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.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Home Ed Bill: HL11 2017: FAQ

The Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill [HL] 2017-19 was given its first reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday. Here's an FAQ about the bill.

What is the home ed bill?

It's a Private Members' Bill originating in the House of Lords "to make provision for local authorities to monitor the educational, physical and emotional development of children receiving elective home education, and for connected purposes". It seeks to add a section to the Education Act, after section 436A [scroll down to find it, or Ctrl+f then enter '436A' in the search box] enshrining local authorities' duty to monitor home educators' provision including annual assessments into statute.

How would the proposed new section of the law be different from the current legal position for home educators?

There is currently no duty for local authorities to monitor the provision of home educators set out in law, a fact the government Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities makes clear in section 2.7:

"Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis."

Why do home educators work so hard to resist the routine monitoring of their provision by local authorities?

Because the monitoring can often change the provision for the worse, as I set out in this post 8 years ago.

Who is behind the bill to make this change to the Education Act?

Labour peers Estelle Morris, who was Education Secretary briefly from 2001-02 and Clive Soley, who has been campaigning against our freedom to home educate without routine local authority intervention for a long time. I also suspect other long time agitators (whose names come up repeatedly in past posts here) to have contributed to this latest move against us.

Why have they chosen this time to take this action?

From the explanation on this page: "Private Members' Bills in the Lords are usually introduced through a ballot held on the day after State Opening of a new session of a parliament." This explains the date, but in terms of the wider picture I would speculate that the current lack of a workable Conservative majority was deemed the best opportunity for the move. Reading past posts here dating back 12 years it's clear that for all of their perceived faults, the Conservatives generally support freedom in home education whereas Labour generally opposes it. There are well-established ideological reasons for this, which are set out below.

How does the process of Private Members Bills from the House of Lords work?

The stages of the bill are set out in the graphic here: first reading in the House of Lords took place on 27th June, and the date of the 2nd reading is to be announced where the bill will be debated in the Lords. If the second reading is voted through in the House of Lords, the bill then goes to committee stage "where detailed line by line examination and discussion of amendments takes place". The committee's recommendations are then reported back to the Lords and then voted on again in after a third reading. The same process must then take place through the House of Commons and Royal Assent for it received before the bill can become law - if it gets so far. This pdf makes interesting reading on the history and processing of Private Members' Bills.

What are the chances of this bill succeeding?

It's generally thought the chances of this bill succeeding are pretty slim because of lack of parliamentary debating time in the House of Commons BUT there is still a chance that if it is heard there, it might succeed in being voted through especially now there is no Conservative majority that we can safely rely on to vote against it. It's possible the bill might not be deemed important enough for the Tory whips to prioritise whereas many Labour and other progressive members might feel passionate enough to attend and vote in favour of it, for reasons set out below. Obviously home educators and their friends will oppose the bill at every stage, which will help to slow and hopefully curtail its progress.

Why is the bill phrased in the way it is?

The first draft phrasing seems to be based on the 8 year old Badman recommendations, which were campaigned for long and hard by activists who oppose our current freedoms. The recommendations were incorporated into an Education Bill in 2010 but this was fortunately thrown out in the 'wash up' between governments at the time of the General Election of that year. Conservative politicians motivated by the frantic campaigning of home educators throughout the Labour-commissioned Badman Review were at the root of this decision.

What are the implications for home education if it passes and becomes law?

The nature of what we do will significantly change, because Local Authority officers will become increasingly involved in parental decisions and (most home educators think) their children's individual educational needs will be less prioritised. Home educators will have to impose local authority approved provision, whatever that may be, and will have to regularly demonstrate that they are successfully doing so.

What are the implications for home education if it doesn't pass and doesn't become law?

Home educators can continue to prioritise their children's educational needs and not worry so much about the opinion of local authority officers or those of other governmental officials or advisors - for now. There will always be a threat that this will change though, because some influential people are very much against this freedom and are determined to keep trying to prevent it.

What is the best way for home educators to oppose the bill?

