Evidence has recently emerged that the English Department for Education is in contact with its counterparts in the devolved nations, and they are certainly not singing the praises of hard working, dedicated home educating families.
What’s been said?
In mid December a T.L.Jones submitted a series of Freedom of Information Requests [FoIRs] on the WhatDoThey Know website. Three of these were addressed to the English DfE asking for “Agendas, minutes and emails relating to meetings and discussions” with each devolved administration, dating from 1 September, 2021 onwards. The other three FoIRs were addressed to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments, requesting copies of documents concerning their contact with the DfE over said period.
Responses started to arrive on 11 January, and their content is very concerning. At the time of writing (20 January), responses have been received from the DfE regarding Scotland and Wales, though copies of meeting minutes have not been forthcoming. Wales has provided copies of communications from their records. There has been no release of correspondence between the DfE and Northern Ireland.
Much of the available correspondence covers arrangements for meeting dates between the DfE and Wales on 9 September and 18 November, and the DfE with Scotland on 7 October and 8 December. Apparently no meetings have taken place between the English and Northern Irish governments. A meeting of all four nations was also suggested, but in mid-November the DfE said one was not planned at that time.
Of more interest is the content of the correspondence between the DfE and the other two nations. For example, on 16 September the DfE wrote to Wales:
“We mentioned we would check with our LA colleagues whether the Association of Elective Home Education Professionals covered Wales in their remit, or if there was a Welsh equivalent. It looks like the answer to both is no and there is currently no similar body for Wales.
That being said, we’re confident that our AEHEP contacts would be happy to discuss EHE across the board with you and we can put you in contact if you’re interested.”
AEHEP may be unfamiliar to many readers. It is a group which was formed with good intentions after the Badman Review’s failure to bring in the registration and monitoring of EHE children. Unfortunately, the very opposite has been the outcome, with this group now putting most of its efforts into undermining educational freedom. In 2017 they advised Lord Soley on the approach he should take when drafting his Bill. More recently they have worked with Professor Daniel Monk on a course for LA staff with responsibilities for EHE. (Monk’s involvement in the anti-EHE lobby first came to light through his input to Graham Badman’s work, and he also worked with Soley.)
On a second matter, on 29 October, the DfE correspondent asked their Welsh counterparts:
“On a different note, I was just looking at our consideration of whether we would move to define ‘suitable education’ in the English guidance. I wondered, given in Wales you’re moving towards defining that term – what, if any, kind of resistance have you encountered in tightening up that term? Did you face any backlash from EHE families, or even councils, or anyone else?” [Emphasis added here and below]
Wales replied (2 November) suggesting that there “wasn’t any significant backlash” to the proposals. However, many home educators see any proposed definition of ‘suitable’ as a move towards imposing the national curriculum, and with it standardised learning and assessment on their children.
Finally, on 17 November, the DfE informed both Scotland and Wales:
“We also got the judgment handed down in the judicial review case of Goodred vs Portsmouth City Council, where a home-educating parent challenged her LA’s application of our guidance. The claim was dismissed on all grounds, and it looks like it will have some implications for us in the near-future at least in terms of tightening up the guidance or having a review of it.“
Wales replied two days later:
“The Goodred judgement was obviously a positive outcome from both our perspectives and the initial impression is that it is supportive of some aspects of WG’s draft statutory guidance.“
Why does it matter?
These conversations between civil servants in the different nations amplify the growing threat to educational freedom across most of the UK.
Although AEHEP is now sharing “bad practice” through English councils, this was not the intention when Graham Stuart MP formed the group.. In fact he was the leading champion for home educators in Parliament in resisting the Badman Review. He organised the record-breaking presentation of petitions on 8 December, 2009. After the 2010 General Election he became Chair of the Education Committee and organised a constructive report into EHE, published in 2012. As a follow-on, Stuart motivated the establishment of a group including EHE staff from LAs in order to spread good practice in regard to HE families. This was how AEHEP began.
Unfortunately, he hoped for too much and human nature did what it always does – it ran downhill with the prevailing negative narrative. Rather than being supportive of families’ choices, AEHEP members have worked for over a decade now, mostly behind the scenes with no public presence, to undermine home educators. They now have an established network across many councils in the UK, and the DfE, it appears, is seeking to expand their influence into Wales! AEHEP’s role today is very different from that which Graham Stuart envisioned.
