Genuine Reporting or Covert Campaign?

“Cloned” article about HE appears in multiple local newspapers

What’s been said?

A mysterious occurrence has taken place in the media during early March. Articles about rising numbers of children in home education have appeared in the press in various parts of the country. The reports are essentially identical in content, apart from figures differing from place to place.

Shropshire Star, front page headline, 9 March 2020
A particularly startling example is this front page headline which a HE parent sent to us.

Local papers from as far afield as Southend, Dorset, Swindon, Falmouth, Bracknell, Shropshire, Wolverhampton, Bournemouth and Peterborough have carried headlines such as “Concern over rise in number of home-schooled children in Wiltshire,” “More than 1,000 Cornwall children home schooled last year” or the possibly more accurate Express and Star version from Wolverhampton “Home schooling increase amid support slump after budget cuts.”

It is not possible to detail all reports here, so a dated list of all articles known to the Byte team at the time of writing is available below.

Identical comments from three official bodies feature in all the articles; the Association of School and College Leaders [ASCL], the Office of the Schools Adjudicator [OSA] and the Local Government Association [LGA].

The ASCL’s view that “young people are better off at school” is cited twice in most articles. Their General Secretary, Geoff Barton, is aware that “home education remains rare across England,” but his speculations about possible causes for the rise in HE are twofold.

First, in a small number of cases, a breakdown in relationship between the parent and the school and second, the effect of the “significant budget cuts” which schools have had to make due to the “severe pressure” upon them. He suggests that the latter may have caused “unhappiness among some families” affected by diminished levels of support for children with additional needs.

All the reports cite figures from the recently published OSA Annual Report, along with a statement that the actual total of HE children is sure to be higher because there is no requirement upon parents to register their children as HE. The articles also quote OSA Chief Adjudicator Shan Scott’s statement that over a hundred councils had voiced concerns that “some parents who opt for home education may not be able to meet their child’s needs.”

Anxiety about the schools admissions system is addressed in a brief comment from a DfE spokesman, whilst the LGA gets a good share of coverage too. All the articles report that this organisation has “repeated its call for the Government to require parents to register their child with their local authority if they are home schooled, so that councils know where they are.”

The majority also include significant amounts of comment from Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board. Having reiterated the LGA’s full support for parents’ rights to home-educate their children, she adds “In a minority of cases where home-schooled children are not receiving a suitable education or being educated in a safe environment, councils need the powers and appropriate funding to enter homes or other premises to speak to children and check their schooling.” [Emphasis added.]

Why does it matter?

It’s difficult to know where to begin as there are so many points one could make.

  • Official figures are used, but the headlines sensationalise what is in fact a relatively small increase in HE numbers, leading to a skewed impression.
  • Rising numbers in HE are automatically assumed to be a problem and an issue which readers should be concerned about. The scaremongering tone only serves to reinforce the prevailing hostile attitude towards HE and to stigmatise parents who are acting entirely lawfully.
  • The lead assertion by the ASCL that “young people are better off at school,” is unevidenced. More careful reporting would seek to establish its accuracy or otherwise.
  • School failures such as relationship breakdown or lack of action regarding SEND needs are not covered proportionately.
  • Off-rolling is not mentioned at all.
  • Balancing comment from members of the HE community is absent in all but one case, whilst the opinions of professional bodies and local authorities are left unchallenged.

But surely the most unsettling thing of all is that these articles appear to have been cloned from a template circulating amongst local reporters. Two almost identical articles could be viewed as an interesting coincidence, but at least thirteen such reports from across the country, each with local material around the same body text, surely suggests something untoward.

If trust in local journalism is to be maintained, then good practice requires readers to be informed of the true source of such reports, rather than portraying them as genuine local stories.

Such a large number of almost identical reports suggests that this was not actually a news item at all, but in fact part of a covert campaign, though at this stage the Byte team have no evidence as to its source.

What can I do?

Check out these reports and note the remarkable similarities.

If you live in the catchment area of any of these papers, consider writing to the editor, pointing out the unbalanced nature of the reporting and asking about the paper’s policy on proper identification of “cloned” articles that are written up with a local emphasis.

You could also press for an opportunity to redress the negative impression of EHE conveyed to readers. Would the paper feature success stories about home educated young people, activities of your local HE group or interviews with HE parents?

It’s one thing to grumble about negative stereotyping or say the paper ought to give a more balanced impression of HE, but stepping up to the plate and being the person who makes that happen is more challenging.

All of us could have done without this further wave of negativity – but if we see it as an opportunity for some push-back, maybe it can be turned to our advantage.

And finally, if any readers have evidenced information (rather than speculation) as to the source of the original report, please contact the Byte team.


List of articles

5 March

6 March

9 March

10 Mar

11 Mar

12 Mar

13 Mar