Important but Apparently Forgotten Historic Ministerial Letters

Important but Apparently Forgotten Historic Ministerial Letters

Two letters written fifteen years ago provide important insights into the current moves to impose state supervision on home educating families

What’s been said?

It appears that for over a decade, two letters written by Ministers in January 2007 have been gathering dust on the pages of HE websites. They come from a time before most people realised that the State had set out to monopolise its control over how children are raised, including how they are educated. We should not continue to ignore what they can tell us.

In the final months of Tony Blair’s ten year Premiership, Education Minister Alan Johnson and Schools Minister Lord Adonis sent almost identical responses to HE correspondents. Johnson’s letter is preserved on the AHEd wiki. Action for Home Education was “an action group with a focus on the defence and advancement of home education rights and liberties and of fair and equal treatment for all home educators.” Items continued to be added to their website until around 2010.

Adonis’ letter, written around the same time as Johnson’s, is archived on the AIM-Home Education website. Much shorter-lived than AHEd’s Wiki, this site only features items from the early months of 2007. Our team stumbled across both documents whilst searching the internet for information on a letter written by Adonis the previous year. It is astonishing that these letters have seemingly been forgotten by English HE parents. We are indebted to the contributors to both sites for publicising and preserving them thus far as important evidence about the prevailing negative narrative over EHE.

Much of Johnson’s letter is repeated in Adonis’s, so it was clearly a statement crafted within the Department’s offices. (A PDF copy of both is available.) In the online version of Adonis’s letter, the first of two highlighted paragraphs reads:

“The state does not currently prescribe what form of education parents should provide, whilst all maintained and independent school provision is prescribed in legislation and subject to inspection. This anomaly is at odds with Every Child Matters reforms, supported by the Children Act 2004, which set out the Government’s aim to improve educational outcomes for all children, regardless of where they are educated, and to narrow the gap between those who are doing well and those who are not.” [Emphasis added]

Why does it matter?

We have previously cited a letter from Adonis to Lord Judd, dating from October 2006, containing a statement which echoes strongly with all HE families. Adonis quoted an Appeal Court judgment, Ali v Lord Grey School [2006] UKHL 14, in which Lord Bingham had stated:

“This fourfold foundation has endured over a long period because it has, I think, certain inherent strengths. First, it recognises that the party with the keenest personal interest in securing the best available education for a child ordinarily is, or ought to be, the parent of the child…” [§16]

The “long period” Lord Bingham referred to was the thirty years since a 1976 case, Secretary of State for Education and Science v Tameside MBC, in which Lord Wilberforce set out the terms of this four part foundation. There is however a significant difference between Wilberforce’s list and Bingham’s summary – the latter credits parents with a “personal interest,” but not with primacy. That, in the same paragraph, is attributed to the LEA. Wilberforce however saw things differently:

“Under the [1944] Act responsibility for secondary education rests upon a fourfold foundation. The Minister (as he was then called); local authorities; parental wishes; and school managers and governors. All have their part to play. The primary responsibility rests on the Minister.” [page 2 – emphasis added]

Whilst it is not impossible to reconcile the two judgments, it is important for EHE families to realise that Adonis was not quoting the 2006 judgment because it supported the primacy of parents in the education of their children. His appeal to it was in order to keep things palatable to the State. It is worth reading the whole of Adonis’s letter to appreciate the context.

Recognising this difference is important because the extract from Adonis’s letter to Judd is often cited to support the primacy of parents. However, in view of his later letter, doing this implies that within three months Adonis had had a significant change of mind. To interpret the “keen personal interest” of parents in the quality of their child’s education as indicating acceptance of their primacy fails to recognise the very different emphasis in the original judgment, which attributed primary responsibility for education to the Minister.

Understanding this distinction demonstrates that the January 2007 letters did not signal a change in Government policy, but rather clarified the intentions of the Blair administration.

Both Ministers called the State’s lack of ability to determine the “form of education parents should provide” an “anomaly” which was “at odds with Every Child Matters reforms.”

These letters therefore provide “witness statements” which affirm that the roots of today’s attacks on freedom for children to receive an education in accordance with their parents’ “own religious and philosophical convictions,” are not the result of ignorance and prejudice embedded in LAs, but of a policy implemented under the Children Act 2004.

Subsequent events, however, prevented this agenda from being pursued immediately. First, Gordon Brown insisted that Blair hand over leadership of the Labour Party, and therefore his Premiership, in accordance with a “pact” between the two men in 1994. This led to Blair’s resignation in June 2007. When Brown took over, the Department for Education became the Department for Children, Schools and Families, led by Ed Balls.

Two years later Balls advanced the Every Child Matters objectives in regard to EHE by asking Graham Badman to conduct a Review of Home Education. By the end of 2009, Badman’s work had helped to shape the infamous Clause 26 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill which, if successful, would have introduced registration and monitoring of HE children in England. When Brown called the 2010 General Election, Clause 26 was removed from the Bill. When Labour lost the election the matter of EHE regulation lay dormant for five years.

One final observation on the Johnson and Adonis 2007 letters. Each states in a later paragraph that the reason for “concerns about lack of local authority access to the child,” was not because of potential abuse, but “about the general difficulty in assessing children’s progress and children’s views on their education being heard.”

The main reason for highlighting this statement here is that it demonstrates that the motivation for a register goes far beyond knowing where children are being educated. It is a step towards gaining access to all children on a regular basis to hear their views on their education – an opportunity not provided to the majority of schooled children – and to enable monitoring of their progress.

When Balls actually sought to implement this policy, he initiated a significant shift in emphasis about why LA access to HE children was so essential. Balls invoked the tragic memory of eight year old Khyra Ishaq, who had been starved to death by her mother and partner. This set a pattern for the type of emotive arguments which have subsequently been put forward at every opportunity by proponents of state supervision.

What can I do?

Ask yourself why these letters have not been referenced repeatedly by home education advocates over the last fifteen years. Ignoring them has resulted in efforts to defend the right to home educate children without unjustified state interference, to be focussed on the 1996 Education Act rather than on the anomaly created by the 2004 Children Act.

If you value educational freedom in any form, seek a better understanding of this 2004 Act. It made provisions for the establishment of Children’s Commissioners in both England and Wales. It brought LA services for children’s welfare and education together under the oversight of local Directors of Children’s Services. It created the later abandoned ContactPoint database of all children in England; a similar project is now being championed by the present Children’s Commissioner for England.

Finally, recognise that this intrusive policy of registering, monitoring and assessing all home educated children is not a recent development. Its roots reach back to 2004, if not before. Understand that its agenda is now embedded in the minds of civil servants and politicians, no matter which political party holds the reins.

If such objectives are to be successfully withstood, there is little point in fighting the battles of the second half of the twentieth century – including those faced by Joy Baker and others. It is essential that HE families and their supporters understand the philosophies and current tactics of those who do not respect our families’ civil liberties today, and do all we can to resist their efforts!