Home education review

The home ed community has been up in arms, in the last few weeks, at the sudden launch of yet another government review of home education, only a year after the publication of the new guidelines for local government in dealing with home educated children.  Apart from the sense of harassment that stems from being “reviewed” and “consulted” for the fourth time in three years, there is particular outrage at the way the questions randomly associate home education with abuse and neglect of children, and at the four week consultation period, which many consider to be illegal. And don’t get Gill started on the Every Child Matters connection, and what those innocuous-looking aspirations appear to be hiding.

Anyway, I’ve got my response in, and I was number 1604, which means that four hundred people have done so today, which is fairly impressive.

Want to read what I said?

1 Do you think the current system for safeguarding children who are educated at home is adequate?  Please let us know why you think that.

Yes

The current system for safeguarding home educated children is exactly the same as the system for safeguarding schooled children. As I understand it, anyone coming into contact with a child and suspecting a problem can report that suspicion to the local Children’s Social Services team, be that person a health professional, third sector volunteer (re: Scouts and Guides, or similar), sports coach, friend, neighbour, or anyone else. Any more invasive “safeguarding” than this would violate the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, and would therefore be anti-democratic.

My home educated children are not kept locked in the cellar – they attend a variety of events, formally and informally structured, and meet a wide range of people. The assumption that not being registered at a school puts them in danger is an insulting and offensive one. I educate my children at home because I am seeking to give them the best education I can, at considerable personal cost. Part of my reason for home educating is the conclusion that I drew, that school was not a safe enough environment in which to leave my child. They are home educated, partly, in a bid to keep them safer than the schooled children appear to be. They are not exposed to playground bullying, they are not suffering from stress-related illnesses through over-testing, they are cared for on an adult to child ratio of one to two, and are always able to call on a loving caring adult for protection. None of those things are guaranteed in school, and I consider them to be much more effectively safeguarded at home than they could ever be at school.

2 Do you think that home educated children are able to achieve the following five Every Child Matters outcomes? Please let us know why you think that.

a) Be healthy

Yes

Of course. Why on earth should a child’s mode of education affect their ability to achieve health? Many other things affect it – what they eat, how much exercise they get, whether they have a genetic propensity towards a particular illness, whether they have been exposed to infection. These factors are the same for home educated children as for schooled children. If anything, I should think that home educated children have a small chance of being slightly healthier than schooled children, since they are not routinely exposed to the childhood illnesses that are generally caught at school. However, it is a small chance, since home educated children are not kept in total isolation, and do meet and play with other children frequently. In terms of mental health, home educated children have the advantage of not being exposed to the high-stress testing culture of the school environment, and some children are educated at home precisely because attendance at school was undermining their mental health.

b) Stay safe

Yes

Of course. In an environment where a child is being educated by a parent, who knows and understands them, and is intimately familiar with their individual talents and abilities, it is possible to keep them safe whilst offering wider opportunities to explore. Schools are obliged to make rules which apply to all the children, whereas a parent can tailor a family’s “rules” to specific children – one child is old enough and responsible enough to learn to use a cooker, or a sharp knife, or to light a fire, but another may not be so. The “rules” do not have to relate to the age of the child, but can be tailored to the specific individual, and how likely they are to damage themselves in the process. Parents know these things about their children, and do not need to make sweeping generalisations about it.

Part of my reason for home educating is the conclusion that I drew, that school was not a safe enough environment in which to leave my child. They are home educated, partly, in a bid to keep them safer than the schooled children appear to be. They are not exposed to playground bullying, they are not suffering from stress-related illnesses through over-testing, they are cared for on an adult to child ratio of one to two, and are always able to call on a loving caring adult for protection. None of those things are guaranteed in school, and I consider them to be much more effectively safeguarded at home than they could ever be at school.

c) Enjoy and achieve

Yes

Of course. Home educated children can generally cover an equivalent amount of educational content to that of schooled children, in a much shorter period of time, owing to the significantly improved adult-to-child ratio. This gives them much more time in the day to enjoy a wide range of activities, whether as part of a group, or as individuals. Having greater autonomy over how to spend their time gives them the opportunity to “enjoy” to a great extent. Equally, having the freedom to pursue a talent, interest, or subject until they are ready to stop, rather than having their time cut short by the ringing of a bell, enables them to achieve more than their schooled counterparts in that area. Educating a child is much easier when they are interested in what they are doing, and educating them according to their interests is much more effective than trying to make them interested in what you have chosen to teach.

d) Make a positive contribution

Yes

A qualified yes – insofar as I understand what this means, and I am not sure that I do, I can see no reason why a home educated child should not be able to make a positive contribution. A contribution to what, though? Certainly, my children’s contribution to our family is much more positive since they are here, taking part in daily life as family members. They are able, should they so wish, to contribute to the community through volunteering. They are friendly and polite to shop assistants – is that what is meant?

