Home education attracts strong opinions, and to use the Marmite analogy ‘it is either loved or hated’.
In the last two decades, there has been a rise in professional, ‘governmental’, and societal concern which displays a lack of understanding and/or supposition about the practice of home education and home educators. Additionally, pronouncements of concern increase with reporting of cause célèbre cases of child abuse where home education was a factor in the child’s life BUT NOT a causal factor; or the child was a child missing education but incorrectly ascribed as home educated.
In a society where professionals, governing bodies, Government, and Local Authorities (LAs) are increasingly risk-averse in their practice a climate of negative pronouncements has arisen: one which is frequently ill informed or made with a lack of evidence and/or independent research. This leads to a distortion or blurring of facts, and to claims that lack evidence, validity, or real substance.
As well as a scoping review of relevant literature, research data was gathered via the Freedom of Information Act (2010), submission of 26 probing questions submitted to a representative sample of a third  of English LAs. Analysis of local authority literature: websites, information for parents, and Home Education Officers (HEO) job advertisement [job descriptions] were also undertaken. Additionally, several in-depth interviews were conducted with HEOs and home education advocates.
The research identified eight themes:
HEO background prior to becoming an HEO: qualifications, training and employment;
- perceptions in respect of the role of HEO and the role of LA;
- oversight of home education [e.g. issues of unknown children; safeguarding; visits and seeing the child; notification and/or registration; assessment and monitoring, etc];
- HEO training for the role;
- legislation: ambiguities between National Statute, and local policy;
- concerns regarding Safeguarding: Unknown Children, Children Missing Education, the Childs Voice/Rights of the Child, and socialisation;
- use of HEO discretion and professional judgment in their practice and impact on policy and
- HEO role is essentially ‘a non-job’.
However, each of these themes does require its own blog (to be posted in the future); so, while I will touch on the issue of ambiguities between National Statute and local policy, the basic aim is to introduce and consider the thesis as a whole.
Overall findings indicated a nationwide lack of homogeneity in:
the implementation of intended National policy (legislation, precedent and guidance) at a local level;
the policies and practices between different local authorities and individual HEOs;
specific concerns with HEO practice in respect of e.g. educational suitability, registration, monitoring, visits, and safeguarding for home-educated children conflict with National policy and Guidance;
divergent opinions of commentators, academics, professionals, demonstrating extensive problematisation of home education based in e.g. hearsay, misinformation, risk aversion and
a lack of empirical research into such problematising concerns.
While the lack of overall homogeneity lies in a number of causes, chief among these is a prevalence of ‘problematising’ home education by: LAs, governmental and non-governmental organisations [e.g. OFSTED, NSPCC, NCB, LGA], politicians, professionals [e.g. teachers/educators, governmental [National and local HEOs], social care, health], and the media. Home education has traditionally been related to a range of educational related harms, the suitability of education, and the old chestnut of “socialisation”. But more recently it has become conflated with a range of maltreatments such as radicalisation, forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), fabricated or induced illness by carers (FII), or cited as a cover of psychological or physical neglect or abuse.
All too frequently these problematisations arise in hearsay, mis-substantiated claims, or without valid evidence, and certainly without much needed independent, empirical research.
In respect of LAs [and the HEOs], a lack of adherence to legislation was evidenced, with many LAs habitually shown to fail in observance of intended National policy (legislation, legal precedents, and guidance). While this can be due to misinterpretation and/or more deliberate reinterpretation, it resulted in an ultra vires hybrid local policy whereby changes constitute a degradation of National policy.
Currently, the Parliamentary Education Committee is conducting an Inquiry into Home Education with a view to tightening up changes in National policy to increase oversight of home education.
This begs the question: what assurance is there that were new legislation to be introduced LAs would adhere to it?
Historical experience would tell us that is unlikely.
The research exposed that LAs and HEOs habitually infer or act beyond their powers, activity evidenced in LA responses to Freedom of Information questionnaire, in the analysis of LA literature, and in interviews with HEOs. It was transparent that both LA and HEOs routinely imply and/or state they are legally required to: meet with parent/carer; do a home visit; see the child, including ‘do safe and well checks’; assess work and generally monitor the suitability of the education, etc. No such right exists under current legislation.
