The 2014 Consultation on the Draft Policy on Elective Home Education

The five boards closed five consultations on one document on the 27th June 2014 - a new policy they hoped to implement throughout Northern Ireland.

The policy required:

  • regular entry into the family home without suspicion of wrong doing
  • mandatory interviews with children
  • limits on the parents legal duty to provide an education, including delays to de-registration from school and restrictions on the form of education provided

More detail on the policy and our objections can be found at http://www.hedni.org/publications (the HEdNI response to the consultation and an information pack about home education in Northern Ireland).

The legal situation in Northern Ireland is the same as the rest of the UK.  All parents have a duty to provide their children with an education suitable to their age ability and aptitude, this duty can be fulfilled by registering the child with a school or directly.

The Education and Library Boards have very simple and limited duties and powers regarding children not registered with schools.  These duties are entirely reactive - unless there is an external trigger they have no duty or power to take any action whatsoever. IF and only if external forces bring a concern about a child's education to their attention then they must make enquiries, if an education is not being provided then they have the power to issue a school attendance order.  These powers relate ONLY to education.

The policy proposed by the Boards shamelessly gold-plated these limited powers.  Everyone should be concerned about a government body seeking to act outside their legal remit, allocating their limited resources to areas where they have no legal power or responsibility. Such resources must be diverted from areas in which they do have duties and can only be detrimental to the effectiveness of their official services or their overall budget (or both).  Further the Boards are attempting to annex powers and duties regarding welfare when duty in this regard is the same as any of us - they should refer any concerns to the appropriate agency.  This is a no area for the Boards to go vigilante.

The policy and the rhetoric surrounding it presumes that parental choice and children's interests are at odds - this is unacceptable.  It is presumed in law at every level that parents are the best advocate for their child and the best judge of what their child needs. 

A round up of the issues

Every parent educates their child at home, we teach them to use the bathroom, put on clothes, language, how to eat, how to relate to people, how to read and most of the fundamental skills of life are learned in the home. In the past two hundred years we have encouraged government to provide for "public education" so that parents who were not able to further educate their children at home - say they worked in a factory 15 hours a day and did not themselves know how to read - could provide an education for their children. However, in the UK, there has always been an understanding in law that continuing to educate children in the home was an appropriate and legal approach to education, even if it was not widely known about.

Those families who choose to electively home educate are doing what parents have always done in teaching their children the fundamental knowledge and skills of life, but have extended it to cover more advanced skills as well.  In the UK educating children at home has never been a "regulated activity". That is the government has never sought to assure themselves that children are being taught how to talk, eat, bath and clothe themselves just as they do not seek to assure themselves that parents feed their children. It has always been understood and well recognised in local, national and international law that parents are the natural and best advocates for their children and the home is a safe and unregulated space - unless there are very exceptional circumstances in which social services becomes involved.

This idea of "regulated activity" is an important one. Currently if you have a close friend or relative care for your child while you go out for a meal or a movie that person does not have to be licensed and your home and their home do not need to be inspected for safety. The law has always recognised that in all but the most extreme cases parents will make good and safe choices for the care of their children.

This is where the current consultation on Elective Home Education has broken new ground, affecting every parent and not just those who electively home educate. The Department of Education and the Education and Library Boards have tried to claim a "duty" to regulate and oversee children who are under the care and instruction of their parents at home, because education is happening there. It is widely acknowledged that a significant part of the education of children who attend public school happens in the home, through home work and parental tutoring. So we have a case where educational authorities are seeking to enter the home of a modest number of families who educate at home full time but are laying claim to powers that will permit them to enter every home with children. No doubt educational authorities will say this is not their motive, but when the former head of Ofsted in England asserts that schools should be given to power to fine parents who are not doing enough to teach their children at home (talking about people whose children are enrolled in pubic school, not those who are home educating), there is enough evidence to be suspicious of policy that vastly increases the reach of educational authorities into the home. 

In trying to understand the motives of the educational authorities seeking to greatly extend their authority into the home, parents have been shut out. Educational authorities have resorted to rhetorical attacks on families who electively home educate rather than present any data or research to make their case. After many inquiries which have often had to be escalated to Freedom of Information requests - a clear pattern of bias, prejudice, known over reach of powers and misleading statements have emerged. Sadly, it appears that a simple lack of tolerance for methods of education that are different from the public education model informs the formulation of policy in Northern Ireland.

Educational authorities have said they have a duty to ensure that children are safe, and well educated in the home. While that sounds rational it provides cover for a vast over-reach of powers. Parents currently hold educational authorities accountable for failures in the public education system to provide for the safety and effective education of their children. In this consultation Educational authorities are seeking to flip that relationship on its head. This is unfortunately not an isolated situation. Efforts along the same lines were attempted in England in 2009 and were roundly rejected by the public and the house of Lords. Then last year the same thing was attempted in Wales and was also roundly rejected by the public and the assembly. So here in Northern Ireland we seem to once again be in a place where policies that were tossed out on the mainland are being recycled here.

History

The policy first came to light in August 2013, when an early draft was given to a home educating family with the claim that it would be in effect from September 2013.  This early draft was even more intrusive than the one presented for consultation, requiring that parents submit a timetable for approval and that they present their children for interview alone.

Home educating parents made contact with the NEELB at that time and expressed their concerns, which may or may not have contributed to the changes made; notably the forms requiring timetables were removed from the draft.  It is far from clear that they were to be replaced with something more acceptable.

