Memorandum by Schoolhouse Home Education Association

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Schoolhouse is the national Scottish charity which offers information and support to home educating families and those with an interest in elective home education. Established in 1996, it is free to join with an active membership of 1000+ families and run by an elected voluntary management committee whose members include individuals with specialist expertise in discrimination law, social inclusion, child protection social work, additional support for learning and gypsy/traveller culture.

 

Schoolhouse is regularly invited to participate in consultations, seminars and conferences, and is as established part of the Scottish learning community. It maintains ongoing dialogue with the Scottish Government, Members of the Scottish Parliament, local authorities and the voluntary sector and is represented on a number of national groups, including the Children Missing from Education (Scotland) Steering Group and the Parental Involvement in Education Group, as well as various policy development forums and learning networks such as Deming.

 

Schoolhouse has a longstanding relationship with the Education Law Unit of the Govan Law Centre, which provides its second tier legal advice. As well as conducting its own in-house research on matters affecting home educators, Schoolhouse has undertaken joint research with the Scottish Consumer Council (now Consumer Focus Scotland), most recently in relation to a review of the Scottish statutory guidance on home education issued by the Scottish Government in 2008.

 

Schoolhouse comments on English home education matters where it is appropriate to do so, e.g. on the review of elective home education in England which has impacted significantly on its own workload, and co-operates with Action for Home Education (AHEd) on "reserved" issues which are relevant to UK home educators, e.g. the joint Schoolhouse/AHEd Every Single Parent Matters campaign which highlighted the implications for home educating lone parents of welfare reform proposals.

 

Given that the elective home education review applies exclusively to England, Schoolhouse would wish to underline its support for AHEd's submission to this inquiry, but also offers comments based on its own extensive experience of having engaged with controversial government proposals relating to home education in Scotland and having achieved a satisfactory resolution in the form of the current statutory guidance.

 

The Scottish home education guidance is generally considered to have struck the right balance in outlining the respective rights and responsibilities of parents and local authorities. In the light of this experience, Schoolhouse would be most willing to provide oral evidence to the inquiry if it is felt appropriate.


SUMMARY

 

Background and rationale: the review was politically driven and founded on prejudice against a minority group rather than hard evidence of any inadequacy within the current legislative framework.

 

The terms of reference misrepresented the Every Child Matters agenda, failed to consider continuing problematic ultra vires practices by local authorities and failed to consider relevant UK-based research evidence.

 

The scope of the review was limited in that its author appears neither to have considered the experience of, nor engaged with, the Scottish Government and Scottish NGOs, despite the recent revision of home education guidance in Scotland which was informed by independent research and developed in co-operation with key stakeholders.

 

Members of the review team were neither independent nor experts on education outside the school system.

 

The consultation was biased towards structure and outcome-based education, weighted in favour of local authority responses, blind to or dismissive of the existing successful model in Scotland, and hijacked by unrepresentative home education groups.

 

The recommendations were a disproportionate reaction to cited concerns; they were based on flawed findings; failed to establish inadequacy of the present arrangements or make any case for change; failed to accurately reflect consultation responses; misrepresented the UNCRC; and advocated non compliance with the ECHR.

 

 

 

SUBMISSION

 

1. As interested observers in Scotland, Schoolhouse perceived the UK Government's announcement of the elective home education review to be antagonistic, hostile and highly insensitive in nature. The ministerial statement amounted to a deliberate attempt to smear a minority community by inferring that home education could be used as a "cover for child abuse such as neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude". That statement alone effectively destroyed any semblance of "independence" from the outset. Media hype surrounding the announcement caused distress to many home educating families, including those in Scotland, and some children reported verbal abuse in the community after erroneous media reports and irresponsible commentators routinely repeated the government's deliberate conflation of home education and child abuse.[1]

 

2. There was no direct evidence to support the need for a review of elective home education in England and guidelines[2] had recently been published following a consultation which had considered many of the cited issues. Local authorities on both sides of the border have regularly raised concerns about the safety, welfare and education of home educated children and have regularly been reminded that effective systems are already in place which they have consistently failed to implement. It is irresponsible on the part of local authorities to demand more powers if they do not know how to exercise appropriately those they already possess.

 

3. Prior to the review announcement, local authorities had predictably raised "concerns" about home education in submissions to earlier consultations, the origins of which can be traced to a single meeting of the London Safeguarding Network at which attendees were reported to have alluded to "a number of serious child protection cases where the child was electively home educated." [3] When pressed, the LSN was unable to produce any details or substantiation, but these same nebulous "concerns" had meanwhile made their way into the consultation responses of other authorities.

