The Propaganda Machine Turns Once Again

In 2009 Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, recruited civil servant Graham Badman to investigate home education [HE] in England. Balls claimed that the catalyst for his concern was the death of Khyra Ishaq, a seven year old girl from Handsworth, Birmingham who starved to death in May 2008. He asserted that because this vulnerable little girl was home educated, she was ‘hidden’ from the authorities and therefore the State had been unable to safeguard her from abuse. (I have written extensively about the facts behind this claims here, here & here). In his report Badman made every effort to give the impression that every home educated child in the country was equally vulnerable because they were unknown to the State. Whilst the clauses seeking to implement his recommendations failed in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, the mindset fashioned by them amongst the army of civil servants and local authority employees has continued to insult hard-working HE parents ever since. This is why the whole of the HE community, those at the coal-face today and those like ourselves whose children are now adults, need to continue to watch carefully and not be deceived into thinking that the danger has passed.

A Lull Before a Storm?

Most of the post-Badman misrepresentation of HE has been at the local level, with various officials seeking to stir up fears in local authorities and the general public. For example, this report from the Worcester News quotes Diana Fulbrook, Independent Chairman of Worcestershire’s Safeguarding Children Board, in a speech in July 2014 as saying,

“The vast majority of home-educated children are in a very safe position, but the local authority does not have the authority to protect them… Despite a lot of evidence around the county, which has ended up with a few children dying, there isn’t much will to do something about this.”

I suspect the reporter has misquoted her by typing ‘county’ instead of ‘country’, because I have not heard of “a few children dying” in Worcestershire! If it should have been ‘country’, then no doubt Diana Fulbrook was referring to Khyra Ishaq and various other tragic cases which have been banded around as HE scare stories. Locally in Shropshire similar “fears” were expressed recently by Chris Kerry, Education Access Service Manager for Shropshire Council in a report to the Young People’s Scrutiny Committee on 4 Nov. 2015. With the misleading title of “The Oversight of Children who are Educated at Home, or who are Missing from Education” the report cited a discredited NSPCC document published in 2014 entitled “Children not educated in school: learning from case reviews”* along with the Badman Review to suggest that there is a “small minority of home educators who use elective home education as a cover to conceal child neglect and abuse.” An excellent critique of Chris Kerry’s report has been prepared by Sue Gerrard, a local post-HE parent. (It can be downloaded from here.) [*N.B. The NSPCC has recently withdrawn this report for review and, according to the above page, “will include consultation with some representatives from the home education community.” See also the later updates on this petition. Update 26/1/16: Yesterday the NSPCC has again updated this page and I personally welcome the revised wording. For a comparison see this comment on the Ed Yourself blog.]

I should mention that not all local authorities have been swept along by this tide of post-Badman propaganda. For example, Cambridgeshire has worked well with the local HE community and revised its policies. This has resulted in it publishing a helpful guide to HE in Sept. 2015 called, “Choosing to Educate Your Child at Home”. Its introductory web page can be viewed here.

In central government the tide also seemed to be flowing in a positive direction. In the News section of her Ed Yourself website Fiona Nicholson reports:

“On Friday January 23rd 2015 home educators met with the Prime Minister, who said that the party was in favour of choice in education including home education and that there was no need to change legislation or guidelines.”

Elsewhere she has a copy of a letter dated 24 March 2015 in which Tristram Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education at the time, outlined the Labour Party’s pre General Election policy on home education. In it he stated:

“First and foremost, The Labour Party is respectful of parent choice on this issue. We do not consider the Badman Review to be a document which reflects the current party view and we harbour no intention to change the existing regulations on home education.”

Over the five years of the Conservative/LibDem coalition Graham Stuart MP, who had coordinated the mass presentation of local petitions to Parliament in response to the Badman Review, did excellent work on behalf of the HE community in his role as Chair of the Education Select Committee. Under his leadership in 2012 the Committee published a report called “Support for Home Education”. In July 2015, as the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Home Education, in the Local Government Chronicle he urged local councils to “stop treating home educators with suspicion.” Perhaps as a result of his labours as Chair of the Select Committee, a new “Standard Note” on HE was placed in the House of Commons Library just before the closure of Parliament for the 2015 General Election. This is a clear and accurate summary of English law on HE along with a summary of events before that date.

