Memorandum submitted by Dr Ben Anderson
Summary of main points:
o Whilst the individuals constituting the Expert Reference Group are eminent in their fields the lack of representation from the Home Education community or from active academic researchers implies both a disregard for the full research evidence base and for the expertise of the parents/carers who deliver home education.
o The proposal to implement a compulsory registration scheme is, whilst understandable, fraught with sensitivities. The advantages of such a system for parents/carers need to be clearly articulated and positively incentivised if it is to be successful.
o When combined with existing legal frameworks and guidelines the registration scheme will provide all that is necessary to enable local authorities to ascertain the suitability of the education received. There is no logical requirement for a right of access to the home or child in this context.
o Despite the efforts of the review there is still no convincing evidence that home educated children are systematically at greater risk with respect to safeguarding issues. If anything data gathered through FoI requests suggests the opposite. The recommendation to legislate for a right of access to the home or child in the context of safeguarding is therefore disproportionate to the quality of the evidence at hand.
o If pressure to implement 'something' is excessive then an alternative approach through, for example, annual health checks could be considered. If this approach is taken then clearly all children should be subjected to the same regime, not just those who are electively home educated.
1. I am a home educator and academic in the East of England whose specific research interests include the use of technology in everyday life but whose wider competences include quantitative research methods.
2. On January 2009, the Department for Children, Schools and Families commissioned Mr Graham Badman to review the effectiveness of the current system for supporting and monitoring home education. Two of the stated concerns were specifically focused on Local Authorities' duties to:
2.1. Assess the suitability and effectiveness of the education received with respect to the five Every Child Matters outcomes
2.2. Ensure the safety and welfare of home educated children
3. Mr Badman's report was delivered to the DCSF on June 1st 2009 and a response from the Department "accepting all recommendations in [the] report that call for urgent action to improve safeguards for home educated children" was made less than two weeks later on June 11th 2009.
4. Following a detailed review of the report, the evidence on which it draws (to the extent that this has been made public) and additional evidence collected through Freedom of Information (FoI) requests I would like to offer a number of comments.
5. The conduct of the review and related consultation:
5.1. Whilst all members of the Expert Reference Group are clearly appropriate to its terms of reference it is extremely surprising that none have a specific competence in elective home education either as academics actively researching the area or as representatives of recognised Home Education groups (such as Education Otherwise). This oversight is unfortunate at best as it implies both a disregard for the full research evidence base and, notwithstanding the public call for evidence, for a critical stakeholder group - the parents/carers who deliver home education. Given that the stated role of the group was to be "used to cross check the interpretation of evidence and gain expert insight into key issues" this is extremely disappointing.
6. The recommendations made by the review
6.1. Many of the review's recommendations are proportionate and appear to be based on the evidence to hand. The following are, however, cause for concern in terms of a) the quality of evidence on which they are based, b) the quality of the analysis and interpretation of that evidence c) the proportionality of the recommended response or d) the presentation of the recommendation in the style and language of 'inspection and audit'.
6.1.1. Recommendation 1 - concerning the requirement to register any child who is electively home educated, to provide a statement of educational approach and to provide for annual reviews:
22.214.171.124. Annual reviews of progress against plans or objectives are an accepted means of positively supporting the development of staff in all areas of working life provided that:
o The review is seen as an opportunity to reflect upon progress and to plan for the future
o Appropriate deviation from the plan (including the reasons for the non-achievement of specific objectives) is reviewed and discussed in a supportive manner
126.96.36.199. Unfortunately although it may be the intent, recommendation 1 is not presented in this way and it is therefore unsurprising that many home educators see the proposal simply as a rolling process of 'auditing and licensing' which will measure their progress (and that of their children) against inflexible, ill-fitting and externally imposed criteria.
188.8.131.52. It is therefore essential that the resulting plan/objectives/statement captures the ethos, approach and values of the home educator (and the homed educated children) and not the values of the school based education system.
184.108.40.206. Finally there is a very grave risk that statements and plans will evolve into the kind of anodyne, scripted and jargon-infused competencies and attainment statements currently passing for end of year reports in many schools. This must be avoided if the system is to be of any real benefit.
