Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Lord Addington's contribution: 2nd reading of the bill debate in the House of Lords

Lord Soley's bill was read for the second time in the House of Lords last week, during which a scheduled debate on the subject took place. In this post, after a short overview, I'm going to go through Lord Addington's contribution to the debate interspersing it with my comments as they come up. In future posts I will cover the other contributions, as time allows.

I have already covered Lord Soley's first contribution to the debate and Lord Baker's.

Overview:

The debate was mainly monopolised by people who are in favour of the bill, with the notable exceptions of the Lords Lucas and Agnew, who spoke on behalf of the government. The speakers in favour of the bill listed recent news stories and bureaucratic reports calling for more regulation but mostly avoided mentioning the already existing remedies for concerns, as did the news stories and bureaucratic reports themselves. Lord Lucas mentioned the need for more evidence and the absence of need for more regulation. Lord Agnew announced a forthcoming public consultation into the wording for updated new guidelines, which will clarify the legal position for parents and local authorities. We assume the bill will therefore be deemed unnecessary.

The debate:

Lord Addington: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has the habit of stealing everybody else’s thunder — but I have never seen him take out the entire Government Whips Office before. There we are: we live and we learn.

The Bill is very interesting and undoubtedly the best thing about it, and something that must be carried on, in the heading of Clause 1: “Duty of local authorities to monitor children receiving elective home education”. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has effectively put his finger on something of a black hole. We do not know how many children are in this group. We do not know what is happening to them and that is really where we should have concern. Indeed, if only a one-clause Bill comes out of this with only that and some form of basic inspection or chasing up in it, we will have done a very good service to the entire education structure.

I'm struggling to know where to start with this, so I will start at the end. Home educated children are not generally thought of as being part of the entire education structure, which exists for parents to optionally outsource their Section 7 duty to cause their children to receive an efficient full-time education, which is suitable to their age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs they may have. This outsourcing by parents is what enables the existence of an 'entire education structure'. Those of us who choose not to outsource our Section 7 (and incidentally, instinctive parenting) duties should not be inspected where there is no specific cause for concern.

I say that because the minute you start looking into something you suddenly find something that affects the little world that I come from, with my interests as a dyslexic and president of the British Dyslexia Association and my business interests in assistive technology.

That's interesting to me personally, because one of my now-adult sons was deregistered from primary school due to severe dyslexia. In desperation, after the school consistently punished him for not being able to spell etc, we got a private, detailed diagnosis - which the school then refused to read or even acknowledge. Home education improved his situation immeasurably.

In relation to Clause 2(2) and monitoring and support for education — that is, reading, writing and numeracy — it has to be said that the general provision within the educational establishment for supporting those with special educational needs is patchy at best.

Yes, I'd heard very little had changed since our well-documented problems over twenty years ago. I wrote to the Education Secretary amongst others to explain our experience and it seems to have changed nothing. I know we weren't the only ones.

The framework for the core content of initial teacher training was put out in July last year. Section 5 mentions for the first time that a few of the most common SENDs should be included in teacher training. It is that tenuous. If you have an institution such as this, how in hell is it going to monitor that you are doing this properly if you have taken your child out of the education system because it is not doing it?

Bit of a convoluted question, perhaps based on a misunderstanding. Deregistered children are known to their local authorities because the headteacher who received the deregistration letter is legally obliged to notify the local authority of it. Also, is Lord Addington suggesting that parents whose children's special educational needs have been failed by the school system should then be subjected to extra checks in home education? Because the school let the child down, the parents should not be trusted? It's a perplexing idea.

Suddenly, with the best of ​intentions, the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has caught his toe in a bear trap. However, I am prepared to prise it open for him by saying that the monitoring of education, and some reference to it if he wants to keep it in there, would be better.

It seems like he is saying that very thing.

Now that we have good voice to text/text to voice technology, there is an argument about when you start using it for a child who is severely dyslexic — to go to what I know best. There is a huge argument there. “No, you must have spelling standards”. Let me give a personal example: my daughter’s spelling was better than mine when she was seven. A person who has anywhere near the degree of problem I have — very few do — is never going to learn to spell or write correctly, and the correct thing for them to do is to start using the very up-to-date technology that is creeping into everything now and is becoming more mainstream.

Yes, this is exactly my son's experience and conclusion. Home education has been perfect for him because it gave him full-time access to the latest technology that was unavailable to him in school.

You would not ask somebody in a wheelchair to complete a cross-country course, so you have to be careful about this. That is a traditional group, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. We have both come across it; we have both met people who have taken their children out of those situations because the school cannot cope, will not cope, does not have the money or does not understand. It goes on and on. That group must be catered for in this because they are doing the state a service by providing relevant help. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has acknowledged that. We have to make sure we take it into account.

Actually, they are doing their child a service - as well as complying with their own legal duty as the child's parent. If the available schooling is not suitable for the child's needs then the parent has little choice but to make her own arrangements. The 'catering' that should be provided by the state is a suitable school. If it cannot do this, what can it do? Nothing.

However, I agree with everything else that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. I suspect that we have been briefed by similar people because I have many of the same points—of course not made as well, but there we are.

The most interesting line from the whole debate, in my opinion, and the explanation for eleven pointlessly identikit contributions to it. Is this supposed to be democratic?

People are disappearing

They really are not. It is not an episode of Dr Who.

— I will come back to the point about special educational needs — into very substandard education.

No, the substandard education is in schools.

As the noble Lord pointed out, children, too, have rights in education. Lots of arguments are going on about inclusion. I have always said that the child’s right to an education comes first.

Tell it to the schools, please.

We should bear that in mind. I hope that we will be able to bring this forward — but if you want to take a journey, you should start well. The first line of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is a very good start. If we can take that and develop it, we will be going down the right path.

The first line of the bill is: "A bill to make provision for local authorities to monitor the educational, physical and emotional development of children receiving elective home education; and for connected purposes." I think Lord Soley has changed his mind about it already, so Lord Addington may be disappointed.

I hope that the Minister, when he answers, will be able to let me know how we are progressing on initial teacher training. I have not given him any warning of this question, so a letter will be fine. I hope we will be able to go on about that so that we can get an understanding about how that core group, which used to dominate this market, is being dealt with in the current education system, and also get an idea of the thinking about people who are taking spurious steps and, particularly, about private schools which are operating under the cover of home education. In the future, we need to talk more about those two things that have come out of the Bill.

A core group which used to dominate this market....? What a telling phrase.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Lord Baker's contribution: 2nd reading of the bill debate in the House of Lords

Lord Soley's bill was read for the second time in the House of Lords last week, during which a scheduled debate on the subject took place. In this post, after a short overview, I'm going to go through Lord Baker's contribution to the debate interspersing it with my comments as they come up. In future posts I will cover the other contributions, as time allows.

I have already covered Lord Soley's first contribution to the debate.

Overview:

The debate was mainly monopolised by people who are in favour of the bill, with the notable exceptions of the Lords Lucas and Agnew, who spoke on behalf of the government. The speakers in favour of the bill listed recent news stories and bureaucratic reports calling for more regulation but mostly avoided mentioning the already existing remedies for concerns, as did the news stories and bureaucratic reports themselves. Lord Lucas mentioned the need for more evidence and the absence of need for more regulation. Lord Agnew announced a forthcoming public consultation into the wording for updated new guidelines, which will clarify the legal position for parents and local authorities. We assume the bill will therefore be deemed unnecessary.

The debate:

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on devising the Bill and on securing a Second Reading and debate. Home education is an unknown part of the education system. A debate such as this allows a searchlight to be directed to what is a very clouded, obscure and unknown part of the education system. Very little is known about home education.

On the contrary: by those who practice it and their children, a great deal is known.