 

4. Since the Every Child Matters agenda (regardless of the desirability of otherwise of an outcome based approach to childhood which is anathema to many home educators) is only applicable to institutions and not to family life, the terms of reference for the review were seriously flawed from the outset.,

 

5. Having investigated and rejected spurious local authority claims about "barriers" to safeguarding home educated children in the recent past, it was surprising that the government should be revisiting the issue again so soon. Rather than fund a review of home education, it might have made more sense to promote its recently published EHE guidelines; improve the practice and curb the ultra vires activities of hostile local authorities; and/or consult with the Scottish Government which had undertaken a more recent consultation and found no evidence support the "cover for child abuse" claim. In terms of local authority relationships with home educators, the Scottish Consumer Council had recently produced a comprehensive report on the subject which had informed the Scottish guidance. Public money might have been safeguarded by asking for a copy.

 

6. In outlining the scope of the review, it was stated that it would "focus on practice in England but may consider relevant material from the devolved administrations within the UK and elsewhere." It is therefore highly regrettable that the review team made no effort to engage with the national Scottish home education charity [4] Schoolhouse [5], the Scottish Consumer Council which had produced an independent report on home education, or the Scottish Government which had recently reviewed and issued statutory guidance [6] following a meaningful consultation exercise. Rather, the review sought out examples from nations whose domestic legislation explicitly prohibits the practice of home education, unlike the four nations of the UK where the provision of education has always been a parental responsibility, whether or not children attend school. Overlooking the experience of the Scottish government and Scottish NGOs when a successful model was known to be operating successfully just up the M74 was a glaring and frankly astonishing omission on the part of the review team.

 

7. With regard to the review team, Graham Barman was a poor choice of "independent expert" to lead a review of elective home education when he is patently neither independent nor an expert in home education. His expertise is strictly limited to the schooling system of which he has been part, presumably without a break, since the age of five.

 

8. Other appointees, while undoubtedly possessing "expertise" in other areas of state education and children's services, were poorly qualified for the task, with the notable exception of Professor James Conroy who has had direct experience of home education.

 

9. If a truly "independent" review was considered necessary, it should surely have been led by an expert on education outside the school system such as Dr Alan Thomas [7] who has undertaken extensive research on home based education in the UK and Australia and, as a highly respected academic with vast knowledge of the subject matter, would have been a relatively uncontentious choice of team leader.

 

10. Given the deliberate conflation of home education and child abuse which was the focus of the government's announcement of the review, and given the lack of independence and expertise of those appointed to undertake the task, home educators inevitably had low or no expectations from the outset that that the consultation would be meaningful or that their views would be taken into account.

 

11. The consultation documents were poorly drafted and "loaded" in nature, demonstrating failure on the part of the review leader to grasp the differences between schooling and education. Local authorities were afforded the opportunity to respond to two questionnaires, whereas individuals and home education groups were expected to respond to a series of questions which were based on the erroneous assumption that all respondents would essentially share the government's outcome-based ECM agenda which is anathema to many home educating families. It now transpires that the DSCF has afforded the report's author a further opportunity post publication to canvass local authorities for supplementary data.[8]

 

12. The consultation process was hijacked by one or two groups claiming representative status and it became apparent that "focused discussions" were being held with those who had no representative remit. Disappointingly, the review team made no effort to engage with democratically run groups and appeared to offer privileged access to Education Otherwise which claimed representative status but failed to consult its membership before putting forward contentious proposals which are categorically not supported by AHEd, Schoolhouse and many other groups and individuals with an interest in home education.

 

13. Unlike the English review team, the Scottish Government consulted widely and paid regard to research findings from the Scottish Consumer Council who had investigated the treatment of home educating families by local authorities and found evidence of widespread ignorance, prejudice and protectionism. The Scottish Government also took account of relevant case studies when formulating its revised guidance, in which it is clearly stated that home educated children are not at any greater risk of abuse and are not defined as children missing from education.

 

14. The report's conclusions and recommendations demonstrate that its author had effectively dismissed carefully considered responses from more than 2000 members of the home education community, some of whom had taken time to meet with him and clarify aspects of home education in practice. Meanwhile, selective quoting from favoured respondents and the blanket acceptance of unsubstantiated concerns raised by those with a vested interest in the regulation and monitoring of home education (for profit or profile) resulted in a poorly researched, badly written and partial report.

 

15. Recommendations in the report are now known to have been based on flawed findings and skewed statistics. Freedom of information requests have established that "evidence" presented by the author - that home educated children are more likely to be at risk - does not stand up to scrutiny and AHEd members have produced a more reliable analysis [9] of the true picture based on statistics gathered from every English LA and scrutinised by a professional statistician[10]. For this reason alone, the report should be rejected as entirely unreliable and categorically unfit for purpose.

