What is behind the spike in home education?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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A notable spike in the number of pupils being home educated has sparked suspicions that a minority of schools are using ‘off-rolling’ practices. Suzanne O’Connell looks at the figures, recent research and the background of home education in England

It was a hard-hitting view of home education that the children’s commissioner put forward in Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary last month. In the programme, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, made clear that some families are being left with very little choice other than to educate their children, for good or for bad, at home.

Also last month, coinciding with the Dispatches programme, Ms Longfield’s office produced a report entitled Skipping School: Invisible children. The report identifies four categories of parent electing home education.

  • Those who choose to home educate for social and philosophical reasons.
  • Those who keep children out of the school system to avoid the eyes of the authorities.
  • Those who keep wants to deny children a secular education.
  • Those who simply cannot find a school to fit their needs.

Within this last category we might include those parents who, Ms Longfield believes, have been “coerced” into removing their child from school in order to avoid exclusion, following difficulties with attendance or because the school can’t meet their needs.

A sharp increase

The total number of children being home educated is estimated to be 52,770 across 152 local authorities by the end of March 2018. This compares to some 19,585 in 2013/14. However nearly all local authorities, by their own admission, are not aware of all the children being home educated in their jurisdictions.

The increase is not confined to secondary school pupils, as some might presume. There has been a recent, sharp spike in the number of primary school children being withdrawn into home education. Across the nine areas that provided in-depth data for the report, between 2015/16 to 2017/18 the overall rate of increase was 32 per cent in primary schools and 71 per cent in secondary schools. However if we reduce this to the period 2016/17 to 2017/18, the rate of increase was in fact higher in primary schools, rising by 43 per cent in comparison to the secondary figure of 35 per cent.

The data in the report suggests that a small number of schools might be off-rolling the majority of these pupils, with one in 10 schools accounting for half of the pupil movement. It states: “The data shows that very few schools are responsible for the majority of moves into home education. Roughly nine out of 10 schools only saw zero to two referrals into home education a year, but for a tiny minority of schools it can be more than 15 a year.”

Current requirements

If a parent wants to withdraw their child from school they can do so at any time. The 1944 Education Act established a parent’s right to educate their child at home. The right was confirmed in the 1996 Education Act.

Parents need only put their request into writing and give it to their child’s current headteacher. They do not have to state how they intend to make provision or what the home education will consist of.

A headteacher has no option but to accept this, irrespective of how much they may consider that this could be disadvantageous to the child concerned. The headteacher’s next step is to inform the local authority who may or may not try to follow this up. If the family moves between local authorities then they don’t have to notify the new local authority of their address and can disappear completely.

There is no prescribed curriculum for home education and no set academic level that children must attain. There is no specified number of hours that they must be taught, no accountability and no safeguarding. Parents can be fined for taking their children for a week’s holiday in term time and yet can take them out of school for good with no requirements at all.

A history of concern

The children commissioner’s publication is not the first time that attention has been drawn to home education. The Report to the Secretary of State on the Review of Elective Home Education in England was written by Graham Badman and published in 2009. It recommended that there should be changes in the regulatory and legislative framework.

Mr Badman wanted to see annual registration with an initial visit when first registered. He also recommended some supportive measures that he believed would assist those wishing to home educate their child. These included a Consultative Forum for home educators and support and advice to be available. However, his recommendations were rejected by the last Labour government and by the coalition that followed.

Ofsted has also raised concerns about the practice in its report Local Authorities and Home Education, published in June 2010. In it the inspectorate called for more legal rights for local authorities to access home educated children and monitor their progress. It states: “This survey concludes that the lack of any registration requirement for elective home education is preventing local authorities from carrying out their statutory roles to identify children who aren’t receiving a suitable full-time education, and also to safeguard young people.”

It is not only the education of children that is at risk. With the death of a home educated child, Khyra Ishaq, the Serious Case Review was critical of the laws on home schooling and stated “there is no effective method to ensure that home education remains suitable, developmentally appropriate and safe, without the explicit consent and active participation of parents, or carers”.

The then education secretary Michael Gove stated at the time of Khyra’s death that he would consider changes to the arrangements as they existed. However, even this, along with other tragic cases, has not persuaded politicians to enforce a register of home education.

The case for home education

There is a strong lobby of support that wants the right to educate at home without interference to continue. Having your child with you at home all day may not be an attractive choice for many parents. However, for some, the prospect of home education is a better alternative than what their child currently experiences at school.

There are a number of different reasons why parents might, of their own free will, take the decision to teach their child themselves. These include that:

  • Formal education starts too early.
  • The curriculum is too rigid or the parent would prefer a different model.
  • Their child suffers from anxiety or bullying at school.
  • The child’s SEN could be better met at home.
  • Their child suffers from exam stress and the system is clogged with testing.
  • They have concerns about peer pressure.
  • Schools don’t reflect the family values that they hold.
  • Their child is getting into trouble at school and this might be avoided at home.

For some parents, choosing to home educate might be described as “the least bad alternative”. For others, home education is seen as a philosophical choice that needs to be protected.

Some of these people would accept that registration should be a logical part of the process. But others feel that even this would be an intrusion into their right to make a decision about their child that is not influenced by the state.

In his report, Mr Badman called for local authorities to follow up the reasons why some parents elect to educate their child out of school. It is, after all, a rejection of the education system and with so many now taking this option perhaps it is time to look more closely at the reasons behind it.

The link to off-rolling

Home education has always been protected as a right in England. This has not changed. What has changed is the number who are choosing it. Ms Longfield has now said that she will continue her work in this area by collecting data from all the councils in England in a bid to identify those schools from which more children have been withdrawn than you might expect.

She has also sent all her data to Ofsted, including the names of individual schools, and has stated her intention to write to Regional Schools Commissioners about the schools in their area with the highest rates of children moving into home education.

Ms Longfield has pledged to publish a second report later this year “identifying which schools have high numbers of children being withdrawn into home education which may suggest practices of off-rolling”. This is not as much to take on the issue of home schooling but to establish whether these schools are engaged in the practice of off-rolling.

The need to turn challenging schools around or for more successful schools to maintain their position has seemingly led to some school leaders looking for quick ways in which their results can be improved. And one of the most obvious ways is to “manage” the school roll.

Both Mr Badman and Ms Longfield have called for a home school register and some form of oversight of provision. For Mr Badman, this was a logical step to take and one he recommended even before the term “off-rolling” had become part of our educational language.

Whether you are in agreement or not with greater regulation, the issue of discovering why so many more people are now taking this choice has to be a priority. Whether it is a case of off-rolling or another reason, the motivation behind home schooling needs investigation rather than a tightening up on those parents who feel they have been left with no other option or who have made an active philosophical choice.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Skipping School: Invisible children, Children’s Commissioner, February 2019: http://bit.ly/2DhqXZV
  • Skipping School: Britain’s invisible kids, Dispatches, Channel 4, February 4, 2019: http://bit.ly/2Em7B7o
  • Report to the Secretary of State on the Review of Elective Home Education in England, Graham Badman, June 2009: http://bit.ly/2SjBN70

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