It is rather different from Victorian times, when home education was very strong indeed.

It is hardly weak now.

The only schools that taught beyond the age of 11 in those days were the grammar schools so, as noble Lords will know from Victorian biographies and memoirs, many middle-class families educated their children at home with the advice of the tutor. A tutor was often employed by them and often lived in the home. It was a career for many thousands of people in Victorian England.

And many of them home educated without the advice of a tutor. Nowadays, some families choose to use tutors and others do not, just as then.

Home education is not like that today at all. In my time it was very small. The only cases that ever came my way concerned special educational needs, where parents felt their children were not getting the proper attention in an ordinary school and they could not get into a specialist school, so they asked what they could do. There were also complaints about the curriculum. In those days there was no national curriculum. Every school could devise its own curriculum. If you had a good school you had a good curriculum, a mediocre school a mediocre curriculum and a poor school a poor curriculum. Some of the curriculums were so poor that parents decided they would do better if they educated their children privately. They were very small in numbers.

It was also very little known about and quite difficult to undertake without the Internet. Also, so few families were doing it one had to travel for many miles to arrange meet-ups and we needed things like phone trees to have any hope of maintaining a network between each other.

I quite agree that there should be a right for parents to withdraw their children. There might be cases where the children have been bullied at school and it has not been properly dealt with. Parents might be deeply offended by the teaching on a very sensitive matter and withdraw their children. I can understand such cases.

This is very good of Lord Baker, but in law - and in fact - our reasons are irrelevant.

Parents have rights, but children also have rights. Children have the right to a well-informed education that goes well beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. That is the first right. Their second right is that they can study in a community, however small or large, that is secure and safe, with safeguarding of their interests.

This idea of competing parents' and children's rights is definitely a theme: it ran through the Badman Review like the words in a stick of rock and Lord Soley mentioned it quite a lot in his contribution to this debate. In response to Lord Baker's mention of it, I'd like to quote lawyer and social worker Allan Norman, on non-consensual adoption and the law when he said:

'...the atomisation of the interests of the child and the interests of the parents, setting the human rights of one in conflict with the human rights of the other is a peculiarly Western approach. Note in particular that whereas human rights may be conceived as privileging the rights of humans over the rights of States, this atomisation approach puts the State straight back in the picture as the arbiter of the dispute between the conflicted interests of parent and child.'

It is a dubious political tactic, which also completely overlooks the parents' vested interest in the long term future health and prosperity of their offspring.

Back to Lord Baker again:

Safeguarding is critical in education. If a school is found in an inspection not to have done the safeguarding of its pupils, it goes straight to special measures — it is as important as that.

Government inspections of schools began in 1837, "..to monitor the effectiveness of the grant.." which was being provided for the earliest state funded schools. Ofsted exists to check that public money for education is being properly spent.

I am not at all satisfied that there ​is proper safeguarding in the present arrangements for home-educated children.

No public money is being spent on home education, so there is no reason for checks to happen where no concerns have been expressed.

Home education is awfully difficult for a family.

Says the man who has done it? I suspect not.

In every family there has to be a breadwinner, so the breadwinner does not see the child for eight or nine hours a day and it is left to the other parent. It does not matter whether the breadwinner is male or female, the husband or the wife. So it is very challenging, particularly for secondary age children, to secure a really good education.

It can be, or it can be easy. Much depends on the child as well as the parent, and circumstances vary as widely as people's financial and working arrangements. Some couples both work part-time so there's always someone with the children and it's not always the same person. Some people have the traditional arrangement but many others work from home now with flexible hours, perhaps with self-employment. And what Lord Baker seems to not know is that many home educating parents make use of the many organised activities that are organised by home educators for home educators in their local area. These usually require the attendance of the parent to supervise their own child, so they are not alone with their children all day long and have the chance to mingle with other home educating parents while their children socialise and learn together. And even if they sometimes are alone together, in this age of the Internet both company and advice are never more than a click away.

What stage have we got to at the moment? There was an improvement in the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2016, which ensured that schools have a duty to report to the local authority the names of pupils who are withdrawn. That is quite a big step forward; at least we have the basis of a database, but that is about as far as it goes.

And Section 436A - added to the Education Act in 2007, if memory serves me correctly. This will eventually encompass most home educators.

There have been two reports recently on this problem—the Casey report and the Wood report. The Wood report made some very interesting recommendations on home education that have not really ever been mentioned by the Government. It said:

“They point to the fact that public agencies do not have the right to gather information on the children in such settings and have no way of assessing the level of risk children face. This issue is not covered in multi-agency arrangements” —

this is not only on the education side, but the social services side, the police and others —

“and it needs to be”.

It acknowledged that some parents co-operate very closely with the local authority while some do not. However, the report said:

“In both of these cases the local authority is not able to assess either the quality of education being received by the child or whether there are any safeguarding issues that require attention. This needs to be addressed urgently”.

The local authority is able to assess both the quality of education being received when it has concerns that this might not be suitable and any safeguarding issues that may need attention in carrying out "the functions conferred on them in their capacity as a local education authority" as per section 175 of the Education Act. This does not give them the power to do spot checks or otherwise force entry into the private family homes of people about whom they have no concerns, but it does give them the duty to take action when concerns are raised. The law is balanced perfectly well in this respect and applies to everyone equally.

There has been no comment from the Government on those recommendations in the Wood report, which is very disappointing.

The Wood Report's suggestion for a solution to the issues it raised about home education was: "New guidance should be provided which makes clear the responsibility of parents to ensure information about their child’s education is provided to the local authority.." Lord Agnew's assurance later in the debate that the government will carry out a consultation about this new guidance is obviously the response, to the section on home education at least. The new guidance cannot vary greatly from the current EHEGLA if it is to keep within the law as nothing much has changed since it was published, but should perhaps be updated now as it is ten years old this year.

As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, there is no real number of those who are in home education. The Guardian did a survey of local authorities and came up with a figure of about 30,000—17,000 of secondary school age and 13,000 primary. These are infinitely higher than any of the figures in the past—there is absolutely no doubt about that. It has become a really big issue and I do think that the Government can remain so ignorant about it as they are at the moment.

The UK's population is at its largest ever. We have at least ten million more people in the country now than we had in the 1980s, so numbers are bound to have increased even if other factors stayed the same. But they have not stayed the same, as I commented in my previous post in this series. Schools are a lot less relaxed and accommodating of children's individual needs, absolute full-time attendance is now required of all pupils and this is enforced by hefty fines and threats of parental imprisonment, which was not formerly the case. The evolution of the National Curriculum, league tables and SATS tests have all profoundly changed the nature of schooling in the UK since the 1980s and many families either do not like or cannot cope with the current regime, which seems to have lost all of its previous flexibility and creativity for addressing such problems. In the light of all of these changes, the rise in numbers of home educators is hardly surprising - and still, the increased numbers should make no difference to the regulations, which should be based on principles and not panic.

The Minister who is about to reply answered a Written Question as to how much the Government know about this and the answer was that they do not keep any record at all of home education. That is simply unacceptable.

I disagree. According to Section 7 of the Education Act it is for parents to cause their children to receive efficient, full-time education - not governments. If Section 7 made it a responsibility of governments to cause this to happen, then I would take Lord Baker's point. But as it is, parents are rightly trusted to carry out this function unless there is an appearance that it might not be the case.

However, the most devastating evidence of what is wrong comes from the letter that Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote to Nicky Morgan a little over a year ago, in 2016. He was looking to the unregulated schools that suddenly emerge in the background in large conurbations particularly. He said:

“In January, I recruited a team of seven experienced inspectors to work exclusively on this critical area of child safety. Since then, these inspectors, working closely with Department for Education (DfE) officials, have identified more than 100 suspected unregistered schools across the country”.

