MPs have slammed an “astonishing” lack of data on the number of children educated at home, and called for more powers for councils to check on their progress and welfare.
School leaders backed calls for the government to introduce a national register of children educated at home, and to investigate a recent rise amid concerns parents have “lost faith” in school safety measures during the pandemic.
A survey of councils last year pointed to a 38 per cent increase in elective home education (EHE) between 2019 and 2020, and it is thought to have been on the rise since 2012.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services estimated that parents were choosing — rather than being forced by Covid rules — to home-educate 75,668 pupils nationally last October.
But the Commons education select committee has now warned numbers are likely to be under-reported, and repeated previous calls for an “essential” statutory register of all children not in mainstream schools.
A new report this week says it is “simply not good enough” current data is so limited, meaning the government cannot “say with confidence that a suitable education is being provided to every child in the country”.
Parents do not have to inform councils they are home-educating children, with local authority data based only on schools informing them when children are removed from their own admission registers.
The report argues a register would reveal the “true impact” of off-rolling and illegal schools and the level of SEND resources needed for children receiving home education. Data should be collected too on the life chances and social outcomes for children educated at home.
Committee chair Robert Halfon said home education had been clouded by an “unacceptable level of opaqueness” for too long.
But the government is yet to respond to its own consultation on forcing parents to register, despite it running more than two years ago. Education secretary Gavin Williamson said last month an update was “very, very imminent”.
MPs also want more council oversight to check on both standards and safeguarding, calling current guidance “ambiguous”.
They urge the government to “clarify and strengthen” the expectation that councils contact home-educating parents at least once a year, making authorities do so in person where needed.
The Department for Education should give councils a “clear set of criteria” to assess the suitability of home education, factoring in the wide-ranging pedagogical approaches taken in home-schooling and the age, ability and aptitude of children.
They should be asking to see children’s work and parents not reasonably refuse this, and make their own assessments of children’s progress in key areas like literacy and numeracy.
“By the time children are at the age when they would leave compulsory schooling, they should be able to demonstrate the same baseline numeracy and literacy skills that we expect from their schooled peers,” the committee’s report stated.
Guidance and case studies should also help parents understand what a “suitable education” might look like. Halfon said a register should be “the first step in shaking up the status quo”, and councils should keep a “much closer eye” on children’s progress.
The report noted parents currently had no obligation to respond to council enquiries. Local authorities’ powers were limited largely to using school attendance orders over safeguarding concerns, the report stated.
This is “not conducive to constructive relationships” between councils and parents, and more informal approaches may be more beneficial than the current “increased activism” by councils using SAOs. Different councils also “vary hugely” in their approaches, according to MPs.
A further demand by the cross-party group is for an “independent advocate” for parents and carers of children with special educational needs and disabilities, both co-ordinating processes like annual reviews and informing decisions over EHE.
MPs say home-schooling is “not truly ‘elective'” for some families, as their children do not get the support they need at school.
Other recommendations include a “level playing field” on exam entries, with the government meeting entry costs.
Yet MPs say the state should not “view those who make the perfectly legitimate choice to home educate with automatic suspicion”, or put “unreasonable barriers” in their way.
Parents who gave evidence to the committee highlighted wide-ranging reasons for choosing home education, from providing more personalised learning and spending more time together to keeping them safe from bullying. But MPs maintain councils assessing its suitability for children is “reasonable”, despite many written submissions from parents which “strongly rejected” inspections of individual families.
The report says Ofsted’s role should be “quality assuring” local authority support and adherence to guidance and creating an inspection framework based on clarified guidance, rather than inspecting families directly.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, backed demands for a register to stop children “becoming lost in the system”.
“The government must find out the reasons behind so many more families choosing home education recently. There is the concern that many appear to have chosen it because they have lost faith in the government’s approach to school safety during the pandemic.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the government supported parents who wanted to educate children at home, but decisions must be made “with the child’s best interests at the forefront of parents’ minds”.
“We remain committed to a registration system for children not in school, which will help local authorities undertake their existing duties and help safeguard all children who are in scope.
“Further details on the register will be set out in due course.”