Is Education a “Public Good”?

Second Reading debate on Isle of Man Education Bill highlights why elective home education is under attack everywhere.

What’s been said?

Many readers will know that a new Education Bill has been introduced in the Isle of Man Parliament. Its Second Reading debate took place on 30 June. The transcript and audio recording are available on Tynwald’s website. The Bill covers a broader spectrum of issues than just EHE. The debate itself was very mundane, though it did demonstrate that the Bill is disliked by many people, not just home educators. We have previously reported the worrying proposals concerning EHE in this Bill and the preceding consultations.

A successful motion after the debate proposed, “That the Education Bill be referred to a committee of five Members for consideration to include review of the Beamans’ Report; and to report by October 2020.” See Line 2260 of the full transcript or listen here. This caused the BBC to report, “Isle of Man education reform plans face extra hurdle”, whilst the Scottish Home Education Forum headlined their write-up “DNR for fatally flawed Manx Education Bill?” We can only hope that they are correct.

More substantial references to home education were made during the proposal of the motion than in the debate itself. The Minister, Dr Alex Allinson, stated [Line 1448] that a “Legal opinion and a rebuttal have also been sought and given over concerns relating to home education.” We have commented already on the shortcomings of the Solicitor General’s rebuttal. Towards the end of his speech [Line 1571], the Minister stated:

“The Department believes that the proposals in regard to home education are balanced and proportionate and recognise that it is a core duty of the state to ensure that all children and young people receive their entitlement to education and are kept safe. The Department intends to continue to allow parents to elect to educate their children at home, but it is right that it should have the legal means to require home educators to register and to provide information, where necessary, to confirm that their children are receiving a suitable education. The Bill also contains important provisions to ensure that the educational development of home-educated children is assessed periodically by the Department.” [Emphasis added]

Why does Allinson believe that his Department needs a legal means of monitoring the education being provided by parents to their own children? One reason can be found earlier in his speech, though the connection is not immediately clear. Speaking about the “Principles of education” set out in clauses 6 & 82 of the Bill, he continued [Line 1481]:

“They reflect the Department’s view that education should be regarded as a public good and a human right for all children and all young people.”

Why does it matter?

Readers’ attention may have been drawn to the matter of human rights, as these were the focus of the legal opinion. However, we should also note Allinson’s reference to a “public good.” This is a legal term which needs to be understood. Investopedia explains this as “a commodity or service that is made available to all members of a society. Typically, these services are administered by governments and paid for collectively through taxation.” It cites examples such as law enforcement, national defence, and the rule of law, as well as necessities like clean air and drinking water. No problem with any of those, one may think, but is it as simple as that?

Language evolves over time, and definitions change. These subtle adjustments can easily catch out the majority of people who do not keep abreast of them. For instance, BusinessDictionary.com’s definition is, “An item whose consumption is not decided by the individual consumer but by the society as a whole, and which is financed by taxation.” [Emphasis added] Is it possible that by describing education as a public good, Dr Allinson believes that such services cannot be justly refused by citizens? If so, he is not alone.

Earlier this year Professor Elizabeth Bartholet was at the centre of heated debate in the USA, after an article in the Harvard Magazine highlighted her beliefs that home schooling is dangerous. It’s impossible to consider here all the issues raised by way of response, but the point of most relevance to the situation in the IoM was picked up by Professor Peter Gray of the The Alliance for Self-Directed Education, in his article The Case Against the Case Against Homeschooling.

His comments are based not on the Harvard article, but on Bartholet’s original eighty page piece in the Arizona Law Review. His rebuttal focusses on the three terms she embedded in her title, “Child rights, child protection, and education.” [Emphasis original] He introduces the first with this observation:

“Bartholet, with no hint of irony, contends that children have the right to government-enforced compulsory schooling. Think about that for a moment. A right that they can’t refuse. A perfect example of Orwellian doublespeak if ever there was one.”

If you are thinking it’s a long way from the USA to the Isle of Man, we encourage you to think again. In September we highlighted how following the links from the first of the recent Welsh consultations in respect to the rights of the child, had led to UNICEF’s The Worlds Largest Lesson initiative. This agenda is designed to teach children what to think, not how to think for themselves, and is supported by most governments through the United Nations.

What can I do?

First, we encourage everyone to recognise that the sustained assault on educational freedom is no longer being driven by uninformed local authority staff. Globally, it is being driven by a philosophy which believes that it is the state’s responsibility to educate children according to its interests.

If you are thinking that human rights are adequate defence against such moves, think again. Bartholet, for example, argues that international laws focus on “positive rights”, whilst in the USA [as in the UK] laws on homeschooling [home education] are based on “negative rights.” Hence why she believes children are entitled to receive a state controlled education. (A helpful critique of the far-reaching consequences of this argument can be found in this article by Mike Donnelly of HSLDA.)

Whilst the Covid-19 lockdown and attendant disruption has provided some relief from the endless undermining of home education, families should not think that this has come to an end. There are signs that the pandemic will lead to increased calls for state oversight in various areas, including education. Please continue to support EHE families in the IoM therefore, and prepare yourselves for a return to the fight for educational freedom wherever you live.