Controversy continues as Minister proffers an olive branch
Since education was made compulsory, the implicit settlement was that parents—not the state—had legal responsibility for the provision of education. They may choose of course to delegate that responsibility to the state, and in most cases do, but that legal responsibility has lain with parents. The role of the state has been only to challenge, where evidence has arisen to suggest that parents were not delivering on their legal duty.
Schedule I of the Children Schools and Families Bill however appears to challenge this status quo. The charge articulated by David Laws of the Liberal Democrats is that there has been a huge shift in presumption in the Children Schools and Families Bill.
It allows the state to terminate the right of a family to educate a child at home if the education offered is not deemed suitable by the state, envisaging registration and a system to scrutinize Home Educators which they believe is intrusive, bureaucratic and undermines their right to educate their children.
The Shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove said in the Second Reading of the Bill “I am deeply concerned about the additional bureaucratic burden that will now potentially be placed on thousands of our fellow citizens whose only crime is to want to devote themselves as fully as possible to their children’s education. It is a basic right of parents to be able to educate their children in accordance with their own wishes, and to educate them at home if they so wish. There may be many reasons why parents take that decision: they might be dissatisfied with local provision; their child might have a specific educational need that they feel can be better supported at home; or they might have philosophical objections to the style of education on offer at the local state schools that are easily accessible.”
He went on to say: “Ultimately however, this is a basic human right that every parent should have, and I feel the Bill erodes that right, because, as I read it, it allows the state to terminate the right of a family to educate a child at home if the education offered is not deemed suitable according to regulations that the Secretary of State writes.”
Nick Gibb, the Shadow Schools Minister, believes that the Government have created an unworkable and deeply unpopular policy that ends up implicitly accusing tens of thousands of sincere and honest parents of being potential child abusers at the same time as intruding into their approach to education.
There appears to be confusion, he noted in the Bills Committee stage, over the Governments approach. Is legislation required to tackle potential child abuse by Home Educators or is it about holding home educators accountable for the quality of their education provision.
Home Educators will now be obliged to provide onerous information along with their registration. For example on “the educational needs of the child, and contain any relevant background information…This may include information about special educational needs, any particular aptitudes the child has”— and “the educational philosophy or approach to be adopted. This might cover the degree of formality of education, any specific curricula that will be followed, or qualifications pursued.”
It is a sobering fact that, against the backdrop of public spending cuts, the costs of the monitoring and licensing system for the estimated 70,000 children who are home educated (20,000 of whom are already registered with Las) will be around £500 million over the next 10 years. New Zealand introduced a system very similar to the one proposed by the Government in this Bill. However, last year it decided to stop operating it because it was a waste of time and money. It found that incidents of poor education were sufficiently small—just around 5 per cent- much less than the educational failure found in its own school system—that it could not justify the monitoring and inspection regime for a system that produced much better outcomes and a far lower level of failure than state schools. In the USA one expert Kelly L. Green quoted in Committee said “To the best of my knowledge, no state demands home visits, and no state requests to interview home-educated children.”. A US study of Home Educated children also found that there was no evidence that their academic performance suffered because they were Home Educated.
There is a feeling among opposition parties at least that the Badman review was highly selective in the evidence it chose to back its findings. There is also a firm belief among many that local authorities already have powers to protect children. The problem is that either they don’t use them or are seriously deficient in the way they use them. They have a general duty, for example, under section 175 of the Education Act 2002, which provides that they must carry out all functions conferred on them in their education capacity “with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.”
The Government, in the shape of junior Minister Diana Johnson countered, in Committee, that it does, in fact , presume that parents opting to home educate “ are acting in the best interests of their child, which is why there is a presumption they will be registered. I also do not accept that we are maligning families by asking them to go through the process of being registered on the presumption that that will happen.”
She added “Registration will be a simple, once-a-year process. The education plan, ……will be simple and able to accommodate all educational approaches. Monitoring will be light touch and will involve one meeting a year. There will be informal discussions with an emphasis on the work that has taken place over the year, plans for the year ahead and any additional support the local authority can give. Children will not be tested or forced to meet alone with a local authority officer.”
The trouble of course is that critics believe that the Badman review was set up with a clear outcome in mind and evidence then sought highly selectively to fit this preconceived view. (where have we heard that before?) It was then rushed through without proper consultation. And the bottom line is that there has been a breakdown of trust in the Government so verbal assurances are not worth the paper they are not written on.
However, one chink of light for the HE lobby is that Johnson confirmed that regulations and guidance will be published “through wide consultation with home educators” and will “ set out the correct balance between making timely decisions and ensuring that they have been carefully thought through. They must be reasonable and not arbitrary.”
So maybe this is where the HE lobby should now focus its efforts. But , as one home educator has pointed out to me, there has never been a shortage of consultation, just an unwillingness or inability to listen on the Governments part. She wrote ” The whole exercise is pointless with this government. In fact, I suspect they already have the policy written and any consultation will be another exercise of cart before the horse.”