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Skipping School: Invisible Children - How Children Disappear from England’s Schools (Children’s Commissioner February 2018)
This report from the Children’s Commissioner asserts that there is an increasing number of children being home-schooled, and seeks to examine what is driving it, the impact it is having on children and what should be done to address it. (https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/cco-skipping-school-invisible-children-feb-2019.pdf)
This briefing outlines the current social and policy context of home education in England and summarises the main concerns identified by the report with regard to the education and welfare standards of some home-schooled children, including those with SEND. A particular issue raised is in relation to pupils who are seemingly off-rolled from schools into home education. They do not show up in school records and the concern is what happens to lots of these pupils afterwards.
Current Social and Policy Context
The ADCS suggests around 58,000 children were being home educated across England as whole in autumn 2018, an increase of 27% since 2017, though the figures are not exact as there is no formal registration of home-educated children (ADCS, 2018).
Parents may choose home education for a variety of reasons, such as: distance or access to a local school, religious or cultural beliefs, philosophical or ideological views, dissatisfaction with the system, bullying, as a short term intervention for a particular reason, a child's unwillingness or inability to go to school, special educational needs, parents' desire for a closer relationship with their children.
‘Elective home education’ as defined by the government is the right of the parents to educate their child at home. Parents must ensure that their children receive a suitable full-time education for as long as they are being educated at home. A ‘suitable’ education is referenced in the Guidance as one that “primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so” (Elective Home Education, Guidelines for Local Authorities (Department of Education). Parents are not required to register or seek approval from the local authority to educate their children at home, and although local authorities are required to identify children not receiving a suitable education they have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis. In addition, they do not have the powers to enter the home of, or otherwise see, children for the purposes of monitoring the provision of elective home education.
Local authorities can make informal requests for information from parents, however the research suggests that they lack resources to effectively monitor and support home education. If there is a concern a School Attendance Order can be issued requiring the child to attend school. However, this legal process has been criticised as ‘lengthy’ meaning children can be without education for many months and that compliance is not guaranteed (ADCS, 2018).
Concerns Identified in the Report
Children’s Needs Not Being Met
The ADCS survey found the most common reason parents gave for choosing to home-school their children was ‘dissatisfaction’ with a school and ‘health and emotional’ reasons. (http://adcs.org.uk/education/article/elective-home-education-survey-2018) (ADCS 2018).
The Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield suggests that for many parents, home education is not ‘elective’ but is a forced response to their child not ‘fitting in’ e.g. a child being bullied. Some parents cannot find a school that can meet their child’s needs. The report further suggests a link between the growth in home education and the rise in children leaving school due to their needs being unmet.
Another concern raised is because schools’ performance is measured on exam results there is more focus on the school’s progress scores and not on the needs of individual children.
‘Off-rolling’ or Exclusion?
Schools may put pressure on parents to remove children who don’t ‘fit’ i.e. because they are unhappy or not coping and parents have reached crisis point. Ofsted defines off-rolling as: “The practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil.”
The ADCS Home Education Survey 2018 found that the age group where home-schooling is rising is Key Stage 4, the critical GCSE years, suggesting possible evidence of schools off-rolling. These children have higher rates of SEN, English as an additional language, and free school meals. The concern is that without the additional care from schools or external agencies such as CAMHS the children can fall through the gaps. This includes children with special educational needs (SEND).
Off-rolling is distinct from formal exclusion, when a proper process must be followed, as set out in statutory guidance and includes rights for parents. Where the ability to exclude is important to maintain the safety of classrooms for children, schools can only exclude for disciplinary reasons. There is concern that schools that off-roll are effectively excluding children for non-disciplinary grounds. Moreover, parents may feel obliged to accept home education to avoid a formal exclusion.
Anne Longfield comments that “schools should be helping every child to meet their potential. This means identifying and acknowledging individual children’s needs and providing extra support where necessary”.
The report acknowledges the budgetary constraints on schools and the drive for good results. The majority of school leaders say they are finding it harder to fund support for pupils with SEND.
Some school behaviour policies were found to be punitive and counterproductive in enabling those children with additional needs to succeed. Better offers that were identified included support via an early intervention programme, a school counsellor and an autism hub.
There is a concern that children’s needs are under-identified. Teachers have expressed they do not have the training or support to diagnose those children who are not on an Education, Health and Care plan, but may have certain conditions e.g. ADHD, which can present difficulties in the classroom.
