Jeremy Yallop is a trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association (HEQA)
In the recent Queen’s Speech debate, Baroness Eaton praised the Government’s “listening mode”. Councils, inspectors, teachers’ unions and others have clamoured for years for home-educating families to be tracked, monitored, and regulated. The Children Not In School measures in the Schools Bill shows that the Government has listened to the lobbying.
But if the Government has also listened to those who will be affected, it has not shown it. Of the thousands of young people and parents who responded to its consultation, 85 per cent rejected proposals for compulsory registration. Home educators differ widely in background and motivation: some aim for a more varied education than schools offer; others focus on a safe learning environment for children who have been bullied out of school. Almost all home educators agree, however, that surveillance by officials will not improve their children’s lives.
In opposition, Conservatives shared this view and forced the Labour Government to abandon similar plans. Nick Gibb celebrated the defeat of Labour’s “draconian and excessive proposals”, predicting that “home educators across the country will be extremely relieved to be spared compulsory registration”. Michael Gove advised the Government to “work with people who want to home educate their children, rather than stigmatise them.”
Now both the proposals themselves and the stigma are back. “There’s no doubt in my mind” wrote the Education Secretary, introducing his new register, “that being in school is crucial to a child’s learning and development”. The implication of the register’s name – Children Not In School – is clear, then: something is wrong with these families, and they need watching closely.
The mechanics of the proposals are equally troubling. Two issues stand out.
First, the Education Secretary will have powers to decide key details later, without parliamentary oversight. One such detail is the sharing of children’s sensitive personal data. The Minister plans to share data with the police, at least, but he will be free to extend access as he sees fit.
Similarly, although the Bill itself only requires parents to register basic facts (names, dates of birth, addresses), it grants the Minister power to demand details about family life. The initial regulations will include at least ethnicity and other demographic information, reasons behind the parent’s decision to home educate, and information about the child’s welfare and general circumstances.
Second, the penalties for demurring are severe. If families delay disclosing these private details, whether through reluctance or a simple lapse, councils will respond by serving School Attendance Orders.
This is a fundamental change in the law. Home education, though only explicitly written into law in the 1944 Education Act, has been a basic freedom for most of English history. It has never before been contingent on entries in a register or on opening up family life to ongoing state scrutiny. It is unlikely that this change will improve relationships between councils and families.
At present, School Attendance Orders are a last resort, issued only where education is clearly unsuitable or absent; in a typical year, half of councils do not issue any at all. The Schools Bill makes them the first resort, so that every contact with the council carries the implicit threat that permission to home educate may be withdrawn.
A glance at the Bill’s other provisions reveals a more promising change: councils have a new duty to support home-educating families. As the consultation response explained, this duty is intended to signal Government recognition of and support for home education.
It is a disappointing signal so far. Despite the nominal duty, councils will not be obliged to offer any specific form of support. The Schools Minister has set out the same position in the past: when asked about help with accessing public exams, he reiterated the Government’s dislike of home education (“For most children … we are clear that school is the best place for their education”) and made clear that help will not be forthcoming.
In practice, most support for home-educating families comes from other home educators. Locally, sports and cultural activities are organised by dedicated volunteers. Nationally, internet groups with thousands of members share advice on pedagogy and on qualifications, from Key Skills to Oxbridge entrance exams.
It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the Big Society than these pluralist, cooperative, mutually-supportive communities. Council support cannot replace it, but there is an opportunity to strengthen it with guaranteed access to resources such as exam centres and sports facilities.
The Children Not In School measures are not intended to intrude into family life, or further damage relationships between families and councils; they are intended to help identify children who are missing education.
However, councils already have a mechanism for collecting information on children withdrawn from school, a duty to identify children missing education and powers to intervene where there is evidence of neglect. Registration provides nothing new, except a means of punishing home-educating families for administrative failures. Councils have already recognised this, and have called for the Bill “to be amended, to introduce adequate powers for local authorities to check on home-schooled children” which, in their view, requires a right of entry to people’s homes.
If it is clear that the Children Not In School measures will not help to identify children missing education, the councils’ response also makes clear that the measures will not satisfy the insistent calls for home education to be regulated. However, the measures will lead to unnecessary collection of sensitive personal data, to a further breakdown in trust between councils and families, and to home-educating families such as mine being forced to defend their educational provision in court.
It is regrettable that the Government has introduced these proposals without listening to those affected. The unstated aim of punishing home-educating families seems embedded so deeply in them that it is difficult to see how they could be usefully amended. There is, however, an opportunity to rebuild trust by withdrawing them and focusing instead on revising the similarly hostile Elective home education guidance in collaboration with the home educators that it affects.
Home education law, developed and refined over almost a century, is a distinctive strength of the English education system, as is the remarkable community that the law has allowed to flourish. Home-educating families share the Government’s aim for their children to have the best education possible. Strictures and stigma will not achieve that; the Government should instead work with the community to ensure that the resources needed to succeed are available to all.