The Review of Elective Home Education - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)



  Q1  Chairman: I welcome Graham Badman, Diana Johnson, the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and Penny Jones from the Independent Schools and School Organisation, DCSF. Thank you for coming. I am sorry that there has been a delay. One of the problems with trying out something new, such as the appointment of a Children's Commissioner, is that one does not realise just how complicated the process is, if it has never been tried before. So real apologies to you who have been waiting, and to the people who have taken great interest in our inquiry. It is nice to have such a full gallery. I hope that you will all enjoy the session. The normal rules apply, and we want to get straight on to the questions. Graham, we have chosen this topic for a short inquiry because there is great public interest in it, in terms of wanting to make sure both that every child in our country has the full possibility of a good education, and that they are protected during their childhood. On the other hand, there is a strong movement towards home education, and a significant proportion of our school-age children benefit from home education. You have conducted a swift inquiry into this—I believe it took five months—and you have been doing some further research. That is why we have chosen this topic. We hope that we can help at this juncture, before legislation is introduced. Graham, I shall ask you, the Minister and Penny Jones to say a couple of words, if you wish, about where we are at the moment. Who would like to start?

  Ms Diana R. Johnson: Thank you, Mr Chairman, and members of the Committee. I am pleased to be here this afternoon. I would first like to set out the Government's position in a basic, plain way. It remains that it is a fundamental right that parents should be free to educate their child at home, if they wish to do so. We acknowledge that views on home education are polarised, with home educators feeling that local authorities do not understand the range of approaches that they can take, and home educators unwilling to accept that in a minority of cases home education may not be up to scratch. In 2007, the Government published non-statutory guidance on monitoring home education which set out the legal requirements, and the approaches that we expected local authorities and home educators to take in working together to ensure that home-educated children receive a good education. However, it became clear during 2008 that neither home educators nor local authorities felt that the guidance was working, and that is the reason for the review. Graham's recommendations fall into three broad categories: first, registration and monitoring; secondly, providing far greater support to home educators; and, thirdly, mechanisms for home educators' needs to be considered explicitly in local authority strategies. I need to say at this point that I am not able to go into very much detail about the proposals on monitoring and registration today. As you know, they are out for public consultation, which ends on 19 October. We will have to consider carefully the consultation responses before proceeding. I would like to emphasise that no firm decisions have yet been taken. Home educators have repeatedly asked for additional support, and I am pleased to say that we have listened to them. I hope that members of the Committee had an opportunity on Friday to see the response from the Secretary of State to the recommendations in the report. Before January, we will clarify our advice to local authorities on claiming pupil funding to make it clear that they may claim funding for children with special educational needs educated at home in receipt of significant services from a local authority, or those attending college. From 2011, funding will be available for other home-educated children who use local authority services, which might be examination centres, brokering work experience or using the county music service. If we proceed to legislate, we intend to require local authorities to broker arrangements so that home educators who want to take public examinations can do so at centres reasonably close to where they live and at no cost. We will also put arrangements in place for authorities to consider home educators' needs strategically, so that they are systematically considered and appropriate service is provided. Finally, if and when the recommendations of Graham's review are fully implemented, home educators will still have a considerable degree of freedom. They will not be operating outside the law, as is the case in the Netherlands and Germany where home education is illegal. They will not have to sit national tests, as in Finland and Norway, nor follow the National Curriculum, as in Denmark. England will still be one of the most liberal countries in the developed world in its approach to home education, reflecting the careful balance we have to strike between a child's right to education and a parent's right to educate their child in conformity with their beliefs and philosophies. I very much look forward to the report that you will produce after you have taken evidence.

  Q2  Chairman: Thank you for that, Minister; it got us off to a good start. Is there anything you would like to add, Graham?

  Graham Badman: My thanks for this opportunity. I have not actually said anything about my report since I submitted it to the Secretary of State, and there are some good reasons for that. There were lots of invitations to talk about it, but I chose not to because I thought it would be prejudicial to an open process of consultation. To echo the Minister's comments, if all the recommendations are implemented, there is nothing to stop home educators, many of whom I have met who do a thoroughly good job for their children, continuing. They would be subject to registration and to what I regard as light touch monitoring, but as the Minister has pointed out, in one of the most liberal regimes in terms of a developed education system, we now have greater access to a range of services. I stated in my report that it seems perverse for any government to express concerns about this group of people, yet not offer any resources to them. If I were before you, Chairman, as a Director of Children's Services and you asked me, "What do you know about the 80,000 children in your care?" and I replied, "I'm awfully sorry, but I can't tell you very much about them," I suspect that I would not remain in the post for very long. That, frankly, is the situation in relation to elective home education. That doesn't mean to say that it is bad; it means to say that we don't know. Children have a moral right to education; I place great emphasis on that. My report, I hope, sets out to balance the rights of the child with the rights of parents. It seems timely on the 20th anniversary of the UN convention that we seek to examine whether or not this sector of the community actually honours children's rights as expressed in the UN convention. I spent some time in my report discussing this and placed the recommendations in that context. All that being said, if anything, the report is most critical of local authorities. If implemented, it will hold them to account through an audit regime for their systems of monitoring elective home education. I think it raises real questions about the support they have given and should give to statemented pupils; about their training, or the absence of it, of staff; and it crucially requires them to determine and analyse why those children left school in the first place. Ask that question: why did they leave, if indeed they ever attended? I tried very hard to represent the views of the countless elective home educators who often spoke of their despair—I do not use that word without some caution, but it was genuine despair—at the schooling system. They had concerns about the understanding of local authority officers who did not appreciate the aims of elective home education. Elective home educators often viewed elective home education as a place of last resort where their children could escape bullying. They felt that many young people, particularly those with special educational needs and those on the autistic spectrum, were not being catered for. Added to that, there was a whole group of parents who had a philosophical belief in educating at home. There was a clear conviction on the part of many of them that they could do it better, and I respect that belief. But in turning now, to safeguarding, I recognise that this was the most controversial element of the report. Many parents felt that the initial press coverage of the review found them guilty, and they had to prove their innocence. I regret that, because I don't think that is true, and I cite what they said to me—that hard cases make for poor legislation. Where there was no evidence—for example, on forced marriage, where I actually looked at the report that went to the Home Affairs Committee—where I could find no evidence, I said so. In regard to safeguarding I simply ask two questions about well-being and safety. They are on page 28, paragraph 8.2. Basically, my two questions were, "Are the concerns for child protection over-represented within the elective home educators community; and if so, what could have been done through better regulation to ameliorate those effects?" Finally, with regard to education itself I recommended further work to be done, to determine, in the context of what constitutes not 21st-century schooling, but the 21st-century education system that is required, what is suitable and efficient, now. The definitions that we have are only defined by case law. They are not legal, and they are pretty woolly. Although I came to no firm conclusions I recommended that further work be done on that. Indeed, in the same way that I recommended that we explore more about autonomous education. We don't know enough; we don't know enough in terms of research, particularly on what are the outcomes for young people as a consequence of that. I began by saying that I'd written this report in seeking to balance the rights of children with the rights of their parents. I hope that, if implemented, it gives children a voice. I know that in itself is contentious. But I have also tried to give elective home educators a voice. I recommended that they be engaged in the process of determining what is efficient in education, that they be involved in training, that they be involved in all the things that follow, and that, crucially, local authorities create a forum whereby they regularly hear from elective home educators about the services that are provided. I believe that the EHE community has much to offer in developing our understanding of the effectiveness or otherwise of the schooling system. It holds a mirror up to the schooling system, and to that end, I have to say, Chairman, I have been somewhat surprised by the reaction of a vociferous minority—and I do think it is a vociferous minority; I can actually count the number of people who have done it. I have found the remarks of some of them offensive, but I draw comfort from an academic friend of mine who says that often personal attacks are made when logic has been defeated. I don't regard those people as a majority. I think that I have benefited enormously from learning of their experiences, but I actually think that the change in regulation and greater scrutiny is essential for the children.

  Chairman: Thank you Graham. We are aware that there are great passions on this subject. This Committee, indeed, decided earlier this afternoon that we would make a particular effort to meet a whole group of home educators, and that will be part of our inquiry. Penny, would you like to say something?

  Penny Jones: No.

