English Consultation – “Responses Are Still Being Analysed”

What’s been said?

This afternoon (26 October), in a somewhat farcical twelve minute interlude in the otherwise serious business of the day, Lord Soley’s HE Bill failed to gain a Second Reading. As expected, it was objected to and any possible debate has now been deferred until 23 November, when it will probably receive the same response.

What next then in the fight to retain educational freedom in England? Recently we commented on the number of ill-informed questions put forward by parliamentarians, usually in the form of Written Questions. Another MP, James Firth (Lab. Bury North) continued that trend when he enquired about the number of home-schooled children in his constituency, his town, and in Greater Manchester as a whole. Minister Anne Milton did not waste words with her straightforward reply, “The information requested is not held centrally.”

By contrast, Emma Reynolds (Lab. Wolverhampton North East) should be congratulated for her question of 15 October, “To ask the Secretary of State for Education, when he plans to publish a response to his Department’s call for evidence on home education.” This request is one to which most of the English HE community do want to know the answer, because they are still hoping that Damien Hinds has kept his promise to listen to parents who responded to the Call for Evidence. In this instance, Anne Milton’s reply was not as informative as many would have hoped, “The call for evidence closed on 2 July 2018 and responses are still being analysed. A formal government response document will be published in due course.”

A further question was tabled on 22 October by Gloria De Piero (Lab. Ashfield), again concerning a matter to which the HE community are awaiting an answer. This MP wanted to know, “what plans her Department has to consult the with[sic] home education community in the development of guidelines for home education.” Milton responded yesterday by referring to the consultation and saying that it had been open to “any member of the public, including parents educating their children at home”. She then added, “and the responses received are currently being considered before the new guidance document is published in its final form.” This suggests that the DfE does not intend to talk with HE parents again before it publishes new guidance. One glimmer of hope however may be seen in her reference to a singular “guidance document”. This may indicate that they have already decided not to publish separate guidance for both LA’s and parents, or the wording may be merely the result of an imprecise briefing.

Why does it matter?

What we do not learn from the Minister’s replies is how much progress the DfE has made with the whole process, but we do now know that they are still working through the three thousand four hundred and forty-one responses which they received. In early August we highlighted the government’s timetable for initial processing of the responses. They wanted the company which successfully tendered for the work to complete their task by 14 September. We also pointed out then that according to the Cabinet Office’s guidelines government departments should respond to any consultation within twelve weeks. That was clearly never going to be the case, so the current delay is not unexpected.

Obviously, if the responses were still being analysed a week ago, there will be a further delay whilst the DfE then considers what to do about updating the guidance. Until they speak, the EHE community will continue to hold its breath wondering whether or not our collective efforts in resisting the campaigns against home education have made any impression on ministers. It’s impossible to surmise at present whether we will be informed of the outcome this year or next, but it is still to be hoped that the DfE will not rush into a conclusion about new guidance once they have compiled an analytical summary of all the points raised in the submissions.

What can I do?

With Lord Soley’s Bill now apparently caught in a slow procedural vortex, home educators can concentrate on what has always been a potentially greater threat. This has arisen because the understanding of law and how it works is becoming increasingly vague in today’s society. We have previously highlighted Sue Gerrard’s observation that “The current consultation documents appear to have been drafted by someone who sees legislation as being about people’s views; and whoever cites the most pieces of legislation bearing a superficial resemblance to their view, wins.”

Until the DfE says more about its response to the consultation, English HE families should do their best to keep up conversations with their MPs and others. If the DfE has not listened to our collective voice, then starting from cold once they declare their hand will be much more difficult than continuing an established conversation.