New home schooling proposals force us to consider the role of the parents vs the role of the stateby Sophia Moss / July 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
Chloe’s tooth fell out when she was seven. Why? Because a boy punched her in the face at primary school. When she was older, Chloe’s classmates held her down and made her eat an old sandwich off the floor on the school bus, they threatened to stab and drown her, and the teachers did nothing. Desperate to avoid school, Chloe would go to bed every night, hide under the covers with her Nokia phone and spend hours purposely hyperventilating so her bed would be drenched in sweat and her parents would think she was sick. Six months later, Chloe’s parents decided to home educate her.
Home education is a growing phenomenon in the UK. It is estimated that 45,500 children are currently home educated, according to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) which sent a survey to 152 local authorities in October 2017. The ADCS also found that 92 per cent of local authorities reported year-on-year increases in the number of children being taught at home. The real number is likely to be higher because parents are currently under no legal obligation to register their children as home educated.
That could change. On 10th April 2018, the Department for Education (DfE) issued a call for evidence to gather opinions about home education. The lengthy questionnaire, which was targeted at parents, local authorities and schools, asked for the pros and cons of compulsory registration. It also asked what action should be taken if a parent refuses to cooperate and whether the monitoring powers of local authorities should be increased. The consultation closed on 2nd July 2018 and the DfE is currently reviewing the results.
Why should you care? Home education is a niche subject which may not personally affect you, but the debate about compulsory registration is a debate about the rights of the parent vs the role of the state. Can we trust parents to know what’s best for their children, or should the government have more power to intervene?
Education is compulsory, but school is not. Parents have a duty to ensure their child gets a suitable education at school or otherwise, while local authorities have the power to intervene if they believe the child is not receiving an education suitable for their age, ability or special needs. The only time a parent is under legal obligation to inform the local education authority about their intent to home educate is if the child is registered at a special school. While parents who take their children out of school are likely to be contacted by a local authority upon de-registering their child, they do not have to engage. Parents who never send their children to school, or families that move to a new location, do not have to register their children as home educated.
If a local authority becomes aware of a previously unknown child, they can make an informal inquiry of the parent. The parent isn’t legally obligated to respond, but if it appears to the local authority that the child is not receiving a suitable education, it can serve a formal written notice. This notice requires the parent to show that the child is receiving a satisfactory education within a set time frame. If the local authority then decides that the child’s education is not suitable, it can issue a School Attendance Order.
“It is estimated that 45,500 children are currently home educated”
As home educating parents have chosen to leave the system, they take on the financial burden of paying for exams and educational resources. There are home education groups run by parents in the community which offer GCSE clubs and field trips so the children can learn with people other than their parents. These groups charge a small fee, but are significantly cheaper than private tuition.
Some believe a compulsory register is necessary to protect children from abuse. Labour peer Clive Soley brought a private members bill, which calls for compulsory registration, to the House of Lords in November 2017: “It’s just common sense,” he says, “if you’re abusing, trafficking or radicalising the child, you don’t want to send them to school.” Soley believes the home educating community can be split into three groups; some families do it very well, some need a little help and a small minority are at risk. To protect that minority, Soley believes home educators should give up a little privacy for the greater good. He compares it to accepting baggage checks at the airport.
Would this register change anything? Guy Abrahams, who has home educated his children for three years, doesn’t think so: “It’s a well-intentioned colossal waste of time and effort,” he says. “Soley’s reason for suggesting it was to stop children being locked in the basement or being radicalised, but the idea that this register would prevent people doing that is naïve. It would just be a hassle and the people who really want to avoid it would carry on avoiding it.”
Are home educated children at greater risk of abuse? Wendy Charles-Warner, Director of the Centre for Personalised Education, analysed 132 Freedom of Information requests from local authorities in 2015. She found that children taught at home are more likely to be referred to social services. Around 10 per cent of home educated children aged 5-16 compared to 5 per cent of school children were referred. However, only just over 2 per cent of home taught children were put under a Child Protection Plan compared to almost 10 per cent of school children. The home educated children were assumed to be more at risk, but were actually less at risk.
Why would parents who have nothing to hide be against compulsory registration? Kezia Cantwell-Wright, who teaches her two children at home, thinks it would take away the rights of the parent. “It’s an infringement of our rights and liberties,” she says, “if you look at the law now, parents by default have the responsibility to educate their children and it’s up to them if they want to dedicate that to a school. I feel that this bill turns that around and puts the emphasis on the parent to prove they’re providing a suitable education, otherwise the right to home educate is taken away from them.”
Other home educators don’t think it’s anything to worry about. Rachel Canham, who home educates her daughter, says: “I wouldn’t be bothered about the authorities coming because I don’t have anything to hide. If they’re reassured that 99 per cent of home educators are just normal people who want the best for their children, the more relaxed they’ll be. If we’re all going ‘no, you can’t come anywhere near me or my children, don’t ever contact me again,’ they’re going to start worrying.”
Home education comes in many forms. Some parents opt for a structured, school at home approach, but others opt for a less structured, child-led approach. Often referred to as autonomous home education, these children control what, when and how they learn. Their parents will help them pursue their interests, but they won’t make the child learn things they don’t show an interest in. The idea is that children are naturally curious and will pick up the skills they need without it being forced upon them. Home educated children are not obligated to follow the national curriculum or stick to a school-like structure.
“Megan White received two letters within four days when she de-registered her children from school”
Does autonomous home education work? Elly Nowell was autonomously home educated from the age of six. She spent her childhood playing on the computer, reading books, camping and attending local home education groups. She didn’t follow the national curriculum and didn’t study set lessons until she went to college at age 16, but she was fascinated by law and used to sit in on court proceedings as a teenager. Nowell is now 26 and studying a PHD in criminal law. There are people all over society who were autonomously home educated as children: academics, journalists, piano tuners, vegan chefs, you name it.
What do home educated children think of compulsory registration? In 2009, Graham Badman, former director of Children’s Services in Kent County Council, proposed a compulsory registration scheme in a report which was commissioned by former Secretary of State Ed Balls. The Badman report prompted a group of 11-18 year old home educated children to set up The Home Educated Youth Council (HEYC).
HEYC was set up by children to speak without their parent’s involvement. They were opposed to the review because they didn’t want to be mandatorily assessed by the authorities, they didn’t feel the Badman report showed any real understanding of how home education works, and they just wanted to be left alone. The young members set up a website, wrote press releases, and gave evidence at the select committee and the bill’s committee. The report was ultimately never passed into law. Not because of the efforts of the Youth Council, but because Labour was voted out in 2010.
Some home educators have perfectly pleasant experiences with the local authorities, but others have felt intimidated and misinformed. Megan White (name changed), who home educates two children, received two letters within four days when she de-registered her children from school in 2017. “I found the tone unsupportive and frightening to someone who is just starting out,” White says, “despite stating that they have no legal duty to monitor us, the rest of the letter stipulated exactly how they planned to monitor.”
If local authorities want to engage with home educating families, they need to be aware of the various educational methods, they need to know the law, and they need to take a friendly, open minded approach. As these parents take on a significant financial burden by taking charge of their child’s education, the local authorities could start by offering advice on examinations and on how to manage financially, while assisting families in accessing educational facilities. Garret Ross, a formerly home educated consultant, says: “Local authorities do not have a good track record, so they need to extend the olive branch. The more they show that there can be positive dialogue, the more families will be willing to engage.”