Does the Department for Education’s response actually contain any new information, and if so, what is it?
What’s been said?
Most home educators will be aware by now that on 3 February the DfE published several documents connected with its proposals to introduce a mandatory register for “children not in a school.”
The original consultation closed in June 2019 and should have been responded to later that year. When no response appeared, Lord Soley and his allies began to press the Government about it. A response was still outstanding in 2020 when news of a novel virus panicked governments around the world. Two years of crises in schools and education departments followed. In England this has distracted civil servants and politicians from deciding how to progress their long-term intention of introducing not just a register, but also the monitoring and assessment of HE children.
The DfE has finally sought to quell the endless questions by publishing its response. Astute readers may have perceived already that whilst their intention is clear, the timescale for introducing the proposed register is opaque.
First, a list of what has been published:
This carried the disingenuous subtitle “Plans confirmed for register of children not in school so no child can ‘fall through the cracks.'” Despite citing statements from the Minister of Education and the Children’s Commissioner for England, the document conflates so many different “issues,” it really doesn’t clarify much at all. In a single paragraph, Nadhim Zahawi refers to new guidance to improve behaviour in schools, the planned register and the school rebuilding programme.
“There are however too many children who, for many reasons, have not come back to school or are not attending consistently and regularly. All of us working with children need to redouble our efforts to get all children back in the classroom – we should all know where all our children are, that they are safe, and getting the best education and support we can offer.” [Emphasis added]
Every parent should ask themselves why it is that every state employee needs to know where their sons and daughters are. No longer, it seems, can parents be trusted to raise their children as the state requires. Four years ago we asked if children were really “Safer in the Hands of the State?” That is still not the case, according to the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse!
De Souza and Zahawi were both careful to refer to those “dedicated parents” who home educate. However such sentiments no longer appease parents who will not hand their children over to state ownership. Those who are aware of UNICEF’s All in School programme, which illustrates the ideology behind their UK office’s response to the Education Committee’s Inquiry, will be especially resistant.
This is the main Government response document. Home educators will be frustrated that the accumulated hours they spent in seeking to explain their concerns have been largely ignored in favour of a data analysis exercise by outside contractors. Even more so because, whilst parents and children constituted seventy-four percent of the respondents, their concerns have been largely discounted in favour of the six percent of responses from local authorities, schools, teachers and third sector organisations.
This is the best document to read if you want to grasp the implications of what has been published. We encourage you to focus on the four “Responses” rather than how the data has been processed – further comment below.
This is a more detailed look at the responses received. It should really carry a health warning because, unless you are prepared for them, the LA “wish lists” will almost certainly raise your blood pressure. Instead, why not use them as a means of looking into the thinking of LA staff, and try to understand what makes them tick. In particular, ask yourself why they hold to the demonstrably false belief that a “child in school is safe,” whilst those at home being educated by their family are “in need of safeguarding.”
DfE blog – How we plan to support families who choose home education through registers of children not in school
This makes for a terrifying read, as the style is that of a commanding officer talking down to a bunch of new recruits. Once again, it associates children being educated by their families with “dropping off the radar.” More importantly, it reads as if plans to set up these registers are well advanced, when in fact they have reached something of an impasse. Phrases like “We plan to start the process to set up the registers at the earliest legislative opportunity,” and “as soon as we can set this up we will” are reinforced by sub-headings such as “Why are you bringing this in now?” Yet, unless the main response has intentionally been written to deceive, the reality is that the DfE is still working out: what it needs to do to achieve its goals; when the money will be available to pay for the changes; and when there might be an opportunity to incorporate those plans into a Bill.
Why does it matter?
The intention to introduce LA registers of children not in school rather than those not in education is at odds with the primacy of parents in education, as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26. The repeated use of the phrase “our children” by politicians and public employees arises from their belief that the state, rather than the parents, has priority in deciding not only the information your children are taught, but the philosophical values their minds and hearts are to be steeped in throughout their childhood. An American academic and TV host gave voice to this mindset in this 30 second clip in 2014. (See below.)
Last year we highlighted Amanda Spielman’s “frustrations that traditional British values work against the registration and monitoring of home educated children.” Speaking about a register of HE children she said:
“It is a relatively difficult thing to establish in this country because we are permissive by default and always have been, not just in education.”
It is against this prevailing “child of the state” ideology that we should each assess the proposals in the response to the CNiS consultation. Here we concentrate on key points from each of the four sections of the Government’s response.
