Ofsted and Children "missing" from Education

Today Ofsted has published a report called, without any apparent irony, ‘Children Missing from Education’. Anyone involved in home education will find its assumptions and conclusions highly questionable, at the very least.

The summary of the survey reads as follows:

‘Ofsted’s latest survey highlights the challenges local authorities face in identifying and tracking children who are missing from education. Children missing from education, and whose whereabouts become unknown, not only risk failing academically but are also potentially vulnerable to physical, emotional and psychological harm.

‘The Children missing from education report surveyed 15 local authorities of different sizes across England, in both urban and rural areas. It found that none of the authorities felt confident that they knew about all the children living in their area in order to fulfil their duties to keep children safe.’

The first and most obvious point to make is that although some children may be (shamefully!) missing from certain local authorities’ records, this does not mean they are missing from education. On the contrary, we can be sure that many of them are receiving a full and carefully-constructed education within the home environment.

At Oxford Home Schooling, we are supporting thousands of students in this category, most of them working successfully towards Key Stage 3, GCSE and A-level qualifications. Some of these youngsters have been assisted by their local authorities, others have been studiously ignored.

We are not aware of a single home-learner who is “vulnerable to physical, emotional and psychological harm”, although one can never be complacent.  We work closely not just with the students but with their families and in the vast majority of cases, the families are close-knit, supportive and conscientious in their commitment to a high-quality education within the home environment.

Once again the tragic case of Khyra Ishaq is hauled into the debate, e.g. in the BBC’s report on the Ofsted survey, as if the tragedy would have been averted if the local authorities had had slightly different powers. In that case, the authorities had enough information and enough power to intervene but, for various reasons, did not do so in time.

The obvious lack of education taking place was the least of the apparent problems.  But the authorities had the power to ask the Ishaq family to demonstrate that full-time and appropriate education was in place and, if evidence was not forthcoming, to issue a School Attendance Order. This seems to me to be an appropriate set of safeguards and procedures and it is a shame that they were not observed. For Ofsted to claim that local authorities are unable to deal with home-educated children is disingenuous in the extreme.

Ofsted are best known for their inspections of schools so it should come as no surprise that they are in favour of inspection of homes where home education is (or is not) taking place. At a time when a new government is putting quangoes to the sword,  or, worse still, sending them to Coventry, it is understandable that it should seek to appropriate yet more powers and generate the work that might save a few of their own jobs.

But they are unlikely to get their wish. This is partly because of the near-universal hostility to the idea of inspection amongst the bona fide home-schooling community (e.g. HEAS).  Perhaps more importantly, the timing is all wrong. The Labour government, during three terms in office, might have sought to apply the same level of bureaucratic control to home schooling as it has done to other aspects of education, but it did not do so in the end.

The Con-Lib coalition has a a very different philosophy. At a time when the government is seeking to reduce cost, bureaucracy and the “nanny state”, it is highly unlikely to tamper with the delicate balance of freedoms, controls and responsibilities which is currently applied to the home education sector. In that context, Ofsted’s report will be pereceived as an empty gesture.

Our experience at OHS is that local authorities vary enormously in their treatment of home learners.  Some do not even have the mechanisms to find out from the schools involved that a particular pupil has been withdrawn. It would be a good idea to put effective systems in place, right across the country, to  ensure that schools do  always share this information. Home-educating families can then be positively supported rather than suspiciously monitored and inspected. But there is a world of difference between the provision of resources, tutors and perhaps even funding and the kind of unwelcome control that Ofsted offers.

(Dr) Nicholas Smith,

Principal, Oxford Home Schooling

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