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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 43 - 59)

WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER 2009

ZENA HODGSON, JANE LOWE, FIONA NICHOLSON, CAROLE RUTHERFORD AND SIMON WEBB

  Q43  Chairman: I welcome Zena Hodgson, Jane Lowe, Fiona Nicholson, Carole Rutherford and Simon Webb to our deliberations today. All of you know that following the Badman report we thought that it was the right time to consider home schooling. We started off on Monday. It is a short inquiry, but in the run-up to a general election, Select Committee inquiries tend to be short; we cannot afford the time for the very long ones that we specialise in at other times of the cycle. As our recent inquiry into false allegations against teachers shows, it does not mean to say that we cannot write a very good report and make a difference to what is going on out there. I am going to riff through very quickly and ask everyone to introduce themselves and say exactly what their interest is in this particular issue. I want very fast responses on that. May I start with Zena? I hope you don't mind that we slip into first names in this Committee. However, if you want to be called Dr Webb or Professor Rutherford or Mrs or Ms, we will do so. You must still call me Chair, though.

  Zena Hodgson: I am Zena from the Home Education Centre in Chard, Somerset. I am in the fortunate position to be part of a fantastic group of home educators who are located in the progressively thinking county of Somerset. Our concern is that the recommendations put forward by the Badman review will undermine the achievements that have been made between the home education community and the local authority to date, and that any further relationships between the two parties will become unworkable. At the moment, they stand on a very equal footing. The balance of power is very equal, so everything tends to come out of a good balance of collaboration between the two, with no one side.

  Chairman: You have a good relationship with your local authority and you don't want the boat rocked.

   Zena Hodgson: It's not a case of the boat being rocked. The balance of power is fairly even. Somerset, under the equalities and diversities department, approached us, almost as a cultural minority, and simply said, "We want to help you. Tell us about yourselves and let us see what we can do." From that basic question, a reasonable dialogue has occurred and many great things have been achieved, including exam access for our children and grants specifically for resources for the home ed community.

  Chairman: We will drill down on that in a minute.

  Jane Lowe: I am Jane Lowe from the Home Education Advisory Service. I am also a retired home educator. I have two children, aged 23 and 25. I am a teacher and have spent all my life with a passion for education of various kinds. I have been fully involved with home education all the time that my children were educated at home and since. Our Home Education Advisory Service is very concerned about this review. We feel that it has not scratched the surface of home education, that it is hasty and ill-considered, and that the recommendations will be very damaging. They will not achieve what they set out to achieve and they will be far more expensive than anybody has realised. I have done an independent study to give some idea of the costs involved.

  Chairman: Which you submitted at the beginning.

  Jane Lowe: Yes, it has gone in.

  Fiona Nicholson: I am Fiona Nicholson. I am chair of Education Otherwise, a government policy group, and I am a trustee of Education Otherwise. I am also a home educating parent. I have a 16-year-old who has never been to school. I meet with a great many local authorities. I have a good policy relationship with my local authority in Sheffield and I attend regional forums of local authorities. Three, four or five times, I have met with groups of 20 or 30 home education officials in local authorities. We have had all-day meetings. So I feel I have a very broad experience to bring to this. Again, my feeling is, as we put in our submission, that the report was very rushed. Graham Badman wasn't given enough time. We are not being given enough now. I've had a ridiculous number of phone calls and e-mails from people saying, "You must mention this," but I can't possibly do that. So I'm here to say I haven't got enough time.

  Carole Rutherford: I am Carole Rutherford and I am co-founder of Autism in Mind. We support parents in school and home educators. We can see the pathway that leads parents to come out of the system and into home education. We feel that the review was rushed and that special educational needs were, as always, very much an add-on. We don't feel that they were looked at in the light of what the recommendations could do to children with special educational needs, who are often very traumatised when they come out of the system. We don't feel that we had enough time to input, and I've got to agree that we don't have enough time today either.

  Chairman: You know that the Committee takes special educational needs provision very seriously. Simon.

  Simon Webb: I have a 16-year-old daughter whom I never sent to school. I taught her all her life.

  Chairman: That was very brief. We will come back to that. Let us drill down into the questioning. Graham.

  Q44  Mr Stuart: There seems to be quite a discrepancy between the articulate representatives of the home education community and what local authority officers say is a large bulk of people who are perhaps less articulate and less capable, which prompts authorities to believe that the Badman recommendations will provide support. What is your response to that?

  Jane Lowe: I also do some work for my local authority. I do freelance work—one-to-one tuition—with some of the children you are talking about. The local authority knows very well who these children are, because they have a track record of problems and attendance issues in school and they are often known to other services as well. There are a number of such children in every local authority—it varies according to the demographic of the authority concerned—but the Badman recommendations are not going to address that issue at all, because the people involved are already known about and they are not home educators—they are the non-home educators. There are many shades of home educator, but the people there are concerns about are not home educators.

