Home Education - The Last Stop?
Mission Creep. A phrase first coined in 1993 following the first battle of Mogadishu in Somalia when a humanitarian mission ordered by President Bush (Operation ‘Restore Hope’) deviated into a military exercise to track down a notorious warlord under the new administration of President Clinton.
On the night of 3rd October 1993, a contingent of 160 U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force Operators - some of America’s most elite, highly-trained and skilled military forces - ventured in helicopters and armed vehicles on an ill-prepared mission to capture Mohamed Farrah Aidid. But the raid went disastrously wrong. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, and a lengthy urban battle ensued in which 18 American soldiers were killed and 73 wounded. Helicopter pilot Michael Durant was taken hostage and between 1500-3000 Somalis were injured or killed.
The phrase ‘mission creep’ has since crept beyond its original military association with the battle of Mogadishu. Today, it is more commonly used to describe what happens when a government intervenes in a situation and then, midway through, changes the goal posts and the overall objective of a mission.
What does this have to do with Home Education? Everything.
But to understand its relevance, we must leap from Somalia to Russia via America.
The date is 1953. Dwight D. Eisenhower is 34th President of the United States of America.
He has little cause to intervene in education. Education in this post-war period is progressive. Teacher-led curriculum innovation is actively encouraged. Educators have the autonomy and flexibility to develop individual potential and strengthen children's intrinsic interest in learning. John Dewey - the most influential philosopher on the topic of education - advocates a system that encourages critical thinking skills and values a society-centred approach. Schools and local communities across America rush to implement his ground-breaking ideas in their classrooms. The uniqueness of each individual child is paramount. ‘Not all that is measurable is valuable’ is the ethos of the day.
Then, on the 4th October 1957, everything changes.
Sputnik, a Soviet satellite – the world's first artificial satellite - is sent into orbit. As a technical achievement, Sputnik courts worldwide attention. It also catches the American’s off-guard. The Soviets' ability to launch a satellite sparks widespread fears amongst the public. Their remarkable feat of scientific engineering also demonstrates the Soviets’ capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S. As the U.S Defence Department recoils in shock, the Soviets strike again. On November 3rd, 1957 Sputnik II is launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including a dog named Laika.
Faced with the news of the Soviet Union's supposed technological supremacy, the American media go wild carrying headlines like ‘what can the Communists do better than us?’. The communists have beaten America in the ‘race to space’, and that is simply unacceptable. They demanded to know how and why.
Immediately their attention turns to the national systems of education. Experts conclude that the Soviets’ science and mathematics programs in schools are far superior to the American ‘progressive’ education, which is now deemed to be an ‘educational weakness leaving their nation ‘soft’. The rise of the Soviet Union to a level of direct and serious competition in the field of technology suddenly makes the education of American youth a matter of national security. More importantly, a matter of Government interest.
Eisenhower can no longer ignore it. He is forced to answer his critics. The question is no longer ‘should’ the government intervene, but ‘how’ should the government intervene?
The education of children is about to make an historical shift from a community agenda to a matter of national defence.
An urgent Bill is sent to Congress to allocate investment to all schools with a strict government instruction to spend money on mathematics and science programs only. Eisenhower insists that the funding program is temporary, strictly subject to need and will be stopped the moment the ‘red beast from the east’ is overcome.
Despite his attempts to ward off government control over local schools, the slippery slope to direct government interference has commenced.
Scholarships for the brightest and most talented mathematicians and scientists are allocated in the fight against communism. Rapidly, funding expands to grants for vocational training to improve teaching – but there is a caveat. To qualify for the funds, the State is now required to set teaching standards and qualifications that are acceptable to the new Office for Education.
What started as a science and mathematics program to respond to the nation’s security is now the first tentative steps by the government to dictate how and what children are taught to compete in a global atmosphere.
Mission Creep is underway.
It is another 7 years before the role of central government in education is debated again. And this time, there is widespread constitutional consequences.
Lyndon Johnson assumes the Presidency of the United States of America on November 22, 1963, with an ambitious ‘Great Society’ domestic strategy.
Shortly after his inauguration Johnson sends an Elementary and Secondary Education Act to Congress undeterred by the knowledge that no such piece of legislation has ever been passed before, convinced that education is the key to all future civil rights legislation, and determined to force through a federal education plan that speaks to the basic human rights of all the American people.
All bets are off regarding the lack of precedent for government interference in the education of children.
State control of schools becomes enshrined in US law in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act authorises the Commissioner of Education to end any, and all, government aid to schools practising segregation.
Bang! Just like that, state control of education is no longer about national security and overcoming communism - federal dollars are now being used to affect major social change. Grants and funding for schools are used as leverage to win battles against poverty and discrimination.
