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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 80)



  Q60  Paul Holmes: You have written about that view in The Times Educational Supplement. You have home-educated your daughter to a very high academic level—eight A*s at GCSE and so forth—but yours is quite a contradictory view to a lot of other home educators'.

  Simon Webb: True.

  Fiona Nicholson: I think, again, we need to know much more about what would be involved. I caught some of the evidence given the other day, and the Minister was saying that two sides of A4 seemed to be sufficient. I have talked to local authorities who think that a lot of information would be required. I help a lot of home educators—I must have helped more than 200—to devise their educational philosophy and report. It takes a lot of time to put their ideas across. They are putting in a lot of information, and they repeatedly come back to me and say, "I'm told it isn't enough. They're going to serve a school attendance order. I still haven't given them enough information. They want more of this, they want more of that." I think that it will be a two-tier situation, where you will have some articulate, confident people who will be able to produce very little and won't find it very inconvenient at all, and you will have an unquantifiable number of other parents who could be made to feel inadequate. We have a consultation proposal that says it is a criminal offence to provide inadequate information. You could be in a state of limbo for a very long time if you still have not provided enough information and your licence to home educate has still not been granted. Again, we do not know what the statement might look like. When we met the DCSF civil servant, Iain Campbell, to discuss this at the end of June, he thought that a couple of sentences just indicating the approach that you might be planning to take would be all that was required. Now it is two sides of A4, and I have known local authorities that have not been happy with a 30-page report.

  Q61  Paul Holmes: So what would you recommend? Should it perhaps be a two-page statement, one paragraph or the detailed academic syllabus that Simon talks about?

  Fiona Nicholson: It would depend on what was appropriate in each individual case. I find it very easy to organise my thoughts into paragraphs in my head and then write them down. It does not make me a better home educator; it makes me reasonably good at dealing with authority figures. I talk to a lot of parents who can't do that and they say, "No, I'd rather meet somebody and talk things through". But if the object of meeting and talking things through is to come up with a sort of template, I do not think that would be helpful at all. There might be a meeting with somebody from a school or a local authority and the object of the meeting is to get some bullet points written down, which are going to be reviewed in six months and in a year, and your child is going to be required to exhibit, and be progress-tested against, those things that you said in order to have something written down in order to be able to home educate. Graham Badman gave too much information about what he had in the bag for us really.

  Zena Hodgson: As I am sure you are aware, quite a proportion of the home education community likes to work in an autonomous way, responding to what their children want to learn. So, if what is required is too much of an academic statement, and you set out a plan for your 12 months that includes a certain amount of academic criteria, because at the time that is what your child is interested in, and they then say, "Actually, no, I've changed my mind. Over the next few months I'd rather be looking at this subject", that won't reflect the plan that you have submitted, even though they achieve many things. Would you then have the fear that the authority would come back and say, "This was your plan though, and you did not stick to it"? I think that that is also an underlying fear, certainly for autonomous educators.

  Jane Lowe: There is another issue here, which is children who are withdrawn from school in pieces, some of whom are suicidal. Over the years I have seen a lot of these children, and they are not in a position to get their heads together and think about what they want to do. This can go on for anything up to a year. They are in such a state that if you even mention education they are right back to square one, and that sets up a whole cycle of fear in which they are afraid of the pressure that will be put on them to achieve during that year. They will have this ogre of fear of being pushed back to school, and that is going to be hanging over them for the whole 12 months. I think that's appalling.

  Q62  Paul Holmes: What about what Zena touched on: the philosophy of autonomous learning that you let the child follow their interest for however long that particular interest lasts? On the other hand, Simon has written that that might mean that a child, after 10 or 11 years of home education, would not have achieved some of the education that they would need to function in the adult world.

  Jane Lowe: That is something that I have watched over the years in families that I have known, families that I have worked with and families that I have advised, and children who are given a free rein with their education nearly always achieve in very extraordinary ways. If they have the resources and the input of a friendly and concerned adult—

  Q63  Chairman: Has there been any research on that?

