Memorandum submitted by Sheffield Home Educators Network

Executive summary

Our submission gives a local group perspective of home education and the Review.

The report needs to be seen in the context of endless consultations.

The Review was hurried, unnecessary, poorly designed and executed.

The choice of Mr Badman was ill informed.

No case has been made for the proposed changes to registration and monitoring or the rush to legislate.

The Review proposals are disproportionate.

The relationship between home education, local authorities and the Department is poor and deteriorating

The review has failed to address important issues.

If funding is available it should support children not bureaucracy

We make a number of constructive recommendations

1. Biographical details

1.1. My name is Annette Taberner. I have two children who have never attended school and who are autonomously home educated. My sixteen year old son has just chosen to enter college to study AS levels, my daughter is twelve. Both children are dyslexic.

1.2. I am a qualified teacher and have recently returned to part time teaching. I am a founder member of Sheffield Home Educator's Network (SHEN), help co-ordinate a number of local group activities, and assist with the SHEN young people's group.

1.3. I often provide support to other home educating parents at their request, and I myself benefited from the help, advice and support of experienced home educators when we began our home education journey.

1.4. I have never had a relationship with my local authority on a family basis but I attend meetings with the local authority as a representative of the group.

1.5. I am a member of Education Otherwise, a member of the EO Government Policy Group and a Trustee.

1.6. I have co-ordinated this response which is submitted on behalf of the Sheffield Group and would be happy to give oral evidence.

 

2. Our group

2.1. Through group activities and via the Internet, Sheffield Home Educators' Network are in contact with over 200 families.

2.2. Many families are resident in Sheffield, although we have members from further afield with experience of the practices of several surrounding local authorities.

2.3. Members of the group have supported families who have encountered difficulties with local authorities, through separation of partners and other family difficulties, and with more general advice and support.

2.4. The Committee should be aware that there are other difficulties experienced by our community which fall outside the scope of this submission and the Review.

2.5. In many neighbouring areas the local authority is aware of more home educating families than members of our group are. However, have no reason to believe that there are substantial numbers of "unknown" families locally.

2.6. During the Children Missing Education consultation we were told the concern was to locate home educated children. Contact Point will achieve this objective. We do not believe a case has been made to establish a separate database for home education.

3. Mr Badman and our community

3.1. Mr Badman has not painted an accurate picture of our community. He is dismissive of the importance of our networks.

3.2. He has done little to challenge the prevailing, inaccurate stereotype of home educating families as isolated family units. It is this stereotype that is deployed to justify calls for stricter regulation and monitoring of home education.

3.3. Mr Badman undervalued the self sufficiency and support mechanisms which our community have developed. He failed to document the resourcefulness of the community.

4. Constant review has brought inertia and uncertainty

4.1. We are sick and tired of the onslaught of consultations in the last three years. None of these interventions has resulted in a single improvement for home educated children and young people. Constant review has brought uncertainty and inertia in local authorities to implement changes and rectify shortcomings.

4.2. Insufficient consideration was given to the findings of earlier consultations in this Review process.

4.3. There seems to be no accumulation or transfer of knowledge from one exercise to the next. Decisions arrived at through three years of consultation have been abandoned in one fell swoop without any explanation.

4.4. Some children are aware of the pressure and many group members have been distressed by the recommendations of the Review.

 

5. Departmental press release

5.1. We have seen no evidential basis for concerns raised by the Departmental press release that led to our community to be stigmatised in the national media. This has placed the Department and Home Educators in an adversarial relationship and damaged the possibilities of constructive engagement with the Department and NSPCC.

5.2. The review process

5.3. We fail to understand why the Department felt a Review leading to proposed changes to legislation could be adequately conducted in the time allocated. Nor is it clear to us that there was a pressing need for the Review.

5.4. We are concerned at the lack of transparency, accountability and proper documentation of meetings in the Review process

5.5. The Review was ill conceived, hastily implemented, and poorly designed and executed.

5.6. Mr Badman was a poor choice for this review being too closely associated with school-based education and local authorities to command the respect and confidence of the home education community. It would have been preferable to have a more independent person to lead the Review.

