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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 81 - 99)



  Q81  Chairman: May I welcome Sir Paul Ennals, Ellie Evans, Peter Traves and Philip Noyes to our deliberations. Peter, may I say that we were very upset that Colin Green couldn't come and we will take up the fact that he is not here with your professional organisation, the Association of Directors of Children's Services. We don't believe that it's good manners to tell a Select Committee that someone whom we have specifically asked to give evidence on behalf of an organisation has more pressing matters in talking to a conference. We will seek to talk to the executive of your organisation about that. We are very pleased that you are here, Peter, but we think it was very discourteous of your colleague not to be here today. I hope that that message will go back to him personally, because I was very tempted to send the Serjeant at Arms to take him from the conference and bring him here, which it is our right to do. Will you remind him of that? This is the first time this Committee has had such discourtesy, apart from one brush with a trade union. We are not happy about it, but it is nice to have you and it is not your fault.

  Peter Traves: I totally understand that and I will take that point back. I only heard about this yesterday or the day before. I cleared my diary to come down, so I feel a little like the boy who is told off for the other boy.

  Q82  Chairman: Absolutely, but it is necessary to put it on the public record that we do not accept such discourteous behaviour to the Committee from a professional organisation. We are looking at home education. Paul, do you want me to call you "Sir Paul" all the time?

  Sir Paul Ennals: No, that's fine.

  Q83  Chairman: Okay, no titles then. I welcome you all. I will give you a couple of minutes each to say where we are, what you think of Badman and what you would like to see come out of this inquiry. Paul, I start with you.

  Sir Paul Ennals: I am Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau and I was invited to be a member of the advisory group for the Graham Badman review, which meant that I attended two or three meetings and had the opportunity to comment on a draft report. I accepted the invitation for three reasons that might come up during this session. First, I have long felt that much more support—positive, constructive, active support—could and should be offered and made available to home educators. Secondly, I felt that there are some genuine and significant safeguarding concerns about a very small proportion of children within that community. Thirdly, and related to that, because NCB is an umbrella organisation whose membership includes not only home education organisations such as Education Otherwise but local authorities, I felt that this is an area of public policy which has been riven by disagreements, often through misunderstandings. I have sought, not particularly successfully up to now, to enable this process of the Badman review to lead to a somewhat more harmonious and shared approach to this group of children.

  Ellie Evans: I am Ellie Evans, and I manage children missing education and elective home education for West Sussex county council. I was part of the consultative group on the Badman review from local authorities and was happy to be part of that group, because, like my colleague, I feel very passionately that all children should have a voice. They also have a right to be protected and to receive a suitable education. My particular concern is the conflict between children missing education legislation and elective home education because it is very difficult for the local authority to discharge a duty on children missing education when we have a legitimate group that is under the radar.

  Peter Traves: I am Peter Traves, director of children's services for Staffordshire and I was also interviewed by Graham as part of the review. Broadly, as you know, the ADCS welcomes the review and thinks it is balanced and generally sensitive. However, I do think the way it is presented and the way it is interpreted will be critical, because I think we have to get the balance right. The key is the relationships that are to be established between local authorities and home educators. Unless that relationship is a positive one, no amount of legislation is going to make this work. Local authorities must assume that the overwhelming majority of people who educate at home do so for very good reasons and do so very well, in many cases. The problem, however, is that directors of children's services now hold very substantial accountabilities for all the children who live within their area. To be put in a position where you're simply not aware of a significant number of those children and what's actually happening to them is not helpful to us. I do think a register would be helpful. I do think that some visiting process needs to be put in place. However, the danger is that that is perceived simply as the heavy hand of the local authority. Sometimes, to be quite frank, it is the heavy hand of the local authority. I don't think that's the only relationship we can have, though. I do think it's possible to establish a constructive relationship, and if this is going to work, I think it's going to depend on local authorities and others and the DCSF working closely with organisations like Education Otherwise to make sure we have a model that is supportive and critical, and that a genuine dialogue takes place.

