Publications on the internet
UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 559-ii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
SUPPORT FOR Home Education
Wednesday 17 October 2012
Elaine Grant, Melissa Young and Helen Sadler
Elizabeth Truss mp
Evidence heard in Public Questions 114 271
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
Members who receive this for the purpose of correcting questions addressed by them to witnesses are asked to send corrections to the Committee Assistant.
Prospective witnesses may receive this in preparation for any written or oral evidence they may in due course give to the Committee.
Taken before the Education Committee
on Wednesday 17 October 2012
Mr Graham Stuart (Chair)
Mr David Ward
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Elaine Grant, Monitoring and Support Teacher for Elective Home Education, Croydon Council, Melissa Young, Virtual School Education Manager, Warrington Borough Council, and Helen Sadler, Home Education Adviser, Leicester City Council, gave evidence.
Q114 Chair: Good morning. Welcome to this session of the Education Committee, as we conduct our inquiry into home education. Thank you for giving up the time and coming along this morning. I will start off with a not-that-easy ball. What do you consider your lead responsibility regarding home education? Is it supporting families in effective home education for their children, or is it in judging whether they are providing a suitable education?
Helen Sadler: Supporting families, every time.
Melissa Young: Yes. Needs of the child are at the forefront of all we do and that is always going to come first.
Q115 Chair: Do you think there is confusion in some local authorities as to what they are primarily about when it comes to home education? A lot of the submissions we have had from home educators suggest that they feel as if the local authority arrives in order to be doing the judging role from the moment they knock on the door, rather than, "Hello, we are here to help. How can we support you in carrying out your statutory duty to ensure the education of your kids?"
Melissa Young: I think that the law does not help. There is ambiguity there and, because the law is open to such interpretation on both sides, parents can often feel they are being judged in a way that does not fit with what they are doing from their side.
Q116 Chair: So do you think there is a genuine tension then in the guidance provided to local authorities?
Melissa Young: Yes.
Q117 Chair: Helen, would you expand on that?
Helen Sadler: I have often thought about, in my time as a teacher, when Ofsted were coming round and everybody was scared stiff. If I put myself in the position of the Ofsted inspector, which I am not, and I think about how the teachers feel-well, these families are teachers, even if they do not call themselves that-and of course they are going to be scared. The best thing that I can do is build up a good relationship with them and, ultimately, some-I say some-look forward to seeing me; I cannot say all.
Melissa Young: I agree. I think once we have made contact with families and developed a relationship and they have seen that we are approaching the situation in a nonthreatening way, they are, in almost all cases, more than happy to meet with us.
Q118 Craig Whittaker: Good morning. Melissa, you have just said that you feel as though the law is ambiguous.
Melissa Young: Yes.
Q119 Craig Whittaker: We have not found any evidence from home educators that it is. In fact, Alison Sauer said to us, "I do think often [local authorities] do not understand the law… I have done a survey of all the local authority websites and there are only 30 that do not have ultra vires requirements on their websites-30 out of 152." Where is the ambiguity?
Melissa Young: From our point of view, it is the fact that it is open to interpretation. There is no definition of what is suitable education. There is no definition of what is efficient. So because home education varies so much in educational philosophy and parents are doing it for so many different reasons, it is open to interpretation on the part of the local authority as to whether that meets statutory requirements.
Q120 Craig Whittaker: So if it is open to interpretation, how do you train your officers? How do local authorities ensure a consistent approach? Because, without question, that does not appear to be the case.
Melissa Young: No. Well, I can only speak from our point of view, and as you know, we are part of a shared service with two other authorities, Knowsley and the Wirral, which we do to provide consistency. We are all qualified teachers who carry out this role. I personally have experience in both the primary and the secondary sections. So it is about listening to the parents and discussing with them what their aims are, what their philosophy is, and partly using common sense and the experience that I have, and then going from there.
Helen Sadler: In terms of training, I do not think that I know of any authority that offers training, as such, in home education, but I started in Leicestershire and somebody said, "You need to get along to the Staffordshire Home Education Forum," and I think I trained myself by going there.
Q121 Craig Whittaker: So how can we say that there is a mismatch in interpretation when the home educators, without question, all say that the law as it currently stands is fine? They seem to interpret it well, but not the local authority. So how do we get that consistency if you are going to have to go and educate yourself around it?
Helen Sadler: In my view and, I think, in the view of Leicester City Council, we try to see families once a year. There is nothing in the law that says, "You can see a family once a year." If families do not wish to see me, then I have to say okay. So that is just one thing.
Q122 Craig Whittaker: Helen, in your written evidence to our inquiry you said that authorities "should compile a register" of children not at school and should "make contact with the family" to check home education provision. What law or guidance is that based on?
Helen Sadler: I think the word "register" was unfortunately chosen, unless you interpret it as "I have just registered that you are here"; it is just like taking a record. What we try to do is take a snapshot of what is happening-of what parents are prepared to talk to us about in Leicester at any one time. I think that we follow the guidance. I think the words were not fortunate.
Q123 Craig Whittaker: All the home educators we spoke to were quite horrified about having to sign up to a register.
Helen Sadler: Yes, I am sure.
Q124 Craig Whittaker: But I fully understand why a local authority would perhaps want to do that. So how do we square the circle? How do we get what you need to ensure that the offers of provision are being offered to those families if those families are sceptical about signing up to a register?
Elaine Grant: To enforce registration is quite a hard thing to do anyway-how can registration ever be enforced? With the home education element, a lot of it goes by word of mouth; once you have built up a relationship with certain families and, certainly in my experience, they can see support, other home educating families are quite happy to come forward, because they understand that it is not judgmental, there is support, and in some cases support can translate into extra services being provided. But registration still remains voluntary.
Q125 Craig Whittaker: I think all of you believe that there is tension in the current guidance. As a recommendation for this Committee then, what would you suggest we do? Are specific tweaks needed and, if so, what are they, or do we need a full rewrite of guidance?
Helen Sadler: There should be some clarity for parents. If they knew what to expect, they would not be quite so scared when we turn up at the door.
Q126 Craig Whittaker: What does that look like though? When you say "some clarity", around what specifically?
Helen Sadler: One of the things families say is, "I do not know what to do," and sometimes they say, "I do not know what to do, but I do not want it to look like school." I can see why that is, because you might have brought your child out from what you consider to be an unfortunate experience or even a horrendous experience. Added to which, I think in Leicester-and I hope my colleagues on the panel would agree-the idea of sitting for, I do not know, five hours a day, as you do in school, with your mum and dad breathing over you is not what I would want to see as a home educating package.
When I started doing the job in Leicestershire, I was quite interested to see that what families have to go on are things that they do not have to do: they do not have to have a school timetable. They do not have to have a schoolroom. They do not have to have this; they do not have to have that. My best advice to families is always to find some other home educators and talk to them, and do not expect it to be the way you want it to look right at the start. At first it probably is not going to be the way it will look in a year’s time, because things develop.
Q127 Craig Whittaker: But surely that is not providing the clarity that you say home educators need.
Helen Sadler: No.
Q128 Chair: Specifically on the guidance, because we have the Children Missing Education guidance 2009, you have the Elective Home Education guidance 2007. You have the different laws sitting in the background on that. Do we need new guidance issued from Government or do we just need greater clarity and understanding of the current situation as it stands?
Melissa Young: I would be happy with greater clarity.
Helen Sadler: Yes, I would.
Melissa Young: If there was a definition of what is suitable. I know through case law that the statement I cling to through all my home visits is, "Will the education limit future life chances?" That is how I judge suitable, personally, and that is looking at cases that have gone through court over recent years.
Q129 Chair: Mind you, it is hard to imagine any form of education that in some way did not limit your life chances. Whatever form you take, it is going to exclude some things, or emphasise one over another. Is that practically applicable?
Melissa Young: Yes. A third of my cohort is Traveller children. If they have illiterate parents and that leads to a child not being able to read or write, then I would interrupt that as limiting their future life chances whatever they do in their later life. It is applying common sense to this as well.
Q130 Chair: But you are saying that, none the less, you would like a new definition, and if it is not in case law, it would probably have to be in statute, and that would doubtless come with guidance to go with it. I do not want to put words in your mouth about that, which I probably just have.
Melissa Young: Guidance, as long as it was clear and there was, as I say, no ambiguity on either side-parents or LA or any other service involved with home educating families.
Q131 Chair: I am not a lawyer either, but I think if we were to have a new legal definition that was going to be applicable in the courts, then it would need to be passed in legislation. Do you think it is sufficiently important to have primary legislation that gives a definition of what suitable education means?
Melissa Young: Yes.
Q132 Chair: Elaine, your thoughts.
Elaine Grant: Yes, I think it is.
Q133 Chair: So you would like a new statutory definition of what suitable education is. You are not happy with the case law definition.
Elaine Grant: I think it is just too open to interpretation.
Q134 Chair: Right. And Helen?
Helen Sadler: I agree.
