Saturday, 13 February 2010

MP=Brick wall?

My latest, hopefully not futile, attempt to get my MP to see sense regarding the CSF bill:

Dear Mr Pigeons Learn Faster*,

Thank you for your reply to the petition that I left for you, and for the enclosed reply from Diana Johnson.

In your letter you refer to the changes that have been made to Home Education, and the first point that I would like to make is that these changes have not yet been made, regardless of what the government would apparently like to think. They are still being debated and are yet to be passed.

In an ideal world the case against this bill would be simple. And indeed this should be the case. The proposals, if implemented, will completely reverse the burden of proof for the first time. Requiring citizens of this country to prove that they are abiding by the law, rather than the authorities investigating legitimate concerns and being required to prove that someone is breaking the law, is an unacceptable state of affairs. However, this government appears to be blind to this fact, so I will continue with detailed reasons why you should be opposing the proposed monitoring of home education.

You state that you feel that the proposed changes should not, unless there is extremely good reason, prevent any parent from home educating their child. The inclusion of the phrase “for any other reason” in relation to local authority workers deciding whether or not there is a risk, is completely open to personal interpretation and prejudice. As, in fact, is the rest of the clause, which is being used to pass skeleton regulations, the details of which will then have to be added at a later date as secondary legislation not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. In view of this, Ms Johnson's comments that “the registration process will be straightforward”, and “home educators will not be required to follow a specific curriculum” hold little water.

You say that “the main purpose of the Government legislation seems to be in regards to the protection of children and the standard of home education”. In the Commons debate regarding this bill, Ms Johnson in fact said, “I reiterate that there are safeguarding provisions in place generally in our law. The report is predominantly about education.” However she also stated, incorrectly, that “Graham Badman found a higher incidence of home-educated children in those child protection plans.” Graham Badman did indeed state that “the number of child protection plans [for home educated children] in the authorities that we covered in the last survey, [is] 0.4% which is double that within the normal population”. However, the fact is that nobody knows how many children in England are home educated (and nor should they; would you support a compulsory register of children who are vegan, in order to establish whether you feel their diets are nutritionally fulfilling?). Estimates vary from 40,000 to 70,000. Using Badman’s own data, the proportion of home educated children with a child protection plan is 0.22% if there are 40,000 home educated children, or 0.12% if there are 70,000. Any home educated child with a child protection plan must be known to the local authority. There are therefore no children with child protection plans among the 20,000-50,000 unknown home educated children. The evidence Badman gathered was from 74 local authorities. 54 of these authorities reported that no home educated children had child protection plans.

The law already makes provision for the protection of all children, and laws are in place to enable children to be seen should there be genuine concerns surrounding their welfare. No further powers are needed in this respect. There are very strong parallels between the proposals to grant local authorities powers to monitor and regulate home educators, and interview home educated children, and the laws on police powers pre-PACE. For the government to require or mandate periodic interviews of children and require plans in advance risks undermining the trust between educator and child and runs directly contrary to the beneficial curricular flexibility inherent in home education. The fact that this will be done as a matter of practice, without any suspicion of deficiency in the home education provided, makes it disproportionate and unacceptable. The fact that such checks will be carried out by public sector employees affiliated with the state education system also gives rise to a huge risk of bias against the standard of home education provided, hard-wiring a risk of school attendance orders being issued capriciously without any independent burden of proof.

You state in your letter that you “believe that [the proposed changes] are highlighting the fact that their not being at school removes a level of protection for the child.” By the government's own statistics 450,000 children are bullied in school each year. At least sixteen children commit suicide each year as a result of school bullying. More than 360,000 children are injured in schools each year. Home education saves lives. Monitoring would disrupt the process of rebuilding bullied children’s confidence.

Ed Balls has himself stated, “A local authority currently ...has a right in law to see a child if it fears that there is a child well-being, safety or child protection issue. That right already exists, including for home-educated children. The issue is whether they are being educated and whether they are learning.” Again, however, this appears to be an attempt to pull the wool over everyone's eyes. Schedule 1 says, in fact, “In determining for the purposes of subsection (3A)(b) whether it is expedient that a child should attend school, an authority shall disregard any education being provided to the child as a home-educated child.”

In terms of your hope that Ms Johnson's letter had covered the point about local authorities having the right to interview children alone, she did indeed say that “A LA will not be able to interview a child without its parents being present, and if either the parents or the child objects to this action.” Ed Balls has also stated that “The Bill makes it clear that there is no right for a local authority to see the child of a home- educating family on their own, without the parents there.” However it would perhaps be of use to both of them to actually read Schedule 1 of the bill which states, “A local authority in England may revoke the registration of a child’s details on their home education register if it appears to them that ... by reason of a failure to co-operate with the authority in arrangements made by them [to monitor the home education], or an objection to a meeting [with the child alone] the authority have not had an adequate opportunity to ascertain the matters referred to in Section 19E(1)”

Aside from the ethical reasons why this registration and monitoring should not be allowed to go ahead, there are very sound educational reasons too. There are a myriad of educational methods available in home education, far more than could ever be implemented in the school system. Every home educated child really does have the opportunity to have a tailored education. Autonomous education is a frequently used philosophy, researched in depth by Paula Rothermel (2002). The Badman report, accepted in full by Ed Balls, wrote off autonomous learning as 'little better than child-minding', and completely disregarded any research on the subject. The very act of coming into children's lives to monitor them would be hugely damaging to children learning autonomously. Children have an innate love of learning if you don't squeeze it out of them, and I for one will not allow my children's lives and learning to be damaged by ignorant legislation.

Finally a note on your comment that you “regularly speak to a number of constituents and indeed friends who work in schools”. With all due respect, talking to them on the issue of home education is akin to discussing with restaurateurs whether people should eat out more often rather than cooking at home. Some education may take place at school, but school is not the sum total of education, nor welfare. As Plutarch said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be lit”.

Should you require any more information in order to understand this issue fully, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am currently watching today's Commons debate of the Bill so no doubt I will be in touch again soon.

*Name has been changed to protect the, er, innocent? No that can't be it.