  Philip Noyes: I'm Philip Noyes, director of public policy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We're a safeguarding child protection organisation. I don't have expertise in education. Our interest in this, though, is to ensure that every child is properly protected. We know that most children in this country grow well and happy, with some fits and spells on the way, but a significant minority do not. We've got no view on people who elect to home-educate their children being different from the rest of us, but we are concerned to ensure that children who are educated at home receive the best education they can and are well and safe. We are also concerned about children who are completely under the radar altogether. We think it's important to differentiate one from the other. We support the Badman report. We think its logic, from the point of view of principle, in its first chapter through to its conclusions, is well made. We are very keen to help in whatever way we can to ensure the right balance between regulation and partnership. The course of this process has brought me into personal contact with home educators that I hadn't met before, and I have huge personal respect for them. I understand the extent to which we mustn't offend people who do so well, but at the same time, we need to find the children who are below the radar and make sure they're safe.

  Q84  Chairman: May I start the questioning with you, Paul. The criticism of Badman is that it was done in great haste. Some people say the research base is slipshod—not that it's wrong, but that it's slipshod—and not up to the normal standard. Of course, it was done in five months. What do you say to people who say, "Look, this was all done in haste, and it's really not quite as good as it could have been"?

  Sir Paul Ennals: There is certainly not yet enough research evidence, but I think sometimes, when we constantly ask for more research, we're just putting off some of the trickier decisions. I think the survey has some weaknesses, but the real problem is that I don't think it's survey data of the type that has been undertaken which produces the answers for us. The home education population is not a homogeneous group. It's not one community, as indeed most of us aren't. In my mind, there are three or four separate, as it were in broad terms, sub-groups. There is a group who are very firmly committed to the principle of educating their child at home. Most of them are well educated, highly motivated and, in general, although there isn't research evidence that's firm to show it, I suspect that they produce really good-quality outcomes for their children. There's a second group—we were hearing from one earlier—where their child has special educational needs. Very often, the withdrawal of the child from the school is either the failure of the school—very often it is—or there's something very specific about the needs of the children. Then the third group, which also isn't a group, is that shadowy and much smaller group where there are children at very significant risk, either where there may be some malevolent parents—we do know of some cases where children are withdrawn from school to be taken out of the public eye—and others where the parent may well have mental health difficulties. It's there—it's really a very small proportion—where the serious safeguarding risks occur. When the data show, for example, as you were analysing the other day, a small—and it is a small—higher ratio of children with child protection within the home education population, that couldn't and shouldn't be used in any way to blacken the names and the reputation of home educating parents as a whole. What it is, I believe, identifying is a small population that, to a certain extent, we do already know about, some of whom will choose to use home education as the opportunity to not be identified. We could do triple the amount of research data looking at the figures, and I don't think it would highlight any further what's really a series of individual issues that we find across the country. It is the same with the outcomes. The limited research that has been done around the educational attainment of children has tended to be self-selected; it has tended to be from those home education parents who are willing to be considered, and, broadly speaking, it has shown good educational outcomes. And I am not surprised; they are educated, they are bright, they are deeply motivated, they are focused on the needs of their child. Why wouldn't their child do really well out of it?

  Q85  Chairman: You said four groups, and you made it three.

  Sir Paul Ennals: Did I? Forgive me. Within that last group there are two sub-sets. One is the group—I think it is very small—that is malevolent, and the other is very vulnerable children and families. The extra sentence that I should have said is that I am aware of some anecdotal evidence of many families who are advised by someone in the school system—either the local authority or the school—to withdraw their child and educate them themselves, not in the child's best interest, and not, in my view, in the parents' best interest, but because the child presents some behaviour challenges within the school. That is entirely wrong, and although we don't have objective evidence as to how many, I certainly know of some individual circumstances.

