Influencing the field of politics for home education
A look into successful lobbying in the Netherlands
From February to April 2011 there was quite a bit of turmoil in the Netherlands about home education. As in some other countries, the existence of home education in the Netherlands was at stake. The Minister of OCW (Education, Culture and Science) unexpectedly decided to reconsider the law concerning home education. The trigger for this was the closure of an Islamic secondary school in Amsterdam. With no other options for their children to receive schooling from their religious viewpoint, seventy families announced they would apply for an exemption to homeschool. Suddenly, the increasing fear of “Islamification” in the Netherlands was linked to the home education movement. Fierce discussions in the political and public arena followed.
Within this field of forces, the Dutch Home Educators Association (NVvTO) lobbied actively to safeguard the interests of Dutch home educators. After a tense time, we take a moment to take a breath and look back on the situation, the lobbying process, the ingredients, the players, and the results achieved.
The situation in the Netherlands
The Compulsory Education Law (Leerplichtwet 1969) does not acknowledge home education as a legal form of education as such. Exemption of school enrollment is only legal when unable to attend a school, or on the grounds of being unable to find a school nearby that endorses the family’s life philosophy or religious beliefs. In many cases, access to this exemption is blocked for children who previously attended a school.
From a social context, there is increasing secularization and growing denouncement of non-public and alternative education.
The lobbying process
Since its founding in 2000, the NVvTO has made it a goal to improve access to home education in the Netherlands and to make it better known. Currently, there may be an opportunity to have home education as an optional choice in the law, as well as the possiblity for children who have attended a school previously to gain an exemption. To achieve these goals, the NVvTO prepared a lobbying strategy in 2010.
In preparation, several sessions took place with a professional lobbyist, who gave the following “recipe”:
1) formulate a positive and durable message that connects to social developments, and
2) analyse the field of forces—key players and their attitudes with regard to home education.
Before the board of the NVvTO could go public with this message, a radio broadcast about the decision of 70 Islamic families in Amsterdam to pursue home education stirred up controversy. The PvdA wethouder (a local government executive) for education of Amsterdam announced vehemently that he was against the decision of the parents. The parliamentary spokesperson supported him. Thus, a debate about home education began in the Netherlands.
Suddenly, the improvement of the situation of home education was no longer the first priority for the NvvTO; instead, we focused our efforts on maintaining the current situation, that is the legal possibilty of home education by exemption.
Time for action
With the freshly formulated message that home education is a good form of education, the board of the assocation actively reached out to important lawmakers and administrators, including the spokespersons of the political parties in the area of education, the policy workers within the Ministry of Education who advise the minister, and the Advisory Board of Education (the Onderwijsraad, an independant advice organ in the area of education). Our focus was three-fold:
1) to remove the existing prejudices against home education,
2) give home educators a voice and a face by organizing a petition, writing letters by NVvTO members to their own favorite political party, and
3) point to the process of self-regulation and self-selection that comes with the choice for home education. We very purposely chose not to bring to the public attention the legal battles that many families face when choosing home education.
The time had come to break the message to the media, by means of regional and national newspapers, as well as interviews on the radio and opinion pieces. Also, individual NVvTO members took the initiative to use social media to get out the word.
A deciding parliamentary debate was held on March 31st, where a majority was in favor of keeping the current exemption on the grounds of religious or conscientious objections. In paritcular, all of the Christian parties and all the government fractions (together with the supporting party, PVV) voted in favor of home education.
So, for the time being, the option of home education by exemption is safe, albeit with a condition. Several parties stipulated that the implementation of an inexpensive way to inspect home educators must be introduced. Currently, there is no inspection of homeschoolers in the Netherlands.
The Minister of Education promised to present a proposal about inspection by the end of December 2011. Coincidentally, we have learned that the Advisory Board of Education plans to present a proposal in December as well, on how to interpret Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution—the article that gives the freedom of orientation and setup of education. There is still work to be done before the NVvTO reaches its goals.
In review of the situation, three factors in particular stand out in our strategy: giving a positive message about home education, refraining from denouncing schools, and speaking instead from from the strength of home education. There are several Dutch scientific sources that speak to the benefits of home education, including multiple reports of national and international scientific research and a recent dissertation. In addition, examples from similar European countries where home education is legal—such as Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Norway—are very helpful. Policy makers showed much interest in these areas, and this research helped to separate facts about homeschooling from prejudices and rumors. In addition, a positive side effect that resulted from all the commotion is that many more people learned about home education and its possibilities.
Referring to scientific research, pointing to positive legal situations in other countries, and giving a voice to people who home educate, played a descisive role. The NVvTO will use the lobbying process again in the future.
Postscript: only a few of the seventy families mentioned here will actually start home education.
Written by the board of the Netherlands Home Educators Association (NVvTO) for the European Home Education Conference in Spain, September 2011.