Support for Home Education - Education Committee Contents

2  Relationships between home educators and local authorities

The role of local authorities in home education

10. The role of the local authority is clear with regard to home education.[7] They have two duties: to provide support for home educating families (at a level decided by local authorities themselves), and if families wish it; and to intervene with families if the local authority is given reason to believe that a child is not receiving a suitable education. It is not the role of the local authority routinely to monitor whether a suitable education is being provided, and local authorities should not act as if it is, or cause parents to believe that it is.[8]

11. Despite this clarity in Government guidelines, though, we heard evidence suggesting that a number of local authorities are currently acting outside the law, or at least making misleading statements with regard to home education; this, in turn, jeopardises relationships between local authorities and home educators. Educational consultant Alison Sauer told us that she had completed "a survey of all the local authority websites and [found that] there are only 30 that do not have ultra vires requirements on their websites—30 out of 152".[9] Ms Sauer further notes that the most compliant local authorities, based on their websites, are also those which "either have had ongoing input over a period of time from local home educators or have a strong knowledgeable member of staff"[10], suggesting the importance of co-operative working with home educators, to which we shall return.

12. Local authorities have a responsibility to follow the law, and to be seen to do so. Considering evidence that only thirty do not currently have ultra vires statements on their websites, regarding home education, we urge all local authorities to undertake a swift review of their own material, and to ensure that their policies reflect the guidance available.

Tensions in existing guidance

13. Whilst the publication of misleading or inaccurate information is not excusable, it was suggested by other witnesses that tension in existing guidance is part cause for this, particularly in two areas. Melissa Young, responsible for home education in Warrington Borough Council, explained the first of these:

There is no definition of what is suitable education. There is no definition of what is efficient. So because home education varies so much in educational philosophy and parents are doing it for so many different reasons, it is open to interpretation on the part of the local authority as to whether that meets the statutory requirements.[11]

This was echoed by several other local authority officers, who attended a seminar hosted by the Committee in July 2011.[12] Government guidance, meanwhile, notes that whilst certain terms have not been defined in legislation, case law has provided such definitions:

An 'efficient' and 'suitable' education is not defined in the Education Act 1996 but 'efficient' has been broadly described in case law as an education that 'achieves that which it sets out to achieve', and a 'suitable' education is one that 'primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so'.[13]

14. Other witnesses argued that guidance needed further clarity around the issue of interventions. As noted above, local authorities can only intervene in home education if there is evidence that it is either unsuitable or inefficient. In a school situation, such evidence might be revealed by accountability tables, Ofsted judgments, or local intelligence, but this cannot apply to home educators for obvious reasons. However, guidance is equally clear that local authorities do not have the power "to enter the homes of, or otherwise see, children for the purposes of monitoring the provision of elective home education".[14] Wigan Council, in its submission to our inquiry, argued that this creates a real tension:

It is very difficult to be able to ensure that the children receive a 'suitable' education or to ensure that they are being protected when, without reasonable justification that the child is or is likely to be suffering significant harm, there are no grounds to insist on entry to the home for a monitoring visit.[15]

15. We believe that the case law definitions of 'suitable' and 'efficient' education are sufficient, and encourage local authorities to use these as required. However, some aspects of existing guidance require clarification, and we recommend that the Department for Education undertake a review of the guidance concerning home education, working with local authorities and home educators to iron out any tensions.

Variation in local authorities' behaviour and practices

16. A review of existing guidelines, whilst useful, is unlikely to iron out the apparent inconsistencies in local authority practice across the country on its own. The phrase 'postcode lottery' was raised throughout our inquiry, with reference both to local authorities' behaviour and to the support which they provide—a theme to which we return in subsequent chapters.

