Feature

HOME EDUCATION AND THE SAFEGUARDING BANDWAGON

The safeguarding bandwagon in relation to home education rolled on throughout the Christmas break. Wales announced  consultation on compulsory registration – the significance of which was missed by the national media. Eleanor Schooling, Ofsted’s National Director of Social Care, published an article on more effective safeguarding for home educated children – a thinly veiled attempt to coerce the government to agree to compulsory registration, which hung in the ether and appeared to have no purpose.

Hackney Council was next to jump on the bandwagon, publishing an article on unregistered educational settings (UES) in its borough. The report focuses exclusively on Jewish yeshivas and laments the lack of government urgency in introducing compulsory registration and in giving local authorities powers to inspect home education. The argument goes that because these settings are unregistered, they constitute home education and all home educators must therefore be controlled. Having no education expertise but never a lobby group to miss an opportunity, Humanists UK weighed in, contributing to the report and adding to calls to control Jewish education. They took much of the credit for the Hackney report, presenting themselves as leaders of the national campaign against religious schools and, in passing, accusing Jewish schools of child abuse.

Why is the bandwagon gathering such momentum? Probably because those who want complete control of every child in the country under the guise of safeguarding sense that they may be losing the argument. In a written answer, Lord Agnew (who recently replaced Lord Nash as Under-Secretary of State for Education) not only says that there will be no new legislative powers, he uses Amanda Spielman’s own comments on Ofsted’s success in dealing with UES to prove that existing legislation is effective. He even states that there are far fewer unregistered schools than at first estimated. That’s not what supporters of Lord Soley’s private members bill wanted to hear.

Lord Soley’s bill aims to tighten controls on home education; it received its second reading in November. Adopting a warm, avuncular tone, Lord Soley says he wants to help home educators, as they are a much neglected group, often unsupported and with unacknowledged needs. That’s the warm, cuddly bit.

The truth is a little more ominous. He wants to balance the rights of the child against the rights of the parents, even though home educating parents are discharging their duty and responsibility, not exercising their rights. In his speech, he thanks local authorities, two in particular, for their help in preparing the bill. And an FOI request to one of those authorities reveals, via transcribed emails, what that help actually looks like.

On the elective home education (EHE) lobby: ‘You are correct the EHE lobby is mobilising – already FOI requests…asking for copies of all emails between officers and yourself.’

 On what they want to achieve: ‘gov view is that LA’s need to stretch the guidance and they want case law to be tested’…’ Problem is that this needs to be communicated to EHE community’.‘That’s basically the trouble with all of this. Too much relies on parental permission’. ‘The core issues then are to establish clear statutory access to the children and having full details of all EHE’s’. ‘Hopefully our collective efforts will influence the DfE’s thinking’.

 On removing the words ‘emotional and physical development’ from the proposed wording in order to get legislation past the home ed lobby: ‘the starting point is to get access to educational provision. Looking at provision is firmer ground than trying to tackle emotional development’, ‘words “physical and emotional” could be left out not least because this will distract and allow the EHE lobby to be critical. The important issue is the duty to monitor the child’s “educational’ development”’ ‘Once EHE professionals are under duty to monitor the “educational’ development” of the child by a visit to the home and a discussion with the parent and child, they will be in a better position to detect any safeguarding issues’ ‘the starting point is to get access to educational provision. Looking at provision is firmer ground than trying to tackle emotional development’

 Lord Soley’s concern over the possible role of Lord Agnew: I understand the new Minister is S T A [Sir Theo Agnew] – is that correct? The other problem here is the position of the new minister on this issue. If he is still sympathetic to co-operating with me on getting the Bill into a form that satisfies the Government and myself then obviously I will try and involve the Department at all stages. If there is not a willingness to co-operate then I will have to reconsider how I handle the Bill. Any ideas about this?

On sanctions for non-compliant parents: Where a new statutory duty is created it is usual and good practice to create a sanction for non-compliance with the duty…[include] a provision that makes clear that where a parent fails to register a Local Authority may take this into account in determining whether to issue a notice under the Education Act 1996…case law has established that “if parents refuse to answer it could very easily conclude that prima facie the parents were in breach of their duty”.’

Lord Soley ends one email by saying that he needs to work out ‘how best to enlist public support as the opposition is now growing’. Oddly, I thought that was what living in democracy meant – legislation can be both proposed and opposed. Clearly he has temporarily lost sight of how democracy works.

He also observes that opposition is ‘still far less than it was some years ago’. Watch this space, Lord Soley and make no assumptions about using your power to get ‘clear statutory access’ to other people’s children. Parents are the guardians of their children’s welfare, not the state.