Identifying the unexplained assumption which lay behind the Education Committee’s inquiry into Home Education.
What’s been said?
When the Education Select Committee announced its inquiry into “Home Education,” we encouraged home educating families to respond, even though we knew that could well prove to be a futile exercise. Families made a tremendous effort, contributing the majority of the nine hundred plus submissions, though only about half of the total received have been published.
It was clear from the outset that this was a rushed inquiry, with just over five weeks allocated for responses. Whilst no reason was stated for this, the most probable is that Chair Robert Halfon was aware that the 2019 Guidance was due to be reviewed last December. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of effectively announcing the outcome of the inquiry on the Today Programme a few days after the deadline for submissions closed. Little did he realise the hornets’ nest this would stir up, and how his committee would be forced to change its plans for the apparently foreordained course of its inquiry.
Unusually, a second Oral Evidence Session was arranged for 23 March, over three months after the inquiry closed. Once the committee realised there was insufficient time to read, never mind consider, the incredible number of responses received, a delay was unavoidable.
Importantly, the Chair appears to have feared he was about to miss the boat by being unable to lobby the Minister for registration, monitoring and assessment of HE children as part of the review of the Guidance. He therefore wrote to him pre-emptively on 3 December. Shortly afterwards we described his letter as an exercise in Orwellian Political Doublespeak.
Eventually, on 26 July, the oddly named report “Strengthening Home Education” was published. Judging by the reaction to date, most EHE families consider this to be an attempt to undermine rather than strengthen educational choice in England. It is worth noting that the report was almost certainly delayed by over six months, due to a combination of the number of submissions received and the outcry which went up after Halfon’s ill-advised comments on Radio 4.
In a style common for such reports, the document is broken into three parts: Summary; the main body; Conclusion and Recommendations. Reading any one of these will give an overview of its contents. There are also two appendices and several other attachments, the most useful of the latter being the list of the four hundred and eighty-eight submissions published by the time it was launched – though another four were added to the website later.
That said, there is an important issue which is not overtly discussed in the report, nor were any direct questions asked about it in either of the Oral Evidence Sessions. There is an assumption seemingly embraced by every member of the Committee, but one which they have not to sought to explain or justify. This concerns the role of the state in overseeing the private lives of its citizens – in this case families where one or more child is electively home educated.
This assumption is ignored from the start of the report, without even an acknowledgement of its existence. It remains however in plain sight throughout, evident for example in this extract from the section headed “Better data on outcomes” in the Summary (p5):
“In law, the duty is to secure ‘efficient full-time education suitable’ to age, ability, aptitude and any SEND. Without large-scale, objective data, our understanding of the educational attainment and outcomes achieved by EHE children remains largely anecdotal. We cannot know whether their education has been ‘suitable’ in terms of giving them equal access with their schooled peers to the next stage of education, training or employment.”
Earlier, the report had recognised that the duty to secure an education for a child, whether educated in school or elsewhere, lies with the parents. Embedded in the paragraph above however, is a transference of that responsibility to the state by stealth, via the assumption that the state needs to know the outcome for every child.
Significantly, there is no explanation provided as to why the state needs to know the outcomes of EHE through collecting “large-scale” data. In reality, whether an education is suitable can only be evaluated on a child by child basis, not by collecting data on every child.
Such an obsession with data has clearly failed to provide a suitable education for the “nine million working aged adults in England with low literacy skills” cited in this report (p8). It has to be asked if the Committee members were institutionally blind to the fact that this shocking figure actually reflects the failures of state education provision, which proved unsuitable for the people who are now disadvantaged in this way.
Why does it matter?
Given that very little benefit accrues to individual children through the collection of such data by the state – ‘data’ is referred to around fifty times in this report – why does the Committee consider it so invaluable? They have not explained this directly, other than suggesting its function in ascertaining that HE is providing a suitable education. However, from other themes which have emerged through the conduct of this Inquiry it appears that data provides knowledge, knowledge leads to power and ultimately, power results in control.
It is clear from this report, as it was in the second Oral Evidence Session, that Halfon wanted the state not only to register all EHE children, but also to monitor and assess the education they receive, the implication being that if the state’s expectations are not met, then the child will be forced to attend school. If that were to happen to just one child who is receiving an education which is suitable but differs from the prescribed metric, then no parent will retain primacy in the lives of their children.
The primacy of parents to choose the type of education their children receive is nominally enshrined in various human rights conventions, yet increasingly those treaties are being used to undermine the role of parents by the organisations charged with upholding them. Unicef UK’s submission to this very Inquiry provides a prime example of the view that all children should be in school, and that parents cannot be trusted with their own children’s education. Nowhere does this report challenge that view; in fact in several broadcast interviews as well as in this article, Halfon portrayed himself as being reasonable in demanding only yearly assessments by comparison with Anne Longfield’s stated desire for termly visits.
What can I do?
The most important thing is to recognise that this report is not an expression of Government policy. This is a lobbying exercise by one or more MPs to put pressure on the Department for Education to adopt a policy it is hesitant about.
Secondly, remember that the DfE is already committed to introducing the registration of children not in school. To date they have ruled out changing the law on monitoring, but the 2019 Guidance has encouraged LAs such as Portsmouth to act in such a way as to necessitate a Judicial Review of their actions. Begin to think through now how you will respond if the DfE presses ahead with plans to implement a register.
Thirdly, consider writing to your MP to complain that the Committee failed to properly engage with submissions from EHE families. Education Otherwise have made this letter available so people can attach it if they wish, but remember you should always use your own words in such correspondence. If you ask your MP to pass on your concerns to the Education Secretary, then he or another Minister will reply to them and your MP will normally forward a copy to you.
Finally, a petition has been launched calling upon the Government not to introduce any of the measures called for in the report, including a register. Please read it and if you are happy to sign it, please encourage others to do so too.