Monday, October 10, 2016

Dear members of the Bradford Metropolitan District Council Children's Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee,

For your meeting on Wednesday 12th October you are being asked to scrutinise a report on Elective Home Education by Judith Kirk, the Deputy Director of Children's Services in Bradford. I am a home educator of long standing, having first deregistered a child to home educate in 1993, and my blog on home education politics and law in England has been running for over ten years now. As a lifelong West Yorkshire resident I also feel a personal connection to this report and whatever consequences ensue from it.

My thoughts on the report are as follows:

The explanation of the current legal position is technically correct but requires further context. There is a specific and important reason why official routine monitoring of elective home education is explicitly precluded in the government guidelines for local authorities, which is based on the duty given to parents in Section 7 of the Education Act. I wrote a post on this in 2014 if you want to read more detail, but essentially the key point is this: If parents are to retain the duty to cause receipt by their children of suitable education then parents must be given the leeway to decide what form this education should take. If they have no leeway to decide upon form and content, then logically they cannot be held liable if the education proves to be unsuitable - for example, at the end of a disastrous period of tuition at school followed by poor outcomes for the child on leaving.

Routine official monitoring is not conducive with parental choice in education because in practice what tends to happen is that the provision changes to fit officials' stated requirements and expectations rather than the more effective tailor made, child-focused approach that many of our unmonitored offspring enjoy. An example of this process can be found in this post from 2009, which explains why we campaign so vociferously to resist developments which might exacerbate the problem.

The current approach in Bradford is in breach of the government Guidelines for Local Authorities in that is does seek to routinely monitor, attempting to visit families on an annual basis even where no concerns are apparent. This has been causing unease amongst home educators on a local and a national basis because of the potentially damaging effects of such expensive, unnecessary and ultra vires interventions on our children's education.

The questions asked by the local authority of home educating parents in the appendix 3 far exceed the instruction to "ask the parents for information" set out by Judge Donaldson in the 1980 precedent case of Phillips v Brown. Our concern here is that the questions enable officers to pre-judge an educational provision that they should not be judging at all, unless Section 437 concerns are apparent. It takes some considerable time after deregistration for parents to assess their children and settle into a course of study and this usually has to be a very flexible process involving much trial and error. To be encouraged by officials to state their specific provisional intentions in advance of this happening is again to risk damaging the personal and perfectly tailor made approach that usually develops only without such interventions.

Most home educating parents are not teachers in the school sense, because their parental relationship prevents this form of interaction. The practice of home education usually does not resemble school and nor should it, because it is not a mechanism for the instruction of children en masse. In the absence of apparent and specific concerns of suitability it is not legally open to the scrutiny of local authorities in the way that schools are because homes and family life are necessarily private and parents are not being paid by the state (as in the case of schools) for the tuition of the children of other parents. In the absence of Section 437 concerns they are answerable only to their children and such wider circle of involved neighbours, friends and relatives as they think fit.

This is something of an anomaly in the present culture but such privacy is vital to the often delicate relationship the parent tries to foster between the child's natural curiosity and the things he or she needs to learn. The parent cannot usually dictate to the child what he or she must be curious about and nor can she proceed regardless as happens at school. Instead she must work dynamically with the child to develop and draw out his or her own interests in an educational way. This relies on a relationship of trust between the two which must not be breached if the child's curiosity and willingness to learn is to continue. In my own older children this has resulted in various successful outcomes in which entrepreneurial young adults are contributing to the economy by utilising those very interests we fostered in home education, in the commercial field. They are actively engaged in their work in a very healthy way, which was my aim but which was repeatedly thwarted by unsolicited contact from the local authority that challenged the trusting relationship between parent and child which is such a prerequisite for elective home education provision to succeed.

As home educators we would prefer our engagement with local authorities to be entirely voluntary unless there are concerns about our provision, and we feel the current national regulatory system perfectly reflects this. This is because a voluntary arrangement ideally supplies only the advice we seek in a relaxed setting that enables us to utilise and adopt it properly. A heavy handed more unsolicited and proactive approach from the local authority is more likely to deter us from asking for advice or from taking on board any advice supplied as anything other than an unwelcome and ultra vires intervention. A voluntary relationship (in the absence of Section 437 concerns) is therefore more efficient, economical and substantially more effective than one routinely imposed by the local authority on its own terms.

Home educators do have concerns about the misuse of the term 'home education', particularly in the use of illegal schools and when there are specific welfare concerns, but we are of the firm opinion that current statute and regulations (Section 98 of the Education and Skills Act and Sections 7 and 47 of the Children Act) provide ample measures to resolve these issues without the need for any changes which might potentially damage our children's learning in the way I've explained above.

We challenge the view that 'a child not seen by the authorites is a child at risk of abuse': The NSPCC's report into the 7 Serious Case Reviews that have featured home educated children in the last decade or so demonstrated that all of the children listed were known to their local authorites, but that already existing regulations were not followed correctly. It therefore follows that extra regulations will not make children more safe and what is required is a more thorough knowledge and adherence to current guidelines and statute instead.

We regard the proposal to delay deregistration from school by 20 days as a breach of Section 8 of the statutory Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006 and may seek to take action accordingly if this change is adopted in Bradford or elsewhere.

The tracking down of children who may be missing education by sharing details of families "..who are in recived of child benefit.." [sic] is then, in light of the above, an alarming plan especially as the intention appears to attempt to proactively and routinely monitor the provision of those who are found in this way. The problem of illegal schools should be addressed by proper policing of Section 98 of the Education and Skills Act. Any concerns about our children's welfare should be addressed by appropriate and correct use of sections 7 and 47 of the Children Act and concerns which may arise from individually involved members of the community about our children's educational provision should be dealt with by the informal process set out in the Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities followed by, if unsuccessful, the formal process set out in Section 437 of the Education Act.

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