Councils crack down on home education as school attendance orders soar

The number of school attendance orders issued to home-educated pupils by councils across England has soared, as pressure mounts on politicians to approve plans for compulsory registration of home-schooled children.

A survey by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services revealed a 171 per cent increase in the number of school attendance orders issued in relation to the suitability of home education. 1,400 such orders were issued by 61 local authorities in 2018-19, up from 515 in 52 councils in 2017-18.

This is only the children that we know about, the actual number is likely to be higher

Councils can issue school attendance orders when they are not satisfied education is being provided outside a school setting. Failure to comply with them can result in a fine or prosecution.

As a result of initiating the order process or issuing a formal SAO in 2018-19, 902 children returned to school-based education.

The ADCS, which represents the highest-ranking education officials on local authorities across the country, estimates that 78,781 children across England were in elective home education at some point in 2018-19, up slightly from 78,466 in the previous academic year.

Elective home education is a process whereby parents choose to take their children off a school’s roll. However, those responsible for pupil welfare in local communities fear the system is sometimes abused by schools keen to remove troublesome children before exams, or by parents who want to send their children to illegal settings.

The government consulted earlier this year on plans to develop a compulsory register of home-educated pupils, which would be maintained by local authorities. However, the response to the consultation has been delayed by the upcoming election.

Gail Tolley, who chairs the ADCS’s educational achievement policy committee, said: “It is simply not good enough that we have no way of knowing whether all children and young people being educated at home are safe, receiving a suitable education and that their health and social development needs are being met. At the most basic level we need to know how many children and young people are being home educated in this country.”

According to the ADCS survey, the cumulative total of children and young people known to be home educated at any point during the 2018-19 academic year in 125 councils that responded was 64,787. If that average was expanded to include the authorities that did not respond, it would mean a total of 78,781 pupils had been home educated.

However, there is some in-year variation. For example, in one council area in the south west, 365 pupils were known to be home-educated on the last day of term in July, whereas 714 children were in that position at some point throughout the year.

The main reason for pupils being home-educated is a “philosophical or lifestyle choice”, followed closely by health or emotional health and “general dissatisfaction with the school”, the report found. However, many councils also reported that parents often did not provide a reason.

“In many situations children have a suitable and nurturing learning experience at home, however, we are worried that the decision to home educate can, at times, stem from a breakdown in the relationship with schools or be used as a cover by parents to send their children to illegal schools, rather than being a well-informed, considered decision based on the child’s wishes,” said Tolley.

The report follows a warning from Ofsted last month that home education is often the “last resort” of parents of secondary school children with complex needs after their relationship with school has broken down.

School attendance orders are expected to be central to proposed stricter rules on home education, proposed earlier this year.

Such orders are currently used by local councils if it appears parents are not providing a suitable education. They give parents 15 days to provide evidence of they have registered their child at a specific school or that home education is being delivered. Those who don’t comply can be prosecuted or fined.

The last government wanted to extend these powers to cover parents who fail to register under the new laws, who could face fines or prosecution.

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  1. Anne Brown

    That means 902 out of an estimated 78781 children returned to school following a SAO, which is 1.1%.

    A further 498 did not return to school, so approximately 35% of SAO’s were not upheld by the court. This shows that LA’s haven’t been ‘tightening up’, they’ve been taking families to court and losing.

    According to Ofsted’s annual report 2016/2017, 9% of schools were judged to require improvement, yet the children were left in that setting.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ACDS campagined for powers to protect those children rather than continuing their witch-hunt against home educating parents?

    • Your 1.1% figure would only be valid if LAs had issued 78,781 school attendance orders.

      That said, I uphold the right of parents to home-educate their children if they genuinely want to. At the same time, I want assurance that home education is not a cover from abuse. Parents have nothing to fear from registering their children as being home-educated if they are offering a satisfactory or better level of education.

      • Anne Brown

        I’m not sure I understand how you reach your figures. 902 children out of an estimated 78781 returned to school as a result of SAO’s. This gives a figure of 1.1% of home educated children that a court found were not receiving a satisfactory education and required to return to school, or whose parents returned them to school when the order was served.

        It’s not a case that everyone has to prove their education is good enough. In this country we have a system where we are innocent till proven guilty so it is up to LA’s to prove that children are NOT receiving an education appropriate to their age, aptitude, ability and any SEN.

        I do agree with you that no one should have to home educate because there is no where else apart from boarding school. I was in that position and it amazes me that the response to the growing number of home educated children is not to ask ‘what is going so wrong that parents are doing this and how can we improve it’? but to turn into Dalek equivalents constantly repeating ‘regulate, regulate.’

        My solution would be to gather data when children leave school for home education and for LA’s to have power, and OFSTED to have the inclination, to take seriously clusters of kids departing for home education where parents are saying ‘no choice’. It could be potential extremism, or it could be a school who’s clearing out the unwanted. If it’s the latter option then they need to be stopped, preferably by something so nasty happening to them that other schools stop doing it as well. I’d say SLT being banned from teaching if offrolling is proven would be about right.

        Sort that out and the numbers would fall. Until then, it seems very unfair to stigmatise parents who are doing the job that the state has been allowed to duck doing. Maybe they’re not doing it perfectly, but are they better than what the kids left? Or is that the question LA’s don’t want to ask because they know they won’t like the answer?

      • Anne Brown

        Would you agree to mandatory inspections of children at home during the summer holidays to make sure they’re not being abused? Or of the under 5’s who are most at risk? After all, it’s not as if you have anything to fear, is it?

        From the home educator’s perspective, 35% of those SAO’s did NOT result in a return to school, so the courts clearly did not agree that the education was unsatisfactory. Would you fancy those odds?