Whilst there has been a mixed response to HE since 2010 at local authority level, those watching the national scene may have hoped that things were perhaps getting better. However most knew that there are still many state employees lobbying for the implementation of Badman-like changes to HE law. In December last year [2015], that lobby launched a significant attempt to scandalise HE once again and wrench the responsibility for education out of the hands of parents and into the State’s slippery fingers.

A Trojan Horse?

To understand the recent move it is necessary to review what has become known as the Trojan Horse ‘plot’ involving around 20 schools in Birmingham. These events began to feature in the headlines during March 2014, when Birmingham City Council and then the Department for Education [DfE] announced that they were both investigating an anonymous letter referring to a plot by some Muslims to install governors at a number of schools, with the aim of promoting an Islamist ethos in them. The BBC provides a helpful time line of events from then on here. Peter Clarke’s report for the DfE was published on 22 July 2014, just a week after Nicky Morgan MP replaced Michael Gove MP as Education Secretary. There is a suggestion that Gove was moved out of the DfE after an argument with Home Secretary, Theresa May, who asserted that his department was warned about the allegations in 2010. Since then the fight against “extremism” has spread through all levels of educational provision, and oversight of it has mostly been given into the the hands of OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills]. In April 2014 OFSTED’s chief schools inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, took the lead in the Trojan Horse investigations and since then he seems to have made the battle against extremism in education his personal crusade.

Alongside the concerns about the Islamisation of some State Schools has been the attention-grabbing violence of the group which now calls itself Islamic State [IS], which first featured in the headlines in early 2014. Most are aware that since then, besides the atrocities it has committed in the territory it controls, this group has become notorious for the way it attracts people brought up in other countries to leave everything behind and cross borders in order to swell IS’s ranks. Here in Britain the Government is doing its best to prevent what it labels as “extremist behaviour” developing in many different settings. For example the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 contains a duty on specified authorities to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism (see here). This is collectively know as the Prevent duty and applies to local authorities, schools, higher and further education institutions, the health sector, prisons and probation services and the police. My purpose here is not to discuss the strengths and weakness of this approach to current events, but to emphasise the environment in which many State employees are now immersed.

The third factor which needs to be understood is the emphasis on modern “British values” as the standard by which institutions and individuals are to be judged. Again these are a response to fears about the Islamisation of sections of society. These new British values were defined by the 2011 Prevent Strategy. They are identified in s6.60 (and footnote 38) of the main document. However they did not make educational headlines until an article by David Cameron in the Mail on Sunday in June 2014. In this article he used the Birmingham Trojan Horse “scandal” as a springboard to impose the establishment’s world-view on the whole of education. In it he defined British values as “a belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law.” In practice though they have become much more wide-ranging than this; for example they are now the standard by which not just schools, but parents need to be assessed.

Eight days after David Cameron’s article was published, the DfE launched a consultation on “Proposed New Independent School Standards”. Though aimed primarily at independent schools, s1.1 stated:

The changes to the SMSC standard will also be reflected in updated guidance to maintained schools, which will be issued by September 2014. We will take responses to this consultation into account in updating the guidance for maintained schools.

It also extended the definition of British values from those put forward by David Cameron days earlier. s1.1c reads:

strengthening the spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) standard to require proprietors to actively promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs; and encourage students to respect other people, with particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010;

Two significant changes are indicated by the above. The first is that schools would now be required to actively promote British values rather than simply promote them. Secondly, it adds to the list respect for other people with particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010.

A third point of importance is found in s3.3.2, the first paragraph of which ended with this sentence:

‘Actively promote’ also means challenging pupils, staff or parents expressing opinions contrary to fundamental British values. [Emphasis mine]

As I stated in my response to this consultation, the requirement for schools to “challenge… parents” will turn them from working in partnership with parents to policing them! This is a fundamental change, one which would require teachers and other school employees to take on a role very different from the one they had previously. It would eventually lead to a breakdown in the relationship between teachers and many parents.