  Jane Lowe: Alan Thomas has done a lot of research. He has actually been and stayed with families—

  Q64  Chairman: Is he an objective academic?

  Jane Lowe: He is not a home educator. He is a fully-fledged academic.

  Chairman: He is very positive about home education though.

  Jane Lowe: Yes, he is.

  Q65  Paul Holmes: Simon wrote "Children raised in this way may well spend months pursuing a favourite topic, but they are unlikely to study a well-rounded curriculum ... and therefore to acquire formal qualifications ... The restriction of a child's life chances by the early decision of a parent, sometimes when the child is only four or five, must surely be examined." Some years ago, I was approached by one person in my constituency who had been home educated. In his mid to late-20s he found that he did not have access to the professional qualifications that would allow him to take over his father's accountancy firm. So, the home education choices that were made quite a long time earlier, and that he had thoroughly enjoyed, meant that he now could not do what he wanted to do as an adult.

  Fiona Nicholson: Lifelong learning. Obviously, we need more longitudinal studies because there is a paucity of them. The idea that something stops at 16 or 18 and that you cannot access qualifications later is something that we need to tear up. We need to tear up the book that says that. My son has not got formal qualifications at the age of 16 because we do not think that it is necessary. If he needs them in his early 20s, I am entirely confident that he will have the nous to go and get them. If that is a problem and at 24 he is already too old and there is ageism in the workplace, that is another distressing thing. There are a lot of young people coming out of university, and they are 21. A home education parent could say, "We have ticked the box. We have done all we could." It does not necessarily make them fulfilled, successful, productive adults. I was one of those people myself, and it did not get me anywhere; I was working in a shop.

  Carole Rutherford: It is well documented that children with autism learn better if they follow a subject that is one of their special interests. That does not mean that once you start with one subject it does not evolve into something else, but the child still feels that the emphasis is on the subject that it likes and it evolves from there. It is much easier to teach a child with autism if you start with something that they enjoy. Then you add on to it, and it is amazing where that can lead to. You are also enhancing things such as social skills and life skills. At the end of the home education of my two sons, if they are well able to look after themselves, I will feel that I have achieved. Yes, I want them to work, but I want them to have life skills.

  Q66  Paul Holmes: Some parents who are home educators are very committed to autonomous learning, some are looking at rebuilding a child's self-confidence and dealing with special educational needs. You have others, as Simon was saying, who will get eight A*s at GCSE. There is a vast range. Going back to earlier evidence, what about all those parents, many of whom we do not know about, who have not got a clue how to cope with any of this? I have always admired home educators because of the amount of work that they do. I am a former teacher, but I could not teach science. So, what about all the home educators who are not in these self-confident, different and contradictory boxes?

   Simon Webb: As far as not being able to do science goes, we did our GCSE science in the kitchen. It is not necessary to have a well-equipped laboratory to study science; anybody can do it from materials that they buy from the chemist shop. It is honestly not a problem. As far as autonomous education goes, the problem is that we know that conventional teaching works pretty well with most children, and that it fails some of them. We do not know the same about autonomous education. It is possible that it is very successful with a few, and that a few will get to Oxford, but it might fail more than it succeeds with. That is why there is a need for more research.

  Fiona Nicholson: I would like to address the issue of support. Paul, you said that you had met home educators, or you felt that there were home educators who would benefit from more support or who need more support. I agree with you. I have not met the same people, but home education support organisations and home education local groups are contacted all the time by parents who want more information about absolutely everything. They will come back and check. They test out anything that you have said with any other groups. I know that they do that with the local authorities as well. They will ask masses of questions about what they can do. Home education support organisations do what they can, but there has not been much from local authorities. The Badman report has been presented as something that offers more support. To say that I am sceptical would be an understatement, but if more of that could be available, that would be excellent. It would be good to have more resources and places where people could go to for information and non-judgmental support—the equivalent of a constituency surgery for an MP. I know that that does happen in some areas. North Yorkshire, for example, does it.

