Home educators have put the case against government monitoring of education very strongly: they have explained (yet again) that state monitoring of HEors will abolish the principle that parents should remain responsible for the nature of the education of the children of this country, and would turn parents into mere puppets - only responsible for delivering a state-determined education.
Perhaps this problem for the government is one of the reasons why the Tasmanian model may appear a tempting option for them: by handing over the responsibility to monitor home educators to other home educators, it could appear to solve the problem of the government taking on responsibility for the education of all children. But is this really the case? By instigating any inspection of standards of education, implicitly the government is still insisting on setting the form and content of education. The imposition of a layer between HEors and the government will not obscure this fact.
As it is, we doubt that many HEors would be prepared to take on this role. EO and HEAS have reportedly said they won't do it. However, there are perhaps some rent-seekers out there in the HE community, probably those who themselves are quite happy to deliver a government-style education, who might offer themselves up for the job, but in the act of so doing, they would reveal their consent to operate within a government system, and parental rights to determine the form and content of education would clearly be compromised.
So what other options might the review team be considering as a means of making sure the state has a right to intrude upon every HEing family, whether or not there is any reason to be concerned?
Some HEors believe that it is possible that a Bedford-style scheme (website interestingly currently unavailable), may be rolled out nationally, perhaps along the lines of a Notschool model. It has often proved difficult to get a clear picture of what the Bedford scheme entails, and we wonder if this an accident. We do know that those within the scheme receive funding from the local authority, that they are required to register with some sort of frequency, and that exams are part of the picture, but whilst some HEors have reported that the scheme is capable of accommodating autonomous educators, others have said that this is completely impossible. It does seem as if the scheme's requirements of HEors have mutated from their original ones. For example, the latest we've heard is that learners are required to report in daily via the internet and to account for their time for at least half of the working day.
Home educators worry about the roll-out of such a scheme since he who pays the piper will inevitably call the tune. Mutations from benign to much more highly structured and strictly controlled systems are highly likely to happen and HEors are likely to end up being compelled to do school at home. It would wreck havoc on the HE community, with some being tempted into the scheme, thereby destroying support systems and probably friendships, whilst those who remain outside the scheme would all the more readily be picked off by the LAs.
Despite all this, it seems to me though to be an unlikely outcome. There is the huge expense of such a proposal. It would presumably mean that PCs would have to be provided for all HEors, for example, plus access to exams and exam centres. Then there is the likelihood that with the recession, and higher rates of unemployment resulting in more parents being at home, if people were to see that there was a school-type option outside of school that is fully funded, there may well be a huge exodus from schools. HEors would certainly do their best to put it about that such schemes exist. Those on the Bedfordshire scheme have managed to keep it low-profile, only known about locally and to those who are already home educating, but if such schemes were rolled out nationally, it would be far harder for those managing them to prevent word from getting out.
So if the education route looks like a non-starter for government, we reckon that they must be looking at the welfare option as a means of getting access to our children. Putting aside questions as to whether the same person who was responsible for setting up the Every Child Matters system should be the one reporting upon it when it fails, it looks as if we have to look to the Laming Report on the Baby P case to see if there are any possible implications for us. Recommendations for action can be found from page 83. Plenty of them are so vague as to make it impossible to determine their implications for us, and nowhere is it stated explicitly that universal safe-and-well checks must be instigated for home educators, which is a good thing as this would be a crazy outcome, for both practical and constitutional reasons.
Practical objections include the problem of insufficient and insufficiently experienced manpower. From the Times Online, we hear how Laming has acknowledged the current stresses upon social work departments:
"He strongly criticised social services departments, which he said suffered from “low staff morale, poor supervision, high caseloads, under-resourcing and inadequate training”.
Children were being put at risk because of councils’ obsession with targets on deadlines and processes, rather than focusing on the risks.
Social workers needed far more rigorous training in child protection, he said. A social worker could complete a degree without ever coming into contact with a child and inherit an entire caseload on the first day in the job.
That contributed to high turnover of staff as they struggled with the pressures of dealing with dysfunctional families and left the profession in droves. In some parts of the country, half of the social workers had less than two years’ experience, he said."
