“All These Things Conflate”

What’s been said?

The publication of the Timpson Review and the Government’s response to it was announced in the Commons on 7 May by Education Secretary Damian Hinds. The review was commissioned in March 2018 “to explore how headteachers use exclusion and why some groups of pupils are more likely to be excluded than others”. Lord Agnew, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the DfE, repeated the announcement in the Lords.

The Lords debate touched on both social issues and educational ones such as alternative provision (concerns expressed here that much of it was “unregistered”) and off-rolling. Home education was mentioned three times as peers discussed the wider context of Edward Timpson’s findings.

Lord Baker expressed hope that implementation of measures recommended in the review “will lead to a significant reduction in the number of pupils who are excluded – or off-rolled or home educated or sent to PRUs – which has grown far too much in the past few years.”

Lord Judd emphasised the complexity of the problems facing vulnerable young people and urged that issues surrounding exclusion be kept in the widest possible context of “society as a whole”. He asked about the values that young people see operating in society, and how that helped them to “re-establish themselves as positive members of society”.

To this Lord Agnew replied: “On children understanding the values of our society, that is why we have worked so hard on the relationship and sex education legislation; we were able to bring that through with the support of this House very recently. That will help to reinforce the values that children should learn. Equally, we are trying to tackle that with the work we are now doing on the consultation on home education and children who are not in school. All these things conflate and our job is to try to bring together a package of initiatives that will improve the outcomes for these very vulnerable children.” [Emphasis added]

In response to a later query about greater support for parents of excluded children, Lord Agnew said, “There will certainly be more guidance – for example, for parents considering home schooling. We very much need to uprate the guidance so that they understand the implications of that.”

Why does it matter?

Debates such as this demonstrate the increasingly complex nature of the current situation surrounding EHE.

Lord Baker appears to have overlooked any distinction between genuinely elective HE and a version of HE into which parents are coerced as a solution to off-rolling. His rather dismissive remark was unfortunate though, as it reinforces the impression that HE is a problem area along with off-rolling or PRUs. In fact, the growth in the numbers of children out of school in recent years is perceived as a problem in itself. As Damian Hinds recently confirmed the state wants as many children as possible in school.

Agnew’s response to Judd is significant for several reasons. Firstly because of the wider implications regarding the state’s role in “reinforc(ing) the values that children should learn” – parents, take note! Home educated children are also viewed as part of that worrying cohort of children who are not in school – as confirmed by the title of the current consultation. With reference to this, Agnew rightly observes that “all these things conflate,” showing how even elective home educators have now been caught up in a whirlpool of social and educational factors to which parliamentarians are desperate to find solutions in order to demonstrate that the government is firmly on top of things.

Lord Bassam had already noted that “the most vulnerable children in society are more likely to be permanently excluded,” but Agnew’s “package of initiatives” aimed at improving outcomes could well result in all “out of school” children being tarred with the same brush – electively home educated ones included, by implication. His careless use of words reinforces the message to the wider public that home educated children are “very vulnerable.”

His confirmation that “there will certainly be more guidance,” apparently has parents considering home schooling in mind. Those catapulted into HE not of their own volition and at very short notice might indeed value more support. But the knock-on effects will be felt throughout the HE community, and this only emphasises the need for a distinction to be drawn between elective and reluctant home educators.

Recent observations by one commentator regarding the growing difficulties faced by home educators in Brazil seem relevant to the situation here in England:

“In my 13 years of advocacy for home education around the world, I have come to believe that the way a nation treats parents who homeschool is a window into the soul of the country. Policies that respect the natural presumption that parents act in the best interests of their children is a hallmark of a free society. Such societies recognize the right of parents to choose home education with only minimal necessary interference.”

What can I do?

Enlighten anyone who will listen that being “out of school” does not necessarily equate with being a problem or being vulnerable or in need of state monitoring.

Aware that the state is increasingly encroaching into areas once deemed the territory of parents, defend your parental ground in a reasoned and reasonable manner.

Use the current consultation to make constructive comments about the proposed register for home educated children. Should you should see your LA overstepping the new Guidance, point this out and remind them of the boundaries.