  Q86  Chairman: I am glad you mentioned that category, and I reminded you to mention it, because I was with a director of children's services yesterday evening who said that when he took over a local authority he found a number of schools that forced people out of school, to de-register into home education, for the convenience of the school. Ellie, what about the view that all this has been rushed and it wasn't nearly as good as it could be? What is your evaluation of Badman; you've seen the criticism and you heard the criticism, because I saw you sitting in the Gallery just now. How do you answer the sort of profound criticism that you heard earlier?

  Ellie Evans: I think it's very difficult to depend totally on data because, as we've already mentioned, there is a tremendous amount we don't know, and therefore to actually get a complete data set around this subject is, I think, very difficult. There is no substantial quantity of data, as you say, about outcomes. Even in child protection issues, on which I know, obviously, we've been asked for data. In local authorities, some of that data is not aggregated, either, so it's very difficult to actually deliver the data when asked for it, and I know that I personally have struggled to deliver data for various surveys that have gone around.

  Q87  Chairman: Is it only a question of data? Perhaps I'll turn to Philip on this. We have all these universities with research departments and, as I ask our special advisers to this Committee, is there no research in local authority areas to find out what the scale of this is, what the challenges are, and how many people are involved? Even if we took a number of local authorities and researched them—and I don't mean just data, though data is useful, but in-depth research, and knowing what's going on in, say, an urban area of our country, and a rural area and so on—surely that research must have been done, or surely your organisation or somebody should have commissioned it?

  Philip Noyes: Research may well follow on this discussion, but there is a real poverty of research into demographics of young people and what they receive from local authorities. Also, it is very difficult to piece together the scale of safeguarding concerns and abuse in this country. We, the NSPCC, are in the middle of a prevalence study to understand the scale of abuse in this country, but there is nothing that replicates some American work to understand the incidence—how much there is in a particular place in a particular year. So when I had a look at Mr Badman's report I was surprised at some lack of detail around how the relationship between the home educators and the local authorities works now. I wasn't surprised at the lack of evidence about children below the radar or the scale of maltreatment in our communities. May I say something else about it being rushed. We didn't actually feel it was any different to the rush that is now just part of life when we are asked to consult for government; things happen at a very quick pace. I sympathise if he would have liked longer and didn't get it.

  Chairman: Peter, what's your view on that?

  Peter Traves: I think it's a little bit harsh to say that it's not of an over-good quality, to be quite honest, Chair.

  Chairman: I am not saying it is. I'm saying that people have said it is. It's my job to ask if that is right or not.

  Peter Traves: No, I don't think it is. This is not a piece of academic research. It is actually a report, as you know. The key question is does it raise the right questions from which we can move forward. I think that the report does raise the right questions. The problem would be if we rushed from this to legislation that was based solely around concerns about safeguarding. We do need to look at the safeguarding issue. The danger is that that would push us in a particular direction that I think would be unnecessarily heavy-handed because, to be quite frank, Graham Badman says clearly in the report that, from what he's seen, there isn't evidence that home education is used on a large scale to disguise the abuse of children. We also know that there are a significant number of children who go to school who are abused, and that is not always picked up. My point is that we need to move from this report to a constructive dialogue with those organisations that are involved in home education to move things forward. There are things in here that are actually absolutely right. I do not understand the argument against registration if it is done sensitively.

  Chairman: Right, let's move on.

  Q88  Mr Chaytor: I have a question for Peter. First, on the issue of registration, the submission of the Association of Directors of Children's Services says that further legal technicalities are needed to ensure local authorities have the powers that they need to carry out the registration system. What are the issues surrounding the powers in respect of registration?

  Peter Traves: First of all, at the moment, we don't know how many children are educated at home. It is interesting that in his discussion with me, Graham Badman talked about a figure that was a multiple of three from the figures that are known. The first problem that a local authority has is, because it is actually something people can do of their own accord and they are not compelled to register, that we simply do not know how many children are, for example, educated at home in Staffordshire. We guess it is at least twice as many as are actually registered. Legislation should require people to register the fact that they have chosen elsewhere, because, after all, in relation to any other form of education, we would know where that child is. It is the assumption of some home educators that that would automatically lead to an intrusive and harsh approach from the local authority. That is what we need to reassure people about. We do need to know where children are and we need the power to require people to let us know.

