Education Committee - Support for Home EducationWritten evidence submitted by Fiona Nicholson
1. I am a home educating parent. Between 2006 and 2010 I held various positions within the national home education support charity Education Otherwise, including Chair of the Government Policy Group, Convenor of the Disability Group, and Trustee. I gave evidence to the Select Committee Inquiry into Home Education in 2009 and also took questions on home education from members of the Public Bill Committee for the Children Schools and Families Bill in early 2010. I now work as an independent home education consultant.i
2. Over the past three years I have conducted research into home education numbers;ii local authority use of funding to support home educated children;iii and local authority support to home educated children taking exams.iv Research methods include obtaining Freedom of Information answers from over 95% of local authorities in England as well as ongoing dialogue with home educating families and local authority personnel throughout the country.
3. At the beginning of 2012 there were 20,482 home educated children known to be home educated in England. This figure was obtained by a complete set of Freedom of Information responses from all 152 local authorities in the country.v The comparable figure for 2009 was 20,342. When I gave evidence to the earlier Select Committee into Home Education in 2009,vi I agreed it was strange that the Government didn’t know how many home educated children there were in each local authority area. It would after all be a simple matter to require local authorities in England to make a return of the number of home educated children on a particular census date each year as is done in Wales.vii
4. Local authority statutory duties with regard to home education fall into a number of categories, some of which are specifically related to home educated children and others which apply to all children in the area. Following the Children Act 2004 the authority has a duty to promote co-operation between local partners to improve the wellbeing of children in the area. One of the specific areas of “wellbeing” listed is education and training.viii
5. Since February 2007, the local authority has also had a duty to make arrangements to identify (where possible) children missing educationix and statutory guidance on Children Missing Education published in 2009x indicates that the authority should follow the procedures set out in the Government’s Elective Home Education Guidelines.xi
6. Where it appears to the local authority that a child is not receiving education, the authority has a duty to engage with the parent and to satisfy itself that the child is in fact receiving education. If after following the steps set out in the Education Act 1996, the authority is still not satisfied, it is required to serve a School Attendance Order.xii
7. From 2013 when the participation age is raised, local authorities will have additional duties with regard to facilitating young people’s participation in further education. The Government has indicated recently that local authorities will be advised to confirm with the parent in cases where young people over the age of 16 are said to be home educated.xiii
8. There is no financial support for home educators from local authorities and local authorities themselves receive no funding to support home education. Local authorities may in some instances offer advice on curriculum and examinations, and may signpost to other sources of information and support, but the consistency of this offer to home educating families is highly variable.
9. By and large, local authority staff adopt the sensible approach of avoiding risk wherever possible, since initiative is not rewarded but ticking boxes is rewarded. The risks associated with doing the wrong thing are felt much more acutely than the risk of doing nothing. I also talk to many people working in local authorities who are aware that red tape has been cut, but who aren’t sure which tape has already been cut, which tape remains to be cut, and which cuts were talked about but never actually materialised.
10. At a national level there are no positive strokes from the Department for local authorities such as Lancashire or Surrey who are trying to make significant improvements by engaging with home educators, and offering non-judgemental support.xiv
11. Nor is there any positive feedback for local authorities such as Sheffield and Dudley who have engaged in joint working and piloted the use of Alternative Provision Funding in elective home education for Further Education courses. Dudley also offers tailored courses courses for English and Maths GCSE combined with the offer of a centre to sit the exam. More examples of constructive support can be found on my website, but such examples are the exception rather than the rule.xv
12. Some local authority personnel appear ambivalent about offering support and access to services. This might be because it isn’t considered a priority. In other instances it might follow from the belief that families have chosen to opt out and could always put children back in school.
13. Where there are positive initiatives they may be introduced very quietly or abruptly without explanation, which limits the positive outcome, with the result that such initiatives may quickly be dropped for lack of take-up. I am not suggesting there is any kind of conspiracy to load the dice unfavourably, since it seems far more likely that there exists a negative feedback loop whereby local authority staff have broadcast good news about support in the past, only to find it vetoed or withdrawn higher up the council.
