Stronger laws needed to send home-educated children back to school, says ADCS

By Joe Lepper

| 05 July 2018

Directors of children's services are calling for more powers to send home-educated children back to school.

An estimated 45,500 children are home-schooled across England. Picture: Shutterstock

Currently councils can apply through the courts for a school attendance order (SAO) for the child to return to school if they believe the education on offer at home is unsuitable, in terms of educational progress, attainment, health, safety and welfare.

But the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) says the process of securing a SAO through the courts is too lengthy and leaves children potentially without education for months.

The current SAO is also too weak to ensure families involved will comply, says the ADCS, with parents fined up to £1,000 and given a conditional discharge, even if they repeatedly fail to adhere to an order.

In its response to a Department for Education consultation on home education, the ADCS is urging ministers to strengthen the SAO so that it applies for the duration of the child's school life and can more effectively return a child to school.

"If a local authority believes the educational experiences offered to a child in their home are unsuitable and all other options have been exhausted, then a School Attendance Order (SAO) can be sought from the courts," says the ADCS's consultation response.

"ADCS does not believe this is a satisfactory resolution, the lengthy legal process involved in securing an SAO means that children can be without education for many months, and, even if the SAO is awarded compliance is not guaranteed.

"It would be useful if SAO legislation could be revised so that they are not just one-off events but remain in place whilst the child is of statutory school age.

"ADCS believes the ultimate sanction for the ongoing provision of unsuitable education in the home should be a return to school not ever closer monitoring of individual learners in their home - children's outcomes must be at the heart of every decision and discussion."

According to Ofsted's 2016/17 annual report home-educated children are at a greater risk of harm as they can be isolated from health and care agencies, making them harder to protect.

An ADCS survey of 112 councils, published in October 2017, found that 46 had issued a total of 258 home schooling-related SAOs in the previous academic year.

The survey also estimated that, as of 5 October 2017, 45,500 children were being home-schooled across England, an increase of 21 per cent since January 2016.

In its consultation response the ADCS also raises concerns about schools off-rolling pupils by encouraging parents to take up home schooling without fully understanding the responsibility it entails.

The ADCS backs having a cooling off period for parents to allow their child to return to their previous school.

It also wants to see greater clarity in how they can monitor home educated children, and the introduction of a specific duty on parents to force them to comply with requests from councils for information.

"In terms of monitoring provision, there is no legal definition or national guidelines on what constitutes a ‘suitable', ‘effective' or ‘full-time' programme of education in the home to assist with this task, resulting in a degree of variation in approaches from place to place," states the ADCS response.

"There is no accepted framework against which local authorities can benchmark provision and parents and carers can choose what will be monitored, for instance, whether a home visit can take place and/or if the child is present.

"In no other area of children's services would a professional make a judgment about a child's educational progress, attainment, health, safety or welfare without seeing or meeting the child, it is unclear why children who are educated at home are treated differently in law."

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