Members of an All Party Parliamentary Group outnumber other speakers by two to one in response to Lord Soley’s Oral Question
What’s been said?
The name on the House of Lords order paper for 21 July will be familiar to home educators. The subject of Lord Soley’s Oral Question will not come as a surprise either. It read: “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to create a register of all home-educated children.”
Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, was in attendance to respond, and to answer the supplementary questions submitted by eight other members of the House.
Why does it matter?
Firstly, and most obviously, this demonstrates that the pressure for a register is ongoing and that lobbyists are active in both Houses.
Secondly, a report appearing on the Humanists UK website later the same day indicates the level of their interest in the matter, with the endnotes detailing several of their initiatives around EHE and illegal schools.
Humanists UK is certainly a well-oiled machine, with plenty of well-rehearsed lobbyists on hand to play their part. This registered charity, which also acts as the APP Humanist Group’s secretariat, claimed:
“Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat members of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) spoke in the debate in the Lords chamber.”
Significantly, when comparing those Lords mentioned by name in the report in addition to Lord Soley – Viscount Ridley, Lord Watson and Baronesses Whitaker, Burt and Meacher – it appears that six of the nine speakers (excluding the Minister) were members of the APPHG.
If their questions sound rather well-worn and familiar to you, could it be that the majority of the speakers were following a pre-determined script? A dictionary definition of the word “playbook” reads: “a set of rules or suggestions that are considered to be suitable for a particular activity, industry, or job.” But is it possible to identify the “particular activity, industry or job” which motivates these peers to pursue home education with such vigour and determination?
Humanists UK’s November 2020 submission to the Education Select Committee’s Inquiry on Home Education is most informative, and worthy of careful consideration. From their self-selected title (“Call for Evidence on Home Education and Illegal Schools“) onwards, the document sheds abundant light on their aims and intentions. For them, home education is inextricably bound up with the matter of illegal schools, as they explain here:
“At present, home education in England is extremely poorly regulated. Indeed, owing to the absence of a register of home educated children, the Government does not even hold accurate information on the number of children who are purportedly being taught at home, let alone whether they are receiving a suitable education. In our view, this is a problem for two key reasons. First, it means that children’s rights, including the right to an education… are not being adequately safeguarded.
Second, this lack of adequate regulation and oversight limits the ability of a number of authorities… to tackle the problem of illegal and unregistered schools, many of which use home education as a cover for their activities.”
“Our work has led us to conclude that the law surrounding both home education and illegal schools needs to be entirely overhauled to ensure that the latter can be shut down once and for all.”
It has to be agreed that greater clarity would indeed be helpful about whether a particular out of school setting falls within the legal definition of a school. In February 2018, according to the BBC, the DfE stated that some educational settings “do not meet the definition of a school and cannot therefore be prosecuted for operating as an unregistered school.” In context this was about religious settings – Jewish yeshivot – though non-religious learning centres should also benefit from the space provided by the relevant regulations.
Returning to the parliamentary session, constructive contributions were made by two speakers coming from faith backgrounds. Lord Mackay of Clashfern acknowledged the “high quality that sometimes can be reached by home schooling” and paid tribute to parents who “devote so much time and skill to carrying it out,” though he did not come up with a robust rebuttal of a register.
The Bishop of St Albans was clearer, stating that “parents often choose home schooling to escape the rigidity, values and standardisations of public education” and expressed caution about a register potentially hampering parents’ ability to “exercise their discretion and freedom of conscience over what and how best to educate their children.”
In her responses, Baroness Berridge remained true to the Government’s commitment to “a form of registration for children not in school,” with further details due in their (long-awaited) feedback to the 2019 Children Not in School consultation, though she refused to be specific about timing.
She took refuge behind the “significantly strengthened guidance” issued to LAs in April 2019, implying that in her view their “current powers and duties… in relation to children who might not be in school” were adequate.
She held her ground on it being the parents’ responsibility to ensure the provision of a suitable education, mentioning this statutory duty twice. She did not seem to think that illegal schools were a problem on the scale Baroness Burt had suggested, and it was encouraging to hear the Minister speak positively about many out-of-school settings which “offer a very valuable service, particularly to those who electively home educate, because they offer services to groups of children that parents alone potentially cannot offer.”
This, together with her clear grasp of the distinction between two frequently conflated groups of children – those being EHE and those “missing from education” – indicates that Baroness Berridge has some comprehension of the world of home educators, and is not a complete pushover – even for the serried ranks of Humanists UK.
What can I do?
Use the links provided to look beneath the surface and better understand the motivations of those advocating for more control over home education and “work[ing] closely with parliamentarians and other key decision makers” to that end.
Think about ways in which you and other home educators could take back control of the narrative, by being willing to write or speak up in whatever circles you move in.