Mainstream school, girls in immigrant &/or religious families, “British Values” etc

12 December 2009 by Jennifer

An angle I hadn’t considered before on recent struggles around UK education law.

On Friday 4 December, I had a very illuminating and useful meeting with my MP, Alan Simpson. I’m a big fan of Alan’s for (among other things) his eco house and his stand against the war in Iraq, so I was genuinely curious about his reasons for supporting the proposed yearly licensing of (a.k.a. heavy-handed interference with) home-based education.

We had about 45 minutes’ discussion, and we didn’t waste time, so we covered a lot of ground. There was other useful stuff which I may return to in another post. But here I’ll home in on an area which felt especially helpful to me in understanding what’s going on.

Key themes

For Alan, if I understood correctly, there are two key themes of concern informing his support for the home-ed-related part of the Bill:

  • Families with a belief that girls only need to know how to raise children and keep house.

  • Parents who think of their children as a kind of property. (By way of example, he referred to child custody battles where the parents’ attitude is “I created 50% of this child, therefore 50% belongs to me” – irrespective of what’s best for the child as a human being, or whom they would rather live with.)

In principle, I agree that neither of those scenarios is ethically desirable, and also that such families and parents undoubtedly exist (though not necessarily at a higher ratio in UK home ed communities).

In practice, some questions occur to me about the girls getting inadequate education on religious/traditional grounds:

  • Is there any kind of evidence base for this issue?

  • Could such cases not be addressed under existing law, and if not, why not? (In the UK, parents already have a legal duty to “cause their children to receive” education.)

  • Who could tell me more?

and, of course:

  • Would these situations be addressed by the licensing scheme proposed in the Bill?

What did Mr Badman say?

In the Badman Report, nearly all the references to religion are about religious or philosophical beliefs as a reason to choose non-school education, including the Human Rights law relating to that choice – not about the resulting education itself.

There’s one oblique allusion to religion as a possible limitation, in section 4.8, a quote from the British Humanist Association:

some of those who choose to educate their children at home for religious reasons may not be providing schooling that is adequate, either according to the Every Child Matters agenda or the principles of Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That’s the whole quote, and the author doesn’t elaborate on it. Note the “may”; no facts supplied.

Doing “Find in document” on terms “gender”, “girl” and “tradition” doesn’t turn up anything, so I don’t think Mr Badman addressed the subject anywhere else either, though I confess I haven’t re-read every word to check.

The Equalities Impact Assessment for the Bill makes no mention of religion; the only groups discussed are (a) children with “special educational needs” and (b) Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

Making a connection

The evidence base and practical questions definitely warrant more investigation. But meanwhile, I went off in a slightly different direction.

You see, something about this rang a bell for me. Some time in the last couple of years, somewhere on one of the community lists, I’d read a post where someone said something like: “What the Government is really worried about is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, but they can’t come out and say that, so they have to pretend it’s about all of us.”

Well, so this popped into my head in the meeting, and I quoted the gist of it to Alan. And he corrected me straight away: it’s not just Islam.

Which is obviously correct of course (and to be fair, I may have misremembered the original post too, especially as I was reading about Islamophobia in another context recently). There are lots of cultures which prioritise boys’ education over girls’, or steer girls away from certain areas – are there any that don’t have that in them at all? It’s part of sexism. (Example English meme: “Girls don’t need an education; they’re only going to get married so then it will go to waste”.) Conversely, it’s well known that Aisha, third wife of the Prophet, was a scholar and highly respected for her learning, and there are plenty of Muslim communities where young women get the best education within the families’ grasp.

And there are parents in at least several faiths who would rather their children weren’t influenced by “secular values”. In the US, there’s an enormous Christian home-schooling movement, which is fairly famous.

(In the UK, my impression is there is something of a Christian home-schooling contingent, but on nothing like the same scale. I’m not sure to what degree people erroneously assume it’s the same over here; I do recall a story of someone commenting in surprise that so few of the English home-edders they met had that background. I’m also not sure what the actual stats are.)

Another clue

Interestingly, the UK Government nowadays makes a point of lying to all immigrants:

The law states that children between the
ages of 5 and 16 must attend school.

That’s from page 30 of the “Life in the United Kingdom handbook”, which all immigrants “must read” as part of preparing for their “Life in the UK” test. It’s the first sentence under “Education”.

I seem to be seeing a grey thing with tusks

I find myself wondering if, for some* supporters of the home ed interference, one of the driving forces behind it is about fear of parallel non-British cultures, and fear of the role of home-based education in enabling families not to assimilate into Britishness.

(* I don’t mean that I think Alan thinks this.)

