It is almost a decade since then education secretary Ed Balls questioned whether "home education [was] being used to cover child abuse". There have subsequently been a number of high-profile and tragic cases where claims were made that electively home educated (EHE) children were "hidden" from their local authority. However, in their EHE Call for Evidence earlier this year, the Department for Education twice acknowledged that in such cases EHE "has not usually been a causative factor and the child has normally been known anyway to the relevant local authority."
Safeguarding concerns remained the chief complaint until November 2015, when Sir Michael Wilshaw, then Ofsted's chief inspector, linked EHE with "illegal schools". He was concerned that children were at risk of harm in these unregistered settings, claiming parents were using EHE as a cover for sending their children there. Many of these "schools" were in Muslim communities – though that was rarely stated publicly – and it was not long before EHE was being linked with "radicalisation".
Most recently, Labour peer Lord Solely echoed these fears whenever he promoted his Private Member's Bill, often repeating the triple accusation of "radicalisation, trafficking and abuse". To these have been added more recent concerns about parents being coerced into home education, as schools attempt to off-roll low-achieving and often difficult pupils in order to boost their GCSE ranking.
- ‘Extreme concern’ over schools rejecting vulnerable pupils
- Number of home-educated children up 27% in a year
In view of all the above, it is surprising therefore that at the end of last year the government made a remarkable admission in response to a written question from Tulip Siddiq MP. Siddiq enquired about the DfE's evidential basis behind the statement in the consultation, "that home education may present increased risk (a) to safeguarding and (b) of radicalisation". Minister Anne Milton replied that the call for evidence "did not claim to present evidence to show whether this was, in fact, the case," but provided an opportunity for "respondents to give information on views on these matters". This suggests that the government had no actual evidence of EHE being used as a cover for radicalisation.
Partners or substitutes?
Given the shortage of evidence that EHE children are at higher risk of abuse or radicalisation simply because they are not in school, why are many people so anxious about their welfare? One could also question why, in response to such concerns, there has been a constant stream of negative articles about EHE in the media. What is apparent is that a hostile environment towards the EHE community now prevails. Serious thought is required if these important issues are to be properly understood.
One area which merits consideration is the effect of merging the oversight of educational provision with children's care services that followed the 2004 Children’s Act. The two have very different foundations and in bringing them together, a certain amount of confusion seems to have resulted. Naturally and historically, education is the responsibility of parents, with teachers serving as agents of the parents in all cases.
By contrast, the provision of care has tended to be focused on circumstances where parents have not been providing for a child, and the state has had to fill the resulting void. A key difference between these functions has always been that one is a partnership between parents and teachers, whilst the other is a substitution of carers for parents. The current arrangements seem to have confused these roles.
When faced with multiple examples of parents who let children down, it must be very easy for care professionals to relate to all parents as potential failures. More worrying though is the assumption that state care is less likely to fail – history and current events both providing evidence to the contrary. Could the continual emphasis on "safeguarding" be driven by the belief that the state's hands are safer than those of parents? There is some evidence that the political reaction to the death of Baby P had "significant negative repercussions for vulnerable children" and that these have carried over into education. Could these misplaced political ideals also be responsible for generating the current mistrust of EHE parents?
The majority of EHE families don't understand why they are now the subject of collective suspicion. They are also bewildered by repeated claims of a connection between EHE and radicalisation. One university lecturer informed researchers that he is reluctant to tell his colleagues that his family home educate because they are Muslims.
Concerns about radicalisation in schools caused Michael Gove to announce in June 2014 that "British Values" would in future have to be promoted in all schools. Concerned about safeguarding society as well as children, the DfE seemingly gave no thought to the unintended consequences of this decision. One educationalist, however, was extremely alarmed by Gove's announcement.
The following day Professor John Howson questioned this policy, which he saw as signalling a shift away from the foundations of the British education system. He explained how the announcement moved the responsibility for each child's education away from their parents and vested it in the state.
He probably didn't realise how prophetic he was being when he asked, "And what about the homeschoolers, are they now also to be monitored for British values, and parents told they cannot continue if Ofsted doesn’t think they are British enough?" Four years later, this spring's EHE consultation envisaged just such a change. This fundamental shift affects all parents and teachers, too – no longer are they understood to be working "in loco parentis" but "in loco civitatis."
Pressures on schools exist in no small part because education is a well-worn political football. In the present circumstances, it is unsurprising that few have space to look behind the headlines and ponder the unintended outcomes of shifts in educational policy. British and international law firmly places the responsibility for choosing the philosophical framework in which children are instructed with their parents. This is because only a truly benevolent government can be trusted not to shape children's thinking according to the will of the powerful.
History contains multiple examples of what happens when a state with a malevolent attitude assumes parental responsibilities – China being a present-day example. Wise governments will protect future citizens from regimes that do not value civil liberties. Whenever there is a danger of such protection being lost, a minority usually find themselves standing up to protect the majority. Is this one of those moments, and are EHE families such a minority? Such questions merit careful consideration.