Responses to the relevant sections of the consultation had to be submitted to the DfE by 4 August 2014. We also wrote to our MP about these changes, asking that they would not be introduced by the start of the new school year. Nicky Morgan stated in a reply to him dated 1st Sept. 2014 that her Department would not introduce any changes before the start of the school year, but she did not say how much additional time would be taken. According to the published Statutory Instruments 2014 No. 2374, the new guidelines came into force on 29th September, no more than three weeks after the start of term. Furthermore, since these were “Made” on 4th September and “Laid before Parliament” on the 8th, there was effectively very little additional time taken by the Department of Education to give the implications of these changes full consideration. Thankfully there is no reference to policing parents in the Statutory Instruments, nor in the Guidance document published in Nov. 2014; however I think it is not difficult to see what is the intent in the minds of the Government regarding the role of parents.

The Problem of Political Correctness

Now the concerns about the influence of radical Islam could be best handled if the Government were not afraid of being politically incorrect itself. In the modern world it is considered intolerant to single out for criticism one religion from all others. In multi-cultural Britain politicians cannot bring themselves to say that one faith presents a bigger threat to our society than another. This fear is the background against which many new laws have been forged. This “even-handedness” was first seen in France when in 2004 its Government outlawed all religious symbols in schools, as reported by the New York Times. It was not only Muslim symbols (head-scarves and beards) which were banned but those from every faith, for example Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and Sikh turbans, all for the sake of being even-handed.

In Britain there have been several similar moves in an attempt to screen out militant Imams but, for the sake of being non-discriminatory, these have covered all faith leaders. For example, changes to visa requirements in 2008 made it necessary for visiting religious ministers/workers/volunteers of all religions to apply for special visas if they were to engage in any level of ‘work’ during their visit. More recently the Sunday Telegraph reported in September 2015 that “Imams, priests, rabbis and other religious figures will have to enrol in a ‘national register of faith leaders’ and undergo vetting.” The paper was reporting on a “highly controversial proposal which appeared in a leaked draft of the Government’s new counter-extremism strategy, seen by The Telegraph, which goes substantially further than previous versions of the document.” This strategy includes the Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) being championed by Home Secretary, Theresa May. EDOs have been widely criticised for raising the prospect of people falling foul of the law for merely stating unpopular, traditional or challenging views. There were therefore significant objections to this proposed register, and in October the Christian Institute.

I have taken the time to highlight the direction of travel in the British corridors of power because I feel it is necessary to understand the background to the recent headlines concerning HE in England (and other parts of the UK). What is more frightening is that under the previous and present UK Governments we have seen the rise in Islamic terrorism being used as the justification for the removal of civil liberties from law-abiding people. In her letter to our MP mentioned above, the Education Secretary said that she did not believe that the new British Values which schools would soon have to actively promote would “undermine Christian freedoms” but soon after the guidelines were published, OFSTED began to apply the new criteria aggressively during its school inspections. It is certainly true that some Muslim schools have been charged with having a ‘radicalisation risk’ by OFSTED (BBC News & The Guardian). Since the passing of the 2014 guidance, OFSTED has also been busy criticising Jewish schools (The Guardian & Jewish News), a Catholic school (The Guardian) and independent Christian schools (Telegraph & ITV News). The Telegraph reported that the Government’s inspectors have been accused of whitewashing an inquiry into Christian schools’ ‘British values’ complaints, whilst the Daily Mail Online ran a headline in February 2015 which read “Revealed: Ofsted guide on how to bombard 11-year-olds with questions about lesbians”.

Home educated children being radicalised by parents!

On the 11th December (2015) I became aware that BBC News 24 were giving an awful lot of attention to HE in reports on a number of unregistered schools which have been uncovered by OFSTED. Later that evening I recorded this report, though by then the references to HE had been thinned out a little.

Unregistered Schools, BBC News24, 11 Dec. 2015

The BBC also published two related news reports on their website; Illegal unregistered schools face prosecution & Ofsted steps into debate over parents’ right to choose education. It is the second report which is of most concern to the HE community. However, the connection with the “Prevent Strategy” is clear – these concerns follow on from David Cameron’s party conference speech in October when he stated that some children were “having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate” in Muslim supplementary schools (BBC). All these reports highlight the role of OFSTED in this project, but it is an article published on the Schools Week website the previous day which identifies the source of this pressure. This article referred to OFSTED’s Chief Inspector’s agenda for HE:

Sir Michael called for an urgent review of safeguarding arrangements between the government and councils, as well as a review of home education – pointing to evidence that some schools were using the “freedoms afforded to genuine home educators as a cover for their activities”. [Emphasis mine]

Given that OFSTED is actively briefing against the present law on HE it was not a surprise, but deeply disturbing nonetheless, when just over a week later a report headlined Nicky Morgan orders review on home schooling amid fears children having minds ‘poisoned’ by radicalised parents appeared in the Independent. (Other reports which followed included The Guardian, IBTimes & Schools Week.