 

16. The majority of recommendations are highly objectionable per se and some are not human rights compliant and therefore unlawful. The recommendation that local authority officers should have the right of entry to a family home and access to a home educated child, with or without the child's consent and without a parent being present, was almost certainly designed as a headline grabbing publicity stunt to create a distraction from other sections of the report and to stoke fear about the potentially dangerous nature of unsupervised, unregulated parenting. Such a proposal is considered tantamount to the government "grooming" of children to accept abuse of power as the norm and is an especially worrying recommendation from someone who has been a member of the teaching profession. It is not an acceptable thought for any decent citizen of a civilised society to harbour.

 

17. A "suitable" education is one which defies definition yet it is one which the report's author appears confident the government is qualified to prescribe for every child in England. Section 2(1) of the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act 2000 requires: "Where school education is provided to a child or young person by, or by virtue of arrangements made, or entered into, by, an education authority it shall be the duty of the authority to secure that the education is directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential." [11] That would seem to be a good starting point, but the placing of such a legal requirement on English local authorities in respect of each schooled child was firmly rejected by UK Ministers[12] who feared litigation by parents and young people whose school education failed to meet their needs. Why, therefore, should those who are demonstrably failing to ensure that schooled children are kept safe from harm, never mind achieve functional literacy and numeracy, be handed an ultra vires remit for monitoring parents who are fulfilling their legal responsibility to educate their own children when parents who send their children to failing schools are assumed to be doing so? By the same token, why are local authorities so eager to elicit home educated children's views about their education when the views of individual school pupils are routinely ignored?

 

18. Local authorities are fond of raising the subject of "children's rights", particularly a child's right to education, as reason for state interference in family life, but they have collectively misunderstood the relevant Articles of the UNCRC by focusing on outcomes rather than promoting the fullest possible autonomy of the child as outlined in Article 12.[13] The report's author falls into the same trap by failing to grasp that, while Article 28 directs that a child is the subject of the right to education, its corollary, Article 29, expands Article 28[14] by defining education as "the development of the child's personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential..." (as adopted in the Scots legislation). No mass curriculum or prescribed outcome can possibly meet the Article 29 criteria, and the language of "outcomes" and "targets" is that of industrial process, not of rights-based education. The strength of home education lies in its responsiveness to changes in a child's interests and abilities and it is precisely because it is not pre-defined that all potentialities can be explored. Development of autonomy, which is central to the process of self-motivation, is essentially undermined by the imposition of an external agenda. Paradoxically, the absence of prescription ultimately creates far better "outcomes".

19. In conclusion, as an organisation with an interest, Schoolhouse is of the opinion that the elective home education review was not "independent"; rather it was politically driven from the outset and heavily influenced by local authority interests, rather than those of the key stakeholders, i.e. home educated children and their parents/carers.

 

20. The review has served to perpetuate the prejudice and discrimination already faced by a minority group; that the many valid points raised by home educators in their individual and organisational responses to the consultation were ignored; that the recommendations were based on inadequate research, flawed findings and prejudice; and that the report was disproportionately weighted to reflect the views of those predisposed towards schooling and against parents' and children's rights to choose a home-based education.

 

21. Schoolhouse believes that the review process has further alienated the home education community and that the report's recommendations are fatally flawed and in direct conflict with the interests of children and young people whose needs and wishes should be central to the educational process. It is parents who are the custodians of their children's education, and not the state, which is merely the custodian of the state schooling system, a model now rejected by thousands of families across the UK.

 

22. Schoolhouse urges the committee to reject the elective home education report in its entirety in favour of retaining the status quo.

 

September 2009

 

 

 



[1] http://www.home-education.biz/forum/general-discussion/220-paedo-parents-taunts.html

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

[3] http://ahed.pbworks.com/London-Safeguarding-Network

[4] http://www.schoolhouse.org.uk/news/scc_hbe_report.pdf

[5] http://www.schoolhouse.org.uk

[6] http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/12/17133313/0

[7] http://www.howchildrenlearnathome.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=50&Itemid=59

[8] http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/publications/documents/laeelectivehomeeducation/

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

[10] http://ahed.pbworks.com/LiesDamnedLiesStatistics#DCSF/BadmanManipulatingFigures

[11] http://www.opsi.gov.uk/legislation/scotland/acts2000/asp_20000006_en_1#pb1-l1g2

[12] http://www.theyworkforyou.com/lords/?id=2006-10-17c.651.0

[13] http://www.crae.org.uk/assets/files/CRAE_Beyond%20article%2012.pdf

[14] http://www.crin.org/docs/resources/treaties/uncrc.asp#Twenty_eight