Party Manifestos and Home Education

Party Manifestos and Home Education

An overview of different parties commitments re home education and other policies which undermine the role of parents in the lives of their children

What’s been said?

There has been a frantic few weeks of electioneering since Prime Minister Sunak called July’s UK General Election. However, it’s only recently that the parties have published their manifestos and so committed themselves to implementing specific policies should they gain enough MPs to form the next Government. The consensus amongst pollsters and pundits is that Labour is going to win by one of the biggest landslides in history, but voters have become more cautious about how they respond to such surveys.

This article provides a brief overview of what those political parties with at least 100 candidates in two or more of the four UK nations have committed themselves to in matters which will directly impact the right to provide home education. (Because MPs from regional parties like Welsh Labour and Scottish Conservatives will vote with the English party at Westminster, their manifestos are not reviewed.) A second article will consider stated policies on the family, which also impact parental responsibility [now published].

Don’t forget that ‘education’ is a devolved matter and therefore several policies, such as the registration and monitoring of HE children, will only directly affect those living in England. However, it is known that there are conversations between the English Department of Education and their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they seek to develop their policies on HE.

Of course the headline matter for HE families is what have become known as “Children Not in School” [CNiS] registers, though it has to be remembered that these are set in the wider context of who has responsibility in the lives of children. Not too long ago it was parents who could authorise a child’s absence from school; now parents are fined if they don’t get permission from the head teacher. Responsibility for education has been shifted from parents to the state in this aspect and others.

Links to the manifestos we have reviewed are available on a separate page. The seven parties are: Conservative and Unionist Party (635 candidates); Labour Party [inc. Lab/Coop] (631); Liberal Democrats (630); Reform UK; (609); Green Party [England and Wales] (574); Workers Party of Britain (152); Social Democratic Party (122). Data from the Democracy Club.

Readers may also find this BBC article from early June of interest. Towards the end it provides comments from the four main parties in response to the apparently sensational news that “Home schooling numbers rise in the South East.”

Here then is a brief summary of each Party’s comment about HE (or lack thereof)

The big surprise is that Labour, having resurrected its determination in the last nine months to bring in the registration and monitoring of HE children, made no mention of specific CNiS registers in its manifesto. This will not stop them implementing these, but it does mean that individual MPs and Peers who object to the proposals will be freer to speak because no matter how big the Labour majority, they will not have a “democratic mandate” for seeking to establish them. The omission of CNiS registers was even more of surprise given that a Labour spokesperson had recently told the BBC (see above) that an “‘urgent priority’ would be a new register of children not in school.”

Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems followed up their assertions of recent years in their manifestos. On page 27 of theirs, the Conservatives state:

“And to ensure all children are getting a high-quality education, including those who are home schooled, we will legislate to create a register of children not in school.”

A similar assurance can be found on page 44 of the Lib Dems PDF:

“Tackle persistent absence by setting up a register of children who are not in school, and working to understand and remove underlying barriers to attendance.”

Readers should also note that in 2018 the Lib Dems adopted a policy which would:

“require that children who are being educated outside a registered school be visited biannually by a representative of the LA to ensure that appropriate education was being given and that such children are being educated in line with the national curriculum entitlement set out above…”

The first clause, which has never been rescinded, opens with the usual caveat about parents before undermining their responsibilities:

“While we recognise the rights of parents to choose how their children are educated we believe there is a need for greater supervision of those children who are educated outside registered schools.”

The easiest place to access this policy is on the website of the Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats.

More recently, the Lib Dems also passed a motion at their Spring Conference this year, on Tackling Persistent Absence. This contains the following clauses:

Conference notes that:
f. Currently it is impossible to determine how many children have disappeared from the school roll as there is no register of children not in school.

Conference believes that:
v. It is critical that the welfare and education of every child who is not in school can be monitored.

Conference therefore calls on the Government to:
1. Enact legislation from the ‘Schools Bill’ that was abandoned by the Government, to place a duty on local authorities to maintain a register of children who are not in school and provide the funding for councils to compile these records.

On a more positive note, the Green Party have for some time taken a different approach. In 2017 they added the following to their Education Policy:

ED151 Any interactions between the Local Authorities and home educators should empower and assist the family and should be supportive, rather than invasive. Local Authorities should seek to build positive relationships with local Home Education community groups and organisations and make broader educational experiences (participation in cultural events, work experience programmes, etc.) accessible to home educators.

