REGULATING HOME ED WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

Kirsty Williams AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education, announced the Welsh Assembly’s consultation on elective home education recently. The inclusion of compulsory registration and inspection was widely expected. In a surprising turn of events, it didn’t happen. Williams revealed that there wil be no compulsory registration, despite calls for this following the death of Dylan Seabridge.

She acknowledged that Wales (and this is also true of England) has the lightest touch legislation on elective home education of any government in Europe. That makes it the envy of many other countries, including America. That light touch may well continue, but don’t be too easily persuaded. Two definitive statements stand in stark contrast in the speech: ‘let me be absolutely clear: we will not be compelling parents to register that their child as being home educated’ (so far, so good) followed by a declaration that ‘the Government has a moral duty to ensure that all children receive a suitable education’ (probably not so good). Williams explained in some detail how this will be implemented. The responsibility will rest with Local Authorities to know where the children in their remit are being educated. To facilitate this, LAs will be required to maintain a database, to which independent schools will be have to contribute.

But that doesn’t mean that EHE parents are home and dry. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has raised the issue of children’s rights and that is part of a much more sinister trend of governments across the UK to ‘rebalance’ the rights of children against their parents – the Named Person strategy in Scotland is the most overt attempt. The only possible outcome of rebalancing is for the state to assume all rights over a child’s upbringing. With rights and responsibilities removed, parents become nothing more than biological hosts for the next generation of society. It’s also a key indicator of a totalitarian regime.

There is also the issue of who defines ‘suitable education’ – this was described in the debate as a key litmus test. Very few home educating parents have sympathy with the current culture of measurement which values children solely by exam grades. But Williams is clear ‘that local authorities will act on their legal duties to intervene when children are not receiving a suitable education or may be experiencing neglect’. So this isn’t just about safeguarding. In fact, as with all other debates about the rights of parents, safeguarding is only a convenient smokescreen – a useful mechanism for garnering public support. At first reading, it seems like a good deal. On closer inspection, one might reasonably assume that the Welsh government has decided it can’t get away with walking through the door, but it’s certainly intending to climb through a window.

Little is said about the parents of special needs or disabled children who are increasingly removing their children from formal schooling because their needs are simply not being met. Other parents are choosing to home educate because they don’t consider the state offer to be appropriate for their children. Increasingly, there is anecdotal evidence that some schools are themselves encouraging parents to home educate their children, rather than face an expulsion which will remain on their record. None of these children is receiving a ‘suitable’ education from the very state which assumes moral superiority.

So what does this mean for England? Various high profile cases have hit the headlines recently, including mass ‘return to school’ notices in East Anglia, and a similar notice to the child actor who took the role of Matilda in the West End hit musical last year. The bigger picture suggests that Local Authorities in England are pushing hard to ensure that they are being seen to do their duty, but also to demonstrate the urgent need for compulsory registration.

A government consultation is expected in England any day now, so it will be interesting to see whether any notice has been taken of the approach preferred by the Welsh Assembly. Lord Agnew would be well advised to take note of Williams’ answer when asked why she wasn’t making registration compulsory:

a compulsory register that would potentially criminalise parents if they failed to register—relies on those parents to do that. The issue is that that legislation would only be as good as our ability to enforce it, which means you need to know who hasn’t registered.’

Applying the Rumsfold formula to the situation, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t take any action. So the very children most at risk of harm, or radicalisation, or neglect, can remain hidden from authorities if parents are determined to keep them so.

During the debate in the Welsh Assembly , Williams made the following statement:

This Government is committed to ensuring that every child and young person receives an education that inspires, motivates and equips them with the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfil their potential.’

Perhaps it might occur to those trying to limit, or oppose, the rights of parents that this is exactly the reason why home educators do what they do, rather than leave their children’s potential and wellbeing to the vagaries of the state.

SPIELMAN’S MESSIANIC MISSION

Late last year, I went to a meeting with Ofsted’s Director of Strategy. During that conversation, I discussed my concern that Christians who simply want to exercise their freedom to live by biblical principles and to teach their children accordingly, are being accused of indoctrination. That view extends to any but the most anodyne teaching, or expression, of the Christian faith in schools. A significant part of the problem, I explained, is that the media simply lumps Christianity, Judaism and Islam together, labelling them all as extremist. Language like ‘hate-filled’ and ‘toxic’ is a regular part of reporters’ rhetoric and Ofsted is playing a considerable role in encouraging this perspective. I was given an assurance by the person concerned, who happens to be Amanda Spielman’s speech writer, that care would be taken in future.

So, you can imagine my disgust when I read Spielman’s speech to the Church of England Foundation for Education Leadership last week. To be fair, it’s helpful in that it does lay out the full extent of her messianic mission, including her antipathy to all but the most warm and fluffy expressions of faith – the type that John Major evoked with his description of ‘warm beer, long sleepy afternoons watching cricket on the village green, and old maids cycling to Evensong’. The extent of her anger with any opponents of Sunday School inspection was also very evident, even though primary legislation is the concern of a democratically elected Parliament, not of Ofsted.