The Independent’s article contained this unverified claim:

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has asked officials to review home schooling amid fears that thousand of children are having their minds “filled with poison” by radicalised parents.

A unnamed senior government source is reported to have said:

There has always been the freedom in this country for people to educate their children at home. Many people do it very well. But we need to know where the children are and to be certain that they are safe. For every parent doing a brilliant job, there may be someone filling their child’s mind with poison. We just don’t know. We don’t have reliable figures.

This is briefing against HE which exceeds all of Balls and Badman’s efforts in 2009. At that stage HE parents were accused of being a physical and emotional risk to their children. Now OFSTED, led by Sir Michael Wilshaw, is suggesting that up to fifty percent of HE parents may be filling their children’s minds with jihadist poison! Should he not at least wash his mouth out, if not his brain? Should he not fill both with respect for the law and civil liberties? As illustrated above, OFSTED has already begun to behave like the educational thought police, imposing the Government’s philosophies upon children even if that contravenes parents’ right to teach their children according their own convictions. Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that:

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. [Emphasis mine]

So What is Going On?

What must be stressed at this point is that at the time this post was published neither Nicky Morgan nor any DfE employee has confirmed the rumour initially circulated in the Independent. This was commented on in a Briefing Paper on Counter-extremism policy in English schools, placed in the House of Commons Library on 23 Dec 2015. The second paragraph of s2.8 reads:

In December 2015 it was reported in the Independent on Sunday that the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, had asked officials to review home schooling, in light of concerns that children might be radicalised by home-schooling parents. However, this has not been confirmed by the Department for Education. [Emphasis mine]

Further, a letter from Morgan to Wilshaw dated 16 Dec. 2015, and published the following day on makes no mention of HE. Until the DfE announce whether or not there was any truth in the rumour spread by the Independent, HE families cannot be certain of what is being mooted.

What is clear however is that OFSTED want to take over from parents the responsibility for every child in England. This is because they have a mindset similar to those who drafted legislation for the “Named Person” Scheme being implemented by the Scottish Government (The role of the Named Person & Say No to the Named Person Scheme). This is the philosophy which lay behind the Badman Report and was vocalised by Baroness Deech in the Second Reading of the CSF Bill (Clause 26) on 8 Mar. 2010.

Her speech starts here in Hansard. She was obviously perturbed by the number of HE parents who had taken up arms in response to Badman:

We do not know how representative in terms of quality and quantity the home educators who have flooded their MPs, and my blog site, with their views are. They cannot amount to more than 6 or 7 per cent, but the rage and resentment they express, their mishmash of ideological views, their rejection of state interference, their indifference to the rights of the child, their accusations of totalitarianism and their superiority over those who would like to help the child do not paint a good picture of home educators. They made me determined to speak up for the rights of the child, when I had taken hardly any notice of home education until recently. I have now immersed myself in the topic.

Later she added:

Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights also grants the right to education while respecting the rights of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their views. The European Court has held that this, of necessity, implies state regulation of the education that the child receives. The court held that Germany was entitled to ban home education. It is the duty of home-educating parents to secure for their children the education pledged in international treaties; the parents do not have stand-alone rights to determine that education in any way that they wish without state regulation.

Since home education has no minimum hours, no curriculum and no examinations, there can be no assurance that home-educated children will receive suitable education. There are no statistics about their GCSE and A-level results, or even their 3R competence, let alone university entrance; and the Badman report called for such research to be carried out. There can be no guarantee that home-educated children will receive reproductive, personal, social, health and economic education, as is compulsory-or will be-for others over 15; nor will they receive any guarantee of careers guidance. [Emphasis mine]

This expresses very clearly the prevailing view in the minds of educational professionals which motivated Balls, Badman and now Wilshaw to demand that the State has hands-on oversight of every child. I suspect most HE parents know that the German ban on HE referred to by Deech was put in place by Adolf Hitler, who wanted the youth to be loyal to him over and above their parents. The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League and Mao Tse-tung’s Red Guard were both militant youth movements which expected similar loyalty. I can only wonder if the new “British values” are being used to emboss political correctness on the minds and hearts of today’s children? If they are, then clearly HE families are a danger because, unlike State schools, many teach their children how to think not what to think!

