Get tough on home tuition to weed out abuse, says review
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Opponents question independence of review and accuse author of advocating 'extraordinary invasion of the family'
By Polly Curtis
June 5, 2009 / Guardian.co.uk
The government will be advised to crack down on home education to ensure it is not being used as a cover for child abuse or for parents to avoid educating their children at all, in an independent review that has angered families that home-school their children.
The inquiry into home education was ordered by ministers in January to investigate whether home education is used to conceal "child abuse such as neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude".
Sources close to the review have confirmed that its author, the former director of children's services at Kent county council, Graham Badman, is looking "favourably" at proposals that would require parents to register their children with their council when they are born or when they move to a different local authority.
Campaigners claim the move would fundamentally undermine the responsibility that lies with parents to ensure their child is receiving a good education, and allow the state an unprecedented intrusion into family life. The review has sparked a furious row between home-educating families and social services departments in local authorities, which say they need extra powers to prevent the few but serious cases of child abuse.
The government estimates that around 20,000 children are registered with local authorities as receiving home tuition, but the real number could be closer to 50,000 because parents are obligated to inform the authorities only if they withdraw a child from school, not if they have never been to school.
The review, which is due to be published in the next week, is also expected to recommend new guidelines on minimum standards for educating children at home. This would clarify the circumstances under which a local authority can order a child back into school, if it believed the provision at home was not up to scratch.
Jacqui Newvell, a principal officer of the children's charity the National Children's Bureau (NCB), which took part in the review, said: "We need to put children's interests at the heart of this and embed a children's rights agenda instead of a parents' rights agenda. This is a very, very sensitive issue, We know a lot of home educators are doing a great job but our concern is the minority who slip thought the net."
The launch of the inquiry in January, when the children's minister Delyth Morgan warned that in "extreme cases" home education "could be used as a cover for abuse", was widely condemned by campaigners for home education, who said they were unfairly being made the subject of suspicion.
Fiona Nicholson, of support group Education Otherwise, said: "We felt rocks were being thrown at us. We'd had circumspect, polite conversations with ministers and civil servants, and then suddenly we were being accused of child abuse.
"If they introduce a registration system it would completely shift the balance of power. The state is coming into family life and trying to regulate it. It is an extraordinary invasion of the family."
One organisation for families, Action for Home Education (AHEd), has called for the Badman review to be abandoned, saying it has been skewed to favour the evidence provided by local authorities. The public was invited to answer six questions in a survey feeding into the review, but councils were asked to fill in a separate questionnaire with 60 further questions.
In a written submission, the organisation said: "AHEd members believe that the review has been composed in this skewed manner in order to attain predetermined answers for the purpose of supporting the government's desire to impose compulsory registration, monitoring and tracking of electively home-educated children and their families, including state control and prescription of educational method, content and outcome for all children."
Andy Winton, the chair of the National Association of Social Workers in Education, said: "School is a good safety net to protect children. They have access to adults who can detect behaviour and are with children who make them realise what is normal social behaviour. If parents are home-educating, that safety net is not there. We don't think home education is a route to abuse – the majority of it is brilliant – but we think there is an additional risk."
Morgan said: "There have been concerns that some home-educated children are not receiving the education they need, as well as suggestions that in some very extreme, rare cases, home education could be used as a cover for abuse or neglect … I'm sure the vast majority of home-educators are doing a good job, but we want to make sure that the right systems are in place to address quickly any concerns."