One of the loveliest things about living in this remote corner of Wales in a small village is that whilst neighbours might be curious about each other, they don’t think it’s their place to interfere or judge. Being the only home educators in the village has often sparked conversations, but never hostility, which I know from other home educators is quite rare. Sadly, the Welsh Assembly have just produced a ‘consultation’ document (one which makes clear they’ve already decided on the outcome) that is about to change all that for the worse. I’m grateful my children are through this stage, but I want the same freedoms for future grandchildren or other families in Wales that we enjoyed.
The consultation document begins by wrongly assuming that section 436A of The Education Act 1996 so amended is aimed at discovering home educated children – it’s actually aimed at discovering children who are not receiving ANY form of education and it was never the intention of this clause to lump home educators into that category, as the statutory guidance issued for England makes explicit. Local Authorities (LAs) have a role to play in home education, but the exact nature of that role is not a clear one. It has become commonplace to hear LAs talk about monitoring or assessing home education, but the language of monitoring or assessment is not found in any of the legislation applying to home education and even the duty to make enquiries is phrased in the negative – ‘If it appears that a child is not receiving a full time efficient education,’ then LEAs have a duty to take some action.
So how is it likely to appear that a child is or is not receiving a full time efficient education? What case law has provided is that LAs cannot be expected to judge the issue unless they are first allowed to ask some questions of the family, so informal enquiries are generally the first step.
A positive and collaborative relationship will not be achieved if the Local Authority takes on a duty that does not currently exist in law, but this is precisely what the Welsh Assembly intend to do by issuing statutory guidance that makes them the arbiters of whether parents have permission to home educate or not. In law as it stands parents don’t need permission to home educate. (Except for some special cases with children in special schools all other children can be automatically deregistered, including children with statements of SEN who are attending mainstream schools.) It is the legal duty of parents to ensure that their children receive an education which is efficient to their age, ability and aptitude by attendance at school or otherwise. The intended changes in Wales would make a mockery of this parental duty, which will continue to exist in law.
A LA can only expect to establish cordial and professional contact with home educating parents if the parents’ primary duty to decide on the place and manner of education is respected. There are several key issues that need to be thought through before an LA sets about assessing provision.
The first is to keep the emphasis on the education that is being provided and not on the outcomes. When assessing home education there is an important distinction to be made between assessing the education on offer and assessing the child.
In 2000 the alternative school Summerhill went to court on just this issue and they remain in business because they made the point that being an educator is about making an offer an education – about providing something. Similarly in state schools inspectors look at the teaching and at the attainment being reached on average as a result of the education offered, rather than focussing on individual children. Any assessment should focus primarily on educational provision. In home education this provision will be targeted to meet the specific needs of one or a small number of children in a family, but this does not mean that you need to assess the child directly.
Do the parents have a broad idea of what they want to achieve? Do the parents have ideas about what methods of education they are going to use and why?
A LA is looking at what’s on offer – whether its textbooks and timetables or conversations and visits – and why it’s on offer – perhaps because the parents want to encourage more natural lifelong learning patterns or because they want to provide a specialised music education or because they want to provide learning that conforms to a particular lifestyle or belief system. To be efficient education only has to be capable of achieving what it sets out to achieve.
What a LA should be is asking is –
What are you providing?
How do you see what you are providing as full time and efficient?
How does what you are providing relate to age, ability, aptitude and any special needs?
In asking such question an LA needs to be mindful that there are a vast range of educational philosophies out there. There is often a concern expressed by home educators that LA officials are likely to misunderstand any but the most school-like notions of education at home. If a family can in some way present their provision as education in their own terms, then the likelihood is that education is taking place unless there are very compelling reasons to think otherwise.
Those following an autonomous educational approach can present particular problems to assessment, but nonetheless have the right to educate in this way. This philosophy relies on the child’s intrinsic motivation so its methods might change all the time – six months of nothing written down might be followed by a period of intense workbooks, followed by investigations based on a series of visits or some mixture or something else entirely. An LA will need to look past what is being done at this moment in time to what is being aimed at. What are the ideas holding it all together? How does it relate to the individual child? More conventional notions like a balanced curriculum or learning set skills at set ages will be completely inappropriate to an autonomous educational philosophy. Or again there are families that centre their education on an important lifestyle or belief choice – from ecological living to Hasidic Jews. The freedom to follow very specific philosophies and creeds in education is enshrined in both the Human Rights Act and in case law, so it pays to stay open minded. Although the consultation document pays lip service to different styles of home education, including the informal, the fact that they are following this up with imposed annual home visits in which the child is ‘assessed’ by a stranger completely belies any mutual respect.
The assumption that the best way to assess home education is by a home visit is completely inimical to several educational philosophies. Going so far as to suggest that this is the only way to assess home education is draconian and disastrous and urgently needs to be re-thought.
There is currently no provision in law allowing an LA automatic right of access to home educator’s homes and nowhere in law are home visits currently presumed. Case law has allowed home visits as the principle assessment tool only in extreme cases – for example a case with disabled and isolated parents with several children at home.
