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by Paul Goodman
ConservativeHome recently asked Tory MPs to tip us off if they believed a colleague to have made a particularly good speech in the Chamber. I won't slip to Graham Stuart, the Education Select Committee Chairman, which Conservative MP tipped us off about his defence of home education – and attack on local authorities in relation to it – in the Commons yesterday, but here is some of the fruit of his energetic late-night internet research…
"The Badman review, which many hon. Members will remember, under the previous Government recommended a 20-day period in which a child’s name should remain on a school’s register, so that if the parents had been pushed into home education because of failures on the part of the school or local authority to meet the needs of their child, they would not automatically lose a place at school, but would have time to think through the implications of home education.
That recommendation by the Badman inquiry was accepted by the then Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. I always thought that that was right, because it seemed to place no restrictions on the rights of parents and families, but seemed to restrict the rights of schools and local authorities, which, according to Badman, if I recollect correctly, were in some cases using home education to push away children whose needs they were failing to meet, finding it easier to push that responsibility on to parents who did not really wish to pursue it…
…In case that response was just overly paranoid home educators who felt that properly caring local authorities would be asking them impertinent questions or who had misread or misunderstood what they were doing or saying, I can share with the House the fruits of my labour last night, which I spent on the internet looking at various local authority websites. A colleague texted me at 6 o’clock to say that we were going to be let go unusually early, and that a night of fun and frolics could lie ahead. I had to say, “No, my fun will involve looking at local authority websites.”
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…
…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.
Sheffield provides another example. Parents there are told:
“You must show that the opportunities being provided are helping your child to learn and that development is taking place appropriate to their age, ability and aptitude.”
It is fair enough for parents to have a duty to provide suitable education and meet those requirements, but local authorities have no right to interpose themselves and decide that that is not happening. If they have reason to believe that suitable education is not being provided, they have a duty to challenge, but only in that event. They do not have the right routinely to monitor and interfere.
Sheffield city council continues:
“The Children Service Authority (CSA) is responsible for ensuring that the arrangements provide a suitable education for your child.”
“When you have given the CSA a plan stating your ideas an appropriately qualified”
“Senior Inclusion Officer (SIO) will arrange an initial home visit and make a preliminary assessment”
“of the education provision the child is receiving.”
South Gloucestershire council is advertising for someone who will provide
“information, support and challenge to parents…The service is responsible for assessing the suitability of the education provided to children educated at home”.
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. The document continues:
“Thus, when a practitioner or professional becomes aware that a child is being educated at home, they should use local information sharing arrangements to help the Lancashire Authority to fulfil both its duty to be confident”
—so it has a duty to be confident now—
“of the well-being of the child and its duty to assure the quality of the education provided.”
As far as I can tell from one evening spent looking at their websites, council after council is entirely misrepresenting the legal position, and I hope that the Minister will put that right."