Three years ago this June, the Badman Review ignited controversy with proposals for the compulsory registration of home educating families in England. Ed Balls was eventually forced to drop these measures from the Children, Schools and Families Bill - but are some local authorities still hoping to implement Badman via the back door?
I'm preparing to take Lincolnshire County Council to judicial review over their ultra vires home education policy, pending the outcome of a formal complaint, but Lincolnshire is not alone. Across the UK, home educators report hostile local authorities enforcing policies which sometimes bear only the vaguest resemblance to the law, particularly with regard to monitoring.
Statutory government guidelines to local authorities are explicit about the ongoing monitoring of home educating families - it is not required. Having established that a child is home educated, a LA has no further duty with respect to that child's education - unless and until it has cause to believe that an education is no longer taking place. Since the education of a child is the legal duty of her parents, not the LA, to demand information on a regular basis without any actual suspicion of a crime is to consider parents guilty until proven innocent.
Whether one 'supports' or 'believes in' home education or not, most people would agree that a local authority must act within the law. Yet council after council insists to parents that they must allow home visits (no), that they must allow their child to be interviewed (still no), that they must follow a set curriculum (nope, wrong again), or that they must provide regular proof of their child's education (um - no). Dozens of examples are easily found on local authority websites. LA staff enforcing these policies often have little understanding of home education law, much less of the wide variety of educational methods and philosophies families may use.
To add insult to injury, many LAs justify their monitoring policies with the "safeguarding" myth - despite statistics showing that home educated children are a third less likely to suffer abuse than schooled children. Shall we send inspectors into the homes of school-using families to check for abuse taking place in the evenings, weekends and school holidays? Of course not, because families are considered innocent until proven guilty - unless they home educate.
Some local authorities go so far as to routinely refer all home educating families to social services, despite clear government guidance that home education is not a safeguarding concern. In doing so, they not only cause great distress to innocent families, but they also, unforgivably, take time, attention and resources away from those children who really do need protection. We all deplore hoax 999 calls - yet here we have local authorities effectively doing a similar thing.
Where there is evidence that a child is not receiving an education, or where there are genuine safeguarding concerns, local authorities do, rightly, have ample powers to intervene. Why then do so many LAs persist with ultra vires policies? Perhaps every child truly does have a price on their head, and must be pursued and barcoded within "the system" at all costs. Families who refuse to comply are branded as "uncooperative and hostile", with something to hide. Some LAs even consider "the use of deliberate silence" to be threatening behaviour by a parent. It's perhaps little wonder that local authorities face increasing numbers of parents who simply won't play. Breakdown in cooperation is inevitable where authorities routinely insult the families they are there to serve. And what does cooperation bring home educating families in any case? Nothing. There is no funding, and promises of practical assistance tend to evaporate - as one parent reported, promises of an exam centre for home educated children quickly vanished when parents actually wanted it.
I've been asked a lot recently why I'm challenging this issue, and why it matters - and why, if I have nothing to hide, I object to monitoring. Well, I object to my family facing discrimination and bias. I object to my child's privacy being invaded on a regular basis for no good reason. I object that unnecessary demands on my family take away resources from children who do need help. I object to being branded a criminal. Wouldn't you?
It should matter to each of us, home educator or not, when a local authority actively chooses to ignore legislation in order to further agendas based on funding or staff ideologies. It should matter to all of us that an authority can break the law with impunity simply because it finds it "unsustainable", as Lincolnshire told me. It should most certainly matter to every single one of us that local authorities can brand an entire section of the community as guilty until proven innocent. It's home educators at the moment. Who might it be next?