14. In addition, there is scant time or opportunity to raise awareness of positive initiatives, since in very many areas, contact is limited to a single private conversation with home educating families each year. It would be both simple and cheap to send out email newsletters and to upload these to a noticeboard area of the council’s home education web page.
15. Home educating families have multiple support networks of their own, in terms of local groups, and also internet support groups and social media such as Facebook for general support and for specialist support. There are also national membership organisations such as Education Otherwise and the Home Education Advisory Service, both of which are registered charities.
16. A 2007 study of support for home education published by NFERxvi found that peer support was highly valued by home educators, but for many home educating families, the first port of call is the local council and I have known families who remained unaware of local family networks. More could be done to encourage local authorities to signpost to local peer support networks.
17. There is no recognised statutory duty to support home educated young people making the transition to further education and higher education and it is left to the families to sort out the process for taking examinations as private candidates, putting together portfolios, CVs and personal statements, and obtaining references.
18. I have recently carried out comprehensive research on the help which local authorities offer to home educating families looking for somewhere to sit exams. I obtained Freedom of Information responses from 147 out of 152 authorities, which I have redacted and placed on my website.xvii Some councils specifically stated that they had no statutory duty to offer support in this area, while others acknowledged that very little was being done at present but indicated that they would like to do more in future.
19. In a minority of areas there are positive stories of local authorities helping home educated young people with access to examinations and I have named all these authorities on my website and given more details. My hope is that local authorities will find inspiration and encouragement from seeing what has been achieved in other areas. For example in a few cases, home educated children are able to sit exams at the Pupil Referral Unit or at the local FE college. A small number of councils also facilitate meetings between home educating families and local schools which will offer a place for children to sit IGCSEs as private candidates.
20. In addition I am currently researching the extent to which local authorities in England are making use of Alternative Provision Fundingxviii to pay for FE courses and for a package of exam support.xix Responses received so far indicate that the picture is very mixed across the country, with some authorities gearing up use this funding, with other councils actively disengaging from any consideration of such support.
21. It is clear that some local authorities do much more than others to make use of Alternative Provision Funding to support home educated students’ transition to further and higher education. I will be posting a full set of Freedom of Information responses from all local authorities in England on my website,xx and I would hope that this can be used for reference by home educating families, as well as by Members of Parliament seeking to gain some understanding of the postcode lottery.
22. There is no need for further guidance on home education from the Department. In cases involving something which the local authority itself wants to do, the authority goes ahead and does it and appears satisfied either that there will be a law somewhere which backs it up, or that there will not be a law which prevents it. Further guidance would do nothing to tackle this mindset.
23. From the other angle, in cases where the local authority doesn’t want to do something, it can fall back on the justification that the proposed action isn’t a “must do”. It is highly debatable whether additional guidance would resolve this, since the Government is extremely unlikely to be prescriptive in this area.
24. Where the Government appears always on the point of changing the law on home education, local authorities cease talking to home educating families, instead adopting the pragmatic if regrettable position that there is no point talking until the new rules have been unveiled, since any innovations or improvements might just have to be un-made in the near future. This wait-and-see approach is widespread, and cannot be countered by simply recommending more talks.
25. For example, towards the end of the last Government, Graham Badman recommended that local authorities and local home educators set up a consultative forum. This was warmly endorsed by the Department and by the Select Committee. However, because of the timing and the context, this recommendation had the paradoxical or opposite effect, because local authorities waited to see how the law was to be changed. It may be surmised that many authorities are still waiting.
26. One way forward would be for the Department to signpost to models of good practice, firstly by making use of the information which is already available from research on current practice; secondly by putting out a call for positive examples from local authorities; and thirdly by facilitating a free national conference where local authority representatives would have the opportunity to explore a range of positive examples in more depth.