Understanding the Past Helps us to Address the Present

Understanding the Past Helps us to Address the Present

Whilst thankful for support during the Schools Bill Second Reading debate, it is the critical comments which need engaging with

What’s been said?

This Byte opens with brief reflections on the Second Reading of the Schools Bill, which is making its way through Parliament. It then considers what we might learn from three archive items from an English home educators’ crisis of similar magnitude back in 2009-10.

Part 3 of the Bill, School Attendance (p.40-58) is of most relevance to home educators, but we should not neglect Part 4, Independent Educational Institutions (p. 58-78), as practitioners of all forms of alternative education will be affected by new legislation and we need to support one another’s efforts.

There were around forty names on the Second Reading speakers’ list. This page records who they were and indicates their political affiliations. It also links to both the video and the transcript of proceedings. (The agenda tab to the right of the video lists each Member’s contribution, and clicking on a Member’s name will play the video from the time they rise to speak.)

It was notable how many speakers referred to the proposed register, with the majority unsurprisingly being in favour of its establishment. Several paid tribute to Lord Soley and his 2017 Private Member’s Bill, also backed by Lord Storey.

It was encouraging to listen to various Peers speaking supportively about home education, though even here one or two still favoured registration. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Lord Blackwell, Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall, Lord Lucas, Baroness Fox of Buckley, Lord Addington are some you might wish to listen to, or read their speeches in Hansard.

Data and civil liberties concerns were raised, and Special Educational Needs also featured prominently, with reference made to Ambitious about Autism, Square Peg, and Not Fine in School. The difficulties of school attendance for SEND children was highlighted, and the number of children now in HE because of the failures of the school system was also noted.

More generally, Peers also expressed concerns about increased powers for the government across the school system. Lord Baker, himself a previous Secretary of State for Education, spoke of ‘a power grab by the DfE’ and the ‘greatest potential increase in the powers of the Secretary of State since 1870.’ Several noted the dangerously open-ended nature of the draft, which affords increased personal power to the Secretary of State rather than just to the ‘state’ as a whole, and more worryingly, affords this to all future Secretaries of State if this Bill passes into primary legislation as it is.

Several Peers opposed more centralised organisation of schools, wanting to retain flexibility because local situations and needs differ so widely, and standardised solutions are frequently a poor fit. Ironic therefore that many missed the parallels with the tailored, personalised education which HE is successfully providing to so many.

Why does it matter?

The perspectives of history can sometimes help us to get present issues into focus. Change can be imperceptible whilst it’s happening, until we look back from a later point and realise how much things have actually shifted. We’re all familiar with the story of the vicar who wanted to move the piano to the other side of the church, but the congregation were having none of the idea. How did he achieve his desire in the end? By moving it an inch at a time until he got it where he wanted it, and nobody noticed.

This is exactly what has happened with home education. Once the immediate threat had been averted in 2010, home educators took their eye off the ball and failed to remain alert to the need to keep defending their ground, or to the changes that were stealthily taking place around them.

Many matters raised back then will sound strangely familiar to us here in 2022. But there have been significant changes in social attitudes and mindset which render our present situation very different. Here is an Education Otherwise Press Release about the then Children Schools and Families Committee’s response to the Badman Review dated December 2009. EO’s leadership of the time reported that MPs did not rate Mr Badman’s recommendations, and had told the Government so in no uncertain terms. Here is a small selection from the full press release:

“After due scrutiny, members of the Children Schools and Families Committee were clearly not satisfied either with the methodology of the Badman Review or with the evidence base.

The Committee Report is critical of the Government’s conflation of education with safeguarding. Significantly, the Committee does not find sufficient grounds for changing the law on home education.

The Select Committee does not endorse the Government’s proposals for compulsory registration of home educated children; does not agree that that visits to the home are necessary; does not believe it would be appropriate for home education officers to interview children without a parent present; is greatly concerned that home educated children with special needs are not well served by the present system; and strongly recommends that safeguarding concerns should not be addressed by the home education officer but should be passed to the appropriate agencies.”

