Assessing suitable education at home

Coram Children's Legal Centre
Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has reminded councils they must be clear with parents of home-schooled children whether home visits are routine or triggered by specific concerns.

Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 states that parents must ensure their children receive "efficient full-time education" that is "suitable" for their "age, ability and aptitude". This must be done "either by regular attendance at school or otherwise". Parents may therefore choose to educate their children at home, known as elective home education.

Assessing elective home education

In April 2019, the Department for Education published new non-statutory guidance on elective home education for local authorities which makes clear that the identification of children who have never attended school and may be home educated forms a significant element of fulfilling an authority's statutory duty under section 436A of the Education Act 1996 - to establish, so far as it is possible, the identities of children in its area who are not receiving a suitable education. 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" and the Statutory Guidance on Children Missing Education applies. However, this should not be taken as implying that it is the responsibility of parents under section 436A to "prove" that education at home is suitable and "a proportionate approach needs to be taken".

The local authority's task is to find out how a child is being educated and whether that education satisfies legal requirements. There are "no detailed legal requirements as to how such a system of oversight should work, and it is for each local authority to decide what it sees as necessary and proportionate to assure itself that every child is receiving a suitable education, or action is being taken to secure that outcome." It is important to note that local authorities do not have statutory duties to monitor the quality of home education on a routine basis.

Local authorities cannot insist on inspecting parents and children in their home or elsewhere. If a parent refuses to let the local authority enter the home or speak to the child, this cannot constitute, on its own, grounds for concern about the education provision. Local authorities can make informal enquiries but cannot insist on evidence from the parents in any prescribed form.

Section 437: School attendance orders

If reasonable steps are taken to establish whether a child is receiving suitable education and are unsuccessful then section 437 of the Education Act sets out a formal process that may be followed. If it appears to a local authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, they can serve a notice in writing on requiring the parent to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education. If the parent fails to satisfy the local authority, it can issue a school attendance order after 15 days requiring the parent to enrol the child at a named school. Parents who do not comply with a school attendance order can by prosecuted.

In a recent Leicester City Council case, an Education Welfare Service officer had visited the mother at home and not found that the education was unsuitable or more frequent contact required. However, following reports from a school that the child in question had been harassing two students by phone both outside of school and also during the school day, the council began frequent communication with the child's mother and started to raise concerns that the child's education was unsuitable. The Local Government Ombudsman found that it did not have grounds to do this and recommended the council apologise "for having based its actions on a referral that did not justify those actions".

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