  Q67  Paul Holmes: But Graham Badman said on Monday afternoon that that is a lot of the intention of his report. He would argue that unless you register everyone, and unless you ask for a statement of learning, whatever that is, there might be a lot of home educator parents who don't know what they don't know, what they might need to be doing or how to ask for help.

  Jane Lowe: I am sure that there are some parents who would like support, and there are other parents who are perfectly happy to do it in their own way without support. If registration is somehow necessary for providing support, why can it not be voluntary, so that if anyone wants support, they can sign up for it?

  Q68  Paul Holmes: But how do you reach home-educating parents who don't know what they're not delivering because they are not articulate, well-educated or self-educated people?

  Jane Lowe: I don't think you have to be articulate, confident or particularly well educated. I think if you are desperate as a family, and if you have a problem, you will work at it and solve it. We find people coming to us all the time, who are in that situation. You give them a little bit of help, and off they go. The first parent I met, nearly 20 years ago, was a woman whose husband was a lorry driver. She had four children, one of whom was in deep trouble at school. She took in ironing and paid a lady down the road, a teacher, to come in once a week. That child is now in their 20s, working and happy. They can do it.

  Q69  Mr Carswell: I have a general question for the panel. In Clacton, the parents of 16 children have, rightly in my opinion, refused to send their children to a school that they believe is not able to provide the children with a proper education. They have successfully demanded that they receive a home education grant from the local education authority. Is this something that you welcome, and do you think that the sort of extra regulation and oversight demanded by Badman could be conditional on receiving the grant? If you get the grant, you can be overseen by the state, but if you do not, it should leave you alone.

  Zena Hodgson: I am from the Home Education Centre, and we were approached by Somerset, who said that it had managed to put aside some sums to assist home educators. It asked whether we would accept it, as they felt that they were not able to give it to individual families, but could give it to a group to spend the money best to benefit as many home educators in Somerset.[21]

  Chairman: Zena, you are not answering his question.

  Q70  Mr Carswell: Would you like a legal right so that home educators could say to the local authority, "It is my money—give it to me now"?

  Zena Hodgson: As a family?

  Mr Carswell: As an individual. My child, my money—give it.

  Zena Hodgson: Yes, I suppose. There will always be things that your children would want to better their education.

  Fiona Nicholson: My understanding about the situation in Clacton was that the parents were setting up a small school. If there is a political party that supports groups of parents setting up small schools, that would be an option that some home educators will want to take.

  Q71  Chairman: That is not home education, though, is it?

  Fiona Nicholson: No, I don't think that is home education. When we look at the incredibly small amount of money, Education Otherwise is doing research into the money that local authorities are able to spend at the moment on home education. There is a local authority that has 269 children on their books and they spend £17,000 a year in total on staff, training and support for those 269. There is another local authority that will spend £125,000. We are getting those figures about the money in now. There is a lot of money that is not in home education, and so to try to decide where we will put the money that we do not have is very hard.

  Q72  Mr Carswell: So you would not like to see a legal right to allow home educators to control their child's money?

  Fiona Nicholson: I don't see that you could possibly have a situation where the money follows the child, politically.

  Carole Rutherford: It is difficult to believe that the money would be there because, when we fought for support in the system, the money was not there to support us. Some parents may say yes, but I think the majority of parents home-educating special needs children would say no, because they just want to be left alone to get on with it. We don't necessarily want to be invisible—we just want to be able to get on with educating our children.

  Simon Webb: I live in Essex, so I have an interest in this. I had to pay £120 for every GCSE that my daughter took. It cost me nearly £1,000. I tried to get the money from Essex, but there was absolutely nothing doing. I pay council tax, but I cannot get the services from the education department.

  Q73  Mr Chaytor: What interests me is that those who are confident about the quality and value of home education as it stands are so reluctant to consider a registration scheme or a process to assess their children by the same criteria as other children. If people were nervous or unsure about the quality of what was going on behind closed doors, I can see that they would be nervous about registration, but what is the objection if you are confident about the quality of what is being done?

  Jane Lowe: The problem is that the local authorities don't leave people alone—they interfere with what is being done.

