Tuesday, 19 July 2016
The coming crackdown on uncooperative home educators
I mentioned a fortnight ago that local authorities in Britain are being encouraged by the Department for Education to pull themselves together and start dealing with home educators who refuse to provide information or look as though they are not actually teaching their children properly. This will be part of a general drive, which will also be directed at unregistered schools; most of which are run by Muslims and Jews. As the DfE rightly points out to LAs who have been badgering them for a new law, they already have all the powers they need under home education law to tackle what is seen by some as a growing problem.
There are two sorts of law in this country; statute law and case law. Statute law is the stuff passed by parliament and case law is how courts have interpreted those laws. In the case of home education, the statute law just states that a child must, from the age of five, be receiving an efficient, full-time education, suitable to his or her age and abilities. This seems vague enough and we must turn to case law to see what this education must be like. We know, for instance, that it must prepare a child for life in modern society (R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzeikei Hadass School Trust 1985). We also know, from Harrison and Harrison v Stevenson (1981) QB (DC) 729/81, that it must include systematic instruction, that is to say teaching, in mathematics and English. I quoted the relevant part of this judgement on July 5th.
I would guess that hardly any home educating parents in this country is aware of the fact that they are legally obliged to teach their children mathematics and that they cannot simply encourage them to acquire arithmetical skills from day to day activities. Local authorities know of this, but have chosen until now to do nothing about it. There are several reasons for this. The first is that until the last few decades, there were very few home educated children in Britain. Those that there were more likely to be hothoused than educated autonomously. We think, for instance, of children like Ruth Lawrence. It is the recent growth in numbers of home eduated children which is causing alarm for local authorities, especially since many of these new home educators are either not teaching their children or refuse to say whether or not this is the case.
The second reason that local authorities have turned a blind eye so far to breaches of the law regarding home education is that taking these people through the courts is a very expensive and time consuming process. Even if the LA wins, they are likely to be massively out of pocket, as home educating parents faced with the prospect of a court case often make it clear that they will fight the case vigorously; causing the local authority to have to spend money on barristers and so on. If you have hundreds of awkward parents like this in your area, then you could easily end up spending a big chunk of your money on pursuing these idiots. Here is Leicester council explaining this aspect of the problem;
Case Law, (Harrison and Harrison V Stevenson 1982) has established that any education that does not include instruction in Maths and English, if a child is capable of learning such things, cannot be considered suitable. However, on one recent occasion, the suggestion to a family that the child should be doing some maths and some English every day so that evidence of this this could be shown to the LA Officer was countered with the argument that they are following autonomous education and that any work the child does is the intellectual property of the child and should only be shared if they wish. So even if work in books is being completed, there can be no expectation that an authority can see it. This was coupled with the threat that a Barrister, a legal expert in EHE (who has ‘never lost a case yet’) would successfully challenge any LA who sought to prosecute a parent following EHE being deemed to be unsuitable where the parent then failed to comply with a School Attendance Order.
None of this is attractive to local authorities and it would be so much easier for them if there was a clear, specific law which set out precisely what home educators should be doing. This is what was being proposed following the Graham Badman report and it is what LAs have been begging the Department for Education to introduce over the last year or so. Unfortunately, the DfE say that they have more important things to deal with right now and so there is no chance of any new legislation. Nobody wishes to go through all the fuss of the Badman era again if it can possibly be avoided. The problem with taking parents to court based only on case law is that a higher court could reverse the earlier judgement and this would create its own difficulties for both parents and local authority officers.
Still, something must be done. Local authorities are now under pressure from central government to crack down on extremism and close any unregistered schools in their area. Since the pupils at such schools, most of which as I said are Muslim or Jewish, are technically home educated, this means that a crackdown on home education is in the wind. A number of councils have been increasingly unhappy anyway about the large number of children who are taken out of school and then not taught anything for a year or more; so-called ‘deschooling’. Informal discussions are now taking place between a group of local authorities who are working out a coordinated strategy for tackling this problem. This will entail a series of School Attendance Orders, followed swiftly by prosecutions if they are ignored. The basis for these prosecutions will be the judgement in Harrison & Harrison V Stevenson.