The second draft policy was published with little fanfare in March 2014.  No attempt whatsoever was made to contact home educators not registered with the Boards (those arguably most affected by the policy). The list of stake-holding organisations contacted was limited to four and did not include the UK's largest home education charity (Education Otherwise) or other relevant groups such as Autism NI.

Five consultations were run at the same time with reference to the same document, and strenuous attempts were made to give the impression that these were all minor local changes rather than a Northern Ireland wide issue - divide and conquer perhaps. No materials suitable for young people were produced and the only opportunity for them to gather information in a suitable form was a single ‘focus group’ session at the NEELB head-quarters - run by someone without the ability to answer any questions about the policy.

Focus groups were run by each Board, some with very little notice and no publicity whatsoever directed at those home educators not already known to the Board.  A decision was taken centrally to have the groups exclusively facilitated by staff with no knowledge of either home education or the policy development, so there was no opportunity to get answers to questions or seek clarification on any part of the policy.

Home Educating parents therefore attempted to gain information necessary to fully respond to the consultation by sending written questions, and when answers were not forthcoming using Freedom of Information Requests.  The questions were often deflected or not answered, and it required considerable patience to extract any information at all.  

The key information we sought was:

  • What is the motivation for this policy?
    This article may be interesting: http://www.hedni.org/2014/06/where-did-all-come
    The stated reason is legal advice received as a result of a case brought against the NEELB.  Neither the case nor the advice received has been made available or any details released - the Boards are therefore offering no justification whatsoever for this disproportionate and intrusive policy
  • What are its aims and costs?
    No costings have been supplied, nor are there any measurable criteria for success or failure.  No research of any sort was done before the draft, and even the legal advice (if any) was demonstrably ineffective since the draft quotes an outdated form of words in the relevant  legislation. No risk assessment was carried out.
  • What training will be provided or procedures followed? What safeguards are there for families?
    None.  Currently most staff involved in home education are ex teachers, familiar only with school-style learning, who are expected to learn 'on the job', all evidence suggests that the crucially absent forms intended to be used will encourage these officials to look for school-style education. Home educating families’ previous experience in dealing with the Boards teaches us to be wary.

Home educating parents across Northern Ireland worked hard to keep everyone informed and to encourage others to respond to the consultation (a collection of personal responses can be found here). Many parents made contact with their MLAs to raise awareness of both home education and the objections to the policy.  An official HEdNI response was drafted and circulated widely for comments.  A petition gained over 3000 signatures from concerned individuals all over the world - in the rest of the UK particularly there is considerable concern about the implications of such a policy being implemented.  The Department of Education refused to accept delivery of the petition, but Mr Storey MLA was kind enough to stand in and present it to the assembly

Minutes of meetings within the Boards and also with the Department of Education, obtained from the boards after the close of the consultation period, reveal:

  • A manifest prejudice against home education - home educating parents are referred to in meetings as likely having mental health issues, and choosing home education for the wrong reasons. The label 'missing children' was used to designate home educated children not registered with the Boards (an entirely legal and very sensible choice given the strain on families of dealing with such intrusion), multiple references to concerns about the welfare of home educated children without the production of any evidence at all.
  • Disturbing disregard for the law and legal principle: it is documented that both the Boards and the Department were aware that they lack the power to access children without parental consent, that they were encroaching on the role of social services and that there was doubt about the application of the Children Order, yet all were incorporated into the draft.  The Department also encouraged the boards to seek confidential data on unregistered home educated children from the NHS.
  • Explicit reference was made to implementing the Badman Review of Elective Home Education’s recommendations.  These came out in 2009 in England and were widely discredited, the research was shown to be biased and inaccurate, the recommendations were dropped from the relevant Bill before it reached Parliament.  The Boards nonetheless felt comfortable attempting to inflict a similar scheme on Northern Irish families.

Home educating parents made contact with MLAs to speak about this Policy, we have been grateful for the time and effort so many of our representatives have put into understanding home education and our concerns.  We have been assured that there will be firm opposition to any legislative change (and legislative change would certainly be required to implement this scheme).  We have also been in contact with charities and other bodies, and have produced an information pack on home education in the light of the policy and consultation.

We are now awaiting the conclusions of the consultation process; there appears to be no timetable for the release of findings.  The new Northern Ireland-wide Education Board was pencilled in to brief the Education Committee on consultation responses in April '15 and finally did so in an interesting fashion on the first of July.  You can watch here from around 2hrs25, it is as one Committee Member comments "bizarre"...  

Four home educating parents from HEdNI gave an oral briefing to the Education Committee on the 11th of November 2015.  You can watch here: http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/committees/education/meetings/11-november-2015/ from around 30:15 minutes.

In the meantime we continue to educate our children, and there are plenty of events and meet ups planned.  We are also working with the NSPCC to produce information suitable for home educated children similar to their 'school-line' programme, and information for their volunteers about home education.  Those who have worked so hard on engaging with the consultation have been described as the ones who 'shout the loudest' and categorised as 'other' or not coming from a 'representative group', implying that the silent majority would welcome the intrusions proposed and that only malign external forces would seek to disrupt that.  

In reality we are normal parents trying to ensure that all voices are heard and that parents are not bullied (http://hedni.org/2014/05/experiences-boards).  We just hope that in time we will be able to go back to educating our children in peace.

We are now involved in a working group drafting Guidance which is planned to come out in summer 2017 for implementation in September of that year.  We are cautiously hopeful that we will be able to create Guidance with a sound legal basis from which we can develop a relationship between home educators and the Education Authority that is based in trust and respect.