Home Education Assessments
Regardless of how home educating parents view their local authority, it does have a right to ask for information about their education provision. That right was established in the case of Phillips v Brown (Queen’s Bench Division (Divisional Court) NO 424/78) and now enshrined within the Education Act 1996 s436a:
‘A local authority must make arrangements to enable them to establish (so far as it is possible to do so) the identities of children in their area who are of compulsory school age but—
- are not registered pupils at a school, and
- are not receiving suitable education otherwise than at a school.’
(EA 1996 s436a)
How can the local authority establish that a child is not receiving suitable education? It must do so by asking home educating parents for information about that education, just as Lord Donaldson found:
‘The most obvious step to take is to ask the parents for information. Of course such a request is not the same as a notice under section 37(1) of the Education Act 1944 and the parents will be under no duty to comply. However it would be sensible for them to do so’ (P v B 1980).
The fact that the local authority can ask for information to establish whether home education is suitable, must by its very nature include the question of whether the child’s learning has progressed from some earlier point; education is the acquisition of knowledge and skills. If the child has acquired more knowledge and skills over time, then clearly the child has received an education. This point is not in question, what is in question is how does the local authority assess and how does a parent answer that question?
As any researcher knows, information comes in many forms which can be classified as quantitative or qualitative. Some forms of assessment are an amalgam of these methods, others are purely one or the other.
Herein lies the source of much of the divide between some local authorities and some home educating families, as each has their own Perceived Progress Parameters (PPP). What do we mean by PPP? This refers to how each party seeks to set parameters (boundaries) which enable them to perceive (recognise) the progress made by the child.
For a parent, with day-to-day care of a child, the most usual form of PPP is observation based on knowledge of the child and their growing capabilities. This qualitative approach is how the parent recognises the child’s advances throughout its life; a parent recognises progress where a child gets to their feet from crawling, stumbles at first and then becomes stable when walking. However, for a local authority, steeped in a school-based approach of assessment as being by examination and without such ability to observe the growing child, a quantitative approach seems logical.
Which party to this thorny issue should be granted the dominant approach? That is the question asked in the High Court on 18th October 2021 by home educating parents in Portsmouth, challenging their local authority’s demands for quantitative evidence in the form of work samples. We await the court’s response with bated breath.
How can we approach this? Clearly, a parent cannot just assert ‘my education provision is suitable’ as that ship sailed in 1980 following the Philips v Brown case. A parent must provide information to the local authority or run the risk of being subject to a notice to satisfy. This is logical, as a parent could be unable to judge adequately for a variety of reasons, or in extreme cases deceitful.
In the recent oral evidence sessions held by the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon MP put across the view that home educated children should be tested; just as children in school sit SATS tests, so should they. Again, this cannot be right, as not only are home educated children frequently not learning in a manner that lends itself to testing, but testing requires teaching a set syllabus and goes against the whole ethos of home education: flexibility, individualisation of learning and setting goals for the child which suit the child. The Education Select Committee is demonstrating a real lack of understanding of home education by making this suggestion.
Home educating parents and local authorities approach PPP in a sometimes diametrically opposed manner, leaving us having to negotiate a position that has the education of the individual child at its heart; this can and should be the only way to resolve this dichotomy.
Home educating families must accept that it is reasonable to provide information to the local authority, as that is the legal case. Local authorities must accept that it is not reasonable to ask for more than the minimum information required to fulfil its duties, as that is also the legal case. Both parties could satisfy their PPP by taking an approach which considers the other whilst focussing on the child.
If a parent provides a detailed report describing the education that the child is receiving, which contains clear descriptions of examples of the learning and the child’s progress, it should be accepted. This should match both parties PPP requirements unless the local authority has cause to believe that the parent is deceitful, or the education described appears to be unsuitable from that description. If a local authority receives a report from a parent which lacks detail, does not adequately describe the education, or appears to indicate that the education is not suitable, the parent should accept that the authority is duty bound to ask clarifying questions about the issues of concern. This same would apply if the authority has concerns arising from other information available to it. This should match both parties PPP requirements unless the parent has cause to believe that the authority is being unreasonable.
If a parent is known to be providing the child with suitable education over a period of time, the authority should accept that it can only expect to receive brief updates on progress. Equally, where an authority finds genuine concerns about the education being provided to the child, a parent should accept that more involved enquiries are required. PPP is the main instigator of the divide between public bodies and home educating parents, yet with reason, trust and respect open both sides of the divide, it can narrow. Surely, that is in the best interests of every home educated child.