Raising awareness amongst some MPs is a good idea in many cases. Everyone in the country has a Member of Parliament whose job it is to represent them in Parliament whether or not they voted for them, although different MPs interpret this according to their personal views and position. I would recommend caution in approaching a Labour MP about this bill in case their interest is galvanised in the opposite direction to the one we want it to be. Most Conservative MPs can be brought onside successfully, especially when they are encouraged to see it as a party political issue.

Bills can be petitioned against in either of the Houses of Parliament, as Graham Stuart spectacularly demonstrated in helping us to oppose the Badman recommendations in 2009. This is an approach that home educators will be looking to repeat if the current bill makes any worrying progress.

The campaign led by home educators against the Badman Recommendations included picnics and other public gatherings to raise awareness, protests outside Parliament, appeals and advice given to the Select Committee on Education, letters and visits to MPs, petitions, Facebook groups, blogs, letters to newspapers and comments and articles on websites, a song, various spoofs and so on. Any and all of these methods of campaigning will be adopted again if the current bill makes any worrying progress. Many will be being planned and undertaken already.

What are the best arguments against the bill?

This list is not exhaustive. Please post in the comments below if you can add to it:

  1. Home is not school, and parents are not teachers. Just because schools and local authorities now have wide-ranging duties and responsibilities towards those children who attend school does not mean they should also be given the extra duty of routinely checking what families do in their private homes.
  2. Local authorities already have sufficient powers to take action if there are specific problems with specific home educating families. These exist in Section 437 of the Education Act and in Sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act. Further powers will therefore be excessive which will cause problems for officials and families.
  3. Where the NSPCC set out the seven serious case reviews pertaining to elective home education from recent decades, we showed that in every single case, the authorities failed to take the action they were required in law to take and new regulations would not have helped made the children safer.
  4. Home education provision is often damaged by routine monitoring. Personal, real life examples of this help to make the argument.

What motivates some people to want to regulate what we do?

Some people think children belong to the state, not to parents. They often mistrust parents and the family unit and see it as the enemy to what they want to achieve i.e. changing the world in the way they think it should be changed.

They worry that if they fail to get every child into a state school being taught a government-approved curriculum, they won't be able to effect the social and political changes to society that they want to effect. They seem to want to close all the loopholes, and home education is a gaping escape route from that ideology so making it more difficult for parents to educate their children as they see fit and therefore discouraging home education is their short term goal.

I think we have aptly demonstrated over the years that safety and wellbeing concerns for home educated children are spurious, though local authority officials often struggle to change hats effectively between that of Education Welfare [i.e. Truancy] Officer and their other role of taking action when appropriate regarding home educating families. The remedy for this is a better understanding of the current position though, not increased regulation.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Daniel Monk's attempts to force another review.

Daniel Monk, whose research I scathingly critiqued in 2015, appears to be trying to pressure the Department of Education into conducting another Badman-style review into home education.

So far, his efforts have included:

  • lobbying members of the House of Lords to bring about a mini-debate on the subject there, at which the government minister eventually reluctantly conceded that the department would "look into" the issue
  • generating an article to explain how he did this and some of his ostensible reasons for doing so.
  • and....

This is where this post enters into the realm of speculation, but here is what I might consider doing if I was driving this season's campaign to cause home educators to be further regulated.

____________________________________

I think I would first of all come up with the kind of headline I wanted to be blazoned across the country's news stands. Something along the lines of: "Mum homeschools her children by letting them play computer games for SEVEN HOURS a day.."

Then I might scour the many home education blogs and/or Twitter etc looking for a family on which to pin such a headline. If I had been studying home educators for a long number of years, I would know exactly what to look for to meet these ends, and I prepare the ground well to make an easy job for whichever pally journalist I might approach in order to propose this sensationally headlined, potentially syndicated (and therefore profitable) story.

One of the factors which might influence my choice of target family might be my contacts in local authorities of which, if I had been supplying training to them, I would likely have at least one friendly contact in quite a few local authorities. My plan would be to phone my Local Authority contact and supply them with the most useful response when they were contacted by the journalist for a quote. I would need them to blame the current legal position, in order to suggest the remedy of a government review, to look into changing the current legal position.

Having done such detailed research into the family in question, I would be able to suggest to the journalist some methods of winning their trust, such as talking to them first in a semi-casual way, about learning through technology. The idea would be to gently groom the family into signing off on the story and supplying the required quotes and photos.