5.7. He had preconceived ideas about how EHE staff do and should operate, perhaps based on his time in this role.

5.8. The "expert panel" had little past experience or expertise in the field of home education.

5.9. Mr Badman sought to marginalise the input of home educators who engaged in the Review process but who did not support his views.

5.10. The short time frame allocated for local authorities to respond resulted in an incomplete picture, and estimates being given in some authorities that gave more cause for concern than the actual data later obtained through FOI requests.

5.11. The Department does not communicate equitably with EHE staff in local authorities.

5.12. The evidence and statistical analysis that are said to support the recommendations have been thoroughly analysed and found wanting. Other detailed submissions will be made on this evidence. We support the view that the statistical evidence is flawed and merits close scrutiny.

5.13. Mr Badman's recent close involvement in the Baby P case gave him a particular focus on safeguarding.

5.14. There was a disproportionate focus on a very few serious case reviews. In all these cases home education was a small factor and the multiple failings of statutory services were well documented.

5.15. We feel we are "allowed" to home educate, but that this could be snatched away at any time in a knee jerk response to a high profile case. People with little knowledge of or sympathy for home education could easily brush us aside to satisfy a need to be seen to be doing something.

5.16. The pressure to be exemplary citizens in order to maintain our home education freedoms undermines our confidence for discussing problems and seeking support.

5.17. Members of our group have attended an interview with an uninformed social worker and were horrified at the experience. This raised a number of concerns about procedure and lack of awareness of home education.

5.18. Education, welfare and safeguarding have been conflated in local authorities, in the Department and in the Review.

5.19. There are no impact assessments, while the various proposals are uncosted.

5.20. It is extraordinary that the Director of Children's Services and Lead Member for Children were given a prominent role in terms of Local Authority responses. These officers are remote from EHE front-line staff and have little awareness of work in this area. Department reorganisation has made the locating of relevant front-line staff problematic.

5.21. The benefits of good, voluntary relationships between home educators and local authorities were not valued. Priority has not been given to the dissemination of good practice, the training of staff or implementation of structures and mechanisms for improving relationships between home educators, local authorities and the Department.

5.22. The sympathetic introduction of positive recommendations, with the involvement of the home education community and the voluntary engagement of families would achieve much more than the implementation of the disproportionate measures.

5.23. Mr Badman says "... good relationships and mutual respect are at the heart of the engagement of local authorities with home education....The Department and local authorities cannot discharge their duties to children without the co-operation of the home education community." Yet aspects of the Review and the Government's precipitous rush to introduce invasive new powers have led to withdrawal of involvement with local authorities both from families on a personal basis and from representatives of groups who have been working co-operatively with authorities.

5.24. The proposals seek to enormously increase the powers and right to intervention of local authorities and will undermine the ability of families to make decisions about their children's education.

5.25. It is clear that the agenda is to register, monitor and police rather to support, assist and encourage home education. We urge the committee to scrutinise the evidence and explore the rationale for the Review.

6. Government response

6.1. The Government has accepted all the Review recommendations but has prioritised those on monitoring and registration - recommendations 1,7,23 and 24. No case has been made for the proposals. The Draft Legislative Programme contains a clause on these issues. Our response with respect to the recommendations will be confined to these issues.

6.2. This does not mean, as asserted by Mr Badman that "Most of my recommendations have not been challenged, reflecting the sound evidence base."

6.3. The Government's precipitous rush to implement new policing measures will undermine the ability of parents to meet their obligation in law to provide a suitable education.

6.4. The Government has chosen not to engage the community in discussions which could produce positive benefits for children.

7. Retrospective evidence for decision making

7.1. We condemn Mr Badman's attempts, with the co-operation of the Department, to find retrospective justification for his recommendations.

7.2. This exercise adds weight to suspicions that the purpose of the Review was to find evidence for already written outcomes.

8. Relationships with local authorities

8.1. Both the Badman Review and Department fail to address adequately the issue of the relationship between home educators and local authorities and the impossibility of getting redress when things go wrong.

8.2. The Review undertook no evaluation of the adequacy of current local authority structures or personnel.

8.3. The re-organisation of local authority structures has led to confusion about roles and responsibilities of Departmental staff.