He goes on to say that the inspectors have already asked for seven to be closed, and I expect that he will ask for more. He said:

“The evidence that they have gathered so far during this short period firmly reinforces my belief that there are many more children hidden away from the view of the authorities in unregistered schools across the country than previously thought”.

Many of the parents of children in home education cannot cope, so they send them to the little school around the corner, which is unregistered.

If they are doing this and if the school is unsuitable or illegal, then according to current laws the school should be shut down and under section 437 of the Education Act the parents served with a School Attendance Order. As Lord Agnew said later in this debate, local authorities already have the tools with which to resolve these problems.

In the work that Sir Michael Wilshaw did examining these schools, he said that the accommodation and the buildings were usually totally inadequate and that staff and volunteers who were working in these schools,

“have not been properly checked or cleared to work with children”.

That is a fundamental need for every school. Every teacher and anybody who comes to work there, even on a temporary basis, has to be cleared. The non-teaching staff have to be cleared but nothing of that happened at all.

Is this a debate about schools, or home education? Lord Baker appears to have wandered quite a long way off topic at this point.

He went on to say:

“Evidence inspectors have gathered over recent weeks has also reaffirmed my belief that there is a clear link between the growth of unregistered schools and the steep rise in the number of children recorded as being home educated in England over the past few years”.

My explanation for the steep rise in the number of children recorded as being home educated in England over the past few years is above. I doubt that unregistered schools amount to more than a tiny proportion of it. If these are illegal then the remedy is simple: shut them down. I fail to see the difficulty or why genuine home educators should be penalised and treated as criminal because this is apparently not happening, and I am not the only one who fails to see it. One could almost be forgiven for thinking the illegal schools are being left open deliberately in order to target home education instead of the real problem, which would of course be completely unacceptable.

We could put an equal sign between home education and unregistered schools, as most of them will be in those sorts of schools — and they are pretty grim.

Most home educated children will be in these sorts of schools? And the award for the most baseless sweeping statement for the entire debate goes to Lord Baker for this one. If there are tens of thousands of home educated children and most of them are in illegal schools then that must mean there are about 500 such schools around the country, being allowed to carry on their business unabated. If this is the case, then this is obviously the source of the problem and not the home education regulations. Drastic action must be taken to root out these schools and shut them down, for how have 500 of them been allowed to stay open? I am shocked. I am also puzzled, because hundreds of home educators in my area are known to me if not the local authority, and not a single one of them uses an illegal school, so something has gone wrong with somebody's reckoning somewhere.

I had to close some

Oh, it is possible to close them, then?

and I am sure that the present Secretary of State will be closing some.

Yes please. Local authorities DO have rights of access to inspect such places and should be using this power to investigate and take proper action against them.

Sir Michael went on to say this, which is very important:

“I have previously voiced concern that many of those operating unregistered schools are unscrupulously using the freedoms that parents have to home educate their children as a cover for their activities. They are exploiting weaknesses in the current legislation to operate on the cusp of the law” —

a nice phrase, that.

Although it's open to different interpretations in various places, the law in general is clear. There are no weaknesses in the current legislation, as has been painstakingly and repeatedly explained by myself and many others including Lord Agnew on behalf of the government. If it is reported to local authorities that illegal schools are operating, the schools should be visited, inspected and shut down. If it appears home educators are not providing their children with suitable education and sufficient information to change the appearance is not forthcoming from the home educators, school attendance orders should be issued. If this does not happen, it is not due to a weakness in the law so much as a weakness in the people who are paid to enforce it.

He continued:

“Many are charging parents thousands of pounds to send their children to these unregistered schools. In doing so, many are providing a sub-standard education, placing children at risk and undermining the government’s efforts to ensure that all schools are promoting British values, including tolerance and respect for others”.

Good Lord. Close the schools already!

That series of inspections was very much done in the wake of the Trojan schools issue in Birmingham, where the governing bodies of certain comprehensive schools were trying to turn them into Muslim faith schools. Sir Michael said that that was also happening in home education, so something has to be done.

Sir Michael's letter is here. I do not think it says anything of the sort. What it does say is: "I am particularly concerned about the failure of these local authorities to address the problem of children missing from education and to satisfy themselves that these children are not being exposed to harm, exploitation or the risk of falling under the influence of extremist views," which is hardly the same thing. Home educated children are not missing education - section 437 ensures this - so are not the group referred to in that sentence.

The Bill will set up greater surveillance, which I think would work without eroding a parent’s right to remove.

The meaning of this is obscure. Without eroding a parent's right to remove - their child from school? It seems like our right to deregister is not the focus of this current move against us.

As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has said, the Bill is capable of being amended but the principle is there.

The principle that some officials seem to be either unwilling to enforce the law or ignorant of the powers they already have within it, or both, is certainly there, though I do not see how this bill, amended or otherwise, can cure the problem.

I do not expect the Minister to say that he will accept the Bill willy-nilly. But I hope he will not say that nothing should be done

Lord Baker will have been pleased to hear he did not: he proposed a public consultation on updated guidelines, which seems to solve the problem of officials not being clear on their duties.

because if we go on as we are, and if one or two really serious cases of the sexual abuse of children who are at home occur, that will blow up under the department — and, I may say, under the Minister as well.

If officers have followed regulations and regulations are as sensible as they currently are, this will not blow up under the department any more than situations of child abuse with pre-school children currently do and considerably less than child abuse in schools. Section 47 of the Children Act protects home educated children in exactly the same way as it protects school children. Neither registration nor regular visits from education officials protect children from abuse, as the case of Eunice Spry clearly demonstrated, which makes home educators wonder about the real motive behind those wishing to mandate the two things for us. I think we need to read no further than Baroness Deech's contribution to the debate to find it, which I will address in a future post in this series.

The line the Government are taking is, “We will wash our hands of it. It is not really part of our job or responsibilities”.

That is not my perception of the government's line. To me it seems perfectly sensible: the current law is sufficient - which, as I've shown, it is. "Local authorities need to be able to act in such cases. We think they already have the tools for the job."

That is totally unacceptable, so I hope that the Minister will be able ​to say that his department will do more work on this. There are three things that we should ask him to consider.

First, he should consider whether to give local authorities the power to see the children and check on them. That is key to safeguarding, probably including talking to the children in the absence of their parents.

They already have this power, under section 47 of the Children Act:

"Where enquiries are being made under subsection (1) with respect to a child, the local authority concerned shall (with a view to enabling them to determine what action, if any, to take with respect to him) take such steps as are reasonably practicable —

(a)to obtain access to him; or

(b)to ensure that access to him is obtained, on their behalf, by a person authorised by them for the purpose,

unless they are satisfied that they already have sufficient information with respect to him.

If regulations demanded such checks on all children, including those about whom no concerns have been expressed, this would:

  • be prohibitively expensive;
  • create a 'needle in the haystack' situation, where real abuse became less likely to be noticed and acted upon;
  • deny people their legislated right to a peaceful, family life.

Back to Lord Baker:

Secondly, he should give local authorities power to enter homes and assess the standards of education. That would be entirely reasonable.

No it would not, for the reasons given in the list above.

Thirdly, he should ensure that some form of inspection is available.

It is available, under section 437 of the Education Act. I imagine members of the Department for Education are as weary of pointing this out as home educators are.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has devoted a lot of his active political life to this issue, apart from being the chairman of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and I wish him well. He has done good service by presenting the Bill and I hope that it will lead to significant changes.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Soley, could devote some of his time in future to familiarising himself with the current regulations before wasting all of our time by bringing bills asking for new ones.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Lord Soley's first contribution: 2nd reading of the bill debate in the House of Lords

Lord Soley's bill was read for the second time in the House of Lords last week, during which a scheduled debate on the subject took place. In this post, after a short overview, I'm going to go through Lord Soley's initial contribution to the debate interspersing it with my comments as they come up. In future posts I will cover the other contributions, as time allows.

