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It is difficult to generate an accurate estimate for the number of children being educated in their home across Europe, but by many accounts, it appears to be a growing number.

Education outside the traditional norm of the classroom is well established in the United States, where the U.S. Department of Education estimates that over 1.5 million children are educated annually at home, representing just under 3.5% of the total student population. The principal reason given by 91% of parents to the authorities was a “concern over the environment in schools”. The popularity of home schooling has meant that it is now a significant part of the U.S. education system.

Before the industrial revolution in the western world, children would assist their parents with farming and they received a substantial part of their education within the home. By the mid to late 19th century, European states had begun to fund state provided education to ensure that there was a supply of literate and numerate citizens to drive the economies of increasingly industrialized societies. State provided education was deemed a public good and compulsory attendance laws were passed. Most states sought to ensure that children were compelled to attend public schools or, through cooperation with private education providers, chiefly religious organisations, private schools.

However, in Europe there is now a burgeoning movement for alternatives to education provided in the classroom. This has been accompanied by growing calls for authorities to revisit the legal and regulatory framework surrounding classroom-centered education.

Contrary to what many European observers may think about those families in the U.S. opting for schooling their children at home, the factors that attract families to home schooling are diverse. In 2010, academic studies conducted by sociologists found that families who home school are not significantly different from the general U.S. population so one cannot make any ready assumptions about the religious beliefs, political affiliations or financial status of home schooling families.

Given that families who choose to home school are diverse, it is no surprise that their reasons for choosing to educate their children at home are also diverse. Recent statistics from the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics on home schooling parents show that 44% of parents want to provide a non-traditional approach to their child’s education, 74% express dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools and 31% have children with special educational or physical needs.

As European governments deal with calls for alternatives to classroom-centered education, they must bear in mind that the European Convention on Human Rights secures the right of parents to educate their children in accordance with their convictions. Under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, parents are entitled to direct the education of their children and the State is required to “respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Parents eager to assert their right to educate their children outside the traditional classroom have already lodged cases with the European Court of Human Rights. In the most recent case, the Wunderlich family from western Germany complained to the European Court regarding the efforts of the German authorities to force their three children to attend the local school. Dirk and his wife Petra Wunderlich even had their children taken into care after a police raid mounted by the childcare services in Germany for seeking to educate them at home. The German government attempted to justify its actions to the European Court on the grounds that forced schooling is necessary because allowing home schooling would foster social isolation and stands against a pluralistic, open society.

However, the forcible removal of the Wunderlich children from the family home, solely based on the fact that they were educated at home, is a disproportionate response to the growing movement for home schooling across Europe. There is little evidence from the U.S. that home schooled children end up being socially isolated or less willing to participate in their communities.

Indeed, many European countries already permit home education with varying degrees of regulation, such as Ireland, the United Kingdom and France, without any evidence of social fracture. However, there remain a number of countries, such as Germany and Sweden, where home schooling is effectively prohibited despite the apparent contradiction with the parents’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

There is evidence from the U.S. that home schooled children outperform their peers in the public schooling system. In the Wunderlich case, the German childcare authorities were obliged to return the children to their parents when it transpired that the children were able to complete examinations given to them at the same level as the average state school student. If academic concerns can be addressed, then the remaining problem appears to be hostility to the entire concept of education in the home from the authorities. Indeed, Mr. Wunderlich was told by one German judge that he faced up to four years in jail if he persisted in refusing to send his children to a state school.

With the proliferation of online educational resources and mounting concerns about the quality of state provided education the calls for European governments to revisit the traditional paradigm for providing education will continue to grow. International human rights obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights mean that responding to home schooling families with court proceedings and threats of jail will increasingly appear disproportionate and inappropriate. The time has come to embrace a future where education will happen outside the four walls of the classroom.

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