Unearthing Further Roots of the Political Agenda against Home Education, going back to 2006

Unearthing Further Roots of the Political Agenda against Home Education, going back to 2006

Recently circulated Welsh Government documents bring to light an old report which still has teeth!

What’s been said?

This Byte addresses two connected items; one a recent slide presentation for LA officers in Wales on the matter of EHE in Gypsy Roma and Traveller [GRT] communities, the other a Whitehall research report on this topic from 2006. We seek to comment here on the wider significance of the latter, as well as the varied expressions of ‘education’ to be found outside the school system.

On 13 September, the Welsh Government [WG] published an assortment of documents, as detailed here. Some of these were follow-up to two meetings between LAs and home educators facilitated by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales; others pertained to two WG training events for LA officers which had taken place in February and March ahead of the publication of the revised guidance.

The latter set included a presentation about EHE amongst the GRT communities, with an accompanying Contextual Note explaining that a training day session had been allocated to this topic. The slides cited extensively from a report entitled “The situation regarding the current policy, provision and practice in Elective Home Education for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Children” authored by one Arthur Ivatts, formerly Her Majesty’s Education Inspector for GRT children in the UK.

(Although the presentation mistakenly referred to Ivatts’ report as 2017, it should be noted that the research for this piece of work was actually undertaken from 2004, at the instigation of the then Department for Education & Skills (Ethnic Minority Achievement Unit) and the report was published in 2006.)

The first eight slides give a synopsis of Ivatts’ report as it relates to the various subgroups comprising the GRT community. Slides 9 & 10 cite his recommendations, and the remainder of the material covers recommended Best Practice as compiled by Carmarthenshire’s School Safeguarding and Attendance Team.

As far as the Ivatts report is concerned, the underlying motivation for the research may be gleaned from the following excerpts [emphasis added in all cases]

1.1: “…Traveller Education Services [TESs] have reported on the seemingly marked increase year-on-year of the number of Gypsy/Roma and Traveller families opting for Elective Home Education (EHE). This has been expressed as a development causing concern given that it is suggested that EHE is being used merely as a device to avoid school attendance without legal penalty. This concern has also been related to the fact that a majority of the parents are judged to be ill equipped to organise or deliver an education suited to their children’s ages, aptitudes, abilities and any special needs they may have.”

2.1: research to investigate the extent of this development and to assess the nature and quality of the provision for the children involved and the policy implications.”

Concerns about “access, attendance and achievement” [§3.2] have long preoccupied those who desire to see education standardised and highly regulated. Questionnaires were distributed to the TES and twenty-three LAs selected as models of good practice for GRT inclusion, with §1.3 noting that in each authority these were directed to “the department/officer responsible for the approval and monitoring/inspection of EHE provision.” The bulk of Ivatts’ report takes the form of an analysis of the data returned. §1.7 does acknowledge the small sample size and some weaknesses in research method, but space precludes more detailed comment.

Why does it matter?

Though focused primarily on EHE amongst a minority group, the report evidences a pre-existent departmental motivation to regulate HE [§1.2]:

“The research was also timely as DfES draft guidance on EHE was being considered at the time.”

The ubiquitous assumption that it lay within the purview of LAs to approve, monitor and inspect EHE provision has already been noted. The points below demonstrate, with the benefit of hindsight, that many of the challenges familiar to EHEs today were embedded in this report, either explicitly or in embryonic form:

§1.10 “Over 62% of LAs reported that they do not always see the child during an initial and or monitoring/inspection visit…”

This followed by the significant acknowledgement that “Within the existing legislation, the visiting officer has no legal rights to see the child nor in relation to a right of access to the home to see the teaching/learning situation/environment.”

§1.11 a reference to logging information “with the national child Information Sharing Index database” – a reminder that this report was compiled in the era of ContactPoint, but data surely remains a live issue today.

§1.12 addresses the matter of delays “between a request for registration and the initial monitoring/inspection visit and between the latter and final approval or rejection

The lack of “formal education” during the period in question is also queried.

§1.14 raises the issue of ‘full-time’ (20 hrs/week), plus a plethora of other ‘concerns’ including parents lacking appropriate literacy & numeracy skills, and the voice of the child being unheard in the decision-making process.

§5.10 is significant. It presses for an updating and strengthening of EHE legislation, and introduces the welfare aspect.

“The legislation, which secures the rights of parents in this context, obviously pre-dates by many decades the more recent legislation which places very new and rigorous demands on government and public authorities in relation to human rights, race equality and Every Child Matters. This new robust legal context now requires a legislative amendment to the previous weak arrangements. The DfES needs to address the issues and take action to safeguard the interests and welfare of the very vulnerable children in these communities, and indeed, all those children being educated under the EHE arrangements….”