Before that, a June 2009 comment piece from The Telegraph had opined:

“The proposal is wrong in principle because it arrogantly assumes that state functionaries are better qualified than parents to decide what is right for their children. The Government seems routinely to assume that parents will do the wrong thing and must be protected from themselves.”

Further, a February 2010 blog post from Douglas Carswell MP records how he was booed when he told an audience in the Westminster bubble that they should stop treating home educators like “a public policy problem”.

In one way the issues faced then sound much the same as the ones faced by home educators today. But we mustn’t overlook several important factors that make this round of defending home education from intrusive state oversight much more of a challenge.

The internet and social media have changed the way people work, think and connect with one another. Speed of delivery and message reach are astonishing – though 24/7 communication and instantaneous messaging have their downsides too.  This is the age of information overload and ‘here one minute, gone the next’ communication. Life in the fast lane isn’t conducive to careful thinking, so the general public doesn’t always take the time to assess the veracity or implications of what they’re being told.

Social attitudes have changed too, and politicians’ views reflect these. What was considered acceptable fifteen years ago may now meet with objections. A carefully curated narrative about parents’ capability for the task of parenting, and about home educators in particular, has done its work. People’s views about home education are now conditioned by a more statist, less trusting narrative. The range of ‘acceptable’ policies has been nudged in a particular direction; the ‘window of discourse’ or the ‘Overton Window’ has shifted!

Baroness Berridge recognised some of this in the opening words of her speech. “Perhaps 20 years ago there was an ideal world of home education, done solely by parents who truly believed in it and did it very well. If those halcyon days ever existed, they are over…” She went on to point out another important change in the  landscape – many children are now being home educated by their parents due to schools failing to provide for SEN needs.

What can I do?

Look at the archive material and consider the issues raised in the context of today’s zeitgeist.

It’s no good fighting yesterday’s war. We have to be aware of current attitudes, and think hard about how to refute today’s reasoning about the necessity of registration.

Today’s narrative goes something like this. “If a child is in school, they are deemed to be receiving a suitable education, whilst a child out of school cannot be assumed to be. The state therefore needs to ascertain that they are.” The first premise is a massive assumption, and not hard to debunk. The second is speculative, and reverses the long-established position that the state should only intervene in cases where concerns have been raised.  And why is the parent’s word not trusted?

Two peers who spoke in the Second Reading justified the necessity of a register with the argument that a child’s right to an education trumps the parent’s right to home educate. Rights feature in the conversation more than they did – but parents’ and children’s rights do not have to conflict with one another, as Mike Wood of Home Education UK has helpfully postulated in this article:

“Children have the right to parents and parents can only be parents if they have the right to act as parents enabling them to carry out their parental duties. So parental rights are really children’s rights. One cannot, or should not, be offset against the other.”

Read or listen to as much as you can manage to get your own thinking in the zone; talk through issues like data protection, safeguarding or ‘rights of the child’ with other HE families.

Approach your MP – individually or as a group – tell them your story. Let them see that you are caring parents with the wellbeing of your children at heart. Tell them why you are home educating, why mandatory registration would be so detrimental to you and others.

And finally, some wise words to bear in mind. In a different context, Paralympian Peer Tanni Grey-Thompson made a comparison. In a 2021 letter to the Telegraph about covert pressures to accept lethal drugs being put on disabled people by assisted suicide activists, Grey-Thompson pointed out “the dangers of replacing a law resting on a natural frontier and applying equally to everyone… by a law with an arbitrary boundary applied to certain groups of people.”

Mission creep was inevitable, she noted, because “Such laws contain within themselves the seeds of their own expansion. To ignore this is to court danger.”

Is that not exactly what we have seen over the last decade or more, and are seeing now in these Schools Bill proposals? Mission creep as far as the role of the state vis a vis the role of parents is concerned. Laws containing the seeds of their own expansion constraining the natural functions of parenting more and more.

Parents are their children’s natural champions – which is why every single one of us needs to be playing our part in pushing back.