Overview:

The debate was mainly monopolised by people who are in favour of the bill, with the notable exceptions of the Lords Lucas and Agnew, who spoke on behalf of the government. The speakers in favour of the bill listed recent news stories and bureaucratic reports calling for more regulation but mostly avoided mentioning the already existing remedies for concerns, as did the news stories and bureaucratic reports themselves. Lord Lucas mentioned the need for more evidence and the absence of need for more regulation. Lord Agnew announced a forthcoming public consultation into the wording for updated new guidelines, which will clarify the legal position for parents and local authorities. We assume the bill will therefore be deemed unnecessary.

The debate:

House of Lords Hansard

Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill [HL]

24 November 2017

Second Reading

12.46 pm

Moved by Lord Soley

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Lord Soley (Lab): My Lords, there is a difficult balance to be struck between the rights of parents to have the education for their child that they choose and the rights of the child.

In response to this I can do no better than to directly quote the then Chair of the Home Education Youth Council from a 2009 meeting with a civil servant, Chloe Newby (was Watson), when she said:

"I wanted to say that parents don’t just have a right to educate, they have a duty to educate, and those things are not in conflict. Parents have a duty to educate their children as they see fit according to their age, aptitude and ability and that obviously only the parent can be the judge of that, no-one else can, because the parents know their children best. Therefore, it’s not about between the rights of the parent and the rights of the child, since the rights of the parent are only a byproduct of that responsibility. So they are not in conflict and they don’t really need ‘balancing’, because they weren’t in any way unbalanced, they follow on from one another, and it’s a non-sequitur to suggest that they are opposed, or in any way not concurrent."

Back to Lord Soley:

That is what I have tried to do in this Bill. We need to get that balance right. Let me be quite clear that I have always been in favour of home education.

In which case, he perhaps needs to learn more about it, particularly the damage done to our children's educational provision when it's unnecessarily monitored.

It is a perfectly reasonable choice for a parent to make, as long as they feel equipped to do it and able to accept help if they run into difficulties in any form. One thing that has troubled me for some time is that there is no registration of children out of school in this country—for either children who are not registered for a school in the first place or who are taken out of school and disappear. For reasons that I will explain in a moment, this is becoming a much bigger problem than it used to be. The issue is not whether some parents can do it well. It is about how we help those who cannot do it well and protect the rights of the child.

Section 437 of the Education Act already does this.

Some years ago, when I first raised this in a blog on the House of Lords, I was inundated with opposition. I am delighted to tell the House that, on this occasion, the majority of letters, emails and phone calls I get are in favour of the Bill.

This is because most campaigning home educators deem Lord Soley a lost cause in terms of being open to persuasion that he might be wrong and so did not bother to write to him. (When we do write en masse, we are accused of being a vociferous minority, about which, more in future posts in this series as the term did come up, though rather vaguely, there being no obvious grounds for it. It was sort of thrown in for good measure.)

There is recognition now that registration is important. Part of the reason for that, which I will expand on in a moment, is because children are now known to have disappeared and been abused, radicalised or put into extremist situations. We have to deal with that. We cannot ignore it, for the sake of both the child and society as a whole.

A few home educated children have been abused in this way - a tiny amount compared to the numbers abused by professionals - but in every case, the children involved were already 'known' and correct procedures not followed. The regulations for safeguarding home educated children do exist, just as much as they do for every other child, but are often not properly carried out.

In recent years, the increase in home education has been massive and I will give examples of that. I have had help from across the board, but two of the councils that have been most helpful to me on this are Hampshire and Kent. They have given me information that I hope that the Government will see in due course. I should say in passing that these are Conservative-controlled councils, but this issue goes across the board and is not party-political.

Regulations should be the right ones on principle, for a few amount of children as much as for a large amount.

The problem is throughout the United Kingdom, although the Bill applies only to England and Wales because in Scotland education is a devolved responsibility.

Problem? Home education is usually a solution for the child and very far from being a problem. Problem for whom, I wonder?

As I said, the expansion in home education has been considerable. Let me quote from the House of Commons report on home education. For those who have copies, I will read from page 2, which says:

“In July 2014 local authorities in England recorded 27,292 home educated children. The figure for July 2013 was 23,243. Overall, the number of home educated children increased across the country by 17% between July 2013 and July 2014”.

It then goes into further detail for those who want to pursue it.

The other report that I thought significant comes from Kent County Council, which, as I have indicated, has been very helpful with its information. It says:

“There were 1,203 new registrations during the 2016-17 academic year, which was an increase of 17.1% on 2015-16. That is just one year”.

Importantly, because this indicates where some of the problems are,

“1,003 registrations were closed during 2016-17 academic year”,

which Kent says demonstrates the numbers transferring in and out of home education status. It is in a constant state of flux, causing significant disruption to children’s ​education and to the school. In other words, the child is taken out for a period and then goes back in, which is disruptive for both child and school. Kent goes on to say that it believes some of this is because of parents using it to avoid school attendance orders and associated fines.

I can see how this might make life difficult for some Kent schools, but I fail to see why the education provision of home educated children should be damaged to make things easier for schools. One of the main reasons for home educating is to prioritise one's own child's provision. Home educating parents cannot subject themselves to monitoring in order to prevent the disruption for schools, even if the link was not as tenuous as it appears to be.

The numbers have increased dramatically. Hampshire, which, as I have indicated, took the initiative by contacting me after seeing my Bill, currently has 1,422 children registered as home educated, and those are only the ones that they know about. That number has tripled over the past five years. Again, that is common across the country. Incidentally, the BBC did a survey through local authorities and found that 32,262 were missing from school for substantial periods. Even more worrying, and I will come back to this, 3,987 could not be traced at all. That is where we have a very serious problem, which we are not facing up to.

Schools are struggling to fund support for Special Educational Needs, which results in deregistrations. Measures have been taken to tighten up on school attendance, which isn't easy for many children. Increased rigidity in the system is naturally going to lead to more people opting out of it. And still, regulations should be based on principles and not numbers.

I was pleased when David Cameron’s Government considered including an inspection for out-of-school settings.

Yes. Would this not solve the supposed problem?

But my Bill deals with a different part of that problem, which is the issue of parents who do not register their child for school at all; therefore, we have no idea where they are or what is happening to them.

But people do know where they are and what is happening to them. Their parents do, for a start, which is the most important thing. Then there are doctors, dentists, shop assistants, other parents, neighbours, extended family members, activity leaders and so on. The number of times this has not been the case in situations that have ended in Serious Case Reviews can be counted on one finger.

There seems to be some cloudy thinking about who has responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of children about whom no concerns have been raised and no concerns noticed. Statute compels officials to take action if they notice a problem but if they do not, it is to be assumed that all is well within the family. This is to preserve both the resources of the state, focusing these on the children who actually need them, and the vital privacy of the family, which is set out in Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

Then there are those who are taken out during the course of the school year and then go back in.

Some children also change schools as their families move around the country - even around several countries. Is this freedom too to be legislated against? It is surely equally disruptive to the educational establishments concerned.

I have not had a great deal of involvement in education and I do not claim that much knowledge of it, but one reason why I got involved with this issue goes way back in my own past, to many years ago when I was a probation officer. I knew then that the parents of children who took them out of school seeking to abuse them knew that they could hide the child.

