Portsmouth Legal Action Reported by the Media

Portsmouth home educators’ dispute with the City Council makes the regional headlines

What’s been said?

In early January we highlighted the difficulties being experienced by home educators in Portsmouth due to the actions of their Local Authority. Recently, the mainstream media has begun to cover these events.

BBC South Today featured a report in their evening news on 26 January [Youtube].

The next day, local paper The News carried a report subtitled “Home educators in Portsmouth are threatening to take legal action against a council, claiming it has been ‘attacking’ their community,” and on 28 January, the BBC’s regional website reported “Home-schooling parents ‘harassed by Portsmouth council’.”

The quantity of legal notices or School Attendance Orders served within the catchment area demonstrate that home educators’ concerns are not being exaggerated. Figures cited by The News are disturbing:

“According to home education charity Education Otherwise, the authority served school attendance orders for nine per cent of home educated children from September. Just one other local authority in the country served orders to more than one per cent, and most served none at all.

In addition, the council served legal notices leading up to school attendance orders to 83 per cent of home educated children during 2020.”

Meanwhile, according to Portsmouth Home Education Group, the Council had declared that “parents’ written reports do not provide enough evidence of a suitable education,” which contravened national guidance.

Why does it matter?

These events have significance at a number of levels.

Firstly, the stress factor for individual families who are receiving these communications. BBC News quoted home educator Kayleigh Barton as saying that the authority had caused her family “unwarranted stress and distress”, and Vicky Campbell, the group admin mentioned in all three reports, as saying that “PCC refuse to answer questions and will not be specific about what is unsatisfactory, they simply keep demanding more.” According to Campbell, her children “now dread the mail being delivered in case it’s PCC again.”

Secondly, any hope of establishing a positive working relationship between the Council and the local home educating community will be severely diminished by an episode like this. In fact, a level of frustration and disillusionment seems to prevail amongst the community, if home educating parent Christina Goodred’s analysis is accurate:

“We have had threats of legal action in an attempt to force us into sending our children into school – simply for trying to provide them with the best opportunities. What Portsmouth City Council refuses to acknowledge is that the school environment isn’t suitable for every child.”

From the wider viewpoint the case is also significant. On BBC South Today’s bulletin, Campbell observed “I think it is a test case nationally.”

If that is so, it behoves all HE parents to monitor events in Portsmouth very carefully. According to The News, “The council is expected to respond to the group by February 1.” Will they opt to back down or will they take things to a higher level?

Here one should revisit some paragraphs tucked away at the end of Section 6 of the DfE’s Elective Home Education Departmental Guidance for Local Authorities [2019] document. Section 19 refers to the need for local authorities to bear in mind “their public responsibilities as prosecutors”, and Section 6.22 (p21) reads:

The department will be happy to support local authorities to test the boundaries of current case law through discussion with them of potentially difficult home education cases which they are contemplating bringing before the courts, on the basis that the public interest means that local authorities should take this approach in suitable circumstances.” [Emphasis added]

Rights, responsibilities and the boundaries of parent and state authority come into focus here and render this a complex but very pertinent situation.

Interestingly, an article from another part of the UK on 25 January touched on similar areas.  “Pembrokeshire councillors call for further legislation on home education” reports on plans by the local Schools and Learning Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee to write to the Welsh Children’s Commissioner “to express their view that greater powers to oversee home education was needed.”

Cllr Mike Stoddart, however, is quoted as saying that “there were ‘issues of the citizen and the state'” that should be considered and the committee should “tread carefully.”

His advice should also be followed by Lancashire County Council, whose Education and Children’s Scrutiny Committee’s discussion about HE earlier this month was reported by Pendle Today.

Cllr Jennifer Mein called for the county to lobby the government for further “rights and responsibilities” regarding home education. Explaining that the rising rate of home education had long been a “huge worry” to her, she continued:

“I’ve been trying to get something done about it for a lot of years – but there are too many lobbyists [in favour of it]. It is frightening that the numbers have increased by over 50 percent,”

What can I do?

Follow the Portsmouth case in the media and look out for further developments. According to The News, “The council is expected to respond to the group by February 1.”

Think carefully about the issues raised by this case in the wider context, revisiting the Guidance to refresh your memory if necessary.

Get to know your local councillor(s) so that when there is pressure on your LA to follow in Portsmouth’s footsteps, some of them may, like Pembrokeshire’s Cllr Stoddart, warn their colleagues against tinkering with “issues of the citizen and the state.”