Home educators seek freedom of choice
Groups start legal procedures against new regulation to test knowledge of pupils who are taught at home
The government is facing legal challenges to its new rules on homeschooling from parents who feel freedoms are being restricted
Complaint filed at Constitutional Court
In Flanders, education is compulsory from the age of six to 18, but children are not obliged to attend classes at school – they can also follow individual or collective home education. Any school that is not recognised by the Flemish government is considered collective home education, except European schools and those with an international curriculum accepted by the government.
The number of children in home education has risen gradually in recent years, from 195 in 2000 to 1,086 last year, according to research by Flemish newspaper De Standaard. Until last year, the quality of this education system was checked through regular inspections.
But because of education decree XXIII, children aged 11 and 15 now need to take an exam at the Flemish exam commission to get their certificate for primary education and the first grade of secondary education. If they don’t pass on the second attempt, they have to move to a school recognised by the Flemish government. Pupil support agency CLB has a say when children want to transfer to home education after the third day of the school year.
The aim of the government is to ensure that no child is kept at home without proper education, for example because they need to work. However, several parties feel their constitutional freedom of choice of education is being threatened and are filing a complaint at the Belgian Constitutional Court, which will take a decision before the end of February.
One of the offended parties is the community of Hasidic Jews in Antwerp. The parents of about 1,250 children in eight Jewish private schools have started legal procedures. Much of the education in these schools consists of religious courses. The parents feel their right to “free organisation of education in accordance with their religion” is being violated.
As long as .... the children are receiving qualitative education, parents should have the last word about welfare
The Sudbury schools of Ghent and Kortenberg – a municipality in Flemish Brabant – are also preparing a legal procedure. At Sudbury schools, students and staff are considered equals. There are no predetermined courses, and the staff assist the children to explore the topics they show an interest in. There are about 30 Sudbury-type schools around the world – inspired by the pioneering Sudbury Valley School founded in 1968 in the United States.
At the school in Sint-Amandsberg, a district of Ghent, three staff members currently provide guidance to 24 students of different ages. “About half the children couldn’t fit in in regular education,” says co-founder Maaike Eggermont. “We can offer them customised education, based on respect for their talents.”
Eggermont explains that children are more motivated to study maths, for example, if they are not forced to learn it in a standardised form. “Children challenge each other to solve sums, seeing it as a fun game.”
She emphasises that the school is not opposed to increased screening of their activities. “But the limitations imposed now are threatening the flexibility of our education,” she says. “A student can fail the exam because his French is inadequate at that moment, while he might already speak both English and Japanese well. The government seems to be afraid of any education programme with a vision that deviates from the regular system.”
Coping with social contact
Apart from schools, individual parents who teach their children at home have also filed a complaint. The Flemish union of home teachers, the VHoV, however, is refraining from legal action. “But we are very disappointed that we haven’t been consulted,” says VHoV co-ordinator Ann De Hondt.
The exams are meant to test if the education fulfils the socially accepted minimum goals
De Hondt says that home education can be ideal for highly gifted children who aren’t stimulated enough in regular education, youngsters with autism who have difficulties coping with too much social contact or children with learning difficulties. “School teachers often don’t have the time to devote extra attention to these students,” she explains.
She adds that the VHoV is not against exams but that they shouldn’t be organised at fixed points and there shouldn’t be a maximum of two attempts. “The exam is supposed to test the knowledge of an average student, but the average student doesn’t exist,” she says.
“As long as regular inspections prove that the children are receiving qualitative education, parents should have the last word about the child’s welfare. Authorities shouldn’t imply that their way is the only right path.”
Preparation for society
Nina Mallants, spokeswoman for Flemish education minister Pascal Smet, responds that “the inspection cannot check all forms of home education, because this would be both very time-consuming and almost unaffordable. The exams are meant to test if the education fulfils the socially accepted minimum goals, thus sufficiently preparing children to integrate in society.”
There are different forms of individual home education, as proven by the personal stories of two home teachers. Nathalie Lyssens, from Brasschaat near Antwerp, is a former secondary teacher who began to teach her son at home because he had problems concentrating in school. “The school recommended prescribing pills, but I refused,” she says. When home education turned out to work fine, she also took her daughter out of school.
Lyssens teaches her children in a space furnished like a classroom, with a consistent daily routine. Because there is more educative material available in English for home teachers, the lessons are primarily in English. “Taking the exam in Dutch would be a problem,” she says.
To avoid the exam procedure, the children are enrolled via internet at the Clonlara School in Michigan, in the United States. The accreditation of their home-based education programme is recognised by the Flemish government.
Ella Maryse-Dominique, from Beersel near Brussels, took her oldest daughter out of primary education when she was seven. “I could see that her full potential was not being realised and that she was not very happy,” she says. Her daughter is now in her first year at Ghent University, following psychology studies. Four of her other children are currently being taught at home, and the second oldest has entered the regular education system.
I don’t believe in the artificial teaching method at regular schools
Maryse-Dominique emphasises that children are curious and responsible enough to acquire the basic skills of, for example, reading, writing and mathematics in a fairly spontaneous way. She also rejects the idea that home-schooled children grow up in social isolation.
“All my children have several hobbies involving things like music, drawing, dancing and horse riding,” she says. “We also regularly go on trips together, and the children always have their say in the choice of destination.
“I don’t believe in the artificial teaching method at regular schools. It dates from the period right after the Industrial Revolution, when children were groomed to develop similar skills. To prepare them for our constantly changing world, children now should grow up with two feet in reality, in a broad environment with different kinds of people, not in classes with only children of the same age.”
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million school-going children in 2013
million euros Flemish education budget for new school infrastructures in 2013
percent of boys leaving secondary school without a diploma