A sledgehammer to break a nut?
An estimated 55.000 children are currently being educated at home, with the UK up to now allowing, by international standards , a laissez faire regulatory regime . But Home Educators feel that they are now very much a target of the Government.
The Badman Review, launched in January 2009, published a hasty Report submitted in a much telescoped time frame to the Secretary of State at the end of May 2009. Badman concluded that whilst there has to be a balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child, he believed that that balance was not being achieved through current legislation or guidance. He concluded that this imbalance must be addressed
Ten days after the report was published, the DCSF was drafting a new law in time for the Queens Speech in November 2009.
By any benchmark the Government moved very quickly indeed on this. This was almost certainly because ministers felt under pressure from on-going media revelations of child abuse.
But their approach nonetheless raised issues over whether there could be a meaningful public consultation on a matter of policy which had in effect already been announced as a piece of new legislation –Improving schools and safeguarding children Bill one which, interlia, will introduce improved monitoring arrangements for children educated at home.
Badmans key recommendation was that home educators must register. He also crucially recommended that the DCSF should bring forward proposals to change the current regulatory and statutory basis to ensure “that in monitoring the efficiency and suitability of elective home education:. That designated local authority officers should: – have the right of access to the home; – have the right to speak with each child alone if deemed appropriate or, if a child is particularly vulnerable or has particular communication needs, in the company of a trusted person who is not the home educator or the parent/carer.”
The idea is that authorities will be able to satisfy themselves that the child is safe and well. Badman suggested that a requirement is placed upon local authorities to secure the monitoring of the effectiveness of elective home education and that parents be required to “ allow the child through exhibition or other means to
demonstrate both attainment and progress in accord with the statement of intent lodged at the time of registration.” The Government welcomed the recommendations.
This is all too much for home educators, who are resisting the measures. They worry that the Government is manipulating the 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 particularly in the light of these recent highly publicised child abuse cases and fear that some children who are not at school are slipping through the welfare net. Local authorities are also known to be concerned that the demand for home education is increasing, which might suggest a declining confidence in their education offer and the schools they run.
What is clear is that there is a vibrant expanding community of home educators who share classes and co-ordinate their knowledge base. There is a support network with a nationwide, lively, online community that shares best practice and experience, and all this comes at no cost to taxpayers .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? And why, indeed, the need for new legislation, when new guidelines had only just been issued ? Its a difficult one, because local authorities and the government have been under the cosh from the media over child abuse, and have to be seen to be doing something. Home educators look to be the meat in the sandwich.
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 parents perceptions of an overly rigid national curriculum also play their part. To some schools have become little more than large impersonal institutions teaching for the tests, and league table positions, rather than providing a rounded education. Home education is, more often than not, personalised, child- led and free from some of the detrimental effects of curriculum constraints, constant testing and of course standardisation.
It can be 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. Some might say significant downsides. 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, psychological 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, as parents may not be adequate teachers, or have access to sound teaching or access to state of the art resources, including the internet And of course if a child is out of school it is less easy too to spot possible abuse. Parents (a minority) do not always have a child’s interests at heart and make seek to live their lives though their child or perhaps in extreme cases brainwash the child in support of a particular belief.
But Home educators may well have a point when they claim that this is all over the top , a knee jerk reaction to media scaremongering . It would have been better to have had a proper period of consultation to identify common ground. The danger is that the new system of regulation will be intrusive and bureaucratic and drive home educators into a defensive laager. The Governments intentions are honourable but they must be careful not to over-react. In the meantime the counter lobby is organising petitions and demonstrations to try and strangle the Bill or rather the clauses affecting home education, before it becomes law.