  Q3  Paul Holmes: Like lots of other MPs, I am sure, this summer I have met with home educators, in my constituency of Chesterfield, and they were very concerned, as you just pointed out. They feared that your report or the way the press reported it had labelled them as abusers, basically, so it is very welcome that you have gone to considerable trouble just now to say that is clearly not what the report is saying, and that there is lots more in the report about the raw deal that home educators get from the system, and so forth. So that is all very welcome. Just to help further with the process of clarifying that and setting people's minds at rest, one of the concerns was paragraph 8.12 of your report, where you said that "the number of children known to children's social care in some local authorities is disproportionately high relative to the size of their home educating population." What home educators feel is that we need some clarification about this. Who is classified as being known to social care? Lots of children in home education—certainly lots of children I have met over the years—have left the mainstream system because they have special educational needs, and therefore would be known to the education and social care system, but not because of any danger to them. They're known to the system because they have a problem, and that problem has led to them being bullied at school or not being dealt with properly, and so they've been taken out of the system. So, how do you define "known to social care"? Who comes under that category?

  Graham Badman: It is a term in common parlance, "known to social care". I understand why there needs to be some clarity around it. There are three sections. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 gives a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need, including disabled children. Section 37 refers to the powers of family court proceedings in which a court can direct an authority to carry that out. Section 47 refers to the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are at risk of significant harm. In other words, it leads into a child protection investigation. From the original data, what became confused—I want to clarify it now—is that of the original small sample of local authorities, 41 young people were subject to a child protection plan. In other words, we did not take any account of those who were known because of a disability—they did not feature. There were 41 young people who were the subject of a child protection plan. Let us be clear about it—this is the highest level of protection we can afford children. But it was argued that that was a relatively small sample and that there was a glitch in the data, and so we went back and reworked the data. When it originally came out, I said I was cautious about it, in terms of that number from that authority, because proportionately it represents a population of elective home education that is about twice an ordinary population. In fact, on reworking that sample, and I didn't produce it in the first place, I can tell you now, the figure is actually five times. The proportion is five times. But what we did in anticipation of this Select Committee, because I guessed this would come out, we went out to local authorities again and asked for further information about elective home education. Let me stress again that these children are not those who are just known; they are the ones who are subject to a child protection plan. And this time, from 74 local authorities, the figure confirms the original findings—namely, that on the basis of 74 local authorities it is slightly in excess of double the percentage. In other words, there is a significant risk attached to it. What I also recognise from your question is that before invoking a section 47 inquiry, there will be a number of strategy meetings. There will be families that give cause for concern on what is sometimes good evidence, sometimes not. A strategy meeting will be held; there might be a core group that is formed; that strategy meeting might go nowhere. A further strategy meeting might take place again, and then it could be that no section 47 inquiry is held, or if it is held, that there is no finding that there is a need for a child protection plan. The ones we are reporting to you are subject to a plan. They have the highest level of protection this land can afford. That is not to say that they are permanently enshrined in that. One point I think it is really important to get across is that assessment is a process—it is not an event—and the mistakes that are causing local authorities to be chastised on their child protection at the moment, I would suggest to you, are often because section 47 assessments have become an event rather than a process, something that is subject to a continual review. So there are two ways of looking at it. One is that this figure is not static, because they are in the process of continual review. Secondly, there might be other families who will come into this as statutory meetings continue to take place. Clearly, what my report does is to draw attention to those five key morbidities that we know are so important in terms of child protection—drugs, alcohol, substance abuse, domestic violence and learning difficulties—as possible precursors to need in regard to the child's education, not of a one-to-one relationship. We are just saying there is a risk. All my report tries to say is that local authorities must be diligent in pursuing that risk and determining whether or not it is a risk that needs action or a risk that can be managed. And so, although there will be, if this report goes through, the power of local authorities to refuse registration, they do not necessarily have to do so. And certainly some of the categories that you spoke about earlier would not invoke that right.

  Q4  Paul Holmes: You mentioned disability. Are you saying that the figures for children in home education who are known to social care do not include children who are known because they have a disability?

  Graham Badman: That is correct.

  Paul Holmes: You are talking strictly about—

  Graham Badman: I was talking strictly about those who are on a child protection plan.

  Q5  Paul Holmes: Your initial findings, and then the later September wave of requests that you made, showed huge disparities between different local authorities on what these percentages were. How would you explain that?

