Spielman must try harder to find the evidence she said she possessed

Spielman must try harder to find the evidence she said she possessed

Must-read Tes article summarises recent first tier tribunal ruling in which a judge told the Information Commissioner’s Office to put more pressure on Ofsted to come clean

What’s been said?

Many home educating parents get tired. Taking responsibility for the education of their children is no small undertaking. But such tiredness is satisfying and positive compared to the wearing effects of the negative narrative about home education which prevails in the public sphere. Ofsted’s current Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, has been one of the most vocal critics of the ‘lack of oversight’ the state exercises over HE parents.

So the content of this Tes article, “Probe Spielman on home education concerns, judge tells Ofsted” [£] published on 23 October will come as a great encouragement to them to persevere in the belief that the truth matters, and is worth pursuing.

In October 2018, Spielman included the following ‘concerns’ about home education in a letter she wrote to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

The concept of home education is being warped. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggest that parents are home educating their children under duress, to prevent exclusion.

Often, these parents do not have the capacity to provide a good standard of education. In other cases, parents use home education as a guise to allow them to use illegal schools or to evade the scrutiny of public services.

Home educating father and trustee of the Home Educators’ Qualifications Association, Jeremy Yallop, was unhappy about these unsubstantiated claims, and wished to see the evidence on which they were based.

So in July last year he submitted a Freedom of Information Request to Ofsted. In their response Ofsted said they had carried out “reasonable searches but had been unable to locate a record setting out what quantifiable evidence HMCI [Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector] was referring to in her letter.” Furthermore, they thought the evidence was “unlikely to have been systematically recorded” as it was referred to as ‘anecdotal’.

Unsatisfied with this, Mr Yallop persisted, firstly challenging Ofsted’s response with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and then going on to appeal the ICO’s decision at tribunal!

The hearing took place on 3 October. The decision was given on 13 October, with the tribunal finding in Mr Yallop’s favour. The ICO was instructed “to order Ofsted to look again at the FOI request – and this time to ask Ms Spielman what evidence she was referring to.”

At the time of writing the judgment had not been published on the Tribunal’s website. However, the HE Byte has been provided with a copy.

Why does it matter?

Even when they are not based in fact, assertions can influence the views of both public and politicians, particularly if they emanate from prominent people with official standing. As Tes reported, Spielman had raised her concerns over home education “with MPs.”

The article pointed out an additional significance of the tribunal’s ruling, in that it came “amid widespread calls to introduce a home education register after plans for this were dropped in the ditched Schools Bill.”

Tes cited Spielman’s description of the lack of information about where children who are removed from school rolls end up as being “perhaps my greatest concern as chief inspector”. This of course feeds directly back into her unwavering support for the creation of a Children Not in School register, stoking up the level of anecdotal concerns amongst local and national politicians as well as LA and departmental staff.

Home educating families are all too familiar with the problems caused by the conflation of home educated children with the broader category of ‘children not in school.’ For years the Government and politicians have been introducing their calls for registration and monitoring with comments like, “The majority of home educating parents are hard working and do a very good job, but…” If this is so, then these parents do not deserve to be viewed with suspicion due to their choice of a different but equally legitimate educational pathway. The wider CNiS group is more complex, and the different categories of children within it need careful thought when it comes to policy. A one size fits all approach for such a recently created and heterogeneous group is problematic.

Public authorities are accountable to the public who fund them even when they are an “Arms Length body,” and they should make every effort to be transparent. The tribunal notice made an important point about the role and responsibilities of a public authority when they stated: [§33]

“A public authority should conduct an appropriate and reasonable search for information. This should include, as a minimum, searching in the places where it is reasonable to expect that the public authority would find the information, if it existed”.

But perhaps the greatest irony noted in the ruling is that in the opening paragraphs of the very same letter, Spielman had stated:

“As chief inspector, I believe that it is important that I comment only on areas where we have evidence, rooted in inspection findings. To do otherwise, and to offer opinions on a wider range of policy matters, would only undermine Ofsted’s credibility.”

This letter to the Public Accounts Committee is not the only occasion where the Chief Inspector has expressed her concerns about home education. §38 of the ruling notes that she had “made similar statements about home education in November 2018, October 2019 and November 2020,” and goes on to cite points she had raised in a June 2021 oral evidence session with the Education Committee about children who have “essentially fallen out of school or been off rolled, perhaps because they have special needs or the school has not been able to cope with their behaviour…”

Another key reason why this reported episode matters is that a great deal hangs on the accuracy or otherwise of the assertions made. As Mr Yallop said when asked for his reaction to the recent ruling,

“Although the chief inspector has claimed to Parliament that Ofsted has a lot of evidence that justifies introducing severe new laws, Ofsted has been unable to produce the evidence. I’m pleased with the tribunal’s decision that the chief inspector must be asked where the evidence is.”

Mr Yallop is to be commended for his persistence in following through on this longstanding saga because, as recent Bytes have commented, the truth always matters and it should be sought out.

What can I do?

Read the Tes article. If you want to know about the sequence of events in more detail and read the substitute decision reached by the Tribunal judge, look at the ruling itself.

Essentially Ofsted are now required to comply with the steps indicated therein (pages 1-2) within thirty-five calendar days of receiving it from the ICO, so watch out for future updates on this situation.

Interestingly, similar matters have been addressed in other recent Bytes, in that they have reported on instances of home educators calling out misleading statements or exposing bias or significant omissions. Correcting the narrative is something we can all contribute to. If you haven’t read them already, you could have a look at The Truth always matters (England), or Historic Distortion of Home Education Facts Down Under (Australia.)

Some common characteristics run through these accounts – tenacity, a concern for accuracy and a willingness to invest time and personal effort. Watch out for similar situations which may present themselves in the future, and ask yourself if you, or a group of you, might be able to change the narrative or improve the public perception of HE. The best way to lose your freedoms is to leave it to someone else to defend them. In this case, just one person with determination has ensured that an influential figure is held to account – or will at least have to admit that her evidence is not evidence at all, but simply hearsay!

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  1. Pingback: Senedd Plenary – 24 October 2023 – Families First in Education – Wales

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