Q135 Ian Mearns: It seems to me that the pathways for the individual parent are many and varied in terms of how we are going to go about even investigating what they should be doing or should be thinking about doing in the future. I just cannot help but think that, for instance, the Department for Communities and Local Government has provided a very neat little pamphlet for people that live in, probably like the one I live in, a Tyneside flat in Gateshead. It is called The Party Wall etc Act 1996: explanatory booklet and is a guide to the Party Wall Act, so that I know my rights with regards to my neighbours and anything that we do in terms of the adjoining property. That is a Governmentproduced document. It is very easily accessible; it is very plain in terms of knowing what your rights are and where to go now for more information. Do you think the DfE should produce something like that about home education?
Helen Sadler: I would like to be part of writing it.
Melissa Young: It is difficult. Yes, it would be helpful, again, if it was clear. I think home education is mentioned in numerous Government publications. It is mentioned in the Alternative Provision Census guidance-little bits here and there. One definitive piece of work would be useful.
Q136 Ian Mearns: One of the things that is clear to me is that home educators’ experience of understanding their rights and understanding what they need to do in order to provide for their children adequately and properly, and then knowing what to do in terms of what support they can get from the local authority, varies massively, sometimes within authorities but also across the whole country, because of the differences between authorities and how different authorities treat the issue. Therefore, from my perspective, if somebody clever at Sanctuary Buildings were to pull all the strands together and put it all down in a few sheets of paper or into a booklet, at least it would be a starting point for people.
Melissa Young: The difficulty with writing that document is that, as you said, practice varies between local authorities, but also cohorts of families vary: an inner city cohort with hundreds of families differs very much from a rural community with, perhaps, home educators home educating because they have a limited access to schools in that area. So one document that fits all will be difficult.
Q137 Mr Ward: Good morning, first of all. On this definition of suitable education, is there not a danger that, as soon as you move towards a strict definition, you then start imposing your own sets of beliefs and values? So the example you gave of a Traveller child and illiterate parents may seem obvious, but of course many Traveller parents do not want their children to go to school because they consider it to be a polluting environment for their children.
Melissa Young: Yes, especially for girls. We work a lot with our Traveller community and we have had great success with providing them support, library services that go on site, home tutors that address the illiteracy issue by teaching families in groups and spreading the cost for families. We have also had success with Traveller children going back into mainstream schooling on a flexible-schooling basis and especially with Traveller girls, which goes against the cultural norm. But as a Traveller home educating parent said to me last year, "The world is changing and our children used to be guaranteed an income through entering the family business, but that is not necessarily the case anymore," so priorities for them are changing as well and so our service moves to meet their needs.
Chair: We have limited time and lots to get through. You are doing a great job in being succinct in your answers, and if my colleagues and I can do just as well, we will get through everything.
Q138 Neil Carmichael: Good morning. What is your relationship like with the various parents that you deal with, each in turn, because you are from different types of authorities? Helen, do you want to go first and give Melissa a rest?
Helen Sadler: I feel that the relationship is improving. I said in my submission that the relationship is improving. I have not been with Leicester that long.
Q139 Neil Carmichael: Improving from what?
Helen Sadler: Improving to a point where families are coming forward because they want some support, because they have heard that we have a good relationship with families. In terms of what it is improving from, I think there was a fairly good relationship before, but what was interesting was, at that time, working in the neighbouring authority, people would say to me, "It is just a postcode lottery who you get," so this is coming back to the inconsistent practice between authorities. I have had quite a lot of success signposting people to exams and exam centres, and families find that a very valuable resource, so I feel I have a relationship that is improving, and I hope it continues to do so.
Elaine Grant: The positive relationships are very positive. I cannot tell about the others, because they have not engaged-I do not know them. So the relationships that I have with families certainly have had a turnaround from when I first started, where I was greeted with a lot of suspicion and anxiety, and then after an hour’s visit they say, "Oh, thank you so much. It was nothing like we expected." I have some families that say to me, "Can you come back every three months?" They want me to come in. They want the reassurance. They want any more advice I have, and they voluntarily say, "Come and see us more regularly." In some cases I will say, "Not quite that often."
Q140 Neil Carmichael: So it is horses for courses, isn’t it, in a sense? You have to deal with each set of parents or parent depending on what they are expecting from you.
Elaine Grant: Yes. Well, that is home education-individual.
Q141 Neil Carmichael: Yes. Melissa.
Melissa Young: I think we have a positive relationship with our families. I am in a much smaller authority and a smaller cohort than my colleagues here. Out of our 50 children, there is only one family who declines a home visit and prefers to send their evidence in a written form instead. Again, I was greeted with suspicion when I started the role and some home educators came in a group-and I quote-"to see if I was a scary lady," which they found out I was not, and we have had a positive relationship with those families since.
Q142 Neil Carmichael: So how would you set about this engagement? Just briefly, each one of you describe what it is like to meet a new family situation.
Helen Sadler: I phone up first and ask when they can fit me in, because families are incredibly busy, and if they have a variety of appointments for the child’s education, I have to fit in around them and I try to fit in. Then I go in and say, "Right, how’s it going? What’s been happening?" and we go from there. I always say I write a report and I try to make a report that reflects the conversation we have and not something that is judgmental. I try very hard not to judge. There comes a time, I think, when a judgment is sometimes called for, but, by and large, if families are happy and things are moving on, then that is fine and I can leave them to it and hope that they will let me come back.
Q143 Neil Carmichael: So how do you assess that sort of moving on, that progress in a family? What sort of tools do you use?
Helen Sadler: It is what they say as much as anything else, but it depends what they are doing and it depends how they are doing it, you see. Some families who want to follow the National Curriculum will have various texts and they will say, "Right, they are on the nine to 11 bracket now and, we are moving them on because they are doing really well at English," or "they are doing really well at Maths," or whatever. This is something you can only build up over time.
Q144 Neil Carmichael: Elaine, any difference for you from Helen?
Elaine Grant: No, it is similar. For the first contact, I tend to write to them and invite them into my office for a meeting just to understand why they have chosen home education and make sure that there are no other issues that we can resolve, like the child being bullied, or whether, if there is some medical need, we need to divert them to a different route. So it is a fairly informal meeting just to understand what they are planning to do, and then I would do a home visit after three months and then pretty much the same as Helen: write a report to reflect the conversation, to encourage the parents. A lot of them find it quite a lonely path, so they really appreciate someone coming in and saying, "You are doing really well. You have a happy child." Monitoring progress can take many, many different paths. Like Helen said, it might be progress through working with the National Curriculum; with other families, it may be, "We have abandoned"-I do not know-"the music, because the child was not engaging and did not enjoy it. We are doing horse riding instead." That is progression in a different way, because it is working with the child’s needs.
Melissa Young: We have a similar first approach, usually in writing, followed up with a visit. We leave a little bit more time in between, so they can get settled and get themselves into whatever routine works for them. So we follow it up with a home visit and a report to reflect the conversation and, hopefully, I can include within that report some helpful steps that they can take away: some links to websites, some links to other families in the authority, if that is what they are looking for-just some other way of supporting them.
Q145 Neil Carmichael: Within your respective structures, where do you have your department, office or whatever situated in the structure? I am not talking about the building, but in relation to the rest of your education colleagues.
Helen Sadler: I am employed, which I guess is what you are asking, by Learning Services in the City Council.
Q146 Neil Carmichael: Right, and is that a visible enough place, do you think, for home education to be in terms of your authority? Do you feel as though you are part of the main structure?
Helen Sadler: Well, because I am on the road all the time I do not often go in. I do not know if that is what you are asking me. If you are asking whether I am visible to the home educators, I hope so.
Q147 Neil Carmichael: Who do you report to?
Helen Sadler: I report to Learning Services.
Elaine Grant: Learning Access.
Melissa Young: I sit within the Virtual School.
Q148 Neil Carmichael: In broad terms, do you think that your relationship with your colleagues in the department is as it should be?
Melissa Young: Yes.
Helen Sadler: Yes.
Elaine Grant: I do not know what you mean, to be honest, so probably not, but I do not know.
Q149 Neil Carmichael: If you are always on the road, I guess you cannot pump your tyres. How much support do you have in terms of officers and so on?
Melissa Young: A lot. Mine is a designated role, with specific responsibility for elective home education. However, depending on the needs of the family, multiagency working is a key part of what we do.
Elaine Grant: I stand alone in the role-it is just me-but obviously I can signpost families to other services or colleagues, as appropriate.
Q150 Neil Carmichael: Does your education committee or cabinet officer, cabinet member, ever show interest in home education?
Melissa Young: Yes. When we launched the shared service, we had interest.
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Helen Sadler: Yes, but I have only been there a few weeks.
Chair: It is a brave officer who says otherwise.
Q151 Craig Whittaker: Melissa, you just said that you sit within the Virtual School, which is quite an interesting prospect, because Virtual School looks after the looked after children, which kind of connects to safeguarding issues. Is that the right message, do you think, to be sending out to home educators?
Melissa Young: I am not the only minority group that sits within that umbrella. If you are looking at the Virtual School as having a role, we have children in care; we have, on that roll, children subject to a child protection plan and children in need; but we also have those that maybe at certain points in their educational life may require some support from either Careers or-
Q152 Craig Whittaker: I understand that, but surely you would be better placed in a mainstream schools scenario.
Melissa Young: The Virtual School sits within the 11-to-19 achievement division.
