The Big Question: Should the parents of home-schooled children be forced to register?
Why are we asking this now?
A report by the House of Commons Select Committee covering education, published this morning, is highly critical of the Government's plan to tighten up on regulations governing home education.
What led to the select committee inquiry?
The Government set up a review of home education regulations headed by Graham Badman, the former Director of Children's Services in Kent. Key recommendations of his that it accepted included: (i) that all parents who wanted to educate their children at home should be on a compulsory register, (ii) they should have an annual home visit by the local authority, and (iii) the visitor should have the right to interview the child away from his or her parents.
Why did the Badman report make this recommendation?
It came to the conclusion that it was impossible to estimate how many parents were educating their children at home. The local authorities were aware of about 45,000 but unofficial estimates have put the figure as high as 150,000.
More controversially, part of the report's brief was to examine "the extent to which claims of home education could be used as a 'cover' for child abuse such as neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude".
In his evidence to MPs, Mr Badman said that a survey of 74 authorities showed that the percentage of home educators whose children were on child protection plans was 0.4 per cent compared with 0.2 per cent of all children. "So, it is (proportionately) double," he said. These were two key factors – the necessity for local authorities to have accurate information, and the risk to children – in formulating his key recommendations.
It should be added that much of the report centred around the need to provide more support and guidance for parents who want to educate their children at home but it is the comments on the risk to children that caused the most controversy.
What was the reaction to the proposals?
Almost universally hostile, as far as home educators were concerned. As today's select committee report puts it: "All but one of the home educators and home education organisations who contacted us were highly critical of the Badman report and were very resistant to the idea that local authorities should be give new powers in relation to the regulation and monitoring of home education."
As they saw it, no other section of society was subjected to the requirement they face an annual check from the local council – with it having the right to interview their children in private. To use their words, it was "like being guilty until proved innocent" of abuse.
They argued that the vast majority of home educators had taken this step as a result of a lack of confidence in the school system to educate their children. This could be because of past bullying. a dislike of the rigid testing regime in the state sector, or just a general philosophy that the child would receive a more liberal education in the home environment rather than having to be taught to the requirements of a national curriculum.
What does the select committee think of the evidence?
Its key finding could be summed up in one diplomatically worded sentence: "Given that the total number of home educated children is not known, making claims about the proportion of these children who are at risk is problematic."
Its summary is more terse: "We are disappointed at the less than robust evidence base that the Badman report and the Department (of Children, Schools and Families) have presented with regard to the relative safeguarding risk to school and home educated children."
It concludes: "The way in which the Department has handled the Badman review has been unfortunate... We trust that the Department will learn from this episode as it takes forward other such reviews in future." As far as the reactions of home educators are concerned, the report says: "Some home educators feel that they have been maligned by what they see as an insinuation in the report and related comments in the media of a link between home education and children being at risk of harm."
And what does it recommend?
It rejects the notion of a compulsory register – although it acknowledges the need for local authorities to have a clearer idea of the number of home education children on their patches.
It suggests, instead, a voluntary register – whose functioning should be reviewed in two years' time. If it was felt it was not working, that would be the time for a compulsory register.
And what about the annual visit and right to interview children in private?
The MPs say they can see no reason why the local authority should have the right of access to the home of parents. "We are not convinced that these meetings need take place in the family under any circumstances," they add. However, they say there should still be an annual meeting so that any problems with the child's education can be ironed out.
As to the right to interview the child in privacy, it says: "We do not believe that local authority officers responsible for liaising with home educating families should be given the right to interview a child away from the child's parents... a parent's or child's refusal for such an interview to take place should not be included as grounds for revoking registration to home educate."
What do MPs hope to achieve by softening the Government's proposed legislation?
As Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the select committee, put it: "If a balance is to be struck between parental rights and guaranteeing that all children have access to a good education, local authorities must work positively and co-operatively with home educating families."
To that end, parents should provide a statement of the education they intend to provide for their children so this can then be discussed more in a spirit more of co-operation than antagonism. The philosophy underpinning the select committee report is perhaps best stated in its opening paragraph: "In England, education is compulsory, schooling is not."
What happens now?
The proposals for legislation are included in the new Children, Schools and Families Bill laid before Parliament following the Queen's Speech. The Government has to officially respond to the select committee's report. The Bill, however, does not stipulate that monitoring meetings have to take place in the family home unless it is the sole place where education is provided. It may, therefore, be a possibility that a compromise could be reached here. One possibility is that the Bill could fail to find its way into legislation before the next election is called. If the Conservatives were to form the next Government, their representatives on the select committee are likely to lobby for its findings – which could give them a greater chance of acceptance.
Is there a case for closer monitoring?
* At present, local authorities do not have a clue as to how many children are educated at home
* The chances of a child educated at home being on child protection measures is double that of the population as a whole
* It would make it easier to detect any signs of problems
* The statistics on child protection are flawed because no one knows how many children are educated at home
* The proposed new crackdown will mean home educators are 'guilty until proved innocent' of abuse
* A voluntary register may be sufficient to provide councils with the information they need
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