Where did this all come from?

An article by Edward Underwood, home educator.

Where did this come from? This was the question which parents asked the Department of Education (DE) and the Education and Library Boards (ELBs) when the Draft Elective Home Education Policy was put out for consultation. The response to this question varied from a mysterious lawsuit, where an ELB allegedly had to pay large damages to a dissatisfied Home Educated student, to a need for the boards to fulfill their statutory duty. As the draft policy was examined it became clear that it represented a huge expansion of power for the ELBs and DE but the reason for such a radical change continued to be elusive. Then MLAs and MPs began to ask the DE and the ELBs why this policy was needed and many questions were asked of the Minister of Education for Northern Ireland in the Assembly. His responses have often been unhelpful in understanding the reason for the draft policy. However, the Minister’s latest comments assert the DE has a social duty of care to all children in Home Education, implying that homes are not a safe or efficient place for learning unless validated by educational authorities. On the same day that the Minister was making these claims, a document, Appendix I of Minutes 24 Oct 2013, came to light, due to an FOI request, that presents a very different reality than the one projected by the Minister of Education in this dialogue in the Assembly of Northern Ireland just two days ago.

John O'Dowd - Minister of Education

This is not England, Wales or Scotland.  We have our own education legislation, including on home education.  A consultation is going on.  While I will keep an open mind on the consultation and the guidance that will be issued by the education and library boards, I have a concern that the majority of Members who have spoken on the matter have spoken about the needs of the adult and not of the child. 

Can everyone in the Chamber reassure themselves?  In what way do you reassure yourself that a child who is being home educated is being properly home educated?  How do you reassure yourself of that?  I ask that because it appears to me that everyone who has spoken on the matter thus far is completely reassured - they have no hesitation whatsoever in endorsing the current guidance and saying, "Yes, children are being properly home educated.  We can reassure ourselves, 100%, that, in every case, the children are being properly home educated."  However, as I said in my initial answer, it has already gone as far as litigation against one of the boards because that was not the case.  Therefore, we have a legal duty to make sure that we are doing it properly.  I think that we also have a moral duty to make sure that we are doing it properly.

Mervyn Storey - MLA

It is disappointing that the Education Minister has cast a slur on parents who make the choice to educate their children at home.  I think that he should seriously reflect on what he has said in the House today.  Will the Minister confirm that representatives from his Department attended meetings of the strategic regional group on this issue?

John O'Dowd

Mr Deputy Speaker if people who wish to be a Minister but cannot make it to the role of Minister continue to interrupt me, it is very hard to do Question Time.  The Member appears desperately to require a Dispach Box in front of him.  Perhaps the First Minister, who has just left, will treat him to a Dispatch Box some day.

What I said was that we have a duty of care to the children involved, and we do have a duty of care to those children.  In my original answer, I pointed out that this has reached litigation stage and entered the realms of law.  The law has said that the guidance requires to be reviewed.  The education and library boards have taken it on board and reviewed it.  I do not have in front of me a diary of every meeting that my officials have ever attended, nor do I wish to have such a diary, but I regret the fact that the boards did not present me with the consultation documents before issuing.  However, I believe that the consultation should continue.  I have committed to the House and to others that, at the end of it, I will sign off the guidance if I am satisfied that it is in compliance with the legislation.

Pat Sheehan - MLA

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagraí.  Will the Minister tell us what arrangements are in place to monitor the education provided to children at home?

John O'Dowd - Minister of Education

The arrangements are broadly as follows.  The boards have advised that they do not undertake inspections of home education.  While the Education and Training Inspectorate provides inspection services for a number of organisations, it does not undertake inspections of home education provision.  The boards have various arrangements in place to monitor the education provided to children who are educated at home.  This includes annual visits to a child's home, reviewing samples of a child's work and providing advice to parents on how to support their child's education.

I understand that the boards' draft home education guidance document does not include any reference to the inspection process but proposes that each board will undertake monitoring that will focus on a child's welfare; ensure that a child has access to education suited to his or her age, ability and aptitude; and provide advice to parents on educational resources.  It would be very difficult for anybody in the House to disagree with those three points:  the boards will monitor a child's welfare; it will be ensured that a child has access to education suitable to his or her age; and advice will be provided to parents on educational resources.  Are Members opposite and to my left - physically rather than politically - suggesting that that should not be the case?  I do not see any difficulties in any of those three matters.  However, I have said, and I repeat, that we will assure that whatever guidance is issued is in compliance with the law.