If my plan went well, the result would be a national outcry leading to a bout of moral panic which would trigger the political result I was looking for. If it did not, I would simply rinse and repeat the process with other home educating families or the people who know them, until it did. The families themselves would get the blame from their fellow home educators for selling their stories to the newspapers: my own part in it would not be known. I would then have achieved another helpful outcome: that of dividing home educators against each other even more than they already are.

_____________________________________

I do not know if the above scenario or any version of it is happening, or did happen. It seems likely that the Badman review itself was predicated by this kind of story-placing. I may suspect it is/was, but I would have no proof. The point is, it could be said to be quite likely and therefore we would be wise to guard against it and to try to mitigate against any damage that has already occurred.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Scrutinising the Scrutiny Committee: Bradford

Yesterday, myself and two friends attended a meeting of Bradford Metropolitan District Council's Children's Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee which I was allowed to address on the report about home education submitted by its Children's Services department.

I took with me some paper copies of the AHEd briefing paper which lists the legal problems with the content and handed them around at the meeting. Councillors in attendance had received this earlier by email too.

I quoted the commentary about this report from data protection expert Tim Turner:

"The Supreme Court [The Christian Institute and others v The Lord Advocate (Scotland), 28 July 2016] ruled that a clear data protection condition is required with reference to the Data Protection Act and that human rights proportionality cannot be wished away just because you think you are doing the right thing for children. Bradford Council have to be able to show how they can justify the disclosure from and to HMRC and DWP. If a 'legal obligation' is claimed, they need to be able to say which one i.e. which act, which regulations, which section precisely. There is no mention in the report to councillors of any consultation with stakeholders and data subjects on the sharing of their personal records, never mind any legal impact assessment of these proposals in the light of the recent Supreme Court judgment which set strict parameters for information sharing. They have to be able to show that the disclosure is proportionate and should have done a human rights proportionality assessment. They should also directly inform parents of any data sharing agreements, including evidence of the data conditions they think they have met."

- as well as answering questions about the law and practice of home education. Committee members were frustrated by the reactive position set out by Section 437 of the Education Act, so I explained the reasons for this in conjunction with Section 7 and the duty being on the parent to cause the child to receive the education and not on the local authority. Therefore, the parent has to decide the content based on her relationship with her child and so local authorities must only intervene if there are concerns.

The general sentiment expressed by members of the council and officers present was that this situation was regrettable. One member even later suggested "We should abandon" the "wooly worded' S437 and rely instead on Section 175 which, the meeting seemed to think, gave the local authority the duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in the area including unregistered elective home educated ones. I disputed this interpretation but officers disagreed with my arguments and I was accused by one committee member of "muddying the waters" by my suggestions that the report should comply with the law.

Needless to say, officers and councillors cannot cherry pick the laws they like the best and ignore all others, much as some of these meeting attendees wished to do so. I think many of the problems faced by home educators in their interactions with local authorities are caused by this mistaken attitude to the law.

There was much talk of tracking and safeguarding responsibilities, "There is no legal definition of a suitable education, so how can we know what one is?" and "We don't know what we don't know."

I think some of this consternation may have come from the most recent edition of the Children Missing Education guidance which now stipulates that they should have "..robust policies and procedures in place to enable them to meet their duty in relation to these children, including ensuring that there are effective tracking and enquiry systems in place.." but it also stipulates, in line with the recent Supreme Court judgment in the case of The Christian Institute and others v The Lord Advocate (Scotland) that "Local authorities should not make blanket enquiries", which is exactly what the report in question seems to be describing in its second section 5.4, when it says:

"We do not have a data sharing agreed with DWP but it has now been agreed with HMRC that we can be involved in their second phases, which began in Sheffield. This means they will share details of families who are in recived of child benefit, allowing us to cross reference that data with the information we hold on CYP in the district. The pilot will run from Jan – June 2017 and is likely our intelligence will increase during that pilot."