Whilst few people argue with President Johnson’s ideals and his support for minority groups, this drift in mission and purpose undoubtedly places the education of children at the whim of future political manifestos. His Bill might be touted as a beacon of morality, not politics, but in principle, he is playing with the education of the nation’s children like pawns in a proverbial game of chess.
Enter President Regan. The date is 1981.
Schools and parents are now reliant on state support. Forced into compliance based on each administration’s subsequent agenda.
New leadership provides a fresh opportunity to review the level of government involvement in education. But Regan has his own ideas. He commissions a report to examine the quality of Education in the US. It is considered ‘the closest thing to a national grievance list’. Rather than withdraw government control, Regan calls for increased regulation to rectify excessive failures ‘on behalf of the nation’s children’.
Realising the U.S is still falling behind the academic achievements of the Soviet Union, Japan, Korea and other Asian nations, Ragan’s administration declares that the education of U.S children is no longer about social development but a serious matter of economic superiority. It is time to tighten the grip on education. The children must do better.
Competency testing for teachers and national standardised tests for children are introduced to correct what is wrong with ‘what and how’ children are taught. Washington is placed in control of the national curriculum, standards and the hiring practices within schools – all the while, funding budgets are severely reduced.
Finally, after lengthening the school day and academic year, the central government asserts that it has the ‘primary responsibility to identify the national interest in Education’.
Mission Creep is complete and Regan jokes that nothing is more infinite than a government mandate.
Fast forward to the United Kingdom and 2018.
We are in the midst of a major threat against our national security. Islamic State has carried out a number of successful terrorist attacks against our nation. Radicalisation in our home counties remains a serious threat. The current alert level for international terrorism in the UK is SEVERE.
In addition, Sir Chris Deverell, who oversees the UK's military intelligence, cyber and special forces, has warned that cyber-attacks from the Kremlin are imminent and could cripple the UK if we do not create an elite team of our brightest and best cyber-warriors to counteract their capabilities.
We have our own ‘Sputnik’ crisis. Our enemies are showing their hand. Our incumbent government are under immense pressure to respond. The Prime Minister must be seen to prioritise our nation’s defence. We cannot be caught with our pants down.
Once again, attention turns to the national systems for education.
Experts, business leaders and journalists debate whether our industrial-age school system and the current rote-style curriculum prepares our children for an ever-changing advancing modern world and job market.
Academics and military commanders warn that students are not being equipped with the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills required to combat cyber-terrorism.
Ofsted calls for greater powers to close-down a growing number of illegal schools, many of which pose a risk to national security through the teachings of extremist ideology.
Lord Soley proposes a private member's Bill for a national register for home educators that will enable local authorities to monitor and assess the education of all children at home.
Pressure is building. The omnipotent political cog is churning. Something must be done.
But school reform is too costly and too-hard-to-do, so attention turns to the easy win and the perceived ‘weakness leaving our nation soft’. Home Education.
Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 is the stumbling block.
It states that; the parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him or her to receive efficient full-time education suitable (1) to his/her age, ability and aptitude, and (2) to any special educational needs he/she may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.
It is the ‘or otherwise’ that is cause for concern. Two words exploited by unregistered illegal schools in the UK.
The solution is simple. Remove the two words. Force all children to attend state-sponsored schools.
But the law is the law and any changes must follow the correct judicial procedures. There are no shortcuts.
Lord Soley’s national register for home education, however appealing to his supporters, breaches a number of constitutional rights, not least, Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 , Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (The right to respect for a private and family life), the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Presumption of innocence until proven guilty) and the General Data Protection Regulation (How personal information is shared and for what purpose).
To proceed, the Bill must evidence just cause.
And so, the mud-slinging begins.
Knowing that legislation can only be enacted at the point when public support coincides with a sufficient level of support within the political system, the ‘powers that be’ proceed with a continuous heavy lead-foot on the political pedal of influence.
Fellow lords, members of parliament, journalist, secular groups and champagne socialites jump on the bandwagon to add much-needed fuel, praying on the fears of a population to sway the public mood. Perfectly-timed negative news articles about neglectful home educators subconsciously creates doubt. Loopholes in legislation are exposed. Stories are embroidered to fit the cause. Child protection case studies and serious case reviews are pulled from dusty drawers highlighting the torture and starvation of ‘hidden’ children. The horror of illegal schools are discussed in the same breath as parents teaching their children at the dining room table. Books and radio broadcasts emerge of adults who were failed as children by abusive, controlling parents who avoided the safety of school. Children’s education, rights, safety and well-being are used as emotive leverage to win support. Scare-mongering, fear and sufficient public outrage is the order of the day.
Public concern finally aligns with political pressure. Gradually public opinion is influenced in favour of Lord Soley’s Bill – the perfect storm for reform.
‘It’s just a soft-touch register’, he claims, ‘why not comply?’.
Well, thanks to America, we now know how this cautionary tale ends.