Q153 Craig Whittaker: It does, but if I was a home educator and you were coming out to see me and I knew that you sat within that looked after children/safeguarding area of the council-
Melissa Young: We do not see it as just safeguarding. We are promoting the educational achievement of all children within the Virtual School, and a lot of what we do is datatracking for those children in care, but we are also looking at the educational attainment and achievement of those home educated children. Obviously, we take safeguarding very seriously, but it is not all about that.
Q154 Craig Whittaker: No, I get that, but what I am trying to refer to is the perception, though, that home educators would have with you sitting in that area. It was just a comment.
Melissa Young: I have never had an issue with it to date, and I think I have a positive relationship with the home educators we have within Warrington, as I said. I think once they have met with me and they understand the support that I can offer and that I am a listening ear, then it is not an issue.
Q155 Chair: Do you see the point though?
Melissa Young: I can understand, yes.
Q156 Chair: We have a suggestion that perhaps it could be placed in the library service rather than in the education department. The education department is all about schools, so people with a school head come and assess you to see whether you are running a home school when you are not; you are home educating. The aim is that home education should not appear when you see lists of risk and various things as it does sometimes in safeguarding. It suddenly appears on the list as "home educated children", as if there are safeguarding risks when there is no evidence of that. Well, I do not know. Do you think there is evidence that home education is a safeguarding risk factor?
Melissa Young: That is a leading question.
Elaine Grant: The remit for today was not to discuss safeguarding.
Melissa Young: My title is Virtual School Education Manager, and I think it is clear to parents what they will be getting when they engage with me.
Q157 Chair: So, Elaine, you are not comfortable answering that question.
Elaine Grant: No.
Q158 Chair: That was not an invitation not to do it.
Elaine Grant: It was not what I came today prepared to discuss. It is a very, very inflammatory element of home education.
Q159 Chair: It is, but is there evidence that home education should be a safeguarding risk factor?
Helen Sadler: No more so than being in school.
Chair: Precisely. Anyway, I do not give evidence. I always encourage my colleagues not to start giving evidence when they are asking questions, so I shall try to resist. Thank you.
Q160 Mr Ward: Just briefly back to registration, it is "make your mind up" time. So, compulsory, voluntary or just not? For the record.
Helen Sadler: Voluntary.
Elaine Grant: Voluntary.
Melissa Young: I am torn. Voluntary, but it is how to enforce it. If it is compulsory, how would you enforce it? Will there be a penalty for not registering? It will not make any difference to those who are already known to us. It will not change our practice. Will those people, if it is compulsory, come forward anyway?
Helen Sadler: When I started doing it, I was amazed at all the things that you do not get because you are home educated, but talking to colleagues, it is quite a different experience in other places. If families were compelled to register, would the things that they do not get at the moment suddenly become available to them?
Q161 Mr Ward: We will come on to that and various services-the deal aspect of this-later on. Now comes the impossible question of how many children receiving a home education do you not know about?
Helen Sadler: Well, how do we know what we do not know?
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Q162 Mr Ward: But, again for the record, what is the scale of this? So how many are being home educated that you know about?
Helen Sadler: Approximately 250 in Leicester.
Elaine Grant: 140 yesterday in Croydon.
Melissa Young: Over the last academic year, there were 65; on my current books, I have 49.
Q163 Mr Ward: Just out of interest, has that gone up or down?
Elaine Grant: Up.
Helen Sadler: Up over 100 last year.
Melissa Young: Up, not because I think there are more children being home educated but because our relationships with patients have improved and more parents have come forward because of word of mouth.
Q164 Chair: You cannot know what you do not know, but just to press you on it, do you have an estimate of how many more there may be than you are aware of in your area?
Helen Sadler: I have a bit of information, because I went to an independent establishment and am now privy to some information about people who are flexischooling at this independent establishment that are not on the one register, and there are 15 now. I do not know, try to work it out from that, but there are considerable numbers. One of the things in Leicester is that we have a range of independent schools, and independent schools do not always let us know when their children are withdrawn for home education, so we just do not know. Then we find out and think, "Oh yes, right, okay," but we do not know.
Q165 Chair: Can I ask you about when parents let a school know that they wish to take their child away to be home educated? When the Badman Review happened, there was talk about having a formal cooling off period, so that there was a chance to check. Quite often, children are SEN and the parents just feel that no one-the school, the local authority-has responded, and so it is suggested that, in some cases, this is a cry for help and there need to be procedures in place to ensure that cry for help can be listened to. Others fear that it is just an excuse for the local authority to bully them then into keeping their kids at school. Any thoughts on that particular dilemma?
Elaine Grant: I think it is useful. I try to work with schools to allow a cooling off period. I do not like the phrase "cooling off". I tend to say to the school, "Can you give me time to meet with the family and establish exactly what the story is?" because I only hear one side of it from the school. It is different when the parent comes and the child is being bullied and the school has written them a letter and said to the parent, "Sign it," and the parent turns up at my office and I say, "So you are home educating?" "Yes, when are you sending the tutor round?" "We are not sending a tutor round. You have taken responsibility," and they are horrified. They are absolutely horrified that they have taken that on.
Q166 Chair: So you have had examples in your area where schools have sent a letter to the parents in order to get that child removed from their roll.
Elaine Grant: Yes. So the cooling off period is useful to challenge school practice.
Melissa Young: We promote, in our education, early intervention. I would hope that I was not just hearing about a child who has come off roll at the point of deregistration. We have done a lot of work with our schools to promote early intervention, either via the attendance team or through the SEN department or by meeting with whoever needs to be met with in a school, so that it is not necessarily a kneejerk reaction.
Q167 Chair: Specifically on changing the regulations, I have not looked at it completely so I might get my facts wrong, but I think the suggestion was that there would be a change in the rules on how schools maintain their roll. Effectively, from the parent requesting the removal, there would be a period in which the place, so to speak, is kept at the school at least, but that period is not regarded as a time when the child is missing education, for the purposes of the things that pick that up. Is that something you would welcome or you think is unnecessary-specifically to change the regulations?
Helen Sadler: I think it could be helpful.
Melissa Young: Yes.
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Helen Sadler: Because once the school place is gone, parents think, "No, I do not want this anymore." But how long you would keep the place open is the next question.
Q168 Chair: What Elaine said is fairly shocking-that schools are using this as a way, for whatever purposes, to get children off their roll. Do you have experience of schools doing the same thing, Helen?
Helen Sadler: Yes, but not just in the authorities I have worked in. I have anecdotal evidence of it happening in other authorities.
Q169 Chair: Do you have any thoughts? The business end of what we do is we conduct our inquiry, we write a report and we make recommendations to Government for change. That is the business end of what we do; do you have any thoughts on what can be done about that?
Elaine Grant: I think the 20 days could be put in, but perhaps phrased not as "cooling off", because I think "cooling off" sends a negative message to the home educating parents. It is just time for us to meet and establish the way forward.
Q170 Chair: Yes, clearly all three of you agree with implementing something like that with the right nomenclature. Is there anything else? To have schools behaving in that way is a scandal. Is there anything else that could be done, other than ensuring that there is a period in which you can intervene and check that the school is not abusing its position?
Melissa Young: Early intervention.
Chair: Right, okay. Thank you.
Q171 Ian Mearns: On that issue, I would guess that from your experience some schools are repeat offenders in this matter. Would that be a right assessment?
Helen Sadler: I do not think I could say that. I definitely do not think I could say that.
Q172 Ian Mearns: Right. Do you think it is common practice across a lot of schools, or are some schools more prone to it than others?
Helen Sadler: I cannot say. I really do not know, because I meet one family and I deal with one family at a time, and it is impossible for me to say because the knowledge I have is not in one authority.
Q173 Ian Mearns: Right. Well, I think it is something that is worthy of investigation anyway. Right, Melissa, to you in particular, what advantages does your shared service model bring, do you think, particularly in terms of ensuring equitable practice across local authority boundaries?
Melissa Young: Fantastic opportunities for all three of us to share good practice; very minor cost efficiencies; consistency of approach to benefit families. We have quite a lot of crossborder movement, and if a family knows they are going to see either the same documentation or similar practice if they are moving across, I think they are more likely to remain in contact with the local authority. It is a shared ear for me and my colleagues. It has allowed us to develop extended support. We were not, at the time, offering health checks. As children would get in school, they would see a school nurse, and girls would get the hCG jab offered to them. Home educating families may not have that offer. Knowsley, one of our partners, was offering that, so we have talked to them and are implementing that within our own authority. So it is just a way of building a service that benefits us and benefits families and just gets rid of the lack of consistency, I suppose.
Q174 Ian Mearns: How do you think it has changed relationships with home educators themselves, or has it?
Melissa Young: I do not think it has. As part of the shared service, we have a website and we gave an invitation to the home educating families within the three authorities to put some children’s work on the website; we have had a rolling programme of things being put on and we have parents now writing articles for the website. So we feel, even though it is very early days-we have only been running since January-that they have taken to it very well.
Q175 Ian Mearns: Have either of your authorities thought about doing something similar in terms of sharing practice?
Helen Sadler: I do not think so recently, but it is something I have been thinking about, especially talking to Melissa, and I have, as I said, worked with the Staffordshire forum, but it was a different understanding.
Q176 Ian Mearns: I suppose, from that perspective, just being here this morning has been a useful exercise then.
