Home-schooler Monica has a lot to learn

The State is obliged to check that a minimum educational standard is being applied...writes Michael Clifford

Home-schooler Monica has a lot to learn

If the couple in question wish to defy the law, on whatever arrogant premise they choose, off with them. But let them take the consequences without subjecting the rest of us to an emotional circus

REPORTS of the incident were shocking. Gardaí materialised out of the dawn to arrest a mother-of-six. Monica O’Connor’s young son spotted them approaching the family home in Carlow and shouted a warning: “Mum, the guards are here”.

The long arm of the jackboot-State’s law hustled Monica out into the squad car. We know this because as well as the two members of An Garda Síochána, a television camera, reporters and photographers were present for the dawn raid. In the growing trend of modern resistance movements, the revolution was being televised.

A blue teddy bear, apparently a sleeping aid, stuck out of Monica’s bag as she left the bosom of her family to be interned by the bullying State. The poor bear, caught up in all this palaver. Why couldn’t they have left him out of it? Monica was standing on a matter of principle. She and her husband had refused to be assessed for home-schooling their children. Their stance resulted in a prosecution, and a fine that they have refused to pay. Monica was making a stand, as she saw it, in the tradition of conscientious objectors, like Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955.

Later in the day, broadcaster Joe Duffy told Monica that she was no Rosa Parks, to which Monica agreed, but, still, she mentioned her struggle in the same vein as Parks’ actions.

The raid by the gardaí resulted, according to one newspaper report, in Monica being “torn away from them (her family) and jailed”.

It was shocking stuff.

Later in the day, her husband, Eddie O’Neill, went on the airwaves to detail the trauma.

“This is the first time that Monica and I have been separated,” he told broadcaster Matt Cooper. “Our family has been split up.” That interview was broadcast at around 4.45pm, nearly nine hours after Monica had been taken away, by which time she had already been freed, but not yet reunited with her family. Nine hours. A family sundered through nine hours of daylight, three of them behind bars. Even the most despotic state would not sink to that level of torture (some of us might regard nine hours away from the family, now and then, as a nice little holiday). Monica had been set free on temporary release, which, among others conditions, included one that she not frequent a public house for three days.

She summed it all up for Duffy on RTÉ’s Liveline. “What we need to teach our children is that when you are bullied, you stand up for what you believe.”

Her stance met with the approval of her own brood, including her six-year-old son, whom she quoted in one report as saying, “The people who are making you go to prison are breaking the Constitution”.

That heartbreaking note made me, a parent of a six-year-old, feel highly inadequate.

My young fella knows all about ‘Plants versus Zombies’ on the goddamn I-Pad, and about local hero, Johnny Cooper, playing for Dublin, but wouldn’t know the Constitution if it walked up and bit him on the bum.

Home-schooling is not for everybody. Personally, I would have concerns about the socialisation of the child. Some who are home-schooled socialise primarily with the children of other home-schoolers, rather than finding their own friends. Still, different strokes for different folks.

Currently, up to 2,000 children are educated in the home in this country, according to the National Education Welfare Board. That’s nearly a tenfold increase in the official figures in the last decade. It is quite obviously an option that is attracting a growing number of parents, and often with good reason.

Some children require special attention or effort, which parents are not confident they would receive in the school system. Other parents take on the task because they don’t wish to subject their children to a system that barely caters for anything outside a Catholic education.

And then there are those who just believe it to be the best form of education for their children.

Huge reservoirs of effort are required to combine the roles of parent and educator. It is admirable to do the job on the basis that it’s best for your children. Everything demands more effort, and, I would imagine, is freighted with more worry.

Eddie O’Neill and Monica O’Connor would appear to have managed their task with particular skill. They have spoken of the success of their three elder, home-educated children, and have even provided the same education for some of the 20 children they have fostered.

All in all, they appear to be excellent parents, who have offered their skills to a whole host of children outside their own family.

But the idea that they should, therefore, be above the law is preposterous. For that appears to be one plank of the argument that they put forward for refusing to submit their home-schooling for assessment. If this principle were to apply to, say, traffic management, then I could demand that no garda monitor my speed, on the basis that I have never been detected speeding in 25 years on the road. (Well, I have, but you get the picture).

Another plank of their defence is that they are entitled to invoke their constitutional right to home-schooling. More hokum. Article 42.3, which they quote, also includes the provision that the State shall, “as guardians of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social”.

Far from being a bully, the State is obliged to check that a minimum standard is being applied. How can this be done without assessing what is on offer? The State has an obligation to children, but also has a vested interest. If children don’t receive a basic education, they may become a burden on the State in adulthood, if they are, for example, unemployable.

Ms O’Connor also said that the State intruded on the family. Really? If she feels so proprietorial about that issue, why doesn’t she forego her child-benefit stipend, which is another form of State intrusion on the family?

Last week’s palaver was unedifying, and did little to further the agenda of diversity in education, which is badly in need of acceleration.

If the couple in question wish to defy the law, on whatever arrogant premise they choose, off with them. But let them take the consequences without subjecting the rest of us to an emotional circus, complete with the plight of the poor, displaced blue bear.

Now, where’s that young fella of mine. Come here, the Dubs are toast for this year, son, and you can put down that I-Pad. See this blue book, this is the Constitution. It’s ‘Bunreacht Na hEireann’ from here till Christmas for you, laddie.

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