  Q74  Mr Chaytor: But there is no registration scheme in place yet, so how can you make that assessment?

  Jane Lowe: Children who are withdrawn from school are known to the local authority, and the authority normally makes inquiries as to the education that is being provided—

  Mr Chaytor: Because parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children are properly educated.

  Jane Lowe: Because parents have delegated that duty to the school and then taken that duty back. The local authority knows about them, so it checks up to see whether education is being provided—that is what happens. The parent has taken a child out of school and often faces a problem because of the situation that has led to that child being withdrawn, so they cannot just switch seamlessly into some kind of delightful arrangement at home—it takes a while to set things up, to sort things out, to calm the child down, to find out what resources you have and to find the way forward. Obviously, parents will not be happy about the demand that we prepare a statement, that we should be seen within x days of withdrawing our child from school and that everything should be in place. That is not reasonable, and it is no wonder that parents are worried about it.

  Q75  Mr Chaytor: Do you think that parents should be able to give their children medical attention at home without any registration? What is the difference between setting yourself up as a teacher or as a doctor at home?

  Jane Lowe: All adults can learn, but not all adults have the technical expertise to do brain surgery at home—that is just not reasonable.

  Q76  Mr Chaytor: I agree, but should there not be some objective assessment of levels of capability? Is there not a wider issue for the community in that the child is not the personal possession of the parent, but a member of the wider community?

  Jane Lowe: The child is not the possession of the State, for the State to impose its rules on.

  Mr Chaytor: No, but the child is a member of the wider community.

  Chairman: Can we have just one question at a time and no comments on questions? David, get on with your questioning.

  Q77  Mr Chaytor: I am just curious as to why you are so reluctant to demonstrate the quality of what you are doing. You are happy to assert it, but not to demonstrate it.

  Carole Rutherford: It is not the quality of what we are doing that we are worried about; it is local authorities coming into our homes and seeing our children, who are often traumatised and suicidal. I have a good relationship with my local authority and I want it to continue, but when we took our son out of school, he had cyclical vomiting syndrome as well as autism. He would wrap himself in a duvet and lie under his bed if anybody so much as knocked on the door, because he didn't want anybody to come in. If I'd had the home ed people at my door three or four weeks after we took him out of school, they would have seriously worried about what was going on. Now, six or seven years down the line, it is different. So it is not about the quality of my provision; it's about everything that comes with that—it's about the intrusion into the home. They are not even saying that you can be seen somewhere else—it has to be the place of education, as if we were running a business. We're not talking about a place of business—it's our home. We are trying to do the best that we can for our children.

  Mr Chaytor: I understand that point completely.

  Carole Rutherford: But the law, the way it is at the moment, says that it is my responsibility to educate my child. It does not say that I have a responsibility to minister to him in a medical capacity, but it does say that it is my responsibility to educate him.

  Mr Chaytor: I understand completely the point about the initial period of withdrawal from school and the trauma, and about the difficulties of children with special educational needs, perhaps, but surely over a period of time—

  Carole Rutherford: It does not go away if you are autistic. Over a period of time, you are still autistic, and it is still going to be the same 10 years down the line.

  Q78  Mr Chaytor: Lots of children in mainstream schools and special schools are on the autistic spectrum, so is it your argument that under no circumstances whatsoever should there be any objective assessment of the progress a child has made or of the achievements of particular children who are educated at home?

  Carole Rutherford: Not unless the person we were involved with knew specifically about the condition and was trained about the condition. Having another person that just knows my son would not be enough for me: it would have to be someone I trust to understand an answer my son gave them, because often children with special educational needs, especially those with autism, give the answer that they think adults expect from them. It is not necessarily the right answer, but if they can give an answer that they think will shut the adult up, even if they are autistic, they will give it.

  Q79  Mr Chaytor: But isn't this issue dealt with by one of the recommendations in the Badman report—

  Carole Rutherford: No.

  Mr Chaytor: Can I tell you what recommendation I think it is? Isn't it dealt with in the recommendation that recognises that there is a need for further training?

  Carole Rutherford: But it doesn't mention special educational needs.