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Melissa Young: Talking to colleagues about home education and sharing good practice is always a really useful experience.
Q177 Ian Mearns: Funnily enough, my next question is about comparing practice with other local authorities. Do you think you could do more in order to do that, and do you think there is anybody at a national level who could help facilitate that for you?
Elaine Grant: We take it upon ourselves. I am part of a cohort of 22 local authorities that meet every term. Originally, we were called the London Home Education Officers, but Northampton has joined us, Essex has joined us, Sussex has joined us. They are coming from far and wide, and I think Leicester may be joining us, but we meet once a term and we share good practice; we share negative experiences. Interestingly enough, the agenda for our next meeting is talking about some uniformity of the paperwork we send out. So it is very much like what Melissa was saying has worked well, particularly being one of the London boroughs, because we do have a lot of crossover, so I think to have that consistency may be a very useful way forward. So, yes, it is something that is evolving and developing. It started three years ago with just two of us meeting.
Q178 Ian Mearns: Do you think somebody like Ofsted, for instance, should do a thematic study and help disseminate the good practice, or would you not want Ofsted crawling all over you?
Elaine Grant: I think it varies so much. I think it has already come up, but the variations with home education are huge, and I think it is huge from different areas. A London borough is a very, very different from a rural borough, so I think a body coming in and outlining good practice may not be applicable in certain areas.
Q179 Chair: What about you formalising your group and doing it? Perhaps it needs people who work in the field, because we are hearing that so many websites have ultra vires claims, which is obviously paperwork, and of authorities claiming rights they do not have, probably out of ignorance-I am always happier to attribute ignorance rather than malice. Perhaps a group of professionals in the field rather than some outside agency could start to come up with a quality mark for information for local authorities and thus ensure greater confidence. Because, from our submissions, there is not a lot of confidence across the board with home educators in the consistency and reliability of the information held even in official documents provided by local authorities.
Melissa Young: I think that would be a smarter idea. I think maybe working with statistical neighbours or grouping people together based on their size or the speciality of their cohort, if you like-rural or inner city-would be more useful.
Q180 Ian Mearns: Working with statistical neighbours, right. I am not sure who Gateshead’s statistical neighbours are at the moment, but when I was chair of the education committee, we were statistically neighboured with St Helens. It is not probably the easiest relationship to keep going from that perspective, because it is quite a different part of the country. Melissa again, how do you respond to Alison Sauer’s objection that your website looks like a home educating support page, rather than a local authority site? Do you agree this is a problem?
Melissa Young: We did not want it to look like a local authority site. We have a local authority site. It has a link to our website. I made the site myself. We were designing a site that represented three different authorities-so, for example, the colours were chosen because they did not match any of the three authorities or, possibly, other authorities joining us in the future. We thought it was quite neutral. I think it is quite clear that we are a local authority site. We have our banners at the bottom of the page. From the inference, I think it is unfortunate that Alison feels we are trying to trap parents in some way, and that is totally not what we are about. The point of doing the website was to add extra support to all parents; anybody throughout the country can access that site. We are building in areas with resources, at the request of parents, to support individual needs. So we are going to have an area of the site with resources for examinatory or course reading, etc.
Q181 Ian Mearns: So are you confident that your website does not contain any of the mistakes, malicious or otherwise, that the Chair referred to in terms of information that could be misleading?
Melissa Young: I do not think it does. I have not had anybody tell me it does. The only question I had raised was why we were calling ourselves "the Elective Home Education Service", not "an elective home education service".
Q182 Ian Mearns: Do you think that local authorities could work more effectively together to make sure that the information about home education contained on local authority websites is accurate? For instance, as part of your group, do you check the information on each other’s websites?
Elaine Grant: Yes, I think that is something we probably could be looking at. It is certainly something I will be taking back to share, yes.
Q183 Ian Mearns: Could you see a role for the DCS or the LGA in helping you in ironing out any significant variations? They are umbrella organisations that cover the field; do you think there is a role for them in doing this, to make sure that there is not bland commonality but at least the stuff there is accurate and informative?
Melissa Young: Absolutely. But if there is ambiguity amongst other authorities, they have obviously interpreted the law incorrectly, which obviously means that to everybody the law is not clear.
Q184 Mr Ward: I have some questions on financial support, but can I just satisfy myself, first of all, on safeguarding-a sensitive issue. We talked about various schools sometimes doing things that maybe they should not do, but in your experience have you ever come across situations where parents are going down the home education route clearly with the view of escaping pressure for attendance at school or pressure from schools?
Melissa Young: Yes.
Q185 Mr Ward: Is that not a safeguarding issue?
Melissa Young: They are the cases that I would hope to be involved in early on and resolve before they get to the point of home education, if it is not the parents’ genuine, real want and lifestyle choice.
Helen Sadler: There is a huge difference between the sorts of families who are choosing it as a lifestyle choice-completely different.
Q186 Mr Ward: Elaine, I just wonder if you want to say anything on the subject you did not come here to talk about.
Elaine Grant: No, I just think it is making a generalisation even then. I have had cases where a child has been missing school, they are on the verge of prosecution, they jump into home education and I discover that there is a sibling in the family, terminally ill, who has just died. There are very extenuating circumstances. On paper, it looked like the child was a persistent absence. The sequence looked like they were jumping into home education, but it was a cry for help. Once I got involved, different aspects came into play.
Q187 Mr Ward: Just on the question of support to home educators, for the record, what does your authority offer by way of financial support? Do not worry if there is duplication or repetition.
Elaine Grant: In Croydon, we have just started, in the last 12 months, getting support in if it is requested for further education, so 14-to-16 programmes. Families have approached us, and if the proposed course is in keeping with their home education that has been in place and there is a definite link through, then we have agreed to it and they are given provision. We had one last year, and I have four this year.
Q188 Chair: How do you get the funding for it?
Elaine Grant: Finance is not my thing. I think it is coming through from the DSG.
Melissa Young: We do not currently fund. Until this last academic year, we have not had any requests. The families that had been home educating to GCSE level had been following distance-learning courses. With families becoming more aware and local authorities becoming more aware of the possibility of drawing down funding through alternative provision, that is something we are now looking at.
Q189 Mr Ward: That was my next question: the use of alternative provision funds. So, again, can you answer it?
Melissa Young: I do not necessarily think it is fit for purpose. I think again it is unclear. On one hand, it says, "Yes, you can fund home education;" on another, it says, "Only if it is a substantial amount of funding." So it implies that you cannot fund just one GCSE, but you can fund a programme of GCSEs or a number of them, so I think again it needs clarity.
Helen Sadler: I agree. We do not, at this point, fund anything. We have intentions to find out how to do it. We have not found it easy. I tried in Leicestershire, and I tried in Leicester City-well, I did not try in Leicester City.
Q190 Chair: Have you had any parents requesting support for FE?
Melissa Young: We have had one.
Helen Sadler: For FE, there was one occasion where I felt it would have been a useful thing, but we did not have the funding mechanism sorted out.
Melissa Young: We have also addressed it in another way in terms of flexischooling. We have the Traveller girl I used as an example earlier, who went and did GCSE maths in a mainstream school. Therefore, the funding went in through a different route.
Q191 Chair: Is there sufficient clarity on flexischooling funding?
Melissa Young: No.
Q192 Chair: Parents have no particular right to request it. Some schools seem to be keen on it, but others not.
Melissa Young: Parents do have a right to request it, but it is at the discretion of the head teacher.
Q193 Mr Ward: Moving forward to SEN and policy changes, which is a very complex area, as we know from recent sessions, is particular special support provided for SEN policy changes as you become aware of them?
Elaine Grant: For Croydon, it has never really been an issue. We have not had SEN statemented children in home education. Having said that, I have, potentially, four coming my way at the moment, but we are looking into the provision within the statement and if it says speech and language therapy or OT or whatever, then we are looking to make sure that is maintained, even though the establishment of education has changed from school to home.
Helen Sadler: I would say it is the same for Leicester as well.
Melissa Young: Yes, same here.
Helen Sadler: OT or visual impairment or whatever-if it is on the statement, then it is maintained, where possible.
Q194 Chair: Where possible.
Helen Sadler: Well, sometimes family situations change. A recent example was somebody who missed some speech and language appointments and, therefore, the speech and language people said, "You have missed several appointments; we cannot carry on, but you can get back to us, if you want, at a later date."
Q195 Chair: For home educated children generally, if it appears to you that a child is not getting a suitable education, then you have to intervene, so it is a very high threshold, but with a statemented child you have a duty to ensure that child’s needs are met. It is a very much higher duty, which requires you to ensure that child gets their speech and language needs or whatever else met.
Helen Sadler: Yes.
Q196 Chair: Are they getting their needs met?
Melissa Young: Yes. We have, again, very few children with SEN who are home educated in Warrington, but we go out with the inclusion team and do a joint visit whilst the annual review takes place. Obviously, if that child was getting support from a teaching assistant in a classroom, that does not continue when they become home educated, but speech and language or hearing support would obviously continue.
Q197 Ian Mearns: What support or services does your local authority currently offer home educators either online or in other ways? We have covered it, but was there anything else you wanted to add in terms of that?
