I have to be honest, I have written, deleted, rewritten and deleted this response a good many times. I have found it incredibly difficult to put over my thoughts in a coherent manner such is my strength of feeling on this issue.
Many of you will be unaware that a private members Bill is currently making its way through the House of Lords, proposed by Lord Soley (Labour Lord), regarding home education. I have read and reread the entire transcript of the second reading of the Bill a number of times. Before I even start addressing the points made as regards the Bill, I have to say I have been utterly appalled and aghast by the attitudes of all but one of the Lords who responded. The exception, Lord Lucas, showed great understanding of the situation and called for an evidence based Bill rather than an opinion based Bill. Between the rest of the Lords, for me, they have displayed a frightening lack of understanding of education, home education, SEN, child welfare and the realities of life for ordinary people. In fact, Lord Soley himself actually acknowledged that he had “not had a great deal of involvement in education” and does not “claim to have that much knowledge of it”. I am perturbed that these unelected Peers are proposing, influencing and making laws/decisions that affect all of our lives, whilst displaying a total disconnection and distrust of real people. They have shown, in this case, that these proposals are based on their own opinions and views of life and not any evidence at all. In fact, and most worryingly, they appear to not actually be interested in the evidence or reality. They are displaying a shocking level of ignorance and arrogance in the power and stance of the State . This is something that I had not really appreciated until really looking into this, and something I feel we should all be concerned about.
So firstly, a quick foray into the legal definition of education and where educational responsibility lies. The legal responsibility for the education of a child lies wholly and squarely with the parents of the child, both in UK law and within European Convention of Human Rights. The Education Act 1996 states “The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable— (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.” Schools must provide a “broad and balanced” education because it is providing education to thousands of children. The education parents provide is regarded as suitable providing it;
“… equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s option in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so.”
Schooled education is set up in a way that makes mass education easier to administer. Teachers do not have the time, staff or resources to find the optimal learning pace, style and preference for each child. Neither do teachers have any real flexibility to provide education individually tailored to the age, ability, aptitude or SEN of every child. National Curriculum dictates content, methods and standards irrelevant of actual age, developmental stage, ability, aptitude or SEN of a child – it is a one standard fits all system, where anyone or anything outside this is classed as substandard/failing. In contrast, home educators can provide educational content and methods perfectly balanced to their child’s age, development stage, preferences, learning styles, pace and SEN.
So in essence, what does the Bill entail? It would mean as a home educator you would be compelled, by law, to register all home educated children, you would be compelled to give access to your home to Government officials, at least annually, to determine whether your child is being abused, radicalised, whether they are being home educated against their will and to monitor educational standards (these standards have not been specified but I assume they would be National Curriculum levels). You could be compelled to allow your child to be interviewed by a Government official, in which you as a parent, you would not allowed to be present. The Bill, as it stands, means you would also be compelled to allow a Government official to assess the physical and emotional development of your child, at least annually (although during the second reading Lord Soley did concede that this was “unrealistic”). If alarm bells are not ringing for you already, let me explain why you should be very concerned over these draconian measures that are being proposed in the “best interests of the child”.
In UK law, as I have said earlier, parents hold ultimate legal responsibility for their child’s education. The default position is home education, if you do not wish to fulfil this responsibility personally, you opt into the school system by enrolling your child for a school place, then OFSTED oversee the quality of this on behalf of parents. Local Authorities have a responsibility to provide school places for those that wish it, to identify children missing in education when on school roll and for identifying those children in home education who do not appear to be receiving an education. I can’t think of any other aspect in life where you have to register with the Government, when you rightfully and legally choose not to opt into something.
Compulsory access to your home
Some Local Authorities already cite that access to your home is compulsory. This is currently illegal under English law, it contravenes the UN Convention of Children’s Rights (which although never adopted into English Law was ratified) and human rights. Even the police and social workers need a reason and justification to enter a home. The Bill, as it stands, would nullify the these laws and rights for one subset of the population – which is discrimination and also illegal. This Bill would compel home educators to allow access to their home by the Government annually, so that they can speculatively look for evidence of law breaking. All this, because a family has taken the rightful and legal decision not to opt into the state school system. Are you worried yet? If not, you should be. Looking at another human right, the right to the presumption to innocence until proved guilty. This Bill runs very close to riding a coach and horses through the presumption to innocence. Almost putting home educators in the position of having to prove they are not wrong doing. The Bill also contravenes the parental presumption to competence which is accorded all parents in England. The role of the State is as a 3rd parent, where it is proved the parents have failed. If you are still not worried, then just consider how you would feel being compelled to allow Government officials into your home for them to speculatively look for evidence of wrong doing. And for those of the “nothing to hide” persuasion, there are plenty of blogs, articles and resources explaining why this is a dangerous position for everyone.