My new intuition is that for many if not most of the supporters of the Bill, their point of reference is that hypothetical girl from a religious/traditional family, whose education would be limited by sexist tradition – and maybe her brothers too. That’s whom they’re thinking of when they’re trying to invent how licensing and monitoring would work.

And for some people that’s purely about that girl’s education in the practical sense: reading, writing, history, general knowledge. But I suspect that for others, what’s behind that, or hand in hand with it, is her not being allowed to grow up unexposed to proper Britishness.

Doesn’t that just somehow seem to make more logical sense than the dramatic but non-factual justifications we have been hearing about abuse and educational outcomes?

1. School doesn’t guarantee that children won’t be abused, or even much help to stop it. Most abuse is not immediately obvious; most children won’t disclose to a teacher; many teachers say they wouldn’t know what to do if they suspected a child was being abused; and in many cases the school is the site of the abuse.

And there’s the school holidays… and there’s the fact that if you’re this worried about children “of school age” not in school, you’ve got no excuse for not doing the same checkups on children too young for school…

Yes, there are occasions when someone at a school helps a child.* But as a “safety net” for abuse, school is always going to be full of holes, and anyone who’s thought about the territory in any detail can see that.

It’s Social Services which is meant to be the primary safety net, and i.m.o. it’s misguided to be throwing millions of pounds in secondary directions before the most glaring malfunctions of that have been fixed. (Hard to say how many millions it would really be for the home ed licensing scheme, as the sums for the costs and benefits include both questionable assumptions and mistakes.)

* I haven’t been able to find UK stats comparable with these ones from the US (showing 16% of abuse investigation referrals were from teachers), but I’ve heard from someone who used to be a child protection social worker in the UK that more referrals came from neighbours or relatives than from schools. And that makes sense to me, because teachers see very little of parents actually interacting with their children. Neighbours overhear things.

2. State schools in the UK don’t guarantee children a good education. Thousands leave school with no qualifications.

(Yes, I know that qualifications aren’t the be-all and end-all – e.g. some young people move from home-based education directly into further education or employment using only portfolios and CVs. But since mainstream school is aimed very strongly at GCSEs, the lack of them is not too far-fetched a measure of how poorly school served those young people.)

What is it that school does guarantee – provided it’s a mainstream school?

School guarantees that children are exposed to mainstream culture.

Is it just me, or does that fit in like the long-lost missing piece of a jigsaw?

Social cohesion

Now I’m not saying that community cohesion isn’t a worthwhile thing to discuss. I think there are some thoughtful and wise angles to it as well as probably some pretty xenophobic ones.

What’s got me suddenly so antsy about this whole angle is the fact that, as far as I’ve noticed, it isn’t being discussed (in this context). It seems like one of those “elephant in the room which nobody’s mentioning” scenarios.

(Though, thinking about it, I have a suspicion that this motivation might become more obvious if/when the Government’s intended discussions begin about redefining “suitable education”. What’s the betting there will be some attempt to insert “British values” into that?)

Hot-housing, social levelling, other issues

I’m also not suggesting that this is the only thing which the supporters of the Bill have on their minds. People do have other reservations about home-based education too.

  • A lot of people have strong beliefs relating to state education as a “social leveller”. (That too is at least partly about cultural cohesion, but if I understand the history correctly, it’s been more about eradicating or compensating for class and wealth differences rather than other kinds of difference.)

  • By way of subset of “children as property”, Alan also alluded to parents who take children out of school in order to “hot-house” them in the academic sense, potentially putting a lot of pressure on the children. (though I think there’s a big difference between “child was bored in school and is genuinely happier following their curiosity” and “push the child to excel in order to prove what a successful parent I am” – which can also happen in conjunction with school.)

  • I might have temporarily forgotten some other arguments/reservations. I therefore leave this item optional as an “exercise for the reader” :-)

And of course the “must save them from being trapped in their homes with only their parents to talk to!” thing is an extremely prevalent stereotype applied to all home ed children – even the English-for-generations ones… even the ones who in fact have to specially make an effort to spend time at home because their social lives are so busy :-)

So it’s not that I think the Britishness-assimilation thing is the only force at play. I just suddenly have this feeling like it’s a significant part of the motive power, and yet we’re not talking about it.


So even though, like I said, Alan and I discussed some other things too, this whole Britishness/immigrants/religions/traditions thing went on resonating in my mind all the way home from the meeting and all the rest of the evening, with a feeling of things clunking into place CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK.

And on the one hand I was thinking: Aaagh – if this is how they’re thinking, then nothing we can say is going to change their minds, is it? We are dooomed to this invasive and dysfunctional licensing scheme, and it’s going to be a horrible mess.

And yet on the other hand I was feeling much better because I felt so de-mystified! Like “Now I get it. This is what’s been going on.”

