Don’t Miss this Opportunity to Accentuate the Positives

Don’t Miss this Opportunity to Accentuate the Positives

Petitions Committee debate on 27 March is an opportunity to connect with your MP and communicate to them the benefits to children of family-based education.

Post publication note: On Tuesday 7 March, signatories to the two petitions which have triggered this debate received an email inviting them to complete a survey. We encourage you to respond to this survey which closes on Monday 13 March | Read more here

What’s been said?

On 24 January, the House of Commons Petitions Committee announced a debate in response to two online petitions created in the wake of the publication of last year’s Schools Bill. Both of these opposed the creation of registers of home educated children. The debate is to be held on Monday 27 March starting at 4:30pm and will be available to watch online through Parliament TV. The debate has been tabled in the name of Nick Fletcher MP (Con. Don Valley), who will be the first speaker. It will take place in Westminster Hall, the normal venue for debates on petitions, and may last up to three hours.

The first of the two petitions listed called on the Government not to “impose any new requirements on parents who are home educating,” adding that recommendations in the 2021 Education Committee report were “in contrast to the views of many parents who home educate.” Going further, it made clear:

“We believe there is no evidential basis for increased requirements for home education, for registration, assessment or testing. If introduced, these recommendations could stigmatise and even destroy the very essence of home education: it is not school.”

The second, “Do not require parents to register home educated children with local authorities,” was more focused on the Schools Bill, calling for the Government to:

“Remove the clauses relating to ‘Children not in school’ from Part 3 of the Schools Bill, and do not pursue compulsory registration of all home-schooled children. We see no evidence that this would be beneficial, and we believe the proposals place a discriminatory burden on supportive parents.”

It continued by pointing out that the Bill gave LAs authority to collect any data they wished on HE children whilst lacking “specific or sufficient safeguards in place around the use and protection of that data.”

What is unclear is why the Petitions Committee were motivated to schedule this debate, especially as the Bill was abandoned in December. The normal threshold for a petition to be debated was not reached by either or both of these petitions, with 24,261 and 11,116 signatures respectively being lodged. It is possible that the constituency-based paper public petitions, which were hastily presented before the summer recess, were also taken into account, but although these are also overseen by the Petitions Committee, it has not recommended any action in response to them to date.

Why does it matter?

Nick Fletcher has no previous record of commenting on EHE or other forms of education outside school. At the time of writing, a search for “home education” on the Parallel Parliament website only lists the forthcoming debate against his name. A wider search on “education” reveals that he has a general interest in schools. The Conservative Home website provides a platform for politicians from the party to communicate their thinking outside of Parliament, and though not a prolific author, one of Fletcher’s four articles is about education.

It is obviously an area of interest for him though, for at the end of November he joined the Education Committee. His involvement in the Petitions Committee dates back to March 2020, and it may be that his membership of both committees is why he was chosen to introduce the debate. Given that he is speaking on behalf of the petitioners, he will hopefully be calling on the Government to think very carefully before progressing with the agenda behind the CNiS registers and the regulation of legal but unregistered educational settings contained in parts three and four of last year’s Schools Bill.

It is worth noting that petition debates are not usually well attended. A video of a recent debate on child bed poverty shows an abundance of empty places. However the tabling of the debate on these two petitions does provide an opportunity for home educating families to engage with their MPs, not by presenting a pro-forma wish list, but by seeking to meet with them and explain from the heart how the decision to HE has benefited their own children and those of other families they know.

Those opposed to parental choice have successfully generated a negative narrative around HE, and on the whole that is the only message which politicians, and Ministers in particular, hear. The HE communities normally find themselves having to fight a defensive action, but this debate provides an ideal opportunity to connect positively with MPs. Asking them to hear accounts of how children have benefited from HE may help them to think outside the institutional box known as school.

Make no mistake, those who oppose you retaining the responsibility for the education of your children will be encouraging their political friends to call for the introduction of CNiS registers before the next general election. One of the main groups lobbying for registration over the years has been Humanists UK. On the day the Education Minister informed the Education Committee that the Bill would not progress, they published an article lamenting its death. Whilst HE families were celebrating, they wrote:

“Getting the Bill before Parliament was itself a major achievement, and followed on from eight years of campaigning by Humanists UK, six years of calls for reform from Ofsted, and four years of legislative development by the Government. However today’s news means all progress on this important issue is now halted, and the effort was potentially all in vain.”