Members of the meeting, councillors and officers alike, kept reassuring me that this report was "not about me". And yet, as I explained, if this kind of hunting down of lawful home educators goes ahead, my children's education provision will be negatively affected, because it will be a slippery downward slope from that point until we are back at the nightmarish situation recommended by Graham Badman which cannot happen while there are so many unknown elective home educators to provide support to those who are known.

But "It's just like having your bag checked at the airport," said one councillor. "It's not nice, but we have to put up with it so that everyone can be safe."

It's really NOT like having your bag checked at the airport.

I asked, if it's all about illegal schools as this local issue apparently was in the beginning, then why weren't the illegal schools more effectively policed under Section 98 of the Education and Skills Act? "We have no powers under that section," I was told. "The only department who could enforce that is planning and they have no right of access to a building.." But they do.

As in the case of the Serious Case Reviews, the laws are already in place for identified problems to be resolved, but they are not properly used because they are poorly known about, poorly understood or forgotten about and more laws are called for instead. I would contend that this is neither an effective nor an efficient way of delivering a service.

As my subsequent letter to the leader of the council explained, the scrutiny committee failed, in this case, to scrutinise.

Worryingly these points were not picked up by the scrutiny committee, one of whom accused me of "muddying the waters" by raising them. A friend who attended the meeting with me described the committee's processing of the report as "a head-nodding, rubber-stamping exercise" which I feel I should bring to your attention.

What was secured was an agreement to change the wording of the currently misleading information supplied by the local authority to parents on home education and for the new safeguarding hub/team to be noted as "ensuring the promoting and wellbeing of all children", rather than just those who are "not attending any registered provision".

These are small victories when the data protection concerns alone should have led to the report being withdrawn and rewritten, but my understanding is that this meeting was not our last chance to secure this outcome.

Engaging with local authorities in committee meetings is something I can recommend though, despite the challenges they can present. We were made to feel welcome and our views were heard. It is something I will be doing again and again, especially now that so many changes appear to be being pushed through at the local authority level instead of the national one. I think if more committees were scrutinised by the public on a regular basis, council meetings might become more dynamic and involve less 'head-nodding and rubber-stamping'. We are not powerless in the situation, our elected representatives are supposed to be answerable to us and the system of open meetings is designed specifically for this purpose.

I can see it becoming a national pursuit for home educators up and down the country, because I hear that similar data-sharing schemes are also either planned or already underway in the boroughs of Staffordshire, Sheffield, Haringey, Greenwich and Sunderland. HMRC is apparently "unsure about the legal position" of this data sharing, but doing it anyway. And yet according to the momentous victory secured by the Christian Institute and others in the Supreme Court this summer, blanket data sharing is quite definitely unlawful.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Dear members of the Bradford Metropolitan District Council Children's Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee,

For your meeting on Wednesday 12th October you are being asked to scrutinise a report on Elective Home Education by Judith Kirk, the Deputy Director of Children's Services in Bradford. I am a home educator of long standing, having first deregistered a child to home educate in 1993, and my blog on home education politics and law in England has been running for over ten years now. As a lifelong West Yorkshire resident I also feel a personal connection to this report and whatever consequences ensue from it.

My thoughts on the report are as follows:

The explanation of the current legal position is technically correct but requires further context. There is a specific and important reason why official routine monitoring of elective home education is explicitly precluded in the government guidelines for local authorities, which is based on the duty given to parents in Section 7 of the Education Act. I wrote a post on this in 2014 if you want to read more detail, but essentially the key point is this: If parents are to retain the duty to cause receipt by their children of suitable education then parents must be given the leeway to decide what form this education should take. If they have no leeway to decide upon form and content, then logically they cannot be held liable if the education proves to be unsuitable - for example, at the end of a disastrous period of tuition at school followed by poor outcomes for the child on leaving.

Routine official monitoring is not conducive with parental choice in education because in practice what tends to happen is that the provision changes to fit officials' stated requirements and expectations rather than the more effective tailor made, child-focused approach that many of our unmonitored offspring enjoy. An example of this process can be found in this post from 2009, which explains why we campaign so vociferously to resist developments which might exacerbate the problem.

The current approach in Bradford is in breach of the government Guidelines for Local Authorities in that is does seek to routinely monitor, attempting to visit families on an annual basis even where no concerns are apparent. This has been causing unease amongst home educators on a local and a national basis because of the potentially damaging effects of such expensive, unnecessary and ultra vires interventions on our children's education.

