Setting more of the agenda

17 December 2009 by Jennifer

Some suggestions for possible amendments to the Home Education section of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Plus some context for why I’m thinking about this now.

In the UK home ed activist world today (meaning literally today, Thursday), there’s been quite a bit of discussion about the “rock and a hard place” of whether we should be even trying to get the Home Ed part of the Bill amended, versus thrown out. The perceived danger of proposing amendments is:

  1. What if making it slightly less bad helped it to pass? when really it’s an appalling mess and should just be ditched in favour of further thinking.

  2. If we help to design it, then the Govt will say “but this is the Bill you wanted!”, whereas in fact we were just making the best of a terrible job.

But I don’t think (b) matters, because the Govt will say whatever they want to say anyway and most of the Press just takes their word for it.

Opportunity

What I’m mostly feeling about this is that it’s long past time for us to be setting more of the agenda. And this could be an opportunity to do that, at least to some degree.

Some readers will remember that I went to see Alan Simpson recently, who’s my MP. And I said at the time of that post that there was some other useful stuff from that meeting which I hadn’t written about yet.

Well, one of the other things he said to me, which I thought about a lot, was that he thought we had a very good chance of getting the Bill changed and the worst bits taken out, if we started working on that rather than on getting it stopped.

Now I know the UK home ed community has heard that one before. “Oh woe, we can’t stop this new lot of horrible legislation, we can only make it less worse, time to negotiate terms!” – and then people did try to stop it anyway AND SUCCEEDED, so it would have been a mistake to give up and assume we were doomed. So as I started thinking about possible changes, I was also thinking “Better watch out here! I may be being lured onto a slippery path!”

But I was thinking about it. And what I was mostly thinking about was how much my reasons for choosing EHE are about children’s integrity, and how careless this Bill is with the best interests of the children, even though the rhetoric surrounding it is about protecting children.

I had a strong feeling of wanting to articulate all of that: to describe the framework of my principles, and begin to map that onto how laws would look which expressed those principles. In fact the phrase “going back to first principles” came to my mind, as did “foundation”.

Articulating that ethical/philosophical framework, for myself and with others, would be an aim in itself and not directly to do with amendments to this Bill. But now that we are talking about amendments, I wouldn’t at all mind doing some interim/related proactive thinking about: Supposing we did have some new law, and supposing it was completely grounded in what’s best for all children, then what would that look like?

See, I don’t want amendments just to take out the most appallingly damaging bits, or (still less) just to be tabled for the sake of “taking up time”.

Let’s get some Parliamentary debate going on territory that we think is important.

Let’s draft some amendments for things that would actually be good.

Supposing the law had lots of sensible stuff in it. Supposing LAs and Government actually listened to us – as they’re supposed to, seeing as we’re the people their actions most directly affect, and we know the territory from angles they’ve never seen.

Then what would we want?

===

OK, so here are a few ideas.

No more lies

Let’s make it illegal to lie about the existence of elective home-based education.

so it would be illegal to lie that UK children must be in school!

I can’t believe the Govt would be in favour of this, because they do it themselves and they probably want to continue. But wouldn’t it be a fab amendment to propose?!

(I see this as having parallels with equalities/hate-speech legislation – deceitfully denying our existence is a form of prejudice against us as a group.)

[Edited 8 January 2010 to add: Someone commented to me on one of the discussion lists that they were uneasy about this idea in relation to the principle of free speech. They suggested as an alternative just that it should be illegal for public servants to mislead people about EHE in the course of their duties – on the basis that at least we shouldn’t be spending taxpayers’ money on propagating wrong information.]

Awareness raising

LAs should be made to advertise children’s rights, including their right to ask their parents to take them out of school.

States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. – Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12.

(To be clear: I’m not mistakenly implying that children have the right to choose their type of education, which in the UK is legally not the case; I’m saying they have the right to ask, and the right to have their views taken into account. And I’m suggesting that most of them don’t know about EHE – even their parents don’t! – and many don’t know either about their right to have their views taken into account.)

Now in a sane world, that ought to be quite hard to argue against. Children ought to hear about their own human rights (at some intellectually/emotionally appropriate level of understanding), same as they ought to know the number of Childline!

So this would include ceasing to lie, but would be a bit more proactive than that as well, in terms of actively distributing info about EHE as an option.

Like for instance: you know those posters and adverts we see every summer saying you “must” register your child in school? I’m imagining posters and adverts like that, as widely distributed (e.g. up in every local library), only on a different subject. They’d include a statement of children’s human right to have their views heard and “given due weight”. And they’d explain the law on EHE. (whatever it might be by then.)

