In today’s Belgian newspaper Gazet van Antwerpen Bob Van de Voorde, the spokesman of Frank Vandenbroucke, the minister of Education, says:
“One of the conditions [for homeschooling] is that the homeschoolers must sign a document in which they promise to rear their children along the lines of the UN Convention on Children’s Rights. These parents have not done this. This is why the ministry has started an inquiry.”
The parents Mr Van de Voorde is referring to in the paper are my husband (TBJ editor Paul Belien) and myself. The “inquiry” is a threat to prosecute us.
Homeschooling is a constitutional right in Belgium. We have homeschooled four of our five children through high school. Only the youngest is still being homeschooled because the others are already at university. And yet, as if they have nothing better to do, the Belgian police and judiciary are conducting an “inquiry” into our homeschooling to see whether we “rear our children along the lines of the United Nations Convention on Children’s Rights.”
Until two years ago, we never encountered any problems with the authorities concerning our family’s home education. In fact, compared to neighbouring countries, Belgium was very tolerant of homeschoolers. In 2003, however, the Flemish regional parliament decreed that all homeschoolers are obliged to sign a document in which they promise to rear their children along the lines of the UN Convention. The latter undermines the authority of parents and transfers it to the state.
The document the homeschoolers are made to sign also states that government inspectors decide whether families comply with the UN’s ideology. Furthermore, it contains a clause in which the homeschooling parents agree to send their child to an official government recognized school if the inspectors report negatively about them twice.
We refused to sign this document. Not only do we object to the imposed UN ideology, but we would never put our signature under a document that forces us to send our children to government controlled schools simply because two bureaucrats decide on the basis of arbitrary criteria that we are not in compliance with the imposed philosophy. Last week my husband was questioned by the police. He was informed that, because we refuse to sign, our children are not being schooled or brought up adequately, i.e. along the lines of the UN Convention. Hence, we are committing a criminal offence. The authorities are threatening to prosecute us.
Last Thursday I wrote an article on this website about this affair. Since our case has also been reported in the Belgian newspapers many families have responded with tales of their own. It is becoming clear that the decree of 2003 is being enforced with uncharacteristic speed and rigidity. One family withdrew their youngest son from the technical school where the eldest child had become a drug addict. They used the form supplied by the Ministry of Education to inform the latter of their decision to homeschool and in doing so unwittingly accepted the clauses of the 2003 document, as these are incorporated into the form.
Some months later the inspectors arrived. They said that the boy was using manuals unsuited for his age, even though he was using the same manuals as his peers at school. They were rude to his mother, who is of Polish origin, and claimed that she could not educate her child because of her accent. They said they would return. The parents carried on their education and noticed (as so many homeschooling parents do) that their son was highly motivated and was learning faster and better than he had done at school. Four months after their first visit the inspectors returned. They conceded that they could see improvement, but not enough and that the boy had to return to school.
Two weeks later the police came to their door with an order to send the boy to school or risk a penalty. The boy does not want to go back and there is no way these parents are going to force their child to return to a school rampant with drugs where their other child was ruined. They are now considering emigrating to Poland.
This story is only one of many. One striking aspect of it is the total arbitrariness displayed by the inspecting bureaucrats. Under the Belgian compulsory education law inspectors can visit homeschooling families only to ascertain that children are indeed
receiving an education and not e.g. being forced to work. Homeschoolers who want official certificates can take exams at the ministry of Education's Central Examination Board. If they pass those exams (as our children did), surely that constitutes adequate
proof that educational requirements have been met. What else would be
the use of exams and official certificates? There is nothing else for inspectors to inspect.
The Department of Education has redefined the inspectors’ role, enforcing the family’s conformity with the ideology outlined in article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights
of the Child. Apart from the homeschoolers, no-one has questioned the blatant contradiction between this requirement and the Belgian laws on education, viz. the Constitution and the law on compulsory education. Article 24 of the Belgian Constitution states that “education is free” and that “the state guarantees the parents’ freedom of choice.” The current educational authorities are forcing home educators to relinquish their freedom of choice and adopt the philosophy of article 29 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, both in their homes and in their education.
