61.The Department for Education recommends that authorities should ordinarily contact home educating parents on at least an annual basis, in order to reasonably inform themselves about the suitability of the education being provided.
62.Intervention can include the issuing of a School Attendance Order (SAO), but the Government encourages authorities to address most issues informally before taking this step. In 2019, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services reported that a combined total of 1,400 SAOs had been issued across 61 local authorities relating to the suitability of home education—an increase of 171 per cent from 2018. If a lack of suitable education is a risk to a child’s development, local authorities may also deploy their safeguarding powers. Wendy Charles-Warner, a Trustee of Education Otherwise, argued that some local authorities were acting ultra vires, issuing section 437 notices and SAOs “without having a proper basis”, for example where a parent did not supply information in a preferred format.
63.The Department for Education’s guidance issued to local authorities makes clear that “there is no proven correlation between home education and safeguarding risk”. The Centre for Personalised Education (a charity which specialises in academic research into alternative education - including elective home education) stated that the conflation of safeguarding and quality of home education “has, in the past, led to widespread misunderstanding and made relationships between home educators and authorities far more difficult than need be the case”.
64.We note that the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel plans to carry out some work on EHE, focussing specifically on children who are vulnerable to safeguarding risks if they are not at school, and analysing “the extent to which elective home education has been a factor in the serious harm or death of a child.” We hope that this work will serve to better inform policymakers, and inject some light into a heated debate.
65.Submissions to our inquiry differed in their views on whether the duties and powers of local authorities were sufficient in relation to elective home education. The Local Government Association told us there was “no mechanism” for a council to insist on speaking to a home-educated child without a specific safeguarding concern. On the other hand, HEAS found that the present legal framework provided the “correct balance beween [sic] the rights of home educators and the duties of the authorities.” We believe there should be a mechanism for local authorities to speak with a child receiving EHE in order to assess whether the duty to provide a suitable education is being met.
66.Ofsted welcomed the 2019 guidance from the Department, which had “helped to clarify” local authority usage of existing powers around home education. It also believed that SAOs could be used as a ‘“disproportionate sanction and may not be in the best interests of the child” in some cases. Instead, where there are concerns about a child’s education, it would often be more effective for the local authority to make assessments and offer support “so that the home education can be improved, rather than ordering the child to attend school against their and/or their parents’ wishes.” In Ofsted’s view, local authorities should have powers to visit the child’s home to make assessments of home education but that those powers should be limited to ensure that they can only be used when there are “reasonable concerns” about the suitability of the home education, and not used “routinely.” Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills (HMCI) Amanda Spielman told the Committee that “some level of assurance that children are getting educated, is a real national priority from my point of view.”
67.We heard that there was “some ambiguity” in relation to the duties of local authorities beyond the “bare minimum”, with wide variations across local authorities in terms of the resources available to them. Leicester City Council said that there were areas of law and guidance that need further clarification. For example, there was “significant reluctance” to supply photographs of children’s work among some parents. Leicester City Council told us that it would be helpful if guidance stated that “where requested by the LA, this is [a] reasonable request.” Similarly, guidance could be “worded in a clearer way” on responsibilities over SEND, where the recent Departmental blog refers to “support being at the discretion of the LA.” Leicester City Council noted that this uncertainty had the potential to “create a level of mistrust.”
68.Mrunal Sisodia of NNPCF told the Committee that, although there was a great deal of focus on the statutory powers of Local Authorities:
There is also a really strong case to be made for softer outreach from local authorities and local areas. […]in the sense that you can either force parents to engage with the local authority or you can make it very attractive for them to engage with local areas if they are home-educating.
69.In April 2019, the Government published a consultation on proposed legislation concerning children not in school. It sought views to establish whether any of the following might be required:
70.At the time of writing, the Government has not published its response. In October 2020, the Department published a blog aimed at parents who might be considering EHE, pointing to the guidance published in April 2019.
71.Local authorities told us that they lack sufficient powers. It seems to us that the grey area in the Departmental guidance—where there is no legal duty for parents to respond to enquiries about EHE, but the local authority is entitled to conclude that education may not be suitable should those parents not respond—cannot be conducive to constructive relationships between EHE parents and local authorities.
72.Without a clearer definition of what a ‘suitable’ education is and what the threshold might be for intervention, local authorities have to rely on their safeguarding powers. We understand that, where powers are seen to be used inappropriately, there is a negative impact both on individuals and on relationships with the wider EHE community. It may be that the current ‘grey area’ is encouraging the use of School Attendance Orders where more informal approaches could be more beneficial for all concerned—or it could be that councils now have better understanding of the options available to them and are using their powers effectively and appropriately. Without better data, we cannot know whether the growth in SAOs reflects concerns about provision of education in the home, increased activism on the part of councils or a combination of both, The Committee is not opposed to SAOs per se, but we do need better information regarding the growth in their use and whether they are being used appropriately.
