While the press focus on exams and school
performance, children are becoming targets of the government's
war on non-conformity. Crackdowns on truants and unruly pupils
don't, however, alter the fact that school is optional.
Crackdowns on youth
The police have powers (Crime & Disorder Act 1998)
to remove children playing truant from public places. Parents
of truants face fines or jail 11,500 parents have been
placed on a "Fast Track to Prosecution". The government
wants to go even further, according to the Independent:
"Ministers want to make it an offence to allow children
to roam unsupervised in a public place."
National "truancy sweeps" were introduced in 2002
the latest one stopped 12,808 children over a three-week
period, but more than half of those stopped had a valid reason
for being out of school. Over 16,000 hours of police time
are spent annually on truancy sweeps. To convince the public
of the seriousness of the issue, the Department for Education
and Skills (DfES) quotes statistics linking truancy to crime.
But government guidelines define lateness as a category of
truancy, and the Guardian reports that some truancy
sweeps have been conducted outside school gates, with late-arriving
pupils being recorded as truants. Does lack of punctuality
lead to a life of crime?
In some cases the bureaucratic control-freakery gets even
weirder. The Manchester Evening News reported a case
of a woman placed under curfew and electronically tagged after
her children regularly bunked off school. And, demonstrating
insight into child psychology, The London Borough of Kingston
is resurrecting a Victorian practice of awarding medals to
children with 100% school attendance records. Meanwhile, over
two thousand parents of truants have been forced to sign "parenting
contracts" to improve their child's attendance, and a
government task-force recently called for a "national
Since 1998 the government has spent nearly £1 billion
on "tough" measures to tackle truancy, but the National
Audit Office reported (in February 2005) that the truancy
rate remained unchanged between 1998 and 2004. The government
responded to this report of failure by promising a "tougher
School is optional
Parents aren't legally required to send their children to
school. According to section 7 of the 1996 Education Act,
children must receive "suitable" education "at
a school or otherwise". Parents don't need permission
to educate their kids "otherwise". If a child is
already registered at a school, the parents can simply notify
the head teacher of their wish to educate "otherwise".
Children who are deregistered from school in this way are,
in theory, free from the harassment of truancy sweeps.
Tens of thousands of UK children have an education based
at home. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) can do nothing
about it except request evidence that a child is receiving
"suitable" education. They can't prescribe how that
evidence is to be presented nor demand to enter parents' homes.
The law requires an education suitable to a child's "age,
ability, and aptitude", but there are no rules dictating
what a child must learn. There's no obligation, for example,
to teach them "core subjects" such as Maths and
English. In an appeal case at Worcester Crown Court in 1981,
the judge defined a "suitable education" as one
which prepares children for "life in modern civilised
society" and which enables them to "achieve their
In another case, reported by the Times, Mr Justice
Woolf held that: "education is 'suitable' if it primarily
equips a child for life within the community of which he is
a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a
whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child's options
in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes
to do so."
Parents of school-free children aren't required to provide
any particular type of education. And they are under no legal
observe school hours
have a fixed timetable
give formal lessons
cover a school syllabus
use the National Curriculum
have school equipment
provide school-type socialisation
have special qualifications
have regular contact with LEAs
The 1996 Education Act requires that children receive a "full-time"
education, but it doesn't define "full-time". With
no legal obligation to observe school hours, days or terms,
the phrase "full-time" is open to interpretation if not entirely irrelevant in school-free contexts.
In fact, children can legally attend school on a part-time,
flexible basis. As the website flexischooling.info puts it,
"school becomes one of many resources, such as libraries,
computers, television, etc, to be used when the child and
the parents choose, according to a contract between them and
the local school." Any school may accommodate flexi-schooling,
but schools are entitled to refuse it on arbitrary grounds,
including the fear that it might start a trend. LEAs can advise
schools about flexi-schooling, but can't impose their view.
Despite the increasing popularity of flexi-school and non-school
education, government agencies sometimes associate these options
with social isolation, exclusion and "children at risk".
Many education officials regard home education as an aberration.
And although there's a distinction between "truants"
and legally school-free children, the government's anti-truancy
scheme encourages police and LEA officials to stop and question
any child who is not in school. To deal with this harassment
a campaigning group, Education Otherwise, supplies "home
educated" identifying cards to its members' children for carrying in public places where they might be stopped
by the authorities.
Many parents of children who are unhappy at school remain
unaware of their legal right to educate at home. In a May
2003 parliamentary debate (the first ever on the subject of
home education), John Randall MP mentioned cases in which
education officials "encouraged" parents to return
their near-suicidal children to school, rather than provide
information on the legal alternatives. He also mentions cases
where "parents have willingly gone to jail, rather than
send a school-phobic child to school", adding, "it
seems outrageous that despite months of meetings and discussions
with officials in many cases, parents are not even informed
about the option to deregister their child and home educate."
Home-learning groups report that "socialisation"
is the issue most often raised by enquirers. Many people fear
that without school kids will have no friends and become socially
inept. This appears similar to the politicians' fear that
people without jobs become socially isolated. Both fears seem
to arise from the bizarre notion that friends are found only
in state- or corporate-controlled environments. Or that classrooms
and offices provide the best models for social harmony. Schools,
like most workplaces, provide a type of socialisation that
is imposed and confined it resembles prison. It's a strange
logic that equates freedom from confinement with isolation.
In November 2001, the Daily Mail printed a letter
from a home-educated 15 yr-old girl addressing the socialisation
issue: "Away from the cliquey environment of the classroom,
I've been able to build friendships from choice rather than
proximity and I'm free to go out without worrying about homework
[...] Timetables and age-segregation are forms of crowd control
and nothing to do with education. Away from the crowds, real
learning can begin."
School and Jobs
The regimented nature of school trains the young to accept
regimented employment. How else can society prepare children
for an adult life of daily confinement performing boring tasks
and following orders? Ever since 1833, when state-funded education
was introduced, schools have mass-produced what society needs:
relatively docile, compliant young citizens ready to slot
straight into tedious jobs.
The New Labour government has tried to make this process
more efficient with a managerial approach of goals, targets,
benchmarks and statistical appraisals. The bottom line for
schools and pupils is measurement of performance. Perfect
preparation for today's dynamic corporate environment.
School-free education gives children a taste of freedom and
self-reliance, remote from performance-obsessed authorities.
No need to ask permission for the toilet, no pressure to conform.
If it catches on, it might result in fewer young people accepting
the role of wage slave. It must seem like a dangerous trend
to those responsible for running the national economy.
(Sources, respectively: "Fast Track
to Prosecution" from BBC news online, 6/9/05; Independent,
22/10/05; DfES figures for March 2005 truancy sweeps; "16,000
hours" from study by Action on Rights for Children; Guardian,
6/9/05; Manchester Online, 29/4/05; BBC news, 26/9/05; £885m
spent tackling truancy 1998-2004 according to National Audit
Office press release, 4/2/05; National Audit Office report,
'Improving school attendance in England', February 2005; Court
cases cited by Education Otherwise; Mr Justice Woolf quote
from Times, 12/4/85; John Randall quotes from Hansard, 13/5/03;
Daily Mail letters page, 9/11/01)
Article by Media Hell's Brian Dean
originally printed in the Idler, issue 37, Spring 2006