Government Letter to Local Authorities Causes Confusion

Department for Education guidance in response to parents withdrawing children from schools due to COVID-19 fears undermines educational freedom

What’s been said?

Early in November we commented on a DfE blog post distinguishing between elective home education and what had been happening earlier in the year when most children were being schooled at home in response to COVID-19. It is not hard to appreciate that where parents want to keep children out of school only because they are afraid of the virus, they are very unlikely to be prepared for the realities of EHE.

It took quite a while for Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards to train himself to use the terminology defined by his Department. He had done so by the time he answered three Written Questions on “Home Education” from Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Kate Green MP on 17 November. She asked the Minister:

  • if he will make it his policy to collect data on the number of pupils in elective home education.
  • what assessment he has made of effect on children’s education attainment of elective home education.
  • if he will take steps to ensure elective home education is limited to where it is in the child’s best interests.

Given Green’s role in the Shadow Cabinet, it is reasonable to assume that her questions are a meaningful indicator of the types of change a future Labour government may well implement in regard to EHE.

Gibb provided the same lengthy answer to all three questions, which is worth reading in full. He does not answer any of Green’s questions directly. Instead he summarises the current legal status of EHE, pointing out that the guidance was updated in 2019.

His final three paragraphs all relate to the response to COVID-19. In the first he states:

“Initial conversations with local authorities indicate that the majority have noticed an increase in enquiries from parents about home education. Where parents are anxious about the safety of their children returning to school, local authorities and school leaders are reinforcing that it is in the best interests of pupils to return to school.”

The scale of this exodus is revealed in Ofsted’s COVID-19 series: briefing on schools, October 2020. On page four they report that of the three hundred and eighty schools “inspected” prior to 23 October, half had had children “removed for home education.” Also, “almost always, schools reported that this was related to families’ anxieties about COVID-19, rather than because educating at home had gone well during the first national lockdown.”

Gibb also referred to the 20 October blog post as “advice for parents considering EHE,” adding that this was “designed to be shared with parents, schools, social workers and local authorities, where the option of EHE is raised.” Finally he informed Green:

“At the same time, the Department also produced information for local authorities and those who work with children, setting out how we expect them to ensure children receive a suitable education, and to use their powers to engage with parents considering EHE where appropriate.”

Whilst the DfE does not appear to have made this document publicly available, two Children and Young People’s Services websites carry it. At the time of writing it could be downloaded from either CYPSinfo (North Yorkshire) or SESLIP (South East). The document is entitled, “Elective Home Education (EHE) your duties, our expectations.”

Why does it matter?

Whilst the Minister is to be congratulated on properly referring to home education or EHE throughout his answer to Green, the “information for local authorities and those who work with children” is less welcome. The advice given may be well-intentioned, but there are already reports of confusion being caused in the minds of LA staff. Some LAs have reportedly been telling parents that they cannot deregister without obtaining permission first.

The resulting disarray is not only anecdotal. The Plymouth Online Directory is a “community-based directory with a focus on health, social and wellbeing services.” Its COVID-19 Schools’ Bulletin – 3 November 2020 contains a section on EHE which describes the DfE document as “helpful,” before pointing out:

“The Department for Education expects schools and other professionals to engage with LAs where a parent is considering withdrawing their child from school for EHE before the child’s name is removed from the school roll. With this in mind, schools should keep the child on roll until Plymouth City Council has coordinated and held a meeting ahead of the child being withdrawn from school and the parent confirming in writing that they are being electively home educated instead.” [Emphasis added]

As the majority of EHE families know, this is not what the law says. Once a parent has written to a school informing the responsible person that they are deregistering a child to home educate them, neither the school nor the LA have any authority to keep the child on the school roll. Yes, where a parent says they are thinking of EHE a child, then offering further discussions may be helpful, but these should always be in accordance with legislation, pandemic or no!

In their response to the DfE letter, SESLIP also maintain it is confusing. Their contentions include who is responsible for arranging any meetings with parents; LA capacity to attend meetings with parents; and how schools could act legally by removing a child from their roll once a letter has been received, but then arranging a meeting before a child is withdrawn? The authors welcome the comments on off-rolling, but cannot resist adding their voice to the campaign for registration and safeguarding:

“On a final point, we would ideally like to see a change in legislation whereby all children who are electively home educated are registered with their LA, including those that have never been to school. This would both protect all children’s entitlement to education whilst giving a structure to ensure safeguarding concerns can be addressed.”

What can I do?

Firstly, be aware that this letter has been circulated to LAs and is causing a great deal of confusion and distress.

Secondly, if you know anyone in England who has made a positive decision to EHE their child(ren) and the school or LA is being obstructive, point them to this article so they can be informed about the letter and be better equipped to respond to any pressure being put on them.

If you or they need further help, we suggest you encourage them to contact an HE support service such as Education Otherwise, HEAS, EdYourself, HE-UK and Educational Freedom who can offer personalised advice.