Anyone could hide or abuse a child. Anyone could do anything: one of the hallmarks of a civilised society though is the presumption of innocence. This means that just because a person could do something, we must not assume in the absence of any other indicators, that they might be doing it.

I must stress that, because sometimes we see such cases in the paper and we think that the parents look hopeless and incapable. That is often true, but it is also true that parents who abuse children, either sexually or physically, are very often clever, intelligent and incredibly manipulative. Social workers, psychiatrists, probation officers or anyone else dealing with such parents have to be very hard-headed and clear-sighted because it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is all right and that the black eye came from the kid falling down the stairs or something of that nature. We cannot afford to do that.

I fail to see what this has to do with home education. It has been shown that home educated children have statistically less chance of being abused than the school-attending population, so why this old chestnut again? At the risk of being repetitive, we already have sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act for those very few cases there are, and home educators are just as subject to these laws as anyone else.

That is one reason why I have always been troubled that in this country, almost alone among the developed countries, we do not register children.

But we do register children in this country. We know when they're born, we know when they're ill and we know the address that their child benefit is paid to. But they are children of their parents and not the state so collectively, it's none of our business to know where they are educated - if there are no specific reasons to suspect these arrangements might not be suitable.

Very importantly, we also do not offer much help to those who home educate but need help to do it well. We just leave them to it.

The state offers school. If this offer is declined, parents are free to make other arrangements. Schools should meet children's needs. If this doesn't happen, there is supposedly a process of recourse for parents. If this system is not working, then surely it is what needs the attention of politicians and not the currently adequate and finely balanced home education regulations.

Countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia not only have a system of registration, which obviously varies from state to state, but also offer great help. That is necessary if you are in a very large geographical area where home education is often the only alternative to boarding. As I say, these countries recognise the need both to register and to provide help. We do not do either.

Not only do we not recognise the need for registration - we actively campaign against it, with good reason.

In a moment I shall go through the Bill, but perhaps I may make a final point. When I saw the Minister the other day I referred to two cases which are just the tip of the iceberg. One concerned a child in south Wales named Dylan Seabridge who was taken out of school. He was not known to any other local authority ​or organisation. The next thing that was known about him was some years later, when a 999 call was made. The child was taken to hospital but it was too late and he died. He had been starved to death.

As Lord Lucas later pointed out, Dylan Seabridge was 'known', concerns were raised and the correct action was not taken.

There was a similar case in Birmingham only a few years ago.

Would that be Khyra Ishaq? Also someone about whom concerns were expressed to authorities and sufficient action not taken.

Today, interestingly, I learned from a very reputable source, a local authority officer, about a child who was taken out of school at the age of about eight. He disappeared and nothing was heard any more until some months later when that child, along with his baby brother and his mother, were found buried in the garden of the house. No one knew where that child had gone. He was taken out of school, he disappeared, and then he was found dead.

This sounds like a rather sensationalist anecdote, about which we are given no further indication. And yet, as is often the case with such stories, when we scratch the surface we find that timely concerns were raised, and insufficient action taken by the authorities. The correct remedy for officials not following the law properly is NOT more laws.

The Government have been very good about issues like children being taken into slavery or those at risk of sexual abuse and so on, but unless we know what happens to children who are taken out of school and disappear or who are not registered for school, we are not doing our duty towards the rights of the child. That is why this is important.

I do wish Lord Soley would be legally precise in his sweeping statements, and better informed. The state's duties are well set out in law and - when carried out correctly - work perfectly well. If Lord Soley wishes to improve this situation, perhaps he could campaign for better training for officials? Lord Agnew's promise of clearer guidance is another good solution to this supposed problem being incorrectly laid at the door of home education yet again.

As I say, the Bill tries to strike a delicate balance between the rights of parents and the rights of the child.

The bill is about as delicate as a sledgehammer being used to crack a non-existent nut. Also, though I yawn to have to explain it again, this belligerent setting of parents' rights against those of their children is at best a misunderstanding of the situation and at worst, a clumsy attempt to interject yet more powers of state into people's peaceful family lives.

I want to say straightaway that I will table certain amendments. Those who have read the Bill carefully will know that two phrases that will trouble people are the requirements to check on a child’s physical and emotional development. I put them in in the first instance precisely because of my worry about the minority of abuse cases. However, having thought about it for a week or so, it is clear that that is unrealistic. I will seek to amend the Bill to take those words out of the Long Title and subsections (1) and (4) of the proposed new section in Clause 1(2).

Wow, that was a bit sudden. Apropos of nothing? We have deliberately not targetted a letter campaign at Lord Soley and his chums because they have proved to be so entrenched in their views that there seemed to be little point in so doing. And yet, after justifying this bill on supposedly generalised health and wellbeing concerns, these are now magically no longer a problem? As a rationale, it is not hanging together very well at all.

What I really want is a system where the majority of parents who home educate very well and want to be left alone are not caused any hassle by the Bill. We need to let them get on with it.

That would be the other amendment I might possibly have to table, apart from others that may be suggested by the Government or elsewhere.

Lord Soley curiously seems to think people are interested in amending his bill, rather than rejecting it outright.

If parents are subject to one inspection and the local authority feels that everything is going well, there is no reason why that should ultimately become an annual inspection. However, if parents either need help or are asking for help, or if the local authority is worried about the welfare or education of the child, inspections might need to be carried out more frequently.

This is not an improvement in the current system, but quite the opposite and nor is it in keeping with the spirit of the law. If local authorities have specific welfare concerns about a child, these should be addressed by trained social workers under sections 17 or 47 of the Children Act. They should not be fudged by education officers untrained in welfare issues. If the local authority is worried about the educational provision for specific reasons, these should be addressed first by informal and then formal enquiries, as per Section 437. Does his bill seek to replace section 437? If not, how would it work to have two sections of the same act giving contrary instructions to local authorities?

The wording I include in proposed new Section 436B(3) in Clause 1(2) would ensure that there is a minimum of one inspection per annum and that it would continue normally thereafter. Again, I emphasise that the majority of parents who take their children out of school are committed to educating them well.

Lord Soley seems already to have all knowledge of home educators already at his fingertips, if he knows for sure that the majority of parents who take their children out of school are committed to educating them well. I am curious to know how he has come by this information, but perhaps we should just ascribe him with superpowers and let the matter rest there. Such an eminent man could not possibly be assuming knowledge he does not have - that would be supremely ironic in the context of him proposing more information-gathering about home educators.

However, there is a second group of parents — I suspect that they might form the largest group — who may want to educate their children well, but they struggle. That may be because they do not have access to all the facilities they need or because their circumstances change, such as perhaps taking on a more demanding job or something of that nature.

He has no superpowers: this is complete guesswork and speculation. Attempting to make new laws on the basis of fantasy fiction and fabrication.

What often happens at the moment is that these children are taken out of school and then put back in again a year or so later. That is very disruptive both for the child and the school. ​Another issue has been pointed out to me by a representative of Kent County Council; it is something that I did not know about. There is considerable evidence to suggest that children are taken out of school to avoid attendance orders and fines. I think that the Minister ought to look at the authorities that are reporting this problem. I have been told that taking children out of school to avoid fines is a major cause of this issue for local authorities. Again, this goes across the board politically.

I would contend that the problem here is the fines. I did not know that children who are already registered at schools could be subject to school attendance orders, but quit the draconian punishments and develop a more sympathetic system and then fewer people might want to take steps to avoid its unpleasant consequences. Are they schools, or day prisons? Places of learning, or of compulsory confinement? Home educators could explain that learning is much more optimal when it is not forced.

The Bill is straightforward in most senses. It seeks to amend the Education Act 1996 in such a way that there is a requirement on local authorities to register. Once we start registering, we can then start to help, advise, direct and protect. The trick here is to get that balance right.