Given this current state of affairs, how would universal monitoring of a group largely made up of well-functioning families actually help? This would look to run foul of Laming's injunction that councils shouldn't focus on targets and processes, but rather upon those at risk, and it would, of course, place already over-burdened social workers under increased strain.
What Laming fails to address, despite his own experience of social work, is that if you are to have such a high level of suspicion, you would be referring a huge wodge of society for further intervention by government. This is obviously impractical for the resourcing reasons stated above, but would also be hugely damaging to families everywhere as everyone becomes aware that they are the subject of suspicion and that children could be removed from them much more precipitously, as has been recently proposed both by the NSPCC and Barnardos.
There would also be the damage incurred as a result of false positives:
"The harm (of unnecessary referrals to social workers) to families can be direct and immediate such as family breakup, sick leave from work, alcoholism and substance abuse. There are also additional medical complications such as: depression, and anxiety, requiring medication and the extra loading of hard pressed doctors. Parents are placed in a high state of anxiety with a fear of their own child being removed, and constant fear of the house being attacked and invaded. A stressed state results lower immunity and increased sickness levels.
Hansard House of Commons 1-May-95 4:15pm
Mr Robert Hughes (Aberdeen North)
The social work department felt it necessary to lay charges against six different families, and to take all the children of those families into care immediately, at 7 o'clock in the morning. By the Tuesday of the following week, all the children had been returned home, but it took almost two years before the charges against the six families were finally dropped.
Those families were devastated. In some cases, marriages split up; in others, people were so demoralised that they became alcoholics. I understand that, even today, people in buses that travel through Aberdeen and pass a house belonging to one of the falsely--as it turns out--accused families say, "That's where those bloody child molesters live." A charge of child abuse can have serious repercussions.
We have seen there are 140,000 referrals a year where no further action is taken. So we can say that roughly 280,000 innocent parents per year will be devastated and in some cases marriages will split up, or they will turn to substance abuse. It seems questionable that 280,000 parents need to be damaged in order to take into care 10,500 cases. The harm is in summary:
Health problems: anti-depressants, reduced immunity, depression, anxiety
False accusations are kept on file despite all attempts to prove innocence
Mud can be thrown until some sticks
Permanent damage to reputation
Could affect future job applications"
There is also the constitutional implications of universal safe-and-well checks. The question must be asked as to whether it is a reasonable constitutional precedent that people be subjected to such a high level of intrusion when there is no reason to suspect a problem, for this would surely alter the relationship of person and state.
Throw in the fact that the Children Act 2004 led to the establishment of the role of the Children's Commissioner with the task of giving a voice to all children and young people, and that Section 53 of the same Act states that:
"Before determining what (if any) services to provide for a particular child in need in the exercise of functions conferred on them by this section, a local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with the child’s welfare—
(a) ascertain the child’s wishes and feelings regarding the provision of those services; and
(b) give due consideration (having regard to his age and understanding) to such wishes and feelings of the child as they have been able to ascertain.”and you get the feeling that the state would be contravening their own laws by insisting on universal monitoring of home educating children since every time HE children have been solicited for their views on this subject, a large majority say they would far prefer not to have to suffer the attentions of agents of the state.
So what could the review team propose?
We suggest that they look closely at the current law and accept that it represents a reasonable solution to the problems we face; that the wisdom resulting from the evolution of the relevant law over time be not lost in a fit of hysteria over what should be seen to be done; that LAs learn to work more adroitly with current law and that they be appropriately trained to understand that home education is not the same as school education and that whilst it cannot be judged by the same criteria, that in a huge majority of cases, it works, and works outstandingly well.
UPDATE: We hear there are no plans for a review of Home Education notb. Let's hope the review team in England could draw a few useful conclusions from this:
"Mr S asks whether a review into Home Education will be conducted in the near future. Following extensive consultation, the Scottish Government issued new Home Education Guidance in January 2008. The guidance sets out the rights and responsibilities for home educating parents and local authorities and we consider, sets out a framework where home educators and local authorities can establish positive relationships and mutual respect. This guidance has received very positive responses from both home educators and local authorities. We therefore, have no plans to carry out a further review on Home Education."
For your constituent's information, I have attached a link to our Home Education Guidance.