21.In a written answer to a Parliamentary Question on 23 September 2020, Nick Gibb MP, the Minister for School Standards at the Department for Education, confirmed that “the Department does not collect statistics on the number of children in home education”. We find the lack of data on this group of children astonishing. Numbers are likely to be under-reported as parents do not have to register their children with the local authority as home-educated (although schools are obliged to inform the local authority of children removed from their admission registers).
22.Departmental guidance issued to local authorities in 2019 noted a “very significant increase in the number of children being educated at home” with “considerable evidence that many of these children are not receiving a suitable education”. The former Children’s Commissioner for England’s written submission to our inquiry suggested that in the 2017–18 academic year, nearly 25,000 children were withdrawn from schools in England to be home-educated—the equivalent of three children per 1,000 pupils. The majority of children being taken off the roll into home education came from a minority of schools, with five per cent of schools accounting for over 40 per cent of children withdrawn into home education. In some individual schools the number of children who came off roll into home education was “extremely high”, with seven schools having more than 30 children leave in this way—“the equivalent of an entire class”. In the Commissioner’s view, this “raises questions about the circumstances under which they left”. Although the data suggested that schools were a “key factor” in the process, it could not explain whether dissatisfied parents were sharing their knowledge about home education as an alternative option, or whether schools were “somehow encouraging, or perhaps even pressuring parents into making the decision to home educate”.
23.The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) conducts an annual survey with local authorities on home education. In 2020, 133 of 151 local authorities responded. Based on those responses, ADCS projected that there were 75,668 children and young people being home-educated across England on 1 October 2020, an increase of approximately 38 per cent from 3 October 2019. ADCS estimated that approximately 25 per cent of those children became electively home-educated after 1 September 2020.
24.There are limitations to the available data. Dr Amber Fensham-Smith highlighted “issues and consistencies associated with self-reported studies” such as the ADCS annual survey, which is based on Freedom of Information responses. The survey is also reliant on the maintenance of accurate and up-to-date local authority records. The fact that parents are not required to register their choice to EHE with the local authority is also a factor that affects its accuracy. Unless they are required to register, we will not have reliable figures. Greater collection and analysis of data is needed about a whole range of issues, such as the reasons why parents electively home educate—including whether or not racism, bullying and differences of opinion about special educational needs between parents and authorities play a role in that decision.
25.As of March 2019, local authorities reported to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) that 60,544 children were being electively home-educated in England. In 2020, the OSA opted not to ask local authorities about home education in their annual survey, given the need to minimise burdens in light of the covid-19 pandemic. However, 12 local authorities did opt to comment on the topic. They suggested that numbers of electively home-educated children continued to rise, and some felt that the covid-19 pandemic would contribute to further rises. It is vital that the OSA returns to home education as a topic in future surveys.
26.The Local Government Association has set out the apparent impact of covid-19 on choices to pursue home education. For example, in Kent, there were 588 new EHE registrations in September 2020, up 180 per cent from 210 in the same month in 2019. Leeds City Council received 78 EHE registrations in the first three weeks of September, up from 32 in the same period last year—a rise of 144 per cent. Without more robust data, commentators such as Fraser Nelson have raised concerns about a possible 20,000 pupils who “seem to have vanished from the school roll”. In her speech to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference in July 2021, HMCI Amanda Spielman noted that “many parents have gladly stepped back from teaching duties” as children returned to schools after lockdown. However, she added that some had chosen to keep their children at home, and that “not every parent is equipped to be a teacher”—an issue which could “seriously derail the catch-up effort,” especially as children who had not yet returned to school were “disproportionately” those with “various kinds of problem or need”.
27.These concerns reflect a wider context of anxiety over absence from educational activities during the pandemic and its potential impact on children and young people—a topic in which our Committee takes an ongoing interest. For example, the Centre for Social Justice has calculated that 93,514 school pupils missed more than 50 per cent of their sessions in Autumn 2020. We recognise that these 93,514 children are not the same as children who have formally left the school roll to pursue EHE, or who have never been on a school roll. However, we at least know that these 93,514 children exist, because they have been marked absent from school, which gives us a starting from which to make further inquiries. Without a national register for EHE, we have no equivalent intelligence about the impact of covid-19 on the participation in educational activities of the full range of children receiving EHE.