Government control is notoriously insidious. A national register for home educators may seem harmless and reasonable under the facade of child protection or national security, but so was the US government grant for mathematics and science programmes under the pretext of national defence. It took less than 25 years for Eisenhower’s temporary Bill to lead to full State control.
Home educators should be rightfully concerned. History dictates that suspicion is justified. They are the last stop – the last obstacle – before the UK government assume full control of the education of our nation’s children.
The potential for mission creep here is alarming.
What will start as a simple register will undoubtedly require sanctions and penalties for non-compliance. The register will authorise local authority inspections of education (yet to be defined) in the private family home. Those who do not satisfy the local authorities notion of a ‘suitable education’ will be served a School Attendance Order. With no legal definition of a ‘suitable education’, parents and politicians will await a high-profile test case to set a legal precedent. A set of standards will be agreed, and parents will no longer hold the right to select an education that meets the needs, aptitude and ability of their own unique child. To some degree, a curriculum will be enforced to overcome personal interpretation, closing the gap between a state-sponsored curriculum and home education.
To offset the increased interference, the government will promise money or reward for such compliance in the form of free exams, SEN support and flexi-schooling. But once the money/support is offered and accepted, the State will dictate how the money is spent and what is required in return. Beneficiaries will ultimately become reliant, compliant and subservient, accepting and forgetful of the newfound control. Resigned to the fact that it is irreversible. There is no going back. Our children might as well be in school.
If home education is squeezed or abolished, parents become mere vessels for childbirth. What they learn, and how they learn, will be dictated by the state until they reach the age of 18. That thought - that level of control - should send shock waves through every parent in the land, not just home educators.
To be so accepting of government interference and state control goes against everything we stand for as a democratic society. It is a worrying step towards dictatorship.
As uncomfortable as it is to digest, what is happening here and in America is not about our children. Or their education. Or their safety. They are simply the by-products by which votes are won and policies and legislation are passed and enforced - whether that is in the interest of national security, social development or economic superiority.
If the register was about our children reaching their full potential, every effort would be made to individualise learning. Children with special educational needs would receive the funding and support they need to thrive. A study would be commissioned into the rising number of SEN children being removed from State school because their needs are not being met. The school curriculum would be assessed by experts, educators and economists every decade to ensure it is aligned with an ever-changing future. Payment by results would be influenced not by grades but individual achievement, retention rates, health and happiness. Home Education would be supported as an equal alternative. ‘Education’ would be clearly defined to prevent personal interpretation. Parents would not need to fear their local authorities. The broken school system would be fixed.
If the register was about child protection, legislation would be introduced to address prolific bullying in schools so fewer children would be forced out. Decisive action would be taken against educational establishments who off-roll pupils to cheat the system. Schools that neglect to provide a safe, clean and healthy learning environment would be closed down. Funding would be made available to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service for the growing number of school-related referrals. A national register would be sanctioned for serial and serious dangerous domestic abuse offenders to protect children at risk of abuse, regardless of where they are educated. Children’s Services and Police would use their existing powers effectively to investigate concerns or allegations of child abuse in the home or at school.
If the register was truly about national security, it would not be masked under various auspicious guises. Our leaders would command a head-on, balls-in-hand, head-held-high approach. They would target the minority abusers. Target the offending parents. Target the illegal unregistered schools. Target extremist radicalisation in our country. They would do whatever it takes, by whatever means necessary. They would not disguise their mission as a humanitarian effort to mask a proverbial manhunt. The purpose, plan and outcome would be clear and concise from the outset.
Let's not be fooled.
Approximately 50,000 parents in the UK do not outsource the education of their children to state schools. A figure that is growing by 80% annually. Westminster, as it currently stands, are losing their grip on education. And they simply don’t like it.
Home educated children are not required to learn and think in a particular way or follow a dogmatic ideology or curriculum regulated by the government, (unless their parent or guardian specifically choose to follow that mode of instruction). Consequently, the majority grow into free-thinking, independent learners, who are not influenced by the political whims of the moment. They are absent from the conveyor belt of control. Out of grasp. Free to learn as they please.
Or, if you listen to the diatribe being peddled by the newspapers and House of Lords, ‘Hidden – missing - uneducated – and at risk of abuse’ – A clever manipulative misrepresentation on their part.
Believe what you want, but every UK citizen should examine the reasoning behind the motives, review the evidence, scrutinise the statistics, read between the lines and question everything. By all means, lasso the entire home education community but make sure, without doubt, you are not trading our children in the process. Look beyond the contradictions and find the substance.
Mission creep is happening now. We must stop it before we end up with unplanned long-term consequences.
Remember, nothing is as infinite as a government mandate.
Mission Creep: The Federal Government and America's Schools - James A Bryant Jr - Education Research and Perspectives Vo!. 33, No. 1,2006