Support for Home Education - Education Committee Contents

Annex: Note of the Committee's seminar with local authority officers, 11 July 2012

This note offers a record of a seminar held by the Committee with nine local authority officers responsible for home education in their area. The seminar was the first session of the Committee's inquiry into support for home education, and was held in private at the House of Commons. Local authorities were chosen to be geographically and demographically representative—drawn from a range of regions, and representing both rural and urban areas—and were invited to nominate the official who they felt would best represent this area of work, or who had overall responsibility for elective home education. The local authorities represented were Liverpool, Norfolk, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Trafford, Wandsworth, Central Bedfordshire, Lancashire and Kingston upon Thames.

Members in attendance: Graham Stuart MP (Chair), Neil Carmichael MP, Pat Glass MP, Ian Mearns MP, David Ward MP, Craig Whittaker MP

The Chair welcomed local authority officers and thanked them for joining the Committee, before opening discussion on a range of themes across the inquiry's terms of reference. To begin, officers were asked what they would change about the current guidelines around home education, and the situation in their own areas, and the general picture was a fairly positive one. Some officers argued for greater clarity in guidance, particularly around the definition of 'suitable' or 'full-time' education, and another called for greater clarity around funding issues, particularly for young people with special educational needs. Although recognising that most home educators provide a high standard of education and care, an officer noted that a small minority are extremely difficult to engage with and do cause concern, whilst another argued that compulsory registration would bring some benefits. Overall, however, there was consensus that the current situation did not present major concerns, and officers emphasised their own considerable respect for the home educators with whom they engaged.

It was noted that there are many reasons and motivations leading to home education (not always elective), and that across the board relationships with LAs had tended to improve since the adoption of a more supportive and less interventionist mindset and behaviour. One officer argued, though, that the range of home educators encountered, and their differing philosophies, meant it was very hard to speak of one group.

Some officers provided examples of schools compelling parents to home educate, intimating that this was more common with Academies: this was usually where a child had been causing difficulties at school. Such parents understandably wanted considerable engagement with, and support from, the LA, whereas others, who had chosen to home educate, did not. Another officer argued that her concern was the small core of families who were not providing suitable education or care, by any definition, and that stronger lines of accountability were needed in those cases. A colleague, however, argued that safeguarding issues were separate from those of home education, and should not be dealt with by the same teams.

Officers expressed some concerns that they were unable to have a full picture of children in the area, due to lack of registration for home-educated young people, but there were similar views that compulsory registration would be "heavy-handed" and would damage relationships between home educators and LAs. It was also suggested that registration was pointless unless it came with other powers, such as for increased intervention, about which both home educators and LAs had reservations. However, the 'numbers situation' did concern some officers: one said that they knew of two hundred home-educated young people in their area, but suspected there were five or six hundred.

On the related issue of de-registration, it was suggested that a formal period following a child's deregistration, but before the child officially left the school, was helpful, as it allowed officers to engage with parents who were not fully aware of what their home educating responsibilities might be. Some officers suggested this should be ten days; others, twenty. Officers did report some instances where schools were de-registering students without full parental consent, which was unanimously seen as unacceptable and needed clamping down on.

Officers—who represented a wide range of authorities—agreed that there was huge regional variation in LA practice around home education (indeed, some noted that the seminar had provided an unusual opportunity for them to meet their counterparts elsewhere). One officer suggested that minimum standards might be developed.

Discussing funding issues, the opinion was expressed that home educators might receive funding only if they registered or took pains to engage with the LA. Others argued that local authorities should be responsible for these decisions in their area, although this would perpetuate the 'postcode lottery' elements in terms of LA behaviour and support, already discussed. Another officer suggested that service provision—for example, of access to examinations, libraries and music services—was of more consequence to home educators than financial support, which most accepted was their responsibility. Specifically, officers broadly agreed that access to examinations should be free for home-educated young people.

A third officer, however, suggested that this was not the major concern facing home educators in her experience, but rather that showing LAs were trustworthy was of top priority. Inspection, the officer argued, should look closer at these teams in authorities, and that LAs had to take responsibility on themselves for ensuring good practice—and specifically for ensuring that they understood and obeyed the law around home education. Home educators were invited, in one authority represented, to feed back on advisers' performance and engagement, which was supported as a good move by others present. There was general acknowledgement that better scrutiny would not be unwelcome. It was noted that high turnover of LA staff in the field was very bad for relationships, which took some time to build up.

There was some discussion of flexi-schooling, which was working well as an option in some authorities. However, a number of concerns existed, including the possible impact on headteachers and other learners in the school, and the cost-effectiveness of arrangements.

Officers were unanimous in their view that the vast majority of home educators provided a good quality of education; that they respected parents' right to home educate, and were keen to engage in the ways most useful to home educators; and that they felt relationships were improving.

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Prepared 18 December 2012