Home education has dominated the education press for the last couple of weeks. That in itself is unusual, as home educators are not normally the focus of much attention. But the maelstrom swirling around parents who just want to be left alone to educate their children as they wish is of epic proportions. It’s indicative of the raging war in government departments.
The arguments started with Lord Soley’s Private Member’s Bill, which has gone from ‘doesn’t stand a chance of making it onto the statute books’ to the noble Lord expressing every confidence that it will become law. That’s when the gloves came off.
Then came the safeguarding bandwagon, but that didn’t do the trick either, because Lord Agnew, Under-Secretary of State for Education, responded to the pressure by saying that there would be no new primary legislation, and anyway, local councils had all the powers they need, they should just use them properly. That’s when the war broke out.
Local councils started to get aggressive – Westminster council has issued a school attendance order for Lilian Hardy, the child star of the West End musical show Matilda. Apparently, learning lines, acting and having the confidence to perform don’t count for much in Westminster, which has its own rules (with questionable legality) and a mission to ensure that every resident child complies with its definition of ‘suitable education’ – again, with dubious legality under Human Rights legislation. Lilian’s parents will not comply with the order, and are prepared to go to prison to defend their right to educate their daughter as they, not the state, see fit.
And although school attendance orders have, in the past, been rare, some local authorities have suddenly started issuing them en masse – 21 in East Anglia alone. Why the sudden surge in activity from local councils? Probably to prove that they are using their powers in order to nullify Lord Agnew’s repeated assertions that they won’t be getting any new ones.
The Times embarked on a scare campaign, talking about ‘legions of missing children’ which are only ‘the tip of the iceberg’. Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary is ‘getting tough’, according to an inside source in his department, in an article in which his own department briefed against him. Hinds might do well to take note of Abraham Lincoln’s observation (itself taken from the Gospel of Mark) that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
The BBC aired an interview with Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, whose desire to control every child in the country has been well documented. She was calling for – yes – more powers for Ofsted to deal with unregistered schools, which are allegedly being used to hide home educated children. The public was treated to pictures of filthy, squalid and dangerous rooms, together with footage of a child apparently being hit around the head.
All of these situations are deplorable, if true. But the fact remains, as the Department for Education repeatedly states, all necessary powers are in place. The Department also took the unprecedented step of issuing a press release in which it reflected that it was a pity the BBC didn’t take the evidence to them, instead of airing it on TV. To prove that the system works, police started an investigation the following day.
But still the articles keep coming – more concerns about unregistered schools; an interview with Louise Casey, government tsar, taking her customary pot shot at religion, and ‘Time to take home schooling out of the shadows’ – a scurrilous mix of misinformation, false assumption, and patronising arrogance from Ms Spielman, who sneeringly refers to home educating parents as ‘doing their slightly homespun thing’. Perhaps she should stop indulging in blame shifting and sort out the problems in the state sector which are prompting growing numbers of parents to home educate – bullying; inadequate SEND provision; lack of school places, and the questionable practice of off-rolling. Her organisation should set its own house in order.
So, why this relentless barrage of articles? Lord Agnew is suspiciously quiet in all of this furore and his much-vaunted consultation on home education is not forthcoming. The Department for Education simply keeps repeating its position – that no new powers are needed. It’s therefore a reasonable assumption that the DfE and Lord Agnew are at war with Ofsted and Lord Soley and the latter group is attempting to lobby Lord Agnew into allowing them the power after which they lust.
And home education parents? Well, they face Badman Two, the sequel. But this time it’s being acted out on a much more dangerous stage, because the Soley-Ofsted unholy alliance is playing the extremism card for all it’s worth. It‘s whipping up public opinion against anything other than state control of every child’s education on the grounds that home education is simply a smokescreen for extremist and radical child abuse.
Take note, Lord Soley, of the law. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states: ‘Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their child’. Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says: ‘State Parties agree that the education of the child shall be directed to … the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential’. You meddle with these rights at your peril.