6.1.2. Recommendations 7 & 8 - concerning a proposed right of access to the home and right to speak with each child alone if deemed appropriate and various procedural aspects:
220.127.116.11. At face value this recommendation is a response to the need to establish the extent to which the child is receiving a suitable and effective education and follows from the proposal for an annual review of progress (above).
18.104.22.168. However, as Annex E to the review makes clear the current legal framework already provides a suitable mechanism for establishing the effectiveness of the provided education through a) a request for the provision of evidence by the parent/carer and then b) recourse to court action and potentially a school attendance order if such evidence is not forthcoming and/or the local authority is not able to satisfy itself of the suitability of the education provided. (See also Section 437 (1), Education Act 1996)
22.214.171.124. Thus the existing approach, in combination with the proposed compulsory registration scheme will ensure that the local authority will have the means to assess the provision for every child that is electively home educated. There need be no recourse to disproportionate measures such as a legal right of access to the home and of access to children without parental/carer presence which may have particularly damaging consequences.
126.96.36.199. Line 8 of recommendation 7 states that "officers will be able to satisfy themselves that the child is safe and well". It seems clear therefore that this recommendation is in fact a response to the concerns over safeguarding rather than education. I address these concerns and the nature of the evidence for them below.
188.8.131.52. The proposal for a minimum 14 day notice period provides far too little time for parents/carers to collect and collate the evidence that will be required leaving aside scheduling issues such as holidays which may mean the period elapses before the notice is even seen. If it were to be implemented a notice period of at least 4 weeks should be given.
6.1.3. Recommendation 21 regarding the reporting of safeguarding data and related discussions relating to the potential risk to home educated children under recommendations 7, 22, especially paragraphs 8.2-8.5 and 8.12:
184.108.40.206. The safeguarding issue appears to stem mainly from the hypothesis that because electively home educated children are not seen by teachers they are therefore more at risk (paragraph 8.4). This is in itself an illogical statement and in addition ignores the considerable interaction that home-educated children have with both professional (e.g. GPs) and lay members of society. As the review admits it is more sensible to attempt to establish if home educated children experience greater safeguarding risk, to understand the underlying reasons for this, (which may or may not include the absence of school based observation) and then to respond proportionately.
220.127.116.11. Unfortunately the review fails to establish any such evidence and nevertheless proceeds to a disproportionate response. Paragraph 8.12 of the report states that the local authority evidence provided to the review suggests that the numbers of children known to social care in some authorities is disproportionately high. As originally published the report provides no evidence on which to base this claim and it is important to note that 'known to social care' includes, amongst others, children with special educational needs and so is a very poor proxy for the numbers at risk. To imply that a high proportion of children known to social care in specific LAs is an indicator of safeguarding risks is therefore extremely unfortunate.
18.104.22.168. Following a FoI request the DCSF released a previously unpublished working paper providing summaries of the local authority questionnaire responses. With some caveats this paper states that:
o The population of electively educated children is estimated to be at least 21,000 based on the numbers registered in the 90 LAs that responded to an initial survey. Unfortunately it appears that this estimate was calculated by multiplying the mean number for the 90 (12,300/90=136.67) by 150 without taking account of the potentially very different total numbers of children (and rates of home education) in each LA and for the 60 who did not respond.
o 'Known to social care' data was collected via a survey sent to the 90 LAs (of 150) who responded to the earlier request. Of these 90 only 25 responded producing an overall response rate of just 17%. There is no information on the kinds of LAs who responded and therefore whether they provide a representative sample. Given that they were already amongst the 90 who initially responded it is likely that these 25 have a special interest in elective home education and may have higher than expected rates of safeguarding or education issues.
