News from Northern Ireland
A guest post today from Sarah Dickinson at HEdNI in Northern Ireland. Personally I think the key quote from her excellent post is:
"The duty to educate belongs to the parent and the ELBs should not attempt to usurp that crucial role."
I wish the very best of luck, energy, focus and motivation to Sarah and to all other home educators in Northern Ireland, so that they can work together successfully to defeat this attempted incursion into their children's education and their family lives.
"Round and round it goes. Northern Ireland is facing the latest attack on home education as we know it.
Northern Irish law is, and is not, the same as English law on home education. The crucial phrases are the same "The parent of every child ... either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." (Section 45 Education and Libraries Northern Ireland Order 1986 SI 1986/594) and "Where it appears to a board that a parent of a child of compulsory school age in its area is failing to perform the duty".. (Schedule 13 of the same Order). but the titles are different and we lack the case law and guidance that help to define these duties and powers in England.
Instead of Local Authorities we have five Education and Library Boards (ELBs or Boards), and these are due to be replaced by the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) one day, if Sinn Fein and the DUP can agree.
In preparation for the launch of the ESA, the Boards have drawn up a draft Policy on Home Education intended to cover all five Boards. The whole conduct of the Boards has been calculated to imply that the five separate consultations are separate, minor, local matters.
However a policy covering the whole Region could have quasi-legal force, particularly in the absence of case law or guidance. The Boards appear to take the view that the interpretation of the law is up for grabs and with the weight of every Board behind their view, and a notably conservative judiciary, they might indeed be able to twist the law enough to make life very difficult. Nobody wants to be the test case that proves them wrong in the higher courts.
The Boards take the view that their role is pro-active. A duty to react 'where it appears' there may be a problem is transmuted, with a little hand waving and muttering about the importance of protecting children, into a duty:
- to assess the learning environment for safeguarding concerns
to ascertain the child's "opinion" to require that a "programme" of education is submitted and evaluated before de-registration from school is permitted to ensure that parents meet "minimum standards" to be judged subjectively by visiting education officers, which include the child's "physical, social, emotional health and wellbeing needs" to subject children with Special Educational Needs to assessment by an Educational Psychologist, to check that "reasonable progress" has been made
In support of these welfare-related powers the Boards offer the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The UNCRC is quoted selectively and could just as easily be used to argue against the proposed scheme. In any case has this Convention has not been incorporated into Law and cannot create such draconian powers. The Children Order, on the other hand, relates to matters to be taken into consideration by the Courts; to apply court procedures to families about whom there are no concerns is to turn the presumption of innocence on its head.
The law is not up for grabs in this way, such powers as the Boards desire can only be created by clear and explicit primary legislation. They are attempting to give themselves powers unavailable to even to the Police or Social Services.
The duty to educate belongs to the parent and the ELBs should not attempt to usurp that crucial role. The duties of the Board should be interpreted (as required by Article 44 of the Education Order) with regard to the general principle that a child should be educated in accordance with the wishes of the parents. The Boards' role is purely reactive and their powers are triggered by outside forces- it must "appear" to them that there is reason for concern before they can do anything at all.
Nor is the atmosphere of distrust and threat that hangs over the document conducive to good relationships with those they profess to be so keen to engage. Their 'expectation' that parents whose children have never been in school will register and submit to this scheme is almost comical. In fact many home educators have been so concerned that they will become known to the Boards that they won't attend the farcical focus groups (minutes to the first meeting here) or submit a response to the consultation.
The Boards have admitted in response to Freedom of Information requests that no research was done before the drafting, and nor was any stakeholder consulted, despite the fact that many home educators attempted to make contact. They tell us that they are drawing on their own experiences of dealing with home education! The lack of legal preparation is highlighted by the fact that they quote an un-amended version of the legislation, last modified in 2005. The Boards have so far been unable to produce any costings or impact assessments, or even crucial elements of the scheme - the application form to home educate and the form to be filled in during the home assessment.
We insist that the Education and Library Boards act within their legal powers, build the trust that is so painfully absent and support a parents right to choose.
- Sarah Dickinson, HEdNI