Thursday, 5 December 2013
How to obtain information about home education from Graham Stuart; the right way and the wrong way
Some readers have been asking today about Graham Stuart’s reply to Lisa Amphlett. I thought that it was worth talking a little about this and publishing it here. There were hints that my post yesterday was part of a coordinated attempt to smear a group of home educators in the Midlands. It wasn’t of course, it’s just that there is no such thing as coincidence in the Looking-glass world inhabited by these characters. Still, it gives me a chance to look at the correct way to find things out from MPs and also to look at the wrong way of going about the business. The hint was, you see, that because one of this group had failed to extract answers from an MP about something to do with home education, that must be why I had posted about a woman who had been in Ireland and is now in the midlands. (Yes, I realise that this makes no sense at all, but you know what these people are like!)
A couple of weeks back, I wanted to know three things about Graham Stuart’s intentions, and also about the functioning of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on home education. The best way to find things out, is of course simply to ask. If you are going to do this, it is better by far to limit your enquiries to one simple question at a time. Once this has been asked, you can leave it a week or two and then ask another question. It might take a few weeks, but that way you tend to find out what you want to know. The first thing I wanted was a written statement of Graham Stuart’s plans, if any, for new regulations about home education. I emailed him on November 22nd, saying;
Dear Mr Stuart, I'm sorry to trouble you, but a number of people are concerned that you might be in favour of some new regulation for home education in this country. I wonder if you could just confirm whether this is true or not? Thanks a lot.
Short and to the point, you see. An hour and half later, one of his advisers replied, saying:
Dear Mr Webb,
Thank you for your email.
The APPG for Home Education, which Graham chairs, is encouraging local authority home education officers to form a national organisation so that they can build expertise, and also challenge bad practice and ignorance in their authorities.
There is no question whatever of Graham suggesting or supporting new regulation regarding home education. The aim is precisely to avoid some of the problems which arise through local authority officials misinterpreting the existing regulations (whether by accident or design).
You see? Easy peasy and now I have a written statement about this MP’s intentions; ’ There is no question whatever of Graham suggesting or supporting new regulation regarding home education.‘ Working in this way, I shall eventually have simple answers to all my questions. Now let’s look at the wrong way to go about it. Here is another email to Graham Stuart, this one sent the day after my own:
Thank you for taking the time to engage with me on Twitter and invite communication via email. In the interests of openness and transparency, this is an open letter that I will publish on my blog along with any response.
I write with reference to two points:
1. The APPG and its structure, and
2. The proposal that you mentioned at the end of the last APPG meeting in October 2013.
I will deal with them separately for clarity’s sake.
I appreciate that the APPG has been functioning for some time without widespread interest from the HE community. However, your minuted suggestion that ”home education experts from local authority areas” should come together to form a national organisation to “build expertise and challenge bad practice and ignorance” has precipitated interest, criticism and concern. This is, I believe, largely because of the potentially negative outcomes of such a proposal, which I will expand upon below.
A key concern for me is the unelected nature of the APPG, its secretariat (HEAS) and the “secretariat support”. I can only find the APPG minutes on the secretariat support’s personal website, and from reading those minutes I have deduced that she is responsible for the preparation of delegate lists, invites, agendas, supporting/briefing papers and minutes. I tried to communicate directly with this individual, to be told that my questions would not be answered.
My questions regarding the structure of the APPG are below:
How and when was the secretariat and secretariat function proposed, agreed and clarified? By whom? What were the terms of reference?
To whom do I direct my request for a full client list of the secretariat/secretariat support, as per P11 of the HoC Guide to the Rules on All-Party Groups?
How do I arrange for all future delegate lists/agendas, supporting/briefing papers and minutes to be either made publicly available at the time of their production or sent directly to me and any other interested parties?
What is the formal position of the APPG with regard to proposals that are made and taken forward through the APPG without consultation with and representation of the home education community, especially when such proposals have the potential to negatively impact upon all home educating families?
