Why local authorities must be allowed to visit home educating families
It is time to draw together the threads of the various themes at which we have recently been looking. In the first place, it is clear that some parents are less able than others to provide an education for their children by themselves. A quadraplegic mother, for instance, who is also deaf, blind, unable to speak and has severe learning difficulties, would not be able to educate her own child. An extreme case, but there are plenty of less afflicted individuals who are unable personally to educate their own children in a satisfactory fashion. (It is important though to remember that the child in a similar condition would still have the right to an education, a point to which we shall shortly return.)
I have complained before of the apparent inability of some home educators to distinguish between rights and duties. The unfortunate individual cited above gives us a perfect opportunity to do so. No matter how disabled a person in this country, he or she is entitled to a fair trial. He has a right to a fair trial. Consider now the case of a juror, though. We have a duty to sit on juries if called to do so. A duty, not a right. Jurors must fulfil certain criteria and if they do not do so, they are not allowed to undertake this duty. Think now of the case of the paralysed woman whom I mentioned above. She cannot see, hear, speak or even think clearly and logically. Such a person would still have the right to a fair trial, obviously. She would not though have a right to be in a jury. This is a duty which she is not competent to undertake. I am sure that none of us would want this person to be deciding on our guilt or innocence.
This case is precisely similar to home education. If parents had a right to educate their children at home, then clearly the mother who could not move, hear, speak, see or think properly, would enjoy that right; just as she enjoys the right to a fair trial. If on the other hand, she has a duty to her child, then it would be reasonable for us to assess whether or not she was capable of undertaking that duty. Another way of looking at this is to consider the child with similar problems. He still has a right to an education, no matter what difficulties he has. Rights are not dependent upon any external circumstances; they exist automatically. We test people for their ability to undertake duties though and quite rightly so.
In short, it is both logically and ethically correct for a local authority to wish to satisfy itself that somebody wishing to undertake the duty of educating their own child is in fact capable of undertaking this duty. The legal situation is a little more complex, but ethically and logically, the case could hardly be clearer. To assess this competence, local authority officers need at the very least to interview the parent and form some judgement of the person's ability to undertake this duty; just as a court will routinely assess the suitability of jurors. Anything less than this would be a gross betrayal of the rights of the children concerned in the matter. To sum up, if we were thinking of checking up on people to decide whether or not they should have certain rights; this would be absolutely dreadful. If we are checking that they are able to fulfill some duty or other, this is not only acceptable; it is necessary. Some home educating parents feel that threats are being made to deprive them of a right. In fact, checks are being made to see if they are able to undertake a duty. The two cases could hardly be more different.