From across England come eerily similar stories of local authority officers behaving in what some home educating parents see as unjustifiable ways. This centres in the main around requests to see the child physically and discuss with parents and child the nature of the educational provision being provided. The rationale behind this is fairly plain. It is easy enough for a parent to write that a child visits the library, plays the violin and belongs to various clubs; this does not make it true. Some local authority officers have found that when they talk to the children themselves, some of them have no idea at all what they are supposed to be doing. Clearly, the parents have been putting down whatever they think will sound like a good education!
Local authorities do not work in a vacuum. They talk to each other regularly, not only neighbouring authorities, but ones at the other end of the country. When Mike Allpress was the lead person in this county, Essex, on elective home education, he used to organise conferences in Harlow for other authorities in the south east. Representatives came from as far away as Southampton and a common framework would be agreed. This happens all over England. Just as some home educators band together and exchange information on lists such as the Badman Review Action Group, so too do local authorities pass on concerns to each other. Most of them also belong to the main Internet groups like BRAG, HE-UK and so on. They are very well informed about developments in the world of home education.
The behaviour of local authority officers responsible for home education in various parts of the country is now showing a common theme. In the Unitary Authority of Poole, in Suffolk, Oxfordshire, Birmingham and Gateshead, the same tactic is being used. Children who have not been seen for some time because their parents refuse visits, are the target for attention. The thrust of this is that local authorities want to see the kid and talk face to face with the parents. I can see their point. We often see parents on lists and forums who ask for help in putting together educational philosophies, but who would be rather at a loss if asked outright just what they had been doing for their kids education this week!
Home education in this country has been established by precedent, rather than statute. Apart from a few oblique references in some laws which were drawn up without even considering home education as such, most of the legal basis comes from old court cases; Bevan v Shears, Phillips v Brown, Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson and so on. Having failed, at least for now, to gain any new legislation, the aim is to build up a few court cases which will tend to show that local authorities have more power than the old cases of precedent indicate. They are being quite cautious about this and as soon as a parent complains to one of the home eduction groups, they will back-pedal. However, as I have pointed out before, the great majority of home educating parents do not belong to Internet groups. The first that we will hear of such a court case is when it has been reported in the papers.
At a guess, I would say that several local authorities will find parents who are supposedly home educating but are actually not providing even the sketchiest attempt at any sort of education. These parents will have School Attendance Orders issued against them and at least a few will refuse to comply with them. The resulting prosecutions will allow the local authorities to state their views in court and as long as they choose the right parents, the magistrates will then allow the allow the prosecution to succeed. A few successes of this sort, particularly if any appeals by the parents to higher courts fail, will change the landscape of home education in this country. As I say, the present way that home education is tolerated in England is a result of court decisions. The situation can be altered in the same way. In the absence of any new legislation, this is how local authorities will be able to effect a change in the legal situation around home education. What has been noticed in places like Birmingham and Suffolk are the opening shots in this campaign.