73.When the Department responds to the 2019 consultation, it must clearly set out the expectations on LAs, other parts of the public sector (including health and social care) and parents with regards to EHE. It should supply case study examples so that EHE families and local authorities have a clear and shared understanding of what may constitute a ‘suitable education’, and what the thresholds for intervention should be—including for the serving of SAOs. The Department for Education should also track, publish and analyse data on SAOs at a national level on an annual basis.
74.We heard that EHE was invisible in key guidance on keeping children and young people safe. For example, Working Together to Safeguard Children, the statutory guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, does not mention home education. Victor Shafiee of Ofsted told us that “this should be reviewed.” Currently, the guidance is “silent on home educating children” and “predicated on children who are being educated in school.” In his view, while Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) provides detailed guidance on what should happen to protect children when they are in school, something similar is needed for children who are not in school. In July 2021, the Department released an updated version of KCSIE, to apply from September. This version does mention EHE, recommending that where a parent/carer has expressed an intention to remove a child from school for EHE, “LAs, schools, and other key professionals work together to coordinate a meeting with parents/carers where possible”, ideally before a final decision is made, “to ensure the parents/carers have considered what is in the best interests of each child.”
75.Although we were pleased to see that Keeping Children Safe in Education was updated during the inquiry, we heard that key guidance documents on safeguarding did not recognise EHE. It is therefore hardly surprising that that local authorities and others vary hugely in their approach to EHE families. EHE is a legally recognised choice, and as such must be recognised in guidance so that professionals across education, health and other services understand what it is, and how to respond appropriately when they come into contact with EHE families. Guidance must be consistent so that both families and local authorities know where they stand with regards to sanctions like SAOs but also the processes which professionals and parents will need to follow.
76.The Department must revisit and revise key statutory guidance such as Working Together to Safeguard Children as soon as possible, so that they explicitly contain EHE within their scope, and contain clear and consistent messages for families, local authorities and others.
77.The inquiry’s terms of reference also invited views on “the role that inspection should play in future regulation of home education.” During the inquiry it seemed that that terms such as inspection, assessment and monitoring were sometimes being used interchangeably. Here, we focus on inspection in terms of scrutinizing the suitability of the education offered to a child. In the later section on outcomes and assessment, we focus on the assessment of an individual child’s educational achievements and outcomes.
78.Currently, Ofsted’s periodic inspections of local authorities will include children missing from education. Ofsted has no role in the oversight of education received by individual children who are educated at home.
79.Of the hundreds of written submissions that we received from home educating families and the organisations that support them, many strongly rejected the inspection of individual families. In addition, those submissions expressed the view that singling out home educating families would be unfair, with families “entitled to the presumption that they will feed and clothe their children and nurture all other aspects of their development without having to demonstrate competence in these areas to government inspectors”. Furthermore, it was argued that local authority officers whose training was rooted in the school system were “not well equipped to make judgements about the individualised learning which occurs in home education”.
80.We heard from local authorities and the organisations representing them that although “inspection may be too strong a word” for what is required, the system did need to change. The LGA told us that there was “a clear need for greater oversight of children being educated at home” and that Ofsted did not have the capacity or local knowledge to regulate EHE. It called for Government to give powers to councils to enter the homes of, or otherwise see, children in order to establish whether they are receiving a suitable education and meet their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Any new duties would need to be fully funded—and that any “regulation” of home education should be “only to ensure the safety and holistic wellbeing of children”.
81.ADCS believed that local authorities should be funded “to fulfil an assurance role or monitoring visit and parents should be required to engage with this process on an annual basis.” Its submission noted that currently councils “have a duty to establish whether a suitable education is being provided but do not have a role in assurance of this.” While in practice a home visit is offered, “which may or may not be accepted by the family […] local approaches do vary across the country.” Given the increase in the number of children known to be home-educated, the ADCS told us that current level of monitoring was “unsustainable” and needed funding and commitment from Government.
82.Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner, called for “termly visits by council staff to each home educated child to assess the suitability of their education and welfare”. She told us that there should be stronger inspection of children who are home-educated, recommending that there should be “at least a once a year, if not once a term, inspection.” UNICEF also called for changed guidance that would encourage local authorities to “undertake six-monthly inspections of education delivered in the home”.
