UK Elective Home Education Update – September 2021

England / Isle of Man & Wales / France & Portugal

England: round-up of key topics

The Education Select Committee’s Inquiry into Home Education came to a climax at the end of July when its report was published. I have put my summary of developments and their relevance to the future of EHE in a separate comment, for those who wish to understand more about its significance.

The Department for Education is under continued pressure for not responding to its Children Not in School consultation which ran from April to June 2019. As pressure has mounted it has restated many times that it is committed to introducing a registration scheme of CNiS, but does not intend any other changes in legislation in respect to monitoring of EHE children. The most recent statement to make this point is its response to a petition launched after the publication of the Education Committee’s Report.

Written questions about EHE and related matters have continued to be asked by MP’s and Lords. A search lists 56 questions which feature “home education” in either the question or the answer during the last twelve months. Often the questions are simply a form of lobbying, but they are also commonly an expression of ignorance on the part of an MP – peers tend to be better informed.

Lord Soley briefly took centre stage on 21 July in putting pressure on the DfE to introduce registration (and monitoring). His Normal Oral Question was allowed just ten minutes of debate in the House of Lords, and according to Humanists UK six of the nine peers who asked questions were members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group. Minister Baroness Berridge stuck to the DfE’s script in her answers.

The Judicial Review of Portsmouth City Council’s EHE Policy will be heard on 18th October in the Administrative Court, Bristol. PCC have done all they can to obstruct the process, but lost an important procedural stage on 11 August when the Judge approved a request for a costs cap, and an expedited process were granted by the court in full. The Judge was very clear in their decision that they considered the issue to be of national importance and therefore deserving of a full judicial review hearing. Latest updates along with links to the Judge’s Ruling and a FAQ document are on the Portsmouth Home Education Group fundraiser page. The Judge’s comments confirm what HE communities have recognised for some time, that this case is actually a test of the legality of the 2019 non-statutory guidance on EHE.

Ofsted continues to press for registration of EHE children, the latest example being Amanda Spielman’s comments in this BBC News item broadcast on 27 August.

Of particular note is her comment to the Education Committee during an Accountability Hearing on 15 June which illustrates her view that the state, not parents, has primacy over education and that she has little regard for civil liberties. In Q838 she commented:

“That is really important, but more generally throughout my time I have been pushing for a registration requirement for home-schooled children so that we know who they are, where they are and who is taking responsibility for their education. Without that it is impossible for anyone to monitor. It is a relatively difficult thing to establish in this country because we are permissive by default and always have been, not just in education. We do not have a national identity card requirement. People do not have to prove their right to exist every day or to access any service. However, I do think this is a particularly important one and I welcome the proposals that have been published, which are, I hope, coming back and being resuscitated in DfE now that it is moving out of emergency mode.” [Emphasis mine.]

The response to Covid-19 and the chaos caused by it in schools, colleges, etc. is what Spielman meant by her final comment in the above paragraph. It has severely affected the inner workings of the DfE, not just with an ever-changing situation, but also because the majority of its staff have been working from home for over a year and a half. My personal conviction is that without this disruption, the DfE may by now have moved its plans for a registration scheme forward perhaps to the stage where an Education Bill containing proposals was already before Parliament.

How severe is the disruption? On 9 February Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, told Channel 4 News, that “We’ve got the four horsemen of education apocalypse galloping towards our children.” A phrase he recycled at the end of June at the start of this article in the Telegraph “Act now to reform education or a generation of ghost children will be pandemic’s haunting legacy”.

The disruption of A Level’s and GCSE examinations in the last two years has severely impacted EHE candidates. The shift to “teacher assessed grades” has not worked well for them, even though this year the DfE funded exam centres to make it possible for private candidates to be awarded grades. One disadvantage of the scheme was that it did not apply to IGCSEs, as these are not classified as “national exams” like GCSEs. In many subjects, however, the GCSE syllabi are designed for school children not independent candidates studying from home, and so IGCSEs are favoured by many EHE families. In October 2020 a new association was formed by EHE families to discuss the problems faced by private candidates – see the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association website for more information.

N.B. Whilst younger HE children have in many ways been the least affected educationally by repeated lockdowns, many have missed the socialisation they were used to in local EHE groups and outdoor activities.