28.Mrunal Sisodia of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF) told us that while the “fear of the virus” had played a role in the “covid increase” in EHE numbers, families - especially those with SEND - also felt “disgust and frustration” at their treatment in lockdown. Other families believed that they could “opt out” for a period with the school place retained, and that some children had thrived on being educated at home during lockdown. Wendy Charles-Warner of Education Otherwise cited growing awareness of home education as a “viable, legal and equal” option - with parents responding to “negative reporting by the press” by investigating the option and deciding that it was the best option for them.
29.The “covid increase” has highlighted the fact that, nine years on from our predecessor Committee’s report, we can only make an educated guess at the number of children receiving EHE. That is not good enough. The external context has changed since 2012, and the rise in numbers encouraged us to look at the option of a statutory register again. The Department’s own guidance states that there is “considerable evidence” that many of those children are not receiving a suitable education, and “increasing concern that some children educated at home may not be in safe environments.” We cannot turn away from the possibility that some children might be at risk.
30.Recently, a number of organisations—including the former Children’s Commissioner for England, the Local Government Association, ADCS and Ofsted—have recommended a statutory register. Ofsted would support the creation of a “locally administered” national dataset. Parents could also be asked for additional information on a voluntary basis—such as the child’s gender and ethnicity, reason(s) for home educating, any SEND, and information about the intended programme of education. Victor Shafiee, Deputy Director, Unregistered and Independent Schools at Ofsted, told us that a register should be “national”, with a “consistent system designed by the Department and administered locally by local authorities”. The Committee understands that some local authorities run their own voluntary registers. This is not enough. Furthermore, we do not believe that the costs of national register would be prohibitive, should technology be deployed effectively.
31.Many written submissions to the inquiry from home educating families and the organisations that support them rejected the idea of a register. For example, the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS) told us that it would:
Have no benefit for home-educated children with regard to their safety and welfare; it would be a wasteful and hugely expensive exercise which has been considered and discarded several times in the past; indeed, it has the potential to put children at risk.
32.HEAS raised concerns about the risks that could be posed to privacy, with many people having access to personal information about children. In addition, HEAS believed that information would likely change “on a daily basis”, undermining the accuracy of a register. Its submission noted that home education was accorded equal status in law with state and independent education, so “should be treated with the same respect as the other two systems” (i.e. public and private schooling). It was therefore not logical for home educating parents to face the additional task of registration. Jane Lowe, a Trustee of HEAS, told us that the introduction of a register could result in “the collapse of the home education movement because it would put enormous pressure on parents”.
33.Jane Lowe added that there was no need for a register:
Local authorities already know of the children about whom there are concerns. Those are the ones that could be followed up. […] Somebody said recently that if you are looking for a needle in a haystack then it is not sensible to increase the size of the haystack. That seems to me an image for what we are talking about here.
34.Councillor Lucy Nethsingha of the Local Government Association denied that local authorities already knew where all children are. If children had never entered school there would be no record of them having left, and there was no obligation on parents to register with their new local authority if they moved. Jenny Coles, President of the ADCS, pointed to the fact that rising numbers of families electing to home educate brought with it a greater need for data in order that local authorities and others could support those children effectively.
35.Councillor Nethsingha agreed that registering children alone would not necessarily flag up “the difficult ones”. Instead, a register would help to “rule out all those children that you don’t need to have worries about”. However, she refuted the suggestion that local authorities, with “incredibly stretched” resources, would make “intrusive visits” unless they were necessary. But local authorities did need to contact a “tiny minority of children” to check that they were safe. A register would also give councils a reason to be in contact with children to identify any safeguarding concerns. Councillor Nethsingha concluded that, at present, there was a “gap in the legislation” which meant that it was difficult to evidence a safeguarding issue. Without that evidence, it was hard for councils to act.