The questions asked by the local authority of home educating parents in the appendix 3 far exceed the instruction to "ask the parents for information" set out by Judge Donaldson in the 1980 precedent case of Phillips v Brown. Our concern here is that the questions enable officers to pre-judge an educational provision that they should not be judging at all, unless Section 437 concerns are apparent. It takes some considerable time after deregistration for parents to assess their children and settle into a course of study and this usually has to be a very flexible process involving much trial and error. To be encouraged by officials to state their specific provisional intentions in advance of this happening is again to risk damaging the personal and perfectly tailor made approach that usually develops only without such interventions.

Most home educating parents are not teachers in the school sense, because their parental relationship prevents this form of interaction. The practice of home education usually does not resemble school and nor should it, because it is not a mechanism for the instruction of children en masse. In the absence of apparent and specific concerns of suitability it is not legally open to the scrutiny of local authorities in the way that schools are because homes and family life are necessarily private and parents are not being paid by the state (as in the case of schools) for the tuition of the children of other parents. In the absence of Section 437 concerns they are answerable only to their children and such wider circle of involved neighbours, friends and relatives as they think fit.

This is something of an anomaly in the present culture but such privacy is vital to the often delicate relationship the parent tries to foster between the child's natural curiosity and the things he or she needs to learn. The parent cannot usually dictate to the child what he or she must be curious about and nor can she proceed regardless as happens at school. Instead she must work dynamically with the child to develop and draw out his or her own interests in an educational way. This relies on a relationship of trust between the two which must not be breached if the child's curiosity and willingness to learn is to continue. In my own older children this has resulted in various successful outcomes in which entrepreneurial young adults are contributing to the economy by utilising those very interests we fostered in home education, in the commercial field. They are actively engaged in their work in a very healthy way, which was my aim but which was repeatedly thwarted by unsolicited contact from the local authority that challenged the trusting relationship between parent and child which is such a prerequisite for elective home education provision to succeed.

As home educators we would prefer our engagement with local authorities to be entirely voluntary unless there are concerns about our provision, and we feel the current national regulatory system perfectly reflects this. This is because a voluntary arrangement ideally supplies only the advice we seek in a relaxed setting that enables us to utilise and adopt it properly. A heavy handed more unsolicited and proactive approach from the local authority is more likely to deter us from asking for advice or from taking on board any advice supplied as anything other than an unwelcome and ultra vires intervention. A voluntary relationship (in the absence of Section 437 concerns) is therefore more efficient, economical and substantially more effective than one routinely imposed by the local authority on its own terms.

Home educators do have concerns about the misuse of the term 'home education', particularly in the use of illegal schools and when there are specific welfare concerns, but we are of the firm opinion that current statute and regulations (Section 98 of the Education and Skills Act and Sections 7 and 47 of the Children Act) provide ample measures to resolve these issues without the need for any changes which might potentially damage our children's learning in the way I've explained above.

We challenge the view that 'a child not seen by the authorites is a child at risk of abuse': The NSPCC's report into the 7 Serious Case Reviews that have featured home educated children in the last decade or so demonstrated that all of the children listed were known to their local authorites, but that already existing regulations were not followed correctly. It therefore follows that extra regulations will not make children more safe and what is required is a more thorough knowledge and adherence to current guidelines and statute instead.

We regard the proposal to delay deregistration from school by 20 days as a breach of Section 8 of the statutory Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006 and may seek to take action accordingly if this change is adopted in Bradford or elsewhere.

The tracking down of children who may be missing education by sharing details of families "..who are in recived of child benefit.." [sic] is then, in light of the above, an alarming plan especially as the intention appears to attempt to proactively and routinely monitor the provision of those who are found in this way. The problem of illegal schools should be addressed by proper policing of Section 98 of the Education and Skills Act. Any concerns about our children's welfare should be addressed by appropriate and correct use of sections 7 and 47 of the Children Act and concerns which may arise from individually involved members of the community about our children's educational provision should be dealt with by the informal process set out in the Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities followed by, if unsuccessful, the formal process set out in Section 437 of the Education Act.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Home education and illegal schools. Again.