  Graham Badman: Without going back to those local authorities, that is difficult. Not all children's social services departments work in the same way, as we have discovered. I suspect that there will be a variation in terms of the elective home education population because they are not spread universally across the country. There are concentrations of home educators. Equally, I would imagine there are some issues around deprivation that would be important. There are also issues around the quality of schooling in that if you can create a schooling system which satisfies everybody, the movement to elective home education would probably be less. It is a question worthy of further asking. The aggregate figure is correct and I stand by it. It is slightly in excess of double the proportion. But yes, if one of my recommendations is carried out, namely that local authorities reflect on why children have left, they also might want to reflect on what they don't know about them and whether they are assessing that risk adequately. I said in my report that I had considered serious case reviews. The identification of serious case reviews was quite difficult because it is not axiomatic that serious case reviews name the place of education. It is not always known. There were, in fact, only four where elective home education was a feature. I will not go into the detail because some of it is confidential. Two of them were stark in their concerns for those young people. All of them made recommendations to make changes in regulation to provide greater powers of scrutiny. Some of the evidence, and certainly that offered by local authorities, was that they were hampered in their task. So it may well be that the disparity in local authority figures was because some local authorities don't know what they don't know.

  Q6  Paul Holmes: If you are saying that the figures are fairly robust because they don't include children with disabilities or special educational needs, what about false reporting? A neighbour might ring up and say that these children have been kept off school and so forth and it turns out that they are being legitimately home educated. Does that appear as a child investigation?

  Graham Badman: There is always false reporting in children's social services. Whenever you get the situation that I have dealt with in another way in terms of Haringey, you always get an increase in that false reporting. But good strategy meetings will sort that out. You won't get that section 47 inquiry on the basis of false evidence. That will be tested by the strategy group. It will be tested by the core group. Remember, too, that when you get a section 47, parents have the right to be there. Authorities have the right to exclude them, but I know of few circumstances where a child is subject to a child protection plan where parents or carers do not have an opportunity to speak. So I would be surprised if false reporting in any way accounted for those figures.

  Q7  Paul Holmes: Finally, one of the concerns of home educators is the speed at which all this has happened. They put in freedom of information requests so that they could look at your original data and then they have not had time to do that for the September data. Will all this data be put on the website so that home educators can go through it and come up with counter-arguments? Perhaps the Minister can answer that.

  Chairman: Minister?

  Ms Diana R. Johnson: Freedom of information requests are being dealt with. I think that more than 150—

  Penny Jones: Yes, 150.

  Ms Diana R. Johnson: More than 150 freedom of information requests have come into the Department. That is clearly a lot of work. With that volume of requests things have not happened as quickly as they need to. We are well aware of the need to get on and sort out the freedom of information requests. There has been a huge number.

  Q8  Paul Holmes: Can you not just put all the responses up on the website so that people can read it directly anyway?

  Ms Diana R. Johnson: As I recall, these FOI requests are all slightly different. There is no common thread.

  Penny Jones: FOI requests cover quite a broad range. We have put up an analysis of the second report. That was up with a letter from Graham, so that is all up on the website for everybody to see. We go into quite lot of detail, giving graphs of the spread of findings and that sort of thing. The general line that we have taken is that we do not release the information that individual authorities have sent to us because the numbers tend to be small, and there is always the danger that an individual child can be identified, and then, of course, there are exemptions that apply for the protection of those children who are vulnerable.

  Q9  Mr Stuart: Overall, what percentage of children are subject to child protection plans?

  Graham Badman: On the basis of the new data—the new data include issues of concern such as whether a child is in education, training or employment and whether the family is co-operating—the national figure is about 0.2%. The figure among elective home educators is 0.4%.

  Q10  Mr Stuart: You have slightly lost me there. Having gone to all the local authorities, I thought that what you were basing the doubled risk assessment on was the very hard measure of child protection plans. In other words, it wasn't anything to do with the expression that has previously been used about contact with social services. This is now very much at the hardest end—although it happened to align with your original position.

  Graham Badman: Absolutely.

  Q11  Mr Stuart: Just now, you said something about other issues.

  Graham Badman: What I was saying is that they were among the data set that was given to the Chairman of the Committee as well as being published. We went out to local authorities and asked other questions as well. Just to be clear, the data sample was from 74 authorities. The percentage of the population of elective home educators from those 74 authorities who are on child protection plans is 0.4%. From the same group of all children, it is 0.2%. So, it is double. It is double proportionally and not double in terms of the actual number.

  Q12  Mr Stuart: Sure. As you mentioned in those figures, it is also very important not to give the impression that there is a very high number of children in child protection plans among the home-educated community. Obviously, it did feel as if the initial publicity suggested that home educators should be viewed with suspicion.

