This article describes three common sources of conflict between home educating parents and the State - those arising from the incompatibility of the regulatory regime with what is actually practiced, those arising from conflicts in ideology and those arising from the perception of an excessive application of authority.
It then provides some terms of reference for future research which could be used as a basis to reform the legal framework which affects the freedom of parents to educate their children at home.
Although this has been written on the basis of the author's direct experience in NSW, it is likely to be applicable in other states and territories of Australia, and abroad.
Conflicts Arising from Practice
Home education is an educational alternative, differing in substance from school based expressions. It is, by its nature, a very diverse undertaking, ranging from very informal styles, at times loosely referred to as 'natural learning', to what might be called a 'school at home' approach, in which more formal styles are adopted. Generally, home educators engage a hybrid of these styles and some common observations can be made.
Home education departs from the basic framework of formal schooling in many respects. In part, this is because it is able to take advantage of factors such as the uniqueness of parental relationships, a natural learning environment and more flexible access to the community. Although it may comprise some formal learning, home education tends to be oriented around the raising of children, rather than the completion of a curriculum. Many home educators view their task simply as parents who are equipping their children for life, working from a unique understanding of their innate abilities and weaving their education into real life experiences in the fabric of family life. In this schema, learning takes place more in the world than in a classroom. Much of what would be considered the content of required curriculum areas occurs in the midst of more informal activities, a lot of which would go unnoticed. The syllabus takes shape as the child pursues his individual interests, usually overlaid with the supplement of a general education in the form of reading, discussion and personal interaction.
This broader view of education engaged by home educators is reflected in the following quote from Susan Schaeffer Macaulay:
When a baby is picked up, spoken to, and loved, he is starting his education ... For all our lives we are human beings, in an active state of learning, responding, understanding. Education extends to all of life ... The truly educated person has only had many doors of interest opened.
The nineteenth century educationist, Charlotte Mason, expressed this similarly, saying that we:
must regard education, not as a shut-off compartment, but as being as much a part of life as birth or growth, marriage or work; and it must leave the pupil attached to the world at many points of contact.
In like manner, the notions of schooling engaged by home educators typically refer to a broad process. That is, rather than being 'instruction given at school' it refers to 'education obtained through experience'. Many home educators have little interest in the notion of schooling in the institutional sense. They are, however, very interested in the idea of schooling in its broader sense, that of obtaining knowledge and skills through experience.
The foregoing discussion provides a basis to contrast the flexibility of home education with the more rigid, process oriented approach engaged in formal schooling. It also leads us to consider how the expressions within school education are limited by a number of factors. The scale in which it is adopted, for example, requires it to be highly organised and bureaucratic in nature. High pupil-teacher ratios, and the relationship of staff to students as non-parental and shorter term, limits the commitment and intimacy between teachers and pupils. These same factors also restrict the teaching and learning styles that can be engaged and the freedom to introduce students to real life experiences.
On the basis of this, the question is frequently asked whether it is justifiable to apply the monitoring techniques appropriate to school education to the home based alternative. It is criticised that this is precisely what is taking place, as though, while seeking a better alternative, the limitations of an inferior model are being imposed on home educators. In NSW, it is observed that Government monitoring deals with home education with an assumption that it is either school at home or that it possesses a component of formal schooling which is separable for the sake of curriculum planning, record keeping and monitoring. The use of indicators such as the presence of teaching and learning programs, records of a child's progress in discrete learning areas and a place with ventilation and lighting where the child can learn assumes their measurability or relevance in a home education context.
When the education of a child is adopted by the child's parents, then its nature as typically informal and integral to family life, makes this a profound difficulty and produces a point of tension between regulators and home educating parents. Two effects flow from this situation. The first is that home educators relate to the regulatory requirements with frustration, contempt and non-compliance. The second is that the poor compatibility of regulation with practice means that the Government may have a false confidence that it is satisfying its duty of care.
The manner in which home education is administered thus demonstrates a lack of understanding of many of the issues involved. It shows an almost total failure to understand the "natural learning" method, despite the fact that research and expert opinion exists. The means presently used in administering home education in NSW are called into question, because of their poor relevance to actual practice.
Conflicts in Ideology
In the same way that a variation in practice among home educators can be observed, a range of beliefs and values is also visible within the group. Parents home educate their children for a number of reasons. There are some who do so purely for religious reasons, desiring to protect their children from harmful moral influences in the school social setting and the curriculum. Others do so from practical motives to provide a more productive learning environment in response to learning or social difficulties experienced by their children at school.
