Anne Longfield, the children's commissioner for England, recently published a report entitled Skipping School: Invisible Children. The same evening, she hosted an episode of Channel 4's Dispatches, which featured four home-educating families. All were relatively new to home educating and three had withdrawn their children from schools due to unmet educational needs.
In July last year, Longfield told the Observer that she was "conducting an urgent analysis of confidential government data" to "establish how many off-roll children are drawn into gangs", adding "some are educated at home while others go to pupil-referral units (PRUs) – both are associated with worse educational outcomes".
Strangely, Skipping School makes no mention of children being drawn into gangs. Questions about this are absent from the research data. Neither was there anything specifically about PRUs' educational achievements.
Longfield's concerns are confusing. In May, the education committee heard evidence that "children in AP [alternative provision] are saying it is better provision because they feel it is more geared to them as a human being". Schools minister Nick Gibb agreed, saying "When I meet young people in alternative-provision settings, you can see that they do enjoy the small classes. It is right for those children."
Longfield did publish new data suggesting, as Tes’ Caroline Henshaw observed, that a very small percentage of schools are responsible for the spike in off-rolling. No school would admit to off-rolling pupils, as the practice is illegal, falling outside the criteria for removal of pupils from the register prescribed in The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, section 8. There is a loophole, though: section 8(1)(d) permits a child to be taken off roll if the school "has received written notification from the parent that the pupil is receiving education otherwise than at school". Longfield observed: "Some schools are believed to have pro forma letters ready for harassed parents to sign."
The research behind Longfield's report consisted of 11 local authorities' (LA) responses to requests made under the Children Act 2004 powers, section 2F, for "data on the numbers of children withdrawn from school to be home educated". This information is available because the 'Children missing education' guidance has, since September 2016, required schools to provide information to the LA whenever they remove a child from the register other than "at standard transition points".
Education that isn't suitable
Home educators are very aware that difficulties in finding suitable provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) have motivated many parents to elect to home-educate them. This is not new, but with school funding squeezed and children's needs becoming more complex, there has been a significant increase in families deregistering children.
Dispatches, Longfield states, "found that 22 per cent of children withdrawn from school to be home-educated in the 2017-18 academic year had special educational needs".
FFT Education Datalab published research in November indicating that 54 per cent of pupils that are no longer on a school roll have SEND.
When faced with education unsuitable for their child, parents whose children's needs fall outside the average are put under pressure to force them to fit into school, as Dispatches illustrated. When this approach fails, parents are often threatened with prosecution, thus leaving them little option but to "elect" to home educate. But, as one mum in the programme made clear, "there is nothing elective" about it.
The vast majority of such parents love their children in a way no state employee could ever do. They want the best for them, and that includes helping them to access education that meets their needs and equips them for adult life. There is something very wrong with a system that threatens legal action against parents who are doing all they can for a child. It seems that the prevailing one-size-fits-all approach to schooling has spilled over into how LAs relate to parents of children who are human square pegs in schools' round holes.
Constructive thinking is missing
Home educators are very aware of how generations of LA staff have struggled – and usually failed – to understand home education and related legislation. We experienced this recently when we approached our LA, suggesting that its elective home education (EHE) policy was in need of review. Its initial draft, put out to consultation, was confused in several sections about which legislation did or didn't apply to EHE. It is worrying when the person charged with speaking up for children in England appears similarly befuddled by what the law actually requires of parents and LAs in this regard.
Longfield seemed unclear about the powers LAs have when there are welfare concerns, as well as those they don't have to pry into family life simply because parents home educate. She cited both Khyra Ishaq and Dylan Seabridge, but chose her words carefully when associating their deaths with home education. As evidenced elsewhere, LAs were informed about them because of concerns about their welfare. In both instances, however, those who visited their homes believed that education legislation prevented them from seeing the children. For the children's commissioner to repeat this mistake is unacceptable.
Yes, she called for something to be done about off-rolling, but that was not her headline concern. She sought to persuade the general public that home education was a danger to children because parents cannot be trusted with their own children.
Had she gathered information less selectively, including, for example, the number of EHE children who go on to university, she might have been able to provide a more helpful overview. British research into the outcomes of home education is limited, but she makes no mention of having met with the few informed academics well known to the EHE community.
Instead, Dispatches collaborated in the latest episode of education's very own Project Fear. Her remedy for the fears she is sowing is more of the same system that is failing increasing numbers of children – ironically, those very children who she says she is concerned about. Yes, more does need to be done for them, but that requires reform of the state's approach to education rather than its present weaknesses being imposed upon families in their homes.
Randall Hardy is a former home-educating parent and continued supporter of parents' involvement in their children's education as a positive educational choice