There are a lot of negative articles about home education (HE) in the press right now, as local authorities are working together to lobby for greater powers to regulate home education. The debate is being framed as a matter of children’s rights versus parents’ rights. It is not. Children do not, by and large, exercise their rights themselves; they are children. The issue under debate is parents’ rights versus local authority rights. Local authorities (LAs) want more power to decide whether educating a child at home is in the child’s best interests; home educating parents want to make that decision themselves.
Why is this so important, and why are home educating parents so angry about the proposals? Because in many cases, the parents are home educating to defend their children from the local authority. While some parents wish to home educate from birth, increasing numbers have withdrawn their children from school after bullying which the school did not deal with, after mental health issues which pressures like SATs testing exacerbated, or after special educational needs or disability needs (SEND) were not met. And it is now proposed that local authorities are made the arbiter of whether the parent is educating as well or better than the school did. This is a clear conflict of interest.
Some local authorities wish to go so far as to require that parents have their educational plans signed off by a professional to be allowed to home educate. This has obvious cost burdens and would put home education beyond the cost of many middle-income families.
Imagine, for a moment, that your child has been bullied in school and that the school has repeatedly taken no action because there were no witnesses. Imagine that your child has started to self-harm or has talked of suicide, repeatedly, and you fear for their life. You withdraw them from school to get them away from the bullies. You are then visited by someone from the local authority who has no mental health training, who demands that you either provide official certification of the education you’re providing or send your child back to that school again. It is, literally, a parent’s worst nightmare.
It is a fact that while both local authorities and schools are well-meaning, both have had their funding slashed and their workload increased. Their ability to meet the needs of the children in their area has been severely compromised. This is an appalling situation, and they cannot be blamed for struggling to meet all the many demands upon them. However, this is not an argument for giving them greater powers and workload; it is an argument for increasing their funding.
It has been argued that some children in home education may be abused by their parents. It cannot be denied that there have been some cases like this. They are tragic and horrible to read. Unfortunately, there have also been cases of children in schools being abused, and of children below school age being abused. Foster carers and care homes are already regulated and inspected, and yet some horrific abuses have taken place both in the distant past and more recently. It is a tragic fact that we do not yet know how to identify and stop abusers quickly. But I am sure that requiring home educating parents to fill out forms and pay consultancies to advise about how they teach will do nothing to help with this.
Home educating families are very much like any other family, including your own. The parents are doing their very best for their children, dealing with whatever problems and situations arise to the utmost of their abilities. Removing their powers to do so and giving more powers to local authorities – who will see the child perhaps once a year – is very unlikely to improve those children’s lives or education.
One area where HE children are genuinely at a disadvantage compared to in-school children is public examinations. In order to sit GCSEs or A-levels, home educating parents must find a school that is willing to allow the child to sit exams there (schools are not obliged to agree), find a syllabus that includes no coursework or practical assessment (these cannot be done privately), and find the costs of exams themselves (this will likely be over a hundred pounds per subject, perhaps thousands to do a full ten GCSEs). For this reason, some HE children study the material but sit few or no GCSEs, focusing on A-levels which are required for university entrance.
Perhaps those who wish to help HE children receive a good education could look at helping by providing free educational materials online, by giving home educators a grant for exam costs, or by requiring schools to accept private exam candidates so that HE children can sit exams nearer home? Of course, these would not provide lucrative opportunities for consultancies to make money from HE families, so they have not been suggested.
I, and I’m sure most home educating families, would be entirely supportive of any measures which would genuinely help home educated children or protect children from abuse. However, despite what the publicity may suggest, the current proposals do neither and are far more likely to cause harm.