22.214.171.124. Notwithstanding the potential sample selection bias, the 477 children reported were used to calculate a median number of 'known to social care' of 7 per LA. This median was then used to estimate that 1350 home educated children might be known to social care across the 150 LAs,. Setting aside the arithmetical error (7*150 =1050) it is simply incorrect to apply a median calculation in this way under most circumstances. Even if it were correct to do so 1050 out of 21,000 produces a rate of 5%[i]. Given that there are a range of reasons why home educated children may be more likely to be known to social care (cf paragraph 7.1 of the report) and that 21,000 is known to be an underestimate, in reality this figure may not be significantly or substantively larger than the 3% rate calculated for those in maintained schools. To imply otherwise is simply not warranted by the data available.
126.96.36.199. In contrast data collected by Action for Home Education members directly from 128 of the 150 LAs under a series of FoI requests[ii] have established that the proportion of registered electively home educated children who 'have been either suspected or found to be involved in child abuse, neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude' is around 0.29% compared to a rate of 1-1.3% for all children. Of these LAs, 10 appear to have rates higher than the national average however the numbers involved are often so small that firm conclusions cannot be drawn at the LA level because a single additional case will have a substantial effect on the calculated rate.
188.8.131.52. It is therefore interesting to note that Mr Badman and the DCFS have recently (17/9/2009) requested precisely this kind of data from all LAs to provide more appropriate evidence on which to base recommendations. Whilst this is welcome such data is unlikely to resolve the contested nature of the evidence since this would require complete response by all LAs and a detailed analysis of the pattern of safeguarding issues taking into account the social composition of the LAs, their differing approaches to recording, investigating and reviewing safeguarding cases (c.f. paragraph 8.9 of the report), the likely underestimation of the numbers of children who are electively home educated and the unknown rate of abuse amongst these non-registered children. Notwithstanding these problems, it is surely extremely disappointing that the report's wide-ranging recommendations and the Department's proposed legislative response were made in the absence of such data.
184.108.40.206. Setting aside the technical discussion of the validity of the evidence and taking into account the review's other recommendations on providing additional support to home educators, an alternative approach to the proposal for a right of access to the home and child could be to require an annual health check by the child's GP or practice nurse. This could include hearing and sight tests and the monitoring of other health indicators to provide an incentive to attend. If this approach is taken then clearly all children should be subjected to the same regime, not just those who are electively home educated. A persistent refusal to bring a child to such a check could then trigger a social care investigation.
6.1.4. Recommendation 23 & 24 regarding grounds for refusal of registration:
220.127.116.11. Whilst the intent of these recommendations are clear and laudable the inclusion of 'anything else which may affect their ability to provide a suitable and efficient education' as a grounds is unacceptably vague. In the absence of strong guidance or even legislated definitions (as with alcohol/drug abuse, domestic violence or previous offences against children) there is immense scope for misunderstanding and disagreement over the significance of reported concerns. In addition there appears to be no stated requirement for a process of factual challenge or appeal.
7.1. The proposal to implement a compulsory registration scheme as a first step towards ensuring that all electively home educated children receive suitable education is, whilst understandable, fraught with sensitivities. The advantages of such a system for parents/carers (in terms of development, support and advice) need to be clearly articulated and positively incentivised if it is to be successful. Presenting the scheme in terms of 'regulation, audit or approval' will not have this affect.
7.2. When combined with existing legal frameworks and guidelines the scheme will provide all that is necessary to enable local authorities either to ascertain the suitability of the education received or, if they are unable to do so, to proceed towards court action and a subsequent school attendance order. There is no logical requirement for a right of access to the home or child in this context.
7.3. There is still no convincing evidence that home educated children are systematically at greater risk with respect to safeguarding issues. If anything data gathered through FoI requests suggests the opposite. The recommendation to legislate for a right of access to the home or child in the context of safeguarding is therefore disproportionate to the quality of the evidence at hand.
7.4. It seems unlikely that any short-term data gathering exercise will resolve this lack of evidence due to the difficulty in establishing the target population. This should be the subject of a substantial in-depth research programme and the risks of a more intrusive approach to monitoring (i.e. over and above what can be achieved through an annual review of progress) must be set against the potential benefits.
7.5. In the meantime if pressure to implement 'something' is excessive then an alternative approach through, for example, annual health checks could be considered. If this approach is taken then clearly all children should be subjected to the same regime, not just those who are electively home educated.