The number of children being homeschooled could soon become a serious problem

There is, according to the Department for Education, ‘considerable evidence’ that many children are not receiving a suitable education at home (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
There is, according to the Department for Education, ‘considerable evidence’ that many children are not receiving a suitable education at home (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Frazzled parents driven to their wits’ end by lockdown homeschooling probably view the prospect of doing it permanently with something akin to the level of horror you might experience at a 24 hour cinema screening including, but not limited to, The Exorcist, Halloween, The Shining and Hereditary.

There was a national sigh of relief when schools reopened, albeit one tempered by nervousness given the government’s cavalier mismanagement of the pandemic and the fact that children’s safety at school has been entrusted to the kiwi fruit otherwise known as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson.

But some children haven’t gone back. Their parents have instead opted to join Britain’s homeschooling movement (although to call it that is probably a mistake because the motivations for going down this route vary widely). Sometimes they’re good; sometimes not so much, especially when the decision is motivated by religious zealotry (and that can be found lurking within all Britain’s major religions). Some people have homeschooling forced upon them. But we’ll get to that.

The striking thing, as the Parliamentary Education Committee highlights in a report out today, is that no one is exactly sure how many children are in this position. As a parent you have, by law, a duty to ensure that your kids receive a suitable education, whether in school or “otherwise”.

The kiwi fruit’s department does not currently collect figures on the “otherwise” but the Association of Directors of Children’s Services projected that as of October 2020 more than 75,000 children were being educated at home, an increase of more than a third (38 per cent) over the previous year. There is good evidence that the number has increased further since then. But, again, no one knows for sure. Grounds for concern, then.

There is also, according to the Department for Education, “considerable evidence” that many children are not receiving a suitable education at home. So grounds for deep concern. It only gets deeper when you realise there isn’t much data available concerning outcomes for children so schooled and that they can find getting access to the exams (which might help with that) quite difficult.

Clearly there’s an issue here and the committee is right to raise it. It’s also on the right track in calling for the creation of a register, improved access to exams, and the collection of better data, not least because I strongly suspect that a lot of the parents in this position have children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Data might shine a much needed light on that.

Parents in the special needs jungle (there is a very good self help website with that name) know it as a hostile and forbidding place. It is a situation my family is in, but we are extraordinarily lucky. We’ve managed to find a school that is supportive and willing to go the extra mile. But that type of school isn’t always easy to find. I vividly remember the reaction of one member of staff at an academy local to us who, when informed of our child’s needs while we were doing the rounds of the local secondaries, shrugged and said: “They’ll just have to learn to deal with it. It’s a big school.”

Some children can’t simply “deal with it” and schools like that often respond by “managing” them out. Part of the reason for this is the corrosive effect of school league labels. Partly it is down to a lack of will. But partly it is also caused by the lack of funds to do anything to help.

I know as a former school governor, during which time I served as the SEND link, that what resources there are for special needs are inevitably focussed on children with Education Health & Social Care Plans (EHCPs) which spell out what has to be provided. Securing one of these for your child typically requires getting into a bare knuckle brawl with the local council. Willy Wonka was freer with the golden tickets to his chocolate factory than they are with these. The ability to pay for legal help is often the deciding factor in who gets one.

All this helps to explain why a lot of SEND kids end up getting educated at home by parents who may be ill equipped to do so but lack any better options. The report does recognise the issue. It calls for them to have independent advocates appointed to assess their needs and provide assistance. All SEND parents could use this sort of thing. But, once again, funding.

It sounds trite to constantly raise that issue because everyone wants more money. But when it comes to special needs, and education in general, the need is desperate. Lack of resource is at the core of the cynical, and sometimes downright illegal, approach of some schools and local authorities. It is what traps parents in catch 22s.

MPs, and especially ministers, are all too fond of wagging their fingers at schools, parents and local councils and telling them they must try harder while at the same time waving away questions about funding and the general under-investment Britain makes in its children. At least those children whose parents lack the ability to pony up for what Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s parents paid for him to have at Eton. Which is most children.

The home schooling boom does deserve more scrutiny. Parents involved could often use more support, as the report recognises, just so long as the provision it calls for doesn’t turn into official bullying. But resources, resources, resources.

Our best hope for change is that the kiwi fruit can mount an effective bid for more of them with the Treasury, because that’s the only way this problem is going to be properly addressed. Given his department’s failing grade, however, my hopes are not high.

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