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Rate of pupils leaving for home education doubles

The rate at which children left the classroom for home education doubled last year, with big increases in some of the country’s most deprived areas, a Schools Week investigation suggests.

And while home education was previously seen primarily as a lifestyle choice, parents are now increasingly withdrawing their children because they feel the school system has failed them.

Analysis of freedom of information data from around two thirds of councils suggests around 140,000 pupils nationally were home educated at some point in 2022-23, a rise of 12 per cent on the 125,000 the year before.

This is double the 6 per cent rise from 2020-21 to 2021-22. The number of children now in home education is 80 per cent higher than in pre-pandemic 2018-19.

Heather Sandy, who chairs the education policy committee of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said councils were “now seeing more children who are less engaged with an education system which does not meet the needs of all learners”.

“This is evidenced by the rising number of school exclusions, persistent absenteeism and a year-on-year increase in the number of children being home educated”.

Poorer areas see larger rises

Of the 15 council areas that saw the largest increase in home education, six are ranked in the highest quintile for child poverty. Nine have above-average rates of free school meals eligibility.

They include Hartlepool, where 37 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals, and numbers in home education doubled last year to 189.

A spokesperson said the council was “very concerned”. They worked with parents who indicated their wish to home educate and encouraged a “two-week reflection period” before removal.

In Knowsley, four in 10 pupils is eligible for free school meals. The number of home educated pupils jumped 54 per cent from 154 in 2021-22, to 237 in 2022-23.

A spokesperson said the pandemic “brought greater awareness of home schooling as an option, and an increase in online support for parents making this choice”.  But some parents were choosing home education “where there child has persistent absence from school”.

The council runs home education “pilots”, which allow schools, improvement teams and parents to “work together to discuss EHE in more detail before a final decision is made”.

‘Unmet need’ becomes key driver

The charity Education Otherwise said its recent survey of 473 new home-educating parents revealed that almost 54 per cent cited “some form of unmet need”.

Thirty-seven per cent said school wasn’t meeting their child’s mental health need, while 13 per cent pointed to unmet SEND needs.

Other reasons given included “general dissatisfaction with the school system” (24 per cent), home education being better than school (13 per cent) and the curriculum being neither “suitable nor relevant” (9 per cent).

Wendy Charles-Warner, from the charity, said “lifestyle choice was once the primary driver for home education”.

“Now, overall, we have seen a very significant increase in parents coming to home education who do not want to make that choice but who feel that the school system is failing their child.”

Government data shows older pupils are far more likely to be excluded. A third of children educated at home on census day in October 2022 were in years 10 or 11. Just 3 per cent were in year 1.

Asked for the primary reason for withdrawal, 16 per cent cited philosophical or preferential reasons, 9 per cent cited mental health and 6 per cent reported general “dissatisfaction with the school”.

‘Lack of understanding’

Katie Cox’s autistic daughter started secondary school last September, after being unable to attend primary for two years due to anxiety that developed as she entered key stage 2.

“We had a feeling this was going to be a hurdle to overcome, but unfortunately after a few days she was not coping very well at all.”

She said her daughter was not given flexibility over her uniform, which she needed because of sensory processing issues, and attempts to create a part-time timetable broke down.

Cox said the school showed a “lack of understanding” of her daughter’s needs, and that she felt “forced” to withdraw her, adding that her daughter was now “thriving”.

“It has not been an easy ride,” she said, adding that parents who home educate needed more support, for example with online tutoring.

Professor Becky Allen, chief analyst at Teacher Tapp, told Schools Week England is in a “relatively unusual situation” in being “pretty liberal” in its approach to home education, she said.

‘Could be need to protect most vulnerable’

“I can see down the track, we will have to make some tough decisions. And some of them will feel pretty illiberal. I think that’s the thing that the home education groups quite rightly worry about. But we do illiberal things in society because we’re trying to protect the most vulnerable children.

Dr Becky Allen

“And it will become a pressing concern if we just see very large numbers of children from backgrounds where the family don’t have the resources to support independent education sitting at home all day.”

In Torbay, numbers in home education have almost doubled in five years. Most of that increase came last year, when the figure increased from 440 to 725, a rise of 65 per cent.

The council said its “particular concern is the significant increase in elected home education numbers in years 3,7 and 9”.

