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Q 96Tim Loughton: And the eight-year-old? Perhaps Chloe or Peter might like to address that.
Chloe Watson: In the case of an eight-year-old, it would be very hard to know what exactly they meant by that. I know eight-year-olds who will get in a strop and say that they hate their parents and want to kill them. You do not take that seriously. Equally, it could be something serious, but I do not believe that the child should have the final say in their education, because they do not necessarily know what is best for them. It is the parent’s duty to know what is best for the child and do it at all times.
Q 97Tim Loughton: Where does the balance come? Paul, do you have a comment on that?
Sir Paul Ennals: In an earlier question, Mr. Stuart rightly queried whether the rights of the child were embedded in this legislation. In fact, in almost all education legislation, it is not. Education legislation tends to be steered around the rights of the child more than social care legislation, which is driven much more by them. The exception is SEN legislation. My understanding of what is proposed is that the wishes and feeling of the child would be sought, but that that would not be the deciding factor as to whether registration would be revoked. Nor should it be. It should be a factor to be taken into account and, if I was the officer undertaking it—hopefully, having received the appropriate training—I would doubtless raise it with the parent by asking them how they wanted to address the issue that had been raised by their child. But, unless it triggered any other concerns that, in turn, would trigger existing social care legislation opportunities, I do not see that the opportunity for an eight-year-old child to say, “No, I don’t want to be educated at home” could be seen as a reason to revoke registration.
Q 98Ms Johnson: Is Fiona worried at all about those families who say that they are home educating their children, yet the children are not receiving any education at all? Does that concern you in any way?
Fiona Nicholson: I don’t know those families.
Q 99Ms Johnson: Are you saying that they don’t exist?
Fiona Nicholson: No. I am saying that I don’t know those families. If I found those families, it would presumably be on the basis that they had contacted Education Otherwise and therefore trying to do something about it. Find the families and then offer them support.
Q 100Ms Johnson: Right, but we have to find the families in the first place.
Fiona Nicholson: There is nothing in the Bill about support.
Q 101Ms Johnson: I just wonder whether you were concerned at all about a child who is not receiving an education.
Fiona Nicholson: I do not actually understand the question. Sorry.
Ms Johnson: Okay. Thank you.
The Chairman: Annette Brooke. Colleagues, everyone will get a turn to speak.
Q 102Annette Brooke: I want to ask Beth a question, and to look at the support package side for a moment. Has the National Autistic Society received representations over the years from parents who thought that their only option was to withdraw their child from mainstream school because they were not getting an adequate education? Obviously, you have expertise on autism. Has that been a common occurrence to the society?
Beth Reid: Yes. We regularly get calls on our helpline from parents about whether home education could be an option for them. Usually, it is because the school or the local authority has not been able to meet their child’s needs. I do not know whether that is because they are not equipped to deal with them or they are failing to recognise the child’s needs in the first place. We hear quite regularly from families when the school is disputing a child’s diagnosis. Recently, we had a case of a child who received a diagnosis from Great Ormond Street hospital. The school refused to recognise that that child had autism and to put any support in place.
In other cases, the problem may be because of severe bullying. We had a call this morning from a parent whose child was being severely bullied. The school was providing no support. In that case, the school had actually advised the parent that they would not be eligible for home education because the child did not have a physical disability, which was obviously completely inaccurate. It is a major problem for a lot of our parents. It is often because of a failure in the statutory services to meet the child’s needs. That presents a strong case to have adequate support for those children and for those families who have to meet educational needs when there are no statutory services that can do so.
Q 103Annette Brooke: Thank you. That is one of Paul’s four categories. It is one that we should be concentrating on in the legislation in many ways because, in the past, parents have been turned down and told that there is nothing for them. Yet suddenly it is a bit like the spider saying to the fly, “I am going to be really nice if you come closer.”
Beth Reid: Those parents also fall into one of Paul’s other categories. We sometimes find that parents are told that they should home educate their child because the school cannot cope with their child’s needs. That is particularly the case for autism, but it probably applies to other special educational needs. It means that the parent is left without any support at all, and that the statutory services have effectively given up on the child.
Q 104Annette Brooke: You will obviously agree that it is a high priority to make sure that there is a package of support for home education for children with and without statements, with special educational needs. Do you agree that that should be one of the first things that is attended to?
Q 105Annette Brooke: May I ask Paul a different question, and then you could add anything before we move on?
Fiona correctly said that, at the moment, there is obviously a notification system if a child is withdrawn from school. As I understand it, however, the gaps exist if the child moves authority or if the child has never been to school. I agree that we need to get some idea of the numbers and I understand that, for Fiona’s group, registration now has this connotation of all these hoops that you have to jump through—I understand that entirely. So we will just come back to pure notification, Paul. Would a pure requirement for notification actually act as the first filter that you require?
Sir Paul Ennals: I am not sure that it would. There has been a voluntary system until now and the degree to which it has been taken up is very variable.
Q 106Annette Brooke: Compulsory notification?
Sir Paul Ennals: Okay. I take the point. Well, it might provide some use, but it is a matter of what comes behind it. If what you are saying is compulsory notification as opposed to compulsory registration, there would still need to be something that would follow from that, unless part of the notification was completing something that set out your understanding as a parent of the needs of the child and something about your approach. Unless that was the case, I cannot see how compulsory notification would act as that first hurdle that would be required.