  Q89  Mr Chaytor: But from the local authority's point of view, I appreciate that there has not been a power to register in the past. Isn't it pretty self-evident that this is something that local authorities should have been doing? Local authorities have access to data on births and the number of children in primary and secondary schools, and they have access to the number of children registered with Connexions. Isn't it possible to work out the number of kids who are not in school? Why haven't local authorities been doing that over many years?

  Peter Traves: Not really, David. We do have access to data on births through the NHS, but every child born in Staffordshire doesn't stay there for ever. Children move in and out of Staffordshire all the time. Consequently, the population is turbulent. In some parts of the country—London is a classic case—that turbulence is of a very, very high nature. So the data to which we would have access simply wouldn't allow us any confidence that we know of all the children who are in our authority at the moment.

  Q90  Mr Chaytor: But shouldn't local authorities have made some kind of effort to do that? Accepting the proviso about migration in and out, they should have made some kind of effort to do this. They don't seem to have done so at all—hence, the criticisms of the Badman report that it didn't have a solid basis of statistics to underpin it.

  Peter Traves: Actually, I think every effort is made to try to establish the children who are living in the local authority. It's just that, at the moment, we don't have sufficient confidence that the evidence base we have access to tells us exactly how many children are there.

  Q91  Mr Chaytor: Moving on from registration, what about refusing registration? What do you see as the criteria on which a local authority ought to be able to refuse registration of a home educator?

  Peter Traves: I think there are two areas in which that would be possible. One would clearly be where there were concerns about safeguarding issues for a child—a child who we perhaps already had concerns about through the health service or other agencies that we work with in the children's trust. If there were concerns, it would be absolutely right and proper for a director of children's services and for the children's trust to refuse the right to educate at home.

  Q92  Mr Chaytor: As of now, a child is put on the child protection register. Shouldn't the local authority know if that child is being educated at home? Why isn't there an intervention to prevent that as of now, because the knowledge is there?

  Peter Traves: I think that in many authorities there is an intervention in that case. The problem in general, David, is not the children who are on the child protection register but those who should be on it.

  Chairman: Can we bring Ellie in on this, as she has expertise?

  Ellie Evans: Going back to finding children and knowing the whereabouts of children in our authority, obviously, since the Education and Inspections Act 2006, we have had a duty to find children who are missing from education. We have actively been seeking them. However, some members of the home educating community have autonomous learning as their ethos, and some of them tend not to engage with any state intervention whatsoever. We cannot make an assumption that they are engaged with someone—they are not always engaged with someone. They are totally within their own community. We actively work with partner agencies to find children who are missing from education. That may deliver a home educated person at the same time, because there is an assumption that if a child is not in a school, they are missing from education, but clearly they are not. I would reiterate that we have some very good home educators who we work incredibly well with, and we embrace what they are doing through such education. Going back to challenging when a child is on a child protection plan, that is actually quite difficult. We would have to go to a court and persuade it on welfare grounds—we may not be able to. It is not a given in child protection legislation that you can refuse home education. You would have to present the case in a court, and challenge and say that on welfare grounds the child should not be home educated.

  Q93  Mr Chaytor: So, as of now, in your local authority and many others, children on the child protection register with a child protection plan are being home educated, and that is widely known.

  Ellie Evans: I would tend to ask the chair of a case conference to make a recommendation that the child should not be home educated. I tend to go through it that way, but it is difficult because there is no legislation around this at all.

  Q94  Mr Chaytor: Can I pursue another question with you, Ellie. On the issue of quality in education, if a parent were completely distraught with the way their child was being taught or cared for in a conventional school and withdrew the child, and then the local authority came along and refused to register the parent as a home educator, where would that leave the child? Secondly, what criteria would you look for for successful registration, or, conversely, what criteria would you look for to deregister or not register a parent?

