The purpose of local authority visits to home educating families

On one of the home education Internet lists, a lively debate is taking place about the vexed question of accepting monitoring visits from the local authority. The list owner, Mike Fortune-Wood, has expressed the view that the only reason for such visits is to judge parents and then perhaps issue a School Attendance Order if they decide that the educational provision isn't up to scratch. This seems unlikely. The issuing of School Attendance Orders to home educating families is very rare and usually they are issued only when there are additional welfare concerns. It is exceedingly rare to hear of an SAO being sent purely because the education provided for the child is not of a high enough quality. In a survey conducted by Ofsted at the end of 2009, two thirds of the local authorities had issued no School Attendance Orders at all relating to home education in the previous year and the rest had each issued just one. If the real purpose of home visits was to catch parents out, one would expect SAOs to be flying around all over the shop. This is certainly not the case.

Some parents are vehemently opposed to allowing visits to their home by local authority officers. They feel that what is happening with their children is nobody's business and that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, there should be a general assumption that their children are safe and receiving a suitable education. Others are less bothered about such things and do not mind discussing their ideas with others. I always saw such visits as a chance to be evangelical about home education and to criticise the maintained sector. There are also quite a few parents who actively welcome visits, because they want help and advice.

What is the real purpose of home visits to home educating families? Firstly of course, they wish to check whether the parent seems mad or is keeping the kid at home to work. This is not uncommon in the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller community. Girls past puberty tend to help their mothers and the boys are often learning the lifestyle of their community, rather than studying algebra and writing essays. Since in some counties, this group of home educators amount to a third or a half of known home educators, this is a concern for the local authority officers making visits. Apart from those above categories, local authority officers are also on the lookout for signs that a child is scared of the parent, undernourished or covered in bruises.

Of course it will not be possible to make any certain pronouncement about the mental health of parents or the welfare of children based upon one short visit a year. In cases where there are definite concerns, other agencies often become involved.

A surprisingly large proportion of parents actually welcome visits. They want information from the local authority, advice about examinations, admission to college when the child is sixteen; all sorts of things in fact. Despite the fact that nobody is obliged to have visits and that most local authorities mention this on their websites, it is relatively rare for parents to refuse point blank to have anybody visit their home. This can of course be tricky, because if everybody else is allowing the local authority to come round, one does appear a little out of the ordinary if one refuses to allow it even once. I have no doubt at all that although they shouldn't draw any conclusion from such a stance, some local authority officers will make a note that Mrs Smith, unlike all the other parents in such and such an area, refuses let anybody into her home to see her child. This is regrettable, but is simply human nature.

Of course no parent is forced to permit access to her children, whether or not she is home educating. Most of us do, for various reasons. Most mothers and fathers send their children off to school, invite the Health Visitor in to see their new baby, take the child to clinics and visit the doctor. Some parents on the list where the debate on visits is currently taking place are not registered with doctors because they are worried that their local authority will find out that they are home educating. This sort of behaviour would arouse anybody's suspicions and is practically guaranteed to bring attention in the long run and make it look as though there is something to hide!

I did not invite the local authority to visit us, but nor did I actively discourage them from doing so. It was their time and is they wanted to get somebody to make a round journey of a hundred miles from Colchester just to hear my kid play the guitar or read her poetry, well that's their business. I honestly have never understood this obsession with hiding, fear of truancy patrols and avoidance of doctors and hospitals; the desire in other words to stay 'under the radar'. Why would anybody bother to do that, unless they had a strong motive?

Apropos of School Attendance Orders, I wonder if anybody knows of any which have been issued to home educating parents on purely educational grounds? I am thinking of families who are not known to social services and where there is not other concern than that of the suitability of the education being provided. Such cases would be very interesting to look at.