The Dangers of the Schools Bill
The Schools Bill is now working its way through the House of Lords and then it will go to the House of Commons. Whilst the majority of this commentary will be concerning the home education impacts, there is also cause for real concern for all parents, whether their children are home educated or in school. The essence of the bill is more centralised control over our children and shifts us towards government as corporate parent. The bill would appear to wrest power from parents to the state and to allow a huge identity driven data grab from our children that will be kept, in effect, for their whole lives.
Deeply concerning is that the bill is worded in such a way as to give ultimate power to the Secretary of State over the education of every child in England. If enacted the Secretary of State could, with a stroke of a pen, and without the slightest oversight from parliament make any change they desired e.g. school attendance compulsory 9-5, 7 days a week, the penalty of non-compliance to their regulations is £2500 fine and prison term.
In addition, the bill grants unprecedented data collection, storage, sharing and retention on all children, the likes of which we haven't seen before. Data will be stored for 66 years after leaving school and shared as seen fit to any organisation (e.g. health, police, social services, home office, border force etc).
Rethinking Education released this podcast (link also at the end of the text) that discusses the issues in more detail. This bill will go through if we don't challenge it and this concerns ALL parents, not just home educators (though the legislation is even more draconian, invasive, restrictive and dangerous to us and our children).
As specifically regards home education we now have details of the intended legislation pertaining to the creation of a Children Not In School (CNIS) register, changes to the School Attendance Order (SAO) process and proposed support by LAs for families that home educate. The bill, as it stands, concerns me greatly.
Primary concerns (though not exhaustive):
· Concern that the wording creates gateway legislation to impose assessment and monitoring of home education through regulation change alone, and without the need for further legislation.
· Concern that the wording gives the power to effectively outlaw provision that is not “school at home” through regulation change alone, and without the need for further legislation.
· Concern about the type and scope of data that will be mandatory and that, as above, this can be expanded via regulation alone.
· Concern that personal and sensitive family data can be widely shared without parental consent or knowledge. In addition to GDPR implications, data security is also a concern especially in cases of domestic abuse.
· Concern that there is no LA oversight, mechanism for protection for families or independent body that parents can turn to should they disagree with an LA decision, resulting in unchecked power to LAs.
· Concern that the penalties are not proportionate and will criminalise law abiding families for, in effect, clerical errors. Previously an SAO was used as a last resort, the bill uses it as a first resort.
· Concern that changes to the SAO system will be result in children being forced into inappropriate settings without any mechanism for oversight. It will also prevent parents from removing children from inappropriate and damaging settings.
· Concern that the LA support offered will be minimal as it will be provided entirely at the discretion of the LAs and for which they have no funding.
· Concern that third party education providers will refuse to take home educated children due to being in scope of duty to report to the LA on HE children, resulting in loss of opportunities for HE children.
· Concern that the bill fundamentally undermines parental duty to educate their own children without state intrusion, control and oversight. This is especially concerning where, by even government admission, for the vast majority of families there is no evidence of a problem. The mere fact that a family legally chooses to not opt into the school system will single them out for different treatment to those families who opt into the system.
· Concern that the need for the CNIS register has not been proven with quality evidence, that its cost effectiveness has not been proven and that it will not meet its stated objectives.
The essence of the problem is the lack of appreciation that home education is not a mirror of school but at home. In fact, it is for this very reason that it works so brilliantly for so many children. Home education allows for alternative educational philosophies. These are not provided for at all in state schools, and can only be accessed via home education or in the private sector e.g. Self Directed Education (SDE) at the Self Managed Learning College in Hove. Sadly, these organisations are well out of the financial reach of most English families and are themselves in danger of being closed by this bill. For many children home education provides both a safe, positive, bespoke education not available in any other way, and it needs protection not attack.
Whilst the government states that there is no intention to monitor, assess or change the definition of suitable education, the bill is worded to allow just this. Not only this, it gives the power to do this to one person without any oversight: the secretary of state. Whilst it may seem to some an innocuous register, it really is the “thin edge of a wedge” to allowing monitoring and assessment of home education by the state.