  Ellie Evans: Going back to the breakdown of a relationship with a school, I welcome the recommendation in the Badman report for a 20-day cooling-off period in which the child is not removed from the roll. A tremendous amount of work can be done, and there can be a multi-agency approach to resolving issues, so it is not necessary for a child to come off the school roll. Sometimes, in my experience, there has been a knee-jerk reaction, but perhaps matters could be resolved or we could offer alternative provision. That is something that I would really welcome. On the criteria for registration, if a child comes off a school roll, it is the school's responsibility to let us know that the child has been withdrawn from school by the parent. We would then make contact with the parent and give them all the information around elective home education. It is the school's responsibility, not the parent's, to let us know. We work very closely with home educating families. I have some fantastic advisers who work very closely with them and have very good relationships with them. Home educators are embraced and work very well with the authority.

  Q95  Mr Chaytor: What guidance does your authority give to schools about encouraging parents to withdraw their children and become home educators in order to avoid exclusion or other disciplinary procedures?

  Ellie Evans: It is straightforward: schools should not be doing it. It is as simple as that.

  Q96  Mr Chaytor: Right. What is your assessment of the extent to which schools in other local authorities encourage parents to withdraw children?

  Ellie Evans: I think it is very difficult for schools because they have certain criteria that they have to meet and benchmarking that they have to perform with regard to examination results and the measures that are placed upon them. I would challenge a school if I understood that that practice were happening. I would personally challenge the school and go much further up the food chain if I felt it necessary.

  Q97  Mr Chaytor: That doesn't answer the question, does it? The question is what is your assessment of the extent of the problem with the local authorities. Would 5% of schools be doing that? How many parents out of the recorded 20,000 home educators across the country have become home educators because they were encouraged to do so by the schools as a means of avoiding exclusion or making it easier for the school?

  Ellie Evans: I can't answer that question. I really don't know. It is not a piece of research I am familiar with.

  Chairman: Peter wanted to come in.

  Peter Traves: I could not answer specifically on that one, either, David. What I can say is that things such as unofficial exclusions from school, particularly for children on the autistic spectrum, are more common than the encouragement to home education. One thing I have been doing in my authority is working with an organisation called Jigsaw, which is a pressure group of parents. I made it explicit that I would want any parent who receives that advice from a school to contact me directly. I have had a number of direct contacts in that way and it has led to some robust discussions with head teachers.

  Q98  Lynda Waltho: I would like to look at home visits by a local authority. There is a significant group of home educators who believe that local authorities already have sufficient powers to intervene should they be worried about welfare or educational provision, specifically within the Children Act 1989. Could you spell out, Ellie, what an authority can do at the moment and why you think that may be inadequate?

  Ellie Evans: Currently we are engaging with the children as they come out of school. There is no necessity for a parent who has a child rising five to inform us that they are going to choose the elective home education route. That is when it is very difficult because we do not necessarily know about those children. When the children are withdrawn from school, we make contact with the parents and say that we will offer advice and support for home education. If a parent decides that they don't want that intervention, they can write a report to give us information around the provision that they are intending and they can do that on an annual basis. I have a family where we haven't seen the children for five years. We have no rights to see those children in the current situation. Clearly, our concern that we haven't seen them does not constitute a risk of significant harm and therefore we can't raise a question with social care, for example, because we haven't seen the children. That's not sufficient. It is a limbo situation. Hopefully, home-educating parents will work with us and the advisers. They have got some good relationships with a lot of our home-educating families but in the current situation, we have no rights to see children; we have no rights to check the education provision because we have a letter or report sent by a parent and we have to accept that.

  Lynda Waltho: I don't know if Peter has anything to add. I would be interested.

  Peter Traves: I think Ellie is right on that and considerably more expert than I am in that area.

  Q99  Chairman: Do you talk to health visitors and people like that? They have access, better access than you, don't they?

  Ellie Evans: If a parent wants to engage. If a parent doesn't want to engage, they haven't.

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