Councillor Claims “The Problem at the Moment is Education is Compulsory but School isn’t”

Councillor Claims “The Problem at the Moment is Education is Compulsory but School isn’t”

Motion for East Yorkshire Council to lobby Ministers for mandatory registration and a clearer definition of “suitable and efficient.”

What’s been said?

On 18 February Hull Live carried a noxious report entitled “Homeschooling proving ‘problematic’ as calls mount for register to ensure standards.”

The majority of the piece consists of a series of complaints about the inadequacy of the law concerning home education made by Cllr Ben Weeks, Chair of the East Riding Council’s Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny Sub-Committee.

Cllr Weeks has tabled a motion for consideration at a full committee meeting on 24 February [Item 11d]. If approved, this would lead to lobbying ministers for “mandatory registrations for elective home schooling and for a clearer definition of ‘suitable and efficient’ requirements.”

Also cited are concerns from Lib Dem leader of the opposition, Cllr David Nolan. According to his subsequent comments, Nolan’s support for Weeks’ motion came “after home schooled children’s parents launched a legal challenge against Portsmouth City Council’s issuing notices to them and allegedly refusing to accept evidence education was up to standard.” [Emphasis added]

Nolan states that he is now motivated to lend support to Week’s motion by the need to ensure that the education being provided in homes “met appropriate standards,” adding that “the dispute showed more clarity was needed around the system.”

Why does it matter?

From the descriptor in the headline and the caption below the opening image, the piece is prejudicial. The tone is fear-mongering, and the report contains half-truths and unsubstantiated rhetoric. The range of unacceptable outcomes for those in home education, though speculative, make their usual appearance – “exploitation, radicalisation or falling into the hands of criminals.”

Of course regular followers of media reports about home education are used to this hostile environment, and have learned the skills of identifying spin and rejecting spurious allegations as they scan a new article.

However, the casual reader with less knowledge of the topic is not as discerning, and is likely to form their opinion about HE from the throw-away lines and overall take-home message of reports such as this.

As noted above, Cllr Weeks reportedly called his committee to action after they “heard there were ‘shortcomings’ in laws on home schooling, particularly on guaranteeing teaching was up to standard.”

The means by which the committee was alerted to these “shortcomings” are unstated. Recent events in Portsmouth are no doubt being monitored with keen interest by other local councils, and this could easily have been the trigger.

Alternatively, the Local Government Association [LGA] persistently lobbies for tighter regulation, as demonstrated by its submission to the Education Committee’s recent inquiry. Their Children Missing Education Report (November 2020) summarises their position.

Cllr Weeks’ own statement of the problem reveals much about his personal view: “The problem at the moment is education is compulsory but school isn’t.” Unfortunately for him and others who think similarly, the phrase “or otherwise” remains in the Education Act 1996. So although his clear preference would be to insist that all education took place within school, that is not what the law says.

Once again, we need to revisit that “uncomfortable compromise” so well articulated by Allan Norman and cited in the recent Byte about the situation in the Isle of Man. Neither parents nor the state are 100 per cent independent of one another. Neither has the space to disregard the other’s interests completely, as both have rights and responsibilities. Where these two potentially conflicting interests have been held in proper balance, the passage of time has demonstrated the wisdom and stability of the law as it stands.

Should a parent default on their responsibility, there are powers for the state to intervene. Should the state overreach their remit, equally there are provisions to protect a family’s rights to privacy and educational choice.

Primary education legislation has not been altered. Recent years however have seen a push to reframe the guidance to local authorities in such a way as to shift the boundaries of state intervention by other means.

Hence we have seen subtle redefinitions of terminology, with the provision of a “suitable” education in danger of becoming a state-determined education. Concerns over the welfare of HE children have become conflated with local authorities’ beliefs that it is their duty to proactively safeguard all children resident in their area.

If it proceeds to a Judicial Review, the outcome of the Portsmouth case will therefore be very significant, and hopefully we shall see clarification about whether safeguarding legislation has precedence over education law.

What can I do?

One way to counter a negative report like this one would be to provide factual information about the rights and responsibilities of HE parents and the state, along with a positive narrative about the benefits of HE.

A local home educator could produce a robust rebuttal of Hull Live’s piece in the form of a letter to the Editor, or an HE group could make a statement in their local press. However, this would still be something of a rearguard action, and local HE-ers may be reluctant to put their heads above the parapet at present until the outcome of the Portsmouth case is known.

The East Riding Council meeting of Wednesday, 24 February is available on the Council’s YouTube channel. [This link starts at 3:05 into recording, just as the relevant agenda item starts.]

A more pre-emptive and longer-term approach could be to try and establish contact with local councillors, to offer them the opportunity of dialogue about the issues raised by the report. Many local councillors are woefully ignorant about home education, and have never met a “real live home educating family.” They are however likely to have absorbed the idea that HE is a “problem”, due to negative press and the work of lobby groups.

The latter approach would require careful preparation and sufficient confidence to be able to communicate in a calm and measured way. But it could be a good investment of time against future incursions. Advice could be sought from one of the national HE organisations, or from parents who have HE their children in the past.

HE parents from other parts of England may also like to consider the above options, against the day that the profile of HE is raised in a negative way in their own area.