Home education allows for an infinitely flexible learning path and methodology. Imposing school like monitoring and assessment, if all you understand about education is school, sounds logical, but the reality is that it is both misleading, dangerous and unfair. Even something as seemingly universal as learning to read, within home education happens in a huge variety of ways and timescales. For example, around reading methods, children can utilise whatever method or combination of methods that works for them. In school, synthetic phonics is the only permissible method to the point that many education professionals truly believe that reading can only be learned this way. This is despite the fact that everyone learned to read in schools by different methods all the years before synthetic phonics was even created. So, for example, imposing a phonics test on all home educated children might seem reasonable if you only understand reading via phonics, but it is in reality narrow, damaging and unfair. This kind of school like testing would be extremely unfair and detrimental to many children, especially those with SEND and for those families who legally choose not to follow the National Curriculum.
The Schools Bill, as it stands, is worded in such a way to be gateway legislation for assessment and monitoring. Whilst it may not be the stated intention of the current government to impose monitoring and assessment, the gateway is open for other governments/Secretary of State to implement this quickly and unimpeded. It is a direct danger to parental freedom and choice to provide education as they see fit for their own children.
The bill makes no provision for independent oversight of LA actions and decisions leaving parents and children no protection, or mechanism, to challenge decisions. Whilst in law HE stands equal to school, the reality is that many LAs are openly hostile and increasingly (and against DofE Guidance) demand “school at home” as the only form of “suitable education”. The reasons for this, I believe, are three fold:
1) LAs do not receive funding from central government to deal with home educated children
2) LA staff working with home educating families are not mandated to undergo any specific training as regards home education
3) The easiest, cheapest and most efficient way to discharge the LA duty to ensure all children are receiving a suitable education is to have all children in school.
Whilst school in theory should be a place where all children thrive, the reality is that for thousands of children it is not. These children are often in home education because school was not even safe for them, never mind a place to thrive.
Of particular concern to me, is that the bill changes the SAO system. SAO is now being used as a first resort punishment rather than a last resort. Parents now will only have 10 days to provide information to satisfy LAs that they are providing “suitable education”. This sits in contrast to failing schools which are granted months and years to improve their provision. The SAO process is also expedited meaning there is real danger of children being forced back into settings (against their will) that cannot meet their needs. Many children have already been traumatised by inappropriate settings which is why they may be home educated in the first place. To compound matters, parents are now prevented from removing a child from an inappropriate provision due to SAO now being binding for all CSA. Whilst theoretically an SAO can be revoked, the only arbiters who can authorise this are a panel of comprised of school teachers and the LA; no home education knowledge is required creating a significant and unfair blocker to an SAO being revoked.
At no point in this bill is there mention of the voice of the child, what they want, what they need and what is in their best interests. There is a blanket mantra of “all children are better off in school”. The evidence to this statement being false is overwhelming, yet that mantra keeps being iterated and underpins the entire foundation of the Schools Bill. The other underpinning principle of the bill is the notion that a child will be safer the greater the government oversight, control and data on them. There is an inherent message in that parents are unfit, unable and cannot be trusted with their own children; the state is the only safe and fit “parent” for all children. This is a notion that should be deeply concerning for all parents.
I absolutely agree with the government that all children should be safe and in receipt of suitable education that allows them to thrive. However, education and schooling are not synonyms, and this distinction is not widely understood. The evidence base for the CNIS register has not been clearly established. I have grave doubts that the intended outcome of the CNIS register will be realised, and I believe the potential unintended consequences not fully considered. I have written at length already regards the problems around a register, here. This bill gives free rein for home education to be changed to allow “school at home” as the only acceptable method, and this will be to the utter devastation of the lives of thousands of children.
If we want to stop this authoritarian power and data grab of our children we all need to act; the bill impacts all children, not just home educated children. For more details see the links below.
For home educators the following group is coordinating action. https://www.facebook.com/groups/homeeducationactiongroup
LINKS AND OTHER COMMENTARY:
Rethinking Education podcast:
The Schools Bill:
Jeremy Yallop commentary:
Connect and Respect Case Against a Children Not In School register: https://www.connectandrespect.co.uk/post/the-question-of-a-home-education-register
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