This aspiration is thoroughly unclear in meaning, but I am confident that my children make a positive contribution to the people around them, simply by being themselves. Children benefit from large amounts of time spent with their parents, and as a result, they are better able to relate positively to the wider world. Therefore, children who are in school, or in child care for large parts of the day, are likely to find “making a positive contribution” much harder.

e) Achieve economic well-being

Yes

Of course. A child’s economic well-being is scarcely something they are in direct control of – unless the aspiration refers to their economic well-being in adulthood? Again, the meaning is thoroughly unclear, but I see no reason why economic well-being should be related to home education. Home educating families take a number of different economic approaches to facilitating home education, some taking a drop in income, while others manage their children’s education around work and childcare arrangements. When a family is rich in time, it is easier to take a thrifty approach to domestic finances, and achieve economic well-being through careful expenditure, rather than inflated income. Also, whilst we know that the DCSF have told schools to ensure that the purchase of uniforms is not restricted to expensive sole suppliers, we also know that many schools have failed to conform to that guidance. Home educated children do not need to have several hundreds pounds a year spent on school uniforms.

Economic well-being in adulthood is more than achievable. Home educated children go on to achieve qualifications, attend university, and start businesses, just like schooled children do, and possibly in greater numbers, proportionally speaking. The mode of a child’s education is not what dictates that child’s ability to cope economically in adulthood.

3 Do you think that Government and local authorities have an obligation to ensure that all children in this country are able to achieve the five outcomes?  If you answered yes, how do you think Government should ensure this?

No. The Every Child Matters agenda established the five outcomes as aspirations to “promote”. To start using the words “obligation” and “ensure” is to fundamentally change its nature. It implies that it is now the responsibility of parents and children to achieve these goals, whether they consider them individually relevant and/or important, or not. It also implies that families that do not, in the opinion of local or central government departments, achieve these outcomes, should be punished in some way; that children could even be removed from families who fail to conform in these areas. “Ensure” is a word of thoroughly draconian implications. Governments do not bring up children. Parents do, and it is parents and children together who should be working out what goals they are seeking to achieve, not Government.

The Every Child Matters initiative looks innocuous, at first reading. It looks like a series of the sort of obvious statements that no-one could reasonably argue with. However, the devil is in the detail, and the minute departments start attempting to “ensure” their achievement, there is a need to interpret their meaning into concrete realities, which may or may not take into account the variations and differences of individual families’ educational, religious, and personal life choices. If those choices are legal, families should not be penalised for making them. This potential risk stretches beyond Elective Home Educators, into any family whose Local Authority considers to be “different” in some way. “Different” is not the same as “wrong”.

4 Do you think there should be any changes made to the current system for supporting home educating families? If you answered yes, what should they be?  If you answered no, why do you think that?

No. Home educators are pretty good at supporting each other, and it is perfectly reasonable for the state to offer school-based education to families, for them to accept or reject. I choose to retain the direct responsibility for my children’s education, and not delegate the responsibility to a school. In doing so, I absolve the Local Authority of their responsibility in the matter.

In any case, any improved support would have to come without strings attached – if it were tied in with any kind of “monitoring”, it would become a source of stress, and would cease to be supportive.

5 Do you think there should be any changes made to the current system for monitoring home educating families? If you answered yes, what should they be?  If you answered no, why do you think that?

No. As I understand it, the system for monitoring home educating families involves Local Authorities being notified of a child’s receiving education at home, seeking some kind of reassurance that education is, in fact, taking place, and assuming that reassurance is forthcoming, seeking further reassurances on a periodic basis – usually annually, I believe.

One of the democratic principles upon this country is based, is the principle of the presumption of innocence. I have a legal obligation to ensure that my children are receiving a suitable education, and I can see no reason for anyone to assume that I am doing otherwise, unless there is some evidence to suggest as much. Just as with suspicions of abuse or neglect, a friend, family member, neighbour, third sector volunteer, healthcare professional, or member of the public can report to the Local Authority if they suspect education is not taking place. Non-attendance at school should not be treated as grounds for such suspicion, since the law clearly allows for education “at school, or otherwise”. An assumption of guilt amongst home educating parents amounts to harassment of a minority group. “Different” is not the same as “wrong”.

6 Some people have expressed concern that home education could be used as a cover for child abuse, forced marriage, domestic servitude or other forms of child neglect.  What do you think Government should do to ensure this does not happen?

Firstly, the Government should find out who has been making such slanderous statements, and get them to stop. It casts suspicion and doubt in the public mind over all home educators, in a way that is both thoroughly unfair, and completely unsubstantiated.

Whilst it is theoretically possible for a home educated child to be abused, the likelihood is that it is a statistically trivial event. Most parents who choose to home educate do so as a greater-than-usual commitment to their child’s well-being. They are not generally the same parents as would abuse and/or neglect their children.

If a parent is intent on abusing their child, then de-registering the child from school is a positively foolish approach to take – such action is guaranteed to bring them to the attention of the Local Authority, in a way that they were not previously subject to.

Attendance at school does not protect children from abuse in the home, the vast majority of children attend school for many years, and some suffer abuse that is never discovered, or that is undiscovered for many years. Since school does not protect from abuse, declaring that home education increases the risk, without any statistical evidence to back the statement up, is outrageous.