Memorandum submitted by Rosemary McGruther (CS 16)

 

I am a home educating parent. This document is a summary of the thoughts of home educators drawn from my own and others' experiences of monitoring under present laws and guidelines.

 

Introduction

 

Many MPs, while agreeing with home educators that the government's proposals and Schedule 1 are draconian impositions, are still convinced that home educators should be registered and monitored in some way. There is an assumption that informal testing by a local authority officer will provide conclusions that are fair and accurate, and that no harm will come to children in the course of monitoring. Sadly, home educators know, from previous experience of a more limited inspection regime, that monitoring is very problematic indeed.

 

Summary of problems with monitoring:

 

Problem 1: How does a stranger accurately assess a child's abilities and aptitudes?

 

Problem 2: A personalised education is a reflection of family lifestyles, values, and relationships, which are very personal, private matters. Children may also feel that their stories and pictures are too personal to exhibit.

 

Problem 3: Even though autonomous or semi-autonomous education is an effective, efficient way to provide a suitable education, it is very difficult to assess

 

Problem 4: The education of children will be damaged as families will feel the need to tailor the education to fit the Local Authority (LA) inspector rather than the child's needs.

 

Problem 5: The assumption underpinning monitoring is that a family is guilty until proven innocent.

 

Problem 6: LAs often have a 'school is best' attitude and an assumption that home educating parents are not acting in their child's best interests. Staff, including policy-makers, have no training with regard to home education.

 

Problem 7: How do you eliminate prejudice? There will be discrimination - based on class, race, religion, or simply school versus home education.

 

Problem 8: Requiring monitoring to take place in the home violates article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It may be damaging for children for LAs to insist on home visits and interviews with children.

 

Problem 9: Mass screening of a population elicits false positives.

 

Problem 10: Monitoring will prevent parents asking for support.

 

Problem 11: It's not easy to assess a child you don't know, who may not talk to you, without believing what the parents tell you about that child.

 

Problem 12: Will home educated children be held to a higher standard than schooled children? Should evaluation of home education involve testing the child? What is a 'good enough' standard for home educated children?

Problem 13: The duty to provide a suitable education is enforced differently depending on whether you home educate or you send your children to school.

 

Problem 14: Does the government have the political will to provide appropriate training to LA personnel?

 

Problem 1

 

1. Present law lays a duty on parents to provide an efficient, full-time education suitable to the age, ability, and aptitude and to any special needs a child has.1

 

2. Home education allows the education provided to be uniquely suitable to the individual child. This leads to problem 1 with monitoring -- a stranger arriving once a year to inspect does not have any knowledge of the abilities and aptitude of that individual child. They might know what the average child of that age would be able to do, but they would not know if they were meeting an 'average' child. Parents of children who are behind their peers (e.g. due to mild special educational needs), are especially concerned that their provision will not be judged adequate and that their children, who are working to the best of their abilities, will lose their confidence and self-esteem when told that their efforts are not good enough.

Problem 2

 

3. There is a common assumption that home education means school-at-home, with the parents or a tutor as a teacher. The Select Committee Report on The Review of Home Education states in paragraph 120:

We note that in the case of school education, the quality of teaching is thought to be the key factor in pupils' learning and attainment. In which case, the same must apply to parents and others who are responsible for the education of home educated children.2

 

4. This is an incorrect assumption. There may not be any teaching at all in a home education situation. Parents may instead provide an environment where children learn informally, through play, creation, experimentation, observing, questioning, and exploring.

5. Good teaching is important if an adult is dictating the subject matter, because that adult must capture the child's interest for any learning to take place. When parents provide learning resources based on the child's interests, the child learns without formal teaching, because they are already interested. As the child grows, so does his or her capacity for absorbing, understanding, and expressing more complex ideas.

6. In a home educating family, the quality of the relationship between parent and child is the key factor in children's learning and attainment. Home learning is a joint venture based on child, sibling, and parent interests. A personalised education is going to reflect the values of the family. Family relationships, lifestyles, and values are very personal, private matters, and intervention by an officer is capable of damaging these relationships.

7. Here is a statement from a report of a visit by a LA officer to a home educator in December 2009:

She also has enough physical exercise particularly if she accesses swimming more frequently.3

 

8. Is this something the LA officer should be commenting upon? Does she have expertise in the area of health and fitness, and knowledge of the child's constitution? It is easy to see why she has asked questions about exercise, and statute lays an obligation upon her to 'promote the welfare of the child'. However, she's in the home to evaluate the education of the child, not the health and fitness of the child, and this statement is a direct judgement of family choices that most would feel is none of her business.

Problem 3

 

9. Child-led learning (autonomous education) is an effective, efficient way to provide a suitable education. It is, however, not amenable to monitoring. It may be entirely informal and conversation-based. It may not resemble institutional patterns of education at all. Even though autonomous or semi-autonomous education is an effective, efficient way to provide a suitable education, it is impossible to assess using standard measurement approaches.

Problem 4

10. The monitoring scheme will have a huge impact upon families, who will no longer be confident enough simply to tailor the education to fit the child. Many parents would find themselves introducing or insisting on courses of learning, not because they believed it would be efficient or effective or suitable, but simply because they would be trying to please the inspector. Monitoring will introduce elements of insecurity, unease, and conflict into the family and in so doing, will degrade the standards of education.

