Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 13:32 UK

'Give us respect, not suspicion'

By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

Callum
Callum was bullied at school because of his Asperger's Syndrome

"There are no plans to change parents' well-established rights to educate their children at home," says the government.

Yet it has clearly decided that long-standing arrangements in England surrounding home education require closer attention.

A review due to be published shortly is based on concern some local authorities are neither monitoring home educating families, nor offering them sufficient support.

But they are also investigating whether home education could be a cover for abuse.

After cases of serious child abuse, all aspects of child protection are under the microscope.

Until now there has been a relatively softly-softly approach to home education, which could be about to change.

But many home educators resent the suspicion they receive, and feel they are a soft target.

Sheila Jasper educates her nine-year-old son Callum, who has Asperger's Syndrome.

She says the bullying he received at school itself constituted abuse.

"Most parents home educate for the sake of their child," she said.

"It's very unlikely they will be putting it into an abusive state - they are more likely to be taking the child out of one to home educate.

"Our children are out in the community. It is very difficult for home educated children to be hidden."

Monitoring

It is a parent's duty to provide a suitable education for their child, "either by regular attendance at school or otherwise" according to legislation.

Parents can withdraw them from school to home educate - though in Scotland, the local authority needs to give consent.

"Vulnerable groups" of children, such as those on the child protection register or in care, are more stringently monitored, and there are clear guidelines for local authorities on how to do this.

But home educated children are not in this category, and authorities have no statutory duty to routinely monitor provision for their education.

If a child is withdrawn from a school, the school must inform the local authority, triggering enquiries surrounding their continuing education.

Ann Newstead
If one thing could come out of this review which would mean it was not a complete waste of public money, it would be that the decision to home educate is treated with respect and as a positive choice
Ann Newstead

But officially parents do not even have to allow any official to perform a monitoring visit, though again Scotland differs slightly, recommending authorities visit families once a year.

This more relaxed approach towards monitoring in England might lead to a gut reaction that abuse could easily be hidden.

Children's charity the NSPCC has voiced concerns, saying existing guidance is "outdated" and needs to balance better the child's right to protection with a parent's right to home educate.

Ann Newstead, from charity Education Otherwise, says that in practice it is very hard for any child not to be known to authorities.

Any child with special educational needs will be in contact with local services anyway, she says, and there are very few who have never been to school and would be unknown.

A local authority in the UK must intervene only if it suspects a child is not receiving a suitable education, in which case it can serve a notice on the parent.

But what constitutes a suitable education, and competence on the part of the parent, is very much discretionary.

Home educating parents need not have any teaching experience, nor do they have to show they are teaching any set subjects or curriculum.

Support

But Ann Newstead says the issue is not lack of scrutiny by local authorities, it is the variable levels of support and differing attitudes parents encounter.

Home educating families "are getting no support from anyone", she said.

And they can tend to avoid public bodies because of the level of suspicion they receive, she said.

"If one thing could come out of this review which would mean it was not a complete waste of public money, it would be that the decision to home educate is treated with respect and as a positive choice," Ann Newstead says.

Far from being "alternative" in their beliefs as many people think, she adds, many home educating parents end up turning to that lifestyle to make ends meet.

They begin growing their own vegetables and making things for their home rather than buying them.

Welsh review

Sheila Jasper says some measure of financial support would also help her - as long as it came with no strings attached.

"It would be nice just to have support to take exams, or to be able to get some paper," she says.

"I tend to ask for everything I need for birthday and Christmas presents."

It is not known how many children are being home educated across the UK.

The most recent estimates vary between 35,000 and 50,000.

The Welsh Assembly government is to carry out its own review on home education guidance which "might consider more robust inspection", a spokesman said.

He said it would be watching closely the outcome in England.



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SEE ALSO
Home educators 'must register'
11 Jun 09 |  Education
Home educators angry at review
19 Jan 09 |  Education
Home learning numbers uncertain
23 Feb 07 |  Education
Parents given home teaching money
08 Apr 09 |  Essex

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