In fact, LAs [and HEOs] have a reactive duty to act only when they have reason to believe education is not taking place (S.437 of the Education Act 1996 is “if it appears”), it is not a proactive duty to actively seek.
It was notable that the HEOs interviewed did have an awareness of what National policy is (particularly legislation and Guidance), how it conflicted with their LA policy and practice, and that they overstepped their authority- in fact some were explicitly aware of doing so. However, in so doing LAs and HEOs are not only acting beyond their powers they are on the road to redefining National policy through the back door.
Impact of illicit and ad hoc ‘redefining’ National policy
- means local policy is ‘seen’ to and/or comes to trump National policy.
- LA literature, sources, and HEOs ‘misinterpretation or reinterpretation’ of National policy is presented as legally factual
- LAs and HEOs although acting beyond their powers are nonetheless perceived as having power and authority
- Long-term impact – precedent of practice (some of this was seen in Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill (2017-19) Private Members’ Bill whereby LAs insistence on home visits and safe and well checks was reflected in this failed Bill)
Current laws already provide what is needed for officials to act: but these are often misunderstood, misinterpreted by LAs and HEOs therefore LAs (and HEOs) need firm direction from the DfE to adhere to the letter and spirit of the legislation and guidance (whatever it is). This would circumvent the tendency of LAs and HEOs to purport to have powers they do not, or to act outside National policy which only serves to damage any relationship with home educators.
LAs need to act compliantly and consistently, there is an overriding need for a more ‘joined up’ local administration, so neighbouring LAs aren’t approaching home education in vastly different and piecemeal ways. Inconsistency between LAs, and even HEOs, cause’s confusion and a board mistrust from home educators.
LAs must provide a legally compliant policy and information: and involve local home educators in devising both a legally compliant policy that is and acceptable to home educators as per Elective Home Education Departmental Guidance for Local Authorities (2019, para. 3.6)
HEOs should not be used as quasi-child safeguarding officials, nor should they be given right of access to the home or to see a child: Ed. HEOs should not be put in (or put themselves in) a situation that proactively requires them to assess child welfare. Rather, LAs should ensure that their HEOs understand that their duty is solely report any suspicions concern by referring to child protective services. Child protection social workers do not have the right to enter a home or see a child. When they suspect a child is at imminent risk of harm and access to home and/or child is refused they must draw on the police to use their powers. It is an extraordinary and dangerous proposal, as being considered in the current Inquiry, to give LA education HEOs such rights!
LAs and HEOs need to work with, not against home educators: they need to accept home educators are good and caring parents, providing a suitable education and life experiences for their children, until and unless there is evidence to the contrary. Therefore, they need to abandon their tendency to start from a presumption of risk; this skews the emphasis of the policy and practice to the detriment of home educators and the achievement of good relationships.
Before any changes to home education policy are made, as being considered in the Education Committee’s current ‘Inquiry into Home Education’, there is an absolute and overriding need for research. A good place to start would be a study that illuminates why home educators are reluctant to engage with authorities and the identification of resolutions.
Issues around the rise of home-education:
Why is home education on the rise, what factors are at play?
Currently Covid-19 is a driver towards increased numbers – what factors are at play: fear of the virus, lack of trust in schools being able to protect children and wider, maybe vulnerable family; or the revelation that home education suits the child?
The reasons SEN children come into home education – is it due to failings by school or ‘off rolling’ by schools?
While there are claims of an enhanced level of safeguarding risk in respect of home education including home-education being used as a cover for abuse, radicalisation, and forced marriage, these claims are often, at best, anecdotal due to a dearth of research. Therefore, good quality independent research is needed in response to these concerns
intensive study into comparative levels of safeguarding risk for home education children
a comparative study of home education safeguarding risk evaluated against their schooled peers.
Such studies need to identify the nature, level, and reality or prevalence of any risk.
Mukwamba-Sendall, F., 2019. Policy interpreted: the effect of local authority administration and HEO perception and practice on National home-education policy implementation (Doctoral dissertation, Lancaster University) and is available from https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/134154/