Last week, I was part of an invited audience to a private showing and debate on the Channel Four programme, Skipping School, about Home Education issues. This featured Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England (CCE), who has now published a Report containing five important recommendations. The discussion highlighted some key concerns, although being dominated by the plight of children with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) who made up an estimated 22% of children on EHE (Elective Home Education). Unforgiveably, there are no central statistics on any EHE matter, but it is clear that a high proportion of such children have not chosen this route but have been forced down it by schools being unable or unwilling to make provision for their needs.
Considerable concerns were expressed about the practice of off-rolling and exclusion, along with evidence of the practices in too many schools.
There is not even a required register of children on EHE, let alone any monitoring of what if any education they are provided with, although its introduction has been and would be strongly resisted by the vocal and in some cases aggressive lobby of families who may have chosen EHE for philosophical reasons.
One particular revelation (to me at least) was the statement that the Regional Schools Commissioner may only intervene with academies that are causing concern if they are inadequate, primarily because of funding issues (although there have been a couple of counter examples recently). Otherwise, they need to be dealt with directly by the Department for Education.
I have reviewed the television programme and Report in a previous article, expressing my support for the Recommendations.
Home Education and Special Education Needs
I have encountered too many cases of children with SEND over the years, who have been forced out of schools across Kent, to have doubts about the seriousness of this issue,. However I believe the proportion of such children with Education Health Care Plans (EHCP, the successor to the Statement of Special Education Need) taking up EHE in Kent is lower than the norm because of the county's strong provision of Special Schools and Units, although there was a powerful but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to phase these out some years ago. Of the total 2,491 Kent children registered to EHE, 115 had an EHCP, although there will be others with a lower level of need. I have supported a number of families at SEN exclusion appeals in the past (I no longer do this) where headteachers have lied to get unwelcome pupils out.
One remains stark in my memory, where an ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) statemented boy had been unable to handle a new vividly bright colour scheme in his Unit and had lashed out at a teacher. The headteacher lied at the exclusion meeting with governors and at the exclusion appeal, as admitted to me some years later by the school's Chairman of governors who had supported him 'for the sake of the school'. Although the Appeal Panel saw through this and the appeal was upheld, the Panel recommended he be transferred to another school. KCC could not find one, his behaviour deteriorated whilst he was kept at home, and he was eventually placed in a boarding school in Somerset at a cost of £150,000 a year. Far from home, this unsurprisingly failed, and he was eventually placed in secure accommodation at untold cost and with no future. I am sure he is not alone and indeed a number of cases of families struggling with school failure to handle or wish to handle children with such medical conditions were reported at the meeting.
The practice of off-rolling was also highlighted by several attendees, including the example of some schools who have a template letter to give to such families to sign, where they may be offered the choice of EHE or exclusion. I reported on the practices of the four 'Tough Love Academies' in Kent which strongly feature in articles I have written about EHE and exclusion. It is no surprise that three of these feature in the latest round of secondary school allocations, as having large numbers of unwilling pupils being placed in them by KCC as schools of last resort: Ebbsfleet Academy; Hartsdown Academy; and Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey. All three have high rates of EHE and, along with Folkestone Academy, these schools operate zero tolerance policies, most have high rates of fixed term exclusions, falling rolls across years 10 and 11, poor GCSE performance, and pupils placed in PRUs. Whilst Kent County Council has worked hard with schools to reduce permanent exclusion, with just 49 in the largest Authority in the country in 2017-18 it may be that a high EHE number is a consequence.
'Half of all EHE's come from just 10% of schools across Local Authorities surveyed'.
Much was made of this figure in the meeting but, whilst making an important point and being headline grabbing, it is misleading. This is because of the different structure of primary and secondary education with secondary schools in a Local Authority, where the majority of EHEs tend to come from, may be four times the size of primary schools . So, in Kent where the numbers per year group in compulsory primary and secondary education are broadly similar, the 706 secondary children going to EHE in 2017-18 being spread across 101 schools, whereas the 385 from primary schools come from 463 schools. That translates to 28% of secondary EHEs coming from 10% of secondary schools, but add in the large number of smaller primaries and the figure rises to 61% from 10% of all schools.
Nevertheless, there was agreement that there needs to be a strong focus on the practices in those schools with high rates of EHE, with OFSTED and Regional School Commissioners playing their part. In spite of intentions of goodwill, it was agreed there was little sign of action so far, none as far as I can see in Kent.
The Home Education Lobby
It was clear from the meeting that there are considerable concerns about the Home Education lobby which aggressively promotes a policy of no monitoring of Home Education at all, and never mind those children whose families have had EHE forced upon them and desperately want them back in school, or those whose families can't or don't want to cope with the consequences of not being in school. Sadly, it was clear from many of the delegates (including some very high powered ones) that one of the main outcomes of the lobby's actions is to turn people who have to cope with the casualties against them, rather than creating a climate of co-operation. Examples of this can be seen here, and in the latest comment on my previous article, signed by 'Sioux Marx' a name presumably meant to indicate her warrior status.
It was widely and strongly acknowledged that one of the main barriers to progress on the CCE's recommendations was that of financial constraints on giving them priority. It remains to be seen if government will, backed by that funding, can be sufficient to see Anne Longfield's recommendations brought into being for the sake of so many children whose futures are otherwise blighted, at an unquantifiable cost to society.