Lobbying, Lobbying and more Lobbying

Lobbying, Lobbying and more Lobbying

Cross-party demands for registration and greater oversight of children not in school continue unabated on either side of the Christmas recess.

[Stop Press: We have included at the end of this Byte information on today’s commitment by the Shadow Secretary of State for Education that Labour will legislate for registers of HE children if they win the next election.]

What’s been said?

A recent ten minute exchange [transcript / video] gives a helpful insight into common views about ‘home schooling’ held by a selection of Peers from across the parties. The context is as follows.

On 19 December, the day before the House of Lords rose for Christmas recess, Crossbench Peer Baroness Gohir posed the following oral question:

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether there has been a rise in home schooling and online schooling, and what action they are taking to strengthen child safeguarding in this context.

Replying, Baroness Barran explained the Government’s position,

“While the rise in itself is not an inherent safeguarding concern, the view of many local authorities is that the increase is driven by reasons other than commitment to home education. That is why we remain committed to introducing local authority statutory registers, are consulting on revised elective home education guidance, and have launched an accreditation scheme for full-time online education providers.” [Emphasis added]

Gohir pressed for more detailed demographic information, with particular reference to SEN needs, and added her own concerns about “the increased risk of children being subjected to sexual violence and domestic abuse”.

Barran responded with assurances that the Government are working on all three of what they believe to be the main reasons why parents might opt for home education, namely a positive choice, school failing to meet a child’s needs and the infamous “third group” where “we have genuine safeguarding concerns.”

Other peers then weighed in with their own thoughts. Lord Storey introduced further confusion by conflating those children missing out on education through school absence with the need for a register of home educating parents to expose those ‘pretending’ to home educate.

Meanwhile, on the same day in The Other Place, three Written Questions submitted earlier in December by Rachel Maskell (Lab, York) were answered by Damian Hinds (Minister of State for Education) in a three-in-one response.

Maskell wanted to know what steps the Secretary of State for Education was taking to

  • ensure that students not in school are able to access a full education,
  • ensure that children not in school are not at risk of harm.
  • help improve the educational outcomes of pupils who are not in school.

And since the Lords have reconvened after the recess, a further Written Answer about statutory registers was provided by Barran to a question that had been submitted on 19 December by the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

“To ask His Majesty’s Government, further to the remarks by Baroness Barran on 19 December 2023, what consideration they have given to expediting the introduction of a statutory register of children schooled at home and online, given the rise in those numbers, in order to identify children (1) who are at risk, or (2) who have unmet needs.”

On 2 January Baroness Barran replied:

“The government is committed to a statutory system of registration for children not in school and intends to legislate for that at the next suitable opportunity. My honourable Friend, the Member for Meon Valley introduced a Private Member’s Bill on 11 December with the aim of creating legal duties on local authorities to maintain such registers. The department welcomes her long and ongoing support for those measures, which the department had previously introduced as part of the Schools Bill.”

Why does it matter?

Gohir’s first question conflated ‘home schooling’ and increased safeguarding risk from the start. Barran’s unnecessary inclusion of the word ‘inherent’ demonstrated her tacit acceptance of that premise, and her reference to ‘the view of many local authorities’ show the strength of their influence upon policy – though over the years the concerns voiced by LAs have mainly been echoes of what has appeared in the media.

Barran did at least distinguish reality from rhetoric when it came to responding to Lord Storey’s exaggerated claims about hundreds of thousands of children missing their education. But she was far less firm when it came to responding to Baroness Twycross’s anxiety about the lack of an ‘inspection regime’ to check quality in home education, HE hubs and online provision. In fact, Barran replied in similar terms, acknowledging the noble lady’s ‘very valid points,’ and reassuring her that the consultation was looking into ‘how to judge the suitability of education.’

At first reading, Hinds’ reply to Maskell’s questions in the Commons contained no surprises – all the usual flannel about parents’ right to educate their children at home, the need to provide an efficient, suitable full-time education etc.

