Not so wunderful: Germany’s fear of homeschooling

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Although Dirk and Petra have now been reunited with their children, their legal position remains uncertain and Germany continues to maintain criminal penalties for families who want to homeschool. [ADF International]

Home education is a right recognised by international human rights. And yet, Germany fails to honour these agreements, writes Alexandra Tompson.

Alexandra Tompson is a legal analyst for ADF International, a Vienna-headquartered organisation that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

Homeschooling is forbidden in Germany. It is one of the only European countries which does not recognise the right of parents to educate their children at home. Not all families comply. They pay a high price. The Wunderlich family are a living testimony.

Their ordeal began on an early Thursday morning, in the summer of 2013, near Darmstadt. The family had just sat down to begin the first homeschool lesson of the year. Out of the blue, a group of more than 20 police officers and social workers invaded their home. The police squad forced them to open the front door, thrust the father into a chair and went on to drag away his four children, aged seven to 14. One policeman didn’t even have the decency to let the mother kiss one of her daughter’s goodbye. They were made to watch their beloved children being taken away. Every parent’s worst nightmare.

The government’s ban on homeschooling dates back to 1918. Since then, however, the nation has signed up to various international human rights agreements. They explicitly protect parental rights to direct the upbringing of their children. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education even addressed Germany on this point: home education is a right recognised by international human rights. And yet, Germany fails to honour these agreements.

According to German law, you are endangering your children by not sending them to school. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes there is a need to intervene; in horrific situations where children are at risk of serious abuse. But this was not the case here. The custody order was school related. No abuse, no neglect, no harm, no risks.

Apart from Germany and Sweden, virtually all EU countries tolerate homeschooling. It has been a success in the UK, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Poland, Ireland, and in many more. In France, thousands of families homeschool their children. It’s not a big deal. In fact, following the removal of their children, the Wunderlichs asked the authorities if they could leave Germany for France. This request was refused. Another fundamental human right ignored, and their freedom of movement disregarded. This is worrying and strikes me as totalitarian. Who is responsible for raising the child, the parents or the state?

Some may argue homeschooling risks radicalisation amongst fundamentalist Islamic communities. But that risk also exists in other environments like prisons, gyms, and even public schools. The UK saw this risk materialise with the “Trojan horse plot” to stock particular public schools with Islamist teachers and governors. The response to radicalisation shouldn’t be a rush to entrust all things to the benevolence of the state.

The Wunderlichs want the best for their children. They believed that their home environment was the best choice. The seizure of the children was unjustified. The emotional and mental trauma inflicted may scar all six members of the family for life. It’s not the parents who were irresponsible, but the authorities.

The battle is not over yet. Although they have now been reunited, the obligation for the children to be sent to a government-approved institution remains. ADF International, a legal human rights organisation, has taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Parents should be free to educate their children in accordance with their faith and principles.

At the root of this is an assumption that is difficult to understand – the idea that homeschooling harms children. And yet when the Wunderlich children were tested by the state, they performed above average. Homeschooled children form part of the diverse tapestry of our society.