Like Baroness Deech, those who support the registration and monitoring of HE families also believe that only the State has safe hands when it comes to the upbringing of children. I have written at length on this blog (Khyra Ishaq, Daniel Pelka, 1400 young people, 370 girls & Ayesha Ali) about multiple instances where the State has repeatedly failed to safeguard children in their care. That is why I believe it is important for HE parents to raise their voices and cry “Hands off our kids!” whenever bureaucrats like Badman and Wilshaw try to nationalise them!

Act Now!

Until Nicky Morgan states publicly whether or not she has ordered a review of HE, then we cannot ignore the threat. I hope that the Independent’s story was similar in intent to the “leaked” counter-terrorism proposals I mentioned above when the Sunday Telegraph reported in September 2015 on plans for a State register of approved religious leaders. On that occasion the outcry from many sources caused the Government to pull their toe out of the water very quickly. My hope is that if the HE community once again raises a well-argued objection to this rumour, then politicians and Whitehall mandarins will realise that public opinion is against them.

With this in mind, I encourage every HE family to write urgently to their MP expressing their concerns about the rumour in the Independent, and asking them to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Education, requesting that she clarifies the Government’s policy on HE. [Please note, it is always better to write to your MP than direct to a minister. Letters to ministers are usually read and replied to by civil servants. Parliamentary protocol is such that letters from MPs to ministers are replied to in person by that minister or by a junior minister.] The Independent published its report just before Christmas, which means that most people (and perhaps DfE staff) have been preoccupied with other things for some time. I also realise that I have posted this around a week after life began to get back to normal at the start of the new year. Therefore if you have not already contacted your MP, please do so as soon as possible.

Below are some quotes from the previous Education Secretary, some of which you may find useful to raise with Nicky Morgan through your MP – we have included them in our letter to our MP. Just under six years ago Michael Gove spoke to the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill in the Commons. At the time the Conservative Home website published extracts from his contribution to the debate as Shadow Children, Schools and Families Secretary. Here are some important statements from his argument in response to Badman:

“I am deeply concerned about the additional bureaucratic burden that will now potentially be placed on thousands of our fellow citizens whose only crime is to want to devote themselves as fully as possible to their children’s education. It is a basic right of parents to be able to educate their children in accordance with their own wishes, and to educate them at home if they so wish.”

“Ultimately however, this is a basic human right that every parent should have, and I feel the Bill erodes that right, because, as I read it, it allows the state to terminate the right of a family to educate a child at home if the education offered is not deemed suitable according to regulations that the Secretary of State writes.”

“As the debate on home education has developed, I have become particularly worried about the way in which various issues have been conflated; I am especially worried about the conflation of safeguarding and child protection with quality of education. I deeply regret the way statistics have been used to suggest somehow that children are intrinsically at greater risk if they are being home educated; I believe I am right in saying that not a single home-educated child has had to be taken into care as a result of a child protection plan, yet there are those who have sedulously spread the myth that somehow children are at greater risk through being home educated.”

“I do not believe that the current system is perfect, but it is fundamentally important that we respect the rights of home educators first and that we ensure that any change to legislation is conducted in accordance with their wishes and interests.”

You may also want to point out that the “Standard Note” in the House of Commons Library which I mentioned above, ends with this statement from a TES article which commented on research published in March 2014, by Albert Cheng in the Journal of Social Choice. Cheng pointed out that greater exposure to home education is associated with greater political tolerance:

Young people who are homeschooled are more politically tolerant than their state-educated peers, according to new research suggesting that children become more open-minded the longer they are taught at home.

The findings contradict the stereotype of marginalised and isolated home-educated students who lack interaction with different types of children. Instead, homeschooled students were found to be more tolerant than young people at state schools towards social and political groups whose views they did not share.

The personalised nature of home education enables children to become “comfortable with their identity”, the researchers suggest, which in turn helps them to accept different kinds of people.

[Original research: Does Homeschooling or Private Schooling Promote Political Intolerance?]

If you want further reading on this topic with links to more of the background documents, I recommend Fiona Nicholson’s blog post “Crackdown on Home Education?

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