Home-schooling in Northern Ireland. Who is in charge?Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 15 April 2019
In his latest article Frank Cassidy, former principal of St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena and Regional Officer of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in Northern Ireland, considers arguments for and against home-schooling.
A recent Channel 4 Dispatches documentary highlighted the growing trend in England for parents to choose to educate their children at home, quoting the surprising increase from a council survey from 19,585 in 2013 -14 to 41,808 in 2017-18.
The produced in conjunction with the Channel 4 programme revealed that thousands of children are ‘off the grid’ because they are being home-schooled and asserted that, “no-one knows how they are doing academically or even if they are safe”.
In Northern Ireland there also seem to be problems around this issue. The campaign group Home Education Northern Ireland (HEdNI) offers many case histories which appear to show tensions between Board officers and parents, with at times social services involved as well. HEdNI advises home-schooling parents that while they shouldn't ignore any communications from the EA, they can respond however they see fit – for example, by providing a written report about how they are educating their child rather than agreeing to a visit.
From the Education Authority’s standpoint they would argue that they have a responsibility for the welfare of children and that if they are concerned that parents are not providing a suitable education, or have worries about the welfare of a child, they can serve a School Attendance Order which compels parents to send their child to school or face a fine.
Home Education Northern Ireland have published a guide designed for MLAs on Home Schooling in Northern Ireland which unpacks their arguments and the legal position in great detail.
The current position in England is that the school must notify the local authority if a child is withdrawn for home-schooling and in turn that Local authorities must ensure children are provided with a decent education but are not currently under an obligation to monitor home-schooled children.
Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board said following the Children’s Commissioner’s Report, that councils should have the powers to enter homes to check a child’s schooling, and make sure they aren’t being taught in unsuitable or dangerous environments.
HEdNI challenge this type of approach quoting independent research into home education by Dr Paula Rothermel, a Chartered Educational Psychologist and one of the leading academics in the field of home education in the UK. She argues that rather than spend large sums designing new complex monitoring systems, that the state should invest in better staff training and more efficient use of existing legislation and guidelines. The Department for Education in England’s view is that in the vast majority of home educated children cases, parents are doing an excellent job and they agree that only in a small number of cases is monitoring required.
Obviously there are issues around child protection and health and safety to be considered but a wider question is whether parents or schools and Education Authorities, acting as agents of government should have control over what and how children are taught. Additionally where bullying or difficulties with socialisation are arising, there are questions to ask about whether the current model of schooling children in large classes of 20 to 30 pupils is appropriate for everyone?
The primary school pupil parents support website, theschoolrun.com which is run by a group of mothers working from home gives a clear summary of the position here in Northern Ireland.
They explain that in recent years there has been controversy around the right to home educate in Northern Ireland but that as in other jurisdictions in the UK, parents in Northern Ireland have the right to home educate their children, including parents of children with special educational needs and that a parent doesn’t need any teaching qualifications or experience, and that there is no obligation to follow the Northern Ireland Curriculum or enter a child for tests. They clarify that parents don't need anyone's permission to home educate a child, but if they're already attending school and you want to remove them, they need to write to the head teacher to let them know that you're de-registering them. This also applies if a child has a statement of special educational needs and attends a mainstream school.
So how do the arguments for and against home-schooling stack up? Parents sometimes argue that their child is not receiving an adequate education in school because of their particular special educational needs. Bullying is often quoted as a major reason why a child cannot learn effectively and be safe in a mainstream school. Sometimes parents opt for home-schooling because of religious conviction. It is also argued that a child may do better learning at home to allow for a particular approach or a curriculum which allows a greater focus on their child’s passions. In response to the critics of home-schooling which claim that home-schooled children miss out on normal interaction with their peer group and learn how to socialise effectively, HEdNI argue that home educated children experience these interactions by playing sports, joining clubs, meeting friends and doing all the things school educated children do apart from attending school. Personally I don’t doubt that this can be achieved, but I can’t help feeling that it is a loss for a child to miss out on the richness and quality of the human interaction with teachers and fellow pupils which is the best part of the learning experience in school.
My own experience of dealing with difficult pastoral issues in school like persistent bullying or pupils with particular needs which made routine classroom life problematic, was that in many cases patient supportive work by teaching staff and flexibility by the school eventually paid off. There was no greater reward than seeing such a child overcome difficulties and come to enjoy a happy time in school among their peers. That said occasionally situations do arise where the pupil’s situation is so difficult that home-schooling may be in their best interest. It is clear from HEdNI’s case studies that getting the balance right between necessary oversight and intrusion is difficult when considering how such arrangements can be made to work best. I would agree that proper training for the professionals involved will certainly be more effective than punitive legislation.
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