Anonysue raised so many interesting points in answer to my post yesterday, that I thought it worth answering them in detail. Her first point concerned the action taken by local authorities if parents refuse to provide any information about their child's education. She cites the case of Philips V Brown. For those unfamiliar with the case, the background is as follows. In the Summer of 1977 Leeds local education authority became aware that a child called Oak Reah was not attending school. They contacted his parents and asked them what sort of education he was receiving and they more or less told the local authority to mind their own business. After a while, Leeds issued a School Attendance Order and then prosecuted Mr Philips, the father and Ms Reah, the mother. Oak Reah's parents mounted an ingenious defence to this. They argued that the local education authority was wrong to issue the School Attendance Order in the first place, because it could not possibly have appeared to them that Oak was not receiving a suitable education; since they had no information at all about him, how could it appear to them that he wasn't receiving a suitable education?
Although the magistrate decided against them, Oak's parents sought a judicial review of his decision and in 1980 this was heard. Lord Donaldson decided that the LEA was quite justified in making enquiries of the parents and that although they were entitled to refuse to give any information about their son's education, the LEA might then very well decide to issue an SAO. Since then, the parents of home educated children have been well advised to respond to informal enquiries from their local authority.
These days, parents are usually a little more cunning than Oak Reah's mother and father. For those who do not wish either to be served with an SAO or receive a visit from a local authority officer, the most popular gambit is to supply the local authority with an 'Educational Philosophy'. Such a document is particularly favoured by autonomously educating parents. The difficulty with such evidence from the point of view of the local authority is that it does not actually tell them what the child is learning or even doing. It is easy enough to download an Ed Phil, as they are know for short, from an Internet site and then simply to personalise it. The end result might say something along the lines of:
Our approach to John's education is in the main opportunity based,
child led and very flexible. It is impossible to provide a timetable or to
specify in advance which activities we will shall be undertaking.
We work to keep a good balance between child led, informal learning
and a more directed approach. In general, it is our aim to facilitate
learning through John's interests rather than artificially to contrive
situations to reach pre-determined outcomes. We are always vigilant for any gaps which should arise in our provision and ready, willing and able to make the necessary adjustments to fill them.
All that such a document tells the local authority is that an adult is capable of downloading an educational philosophy from Home Education UK and then personalising it. It is impossible to work out from an Ed Phil of this sort whether or not the child really is receiving an education. Sometimes it is accompanied by photographs of the child doing something vaguely educational or a diary detailing all the educational activities. Here again, there is a problem. Jean Turnbull, who used to monitor elective home education for Essex County Council, tells of visiting a family who claimed in a letter that their child used the local library regularly for research and so on. When she actually visited the home and spoke to the child, she discovered that the kid didn't even know where the library was; much less was she a regular visitor there. Other local authority officers report similar experiences with children whom the parents have claimed to be learning French, studying music or working on advanced mathematics. In other words, there is a suspicion that some parents just put down whatever they feel will keep the local authority at bay.
What then are the local authority to do in such circumstances? Often, they have not been given enough information for them to judge whether the child is really being educated. They cannot issue a School Attendance Order, because there is no evidence that the child is not receiving a suitable education. All they have are vague suspicions and a sense of unease. Reading the educational philosophy above, it is hard to know what is actually happening with this child. He could be wheelchair bound and completely non-verbal. On the other hand he could be an infant prodigy. He may be studying for GCSE's, but on the other hand his parents may be using him as a sex slave. One simply cannot tell from the Ed Phil, photographs and diary and yet in many cases this is all the information which parents are prepared to provide.
It is situations like this which local authority officers face every day with children who have been deregistered from school. No doubt most parents who decline visits and send in waffle like that above are actually providing some sort of education. It is equally certain that others are not providing any education at all. There will almost definitely be others who are actively harming their children. It is quite impossible to determine from examining evidence of the sort outlined above and without making further enquiries, which families belong in which group. Should we issue all the families with School Attendance Orders? Or should we simply take everybody's word for what they are doing, in the sure and certain knowledge that this means that a number of children will remain uneducated and a few of them also abused or neglected? It was this dilemma which the Children, Schools and Families Bill was designed to resolve.