But as he continued, his response became reminiscent of the current consultation in the way the responsibilities of Local Authorities were expanded beyond the bounds of the existing law, by misquoting their duty “to make arrangements to identify children missing education.” However, this phrase is less than precise, because s436A requires two conditions to be met: such children have to be 1) not in school and 2) not receiving suitable education). Any child who is receiving a suitable education is therefore excluded from this duty, though increasingly politicians are speaking as if they are not.

Note too Barran’s positive affirmation of Flick Drummond’s Private Member’s Bill in her reply to the Lord Bishop.

The above exchanges are simply recent snapshots of the environment where our politicians’ views about home education, safeguarding, the need for CNiS registers and other associated matters are formed. The accepted narrative with which they are surrounded is only enhanced by what the media have been consistently dishing up for the last ten years or more.

This standardisation is confirmed by the similarity of the questions that are repeatedly asked, and the views expressed by MPs and Peers from across the parties. It is evident that the majority of politicians do not question the narrative. At best, they are confused about what the law actually says, or unwittingly conflating issues which would be better considered separately; at worst there is bare-faced bias and prejudice, demonstrated by an unwillingness to support claims with solid evidence or to engage with the concerns of genuine HE children and parents.

Amongst home educating families, there is a need for greater realism about this environment. It is comparatively easy to communicate the issues amongst ourselves, as it were, within the campaigning home educators’ own echo chamber. Those we speak to ‘get it’. They understand that the vast majority of HE parents only want the best for their children, whether they are home educating out of choice from the start, or found themselves there due to circumstances.

The difficulties come when we try to communicate with others – politicians, local councillors, the wider public and so on. But this is where ground needs to be taken if we want to do more than breathe a sigh of relief when this consultation is over and hope the outcome is not as bad as we fear. We forget at our peril how much ‘going to school’ has shaped the thinking of those now in positions of influence. There is an ongoing need for strong, proactive pushback against the mission creep and standardising of expectations about family and education.

What can I do?

Watch the video of the House of Lords proceedings from 19 December, or read the transcript.

In the short term, make your views known by responding to the consultation. The more responses, the better. A firm and robust “this is neither reasonable nor proportionate” will be needed to make the voice of home educators heard above the prevailing narrative.

If you are struggling to know where to start, check out the resources on the English Consultation page. There are helpful video shorts on various aspects of the consultation, a HE parent’s Quick Guide to Responding, and suggestions about five ways to respond.

In the longer term, think about the implications of the feedback loop described above. It is really important that individuals in positions of political influence get to meet and hear from real home educating families who can tell them the benefits of bespoke education, rebut some of the exaggerations and allay some of their fears. Who is there is your circle of influence that you could courteously seek to ‘re-educate’?

We must not take our current freedoms for granted. They are being eroded bit by bit, and the outcome of the General Election will make no difference. Remember that politicians and high level children’s professionals are engaged in regular international conversations with those who advocate for increasing state oversight of education, every child in school because they consider children to be autonomous right-bearing citizens who need to be protected from their families by the state. (Examples here and here)

Stop Press:

On the day this Byte was published, Labour’s Shadow Education spokesperson Bridget Phillipson delivered a significant speech about her party’s education policy should they become the next government.

This has featured widely in the media, with a mandatory CNiS register being one of the key highlights reported:

“A Labour government would legislate for a compulsory national register of home-schooled children as part of a package of measures designed to tackle the problem of persistent absence in schools in England.
The proposed legislation would place a legal duty on councils to keep a register of all children who are not in school, and on parents to provide information about their child’s education at home.”

After speaking about a register for “home schooled children,” Phillipson elaborated on Labour’s plans for a unique identifier for every child which would enable AI inter-agency tracking.

The full speech was streamed live by the CSJ on Youtube. Phillipson’s first mention of registers was at 38 mins into the full video. However she gave more details starting at 46 minutes, and she continued by outlining her party’s plans for data sharing on every child. After she steps away from the microphone, the recording continues and a more informal Q&A takes place. The first questioner is not identified, but asks at length about the plans for registers and his hopes that that monitoring will be included – this section starts at 66 mins.