Defending the right to home educate children

Opinion: When they refused to pay the fine imposed on them, they were each sentenced to 10 days’ in prison

‘Eddie and Monica’s six children, aged from six to 27, have all been educated at home, although their older children decided to enter formal education in their teens.’ Above, Eddie O’ Neill with some of the children (Eamonn, Elva, Oran  and Emmet). Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES

‘Eddie and Monica’s six children, aged from six to 27, have all been educated at home, although their older children decided to enter formal education in their teens.’ Above, Eddie O’ Neill with some of the children (Eamonn, Elva, Oran and Emmet). Photograph: Eric Luke / THE IRISH TIMES

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 00:01

My friends of nearly 30 years, Eddie O’Neill and Monica O’Connor, are due to be jailed (at the time of writing) because they are principled people; it is an outrageously disproportionate punishment. Anglo directors convicted of giving unlawful loans, in an ironic contrast, were given community service.

My friends have been serving the community for altruistic reasons for most of their lives. Fostering 22 children, ranging in age from babies to teenagers, is only one example. Monica has also supported umpteen mothers as a volunteer breastfeeding counsellor.

They home educate their children. Both were convicted last year of failing to cause their children to attend school.

This is despite the fact that it is clearly set out in Article 42 of the Constitution that “The State shall not oblige parents in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State . . .”

What they had actually done was to refuse to be assessed for a constitutional right to educate their children as they see fit.

When they refused to pay the fine imposed on them, because they believe they have operated according to the Constitution, they were each sentenced to 10 days in prison.

Eddie and Monica’s six children, aged from six to 27, have all been educated at home, although their older children decided to enter formal education in their teens. One of them, Emmet, was accepted for a degree in classical music at the age of 16.

Committed educators To see how they do it

– Home Grown Knowledge on YouTube: goo.gl/646Zar

Home education works. A 2003 study of more than 7,300 US adults who were home educated found that they were far more likely to go to college, to graduate, and to be actively involved in their communities than their peers in the general population.

Monica and Eddie also requested to educate one foster child at home, because they felt that the education system was not meeting her needs. (Other foster children went to school.) The social workers (and the child’s mother) looked at the request very carefully, and after assessment, the National Educational Welfare Board agreed that the child’s needs were being met by home education.

So why did they not register in order to be assessed as to how they educate their own children? It was not fear of the board. Eddie had even been part of a committee that liaised with the board on behalf of the Home Education Network.

Their problem is that the registration process as constituted is tantamount to giving permission to, or withdrawing permission from, parents despite a constitutional right to educate their children.

While the State has an obligation to ensure “a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”, routine assessment is not the only, or perhaps even the best way to achieve that goal.

The dispute rests on this – should the State automatically presume that all parents are competent, and only intervene where there is evidence that a basic minimum education is not being carried out? Or should it assume that all parents will need to be assessed for suitability?

It might seem like splitting hairs, especially since the State at the moment is relatively benign towards home education. (My own children are home educated by my husband. We registered, had a perfectly pleasant home visit, and heard no more.)

‘One size fits all’ However, if at any stage the State wished to impose different and more rigid criteria, the current system could be used to impose that. Given the current trend towards “one size fits all” in education, those concerns may not be outlandish.

Eddie and Monica point to New Zealand, which abandoned automatic monitoring in 2009, because experience showed that the risk of harm to children was so low that it was only necessary to review those cases where the ministry of education had concerns.

A written application is now sufficient in the vast majority of cases. New Zealand also gives an allowance to home educating parents, unlike Ireland.

There is a philosophical debate about families and the State at the heart of Eddie and Monica’s refusal to be assessed, a question that merits discussion in greater depth. It does not merit jail.

There are all sorts of hidden assumptions in the way the current system operates. For example, there appears to be an assumption that if a child is at school all is well from a welfare and educational point of view, despite the fact that the education system is creaking at the seams due to lack of funding. But when a child is educated at home, there is an automatic query over how well that child will fare.

Our family chose to register, so my position on this issue is different to Eddie and Monica. But I find it very hard to stomach that these two honest and admirable people are facing a jail term, simply because they believe that the Constitution is right to recognise that parents are the primary educators of their children. Unless there is an indication to the contrary, parents should be allowed to get on with the job.

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