Memorandum submitted by Alexandra Barnes

 

 

This submission concerns the recommendations made by the review on elective home education.

 

The main areas covered by this submission are:

 

the disproportionate nature of the recommendations

the issue of rights to be given to local authorities in respect of entering family homes and interviewing children in private

the form of registration recommended

the conflict between the recommendations and current education law

the issue of balancing the rights of children and the rights of parents

 

I am the mother of two boys, aged 5 and 3 years, and chose to home educate them before the elder reached the age for compulsory education. This choice was made for many reasons, but included my belief that learning is best achieved through being self-directed - choosing what, when and how to learn. I believe this results in greater motivation to learn, a fuller understanding of what has been learned and increased self-esteem. I have seen the evidence of this with my own eyes, while observing my children growing and developing from almost helpless infants into social, talkative, active individuals with a wide variety of interests, without the need to be "taught."

 

 

1. The review of elective home education was undertaken, in part, to "Identify what evidence there is that claims of home education are, or could be, used as a 'cover' for child abuse under current monitoring practice". The report gives no real evidence of such claims. It suggests that the high proportion of home educated children known to social care in some local authorities is of concern in this area, but it also suggests that the number of home educated children in the country may be as much as four times the normal estimate of 20,000. It implies that there is a causal link between a child being home educated and also known to social care services, rather than the more likely possibility that both are the result of another factor - e.g. special needs, bullying. I would also suggest you look closely at the statistics quoted in the report. I think that you will find that a statistician would strongly disapprove of the way they have been used and that they actually suggest home educated children to be at lower risk of abuse than the general population.

 

2. In the light of this "evidence", the recommendations for registration and monitoring of home educating families are completely disproportionate to actual concerns for child welfare and safety. They are far beyond what is required for school children and could be considered open to abuse in themselves - particularly the recommendation to give local authority education officers right of access to a family's home and the right to interview a child without his/her parents present, or even another trusted adult, unless the child is "particularly vulnerable or has particular communication needs." There is nothing to define the meaning of "particularly vulnerable" or to suggest whether children under a certain age might be considered so. In the case of my own family, I would be extremely concerned about a stranger having right of access to my home and about insisting my 5 year old son spend time alone with that stranger, perhaps against his will.

3. There are further concerns that should be raised in respect of the proposed rights for local authority officers to enter the family home and to interview a child in private. Not only are these rights readily open to abuse in many ways, but they also set a dangerous precedent which could ultimately affect all of us. Under current law, police can only enter premises without a warrant under very specific circumstances - e.g. dealing with a breach of the peace or enforcing an arrest warrant. Apart from when they are preventing serious injury to life or property, the police must have reasonable grounds for believing they are acting in accordance with these conditions. And yet the report recommends that officers of the local authority should be given the right to enter premises, simply because a child is known to be home educated on said premises. Similarly, police should not interview a person under the age of 17 without a parent/guardian present, unless a delay would have certain serious consequences. And yet the report recommends that officers of the local authority should be given the right to interview a child without a parent/guardian present, simply because that child is known to be home educated. Not only do these recommendations leave home educating families and home educated children open to abuse, it sets dangerous precedents, undermining the legal protections for individuals in this country. It also implies that home educating families should be considered guilty until proven innocent, rather than the reverse.

 

4. The review recommends that all home educated children should be registered annually and that, to register, home educating parents should be required to fulfil certain criteria. Among these is the requirement to submit a plan for each child's desired/planned outcomes over a 12 month period. This requirement would be in direct conflict with the autonomous and child-led learning philosophies espoused by many home educating families. More generally, it is inappropriate for all home educated children, as an individual child's learning requirements will continually change over the course of a year and goals made at the start of the year may be abandoned in favour of a new interest with very different, but perfectly valid, goals. Planning of the type proposed is, of course, fundamental to the style of education used in the majority of schools. It is deemed necessary to assess whether children are reaching appropriate goals for their age, ability and aptitude. There is a curriculum to be followed, an annual plan of lessons to fulfil that curriculum and a set of tests to assess children's progress and attainment. This is not how home educating parents assess their children's progress and attainment.