Despite their disappointment, the evidence is that the campaign continues. We observed after Gillan Keegan’s announcement, that there appears to have been a high level lobbying exercise to persuade Sunak’s team not to withdraw the Bill. This included a badly researched ‘report’ by the Centre for Social Justice, preceded by a Newsnight segment featuring both Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman and the Children’s Commissioner for England. Whilst that attempt failed, ongoing pressure was put on the Government in an Independent article published on 4 January. The headline read, “Warning children will be ‘lost outside system’ as homeschooling soars.” Besides the union leader to whom the exact wording is attributed, those quoted in support of this dire warning include familiar names like Rachel de Souza and her predecessor Anne Longfield, along with the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. (In fairness, it should be noted that some positive comments from HE families were also included in this article.)

Since the petitions debate was announced, there are indications that the anti-HE lobbyists have increased their efforts to stir up support for registration and monitoring. On 6 February a website called ‘SecEd,’ which describes itself as “The voice for secondary education” carried an article headlined, “Don’t abandon the Children Not in School Register.” This took a slight different angle from usual, as author Ava Berry wrote:

“As someone who was home educated myself, I followed the progress of last year’s Schools Bill very closely and felt optimistic about the new duties it proposed to place on local authorities and parents through the Children Not in School Register.”

Berry’s positive spin on registration is not shared by the two sets of petitioners, who were clear that the dangers very much outweigh the shallow offers of ‘support’ from LAs.

Six days later, an ‘i’ newspaper headline had a more familiar tone, “Child safety concerns raised over homeschooling as register faces delays despite promises.” The embedded rhetoric was also much more familiar, whilst the key players remained the same – De Souza, Longfield and the ADCS.

One new voice raised in support of the registers is that of Labour’s shadow minister for schools, Stephen Morgan MP (Portsmouth South). He told the reporter:

“It is deeply concerning that the Government has no grasp on how many children have fallen out of mainstream schooling since the pandemic began. All children should learn in an environment that is safe and regulated, but it is impossible to know what sort of education they receive at unregistered schools. Turning a blind eye will not solve the problem. For the sake of children’s safety and future life prospects, the Government needs to quickly get a grip of this situation.” [Emphasis added]

Whilst the Schools Bill is no more, there remains an undeniable desire amongst the political classes, the media and a host of lobbyists to resurrect its objectives. It is therefore important that everyone who values the freedom to educate their children otherwise than in school, makes the most of the opportunity presented by this debate to contact their MP and share with them their family’s positive experiences of learning outside the classroom.

What can I do?

First, please don’t leave it to other people. Charles Osgood’s poem, Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody is a timely reminder that leaving important things for ‘others’ to do results in no-one doing them! The debate is less than four weeks away, so now is the time to contact your MP.

Secondly, resist the impulse to copy and paste a shopping list of demands written by someone else. It takes more effort, especially for busy people, to use their own words, but they do communicate far better. Contact your MP, ask if they know about the debate and are able to attend. Even if they cannot be present on the evening, do request a meeting so you can share with them the benefits home education has afforded your family. (If you are concerned about confidentiality, see our Library guide to MPs and Confidentiality.) Remember, your time will be better spent trying to engage their interest rather than alienating them with many demands. If they do not have time to see you before the debate, you could still use it as a door-opener for a conversation about the benefits of HE for some of their constituents.

Thirdly, keep your initial contact short; if a letter, no more than a single side of A4. Remember they will not read it personally in the first instance; you need to get past a staff member, so short is good. Do include a request to meet them, because personal connections are generally more productive than just letters. You don’t have to go alone; in the first instance, members from two local HE families could be a helpful combination – for you and for them.

Finally, it could be helpful to include a positive comment on HE from elsewhere. We are not suggesting you give them a list, but just one item you “recently came across.” Here are three very different suggestions:

  • A few days ago Devon Live published this short piece about a fifteen year old teenager who “realised during lockdown that home schooling was better for her than mainstream education.”
  • We have previously recommended sharing this episode of Teachers Talk Radio Podcast with others, including MPs and local councillors, “What can we learn from home educators? The Morning Break with Holly King-Mand.” As always, do listen to it yourself first before passing it on.
  • Finally, this video from a HE father was created about a year ago. Whilst he was apparently unaware of the political situation, he speaks from the heart in the hope of answering all the usual questions from his bewildered friends. First he explains why he doesn’t want his children to go to school, a message which will be hard for some politicians to hear, but his honesty as a father who cares for his children and their futures does come through. (The video is embedded below, but please use the link above to share it with your MP.)