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Guest blog by Eloise Rickman
Mainstream schooling is the best choice for many children. But it does not guarantee learning, or even safety, for every child. Bullying, rape culture and sexual assault are rife across the UK’s school system. Black and minority ethnic, neurodivergent and poorer children are disproportionately punished and excluded. For some young people, school will be intolerable.
The Government’s new Schools Bill has been touted as the answer to these problems, promising to raise standards, strengthen attendance and improve safeguarding. Many, however, are alarmed by the Bill, which seems designed to force some children into mainstream education against their best interests.
If passed, the Bill will impose a new duty on Local Authorities to register all home-educated children and collect any personal details about them that they deem important. If a parent fails to provide that information within 15 days of their child becoming eligible for the register, a School Attendance Order (SAO) will be issued, requiring the child to attend a named school. Parents who fail to comply could face a prison sentence.
Local Authorities will be tasked with assessing whether each child on the register is receiving a ‘suitable education’ at home, with no statutory definition or guidance on what that means. Should a child’s education be found lacking by an officer, with no required experience of or training in home education, a SAO will be issued.
Home education doesn’t always look like mainstream schooling; if education officers are looking for school-at-home, with timetabled lessons, curriculums and marked work, they won’t always find it.
It is not a stretch to imagine that the new monitoring regime and SAOs will disproportionately affect some groups. Black children, for example, are likely to face unfair obstacles in mainstream education (as demonstrated by data on school exclusions) and their parents may accordingly be drawn to home education. Neurodivergent children often face challenges in mainstream schools and could benefit from a tailored approach at home that might not seem, to a relatively untrained eye, ‘suitable’. The Department for Education recognised in their impact assessment that this will have a particularly adverse impact on families from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who are both more likely to home-educate and more likely to move between Local Authorities.
Many home educators are worried that, backed with new powers and under pressure to boost attendance, Local Authorities will take a risk-averse approach, demanding unreasonable information from parents and forcing children into school.
If the Government continues to pursue this approach, it must make sure the Bill spells out exactly what information Local Authorities can demand from families and provide guidance on which factors can be taken into account when assessing ‘suitability’ of education, including setting out how children’s best interests and views should be taken into consideration. It should also make provisions for appeal and set out how children’s data will be collected and used.
Proponents of the Bill claim a register will ensure all children are safe and receive a decent education; a laudable aim. But being visible does not necessarily protect children from harm. Most Serious Case Reviews relate to children not just in school but well known to social services. If the Government truly cares about children’s safety and education then it should reduce child poverty, bring England into line with the rest of Britain by banning smacking, properly fund early years childcare, and get serious about improving wellbeing for young people. Targeting home-educating families will hurt children who are already discriminated against the most. We must stand up for their right to get the education that works best for them.
Eloise writes about the politics of childhood, parenting, education and children’s rights. She is currently working on her second book, while studying for an Master’s degree in Children’s Rights. Her first book, Extraordinary Parenting, is available now.
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