This would almost certainly directly save children’s lives.

We know that bullying is a factor in teen suicide. We know that some parents of EHE children have reported that their children were considering suicide while at school, and that the parents believe that being able to get out of school saved their child’s life. Chances are, some parent right now as I write this is in terrible distress because they wrongly believe that they have to keep forcing their child into school despite the damage they know it’s doing. (Though, the more the Govt makes a big deal of EHE, the more people-in-general hear about it, so at least that’s beginning to change.)

I know there’s a temptation to keep EHE a secret in case the “wrong families” hear about it; I’ve felt that tug of temptation myself. But it’s ethically indefensible.

This law should include that wherever LAs advertise school registration or talk about school places, they must include info about EHE, even if only in the small print.

Networking duties

LAs should be made to maintain an info package including any info that local home edders ask them to include about local or national groups, events and e-lists. E.g. copies of flyers or whatever. Whenever LAs newly encounter an EHE-ing family, they must hand over a copy of the package. They must also do an annual mailshot to all families they’re aware of, with the up-to-date package.

Now if there’s going to be any new law whatsoever then this should definitely be in it! i.m.n.s.h.o.

It’s completely do-able, the cost would be negligible in the context of their proposed millions of pounds, and it would do most families far more good than the LA’s interference!

(thinking now of the number of emails I’ve seen from new people on our local list that basically just say “what is there around here for children of [age group]?”. It’s a fundamental part of finding one’s feet in the new world of EHE.)

Recruitment and expertise

In the case of any visits, whether voluntary or compulsory, families practising child-led education must be able to opt for their visitor to be a practitioner of home-based, child-led education.

The more general point here is about recruiting from the community you serve. That’s just plain old good practice.

Likewise, let’s draft an amendment that says parents of a child with special educational needs must be able to opt for a visitor with adequate training in their child’s needs. It should really be the family’s call whether a visitor was acceptable to them, because some people are nominally trained in a particular area but actually useless to that particular child.

Exam funding

Personally, I’m not 100% gung-ho about the right to get exams funded by the LA. I can certainly see the point of it, but I can also see possible drawbacks. But it’s obviously struck a chord with a lot of politicians, so I think it might be useful to draft something clear to pin it down, which doesn’t hook it up with a load of unnecessary hoop-jumping.

Maybe something like…

The LA shall fund EHE children’s exams on request, unless the child already failed the exam once.

I know that funding isn’t always the main obstacle; sometimes it’s more about finding anywhere reasonably local to take the exam.

I don’t know enough about this area to suggest what the draft should be, but how about, “starter for 10”: The LA shall supply any help which the family requests in arranging exams for the child.

Accountability to the community they serve

We also want something about LAs being accountable to local EHE families. There’s probably already some generic laws that tell them to ask us what we want, but they’re ignoring them.

I think on this one we’d need first to talk amongst ourselves about what kind of structure(s) we think could be good for this. I’m sure we wouldn’t all think the same. I gather there are the beginnings of such structures in some places, though, so there’s some experience to base the thinking on.

Helpline/website

I’m not quite sure how this would work. But it would be good if the Education Everywhere helpline, or something similar to it, could be scaled up to the point where it was reasonable to make LAs cite its number whenever they mention EHE.

Alternatively – more practically as regards scale, though not necessarily any easier in terms of arguing about how to do it – perhaps we could construct some kind of central community web site and make the LAs give that address on all their schooly posters and suchlike.

The thing is: when people begin to consider EHE, there’s a very early stage where they need reliable facts, and the opportunity to find out what’s available in their area. And given past histories of LA misinformation, I don’t trust the LAs to be the only avenue for information at that crucial stage.

Do you think there’s any chance that we-the-community could agree enough on this to create such a site under a new name? on the basis that it would simply link to all the other main sites like Mike F-W’s one and EO and AHEd and HEAS and Education Everywhere and a map of local groups?

Maybe worth thinking about, anyway…

and then, if we could, then we could aim to incorporate into law a requirement for the LAs to give that website address under certain circumstances.

===

So there’s a few to be going on with… and I know other people are already thinking on similarly creative lines.

How much change can we work on the Bill? can we get rid of it? I don’t know. But I do know there’s power in framing the terms of the debate, and we have a chance to do that here to some degree, at least more than we had at the Badman Report stage.

Table of Contents
Setting more of the agenda
Opportunity
No more lies
Awareness raising
Networking duties
Recruitment and expertise
Exam funding
Accountability to the community they serve
Helpline/website

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