Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Gathering Storm

Storm clouds are gathering over the home education community once more.

There are local authorities who seem to be behaving as if Schedule 1 of the CSF Bill became law, wanting to do spot checks on home educators or who insist that they have a legal duty to monitor home educators. Clearly this is some sort of push by them to shift the boundaries, and there are several reasons why. One is purely to avoid cutbacks. By showing that their staff is busy pursuing all those home educators who might possibly be failing their children, they can claim that everyone is fully occupied and there is no slack to cut. Another may be that they perceive that central government is about to push in the other direction and after thirteen years of the nanny state and lack of trust in parents, local authorities believe that this will harm children. In some cases, both these and other reasons may well be behind a hardening of attitudes within local authorities.

As a group, it appears that we have not had much rest since putting Badman and the CSF Bill in the shredder. There was an expectation of having a couple of years off before the government would even find time to look our way again. Unfortunately, while central government appear to be generally of this mind, local government has decided to fill the void.

Several local authorities have home education literature on their websites that is factually incorrect, claiming statutory duties to intrude in all sorts of ways. When faced with this, a new home educator without sufficient contacts in the community may be overwhelmed by an inspector or educational welfare officer claiming all sorts of things. Clearly we need do to two things here, firstly to make it clear to these authorities that they are in the wrong, and secondly to make sure that as many home educators as possible are given the real facts and are supported by those who are not afraid to call the bluff of an official making these claims.

Much work can be done locally by groups putting pressure on their local authority, writing letters and generally making a nuisance of themselves until the LA cleans up its act and changes procedures to something more in line with what the law actually says. Help and support can be provided as much as possible to those who don't like what the LA does but lack the confidence to stand up and spout legalese at the LA officials and challenge them to back up what they claim. Some people get on just fine with their local inspector because they've got a good inspector who understands their brand of home education, but other do not, especially when the inspector insists on seeing written work or particular milestones that are not appropriate for the educational approach in use.

At a national level, there is also activity. There is the rewrite of guidelines in progress, controversial as that is, which seeks to define things more clearly, and possibly shift the balance back in favour of home educators. Local authorities may still choose to ignore them, but provided it makes the situation clearer for home educators, they can stand their ground and brandish a copy of the guidelines with which they expect the local authority to comply. The other strand, which has a much lower profile, is to attack the Children Missing Education guidelines, which are statutory, and section 436A of the Education Act 1996. I asked Graham Stuart (chairman of the Education Select Committee) a couple of weeks ago if he could dig up some figures about how S.436A was used, how many children were caught up in it and how many of those turned out to be genuine. More recently, AHEd have written to Michael Gove, challenging the existence of S.436A as being in contradiction to the rest of the surrounding legislation, and asking him to remove it.

One piece of positive feedback has been a letter from Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, asking for reports of ultra vires activity by local authorities towards home educators. Let us hope that such reports bring positive action, if not immediately in a quiet word with the offending authority to get back in line, then at least as justification to push through the other national-level activities.

Whatever happens, it appears that there is another fight looming. This one may be more on ground of our choosing, with central government if not actively on our side, then at least willing to listen and undoubtedly open to suggestions that make life easier for us and cost them less.