We Reckoned Without Our Host

We Reckoned Without Our Host

“All compromise with institutions of which your conscience disapproves, compromises which are usually made for the sake of the general good, instead of producing the good you expected, inevitably lead you not only to acknowledge the institution you disapprove of, but also to participate in the evil that institution produces.”

What’s been said?

The above is taken from the Author’s Preface of the 1904 edition of Leo Tolstoy’s book “What is Art?” This preface is essentially a public confession of his previous mistake in allowing the authorities to edit earlier editions of his book before they published it. The title of this Byte is a translation of the French phrase “Nous comptions sans notre hôte” which Tolstoy used here to describe his naivety in granting others the privilege of overruling his conscience.

His experience is relevant now that the Department for Education in England is seeking help from home educators in an “Implementation Forum” to enable the establishment of Local Authority registers of Children not in School. (Here is a copy of an email from the DfE which was circulated by several LAs in early August.)

At the same time the Welsh Government has adopted a similar approach, evident in individual replies to HE parents who have contacted them about proposals for LA databases of all children and mandatory annual interviews of HE children. In a letter made public by Families First in Education – Wales, an official stated:

“Now that we are moving towards the end of the development phase, our focus must shift to ensuring successful implementation. We would encourage all stakeholders to assist in supporting this next phase.” [Emphasis added]

In both cases therefore we should ask if these are genuine attempts to listen to HE families and communities, or examples of the institutional bullying which Tolstoy came to regret? His subsequent resistance to such abuses of power caused him to become a strong advocate for the use of peaceful, non-violent forms of opposition to unjust governments and corrupt authorities of all types.

In recent years the DfE has demonstrated a greater willingness to consult with HE families than to take notice of the responses they provide. This is also true in Wales where, in response to the two most recent consultations, Protecting Home Education Wales submitted two excellent legal opinions (2019 & 2020). However, neither of these has been addressed to date by the inappropriately named “Equity in Education Division.” Increasingly it seems that public consultations are conducted so that the right box can be ticked by officials, but not that they may hear and engage with the concerns of those who will be directly affected by their policies.

Tolstoy’s regrets in failing to consider his host’s intentions in advance are very pertinent to anyone who is thinking of taking up the offer of either of these education departments to assist them with the implementation of these unjustified proposals to invade the privacy of their citizens’ lives, and to place the machinery of the state between children and their parents.

Why does it matter?

Some HE parents will doubtless be tempted to accept these invitations to help with implementing the new proposals, because they think they might be able to make them less bad than they might otherwise be. Don’t be fooled by such a hope; the DfE has already made clear that this is not why they are looking for participants. This is not a “should we” exercise, it is a “please help us do what we intend” one.

In that light, it’s also important to remember what a senior DfE official, Kate Dixon, the Director of Schools at the time, said in 2020. She stated that the DfE considered LA registers to be “the most palatable” aspect of their intentions to change the legal situation in regard to parental freedoms to HE. The other two proposals, monitoring children and assessing the content of the education, are intended to follow later.

Helping the DfE to implement these registers would therefore in time be assisting them to monitor and assess what you teach your children. Establishing registers would be pointless if they cannot rescind your ‘licence’ should you deviate from the prescribed values which any future Government decides all children (including yours) need to be taught. This process has already begun, with parental responsibility being removed in various ways. Teachers are no longer routinely allowed to accept a parent’s word that they are authorising a child to miss a day of school. These days the State fines parents for such wrongdoing!

Another concern is that applicants for the English Forum have been told in advance that they will be required to “adhere to Chatham House Rules” in relation to “the discussions and any documents circulated.” It appears that the DfE’s staff do not understand this agreement, for it is not a set of rules (plural) but a single one. On its website, Chatham House describes itself as “an independent policy institute and a trusted forum for debate and dialogue.” The rule is helpfully set out and explained on this dedicated page:

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

The above is introduced thus:

“The Chatham House Rule helps create a trusted environment to understand and resolve complex problems. Its guiding spirit is: share the information you receive, but do not reveal the identity of who said it.”