He is right to call it a trick. It would be mere, "helpful" registration only one year, and full-on Badman recommendations the next. Other speakers in this debate made clear their animosity to their very existence of home education, so we have no reason to trust that this is not the end-goal of this slippery slope, paved with apparent good intentions.

I want to work closely on this with the various education bodies, with the Government, in particular, and with local authorities to make sure that we do it well.

But not with home educators? Is it none of our business?

I know people will say, “Well, at the moment, local authorities haven’t got the resources and can’t do it themselves”, but if we look at the numbers I gave earlier and bear in mind the problems of abuse, radicalisation and extremism, we cannot ignore this any longer.

It is not ignored. There is no problem. The current regulations are perfectly adequate.

On radicalisation alone, I would simply say that as more cases come to light, as they are, media interest in and public pressure on this issue will grow. It is no accident that 10 or 15 years ago, I faced more opposition than support to what I was saying; now, I get more support than opposition.

That is what is usually called being in an echo chamber.

Interestingly, some of the letters I have received were from people who wrote to me 10 or 15 years ago and who are now saying, “I got it wrong. I think we have to have this, but please do it in a way that doesn’t put too much pressure on me, because I am doing it okay”. I understand that and I want to achieve it.

I do not believe there have been more than one or two such letters. If Lord Soley wants us to believe there were more, he should anonymise and then publish the letters. I have not known any home educators express any sentiment in support of his bill, and I am connected with many home educators both online and off. Most people are very much against it but have not bothered to write to him to say so, as his views seem so entrenched.

New Section 436B would put the duty on the local authority to monitor children receiving elective home education. As I have indicated, in Committee I will try to delete “the physical and emotional development of children”. I do not think that anybody will object; I think the penny will drop that we could not monitor that, as it did with me when I drafted the Bill in the first instance.

Something is not quite right about this. Is Lord Soley drafting bills on a whim, to be immediately changed on another whim? It sounds like this is what he would have us believe. It is most disconcerting to see the possibility for actual laws to be made in this casual and ill-informed way.

I think also that those words troubled the people who are doing home education well; many of them wrote to me saying that I am Mao Tse-Tung in drag, trying to impose state control on all these people.

Really? Many of them wrote to say that exact thing? Or is this a casually sweeping metaphor, aimed at undermining and diluting people's valid and real concerns?

Let me reassure this House and people outside that I am not Mao Tse-Tung in drag. I want a light-touch regulation for people who are doing home education well and I want to help those who are not. I also want to protect those children who are at serious risk.

We already have light touch regulation for home education. Those who really are not doing it well should be issued with school attendance orders after the informal and formal processes have been exhausted. EOTAS (the system of leaving a child on-roll but not attending school because there is no school to meet their needs, so the local authority has to fund the provision) exists for those children who cannot attend school, but whose parents cannot home educate them. Sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act already do protect those children who are at serious risk. As Lord Agnew later said in this debate, local authorities already do have the tools they need.

My proposed new Section 436B then lists the duty of the local authority to monitor children. New subsection (2) is, in a way, the key one, because it requires registration; it brings the issue into the modern world, where we register it.

Registration is not modern. It could actually be seen as archaic, when one looks for example at the requirement for everyone to carry papers in WWII which was then relaxed in peacetime. The truly modern approach is the mature and sensible one, which trusts people to be innocent until proven guilty and does not track, register and assess them just in case they might commit a crime.

New subsection (3) covers the issue of whether the assessment will be annually, or more than annually; as I say, the key there is to allow it to be done annually for people doing home education well. We may even move to a situation where, because everybody is certified, we take that provision out altogether.

So we're not only registered, we are now also to be certified? The reason I am addressing the debate word by word in this way is because very often the clues as to the real plans behind such proposals leak out in throw-away words such as these. There is a huge difference between registration and certification. The one is simply a process of adding names to a list (which is happening anyway as a result of section 436A) and the other includes a process of approval - and its opposite, disapproval. An active judging of the provision before it has taken place, and permission to continue approved or denied. Very like the Badman recommendations in fact. His use of the word 'certified' in this context gives us a clear indication of the real intention behind this bill.

We must have a minimum of annual assessments in order to allow other assessments ​to take place when we are worried about a child or the quality of the education, and so on.

This point in particular completely ignores section 437 of the Education Act. Information about the provision is to be sought if the local authority has concerns that it might not be suitable. It is not to be sought anyway, whether or not there are concerns. Where it is sought and concerns not allayed, more information is to be sought as per the informal process set out in EHEGLA and if concerns are still not allayed then the formal process set out in section 437 is to be carried out. This system is already in place and does the job without intervening unnecessarily into private family life.

Obviously, we are concerned about the quality of education on the basics of reading, writing and numeracy, as the previous Minister and Government were, because many children — particularly those who are taken out of school and then put back in, to avoid fines and attendance orders — would be left in a very vulnerable situation.

But this is the concern of nobody except the family, unless the local authority is alerted to the situation in which case, the informal and formal inquiries address it adequately. The law correctly assumes that it is in parents' interests and motivation for their children to be educated.

Clause 2 will give various powers to the Secretary of State to make regulations by statutory instrument if necessary. I have tried to phrase this in a way that enables the Secretary of State to consult widely and issue guidance, as and when necessary. That is a fairly normal procedure, which I happen to think will be quite important in this area. Guidance relating to elective home education — covered by Clause 2 — is important because it requires that the updating of guidance by the Secretary of State must have regard to elective home education providing instruction in writing and numeracy, and take into account the child’s age, aptitude, ability and any special educational needs.

But the law and the guidance already does this.

That is because in the present situation, there is troubling evidence — I am afraid that I cannot put a number on it at this stage — that children are taken out of school because the parent feels, often rightly, that the required special educational needs are not being met by the local authority and that they can do a better job with the child out of school.

A common and valid reason for home educating. In fact, a parent's reason for home educating bears no relation to their ability to provide a suitable education and is therefore correctly seen as irrelevant.

Those parents need help.

This sweeping statement is pure guesswork. And why does Lord Soley seem to think that the parents in question are unable to source any help they may need? Some families need to be left alone by professionals while the children recover from the damage done to them in schools.

It is a matter of saying not that they have to put the child back into school, but that a child with special educational needs will need additional attention. The clause would give the Secretary of State the ability to offer guidance and, in Clause 2(2)(b), to take into account the views of children and parents.

EHC plans can still be put in placed for home educated children. Parents can and do negotiate for these, often with the help of their local authorites. Proposals to make this process easier for parents might be appreciated, but this does not require the compulsory registration (or certification) of every home educating family. To suggest it does is to raise a straw man argument. New guidance could require every local authority to supply deregistering parents with information about how to apply for an EHP plan and list the assistance available for them to do so, for example. The law does not need to be changed for this to happen.

As an aside related to that, we need to commission some research into this area. I hope the Government can do something about it fairly soon. We have no idea of numbers or, as I have indicated, how many children who were taken into home education have ended up in situations of abuse or being killed. Those figures should be available. I know that in the Welsh case, for example, it was stated in the court case afterwards, and it will have been stated in other cases where children have been killed, but it will also have been stated in cases where the police have been involved and the child had been put into situations where they had been radicalised or exposed to extremism. We ought to be able to get those figures. If the Minister does nothing else, I ask him to take that away in the near future and try to get some research done. It is very important.

The NSPCC produced some 'research', which we successfully refuted. I assume Lord Soley knows about this: it's very strange that he does not mention it.

The interpretation of the Bill is the usual straight-forward thing. Clause 4 goes on to say that it applies only to England and Wales. I stress that I have already drawn this to the attention of the Scottish education authority because I know it has a similar problem. I have looked at some of the numbers in Scotland. They too have a problem, but it is essentially an issue for the devolved Administration. I will forward it to them.

