Memorandum submitted by Maire Stafford

 

 

Summary

 

This memorandum considers the recommendations of the Review of Elective Home Education in England (hereafter the Review), it finds:

 

There is a lack of evidence of abuse in the home educating community.

 

The recommendations are disproportion to the perceived problem.

 

The recommendations, if implemented, will have a negative effect on the ability of home educators to educate efficiently.

 

There is anecdotal evidence that local authorities fail to understand and implement current legislation, and so cannot be trusted with further powers.

 

The recommendations would results in an inefficient use of public money.

 

Implementation of the recommendations would require a change in the law that would alter the relationship between all parents and the state.

 

And they would create a new criminal offence only applicable to home educators exercising a completely legal choice.

 

Relationships between home educators and local authorities would be further damaged if the Review's proposals were implemented.

 

 

1 Lack of evidence of abuse in the home educating community

 

1.1 The Review fails to make the argument that its recommendations constitute a proportionate response. The author states

 

'... no evidence that elective home education is a particular factor in the removal of children to forced marriage, servitude or trafficking or for inappropriate abusive activities. Based on the limited evidence available, this view is supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is not to say that there are not isolated cases of trafficking that have been brought to my attention.' (para. 8.14)

 

1.2 Also the evidence of home education being used as a cover for child abuse presented in an associated working paper only identifies a very small number of cases in absolute numerical terms. Only four Serious Case Reviews are identified in the working paper[1] as involving home educated children - and even these are not 'clear cut' in the sense that the Review's recommendations would not have prevented the abuse from occurring, and there were opportunities in three possibly four cases (if I am correct about the Birmingham case) for the abuse to have been identified prior to the home education commencing.

 

1.3 Indeed, most of the cases mentioned in the Serious Case Reviews were children who were already seen and care was thought to be satisfactory; the changes recommended by the Review would have made no difference.

 

1.4 A series of Freedom of Information requests to local authorities have been collecting data on the actual percentage of abuse amongst home educated children. As I write the percentage of home educated children found to be at risk of harm stands at 0.32% based on data from 129 local authorities, less than a third of the number of children at harm in the population as a whole.[2]

 

Yet the government is still disseminating disinformation about home educators. As late as 9th September 2009, Ed Balls was publicly asserting that: 'there have been high profile cases of 'home educated' children who have been very badly neglected. Graham makes clear that this is a small minority, though disproportionately larger among home educated children.'[3]

 

 

2 The recommendations are disproportion to the perceived problem

 

2.1 A key statement from the Review, informing its recommendations is:

 

'The question is simply a matter of balance and securing the right regulatory regime within a framework of legislation that protects the rights of all children, even if in transaction such regulation is only necessary to protect a minority.' (para 3.2)

 

This guiding 'principle' is presented with no provisos or limits. It is highly risk adverse position, and assumes that all parents are capable of abuse. This leads to disproportionate recommendations. Indeed, it logically follows from this 'principle' that parents of all pre-school children must be registered and inspected annually; even that visits are required of children attending school during vacations. In fact it would seem to suggest exactly the wrong balance: and if this attitude were generally adopted in public policy then all citizens would, for instance, have their homes inspected in case they contained stolen goods.

 

 

3 The recommendations will have a negative effect on the ability of home educators to educate efficiently

 

3.1 The Review's first recommendation would in effect demand that home educating parents seek a one year licence from the Local authority in order to carry out their responsibilities under Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 - instead of delegating them to a local authority or an independent school.[4] This is troubling as it would override the parent's current responsibility to choose the best education for their child.

 

3.2 Many other parts of recommendation 1 would also be problematic in the context of home education but most importantly it states:

 

'At the time of registration parents/carers/guardians must provide a clear statement of their educational approach, intent and desired/planned outcomes for the child over the following twelve months.' (recommendation 1, page 10)

 

3.3 The demand for a 12 month plan within one month of deregistering would mean that de-schooling would be next to impossible. De-schooling is a well recognised requirement for children who have been unable to cope with school or who have found the school unable to meet their needs. It allows their confidence and curiosity to recover while removing coercion from the environment. The inability to allow a child to do this would seriously compromise the chances of home education being successful.

 

3.4 The Review's author has also publicly declared that all children should be able to read at 8.[5] A primary school classed as excellent by Ofsted was unable to achieve this with one of my dyslexic children even though his cognitive ability was discovered to be in the top 3% of the population by the school's educational psychologist. He did not learn to read at all fluently until eleven and still tests below his age and way below his IQ; despite this he has just started a university degree. That a child should read at age 8 is the sort of mistaken demand I fear parents would get from ill-informed local authority officers who will be backed by the power to remove permission to home educate from parents - even though the parents may well actually be doing an exemplary job.

