Cite Your Evidence Please

What’s been said?

During a House of Commons debate on antisocial behaviour on 7 February, Diana Johnson, MP stated that “Owing to changes in the education landscape and the academisation of schools, there has been an increase in the number of children who are being home-educated. They disappear from the school system, and many then become part of the antisocial behaviour problem.”

This assertion was prefaced with, “We should recognise the important work that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) has been doing in identifying the off-rolling of school pupils.”

Why does it matter?

The debate was largely about crime & the effects of cuts in policing; education is mentioned only sporadically in the 1hr 45min proceedings, although the impact of austerity such as the closure of after-school clubs is referenced. It is into this mix that Ms Johnson drops her assertions regarding children ‘disappearing’ into home education and thus going on to become involved in antisocial behaviour.

As in so many of these cases, the protagonist here supports her claim with carefully-chosen emotive language: “they disappear from the school system… many then become…” [Emphasis added] The image is of large numbers of home educated children committing anti-social crimes because they don’t have the ‘oversight’ of a school system. In reality it is of course the case that no child removed from school ‘disappears’, because his or her local authority is notified by the school whenever a child is removed from the school roll.

There is another major flaw in Ms Johnson’s argument; she posits it without evidence of home educated children being involved in antisocial behaviour. There isn’t even a suggestion of the existence of supporting evidence. Regrettably this is not the first time unsubstantiated claims have been made regarding home educated children.

In addition Diana Johnson has conveniently overlooked the timing of much antisocial behaviour, namely evenings, night-time and weekends; times when children are not in school anyway. In the absence of any evidence regarding home educated children, Ms Johnson’s assertion could perhaps be turned around in a tongue in cheek way and then argued that it is schooled children who “become part of the antisocial behaviour problem!”

Additionally no mention is made of the potential issues of disenfranchised school pupils and truancy in relation to anti-social behaviour. Whilst it is deeply disappointing that home education is mentioned in the same breath as anti-social behaviour, this serves to highlight the misconceptions surrounding home education expressed – unintentionally or otherwise – by those in power. Would Ms Johnson make such a comment about those disenfranchised school pupils – those who have ‘disappeared’ within the school system – and suggest that many of them then become part of the antisocial behaviour problem?

Associating children removed from school to be home educated with an increased likelihood of them becoming future offenders, without evidence, is insulting to parents. This is especially so in the case of those who may have tried for a long time to resolve issues such as bullying or unsuitable provision for their child’s need with a school, or who may have been encouraged to deregister their child (off-rolling). Such parents feel that their children have been let down by the school system and they are pushed to home educate, even though they might prefer their children’s education to take place in school.

It is easier for officials to blame home education rather than work to fix the issues within the school system!

Given the nature of the debate, which predominantly concerns increasing crime rates and crises in policing, it is surprising that home education is mentioned at all. An MP making unsubstantiated claims casting blame onto home education is sadly not unusual – but it remains inexcusable. Once again, home education has become conflated with an unrelated issue.

It is perhaps worthy of note that it is Diana Johnson who makes the claim. Ms Johnson is a former minister in the Department for Children, Schools, and Families (DCSF), now the Department of Education. Long-time home educators will remember her from the days of the Badman Report. One wonders if she is simply regurgitating the misconceptions promoted during that time or if she has been influenced by Lord Soley’s Bill.

However, it is heartening that Victoria Atkins, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, makes no reference to home education in her response on behalf of the government.

What can I do?

Be alert and don’t be afraid to challenge and calmly correct claims such as this, whether made in the public domain by MPs and the media, or in conversations with friends and family. Point out the emotive language used, and keep to the facts! A simple yet effective counter is, “So where is the evidence to support this statement?”