An underlying “social cohesion” motive would explain why the Government is so oddly unmoved by the fact that every single one of Mr Badman’s stats falls to bits as soon as you look at it! Those were only about the supposed reasons – abuse risks and educational outcomes.

And it would explain why they don’t even care that the supposed “savings” predicted in the Impact Assessment have a big glaring mistake in the sums which mean the imagined theoretical financial benefit probably doesn’t exist.

We need to talk

Now I might be wrong of course. This might all be a figment of my imagination. (And I might be wrong about being dooomed too.)

But if this is a significant factor in how legislators are thinking, we need to start talking about it. There’s limited usefulness in demonstrating how mistaken people are about issues “X” and “Y” if the sticking point is really “Z”!

And, either way, we need to start talking specifically about the risks to girls in families of limiting religious &/or traditional gender-roles. What are the risks? And how well would a Badmanesque licensing scheme work for girls in that situation? How much good would it actually do them? I’ve seen nothing addressing that specifically.

Collateral damage

Part of the shift in how I’m perceiving the whole territory now is that I’m less sure how much of the agenda is aimed at all families in home-based education.

I mean, there doesn’t seem much doubt that some of it is; “a DfES spokesman” was quoted in 2007 as saying “we believe the best place to educate a child is actually in school.” The quote did continue “we respect a parent’s right to choose home education for their children”, but “we respect your right to do something we believe is second-best” is perhaps not the most respectful or reassuring kind of respect that there could be :-/

And I know that some people have felt that the main agenda is to put all children under the yoke of the National Curriculum and under Government control. Lord Adonis said it was an “anomaly” that “The state does not currently prescribe what form of education parents should provide.” (Or, as the Pet Shop Boys put it: “You’re not integral / to the project”.)

But now I’m wondering if, from another angle, it’s more like: the main agenda is about cultural cohesion, and anything that happens to the not-particularly-religious, English families is “collateral damage.

Ethics, risk and evidence

Now I definitely don’t want to do some kind of “Well our children are OK so there isn’t a problem”. The one way you could convince me that licensing is a good idea is by demonstrating that the overall effect for all children collectively would be better.

Balancing risks like that includes both assessing the magnitude of the risks, and a subjective weighing-up of how they counterbalance each other. (And there’s never no risk.)

An example from breast cancer screening: Is it better for a thousand women to have unnecessary surgery and unnecessary fear so that one woman can have ten extra years of life? That’s a hard question even if you know exactly what the ratios are. People need to know the facts and then talk about those hard questions.

But if you’re not even starting with facts, the balance might be dangerously wrong.

“False positives” aren’t only bad because of the disruption and stress to the people who were OK – which in this case would be substantial. (That’s a big topic in itself and this post is long enough already, so won’t go there now.)

An equally or more important factor in the disastrous effect of “false positives” is that they’re like hoax fire alarm calls. While the fire brigade attends the false alarm, someone else somewhere else in a real fire might be burning to death. Sending social workers round to investigate children who were fine includes exactly that kind of problem, just on a slower timescale where the connections might be less obvious.

I am angry with the DCSF about the amount of lying and misdirection that’s gone on this year, arguably at the expense of talking about the real stuff. Hundreds of hours of people’s time have been wasted just getting back to zero – demonstrating that all the statistical “evidence” that Mr Badman came up with (and the DCSF so uncritically endorsed) is fictional.

If girls from some particular backgrounds are at especial risk of missing out on education, then we should have spent part of this year finding out the facts about that and then having the difficult conversations based on those facts.

What do we know about that hypothetical girl in a family of limiting gender-role traditions? What does she need? Would she get it from the currently proposed legislation? Is there a way to address her needs without it being at the expense of thousands of other children?

and how many of her are there in reality?

What next?

The “we” of “we should be finding out the facts” doesn’t mean just activists from EHE communities. It should be part of everyone’s thinking about education law. But I wonder to what degree we the activists can put this territory explicitly “onto the table”. And I wonder to what degree other people “on the side of sensibleness and truth” might pick up the factual questions.

And if none of what I’ve described is an issue, I’d appreciate it if someone could prove that to me :-)

Here, have an index…
Top of document
Key themes
What did Mr Badman say?
Making a connection
Another clue
I seem to be seeing a grey thing with tusks
Social cohesion
Hot-housing, social levelling, other issues
We need to talk
Collateral damage
Ethics, risk and evidence
What next?