  Graham Badman: I am not arguing that at all. I am saying that proportionally there is a higher percentage. I do not regard any home educators in that way with suspicion. Indeed I met a number of home educators whose children were so accomplished I thought that they should be justly proud of them. All I am saying is that you cannot say—certainly from the view of those whom I met—that all children are safe, particularly as there is no security about the number of children who are known to us. The best estimates that have been put forward are around 20,000 or so. Most local authorities believe that it is at least double that in terms of those who are unknown and not registered. Certainly members of my reference group put that figure much higher again. All I am saying is, no, you should not treat home education in that way. You should not view it with suspicion, but you should know that the risk factor is proportionally double.

  Q13  Mr Stuart: In any case in which a child is known to be on a child protection plan, will it, by necessity, mean that that child is known to the local authorities?

  Graham Badman: Yes.

  Q14  Mr Stuart: So, if the numbers that were formally known about were approximately double your best estimate, it would take us back to almost precisely where we started, at the average of the population as a whole.

  Graham Badman: I'm sorry, I don't understand the question.

  Q15  Mr Stuart: Well, if there are twice as many children in home education than are formally known about, which by definition includes all those for whom there is a child protection plan, it would suggest that, roughly speaking, you were back to 0.2% of the home-educated population having a child protection plan, which would put them in line with the national average.

  Graham Badman: I think that it propels the figures the other way. It would actually make the proportion higher, because they are already included in the overall population and in the subset of the population, which would mean that the percentage will be fractionally higher. It works the other way.

  Q16  Mr Stuart: I am probably being rather slow here. Take me through that again. I am obviously not understanding this.

  Graham Badman: Well, if 0.2% is all population and that includes elective home educators, then that figure actually depresses the overall figure. If you have them separated out, it would make it proportionally worse. If you take out home educators from the first figure, it makes that figure 0.2% lower.

  Q17  Mr Stuart: Ignoring that, because the number of children who are home educated is statistically insignificant in the overall population, so the 0.2%. can be left roughly where it is, the point is how many home-educated children have child protection plans? If those who are formally known about are only half of the number of children who are estimated by you, the leading expert on the subject, to be home educated—local authorities likewise think that they know about only half—that suggests that, roughly speaking, they are about the national average.

  Graham Badman: Forgive me. It is me who is being obtuse. I understand your point absolutely now, but who is to say that they are safe? If you don't know anything about them, a high proportion of those who are unknown may be unsafe.

  Q18  Mr Stuart: Absolutely right, and people rightly worry about safety, but first one must deal with data as they are. From what you said, the data seem to be that there are no more children with child protection plans among home-educated children, if it is in fact twice as many as those that are formally known about, than in the wider population. To put in context the previous Minister's remarks about the risks, which caused a lot of offence among the home education community, unless there were very good data to back them up, they were wrongly stigmatised as having a higher incidence of child abuse, or the threat of it within their families. I am putting to you a fairly important point, not least to them, that perhaps on your own numbers a home-educated child is no more likely to be abused than anyone else in the population.

  Graham Badman: You are asking me to determine a causal effect that I cannot. All I can say to you is to repeat the evidence that I have, which is that on the basis of the information provided by 74 authorities, twice the percentage of young people have child protection plans among the elective home-educated population than in the general population. What you would consider in terms of an assessment of risk about a family before you decide that you are going to bar them on safeguarding grounds, is a range of other reasons and data drawn from a strategy group, if you had gone to a section 47 inquiry, or whatever you had gained in terms of intelligence from your officers visiting. If you want me to clarify the statistical interpretation of those, I will gladly write to you afterwards.[75]2 I also draw your attention back to the second set of data, because local authorities asked us to raise other issues in terms of their assessment of whether children were receiving an appropriate education, whether it was not suitable, whether they were co-operating and, crucially, in terms of the data that we have given you, the percentage of the elective home-educated young children—young people—who were not in education, employment or training. We are concerned about outcomes as well. The report is not just about safeguarding; it is also about the quality of education that they receive.

  Q19  Mr Stuart: Sticking with NEETS, I am glad that you raised them because whenever education Ministers are in front of us, I say that the crude proxy analogy is to see whether the system is working. I normally point out that it is not, because we have more NEETS now that we had 12 years ago, which suggests failure. What is the number of NEETS in the home-educated community?

  Graham Badman: I cannot say about the whole community, but I can tell you about the 74 responses that we have.

  Chairman: That is about half.

  Graham Badman: Yes. In a reported population of 1,220; 270 of those children were not in education, employment or training, which is 22%. The national figure for NEETS is 5.2%.

75   2 See Ev 31-35. Back

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