Problem 5

 

11. Why should home educated families suffer disruption and intrusion when they do not appear to have done anything wrong? We have recently seen that the Stop and Search powers have been deemed excessive by the European Courts. Powers to monitor are similarly intrusive for HE families.

Problem 6

 

12. In the experience of home educators, LA officers responsible for home educating families are not necessarily benign. They come with their own baggage of fixed ideas and prejudices. Many officers are part of departments with titles such as 'children missing education' and 'school inclusion'. An underlying assumption is 'school is always best'.

13. Officers may never have seen the DCSF "Guidelines for Elective Home Education". They may misquote the law. They are not well-trained.

14. This LA officer had no idea what autonomous education was (despite a brief description by the mother) and recommended that:

Because of K's functioning in reading, she needs to follow a structured reading and comprehension programme that gives her the opportunity to experience a range of genres and be able to recognise the features of different sorts off writing.3

 

15. An autonomous philosophy would suggest that children will become both better and keener readers if they read what they are interested in. Any structure, such as that proposed by the LA officer is likely to be initiated and devised by the child. Children will try out different genres when they are ready and interested to do so. Clearly this LA inspector has no understanding of this process at all.

16. A court case in the U.S.4 found that evaluators who have neither professional expertise nor in-depth study of home education are simply are unqualified to make valid assessments.

17. Home educating families relate stories of LA officers who lie to, bully, and harass them. Would you invite someone into your home, whom you neither liked nor trusted, to evaluate your educational provision? Would you introduce them to your children?

18. Further problems with LAs are that even when the officers who visit families are supportive, their superiors often have inaccurate ideas of home education, and use them to make policies. Policy-makers have no training with regard to home education.

Problem 7

 

19. LAs have shown a tendency to evaluate the education provided by working class parents or parents with an unconventional lifestyle differently from that of middle-class parents. Research shows that primary aged home educated children from working class families actually outperformed their middle class counterparts.5 This knowledge will not necessarily help their parents. The articulate and well-educated have an advantage in a system based on interviews. They will be more able to take their child's activities and translate them into learning outcomes.

 

20. In a report of a visit, an LA officer stated:

The front room is dark and had incense burning. There are a number of

chinchillas kept in this room and the lighting arrangements may be for their benefit.3

 

21. This comment on "incense burning" immediately sets up mental associations with hippies and the peculiar ideas they might have. It is however, doubtful that she would have commented on an air freshener plugged into the wall outlet that continually whooshed fragrance into the room, even though both are simply ways of scenting a room. And it has no bearing whatsoever on the education the child is receiving.

22. The government School Admissions Code specifically forbid schools to interview parents and children to avoid discrimination. Problem 7 with monitoring is that there will be discrimination and it will adversely affect children.

23. The DCSF plans to encourage this prejudice:

[Home visits] would allow local authorities to ensure that the home is in a suitable condition and is free from any factors that might interfere with the provision of education, such as a lack of power and/or heating, or severe overcrowding, for example.6

 

Problem 8

 

24. Autism in Mind (AIM), in their press release of 12 January 2010:

. . . finds this very worrying as families living with autism rarely conform to what society would see as the norm and this includes the way in which they live at home. AIM has already raised concerns that LA officials often have no autism or SEN specific training and therefore have no idea what living with autism can be like.

 

It is all too easy for someone without the necessary and specific training to take in a scene which can be perfectly normal for a family living with autism and deem it to be unacceptable.

 

Children who have autistic spectrum condition or disability can find it very distressing to have people who they do not know coming into their homes.

 

Children cannot shelve their disabilities just to enable to DCSF to make sure that safe and well and suitable education checks are carried out in their home. As it stands it is difficult not to believe that home educated children with disabilities are being discriminated against.

 

The majority of home educated autistic children have been removed from the state system of education because it was failing to meet their complex needs. Some of these children were self-harming and even suicidal as a result of the state system.

 

Many of these children find it extremely difficult to deal with any stranger, let alone a stranger associated with failure and unmet need. Enforced meetings will not simply be unpleasant, they may also be extremely destructive as it will destroy any nascent confidence that the child might be redeveloping.7

 

25. This issue is not confined to autistic children. Neuro-typical children who have been withdrawn from school due to bullying may also lose their confidence in the safety of their home or the ability of their parents to protect them. It may be damaging for LAs to insist on home visits and interviews with children.

26. Requiring monitoring to take place in the home violates article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Home visits are not explicitly required by Schedule 1, but as the LA will by law be able to issue a school attendance order (SAO) if they are refused a home visit, this is akin arriving at the front door with a gun.

Problem 9

 

27. Mass screening of a population elicits false positives. The wording of this Bill allows the possibility of many false positives simply due to its requirements to program learning a year in advance. Deviating from the program, even though it may provide a suitable education, is cause for a LA to issue a SAO. Untrained or half-trained personnel will throw up numerous false positives. This will be extremely stressful for the children and their families.