Whilst home education does not feature in their actual manifesto, the BBC article cited above contains a statement from the Green Party quoting the first sentence of the above. However, the manifesto does contain this statement:

“For Greens, education is a common good that benefits society as a whole so it should be publicly funded and available to everybody, free of charge, at every stage of life. We will continue to support parents in educating children in settings other than at school.”

The phrase “common good” has both political and legal implications. In 2019 we reported an important court ruling in the Republic of Ireland. This addressed the Department of Education and Science’s Guidelines on the Assessment of Education in Places Other Than Recognised Schools, though it focused on how these were being applied, rather than the actual Guidelines themselves. In that document is a quotation from Article 42.3.2 of the Constitution. The cited section reads:

“the State shall, however, as guardian of the common good, require in view of actual conditions that the children receive a certain minimum education, moral, intellectual and social.” [Emphasis added here and below]

The concept of the state being the guardian of everything which is considered a common good, including your children’s education, may not familiar because it is not rooted in UK common law, but in human rights treaties. The latter are increasingly being interpreted as a positive responsibility on the state to guarantee minimum standards to all its citizens, rather than a negative right to prevent states from denying the ‘good’ concerned. Should you get the chance to speak with a Green Party representative, you may want to ask them what they actually mean by “education is a common good.”

Two other parties which say nothing about HE in their manifestos are Reform UK and the Workers Party of Britain. Both have policies to support families which differ strikingly from those of the four better known parties, and we hope to look at them in our next article.

This review of the manifestos concludes with the Social Democratic Party, the smallest party to have more than a hundred candidates. A bullet point on page 23 of the PDF version reads:

“A national programme of resources and online support will be developed for parents who wish to home-school their children. Children who are home-schooled will sit invigilated key stage examinations and undergo safeguarding and socialisation checks at the appropriate ages.”

It seems that, like the Irish Government, the SDP see education as a common good. Hence the state is responsible not only to provide free education on request, but also to monitor any alternatives to its provision to ensure that they meet its standards. There are other concepts in this short statement by the SDP which home educating parents can helpfully learn from. In brief, ‘support’ is not encouragement but direction; ‘safeguarding’ is a role only the state can fulfil; and ‘socialisation’ is not about friends but values. These cannot be explored in detail here, but HE families urgently need to understand them, because they underlie the attempts of the last fifteen years to register and monitor HE children.

Why does it matter?

Comparing these manifesto extracts has highlighted issues which home educators perhaps have yet to fully appreciate. It is time for everyone across the UK HE communities to accept that the constant pressure of the last fifteen years has not been about Local Authorities behaving badly, but the embracing of a world-view by politicians from all the major parties and others, that it is states not parents who are charged with ensuring that children are taught skills and values which the state desires. This is the narrative which has been in plain sight, but ignored.

Understanding this basic shift in thinking from previous decades sheds light on why socialisation is not a question of how many friends a child has, but rather whether they are people who think and act as the political elite wants them to. Today’s state of affairs demonstrates that what was a matter of political contention in the run-up to the 2010 General Election is no longer up for debate as we approach this year’s poll. The narrative around HE with which we are now familiar – though perhaps have still to fully understand – was introduced into British politics in 2009 by Labour’s Ed Balls, when he was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Following Graham Badman’s review, proposals for registers and monitoring of HE children were included in the CSF Bill 2009.

Opening the Second reading debate on the relevant clauses, Balls justified these proposals by stating:

“We think that about 70,000 children are being home educated—often for a variety of reasons and often to a very high standard by committed parents. Our responsibility is to ensure that not just a large majority, but all of the children who are being home educated are safe and are learning properly. It was because of concerns that had been raised that I asked Mr. Graham Badman to do his review, which reported in the summer.”

Many readers may not appreciate the history behind what has been building since Lord Soley introduced his Private Member’s Bill in 2017. To illustrate the connections, we have created a compilation of clips from key speeches in 2009/10 and put them together with statements from Labour politicians since the end of last year in the video below. Note how similar the language from over a decade ago is to that which is being used today, and how it reflects that of the Irish Constitution cited above.

(For those wishing to know more about the parliamentary debates around HE-related clauses in the 2009 Bill, the No Nationalisation of Our Kids website provides a useful archive.)

