At a meeting of the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) we had a presentation from the schools effectiveness service about Elective Home Education. What we learnt came as a surprise and as an LSCB we have decided to write to the Department for Education, to put our concerns about children not on the school roll, to Government officials.
So what is Elective Home Education? In England, education is compulsory, schooling is not. Parents have a duty to educate their child in a manner appropriate to the child’s age, ability and aptitude and to take account of any special educational needs that the child may have, either through regular attendance at school or otherwise. (Section 7, Education Act 1996.) Within this framework one option open to families is to home educate their child.
Parents are not obliged to register their children as being home educated, so many cases may be unknown to the local authority, particularly if the child has never been to school. There is currently no definitive data on the number of children who are home educated in England. Estimates in 2008 ranged between 45,000 and 150,000, which could be roughly between 1 and 2% of the school-age population.
The requirements on home educating parents are at best ambiguous. They are not required to teach the National Curriculum or otherwise provide a broad and balanced education. They need not set hours during which education will take place, or give formal lessons. They are not obliged to formally assess their child’s progress, set development objectives for them or reproduce school-type peer group socialisation for their child.
Parents are not obliged to inform the local authority of any change of address – on this basis children could disappear. There is no statutory right to see the child or parent or enter the place at which the child is being educated including the home, other than if someone reports safeguarding concerns. Monitoring is not required in law and it is therefore difficult to engage with parents who are resistant or resentful of local authority education officials.
Why do parents choose to educate their children at home? There are many reasons for this, most commonly:
- Parents want to educate their child in a way that they think is best and that fits with their own social or religious philosophy
- The child is unhappy at school, is being bullied and/or the parents are unhappy with the way the school dealt with concerns.
- The child was not allocated a place at a school of their choice and elective home education is a stop gap measure or a way of pressuring the LA to provide a place.
There are two other reasons for parents wanting to educate their children at home – The first is parents wishing to avoid potential prosecution for poor attendance or non attendance; the second is parents seeking to avoid a threatened permanent exclusion.
Both attendance and exclusions affect school results in Ofsted inspections. A schools needs to have 95% attendance to meet the ‘Outstanding’ grade. Four and a half days of attendance per week for school term time, for a child amounts to 90% attendance and anything below this would be 80% and therefore is classed as persistent absence. Elective home education takes children off the school roll and avoids the difficulties of Ofsted ratings. In some cases it is known that schools will help parents to write the formal letters, where they are unable to read or write to request home education.
The legislation favours the notion that parents want choice and want to be able to educate children in the way that fits with their social and religious philosophy. But we cannot assume that all parents are reading Tennyson or Shakespeare with their child and educating them in a way that prepares them for the world of work and become independent.
Many parents make a success of home education and make satisfactory provision. However, these children are not monitored with the same frequency so there is potential for neglect or abuse to go unnoticed. Every child abuse enquiry points out the need for agencies to share information so if children are being home educated and not on the radar of professional agencies, they have the potential to become hidden children. Trafficked children are one such group who may remain unknown.
The pathologist undertaking the Victoria Climbie enquiry described it as the worst example of deliberate harm to a child. Eight year old Victoria had never been to school in the UK. Every Child Matters (ECM), which became the overarching title for the reforms that followed, required all public sector organisations working with children to come together to prevent any more tragedies.
It had a huge impact on everyone working in education. Schools suddenly had to ensure that they were looking after all aspects of pupils’ lives. Their breakfast clubs multiplied, and they built close links with social services, health authorities and the police.
A child is visible in the school system and this is a protective factor in safeguarding children. Children who are being home schooled may never be visible to professionals. This makes a mockery of recommendations made by the Climbie enquiry.
So what means do professionals have to assure themselves as to the welfare of home educated children, or, indeed, of identifying those children in the first place?
The challenge is for all professionals and agencies to put this on the agenda in their multi agency working. They need to understand the scale of the issue in their local authority. They will need to find out who these children are and ensure they are not vulnerable or at risk.
GP’s and A&E departments may be the only professional contact with such children. They need to routinely ask for and record school status. Education welfare officers need to find ways to engage parents and children, to offer support and to monitor those children that are known to them.
These are voluntary measures, and therefore subject to patchy implementation. There is a strong argument to say that if we are to ensure that every child is visible, the Government should introduce some form of compulsory registration of children being educated at home. This is not easy to prioritise when resources are scarce. But can we afford not to?
Sherry Malik (@sherry_malik) is Director of Children and Adults at London Borough of Hounslow. Join us @SWSCmedia for a live World Social Work Day Twitter Chat on Tuesday (19 March 2013) 8:00 PM GMT / 4:00 PM DST. Hashtag #SWSCmedia