Is UK home schooling dangerously unregulated?

The recent reports concerning the abused Turpin siblings in California could not fail to disturb anyone who read them and the question often asked when such horrific situations come to light is, how did nobody notice these children were being mistreated?

There is a multitude of reasons why such cruelty goes unnoticed but a dominating factor surely has to be that the state of California allows children to be educated at home if their parents open a ‘home-based school’ and file an affidavit. In this instance the house of horrors on Muir Woods Road doubled as school for the siblings, however there was no official oversight or inspection in to their education leaving the Turpin parents free to continue their reign of terror.

The provisions in the UK regarding home schooling are actually just as lax.  There is a common misconception that home schooling arrangements are inspected by local authorities but this is not the case.  In theory councils can make ‘informal enquiries’ about the suitability of the education a home schooled child is receiving and have the ability to serve a School Attendance Order if they think a child should be taught in a school.  However, in practice it does not seem that these powers are widely utilised.

This has come to the notice of politicians and a Private Members Bill on this topic is currently making its way through the House of Lords.  The Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill seeks to place an explicit burden on local authorities to monitor the development, educational and otherwise, of home educated children and for parents to register home-educated children with their local authority.  Private Members Bills however are notoriously difficult to pass and whether this one will make it through to Royal Assent is debateable, especially as the government feels the bill goes too far.  As a pacifier, they are offering to publish a draft of revised guidance documents on elective home education for local authorities and for parents, and to consult on them.

The Welsh government has also recognised some of the problems in this area following the high profile death of an 11 year old boy named Dylan Seabridge who passed away from scurvy after being home educated for many years.  A new statutory register for home schooled children in Wales is now being set up to try and ensure no more young people like Dylan slip through the cracks of a system that clearly was not working for vulnerable children.  Home schooling in cases like this is evidently not because parents feel they can provide a superior curriculum to a traditional school, it is simply about removing a child from society.

The parents of Dylan Seabridge who died, aged 11, from scurvy 

Removing their children from the formal education system entirely may also be tempting for those parents who have difficulty getting their children to attend school.  Recent governments have cracked down on the issue of truancy and when dealing with a surly and problematic teenager, parents, who can now face prosecution for their offspring’s truancy, could be forgiven for thinking that simply removing them from school for a home education would be an easy fix.  This would be a worrying unintended consequence of the way the home schooling system currently works, as if a parent had been unable to ensure that their child attended school, the likelihood that they would be able to provide them with an adequate educational experience seems doubtful.  The fact that 16,430 people were prosecuted in 2014 and 8 were handed jail terms in 2015 for failing to ensure their children went to school is food for thought.

These rising numbers of prosecutions are likely down to a tightening of the rules around children taking days off in term time with the Department for Education stating that ‘evidence shows that every extra day of school missed can affect a pupil’s chances of achieving good GCSEs, which has a lasting impact on their life chances.’  It seems peculiar for the government to take such a hard line on the benefits of structured education but then allow children to be removed from this completely with no mandatory oversight.

Making these issues even more pertinent is the fact that the number of children being home educated is increasing, in Norfolk the level has risen by a whopping 20% in one year and overall the number of children being home educated in England has almost doubled since 2011 with just under 30,000 now being schooled in this way.

Despite the prior instances mentioned, evidently it is not the case that home schooling is usually operated as a cover to facilitate abuse or neglect, these are extreme circumstances.  However, aside from the general welfare issues at play, I do question the ability of many parents to provide their children with the education they deserve in the 21st century. There are reasons that teachers are provided with so much training and why so much thought goes in to our National Curriculum (which I do think should be adhered to by academies also, though at least they have to follow a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum).

I remain sceptical that the majority of home educated children are receiving the level of education that they would receive in a school and with such little oversight of the system, we really have no way of knowing.  There is just something distinctly unsettling about one or two people being able to decide unilaterally what a child is taught and I cannot imagine that it generally leads to a rigorous and diverse tutoring.

I know that some parents really do only have their child’s best interests at heart when home educating them and there will of course be those who do a fantastic job of creating their own varied and informative curriculum.  Nevertheless, going to school is about more than academic learning, schools are where you learn how to interact with others and find out how to become part of society.  The socialisation aspects of being in school are arguably as important as the strictly educational ones.

Other countries are not as tolerant as Britain regarding home education.  In Germany it is banned, with very rare exceptions in the case of ill health, but not simply to accommodate for alternative or religious learning methods and the same goes in Sweden where exceptions are rarely ever granted.  The Netherlands does not technically recognise home schooling but is somewhat more relaxed as it does allow for some home education on the basis of religious exemptions.  In France, you can home school but you are then subject to an annual inspection and if two inspections are rated unsatisfactory then the child must go to school.

For the most part, Britain has long allowed its citizens the ability to make their own choices about how to conduct their lives and the government maintains that it respects the rights of parents to home educate their children.  However, I would posit that this places the rights of the parent above the rights of the child and maintain that all children should be educated in a school where they can be taught many different subjects, by different people, alongside others they can debate with and learn from.

Clearly, this is not the path our government intends to take.  If they feel the Private Members Bill that places more explicit burdens on local authorities to monitor home education goes too far, obviously they have no intention of banning it entirely.  Therefore there will continue to be children in this country whose abuse could have perhaps been prevented and some who will never reach their full academic or professional potential due to our lenient stance on home schooling.


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