The first item to address is the statement by the Minister concerning a duty of care for children involved in Home Education. The Minister makes the claim that the DE and ELBs main concern is for the safety and effective education of every child. However, In light of Appendix I of Minutes 24 October 2013, it is clear that one of the main concerns of the ELBs and the DE was developing supposed protection from litigation, not any effort to address fact based concerns for children. Additional FOI requests of all the ELBs have proven that there is no research and no data-based finding that there is any issue with children who are home educated receiving education nor is there any evidence that children in home education are at any unusual risk of harm. Actually, the best data available indicates that children who are educated at home are at far less risk than children in the public schools.

Secondly, we must reject the Minister’s ad hominem rhetoric about the need for the DE to have 100% assurance that children are receiving adequate education and are safe. It is certain that the Minister could not provide 100% assurance that children will not be violently attacked, bullied, abused or even receive a good education in the institutions for which he has clear legal duty. What the best data available shows is that children educated at home are less at risk then their peers in public education and typically out-perform them academically.

Thirdly, the Minister makes reference to litigation that prompted them to develop this Draft Policy. However he continues to refuse to reveal what the complaint was, whether this was brought to judgment and what the finding of the court was. The Minister claims that a court has ordered a review of the current practice. Where is that order and what does it say?

Fourthly, the Minister makes the claim that he has a duty of care to children involved in home education. This is simply not true. Nowhere in the law is such a duty conferred.

Fifthly, the Minister claims he has no knowledge of the development of the core aspects of the Draft Policy when the Appendix I of Minutes 24 October 2013 clearly record that it was DE personnel who proposed many of the most objectionable elements of the Draft Policy. It is true that the Draft Policy was not presented to the Minister before the consultation. However, that strategy was in fact predetermined by the DE and ELB representatives in the Oct 2013 meeting, thus shielding the DE from responsibility for Draft Policy.

Sixthly, the Minister has claimed that Home Education is not to be "Inspected" but rather "monitored" and "assessed'. This must be some arcane use of speech on the part of the Minister. It is true that the ETI (Education and Training Inspectorate) does not "inspect" home education - that is because they have no legal remit to do so. However, what the Minister refers to as "monitor and assess" would look just like an "inspection" to the average parent and home-educated child. As the law is written today, neither the DE nor the ELBs have any duty to monitor, nor assess home education. They do have a duty to respond should there be a report that an education is nor occurring. This idea that the DE and ELB have a duty to monitor home education is an imaginative extension of the law and in the Appendix I of Minutes 24 October 2013 the ELBs acknowledge that they have no authority to assess a home-educated child without parents’ consent.

In reality, the current practice, which was used as a pattern for the Draft Policy, is intrusive and overbearing. Families report that initial visits were "pastoral" in nature with an effort to build rapport. However, once this initial period passed the "monitoring visits" became very intense. Examples of some interactions: "Oh, your child is taking dance lessons? Very good - please do a dance for me, now"; "Your child is taking music lessons? Then please have your child play some music for me". This type of "monitoring" where the child has to "stand and deliver" last for over an hour. The BELB have a very detailed process. The form they use has been reproduced by an HE family and can be found here: http://www.hedni.org/files/pdfs/elbpolicy2014/BELBHEMonitoringForm.pdf

This type of "monitoring" is done by personnel who are not trained in home education theory and practice. Such intense "assessment" is not required of any child in a public school. It is also a de facto imposition of the national curriculum since the national curriculum informs the monitoring process. It should be noted that the ELBs have refused on multiple occasions to provide the assessment framework which is listed in the flowchart in the Draft Policy. This refusal is based on a claim that the assessment framework has not been created yet. So, we have a situation where DE and the ELBs refuse to reveal what assessment will look like, even though they claim it is one of the main reasons for the new policy.

Lastly, the Minister states that the DE and ELBs have a duty to monitor the child's welfare. This is also an imaginative extension of the law. Children playing, learning, eating and sleeping in their home is not a state regulated activity and therefore the ELBs and the DE have no duty to monitor. This is very clear in policy and legal precedent in Northern Ireland.  

Though many families that are involved with home education have offered to work with the DE and ELBs to form a workable policy, this good will has been ignored by the DE and ELBs. Rather, the DE seems determined to cast home education as a shady endeavor in need of close regulation and scrutiny. But this vast extension of powers desired by the DE and ELBs would actually allow them to enter any home with school age children and require those families to prove they have a home that is safe and efficient for learning.

History has many examples of the state seeking extraordinary powers in the name of 'protection' and it has never yet worked out well. It seems unlikely that it would in this case either.