Ten Letters

Anna Dusseau | 2nd September 2020

Every evening during his presidency, Barack Obama would sit down with ten letters from the public, and he would read them. “What this form of story sharing and empathy and listening does,” he later acknowledged, “is it creates the conditions around which we can then have a meaningful conversation and sort through our differences.” (Laskas, 2018) I know he is right, but I’m finding it hard to listen right now. The political polarisation of homeschooling and state education has become increasingly emotive in recent years for two key reasons: first, since The Children’s Act 2004 confusingly merged the spheres of education and safeguarding, and second, due to the global experiment of pandemic homeschooling set against the economic pressure felt by governments around the world. Everyone, it seems, has got their guard up and gloves off. In response to a TES article examining “How homeschooling breeds broader minds”, one reader responded: “How about changing the title of the article to ‘How homeschooling breeds non-scientists?'” I shook my head, but I couldn’t shake off the negativity. Then a fellow home educator told me not to try. “There are two types of politics,” she said. “You can build a wall against criticism, like Trump, or you can let it in, like Obama.” I have spent the last fortnight chewing on this.

So then, not ten letters, but rather ten acknowledgements. Ten significant criticisms of homeschooling which I will try to let in, not because I necessarily agree with the viewpoints presented but rather, because behind these perspectives are real lives – children’s lives – and I must force myself to pay attention to that.  

Boris Johnson Your government unequivocally states that “school is the best place” for children to learn. You want all children back to school this September. Last month, you stood in an empty classroom, your arms outstretched, and stated that “nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school.” I hear your point of view and I think I understand your rationale.

Tara Westover You were raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, USA. In your book Educated, you describe an abusive and totalitarian regime which you struggled to escape from, eventually gaining a place to do a PhD at Cambridge. All credit to you. Your story is appalling but your journey is incredible; your book is on my coffee table, as yet unopened, because I’m afraid of what it contains.

Amanda Spielman You warn parents about making “knee-jerk” decisions to home educate their children and advise that “schools, local authorities and parents need to work together before such a decision is made, to make sure that home education is genuinely in the interests of children and not just the best thing for schools or parents”. (Busby, 2019) I get what you’re saying and, to a certain extent, I agree with you here.

Chris Whitty In your role as Chief Medical Officer, you support and inform the government’s “back to school” policy this September. You advise us that  “the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small” and state that missing lessons “damages children in the long run.” Because of the status and presumed impartiality of your profession, I feel compelled to listen and take on board what you say.

Elizabeth Bartholet You recently examined “the rapidly growing homeschooling phenomenon, and the threat it poses to children and society.” (Bartholet, 2020) You are concerned by the lack of scrutiny in the field of homeschooling and ultimately recommend “a presumptive ban on homeschooling, with the burden on parents to demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.” Okay.

Graham Badman After conducting a study over 10 years ago, you found that “while 0.2% of children in the UK population were known to social services, the figure was 0.4% among those who were educated at home.” (Shepherd, 2009) You went on to advise MPs that “we shouldn’t treat home educators with suspicion [but] we should know that the risk factor is proportionately double”. Your report is on my reading list.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education Your website is terrifying and cites a wide spectrum of potentially hidden abuses, including physical, emotional and sexual abuse, food deprivation and confinement, educational neglect, truancy and concealment. I understand that your website was founded by homeschool almuni, however, and this forces me to hear you out.

Lord Soley You have sponsored the The Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill and would like homeschooling families to be registered. You claim that, whilst you are “in favour of home education…[a] minority – where they are abusing or trafficking or radicalising – really do need to have some oversight.” I’m not going to argue with that.

Barbara Knox You wrote a paper on Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse in which you clinically defined the case characteristics of children who are victims of severe and multiple forms of abuse. By being listed as one of the speakers at the Harvard Homeschooling Summit this summer, you condone the connection this implies.

The Observer You propose a manifesto to minimise the impact of the pandemic on children and young people, a large proportion of which focuses on getting children back into institutions. This includes urgent support for nurseries and a detailed plan to get all children back to school in September. I recognise that you value these places as essential to the positive functioning of society.

And there’s no comeback to these arguments. They are, mostly, all founded in a profound concern for the wellbeing of our children; something we all share, although we might have different views on how best to achieve this goal. I realise, too, that it is sometimes best to let people speak for themselves, as Michael Gove did back in 2014 when he demanded that “British Values” should be on the curriculum, and as Professor John Bangs did when, during a visit to the IOE, he simply stated that “there wasn’t a smidgen of political correctness in the relationship between school, parents, and kids; there wasn’t a set of lines people were not allowed to cross.” (Vaughan, 2014) A while back, Blake Boles told me in an interview that “you gotta listen…it’s what sets homeschooling apart” and, a fortnight ago, Frances Matthews said it again. We can imitate the institutions that we challenge by building our own wall of defense, or we can sit down each night with ten letters and ask ourselves some hard questions. If we look past the pain and frustration, we must know that listening to criticism doesn’t necessarily weaken the position we hold; it is, as Obama himself reasoned, “the glue around which democracies work” (Laskas, 2018)

Thank you to Frances Matthews, who inspired this post and contributed to the research. Frances can be found at http://www.francesmatthews.co.uk

References:

Elizabeth Bartholet, Homeschooling: Parent Rights Absolutism vs. Child Rights to Education & Protection, 62 Ariz. L. Rev. 1, 2020

Eleanor Busby, Parents could be making ‘knee-jerk’ decisions to home school children, Ofsted report warns, The Independent, October 2019

Jeanne Marie Laskas, Dear Mr President, The Guardian, August 2018

Richard Vaughan, How homeschooling breeds broader minds, TES, April 2014

The Case for Homeschooling is now available to order with Hawthorn Press

Published by Anna Dusseau

Writer | Educator | Homeschooling Mum

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