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.
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 enny Coles, President ADCS , 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…”
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.