Our National Expectations for All Children

What’s been said?

On 14 November, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman spoke at the The National Children and Adult Services Conference. Her keynote speech is described on Ofsted’s website as being “about local authority children’s services, criminal exploitation of children and county lines.” Spielman was at this conference because Ofsted’s remit is to inspect provision of children’s social care as well as their education – or, as she expressed it, “Ofsted exists to shine a light where children and young people are not getting a good deal in their education or care.”

Speaking about the need to reappraise how they inspect schools, she sounded a note which might encourage many home educators if it had come from another source. “Because when schools put exam performance and league tables over the needs of individual pupils, the consequences can be dire.” It did not take long though for Spielman to focus her cross-hairs on HE. Comments about exclusions made way for this claim, “But attainment aside, once children are out of school, they are unlikely to be taught for as many hours a day as they would in a school. What happens to children outside this time? Who are they associating with?” Her immediate suggestion was that they are recruited by what are now described as “county lines” illegal drug networks.

Speaking about exclusions enabled her to make her first reference to coerced HE. This was followed by the usual platitude about most HE parents doing a good job, before a firm tug on the carpet under their feet, “But just as some schools struggle to cope with certain pupils, some parents struggle, too. They mostly aren’t qualified teachers and their child may have complex needs.” Notice the put-down in her terminology! Whilst many parents do struggle with their children’s complex needs, in the vast majority of instances and with good support, they are the best placed to provide for their children in the long-term. Spielman however elevates the skills and commitment of professionals above those of parents.

Unregistered schools were next to be targeted; “There are some who exploit home-schooling legislation as cover for using provision that doesn’t have to meet our national expectations for all children.” Expressing sympathy for her audience, drawn mainly from local authority staff, she offered them a sop of condolence over their difficulties of monitoring HE families in the light of all these dangers, “That is why we have lent our weight to calls for a register of home education, run by local authorities, which would offer some assurance here. And I very much hope that the Department for Education moves quickly from its recent call for evidence to a concrete legislative solution.”

Why does it matter?

Unlike some reporters, HE families are well aware by now that successive Chief Inspectors have been lobbying hard for a registration scheme. Many of us however are confused as to why this is so. Perhaps one clue can be found in the phrase which gives this Byte its title, “our national expectations for all children.” Three questions come to mind about that phrase. Firstly, who is setting this goal? Secondly, what are those expectations? Finally, why should this apply to all children?

Taking the second question first, human rights legislation is very clear on the expected outcomes of education, “The development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential;” (UNCRC) and “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality.” (UDHR) Many, including Spielman in this speech, now recognise that our schools system fails on both counts, but her solution is to improve the schools rather than to value alternatives.

The real differences in the present debate are revealed by the first and third questions. “Our national” suggests that she sees it as the State’s responsibility to prescribe the outcomes of education – not only for those children whose parents have asked it to teach them but, as she says, for every child in the country.

On this point Human Rights conventions are also clear; it is not for states to determine the world view in which children are raised – that is the responsibility of their parents. “The State shall respect the right of the parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” (ECHR) “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” (UDHR) By championing “national expectations” for the education of every child, Spielman is, perhaps unconsciously, signalling that she has no problem with the state, through the local authorities, assuming parental responsibility in every family.

What can I do?

If this analysis of her phraseology is correct, then it is important for parents, home educating or otherwise, to stand against the underlying flow in education and other children’s services. Sadly, most parents fail to realise their personal responsibility for their children’s education, and are therefore unaware that they have already relinquished far too much. This is why home educators are on the whole the last defenders of parental responsibility in our society. Essentially, the draft guidelines in the recent consultation had within them everything needed to give the state the final authority over every aspect of every child’s upbringing. Perhaps these are concerns we should be talking about, with friends and family as well as with politicians.