Four days ago, this bright, sunny article appeared in the BBC News Education section: Home education: The children going 'not back to school', in which a variety of effective home education methods were described and the process of deregistration from school and the legal position of home education were clearly explained.

This was presumably read by some grouchy Old Labour politician of the "All of your children are belonging to us" dyed-in-the-wool school of dogma, and a phone call or two later, this weird little Local Government Association press release appeared today and was duly rolled out on the BBC and in The Guardian by way of redress, one assumes. Because we can't have people thinking it's ok to just deregister their children from school, there has to be some threatened oversight and/or some general tarnishing of the idea as a corollary.

"Councils need more powers to protect children and tackle illegal schools," says the headline of the press release. The current, perfectly adequate regulations to tackle illegal schools are added as a footnote because of course, it's not really about the illegal schools at all - it's about getting into the homes of home educating families and questioning their children, just like Badman wanted in 2009.

I don't want to supply too much oxygen to this silliness, but I do want to take issue with Richard Watts' initial sentence: "The vast majority of parents who home educate their children do a fantastic job, and work well with their local council to make sure that a good education is being provided," because how can he know "the vast majority of parents who home educate do a fantastic job"? The answer is he cannot, because he has no power or ethical right to inspect and make the judgment of whether they are or not. Furthermore, as home educators we don't have to do "a fantastic job" - we only have to "cause our children to receive efficient full-time education suitable (a) to their age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs they may have."

Finally, most home educating parents do not "work well with their local council to make sure that a good education is being provided," because that is not the role of the local council in home education. There is neither the funding nor the legal justification for local councils to be involved in home education unless "it appears that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education" - home education quite rightly happens separately from local councils and other than that proviso, it does not fall under their jurisdiction.

I can't find the quote, but somebody once said that the main goal of every organisation quickly becomes growth and then it loses focus in its original intended function, and local authority departments as well as the national associations designed to support them, are no exception to this. Home education in the UK remains a thriving but stubbornly untapped market for interventions and this is undoubtedly deeply frustrating to some people. But for home educators, who live and learn in a legal enclave of vital peace and privacy, it is very good news indeed.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Why, as a home educator, I will be voting for the UK to *leave* the EU

UK home educators will never forget the 2009 Badman Review, which presented the biggest threat to their way of life since Joy Baker's children were in Chancery in the 1950s. The Badman Review was commissioned by the then Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls, but it took its academic justification from a paper by Daniel Monk, a reader in law at Birkbeck College in the University of London, with the title: 'Regulating home education: negotiating standards, anomalies and rights'.

I blogged a detailed critique of Mr Monk's work last year, in which I counted fifteen significant and unaccountable leaps of logic and some quite heavy bias in favour of state monitoring of parental educational provision, but he also mentions Europe no less than seven times throughout the paper, in fact one of the main thrusts of his argument seems to be: "Free and unfettered home education is unpopular within the EU, therefore the UK should be tightening up its own regulations and will, to be more in line with other EU countries."

Lobbying for tighter regulations of home education appears to be strangely de rigeur again just now. The Association of Directors of Children's Services has just published its 'overview' of the results of a survey it decided to hold, with some carefully selected response quotes at the end, mostly and unsurprisingly calling for greater powers of intervention. Needless to say, I was not invited to take part in this survey and nor was any other home educating parent to my knowledge.

In Bradford, Michael Wilshaw's call for an investigation into the bad state of its schools has somehow mysteriously morphed into a forthcoming inquiry about home education, which is roundly predicted to issue calls for more regulation of us - as though we are to blame for the state of schools in Bradford.

In a possibly collaborated pincer movement, Ofsted's Wilshaw and chair of the Commons Select Committee on Education, Neil Carmichael, are both gunning for us. Last month Wilshaw himself tried to link home education with illegal schools (can Local Authorities not police their own areas without threatening our children's learning..?) when he said:

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

And Neil Carmichael had his turn back in October when he said:

"I think [registration of home educators] should be compulsory. It would enable the local authority to get a better grip on home education and also help with child protection. I am a great believer in freedom of choice, but it would be better if children who are home educated were known about. It would reduce the chance of any vulnerable children being let down in any way, or slipping through the net."

