Christian education is a great blessing. As the secular state encroaches upon the family, many religious parents are opting for private schools or homeschooling for their children. In Europe good Christian schools are few and far between. Nevertheless, homeschooling and private religious education are also coming under scrutiny by the state.
Homeschooling in Germany
Dirk and Petra Wunderlich are a German couple who desire to homeschool their four children. Unfortunately for them, homeschooling is illegal in Germany. The Wunderlichs have been embroiled in a lengthy legal battle with the German State since 2006. In January 2019 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on the case:
[The Wunderlichs] alleged that the German authorities had violated their rights under Article 8 of the [European] Convention [for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms] by withdrawing parts of parental authority…including the right to determine the children’s place of residence…by transferring these parts to the Jugendamt (youth office) and by executing the withdrawal in the form of forcibly removing the children from the applicants and placing them in a children’s home for three weeks (1).
The ECHR cites the applicable German legislation underpinning the case. The German Grundgesetz (Basic Law), Article 6, states,
The care and upbringing of children is the natural right of parents and a duty primarily incumbent upon them. The State shall watch over them in the performance of this duty. Children may be separated from their families…only pursuant to a law, and only if the parents or guardians fail in their duties or the children are otherwise in danger of serious neglect (7).
The German Burgerliches Gesetzbuch (Civil Code), Article 33, states,
Where the physical, mental or psychological best interests of a child or a child’s property are endangered and the parents do not wish or are not able to avert the danger, a family court must take the necessary measures to avert the danger (7).
This includes “instructions to ensure that the obligation to attend school is complied with.” Moreover, a family court is authorized to initiate a “partial or complete removal [withdrawal] of parental authority” (7).
The Wunderlichs reside in the German state of Hesse. The Hessisches Schulgesetz (The Hesse School Act) states,
All children, juveniles, and young adults…must comply with the rules on compulsory school attendance… Parents are responsible for ensuring that school-age children regularly attend school and participate in educational activities (8).
By “school” is understood a “state primary and lower-secondary school” or “a grant-aided independent school.” Other teaching outside of school “may be authorised by the school supervisory authority only for compelling reasons” (8).
The Wunderlichs’ complaint centered on Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which states:
Article 8—Right to respect for private and family life
Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
The right to family life is not absolute, therefore. The State—in this case, the German State—may, if it deems it necessary, interfere with and even withdraw the rights of parents if deemed “necessary in a democratic society,” especially if “neglect” is suspected. Most would agree that, if parents are starving or abusing their children, in which case they are monsters rather than parents, the State should intervene. But the German State categorizes most—if not all—homeschooling as “neglect.”
Germany’s argument in the case of the Wunderlichs is as follows, which could equally apply to other homeschooling parents. First, a typical homeschooling day is described:
It was primarily their mother who taught all four children and school normally started at 10 a.m. and lasted until 3 p.m. with a break for lunch, which was prepared by their mother (3).
The German authorities viewed this as inadequate. Second, the Wunderlich children, according to the staatliches Schulamt (The State Education Authority), were “growing up in a ‘parallel world’ without any contact with their peers” and they “received no attention of any kind which would enable them to have a part in the communal life in Germany” (2). This “risked damaging the children’s best interests in the long term,” for, continued the staatliches Schulamt, the children were prevented from “becoming part of the community and learning social skills such as tolerance, assertiveness, and the ability to assert their own convictions against majority-held views” (3). The family court concluded that “only withdrawing parts of parental authority could ensure the children’s continual attendance at school and would prevent them suffering harm on account of them being educated at home” (3). Third, after the Wunderlich family had resisted all attempts by the staatliches Schulamt to assess the knowledge of their children, the Main Court of Appeal in Frankfurt issued the following ruling:
According to the court, the children’s best interests were in concrete danger on account of them being kept in a “symbiotic” family system and being denied an education which met standards which were both well recognized and fundamentally important for growing up in society. The education they were receiving from the applicants could not compensate for not attending school. Five hours of homeschooling—including a lunch break—which was conducted concurrently for all four children, could not suffice to offer each child a range of schooling appropriate to his or her age. In addition, the children were also not members of any sports club, music school or similar organization where they could acquire other skills important for their education. The court also noted the applicants’ submissions as a whole that their main concern was creating a strong attachment between the children and their parents to the exclusion of others. Moreover, by their persistent refusal they were also teaching the children that they did not need to comply with the rules of community life if they found them disagreeable. Lastly, the Court of Appeals found that there were no less severe measures available (4-5).
