Memorandum submitted by Randall Hardy (CS 34)
Elective Home Education in England - Has there been a 'voluntary registration scheme' in place?
1.1 Clauses 26 & 27 along with Schedule 1 of the present The Children, Schools and Families Bill are contentious. The greatest concern amongst the HE community is that the proposals would introduce a compulsory 'registration and monitoring' scheme, which will in effect make it necessary for parents to obtain a licence to educate their own children - this represents a significant change in English law.
1.2 Much has been said in various formats in regard to this, and I do not intend to rehearse those arguments here. However, a particular claim was made in the House of Commons Second Reading of the Bill, and more recently in the Second Sitting of the Committee Stage, and it is this which I seek to address in this memorandum.
1.3 That claim is that there has already been in place a voluntary registration scheme and it has not worked.
1.3.1 Second Reading Debate: Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is not the point that we have had a voluntary scheme for years and years? Anyone has been able to register and make themselves known to their local authority if they want to, but the majority have not. For those who argue for the importance of voluntary scheme, we have had one, but it has not worked.
1.3.2 Committee Stage: 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.
1.4 Both these statements demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of facts - there has never been any registration scheme for home educating families. Our own experience illustrates the historic legal position.
2 What happened when we notified our Local Authority
2.1 We decided to HE our third child before she was five, in approximately 1990 and have also educated her two younger brothers at home. We therefore have around 20 years of first hand experience.
2.2 One of our neighbours at the time was a Deputy Chief Education Officer for Manchester Education Authority, which is where we lived then. I spoke with him and asked what he knew about the EA's policy on HE. He was not aware of any policy and promised to come back to me with more information.
2.3 Over six months later he gave us a single piece of A4 which had been extracted from a set of minutes. Half of this referred to HE and it confirmed our understanding of the legal situation at the time, which is still valid. However, it did not specify any arrangements the LA had in place to respond to parents who decided to HE.
2.4 In any case we were willing for him to pass on the information that we would be home educating our daughter when she reached the age of 5 to the relevant department in the EA if there was one. We were intending to work alongside two other families with similar aged children and we provided him with details of all three.
2.5 Following this a lady from the EA visited all three families together annually for no more three years. She was pleasant, supportive, and very apologetic that she could not help us in any way with resources. She did offer to let us know if there were any educational events we could attend, but in practice this was not forthcoming unless we made enquiries.
2.6 During her final visit she commented on the introduction of the Local Management of Schools, (Education Reform Act 1988). This had obviously put different demands on her job and signalled a change in her working practice. We never heard from the EA again even though we have been involved in HE ever since.
2.7 Given the lack of interest/support from the LA over some 15 plus years, when we moved from Manchester in 2007 we saw very little point in contacting the local authority in North Shropshire, even though we had heard good reports of its staff from several families (in contrast to the experience of many HE families in other areas). Having survived without support from the LA for many years, and with the change in culture generally amongst LA staff in the intervening years, we saw no reason to inform our new LA. If there had been a national 'scheme' in place, we would have worked with it where appropriate.
3 The wider lack of any scheme
3.1 Our experience that HE families were "on their own" was not unique. Many local authorities have not shown any interest in supporting HE families in any way. This was emphasised in the Second Reading debate by Annette Brooke who quoted a letter written in 2007 from from the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight, which said, "We recognise that it is a fundamental right enshrined in law that parents should be free to educate their children at home if they so wish. But when deciding to do so or not, parents are strongly encouraged to plan ahead and think carefully about the costs associated with educating children at home. This is because there are no funds directly available from the Government for parents who decide to home educate their children."
3.2 The Minister's letter then went on to express the other important prejudice which has faced HE families when meeting with LA officers, "We believe that school is the best place for the vast majority of children to receive education..." This comment is in complete harmony with the same Minister's written answer to a question from Mr Hoyle on 22 May 07 [Hansard Column 1201W].
3.3 This institutional bias was not new. On 6 Dec. 05, Jacqui Smith, who at that time was the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, in a written answer stated, "This Government believe that, for most children, school is the right place in which to receive education." [Hansard Column 1158W].
3.4 Many different HE families have experienced this same prejudice from numerous LA officers who, even as HE specialists, have been so committed to institutional rather than individual education that they have sought to get parents to acquiesce to the officer's view that HE is second rate education.
3.5 The endemic prejudice against HE within national and local Education Departments coupled with the lack of funding for the support of it have been the most significant factors in driving a wedge between HE families and LAs.
3.6 The prejudice against HE illustrated above has never been based on research but on, as all three ministerial quotes confirm, belief. Such uninformed bias is an ongoing insult to the many HE parents who have sacrificed much to give their children what they are convinced is a good, if not excellent, education.
3.7 The excuse for the commissioning of the Badman Review, and now for introducing Clause 26 - that HE may be used as a cover for abuse - has once again emphasised the institutional prejudice in Government and reminded HE families that this argument is not about facts but ideologies.
4 What has changed in the last 20 years?
4.1 There have been no changes in legislation directly relevant to HE since the early 1990's.
4.2 The most significant legislation which has changed attitudes in national and local government seems to have been the collection of changes which are covered by the "Every Child Matters" programme.
4.3 However the situation is confused, as illustrated by the Select Committee Report on the Badman Review:
4.3.1 "The Departmentīs guidelines on home education repeatedly emphasise that the legislation outlined above does not extend local authoritiesī functions in relation to home education provision." s71
4.3.2 "One officer took the view that the 2004 Children Act gave local authorities a duty to safeguard the welfare of all children in their area and that this included home educated children." p64, Annex 2.
4.3.3 "I think the must-do is that we are already responsible for all children, and for those five outcomes. That ought to be driving the approach on this. We already have a responsibility for those children in broad terms." Peter Traves, Association of Directors of Childrenīs Services (Report, Part 2, Ev 101, Q131)
4.4 The Select Committee urged the Department to "take the opportunity provided by the Children, Schools and Families Bill to provide a definitive, succinct statement of the applicability of the Children Act 2004 and the Every Child Matters outcomes to home educated children." s73. As far as I am aware, the Bill does not take up this recommendation.
5 The way forward?
5.1 Despite the claims quoted above, there has not been any 'registration scheme' in place for HE families or children. However, confusion does exist because of the ambiguity of the word "register". HE parents have spoken of being "registered with the LA", when what they actually meant is that they had notified the LA. On the other hand, as this Bill illustrates, many politicians and civil servants interpret 'to be registered' as being licensed.
5.2 In the Second Reading Debate David Laws said on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, "we suggest in the first instance that the Secretary of State ought to consider whether the scheme could involve notification, rather than registration." Whilst not all members of the HE community would welcome a notification scheme, it is probable that such a scheme would not alienate as many people as a registration / licensing one would.
6 A final thought
Historically, parents have always been responsible for their children's education - families pre-date governments. With the industrial revolution, lifestyles changed and many families were unable to fulfil those responsibilities. The first meaningful response to the educational needs of working class children came from the Sunday School movement, but those in power criticised it for teaching the lower classes to read. It was not until the early 1800's that State funded schools began to supplement the work of Church schools in the education of children from poor families. In 1880, with the Elementary Education Act, the State began to take full responsibility for those families which were failing to provide their children with a suitable education.
It is ironic therefore that 150 years later the State is now of the opinion that only it can guarantee children a suitable education, whilst parents who seek to fulfil their historic responsibilities are now to be viewed with deep suspicion as probable child abusers. The Department should withdraw Clauses 26 & 27 until it understands properly why responsible parents are choosing once more to educate their own children rather than abandon them to the care of the State!