Helen Sadler: Our support mainly is in terms of signposting to other services. We are working on our website. It is, hopefully, a bit more useful than it has been in the past and mainly it is a lot of word of mouth.
Q198 Ian Mearns: Are home educators organised in your area? Are they together, or are they very much independent of each other?
Helen Sadler: They are organised in different groups. Different parts of the city are organised in different ways.
Q199 Ian Mearns: Have you found them clubbing together to try to lobby for additional services or access to particular services?
Helen Sadler: Not that, but I think they work together quite well, and if I am going somebody will say, "Well, can you have a word with her about this?" and we will go from there. Most of it is on word of mouth at the moment.
Q200 Ian Mearns: I am asking for hand-on-heart honesty from everybody here: do you think at the moment your local authorities are providing everything that home educators want?
Melissa Young: Not necessarily, financially. One thing we have done recently is what was Connexions in Warrington has moved inhouse internally to the local authority and now sit in the same team. We now have a designated education and employment adviser, providing advice and support to home educated children.
Q201 Ian Mearns: There is always the resource issue, so do you think it would help in some way if there was some better clarity about how local authorities could access this alternative provision grant from the DfE?
Helen Sadler: It would certainly help me.
Melissa Young: Yes.
Q202 Chair: An option that was discussed in the past is that a percentage of the school per capita amount should come to the local authority if someone is home educated. So rather than this absolute thing where you are home educating and you are on your own, which clearly is not entirely true anyway, whether it was 10%, 20% or whatever-we are in a time of austerity, but nonetheless these are taxpaying families with children in need of education-if a sum of money came down to the authority, would that enable you to provide better services and support, possibly direct payments as well, where appropriate, to parents to allow them to support their children’s education?
Melissa Young: Yes. I think the 10% is low, but yes.
Helen Sadler: Yes.
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Q203 Chair: So what would you think was appropriate?
Melissa Young: Again, I do not think one size fits all and it may require a differing amount for different ages or key stages of children. I think the requirements for a primary school child may be different to the requirements for a secondary school child.
Q204 Chair: But do you all think that would be an appropriate-
Melissa Young: Yes.
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Chair: Excellent, thank you.
Q205 Craig Whittaker: One of the issues that has been raised with the Committee is that access to examinations has been a big issue for home educators. I think it was Melissa earlier on who said that she had had some success at doing that, or was it you, Elaine? I cannot remember.
Melissa Young: Flexischooling.
Q206 Craig Whittaker: Yes. Tell us how you turned it into a success, because that is not the experience of a lot of the home educators.
Melissa Young: No, and flexischooling is not something that all home educators would welcome. Some home educators want nothing to do with schools, and that is their choice. We had a child who had been in education until the end of Year 6, had come out for three years, but, after discussion with the parent, we found she wanted to go into a career in hair and beauty, and that is not something her mum felt she could offer her. She knew that to get into the college course at 16, she would need maths and English GCSE. So I acted as a broker, if you like, between the family and the school, because obviously we have relationships through the LA with the school, and came up with a deal, if you like-a package that met all needs.
Q207 Craig Whittaker: So was that just a oneoff?
Melissa Young: We have six children currently being flexischooled for very different reasons in the authority. We had an autistic child last year who had been out of education for six years but then went back and tried flexischooling for a year. Although he had great success while he was there, he was not necessarily a happy child all the time and mum decided to home educate again in the end. So, different reasons, different levels of success.
Elaine Grant: I have started providing IGCSE access through a local satellite PRU, so parents have access to that, at cost, and it is a competitive cost; we have checked the prices out. This year, I wrote to 45 families inviting them to an information meeting about that provision and four attended. So they have the information if they want it, and they have the centre if they want to access it.
Q208 Craig Whittaker: So it is accessible to them.
Elaine Grant: Yes.
Q209 Chair: What if a statutory duty was imposed on local authorities to ensure access to examination centres? Because there are places where you just cannot access examinations and you get sent from pillar to post, signposted all over the place and nobody will provide you with an exam centre.
Helen Sadler: Are you talking about access that parents would pay for?
Q210 Chair: The Badman recommendation said it was just wrong that home educating parents cannot access somewhere to get an exam even if they pay for it themselves. So the first tier would be to say that schools should have a duty to ensure that at least their children can take exams, at their cost.
Helen Sadler: Well, in Leicester, we now have two exam centres, one in the city and one in the county. I think there are others, but I know of those and families can use them.
Q211 Chair: So you would have no problem with a duty being imposed to ensure that happens everywhere?
Helen Sadler: No, you can tick that one off.
Elaine Grant: I think it would depend on the practicality of how that could be put in place. Schools are not necessarily willing. You have the complication of parents wanting to do GCSEs and coursework and assessments, and the practicality aspect of that. But in theory, I think, yes, definitely.
Melissa Young: I agree with Elaine. I think, in theory, yes. The practicalities would be something that needed to be looked at. As Elaine said, courses with a high degree of coursework would lead to a bigger job for the schools.
Helen Sadler: I beg your pardon then, because I was talking about International GCSEs, without coursework. I should have clarified, sorry.
Elaine Grant: But then if schools do not do the International GCSEs, I do not think they would provide it just for that. I just think there are practical implications, but in principle, yes.
Q212 Craig Whittaker: The Badman Review recommended consultative forums with home educators. Do all of you offer those?
Elaine Grant: Have done, but take up was negligible.
Helen Sadler: I did in Leicestershire, but in Leicester it is different.
Melissa Young: It is not something we currently have, although parents can contact us via the shared service website.
Q213 Craig Whittaker: Elaine, you did offer, but had low take-up.
Elaine Grant: Yes, very. I was sending out 100 letters for two families.
Q214 Ian Mearns: In terms of youngsters moving on and transitioning to further and higher education, are there any particular problems that the authorities and the home educators are having in this regard, and do you think there is anything we can do to overcome any of those problems, or is it not a problem?
Helen Sadler: I have had some success with children moving on to further education. I have assisted by providing the reference that schools provide for the CAP form, as far as I was able. As far as I know, it seems to go quite smoothly.
Melissa Young: With the participation age ranging, that was, in part, one of the reasons that we moved the Careers Service and gave a designated role to one of the advisers to help provide additional support between that transition stage.
Elaine Grant: Yes, it is not a big issue. Last year, 50% of my Year 11s went on to further education or sixth form. A certain percentage went into an apprenticeship or the armed services, and I had 29% that were undecided or unknown. But, generally speaking, they do seem to move on transitionwise.
Q215 Ian Mearns: So, therefore, are you doing any sort of informationgathering about how many young people at the age 16 or 18 are then finding it a real problem to get into either education or training or into employment?
Melissa Young: We track them.
Elaine Grant: We are tracking them.
Q216 Ian Mearns: So how many are ending up as NEETs?
Melissa Young: Out of the four Year 11s I had last year, so it is very low numbers, one of them was NEET, but again she was a Traveller girl who decided to stay at home, as was culturally acceptable.
Chair: Can I thank you very much indeed for giving evidence to us this morning? That was an excellent session. As I said, the business end of what we do is to write the report with recommendations to the Government, and the Minister has been listening to your evidence for the last little while. If you have any further thoughts as to recommendations that we could make, then please do write to us in addition to what you have already given us so far. Thank you very much indeed.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Elizabeth Truss MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education, gave evidence.
Q217 Chair: Minister, it is a delight to have you with us here this morning. Congratulations on your appointment, and this is, of course, your first appearance before this Committee. We recognise that you have been in post only for days, and I know, looking around my colleagues, that you will be given no special treatment as a result. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to have you with us. How do you plan to engage with home educators during wider policy consultations? For instance, with SEN and disabilities, we have heard some fair criticism of the pilots and, in particular, their failure to engage with home education, assessment of testing, early learning and other areas of policy. How do we ensure that those who exercise their right to home educate are not forgotten in these consultations?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, first of all, can I say I am delighted to appear before the Committee for the first time under your chairmanship? I am not surprised to hear that I will not be given any special treatment. I would expect nothing less from this Committee, and I hope it is the first of many appearances in front of the Committee.
Clearly, my colleague Edward Timpson is currently working on the SEN Bill, which is due to go through Parliament fairly shortly. I will be very interested to hear the recommendations of this Committee on how home educators could be better engaged on these issues, and also, in my role on assessment and testing and qualifications, again, I would be interested in understanding better how representations from home educators could be made in that process. But I think this Committee’s report is going to be a very important part of my understanding of what will be the best way of approaching this, and I await with interest the conclusions the Committee comes to.
Q218 Chair: Thank you. The DfE decided to move home education into your remit and out of Ed Timpson’s. Why do you think that was?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, that was a decision made by the Secretary of State, and I am sure he had very good reasons for making it. I think it does fit well within my portfolio of issues. You have mentioned assessment and testing and the major reforms that we are undertaking in that area, and I will be looking at home educators and responding to your report. But I would highlight that Edward Timpson’s office is about 20 yards from my office and we work very closely on a number of issues. So, for example, I am also responsible for children’s centres and work with Edward on how we help the most vulnerable children in our society. The Department for Education ministerial team is a seamless team who work across all these areas in cohesion and concert.
Q219 Chair: Excellent. Well, I have to say I think the Committee would welcome the fact that it is in your portfolio and not in a portfolio dominated by safeguarding and related matters, where we would not think it was suitable to be placed. What do you see as the key issues relating to and around home education?