Fifteen years ago, the Labour party was alone in calling for the registration and monitoring of HE children. Now it is running with the political crowd which believes that the state has every right to supervise family life. This mindset doesn’t affect HE families alone, but on the whole they are more aware than many families that something is drastically wrong with the relationship between the state and its citizens. However many are somewhat unwilling to see this as anything other than a passing storm caused by bad actors in either the various departments for education or in certain local authorities. But if the HE communities are going to successfully resist the current moves, it’s essential that we recognise the roots of the narrative now embedded in the minds of the majority of politicians from across the party spectrum, as testified to by the themes in many of the manifestos and associated statements when asked for a comment on HE.

In part, the problem is that most people have a two dimensional view of politics. This is usually portrayed as a choice between left or right leaning values. The reality however does not lie along a single axis. Across the familiar axis lies another at right angles to it, stretching from libertarian values all the way to totalitarian ideals. History has many examples of dictators from both the left and the right flanks of the political spectrum. Space precludes in-depth discussion of this, but the more the state distrusts its citizens, the more authoritarian and invasive of their private lives it becomes. If home educators could understand that this is no longer a left v. right issue, but one which lies on this other axis, then together we will be better equipped to defend our responsibilities as parents, and to alert other families to the state’s invasion of their privacy.

Between the 2010 election and Lord Soley’s Bill in 2017, the Scottish Government brought forward proposals to provide every child with a “Named Person,” who would act as state guardian for them and would be able to access all their data without their parents’ knowledge or permission. In 2013, in a submission to an Education and Culture Committee consultation on the Bill, the Scottish Children’s Parliament said they had explained the Named Person’s role thus:

“This was a complex idea for the children (aged 9-12) to consider but going along with our Scotland as a garden theme the children discussed the role of Gardeners (all the adults in their lives) and the job of Head Gardener (the Named Person).”

Back then it was home educators in Scotland who spotted the agenda behind these proposals and called ‘Foul!’ This led to three court cases, with the Supreme Court finally ruling that the proposals were unlawful, and the Scottish Nationalist Party eventually accepting, despite their protests, that they could not find a way to make it lawful.

Returning to the current manifestos, the Labour Party states on page 81:

“Sadly, too often we see families falling through the cracks of public services. Labour will improve data sharing across services, with a single unique identifier, to better support children and families.”

This is essentially a resurrection of Tony Blair’s failed ContactPoint database, but according to Phillipson in a speech on January 9, it will be boosted with powerful steroids, namely:

“Because the vast opportunities of the technology we have today, of artificial intelligence, of data-mining, of the automated search for patterns and learning, the promise of a country and a culture where the drive for high and rising standards is embedded in all we do, all of that is useless if we don’t even collect and collate the information we have.”

There will be no need for registers of HE children if Labour is allowed to implement the proposed “single unique identifier.” [SUI] This is a subject which we shall return to in future, but the question for now is can the HE communities help other families to be alert to the dangers of such an invasive and authoritarian scheme?

What can I do?

In the very short term, remember that none of us can agree with every policy of any particular party. Supporting any of them always involves some degree of compromise. Politicians are increasingly blown along with the wind, and it seems that very few in the major parties respect the role of parents, even when they pay lip service to it.

To counter that, remember that in the British system we vote for individuals not parties. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is a US style Presidential election. It isn’t. Only those who live in the constituency of a party leader have the opportunity to vote for them personally. Therefore do what you can to find out about the candidates, meeting them if possible and trying to assess whether they are just followers who don’t think for themselves, or whether they have a principled approach to their potential constituents and will take seriously any concerns brought to their attention. Meeting them in person or hearing them speak – at local hustings for example – will tell you more than just reading the publicity which comes through your door.

Realise that in the present political climate, no party is going to rescue HE families from an increasingly invasive state. Therefore, prepare to keep fighting for your family’s privacy, and make sure you don’t give the state your or your children’s data when they have no right to collect it. This will be even more important if Labour introduces a Bill to implement digital SUIs for every child.

We hope to highlight some of the manifesto policies relevant to families soon, so look out for that article. Remember we have provided links to all the main manifestos on this page. Try to read what they say there about families, and ask yourself if they really value the family as a unit, or if by “supporting families” they simply mean by splitting them up as early as possible. One problem with HE families for politicians is that they consider the parent who spends quality time with their children on most days to be “economically inactive,” and that is a big “no, no” these days.