Some home educators are comfortable with home visits and there’s certainly nothing wrong with making the suggestion. By the same token, others do not welcome home visits and this doesn’t need to be a sign that the family has something to hide. The parents may be following an autonomous philosophy, which includes the idea that privacy is basic to a thriving educational environment. Or the family may simply like to keep their private space private or may feel that their home is not the best venue for a professional exchange.
This can raise alarm bells for caring professionals, but it doesn’t have to. The concern is with educational provision. That doesn’t mean that an LA should have no regard for general welfare issues, but unless there is a real reason for welfare concerns there is no reason to go hunting for evidence where none exists.
There is often a general anxiety about home educated children being ‘seen’, but the real fact is that home education is a high profile life style. Neighbours notice when children don’t go to school. Doctors and dentists are much more likely to be aware than not. Leaders of children’s activities or of faith groups will know who the home educators are. Hiding children at home is not easy. We all know that hiding abused children in the school population under cloaks of silence and family secrecy is more than possible and that taking a child with problems out of school is likely to alert attention. Every cross section of the population has problem elements, but children out of school who have welfare problems are likely to be known to their GPs or social services for reasons other than education and if they are not it is highly unlikely that a home visit will be the saving of them, no matter how tragic a fact that is. The best abusers are the most plausible people and the idea that an hour a year is going to give you detailed welfare information about children just because you see into their houses is more than wishful thinking. It’s not a fair way to treat families and it is a grossly unfair expectation professionals assessing education. It could even be that professionals who are put under pressure to make serious welfare assessments while doing another job and in a very limited space of time are going to be reduced to making judgements on spurious issues.
Welfare issues aside why should we assume that a home visit is more likely to furnish evidence of education than any other method? It is one option, but it’s not the only or even necessarily the best option.
The law talks about evidence which, on the balance of probabilities only, would convince a reasonable person that education is taking place. Quite rightly, an LA is not asked to come up with definitive proof that is beyond reasonable doubt but only to make a reasonable, open minded, informed judgement. To do this it is possible to consider evidence of provision in many ways and the more reasonable and flexible an LA is about this the more home educators are likely to respond reasonably and flexibly. Evidence can be supplied in many ways. Using children’s work to assess what is being provided as an education may be a method some parents are happy with. On the other hand if 70% of the education is purposive conversation and another 25% is educational visits, leaving only 5% or less written down in a formal way, then what you learn about the educational provision from ‘work’ samples is meaningless and flawed. The point is that if an LA attempts to dictate what form the evidence has to come in, then it is much less likely to get a true picture of the education being provided. What is important is that the type of information you are given should be of a kind that helps you look at the particular education on offer.
It might be a home visit; it might be a meeting at the library or at local café; it might be a visit that includes the child or it might not; it might be a video or a report containing an educational philosophy or an extract from an educational journal; a project or other samples of work or a file of mind-maps covering recent educational investigations. It might be something completely different.
The consultation paper stresses the right of the child to have his/her views taken into account, but this is not license for an authority to interview a child. Children in school are not routinely monitored to ensure they wouldn’t rather be home educated because this is fundamentally a parental decision and the suggestion that any child who no longer wanted to be educated at school should be followed through by the government would be treated with derision. Moreover, a child may not want to meet with an LA official and coercing her to do so should not be legally required of parents who are often following child-led educational philosophies.
The question is simply whether the evidence offered (of whatever kind) gives an appearance that no suitable education is taking place on the balance of probabilities only. In answering that question an authority needs to bear in mind several things. ‘Suitable’ is a very broad concept – one case has defined it as equipping a child to take part in society, but case law also upheld the right of parents to educate their child in a strict Hasidic Jewish tradition cut off from mainstream society and noted that in this case ‘society’ is the child’s particular sub-culture. So the fact that a child’s education might seem narrow or biased isn’t sufficient for the education to appear not suitable.Similarly the law has resisted pinning down a definition of education – it is such a broad concept that judgements about what is ‘efficient’ have to be couched in terms of the goals the family has set itself.
An LA should also be mindful that if it refuses permission to home educate (perhaps because the parents refuse access to the home, but offer lots of reasonable evidence of their provision) and a School Attendance Order is then issued (an intimidating action causing enormous stress) this will not only lead to worsened relations with the family, but will not guarantee a child’s return to school. In court a family only has to show that on that day they are home educating. The judge will not visit the home. The judge will certainly not want a child appearing in court. The parents will only have to present evidence that on the balance of probabilities only they are educating sufficiently at that moment in time. This makes a nonsense of setting up a new regime that demands so much more than a parent would need to supply in court and which is designed to create conflict and stress for families and professionals alike.
Home education can remain a pleasant and positive choice for professional, parents and children if the Welsh Assembly avoids statutory guidance that antagonises honest families delivering excellent education and instead opts for models of good practice that are respectful of the primary rights and duties of parents. In short – leave those families alone so that more home educated young people can learn in all sorts of alternative ways and go on to be wonderful young adults.