There are many claims made about why a register is needed but they do not stand up to scrutiny
Myth: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear
Reality: There is much to protect. A compulsory register threatens to shift the balance between state and family, a cornerstone of human rights
A compulsory register for home educated children is against human rights principles
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 8 of the Human Rights Act concerns the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence. The threshold for state intervention without consent is concern that a child is at risk of significant harm. This threshold was upheld by the UK Supreme Court in 2016 in the ‘Named Person’ judgement in a case opposing the Scottish government’s Named Person policy.
Putting a minority on a database along with the expectation to monitor their children in the absence of any evidence or specific reason goes against this and is exceedingly dangerous ground.
A proponent of a compulsory register for electively home educated children, Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman, said: [A register] “is a relatively difficult thing to establish in this country because we are permissive by default and always have been, not just in education. We do not have a national identity card requirement. People do not have to prove their right to exist every day or to access any service.”
There are extensive reasons for objecting to national identity cards and to not want to live in a society where one must “prove their right to exist every day”.
There are very real threats to children of having their data held
There are substantial risks around data being collected and held, especially for children with consequences stretching throughout their entire lives.
The Department for Education’s use of data is particularly concerning with abuses including giving data to the Home Office for use in the “hostile environment” and selling children’s personal details, including to betting firms.
Plans are not ‘just’ for a register
We know that plans for a register are only a small part of what is planned. Kate Dixon, Director of Schools for Department of Education, is the latest to have said this with her statement that they have decided to go first for the register as being more palatable. Monitoring and the content are also on that list.
“We first consulted on the three things, but, given the responses that we got back and the contentious history that stepping into this space has, we decided to take it in parts and go with the creation of the register, which was the most palatable and we thought would take us at least on the journey, and not look at the monitoring and the content of the education through proposals to legislate.”
Myth: There are large groups of ‘missing’ children including home educated children
Reality: Home educated children are not ‘missing’, and being ‘missing’ is a red-herring in terms of child protection
Claims that there are children who are ‘ghosts’, ‘invisible’, ‘hidden’ and ‘missing’ are regularly made by those who seek the register. These terms are often used to mean entirely different groups of children, including those already on registers. The current Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel De Souza was the latest to make these claims. Full Fact and Education Data Lab fact checked her claims and found them to be false. However even though her claims are demonstrably false they were published and repeated widely.
Home educated children are not ‘missing’
Children who are home educated are not ‘missing’. They are not ‘invisible’, nor ‘ghost children’. They are seen by numerous people including professionals and are on other local authority databases, state databases, the NHS databases. They are just not on the Department for Education database as there is no reason for them to be and GDRP and the Data Protection Act 2018 are clear that only necessary data can be held.
Being ‘hidden’ is not the problem
These claims that children are ‘hidden’, that school is the answer and of scapegoating home educators is not new. These are being made now, around Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’ death, but were also made twenty years ago, after the murder of Victoria Climbié. The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK spoke out against this twisting of the truth, and they continue to fight for children to be listened to by the child protection system. These children were not invisible. Opportunities were missed to help them. Serious Case Reviews show that children who are killed are known to the system, that people, including family and friends and schools were concerned and that they raised concerns.
State oversight does not equal safety or education
The claimed link between being ‘missing’ – or rather that the state lacks oversight – and missing out on education is false.
Looked After Children are one group often made to miss out on education. These are children who are under state care. The problem is not that they are ‘missing’ or not on a database, instead there is evidence that schools under pressure to hit governmental targets on attainment and attendance are reluctant to admit children who are likely to negatively impact this.
Another cohort of children missing education are children with special educational needs who have not been provided with a school place. These families are often involved in long fights with their local authorities and cannot be described as missing.
There are large numbers 80-100,000 children who are persistently absent from school. Again, these children are not missing, they are on school roll. Parent led organisations which campaign on raising awareness of the reasons for non-attendance and of the barriers to attending experienced cite zero tolerance behaviour policies and strict attendance policies as exacerbating factors.
Myth: The state must have oversight of children to keep them safe
Reality: Surveillance does not keep us safer and the European Convention on Human Rights set clear limits on state intervention for a reason
It can be necessary for the state to intervene when a child is at risk of significant harm. However pulling greater numbers of families into safeguarding procedures without this threshold being reached does not equate to keeping children safer. Increased surveillance has been shown to lead to more families being caught up in social services assessments. There is no evidence that increased levels of assessments has resulted in reduced harm to children, indeed it is well documented that there are far reaching and damaging impacts for both the child and the wider family of assessment, as a result of concerns that are often unfounded.