Is there a procedure for challenging/appeal against the decision to incorporate a secretariat and/or “secretariat support” — on the grounds of, say, a lack of neutrality, conflict of interest, or unprofessionalism when dealing with key stakeholders?
With regard to the proposal itself, I outlined my concerns in my blog post “Questions arising from the home education APPG” (hyperlink here). The professionalisation of “home education” will legitimise and validate what is currently an optional role (and rightly so) within local authorities.
A national organisation has the potential to rubber stamp local authorities as “good” (whatever “good” is defined as; surely operating within the law does not require national organisation?) without maintaining adequate oversight of developing problems or bad practice — this happens surprisingly quickly, and even local authorities with “good” reputations continue to make mistakes.
It could well block home educators from tackling local problems at a local level, effectively funnelling all efforts through a monolithic, “official” body. This is the antithesis of localism and it is incredibly disempowering and destructive in the medium to long term (it happened in my own local authority area when “experts” intervened without the consent of many active local home educators). Having seen the detailed and complex level at which home educators have had to operate in “good practice” areas, I fail to see how a national organisation could hope to replicate the levels of application, dedication and diversity needed to turn local authorities round.
The most worrying aspect, for me at least, is the potential this association has to cause significant harm in the hands of a government that has few sympathies with the importance of families and the primacy of the parent with regard to welfare and education. You and I tweeted about Barry Sheerman’s perspective (hyperlink here) a week or two ago, and it is precisely this entrenched attitude towards home education, also seen in many local authority officers, that could turn any professional organisation into a powerful lobbying group against freedom in education after the next general election.
It is true that there is nothing to stop officers organising if they so wish. However, I think it is totally unacceptable to organise and/or additionally resource this through an unelected and unaccountable body in the face of significant opposition from the affected community, and I would like to express my opposition to this in the strongest terms.
My questions regarding your proposal are below:
Have you had discussions about this national organisation prior to proposing it at the end of the last APPG?
When you referred to “home education experts from local authorities” did you mean local authority officers, consultants or individuals from the home education community?
What is your definition of “home education expert”?
What exactly is the purpose of the next APPG? Is it to scope the proposal, or actively take it forward? Has there been or will there be an evidence based impact assessment?
Are there formal mechanisms in place to deal with opposition from key stakeholders?
I am conscious of asking so many questions but I think they are reasonable and pertinent to the current situation, so thank you for your patience. Should you need any clarification regarding any of the points I have raised, please let me know. I look forward to hearing from you and sharing any responses.
Oh, dear! Can anybody spot the difference between this email and my own? Yes, that’s right, mine was a couple of dozen words, containing a single question. Lisa Amphlett’s, on the other hand, is a long, rambling communication, with no fewer than thirteen questions embedded in it. What do readers think are the chances of anybody ploughing through all that and answering all the questions? That’s right; practically zero! So it proved, because here is the answer which she received ten days later:
Thank you for your letter of 23 November about the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Home Education.
APPGs are designed to provide an opportunity for Parliamentarians to learn more about a topic, and that is the function served by the Home Education group.
As you may know, I have been engaged in highlighting and challenging inappropriate behaviour by local authority officers regarding home education for some years. This can sometimes feel like an uphill struggle. It is my belief, and that of the APPG, that an association of local authority officers dealing with Home Education would make it easier to share best practice, stamp out misunderstanding and ensure fair treatment of home educating families.
Any such association would determine its own priorities but could provide local authority officers with guidance to help them challenge the sometimes unnecessarily defensive approach adopted by some local authorities towards home educating parents.
This all illustrates the two cardinal rules for such endeavours. First, keep it short and secondly, ask only one simple question at a time. I have a suspicion that Lisa Amphlett will never receive answers to her questions, whereas I have now the answers to the two most important questions I wished to ask. The third, I shall have in another few days.
Already, the rage is mounting about this and the conspiracy theorists are gearing up. I fear that the only real mystery is why anybody would think for a moment that such a long winded and prolix communication had the remotest chance of being answered!