I've yet to see this English government referring to home education as a 'problem'. Perhaps Lord Soley imagines that his repetition of this word might make it seem more true.

What I want to do more than anything else is work with the Government and any other bodies concerned about this. I do not pretend that I have got the Bill exactly right. I want to make changes in Committee, but I would be very happy to make changes put ​forward by other people to achieve this end. At the very least we need registration, with some understanding of what is happening to these children who disappear. We cannot go on with the situation where we have thousands who disappear.

We do not have thousands of children who "disappear". We have thousands of children who are not registered with their local authorities as being home educated because they have not been deregistered from a school, or come to the local authority's attention as set out in sections 436A or 437 of the Education Act. They have not "disappeared": in terms of a home education register, they simply have not "appeared". If they were formerly known to a local authority they usually still are. If they are not known then no news is not bad news. If they are known and concerns are not acted upon, then this is the fault of local authority officers not properly using the powers available to them. All of this is clearly apparent in the NSPCC report of three years ago.

I hope the Government will work with me. I understand that the Minister is very new to his job and I want to be very cautious today, but I ask him to look at this very carefully. Several disasters have already happened and we know there are more in the pipeline.

I am yet to hear of one about which the authorities did not know, which compulsory registration (or certification) of home educators would have prevented.

It does not do anyone any good to turn a blind eye to this. It is time for us to act.

Nobody is turning a blind eye. There is no preventative action which could be taken that is not already allowed for in the current regulations on home education.

I therefore beg to move the Bill and I will work in co-operation with all who would like to do so.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Educational freedom also under threat on the Isle of Man

I visited the Isle of Man last year and was struck by both its beauty and its strong sense of identity as a self-governing British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland. Its culture and laws are drawn from the mainland but separate and slightly different in a unique way.

There are only forty-nine children being home educated on the island, some of whom I met on my visit last year. Only four families are actively campaigning against the proposed changes there, which is a similar ratio of political engagement as we have in home education here on the mainland. Except here, that means over five thousand active campaigners which makes life somewhat easier. Being one of such a tiny number of campaigners must feel extremely daunting and overwhelming, hence this plea from them for our help in responding to a government consultation which will take five minutes for each of us to complete. Responses from off the island will be accepted and the Manx home educators would like as many responses from home educators in the UK as possible.

Our Education Act Sections 7 and 437 are already mirrored in the Manx Education Act, Sections 24 and 25. I can see no meaningful differences between the two.

So the part of the consultation that refers to home education reads as follows:

It is a duty of parents of children of compulsory school age to ensure that they receive a suitable education.

A suitable education is defined in the current Act as 'efficient full time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude taking into account any special educational needs.'

This parental duty applied whether the education is provided in schools or at home. The Department has a duty to enforce this requirement so that a suitable education is given.

At present the Department has no way of ensuring that parents who choose to home education meet the suitable provision in Section 24 of the Education Act 2001.

Home education is not, in itself, a risk factor for abuse or neglect. However, there is potential that these children can become 'invisible' and in these cases there is a safeguarding risk of isolation from professionals. The aim is to establish an appropriate scope of duties for the Department to ensure that children do not go unseen.

The Department is seeking to add another subsection to the existing clause 24 to allow the Department to introduce regulations which may require parents to provide evidence to the Department of the Education of the educational provision their children are receiving.

9. Should the Department seek evidence from home educators on the education they are giving to their children?

___ Yes

___ No

___ Unsure

Please state your reasons:

So far, so familiarly Badman-esque.

As long term readers here will know, there are several problems with governments demanding evidence from parents about their parenting duties on a blanket, screening basis:

  1. Specific problems tend to be missed as perpetrators of abuse learn to game the system as exampled by infamous foster mother Eunice Spry, who received regular visits from the local authority about her home education provision in which the children were present, but no abuse was ever suspected. Professional 'visibility' is therefore no guarantee of safety whatsoever.
  2. Monitoring of home education provision is often counter-productive and results in parents being unable to comply with their legal duty to provide suitable education.
  3. As the NSPCC demonstrated in its report into the Serious Case Reviews, in every reported case professionals were aware of the children and already had the legal duty, in Children Act sections 17 and 47, to take action but failed to do so. They then chose to ask for more duties instead of focusing their attention on the training and application regarding the sufficient duties they already had. As officials are already struggling and often failing to implement their current safeguarding duties, adding more duties to the list can only exacerbate the problem.

Isle of Man Freedom of Information requests indicate that officials there have not been busy in the matter of home education and that neither problems nor research have taken place, so it's difficult to see why they suddenly want more powers. A read through the Isle of Man Children and Young Persons Act 2001 indicates that they have similar powers in respect of safeguarding as officials have here, which are sufficient and the 'invisibility' phenomenon appears to be imagined rather than real.

Most home educators would contend that this therefore is not worth the risk of their provision being damaged by excessive governmental oversight. My answer to the consultation question 9 will therefore be:

The Department should NOT seek such evidence from parents because blanket screening for safeguarding has been shown to be ineffective, sufficient safeguarding powers already exist in law for officials to take action when concerns arise and it is important for the state to have trust in parents to carry out their parental duty in the absence of evidence that they are failing to do so. Where there are no concerns about a family, home education provision can be negatively affected by oversight from officials and the Freedom of Information responses I have seen indicate that there is no good reason to risk this outcome. The proposed change in respect of home education will be expensive and counter-productive and should therefore be avoided. The 'invisible children' phenomenon has been shown to be a myth.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

BBC biased journalism shocker. Six pro-regulation people interviewed for show; only one anti.

BBC Radio 4's Winifred Robinson has been successfully lobbied into making a programme designed to promote Lord Soley's bill in the House of Lords. Here are my thoughts as I listened today.

The programme opened with some quiet, Islamic music. A very tribal, ethnic minority setting in Bradford was clearly identified and the first man being interviewed is outraged that his cousin's partner took her children out of school, to take up an apparent job offer in Dubai. They then went onto Syria, which is - the programme heavily implied - the fault of elective home education. "The parents had exercised their legal right to opt for home education at any point, just by notifying the headteaching in writing!" said Winifred in incredulous tones. Imagine, parents having a legal right to emigrate with their own children!

It's ok for adults to make such a decision for themselves, said the man being first interviewed. But for children, it shouldn't be allowed - thereby implying that the State should decide which country children should live in, as well as whether they attend school or not. But there are historic reasons why parents should keep deciding these things instead of the state in most cases. "For them to be able to move their children away from school - so easily - is unbelievable. Unbelievable."

But why should this be unbelievable? If you go into a shop to buy something, you don't have to ask for permission to leave. If you book into a hotel, you can just leave any time you like. You can discharge yourself or your child from hospital, neither you nor your child are prisoners there. You're not obliged to stay at the hairdresser's or the dentist's for a set period of time. Why do some people expect us to apply a different set of ethics for schools?

Sir Michael Wilshaw, a long time opponent of home education freedoms, made an appearance next. He was billed as the Chief Inspector of Schools, but according to Wikipedia he retired from this post on the 30th December 2016. Equally confusingly, he was decrying "home education law weaknesses" as being responsible for the rise in illegal schools last year. This year it's our fault when parents take their children to Syria - or when (as the show covered next) schools are 'off-rolling' difficult pupils. It seems like whatever bad things happen to children anywhere, home education freedoms can be held to blame.

Has any child ever been taken to Syria or off-rolled from a school Mr Wilshaw had inspected? If so, perhaps we need to tighten up our national Wilshaw regulations as, by his own logic, whatever happens to the children there must be due to these being too lax.

