Late in December the Victorian Education Minister, Lynne Kosky, released an exposure draft for the new Victorian Education Act. She is to be congratulated on her timing. What better time to release an exposure draft for an important document on education than just as schools closed and the document would receive the least exposure possible? Conveniently, the period for public comment has covered a period when many politicians have been uncontactable and finishes before school resumes.
In this way she ensured that come March when, I suspect, the government plans to rush this legislation through in the pre-Commonwealth Games euphoria, she will be able to claim to have allowed plenty of time for public feedback but, in reality, very few people will even know about it.
Of course, had she wished to provide the opportunity for genuine public feedback on this draft, she would have released it during the school year allowing for the natural dissemination of information through school communities, even encouraging such a process. Releasing it as schools closed and parents were busy with Christmas and holiday preparations was a master stroke of political timing and indicates that her rhetoric about honouring parental choice should be treated with suspicion.
Perhaps the “parental choice” touted in the publicity is not all it’s cracked up to be and is simply a sugar coating to conceal increased controls over Victorian families. For example, parents may not be delighted when they realise that the legislation significantly increases the attendance requirements. There is a quantum leap from the existing requirement that children attend school for half a day on every school day to “at all times when the school is open for the child’s instruction”. There are the usual concessions for sickness and unavoidable cause but parents who have, up until now, employed the very sensible practice of holidaying during school terms when their work commitments permit, may be in for a surprise. Any such arrangements would, under the new legislation, necessarily become a favour bestowed by the school rather than an existing right.
In some countries parents face hefty fines for their holiday. I would not wish to see such draconian penalties adopted in Victoria. Holidays invariably provide enriching experiences for children, as well as valuable family time, in an era when family time is becoming increasingly scarce. In many ways, through access to new and different experiences, children can learn more on holiday than in the classroom - but try telling that to Ms Kosky.
Hefty truancy fines have also been set and provision made for the employment of truancy officers who would have the power to stop children in the street and ask for identification. Gone will be the possibility of parents allowing children a “mental health day” despite anecdotal evidence that school is becoming an increasingly stressful place for many students.
Parents are well aware of the declining standards in schools and do want something done about it. However, beware of the setting of “minimum standards” outlined in this legislation. The reality is that no matter what standards are set some children will simply not meet them and what will happen to those children? Will they be labelled with some learning disability in order to absolve the state of responsibility?
In addition, we are promised the “legitimisation” of home education: A strange concept when educating children outside school has always been legal in Victoria. Home education is common and legal throughout the democratic world and, in its modern form, has been around long enough to have proved highly effective in turning out well-educated and well-socialised young adults. Such conclusions have been reached following extensive studies in England, America, Canada and Australia. Over the past 20 years home education has moved from being seen as a radical hippy option to being a viable alternative for a growing number of mainstream families dissatisfied with the state school system.
Scrutiny of the proposed Act reveals that Ms Kosky wants to control and, very likely limit, a successful and blossoming educational option. Despite purporting to honour a parent’s right to choose home education, it would introduce a regime of regulations unprecedented in Victoria. Parents wishing to home educate currently need to undertake to provide “efficient and regular” instruction. Home-educating families make this commitment to their children - a commitment which involves considerable time and effort. There is provision for the education department to prosecute parents who fail to meet this requirement and the onus of proof lies with the parents. This arrangement fulfils both the state’s responsibility to ensure that children are educated and the parents’ right to determine the manner of that education.
By contrast, the proposed legislation would require parents to register for home education (possibly paying a fee to do so) and to home educate according to any and all regulations decreed at some later stage. These regulations have, to date, not been made public, and are unlikely to be so until after the legislation is passed, as disclosure of such would belie the rhetoric. Home educators rightly have cause to fear that the undisclosed regulations will mirror those that a previous Labor government attempted to implement in 1991. Under such arrangements the curriculum and teaching methods could be dictated to home educators. This would negate their ability to tailor individual educational programs to match their children’s needs - a freedom they currently enjoy and a large reason for the success of home education.
In addition, their ability to continue home educating legally would depend on their willingness to comply with regulations which could be as petty as arbitrarily limiting the number of home-educated children in one family, rather than their commitment to providing a good education for their children.
Bullying is one of the most common reasons for the commencement of home education. Under the proposed legislation parents of victimised children would be legally required to continue to send their children into a dangerous situation until such time as the state government had assessed their application for home education. Bullying is one of the most serious issues in education today. Bullied children cannot afford to wait around while adults fill in forms: they need to be removed from a threatening situation with all speed.
And the reason for home education regulation? The government has presented no research which shows that regulation is necessary or advantageous. There is no crisis of literacy or numeracy in the home-education community to justify such regulation, quite the reverse. Will regulation improve the standard of education children are receiving at home? Of course not and no doubt the government is well aware of this. So what will regulation achieve? Scrutiny of education department documents (for example the Falk Report (pdf file 430kb)) reveals the real reason: the ongoing trend of families exiting the state school system.
Government control over the flourishing home-education community together with the ability to limit the number of people who choose it as an educational option will help stem the tide of students flowing away from the state school system. Government red tape will ensure that home education is as difficult as possible and thus protect the state school system in which they have a vested interest.
Susan Wight is a Victorian mother who, together with her
husband, home educated her three children who are all now well-educated adults.
She is the coordinator of the Home Education Network and editor and a
regular writer for the network’s magazine, Otherways.