Home front

12th October 2012 at 01:00
At the last count, fewer than 800 children were being homeschooled in Scotland - but campaigners are pushing for tighter regulation

Homeschooling is used by a "tiny minority" of parents as a ruse to keep abused and exploited children out of sight of the authorities. But low as the numbers are, they are sufficient to make directors of education in Scotland call for all children, including those who are home educated, to be registered with their local authority when they turn five.

The Welsh government is leading the rest of the UK when it comes to tightening up regulation. It is currently consulting on plans to introduce compulsory registration and monitoring of all home-educated children. Current legislation has "shortcomings", says education minister Leighton Andrews.

But the Scottish government has no appetite for such a change and Schoolhouse, a charity that supports home educators north of the border, describes the Welsh move as "a pointless and expensive exercise, undoubtedly doomed to failure", and suggests the proposed legislation is "misguided, irresponsible and potentially unlawful".

Schoolhouse spokesperson Alison Preuss told TESS: "It will be strongly resisted by home-educating families, who are rightly questioning why, in these austere times, Welsh politicians are choosing to prioritise a parent licensing scheme for a law-abiding minority group over providing the public services that Welsh taxpayers actually need, want and have the right to expect."

The Welsh government will have a fight on its hands if it wants to effect change. An attempt to set up a less ambitious scheme in England two years ago provoked fury among home educators and was criticised by an influential group of MPs. The proposal was dropped a month before the general election in 2010.

Fear of the strong and vocal home-education lobby is behind the Scottish government's reluctance to tackle this thorny issue, suggests a former director of education. But it should have the courage to do so, argues Julia Swan, who retired last year as director of education in Falkirk.

In Scotland, as in Wales, there is no legal requirement for parents to tell a local authority that a child is being home educated.

If parents send their child to school and then later decide to withdraw him or her, they need local-authority consent. But there are a number of situations in which the parent can home educate without having to engage with the education authority at all - notably if the child has never attended school or if the child has left primary and not yet started at secondary.

A parent's right to home educate is used by "a tiny minority" to keep abused or exploited children out of sight of the authorities, says Mrs Swan. But it is likely an "awful death" will occur unless the system is changed, she warns. It has already happened in England with the Khyra Ishaq case in 2008 (see below).

"Of parents who home educate, 99.9 per cent do it with the best of intentions and work very hard to educate their children," she says. "It's the 0.1 per cent where the issues arise."

Every parent should be obliged to register their child at the age of five with the local authority, whether they plan to home educate or not. And all agencies should, when they come across a child of school age, have a duty to find out where that child is being educated. Children coming to Scotland from abroad can also slip through the net, she says.

"In the case of Victoria Climbie (see below), she saw social workers and doctors but nobody asked if she was in school. The fact that she wasn't might have set alarm bells ringing."

The current system could be improved, agrees Helen Lees, a University of Stirling researcher and ex-teacher who believes she is the first academic to have written about home education in Scotland. Dr Lees favours a voluntary registration system that would give home-educating parents who sign up access to some kind of benefit - say, free entry to leisure facilities or a bus pass.

"Home-educating parents save the state pound;6,000 a year (by not sending their children to school)," she says.

But Dr Lees is highly critical of Scotland's attitude to homeschooling - the country's most significant form of alternative education - which she claims is 10-15 years behind England.

Home education is not just ignored in Scotland, she says - it is not even acknowledged.

"Scotland is very conservative. The Scottish mentality is very much about not rocking the boat, not looking weird or different. In Scotland, when people hear you're not sending your children to school, they think you're either abusing them or crazy. That's quite traumatic for people who are home educators. They suffer from the fact that they are a marginal group."

Home educators are resistant to local authority involvement in their children's education because some of the officials charged with monitoring home education "have not got a clue", claims Dr Lees.

She explains: "They want parents to show them textbooks and attainment. Sometimes, home-educated children don't learn to read and write until they are 10 or 11. The idea is to trust the child to know when they are ready to take on the task."

A lot could be learned from the sector, she argues, especially in light of Curriculum for Excellence, which has many features commonly found in home education - creativity, space to explore, community and cohesion, and autonomy.

Schoolhouse would like to see home education "acknowledged and accepted as the equally valid and entirely lawful educational option", says Ms Preuss.

Both say the authorities need to be more open with parents about their legal right to home educate.

"Home education is a legal option, but often when parents discover this they are shocked and surprised," says Dr Lees, who was recently awarded a PhD for her research into elective home education in England.

Parents opt to home educate for a variety of reasons, including religious or cultural beliefs, the wish to follow a particular educational or ideological philosophy, a child's reluctance to go to school, additional support needs or problems at school such as bullying.

"Home education is known for being a salvation in situations where children can be almost suicidal they are so unhappy," says Dr Lees.

Of the parents who turn to Schoolhouse for advice on home education, unmet special needs is the most common reason cited for getting in touch.

The Scottish government stopped gathering information on the number of home-educated children in 2010 as part of a broader revision of national statistical collections.

The last figures, published in October 2009, revealed that some 755 children in Scotland were being home educated (around 0.1 per cent of the school-aged population).