17. There are clearly examples of outstanding practice, where local authorities have made real and concerted efforts to improve their behaviour, structures and accessibility—aside from the quality of the support provided—and in particular where local authorities have come together to iron out inconsistencies across arbitrary administrative boundaries. Three North-Western local authorities have developed a 'home education shared service', the many advantages of which were described by Melissa Young:

Fantastic opportunities for all three of us to share good practice; very minor cost efficiencies; consistency of approach to benefit families. We have quite a lot of cross-border movement, and if a family knows they are going to see either the same documentation or similar practice if they are moving across, I think they are more likely to remain in contact with the local authority. It is a shared ear for me and my colleagues. It has allowed us to develop extended suppor [...] it is just a way of building a service that benefits us and benefits families and just gets rid of the lack of consistency [...][16]

18. Lack of consistency between local authorities is also being addressed by a different model, described to us by Elaine Grant from Croydon Council:

I am part of a cohort of 22 local authorities that meet every term. Originally, we were called the London Home Education Officers, but Northampton has joined us, Essex has joined us, Sussex has joined us.. we meet once a term and we share good practice; we share negative experiences [...] So it is very much like what Melissa was saying has worked well [...] I think to have that consistency may be a useful way forward.[17]

A similar idea, a "free national conference where local authority representatives would have the opportunity to explore a range of positive examples in more depth", was proposed in written evidence.[18] Such a move might also help to improve the training officers receive, which evidence again suggested to be patchy. In Cumbria, for example, "great attention" was apparently "paid to the training of new personnel" following a restructure,[19] but the Home Education Centre, which works across several counties in the South-West, reported that lack of available funding for local authorities means that training is "often" insufficient.[20]

19. Such arrangements might particularly benefit smaller local authorities where, as parent and educational consultant Fiona Nicholson explained, home education does not provide "a full-time job for the person who does it": two thirds of local authorities, according to Ms Nicholson, have fewer than 100 home-educated children "on their books".[21] Professor Bruce Stafford, meanwhile, argued that training alone was not enough:

There is also a case for a registration scheme for Elective Home Education officers in order to improve the quality of the information, advice and support they provide. The current arrangements and levels of training are not fit for purpose. Officials dealing with home education need to demonstrate accredited professional competence (knowledge and skills) and, to ensure compliance by local authorities, staff should not be allowed to practice unless registered. The opportunity should be taken to involve home educators in determining the knowledge and skills that staff should possess.[22]

20. We are pleased to support innovative models such as joint local authority services and associations of home education officers, which aim to share best practice and to achieve more consistency between local authorities with regard to home education. We believe that these models have significant potential to lessen the 'postcode lottery' which was described to us, and we encourage more local authorities, especially smaller ones, to develop shared services, and to join existing networks of home education officers.

21. The development of a more formalised professional association of, and/or annual conference for, home education officers, driven by those in the profession themselves, could be a welcome step in terms of sharing best practice nationally, and in turn might consider issues such as accreditation and improved training for local authority officers.

22. The Minister responsible for home education, Elizabeth Truss MP, saw little role for central Government in ironing out such inconsistencies:

There are clearly local authorities that have better practice than other local authorities, as there are in many areas, and one would hope that the best local authorities share their best practice, so that other local authorities follow up on that.[23]

The Minister had not seen, she said, any "significant evidence that [...] having more central control would have a beneficial effect".[24] Other witnesses, however, disagreed. One local authority officer at the Committee's July 2012 seminar suggested that 'minimum standards' ought to be developed which local authorities would work to; another, in oral evidence, said there was "absolutely" a role for organisations such as the ADCS[25] and LGA[26] in ironing out variations.[27] Home educators' own national support groups also agreed unanimously that there was a role for central Government in monitoring local authority practice, as did independent home education consultants Fiona Nicholson and Alison Sauer in their oral evidence.[28]

23. It is worth noting that local authorities themselves did not seem averse to further scrutiny; several, indeed, welcomed it. One officer explained how her authority has already taken this upon themselves, by asking home educators to complete questionnaires on officers' performance and behaviour, and there was a general feeling at our July 2012 seminar that greater monitoring of local authorities' home education services would improve relationships with home educators as well as transparency.

24. Central Government has a national perspective, as well as tools and resources, which can never be fully replicated by an individual local authority, and we therefore disagree with the Minister in her view that central Government should play little role in ironing out variations between local authorities. We recommend that the Department for Education carry out an audit of local authorities' performance regarding home education, and the information they make available on their websites and elsewhere, and publish the results, ascertaining which local authorities are performing well with regard to home education. We consider that, far from damaging the Government's localism agenda, this review would fit well with the Department for Education's transparency drive.