36.Following the Committee’s oral evidence session in November 2020, the Chair wrote to the Secretary of State expressing the Committee’s view that “a statutory register serving to more consistently identify children outside of school is absolutely necessary”.
37.On 8 June 2021, Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education, responded to a Parliamentary Question that the Government’s guidance to local authorities on EHE would be “reviewed again in due course”. She added that:
We remain committed to a registration system for children who are not in school. Further details on a proposed registration system will be in the government response to the Children Not in School consultation, which we intend to publish in due course.
On 23 June 2021, Gavin Williamson MP, the Secretary of State for Education, confirmed to the Committee that the Government had an “absolute commitment to a register” and that more news on it was “very, very imminent”.
38.The Committee heard from home educators that home-educated children are not ‘invisible’, and that safeguarding has failed children who were already known to local authorities. However, the relevant authorities cannot begin to reach any children who may be at risk without a consistent and accurate method of knowing who they are. The context has changed dramatically in the last decade, as the number of children receiving EHE has grown. At present, local authorities may only know about home-educated children who have been withdrawn from school, and may lose touch with these children when families move.
39.The Committee’s view remains that a statutory register, serving to more consistently identify children outside of school, is absolutely necessary. This would aim not to remove freedoms from those who are providing an effective education for their families, but to better target support to those who need it. The register should have a national reach but be administered locally. Rather than only targeting EHE children, it must cover all those who do not receive their principal education in a mainstream school. It may well be that the Government announces a statutory register ahead of this report being published. In any case, it must adhere to the principles we outline.
40.There is no single definitive figure for the number of children and young people being educated at home. The numbers that are available are likely to under-report as parents do not have a duty to tell local authorities that they have chosen EHE, and studies often rely on Freedom of Information responses, which raise questions about data accuracy. This situation is unacceptable and must change. We also believe that collecting more data about children receiving EHE would give the Department a true picture of the level of SEND resourcing needed by local authorities. There is also general consensus that the number of children in EHE has increased dramatically since the 2010–15 Education Committee’s report.
41.Covid-19 appears to have driven a further rise in EHE numbers, the long-term impact of which is not yet known. During the covid-19 pandemic, some may have found that educating at home worked better for them. However, some parents may have chosen EHE without a full understanding of the responsibilities it involves, risking a negative impact on their children. This highlights the ongoing need for parents to have the right support when making the decision to EHE—or to transition back into school, should they wish. In 2018, our predecessor Committee’s report Forgotten children recommended that “when a pupil is excluded from school for more than five non-consecutive days in a school year, the pupil and their parents or carers should be given access to an independent advocate” to help them navigate the process. (Education Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, Forgotten children, HC 342, para 47). We believe that such advocates could also play an invaluable role in supporting families who are considering EHE, and ensuring that they make an informed choice that is best for their families.
42.Once the statutory register of children outside of school is up and running, the Department for Education must make use of it to collate, analyse and publish anonymised annual data on the number of children out of school so that the Department, local authorities and others are better able to understand trends and create effective policy in response to them.
43.When a pupil is excluded from school for more than five non-consecutive days in a school year, the pupil and their parents or carers should be given access to an independent advocate to help them navigate the process. Families considering EHE should also have access to these advocates, to ensure that they have the information and support they need to make an informed choice for them and their child.
44.During our inquiry, a number of stakeholders questioned the extent to which all home education is truly “elective”. LGA-commissioned research found that there had been a 67 per cent increase in the number of children permanently excluded from school between 2014 and 2018, and NNPCF’s submission stated that home education was “not elective for many or even a majority of home educated children and young people with SEND”. As Mrunal Sisodia of NNPCF told us, “there are a lot of children that are home-educated but they are not electively home educated. It is not a positive choice by the parents; they have been forced into that situation”. Mr Sisodia added that “we just do not have the data” to know how many families are pushed into home education by off-rolling or exclusion. It is vitally important that we understand where EHE has been a free choice and where it has been effectively forced upon families. In 2018 our predecessor Committee recommended that schools should publish their permanent and fixed term exclusion rates by year group every term, including providing information about pupils with SEND and looked-after children, along with data on the number of children who have left the school. The Department should consider this recommendation again.