Simon Cooke, a Bradford councillor, then explained something about the report his council had published as a result of pressure from Mr Wilshaw last year. He told Ms Robinson that there was not a disproportionate amount of Muslims home educating according to data held by the local authority. He then started to explore people's reasons for home educating, which is a particular bugbear for home educators. The law doesn't differentiate between us according to our reasons for home educating, so why should anybody else? A family deregistering because they can't find the right school place for their child or because their child was being bullied in school is just as likely to home educate well as a family whose child never goes to school because the parents are hippies or hot-housers or whatever. And yet the former group faces discrimination from local authorities around the country because their reasons for home educating are unofficially deemed to be less valid than the latter. "You can't necessarily compare those different groups," bemoans Simon, though I fail to see why he wants to.

Winifred reminds us for a second (or third?) time that the local authorities' registers are voluntary, so this limits the amount of information about us that is available to be processed and discussed. Frustrating for a journalist perhaps, and for the kind of people who like to test and check and measure everything people might want to do, but for home educators this is a vital freedom we are determined to uphold. And anyway, the register isn't really voluntary: anyone deregistering a child from school - which is the target group for the manufactured moral panic this time around - is automatically added to it and cannot remove themselves from it unless they reregister their child at school.

"Parents who are home educating have no legal duty to sign," she says bizarrely, when signing doesn't have anything to do with this particular register to which children's names are added by officials without recourse to parents at all.

"Some of the things around registration, we're not able to do because the law doesn't allow us to," says Mr Cooke. Interpreter please! This makes no sense to me. What things "around registration" does he want to do, exactly? And Mr Cooke is a Conservative, who ought to understand civil liberties: back to school with him on both counts. He admits that it's not a straightforward, easy issue but that it should be debated in Parliament "about whether or not we should do that". Do what? We have to guess.

His next point of concern is that so many of us ("..especially the ideological ones...") are reluctant to engage with the council. Here are the reasons why I think we are so reluctant to do so, apart from which there is better support to be had from the home education community via Facebook groups and actual meet-ups than there is from local authority officers on the whole. But "Almost to the point - and this is over stressing it a bit - of saying 'They'll come and take our kids away, so therefore I'm not going to talk to them,' " is how Mr Cooke presents the possible reasons. But local authorities do have the power to remove children from the care of their parents, so this actually is a risk, however small. And it isn't always done for the right reasons. Mr Cooke should be asking himself why parents don't trust his officers, and perhaps taking a closer look at the way they conduct themselves in their contact with parents if he really wants to find solutions for this.

"Parents in the UK don't have to request permission to home educate," Winifred tells us yet again. "There's no legal framework for inspections." No, because the law makes parents responsible for the education of their children, not local authorities. Schools are inspected *on behalf of parents* because this duty is being delegated to them by the parents. It must stick in the craw of some councillors and officials that they themselves are not the sole arbiters of our children's education, that parents are instead and that they are supposed to be working for us and not the other way around.

Winifred then introduces another Bradford family who explain how they home educate. When the mum has given a confident, detailed explanation of her arrangements she is asked pointedly what her qualifications are for home educating. She correctly points out that she doesn't need any, but it shows a remarkable lack of research on behalf of the programme-makers that she is even asked this question. The father of the family then talks in worrying terms about the practice of off-rolling. He is asked about whether anyone checks on "the ability of those parents to become teachers", yet for home education to work well the parent doesn't have to be a teacher, or even be able to be one. Ironically, the BBC website itself on an informative page about home education explains that "you don't need to be a qualified teacher" to home educate your child but Penelope Trunk explains really well in this article on her blog why home education requires different skills and methods to the crowd control kind of teaching school teachers are forced to utilise. Skills and methods that are more akin to good parenting than to the teaching profession.

"Schools work like a business nowadays," explains the father. "It's like, if that child is not going to get us what we need to get, then we don't really want that child in the school." This is true, and goes unchallenged by the programme presenter. But she doesn't appear to make the link between schools using our children as commodities, and parents wanting to withdraw their children from such an inhumane system and from anyone attached to it.

Next, Mohammed, who is 14 and has been out of mainstream education for ten months. Mohammed's story sounds very sad to me. He was removed from school after his behaviour was so disruptive that it was looking as though he would be made to attend a Pupil Referral Unit instead, but his father tells him he's blown his chances of a good education and will never amount to anything because he won't get any GCSEs due to spending his days playing computer games. Well, my two now adult sons spent much of their time playing computer games aged 14 as well, and opted to avoid taking GCSEs. After home education they went straight into self-employment using the skills they had learned in those halcyon days of unschooling and have been earning a living ever since. "You won't amount to anything without qualficiations" is a myth that poor Mohammed and his family seem to have fallen for, along with many other families in the country. I can see why teachers and education officials want to promulgate the idea that people can't survive without them, but it clearly is not true.

In any case, the local authority obviously knows about Mohammed so can take steps to help him secure the school place he says he wants. Local authorities know about all the children who, like Mohammed, have been off-rolled by a school because their names and addresses are automatically added to the local authority's register of home educators. If this situation is being mismanaged by schools and local authorities this does not provide sufficient justification for officials to invade the homes of all home educating families and start trying to set the standards we much reach. We do not work for them; they work for us.

The Local Government Association is wheeled out next, asking "at the very least", for the compulsory registration of home educators. Despite us being told by Winifred so many many times that not enough is known about home education and so nobody can work out what we're up to, the LGA's Richard Watts confidently asserts that "The vast majority of parents who home educate their kid do a really good job," but then redeems himself somewhat by adding that "The state shouldn't necessarily be meddling in all of that," but without stopping to draw breath or even leave a finger space between the words, there is of course a "However...." and we're back to the "wrong reasons" for home educating, and "loopholes". "Regulations should be strengthened with a view to making sure that children are safe and well-educated." But people in glass houses should not throw stones, Mr Watts. First make sure that ALL of the children in schools are safe and well-educated. This may take some time.

"Calls for a compulsory register of all home-schooled children have featured in an inquiry into cases of serious neglect," Winifred informs us, referring to this pile of nonsense from the NSPCC, I assume, now withdrawn due to inaccuracies. In fact, home education was NOT the problem in any of the cases listed in the NSPCC report. But who bothers checking such inconvenient details when they're conducting a witch hunt? The specific case was raised of Dylan Seabridge, a boy who died when, despite concerns being raised amongst officials about his safety more than a year before his death, no safeguarding action was taken. Local authorities do have the duty to take safeguarding action in such situations but failed to do so in this case, leading to the child's death. I never fail to be amazed that the fault of this is left at the door of home education and it is used to call for more restrictions of our freedoms to educate our children as we see fit. Are we going to have to start thinking in terms of class actions to prevent this kind of inaccurate slander? We would certainly have the funds for it, collectively. At the very least, it highlights the desperation of this group of people to regulate us all all costs, for any cobbled together, annually changing, invented or inflated alleged reason.

Lord Soley is interviewed next and begins with the hysterical and statistically inaccurate slur that we might be removing our children from school to be abused by us. He talks about a visit to the child in the home "Once a year, twice a year, whatever.." and yet the case of Eunice Spry ably and tragically demonstrates that this would not protect children from abuse. Eunice and her foster children were well known to authorities, receiving the "Once a year, twice a year, whatever.." visits for several years and the children's abuse went undetected by officials.

This biased and unbalanced show interviews *six* people who are calling for tighter regulation for home education, and only *one* person to counter that call, London home educator Vicky Price. The interview with this lady is used by the programme to subtly pour scorn on the concept of unschooling, although she managed to make the excellent point that if home educated children are to be officially asked whether or not they want to attend school, then so should school children. The question was edited out of the programme but the answer was still powerful.