Her solution – ‘muscular liberalism’ – merits interrogation. Presumably she has to define it as muscular liberalism because, as Tim Farron recently pointed out, liberalism has eaten itself  so the ideologues need something altogether, well, muscular. As is well documented, Spielman enjoyed a privileged education, which will have been balanced, diverse and pluralistic. It’s an education that afforded her ample opportunity to make up her own mind about what she believes and she’s clearly chosen secular feminism as her worldview – that’s fine. We live in a democratic country. She can believe whatever she wishes as a private individual. What she cannot do is abuse her role as Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills by imposing her views on society. To do so is to deny todays’ children and young people the right to understand, engage with and respond to any views other than her own.

When it comes to Christianity, she says that freedom of belief is acceptable in the ‘private sphere’ but not in the public square. The same, Ms Spielman, must therefore be true of your personal worldview. Fine for your private sphere – not acceptable in the public square. And most certainly not acceptable from a government employee heading up a department which purports to value freedom of speech, democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the Equality Act 2010. Just in case you need reminding, Ms Spielman, faith is a protected characteristic. The motto of the organisation you represent is ‘Raising Standards, Improving Lives’. Lives are improved when people have the opportunity to determine their own beliefs, not have them inculcated by aggressive secular dogmatists. You’re on record about the inculcation strategy, by the way.

The problem was neatly defined by the Christian Institute – ‘Just because somebody is religious and has socially conservative views, that does not mean that they have their first foot on the escalator to violent extremism’. A spokesperson from Anglican Mainstream (which, unlike the Christian Institute, is actually Anglican, Ms Spielman, just to clarify) pointed out that extremism is ‘a violent response involving physical harm to people’ and to confuse that with work in defending marriage and sexuality is’ illiterate’. If you need some lessons in literacy, Ofsted, we are happy to oblige.

Other concerns were expressed by the Safe at School Campaign, who saw the implications of the speech as so sinister that they called for Spielman’s resignation. As their press release pointed out, Spielman was acting way beyond her remit by:
•usurping parental rights in saying that she would back heads against parents
• manipulating British values in limiting freedom to speak about belief, which is an essential part of a liberal democracy
•accusing schools which teach basic Christian principles on marriage, sexuality and the sanctity of life of ‘indoctrinat[ing] impressionable minds under the guise of religious belief’.

The problem with the imposition of social control, as many dictators have discovered throughout history, is the immutability of Newton’s third Law of Motion. For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. So, Ofsted, you won’t solve the intractable, and very genuine, problem of extremist worldviews by imposing aggressive secularism, masquerading as muscular liberalism. You will simply drive the real problems further underground and out of reach, whilst alienating vast tracts of a reasonable and balanced society.

To paraphrase Pink Floyd (should you happen to be reading this, Ms Spielman) ‘Hey, Ofsted, leave our kids alone’.

PARENTS NOT POLITICIANS

Important new data was released by the Evangelical Alliance this week, following a poll by ComRes to test public opinion concerning the role of parents in Relationships and Sex Education. Primary legislation passed in the Children and Social Work Act 2017 stated that parents would not have any right to remove their children from Relationships Education lessons during Primary school years. The DfE has made it very clear that this will not change.

But the public, it seems, thinks very differently about the role of parents. This is what the evidence from the survey says:
• Parents should have access to the content of relationships education lessons in advance – 78%

• Parents should be notified if external organisations are contributing to lessons – 80%

• Parents are the most appropriate people to decide when primary age children should learn about sexual activity and sexual orientation – 65%

• Politicians are the least appropriate group to make the decision about when children should learn about such sensitive issues – 66%

• The curriculum should include learning about family and friendships, how to stay safe online and unsafe contact with strangers – 86%

• Relationships education should respect the diverse religious and cultural backgrounds of children and their families – 71%

It would be a foolish government that did not take note of these kinds of statistics. And yet, in Parliament this week, during answers to education questions, Schools Minister Nick Gibb was happy to give an assurance that Damian Hinds shares his predecessor’s commitment ‘that relationship and sex education lessons must be LGBT inclusive’, which means that politicians will be determining what very young children are taught, regardless of what the majority of parents think.

You have until 12 February to make your views known via the call for evidence. The DfE is particularly keen to hear from parents. You are asked what you think are the three most important aspects of Relationships and Sex Education that should be taught in primary schools and also in secondary schools. You are asked the same about PSHE. You don’t have to answer all of the questions and each question has a 250 word limit. Use the opportunity to tell the government what you don’t want your child to learn, as well as what you do want.

You also have the opportunity to describe how you, as a parent, want to be informed about RSE teaching in your child’s school. This is a chance to insist that you are given advance notice of lessons and are able to view all content. And although the DfE is adamant that the law on withdrawal will not be changed, you can still express your views about it.

The data from the ComRes survey is already being used to draw politicians’ attention to the wishes of the vast majority of the voting public. But a survey isn’t as effective as individual parent voices, so make your voice heard and add it to the growing call for parents, not politicians, to make crucial decisions about what children are taught.