Compulsory education?


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 behaviour charter".

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 approach".

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 full potential".

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."

No Obligation

Parents of school-free children aren't required to provide any particular type of education. And they are under no legal obligation to:

• 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 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.

Conformity cops

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