It has to be noted here that there is no restriction on reporting the information provided in a meeting held under this agreement. The restriction is that in so doing, the person who provided it should not be named nor should the organisation they represent. So whilst one could not say afterwards that a DfE representative said something, what they actually said can be reported word for word as long as they or the Department is not named. This is also true of documents, as long as names and any information which would identify the source of the statements on them are first removed. Circulation of carefully redacted documents outside the meeting is not embargoed by the Chatham House Rule.

However, it appears from their email that the Department is seeking to impose a gagging order on anyone who attends, seemingly to prevent them from reporting the discussions. The accidental, or intentional, expansion of “the CH Rule”, to “Rules” is misleading, as is the reference to documentation. The Rule is clear that participants are free to share the information they received in a meeting whether it was spoken or written. It has to be asked, however, how would the Department respond to any member of the Forum who did so?

Tolstoy learned from personal experience that authorities do not wish to understand those who question their benevolence, but to shape such dissenters’ words so that they appear to support the institution’s objectives. This he believed would always be the case, and this led to him adopt a stance which is now known as “anarchist pacifism.” Tolstoy argued that resistance to unjust authorities – commonly described as anarchism – cannot helpfully be anything other than non-aggressive since it is, by definition, opposition to coercion and force.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were both influenced by Tolstoy’s convictions, and their resistance to unjust laws was consequently characterised by non-violence. Towards the end of Tolstoy’s essay “On Anarchy,” which rejects all violence, he offers advice which is relevant to the unjustified attempts in England and Wales to invade the privacy of family life:

“To utilise violence is impossible; it would only cause reaction. To join the ranks of the government is also impossible – one would only become its instrument. One course, therefore, remains – to fight the government by means of thought, speech, actions, life, neither yielding to government nor joining its ranks and thereby increasing its power.

“This alone is needed, will certainly be successful.”

What can I do?

If Tolstoy was correct, the path to retaining parents’ natural and historic role as the first and foremost provider, protector and pedagog of their children’s futures is a very narrow one indeed. On one side lies the danger of being stirred up to violence and aggression. On the other, the snares are conformity, capitulation and cooperation. The invitation to take part in this Implementation Forum sits without question in the latter. Whilst some may have been tempted to participate by a desire to mitigate the dangers, the outcome will almost certainly be frustration and tears.

In England the door has now closed for volunteers to put themselves forward for selection. In Wales, the invitation has been signalled, but the doors are not yet open. Here, therefore, is advice relevant to residents in both countries.

  • If you are thinking of helping with the implementation of these new measures, think again. States always seek out those they can use to validate what they are seeking to do. Families who have contributed to the many and various ‘consultations’ and ‘inquiries’ concerning HE in both countries have ample evidence that their views have not been listened to!
  • If you have already volunteered to join the English Forum, it is not too late to walk away. That is so even if you have gone through the second stage of vetting. Imagine the effect it would have on the departmental leadership if they received a unanimous vote of no confidence from all HE communities!
  • Perhaps you don’t agree with the analysis in this Byte. Perhaps you think you can do some good by working with the Department on implementation. You are free to think otherwise, but if that is the case, please consider seriously the need to maintain transparency with other HE families. One reason for explaining the Chatham House Rule above is to make clear that it does not prevent anyone from sharing the information provided in these meetings, as long as names and affiliations are redacted. If you do participate, beware of being coerced into keeping quiet about what is being planned. (The HE Byte team would be happy to discuss with you how you might helpfully share the relevant information. You can get in touch via this page.)

Whatever happens with the Schools Bill under the new Prime Minister, whatever the outcome of any legal action in England or Wales, it seems that parents everywhere, whether or not they elect to home educate their children, are increasingly being faced with the choice of allowing the State to shape the thinking and values of their children, or protecting them from such indoctrination. How to do that will be a choice which each family has to make for itself. In considering how to protect your parenting, please take seriously the advice of Leo Tolstoy and the example set by Gandhi and King Jr, especially their commitment to non-aggressive, non-violent resistance.