83.While a number of submissions called for more effective tools for oversight of EHE, “formal routine inspection” was largely rejected, in the words of Ofsted, as not “proportionate”. Accordingly, in the Committee’s accountability session on 10 November, HMCI Amanda Spielman stopped short of recommending formal inspection as such, but made clear that in a context of growing numbers it was important to seek assurance that children were being educated. In June 2021, she told the Committee that “it would be good to have some clear minimum expectations”, and that “as a nation, we should be concerned about having children who no one ever sees”. She noted that local authorities were largely responsible for monitoring, but that:
For me, one of the strangest things in the system at the moment is that children who are already known to children’s services, even children on a child protection plan and experiencing harm, can legally be withdrawn by their parents for home education. I find it very un-joined up that we can, on the one hand, say we have very good reason to think that this child needs protecting, but also let the parents take them out of one of the main protective mechanisms. I would also like to see some kind of gateway threshold for accepting withdrawals of children from school.
84.While Ofsted did not believe that they should inspect individual home educators, they could support improvement indirectly—for example through increasing the focus on home-educated children and young people with SEND in area SEND inspections. Furthermore, Ofsted said it would be “open to considering additional ways Ofsted could support the oversight of home education”.
85.Councillor Nethsingha of the LGA told the Committee that monitoring the standard of education would be “really tricky”. Looking at outcomes would mean that scrutiny took place “quite late in the system.” However, it was preferable to ongoing tracking which would “be extremely difficult” and “very intrusive to parents.” It would also present a huge resource issue for councils not currently equipped to carry out this role. Dr Amber Fensham-Smith, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at the Open University, agreed that monitoring was a “sticking point”, with the potential to “hinder the freedoms parents have to pursue a forms of education and a pedagogic approach that suits the interests of their family”.
86.Leicester City Council’s noted that guidance would “serve children better” if parents were required to meet a Local Authority representative either in the family home or “another venue” where requested, and when there was a reason to ask.
87.We heard that there is a lack of consistency in the approach local authorities take to support EHE. Departmental guidance is ambiguous and does not provide the necessary clarity on what is expected of them. Ofsted told us that for it to inspect home educating parents would be disproportionate. However, Ofsted did say it would be open to considering additional ways it could support EHE oversight.
88.The Department must assign Ofsted a role in quality assuring the delivery of local authority support for EHE and adherence to EHE guidance. This will require the creation of an inspection framework, based on the clarified guidance for local authorities and EHE families that we also expect the Department to produce.
89.On the whole, local authorities did not see themselves as potential ‘inspectors’ in the Ofsted mould—even though the former Children’s Commissioner called for “at least a once a year, if not once a term” inspection. However, some local authorities would like more powers to see children and to establish whether they are receiving a suitable education. We heard that local authorities would not make “intrusive visits if we don’t feel they are necessary,” and that children would not have to be seen in the home. By contrast, home educators emphasised to us that the fact of being home-educated did not constitute a safeguarding risk. However, we conclude that it is reasonable for local authorities to seek reassurance that EHE is suitable, and that they must have clear abilities to do so. The former Children’s Commissioner and the Local Government Association were among those calling for more oversight of EHE.
90.HMCI Amanda Spielman told us it was “very un-joined up” that children who were on a child protection plan and experiencing harm could be withdrawn into home education. We share HMCI’s concerns and call on the Department to ensure that children subject to a child protection plan are educated in a suitable setting to ensure that they are properly protected.
91.The Department must clarify and strengthen the expectation in its 2019 guidance that local authorities make contact with parents on at least an annual basis, so that local authorities have the ability to see a child in person (at a venue of the family’s choosing) in situations where this is necessary to establish the suitability of the education they are receiving. The Department must make any necessary statutory changes to enable this, and make clear that:
92.The Department should provide local authorities with a set of clear criteria against which suitability of education can be assessed, taking into account the full range of pedagogical approaches taken in EHE, as well as the age, ability and aptitude of individual children, including where they may have SEND.
93.During the inquiry, we heard that support from local authorities was highly variable, resulting in a “postcode lottery”. Education Otherwise told us it was “common practice” for home educating parents to be refused assessment for SEN solely on the basis that the child is home-educated.
94.Jane Lowe of HEAS noted the primary importance of support from home educating peers as opposed to local authorities, who often fail to provide it. Overall, home educators appeared confident that the most of their peers had access to this kind of informal support. Wendy Charles-Warner of Education Otherwise told us that the “number of families not involved in networks is very small” and “those very few families who are not known to a local authority are certainly known to support networks.” She felt that local authorities should be actively promoting support networks. However, without definitive data on the number of children receiving EHE, the Committee remains unclear as to how we can be sure that isolated families are not slipping through the net.
