In terms of home education, the United Kingdom has been described as one of the most permissive in the world.
Protected by human rights legislation which is also enshrined in the Education Act 1996, parents in most of the U.K. are able to home educate their children without interference from the state. There is currently no requirement to register a child before home educating, and the state cannot intervene unless there is genuine concern that a child’s welfare is at stake. The education provided must be suitable for a child’s needs, enabling them to reach their full potential, but it is for parents, not the state, to determine that suitability.
In 2009 that freedom came under immense pressure after the publication of the Badman report, which recommended compulsory registration and regulation of home education. Safeguarding of vulnerable children was the thrust of the report’s argument, although according to the chair of Parliament’s Education Select Committee, there was no evidence that home education was a risk factor in the abuse of children.
It was a reasonable assumption that this was less about safeguarding than about state control. That battle was won, but the war wasn’t over.
Since 2009, there have been periodic calls for regulation. The social climate now is very different, with fears of religious and political extremism, radicalisation and accusations of religious indoctrination dominating the headlines. In 2016, Dame Louise Casey, the government’s integration tsar, delivered a report which targeted EHE and sounded alarm bells in the minds of homeschooling parents. In that year also, the law was tightened, requiring schools to notify the local authority of the reason and destination of every child leaving the school.
Registration has been compulsory in the Isle of Man (a British Crown dependency) since 2009. Despite opposition from the EHE community, Tynwald (the island’s government) is planning to consult later this year on closer regulation. To many, this appears to be an attempt on the part of the government to grab power to go looking for problems where there are none.
Wales, a principality within the U.K. with its own government, was recently advised to consult on compulsory registration. Surprisingly, the secretary for education announced recently that this would not be her preferred direction of travel.
Applying the Donald Rumsfeld unknown unknowns principle, she realised that parents of children whose existence is unknown to the authorities were not going to register, while innocent parents could unwittingly end up criminalised. Instead, the Welsh Assembly plans to strengthen the role of local authorities in offering support.
And so, to England, where things are not so benign. Home education numbers appear to have been rising steadily for the last few years, although it’s not clear how much of this apparent increase is due to more information being supplied by schools.
Homeschooling parents now fall into two broad categories—those who elect to home educate and those who are forced to do so. The latter group encompasses children who have been bullied, children with special needs, those who are unable to find a place in overcrowded schools and those who are being deliberately excluded from school. In all of these cases, parents’ relationships with state provision have irretrievably broken down.
English schools are now dominated by a performance culture—schools are ranked locally and nationally in league tables according to benchmarked progress measures. Under pressure to attain a good league table position, schools are increasingly off-rolling disruptive or under-performing students by persuading parents to home educate them.
Concerns have also grown recently over unregistered schools which operate outside of the law and which cannot therefore be visited by Ofsted, England’s inspection service. About 80 per cent of these schools are secular (many offering alternative provision for excluded pupils) although Ofsted appears to be waging its own war against a small number of unregistered schools which are religious—mostly yeshivas and madrasas. All of these are being lumped together with EHE families under the category Children Missing Education.
In June 2017, a Home Education Bill was introduced into the House by Lord Soley. It is a Private Members’ Bill, meaning that it is his personal initiative.
Its aim is to “make provision for local authorities to monitor the educational, physical and emotional development of children receiving elective home education; and for connected purposes.”
The practical outworking of this, if it becomes law, will be compulsory registration and regulation. It is meeting with significant opposition, not least from the Department for Education (DOE), which has said that there will be no new primary legislation during the lifetime of this current Parliament.
Local authorities already have all the necessary powers to intervene where there is genuine concern that a child is at risk of harm. The DOE intends to produce further guidance explaining these powers more clearly.
However, this is not enough for some sections of government and society, who want to define children at risk of harm as all those who are not indoctrinated with liberal secularist values. For these people, it’s about rebalancing the rights of children against those of their parents, rather than seeing the rights and responsibilities of both as being necessarily complementary.
In 2016, Scotland, which also has its own government, tried to introduce a Named Person scheme, so that every child in the country had an advocate and adviser in addition to their parents. In ruling it unlawful, the Supreme Court judge observed: “The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get to the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world. Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way.”
The U.K. may, at the moment, have the world’s most permissive home education law, but how long that continues depends on the effectiveness of home educators’ opposition to moves against them and the willingness of U.K. governments to respect their rights in law.