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.
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.
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’.