This post reviews Sally Varnham, “My Home, My School, My Island: Home Education in Australia and New Zealand” in Public Space: The Journal of Law and Social Justice 2 (2008): 1-30. [Available fulltext here]
Varnham, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, specializes in education law. Here she provides an overview of the legal status of homeschooling in Australia and New Zealand.
Varnham begins with a discussion of parental motivations for homeschooling that tracks pretty closely with what is usually discussed in the American context. She notes that while reliable statistics are difficult to come by, by all accounts homeschooling has grown markedly over the past 20 years. One study found a 22.8% increase in New Zealand between 1998 and 2007.
Next she describes the legal context of homeschooling, first in New Zealand and then in Australia. New Zealand courts have found (as the U.S. Supreme Court has not, see San Antonio I.S.D. v. Rodriguez, 1973) that individuals have a fundamental right to education and that the State has the responsibility to provide it. New Zealand also has a national curriculum that all schools, public or private, are required to teach.
In New Zealand, all children are required to attend school between ages six and sixteen. Parents wanting to homeschool must apply for an exemption from the compulsory school law, granted only if the Secretary of Education is convinced that the parent will teach “at least as regularly and as well as in a registered school.” Many New Zealand homeschoolers hate this requirement, not only because it is vague, but also because it forces them to adopt the very school model many of them are trying to escape. To ensure compliance, New Zealand has created a special home schooling unit within the Ministry of Education that conducts regular reviews of homeschoolers. If the Education Review Office (ERO) finds the child’s performance to be unsatisfactory, the parent’s exemption is revoked. The ERO has found on the whole that “with few exceptions, parents who choose to homeschool their children do so in accordance with the terms of their exemption.”
Interestingly, parents granted the exemption are also given funds to purchase materials for their children. Varhnam does not say whether parents are permitted to purchase religious curriculum with this money, though I infer from her discussion that the national curriculum must be followed even by homeschoolers. Some parents do decline the funds on principle, believing that the State should not be involved in education in any way.
In Australia the situation is different. Church-based schooling was the dominant educational method until the end of the 19th century throughout Australia and continues to be very important. Unlike New Zealand, current Australian education law is more decentralized–every State has its own provisions. Two of those States, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, both have explicit provisions for and regulations of homeschooling. Other States are less thorough. The Australian Capital Territory requires homeschooling parents to register, to document “the educational opportunities and strategies used” and to make available for inspection any aspect of the home school that is requested. Parents must also submit an annual report of the child’s progress. New South Wales’ prescriptions are much the same: parents must register, provide materials upon request, and allow home visits when asked. These requirements were challenged in court (Boxx v. Aquilina) and upheld.
Western Australia has similar provisions: homeschooling parents must register, submit to evaluation by “Home Educator Moderators” and abide by the State curricular framework. Tasmania also requires registration, but its conditions for revocation are rather vague. In South Australia and the Northern Territory parents don’t register to homeschool but, like New Zealand, they apply for exemption from the compulsory attendance law. The Secretary of Education grants this if convinced that the parent is providing an education that is “efficient and suitable,” though, like New Zealand, clear guidelines describing efficiency and suitability do not exist.
Finally, in Queensland and Victoria regulations have very recently altered. In 2006 Queensland began officially requiring homeschooling parents to register, though in reality this had been the common practice all along and thus the new law did not cause controversy within the homeschooling community there. In Victoria, however, homeschoolers had generally been let alone for years, so when that State tightened its laws in July of 2007 there was quite an outcry. Nevertheless, Victoria has the most lenient regulations of all the Australian States: parents must register and sign an annual statement that their children have received an education “of suitable standard and comprehensiveness according to their age.” No home visits are mandated and parents do not have to teach the State-approved curriculum. In Victoria the government will leave you alone unless it has reason to believe that something shady is going on.
After summarizing all of this legal terrain, Varhnam ends with a too-brief assessment of the situation. She thinks that both the State and the parents have valid claims. The State is correct to stress its interest in making sure all citizens are equipped by education to participate in the civic and economic life of the polity. Homeschooling parents are also correct when they push for more robust involvement in their children’s lives. Varhnam does not then take the difficult step of establishing a model that would seek to satisfy all parties or anything like that. Instead she ends weakly,
“It follows then that, for the well-being of all children, all parents who home school should perhaps be prepared to acknowledge and accept the need for [government] review. Equally important however is the argument that, in the case of home education, such review should recognize and celebrate the differences which lead many parents to choose to educate their children at home.”
And with that, her article ends.
Varhnam has an obvious gift for expressing complicated legal matters clearly and succinctly. I learned a lot in a very short time reading this excellent article. Hence my disappointment with the weak conclusion. I was hoping for something more prescriptive, or at least some insight into where she thinks the future of homeschool legislation and litigation in Australia and New Zealand might be headed. Clearly many homeschoolers are unhappy with things as they currently stand in these countries. Will regulations gradually be relaxed or have things reached a point of stability that might last for decades to come? I guess when one finishes an article wishing for more, that says something about the author’s capacities. I found Varnham an excellent guide to the topics she covered here and would be eager to read more should she return to these themes in the future.