Has big brother got it in its sights?
Parents must now register
In mid January 2009, the Department for Children, Schools and Families launched an independent review of home education by Graham Badman, the former director of children and educational services at Kent county council.
The Badman review was set up for a number of reasons.; To look at the barriers to local authorities and other public agencies safeguarding home-educated children, as well as at ensuring that their safety, well-being and broader development are nurtured along with their academic achievement; the extent to which home education might be being used as a cover for child abuse; at whether local authorities are providing the right support to home-educating families and at whether any changes are needed to the processes for monitoring the standard of home education. On launching the Review, the Government suggested that local authorities and children’s organisations had expressed concern about the current system’s ability adequately to support and monitor the education, safety and well-being of home-educated children.
The Badman Review, just completed, recommended the following:
• that local authorities should provide more support to home educating families, eg. through helping provide access to the national examination system, sports facilities, libraries and music tuition
• a compulsory annual registration scheme, in which all parents who plan to home educate have to inform their local authority.
While around 20,000 children are already registered, the actual number being home educated is unknown and could be more than double this number; • at the time of registration, parents being asked to submit a statement of their intended approach to the child’s education including what they aim to achieve over the following 12 months;
• giving properly trained local authority officials the right of access to the home, following a minimum two week notification to the parents. They will check that the child is making progress against their learning statement. They will also have the right to speak to the child, to ensure they are safe and well. A written report must then be produced and shared with the parents and child; and
• that local authorities can refuse registration to home educate if there is clear evidence of safeguarding concerns.
The duty to identify children who are missing education, which was introduced by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, was not a duty to identify home educators.
Its purpose was far broader: to identify children who are receiving no education at all. From the outset of the review process the Government emphasised that they had no plans to change parents’ well-established right to educate their children at home. Indeed, the right to educate your child at home is seen as a basic Human Right. The Human Rights Act 1998 for example states: “In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” However, it is also true too, as a Minister recently said in the Parliament (9 June). that every child has the fundamental right to receive an education, and “we need to ensure that that important human right is delivered for every child in the land, even in those rare cases where their parents’ convictions conflict with their right to be educated.” The Government has also been concerned about the threat of abuse to those educated at home. Home Educators have felt for while that they have been under much greater scrutiny, more than ever before and are more regularly encountering social workers, who turn up, often unannounced, to make demands: evidence of class timetables, written work and so on. Home education has in fact been under almost constant scrutiny since the Children Act 2004, which enshrined the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda in legislation. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 introduced new duties for identifying children who were missing education. Yet there was another consultation in autumn last year on children missing education, and all home educators will eventually be tracked down as a result of the controversial ContactPoint database.
Home Educators feel that they are now very much a target. They worry that the Government are manipulating current anxiety about child abuse to intrude further into home education, when they have little legal right to do so. Government, both local and national, seem uncomfortable about parents providing education that cannot be monitored, tested or accounted for.
There is a real fear that the Government, under the banner of child protection are seeking to undermine freedom of choice of home educators. What is clear is that there is a vibrant expanding community of home educators who share classes and co-ordinate their knowledge base. A nationwide, lively, online community shares best practice and experience, and all this comes at no cost to taxpayers because the vast majority of home educators shoulder not only the teaching burden, but the financial one too.
What confuses Home educators though is that under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 the powers already exist to intervene in cases in which the state believes that a child may suffer harm. So, they ask, why this new initiative?
Parents turn to Home education for many reasons, but the overarching reason, of course, is that they believe that the state system has failed their child in some way. A high proportion of those educated at home (around 20,000 of whom are already registered) have special needs. Bullying at school is often a major factor but poor teaching and an overly rigid national curriculum are others. Home education is, more often than not, personalised, child led and free from some of the detrimental effects of curriculum constraints, constant testing and standardisation. It is the ultimate form of personalised learning, with provision tailored to a child’s specific needs and with a real opportunity for the child’s views and voice to be heard. It also demonstrates real engagement by parents in their child’s learning, which is something, ironically, that the government is trying to encourage more consistently across the national picture, whatever educational setting children are in.
There are downsides too of course. Separating children from their peer group, removing the complex set of daily interactions with other children and different teachers can be damaging, reinforcing a sense of isolation possibly stunting a child’s social and emotional development. Education is not, after all, just about what happens in the classroom. The quality of teaching and learning or ‘quality assurance’ can also be an issue, and access to state of the art resources. If a child is out of school it is less easy too to spot possible abuse.
The release of Government guidance in November 2007 on home education to local authorities was aimed at clarifying the situation, bringing more clarity about the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.
But it seems to have in effect polarised views. It is sensible of course that everybody involved in home education – local government, central Government and parents – is clear about their responsibilities and that there are clear lines of accountability with greater national consistency in providing suitable full-time education for all children and to ensure that, where there are problems, safeguards are in place to detect them and to allow the authorities to intervene quickly.
The Government has just announced (11 June) a consultation on the Review but one wonders what the purpose of this consultation is, if Ministers have already accepted the Review recommendations.
There is a presumption here that the state always knows best, when recent experience suggests otherwise. There is a clear danger that the authorities are using a sledgehammer to break a nut.
There is a strong suspicion that some local authorities want to remove the right to home education, not least because the growing numbers of those opting out of the system is seen as an indictment of the poor quality of service their schools provide. In too many cases parents get no real choice over their child’s schooling and too often the quality of schooling is poor and not tailored to the needs of individual learners, or ‘personalised’, to use the current jargon. Large state schools of over 1,000 pupils can be very impersonal indeed.
There is also a view among some, that the Every Child Matters Agenda , is as much focussed on well-being and welfare issues as on the child’s education and that the Government doesn’t really trust parents any longer feeling that responsibility for children rests not so much with the parents, but with the state.
We now have in prospect the creation of a large, unwieldy bureaucracy (yet another one) to police the new arrangements.
A proper balance must be struck between the right to Home Education on the one hand and on the other in ensuring that there are means to monitor the quality of home provision and the welfare of the child. There is real danger that this balance will not be struck, and excessive regulation will undermine, longer term, parent’s right to educate their child at home, a right that surely deserves protection.