York MP holds DfE’s Feet to the Fire with Barrage of Written Questions

York MP holds DfE’s Feet to the Fire with Barrage of Written Questions

Multiple Written Questions submitted in quick succession by Rachael Maskell in ten days, some featuring home education!

What’s been said?

Rachael Maskell (Labour/Co-operative, York Central) is a prolific user of Written Questions on various topics; in the month of March she submitted over fifty to the Department for Education.

On 5 March she tabled nine questions, which were answered in two batches by Damien Hinds on 11 and 13 March. Others were tabled between 11-15 March and were answered, sometimes jointly, over the period 14-25 March by the relevant Minister. Some of these featured home education or connected matters including absenteeism, pupil exclusions and several questions on different aspects of special needs.

Because of the usual conflation between home educated children legitimately not on a school roll and the broader category of children “not in school” for a multitude of reasons, it is not easy to determine which of her questions have direct relevance to HE. Three were actually headed “Home Education;” in others the matter of HE featured tangentially rather than directly, as it did in some of the departmental answers.

For instance, in a batch about Absenteeism tabled on 5 Mar and answered on 13 Mar, Maskell asked if the Secretary of State would “commission research on why children are not in school.” [UIN 17172]

In a subsequent question she went on to ask what steps were being taken “to measure (a) the mental wellbeing of children who are not in school and (b) changes in their wellbeing. [UIN 17175]

(Parents who have found a new freedom in home education having withdrawn their child from a school experience that was fraught with problems might have a field day given the opportunity to answer that one!)

Another interesting angle on the Absenteeism theme was tabled on 11 March, when she asked the Secretary of State for Education, “what steps she is taking to capture data on the reasons for children not being in school settings.” [UIN 17998]

One of the “Home Education” questions from 11 March, [UIN 18005] appeared rather obtuse at first glance because of its reference to ‘pupils.’ Perhaps the terminology merely reflected a poor understanding that HE does not equate to school at home, and the question was actually a roundabout way of asking that old chestnut about socialisation – or lack of it. Or it could be the result of confusion in Maskell’s own mind between LA-funded Education Otherwise Than At School (EOTAS) and elective home education.

“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps she is taking to help ensure children not in school develop safe and secure relationships with (a) other pupils and (b) adult mentors.” [UIN 18005]

Damien Hinds’ answer seems to read it as the former, conceding here that being home educated does not necessarily equate to total isolation. His response is worth reading in full.

“The government’s elective home education guidance sets out eight components that local authorities should consider when determining whether a child is receiving a suitable education, which includes very marked isolation as a possible indicator for unsuitability. Most parents will arrange for their children to undertake activities or trips away from the home, including as part of groups of home-educated children or at settings that allow for socialising with other children. Parents may also arrange for parts of education to be delivered by other individuals or settings, such as private tutors, though the parents will retain the overall responsibility to ensure that the education being received is suitable.”

The other two questions on Home Education were perhaps of greater concern because of their very open-ended nature, the second one conjuring up quite chilling images were it to be enacted – unless, of course, she actually had EOTAS in mind despite the title of the question.

“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps she is taking to ensure that children not in school reach the same level of attainment as children in school.” [UIN 17177]

“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, if she will take steps with local authorities to ensure that all children not in school are supervised daily through a virtual hub.” [UIN 17178]

Hinds’ joint response was multi-faceted, covering both the importance of regular school attendance and the powers of local authorities to enquire if a suitable education was being provided to home educated children, and including a final paragraph about safeguarding for good measure.

And finally, it’s worth being aware of one other question which demonstrates the ubiquitous confusion in public thinking between risk and not being in school: Health Education: Children and Young People, 11 March [UIN 17935]:

“To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what steps she is taking to help ensure that public health education is delivered to children and young people who are (a) not in school and (b) at particular risk from harm from (i) use of (A) nitrous oxide, (B) drugs and (C) alcohol and (ii) other public health concerns.”

Damien Hinds appeared to think this encompassed home educated children too, as he spoke in his answer about home education not needing “to include any particular subjects and does not need to have any reference to the national curriculum.”

Why does it matter?

The majority of the material touching on HE in departmental responses went over familiar ground, using predictable terminology.

The style of parliamentary questions is not the easiest place to glean a Member’s personal views. What is abundantly clear is that Maskell has major concerns about several aspects of the education system, and is trying to piece together data about why so many children are not in school, and why school is not proving helpful for others. Besides more information, she wants to see more effective measures in place to monitor what is going on and improve the situation. Her overall message to the Government could be summarised as “I am highlighting a range of things here which urgently need your attention.”

Looking at this barrage of questions, one can only wonder what triggered this, why this particular MP, and why now? Absent clear evidence, answers can be no more than speculative, but something certainly seems to have provoked this demand for some answers.

It could of course be an outworking of Opposition strategy to highlight areas of weakness they detect in the Government’s performance at a vulnerable moment. Education could be a particular area of interest for Maskell herself, or she could be reflecting local concerns raised with her by constituents. Or it could be a combination of these factors.

She has held a number of shadow ministerial posts and been on various committees during her nine year parliamentary career, though non clearly education-related. Her previous interest areas appear to have been more focused on health and her work with Unite.

Whatever her motivation on this particular occasion, Maskell’s output of Written Questions is normally prolific, far outstripping her Spoken contributions in quantity. It may be that she just finds the written question a more effective way of putting her concerns on record or trying to secure real answers to questions so often circumnavigated in classic politicians’ answers.

What can I do?

Be aware that on the one hand Maskell’s questions are unusual because of their quantity and insistence, whilst on the other they are entirely in line with the general unease sensed by Members that something is fundamentally wrong with our schools. This much is evident from the questions regularly posed from across the House about children not in school.

Here is at least one MP who is pressing for some answers. Whether she herself is sympathetic towards elective home education is unclear. But it surely represents a great window of opportunity for home educators in her constituency to offer to meet with her and tell their stories, to seek to clarify some of the half-truths and conflation. This could be done as individual families, or as a small group.

All of us have someone representing us in parliament, and also a local councillor. If we interact with them, perhaps we can stimulate their interest, and get them asking questions or understanding the situation better. After all, minds are changed one at a time.

It is also important to be aware of the upcoming election and be ready to use it as an opportunity to engage with politicians and political activists. This is an important opportunity for home educators to make their voice heard in political circles. Rather than repeating them here, please read the closing paragraphs of this recent article.