HOME EDUCATION IN FRANCE: Widespread Ignorance

Record: Philippe Bongrand, “’Compulsory Schooling’ Despite the Law: How Education Policy Underpins the Widespread Ignorance of the Right to Home Educate in France.” Journal of School Choice, 10, No. 3 (2016): 320-329. [Abstract]

Summary: Bongrand is a researcher from the ÉMA Research Center in the School of Education at the University of Cergy-Pontoise. In this article, he discusses the reasons for the ignorance surrounding the right to home educate in France, even though school attendance is not, and has never been, legally compulsory.

The discussion of school choice in France usually centers around public and private schools. However, Bongrand points out that most of these “private” schools are actually state-funded and share curricula and teachers with the public school system. Only 2.7% of private schools (principally Montessori schools and Waldorf-Steiner schools) are truly independent from the state education system. The last official figure indicates that there are less than 20,000 home educated children in France; however, this is likely a gross overestimate due to the fact that it includes children enrolled in distance learning institutions as well. It is possible that the 3,297 children with no enrollment in any distance learning institution might be a better reflection of the true home educating population in France.

Bongrand proposes that the reason that so few children (less than 20,000 of 12,300,000) are home educated is that school attendance is believed to be compulsory. However, school attendance has never been compulsory in France. In the first law on the subject in 1882, only instruction was made compulsory, not attendance. The law specifies that the instruction can be given in a school or at home, taught by the family. Despite some alterations over the years, school attendance is still not required. Nevertheless, it is common to hear French sociologists, educational historians, and politicians talk about compulsory schooling, even though the requirement does not exist. French society simply ignores home educators, the option of home education, and therefore, the right to home educate.

Bongrand notes several reasons for this ignorance of home education. First, there is no unified home education movement or prominent organization that advocates for home education. Most home educating families prefer to stay under the radar. Second, politicians do not mention or even question the right to home educate. In the past when changes to the compulsory instruction law were being debated, home education was not an issue since everyone treated instruction and school attendance to be synonymous. Although parents do have to declare to local authorities that they are home educating their children, the national government only occasionally collects this information on a national level.

Bongrand continues with three more reasons that the right to home educate has been ignored in France. First, the government doesn’t want to regulate it. During debates in 1882 and 1936 some government leaders wanted to create local committees that would identify home educating students, but this administrative task was judged too costly. Second, home education is often lumped in the public opinion with other matters. For example, in 1998, home education regulations changed because of the dramatic death of a child who was home educated in a sectarian group. Instead of home education, the news reports focused on the problem of cults. Now in modern days, with France enhancing home education regulation as a result of recent terrorist attacks, home education is being associated with potential terrorist behavior. Cases like these certainly deter the government from discussing home education as a legal option.

Appraisal: To my knowledge, this is the first article about home education in France that has been published in English. Prior to this, home education in France only received a brief mention on the ICHER website in the review of Koons (2010) who pointed to France as one of the countries, along with England and Ireland, that have always accommodated home education. Beyond that, no one has looked into the intriguing story that Bongrand tells about the ignored right to home educate. Even though home education has always been legal in France, it seems that hardly anyone is interested in it! Compared to the UK (where home education is the recipient of much more attention) and Germany (where home education is effectively banned), France’s situation appears very different. Now that we have a deeper understanding of home education’s legality there, it is time for Bongrand (or another French researcher) to investigate the home educating community that does exist in France. What kinds of people home educate and why? How did they learn about their right to home educate if the government does such an effective job at obscuring it?

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