All Children Must Receive a Formal Education

Reading the Local Government Association’s “Children missing education” report reveals the objective behind that atrocious Radio 4 Today segment

What’s been said?

On Monday 16 November home educating families across the UK were shocked to hear the Chair of the Education Committee, Robert Halfon MP, plainly state on the Today Programme that he was in favour of registration and monitoring of all EHE children along with the DfE collecting data on them. Others including EO, PHEW and SHEF have already commented on Halfon’s clearly declared partiality just days after the conclusion of his Committee’s Call for Evidence, so we will not expand on that here. (Ironically, we already had our comment “Real Home Educators Heard on the BBC!” ready for publication the following day, but decided not to withdraw it in protest.)

At one point Robert Halfon referred to “this report” and though not mentioned again, it did not take long for it to emerge that the Local Government Association [LGA] had that morning published a report called “Children Missing Education.” This page carries the Executive Summary from the full fifty-nine page report [PDF].

The report has two purposes, both intended to support lobbying of the Government. A significant proportion of it is devoted to demonstrating that, before COVID-19, the English school system was breaking apart at the seams. This comment is revealing:

“the change in children’s needs and experiences was itself a novelty… they emphasised that local education systems were now seeing increasing numbers of children in the mainstream school system with types and combinations of needs that the school system had not had to meet in the past and was not necessarily equipped to identify and address consistently well.” [page 28]

Such pressures bring to the surface a catalogue of other stresses being experienced in the education sector across the country. The lack of resources, chiefly financial and personnel, is clearly a problem with its roots in Westminster. Then there is the DfE’s insistence on rating schools on academic outcomes. The LGA make such points very well, but if these had been their main concern, no doubt they would have entitled their report something like “Why schools are failing vulnerable children.”

The title “Children missing education” should exclude EHE children from their concerns. Yet from the start, the Today Programme segment focused not on a system which is failing children, but on EHE children who are not being monitored by that very system.

This theme is central to the report which assumes, without justification, a new definition for recognised terminology, “Children Missing Education” [CME].

“We are therefore proposing, for this research, a wider definition of children missing education – any child of statutory school age who is missing out on a formal, full-time education. By ‘formal’, we mean an education that is well-structured, contains significant taught input, pursues learning goals that are appropriate to a child or young person’s age and ability and which supports them to access their next stage in education, learning or employment. By full-time we mean an education for at least 18 hours per week.” [page 2]

Why does it matter?

There can be little doubt that by publishing this report, the LGA is seeking to control the future narrative concerning EHE. The phrase “missing out on a formal, full-time education” or similar appears almost one hundred and fifty times in the report. Its mantra-like repetition will leave the unwary reader fully convinced that this is already what legislation demands. That of course is not the case, but it appears that the LGA is seeking to influence the DfE ahead of the scheduled review of the 2019 EHE Guidance next month.

The insertion of the word “formal” into the definition of CME changes its meaning entirely. Its inclusion effectively removes the responsibility of parents to decide on the educational approach which will best serve their children. The report’s own definition of “formal” is clearly intended to make a classroom-style approach mandatory, along no doubt with the content of what a child is taught. In a debate on Lord Soley’s Bill in April 2018, Baroness Morris recognised that “the state is very good at inspecting within a very regulated framework, it is less good at exercising judgement and discretion.” If one was trying hard to be generous, it could be argued that this is the LGA’s problem; it needs some form of SATs to measure EHE children against.

There is also a high probability that among those advising the LGA are individuals who recognise that the insertion of the word “formal” moves the foundation of educational law away from being based on the negative right under ECHR, Article 2 Protocol 1 that, “No person shall be denied the right to education.” Such a change implies that there is a positive right to education, which the state is required to provide to every child.

This view, increasingly common amongst children’s professionals and politicians, sets aside the rest of the ECHR clause that states, “the State shall respect the right of the parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Recently we reported on this change of emphasis in connection with the Isle of Man Education Bill, when we asked the question, “Is Education a ‘Public Good’?” There we quoted Professor Peter Gray’s assertion that an approach which assumes that children have a “right” to government-enforced compulsory education results in “a right that they can’t refuse.” Because it introduces a criteria which would be under government control, the LGA’s proposal that the education a child receives should be “formal” negates the right of parents to educate their children according to their own convictions.

In highlighting the increasing pressures on the school system caused by a rising number of very needy children in parallel with decreased funding, the LGA report emphasises that growing number of children whom state-supervised education was already failing before the system was thrown into chaos by the response to COVID-19. Ironically, the proposed solution to the problem of children on school rolls who are genuinely missing education because the system cannot cope with them, is to prevent their parents seeking to provide them with an education outside that failing system!

The LGA, Robert Halfon and other individuals such as the Children’s Commissioners for England and Wales seek to force children who are being suitably educated outside of stressed schools systems back into them, their excuse being that unless children are supervised by the system, then their safety cannot be guaranteed. Really?

The limited number of parents invited to respond to the LGA report’s research team seem to think differently. They identified “the relationship between SEND, bullying, needs not being met in the school environment and consequently deteriorating mental health,” as factors leading parents to deregister their children from schools. [p 13]

In March 2018 we posed the rhetorical question Safer in the Hands of the State? That is clearly not the case, but the narrative that electively home educating parents are dangerous for children continues despite overwhelming evidence that many children’s educational needs are not being met in schools.

What can I do?

Determine to do all you can to push back against this renewed effort to influence the government. In response to Halfon’s comments on the Today programme, a significant number of English EHE organisations and well-informed individuals came together as the “Elective Home Education Alliance 2020,” and have written to the Education Committee demanding that they ensure that their inquiry is conducted without bias. Their letter is available here, and they ask everyone to forward a copy to their MPs and the media.

Given that the LGA’s report is central to the debate at this time, now would be a good moment to contact your Local Authority Councillor. The majority of them are ordinary people who have very little knowledge of EHE, but they all receive copies of the LGA magazine “First”, and the next edition will no doubt highlight the report. Make it your mission to inform them about HE before they receive the December edition.


Stop Press:

This post was scheduled to be published today (24 November) before we heard that the Education Committee were holding their an oral evidence session for this Inquiry this morning. The recording of the session and, in time, the transcript will be available linked from this page.

The timing of this Inquiry is becoming more and more significant. In addition to last week’s LGA report, yesterday morning the Association of Directors of Children’s Services published their Annual Survey of Elective Home Education. We will comment on this soon, but the message they are highlighting from their findings is summed up in this BBC headline, “Covid fears prompt 38% rise in parents home educating.”