  Fiona Nicholson: I echo what Jane said, but we must also be aware of the danger of just taking anecdotal evidence along the lines of "I met a home educator once, and they said such and such" or "A number of local authorities have said such and such to me." Everybody has a completely different experience of the home educators in their local authorities. I have had local authorities say one thing to me, but I have also had local authorities say completely different things to me. As you know, my mantra is that we need to do a lot more research into the home education community. We should start by looking at the home educators we already know about. Local authorities know of 20,000 home-educated children and young people. Education Otherwise has begun to do research in that area, and we are researching local authorities, but if we stick to anecdotal evidence—things along the lines of "Here's a problem that we've defined for you. How would you solve it?"—policy is going to get very skewed.

  Zena Hodgson: One of my main roles at the centre is as a support officer because I do the administration, run the website and receive inquiries from home educators and groups looking for advice. Given that our members and the wider community use us as a point of contact, I deal with many home educators who, although they are not as vocal as some, are in contact with those who are vocal and who are the point of contact or the link with authorities. Just because people are not speaking out themselves, they are not out of the loop in terms of support. They have groups and representatives as their points of contact.[18]


  Q45  Mr Stuart: Before you comment on that, Carole, can you tell us whether you support Fiona's desire to see more research?

  Carole Rutherford: Absolutely. There is no research at all that I know of that is wrapped around special educational needs and that is part of the problem, because we cannot come here today and say, "Well, this is what we know for certain about children with special educational needs." I cannot say to you with 100% authority that all children with special educational needs who are home educated are going to do better. I can tell you what parents tell us of the difference in their children after a very short period of time. With regard to parents not being as vocal, if you are looking after a child with a disability or special educational needs, it is often not as easy to become as vocal or as involved. That is when parents come to the likes of Autism in Mind and the National Autistic Society to fight their corner for them, because they are too busy, embroiled in teaching their own children. So they are there and, yes, they may look like a silent majority, but it does not mean that they are silent, because they are actually contacting groups to do it on their behalf.

  Q46  Mr Stuart: Does everybody think there should be more research into the home education community? Would you all agree with the criticism that, essentially, the Badman review has come in without doing that research and that the statistical handling so far looks pretty weak on things like level of abuse and child protection plans? It does not seem to bear much scrutiny. Looking at other Government statistics, it would appear that the level of abuse among home-educated children is lower.

  Chairman: Graham, I think you should ask questions rather then tell them the answers.

  Mr Stuart: I just wanted to find out whether anyone disagreed with that view.

  Fiona Nicholson: It seems to me that Graham Badman was being asked to present findings at almost the time, or later the same hour, as he was being expected to conduct research. That does not seem to me to be a very robust or academic way to go about things. He did not have the evidence base before he started to go out and talk to people, and that work still needs to be done at some point. We need to do that work. Education Otherwise has started comprehensive research into local authorities. We have sent out very detailed questionnaires and we are going to present that research shortly. It is a massive job. I am gesturing at a huge pile of raw data which we have.

  Q47  Chairman: But you would not deny, Fiona, that it seems strange we do not really know how many home-educated children there are and where they are.

  Fiona Nicholson: Absolutely.

  Q48  Chairman: You would have thought that that would be important for us to know in each local authority area. Would we all agree on that?

  Fiona Nicholson: It is strange that you don't know, yes.

  Zena Hodgson: I think if you look at the situation, in a way, it is just about data collation, because, at the end of the day, I think it is very difficult for children, or for anybody in fact, to be hidden from the system. We are registered in many ways. The birth of a child is registered, you are registered at a GP, you register for child benefit and in all those kinds of areas.[19]


  Q49  Chairman: Zena, as a Member of Parliament, I know children disappear all the time in my constituency. It's a very real concern. It isn't only runaway children, but children who disappear overseas and when you try to track them it is impossible because we don't have the data. I am sorry, I have to correct you on that as a working constituency Member.

  Jane Lowe: On disappearing children, the idea of a registration scheme is not going to do anything at all, because if any parent is suitably evil or deranged that they want to abduct and abuse a child, they are not going to take any notice of the minor offence of not registering themselves with the local authority as a home educator if they are that bent on committing a major crime. I think it is going to miss the point.

  Q50  Helen Southworth: This is a similar question, but from a slightly different angle. One of the difficulties about identifying children who go missing and who are at risk is finding them among the children who are perfectly safe and happy but you just don't know about. Do you think that the benefit of being able to find those children, probably a very small number, who are at risk is sufficient that we should press to find the information so that we can identify them from among the wider group?

