The ultimate autonomy

No suggestion made during Graham Badman’s review of elective home education caused more anger than the idea that home educated children might be at increased risk of sexual abuse than those at school. Why do professionals suspect this? There are probably two main reasons. First, home educated children often seem closer to their parents than those at school. Antagonism between parents and children, common with school children and which typically reaches a climax during adolescence, is thought to be normal. When people see a teenager getting on amicably with her father, they think it is a bit creepy! One only has to look at the clip on Youtube of me and my then fourteen year-old daughter, when it was hinted that there was something unnatural about a girl of that age who seemed to be happy in her father’s company!

There is another reason why some professionals are uneasy about home education, which has to do with its ideological basis. Two of the big influences on British home education are AS Neill, who ran Summerhill school and John Holt, an American teacher. Both had strange ideas about children and sex. Neill believed that children should be free to have sex whenever they wanted to and without restriction. This was part of his school’s ethos and probably a reaction to his Scottish upbringing during the late 19th Century. John Holt is something else and since he is so popular with home educators, his ideas are still influential. He is actually very popular and influential with another minority group, which I only found out last week.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is involved in child protection; it does not matter in what capacity. She is quite interested in and not in the least hostile towards home education. During a conversation, I happened to mention John Holt’s name and she wrinkled up her nose. ’Oh, you mean the paedophile’s best friend’, she said. I was a little puzzled about this. I know the views which Holt expresses in books like Escape from Childhood, but this was the first I had heard of paedophilia. She showed me some sites advocating paedophilia. These were not pornography sites, but places where adults argue the theoretical basis for their being able to enjoy sexual relations with children. I will not provide links; I dare say that those interested enough will be able to find them. She then showed me John Holt’s name scattered about on these awful sites. Militant paedophiles seem to have adopted him as their guru! His writings provide, just as they do for home education, justification for the practice of paedophilia. This is, to say the least of it, unfortunate.

Now I don’t know whether any readers here are aware of Escape from Childhood, but I have a copy in front of me. It is not the best known of Holt’s work. In it, he says that not only should children not be compelled to attend school, but that they should also be free to have sex with adults if they wish. He explains the reasoning behind this; I don’t personally find it convincing. And yet here is a rather alarming thing. There are essentially two types of autonomous home educator in this country. One type imposes the normal rules of childhood upon children, with the proviso that education is the child’s choice and that the kid is free to choose what and when she learns. In the more extreme form, that advocated by the Taking Children Seriously movement for instance, the child has complete freedom to choose everything. There are no bedtimes, the child is not made to clean his teeth, wear clothes, get up in the morning. If he wishes, he can eat nothing but sugar. Children are completely masters of their own lives. We have had people on here supporting this type of lifestyle.

The problem is that if you give children that degree of autonomy, then it is only a short step to giving them the freedoms which John Holt supports. That is to say the ability to choose to go to bed with anybody of any age. Holt does not see why a nine year-old girl should not have sex with a forty year old man and this too is the logical extension of the arguments advanced by some militant autonomous educators. Now I have no reason to suppose that any of them actually put John Holt’s advice into practice, but the very fact that one of home education's favourite writers is also the darling of the more articulate paedophiles might be enough to raise eyebrows. When people start following his advice on childhood autonomy, you have to ask yourself how far they are prepared to go along the road which he advocates. I have an idea that Holt’s popularity with both home educators and paedophiles might be the cause of some of the child abuse notions which have in the past gone the rounds.


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