Elective home education: Time for a register?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The issue of whether home educators should have to register or not has been debated for years. However, with increasing numbers of parents opting to home-school, there are now renewed calls to keep some form of record

Parents do not have to send their children to school. According to the law they must only ensure that they receive a suitable education whether that is in school or “otherwise”.

Home education is, in fact, the default status for all children as parents must apply for their child to go to school. If they choose not to, the child can remain at home. A parent can remove their child from school at any point without being required to give notification.

More children are now being home-educated. According to the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, 75,668 children were being home-educated in October 2020 – an increase of 38 per cent on the previous year (ADCS, 2020).

However, no exact figures are available as the Department for Education (DfE) does not collect statistics on the number of children in home education, a fact which a recent House of Commons Education Select Committee report described as “astonishing” (2021).

Although lockdowns and Covid anxiety have pushed some families into delivering what is termed elective home education (EHE), the increasing trend was in evidence even before the pandemic with the ADCS reporting an EHE population that has been growing by “approximately 20 per cent each year for the past five years”.

In 2019, departmental guidance issued to local authorities (DfE, 2019) noted a “very significant increase” and the former children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, raised concerns about the number of children who were being withdrawn from specific schools, including her fears about off-rolling practices being to blame (Children’s Commissioner, 2019).

At the time, Ms Longfield said: “Our investigations have revealed thousands of children are off the grid because they are being home-schooled. The numbers are rocketing and no-one knows how they are doing academically or even if they’re safe. Many are being off-rolled. It also seems that a relatively small number of schools may be responsible for this sharp rise in children leaving school for ‘home education’ in this way.” (Headteacher Update, 2019).

Having said this, the ADCS report also estimates that 25 per cent of the 75,668 figure became EHE on or after September 1, 2020, with the primary reason being either health concerns relating to Covid-19 or indeed the positive experience of home-schooling during the first lockdown.

Even Ofsted has waded in on the issue. When speaking to the Education Select Committee as part of its inquiry, chief inspector Amanda Spielman pointed out an anomaly in terms of safeguarding and home education: “One of the strangest things in the system at the moment is that children who are already known to children’s services, even children on a child protection plan and experiencing harm, can legally be withdrawn by their parents for home education.

“I find it very un-joined up that we can, on the one hand, say we have very good reason to think that this child needs protection, but also let the parents take them out of one of the main protective mechanisms.”

Current practice

The government expects that local authorities will coordinate a meeting with parents and the school before a decision is taken to implement EHE.

The intention of the meeting is not to change parents’ minds, but to ensure that they understand their responsibilities and that the choice is a “positive” one rather than being prompted by the school. Some schools have already put in place their own structures for addressing the rising numbers of potential home educators.

Emma Meadus, headteacher at Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate, has developed a three-step process when it comes to parents requesting a move to EHE.

First, sending a letter in response to parents’ initial expression of interest, inviting them into school for an informal chat with the head and class teacher.

Second, a meeting to equip them to make an informed decision and ensure they have the correct information. This meeting is not designed to try and change their minds. The discussion touches upon the local authority’s EHE offer, what the DfE’s expectations are, and signposting to sources of support.

Third, the parents are provided with a letter template to complete and return stating their intention to assume responsibility for their child’s education.

Ms Meadus invites the local authority EHE officer to the meeting in an attempt to encourage an open discussion that focuses on what is best for the child.

MPs have their say...

However, the report of the Education Select Committee report has gone much further on this issue than we have seen in a long time, making a number of recommendations that will not be popular with many home educators. But the MPs are not against the provision of EHE. The report states that the committee “unanimously supports the right of families to opt for EHE, provided it is in the best interests of the child and the education provided is of a suitable standard to meet the needs of the child”.

Although the MPs acknowledge the difficulties in establishing criteria against which suitability of education can be assessed, they still recommend that this should be provided to local authorities.

This is an expectation that goes well beyond the simple issue of registration and would result in a much tighter level of control. It might even include asking to see examples of children’s work and assessing their progress from one year to the next.

The report is keen to ensure a method of checking that where parents of pupils with SEND are opting for home education, this is their genuine preference, made with the correct information, and is not being carried out for less justifiable reasons.

The report recommends that there should be:

  • A statutory register for children out of school.
  • An independent, neutral advocate with responsibility for supporting families with their EHE decision.
  • An assessment once a year by the local authority of the educational progress of children who are being home-educated
  • Provision of clear guidance by the DfE as to how the suitability of education can be assessed.
  • Longitudinal research into EHE including a focus on educational attainment, “soft” outcomes such as mental wellbeing, and the reasons why parents electively home-educate.
  • The publication of permanent and fixed term exclusion rates by year group every term including information about pupils with SEND.

The government is expected to respond to the report this term.

The debate continues

This is not the first time that such recommendations have been made.

Graham Badman was commissioned by the Labour government in 2009 to review EHE and his resulting report was in favour of a register being kept, a conclusion that was fiercely opposed by many home educators at the time (Badman, 2009).

In another report a year later, Ofsted called for more legal rights for local authorities to access home-educated children (2010).
Subsequently, the Children, Schools and Families Bill supported Mr Badman’s recommendations. However, those relating to EHE were later dropped from legislation in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

Now with the increase in the numbers choosing the EHE alternative, the issue is once again under the spotlight and this time around it seems likely that some action will be taken to tighten up procedures and monitoring.

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

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