  Fiona Nicholson: Since we are actually talking about registration, we need to establish what the purpose of registration would be, and you seem to be saying that the purpose would be that decent people would eliminate themselves from inquiries.

  Q51  Helen Southworth: No, not at all. I was asking if it had the other effect that it would enable this to be continued, would that be beneficial?

  Fiona Nicholson: If registration would allow?

  Helen Southworth: If the fact that you could identify and know who the children being home educated are, that could help to identify some children who were just missing.

  Fiona Nicholson: But we have statutory guidance on children missing education.

  Helen Southworth: Perhaps I have asked too complicated a question.

  Chairman: Let us move on.

  Q52  Annette Brooke: I would like a straight yes or no answer from each member of the panel. Imagine a very simple registration scheme that gets rid of all the strings and conditions in the Badman report and literally signs up—given that if a child goes to a local school, there is knowledge that the child is at the local school—just to providing the knowledge that a child is being home educated at X address. Let us start with a very simple principle and at least we would get some indication of numbers, although I accept what you said, Fiona. Do you feel strongly about the simplest of registration schemes?

  Simon Webb: I cannot see any possible objection to it, personally. Actually, my daughter went missing because she was born in one local authority area but we moved to another when she was six. Nobody had any idea of whether she was at school and, when we moved, nobody knew what happened to her. I could have done her in and buried her in the garden in Tottenham, and then moved to Loughton and no one would have been any the wiser. She had no official existence in effect, so no, I cannot see any possible objection to a registration scheme.

  Carole Rutherford: It depends on what it leads to. We are going to have to re-register every year. When you enrol at a school, you don't go back every year and ask, "Can I continue with my name on the roll?" The majority of home educators with special educational needs children are already known, because you cannot have a child with a disability who isn't seen by somebody at some point. In a way, we are already there; people already know us. If you have de-registered, and the vast majority of them have, you are known.

  Q53  Chairman: So if it is already known, you wouldn't mind having a register as well?

  Carole Rutherford: The parents who I speak to tell me that yes, they would actually mind that.

  Chairman: They would mind having a register?

  Carole Rutherford: They don't want to be registered because they feel as if they have been pursued enough by local authorities. That was probably the reason why they have come out of the system; they don't want to have to start all over again with the local authorities.

  Q54  Chairman: So your answer to Annette is no?

  Fiona Nicholson: My answer is that it is a really bad time to be asking this—at the end of the Badman review. If that had been the question at the beginning of the review, we would have put all our trust issues on the table and said, "Call us paranoid, but we fear that it would lead to a definition of suitable education and efficient education and that it would be far more intrusive." We would have hoped that somebody would give us some kind of reassurance. We have all had a look at the big blue book, the Graham Badman report, and it is really difficult now to answer a hypothetical question about how we feel about simple registration. If we could stop the clock and things such as the Badman review had never happened, and we had not seen what is entrained for us—

  Q55  Chairman: I am sorry, but this is a bit hypothetical. Are you against a register or not? Before Badman's review and now, were you or were you not in favour of a register so that we would know where our children are in this country?

  Fiona Nicholson: I thought it was inevitable that it would happen.

  Q56  Chairman: But you would not approve of it happening?

  Fiona Nicholson: I am not taking a position on whether I think it is a good or a bad thing.

  Chairman: Okay, that's a don't know.

  Jane Lowe: I have thought about this for years and I can see that it is a comforting prospect, but I really don't think it would achieve what it sets out to achieve, so no, I am not in favour of it.

  Chairman: Annette asked for a yes or no answer and I am trying to get it for her.

  Zena Hodgson: I echo what Jane said. I can see why you would need to have it, and a pure headcount situation would seem okay on the face of it, but I am sure that it would not simply be that. As Jane said, at the end of the day, if that register is to protect the tiny one or two that happen, if a family is ardently intent on doing something heinous and wanting to hide, you would not be able to compel that person to be on the register. There would be all the innocents, as it were, who would put their hands up and be on the register, while those whom you are worried about would still not be on it.[20]


  Q57  Annette Brooke: May I pursue that question. Obviously, you can now register voluntarily. How many of you are registered, or were registered?

  Chairman: Three have their hands up.

  Annette Brooke: I think that I am primarily on your side—

  Chairman: Sorry. That was Simon Webb, Caroline and Fiona. Hansard cannot see hands in the air. For the record, Jane and Zena indicated that they were not registered.

  Q58  Annette Brooke: I was hoping that I might achieve a consensus that a simple registration scheme was acceptable, and then work through the great long list of add-ons that come afterwards. I can see how those add-ons are troubling people. There is a general lack of confidence in the ability of local authority officers. We have described how a partnership approach can work. I suggest that it is reasonable that people would want to be confident that there was a minimum standard to be met. I am totally opposed to making you conform and putting you in a straitjacket, but how in your view can the local authority establish education basics—this is where the local authority should be making visits—without sucking you into the National Curriculum and all the things that we find too restrictive?