The year 3 cohort “appears to be seeing the impact from Covid and fewer opportunities to attend early years settings due to lockdown restrictions. Parents say that their child is struggling with school routines and practices”.

Calderdale’s numbers increased by 38 per cent.

Julie Jenkins, its director of children’s services, said reasons were “complex and varied”, but the council’s “primary interest lies in the suitability of parents’ education provision and not their reason for doing so”.

But it is not just poorer areas that have seen large rises. The London boroughs of Kingston and Richmond, both of which have far-below-average rates of free school meals eligibility, reported increases of 60 and 50 per cent respectively last year.

“Parents also seem to be far more aware of the option to EHE than they were prior to 2019 and we are seeing a slight increase in parents commissioning tutoring with online providers,” a spokesperson for Kingston said.

Ministers back MP’s not-in-school register

Sandy warned home education figures were “simply estimates” as councils do not have powers to compel parents to tell them is they are educating their children at home.

The government this week pledged to “work with” Conservative MP Flick Drummond who is trying to introduce legislation for a register of children not in school, after years of delays.

Boris Johnson’s government pledged to introduce such a register in 2022 as part of its landmark schools bill.

Geoff Barton
Geoff Barton

The DfE said it awaited the second reading of Drummond’s draft law on March 15 “and look forward to working with her as she takes this through” the commons.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL school leaders’ union, said he was “concerned by the rapid increase” in home education.

He said a “major factor is likely the rising prevalence of anxiety and poor mental health among young people and the difficulty in accessing specialist mental health support, for which there are often lengthy waiting lists”.

“It’s completely unacceptable that the repeated failure to introduce this register means we still don’t have a precise understanding of exactly how many children are not in school and assurance that they are all receiving appropriate oversight and support.”

Allen added that England was “entering this world where different kinds of patchworks of education are possible, but the vast majority is still going to school” – raising questions about whether activities outside of school need to be regulated.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We support the right of parents to educate their children at home but all children should receive a suitable education regardless of where they are educated.”

Ombudsman complaints reveal home education woes

Complaints to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman also reveal reports from parents that they felt forced to home educate their children.

Last September, the ombudsman upheld a complaint from a parent against Lancashire County Council.

It found the authority at fault for not concluding education, health and care plan annual reviews, not providing alternative provision and not securing a suitable school place for the child quickly enough.

The ombudsman found the child had been registered as home educated since 2019, “although Mr X said that he felt he did not have a choice but to home educate”.  The council “agreed to remedy the injustice its actions have caused to Mr X and S”.

Another complaint against Lancashire was upheld in October 2023. The ombudsman found there was fault in how the council “failed to arrange all the provision in Y’s education health and care plan and failed to review the education it did provide for over four months”.

A parent had sent the council a plan for their child’s home education. There was “no evidence” the council responded the plan at the time, prompting a complaint that the council had not provided equipment needed for an art course.

“This caused avoidable distress and uncertainty to Ms X and Y. The Council agreed to apologise, pay a financial remedy and review how it arranges and monitors home education.”

Backlog of EHCP reviews

Last November, the ombudsman upheld a complain against Derbyshire County Council.

It heard how a parent had asked the council for an EHCP for their child as he was “struggling with attending and engaging in school”.

“She said the school told her she could be fined due to his failure to attend school, and arranged for a safe and well check of X. So, she decided to deregister X from school and home educate him.”

It found the council at fault for “failing to adhere to the statutory timescales, how it communicated with Mrs D, and its failure to provide X with alternative provision for a six-month period”.

The council “agreed to apologise to Mrs D and make payment to acknowledge the injustice this caused them”.

In December, a complaint against Leicestershire council was upheld. It related to a request for a home-educated child to attend school. The council refused to accommodate the child until he had an up-to-date EHCP, which it had failed to review for several years.

The ombudsman found that as of July 31 2022, “there were 35 delayed annual reviews for children registered as electively home educated”.

The council “accepts it failed to review Mr C’s plan between 2016-2021. We found the Council also delayed completing a review it started in 2022 and that its communications with Mrs Z were unsatisfactory”, the ombudsman said.

The council “agreed to apologise and make a payment to Mrs Z and Mr C. The Council is already working on improving its special educational needs services and because of this we have not asked it to make further service improvements”.

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