In doing so the authorities are demanding more of homeschoolers than of the so-called “neutral” schools organised by local and regional authorities. These schools are required by the Constitution (art. 24) to “respect the philosophical, ideological or religious convictions of the parents and the pupils” and “to offer lessons on any of the religions recognized by the state or on non-denominational morality.” Homeschooling families, however, are being denied respect for their or their children’s convictions by the education authorities. Worse still, whilst the state’s own educators are obliged to organize the religious and ideological education which their pupils’ parents request, the state itself is forcing homeschooling parents to educate their children according to an ideology not of their own choosing.
Allowing two bureaucrats to decide on the basis of arbitrary criteria whether or not parents are in compliance with a state imposed philosophy also violates the Belgian Constitution and even human rights in general, as the British Libertarian Alliance pointed out today in a press release relating to our case. In a free society, which Belgium apparently no longer is, citizens do not have to allow two strangers into their homes who come to make judgements about their religious or philosophical beliefs and their children’s attitudes, and then assess the quality of their education on those grounds. The Belgian Constitution specifies that “everyone is entitled to respect for his private and family life” and that “this right is guaranteed by law.” Parents cannot be obliged to sign away this basic constitutional human right.
If the Belgian authorities decide to prosecute us we think we can win in court – at least if the court bases its verdict on the Belgian Constitution. In order to prepare for court cases we have established a Vlaams Centrum voor Huisonderwijs (Flemish Home Education Centre), which can be contacted here. There is, unfortunately, always the possibility that activist judges will rule that the UN Convention overrules the Belgian Constitution. If this is the case, the consequences are far-reaching. Not only for us. In effect it would mean that the laws, and even the Constitution, of our lands are no longer decided by the people of the land, but by the UN, i.e. the international club of states that includes members such as North Korea, China, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran,...
Perhaps this explains why our case has attracted worldwide attention. Yesterday Rudolf Schmidheiny, President of the Swiss Home Educators Association, wrote to Sean Gabb of the British Libertarian Alliance, saying that our case sounds very familiar to him:
For over fifteen years we have been struggeling here in Switzerland and the situation is getting worse. The whole battle is about the non-declared statist ideology. Whoever has a different opinion than the states’ bureaucrats is publicly denounced as intolerant, reactionary, traditionalist or whatever, while the bureaucrats force their illogical, misleading and hidden socialist views. Unfortunately the press is mostly on their side.
We have been led to the question, how the state would justify and reason for its authority over children. Of course we know of the UN’s Children’s Rights. Within the 54 articles you will find “the state” mentioned at least 45 times. The UN’s Children’s Rights are not Children’s Rights but an instrument to “free the parents of their rights and duties towards their children”. This is the logical consequence of the antiauthoritarian movement. But “antiauthoritarian” is just a cover. Authority (moral authority) will not be removed but exchanged. The parents’ authority is being replaced by the state’s authority, as the “Belien case” and many others (in Germany, Switzerland, Holland etc.) prove.
I am convinced that the only unshakable legal ground is the state-preceding parental right, given to each parent by nature through the birth of their child. It is the parents’ responsibility to take care of the baby as a human being, not the state’s.
Since Adolf Hitler prohibited homeschooling in 1938, Germany is the worst place for homeschoolers in Europe. Many parents have already been fined, and even sent to jail. Last March a court in Hamburg sentenced a German father of six to a prison sentence of one week for homeschooling his children, while the children were forcibly sent to school by the police, who pick them up each morning. The father, a conservative Christian, had previously been sentenced to a fine of 1,500 euro, but this did not persuade him to stop homeschooling. The court did not imprison the mother, but said it would not hesitate to do so if the parents continue violating the law. The bill prohibiting homeschooling is one of the very few Nazi laws that are still on the books in Germany. Today other countries, such as Belgium, seem intent on copying Germany’s Nazi system, whilst invoking the UN Convention.
Hitler’s Ghost Haunts German Parents, 1 August 2005