  Carole Rutherford: It has got to be relative to the child, and that will be the problem. In looking at levels of attainment and what the child can do, we will be taking into consideration their special educational needs or disability. Parents are telling me that many local authorities do not do that, as it is not what they are interested in. Our outcomes and achievements will be completely different from those where special educational needs are not taken into account. That is not to say that we do not educate our children in the basic things; it is just that they need to be taught some things that the system does not teach. Parents who have come out of the system are so often bruised by it—they may have no relationship at all left with their local authority, having fought for provision statements or whatever and failed—that the very last thing they want is to have somebody coming into the home to assess them who fails to provide for their child. How can somebody tell a parent, "This is what your child should be doing," if they have failed that child? What we are looking at is fear among parents who have children with disabilities. It is not hysteria but fear, because they know where such things can lead. We know how difficult it is to prove that your child has a special educational needs. That sounds stupid, but if a child is autistic or has a hidden disability, they may as well not have the diagnosis, because the schools think they know better. We have paediatricians and other people going into schools and saying, "This is what the child needs," but then that is promptly ignored or the school knows better. Parents don't want to have to start again. If a relationship has completely broken down, as often happens, where can you start to rebuild faith? There is no mention of training for special educational needs. Yes, safeguarding is mentioned, and it is vital, but if you don't understand—

  Chairman: Carole, would you stick to the question? I know that you want to go on to other matters, but hold fire for a moment. Who else wanted to answer our question?

  Simon Webb: Leaving aside children with special educational needs, I am against an over-prescriptive approach. I have never had any dealings with the National Curriculum, but if I met a child of 12 who was completely illiterate, it would not be hard for me to know that something was amiss educationally. If I met a child of 14 who was unable to work out in his head the change from a £10 note, I could be reasonably sure of guessing that he was not receiving a proper education. It should be a fairly simple matter. They should not be testing children in a formal way, but it is fairly easy to guess whether a child is receiving an education.

  Fiona Nicholson: I would like to address the issue of why people would not want to have a relationship with the local authority, do more research in that area, and actually answer your question by saying, "Go to people who haven't wanted to do it. Go to people who were pushed into it and found that it didn't work for them, and ask them what would have made things better." I think you will get a whole range of answers, but I think that should help to inform any kind of training programme that is brought in for local authority officers. Ask people what they want.

  Jane Lowe: Over the past 20 years, I have been supporting families all over the country—by phone and sometimes by visit—who have had problems with their local authority in getting the local authority officer to understand what they are doing. This is a real issue. We often get inquiries from local authority officers themselves who have just been given the task of monitoring home educators. They haven't a clue what they're doing, and they say so very honestly to us. They say, "Can you tell us about home education?" I had one two weeks ago. We cannot ignore this one, because the people who are doing the job are cast in the school mould. A lot of them are retired head teachers. A lot of them are very willing and very kind, but they simply don't know what they're looking at.

  Zena Hodgson: That is where I would like to reiterate how Somerset actually is different with this. As far as I am aware, it is the only county in the country where this was under equalities and diversities, and therefore approached almost as a cultural need rather than an educational or an educational welfare need. Coming with the very open question of "We want to help; tell us about yourselves and what you need" allows that learning process for the local authority as well so that it understands what its particular community wants. Through that openness, the achievements that have been made through it—that equal dialogue of "Help us understand what the picture is"—and seeing that it has worked for us has meant that, again, we have been approached by other counties. We have been asked to go to meetings with Devon and Dorset, and we even had a Gloucester lead come into the visitor centre to try and get some clues on how they could get in touch with their community in a more meaningful way. In fact, a new lead for Dorset has just been appointed, and he is now coming from a position of inclusion and complex needs, which again is similar to the equality point of view. He very much disagreed with some of the Badman report, because he felt that it was not open enough to invite all the questions from the community about what they need.

  Q59  Paul Holmes: On the Badman report's suggestions about requiring a statement of learning, I know that a number of home educators—both nationally and the ones I've met in Chesterfield—have been very concerned about that and the implication that it might be imposing all sorts of very restrictive prescriptions. Does anybody want to elaborate on that?

  Simon Webb: I can't imagine that any parent educating their child did not have at least some vague idea of what they would like to see that child doing in a year's time. For example, if you had a child of 11 who was unable to read, you would surely have at least the hope that by the time they were 12, they would be able to read, assuming they did not have special needs. If you were entering them for examinations, surely you would be wanting to plan, realise what the syllabus for the examinations would be, and know what you would be doing in a year or two's time. I can't see any objection, personally.


18   See Ev 79. Back

19   See Ev 79. Back

20   See Ev 80. Back


 
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