Tuesday, November 03, 2020

The keenest personal interest

There is a hierarchy of people whose livelihoods are based on our children. At the bottom are teachers, social workers and local authority officials. Further up are the businesses who run academies, tuition packages and other learning initiatives. Organisations like Ofsted contribute to the structure of this hierarchy and at its very pinnacle sits Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner, whose office produced a report last year calling for a compulsory register for home educators.

Last month, she told the House of Commons Select Committee for Education, that the government had agreed.

We don't know whether to believe this, but to call it a register is disingenuous. What's been proposed over and over again since the 2009 Badman Review isn't a register even though it's called one, but is an annual licensing scheme. Home educators would have to apply every year to be allowed to home educate, supplying evidence to support their case. The local authority would have the annual power to grant, deny or rescind their permission and therefore the parents' legal right to home educate their children.

This licensing scheme has been repeatedly called for but always denied because it contravenes Section 7 of the Education Act, which places the responsibility on parents and not on local authorities to ensure that children are in receipt of a suitable, full-time education.

Now the Select Committee, no doubt under pressure from the Children's Commissioner and others, has issued a Call for Evidence about home education, which closes this Friday 6th November 2020. I've just been reading some of the submissions from home educating individuals and groups and they make the case very well for the position to be left unchanged - improved, in fact, in terms of exam access and fair treatment from local authority officials who often seem to want to extend their own remits and take damagingly intrusive actions into our personal lives and those of our children.

From the questions being asked, the agenda is again clear.

The hierarchy of people I mentioned in my first sentence wants more power over our children and families, and since we are governed by consent, it would like us to agree to this. Many of our interactions with the hierarchy are positive on balance, but nevertheless there are quite enough checks and balances already.

Despite the current concerns that the numbers of parents deregistering their children from schools are soaring and threats in a Department for Education blog that social workers will be involved ("where appropriate") in any decision to deregister, the legal position remains unchanged and was expertly set out by Lord Adonis in his 2006 explanation of the 'fourfold foundation', which includes the words: "First, it recognises that the party with the keenest personal interest in securing the best available education for a child ordinarily is, or ought to be, the parent of the child."

The keenest personal interest. Not a philosophical ideology, a need to save or change the world or to further one's own career, but the keenest personal interest. In this country we acknowledge that this person is usually the parent, not the government, local authority or any other paid service provider.

With this in mind, here is my answer to the points raised by the Select Committee's inquiry.

The Committee invites written submissions addressing any or all of the following points:

  • The duties of local authorities with regards to home education, including safeguarding and assuring the quality of home education;

Section 437 of the Education Act sets out local authorities' duties in regard to home education. It's not within their remit or their power either legally, morally or practically to assure the quality of home education, but that of parents. Local authorities should only take action where it appears that the education is not suitable. Similarly with safeguarding, the local authority should take action only when is has "reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm" [Section 47, Children Act].

  • whether a statutory register of home-educated children is required;

Statutory registers should only be used for criminals and certain professionals, both of whom require government oversight. Singling out a group of children to populate such a register purely on the basis of their parents' educational choices would be an unnecessarily stigmatising and draconian policy.

  • the benefits children gain from home education, and the potential disadvantages they may face;

The benefits are similar to other kinds of education. Children learn and make progress towards goals of achievement. The key disadvantage is that their parents are invited and feel compelled to submit responses to a near constant, stressful barrage of reviews, consultations and inquiries from Westminster.

  • the quality and accessibility of support (including financial support) available for home educators and their children, including those with special educational needs, disabilities, mental health issues, or caring responsibilities, and those making the transition to further and higher education;

We don't have, want or need any extra support that's not available to other families.

  • whether the current regulatory framework is sufficient to ensure that the wellbeing and academic achievement of home educated children is safeguarded, including where they may attend unregistered schools, have been formally excluded from school, or have been subject to ‘off-rolling’;

The wording of Section 437 of the Education Act "If it appears to a local authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education," is sufficient regulatory framework. Unregistered schools, exclusions and off-rolling should be addressed with the educational establishments in question, not home educators.

  • the role that inspection should play in future regulation of home education;

Taxes are spent on school inspections to inform the taxpayers on their investment. Taxpayers do not invest in home education so no such inspections are required.

  • what improvements have been made to support home educators since the 2010-15 Education Committee published their report on ‘Support for Home Education’ in 2012; and

Very few it seems, and yet we are being asked to justify our perfectly legitimate educational choices again by the same body.

  • the impact COVID-19 has had on home educated children, and what additional measures might need to be taken in order to mitigate any negative impacts.’

My understanding is that COVID-19 is not a government-induced infection, so it is difficult to see how its effects can be mitigated by government.