Elizabeth Truss: There are clearly various issues that this Committee has been looking at: how home educators engage with local authorities, schools and examination organisations to best facilitate what they do. I think the balance between the freedom and responsibility that we give to home educators and the duty that parents have to provide a suitable education for their children have all been talking points. I think funding is another set of issues, so the proposals around flexischooling and how that works. So the level of funding provided by the Government to support home educators is another issue that I would highlight.
Q220 Chair: Obviously, you have just been appointed and any final funding decision would be made in conjunction with others, but is your instinct to feel that the right settlement is home educators are effectively, as far as support goes, for the most part on their own, or can you see, subject, as I say, to all those caveats about funding and who makes the decision, a case for greater support being available to home educators where they wish it?
Elizabeth Truss: I think that the balance at the moment is, roughly speaking, around the right place. So I think that we give home educators considerable freedom. We also give them responsibility to provide a suitable education for their children. We do not ask them to register. We do not have undue interference, which I would not be in favour of. But, at the same time, we understand that it is a profound decision to educate your child at home, and when a parent makes that decision they do have to take financial responsibility for that. I am aware the Secretary of State, when he came into office, was pretty clear on the funding issue, given the general financial constraints faced by the Government and, in particular, the Department for Education. That is not to say, though, Mr Chairman, that if there are recommendations from your report, I will not consider them and look at them carefully, and I absolutely undertake to do that. So that is my initial view at a fairly early stage, as you point out, in the process, but I am certainly open to hearing more and also hearing more about the issue of how we engage home educators in broader education policy.
Q221 Neil Carmichael: May I just ask one question? You have talked about not interfering, absolutely. That is certainly something I think those who go down the home education route would applaud, but what about registration? First of all, there seems to be a lack of clarity as to how many children are being home educated. Secondly, there is some lack of clarity as to the functions of local authorities in that mixed up area. So registration might help us to get a better handle on numbers and responsibilities. Do you agree?
Elizabeth Truss: This is obviously a tricky balancing exercise. Certainly, from hearing the bits of evidence from local authorities that I did, it seemed to be their general view that it was better for local authorities to co-operate with parents, rather than being seen to be chasing after parents and judging parents. So I am in favour of a co-operative relationship with local authorities and schools, and I think that giving additional powers for registration would not necessarily promote that co-operation, which I think is increasing, certainly with the local authorities that have been in front of the Committee today. So there are obviously arguments for registration; I understand that was proposed under the previous administration.
But I think, on balance, the system that we have at the moment is the right division between responsibilities, because what we are saying here is parents have taken the responsibility to educate their children at home. That is their responsibility; it is not the local authority’s responsibility. The local authority clearly has a responsibility to identify children in the area that are of school age that are not registered pupils at school and are not receiving a suitable education. If they hear of or, indeed, identify where that is not the case, then they have a duty to follow that up. But as to the balance between freedom and tracking or keeping up with people, I think we are roughly in the right position, and given that there is no evidence that home education produces worse outcomes than other forms of education, I do not see a substantial reason at this stage to change that.
Q222 Alex Cunningham: I just want to follow up specifically on that point. You used the expression the local authority may "hear of" issues or problems in a particular family situation that needs to be followed up. I just wonder how you identify who those people are if you do not have registration. How do you track success and how do you ensure that there is some sort of challenge in there, particularly if we do not know who these people are?
Elizabeth Truss: Let’s be clear; we are talking here about purely educational issues, so it is: is the child receiving a suitable education?
Q223 Alex Cunningham: But if we do not know who the child is, if we do not know where these children are, how do we know that they are being suitably educated?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, the point is that it is the parent who has legal responsibility to make sure that child has a suitable education. So it is their legal responsibility, and if they are not fulfilling that and it comes to the notice of the local authority, then the local authority has a duty to follow that up. But it is the parents’ responsibility, and I think we have to be careful about legislating from Westminster to try to interfere with that current position, because the more duties we end up putting on local authorities to register, the more you take the responsibility away from the parents. I am very clear that when parents make the decision to home educate for, in many cases, very good reasons-whether that reason is specific to the way they want to educate their child or whether it is issues at school-they have taken that responsibility on and it is the parent that is accountable rather than the local authority.
Q224 Alex Cunningham: So it is not necessary to put any challenges in there for the sake of balance?
Elizabeth Truss: As I say, I think the balance at the moment is the right position: the parent holds responsibility, but if the local authority are notified or identify that suitable education is not taking place, they should follow it up.
Alex Cunningham: My problem with that is if you cannot identify them, if you do not know they exist in a particular situation, how can you make that challenge? But I will leave it there, Chair.
Q225 Chair: Thank you, Alex. The DfE website states that the Department is considering policy around this area. Can you tell us if there are any particular issues the Department is concerned with?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think all of these issues that have been raised are the kind of issues that are being considered. But I would suggest, Mr Chairman, that the report of this Select Committee will be the next thing I look at in terms of how we move policy on this forward. Obviously, if there are any specific recommendations about current legislation going through, and the SEN Bill is the one that I would identify, then I would be happy to raise that in advance. I think what I would be looking for is evidence that a change would be positive. We were just talking about the subject of tracking students across the country. I think we have to be very careful about unintended consequences and interfering in a system when there does not seem to be any evidence it is not working at the moment. Yes, there are issues around examinations, there are issues around funding and there are issues around the relationship with local authorities, but I just think we have to be very careful not to upset the balance of what has been a very long-held and established policy within this country.
Q226 Chair: There is nothing uniform ever about opinions among home educators, so I should never suggest that, but a weight of opinion-certainly of those who came before us-from home educators was that they felt that the law and the 2007 guidance was sufficiently clear, and that there was not a need for clarification and new guidance. On the other hand, the three representatives we just had from local authorities suggested that there did need to be clarification and that some of their colleagues, who might have been less clear than they were as to the settlement, would be helped by that. Do you have any feeling as to whether the various bits of guidance-Children Missing Education, the 2007 guidance, various other bits-form a coherent whole or not?
Elizabeth Truss: I have not seen any evidence yet that there are significant reasons to change what we have at present, but I am, of course, open to hearing of arguments that that is not the case.
Chair: Fair enough.
Q227 Mr Ward: On the relationship with local authorities, are you, in the spirit of localism, comfortable with the fact that, according to the evidence we have received, 122 out of 152 authorities have content on their website either ultra vires or misleading in terms of what are legally the powers of local authorities?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I am in favour of localism. If there is misleading information on the websites and the Department for Education is notified, we will follow up on that. I certainly do not think there should be misleading information, but there are different services provided by different local authorities, and it is up to the local electorate to hold those local authorities accountable for what they provide. Just as there is a danger with saying that home educators are responsible for educating their children and then introducing further regulations and legislation, there is also a danger with doing the same thing for local authorities. It is a challenge that Ministers in the Department for Education face: how that relationship is managed. You could make the same point over things like children’s centres and how that takes place, but, as I say, I have not seen significant evidence that changing that balance and having more central control would have a beneficial effect.
Q228 Mr Ward: Have you any views on whether other organisations may take on what I suppose would be a monitoring role? So the LGA, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services-would they have a role to play? Ofsted?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, again, I will look at the evidence produced in the Select Committee’s report. At this stage, I do not have a strong view in that direction.
Q229 Mr Ward: Just on the question of support then to home educators, one of the things that has cropped up a few times is the issue of whether it is support or monitoring, and it can often send out the wrong messages if the service is based within a section unit that is safeguarding or contains welfare offices. Have you any views on that?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, again, I think we are back to a localism point. I think it is up to local authorities to carry out their duties in the way they see fit, and they should be held accountable for that by local electors. There are clearly local authorities that have better practice than other local authorities, as there are in many areas, and one would hope that the best local authorities share their best practice, so that other local authorities follow up on that. Of course, there are Ofsted inspections that take place already of local authorities.
Q230 Mr Ward: Finally, on support for home educators, I just wondered if you know what the Department has done by way of looking at the general support that is available to home educators and their children.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, there are some things we are doing that I think will benefit home educators. So, for example, from September 2013 further education colleges will be able to admit 14 to 15yearolds on their own sayso rather than via local authorities. So that will make life easier, I think, for home educators who seek further education for their children later on in their educational career.
In terms of the wider support that we offer, I think it is making sure that the legislation we are putting through takes full account of home educators. In terms of additional financial support, I do not think that is possible, or certainly not at this stage, within the financial constraints the Department is operating in.
Q231 Ian Mearns: David has touched on what I was going to ask you about first in terms of an assessment bias. I have been impressed by the fact that you said on a number of occasions this morning that you have not seen any evidence. I am just wondering if there is a role for the DfE on this issue to go out there and try to gather some evidence one way or another and then use that to guide future policy. I think one of the problems we seem to be having here is that practice, levels of provision and home educators’ personal experiences around the country are all very, very different. I understand what you are saying about localism; I am a very great advocate of localism myself, but I think there should be some minimum standards that home educators can fall back on in terms of their rights, and that would help them to fulfil their responsibilities. So, in terms of an assessment, the DfE could be trying to gather information and gather evidence to help guide future policy.