This decision was executed on August 29, 2013, when up to twenty social workers and police officers removed the Wunderlich children from the parental home: because they refused to leave voluntarily “the children had to be carried out of the house individually” (5). In September 2013 the children’s knowledge was assessed and the Wunderlichs agreed to enroll them in school, but they withdrew their children again on June 25, 2014. After additional lengthy legal battles, the Wunderlichs appealed to the ECHR, which did not object to Germany’s anti-homeschooling law:
While the prohibition of homeschooling in Germany is an underlying issue of this complaint, the Court observes that it has already decided upon the compatibility of this prohibition with the Convention…and that the respective part of the application has already been declared inadmissible (12).
The Court further reiterates that it has already examined cases regarding the German system of imposing compulsory school attendance while excluding home education. It has found it established that the State, in introducing such a system, had aimed at ensuring the integration of children into society with a view to avoiding the emergence of parallel societies, considerations that were in line with the Court’s own case-law on the importance of pluralism for democracy (14).
The ECHR ruled that “the enforcement of compulsory school attendance to prevent social isolation of the applicants’ children and ensure their integration into society was a relevant reason in justifying the partial withdrawal of parental authority” (14). The ECHR’s ruling, therefore, is that, since “there were relevant and sufficient reasons for the withdrawal of some parts of the parents’ authority and the temporary removal from their family home,” there was no violation of Article 8 of the Convention (16).
Interesting and troubling about this case is the German State’s concern—and the ECHR’s agreement which that concern—that homeschooled children are isolated from the rest of society. Whether one agrees with that concern or not, one way in which to alleviate that concern would be to encourage interaction with other homeschooling families, as well as to enroll children in extracurricular activities outside of the home. One other question I had as I read the case was this: Do the Wunderlichs belong to a church where their children could interact with others outside of the family?
The Wunderlichs plan to appeal to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.
The United Kingdom and Ofsted
If Germany is concerned that homeschooling might lead to “parallel societies” within her borders, the British state is seeking to impose “British values” upon all schoolchildren under its jurisdiction. Enter Ofsted, the “Office for Education, Children’s Services and Skills,” a non-ministerial department of the UK government tasked with the inspection of schools and headed by Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman. Writing in National Review, Jibran Khan explains: The British government requires Ofsted to ensure that all schools “actively promote the British values” of “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs.” Under Ms. Spielman’s leadership, Ofsted has “waged a war against religious schools of all denominations for the past two years—and has justified that in the name of ‘British values.’” Guess what “British values” are? LGBT issues, of course! In 2010 Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister, expressed his view that “faith schools must promote homosexual relationships.” Ofsted has been failing faith schools in England and Wales, not because of a lack of discipline in the classroom, not because of poor examination results, not even because of the state of the facilities—in many cases the religious schools have excelled in these areas, surpassing the standards of the government-run state schools—but because faith schools do not adequately promote LGBT issues. One private Jewish school for girls under the age of eight failed a third Ofsted inspection because “the school did not teach pupils about gender reassignment and sexualities, thereby restricting pupils’ spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development and rendering them unfit for present-day society.” Schools that repeatedly fail Ofsted inspections risk being closed down by the Department of Education.
Presumably, the Wunderlichs in Germany were “guilty” of a similar restriction of their children’s development. By not teaching what the State demands, homeschooling parents and parents who organize a religious school for their children fall foul of Orwell’s Big Brother: as Spielman wrote in her first annual report: “It is right that we use compulsory education to make sure children acquire a deep understanding of and respect for British values even if they are in tension with parental wishes or with community norms.”
Ofsted has plenty of cheerleaders. In 2017 the National Union of Teachers (NUT) demanded that “toddlers as young as two [be] taught about transgender issues.” It seems like NUT’s dream—a nightmare for Christian parents—will come to pass: “All UK schools will soon be obliged to teach lessons relating to homosexual and transgender issues from 2020, which lessons “will be a mandatory part of the curriculum in the UK and opting out will be illegal for parents, for “parents will be threatened with social services and/or legal ramifications if they object.”4 Undoubtedly, Ms. Spielman and her statist colleagues in Ofsted will eagerly enforce the new rules, including (maybe even especially) in faith schools.
1 ECHR Judgment: Wunderlich vs. Germany, http://www.adfmedia.org/files/WunderlichJudgment.pdf. (The page numbers cited in the first part of this article are taken from the ECHR document.)
2 Jibran Khan, National Review, “Amanda Spielman’s War on Religion in Great Britain” (Jan 28, 2019), https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/01/amanda-spielman-religious-schools-england-secularism.
3 “Teach Toddlers About Transgender Issues, National Union of Teachers Say,” The Telegraph (April 17, 2017), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2017/04/17/teach-toddlers-transgender-issues-national-union-teachers-say.
4 “Plans for Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Education to be Made Compulsory for UK School Children Aged 5 and Up” (February 27, 2019), The Liberal, https://theliberal.ie/plans-for-lesbian-gay-and-transgender-education-to-be-made-compulsory-for-uk-school-children-aged-5-and-up.