Minister announces proposed new legislation that threatened Manx home educators’ freedoms has been withdrawn.
What’s been said?
The Isle of Man Education Bill 2019, which contained the most controlling and restrictive home education laws ever proposed in the British Isles, has been cancelled. The highly contentious bill was deeply unpopular, led to extensive committee reports, a management consultant’s review of the whole Education Department and the Chief Executive stepping down.
The threat to home education first came to light in 2014, when the Chief Executive told a select committee that there were “49 individuals who are being home educated,” and he wanted “some kind of mechanism to look at controlling that.”
The Isle of Man has a register of home and privately educated children, laying down in statute the information that the Department can require, and this is strictly limited to the fact of home education and basic contact details. Otherwise, the legislation is similar to the UK, placing the duty for a suitable education on the parents and only allowing a further enquiry “If it appears to the Department that a child of compulsory school age in the Island is not receiving suitable education.”
“There are existing powers within the Act to allow the Department to investigate and require more information if it appears that an individual child is not receiving suitable education, and I think that safeguarding part is extremely important.”
There are no plans at present to introduce further home education legislation.
Why does it matter?
Home educating parents in the Isle of Man can confidently expect privacy. In practice, occasional enquiries to home educators are rebuffed by parents who write back pointing out that in the lack of an ‘appearance’ of a problem, they are not obliged to respond. There have not been any school attendance orders in recent history, and the Department seems content for any problems with home education to surface in other ways.
Isle of Man home educators had faced an uphill task getting the previous Chief Executive and Minister to even listen to their concerns, never mind consider legal reports from social worker and lawyer Allan Norman and Isle of Man advocates Quinn Legal. This Minister appears to have researched his decision, followed the arguments and reached a position where he is satisfied with the adequacy of the powers. It is quite likely that he noted these comments from Allan Norman:
63. The phrase “if it appears” is critical to the understanding of this provision. It reflects an uncomfortable compromise between the rights of parents on the one hand, and the wishes of the State on the other to protect the rights of children. It is an uncomfortable compromise for both parties. For parents, it is uncomfortable because it embodies the principle that their right to home educate is not unfettered, and that there may come a point at which the State steps in. For the State, it is uncomfortable because it embodies the principle that the right of the State to step in is not unfettered, and there may be a point before which it has no such right to step in.
64. While uncomfortable for both parents and authorities, the existence of such a threshold is critical to human rights compliance. Because States can interfere in private life where it is necessary and proportionate to do so; because failure to educate a child is not a permissible option; because states have a human rights duty to protect children from inhuman or degrading treatment, for all these reasons there must come a point at which States can intervene. Equally, however, because interference in family life must not be arbitrary, unnecessary or disproportionate; because the right to direct and choose a child’s education is a parental right; because the primary role of the State is to support parents rather than impose upon them, for all these reasons the right of the State to interfere has to be limited.
Plainly, speculative enquiries by local authorities are not legally enforceable. There has to be evidence of a problem with the child’s education before the Act is triggered.
What can I do?
Across the British Isles there are various political initiatives proposing more control over home education. However, politicians must have evidence that current law is not working before replacing it. In the microcosm that is the Isle of Man, a six year debate on home education powers appears to have concluded with the status quo being maintained. Behind the hyperbole, the simple fact is that the current powers have stood the test of time and they work.
Wherever you are in Britain, you can cite the Isle of Man’s decision to the authorities and challenge them to show, legally, why they cannot also make their existing powers work.
Consider Allan Norman’s argument about the “uncomfortable compromise” for both parents and the state, which identifies the balance between their respective responsibilities towards children. It is important for this equilibrium to be maintained in the face of states seeking to overreach their remit.