Placement of officers within local authority structures

25. Just as witnesses reported variation between local authorities' understanding of and adherence to the law, we heard evidence of similar variation in the quality of the officers charged with home education within the local authority structure. In some areas, such as Cumbria, there are clearly outstanding officers:

The person who takes the lead role for home education [...] has a good understanding of many forms of alternative education and the law relating to home education. Following recent spending cuts, Cumbria LA lost three out of four of its home education 'consultants' and the department underwent a major reconstruction. Home educators were kept up to date with changes [...] the result has been a remarkably smooth transition.[29]

However, as that witness went on to note, this is not "the norm".[30] One parent, Susannah Matthan, told us:

The new jobs created to support EHE families [...] consist largely of ex-teachers (with a fundamental belief that school is the best place for children) or social services worker who aim to steer families back onto the school pathway [...] LAs are not at all interested in recruiting qualified and/or experienced home educators to these advisor posts. This is no different to excluding a disabled person from a role which involves offering experiential support to people with disabilities.[31]

26. Other witnesses suggested that the location of officers within their local authority structure could give out an unhelpful impression, as explained in written evidence from the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS), a national advice and support charity for home educators. HEAS argued that "institutional prejudice" against home educators stems "mainly from the fact that home-educated children are dealt with by the same departments which are set up to deal with children with problems".[32] Developing this theme in oral evidence, HEAS argued that such co-location of services (specifically citing behaviour and attendance and welfare teams) "immediately [...] puts [the home educating family] in the 'problem' category".[33]

27. We saw evidence of this during our inquiry. Of the nine local authority officers invited to our seminar in July 2012, one was situated within a division looking at school attendance; two were from children's services units; and a fourth was titled 'Virtual Headteacher for Children in Care'.[34] Other posts encountered by the Committee used words such as 'teacher' and 'virtual school' which may not be appropriate for many of the models of home education which exist.

28. The Minister, when asked about the issue of placement within structures, argued that "it is up to local authorities to carry out their duties in the way they see fit".[35] Others, however, felt that local authorities should be encouraged to restructure, which in turn could improve relationships. HEAS proposed that officers should be located in a neutral location, such as information or library services,[36] which was immediately heralded as "a brilliant idea" by another witness,[37] and was supported by other representative bodies.[38] The team within which local authority home education officers sit can give out an important message about that authority's view of home education. For example, it is inappropriate for such officers to be located with those working on attendance, children in care or safeguarding. Local authority officers dealing with home education ought to be situated within a dedicated team, or sit within a neutral location such as learning or library services.

7   The DCSF Guidelines 2007 are the key reference point on this. Back

8   See DCSF Guidelines 2007, p. 5 Back

9   Q 4. In her written evidence (Ev 73), Ms Sauer notes that "the worst offender, South Gloucestershire, makes or implies 15 UV demands". Ultra vires is generally used in legal terms to mean 'beyond power'. Back

10   Ev 73 Back

11   Q 119 Back

12   A note of the meeting is annexed to this report. Back

13   DCSF Guidelines 2007, p. 4, citing Mr Justice Woolf in the case of R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust (12 April 1985) Back

14   DCSF Guidelines 2007, p. 6 Back

15   Ev w93 Back

16   Q 173 Back

17   Q 177 Back

18   Ev 45 Back

19   Ev 54 Back

20   Ev 51, Ev 64 Back

21   Q 2 Back

22   Ev w37 Back

23   Q 229 Back

24   Q 227 Back

25   Association of Directors of Children's Services, the "national leadership association in England for statutory directors of children's services and other children's services professionals in leadership roles" (  Back

26   Local Government Association, the "national voice of local government", aiming to "support, promote and improve councils" ( Back

27   Q 183 (Melissa Young) Back

28   See Q 69 (Shena Deuchars, Alison Sauer, Fiona Nicholson, Anne Brown and Jane Lowe) Back

29   Ev 54 Back

30   Ibid. Back

31   Ev w77 Back

32   Ev 40 Back

33   Q 13 (Jane Lowe) Back

34   A note of that seminar is annexed to this report; attending local authorities are listed, though not the names of representatives. Back

35   Q 229 (Elizabeth Truss MP) Back

36   See Q 13 (Jane Lowe) Back

37   Q 78 (Hannah Flowers) Back

38   See Q 15 (Shena Deuchars, representing Education Otherwise) and Q 78 (Zena Flowers, representing the Home Education Centre in Somerset) Back

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Prepared 18 December 2012