It has been suggested here recently that local authorities who are uneasy about a family who claim to be home educating, might issue a School Attendance Order or SAO for short. The first stage in this process is sending the parents a letter fifteen days before the issuing of an SAO. This is what the law says;
'If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory
school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by
regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in
writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period
specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.'
In theory, having sent such a letter and not having had a satisfactory reply, the way is open for the local authority to issue the SAO. This will name a school to which the parents must send their child and if they fail to do so then the local authority can prosecute the parents for their child's non-attendance. In practice, this procedure is hardly ever used. Some home educators argue that because local authorities already possess this power and don't use it, then they do not yet need any new legal powers.
So what is the problem with School Attendance Orders? The problem is of course that before they even begin this process, it must appear to the local authority that, 'a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise'. If the local authority hear of a child who is not at school, it can hardly appear to them that he is not receiving a suitable education. It would be foolish and wrong of them to assume that an education at home is less suitable for a child than one at school. They need a little more evidence than that to start legal action and quite rightly.
How are the local authority to gather evidence so that they can believe that a home educated child is not in receipt of a suitable education? Or for that matter, if they suspect that there is a welfare or safeguarding problem? They can write to the family asking for information of course. This actually happened to one of the parents who regularly comments here. His local authority went so far in the Summer of 2004 as to serve him a notice requiring him to satisfy them as to the education his son was receiving. He did not comply and six years later the authority has taken no action. The problem is that while it is quite easy to issue an SAO, enforcing it in court is another matter entirely. Some parents are bloody minded and refuse to provide any information at all to their local authority. This does not mean that their children are not being educated. Take them to court and they may well provide all the evidence needed to convince the magistrate. The crux of the matter is that the education being given to the child must look OK from the point of view of a reasonable person, not from the perspective of a local authority officer.
There is no power to enter a home and gather evidence, no right to speak to the child to ascertain her wishes. A local authority can be uneasy about a family, but short of issuing a School Attendance Order and then prosecuting the parents, there is little that they can actually do. Magistrates are often more easy to persuade than local authorities. The family will smarten themselves up, perhaps get a solicitor and the local authority cannot simply claim in court that they have a suspicion that things are not right. This is after all a court which deals in hard evidence, not vague suspicions.
The result is that there are plenty of families who are keeping their children at home, about whom local authorities are uneasy. They cannot get any firm evidence to back up their suspicions, there is little point even in getting a social worker to call round, because without hard evidence she will not be allowed to enter the house against the wishes of the family. This is of course how vulnerable children slip through the net and it was one of the reasons why there was an attempt to change the law.