      • The 1.1% figure applies because LAs only issue school attendance orders where they think education is not suitable. The other 98.9% are receiving a suitable education, a figure which is much higher than the rate of schools considered to be providing a suitable education.

  2. I find it very interesting that government officials feel it is their responsibility to oversee that home educated children are “safe, receiving suitable education, and health and social needs are being met”. Do they oversee children in state schools with such scrutiny? At this rate, we will have to start turning out children over to the state as soon as they are born, because that would be the only way the state could make sure children are brought up the way they think it’s right. What is wrong with educational diversity? Not all children are the same, not all families are the same, not all needs are the same. Instead of invading families that have chosen to home educate, look into WHY they are leaving. Look at the way schools are being run or not being run. A family that is happy with how their children are being educated and treated won’t leave. There is something very wrong with the school system, not with the families that are choosing to protect and educate their children in safe, nurturing, and individualized environments.

  3. Your 1.1% figure would only be valid if LAs had issued 78,781 school attendance orders.

    That said, I uphold the right of parents to home-educate their children if they genuinely want to. At the same time, I want assurance that home education is not a cover from abuse. Parents have nothing to fear from registering their children as being home-educated if they are offering a satisfactory or better level of education.

  4. Overall, local authorities lose over half of contested school attendance orders. It would be interesting to know how many of those families who sent their children back to school did so because they were intimidated by the prospect of going to court, when with proper support they’d have stood up to their local authority and won the court case. In court it is only necessary to provide evidence to satisfy a reasonable person that a suitable education is required, not satisfy an LA officer.

    Some local authorities have decided that unless parents do exactly what the LA demands, they are going to issue an SAO. Some have even said in writing that they consider the education satisfactory but because the parents didn’t do X, they are going to issue an SAO anyway.

    • Mark Watson

      “Overall, local authorities lose over half of contested school attendance orders.”

      I’m not arguing with you, but where do those figures come from?

      From the figures in the above article, 1,400 SAOs were issued and 902 children returned to school. We don’t know how many SAOs went to court, but on those figures two thirds of the children where an SAO was issued went back to school.

  5. Mark Watson

    It’s not that often that Janet and I are in violent agreement with each other, but I venture that home education is one.

    I agree with her position that parents have a right to home-educate if they want to. However that comes with a caveat in that children also have rights, and one of those is the right to a proper education that prepares them for their future.

    I don’t see anyone looking to restrict ‘proper’ home education, and whenever this issue is discussed on Schools Week the cries of persecution come from the sorts of people no-one could possibly object to home-educating their children. Passionate parents, mostly well educated themselves, that only want the best for their kids.

    But we know about these abhorrent illegal schools, the fundamentalist religious brainwashing ones (of every denomination). The children being sent to these are not on-roll at mainstream schools, and therefore technically would presumably be considered to be ‘home educated’. I don’t think this is acceptable, even if the parents want it.

    There are also some parents that don’t care. They don’t care enough to ensure their child goes to school, and when they’re sick of being chased for truancy they decide to “home educate” which means no more grief for them, but the child is left to their own devices. Terrible for the child, terrible for society.

    It’s quite simple to answer Melissa’s point about why government officials feel it is their responsibility to oversee that home educated children are “safe, receiving suitable education, and health and social needs are being met”. It’s because it is their responsibility. The Education Act specifically makes it the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that “education suitable to the requirements of children” is provided to children of compulsory school age. So no, turning over children at birth is a total irrelevance to the discussion. And one of the purposes of the inspection regime, performed by Ofsted, is to be able to reassure a local authority that children educated in the relevant school are receiving suitable education.

    I believe that as a society we have a duty to ensure children receive a good quality of education. I don’t think this has to be in a traditional mainstream school environment, but equally I don’t think parents have an unchallengeable right to do whatever they want when it comes to educating their children.

    • A major reason why people home educate is because they disagree with the state about what a ‘proper’ education looks like. The problem with letting the government come into people’s homes and judge their education, is that they will apply exactly the same standards that home educating families have decided are not valid. Are you seriously saying there should be no option for an approach outside those approved by the government? Can you not see how easily that can go wrong?

      Of course, not everybody will do a good job. But with schools producing such abysmal outcomes, it’s not like home educating families have much competition. Do you really think a repeat truant is going to achieve great grades if only their parents are fined or jailed? Do you really think a child growing up in a fundamentalist jihadi household is going to be mellowed by an hour of RE each fortnight from a teacher they view as an infidel?

      The solution to bad education and bad parenting is for people to take responsibility for reporting concerns they have about children they know. It is not to send the government round to inspect thousands of children about whom there is no cause for concern (and who in many cases are home educated because they have been massively let down by the state in the first place).

  6. Susan Hedges

    I know nothing about the figures quoted in previous comments , but I have known of many children for whom school becomes intolerable because of victimisation and bullying , sometimes school are aware and prepared to deal with this problem but often it is not addressed and the child’s self esteem and mental health are badly affected. More recently I have spoken to parents who are concerned that children are failing to progress in basic English and Maths. Above all schools should surely be providing a basic education!! Children home schooled in a relaxed atmosphere with individual assistance usually improve. In educational abilities , so which is better?, and why the criticism of home education , when state school education is failing children ?

    • Mark Watson

      Can you point out one instance, in the original article or the comments, where anyone has criticised the concept of home education?

      As I’ve said in my previous comment:

      1. When home education is taken seriously and the parents recognise the importance of a good & broad education and put the effort in to give their child a better future, no-one (least of all me) is saying that is a bad thing.

      2. When home education is used as a way of enabling parents to send their children to an illegally run fundamentalist religious establishment (as an example), then THAT is what I am saying is a bad thing.