MPs have warned that it is "astonishing" that the Department for Education does not know how many children are being educated at home amid concerns that the Covid pandemic will increase the number of parents choosing to do so.
A new report published tonight by the Commons Select Education Committee has called for a national register of home-educated pupils to be created and this evening the DfE has said that it was committed to this idea.
The report says that unless home-educated pupils are required to register, there will be no "reliable figures" on how many pupils are being educated in this way.
"We find the lack of data on this group of children astonishing," the report – Strengthening Home Education – says.
The report also says that during the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the numbers of pupils educated at home, with The Association of Directors of Children’s Services projecting that as of October 2020 more than 75,000 children were being educated at home, an increase of 38 per cent from the previous year.
Committee chair Robert Halfon said: "It is frankly astonishing that we are only able to make a best guess at the number of children being educated at home, particularly when the Department for Education itself concedes that there is considerable evidence that many young people are missing out on the teaching and support that they are entitled to.
“Some parents are providing their children with a high-quality educational experience, but those against greater oversight must realise that it does not follow that all home-educated children are in the same boat.”
He added: “This fog has acted as a roadblock to saying with any confidence at all that every child in the country is getting access to a suitable education and the skills they need to succeed.”
Here are the report's key findings:
MPs expect government to commit to creating a national register for homeschooled children
The report says MPs are "convinced that a statutory register of children who do not receive their principal education in a mainstream school, including home-educated children, is essential".
It adds: "We expect the government to reaffirm its commitment to a register shortly—possibly even before this report is published."
Two years ago, the government consulted on a proposal for a register of children not in mainstream school, maintained by local authorities but, as Tes reported earlier this year, it never published the outcome of this consultation.
This evening the DfE said that it remained committed to a registration system for children not in school and would say more about this in due course.
Are Covid concerns bullying, racism or attitudes towards SEND pushing people to home education?
The report says that: "Greater collection and analysis of data is needed about a whole range of issues, such as the reasons why parents electively home educate, including whether or not racism, bullying and differences of opinion about special educational needs between parents and authorities play a role in that decision."
It notes that the Centre for Social Justice has recently calculated that 93,514 pupils had missed over 50 per cent of their sessions in autumn 2020, and that while this is "deeply worrying", "these figures contrast strikingly with what we know about children who are electively home educated".
"Because these 93,514 children have been marked absent from school, we at least know that they exist, and have a starting point from which to make further inquiries. Without a national register for EHE (elective home education), we have no equivalent intelligence about the impact of covid-19 on the participation in educational activities of the full range of children receiving EHE."
More support is needed for pupils with SEND
The report says that "for some families, EHE is not truly 'elective'" and that pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disability) do not always get the support they need from the school system.
The committee calls on the DfE to reconsider creating an "independent, neutral advocate" to coordinate statutory SEND processes and support families when they are considering home education for their child.
It adds that the DfE should reconsider the use of independent advocates where pupils are excluded from school for more than five non-consecutive days in a school year.
It said that independent advocates "could guard against coercive off-rolling and provide families considering EHE with neutral guidance".
Councils should assess home education provision once a year
The report says that the DfE should provide local authorities (LAs) with "a set of clear criteria against which the suitability of education can be assessed", taking the range of teaching approaches used in home education into account. It says that without clear guidance, the relationships between LAs and parents are "doomed to fail".
It also says LAs must be able to assess home-educated pupils' progress at least once a year to ensure EHE is "providing a 'suitable' education".
And it says that the next iteration of the government’s guidance for local authorities and parents "must set out a clearer vision for a ‘suitable’ education - including the levels of numeracy and literacy which it would usually expect students to have achieved before they move on to later education, training or employment".
"This vision should take into account the different paths that children with SEND might take," it adds.
More long-term data on outcomes needed
The report recommends better data on outcomes, adding that "without large-scale, objective data, our understanding of the educational attainment and outcomes achieved by EHE children remains largely anecdotal".
MPs have called on the DfE to commission and publish longitudinal research on outcomes for EHE pupils, measuring literacy and numeracy as well as "soft" outcomes such as mental wellbeing.
Call for a level playing field on exams
The report notes that the lack of provision for home educated pupils to receive GCSE and A-level grades in 2020 "caused huge problems for children and families" and highlighted "pre-existing inequity in access to examinations".
It says: "The government must place a duty on every local authority to ensure that home educated children and young people have fair access to centres where they can sit accredited public examinations, with the government meeting the entry costs for those exams".
There has been a big increase in the proportion of home educated pupils during the pandemic
The report refers to a "covid increase" of home-educated pupils during the pandemic.
It gives local examples of this such as in Kent, where there were 588 new EHE registrations in September 2020, up 180 per cent from 210 in the same month in 2019.
It notes that Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said that many parents "had gladly stepped back from teaching duties" when pupils returned to school after lockdown but that some had chosen to keep their children at home and "not every parent is equipped to be a teacher".
"Covid-19 appears to have driven a further rise in EHE numbers, the long-term impact of which is not yet known. During the covid-19 pandemic, some may have found that educating at home worked better for them. However, some parents may have chosen EHE without a full understanding of the responsibilities it involves, risking a negative impact on their children," the report says.
MPs ask if some schools play a role in parent's decision to home educate
The committee found that in the 2017-18 academic year, nearly 25,000 children were withdrawn from school to be educated at home in England.
"The majority of children being taken off the roll into home education came from a minority of schools, with five per cent of schools accounting for over 40 per cent of children withdrawn into home education," it says.
"In some individual schools, the number of children who came off roll into home education was “extremely high”, with seven schools having more than 30 children leave in this way—“the equivalent of an entire class”.
The former Children's Commissioner for England said that this “raises questions about the circumstances under which they left”, adding that while the data suggested that schools were a “key factor” in the process, it could not explain whether parents were sharing their knowledge about home education as an alternative, or whether schools were “somehow encouraging, or perhaps even pressuring parents into making the decision to home educate”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “NAHT has been calling for an official register of home educated children for some time. The fact that there is no official source of data is a sign of how unsatisfactory the situation is. Without an officially maintained register, there remains the risk of children becoming lost in the system.
“The government must find out the reasons behind so many more families choosing home education recently. There is the concern that many appear to have chosen it because they have lost faith in the government’s approach to school safety during the pandemic. The government urgently needs to reassure all parents so that this trend does not continue next term.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “We support parents who want to educate their children at home. However, now more than ever, it is absolutely vital that any decision to home educate is made with the child’s best interests at the forefront of parents’ minds.
“We remain committed to a registration system for children not in school, which will help local authorities undertake their existing duties and help safeguard all children who are in scope.
“Further details on the register will be set out in due course.”