Interviewing of home educated children without their parents
Even the police need a reason to interview a child, and whilst this can be done without a parent present, they have to be very careful not to influence or intimidate the child. Yet this Bill wants all home educated children to be interviewed annually, without parents present, to see if a wrong doing may have occurred, presumably they hope to achieve this without influencing or intimidating the child. Given the disproportionately high percentage of SEN children in the home education population, many of whom are on the autistic spectrum, the very thought of an authority stranger demanding to speak to them in itself would be extremely traumatic. Baroness Deech, was particularly concerned that a home educated child, that was not subject to annual inspection, would be “muffled and unable to say whether they would like to be elsewhere”. By the reverse logic I wonder if they are going to abide by their own standard and allow home educators to interview all schooled children, without their parents or teachers, to ascertain whether they wish to continue in school or be home educated instead. I don’t know, but I’m guessing not, which implies State muffling of a child’s voice is acceptable.
Lord Soley suggests people are using the home education laws to deregister their children to radicalise them. A freedom of information request on all Local Authorities showed that not a single case of home educated children being involved in extremist activity has been recorded. Even if the Bill was enacted, compulsory annual inspection would hardly reveal this. Radicalised school children who have school contact for 1170 hours (6 hours x 5 days x 39 weeks a year) a year go undetected. There is no evidence that home educated children are more likely to be radicalised than their school peers.
Illegal and unregistered schools
Lord Soley claims he needs this Bill to prevent children being deregistered to be put into illegal and/or unregistered schools. I think the clue is in the name here – OFSTED has the remit and power to identify, inspect and close illegal and unregistered schools. They do not need this Bill to do this, they simply need to use their existing powers.
Lord Soley claims that home educated children are deregistered so that abuse can be covered up, and that the Bill would prevent this. To the best of my knowledge, there has only been one case of child neglect that has been linked in any way to home education, and this was Dylan Seabridge in Wales. However, as Lord Lucas pointed out at the second reading of the Bill, concerns about Dylan were raised a year before he died and the authorities did not see fit to act – a failure of the State not of home education. Creating a compulsion to register all home educated children with the Local Authority would not prevent abuse. Those intent on abusing their children would presumably be unlikely to present themselves for registration, and hence not be available for inspection.
On the subject of abuse. One of the most prevalent reasons for deregistering a child from school is due to bullying, which is rife in schools. I have heard so many stories of concerned parents being told their child was “too sensitive”, “needs to grow a thicker skin”, “has to learn to deal with it as part of life”. And sadly, bullying is not the preserve of children either, I personally know of children removed to home educate due to bullying at the hands of teachers, some of these children now suffer PTSD as a result.
I would suggest that tackling abuse and bullying in schools would reduce the numbers in home education in the first place over which he is so concerned.
Lord Soley expressed concern about children “disappearing” once deregistered from school. Any child deregistered from a school has to be reported to the Local Authority by law by the school, so they are already “known” to the authorities, they have not “disappeared”. Children who have never been opted into the system are still known to authorities – they were registered at birth. Children are still registered with the NHS, doctors, dentists, opticians, libraries, child benefit etc. Home educated children are within their families, friends, community, home education community, at events etc. If a person really wanted to “hide” a child then this Bill would not prevent that, these people would be unlikely to come forward to declare their home education status with the Local Authority.
Baroness Morris of Yardley was one of a number of Peers rightly concerned about “off – rolling” of students. This is where pressure is brought to bear on parents by schools to remove their child into home education, under the guise of being best for the child and largely against the wishes of the parents who feel forced into this. This can be due to the school feeling unable to meet SEN needs, the child about to be permanently excluded and/or the possibility of the child’s assessment results being detrimental to the school performance. This is a concern shared by many in the home education community. As soon as a child is removed from school roll the school must inform the Local Authority by law. Therefore, the current system captures this information already and therefore the Local Authority has the opportunity to intervene. The proposed Bill would make no difference to this at all.
Concerns of most home educators providing “substandard education”.
Many Peers raised concerns about educational standards within home educating families. Lord Addington said children were disappearing “into very substandard education”. He did not provide any evidence of this or what he felt the standard should be, one presumes the National Curriculum.
Whilst National Curriculum appears to be held as the holy grail of “standards”, I would like to ask the question of who sets the National Curriculum. Given the legal definitions and responsibilities outlined in my opening paragraphs, one would assume that parents, communities, teachers, children, business and workplace communities would be key contributors, as well as child development experts. However, given all the recent curriculum changes pushed through by successive Educational Ministers, against the advice of teachers, head teachers, parents and children, it would suggest that politicians are the drivers. There has been much debate and many articles written about suitability of National Curriculum, in particular its impact on childhood mental health. The Government’s own appointed adviser on childhood mental health found herself out of a job when she pointed the finger at the education system. There has also been much discussion on whether an education system designed in and on the principles of the industrial revolution is fit for purpose in today’s environment. Sir Ken Robinson explains this perfectly in his RSA Animated Lecture on Changing the Educational Paradigms.
