Diverting the State Steamroller

History of Scottish home educators’ defence of their parental freedoms recounted on a global stage

What’s been said?

The Global Home Education Exchange Virtual Summit 2020 took place in the week 9-13 November, with participation from fifty-seven countries. Alison Preuss of Scottish Home Education Forum [SHEF] was invited to contribute to a session called “Evolving Capacity” on 12 November.

Condensing the back story of recent years with GIRFEC, the No to Named Person Campaign and the drive for inter-agency sharing of family data into a fifteen minute talk was a tough challenge. Preuss rose to it admirably, and aptly entitled her talk “The Battle of Best Interests.” A transcript and recording are available here.

Though the European Convention on Human Rights [EHCR] and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [UNCRC] are supposed to “prohibit arbitrary state interference in family life,” Preuss’  opening words demonstrate why Scottish home educators and other parents find themselves engaged in a battle about best interests:  “…the Scottish Government tried to replace parents’ and children’s human rights with its own diktat of what’s best for everyone’s ‘wellbeing’.” [Emphasis added]

Both the above pieces of legislation recognise parents as the “arbiters of their children’s best interests,”  unless state intervention is justified due to risk of significant harm. But in recent years states, and those who implement their policies, have been increasingly desirous of crossing the boundary into areas historically recognised as parents’ responsibility.

This is why Preuss’ potted history of the GIRFEC proposals to allocate a “named person” or state guardian to every child from pre-birth to the age of eighteen in order to “oversee their wellbeing” has traction and significance for readers from every part of the UK.

Why does it matter?

“We recognise the many challenges that face home educators across the globe and stand in solidarity with you all in pursuit of freedom in education.”

These words show that many of the issues faced recently in Scotland are common to home educators in other locations. Freedom in education cannot be taken for granted anywhere – it may have to be battled for, and will have to be robustly defended.

This is illustrated by another GHEX session also uploaded to SHEF’s website which provides updates from a number of European countries. The session opens with a seven minute presentation from Catherine Sunshine, who home educates in the Republic of Ireland and whose family won an important court ruling in October 2019.  We reported on the case at the time and here she provides a disturbing update.

We live in days when Nanny State has an expansionist mentality, and the autonomy and privacy of the family unit are in its sights. Therefore, despite all the busyness of daily life, it is really important for home educators to get behind the officialese and grasp what is really at stake.

Two items in the HE Byte Library relate to how we got to where we are: Child of the Parent or Child of the State? and The Rise of the Safeguarding Industry.

Sceptical of GIRFEC’s stated agenda of overseeing wellbeing, Preuss shrewdly defined the scheme as “a Trojan horse that concealed a nefarious intent to collect information about every child and family member without consent, and to share it routinely between services…”

The aim in fact was “to identify children at risk of not meeting the state’s…’wellbeing’ outcomes”, with ‘failing’ families then being subjected to compulsory ‘early intervention’ to keep them on the government’s approved path. Her term “state outcome enforcers” is no exaggeration.

No-one protests state intervention in cases where the need for child protection is genuine, but making such a subjective factor as “wellbeing” the criteria for intervention opens up a minefield where “every child could be in the ‘at risk’ category, and, by extension, every parent a risk to their child’s wellbeing.”

Thankfully, the 2016 Supreme Court judges had a better understanding of parenthood. Their ruling that “Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way” upheld the principle that parents were to be trusted, and children were not to be seen as “mere creatures of the state.”

Crucially, as Preuss pointed out, “the highest UK court held that Article 3 of the CRC (prioritising children’s best interests) did not and could not extend the powers of the state to interfere with the right to private family life in Article 8 of the ECHR.” GIRFEC compliance therefore had to be downgraded from mandatory to “voluntary”.

Policy, however, is frequently implemented at a local level by public service workers already well soaked in a statist mentality. And as Preuss also noted, practice had already overtaken legislation, meaning that policy changes not yet enshrined in law were being applied as if they had. Result – confusion and “untold misery for families.”

This episode will not be the last attempt to encroach on family territory. Continued vigilance is essential – in Scotland and elsewhere – to ensure that the actions of public sector representatives remain within the parameters of current guidance.

What can I do?

Read or listen to this fifteen minute talk.

Be inspired by the example of the SHEF team. Home educators were the first to sound the alarm about GIRFEC, and they are not sitting back now and taking their freedom for granted. They are still working in a range of ways to achieve push-back:

“We are not a quiet minority! We have a strong proactive network that engages fully on policy issues that are relevant to our community.”

“As home educators, we try to pre-empt encroachments on our freedoms. …we have been gathering research evidence, obtaining legal opinions, meeting with MSPs and co-ordinating action to ensure the legal framework is well understood, including how education law fits into the overarching human rights, data protection and equalities framework.”

How could you be proactive in your context?