Friday, 20 January 2012

Councils and the Law

Here we go again. From the same place as the last big argument started, too.

A brief bit of home education history, for those who don't already know it. A few years ago, central government's education department, then known as DCSF, commissioned Graham Badman, a former Kent County Council Managing Director for the Children, Families and Education Directorate, to conduct a review of elective home education. The report he produced was accepted in full by Ed Balls, then in charge of DCSF, and was rejected by a large number of home educators. Even the CSF Select Committee wasn't that convinced by the report, nor by the behaviour of DCSF. An attempt at legislation to mandate registration, inspection and monitoring followed, which was fought at every step by home educators, who finally won on a technicality when that section of the CSF Bill was dropped in the wash-up just before Parliament packed up for the election in 2010.

The legacy of this means that many home educators no longer trust the state, and several local councils seem to act as if the home education part of the CSF Bill actually became law and attempt to bully and threaten home educators to comply with the requirements even though they do not have force of law. This obviously does not make for harmonious relations, and much good cooperation between home educators and council officials was lost due to the whole sorry affair.

I just watched the recording of Kent County Council's Education, Learning and Skills Policy Overview and Scrutiny Committee discussing home education, and I'm sorry to say they demonstrated a woeful understanding of the law, and in their concern to track down and identify every home educated child in Kent, failed to realise that perhaps they, and their approach, are part of the problem and the reason why more parents don't volunteer themselves. Home educating parents I know that are unknown to their local council do their best to remain that way because it causes less hassle. Most see the council's actions as interference, providing no benefit to the home educators concerned.

KCC wants to visit every home educating family in Kent once a year, and is taking on more staff to allow it to do so. However, if a family declines a visit, the council have no powers to insist. This possibility was not mentioned in the meeting, nor in the accompanying documents. The home visit was one of Badman's proposals, and outraged home educators. There are very few people who have a right of access to private homes (although more than one might think, and for trivial reasons in some cases), and there is no justification to allow council education inspectors to be part of that group.

Much was made of the monitoring of the quality of the home education, again ignoring the fact that it is actually nothing to do with the council. The DCSF 2007 guidelines to local authorities make this quite clear in section 2.7:

"Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis."

Section 437(1) of the Education Act 1996 allows local authorities to intervene if it appears that parents are not providing a suitable education. This suggests that there is positive evidence of a lack, not merely a negative. We don't all routinely get our houses searched once a year by the police to check for stolen goods, they only come knocking if they have good reason. The same should be true for education - as the law specifies.

The 2007 guidelines also acknowledge in section 3.13 that there are no requirements for what must be taught or when, only that it be suited to the age, ability and aptitude of the child. This has bearing on another subject raised during the KCC meeting, that of comparing progress of home educated children with schoolchildren. This fails at the first hurdle, because it is not a like-for-like comparison. If we all sat our children down each day and taught them the National Curriculum, there might be some merit in this approach. However, many home educators have opted out of the rigid, test-based approach of mainstream schools and take a much more relaxed attitude to learning, and I believe that the number of home educated children rigidly studying the National Curriculum is a minority.

If a child wants to spend three months on a particular interest, then the child is free to do just that. It might mean that in certain traditional subject areas the child is lagging behind schoolchildren of a comparable age, but may be well ahead on matters relevant to the interest area. School is designed for the average pupil, a very Procrustean environment where the very able are chopped back and the less able are stretched to make them fit, breaking many of them in the process. We all learn better when we're interested in a subject, and many home educators adjust their activities to take advantage of this. Much maths and English can be learned as part of other topics, and when presented as necessary for progress, most children will happily put in the effort to learn because they understand why it is necessary.

The number of hours was also raised, and here it is necessary to consider a typical class, where a few minutes are lost at the start and end as children arrive and settle in, then mentally pack up and prepare to leave as the end draws near. Throw in a bit of disruption, and a bit of administration time collecting or setting homework, and the actual useful lesson time goes down. For a typical child it will be even less if there's work to be done because they'll finish in less time than was allocated and have to wait for the slower children to catch up. A study, for which I've lost the reference, once claimed that school was 20% efficient. It may not be that bad, but it certainly isn't going to be anywhere near 100% because it has to handle children with a wide range of abilities. Contrast this to home education, where the learning is tailored to the child and can be near 100%. A couple of hours a day will easily match a whole day at school, and allowing for the fact that many home educating families often continue educating at weekends and during school holidays, useful contact time is easily going to match and exceed that of school. Much of the time, the education is disguised as fun, so children can learn without realising it.

Mention was also made of visiting some home educating families. Most of those known to the council will be families that have withdrawn their children from school. Some of these will have done so reluctantly because the system has failed them, and yet they may still want the system to fix things. Others will consider that because the system has failed them, they want nothing more to do with the council. The ones the council does not know about will mostly have decided not to bother with the system, have a good support network of other home educators and want nothing more of the local council than to be left completely alone. As such, it is quite possible to get a biased viewpoint of what home educators want, because only a small subset can be interviewed.

My recommendation to Kent County Council (and to several others) would be to take a good look at the law, do a bit of research into the Badman Review (easy to find on Google, we made enough noise about it) and understand why your approach is wrong. Home educators network very well, and your documents have been read and the content shredded by home educators up and down the country. You're still stuck in the mindset of Nanny Knows Best, but are dealing with a group who, for the most part, worked out several years ago that this is not true. By all means offer services, make it clear on your website that advisers are available by telephone, email or personal visit for those that want them, but do not force your presence on those that do not want it. Hold meetings with home educating parents where names are not asked, offer drop-in educational activities where names are not asked, and you may find that you get to see more children and know they are safe, even if you don't know who they are. Your current approach is only going to antagonise those you are there to serve, which will make their lives less pleasant and your jobs much harder.