Last week I wrote about the Home Education Law in England which is so important when considering homeschooling. For most of us, dealing with the home education authorities will happen at some point in our home educating careers. If you are in an area with supportive authorities, it can be as simple as sending in a yearly report. Unfortunately, things are changing. I belong to many homeschool Facebook groups, and the nature of the posts have taken a worrying turn. Dealing with the home education authorities is becoming more and more challenging. It is therefore incredibly important that you know both the law surrounding home education and the additional legal precedents.
What are Legal Precedents?
Judicial precedent is also known as binding precedent. It refers to the fact that lower courts must follow the decisions of the higher courts. It is a doctrine based on the Latin principle: ‘stare decisis et non quieta movere‘. This basically means to stand by that which has gone before. In practical terms, this means that higher courts are able to make certain rulings. And these rulings may change slightly the way a law is perceived or actionable upon. Only the Supreme Courts, the Court of Appeal and the Divisional Courts have the power to create precedents. Other courts such as County Courts, Crown Courts and Magistrates Courts do not have this power. They must follow the decisions of the higher courts.
Dealing with Home Education Authorities: Knowing the Precedents
Knowing education law is essential. However, knowing the precedents means you can understand the nuances of the law. Which then gives you a greater appreciation of what the authorities may need from you in the future. Let’s have a look at both the law and the guidance on applying that law.
Education Act (1996): Section 7
This section sets out the duty of the parents in educating their children…
English law requires a homeschooling parent to educate their child in the following way:
The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable-
(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and
(b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwiseSection 7 of the Education Act 1996
The best way to ensure you get as little contact as possible from the authorities is to make sure your children are receiving an efficient, suitable full-time education. The authorities are instructed to have minimal contact with families who are known to be doing a good job. They should, in this case, save their resources for those families who might be struggling.
Education Act (1996): Section 436a
This sets out the duty of the authorities to make arrangements to identify children not receiving an education.
(1) A local authority must establish (so far as possible) the identities of children who are of compulsory school age…
(a) And are not registered pupils at a school,
(b) And are not receiving suitable education otherwise than at a school.
(2) In exercising this responsibility a local authority must have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State.
(3) A ‘suitable education’ means efficient full-time education suitable to age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs.
Elective home education. Guidance for local authorities (2019): Section 4.2
Section 4.2 makes two statements, seemingly disparate to each other. The first states that ‘until a local authority is satisfied that a home-educated child is receiving a suitable full-time education, then a child being educated at home is potentially in scope of this duty’ (s436a). However, almost the very next sentence states that ‘this should not be taken as implying that it is the responsibility of parents under s.436A to ‘prove’ that education at home is suitable.’
So there is an odd dichotomy here. The authorities need to be convinced that you are doing a good job. Yet, it is not the responsibility of the parent to prove this is so.
Let’s look at some of the court cases which have added clarity or extra substance to these laws.
Bevan v Shears (1911)
At the time, Educational rules were set under the Elementary Education Act 1870, section 74. This states ‘that the parent of every child ……. shall cause such child to attend school unless there be a reasonable excuse for non-attendance’. An ‘excuse for non attendance‘ could be ‘that the child is under efficient instruction in some other manner’.
In his judgement in Bevan v Shears (1911), Lord Alverstone stated that ‘In the absence of anything in the bye-laws providing that a child of a given age shall receive instruction in given subjects, in my view it cannot be said that there is a standard of education by which the child must be taught. The court has to decide whether in their opinion the child is being taught efficiently so far as that particular child is concerned.’
This case law disallowed local authorities to simply decide for themselves whether a child is receiving sufficient education. Instead, they are expected to collect evidence of the lack of education and prove it in a court of law. They are not able to simply issue a School Attendance Order without any evidence to back it up.
R v Surrey Quarter Sessions Appeals Committee Tweedy (1963)
It was hard to find specifics of this case. The mother was wheel-chair bound, the father was of ill health and they had six children of compulsory school age. There were also historic court proceedings whereby the mother had agreed to a home inspection by the local authorities. The ruling in this case was as follows. ‘Although as a general rule an education authority should not, as a matter of policy, insist on inspection in the homes as the only method of satisfying themselves that children were receiving efficient full time education, there were cases in which the authority was entitled to insist on such inspection’.