Elizabeth Truss: My understanding is there have been various independent studies about home education and about the number of home educators-certainly the number of home educators that local authorities are aware of. I am keen to understand from the report of the Committee what best practice looks like, and I think there are various ways of best practice being disseminated. The Department for Education is focussed on building up its evidence base, which I think is very important, and I am a big advocate of evidencebased policy. We obviously have a lot of conflicting demands about how to spend our internal resources on evidence collection and data. What I am not in favour of, though, is the re-establishment of the sort of contact-point style children’s database. But I do think evidence about how children are educated is useful; I just do not want intrusion into what is the proper responsibility of parents who are home educating their children. So I agree with you on the general need for evidence.
We have to be careful about how that evidence is acquired and who it is acquired by. I think, indeed, reports such as this Committee are producing are exactly the kind of thing that is helpful in understanding the picture more broadly.
Q232 Ian Mearns: Could Ofsted not have a role in gathering that evidence? It has a role with regard to local authorities and schools anyway, so could Ofsted not play a role in that?
Elizabeth Truss: I would have to think about that. I think, though, Ofsted does have a very specifically outlined role, and I am very concerned about intrusion into the proper responsibility of parents.
Q233 Chair: I think we are less concerned about intrusion on parents, if that were to be threatened. We are talking here about local authorities, whose practice, whose paperwork varies widely, and we have a minority group spread all over the country. One of the reasons I am interested in them is because they are a group with no electoral bite anywhere, too small to be significant to anybody apart from themselves, a marginal group, very easily ignored, and treated by departments that, in certain authorities, do not take this area seriously and are rather careless both of the law and their duty to provide. There is a risk of that, so it is an interesting case study as to where there might be a need for some challenge, and localism alone, certainly at the ballot box, is unlikely to lead to improvement.
Elizabeth Truss: I think one of the things that does impact on local authorities is greater transparency of what they are doing in various areas.
Q234 Chair: Which is where the Ofsted thing comes in. Surely, we can see what they are doing. There is a spotlight on it, and at least there is the ability for someone to challenge it.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, there could be various proposals about transparency, whether it is local authorities providing data or whether it is another organisation looking at what local authorities are doing. But I think, in principle, the more information about what local authorities are doing, the better. Obviously, there is a cost to them in producing that, so that would be a concern. But as a general principle, I am in favour of greater transparency, so people understand what their local authority is doing and also so that local authorities can learn from the best practice of other local authorities. So I think that is a good thing.
Q235 Ian Mearns: One of the things we have heard this morning that is clearly the responsibility of the Department for Education is the fact that local authorities themselves would like some greater clarity on how they can access the alternative provision funding that is available from the DfE. Could you take that back and look at it?
Elizabeth Truss: I will. I will take that back.
Q236 Ian Mearns: Evidence to this inquiry has also revealed several examples of medical or special educational need support being unavailable to children because they were home educated. Could you confirm that this is wrong and make a clear stand to local authorities on this matter?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I can confirm that this is wrong, because if a child has a statement of special educational needs, it is the responsibility of the local authority to make sure that child is provided for and that they have an education that meets the need. So it is a stronger duty than the duty on children in general. Local authorities are bound to provide those resources and should be doing that, so if they are not doing that, that is a problem.
Q237 Ian Mearns: But if you look at the mainstream school population, only a very small percentage of the young people who have special educational needs have a statement. That might be reflected also amongst the population of home educated children, and so nonstatemented special educational needs may be a shortfall in this area. The other thing that I quoted there was medical issues; we have particular examples of medical support being unavailable to home educated children. Would you look at that as well?
Elizabeth Truss: Yes. I think that is something that should be looked at: those with special educational needs who do not have a statement.
Q238 Ian Mearns: So we can take it from this that your Department would be taking steps to better join up the services between health and education. For instance, we had a discussion yesterday about the Special Educational Needs Bill, and statements go out the window and education, health and care plans come in. So is that something you could look at in the run up to the Bill?
Elizabeth Truss: I will certainly discuss this with Edward Timpson, who is working on the Bill probably as we speak.
Q239 Ian Mearns: Is it fair that provision of services and support for home educators is currently very much a postcode lottery? It is very different in different parts of the country. Several witnesses at this Committee have told us that from their perspective it is a postcode lottery, so what advice would you give to home educators who live in the areas that are supported by weakerperforming local authorities?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, we are back really to the point about localism, and greater transparency of what local authorities are doing and local authorities learning from best practice. Well, first of all, I would be interested to see what this Committee recommends that those home educators look at doing. But that should be drawn to the attention of the local authority, and particularly on issues like special educational needs if parents do not feel they are getting what is the legal duty of local authorities to provide. Local authorities are inspected about that.
Q240 Ian Mearns: Do you feel, therefore, that we need any more robust minimum requirement guidelines for local authorities, or do you think that there is enough of a framework there already?
Elizabeth Truss: We have to be careful about thinking that legislating for something or regulating for something makes something happen on the ground. The best way for local authorities to fulfil their functions is for local authorities to take it upon themselves to fulfil their legal duties and provide a good service to local residents. Unfortunately, for a lot of services where the Government has tried to regulate and create national frameworks, the reality on the ground has been anything but that. So I can see the tidyminded logic of having a system that has everybody in a national database and tracking them and having rules and regulations about minimum standards, but we all know from the real world that is not necessarily the way things turn out. We have a balance at the moment that has worked, and there does not appear to be any great evidence that things are not working. We have to be careful about meddling with that and ending up with worse consequences than we might possibly imagine, essentially.
Q241 Craig Whittaker: Good afternoon, Minister.
Elizabeth Truss: Good afternoon.
Craig Whittaker: One of the things that has been very loud and clear from home educators is they feel increasingly unable to access examination centres at the appropriate time. Do you think that is right, and what can the Government do to ensure that this access is available?
Elizabeth Truss: I think there is evidence of it being difficult to access examination centres. The question is: what can the Government do about it and what can local schools and examination boards offer? Clearly offering these options, if you are a local school, does carry costs, so I would be very careful about the Government imposing additional requirements on schools or exam boards. So whilst I recognise there is a problem, I am not sure there is an easy solution to sort it out.
Q242 Chair: So you are happy to have children effectively barred from sitting public examinations in preference to having an inconvenience to schools running an exam system.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I am not sure; there is evidence that it has been inconvenient and timeconsuming.
Q243 Chair: Well, there are lots of places all over the country and lots of schools who do not have any difficulty. There just happen to be areas where you cannot access it at all.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, there is evidence it is difficult. I am not sure there is evidence that people have been barred across the country. I might be wrong, Mr Chairman.
Q244 Chair: We will let you know about people who have found it very, very difficult to find access to exams. I am not aware there is any vast cost falling on schools to provide exams.
Elizabeth Truss: The whole direction of travel for Government school reforms is about schools being able to make their own decisions and having autonomy, and we are reluctant to intervene in that when the evidence suggests that home educated children, whilst it might be difficult to get to examinations, are succeeding in getting to examinations.
Q245 Chair: The duty does not, of course, have to be imposed. There are lots of duties on local authorities that they can only fulfil by working through schools, many of which are, increasingly, independent of them. The local authority still manages to fulfil that duty and has that duty. So I would certainly welcome you sounding more openminded. You will be the first person I have ever heard who suggests that change, in terms of access to exams, is not something that should be brought forward, albeit with caveats around the practicalities.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I have not said that there will be no change on it. What I have said is that I think we have to be very careful about upsetting the current balance. On exactly the same point about the autonomy of parents to educate their children, I am concerned about imposing extra duties on schools. Of course, Mr Chairman, I will look at the report, and if there are recommendations that are evidencebased and common sense, then I will look at those. As I mentioned at the start of this session, I have been in the job for a short period of time. I have looked at this area, but there is more work to do on it.
Q246 Chair: So if we can show evidence that there are areas where home educated children do not seem to be able to access examinations in any reasonable, practical and affordable way, you will do something about it? Well, only if the evidence is there.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, there is evidence and there is evidence, is there not, Mr Chairman?
Q247 Chair: Well, you would be the judge of that evidence, of course, but if that evidence came and convinced you that that was true, are you undertaking to do something about it?
Elizabeth Truss: I will certainly undertake to look at it with an open mind, Mr Chairman.
Q248 Craig Whittaker: The cost factor is not an issue, because parents have to pay for those examinations anyway.
Elizabeth Truss: Yes.
Q249 Craig Whittaker: The problem is purely about access. Some local authorities allow them to attend the PRU for those examinations-we have heard a variety of things-but on the whole it is a big issue for home educators. Let me ask you then about music, sport, leisure and library services. Do you feel that those services should be made available to home educators as well?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I would imagine that would be a decision for the local authority, but it is not an area I know a great deal about, to be frank.
Q250 Alex Cunningham: We have already talked a little bit about payment and everything else. When we had our home educators in front of us, it appeared the vast majority said, "No, we are fine. We will pay our own way, and we recognise that is our responsibility." Some others suggested a voucher system whereby they could access various services or buy particular equipment. Do you have a view on that?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think my broad view is where, in the overall constraints on the education budget, would the funding be found, if desirable, for such a voucher system? There are also the administrative difficulties of making that system work, given the various discussions we have had about registration and local authority involvement.
