Regulating Independent Educational Institutions Consultation

Unregistered schools consultation sends mixed messages about home education

Update: 7 May: The consultation referred to in this article was due to close tomorrow (8 May) but at 5:30pm tonight it was suspended until further notice due to COVID-19.

Update: 13 October: Today the Department for Education relaunched this  consultation. The revised closing date is Friday, 27 November 2020. The announcement reads, “If you have already responded to this consultation, your feedback will still be considered and you do not need to resubmit your response.”

What’s been said?

On 14 February the Department for Education launched a consultation on “expanding on the categories of full-time [educational] institutions [in England] that will be regulated,” with accompanying changes to enable this. They explain that this follows on from a March 2018 statement by the then “Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System, Lord Agnew.” At the time we reported on an answer given by Agnew in the Lords concerning “Children: Missed Education” and an article he had published that morning in The Times.

In the House, Agnew cited the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper consultation, making clear that this incorporated proposed “guidance on unregistered schools.” It is almost certain that last June’s Children Not in School consultation [CNiS] was a subsequent follow-up to that line of enquiry, as much as it built on the 2018 EHE: Call for Evidence.

Whilst the HE community still waits to discover the DfE’s intentions regarding a register of children educated outside school, this consultation sends a very clear signal that they intend to address concerns about unregistered schools, legal or illegal, by changing the criteria for when schools are required to register.

Twice the main consultation document makes clear that these changes do not affect EHE. The final sentence of §2.12 reads, “Of course, there is no intention here to cover a parent simply supervising their own child’s study at home.” Echoing this, the second paragraph of §2.17 begins, “As noted above, the registration requirement would not apply to a parent providing home education to his or her children.” Perhaps more difficult to understand is §2.18c, which explains that if a child attends any unregistered educational setting for sufficient time to make it impractical for them to be educated by their family, then that establishment will have to be registered.

A clear distinction between genuine EHE families and those seeking to use EHE as a flag of convenience for sending children to unregistered schools is to be welcomed. Unlike the CNiS, which proposed an ill-defined but much larger net that could have required local HE groups to register, these proposals focus on those settings which supervise a child for the majority of their education. So far, so good.

This consultation contains two other documents, however. The first is the Family Test, and the second a combined Equalities Log and UNCRC Assessment. As in previous consultations, these reveal the underlying attitude towards EHE in the DfE – and to those groups which are the main target of the proposed changes. For instance, whilst HE is mentioned only three times in the main document, it occurs thirteen times in these supplements.

Further, the Equalities Log recognises that these proposals will mainly affect “persons of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith,” as well as some Muslims and Christians. The target group is further clarified in §3 of the UNCRC assessment; there it is recognised that “the main impact will fall on a small number of settings serving fewer than 10,000 children… especially those who attend yeshivas serving the Charedi community.”

The references to HE are generally negative, especially so in the Equalities Log, with repeated expression of opinions such as “such children may end up being educated at home and although there are legal standards relating to that, there can be no certainty that those would be adhered to, and therefore, the children concerned may not get a suitable quality of education,” and later “that home education may not be adequate.” (p3) The unevidenced nature of these aspersions has to be noted.

Why does it matter?

It is always helpful to look at the agenda behind any government statement or consultation. The main target of this proposed legislation is not EHE families, but Orthodox Jewish yeshivas. These focus their teaching on religious matters and do not provide a broad curriculum, thereby falling outside the existing definition of a school which must be registered, even though they teach many children for large amounts of time. Non-religious education of these children is left to parents, which is why they are considered to be “home educating.”

In recent years pressure has been put on the government to bring these yeshivas under Ofsted’s oversight. The campaign against these “schools” has also incorporated negativity towards HE. Less than two weeks before Agnew’s 2018 statement, both the Sunday Times and BBC carried articles linking HE with these Jewish schools as well as to “radicalisation” in other faiths. We have previously reported that shortly before the BBC broadcast, Humanists UK tweeted: “Tonight! Tune in to BBC News at 6pm on BBC One to watch our exposé on illegal religious schools.” In the 15 March, 2018 debate Lord Polak asked, “Will the Minister remind Ofsted that the humanists are not the only minority group with opinions?

It seems that the Government has now decided to respond to this persistent lobbying about unregistered schools, often but not always run by religious minorities, by changing school registration requirements. This does not mean they have given up on the registration of HE children; rather, it appears they don’t think that measure would resolve the problem they are trying to address with these proposals.

The HE community can therefore be thankful that the DfE has decided not to confuse HE with yeshivas or similar establishments. However, the consultation does highlight that a hostile environment towards EHE persists in the Department.

What can I do?

Appreciate that whilst this consultation is not directly concerned with HE, it does have relevance to the decade-long campaign against parental choice. It is also probable that if these changes are taken forward, they will result in a further wave of HE refugees.

If you have the time, energy and emotion to respond to yet another consultation, please consider stressing the importance of the stated intention that “the registration requirement would not apply to a parent providing home education to his or her children,” being written into the proposed primary legislation. This needs to be done in such a way that it cannot be amended by future secondary legislation. Questions 13 and 14 are most appropriate places to make these points. (N.B. This consultation has been suspended – see note at the top of this page.)