45.In February 2019, the former Children’s Commissioner published Skipping School: Invisible Children. The Report noted how many families had made the choice to remove their children from school rolls and move into home education as a result of their children’s needs going unmet at schools. The Report found that when parents and families made the decision without knowing what home education entails, and received little support to make a success of it, they were put under intense strain and children risked missing out on education. During our inquiry, we were particularly concerned to hear of the hard choices faced by parents of children with SEND who were not getting the support they needed within the schools system. As one parent told us:
Many parents home educate specifically because […] support for their child with special needs of any sort was inadequate. Many of these children within the school system were neglected, abused and dismissed, leaving parents little choice but to home educate to protect them.
46.Since the publication of the 2017–19 Education Committee’s report on Special educational needs and disabilities in October 2019, we have taken an active interest in this area. That report drew attention to the off-rolling of children with SEND and the fact that children moving into EHE often had complex needs. When the responsible Minister, Vicky Ford MP, appeared before the Committee in February 2021, she told us that she intended to publish the Government’s SEND Review “in the spring”. We expect the long-awaited Review to address a number of the concerns that we have raised. The Review has already been delayed enough—we call on the Government to publish it as soon as possible.
47.The terms of reference for this inquiry included the practice of off-rolling. ‘Off-rolling’ happens when students are removed from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion, or by encouraging parents to remove a child, where the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than the child. We were also interested in the role of unregistered schools. Victor Shafiee, Deputy Director, Unregistered and Independent Schools at Ofsted, explained that settings that met the Department for Education’s definition of an independent school but did not register with the Department were operating illegally:
an independent school is where there are five or more children receiving most of their education, where there is a child with an education, health and care plan or where there is at least one looked-after child. There is a very tight legal definition of what is an independent school. Of course, an unregistered school is one that meets all those requirements but doesn’t register with the Department for Education, which is the regulator in this space. There are lots of unregulated, part-time, alternative provision settings that operate within the law, in that they have fewer than five children or they are part time, which means they are unregulated but are not illegal.
48.Throughout the inquiry, home educators and the organisations that support them told us that the problems of off-rolling, exclusion and illegal schools were not problems of EHE. Indeed, we were told that EHE was “a casualty and not a cause of these unacceptable practices”. However, we also heard that illegal schools provision had an impact on nominally home-educated children. Victor Shafiee told us:
I do not agree that there is no link between home education and unregistered schools, but I want to make the point that we are talking about sham home education here. We are not talking about well-intentioned parents who are doing a good job for their children. We are talking about situations where parents are duped by settings and told to sign letters saying their children are being home educated when, in fact, they are attending illegal schools on a full-time basis.
49.Leicester City Council’s written submission described a “historical issue” whereby education providers had presented to EHE families as schools, with the council having to step in and explain to parents that there would be no inspection or guarantee of appropriate safeguarding.
50.To inspect unregistered schools, Ofsted needs “reasonable cause to believe that unregistered schools are operating”, which Victor Shafiee described as a “very high bar”. He told the Committee that when Ofsted began its work on unregistered schools in 2016, he was told there might be around 24 to be investigated. So far, Ofsted had looked at about 700—with referrals continuing to come in during the pandemic.
51.During the inquiry, we heard very strongly from home educators that illegally-operating unregistered schools were not a problem of home education. However, Mr Shafiee told us that about a quarter of those unregistered settings inspected told Ofsted that the children attending were being home-educated. As a solution, Wendy Charles-Warner, a Trustee of Education Otherwise, suggested that Ofsted should create a register of all registered education providers, which would “allow parents to check and not be duped”.
52.Ofsted raised concerns that some children are receiving almost all their education in unregistered schools. Ofsted told us that children attending unregistered schools were at risk because there was “no oversight of their education or safety” – with many of these settings being “badly maintained, unsafe and even squalid”. Furthermore, it found safeguarding or health and safety concerns in almost 40% of settings. As a result of this, Ofsted has called on Government to introduce three legislative changes:
53.In December 2018, the Department launched a consultation on a voluntary code for out-of-school education, publishing its voluntary code in October 2020. In October 2020, the Department also published a consultation on Regulating Independent Educational Institutions, seeking views on proposals for legislation including:
At the time we published this Report, the Government’s response has not been published.