There seems to be a similar lack of clarity when it comes to the direction of travel in Wales. In recent months the Welsh Government has been signalling that it is seeking “to move away from an adversarial position” in regard to HE (Education Otherwise, page 2) and that it is their “intention to build on these positive engagements” (Education Minister letter to Families First in Education – Wales). This has been accompanied by, in the Minister’s own words, “of all the four nations in the UK, Wales has the most generous support for the elective home educating community.”
It now appears that Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, has not been as open about his intention to create a definition of “suitable education” as spelled out in the meeting between the DfE and Welsh civil servants. Furthermore, in recent days a screenshot of a letter written in December by him to another Member of Senedd has been circulating on social media after that Member forwarded it to one of their constituents. Miles’ intentions are clear:
“I recognise the need for reform in the policy and legislative framework for EHE and I am keen for work in this area to progress at pace. Correspondingly, work on previous proposals, paused due to Covid19 in 2020, has re-started.
These proposals will provide new Statutory Guidance that will strengthen the framework in relation to a local authority’s duties under Section 436a of the Education Act 1996 and clarify what is considered a ‘suitable’ and ‘efficient’ education. This includes an expectation that a suitable education would incorporate provision in numeracy, literacy and language skills, appropriate to the child’s age, ability and aptitude and any ALN they may have.”
It is always worth remembering that politicians have a way with words which gives the impression of being on your side whilst they are working to undermine your liberty. The adage “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” is normally used to refer to acts of charity that mask a hostile agenda. What is less well known is that the Roman poet Virgil put these words into the mouth of one of his characters in “the Aeneid” when they were speaking about the more familiar Trojan Horse.
No matter where they live in the UK, home educators will do well to think carefully before welcoming gift-bearing public employees into their homes. No government gives to its citizens without expecting something in return. It is foolish to imagine otherwise.
Finally, there are the comments about the Goodred vs Portsmouth City Judicial Review. We have already noted the outcome, and encouraged parents to consider how they can constructively prepare for the change of attitude which is inevitably spreading through LAs in the wake of that ruling. This archive of recent policy changes is a work in progress.
In summary, these FoIRs have provided confirmation firstly that the DfE is in conversation with the other devolved education departments, and secondly that they have taken encouragement from the judgment to work towards imposing increased supervision on HE families.
What can I do?
If this common agenda is to be resisted, then HE families and their supporters need to stand shoulder to shoulder and not be swayed by offers of “support” from those who believe that your children are actually theirs! (The first two minutes of the video at the end of this article vividly illustrates this mindset.)
In the light of these FoIRs, the first thing is to beware of are unintended consequences. We do not doubt Graham Stuart’s desire to help the various HE communities when he set up AEHEP. Unfortunately, his forward planning did not include putting the necessary safeguards in place.
Similar caution is essential when accepting extra-legislative support from the state. One of the biggest drivers of deregistration from school in recent years has been state failure to provide support for children with SEND (England) / ALN (Wales). Such families struggle to get the support to which they are legally entitled. Parents in Wales have been encouraged by the inclusion of specific references to EHE in the recent “The Additional Learning Needs Code for Wales 2021” (paragraphs 18.21-23). But do ask yourself why, when families in desperate need of the support they are entitled to struggle to get it, the Welsh Government is giving away “around £1.7 million” to HE families when they are not required to do so. Could one reason be that families with ALN children are already known to the state, whilst significant numbers of HE ones are not?
These FoIRs highlight the negative attitude to EHE amongst civil servants within education departments. This cannot be ignored. The threat to educational liberty is increasing rapidly! Now is the time to ask yourself if you are willing to trade that liberty for a state-issued licence. To do so will be to accept that the state has the final say over your sons’ and daughters’ futures.
Once thus empowered, state employees will be able to determine not simply the information your children are taught, but the philosophy by which their thinking is shaped. This is the reason why HE is under so much pressure world-wide.
We have recently highlighted evidence that the proposed register is only the first step to monitoring and assessment in England. It is now clear that that is also the intention in Wales. Please don’t think that these plans will pass by without your family having to make its own stand against it.
All home educators should take encouragement from the defeat of the Scottish Named Person Scheme. Yet, even there it seems that the government and civil service are continuing to seek ways of getting their foot in the door of the private lives of EHE families!
It is time to stand firm and not to be lulled into thinking that politicians and civil servants have your children’s welfare amongst their priorities. The evidence suggests otherwise!
If you need reminding of this truth watch this video below featuring Maggie Mellon, an experienced social worker, explaining why she believes that the State makes such a “lousy parent.”
Pingback: Senedd Plenary - 26 January 2020 - Families First in Education - Wales