The take away from this case is that the local authority does not have any right to insist on a home inspection. However, under some (rare) circumstances, when it is the only possible way for the authorities to discharge their legal duty, a home inspection is allowed.
This is one of those precedents that is specifically linked to a set of criteria. However, in most cases, for most people, a home inspection is not necessary.
Harrison & Harrison V Stevenson, Worcester Crown Court 1981
This case brought extra clarity to the exact meaning of some of the words. For example, ‘efficient’ means ‘that which it sets out to achieve‘. It must ‘prepare the children for life in modern civilized society, to enable them to achieve their full potential’. And lastly, whilst home educators widely believe that they do not need to teach certain subjects, the ruling in this case states that ‘the fundamental academic skills of writing, reading, and arithmetic as fundamental to any education for life in the modern world’
This last ruling seems to be coming more and more to the foreground. The authorities place a large importance on the teaching of these skills and proof of progress. However, the ruling is clear that the learning of these subjects need not take the form of specific school-like lessons. ‘That does not mean, I repeat, that we think that the children should be subject to conventional schooling, or that the whole balance of their present education should be changed to one of academic emphasis. Regard must be had to their disability; they should not be made to feel undue pressure or urgency which could undermine the benefits which have apparently accrued from their present upbringing’. This backs up the 1911 ruling above.
The takeaway from this case is that reading, writing and arithmetic are foundational indicators of education. The local authorities are within their rights to ask for evidence to show both learning and progress in these skill areas.
Goodred v Portsmouth City Council (2021)
Goodred, a home-educating mother took Portsmouth City Council to court over their insistence that her children be in school. Portsmouth authorities were found to have acted in accordance with the law as the judge dismissed all charges. This case clarifies the home-education law.
We learn the following from this case:
- Mr Justice Lane confirms the expectation that parents need to satisfy the local authority that they are meeting the legal requirements in homeschooling their children. In confirmation of past rulings, there is no legal requirements to ‘teach the National Curriculum, give formal lessons, mark work done by the child, formally assess the child’s progress or set development objectives’. However, they do need to ensure the education is suitable.
- The judge, whilst confirming that the parent has no legal obligation to respond to any requests to evidence the children’s learning, also stated that not doing so could still attract certain consequences. This is because the authorities do have a legal obligation to ascertain the suitability of any education given.
- If the authorities do not believe the education is suitable or do not have any evidence which proves this, then they can ask for further information. Moreover, if they deem it necessary, they may ask for a home visit or to meet the child. Parents are not obliged to carry out their wishes, but they must endeavour to prove that the education they give is suitable.
- If the authority has concerns they must outline these in a clear and easily understandable way to give the family the best possible opportunity to respond to those concerns meaningfully.
For a full report on this particular court case head over here
How does this affect us?
When dealing with home education authorities, the most important thing is to ensure that you have evidence that you are providing your child or children with a suitable education. In general, authorities do not wish to overstep. Mr Justice Lane made it clear that homeschoolers who were known to do a good job would have minimal contact with the authorities. He found that Goodred’s complaint was misconceived and he believed that it was “plain that the claimant was, in fact, aware of what is needed” but that “the truth of the matter is that she is simply unwilling to provide it.”
Often homeschoolers do not want to cooperate with the authorities. We have, after all, experienced a great deal of freedom in educating our children.
But times are changing, and with that expectations.
It is worth knowing what the authorities expect.
It is worth preparing to meet those expectations.
Homeschool reports do not need to cause undue stress.
Dealing with Home Education Authorities: Conclusions
I am not here to judge the rights and wrongs of the law, its precedents and the relationships between local authorities and homeschooling families. There are websites abound which do just that, without any need for yet another voice. I wrote this post to help those who simply want to keep within the letter of the law, without having to worry about any repercussions from the authorities.
To sum up: It can be seen that the law and its precedents supports home education. It does not insist on any specific form of education. However, reading, writing and arithmetic are considered essentials, probably because of their ability to open up a world of learning once achieved. Most importantly, it extolls the need to keep comprehensive records of learning so that a suitable education can be easily illustrated.
It is essential that, no matter what method of learning your home school utilises, you need to be particular about keeping records. Next week I will be listing some methods which can help fulfil this need and decrease any anxiety regarding the local authorities.
The following are worth familiarising yourself with:
Elective Home Education Guidance for the Local Authorities