Duty on LAs to maintain a register of children not registered at specified types of school
This is the heart of these proposals. The consultation response contains an additional opening paragraph compared to its counterpart in the annex. This concerns passing primary legislation to enable LAs to set up the register. However the final two paragraphs introduce uncertainty into the timetable. This is because introducing such legislation is dependent on: securing the necessary time in parliament; deciding on the data which should be included; and securing the necessary finances to pay for the additional burden on LAs.
In December, Zahawi spoke about a white paper being published this year. It is unclear whether he was referring to Gove’s “Levelling Up” White Paper published the day before the consultation response, or to a separate education/children’s bill, but the comments above suggest that the plans for a register may not be included in legislation this year. This could be seen as the good news in this announcement.
Duty on parents to register their child
There are two additional paragraphs at the start of the response document as compared to the annex. These seek to justify placing a responsibility on parents to register their “not in school” children. The final paragraph is the most important. First it states that establishing these registers “does not mean that parents need state approval to educate their own children.” Secondly, that it is not “the Government’s intention to establish a legal mechanism that will in future be used to withhold approval for EHE by imposing conditions for entry onto the register.”
Both these statements are welcome, but they are very hard to guarantee, should a future administration seek to remove the safeguards. Better to have no such register in the first place than one which could be used to impose totalitarian oversight of children should the political winds change direction.
Duty on proprietors to supply information
This is the most complex of the four areas covered by the CNiS consultation, as demonstrated by the two versions of the response being completely different. The one in the main document is much shorter than the one in the annex. The latter does explain its purpose, but there is no need to go into the detail here. Suffice it to say that the DfE is seeking to find a way of bringing under Ofsted’s oversight a variety of institutions which have incorrectly been grouped under the term “illegal schools.” Some are indeed illegal. Many are not, including those which provide a restricted curriculum to the children in their care.
In 2020 the DfE ran a consultation under the title “Regulating independent educational institutions”, to which it has yet to respond. The details in this section of the annex are essentially an update on that consultation. The last sentence reiterates an earlier commitment that “this registration requirement would not apply to parents providing home education to their children.”
Duty on local authorities to provide support
There is increasing diversity of opinion amongst HE communities about the state offering “support” to HE families. More traditional families are wary, seeing such things as a lure to draw them under the LA’s oversight, whereas many of those who have deregistered children from school, especially those with SEND children, believe the state owes them something and will take everything they are offered.
It is important to differentiate in our own thinking between practical and financial support which is properly due to children with special needs, and more recent offers of ‘universal’ support for all home educators who might wish to avail themselves of it. Governments have committed themselves to providing the former, but do so reluctantly, whereas they seem more ready to offer low cost morsels to home educators irrespective of their children’s needs. If the state was properly meeting the needs of those whom it has a duty to help and then still had a surplus to distribute, perhaps it should reduce taxes rather than spend it on honey-traps!
For now though, this offer of ‘universal’ support remains aspirational in England and, if implemented, will “be subject to further consideration and assessment of need, how it could be achieved and the costs involved.”
What can I do?
First, realise that the implementation of these registers is seemingly not immediate. Therefore don’t panic.
But secondly, don’t assume that the project has been kicked into the long grass; it hasn’t. Without the disruption of the last two years, a bill enacting it might already have been going through Parliament.
Establish (or maintain) contact with your MP and local councillors. We suggest that asking to meet with them in person rather than relying on an exchange of letters will make a stronger impression. Meeting with councillors is important because, for most, home educators are an unknown quantity. No matter how unfair it seems, both MPs and councillors are more likely to support concerns from people they know, rather than “just another” constituent or local resident. Much of the pressure on Government appears to be coming from LA staff, with Council members deferring to their “expert” employees because of their own personal lack of knowledge.
Begin to plan ahead. Recently we encouraged you to prepare for the change in attitude in many LAs following the Portsmouth judgment. We now encourage you to think ahead in two further respects. The first is to build up your own understanding of matters such as: why a register is unjustifiable and unworkable; and why hard-working parents should be given genuine respect, not just lauded with meaningless lip-service. Such arguments will also be helpful when engaging with politicians, so build up a catalogue of your reasons.
Secondly, even if you are already known to the LA, consider how you would respond should a duty to register your child be imposed upon you. Yes, there is a wide variety of opinion within HE communities about a requirement to register. No-one should impose their convictions on others in any way, but the best way to be prepared is by thinking the issues through together and having respectful and honest conversations amongst ourselves.
This is almost certainly a hill some will choose to fight to hold; others may think it has been lost already. There will be much to gain if families can begin to discuss these issues with one another in an open and constructive way, without turning good friends into enemies. Remember, the real threat comes from an ideology that wants to redefine your children as collectively theirs.
Video linked to in text above: Melissa Harris Perry, “All Your Kids Belong To The Community”