  Mr Chaytor: Well, that doesn't say very much about the nature of the training.

  Carole Rutherford: It mentions safeguarding and puts that at the top. If you put safeguarding at the top, the safeguarding has got to include children with special educational needs and how you would approach those children.

  Chairman: This is becoming a dialogue. Fiona, what is your answer to David's question?

  Fiona Nicholson: When we first came in here we were being asked whether we objected to a simple registration scheme, and I imagine that we might have sounded quite paranoid when we said it would not stop here. It has already not stopped here, about 15 minutes later. This is on the level of an "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" line of questioning, which we get all the time. It is extremely difficult to answer on that negative basis, and that is why you are finding very well-defended positions.

  Chairman: Let me put this down very straight: this is a Select Committee. There are 14 members and they have their own opinions and ask their own questions. You interpret us as having moved position in 15 minutes, but that is not the collective view of the Committee. This is a group of very distinct individuals who want to find out the facts, and that is why we are asking the questions. It may be that questions from David are from a different angle than those from Graham, but that is the nature of Select Committees.

  Mr Stuart: That is certainly true.

  Q80  Mr Chaytor: If you are asked these questions all the time, surely it must become easier, rather than more difficult, to provide answers. You have voluntarily registered, as you told us before, so what is your objection? Do you have a profound objection to an external assessor coming to discuss with you the progress of your child or the achievements of your children? I genuinely do not understand the basis of the objection. I of course understand some of the specific points that Carole has made about children on the autistic spectrum and the issue of the period of time after the withdrawal from school, but how can you justify locking the door against the world outside over several years? I don't understand that.

  Fiona Nicholson: I don't see why we have moved to "locking the door against the outside world". In my local authority in Sheffield we have a group of home educating parents who meet regularly with the local authority, and in some of those cases the parents are not known officially and are not on the books, but they are not hidden .They will go and talk to the councillors, line managers and individuals who are the home education visitors, and their children will be there as well and there will be that level of interaction. We have invited them to visit our groups and they have been to visit groups and talk to people. They are not checking in names at the door. They are aware that they will be talking to people who are not officially known and register them. It is very active outreach work that they are doing and I think it is very good. In the local authorities that I have applauded, such as those North Yorkshire and Somerset, the same things are happening. If you are focusing in on a one-to-one inspection with somebody interrogating, questioning or interviewing individual family members, that is something that I would want to move away from. I did it for myself and my family for specific reasons. I am a single parent and my son's father, at that point, was concerned because he felt that my son was not being tested in any way. Because my son is not at all good with surprises, I did not want somebody to knock on the door and say, "You have got nothing to hide and nothing to fear. We are going to come and test you now." So I voluntarily made contact. People do not voluntarily make contact and we need to look at why they would not want to make contact with the local authority. That seems to me the central issue to address. Why are people given the choice? Why is it so bizarre that I made the decision to grass myself up? That is really what you need to look at.

  Chairman: Let us hear from Zena and Simon, and then we are really running out of time.

  Zena Hodgson: Can I just add that I am not officially registered, but I am evidently not hidden. The duty for my children to receive an education lies with me, not with the State. I know that that duty is being fulfilled. I know that my children are progressing and developing in a way that they are happy with and we are happy with as a family. I do not believe that that emphasis should change and that the state should have more of a say about how well my children are progressing, over how I feel they are progressing.

  Simon Webb: Parents might have responsibility for their children's education, but all the rights in this case are with the child. The child has a right to a suitable education. If it is not receiving suitable education and it is not getting that right, society has a stake in establishing whether the rights of the child are being respected in regard to receiving an education. In that case, the parents would have to give way to society's legitimate interest in the case.

  Chairman: This has been a very interesting session. I am sorry that we have run out of time, but we have another session before 12 o'clock, when people have to move across to Prime Minister's Question Time. Thank you very much. This is not the end of the dialogue. If you go away and think that there are things we didn't ask you or things that you didn't have a chance to say, we are very open to dialogue. Thank you all for your attendance.

21   See Ev 81. Back

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