Elective home education: Time for a register?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The issue of whether home educators should have to register or not has been debated for years. However, with increasing numbers of parents opting to home-school, there are now renewed calls to keep some form of record. Suzanne O’Connell reports

Parents do not have to send their children to school. According to the law they must only ensure that they receive a suitable education.

Home education is, in fact, the default status for all children as parents must apply for their child to go to school. If they choose not to, the child can remain at home. A parent can remove their child from school at any point without being required to give notification.

More children are now being home-educated. According to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, 75,668 children were being educated at home in October 2020 – an increase of 38 per cent on the previous year (ADCS, 2020). However, no exact figures are available as the Department for Education (DfE) does not collect statistics on the number of children in home education, a fact which a recent House of Commons Education Select Committee report considers “astonishing” (2021).

Although lockdowns and Covid anxiety have pushed some families into delivering what is termed elective home education (EHE), the trend was in evidence even before the pandemic, with the ADCS reporting an EHE population that has been growing by “approximately 20 per cent each year for the past five years”.

In 2019, departmental guidance issued to local authorities (DfE, 2019) noted a “very significant increase” in EHE and the former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, raised concerns about the number of children who were being withdrawn from specific schools, including her fears about off-rolling practices being to blame (Children’s Commissioner, 2019; SecEd, 2019).

Having said this, the ADCS report also estimates that 25 per cent of the 75,668 became EHE from September 2020, with the primary reason being either Covid health concerns or the positive experience of home-schooling during the first lockdown.

Meanwhile, even Ofsted has waded in. When speaking to the select committee as part of its inquiry, chief inspector Amanda Spielman pointed out an anomaly in terms of safeguarding.

She told MPs: “One of the strangest things in the system ... is that children who are already known to children’s services, even children on a child protection plan and experiencing harm, can legally be withdrawn by their parents for home education. I find it very un-joined up that we can, on the one hand, say we have very good reason to think that this child needs protection, but also let the parents take them out of one of the main protective mechanisms.”

Current practice

The government expects that local authorities will coordinate a meeting with parents and the school before a decision is taken to implement EHE. In some areas, this is called the “Pre-Decision Meeting”. The intention is not to change parents’ minds, but to ensure that they understand their responsibilities and that the choice is a “positive” one rather than being prompted by the school.

Some schools have already put in place their own structures for addressing the rising numbers of potential home educators, often involving initial informal meetings followed by more formal support and signposting to official guidance and requirements. Schools often involve the local authority EHE officer in an attempt to encourage an open discussion that focuses on what is best for the child.

However, the select committee report has gone much further than this, making a number of recommendations that will not be popular with many home educators.

MPs have their say

The report is not against the provision of EHE. It states that the committee “unanimously supports the right of families to opt for EHE, provided it is in the best interests of the child and the education provided is of a suitable standard”.

Although MPs on the committee acknowledge the difficulties in establishing criteria against which suitability of education can be assessed, they still recommend that this should be provided to local authorities.

This is an expectation that goes well beyond the simple issue of registration and would result in a much tighter level of control. It might even include asking to see examples of children’s work and assessing their progress from one year to the next.

The report is keen to ensure a method of verifying that parents of SEND pupils who have opted for home education do genuinely want to take this option and do not feel they have been forced into it. The report recommends that there should be:

  • A statutory register for children out of school.
  • The creation of a neutral advocate with responsibility for supporting families when a choice about EHE is being made.
  • An assessment once a year by the local authority of the educational progress of the home-educated.
  • Provision of clear guidance by the DfE as to how the suitability of education can be assessed.
  • Longitudinal research into EHE including a focus on educational attainment, “soft” outcomes such as mental wellbeing, and the reasons why parents choose EHE.
  • An entitlement for EHE children to access exams in centres.
  • The publication of permanent and fixed term exclusion rates by year group every term including information about SEND pupils.

The government is expected to respond to the report this term.

The debate continues

This is not the first time that strong recommendations have been made in this area. Graham Badman was commissioned by the Labour government in 2009 to review the EHE situation. His report was in favour of a register being kept, a conclusion that was fiercely opposed by most home educators.

In another report on the issue a year later, Ofsted called for more legal rights for local authorities to access home-educated children (2010).

Subsequently, the Children, Schools and Families Bill supported Badman’s recommendations. However, those relating to EHE were later dropped in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Now with the increase in the numbers choosing the EHE alternative, the issue is once again under the spotlight and this time around it seems likely that some action will be taken to tighten up procedures and monitoring.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer.

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