Should repeated questions about EHE from members of Keir Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet raise concern?
What’s been said?
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party was very quiet on the topic of home education. Yes, Lord Soley is a Labour peer, but his Bill was always a private enterprise. In recent years, Labour has said little officially about its position on HE. Its 2019 manifesto, for instance. made no reference to it.
Last autumn things began to change with five Shadow Ministers to date having raised the topic of EHE in Written Questions. This new wave of interest from Labour began with three questions from Kate Green, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, tabled on 11 November. Her three short questions, all addressed to “the Secretary of State for Education,” asked:
“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.“
Six days later, Nick Gibb, Minister of State (Education), gave a combined answer which contained information familiar to politically-aware home educators. However, in the light of the experiences of HE families in Portsmouth it is worth quoting his final paragraph in full:
“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.” [Emphasis added.]
Labour’s voice on EHE was not heard again until 11 January this year, when Chi Onwurah, a Shadow Minister with two briefs, asked this confused question:
“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, when his Department plans to publish their response to the 2018 Home Education oversight consultation.”
In his answer Nick Gibb very politely explained to her the complicated facts of recent EHE consultation history.
The following day Fleur Anderson, Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), asked:
“what steps his Department has taken to ensure that home-schooled pupils will be able to achieve the qualifications they are working towards at the end of the 2020-21 academic year.”
It is good to see that the failure to award grades to EHE candidates in national exams is not being totally ignored amongst Labour’s ranks. As it happened, within twenty-four hours of Anderson’s question, Mike Hill (Labour, Hartlepool) tabled a very similar question of his own.
Actually, Daniel Zeichner another Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) had raised this matter with the Minister as early as 6 January, wanting to know:
“if he will provide urgent guidance on how home-educated students who cannot access teacher assessments will receive A-level and GCSE qualifications.”
For some reason Gibb delayed answering Zeichner’s question until after he had responded to the subsequent two. Of course Gibb’s answers are now of very little value for, as many readers will know, this problem is far from solved, with the 19 February announcement concerning IGCSEs bringing to an end any hope of private candidates sitting conventional [I]GCSEs or A-Levels exams this summer.
Why does it matter?
The specific details of these questions from the Labour Shadow Cabinet are of less significance that their quantity. As mentioned above, it was a Labour Government which initiated the last decade of anti-EHE propaganda when Ed Balls invited Graham Badman to review home education in 2009. At the time, Balls appealed to the tragic death of eight year old Khyra Ishaq in May 2008, to infer that HE parents were a safeguarding risk to their own children. Since losing the general election in 2010, the party has remained quiet about its intentions with regard to the registration and monitoring of EHE children which Balls had sought to implement in his Children, Schools and Families Bill.
In June 2019 a group named Labour Home Educators submitted a response to Labour’s National Policy Forum 2019 consultation on Local Accountability in the National Education Service. There is nothing on their website to suggest they have received any feedback to their considered arguments, which is a pity. For if they had, we might have more idea of Labour’s intentions about the future of EHE freedom in England.
This spate of Shadow Cabinet interest in HE may be nothing more worrying than curiosity stirred up by two bouts of national “home schooling,” or by the yet unresolved issue of awarding grades to private candidates. It may however signal something of far greater concern. Is this sleeping political giant waking up from its slumbers to ensure that the seeds it sowed a decade ago finally bear fruit? Is it about to flex its muscles once again, hoping to make it mandatory that all children are encased in state-supervised education?
What can I do?
First and foremost, stay alert and take note of any comments from Labour (and the other main political parties too) in regard to EHE. If they are of potential significance, make sure other home educators are alerted to them by social media and let us know about them.
If you are a member of the Labour Party, it’s particularly important that you maintain an interest in any comments relevant to EHE, even if the topic is not mentioned directly. Discuss them in your local party meetings.
Everyone should do what they can to engage with their local politicians, Councillors and Members of Parliament, seeking to counter the negative narrative which has been sown in their minds through repeated references in political speeches or statements, in official reports, and in the endless stream of scurrilous press articles and critical radio programmes.
Remember that since 2010 the Liberal Democrats have adopted a policy which doesn’t trust families. More recently, a Conservative Councillor gained support for registration and monitoring of HE children from cross-party colleagues.
The fight for educational freedom is far from over.