10 thoughts on “Mainstream school, girls in immigrant &/or religious families, “British Values” etc”

  1. I think there is a lot of truth in what you have written. The Badman review has stunk of a rubber stamping exercise from the moment I started out in Home Ed and it was all taking off. What worries me is that, even if the central drive for the Bill is a genuine need to protect girls in a limiting gender biassed family situation, you can be guaranteed that the DCSF/LAs on DCSF guidance will be quick to use whatever powers they gain to force children who are being successfully Home Ed’d back to school. Any genuine reason will be long forgotten within 6 months. Protecting these girls must be done specifically in legislation directed at them, if there isn’t any already.

  2. Very interesting Jennifer. I think there may be something in this and it may well be worth addressing. I’m not sure it’s the whole story though as we see such a more general lack of trust spreading in our society.

    This excerpt from the Church of England submission to the report may support your point above.

    “Children and young people in schools learn about and from the five major religions. This may be a difficult part of the curriculum for home educators to provide, yet it is vital for the Government’s community cohesion agenda that all children learn in a balanced way about the variety of religious values and practices, and to be encouraged to question their own beliefs and practices.” Especially the last bit.

    More about “community cohesion” here

  3. All very interesting stuff, and I agree, it makes sense, as a plausible explanation for how we got here. But it’s just a theory. It might be the real reason for the insanity that has been 2009, but for as long as they aren’t prepared to present it as the real reason, how do we know? It might just as easily be about preventing our children from achieving their potential, subverting the power relationships of the status quo, and usurping the ruling classes from their traditional position. I’m not a raving Marxist, I don’t necessarily believe that, but it’s just another theory.

    This is the question I’ve been scratching my head over all year: Why? Why is the government gunning for a tiny number of home educators, who are at statistically trivial risk of being in difficulties? What are they REALLY trying to achieve?

    I don’t know how we get to the point where they are being honest with us about the real reasons. But I agree, until they do, we’re fighting on the wrong fronts, constantly.

  4. Thnaks for this Jennifer, it is excellent. If I ever get round to finishing a post I am working on I hope that you don’t mind if I link to it.

    Whatever the answer is (and I suspect there are multiple answers for the people involved are all individuals with different priorities and prejudices) I think it is important for us to start articulating the elephants in the room, because one thing is for sure – the government won’t do it and will continue to skirt around the real issues until we all are bound by registration, inspection and curricula. The problems they can “see” are mistaken steroptypes (and therefore too politically incorrect for politicians and civil servants to talk about honestly), unhelpfully fuelled by misperceptions of risk and risk mitigation.

    Answering their questions is pointless – the answers are irrelevant to them because they are operating according to an entirely different agenda and set of rules. Instead, we should be asking the big “elephant in the room” questions, encouraging other, non-HE parents to do the same, and demanding some real answers. I see that Ed Balls, whilst he appears to engage with the masses, is incredibly skilled at ensuring he is never put on the spot in such a way.


  5. In the 1970s Jack Straw told Home Educators that they (labour) were going to *stamp you lot out*. Many of the DCSF ministers have incredibly socialist education beliefs (Vernon Croaker is a member of SEA). Each new theory for the reasons behind this attack are interesting, and possible, but ultimately it is the socialist ideals that are at work here, and we can try to find evidence to counter all these excuses, but what’s the point frankly? They have an agenda, it’s been a long term agenda for many of them, and no matter what we present it won’t matter a jot.

    You might be interested in the survey results here btw:

  6. Hi Jennifer,
    Thanks for your comment on my post. Whoa! I am truly an idiot. There’s your name at top and bottom of your post. I have sort of explained my confusion in my reply to your post on my blog.

    By the way, thank you on two counts. Thank you for this very excellent and thoughtful post, and thank you for your patience with mine, which was much less so. I realized after receiving your comment that it sounded as if I were saying that you shouldn’t take your MP’s comments seriously, and that was neither a fair nor an accurate depiction of my feelings on the matter. I think you are doing an amazingly useful thing by keeping your MP engaged on this topic. And I think you are approaching it in a very sensible manner. The only thing you can do is ask him for any evidence he might have to support such a concern, and gently help him to see that such fears are, in fact, based in prejudice, even if we do not mean to be thinking in a prejudiced fashion.

    I have gone back and updated my blog, both to get your gender correct, and more importantly, to express, a little more sensibly I hope, my views on working with elected officials who don’t quite get the picture yet. Thanks again.

  7. Thanks everyone for these thoughtful comments.

    @ Tech – interesting survey! Do you have a ref for Jack Straw’s quote by any chance? (I know it’s not as easy tracking down cites from the pre-internet era…)

    @ Lisa – please do link, yes indeed.

    and I suspect there are multiple answers for the people involved are all individuals with different priorities and prejudices

    Yes, I agree.

    @ Kelly – Whoa! I am truly an idiot.

    Hey, no name calling :-) It’s no big deal – I take gender with a pinch of salt anyway ;-)

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