Despite her emphasis on school attendance for all, and resulting discriminatory attitude towards any other form of educational provision, the Commissioner does recognise that some children are pushed towards HE because of failures in the system.
What’s been said?
Readers will recall the Children’s Commissioner’s large scale survey ‘The Big Ask’ which ran for six weeks during April and May 2021, where children across England were asked “to set out their priorities for improving childhood post-Covid.”
A Byte published at the time noted that children’s professionals are frequently better at insisting that children’s voices must be heard than they are at actually listening to what they have to say.
In September the Commissioner published the findings of her survey, which received over half a million responses, under the title “The Big Answer.” Key themes are noted here.
Early this year de Souza was in the headlines again for her high profile championing of Zahawi’s Attendance Alliance, along with over a dozen leading children’s professionals from various sectors. We commented then that placing such emphasis on school attendance inevitably enhanced a negative view of any other educational option. In fact, the “school is the best place for all children” lobbyists have pretty well won the day in terms of public opinion, and advocates of other legitimate approaches face an uphill climb to defend their choices.
Back in September, the Commissioner had indicated that The Big Answer was in fact “the first of many answers” and recently she published a report called “What we learned from The Big Ask about Attendance.” [PDF] Its purpose is best described in her own words from a blogpost on 5 June:
“In April 2021, I launched The Big Ask… We learnt a lot from these responses, and they have helped to shape my priorities and my longer-term strategy. Crucially, The Big Ask also told me a lot about children we often don’t get to hear from. – children in home education or children not in education at all. Today, I am publishing my team’s analysis of the responses… from children aged 9-17 who were being home educated or missing from education altogether.” [Emphasis added here and below]
From the Introduction we glean that “it’s possible to understand the experiences of specific groups of children who might have additional needs because we received a large enough response rate from these groups.” The actual figures are provided later: “From the total, approximately 6,500 children, 1.7% of respondents, were not in school, comprised of 4,600 children in home education (1.1% of respondents) and 1,900 children out of education entirely (0.6% of respondents).”
In summary, the report concludes that there are:
“various factors in children’s lives that are linked with them being more likely to be out of school. These include demographic factors (…boys much more likely to be out of school than girls) and a wider set of wellbeing indicators, where children with different additional needs are more likely to be missing from education settings. Children’s free-text responses suggest the barriers to being in school are having SEND without having the right support in school, mental health problems, bullying, the pressure of the school environment and physical illness.“
Why does it matter?
From a home educating parent’s point of view, there are several difficulties with this report. A one-line summary might read:
Underlying assumption: Being in school = good | Being out of school = bad
Unpacking that presumption reveals:
- Firstly, everything is viewed through the lens of school attendance. The “children falling through the gaps in education” narrative has been well and truly taken to heart, such that thriving and school attendance are viewed as synonymous.
- Thriving outside a school environment is just not within the window of discourse. There is no concept that home education could be a meaningful educational setting, admirably suited to the provision of an individually tailored education that takes into account a child’s personality and any additional needs. As for the idea that HE could actually be a freely chosen alternative having looked at what’s on offer in school, that would be just preposterous!
- Also evident is the all-too-common conflation of home educated children with children not in education at all. As stated many times already, this blurs boundaries and hinders constructive dialogue.
- It also casts an unmerited shadow of suspicion over home educators, leaving parents in a position of needing to advocate for their educational choices to all and sundry who have imbibed the prevailing negative messaging.
- Given all the above, the neutral phrase “who might have additional needs” could easily be interpreted by those with a school-is-the-best-place-for-all-children mindset as implying that any child not in school is at a perceived disadvantage, therefore at greater risk and consequently in need of greater surveillance. Sadly, such are the results of the aforementioned conflation of different groups of children, coupled with the doctrine that education only takes place in school.
The Commissioner published another report in March this year, ahead of the Schools White Paper. It’s called “Ambition for all – our vision for a school system that works for all children”.
Though her desire for children’s well-being is commendable in one way, one is left with a vague sense of coercion, of there only being one acceptable way to reach the desired goal, when actually there are many ways to learn and and many ways to fulfil one’s potential.
But her Attendance report does serve as a useful reminder for home educators of some of the reasons why school is not the ideal setting for every child.
The detailed information on pages 9-12 about the effects of unmet SEND needs, bullying, mental and physical health issues and the pressures of the school environment itself is both enlightening and very sad. The testimonies of children who have been failed in school cannot help but move our hearts, whilst at the same time we know that there are individual teachers doing their absolute best within a system that is just not set up to cater for individuals.
What can I do?
Continue to resist the “all-in-school” solution whenever you encounter it.
Remind yourself that education and a love of learning is bigger and broader than school. Supportive comments are sometimes found in surprising places; this pithy article by Len Shackleton from the Institute of Economic Affairs helps to restore some perspective.
Think about how to tell your own story, so that you won’t be tongue-tied when opportunities do arise.
Engage with as many people as possible (your MP included) about the problems with the draft Schools Bill presently being discussed in the House of Lords. See our Schools Bill page for helpful resources.
On 15 June the Children’s Commissioner published the findings of her Attendance Audit under the title “The Voices of England’s Missing Children.” Judging from the Foreword, we should expect to hear plenty more about this in coming months:
“I have picked up the mantle and will be leading a campaign of engagement over the summer to ensure that children are confident to return to school in September.
I am making it my mission to see 100% attendance on the first day of the September term, and to make this reality will take all of us. A national mission, for every child.”