Sunday can be a hectic evening for many families. A time to organise packed lunches, iron uniforms and polish school shoes. But for a sizeable minority such pressures do not apply. In July 2014, there were 27,292 five to 16-year-olds in England who were home educated, according to statistics compiled from local authority records by the website Ed Yourself. But despite growing pressures, home education by parents of their children is still largely unregulated in the UK. While electing to take full responsibility for their children’s education provides great freedom for families, it also raises concerns over the well-being of a small number of children.
For many families, home education offers a freedom that is more compatible with their lifestyle, ideology and the needs of their child. But there are fears that the unregulated nature of elected home education could lead to children becoming “invisible” to local authorities and isolated from appropriate support networks and monitoring. Globally, home education has even been implicated in cases of child abuse. This has led to calls for more close regulation, most recently by councils in the Scottish borders.
The legal position
In England and Wales, the Education Act 1996 states that it is the duty of every parent of a compulsory school-aged child to provide an “efficient full time education”. This is “either by attendance at school or otherwise”.
In Northern Ireland an identical provision applies and in Scotland, the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 sets out that children must have an efficient education by school attendance “or by other means”. And for children in the UK with special educational needs, the position varies somewhat.
What constitutes an “efficient” education is not specified in any of these laws. In reality, this can involve a form of rigidly timetabled “school at home” or a semi-structured routine with a nod to the national curriculum. Alternatively, it may include taking an autonomous approach or embracing a radical “unschooled” lifestyle, which puts children more in control of what they want to learn, as promoted by American home schooling advocate Sandra Dodd.
Home educators – of which I am one – become well-versed in explaining that, no, their children won’t be compelled to take SATs, be visited by Ofsted or take GCSEs – not to mention dealing with the inevitable follow-up questions about socialisation.
Perhaps most controversially, there is no requirement across the UK for parents to register as home educators. If a child is already attending a school and the parents want to start educating them at home, they must send an official “deregistration” letter removing them from the school admissions register. The school and local authority cannot refuse to deregister the child. Similar provisions also apply in Wales and Northern Ireland, although the position is more complicated in Scotland.
Role of local authorities
If a child has not attended school, and no school place was requested, there is no requirement for parents in the UK to notify the local authority of their intention to home educate. This could explain the seeming discrepancy between official statistics and other estimates of home educated children. Some estimates have put the numbers of children being home educated in the England and Wales as high as 40,000 children.
Where a home-educated child is known to the local authority, they will usually approach the parents requesting either a home visit or some form of written information on the education being provided. Yet there is no statutory duty on local authorities to monitor the education being provided at home and anecdotal evidence suggests many home educators seek minimum involvement with such authorities.
In England, the law states that where a local authority believes a suitable education is not being provided, it can serve a school attendance order. This requires the child in question to attend a school. Similar provisions apply throughout the UK. But it appears that these may be threatened more than actually used. It can be difficult for local authorities to prove the need for such an order when they have such limited powers to monitor the situation.
Push for tighter regulation
In recent years, a number of reviews of home education have unsuccessfully sought to impose a form of compulsory registration and monitoring on home educators. This included the 2009 Badman Review in England, a 2012 consultation by the Welsh Assembly and a 2014 consultation by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The impetus for this move towards tighter regulation includes fears over safeguarding, a need to standardise procedures across local authorities and a desire to remove the apparent contradictions in the existing law.
But for many of those who home educate their children, this is seen as the thin end of the wedge. Critics point to heavy-handed treatment by individual local authorities. They also stress the need to separate safeguarding from education and to preserve parental rights and freedoms. This is understandable in a climate that is arguably increasingly inhospitable to home education.
Nevertheless, there are compelling arguments for imposing a standardised system of registration and monitoring. If the law could be worded and implemented appropriately, it would arguably protect the vast majority of home educators who are providing their children with a truly enriching and child-centred education.
However unfairly, home education is being tainted by association with stories of abuse. If preserving parent’s freedoms in the longer term means a name on a register, or an annual visit, the short-term pain might be worth it.