3.5 This requirement would also effectively outlaw autonomous education as when educating autonomously parents do not know what their child will be learning the next day never mind for the next year. My daughter has been very set against any sort of classroom based teaching since leaving school, however after recently spending time with a child taking a private class in French she requested to join and has happily completed a term of lessons. This could not have been predicted 12 months ago. While the home educating parent and the community provides many resources and ideas, uptake is decided by the child and one can never be sure where their interest may take you both. It would be equally important to let her leave the class if she chooses to do so; something that would be even more problematic in the event of an enforced one year plan. In summary, it makes no sense to plan learning outcomes a year in advance or to specify the 'place' of education for a child learning autonomously. The very nature of the recommendations illustrates that the Review lacks a full understanding of what is meant by 'autonomous education'. However, informal learning at home was recently found to be an exceptionally effective pedagogy; an 'astonishingly efficient way to learn', in a recent study by Alan Thomas and Harriet Patterson at the University of London.[6] A study remarkable for its absence from the Review's associated literature review.[7]

 

3.6 Also as Summerhill School is not expected to supply planned outcomes for each pupil and can operate their school following a philosophy which allows children autonomy, home educating parents should have the same freedom.

 

3.7 Another of the reports' suggestions would interfere with parents' ability to provide an education that meets the needs of their children:

 

'However, such is the demand and complexity of 21st Century society and employment that further thought should be given to what constitutes an appropriate curriculum within the context of elective home education' (para 3.1)

 

This implies imposition of a 'one size fits all model' onto home education just as government is planning to introduce personalised education in schools. It is unlikely that a single curriculum is desirable; we are after all not fitting children for just one role in society. It would seem that while the Review recognises the diversity of home educators, it fails to take this in to account in its 'one size fits all' recommendations.

 

3.8 I note that Ed Balls plans to bring in the Report's monitoring and registration recommendations at the earliest possible opportunity, whilst leaving the supportive recommendations such as training for local authority officers in doubt.[8]

 

 

4 There is anecdotal evidence that local authorities fail to understand and implement current legislation, and so cannot be trusted with further powers

 

4.1 Some local authorities appear to be expressing concern about home educating families because some families will not submit to the councils' demands and instead choose to exercise their rights in current law. That is, sending an educational philosophy and report rather than accepting a visit from an official, or educating without a structure in a child-led way. There is anecdotal evidence that these local authorities can and do use bullying and intimidation in order to get their own way, as can be readily seen in the information on their websites, and as the report acknowledges. These councils currently breach existing legislation and should not be rewarded with greater powers. It is worrying to consider where their mission creep might take them once able to force themselves into private homes and demand a certain approach to home education as the Review suggests.

 

4.2 My own home educated child who feels let down and traumatised by her time in the local authority school would feel betrayed and unsafe if we were forced to abandon her to interrogation by personnel from the same organisation, as this report demands.

 

 

5 The recommendations would result in an inefficient use of public money

 

5.1 Baroness Morgan in an answer to Lord Lucas states that:

 

'An impact assessment is not required for the consultation at this stage as the proposals are still at an early stage of development. We do not expect them to place any significant additional burdens on local authorities as most already monitor home education.'[9]

 

She is factually incorrect; at the moment local authorities have no duty to monitor home education, rather they have a duty to intervene if it comes to their notice that no education is taking place (para 2.7).[10]

 

5.2 Even if local authorities do, in contravention of current law, monitor the home educators they know about (estimated by the Review to be 20,000), if it becomes a criminal offence for a home educator not to register with them their responsibilities will at least double and may increase enormously if the upper estimates of 150,000 home educators mentioned in the literature review for the Review are correct. The Home Education Advisory Service has calculated that the costs nationwide could be as much as 500 million. [11]

 

5.3 Furthermore, the money required to implement the Review's recommendations would be far better spent on better training and resources for the authorities involved so that they were in a better position to spot abuse when it was brought to their notice and could respond more effectively when it was confirmed.

 

 


 

6 Implementation of the recommendations requires a change in the law that would change the relationship between all parents and the state and remove from home educating parents the presumption of innocence and a redrafting of Section 7

 

6.1 In painting the background for the report's recommendations the Report says:

 

'Few would argue with the assertion that parents are the prime educator within or outside of a schooling system.' (para 1.5)

 

6.2 However, the Review's proposals would take primary authority for educational choice away from the parent and give it to the state through the local authority. This would be against the wishes of the major stakeholders as evidenced by the 80% of respondents to question 6 of the Review's own on-line questionnaire who thought that current arrangements were adequate.[12] Moreover, such a change would undermine the parent's legal responsibility as it would require a redrafting of Section 7 of the 1996 Act - otherwise it would discriminate against home educators.

