An historical perspective on 'the state as parent'

A recurring theme in the debate on monitoring of home education is that parents have responsibility for their children and that if we allow local authorities to become too much involved then, it is claimed, we will find the ‘state as parent’ creeping into our society. It is instructive in this context to look at just how local authorities became involved in family life in the first place.

As readers are probably aware, I used to write extensively for magazines such as True Detective and Murder Most Foul Quarterly (Yes, there really is a such a periodical). No normal person buys these things; they cater for the sicko market. At one time I wrote a series on the so-called ’Baby Farmers’ of late Victorian Britain. These were women who for a small lump sum would offer to look after unwanted babies and small children, taking good care of them or finding them decent foster homes. It was really a murderous scam, whereby having taken the money, the women would then either starve the baby to death or sedate it heavily with laudanum until it died of opium poisoning. Some of these characters disposed of hundreds of babies in this way for money. During the late 19th century, foster care and adoption were completely unregulated and when attempts were made through measures such as the 1898 Infant Life Protection Act to introduce monitoring and control over the practice of fostering. There was an outcry from many quarters. The state was trying to intervene in family life and what parents did with their children was their business, not the police or local authority’s. Precisely similar arguments were put forward when compulsory education was introduced and also when the practice of parents essentially selling their small children as apprentices to chimney sweeps and so on was stopped. The age of consent for most of the Victorian Era was twelve; it was only raised to sixteen after it became widely known that poor parents were selling their pre-pubescent daughters to brothels in order to cater for the paedophile market. Once again, there was outrage at what was seen as an unwarrantable intrusion into family life by the state. It was up to parents what arrangements they made for their children; it was no business at all of anybody else.

Now I am not of course suggesting that any home educators are selling their sons to chimney sweeps or their daughters to brothels! I am simply pointing out that local authority involvement with family life began for very good reasons and that those who objected so vociferously to this trend in Victoria’s reign are now generally accepted to have been wrong. It is from this historical perspective that I find myself a little uneasy when once again we hear the cry that we must preserve parents’ rights and not allow the state to take over the role of parent. In every case in the past where this slogan has been used, history shows those using it to have been wrong-headed and wholly mistaken. I wonder what the view will be in a century of those who now use this rationale for fighting against local authority interference in the lives of their families?


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