Let’s be honest. It is about time that this country had an official register of children being home educated.
As such, today’s decision from Damian Hinds to open a consultation with a view to legislating should be welcomed.
The reasons for why this a good idea are many and varied.
First of all, and most importantly, is the issue of child protection. It is rare, but home education can be a cover for child abuse. Most infamously, foster carer Eunice Spry was allowed to get away with a 19-year campaign of torture under the cover that the three children in her care were being home taught. A register should be an essential tool for safeguarding professionals.
Secondly, and related to the first, is that home education can be a cloak for children being sent to unregistered, illegal, religious schools. Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has regularly, and correctly, made this point.
Thirdly, a register could go some way to countering the rise of so-called off-rolling, when schools allegedly use the right of parents to home educate their kids to persuade them to remove the most tricky students from the roll without going through tricky exclusion procedures. It is said there are schools with pro forma home-ed documents ready to go for hassled parents to sign. Spielman has also made this argument to government – and it is understood ministers have listened.
Fourth, the numbers are increasing at a speedy rate – and, frankly, the state needs to get a handle on it. There are now estimated to be 60,000 kids being home educated – and that number is believed to be increasing by 25 per cent a year.
All of these arguments, independently, ought to be enough for the register to sail into law, even before we get to the simple common-sense idea that the authorities really should have a list of all children not in school and why.
There are, of course, decent arguments against the idea – mainly predicated on civil liberties. A strange coalition of religious groups and uber-liberal anti-schoolers worry deeply that a register would signal the start of the state inflicting Ofsted, regulation and ultimately curriculum on them. They are a powerful and organised lobby.
It is these arguments that will be deployed vociferously by a small but vocal group of MPs who will die in a ditch to stop this legislation proceeding.
With parliamentary discipline more or less over, the government unable to command a majority, and with the Tory right (where one finds most of the home-ed sympthisers) running amok in the Brexit omnishambles, getting the support of parliament will be hard.
The last time a government attempted to introduce a mandatory register, in 2009, Ed Balls, then education secretary, was acting in the aftermath of the death of seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq, who was withdrawn from school to be “home educated” but died of starvation after a campaign of abuse.
Balls saw the idea quietly dropped by the Gordon Brown administration before the 2010 election, following a campaign led by Conservative MP Mark Field, and a group of mainly Tory allies. This was despite the idea being strongly recommended by Graham Badman (who had led the serious case review into the death of Baby P) in the Badman review into home education.
Making such a register statutory in 2019 will prove politically tricky, possibly even impossible. Despite this challenge, it is to be hoped that Damian Hinds succeeds where Ed Balls didn’t. And even if he fails, he is to be congratulated for trying.
Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes