Education: Hey, Badman, leave our kids alone
Home educators are outraged at Graham Badman's recommendations to impose new regulations on them. Nancy Rowntree finds out why they feel victimised.
Lucy Moreton from Surrey chose to home educate after her daughter Rowan was so badly bullied that her school admitted they could no longer keep her safe. "Rowan couldn't be challenged enough in the state system so we moved her to a private school where she knocked a popular girl out of the top set," recalls Moreton. "Over the course of a year, she was beaten, stoned and had her cross snatched from around her neck. We could have put her back in the state system but we felt very strongly that she would not be encouraged to progress academically."
So impressed was Moreton with how well her daughter was doing that she decided to home educate her throughout primary education. Now aged 10, Rowan is planning to carry on through to GCSEs with a structured form of home education using distance learning material. "She can go at her own pace, she can motivate herself and she can find out what really interests her," says
Moreton. "Academically she is doing very well. The only thing she misses out on is the forced element of playtime when she had to socialise with kids who beat her up."
But the informality of home education is facing a major threat. Prompted by concerns raised by local authorities and the NSPCC about the lack of inspection and potential for young people to be abused, the government commissioned former director of children's services Graham Badman in January to produce an independent report into home education.
His subsequent recommendations, which were published in July, have led to outrage in the home education community. Chief among their concerns is the introduction of a compulsory registration scheme, parents having to outline their educational approach in annual statements, and the right for local authority staff to speak alone with children educated at home. So loud has
been the outcry from home educators that the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee has launched an inquiry looking at both the conduct of the review and its recommendations. A report is expected early next year.
Ann Newstead, spokeswoman for home education charity Education Otherwise, says the review process has been "fundamentally flawed" and the recommendation for a compulsory registration scheme - at present it is entirely optional whether home educators register with their local authority - will do nothing to protect children at risk.
One of the most contentious proposals is that local authorities be given the right to enter families' homes and speak to each child alone or with a "trusted person" present - but not a parent - if they have "communication needs".
As a barrister and home educator, Moreton thinks this proposal cannot work
and questions whether it could be a smokescreen to allow other proposals to
pass through unscathed.
"The police, bailiffs or social workers don't have right of entry to our homes and it would need massive legal changes to make that work," she says. "I wonder whether in the end everyone will just accept compulsory registration as being the lesser of two evils."
However, the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) regards the introduction of more stringent measures as invaluable. Badman's proproposals, it argues, will allow local authorities to help ensure home educated children get the same opportunities as those that attend school, which include being safe and achieving academically.
"There is an added risk that home educated children will slip through the net and not receive assistance should they need it - whether that be support for learning difficulties, health problems or safeguarding concerns," says ADCS president Kim Bromley-Derry. The review, he says, is not about snooping on home educators or imposing a curriculum. Instead, registration will
ensure they get the help they need.
But even those parts of the review that are most supportive of home educators - such as providing better access to school resources like libraries, exam centres and more support for special needs - have been criticised for being conditional.
"The report is saying that if you register you can have access to these services," says Newstead. "But you shouldn't need to monitor me to grant me access to services that should be mine by right."
There is particular concern among families of children with special needs that they could come under pressure to conform to teaching in a way they know has already failed, as well as fears that inspectors could mistake disability for signs of abuse.
"The Badman report throws us at the mercy of whoever comes out to inspect us," says Catherine Wakefield* from Hertfordshire, an advisory teacher for children with special needs that has home educated her son Ben, who suffered a brain injury when he was young, for 13 years.
"Ben had a rough ride in nursery school - he appears to function well when you first meet him but he has a range of needs that can come across as bad behaviour," she explains. "I felt he was being punished for things that weren't his fault and I home educated him out of desperation really, but I feel like I have been able to meet his needs."
But Catherine worries that those teaching children with special needs could be misunderstood. "There are times when it could be hard to justify why you are doing what you are doing - some days Ben might have been too tired to cope with lessons," she says. "If an inspector does not understand what a home educator is doing they could impose things on that child, or say that
the parent is not acceptable to be registered."
*Freedom to learn*
Concern that inspectors could impose on what and how home educators teach is widespread among the home education community.
For instance, Lil, a former teacher-turned-professional singer, became disillusioned with what she calls the "sausage factory" system where schools simply teach children to pass exams. She chose home education for her children Beth, nine and Edward, five.
Lil's approach to education is to "go with the flow". For example, she has not explicitly taught her children to read and yet says her daughter is reading well ahead of her age.
"I don't think the education provided by the local authority is suitable for my children," she says. "But the people who will assess are from that authority. Why should they assess my education?"
While there are as many different ways of home educating as there are home educators, Lil echoes the views of many who ultimately feel Badman just doesn't get what home education is all about.
"The review assumes that we will neglect their education if they don't keep bossing us around," she says. "The government is frightened of anything that is not conventional. But my children see things from a different perspective. They are learning from life."
*Some names have been changed
*HOME EDUCATION STATS*
80,000 - The number of children the Badman review suggests are currently home educated
50,000-55,000 - The number of children Education Otherwise suggests are currently home educated
20,000 - The approximate number of home educated children who are known to local authorities
7-12 - The peak ages when home educators decide to withdraw a child from school
*THE VIEWS OF HOME EDUCATED CHILDREN*
*ROWAN MORETON, 10, Surrey*
"I really like working at home; I like not being pushed and made to hurry along and I can ride my pony every day. The thing I miss is when it comes to events such as harvest festival or Christmas time when we used to bring in our favourite toys.
I think it's a good idea to make sure people aren't harassing their children but I am a bit worried about the fact that they are also trying to talk to children alone. I think that's okay for people who are over 10 but some younger kids would be too scared to talk if they were on their own and
inspectors might take that the wrong way."
*JOSH NEWSTEAD, 13, Kent*
"Being home educated gives me a lot of freedom and I can follow my interests instead of having everything thrown at me and have very little stay with me.
I understand the need to know we are safe but I think the reforms are over the top. Why do they need to see me without my mum and dad? This sounds like they are checking up on our work and it is not about our health or welfare."
*FREYA BROOKES, 17, Gloucestershire*
"I have been home educated for 10 years, which means that my knowledge is far more my own than if I had been spoon-fed from text books.
I find the inspection proposals in the Badman review bizarre. Even stranger is the requirement for the parent to plan what the child will learn in the upcoming year - a parent cannot force a child to learn it. If it is argued that this is a matter of welfare, then social services already have the right to investigate any family they believe may be abusing their children, so why target home educators?"