A new Children’s Commissioner for England was appointed in March. One of Dame Rachel de Souza’s first initiatives was to launch The Big Ask, the biggest ever survey of children in England, and the outcome has yet to be announced. A major weakness was that it was indeed an exercise in asking children rather than listening to them. One positive aspect was that Education Otherwise was asked to organise <an on-line session at which HE young people spoke with her staff>. EO reports, “The young people certainly challenged the Commissioner to do better.” It will not be hard for her to be more positive about EHE than her predecessor Anne Longfield, but regrettably her initial response to the Education Committee’s recent report> suggests that she has still to heed their voices.

Interest from the media continues. On Monday 6 September, ITV Regional News carried the following report:

Isle of Man & Wales

The most encouraging news this year concerning EHE has come from the Isle of Man. In early February the Education Minister announced that plans to increase requirements on EHE parents had been dropped. Importantly he recognised that the Island’s laws, which are based mainly on UK law, already possess “existing powers within the Act to allow the Department to investigate and require more information if it appears that an individual child is not receiving suitable education, and I think that safeguarding part is extremely important.”

Whilst the situation in Wales has been relatively quiet compared to England, it remains finely balanced. After the previous administration abandoned proposals for both the registration and monitoring of HE children due to disruption caused by the response to Covid-19, The Children’s Commissioner for Wales announced last September that she was conducting a Review of the Government’s failure to act in the interests of children in regard to EHE and Independent Schools. She published her Review in February and updated her comments on the holding page in June following the election of the new Senedd.

Whilst the previous Welsh Government issued its response, the present one has still to announce what action it will be taking.

In recent weeks it was also noted that the Welsh Government had published a compilation of 144 submissions received to its Local authority education databases consultation. However, it was spotted that they had failed to redact the IP Address of one respondent. The document is currently not available from the consultation web page; however a copy is available here with the offending IP details obscured. Like the responses to the Westminster Education Inquiry, this document provides a wealth of information for anyone with the time to read and comment on its contents.

France & Portugal

France: In October last year President Macron announced proposals for an anti-extremism Bill which would include the banning of home education except in exceptional circumstances. The Bill, including the HE proposals, was passed in July. Parents’ organisations lodged a formal appeal with the French Council on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, but the Council rejected their appeal on 13 August. I understand that there may be a further opportunity for others to object to the provisions of the Bill regarding HE, but the outcome is far from certain.

Most available information is in French; one website has posted a summary in English, but it isn’t very clear. Information in French: The French Council’s ruling see section concerning article 49; droit-instruction.org & lesenfantsdabord.org.

Portugal: In April a law was passed under Covid-19 emergency powers to impose further restrictions on home education. Information has been hard to find, but according to the HSLDA:

“At the moment, regulations are under development with the new Home Education Decree no. 55/2018 that established a curriculum for primary and secondary education, guiding principles and organizations and evaluation of learning… The Decree gives total authority to the central government to disapprove “requests” to homeschool and requires parents to have a university degree before they apply.”

More detailed information is available on Ericeira Living website.

Education Committee Home Education Inquiry 2020/21 – A Summary

Download a PDF version of this article.

The last few months have seen an increased effort to undermine parental responsibilities in respect to the education their children should receive. This is mainly because the House of Commons Education Select Committee, led by its Chair Robert Halfon MP, finally published the Report based on its recent Inquiry into Home Education. This article is not intended to discuss that report, which many see as far from honest, in detail, but to summarise my thoughts on this Inquiry. My hope is to highlight key moments in the constant flow of arguments seeking to undermine parental responsibility in respect to education.

Firstly though, one point of clarification…

Parliament is not Government!

The majority of people I have spoken with concerning this report find it difficult to distinguish between Parliament and the Government. Consequently they speak of the Committee’s recommendations as being the Government’s intentions, and that is fundamentally wrong! Whilst all MP’s are Members of Parliament, only a few of them are part of the Government. It is the Government’s responsibility to propose, develop and implement legislation (primary and secondary) and Parliament’s role is to scrutinise the Government’s work. The only exception are Private Members Bills, but few of these successfully become law, and generally have to be supported by the Government in order to do so.

Select Committees are an aspect of Parliament and exist to scrutinise Government, not to govern in its place. This page explains why and how they are appointed, as well as how they should work:

Select Committees – UK Parliament – www.parliament.uk/about/how/committees/select

It confirms “House of Commons Select Committees are largely concerned with examining the work of government departments and continue working throughout a whole parliament.” (Emphasis added.) This, however, appears not to have been the purpose behind this particular Inquiry, which has left many people thinking that Robert Halfon sought to use it for some undeclared purposes, perhaps known only to himself.

A detailed timeline of key events in connection with this inquiry can be accessed here.

It contains links to all the relevant documents including transcripts and videos of Evidence Sessions and Accountability Hearings and much more. Therefore I will not include those links below.

Why was this Inquiry held?

No reason has been given, but from the timing I think one stands out amongst all possibilities. Lord Soley’s 2017 Bill stirred up the pre-existing hostile environment against elective home education [EHE]. In response to it the Government promised to consult on introducing a register of EHE children in England – education in other parts of the UK is a devolved matter. This had mainly been made possible by the conflation of other issues with genuine family-based education. A series of consultations followed, the first being “Home Education – Call for Evidence and revised DfE guidance.” This ran between April and May 2018. The Department for Education [DfE] published its response in April 2019 along with revised guidance, and at the same time launched a further consultation entitled, “Children Not in School” [CNiS].

To date the DfE has not published its response to the CNiS consultation, and many antagonists are frustrated by this. However, a further consultation published in February 2020 has been overlooked by many people. This addressed “Regulating Independent Educational Institutions” [RIEI]. Though this was not directly related to EHE, it shared many themes in common with the CNiS one. I am of the opinion that the original intention was probably to respond to both these consultations at the same time, but within weeks of the last one’s launch, life – and schools – were disrupted by the response to Covid-19. Consequently, the RIEI consultation was suspended in May. relaunched in October and finally closed on 27 November. By then the education system, and with it the DfE, was in what seems to have been complete chaos due to both further disruptions in schools and its staff not fully returning to their offices.

I suspect that some were misled by the false hope that the schools would be back to normal by last autumn, and they latched on to one piece of information which was already in print, seeing it as an opportunity to reawaken the campaign against parent-led education. That information was a note in the 2019 Revised Guidance which reads, “This guidance will next be reviewed by December 2020.”

I suspect that some, including Robert Halfon, saw this so-called Inquiry as an opportunity to push not only for the implementation of a registration scheme but also for monitoring and assessment of EHE children as part of the revision of the guidance.

Further Insights

Compared to other consultations and inquiries, the Home Education one was intended to be quite short. Just six weeks were allowed for people to submit evidence before the closing date of 6 November.

Ten days after that window closed, the Local Government Association, long time opponents of EHE, published a report called “Children Missing Education” in which the word “Formal” was repeatedly inserted into the phrase so that it became “Children Missing Formal Education”. This insertion, of course, changes the meaning of the established definition of CME, by implying that whatever their definition of “formal education” may be, all non-state supervised education is inferior to that formally provided under its oversight. This novel argument (in the UK context) signalled a fundamental shift in the campaign to undermine the primacy of parents in regard to education. It also fed into what now seems to be the undeclared purpose of the Committee’s Inquiry. The LGA report was published on 16 November, and it was in response to that that Halfon appeared on Radio 4 and effectively announced the outcome of the Inquiry, even though the Committee had not finished collecting, never mind considering, all the evidence it had been provided with.

The only planned Oral Evidence Session took place on 24 November. A second was arranged in response to feedback made to the Committee by the HE community in the wake of Halfon’s words on the Today Programme. (The additional session took place four months later, on 23 March.) The day before the first Oral Evidence Session, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services published its annual survey of the numbers of EHE children, which focused on the numbers known to local authorities in England. There are several problems with the data collected (from 133 LAs) and particularly with how it was extrapolated to estimate the numbers of children who are HE. This then resulted in alarmist headlines that EHE had grown by 38% in the wake of school closures due to Covid-19.

With what could easily be seen as choreographed timing, the very next day J[1] enny Coles, President ADCS[2] , was one of the witnesses at the Committee’s Oral Evidence Session. From the start, the ADCS survey became one of the main reference points in the questions asked and the answers given – the timing was surely not a coincidence.

Robert Halfon spills the beans

It was clear by late November that the Education Committee’s staff had been overwhelmed by the number of submissions received. It was being reported that this was in the region of a thousand – far more than any other Inquiry had previously received. It wasn’t till March however that the Education Committee announced on Twitter: “We had over 900 submissions to our #HomeEducationInquiry You can read some on our website, but we won’t publish them all. This video explains why.”

Despite such problems, the Chair felt it important to make his conclusions known to Education Minister, Gavin Williamson, in a letter dated just eight days after the first Oral Evidence Session! The only paragraph emphasised in his three page correspondence reads:

“The Committee’s view is that a statutory register serving to more consistently identify children outside of school is absolutely necessary. This would aim not to remove freedoms from those who are providing an effective education for their families, but to better target support to those who need it.” (Emphasis original.)

