See Follow up Article here.
The Children’s Commissioner for England (CCE), Anne Longfield, has published a Report entitled ‘Skipping School: Invisible Children’. Apart from its dreadful and misleading title, it provides an excellent summary of the issues surrounding Elective Home Education (EHE). The Report also looks forward to ways of reducing the numbers of those Home Educated, apart from families who freely choose to and are capable of providing a good alternative.
Sadly, a 'Dispatches' programme on Channel Four lost the plot and focused on describing in graphic terms families who were not coping with Home Education in their first weeks out of school. I made a contribution to the programme with which I was pleased and which drew on my most recent article about EHE, but I was not expecting the direction the programme took and so my piece stood isolated.
The Report: Skipping School: Invisible Children
The Report’s title suggests it is about unseen children truanting from school, which is simply untrue, as even a skim through it shows. The children concerned are not truants who have skipped school without permission and are missing education completely. The majority of EHE children are registered with Local Authorities who have a legal responsibility to carry out can only be minimal checks. This is because the rules do not allow them to enter the child's house, nor to speak to the child without parental permission, to confirm they are actually receiving an adequate education.
In Kent there were 1,113 children known to have left school for EHE in 2017/18, and another 950 who went missing from education without trace. None of the first group are therefore invisible. They can be added to the several thousand who left school in previous years. There is also an unknown number who have never entered the education system, who are unknown to the authorities. This last group are certainly invisible. Untypical of the national picture which is showing rapid growth in EHE, Kent's figures are fairly similar to those in 2013/4. At that time they were by some way the highest in the country, but without any national data, such as for exclusions, no one knows the current position. Over the same period, the number of children leaving Medway schools for EHE has leapt by 62%. This website contains the only published figures locally.
The Introduction to the Report includes:
(about a child) ‘just one more effectively excluded through no fault of their own from an unforgiving school system which appears to have lost the kindness, the skill or the patience to keep them. When did school become like this? Schools have always been places of some rough and tumble, where the carefree days of early childhood meet the reality of work, of timetables, of expectations, and of more complex social relationships. Schools are places where you develop the skills, the independence and the resilience to grow up well’.
The phrase ‘home education’ unhelpfully encompasses a wide range of parenting styles – from those who choose to educate their children themselves for social and philosophical reasons and do so perfectly well, to those who choose to keep children out of the school system to avoid the eyes of the authorities or to deny them a secular education; and then those who would love to have their kids in school but cannot find a school to fit their needs. For this group of parents, educating their children at home is not a choice, but a forced response to difficulties fitting in at school. The child who is being bullied. The child struggling to cope with noisy corridors and classrooms; or sometimes with school uniform policies, homework and timetables. The child not receiving the specialist help she needs. These kids can reach crisis point and without additional care from schools or from external agencies such as CAMHS, the children fall through the gaps. It is sometimes schools themselves that put pressure on parents to remove children who don’t ‘fit in’. This practice, known as off-rolling, can amount to informal, illegal exclusion.
I have written about such issues in the past and it is pleasing to see the CCE place much of the blame for enforced EHE on a minority of schools themselves. The CCE records that: New research by my Office, published here, suggests that 1 in 10 schools account for half of the pupil movement. In Kent, the one in ten schools I have identified in my article account for a quarter of EHE, and a lower figure for Children gone Missing completely from Education (CME). She provides ample evidence demonstrating that for some schools, removal of problem children by one route or another is an unofficial policy. The Children’s Commissioner’s Office has spoken to many children and parents who said that they only chose home education because the situation at school had become so desperate – sometimes traumatic for the children involved. It is unacceptable that some schools are washing their hands of children - particularly the most vulnerable - in this way. She also identifies the problem as being greatest in academies.
Of particular concern are children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND), who comprise 22% of those Home Educated according to one survey. Many of those children are taken out of school by parents unhappy with the school's inability to provide for their children's needs. This can be because the costs of managing the child are too high, or because the school cannot or does not want to deal with problems the child's presence creates, including poor behaviour typically in children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder.
The CCE recommends strongly that: We need to know who these children are, where they are, whether they are safe and if they are getting the education they need to succeed in life. There is a clear case for the Government to introduce a compulsory register for all home-educated children, without delay, although this would prove very controversial for many positive home educators. Whilst those opposed would argue that they are best placed to make decisions for their children without government interference, the greater good has to be for the large majority. Too many of these slip through the net without a proper education at considerable cost to themselves and society. Only with such a register can the guilty schools be identified and pressure put on them to change their ways.
I have written extensively about Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey, with one of the highest proportion of children in Kent opting for Home Education, to the extent that a local support group has nearly 150 members from the Island. Not only did the school have 47 children ‘opting’ for Home Education, and another 30 simply disappearing from education in 2017/18, there is ample evidence that much of this is a direct consequence of school policy, backed up by a disciplinary ‘Reflection’ punishment that surely amounts to child abuse and appears guaranteed to alienate child and family from the school. The school had the second highest number and proportion of fixed term exclusions in Kent at 786 or the equivalent of 61% of the school population in 2017/18. GCSE Progress 8 and Attainment 8 are amongst lowest in Kent year on year. Oddly, an Ofsted Inspection last year and a follow up Monitoring visit by an HMI failed to notice any of these issues, although such matters are now supposed to be a priority.
An issue reported to me several times by Oasis parents is that of off-rolling. From the Report: Some parents report that they opted for home education after the school threatened to exclude their child or fine them for non-attendance, believing that this would help their children by avoiding a formal record of exclusion.
My contribution to the Dispatches Programme
I spent a number of hours being interviewed on several occasions and discussing the issues which have been highlighted in CCEs Report, explaining what is going on on the ground. I was assured that the programme would focus on such matters and so considered this was time well spent. As a result I was so disappointed by the outcome, which completely missed an invaluable opportunity to highlight the themes of the Report and the Report itself, presumably in the cause of good television. I feel so sorry for some of those whose life styles were highlighted so publicly, thinking they were contributing to publicising the scandal of too many schools who abuse the Elective Home Education system.
There are five of these, all of which I welcome, but which tend to take a backseat in the Channel Four documentary. These are:
(1) A home education register (to identify all children being home educated, to understand the reality of what is happening, and to pinpoint schools which are abusing the system);
(2) Strengthened measures to tackle off-rolling (including Ofsted inspection focus and greater emphasis on support for children with SEND);
(3) Advice and support for children and families (in all cases of decisions to home educate);
(4) Greater oversight of children (in spite of the protests of some home education groups, necessary for those who are indeed ‘disappeared’; with SEND or who are simply neglected);
(5) Decisive action against unregistered schools (some of which pretend to be home education centres and so not subject to regulation).
To be fair, 'Dispatches' did cover the issue of illegal schools in some detail, showing exciting coverage of one of these schools, with the Children's Commissioner's visit to it unwelcomed by the Headmaster. However, in reality this is surely a separate issue from the mainstream themes above.