 

6.3 The report argues:

 

'However, there has to be a balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child.' (para 1.5)

 

Here the Review is suggesting a conflict that doesn't exist in order to make the recommendations seem reasonable. Parents do not have a right but a duty to ensure a suitable education for their child. The vast majority of parents will know their child better than anyone else and wish for them the best possible future in the world. Yet the Review suggests that in every case the local authority knows better and has better intentions than the parents, so should investigate all home educating parents as if they may all wish to cause their child harm. This would isolate home educators, alone amongst parents in England as unsafe to be with their children unless checked upon. It would remove the presumption of innocence from this minority section of the population alone.

 

6.4 Furthermore, the ability to interview a child alone, even against their wishes and the wishes of their parents, without any evidence or suspicion of harm being done, is something no government agency or any other agency has at present. If this recommendation became law, then home education officers from the local authority would have more power with regard to children than the police or social services. Surely no one should have automatic 'right of access' to our children.

 

6.5 One of the justifications for this requirement is to give the child a voice; there is a suspicion that children are being home educated against their wishes. There is, worryingly, no confirmation that the child's voice will be heard when they say no to an interview. It would also surely be discriminatory if only home educated children had the right to a voice where their education is concerned, surely if they are to be asked, with the implied promise that the local authority will take action if they are unhappy with their parent's choice, then children at school are entitled to be asked the same question.

 

6.6 Extremely worryingly, a major omission seems to be the establishment of any appeals process for parents to challenge a local authority officer's decision. This lack of an appeal seems to assume complete competence and an absence of prejudice on the part of the local authority that it is not logically consistent with Review's limited evidence. The Review says that many local authorities are not performing adequately (para 1.4), but then recommends they have more powers that cannot be challenged. Without an analysis of why local authorities are failing it would seem inappropriate to give them more powers; this would simply create problems and maladministration claims in the future.

 

6.7 And in the light of this the 'anything else' (para 8.12) reason for refusing permission for a parent to home educate it is particularly troubling.

 

 

7 And they would create a new criminal offence only applicable to home educators exercising a completely legal choice

 

7.1 The recommendations of this review would create a new criminal offence of failing or refusing to register that was only applicable to home educators. I know very little about criminal law but surely this is not the way it should be developed.

 

 

8 Relationships between home educators and local authorities would be further damaged

 

8.1 The report says:

 

'I have taken account of the views of local authorities who are strongly of the opinion that the current guidelines are unworkable in that they are contradictory and confer responsibility without power.' (para 1.4)

 

However, the Review appears to only have taken into account the view of local authorities and only a self selected number of them; it has ignored the views of the vast majority of home educators and members of the public. Yet the Review states:

 

'Good relationships and mutual respect are at the heart of the engagement of local authorities with home educating parents - this is evidenced in many authorities but such is the number of children now within elective home education that the development of these relationships cannot be left to chance or personality.'(para 1.4)

 

I know from my membership of numerous home education support lists that many of the good relationships that the Review observed have been destroyed by its mere publication. The intrusiveness, suspicion and bias evident in its recommendations have offended many. Healing these relationships is unlikely to be achieved by stigmatising home educators with the slur of potential abuser (when accurate research shows that abuse is exceptionally low in the home educating community) and allowing local authorities to ride rough shod over their privacy, human rights and civil liberties.

 

September 2009



[1] See http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/14543/response/41308/attach/html/3/Safeguarding%20evidence%20briefing%20paper%202%204.doc.html

[2] See http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=rbrk5-GEdrUdcmfi670Mihg&gid=2

 

[3] See http://www.mumsnet.com/Talk/mumsnet_live_events/820977?pg=13 message from Ed Balls at 13.40:14

[4] See http://tinyurl.com/sectionseven

[5] See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jun/11/home-education-parents-face-tighter-regulation

[6] See Alan Thomas and Harriet Patterson (2008) How Children Learn at Home, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.; 2 edition (31 Jan 2008)

[7] See http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/literature_review_produced_for_g#outgoing-24510

[8] See http://www.freedomforchildrentogrow.org/Ed%20Balls%20to%20Graham%20Badman%20110609.pdf

[9] See http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2009-06-29a.6.4#addcomment

[10] See http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/localauthorities/_documents/content/7373-DCSF-Elective%20Home%20Education.pdf

[11] See www.heas.org.uk

[12] See http://maire-staffordshire.blogspot.com/2009/08/analysis-of-6-question-online.html