What does the UK do about homeschoolers not educating their kids?

From the archives: Posted on 2nd March, 1994

A poster asked about home education:

“The big fear here, as I understand it, is that by giving responsibility back to parents, you run the risk that some parents won’t educate their children at all. How does the U.K. handle that?”

In any system currently conceivable some children will suffer. Since, given current knowledge, there is no perfect system, do we really want to legislate with the worst possible cases in mind, thus penalising the vast majority who are genuine? Can you think of how to word a law to prevent abuses of the sort you refer to? I can’t.

For instance, say we make school compulsory. Would that work? You only have to look at the statistics to see that schools fail a shamefully high proportion of our children. In the UK, at least thirty per cent of school leavers (age sixteen) are functionally illiterate. Taking a wider view of schools’ success and failure, I’d say the proportion of children our schools fail is nearer eighty per cent, if you consider how little children learn in schools, and how little love of learning children end up with after eleven years’ schooling.

Furthermore, your suggestion that some parents won’t educate their children at all may have implicit within it fallacious epistemology. That is, the question suggests that you believe that learning is the product of teaching, rather than being intrinsic to the learner. Moreover, you may be making the mistake of assuming that the truth is manifest, that we know the truth about education and learning. Only if we know what constitutes a good education can we know what to impose upon families, assuming we believe that such state coercion is justified. But we don’t know. The state is no more omniscient than we are: it is composed of individual fallible human beings, just like the rest of us.

My inferences about how you see education may be mistaken, or we may disagree about how learning happens, but the point is, this is not a closed issue. There are disagreements between individuals of good faith about the very nature of education, the growth of knowledge, and how we can facilitate learning. So the fact that we can’t all agree about this suggests prima facie that there are false ideas around. Therefore we should be careful not to be dogmatic about how parents should educate their children.

Insisting upon any particular educational method is bad because it prohibits creative experimentation, thus preventing the evolution of better theories about education. Insisting upon a particular form of education which is known to be flawed (i.e. school) is plain wicked.

So this problem you raise may well be a real problem (though in practice, I have not heard of any such cases) but legislation cannot help solve it. Individuals in the community can make a difference, by their own actions, but the law cannot help.

To answer more directly what the UK does about parents who abuse the system, if an individual makes a complaint to Social Services or the Local Education Authority, for instance, that Mr X does not appear to be educating his children, Mr X is likely to be investigated and action taken. The law says (s 192(1) of the Education Act 1993) “if it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving a suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent…” – a school attendance order.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1994, ‘What does the UK do about homeschoolers not educating their kids?’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/what-does-the-uk-do-about-homeschoolers-not-educating-their-kids/