Homeschooling in Queensland

Abstract: This article describes how compulsory education laws in Queensland prescribe that all children of a certain age-range receive instruction from a teacher who is formally qualified and registered as such in Queensland. The article argues that many families have ended up in a legal vacuum - Queensland's Education Act is likely to be found invalid, if challenged in the High Court or with the United Nations, but the Queensland Government avoids such a challenge. The article concludes that this situation should end and that such laws should be terminated.

A. What is Homeschooling?

Families in which the children do not go to school are often described as 'homeschoolers'. However, this is a narrow term that is often inappropriate, if not outright wrong.

Some families are proud to be called homeschoolers: they put great emphasis on the family home and associated values; they reject school for what they perceive as a lack of discipline, moral teachings and basic instruction; such parents have virtually made their homes into a traditional school.

But this description does not fit all parents who do not send their children to school. Many of them believe that school enforces an unhealthy disciplinary regime on children, i.e. exactly the opposite reason of the above group. The wide diversity in backgrounds of families where one or more of the children don't go to school, makes it hard to classify them in a single group. In some cases children may speak another language than English; some families do not focus on school subjects, but on music, dance, pottery, gardening, cooking, etc. Some have alternative lifestyles - they live in the rainforest, are vegetarians and practice herbal medicine; other families like the modern world with its cellular phones, its shopping centres and fast-food-restaurants. In all these cases, the term home-schooling is not very applicable; these parents do not keep their children at home, neither do they imitate school at their homes. Terms such as learning and education may also be inappropriate; some people believe that learning and education should not be given much prominence in child development at all.

B. The Union is behind it!

In the law homeschooling is often narrowly described. School is compulsory under the Queensland Education Act, but families can receive dispensation, if children are instructed at home by a Queensland-registered teacher. Such instruction may be provided remotely by teachers associated with approved schools of distance education. The Queensland Teachers' Union fears that wider definition of 'homeschooling' will lead to erosion of the privileges of teachers and it has great influence on the Labor Party currently in power in Queensland.

In future, a different State Government may well change the grip of the Union over education. There are further reasons to expect change. Under the Hilmer program, professions such as lawyers and doctors will be deregulated, as is now accepted at all levels of government. Many predict that, in the slipstream of such deregulation, teachers' privileges will also be decreased. Prohibition of distance education from other than Queensland schools may well be an unconstitutional barrier to interstate trade. Furthermore, treaties such as CER (Closer Economic Relations with New Zealand), APEC, etc, open up the market for New Zealand and U.S. methods.

C. Who are Dispensed'?

A growing number of families decides to apply for dispensation each year. Department of Education statistics show that, last year, there were 643 families in Queensland with dispensation. In May '95 there were 630 such families, but applications that are still pending are not included, while figures also tend to rise as the year comes to an end. Of the 630 families granted dispensation until now, 70 (or 11%) have parents who are teachers themselves or who have engaged teachers to tutor the children. Furthermore, 260 families (or 42%) follow a Christian method of distance education at four schools providing ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) and another school that follows the Bob Jones University method. The Department's own Correspondence School is used by 294 (or 47%) of families. Note that these are only the urban families that pay the $1000 per year for Correspondence School. Families living in remote areas get Correspondence School for free, but they, as well as truants and children who are suspended, expelled, sick or not at school for any other reasons, are not included in these figures.

D. The Legal Conundrum

Prosecution of parents who refuse to send their children to school does occur in Queensland. The legal procedure is that the police summons court orders, while the Education Department only appears in court as witness if that is deemed appropriate, e.g. to assess what education is being provided.

Sometimes, the Department of Education grants dispensation to families, even though their situation does not comply with the letter of the law, e.g. if families are travelling around or are only temporarily located in Queensland, or if parents or others looking after the education of children could be registered as teachers but are not. The Department has flirted for years with a more accommodating law, but seems unable to get its act together. The police does not like to initiate prosecution without the support of the Education Department and seems confused as to what is truancy and what is homeschooling. Prohibition of homeschooling may also contravene civil rights, as has turned out to be the case in countries comparable to Australia.

There are few precedents of court-cases against parents who did claim to look after their children's education. In Patris Bon's case, in 1993, it took the police long to even formulate charges. Patris used the Correspondence School method and was about to move from an urban to a remote area. The Education Department testified in court that Patris had applied for Correspondence School but had no formal dispensation when charges were laid, as she paid no fees. Patris argued that the law promised free education.

As it turned out, the Public Prosecution had bungled the case; their own witness, the Principal of the school where Patris' children used to be enrolled, declared that, as the children had not consumated school since the start of the year, their registration was not valid. Subsequently, the prosecution tried to change charges from failing to make children attend school into failing to enroll children at school, but the judge threw all charges out of court.

Some families are happy with the legal vacuum around 'homeschooling'. They argue that nobody should rock the boat, as the situation may get worse than it is now. After all, families can currently keep their children out of school without even applying for dispensation, as long as no-one blows the whistle about their situation.

Many also believe that only Christian methods should be legal, as now happens to be the case in distance education other than Correspondence School. They like the Government to force strict compliance with the letter of the law, expecting that this will make more families use such Christian methods.

Some families even go as far as setting up their own school. The 34-pupil Ananda Marga River School near Maleny was recently approved by the Education Department as school and is now seeking State funding. It comprises of an old farmhouse on 8.5ha, where children sing, do yoga, etc, as well as the three Rs, supervised by parents, one of who is a registered teacher.

Many families - estimates go up to several hundreds - are now homeschooling in secrecy and more often they come from places where home-schooling with other methods and by non- teachers is quite legal.

In April 1995, the High Court declared in the so-called Teoh-statement that there was a legitimate expectation that bureaucrats are to observe internationally accepted civil rights, even if such rights are not incorporated in a given Act. So, people can act legally, even when their situation does not conform with a given Act. As some have said for many years, Queensland's Education Act is likely to be invalid, as it contravenes the rights of parents and children to freedom of choice and outlaws alternatives that are recognised by many experts as superior to school. Interestingly, this statement opens up the way for families to sue bureaucrats personally for misleading people about their rights!

E. Vouchers a Solution?

These issues go well beyond legal acceptance of parents who refuse to send tlieir children to school. Schools receive government funding, as well as tax exemptions and many other privileges. Some say the Governrment should issue vouchers to be spent on education as decided by the parents. But this still eulogises a dictatorial system to collect tax. And who decides and checks how such vouchers will be used? What is education? Do we want a teacher to instruct us how to live? Why don't we just aim for optionality!

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