Problem 10

 

28. Monitoring is not support. Monitoring will block the provision of support. Families who are being monitored will do their best to present themselves well. Problems will be hidden for fear the LA will make arbitrary decisions. Parents who aren't coping, who could be helped by LA services, will not ask for them. This may include adult health concerns as well as educational concerns.

Problem 11

 

29. How do you assess a child you don't know, who may not talk to you, without believing what the parents tell you about that child?

 

30. Suppose the inspector invites the child to read aloud, and the child refuses.

Is this a child who can read well, but will only do it with their favourite people?

Is this a child who can read to some degree, but is self-conscious about their mistakes?

Is this a child who can't read? If so, why?6

 

In this case, the inspector has to decide whether what the parents say about the child's abilities can be trusted. As the whole premise of monitoring presupposes parents are either untrustworthy or incompetent, and the inspector is there to 'know' the child is receiving an education, how will she resolve this dilemma? Possibly very badly.

 

Problem 12

 

31. How should home education be evaluated? Should it be through testing of the child's knowledge? Some schooled children fail tests, but, with a 'good school', we do not come to the conclusion that the school is providing an inadequate education.

32. Home educated children must demonstrate not only that a suitable education has been provided, but also that it has been attained. They are therefore to be held to a completely different and far higher standard than schooled children, for schooled children are not taken off a school role and moved elsewhere if they don't make the grade. This is a reinterpretation of Section 7, Education Act 1996, and represents yet another form of discrimination against HE children.

33. What is a 'good enough' standard for home educated children?

34. In testing a 9-year-old home educating child and finding that he hasn't learned to read, LAs are likely to conclude that the educational provision was not good enough. But they can't know this. LAs do not have the ability to see alternate lifetimes that would enable them to say with confidence, "if you had sent Peter to school, he would be able to read by now."

Problem 13

 

35. Schools are evaluated on their educational provision. Groups of children are tested to help determine whether the school is doing a good enough job. Ofsted inspects the school, not the children. The LA does not monitor the suitability of the education provided to each individual pupil by a school. That is the parent's responsibility. Nor does the LA force parents of schooled children who do not appear to be receiving a suitable education to change their provision. For schooled children who are failing, the focus is on providing greater support. The law is not applied equally. The duty to provide a suitable education is enforced differently depending on whether you home educate or send your children to school.

 

Problem 14

 

36. The government has promised appropriate training for LA personnel.

37. There are few academics who have qualifications with regard to home education. There are some books and academic studies available on the subject. These were either ignored or dismissed by Mr. Badman. The main body of expertise in the area of home education is contained within the experience of home educators. As individuals we may have up to 25 years of experience. As a group we have a vast body of expertise in nurturing healthy, happy children who grow up to look after themselves, gain employment and qualifications, and start businesses.

38. The government has declined to make use of this experience in the process of Review, Consultation, and Drafting Legislation. They have also made it clear that they do not trust parents, so it is difficult to believe that they will be able to access anyone that could train LA personnel. It is also difficult to believe that anyone properly trained would be either willing or able to work under the proposed statutes.

39. It is also difficult to believe, given the financial state of the country, that there will be money for training and that there will continue to be money for training.

 

Conclusions

 

40. Monitoring families is going to cost money, cause distress, and enrich lawyers. It is not going to be fair, accurate, or free of discrimination. It will harm more children than it helps.

41. The alternatives are simple and effective:

Remove clause 26 entirely from the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

Replace the January 2009 Guidance on Duty to Find Children Missing a Suitable Education with the Guidance from 2007 which allowed parents to continue to be the parent of first resort.

Clean up the reputations of Local Authorities. Train their officers and insist they are enthusiastic proponents of home education.

Don't re-define a suitable education in terms of reading, writing, and arithmetic and what children should be doing at a certain age. Instead teach LAs to recognize the indications that parents are committed to providing their children with a good education.

Offer support, not monitoring. Put 'Every Child Matters' into practice and have local authorities institute programs that will support the goals of home educating families. Support local home education networks in a way that will strengthen them rather than undermine them.

 

Endnotes

1. Section 7, Education Act 1996.

2. House of Commons, Children, Schools and Families Committee, The Review of Elective Home Education, Second Report of Session 2009-10, pg. 38.

3. From LA report of visit to home educating family in December 2009. Used with permission of the family. Full report available.

4. Farris, Michael P., English Home Education: Already In Proper Balance, July, 2009, http://www.hslda.org/docs/news/200907130.asp

5. Rothermel, P. J. (2002) Home-Education: Rationales, Practices and Outcomes, PhD Dissertation, University of Durham, 2002

6. DCSF Public Consultation Response on Home Education, http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/consultations/index.cfm?action=conResults&external=no&consultationId=1643&menu=3 , pg 2

7. Autism in Mind, Press release, 12 January 2010, full text can be read here: http://maire-staffordshire.blogspot.com/2010/01/autism-in-mind-press-release-in.html

8. Moore, Jennifer, To trust, or not to Trust , 30 December 2009, http://www.uncharted-worlds.org/blog/2009/12/to-trust-or-not-to-trust/

This entire article is well-worth reading, and expands on some of the ideas expressed above.

 

January 2010