A couple of days ago I wrote about my concerns for democracy when it comes to home educators and their dealings with government, both central and local. My problems centre around the home educators and their allies rather than the local authorities and Parliament. A meeting was scheduled on October 12th for home educating parents in Birmingham to meet with the local authority officers who deal with elective home education in the city. This meeting was to be completely open, with any home educators at all welcome. The council were even laying on creche facilities for children, so that all parents could take part. Education Otherwise became involved in the business and began inviting various people from outside Birmingham. Mike Fortune-Wood from Wales, for instance, Fiona Nicholson from Sheffield and Ian Dowty from London. This changed the whole emphasis of the thing. From a meeting to discuss local issues, it began to turn into something like a national conference!
I have, as is my habit, been ringing people up and asking a lot of questions about this and the impression which I gained is that the local authority officers in Birmingham were not very happy about this attempt to bring outsiders into the meeting in this way. They originally thought that it would be just a discussion between local parents and council employees. Here is the email sent by Birmingham about the meeting before anybody mentioned bringing a barrister from London:
Please see below the final venue and agenda for the meeting on the 12th of
The meeting is being held at the Council Offices, Margaret Street between
10am and 11.30 am.
2. Issues raised by Home Educating parents
3. Response by LA officers
4. Actions to take forward
The following people will be attending;
Jason Lowther (Policy Director)
John Smail (Assistant Director, Integrated Services for Young People and
Michael Innocenti (Acting Head of Pupil Connect)
Gary Carruthers (Elective Home Education Advisor)
Carl Kirland (Elective Home Education Advisor)
Marie Murphy (Elective Home Education Advisor)
Alex Mroczkowski (Special Educational Needs Assessment Service)
As you know Leisure Services will be hosting a session for any delegates'
children who wish to take part and it is important that they have final
by next Tuesday (5th).
As can be plainly seen, this is an open meeting; they just want an indication of the numbers. The EHE advisors had told all the families with whom they worked about this meeting and a large turnout was expected. Gary Carruthers, one of the EHE advisors in Birmingham, said;
'I had invited over a dozen non-affilliated families myself as well as Education Everywhere. I also asked those I'd invited to ask others they thought may be interested in taking part. Jason had invited other home educators.'
No doubt that this is open to all local parents. Dozens of families have been invited; the local authority are expecting this to be a big and open event. At some stage of the proceedings, local home educating parents who wished to attend were told by the local Education Otherwise representative that it had suddenly become a small, invitation only affair and that they would not be allowed to attend. It is unclear why this should have been. Local authority officers told me that they were uneasy about the possibility of having a lot of people from outside Birmingham coming to the meeting. There has been so much bad publicity about Birmingham recently that it was feared that a newspaper reporter might attend. They also could not see why they should be providing facilities for the children of parents who did not even live in Birmingham! A fair point really. The end result of all this was truly surreal. At the meeting were people from Wales and Sheffield who were supposedly looking after home educators interests, even though they were neither home educating parents nor residents of Birmingham. Home educating parents from Birmingham who wished to attend were told that they could not do so. It would be three weeks before they were even told what had been said at the meeting.
I cannot tell readers just what a lousy example of democracy this episode is. Local home educators wishing to attend a meeting about home education in their city are barred, but members of national organisations who are not themselves home educating parents are allowed in. I have never heard anything like it in my life! This could have been a brilliant example of grassroots democracy, with ordinary parents dealing directly with the officials from Birmingham City Council. Instead, it was hijacked by people from large organisations and the ordinary parents were squeezed out.
This is a perfect illustration of why local home educating groups are the democratic way forward. The reason for the presence of people like Mike Fortune-Wood, Fiona Nicholson and Ian Dowty was very simple and had little to do with the difficulties of the parents in Birmingham; many of whom had specific concerns which they wished to raise with local authority officers and which they were prevented from doing because the meeting had become an exclusive one for 'important' people from big organisations. Education Otherwise and Home education UK feel that other local authorities are looking to Birmingham for a lead when it comes to monitoring elective home education. They are therefore anxious to change what Birmingham are doing before their methods are widely adopted. One can see this point of view, but the way they went about it meant that local home educators were sidelined and ignored in their own area. This was disgraceful and the very antithesis of democracy. It must always be borne in mind that nobody has ever voted for people like Mike Fortune-Wood or Ian Dowty, whereas the parents in Birmingham are actually voters and therefore have a direct stake in what is happening in the city. These people were the only ones who had any business at all at the meeting on October 12th.