54.There is clearly a distinction between those families who make a free choice to EHE, and those for whom it is not truly ‘elective.’ We understand that many home educators do not see off-rolling, exclusion or illegal schools as a problem of EHE. However, the fact remains that some families—especially those where children have SEND—feel forced into what should be a free and informed choice. We therefore repeat the following recommendation from our predecessor Committee’s Report on alternative provision and exclusions. (Education Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, Forgotten children, HC 342, para 64).
55.Schools should publish their permanent and fixed term exclusion rates by year group every term, including providing information about pupils with SEND and looked-after children. Schools should also publish data on the number of pupils who have left the school.
56.Some children in those illegal schools prosecuted so far have been nominally home educated, with families misled by providers. Without the consistent and robust data on children outside school that a register could provide, we cannot know the true impact of off-rolling and illegal schools on children nominally receiving EHE. We welcome the Government and Ofsted’s efforts to clamp down on unregistered schools and await the outcome of the consultation on independent educational institutions with interest. It cannot be right that settings where children receive their principal education escape regulatory scrutiny by exploiting loopholes in the law.
57.Many children with SEND may be happiest educated at home, but this should absolutely not be a choice that parents are forced to make for lack of the right support. We accept that what begins as a negative choice can become positive over time, but support must be in place so that families do not have to make that forced choice in the first place. Our predecessor Committee’s report on Special educational needs and disabilities recommended “that the Department for Education explores the potential for creating a neutral role, allocated to every parent or carer with a child when a request is made for a needs assessment, which has the responsibility for co-ordinating all statutory SEND processes including the annual review, similar to the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer for looked-after children.” (Education Committee, First Report of Session 2019, Special educational needs and disabilities, HC 20, para 52). We believe that an independent, neutral role such as this would also be invaluable in ensuring that children with SEND are not forced into home education for lack of adequate school support, and that families who do choose EHE for children with SEND receive the support and information they need to make that choice.
58.In light of the evidence we heard on children with SEND, the Department must reconsider the potential for creating an independent, neutral role, allocated to every parent or carer with a child when a request is made for a needs assessment, which has the responsibility for co-ordinating all statutory SEND processes including the annual review, similar to the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer for looked-after children. This role would support families with the choice to EHE, and help ensure that any such choice was made in a truly informed way, and in the best interests of the child and their family.
60.The SEND Review must address the need for consistent and sufficient support for children with SEND, no matter how they are educated. Access to Education, Health and Care Plans and the support they offer should not depend on being on roll at a school.
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31 Department for Education, , April 2019
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33 Children’s Commissioner for England ()
34 Children’s Commissioner for England ()
35 Children’s Commissioner for England ()
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37 Dr Amber Fensham-Smith (Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at The Open University) ()
38 Dr Amber Fensham-Smith (Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at The Open University) ()
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40 Office of the Schools Adjudicator ()
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55 Home Education Advisory Service ()
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65 [on Home Education], 8 June 2021
66 Oral evidence taken on 23 June 2021, HC (2021–22) 82, [Rt Hon Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State, Department for Education]
67 Oral evidence taken on 23 June 2021, HC (2021–22) 82, [Rt Hon Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State, Department for Education]
68 , Children’s Commissioner for England (), The Association of Directors of Children’s Services ()
69 Local Government Association (),
70 National Network of Parent Carer Forums ()
71 , and, for example National Autistic Society () who told us “there is a substantial difference between parents choosing [EHE] because they believe it is the best option for their child and family, and parents ending up home-schooling as a last resort because their child is having such a miserable experience at school.”
73 Education Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 342, para 64
74 Children’s Commissioner, , February 2019
75 Children’s Commissioner for England ()
76 Member of the public ()
77 Education Committee, First Report of Session 2019, , HC 20
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83 See, for example, Education Otherwise ()
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