I must start with an apology, I wrongly predicted in my last post here that my next one would follow the publication of the Serious Case Review into the death of Khyra Ishaq. I had forgotten about OFSTED’s outstanding enquiry into HE which was published this week (on Thurs. 17 June).
I commented on their survey in January here, that at the time there was widespread concern in the HE community about the motivation behind it and the quality of the questionnaires sent to HE parents and children. Whilst there is a hope within the HE community that a change of government will see a more sensible approach to HE in Whitehall, there are also fears that educationally blinkered bureaucrats will continue to push for the State to assume authority over parents in regard to the education of their children.
I was made aware of the publication of this report entitled “Local authorities and home education” by a page on the BBC’s web site here and an article in the Independent here. Both carried headlines which HE families would see as negative – “More home education information needed, say inspectors” and “Home school parents ‘must register children’” respectively. When I eventually found the report here and the associated Press Release here on OFSTED’s website I could see why – this is the message they intended to emphasise. For example, the Press Release starts:
Local authorities need more information and understanding about home education to provide effective support for children educated at home, a report published by Ofsted today reveals.
However, before I get into what is wrong with the report, I do want to point out that it is not as bad as it could have been. In fact it has some very positive things to say about HE parents and children. It is also important to note that the stated objective of the report was:
… to evaluate how well the sample of local authorities discharged their statutory duties to ensure the suitability of education for children and young people who were educated at home. (Executive summary – p4)
This was not an inquiry into HE (which OFSTED has no responsibility for), but an enquiry into the ways in which Local Authorities (LAs) relate to HE families. It is unfortunate therefore that OFSTED chose to headline the report in a way which makes it sound like the Son of Badman – but then perhaps that was its non-declared objective.
Returning to the positives, the report does say some nice things about HE parents and children:
What many of the parents surveyed had in common was their passion for their children’s upbringing and their willingness to give up significant amounts of time to be their child’s educators. (A diverse group, s6 – p10)
The children and young people whom inspectors met were enthusiastic about their learning and explained what they thought they had gained by being educated at home. Those who had attended school compared their experiences and conveyed clearly that, for varying reasons, they were happier now that they were being educated at home. (Executive summary – p7)
One young person summed up the views of several who had found school difficult, either academically or socially, when she said: ‘At school, friends can do it all fine, you can’t do it, it’s not nice at all. At home, it’s just your family, you can relax and it’s all fine.’ The following are typical remarks made by young people who had previously attended school who spoke to inspectors during the survey:
‘I really like being educated at home, it’s more social and less stressful.’
‘When I was in school it was really competitive. Now I can work at my own pace and I don’t get distracted – I just get on with it.’
‘When my mum decided to take me out of school I was glad, it was what I had been wanting for ages, I was really relieved.’
‘I’m feeling much healthier and happier now.’
(Children’s experiences, s48 – p21)
Besides recognising that both parents and children are usually happier because of their HE experiences, the report does touch on some other constructive possibilities. These included easier and cheaper access to examinations like GCSEs and encouraging initiatives such as flexi-schooling. Initiatives such as these should be welcomed by HE families provided they are available on request, without strings attached. However, such things also depend on a change of culture in many LAs from one of policing to one of partnership with HE parents.
In spite of such praise, it does have to be pointed out that what parents and children think about their HE experiences is outside of OFSTED’s remit both as an agency and in the terms of reference for this report.
I need now to address the dangers of this report. I was struck as I read it by how often the words ‘registered’ and ‘monitoring’ are repeated throughout. This is a concern because under present legislation there is no HE registration scheme in place, nor is there any provision for the monitoring of HE parents or children. So why are these words used so often in this document? Could it be that educational bureaucrats have a less than average vocabulary? Have they not come across such words as notify and encouragement? Or has their educational experience pushed their minds into a mould which only lets them understand the world from inside a bubble where the State is supreme? I suggest the latter.
