Buried in a ‘long read’ about Labour’s plan for education should they win the next election is a statement about resurrecting the proposals for registers and curbing unregistered schools.
What’s been said?
Prepublication note: This Byte was drafted before the Petitions Committee’s debate on Monday 27 March. References to it below are therefore additions to the text. We hope to publish fuller comment on the debate in the near future.
On 3 March, Schools Week published a twelve thousand word article on Labour’s plans for the education system should they win the next general election. The trigger for this was Sir Kier Starmer’s speech the previous week which set out his Party’s objectives if they succeed in forming the next Government. Summarising their plan for education, journalist Tom Belger wrote:
“The fifth mission in a document published alongside the speech focuses on education. It promises to ‘break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, for every child, by reforming the childcare and education systems, raising standards everywhere, and preparing young people for work and life’.”
With that starting point, his colleague Freddie Whittaker has spoken with various people to put flesh and bones on the skeleton. He quotes from a mixture of shadow cabinet members and ‘think tank’ sources in an attempt to build up a more complete picture of Labour’s thinking. The focus, of course, is on schools and how they will be funded and managed going forward. Compared to such challenges, home education is a small budget item for politicians. However, these days it comes high on many journalists’ list of questions to ask. Consequently, what will not be in the headlines of Labour’s manifesto has been given an early public airing.
“Elements of the government’s now abandoned school reforms, such as plans for a home education register and greater powers to curb unregistered schools, will also be resurrected, although shadow ministers intend to take a ‘different approach’.” [Emphasis added]
This, then, is the clearest signal we have had that registration of children educated outside state-supervised schools will remain on the political agenda, even if there is a change of Government following the next general election. Morgan underscored Labour’s support for registration in his response to the 27 March debate. When speaking about the Schools Bill, he made clear:
“Labour supported measures to have a register and visibility of home schooling. We welcomed and backed plans to create a duty on councils to keep a register of children not in school.”
Why does it matter?
More recent HE families are probably unaware that in England the initial attempts to transfer the responsibility for education from parents to the State were made in 2009, under Gordon Brown’s premiership. That year Childrens, Schools and Families [CSF] Minister Ed Balls asked Graham Badman to conduct a review of home education. Balls cited the tragic case of an eight year old girl from Birmingham, Khyra Ishaq, who had starved to death after being withdrawn from school ostensibly to be home educated. Badman’s work led to the CSF Bill, which might have brought in registers but for the hard work of many HE families at the time. The Bill failed in that objective because when the time came for what is known as the ‘wash up’ prior to the 2010 election, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs had by then understood home educators’ collective concerns, and consequently demanded the deletion of the offending clauses. Sadly though, thirteen years later, it is no longer the case that the majority of MPs from either of those parties support parental civil liberties.
In case you are wondering, the Serious Case Review did not mention HE at all in its conclusion. The responsibility for Khyra’s death was placed firstly on her mother and the mother’s partner, and it acknowledged that key social care professionals had failed to fulfil their responsibilities. Importantly, it recognised that had these professionals conducted themselves as expected, then Khyra’s death could have been prevented. However, the lead author, John Radford (NSPCC), used the executive summary to build on the fear-mongering narrative initiated by Ed Balls and Graham Badman – the very same message which has been fed to the media in recent years by Lord Soley, Robert Halfon, Amanda Spielman and many more!
Be in no doubt that registration is a policy which originated with Labour, even though they have made no official statements about it since 2010. The Party fully supported Lord Soley’s 2017 Bill, and were completely behind the offending parts of last year’s Schools Bill. The real difference in recent years has been that both Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs (and peers) have succumbed to the ‘safeguarding’ narrative, and lack the fortitude stand against it. Now the mantle of Parliamentary champion of registration appears to have passed to Flick Drummond a Conservative MP who, as we recently reported, is seeking to legislate for CNiS registers through a Ten Minute Rule Bill. On 25 March, speaking on 5 Live (1:10:30 from start) she said:
“It is one of the reasons why I’m going to bring in a Bill, in May, to have a register so that every child who isn’t in school, we know exactly where they are, whether they are being looked after, and what extra help we need to get them, to either get into school or have an education at home.” [Emphasis added]
We are now in a political landscape where there is very little difference in the policies advanced by the main parties on many important issues. In February, William Hague and Tony Blair – past political opponents – co-wrote an article calling for a greater advance in the acceptance of technology, including data sharing. A key statement, repeated by Blair on the Today programme (1 minute video), though made in a different context, becomes even more chilling when applied in other policy areas, such as education:
“This purpose must rise above political differences to achieve a new cross-party consensus that can survive any change of government.”
It seems that this is already the situation faced by electively home educated children, with an established cross-party consensus on registration, monitoring, assessment and extensive data collection.
What can I do?
No doubt, like many HE families, you were very glad to see the back of the Schools Bill. However, now is not the time to switch off from protecting your responsibilities towards your children. It is clear that no family can afford to do that when faced with relentless pressure from politicians of all persuasions.
This is the time to fight to retain your full parenthood or lose it for ever – that is the reality we now face.
To counter such stereotypes, politicians need to meet real people and see that they care for their children’s welfare. Suspicion of state education ‘refuseniks’ has been embedded in some LAs for over seventy years! This year may be the last opportunity to reshape that narrative at both local and national level.
The importance of meeting with your MP was illustrated by two contributions to the recent debate. Both Nick Fletcher and Naz Shah made clear that their understanding of HE had been changed through meeting home educators. Importantly, both also now understood the importance of protecting a family’s right to privacy from badly trained and over-zealous LA staff! Their comments must be built on as the arguments behind this debate continue.
For such reasons it is important that as many as possible seek to build a relationship with their MPs and with their local councillors, no matter which party they belong to. Remember that MPs tend to pay more attention to their councillors than they do to their constituents. They see their local colleagues as having their ears closer to the political ground, as it were. So please request meetings with both your MP and your councillor to tell them how concerned you are about these proposals.
Issues worth raising with all politicians, no matter what colour their rosette, are data protection and civil liberties. When such dangers are spelled out to politicians, the libertarian within most of them can sometimes be awakened.
Now is the time for home educators past, present and future, to stand together and politely but firmly make clear to politicians that they should not allow the crusade to impose state-supervised parenting on every child to continue. They have a social contract with their electorate to maintain – or do they think such concepts are “hypothetical agreements [which] aren’t worth the paper they’re not written on”?