In July 2017 the government undertook the first reading of the Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill, proposing to make amendments to the Education Act 1996 in order to ensure that all children, wherever they are taught, receive a ‘good education’. In April 2018 a formal consultation was launched to explore the current arrangements for the oversight of children educated at home, focusing on the adequacy of the process for the registration of elective home education, and the effectiveness of the monitoring of home education by Local Authorities.
Concurrently, press reports have focused on the increase of home-educated children, of both primary and secondary age. A survey completed by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) in Autumn 2017 identified a 20% rise in home schooling numbers over the previous 18 months. The challenge here is there are no official numbers, because the recording and reporting of home schooling is currently ineffective: there is no formal, national register for home-educated children. Furthermore, if a child has not been enrolled in school education before the age of 5, there is no requirement for them to be reported as being home educated.
Any improvements in the monitoring of home-educated children, particularly from the perspective of safeguarding and to promote good standards of education, will undoubtedly be welcomed. However, considerable challenges will undoubtedly lie ahead.
From a local authority perspective, their role in monitoring home education is not as simple as creating a register. Accurately identifying and annually monitoring home-educated children will require a considered, well planned and joined up approach across multi-disciplinary teams to ensure no child slips through the net. Local authorities have experienced significant budget cuts over the last decade, leading to a reduction in staff. They will undoubtedly expect additional financial support to fund the delivery of any new requirements: the question is, who will the government take funds from, in order to support them?
The proposed requirement for the annual assessment of the educational development of each child opens a myriad of questions. With a current lack of teachers in the profession, who will authorities employ who will be suitably qualified to conduct such a specialist assessment? What parameters will be adopted? Are baseline tests to be used? If the child is perceived not to be making expected progress – and how this is defined will be key – will parents be assessed for the quality of their delivery? The government could be perceived to be mirroring the current in-school arrangements for formal testing and Ofsted inspections, introducing them in the home education sphere through local authorities personnel. It will be interesting to see how any changes to the Education Act following this consultation are practically applied.
It appears that the government has not undertaken any formal research into the current state of home education in England to assist them in their decision-making. There is no evidence base upon which to determine the next best course of action: too often in education, this is the case.
With the second reading in the House of Commons scheduled for March 15th, it is expected that this bill will gather pace over the forthcoming months. Educationalists will applaud the government’s desire to ensure that all children receive good education in an appropriate environment: how they practically deliver this in local authorities will be the critical element that will either lead to success, or tie schools and families up in a bureaucratic process.
It is difficult to tell if the outcome will lead to more children returning to schools. There is no doubt that reintegration is a challenging process for all involved. It would do no harm for school leaders to consider how they might re-introduce home educated children into their schools so that they have effective, robust systems ready to put in action should the need arise.