There is no doubt at all that local authorities have a duty to identify children in their area who are not receiving efficient, full-time educations suitable to their age and aptitude. We know this to be so because Section 436A of the 1996 Education Act states it explicitly. We also know that Section 437 of the same act makes it clear that this duty does not apply to home educated children who are receiving a suitable education. So far, so good. Local authorities and home educating parents cannot help but agree on these two points. In other words, a child missing from education is a child who is neither a registered pupil at a school nor being educated elsewhere.
Now establishing whether a child is a registered pupil at a school is a fairly simple matter. Discovering if she is being educated elsewhere is not. It has been argued that if a local authority, while looking for children missing from education, comes across a home educated child, then they have a duty to check that this child is being receiving a suitable and efficient education. If they do not do this, how can they be sure that this is a child being educated "elsewhere" and not a child "missing from education"? This is a perfectly reasonable point. Many home educating parents however, counter with the undeniable fact that a lot of children at school are not receiving a suitable education; just look at the appalling academic results from some schools. Why should there be a presumption that a child at school is receiving an education, but that one at home is not? This too is s reasonable enough point.
This is likely to turn into quite a battlefield in the next couple of months. A campaign is about to be launched in various places, including parts of the capital, appealing for the public's help in tracking down children who are missing from education. Now all those children who are missing from education have one thing in common, one easily identifiable trait which, like the mark of Cain, immediately sets them apart from all other children. They don't go to school. One cannot expect the average citizen to be a great logician. The fact that all children missing from education are also missing school does not mean that all children missing school are missing from education. Never the less, the thrust of the advertising campaign which is about to hit the streets and television screens will be, "Do you know a child who is not at school?". Confidential telephone numbers will be provided so that such children may be reported to the relevant authorities.
Inevitably, many home educated children will be caught up in this process of finding children missing from education. The question is, "Does it matter?" Personally, I don't think it does. I have before told the story of how my own daughter was wholly unknown to the local authority until we ran into a truancy patrol. This was irritating, but hardly a disaster. I would feel precisely the same today if my daughter were under sixteen. There certainly are children missing from education and this is a bad thing. I am glad that the local authorities are making an effort to track them down; it is high time that something was done about this. At the same time, I can quite see that this will cause some little inconvenience to a certain number of home educating families, but this inconvenience must be set against the very real possibility that some of those children who are genuinely missing from education might come to harm. This is of course not the case with home educated children.
It is often the case in modern society that innocent citizens are put to some minor trouble for the greater good. The queue at the airport while luggage is searched, the checks at banks to deter identity theft. The inconvenience which home educating parents are likely to suffer as a result of this initiative will be very trifling; the worst case scenario will be that a family might perhaps become known to their local authority. This is perhaps a small price to pay for the security of knowing that a number of vulnerable children are likely to be brought to light and their welfare protected.