I have always taken it rather for granted that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is a bit of a weasel. His appearance is distinctly musteline and he is after all a career politician. Still, he was the darling of the home educators during the run-up to the election. He valiantly denounced Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill and promised that the Tories would always stick by home educators. In January he said:
' I do not believe that the current system is perfect, but it is fundamentally important that we respect the rights of home educators first and that we ensure that any change to legislation is conducted in accordance with their wishes and interests.'
I found this pretty awful actually, emphasising the rights of parents without mentioning the rights of children, but there, I admit that I have a bee in my bonnet about children's rights. And why on earth should we , ' ensure that any change to legislation is conducted in accordance with their wishes and interests.'? Just because a group of people choose to follow some activity, does that mean that we must always automatically ensure that any legislation affecting them is in accordance with their wishes? Does that apply to fox hunters and vivisectionists as well? Or the owners of shotguns and pit-bull terriers? The logic of this escapes me utterly. In February he was promising that a Conservative government would repeal any legislation on home education which Labour passed. There was no doubt at all that Gove was the people's choice at least as far as the home education community was concerned.
In May Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Education. Home education was certainly safe in his hands. We could all breathe a sigh of relief and carry on educating or neglecting our children according to whichever particular strand of home education we favoured. Well at least for the next month or so, until Ofsted's report on Local authorities and home education was released in the middle of June. He suddenly seemed a good deal less sure about his opposition to new legislation about home education. The DfE announced that;
' We note Ofsted's findings and recommendations and ministers will shortly be considering if changes need to be made to the existing arrangements, given the strong views expressed by both home educators and local authorities.'
This was the first hint that Gove might be changing his position slightly. Note the words well, 'considering if changes need to be made'. Observe that crucial word 'if'. A mere five weeks later and the Serious Case Review on Khyra Ishaq's death was published. Michael Gove said;
' We respect the right of parents to educate their children at home and most do a very good job, some of them picking up the pieces where children have had problems at school. Clearly lessons need to be learned by the tragic events in this case, and I will consider the letter I expect to receive from Birmingham shortly, to see what changes need to be made to the existing arrangements and reply in due course.'
What's changed in this picture boys and girls? Can you spot the difference? Well in June he was, ' 'considering if changes need to be made'. Now in July he will, 'see what changes need to be made to the existing arrangements ' See what's changed? The 'if' has vanished. The statement earlier this week is saying in effect that changes need to be made. The only question is what those changes will be, not if they need to be made. In other words, the arrangements around home education are going to change.
You can't altogether blame Gove for this abrupt volte face. Everybody gets upset about dead little girls and the immediate impulse is to do something about it. Now that he is in government, the obvious thing to do is pass a law which will stop any parents in the future torturing their children to death in this way. This is the standard response to such tragedies. Victoria Climbie's death produced the Every Child Matters document, the Soham murders produced the Independent Safeguarding Authority and now Khyra Ishaq's legacy may also be a new law. This is what governments do when they can't think of anything else. I think that matters are now balanced on the edge of a knife and it would only take one more case involving the abuse of a home educated child to tip the balance. The rumour is that just such a high profile case is about to hit the courts in the next month or so.
That there has been a shift in public opinion on the subject of home education seems clear. When Alan Thomas had a piece in the Guardian a couple of days ago, the comments were interesting. Usually one would expect to hear a contrapuntal murmur from Guardian readers of 'creeping surveillance society...statisim.... liberty' and various similar expressions. In fact everybody apart from the home educators seemed to be in favour of a crackdown on home education. I found this surprising.
How would Gove go about changing the law without encountering the same sort of fuss that Ed Balls did with his CSF Bill. Perhaps by going about it piecemeal, instead of demanding everything at once. It would not, at least to begin with, need an entirely new bill. Little bits and pieces are constantly being tacked on to things like the 1996 Education Act, sometimes years later. I should think that something along the lines of The Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006, Statutory Instrument 2006 No. 1751 might meet the case to begin with. As I say, Gove would be unwise to start a row by doing everything at once. To begin with, a simple requirement for home educating parents to register with their local authority would probably have the support of almost everyone except home educators themselves. Then it would just be a matter of adding other provisions every six months or so. I don't know of course if this is what will happen, but I would not be at all surprised.