MPs understand that if council powers are used inappropriately it will negatively impact relationships, writes Robert Halfon
This week, cross-party colleagues and I on the House of Commons education select committee were delighted to see the release of our report, Strengthening Home Education.
This report brought together the input of experts such as former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, as well as charities, local authority representatives and many from the elective home education (EHE) community.
The upshot from all that work was one of our main recommendations – that the government should create a national register of children outside of school.
‘Not all home educators are doing it well’
Our inquiry received many submissions from parents who passionately and eloquently set out the benefits that children can gain from being educated at home.
They told us their children were receiving high-quality education and achieving impressive outcomes as they moved into work or further study.
Nevertheless, it does not follow that just because these home educators are providing children with a good education, all home educators are.
The Department for Education has itself said there is “considerable evidence” that some children may not be receiving a suitable education.
The aim of a national register would not be to remove freedoms from parents who are providing an effective education for their families, but to better target support to those who need it.
Without a register – with anonymised information at a national level to ensure every child’s privacy – no one can know how many children are being educated at home to a high standard, and how many may need extra support.
‘Families can choose where to meet council staff’
This is also why our committee advocates a better regime for enabling local authorities to assess families in EHE.
The DfE’s guidance already says that councils should engage once a year with home schooled children and their families.
Although our report called for the Department to clarify and strengthen its expectation, this need not be intrusive.
Our proposal is to give councils the ability to see a child in person, but only in situations where this is necessary to establish the suitability of the education they are receiving, and at a venue of the family’s choosing.
Furthermore, we heard that a register would help “rule out all those children that you don’t need to have worries about”, allowing councils to focus on those in need of support.
‘Clearer criteria and progress markers’
The Department states that education should enable children to grow up and “function as an independent citizen in the UK.”
Our report asked that, when the DfE next revisits its guidance, it indicates what level of numeracy and literacy is sufficient to do this.
These skills are essential to play a full part in social and economic life.
We also recommend that the DfE draws clear criteria that would help set out what a suitable education should entail for children learning at home.
And this should take into account a full range of pedagogical approaches as well as the age, ability and aptitude of individual children – including where they may have special educational needs and disabilities.
Local authorities could then assess children’s progress from one year to the next.
Local authority representatives told us that better mutual understanding between councils and EHE families is in everyone’s interests – not least those of the home-educated children who should always be our focus.
‘Negative impacts to be avoided’
Due to the apparent inconsistency of local councils’ approaches to EHE, we recommended that the Department commission and roll out a national training package for all council officers with responsibility for EHE.
This would be developed with a range of stakeholders, so that those officers have a thorough and consistent understanding of their duties and the various approaches to EHE.
We understand that, where powers are seen to be used inappropriately, there is a negative impact both on individuals and on relationships with the wider EHE community.
For example, without better data it is impossible to know whether the growth in School Attendance Orders (SAOs) reflects concerns about provision of education in the home, increased activism on the part of councils or a combination of both.
We are not opposed to SAOs per se, but better information is needed regarding the growth in their use and whether they are being used appropriately.
The committee unanimously supports the right of families to opt for EHE – provided it is in the best interests of the child and the education is of a suitable standard to meet their needs.