 

5. In a home educating family, the parent and child are involved in an on-going conversation about their joint goals. The parent does not need to test the child's knowledge or understanding because this is clear from the conversation. The low ratio of children to adult allows this to happen in a way that cannot happen in a school with classes of 25 to 30 pupils per teacher, especially where pupils do not spend all of their school hours with one particular teacher. Thus, the concept of annual planning with the associated testing is not relevant to home education in practice.

 

6. Current law places the primary responsibility for a child's education very clearly with the parent. This is the first level of the fourfold foundation of which Lord Bingham (in Ali v Lord Grey School [2006] UKHL 14) said, "This fourfold foundation has endured over a long period because it has, I think, certain inherent strengths. First, it recognises that the party with the keenest personal interest in securing the best available education for a child ordinarily is, or ought to be, the parent of the child. Depending on age, maturity and family background, the child may or not share that interest. But the parent has a statutory duty." He also says, "It is plainly intended that every child of compulsory school age should receive appropriate education in one way if not another, and that responsibility rests in the last resort with the LEA." The primary statutory duty lies with the parent and responsibility rests in the last resort with the LEA.

 

7. The recommendations of the Review of Elective Home Education threaten to alter this situation, so that greater responsibility lies with the local authority than with the parent. The parent would be required to register with the local authority and submit plans for approval. This would result in the local authority having, in effect, the ability to grant or refuse permission for parents to home educate. Thus, the primary responsibility for a child's education would be transferred from the parent to the local authority. This transfer of responsibility sets a dangerous precedent for all parents and children, not just those involved in home education. Should the law give local authorities the power to override parental responsibility for a child's education? As the report itself states clearly (paragraph 1.5), "There is a considerable body of research evidence that points to this conclusion - parental attitude, support and expectation are the key determinants of educational success." The paragraph continues, "the national Children's Plan makes clear it is "Parents not Government that bring up children.""

 

8. Transferring the primary responsibility for education from the parent to either local or national government is certainly not in the best interest of children themselves or of the country as a whole, as it would fundamentally undermine both parents and parenting as the key to raising children to be educated, responsible members of our society. I believe the role of parenting in our society has already been severely damaged by government policy for a considerable period of time, especially through the "encouragement" of mothers and single parents to return to (paid) employment, away from the essential work of raising their children, whether those children are in school or not.

 

9. The report speaks of balancing the rights of the child with the rights of the parents. This is totally inappropriate language in the context of education as laid out in the Education Act. In law, the parent has a very clear duty to ensure a child receives an "efficient, fulltime education..." and it is this duty that home educating parents are exercising, not a right. To refer to parents' rights in this context is to completely misunderstand the nature both of home education and of parenting itself. Home educating parents feel a strong sense of their duty to provide their children with an appropriate education, and they have decided for individual reasons that they can best provide that education by home educating them. They have not decided for their own benefit that they want to home educate their children, and that their right to do so should be upheld. They have concluded that this is in their children's best interests and therefore it is their duty to follow this course.

 

10. In many instances, as demonstrated by a recent survey of home educated children, it is the child's choice. In other cases, it is a mutual agreement between child and parents and in other cases still, it may begin as the parents' choice when the child is very young, but is continually reviewed between parents and child as the child grows up. In my own family, my husband and I decided that we would like to try home educating our children before they reached school age. However, my elder son, now 5, frequently tells me and other people that he doesn't want to go to school. He proudly tells anyone who asks, "I am home educated." Sometimes, when I have asked him whether he might like to go to school one day, he has become upset and I have had to reassure him that it will always be his decision. And surely it is my duty as a parent to defend my children's right to choose the form of their education for themselves.

 

August 2009