8.4. In some areas the behaviour and attitude of authorities provide a disincentive to families to seek a relationship with the authority on a family basis. The malpractice of some authorities and its impact on safeguarding and child welfare has not been addressed.

8.5. Mr Badman failed to communicate the difficulties in relationships between home educators and local authority officials in some authorities, or any suggested means to address this issue.

8.6. We had hoped that the constructive recommendations published in the 2007 guideline to local authorities would address these issues. However, they have been poorly publicised, are not statutory and have sunk without trace.

8.7. He proposes no appeals or complaints procedures following local authority decisions, no means of redress when the authority act beyond its powers and appears to remove school attendance orders, which at least allow courts to provide a second opinion where authorities judge provision to be inadequate.

8.8. He has also failed to understand the difficulties which local authorities have in recruiting and retaining staff.

8.9. There is no mechanism for the identification and dissemination of good practice. Home educators identified good practice and we suggest that the Department should support the spread of good practice and innovation through pilot studies. Such an approach would enable impact assessments and costings to be evaluated

8.10. The prioritised recommendations undermine basic human rights and will transfer important decisions about children's education from parents and to the local state.

9. Right of access to the home its impact on children

9.1. The proposals to grant right of access to the home and to speak to the child alone are disproportionate and unnecessarily invasive. Such powers are normally only granted in cases where there are adequate grounds to suspect an offence has been committed.

9.2. There is little evidence that Mr Badman sought the views of children and young people on these recommendations. Responses were submitted to the Review from children and young people. Their views are not evidenced in the Review.

9.3. The Review's "one size fits all" recommendations fail to acknowledge the sensitivity and expertise that are required by local authorities if they are to interact with families. They fail to respect or understand the diversity of provision or the individual needs of children in the community.

9.4. For families who have been failed by the education system insensitive and uninformed local authority involvement may add to their difficulties rather than assist them.

9.5. For many children, especially those on the autistic spectrum or those who have left school because of bullying, Mr Badman's recommendations that strangers would be required to have access to the family home and be allowed to interview the children in the absence of their parents is distressing.

9.6. The Review and proposals fail to understand the devastating effects that negative experiences in school can have on children. For children who leave school with low self esteem, sometimes self harming and suicidal, home is the one place they can feel safe and re-build their lives. This is a small minority of home educated children, but their needs must be given consideration. The proposals in recommendation one are totally inappropriate in these situations.

9.7. Selected comments from group members on this issue

"In a school situation it would be highly unlikely that a child would be spoken to by an unknown third party without the presence of a teacher or someone that they trusted, and in no circumstances should a child be subjected to an interview with a stranger without the right to request a known person to be present. To ignore this basic right would be to go against the UNCRC's substantive rights."

"We have been happy to include the LEA from the start with our children's
education. We won't allow anyone to see our children without our
presence; this is not just LEA either, but anyone unknown to us."

"There is no circumstance where a local authority officer needs to see a child alone; if there are concerns these would be passed to the appropriate agency and dealt with following already established guidelines for child protection."

9.8. Currently many families voluntarily invite local authority officials into their homes and invite them to have access to the child. The 2007 Guidelines to Local Authorities make it clear that parents may provide evidence in a number of ways.

9.9. We do not believe that a case has been made for the introduction of these invasive new powers. It is not clear what Mr Badman anticipates a visit to the home will prove.

10. Registration

10.1. It is disingenuous to describe the processes outlined in recommendation one as "registration". What is described is effectively an annual licence to practice home education.

10.2. The current legal framework assumes that we are complying with the requirements of the legislation unless there is evidence to the contrary.

10.3. Mr Badman is, in effect, proposing a reversal of the burden of proof. He proposes that we should not be allowed to register our children to be home educated unless and until we comply with what the local authority defines as appropriate for our children.

10.4. It is not clear what recourse in law children will have if they feel the Local Authority has intervened to the detriment of their education. Nor are appeals or complaints procedures proposed.

10.5. He also proposes a number of grounds on which to refuse permission including "anything else which may affect their ability to provide a suitable and efficient education."

10.6. This measure opens the door to judgements and decisions based on subjectivity and prejudice which will have enormous consequences for families and for which there will be no means of address.

10.7. The following is an account of a SHEN parent's reaction to the proposals and her experience of interaction with her local authority official.