This is an underestimation and the true figure is possibly much more than double - perhaps even 1 per cent, says Dr Lees. But in fact, we have no idea because not all children are registered with local authorities.

We do know, however, that across the UK, home education has been gaining in popularity since the 1980s. From tiny numbers a few decades ago, in England today around 20,000 home-educated children are known to the authorities. And in the next five to 10 years, children who are homeschooled in Scotland could make up 10 per cent of the school-aged population, thanks to the advent of new technologies, predicts Dr Lees.

"A situation in the not too distant future where all Scottish children have friends who go to school and friends who do not - at least for part of the time via flexi-schooling options - is likely," she adds.

The internet has already changed the face of home education, says Ms Preuss. It has allowed home-educating families to connect, network and create and enjoy masses of free resources, she says.

In Glasgow, the number of homeschooled children has risen from 26 in 2010 to 33 in 2011, and 44 this year.

In April 2011, Glasgow's director of education compiled a report giving information about the families opting to home educate.

The 33 children registered - 23 girls and 10 boys - were from 23 families; 16 were of primary and 17 of secondary age.

The majority (15) were being home educated on account of religious or cultural beliefs; seven cited the wish to follow a particular educational or ideological philosophy; and a further seven said their decision was prompted by problems at school, such as bullying.

The bulk of enquiries about home education received by the authority were from parents with secondary-aged children, the report continued. But few followed through to being registered. The likely reason was the "lack of access to qualifications", it stated.

It was the fact that parents could not put their children through qualifications that made Jim Conroy, professor of religious and philosophical education at the University of Glasgow, and his wife Denise eventually decide to send their children to school. But they held off until their son, Edward, was entering S5 and their twin girls, Rosie and Jessica, S3.

"The decision to send them to school was mainly to do with the continuous assessment required at Standard grade and Higher," explains Professor Conroy.

The couple started to home educate because struggling to get the twins into a buggy four times a day to take Edward to and from primary school did not appeal to Denise, and she had been "hankering" to teach them at home for at least a year.

"In the end, it went on into their teens: my wife enjoyed it and the children seemed to thrive on it," Professor Conroy says. "The decision to keep educating them at home was made from one year to the next. It was not a grand plan."

Local authority staff visited the family three or four times over the period they home educated their children. "None of them was anything but gracious," says Professor Conroy.

When they finally went to school, all of the children did well: Rosie and Edward achieved straight As at Higher.

The family did not follow the curriculum and did not employ tutors, but they did attend local events. The coracle (a large woven boat) they made at a workshop in Ayrshire is still sitting in the garage; they learned to horse-ride at a friend's stables and they attended local youth and sporting clubs.

"Education is about nurturing people's curiosity about the world," says Professor Conroy. "Youngsters are curious; you have to run with that curiosity."

Home education should not be viewed as "odd or negative", says Glasgow's director of education Maureen McKenna.

But she is concerned that under current rules, the child has no say on being home educated and when considering whether or not to grant permission to home educate, an education authority can base its decision only on the "efficiency" and "suitability" of the provision being planned. Even where there are concerns over child protection, there is no clear advice regarding the ability of the authority to refuse permission for parents to home educate, she says.

"My only concerns lie around child protection and children's rights to access a trusted adult independent of their family. I would like all families to be required to register with the local authority and for there to be no cases where parents don't have to register. The registration shouldn't be onerous and authorities should apply their professional judgement about what constitutes an efficient education matched to the child's needs. Parents don't have to offer a school curriculum."

The Scottish government, however, has no plans to introduce a statutory compulsory registration and monitoring scheme, says a spokeswoman.

"Home education is a key aspect of parental choice regarding their child's education. The Scottish government recognises this and encourages home educators and local authorities to work together to develop trust, mutual respect and a positive relationship in the best educational interests of the child."

A catalogue of child tragedies

August 2010: Theresa Riggi murdered her three children in Edinburgh; Labour MSP Duncan McNeil calls for an inquiry to determine whether their homeschooling led to delays in the authorities picking up the danger they were in.

May 2008: Seven-year-old Khyra Ishaq is starved to death by her mother and stepfather after her mother used home-education legislation to remove her from school in Birmingham.

November 2002: Five-year-old Danielle Reid's body is found in the Caledonian Canal after her mother withdrew her from school in Inverness, announcing they were moving to Manchester. The case brought the issue of child-tracking to the fore.

February 2000: Victoria Climbie, 8, dies after months of abuse and neglect. The only time she attended a school was in France, where teachers raised concerns and alerted the authorities. Her guardians then moved to the UK, where they kept her out of school.

The laws on home education

Home education rights are set out in the Standards in Schools Act 2000 and the Education Act 1980.

Every parent has a duty to provide "efficient education" suitable to their child's age, ability and aptitude. Most choose to send their children to school, but some opt to home educate.

Local authority consent is needed if a parent wants to withdraw their child from school; a council can act if it is not satisfied that "efficient" and "suitable" education is being provided. But there is no legal definition of an efficient and suitable education and consent is not needed if:


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