Where the report is helpful is in identifying the source of the conflict between such officialdom and those who understand that parents are primarily responsible for the education and welfare of their children, with the State there to step in when parents and their families fail for whatever reasons. This principle is not new; it is what gave birth to the modern system of state-run schools. These days in societies like ours it is generally perceived that ‘children go to school’ but that has not always been the case. In Britain government schools were resisted until the late 1800’s when they came into existence in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Amongst other things this huge sea-change separated parents from children during working hours, leaving children to their own devices or to be employed in factories. Less than 150 years later OFSTED, in common with the the majority of the population, thinks of schools as “traditional” (p13). Family-based education is traditional, state-funded schools were established as cover for parents who were failing!
This revisionist view of education is in part responsible for the confusion which now arises from legislation brought in by the previous government. The report cites section 436A of the Education Act 1996, which was inserted there by the Education and Inspections Act 2006, as ‘chapter and verse’ for what they claim is the LA’s statutory duty to monitor home educated children. It then goes on to bemoan the fact that other legislation fails to provide them the powers to do so. Thankfully Graham Stuart, who became the champion of HE families in the last parliament and has now been elected as the Chair of the Education Select Committee, quickly spoke out to condemn OFSTED’s spin. On the blog of the Conservative Education Society (here) he blasted OFSTED for not knowing the facts:
It is astonishing that the Chief Inspector of Schools should stray onto home education and get it so wrong. In Ofsted’s official press release she says that “it is extremely challenging for local authorities to meet their statutory duty to ensure children have a suitable education”, when they have no such duty. Parents, not the state, have the statutory duty to ensure that their children have a suitable education.
I hope that the new Secretary of Education is in full agreement with him. However, I want Michael Gove to go further. Whilst this ambiguity continues, the door is open for people like the current Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, to argue that every child in the country (and their families) all belong to the State. You need only watch the first two and a quarter minutes of this video to see what I mean! (source)
At present the door is open for HE families to engage with their MPs and to press the the new team of Education Ministers to make clear in legislation that English, British and International laws do not give the State ultimate authority over children. Graham Badman in his report (here) and Baroness Deech (here) both argued that the United Nations have given such powers to every state that has signed its Convention on the Rights of the Child! OFSTED’s report, though it may have been commissioned by Ed Balls as a time-bomb for his successors, provides us with an opportunity to appeal that this confusion be removed before the political pendulum swings back in favour of Socialism.
The BBC report mentioned above carries what is probably the most important comment on HE this week:
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We respect the right of parents to home educate their children.
“The Ofsted report confirms that most parents who educate their children at home do a very good job, some of them picking up the pieces where children have had problems at school.
“We note Ofsted’s findings and recommendations and ministers will shortly be considering if changes need to be made to the existing arrangements, given the strong views expressed by both home educators and local authorities.” (emphasis mine)
That is real ‘Government Speak’, but what can we take away from it? Is it a put-down for OFSTED? Is it a vote of confidence in HE families? The most important sentence is the last one. The Department recognises the gulf between the views of the HE community and those of LA staff and ministers are to consider what changes need to be made to made, if any.
To those who would say “None!”, I respond with the warning that if the ambiguity is not dispelled then with the next change of government we could easily see a return to Badman or worse. However, if we lobby now for changes which reinforce the current law and remove the over-application of Labour’s “Every Child Matters” agenda, then the future for HE in England and Wales could be a lot more peaceful than it was last year.
Finally, you may be wondering if the OFSTED report tell us anything about how LAs respond to HE families. Yes it did, but only in passing. 15 LAs were consulted. 2 of them (13%) operated a policy that pressurised parents to put their children back in school (Local authorities’ actions: Guidance for families, s16 – p12). When it comes to good practice, the report mentions in several places that 5, and sometimes 6, LAs tried to work with HE parents. That at best is 40% of LAs engaged ‘constructively’ with the He community.
Upon their own evidence, OFSTED could have headlined their press release with the point that at least 60% of LAs are not doing enough to support those HE families who request their help. If they had taken that approach, they could have continued by adding that all LAs should also abandon the mind-set that believes ‘school is best’. Now that would have been refreshing as well as surprising – from the organisation which thinks HE parents should be CRB checked before being licensed to look after their own children 24/7! (Section 3.2.3, bullet point 3, Memorandum to CSF Select Committee – available here.)