Hard Work Pays Off

What’s been said?

The Education Authority (EA) for Northern Ireland recently announced a 12 week public consultation on its draft ”Guidelines for Elective Home Education”, running from 29th May until 21st August 2019.

All documentation and a link to the response form can be found here, together with a lively animation aimed at “help(ing) people understand home education better.”

There is a nicely illustrated Easy-Read version of the Guidelines, for children and young people. The EA state that they don’t usually check up on home educators, but should they have reason to think there might be a problem, the procedure is set out on p.8-10. Although this concludes with the possibility of a child going back to school if HE “cannot work well enough,” the EA also make the constructive offer, “We will think carefully about everything we are told, we will try to help home education to work.”

The Introduction to the full-length Guidelines highlight three key principles:

  • A recognition of the diversity of approaches to elective home education and a commitment not to favour any particular one;
  • Child-centred: children who are home educated will learn in different ways with a range of approaches and we will be mindful of this and children’s views in our engagement with home educating families;
  • Parent-focused: parents are the first educators of their children, the EA will actively promote a positive dialogue with parents who choose to home educate their child, to develop effective partnership.

The Guidelines cover all the usual topics, but the overall tone is not patronising. Previous input from home educators has obviously been heeded, notably in the sections on Educational Approach, Time and Community of Home Educators. In fact, the latter acknowledges the value of “the friendly and active home educating community in Northern Ireland with many events and opportunities for learning and socialising.”

The inevitable section on “EA process when there is a concern” features near the end of the document, which contributes to a positive tone rather than one of being under instantaneous surveillance. These guidelines do seem to pay more than lip service to the concept of parents as credible educators, although of course the real test will be their translation into real life situations.

Why does it matter?

To understand the significance of these new draft Guidelines, it’s necessary to revisit events of recent years. A consultation launched in 2014 sought views of interested parties about the “Northern Ireland Education and Library Boards’ draft joint Elective Home Education Policy.”

Topics covered included the legislative background; safeguarding; children with special educational needs; minimum standards; support for home educators and monitoring of elective home education programmes.

The two page Executive Summary at the start of a very long summary document published January 2015 gives a flavour of the responses. Some of the themes cited below may sound depressingly familiar to readers elsewhere:

  • No clear rationale or research base for the creation of such a policy;
  • Concerns around the interpretation and application of legislation as quoted in the draft policy;
  • Objection to perceived regulation and interference by the state into the rights of parents to educate their children;
  • The opinion of some respondents, who represent the interests of young people, that the policy is not sufficiently forceful in respect of mandatory registration for all home educated children;
  • The need for processes to be established which would enable the relationships between the Boards and home educating parents to be improved;
  • A lack of understanding around the ethos of home education and of the reasons why parents decide to home educate;
  • An absence of appropriate professional development for those Board officers who have responsibility for home education.

It’s encouraging therefore to note a more positive tone and a partnership mentality in the new Guidelines. They do convey the impression that the playing field is becoming more level for home educating parents in terms of their relationship with the authorities. The Northern Irish forum for home educators HedNI submitted a detailed response to the 2014 consultation (p.21-29) and have obviously put significant effort into communicating and fostering understanding of HE parents’ views in the meantime. Their website refers to their attendance at the Working Group which drafted the new Guidelines over the last two years.

Having previously referred to the 2014 consultation as “contentious” and urged the Boards to “act only within their legal powers, and respect the essential role of parents in their children’s education,” their present view is more optimistic: “While we are not delighted with every aspect of the new draft, we have come a long way since then and we hope and believe that a more constructive relationship has developed.” Their briefing (3 June) goes into more detail about the good and bad elements of the draft as they perceive it.

Interestingly, some teachers’ responses to the earlier consultation largely defended the HE space, and the NI Children’s Commissioner advocated support of parents “in their important role as educators”.

It’s reassuring to see that where meaningful dialogue takes place between home educators and authorities (in this case, the Education & Library Boards), more HE-friendly policies and guidelines can actually be the result.

What can I do?

Support HE families in NI by completing a response to their consultation.

Bookmark HedNI’s very comprehensive website to read about their journey and access up to date information about the outcome of this consultation.

Readers in other parts of the UK, be encouraged to persevere in engaging with your local authority, your parliamentary representative and the relevant government department – as demonstrated in Northern Ireland, motivated and well-informed individuals can make a difference.