95.We heard that views from parents about the extent to which they expected support from councils were mixed, with some surmising that increased support might come with strings attached. One submission stated that:
If the Government want to put in place hoops for us to jump through and targets to aim for, then we should have the same services as schooled children […]
96.A number of submissions highlighted the need to move from a situation where “local authorities appear to be in conflict with parents” to a position “where local authorities are seen by home-educating parents as being a service provider, to help them and support them”. As Victor Shafiee put it, we need to “move away from the debate of home education good/home education bad towards an accommodation that we can all agree on”.
97.A number of submissions also made the point that local authorities did not provide adequate training for education officers, and that very few have any experience of, or training in home education. For Dr Fensham-Smith, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at the Open University, an absence of public facing resources showcasing different approaches and effective local authority partnerships was a “barrier” to developing support services with and alongside home educating families. She felt that a “nationally funded information support hub and an annual conference” might support sharing of best practice. In her written submission she suggested a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) could help improve understanding. She suggested an engagement project working with local authorities, key organisations, parents, children and young people to produce training via the Open University. The Association of Elective Home Education Professionals told us in their submission that from Autumn 2021 Birkbeck College would be offering essential training for local authority EHE professionals. During the inquiry we heard that there was precedent for offers at a national level to support EHE—even where this had not been their intended purpose. For example, some home educators welcomed Oak National Academy, created for remote learning in response to the pandemic, as a “fantastic” resource. There may well be scope for the Oak National Academy to acknowledge home educators more explicitly in its offering, especially given the Government funding behind it.
98.We heard that parents receive more support from networks than they do from local authorities, but without the robust data that a register would provide we cannot know for certain whether everyone who needs support is able to access it. Furthermore, the evidence we received indicated a lack of mutual understanding between home educators and local authorities, and a lack of consistent training in local authorities that encompassed the full range of EHE approaches. This undermined the support that local authorities could and should provide. More consistent and informed training would address the problem of local authorities acting beyond their powers. Better mutual understanding is in everyone’s interests - not least those of home-educated children themselves, who should at all times be our focus.
99.Given the rise in EHE numbers and lack of consistent support from local authorities, the Department should commission and roll out a national training package for all local authority officers with responsibility for EHE—developed with a wide range of stakeholders—so that those officers have a thorough and consistent understanding of the duties of and guidance for local authorities. That package should explain the various EHE approaches—possibly in the form of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). All local authority officers with responsibility for EHE must be expected to complete that training as part of their job.
96 Department for Education, , April 2019
97 Department for Education, , accessed 13 June 2021
98 ADCS, , November 2019
99 If, after informal enquiries, a child does not appear to be receiving a suitable education at home, a local authority shall serve a section 437(1) notice on parents, requiring them to give information about the child’s education. If the local authority is not satisfied the education is suitable and believes the child should attend school, it serves a SAO, Department for Education, , April 2019
101 Department for Education, , April 2019
102 The Centre for Personalised Education ()
103 The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, accessed 21 June 2021
104 Local Government Association ()
105 Home Education Advisory Service ()
106 Ofsted ()
107 Ofsted ()
108 Oral evidence taken on 10 November 2020, HC (2019–21) 262, [Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted]
110 Leicester City Council ()
111 Leicester City Council ()
113 Department for Education, , accessed 13 June 2021
114 Department for Education, , 20 October 2020
117 Department for Education, , updated 6 July 2021
118 One local authority told made the distinction that ‘without legislation, setting out standards and measures, it is impossible to carry out inspection, only make an assessment’, Staffordshire County Council ()
119 Ofsted, , 26 March 2021
120 Home Education Advisory Service ()
121 Home Education Advisory Service ()
122 Home Education Advisory Service ()
123 Leicester City Council ()
124 Local Government Association ()
125 Local Government Association ()
126 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services ()
127 The Association of Directors of Children’s Services ()
128 Children’s Commissioner for England ()
129 Oral evidence taken on 6 October 2020, HC (2019–21) 262, [Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England]
130 UNICEF UK ()
131 Ofsted ()
132 Oral evidence taken on 10 November 2020, HC (2019–21) 262, [Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Ofsted]
133 Oral evidence taken on 15 June 2021, HC (2021–22) 82, [Amanda Spielman, HMCI, Ofsted]
134 Oral evidence taken on 15 June 2021, HC (2021–22) 82, [Amanda Spielman, HMCI, Ofsted]
135 Ofsted ()
139 Leicester City Council ()
141 Education Otherwise ()
144 Home Education Advisory Service (), Member of the public (), Member of the public ()
145 Home Education Advisory Service ()
146 , Nathalie Huegler (), Home Education UK ()
148 Education Otherwise (), Home Education UK (), Centre for Social Mobility ()
149 Dr Amber Fensham-Smith (Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at The Open University) ()
151 Association of Elective Home Education Professionals ()
152 Member of the public ()