What’s been said?
Rachel Wolf was an education and innovation adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. Previously she had advised the Conservative Party on education before becoming a policy adviser to Boris Johnson when he was Shadow Higher Education Minister. Today she is a Founding Partner at Public First, which describes its remit as “Helping organisations change public policy and improve their reputations.”
Two days after the government responded to last year’s EHE consultation, Wolf wrote on the Conservative Home website under the headline, “We must start tracking home-schooled children.” Her article opens with the assertion that the accepted wisdom when she worked in government was, “Don’t cross the home-schooling lobby.” Her memory then appears to fail her as she claims that Labour “backtracked rapidly in the face of furious and well-organised opposition from parents” in 2009. (Those who were around at the time will remember that Ed Balls pressed on with legislation, which only failed when Gordon Brown called the 2010 general election.)
That aside, Wolf explains how at the time she was “deeply sympathetic” to the objections of HE parents. Her own parenting experience had encompassed fears about over-intrusive state employees – including health visitors and hospitals. Consequently she empathises with the fear within HE families of the present call for state supervision, and she recognises the irony that a “strong parental interest in their children’s education is exactly what, in other areas, government is desperate to have more of.”
After detailing her previous position, Wolf rhetorically asks “why have I come – reluctantly to accept that the Government has to track home educated pupils?” Citing the rising number of HE children in England and the lack of an accurate total, she adds, “We also don’t know why it has increased – again, because we don’t track.” From several possible reasons she identifies two common causes, the first being ‘off rolling’ – “because some schools are chucking out pupils.”
Her real concern however is a significant number of children who “aren’t being educated at home – they’re going to an untrackable number of ‘unregistered’ schools (usually religious).” Her evidence for this is Michael Wilshaw’s 2015 letter to Nicky Morgan (the then Education Minister), which with hindsight seems to have been the trigger for the resuscitation of Badman’s proposals. In the light of “the radicalising material that has been found in some unregistered educational settings,” Wolf asks, “How do we weigh up our responsibility to very vulnerable children… against the rights of most families?”
Alongside these concerns Wolf outlines another category of fear, which she sums up as hating “the idea of my daughter growing up in a country where all women aren’t getting access to a proper education and opportunities.” In context it is obvious that she is referring to the Muslim settings criticised by Wilshaw but, like most commentators, she carefully avoids identifying which religion is being referred to.
Siding with Damien Hinds she states, “I think we have to accept that we live in a new age – one where it is too dangerous for the children concerned (and potentially to us) to live in a vacuum of information.” Whilst arguing that the Secretary of State’s actions are reasonable, she also recognises that potential for these changes to have “negative consequences on parents who are not only within their rights but who are doing the right thing by their children.” Calling therefore for a high threshold for interference, Wolf concludes, “If it’s not destroying their children or likely to seriously jeopardise our safety, we need to leave them alone.”
Why does it matter?
Given that this piece is authored by someone with strong connections to the governing party, one has to ask if it was intended to complement Damien Hinds’ more measured letter in The Telegraph announcing the outcome of last year’s consultation. Even if she was acting on her own initiative, this letter still provides an insight into current thinking in the higher levels of a political party which a decade ago stood with the EHE community to protect our freedoms.
There is another way in which this article sheds light on the “new age” for HE, and that is in the way disinformation has influenced the debate. Wilshaw carefully sowed seeds of suspicion about the Muslim community, whilst rarely identifying them. A year ago we highlighted how Ofsted’s concerns have had a negative effect on many HE families from that community, some of which initially elected to HE because their children were being racially bullied at school. Wolf’s present observation that unregistered schools are “usually religious” is the message which many people, including politicians, have absorbed. Whether or not her perception is accurate, it is now a key contributor to why the HE community finds itself in a new age.
What can I do?
Opinion pieces such as this one are useful even when one doesn’t like their conclusion. This article provides insights into how others perceive HE. In this case that is particularly useful because the author is someone with high-level political connections.
The second take-to-heart point is that people’s impressions rarely connect with facts. This is especially true when emotive arguments have been used to sway public opinion, as in the linking of unregistered schools with terrorism and HE.
Finally, when defending parental responsibility, remember to quote “one supporter of registration” who recognises that state interference should be carefully limited and scrutinised. This could be a useful point to cite when responding to the current consultation.