It later states that the GRT research had inadvertently brought to light loopholes and weaknesses in the current arrangements, and the section concludes with advice to the DfES “to take action to address these issues by way of the legislative process.” [§5.12]

Section 6 (Conclusions and Recommendations) continues to emphasise the desire to standardise all procedures relating to “registration approval and the routine monitoring/inspecting of provision,” with §6.5 pointing out new factors: “The legal constraints imposed on those responsible for monitoring/inspecting the provision within individual families must be seen as in direct tension with child protection considerations and the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda…”

But §6.7 has to be the most relevant in terms of the rationale which has developed between 2006 and the present day.

“In the light of the recent legislative programme to improve the education of all children and to protect them from harm and abuse, it is strange that elective home education is the only area of education and child care that is not subject to more rigorous statutory regulation concerned with quality assurance and accountability. The existing legislation is essentially only concerned with parents’ rights and may now be judged as inadequate to protect the educational rights and to safeguard the welfare of children.”

Do we not hear similar concerns today, with the low level of EHE regulation in England being viewed as exceptional in comparison with other countries, for example? Kirsty Wark put this to Amanda Spielman in a BBC Newsnight interview from 15 November 2022, “England is an outlier internationally. The highest proportion of pupils have education at home and the lowest amount of regulation in Europe.” To which Spielman responded,

“We are exceptionally permissive. It’s a positive characteristic of British society as well that we are so open and leaves so much space for the individual, but here it really obviously has some very worrying consequences because parents do have the obligation to have their child educated, but they don’t have an obligation to make sure that’s at school and we have a great deal of supervision and oversight of schools, both in terms of the education quality, there’s a wider safeguarding, but none of that extends to children who are home educated.” [Transcript]

Pressure for increased legislation, balancing children’s rights with parents’ rights, tightening up loopholes, conflation of education with safeguarding children’s welfare, and constant demands for quality assurance and accountability remain familiar themes for any who follow parliamentary or media comment on EHE.

Space precludes the inclusion of all the recommendations, but the catalogue of issues listed in §6.10 should be carefully considered.

Moving now to a brief consideration of the significance of the GRT training day materials, it is important to pick up the following statement from the Contextual Note. Whilst listing Ivatts’ recommendations, the author was careful to point out that these “went significantly further than Welsh Government statutory guidance” and states:

“The presentation was clear that the above were not being considered by WG within the context of the soon to be published statutory guidance but just to set the context and highlight the issues that this research into GRT learners who were home educated highlighted.”

Having made what we will of such obfuscation, some sections of the GRT training materials do demonstrate a great deal of empathy for other ways of learning and the value of strong family and community bonds, and should be commended for this.

Slides 14 and 15 in particular make some excellent and very inspiring points about participative and intergenerational learning, and about uncontrived, real-time family and community preparation for adult life.

With home educating parents being something of a ‘minority community’ due to their non-standard educational choices, there is much one could identify with here, and the testimony of the young GRT man referenced in slide 17 is definitely worth a read.

In light of the above, one can quite understand the ‘cultural mismatch’ factor cited in low school attendance particularly at secondary level, with the benchmarks used to assess ‘progress’ having become so one-track.

Ivatts’ Annexe 2 appears to be a classic example of bending over backwards to use the right words and be seen to be inclusive, whilst at the same time doing its best to eradicate difference and homogenise all children into the system.

EHE is not a modified version of school, and it is totally inappropriate to attempt to evaluate it on school-based criteria. A relational approach to the interactions between authorities and communities works well whilst trust exists; when this breaks down, a system of requirements is a poor substitute. Relational real-life education, GRT or otherwise, will not fit neatly into a box just to satisfy those who believe they have a duty to oversee all forms of out of school education.

What can I do?

Read the brief Contextual Note, and consider the points raised on Slides 14 and 15 (above). These could stimulate helpful reflection on what ‘education’ really is, in the wider context of life, family and community. As we know, tailoring education to fit an individual young person for their future lives is a great privilege for the home educating parent.

Try to read sections 1, 5 and 6 of the Ivatts Report to pick up the overall flavour, and see the connections with today’s ongoing agenda regarding EHE.

Note particularly how the policy recommendations for GRT communities are extrapolated at least four times to cover all EHE children. [§5.10; 6.1; 6.9; 6:10 e) & f)]

Such recommendations do not represent a danger from a bygone day. They are not time-limited. §6.9 reads:

“Legislation should apply uniformly to all families with children currently being educated at home and those wishing to elect for home education in the future.”

We cannot bury our heads in the sand. Such issues continue to affect all home educators – indeed, all parents. The Ivatts Report was first published in 2006 – at least three years before the Badman Review. Therefore be aware that these issues have been around for a long time, and will not go away in the near future.

The correspondence between Lords Judd and Adonis or the motivation for the more recent Private Member’s Bills proposed by Lord Soley, and more recently Flick Drummond MP did not just come out of a clear blue sky. Whatever the roots of the desire to exercise control over parental input into their children’s education, this plant has been flourishing in the thinking of civil servants for a long time – and it still is.

So it behoves all home educators to be clear-eyed and vigilant about such things, well-informed about our responsibilities and rights in order that the ground is not eroded from under our feet.