Homeschool advocates in England are hoping the recent turmoil in parliament—namely, the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and several other cabinet members—will result in good news for educational freedom.
The office responsible for overseeing education policy in England has recently experienced particular instability as a result of the resignations: as of July 12, three different politicians had occupied the post in as many days.
Some home educators hope that, as a result of the turmoil, parliament will scrap the onerous restrictions proposed as part of the legislation known as the “Schools Bill.” Leaders of various homeschool advocacy groups suggest that whoever ends up with the job of education minister may simply lack the time or the political capital to press for controversial changes to homeschool law.
The Schools Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords and may be referred to the House of Commons sometime in August. The House of Commons is not required to take up any of the amendments proposed by the House of Lords, but home educators are working to rally support from members of parliament. As more is known about the Schools Bill and its impact on other aspects of education England, more groups other than home educators are registering their opposition.
Among the restrictions included in the now-infamous Schools Bill, introduced in May, is a mandatory registry for all children who receive home education in England. Currently, home educators are not required to make any contact with local authorities under the law, which requires parents to send their children to school or provide a suitable education “otherwise.”
The last time lawmakers attempted to impose additional restrictions on homeschooling families in England was in 2010. The current bill contains some of the same ideas as the 2010 bill, though presented in different language. A change in government resulted in the older proposal being scrapped.
Inspired by History
Home educators are hoping for a similar outcome this year, but they are not stopping their advocacy efforts.
“We would love it if the current upheaval within parliament, and the changes within the Department for Education resulted in the schools bill being scrapped, but it would be unrealistic to assume that it would,” said Juliet English, a home educating parent who runs a support organization called streams.education. “The law, as it currently stands, grants local authorities all the statutory powers they need whilst maintaining the fine balance between parents and the state. However, local authorities find it inconvenient to be constrained in this way, and are seeking state sanction to operate in ways that are morally and ethically questionable. They resent that the balance is necessary for protection for all.”
She continued: “This bill has proven to be a real embarrassment for the Department for Education. It has come under a lot of criticism for the many changes they are trying to push through for schools as well as home educators. The Department for Education themselves have been submitting amendments to their own bill, which is a real indication that the bill was not well thought out. Maybe they thought they could get it through quickly before a general collapse of the government made that impossible.”
Juliet noted that home educators have been opposing these measures for a long time.
“In 2010 we submitted a petition against the bill with signatures from over two hundred constituencies,” she said. “This time we’ve doubled that to over five hundred. A presentation of these petitions in the House of Commons is planned soon, and we hope it will raise awareness of the strong feeling amongst home educators about the bill.”
Building a Case
Formal consultations—parliamentary requests for public comment when the government considers new legislation—over the past few years have solicited input on the need for a registry, but the submissions to the parliament regarding new restrictions have been lopsidedly against any new regulations.
HSLDA submitted a response in 2019 when the government requested input on the proposed mandatory register. The government published its overall response to the consultation here.
The government website says that “The ‘Children Not in School’ consultation received almost 5,000 responses, mostly online, and mostly from parents.”
The government has asserted that a homeschooling registry is needed to prevent and respond to child abuse. This is based on the premise that because homeschooled children are not seen on a regular basis by teachers and other school personnel, they are
less likely to be referred to the authorities if there is possible abuse. However, children are not at increased risk of abuse by virtue of being homeschooled, and the laws already in place regarding the reporting and investigation of abuse are sufficient
to bring a homeschooled child to the attention of the authorities; it is not necessary to register and track homeschoolers for this purpose.
“Tidal Wave of Concern”
Advocates of expanded government power, in both major English parties, have long sought a mandatory registry for all home educators. But even progressives have opposed the Schools Bill: for example, Green Party Baroness Jenny Jones was a vocal opponent
of the legislation and proposed several amendments to place more oversight on the government that was deciding what kind of information they could demand from home educators.
“Part three of the bill,” she stated, “has provoked a tidal wave of concern and condemnation throughout the home education community in England and is based on proposals that were roundly and overwhelmingly rejected by parents and young people in the preceding [Department for Education] children not in the school consultation.”
She added: “Crucially, the bill introduces no system of oversight for local authority conduct or safeguards for the vast majority of home educators who deliver a high-quality education. There is a very real danger of local authorities abusing these proposed duties to impose standardized requirements on the format and content of education children receive at home, in ways which destroy the child-centered, creative and flexible approach that is characteristic of home education at its best.”
Lord Wei is a home educating parent and member of the House of Lords who opposed the mandatory register supporter. He met with home educators and expressed support, promising that he would back members of the House of Commons who were looking to defeat the bill.
“We shall see how colleagues in [the House of Commons] view the bill,” he stated. “Arguably, the way it is currently drafted in many parts is an affront to freedom and makes a mockery of our claims to be about rolling back the state and enabling ordinary citizens to take back control. If it transpires, as has been reported in the press, that the bill was launched without proper political vetting and that it will be radically altered by the other place when the politicians have time to look at it, then we all have to ask why our time is being wasted with what appears to be an incredibly lazy piece of legislation, designed to make officials’ lives easier, not those of citizens.”