The only reason I can see for Halfon once again pre-empting the outcome of the Inquiry was that he really believed that in the midst of all the upheavals being experienced in schools, and the majority of its staff working from home, the DfE was going to set all those pressing issues aside and devote time to reviewing non-statutory guidance for EHE. It must have been very frustrating for him to have to allow the Inquiry to run on for a further eight months!

During those months Halfon took every available opportunity to formally question Ministers over the proposed register, along with Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman about her views on the urgency of the same. The Second Oral Evidence Session was held on 23 March this year, with Halfon making clear that he valued the opinions of those employed by the state far more than those with hands-on experience of EHE. Williamson demonstrated his weakness as a Minister when he allowed Halfon to push him into agreeing that whilst annual assessment of EHE is not presently DfE policy, adding, “but we are always open to it.” Spielman however evidenced her own frustration with the obstacles arising from civil liberty concerns hindering not only the registration of EHE children but also the monitoring of them. She stated:

“More generally, throughout my time I have been pushing for a registration requirement for home-schooled children so that we know who they are, where they are and who is taking responsibility for their education. Without that it is impossible for anyone to monitor. It is a relatively difficult thing to establish in this country because we are permissive by default and always have been, not just in education. We do not have a national identity card requirement. People do not have to prove their right to exist every day or to access any service. However, I do think this is a particularly important one and I welcome the proposals that have been published…”

The outcomes

Given the events of the preceding ten months, it was no surprise that when the Report was finally published on 26 July, it was essentially a call not just for registration but also monitoring and assessment. Its title, “Strengthening Home Education,” was something of a surprise. It is hard to know if the Committee really believe that will be the result of their recommendations, or if there was a significant amount of sarcasm behind it. There can be no question about the main proposition though; unless the Government at all levels collects more and more data on HE children, they cannot know what is happening to them and, because they firmly believe it is the state’s duty to know about every child, they would therefore be failing to safeguard every child.

Cynics like myself respond that despite the DfE holding an incredible amount of data on children in schools, they still fail to take notice of many of their real needs in order to provide them with an education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude. Furthermore, the state’s track record with regard to achieving safeguarding for the young people they see on an almost daily basis is abysmal. This was only highlighted when Halfon first questioned Ofsted’s Victor Shafiee about “the ever-increasing scandal of reports of sexual abuse and safeguarding” in schools at the start of the Second Oral Evidence Session. By the time Chief Inspector Spielman appeared before the committee, an additional session on “Safeguarding in Schools” had been timetabled, in response to growing evidence that sexual abuse was endemic in schools.

The report was finally published on the Monday after the start of Parliament’s summer recess. The haste to conclude this far longer than scheduled attack on the primacy of parents was highlighted once again when a further four submissions were published four days later, including one from leading academic, Dr Harriet Pattison. She had also offered to discuss her research with the Committee, but was apparently ignored to the extent that her submissions were not catalogued in the report when it was published.

Recognising the positives

Despite all the above, the outcomes of this so-called inquiry are not all negative. The Committee has unwittingly provided EHE communities with a wealth of research material, despite only publishing about half of the documents they received. Unsurprisingly, the majority of submissions were opposed to a register and monitoring. There is much which can be learned from the words of families who have sought refuge in HE from failing schools, but also from those opposed to parental freedom to choose the type of education their children receive. One notable example of the latter is the submission by Unicef UK, which argued that HE should only be allowed in exceptional circumstances. It is important that those involved in HE take note of such arguments, which extend far beyond the shores of these islands.

What happens next?

The whole conduct of the Inquiry calls into question the impartiality of the Committee and especially its Chair. One EHE parent has lodged a formal complaint about the way the inquiry was conducted with her MP, who is taking it forward. However, since there is no established means of complaining about the way a Select Committee conducts its business, the outcome of this action remains uncertain. Finally, returning to my point about the Select Committee being an expression of Parliament not the Government; whilst this report has no direct influence over the DfE, the Department is required to respond to it, and that normally within two months. The Government however is under no obligation to change its policy because of such reports. Shortly after the report was published, a Petition was started on Parliament’s website calling on the Government not to “impose any new requirements on parents who are home educating…” It very soon reached 10,000 signatures, the point at which the Government is required to respond. This they did on 20 August. There was nothing new in the statement which begins, “The Government remains committed to a registration system for Children Not in School (CNIS). Further details will be set out in the Government’s upcoming response to its CNIS consultation.” This is the policy the DfE has held to consistently since April 2019, and this statement sets it out clearly.


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