Many home educators feel that the National Curriculum and school environment do not provide good quality education for their children, particularly if they have a child who is gifted and/or has SEN. They want a “curriculum” based on other things they consider important e.g. self motivation, curiosity, ability to self direct, evaluate, challenge, follow passions, ask questions, specialise. They see education in a more holistic way than simply cramming knowledge, being tested on it, forgetting it and then moving onto the next test. They see education as learning HOW to learn not WHAT to learn. Once a child knows how to learn, they can learn anything, at any time and anywhere. Many home educators feel that true learning does not happen to a Government dictated timetable, formula and process, at set dates, in set subjects and batched up with children of identical ages. Just because home education is not measurable does not mean it is substandard. And indeed what should the standards be? On the continent formal schooling often doesn’t start until 7 years, so a child unable to read at 7 years is the norm. In England, a 7year old child with no reading would be classed as “failing”. Given increasing evidence that we are pushing children with too much too young and that this is a significant factor in childhood mental health decline, then really it is National Curriculum that should come under scrutiny not home education. On a slightly flippant note when it comes to standards and appropriate education, I am finding it hard pressed to find parents, teachers, students and business leaders who feel that vital life knowledge for an 11 yr old consists of the intricate workings of subjective conjunctions and fronted adverbials. In fact, I suggest anyone agreeing that it benefits school childrens’ written English, should take a few moments to listen to Michael Rosen (Children’s Laureate June 2007- June 2009) on the subject.
Many home educated children take different qualifications, different paths to their careers rather than the school system of GCSEs, ALevels etc. But for those that wish to take this route it can be difficult and expensive. If Lord Soley really wished to help, then maybe pressuring the Government to make it easier to access these exams externally would be prudent. Once you deregister your child from the school system, you take on the full cost yourself, including the cost of entering your child into examinations. There are few exam centres, which are often hours away that take external candidates and often the cost runs to several hundred pounds per subject.
Special Educational Needs (SEN)
On a more positive note, there was some acknowledgement by the Peers that a number of children were home educated due to unmet SEN needs by the state school system. From my experience a great number of children in home education are there due to unmet SEN. This is a systematic failure of the State to provide a comprehensive SEN strategy and resources. A significant number of these failed children are autistic children who are too academic for special school but too autistic for mainstream school. Schools do not have the training, expertise, experience or resources for these very complex children. But this is a separate discussion. However, Lord Soley suggests help should be made available to families of SEN children. What this consists of and who was going to pay for it he didn’t outline. As a battle weary SEN parent, who is well aware of the reality of Local Authority “help”, I remain sceptical until I see it. School budgets are being cut, Teaching Assistants removed, SEN support dropped, EHCPs routinely rejected or providing very weak support, Local Authorities telling parents that they forfeit NHS Occupational Therapy, NHS Speech and Language therapy when you home educate (this is a lie by the way), Local Authorities refusing to give parents EHCP Personal Budgets and blocking access to help and provision at every turn (I have personal experience of this), NHS budgets cut, NHS service access thresholds so high very few can access them, practically non-existent CAMHS service provision in many parts of the country … I could go on and on. Given this backdrop, I somehow doubt the Local Authorities are suddenly going to be able to fund the “help” alluded to by Lord Soley.
There were a multitude of corkers by various Peers regarding home educating parents, including but not limited to “there are inadequate and disorganised parents who simply cannot get their children ready in time to go to school” this by Baroness Richardson of Calow. Another of my favourites is by Baroness Garden of Frognal who expresses concerns that home educated families may not be able teach children to be “part of the community”. Home educated children are learning IN their community. They are developing personal and social skills that cannot be learned in schools when merely surrounded only by identically aged peers and authority figure adults. In fact, home educators worry about what passes for socialisation in schools. A perfect example, a local man here runs parkour groups for home educated children and schooled children. He informed a close home educating friend that in home educated groups he can mix all the age ranges (5-15 years) as they are all very supportive and encouraging of each other. In groups of school children, he has to split by year group because the older children belittle and mock the younger, less able ones. I could carry on giving evidence of patronising, ill informed and ignorant comments by some Peers but I will stop there as you likely get the drift.
The real questions …
Lord Soley acknowledges that the numbers of home educated children has risen dramatically over recent years. I don’t think anyone is going to deny that. This surely is a perfect time to ask the question WHY. Why do so many people feel so strongly as to remove their child from state education, lose an income, radically change their lives, take back educational responsibility and take on the financial burdens of home educating their children? Why are teachers leaving the system? Why is the Government struggling to recruit teachers and then retain them? Why are parents voicing concerns over relentless testing? Why are childhood mental health issues rising? Why are SEN parents removing their children in droves? Why do teachers choose to leave their profession to home educate their own children rather than put them into the system? Why are businesses struggling to recruit staff with the right skills? Why ARE an increasing number of parents choosing to home educate?
Rather than address these issues, Lord Soley has focused on registration and assessment of home education on the basis of standards of education, radicalisation and child abuse. There is no evidence that these are even issues. He is advocating sweeping away the human rights of one subset of the population based on his own ill informed fears and suspicions. As Lord Lucas points out that if we [government] “lived up to our obligations to these parents and children under existing legislation, I do not think we would have a fraction of the worry and problem we have”. He went on to say “A lot of powers are not used because of lack of money or lack of quality of staff”. There are examples where Local Authorities work proactively with the home education community and within the law to great effect. This proves that when exercised well, the existing powers are fit for purpose. There really is no need for this discriminatory and costly Bill, which will not actually address the issues it proclaims it aims to solve.