Q251 Alex Cunningham: So, at this time, you do not see any prospect of home educators receiving some form of fee for educating their own children.
Elizabeth Truss: There is not an obvious pot from which the money is going to come; that is what I would say.
Q252 Alex Cunningham: If they were in school, that would be costing the Department money, so why is money not available for home educators?
Elizabeth Truss: Going back to the original point, when home educators make a decision to educate their child at home they are taking responsibility for that child’s education and they are taking financial responsibility for that child’s education, whereas the Government takes financial responsibility for children who are educated within the school system.
Q253 Alex Cunningham: So you do not think local authorities could be responsible for providing some form of funding to them, maybe through some form of co-operation or registration system.
Elizabeth Truss: Let me be clear. I am very happy if local authorities are working co-operatively with home educators to provide services in their local area. I think that is positive. I would like to see a good relationship. If that involves funding being provided by the local authorities, that is absolutely right. I am not saying that I think there should be a requirement on local authorities to do that, but I do think you are absolutely right-that is the right level of government at which to make those decisions. Local authorities of course have to consider their overall budgets and what they can afford to spend, but if that is something that they think is worth while or would be helpful to those children or, indeed, help them be closer to the parents who are home educating, then I think that is laudable.
Q254 Alex Cunningham: That is all well and good, but, as Ian said earlier, there is this tremendous inconsistency across the country. Some local authorities are very good at this and the benefits that home educators derive from that are very, very good. How do we get consistency across the piece if we do not have some rules or direction for local authorities?
Elizabeth Truss: I think I did answer part of this question earlier, but getting consistency is not necessarily the right objective.
Q255 Alex Cunningham: So no minimum offer then.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think the right objective is trying to get the best possible service, but that is an objective that does not lie in my hands in the Department for Education. That lies in the hands of local authorities, and it is for leaders of local authorities to tell this Committee how they see themselves measuring up to the best local authorities in the country in terms of providing these services. It is for them to say, "Well, how could we be better at delivering the services? How could we co-operate rather than having a more difficult relationship with home educators, and how could we learn?"
The fact that the Committee is undertaking this report is good, because it raises the profile of the issue; it will make local authorities think about what they do. I am sure that they will be extremely interested in the recommendations that the Committee provides. But I think we have to be careful in all this that we do not think that the Government doing things is a panacea that is going to solve problems on the ground or going to deal with issues on the ground. In this structure we have at the moment, whilst it may look imperfect and it may not look as logical and structured as one might think it ought to be, it is, broadly speaking, working. We have to be careful not to upset that balance in terms of the responsibility that home educators hold themselves, the responsibility local authorities have with respect to SEN and the responsibility that the Government has as well to make sure that home education is taken into account when we are putting through major pieces of legislation and so forth. So I do not believe there is some kind of utopian solution here.
Q256 Chair: Will you be a champion of home education within the Government?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, obviously, it would make me very popular with the Chairman of the Education Select Committee.
Chair: Never a bad thing.
Elizabeth Truss: Never a bad thing. I certainly very much respect the decisions of home educators to educate their children. I think we have a good system that is sustainable, and I will take up their cause with other Ministers in my Department, as well as with myself.
Q257 Chair: You will take up issues with yourself. I look forward to those broadcasts.
Elizabeth Truss: Those discussions are for internal purposes only, I am afraid, and they are not FOIable.
Q258 Chair: So will you be a champion of home educators within the Government?
Elizabeth Truss: Yes.
Q259 Mr Ward: Let me just be a bit more direct. I may have the right to go to the Bahamas for my holiday, but I cannot afford to do that. If we have a right to educate children at home but I am not able to do that because of the cost of examinations, the cost of children going to the local swimming baths and so on, it is a worthless right that I have. I suppose what we are looking for is a message from the Government. You mentioned the autonomy of schools, but unless the right of parents to educate their children at home is supported by the right to the costs incurred in that, within reason, then it is a worthless right.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I am very sorry that you cannot afford to go to the Bahamas. That is, indeed, sad.
I think it is a right and it is a responsibility. It is a big decision to home educate your child and you have to be able to provide the resources to do so. I would suggest that the cost of examinations is probably quite small relative to the overall cost of home educating your child over the many years involved. There is a balance here in that the parent is deciding to not educate the child within the state education system and instead deciding to do that themselves, and they need to make sure they can provide a suitable education for that child and the resources that suitable education requires. What the Government says is that, if the parent wants the child to be educated within the state education system, we will pay for that child to go through the system, and I think that is a very reasonable balance. There is a place available.
Q260 Chair: Do you have a philosophical objection to state funding support for those who make this choice? It is the parent’s duty to ensure the education of their child; they can delegate it to the state, for which the state then pays. If they choose to take what the Government and you suggest is a perfectly valid decision to provide education themselves, do you have a philosophical objection to the state providing additional financial support to supplement that of the parents?
Elizabeth Truss: No, I do not, is the answer.
Q261 Chair: So it is primarily about resources and the rest of it.
Elizabeth Truss: I think so. I have not given a great deal of thought to philosophy since I have joined the Department for Education, because I am focussed on the various issues in hand. I will certainly consider my philosophical views, particularly after I have read the report.
Chair: Excellent. Well, I hope your personal dialectic will allow you to come to the right conclusions.
Q262 Ian Mearns: How would you treat an application from, say, 150 home educators in Norfolk to establish a virtual free school?
Elizabeth Truss: When you talk about home educators, my understanding is those children would be educated at home, which is a different concept from a school, so I am not sure exactly how that would work. I do not know, is the honest answer.
Q263 Ian Mearns: Home educators in my borough of Gateshead all do it very differently. Some of them engage tutors and they have sessions in the library and they go to other places, so the possibility of a virtual free school, which would employ teaching staff or tutors, is not beyond the realms of possibility, is it?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, we are into the question of when is a school not a school, I suppose.
Chair: Back to philosophy.
Elizabeth Truss: We are back to philosophy. It is a very philosophical session at this Committee.
Chair: Less avoidable than you thought.
Elizabeth Truss: I am in favour of philosophy, do not get me wrong. I would need to look at the terms and conditions of the free school proposal in more detail to see how that would work. Clearly, when you start talking about employing teachers and having lessons, it is becoming more of a school and less of a home education experience, I might suggest. But there is obviously a continuum and, in life, some things just do not fit into boxes.
Q264 Alex Cunningham: The final question from me is in connection with the numbers of home educated young people across the country, because it is not very clear. Does that not concern you, and do you think we could be doing something to try to identify them and make sure we know who they are, where they are and how they are doing?
Elizabeth Truss: There have been studies that have suggested there are around 20,000 home educators who are known. [Interruption.]
Chair: Excuse me, Minister, but for Hansard’s sake, we will wait until the bell stops.
Elizabeth Truss: Are we missing some urgent question session?
Chair: No, it is just the start of the day.
Elizabeth Truss: Sorry, you were saying?
Q265 Alex Cunningham: I have lost my train of thought as well. The numbers-you said there were 20,000 according to studies.
Elizabeth Truss: That was the number that are known by local authorities. There are probably more who are not known to local authorities. But we get back to this question of registration and scrutiny and autonomy and responsibility, and I am not convinced that tracking people in a system in more detail is the way forward.
Q266 Alex Cunningham: But surely we should know at least how many there are and where they are.
Elizabeth Truss: But this might go back to the question of evidence-just understanding more-and it could be something that home educators themselves look at. We were talking about how home educators put pressure on local authorities to engage with them better. Well, that might be one of the ways, but I do not think that is the responsibility of the Department for Education.
Q267 Alex Cunningham: So you do not think the Department should be identifying how many home educators we have across the country or, more importantly, how many children are being home educated and could be under the radar, in fact.
Elizabeth Truss: Caveating my reading of the report that the Select Committee is going to produce, at this stage, I am not sure that is an aspiration the Department should have.
Q268 Ian Mearns: Alex talked before, though, about the local authorities having a duty to make sure that the home education provided by a parent is of an adequate nature-an educationally enriching experience. We also heard, in the previous session, evidence of some youngsters coming out of independent schools to be home educated and independent schools not notifying anyone of this change of arrangement. So there were youngsters coming out of independent schools into home education of which the local authority were completely unaware. Is that not a problem?
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think if there is evidence that this is causing a problem, fair enough, but I do not see the evidence that is a problem.
Q269 Chair: It was suggested to us by Carshalton home educators that there could be an online free school for home educators to use as they wished. Could such an online resource not have many more pupils than some of the free schools that have so struggled to get their rolls up in their first year? Is that something that you would smile upon?
Elizabeth Truss: If home educators were to develop an online resource that they shared, that may well be a very good thing. I think there might be a question about who would fund it.
Q270 Chair: With free schools, the whole idea was to pass power down to parents and communities to provide the education that they wanted as they saw fit, and here is an example of it by the most independentminded of all people involved in education. Would you close the door in their faces when they wanted to use state resource to provide just such a facility?
Elizabeth Truss: I think there is a philosophical difference between home education and school education that we would have to look at.
Q271 Chair: But thanks to your policies, there is a continuum.
Elizabeth Truss: Well, I think, thanks to reality, there is a continuum.
Chair: Minister, thank you very much for giving evidence to us this morning.