This is a bit like what we are subjected to in our authority already, although it isn't what the law says. I know it's unfair but no one has managed to stop it so far.

I am told I have to have home visits. I am told annually that my provision is barely adequate. In front of my children I am reminded that a School Attendance Order can be issued at any time and that the authority can make me send my children back to school. The School Attendance Order is used as a threat to get us to comply with things we are not supposed to be required to do.

I feel he tries to make me feel personally inadequate, again in the presence of my children, to make me feel I am not really up to the job.

My children dread his visits.

I think he sees his job as to get the kids to school by whatever means he can. I have seen several families buckle under the pressure and send the children to school. It's a shame because the local schools are so poor.

11. A twelve month plan

11.1. The recommendation demonstrates an antipathy to the flexibility and child-centred approach that is a major feature of much of home education.

11.2. This proposal in conjunction with recommendation 2 would allow the local authority to define a curriculum, targets, outcomes and expectations. Such a change would in effect transfer responsibility, in the case of home educating families only, from parents to the local authority. This is a backward step. It would be difficult to improve on the current definition of "suitable" education - suitable to the age, ability, aptitude and any special needs of the child.

11.3. What is the "gold standard" against which our provision will be measured? Is it some utopian ideal imposed on us by the authority, is it the five hours of tuition a week some children with school phobia can expect or is it the provision in the failing comprehensive in the catchment area you can afford to live in?

11.4. The primary review attempted to learn lessons from alternative educational provision to enhance mainstream provision. Mr Badman's recommendations are in danger of imposing a "school at home" model on all home educators.

12. Causing a child to exhibit

12.1. There is no consideration of the difficulties to children by the proposed requirement on of parents "allow the child to exhibit. ... both attainment and progress."

13. Parents' rights and children's rights

13.1. Parents and children often review the educational choice they have made. Mutual respect and purposeful conversation and negotiation between parents and children is a fundamental characteristic of home education.

13.2. The Review places the rights of parents and children in opposition to one another. This is a false dichotomy. The proposals implies that the rights of the child are better upheld by the intervention of the local authority than by the parents. We contest this presumption. Parents act in the best interests of their children, include them in decisions that affect them and act as their advocates. Where this is not the case, the current legislation is adequate to address shortcomings or safeguarding concerns.

14. New measures and responsibility

14.1. Parents are responsible in law for their children's education. Many seek to discharge this duty through school attendance. However, the parent retains responsibility. Schools are accountable to parents who have engaged them in providing education and to society for their use of public funds. Home educators do NOT delegate responsibility for education and do not receive public funding.

14.2. Many professionals involved in the children's workforce fail to understand this distinction. This is the root cause of many of the anxieties raised about home education by professionals.

14.3. We are increasingly caught up in legislation which is incorrectly applied to us. We have yet to establish what new challenges will be posed by the new Barring and Vetting proposals.

15. Recommendations

15.1. Conduct an investigation into EHE provision and practice in local authorities.

15.2. Publicise and enforce the 2007 Guidelines to local authorities.

15.3. Include Home Education in the Common Core competencies for the Children's Workforce.

15.4. Revisit the Children Missing Education Guidelines and make the duty to "locate" - remove "suitability" as this is covered by separate legislation.

15.5. Revisit the extensive recommendations were submitted during the 2007 Guidelines consultation.

15.6. Produce an authoritative Guide to Practitioners.

15.7. Support the spread of good practice and innovation through pilot studies. Such an approach would enable impact assessments and costings to be evaluated.

15.8. Encourage, discover and disseminate good practice.

15.9. Withdraw proposals for legislation in the forthcoming Parliamentary session.

16. In Conclusion

16.1. Home educators provide a substantial saving in expenditure over the cost of places in school.

16.2. If funding is to be made available in the field of home education there should be discussion with the community on the way to ensure the most efficient and effective use of such resources to bring benefits to home educated children.

16.3. We believe the proposals as they stand will be hugely expensive and whilst bringing little benefit to children will fund a huge and unnecessary bureaucracy.

16.4. The prioritisation of punitive measures without a proper evaluation of the evidential basis for them will lead to a further deterioration in relationships between home educators, the Department and Local Authorities.

September 2009