It is significant that strongly held convictions (Christian and other) concerning the family and parental responsibility are central to the decision to home educate among a strong majority of home educating families. The parents' duty to their children is seen as paramount. Any role of the State in matters pertaining to the family, including the education of children, can be seen as interventionist. This is particularly so when the State's role doesn't arise from a clearly justified need or in response to deviant behaviour.
This conflict is, in a sense, introduced through the principles on which the Education Act (NSW) is based. The basis for the Government's responsibility for the education of children is drawn from section 4(c):
it is the duty of the State to ensure that every child receives an education of the highest quality
This duty of the State is juxtaposed with that of parents in section 4(b), that:
the education of a child is primarily the responsibility of the child's parents
Although the duty of parents is expressed here as primary, and thus superior, to that of the State, the possibility for tension between the two parties is created, as they consider the liberties associated with one another's position.
It is considered that much of the tension between the Government and home educating parents stems from this factor. This is despite the fact that challenges from parents are often expressed in terms of appeals to the law. Any review of the administering of home education in NSW should consider these sensitivities and make recommendations which are measured and appropriate. It is paramount that such a review needs to consider those who are most dissenting from the State's function in home education, viz those who choose to do so without seeking registration.
Conflicts Arising from the Excessive Application of Authority
It has been discussed that home educators typically view the process of education as one which begins at birth and extends throughout life. The process begins without the need for detailed assessment and registration, even though the years prior to school age are often described as 'formative', in which the child acquires foundational skills and habits of character. Moreover, it is observed that, although the State possesses a duty of care toward children at this age, it only deems it necessary to act in pursuance of this duty in extreme circumstances. A strong conviction exists that our civil laws are framed to allow for diversity and freedom of expression in our society and that this is respected elsewhere by the State.
There is a common feeling among home educators that the monitoring process applied by the OBoS is excessive, unnecessary and unjustified in terms of its ability to bring forth positive results. It is considered that the requirement for regular inspections infringes on personal freedoms and on the sanctity of the institutions of parenting and family life in a way which is unparalleled elsewhere in society.
The Education Act provides the State with the responsibility to ensure that children receive an education of the highest quality. This yardstick is one which is both without limit and defies measurement. As such it can be used to justify ever more onerous requirements, without legislative limitation. The frustration is heightened when we consider how home education is commonly adopted through a despairing of the State's capacity to achieve this very objective through formal schooling. There is thus the dual frustration of there being imposed an inferior educational model and an imposing administration which, in its own field, seems unable to bring forth the results.
The foregoing provides an account of three key sources of tension between home educators and the State. It may now be helpful to synthesise these observations into some guiding principles for future research.
First, it is crucial to note that many of the existing requirements assume a school based style of education which takes place inside an institution. In contrast, home educators generally consider that education takes place everywhere and anywhere and is seen as a whole of life exercise. There is a strong culture among home educators which is in direct opposition to institutionalised methods.
Second, and flowing from this, it needs to be recognised by researchers that home educators have been operating under an alien regime. As a result they have developed mechanisms and rationale that allow them to operate in such a system and have, to some extent, become immune to the difficulties in dealing with it. This was highlighted when the Regulation was proposed in Parliament last year. Many of those who were functioning with apparent compliance in the system objected vigorously because it brought these difficulties into focus. It is critical that a research undertaking is sensitive to observe and explain these conflicts, and not succumb to the idea that the existence of these mechanisms is to be interpreted as cheerful compliance. The absence of outward opposition should not be misunderstood.
Third, the existence of the mutual duties of parents and the State emphasises the need for a regime which is based on clearly established need and which minimises tension between these parties. There is a strong sense in which the State's duty of care has been relied on by the OBoS to justify many of its procedures. However, these measures have been implemented without justification of their effectiveness to produce the desired outcome. The design of a regulatory regime should be based on a clear case that it will be effective in achieving its objectives.
While considering the importance of these principles as a guide for research, areas for investigation are also highlighted in section 4(c) of the Act, the legislative basis of the State's duty of care. If this duty of care is to be used as the justification for such a system, then the requirements of section 4(c) should be focal to the investigation. A reading of the sub-section indicates the following key terms:
On the basis of this it is conceivable that research should consider the following types of issues:
Author: Alan Hardy