its orderliness and pleasantness.

Anecdotal reports by long-time home educating parents reveal that their children are at ease with adults as well as with very young children. Home educating children learn their socialization skills in a setting that more accurately reflects society as a whole, rather than a classroom of thirty same-age children.

Furthermore, an honest appraisal of the vaunted social benefits of state school attendance would show that for a certain number of state school students, the social experience is not positive. Our jails are filled with people who attended state school. Clearly, state school attendance is no guarantee of proper socialization. As with academic performance, homes educators can certainly hold their own with their state schooled counterparts in the areas of socialization and interpersonal skills.

4 comments:

Carol said...

Child abuse and harassment have become a real problem in America.
I hope your post will help a lot of people to overcome this problem and love their kids.

Best Wishes
Carol

Anonymous said...

Great, clear explanation. Can't fault it. This comment especially:

"No one proposes routine investigation of all parents of children under six in order to screen this highest risk category."

points out the irrationality of current suggestions that show a greater mistrust of home educators than parents who school. (Or as if they could assume all teachers were trustworthy 'spies'!) Routinely inspecting all parents with children under 6 would indeed be more rational; or, indeed, examing all people who might have children. How far does one go?

Thanks for that,
D

Anonymous said...

If our perception of reality depends on the information we are fed by the mass media and so on, those who control those media control our perception of the world and the world's problems. I don't believe that child abuse has become the 'real problem' anywhere but that it is simply being used as a means to introduce changes in legislation that will give the state more control over our children.

Wasn't it Hitler who said:

"The whole art (of propaganda)consists in doing this so skilfully that everyone will be convinced that the fact is real, the process necessary, the necessity correct."

He also said things like:
“Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it”

and

“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.”

Katherine said...

Great post, Carlotta. I think that it is important that in the the upcoming consultation we use coherent, articulate, well constructed arguments refering to actual evidence, academic research, human rights legislation etc, in the way that you have done here.

In the absence of any evidence or research to prove that HE'd children are at greater risk, I can't see that any special measures are needed to ensure the safety of HE'd children. They have the same rights as all other children and are protected by the same laws (as well as any of us are). It is prejudice to treat HEing parents as though they are all potentially guilty and I agree with you that this would also be damaging to the children.