Friday, May 13, 2011

"Who do these people think they are?"

Asked Graham Stuart in his brilliant speech to the House of Commons about local authority's treatment of home educators on Wednesday. (You can read it here, watch it here between 3:59:00 and 4:22:00 and read commentary and discussion about it here, here, and no doubt elsewhere.)

Some of my favourite excerpts:

On the face of it, that recommendation seemed reasonable, which I am sure is why the Government came forward with proposals to implement it, having seen that both Badman and the Select Committee supported it. However, it was not recognised that the Government’s formal consultation on the Badman recommendations had shown that, far from being uncontroversial, the proposal had attracted opposition from 75% of those who responded, with only 13% agreeing. Why would that be the case? Why would families be concerned about having the power to return their children to school within 20 days, with no restriction whatever on their freedoms and no delay forced on the start of their home education? The answer lies in the behaviour of local authorities.

His reminder about the consultation response initially came from Raquel of AEUK. It's a very good thing for home educators that Raquel is so on-the-ball, with her excellent memory, logical thinking and constant willingness to engage where it counts and I know this isn't the first time she's made a big difference to outcomes in a very quiet way.

Tameside metropolitan borough council’s elective home education guidelines say:

“It is up to parents to show the local education authority that they have a programme of work in place that is helping their child to develop according to his/her age, ability and aptitude and any special educational needs he/she may have.”

But it is not up to parents to justify that to the local authority; all too often, it is the local authority that has let down that family and those children through its failure to provide proper education. The local authority should be the servant of the family; the family should not have to answer to the needs of the local authority.

This was exactly what needed to be said. Mr Stuart has surpassed all of my hopes and expectations; I was expecting a dry debate about the 20-day deregistration clause and I think that's because we're so used, after many years of Ed Balls, his party and the compliant education department that seemed to evolve around them, to politicians just completely ignoring the key issues which negatively affected our families in favour of their own high-handed agenda for us. Graham Stuart certainly can't be accused of that.

A Labour MP intervened to talk about abuse, and Mr Stuart rounded on her and dealt with this magnificently:

She has done what Badman did, and what the former Secretary of State did under the previous Government, which is to conflate child abuse with home education. Education and welfare are two separate things. Contrary to what Graham Badman stated in his report, and failed to substantiate in the Select Committee, there is no evidence that home-educated children are more subject to abuse than children in general. When there is a risk, local authorities have all due powers to intervene, and so they should. When such evidence arises, the authorities can and should go in to ensure the protection of the child. However, we cannot have the suggestion that home-educating families are linked to a problem of abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is important to nail that fact. We must not do as the previous Home Secretary did, which was to smear the reputation of home-educating families by suggesting that there is a problem, because there is no evidence for that.

In that moment, for possibly the first time since the election, I felt very glad I'd voted Conservative. My vote was for home education, and mainly for this man - one of the very few politicians in which I still have faith. As home educating families, we suffered abuse under Ed Balls and Graham Badman. Graham Stuart brings us healing.

After a challenge from Barry Sheerman, he responded:

Local authorities must honour and observe the law as it stands and not overstate it because they happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman. They cannot make the law up as they go along because they do not like the current settlement. The current settlement is clear: local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education.

Exactly what needed to be said.

And here is that glorious "Who do these people think they are?" moment:

I have already dealt with Tameside, so let me touch quickly on Barnsley. Its elective home education information leaflet says that

“the law allows parents to educate their children at home instead of sending them to school, if they fulfil certain conditions.”

That is subtly done. I am not sure whether it is strictly inaccurate, but it is suggestive enough to make it sound as though the council decides whether those conditions are fulfilled. It goes on to make it clear that that is precisely its conclusion:

“Barnsley MBC will need to be satisfied”—

in other words, the council will need to be satisfied—

“that a child is receiving suitable education at home, and the Assessor”

- these people are even called assessors; who do they think they are? -

“will ask to meet with the family in order to talk to the parents and to look at examples of work and learning.”

That is beyond the law. I want the Minister to confirm that he will make sure that local authorities no longer produce misinformation like that and use it in order to abuse their power over families.

It really needs to be watched to convey the full effect though. Hearing his outrage expressed so powerfully and eloquently is empowering and uplifting, after years of being worn down by attitudes like this local authority's and many others.

This next is possibly the best of all:

The Lancashire local authority, in one of the most egregious examples, states:

“Lancashire Officers will take the lead on this because they have the responsibility to ensure the safety of all children as well as to monitor the quality of education received by children educated at home.”

That is a nice one, neatly conflating the issues of safety and home education. No one has yet arrived at my house during the summer holidays just to check up on the safety of my children, who are, after all, spending months at home with me. Who knows what my wife and I might get up to, or what the younger or older sister might do? Who knows what visiting relatives might do? What we need are visitors from the local authority, just to make sure. I do not want people such as the director of children’s services in my local authority to lose a moment’s sleep because they feel that they are not pursuing every possibility of intervention to cover their own backsides and telling me how I should run things in my own home. That is precisely what the local authority suggests should be done in the case of home-educating parents, who deserve its intervention no more than the rest of us.


Labour's Ian Mearns then intervened (and it's to be noted that Mr Stuart, unlike our observations of so many other politicians, gives way with generosity and good manners) in part to say:

There is a problem with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If a child becomes unwell or is injured at the hands of parents or other relatives, the focus of attention is often not on the family but on the director of children’s services in the local borough. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on that? Will he also reflect on the rights of the child who, despite the wishes of their own parents, may or may not receive a good level of education at the hands of those parents? I know that the hon. Gentleman inhabits a middle-class, or possibly upper-middle-class, ideal in which his own children will be extremely well catered for, but that is not always the case. As policy makers, we must provide for the rights of every child in the country, no matter what their circumstances.

And again, I loved Graham Stuart's reply:

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished member of the Select Committee and who brings years of experience of education to it, so I hesitate to say what I am about to say. However, he is suggesting, as a Labour Member of Parliament, that working-class families involved in home education should be treated with more suspicion than those in better-off areas, that they are not to be trusted with the education of their children, and that inspectors and assessors and all those other people with acronyms should be wandering into their homes, because of — my God — what they might do to their children.

Of course working class families are no less able to keep their children safe and well educated than other families, and to suggest they might be was a scurrilous, contemptible marker for the hidden truth behind the traditional Labour dislike of home education.

Barry Sheerman made a quiet comment which I don't think made it to the Hansard transcript, about people having a vested interest in the education of children. My dad is an 'Old Labour' man too, who shares a lot of Mr Sheerman's philosophy - one that seems alien to me, but which I think runs fundamentally through that brand of idealism. The best way to explain it might be to repeat my dad's immediate, instinctive response when I told him thirteen years ago that I'd deregistered my children from school to educate them at home.

"But you can't do that! It's not your decision to make! They belong to the state, not to you!"

In my view, they belong to themselves but when they're very young, parents are their guardians precisely because - unlike the state - we have a natural, instinctive, loving bond with our children. We know them from birth, we spend the most time with them and we are therefore best placed to make decisions with them and on their behalf. The cold, impersonal, self-serving machine of state should be a parent of last, not first resort and the law properly reflects this.

I think over the years, having seen the many positive results of my decision, my dad has changed his view somewhat. At least, I hope so. Sadly, I'd have much less confidence in my ability to convince the likes of Barry Sheerman whose grandchildren I did not raise - but luckily I don't have to. That philosophy has had its time, and we now seem to be moving into a new and enlightened era in terms of educational policy.