Well, Mr Carmichael, sadly this is what can all too often happen when vulnerable children are "got a grip on" by local authorities and other professionals, and it is one of the key reasons why we will oppose your ideas every step of the way.

So far, the Conservative Party's 2010 assurances that our regulations will not alter while they are in government are holding good. But with the wolves above baying at our doors, we never know when we will next have to go and lobby Parliament, which is one of the many things we did in 2009 to good effect. If the European project continues apace, will we be travelling to Brussels instead of London the next time we need to protest? And if so, would our voices be heard there and make any difference? International education law expert Daniel Monk evidently thinks they would not.

Monday, January 25, 2016

"But what's wrong with compulsory registration for home educators? What difference would it make?"

I've even heard this question coming from home educators in the past few days - albeit relatively new ones: people who weren't home educating in 2009, the year of the Badman Review.

The review used Daniel Monk's extremely dubious conclusions to recommend a conditional, annual, compulsory registration scheme for which we would have to regularly reapply and the success of each family's application would depend on the results of their ongoing monitoring and assessment by local authority officials, who would have the legal right to enter our houses and interview our children alone. If you don't believe me, read the recommendations.

These recommendations were incorporated into the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which would have become law if the 2010 General Election hadn't prevented it just in time because the incoming Conservatives (and Lib Dems) rejected it. We were very lucky with the timing of this effort, but the Badman Report remains on file at the government website and some people who had pushed for it remain disappointed that its recommendations were not implemented.

The point is, compulsory registration for home education is NOT just a process of taking our names and adding them to a list. Yes, people who have deregistered their children from school are on local authority registers already and I can understand why some of them might wonder what real difference it would make if we all were, but the answer is above. The current situation, in which some of us can legitimately avoid being on register, protects everyone - including those who are currently registered - from the Badman Recommendations.

Right now, the local authority has to issue a School Attendance Order and then have this enforced by a court to compel a parent to register her child at a school. Under the Badman Recommendations, the parent's failure to comply with the registration criteria would be sufficient. It turns the entire premise of the parent's duty to secure educational provision on its head, as this becomes more of a local authority duty instead, but they were going to do it anyway - and obviously some influential people still want to.

Our children are all registered already, within six weeks of their birth according to the Registration of Births Act 1953. School attending children are then added to school registers, but all of our children remain on the birth register. If, as some campaigners suggest, "All they want to know is how many of us there are," the remaining names are there, all presumably being educated "or otherwise", unless it appears to the local authority that this might not be the case.

All of the information a compulsory home education register might provide is therefore currently stored and available. The only possible remaining reason for wanting to go to the trouble and expense of creating and maintaining such a new register, is therefore monitoring and compliance at the expense of our children's education.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dylan Seabridge, Section 47 and home education regulation

The tragic case of Dylan Seabridge has mysteriously resurfaced across mainstream media, yesterday and today. Dylan was known to be home educated by his local authority, but education staff did not see him because home educated children are not usually compelled by law to see education officials.

Concerns about Dylan's safety were raised amongst officials more than a year before his death, but no action was taken on these concerns. Instead of social workers, bizarrely, education staff were notified to merely make inquiries into his home education.

So we need more regulation of home educators, the argument goes. This would save their lives and prevent them from dying from neglect - even though cases like that of Daniel Pelka who attended school and still died, clearly demonstrate this to be false.

And yet we already have legislation to compel access for children who are suspected to be at risk of harm: Section 47 of the Children Act 1989:

(4) 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.

Calls for a compulsory register have been coming from Neil Carmichael and others since last October, and I heard an interview between that man and home educator Clinton Lee yesterday evening, in which Mr Carmichael quite despicably waved the shroud of Dylan Seabridge to make his case.

I would like to respectfully suggest that Mr Carmichael considers using his position as Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Education to make inquiries as to why the current law is being ignored in respect of children whose local authorities "have reasonable cause to suspect [they are] suffering, or [are] likely to suffer, significant harm" instead of wasting public money campaigning for expensive, unnecessary and unhelpful extra legislation.