Unless there is concern that a child is at risk of significant harm parents must be allowed to bring up their children without the state coercively intervening. This is a matter of human rights and the European Convention on Human Rights sets out clear guidelines on the balance between State and family. Surveillance of an entire community does not meet this threshold. The UK Supreme Court ‘Named Person’ ruling upheld this in 2016 and gave clear guidance as to the fundamental need for democracy to protect the autonomy of the family from the state.
Home education is not a safeguarding risk
Instead, keeping children safe is actually a driver for home education. Significant numbers of families make the decision because school was causing their child significant harm.
The focus on testing, the narrow curriculum and zero tolerance behaviour policies all create stress and emotional harm, especially to children who find these restrictions more difficult. Sexual abuse and serious bullying are a widespread problem within schools.
Disabled children and young people are regularly subjected to restraint and to seclusion which inflicts serious physical and psychological damage. There is extensive evidence that the legal practice of isolation causes serious psychological and emotional harm.
The state regularly fails children in its care
The state claims it is the provider of safety and yet it is repeatedly shown not to be, from examples such as the negligence and abuse children in Lambeth suffered from the 1960s to 1990s, condemned by The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in July 2021. Indeed, even without horrors such as these the outcomes for Looked After Children are poor on all measures.
Myth: The state ensures that children receive a suitable education
Reality: Parents NOT the state have this duty. The state has a duty to make adequate free provision, a duty it could be argued that they are failing to meet
Parental duty to ensure child receives suitable education
That children have a right to an education is enshrined by the UNCRC article 28 but the duty bearer of this obligation is NOT the state, it is the parents or carers of the child, as per Section 7 of the Education Act. Article 28 puts a duty on state parties to recognise this right and to make free provision for education. Article 29 requires state parties to agree what education should be directed to, comments on articles 28 and 29 explicitly vetoes full state control of education.
The UNCRC sits within the framework of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the UK is a signatory to, which states:
Right to education: No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
Monitoring is deeply problematic
Parental right to decide what a suitable education should look like is clear, as stated by the ECHR Special Rapporteur on Education in 1999. “The respect of parents’ freedom to educate their children according to their vision of what education should be has been part of international human rights standards since their very emergence.”
Attempts by local authorities to monitor often imposes expectations of school onto what home education should look like, mistaking the evidence school children have to produce that they are learning for the learning itself. This is particularly problematic for parents who are providing their children with a self-directed education. Despite the evidence base local authorities understanding is limited, and whilst parents can of course observe progression and development it is impossible for those who don’t know the child to adequately assess this.
Accountability measures have negative impacts
Extensive research into accountability measures and high stakes assessment show negative impact on pedagogy, curriculum and children’s mental health within the school system. (Hutchings 2015, Emler, Zhao et al 2019, Case et al 2000, Robert-Holmes and Bradbury 2016, Carter 2020, State of Mind 2020) Accountability measures are likewise likely to have a negative impact on home educated children’s education, especially those who thrive with less structured provision.
Huge failings of the school system
There is overwhelming evidence that the state does not in fact ensure that all children receive a suitable education. There are extraordinary failings of the school system as a whole. There are estimated to be over five million adults who are functionally illiterate, 17 million who “have difficulty with numbers”, almost all of whom will have gone through the school system. 43% of adults don’t have the basic IT skills required for work. 44% of students leave without gaining at least five GCSEs grade A* to C. By the end of primary school, 43% of children have not reached adequate levels of reading, writing and maths according to a 2016 report from Centre Forum. There are children who are excluded from the mainstream school system, there are numerous children whose needs are not met – the numbers of parents fighting for support for their children is ever growing. The numbers of children who experience barriers in attending school, so called school refusers, is incredibly high.
Parental choice is important for all
To the families and organisations fighting for fair treatment for these children the fact that the state has a limited duty to make educational provision for them can seem deeply unjust. The arguments of home educating families can seem unsympathetic to those who understandably enough want the social contract of school to be better.
But if the situation were to change, if England were to opt out of the human rights framework of the ECHR and instead move to total state responsibility these families would find themselves in an exceedingly dangerous position of having no say. The home education option enables families to ‘vote with their feet’ when necessary and therefore acts as a failsafe measure, both to protect children when the state-sponsored provision breaks down, and to incentivise service providers to resolve any issues which might result in a withdrawal of their funding.