I think that we are still battling with the fact that we have got ourselves in the position within this debate where an approach that still seems to me to be a proportionate one is seen as something that is much more draconian than it needs to be.
Let me put it another way. If I was on the Committee, I would want to see the regulations and guidance in draft form during the Committee stage, to gain reassurance about what is intended in relation to some of these processes. I am not sure if those draft regulations and guidance are yet in place. Forgive me—I understand that a document was handed out today that I have not had the chance to look at yet. Nevertheless, I think that some satisfaction should be sought in relation to the legitimate concerns that are raised.
Can I take up the invitation that Annette gave me, just to add a word on special educational needs? I strongly support the idea that an important part of this process should be to enable us to identify more effectively the way that we can support children with SEN. However, I am not yet convinced that that will require any changes in legislation. I think that that would be another issue that could and should be appropriately covered in the guidance, including the draft guidance. As I have said, I would encourage you to ask for that draft guidance, if it can be made available. I am not convinced that a further legislative change would be required during the passage of the Bill to enable that objective in relation to SEN to be met.
Q 107Annette Brooke: The question was about prioritisation of actions, which does not necessarily mean legislation at this stage.
Beth Reid: On that point, we need to be very clear about the support that people are entitled to. When these parents and families have been through the statutory SEN system and have still not been able to get the support that they need through the statement or, in many cases, even through the tribunal—they may have been to the tribunal three or four times—we need to ensure that those parents, families and children are able to get the support that they need for their SEN in the home education environment. Given that the statutory system may have failed them already and they have had to seek legal recourse, we should make it as strong as we possibly can.
Q 108Caroline Flint: One thing that has also come across in the evidence that we have received is how there are these very different ways in which local authorities go about dealing with both the voluntary arrangements and the support that is offered to families. Judging from some of the information that we have received, it seems that in some places the situation is very good and in some places it is not so good.
Is there no way in which this debate can be moved on to a ground where we say, “Is this an opportunity to try to improve things, both in terms of notification and support?” It seems to me that doing that would respond to some of what seem to me to be the justifiable criticisms that have been made, both today and in the submissions that we have received.
Fiona Nicholson: Yes, there is no core of support for home educators. There is a postcode lottery. I think that the local authorities make it up as they go along. Judging from the research that we have done, there is a difference in staffing costs between various local authorities. It varies. One local authority spends £60 a year, whereas the average is about £200 a year on staffing costs and nothing at all on support.
It is exceptional to spend as much as £500 on staffing costs, largely taken up by a person driving to someone’s house, spending time there, driving back again and doing the same 365 days later. The support is not there. There is no common agreement about what support should be offered. We as an organisation—Education Otherwise—put forward suggestions about what could be done. There is absolutely no funding; home education has no clout with local authorities; and it is not embedded in the Department, so there is a part-time retired head teacher, who is just doing contract work and gets paid a few hundred pounds to make a visit and write a report. The bribes and carrots are not there—nothing is there. There are a few local authorities, which we have drawn the Department’s attention to, that are making valiant efforts to offer something, but they do not have any money to do that and it is extremely patchy or not there.
On a further issue of support, Graham Badman was saying that some home educators welcomed his report. There was more in the Badman review and report about support than there is in the Bill that we have in front of us—there is nothing in the Bill about flexi-schooling, any core offer or entitlement to support. Support is seen as spending eight hours informing home educators that they may be able to access some services. There is not actually anything helpful.
Graham Badman: Just to agree with Fiona—
Fiona Nicholson: A first.
Graham Badman: It is not a first. There are certain things that we agree upon. Performance is extremely variable, I accept that. We put some case studies of good practice in the report. From what I think was announced by the Minister at the Select Committee, local authorities will be able to draw down funds, which they can spend upon the provision of services to home educators. Although not necessarily within the legislation, there is money following the report. That is totally justified.
I remind Fiona that there was also an attempt in my report to give home educators a voice about local authority services in an authority-by-authority grouping. She has in the past shared with me the difficulty of getting a consensus voice even within her own organisation, but it is worth trying, because there is among home educators something that should be disinterred, to inform how local authorities carry out their business. There are many references to the engagement of home educators in, for example, the training of local authority officers, so they genuinely understand what it is that they are trying to review, for good reason.
Turning briefly back to special educational needs, if I may, the report clearly sets out the opportunity for local authorities not simply to provide the support to sometimes quite specialist needs, but to commission the voluntary sector to do that. I do not think that they do that sufficiently and I have said so. I have also raised the spectre—for example, if a child has been the subject of school action plus and has therefore had money following the child into the school—about when the home becomes the place of education. I asked the question about why the money and services do not follow. There is much within the report about that continuum of support on leaving school to be home educated, and I feel strongly that the voluntary sector—the third sector—should be engaged in commissioning the support for some of those families, who I acknowledge are fighting against the odds.
Beth Reid: I agree with Graham. I think that children at school action plus, who have not got the protection of the statement, very much need to be recognised in the system. Real importance needs to be placed on specialist training for the different needs we are looking at. We come across parents who have been accused of being a bad parent, because their child’s behaviour is not as it should be at school. In some cases, they have been investigated by social services for child protection issues, because of a failure to recognise autism and how it presents within a family, as a child behaves around them. We need to ensure that those who monitor home education, especially if there is a child with special educational needs, have training not only in SEN, but in the child’s specific disability.
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