A Small but Growing Number of Schools
To date little has been known about off-rolling, most data coming from children leaving school rolls. The Children’s Commissioner’s Office has collected data from 11 local authorities and found that the number of children known to councils being home schooled has increased year on year since 2015. This also included primary schools.
Over the 11 areas it was found that it is mostly a minority of schools that are responsible for the majority of movement into home education – a very small number of schools have high levels of Elective Home Education (EHE) referrals, although the report suggests that the practice is spreading. Academies see the majority of referrals to EHE though this is shown to be also increasing for LA schools. The Children’s Commissioner has sent the data to Ofsted, and plans to write to those schools with the highest rates of EHE asking them how they plan to tackle the issue. Later this year a plan has been made to collect data from all schools in England to ascertain those with high numbers of children being withdrawn into home education which may suggest practices of off-rolling.
Under the Radar
Many local authorities have said they are not confident that they’re aware of all the home educated children living in their area. Because there is no obligation for parents to register that their children are home educated this can mean that those who have never attended a school may not even be known about.
Ofsted has raised a concern that there is anecdotal evidence that some parents want to keep the child out of sight of social services and are taking advantage of the light touch regulation around home-schooling, suggesting some parents remove their children from school following a referral from the school to social care (Letter to Public Accounts Committee, Ofsted, 2018).
Some parents are sending their children to unregistered and illegal schools (or “tuition centres”). They operate outside the statutory framework of keeping children safe and there is concern around their education and welfare standards. Ofsted has raised concerns about parents who use home education as guise to enable them to use illegal schools, e.g. those offering a predominantly religious education (Letter to Public Accounts Committee, Ofsted, 2018).
Ofsted has warned that settings learn how to avoid registration by keeping within the legal definition of what constitutes “full-time”. Because these children are not registered no one knows who the children are or what the state of the education is.
Impact on Children
The report acknowledges the very positive experiences of home education for many children, yet highlights the challenges for some parents and children. Children may feel isolated, and parents may struggle with drawing upon a curriculum with little or no support. It was found that there can be lack of support in finding children another school to attend, meaning children can miss out on education for a considerable time, and return to school only to drop out again as their problems remain unaddressed. Often they reach school leaving age without any qualifications.
What can be done?
The government is currently consulting on current non statutory guidance focusing on what the report says would be only minimal changes in relation to home-schooling to ensure that existing laws are better used by local authorities. In contrast Wales are consulting on statutory guidance that would require local authorities to set up a database to support them to identify children not on the school register.
Ofsted tackles off-rolling in the draft of its new inspection framework, due to be implemented in September 2019. The draft school inspection handbook indicates that a school caught illegally off-rolling will be graded ‘inadequate overall’.
Ofsted has been criticised for its inspection outcomes being heavily shaped by exam results. This new framework shifts its focus to reward schools that are doing the best by all of its pupils rather than just the easiest to teach and proposes a ‘quality of education’ as a new framework.
Conclusions and Recommendations
A cultural shift is needed to help prevent children entering home education when it is not in the family’s true interests or wishes and measures should be put in place for families struggling to cope, to improve their experiences, safety and wellbeing.
The report calls for a compulsory home register for all children taught at home with measures in place to establish the reasons and intentions with regard to re-entering a mainstream school in the future. Information sharing measures should be put in place to ensure children, who may move to another area, do not go off-grid.
Ofsted should focus on the behaviour policies of schools with a high number of children moving to home-education and if there is a link found between the two, the evidence should be shared so that schools can modify their policies. A financial penalty should be considered for schools who are off-rolling pupils.
Children who are withdrawn from school should have a right to re-register with the same school instead of going through an admissions process. Local authorities should be able to direct academies to accept a child who wants a school place.
The report recommends that the local authority should offer advice and support within 3 days of a child leaving the school to be home educated, to explore and support them with alternatives, and give information to make sure parents know the responsibilities they are taking on. This should be followed by a visit after 4-6 weeks allowing for a cooling off period.
Additional funding should be provided to enable education officers to visit at least once per term to assess the suitability of a child’s home education. A child should be spoken to without parents present if there are concerns identified about their welfare.
Legislation should be tightened around the current definition of ‘full time education’ to tackle illegal schools and their current ability to avoid prosecution.
Education Inspection Framework 2019: Inspecting the Substance of Education, Ofsted, 16th January 2019. Consultation, draft handbook and draft inspection framework documents.
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