Written evidence submitted by Dr Bernard Trafford


Submission on Home Education by Bernard Trafford MA MEd PhD


Educational (and home education) background

I make this submission as a retired (since 2018) independent school head, having done 28 years in that role in three different secondary schools. I was also active in the influential organisation of leading independent schools, HMC (Chair 2007-9), and in my union, ASCL (including when it was still called SHA).


My PhD research (completed 1996) was into participative management and governance of schools and what came to be termed Student Voice: I subsequently advised the DfE/Secretary of State via a Citizenship Education Advisory Group which operated for some years under David Blunkett, Ed Balls and Stephen Twigg successively. I also advised the Council of Europe, and co-wrote for it, with a Swedish head, a Handbook on Democratic Governance of Schools, last heard of translated into 14 languages.


I have personal experience in home-education: between 1991 and 1996 my wife and I home-educated our two daughters in the primary phase. They then went into mainstream secondary education. (I must admit that, being newly a school head I could not do much, or any, of the day-to-day business of home education, though I saw at first hand the great richness of experience that it brought to the children and to us as a family).


The decision to home-educate, with the children’s agreement (they were in Y1 and Reception at the time), was not an ideological one, nor a rejection of schooling per se.  We were concerned as parents that primary schools were struggling to come to terms with the newly introduced National Curriculum, an emphasis on testing and repetitive learning tasks stemming from teachers’ anxiety to follow the new and fairly prescriptive guidelines.  Our elder daughter was becoming, even in Year 1, unstimulated, unstretched and frankly bored.


There was an additional motivation. My wife and I had started out as music teachers so, unsurprisingly, our daughters had already developed excellent ears and intense musicality. Home education allowed them time to sing and to learn three instruments (by the time they were 11). As it happened, they also became keen and quite accomplished gymnasts: again, home education allowed them to make the huge time commitment required without clashes with school programmes.


Neither became a professional musician, nor an adult gymnast: both gained admission to an academically selective independent secondary school, and both are now teachers (one of English, the other Geography). Thus our particular brand of home education was not specialist, but one allowing freedom to pursue a number of different directions in depth while encouraging the intellectual challenge and exploration that gave them an outstanding generalist grounding for the secondary phase – which they embraced in mainstream school with great enjoyment.


It's worth concluding this introduction by noting that lockdown in 2020, and the consequent requirement for some measure of home-education in all homes, has led many parents who might previously have dismissed home-educators as eccentric or downright dangerous to accord them, and the process, new respect. Given the previous readiness of prominent commentators and even public servants to exude their (generally uninformed) disapproval of home education at the slightest excuse, this may have created a less negative and more balanced climate in which the Select Committee may consider the topic.


Dr Bernard Trafford


Main submission

The matter of the duties of local authorities with regards to home education and the question of whether there should be a register of home educated children may be taken together. It is entirely proper that an LA should have knowledge of all children being home-educated, exercising the same safeguarding duties as it does through and with schools and, if it desires, assuring itself of the quality of that education. As a family we received a brief annual monitoring visit from an LA inspector, though I suspect the lack of resources in LAs would nowadays make that a rare or unheard-of event.

The anxiety of home-educating families over the suggestion of a statutory register lies in their justifiable concern that it would lump together indiscriminately all children not in school. Suggestions for a register invariably arise amid a furore (often media-induced) of concern about child abuse, and sincere and responsible home-educating parents understandably fear being demonised or in some way deemed guilty (or at least suspected) of abusive behaviour until proved otherwise.

I’ll return to the regulatory framework, wellbeing, off-rolling and concerns about the concealment of abused children below.

The 1996 Education Act reminds us that education (not school) is compulsory, both a duty laid on parents and a right conferred to the child - and that it should be “suitable” and “efficient”. One advantage that home education offers is to afford time to the child with a prodigious talent and/or overriding interest in (and, one would presume passion for) a particular area.

The mainstream school classroom will almost certainly be unable (and cannot reasonably be required) to meet the needs of a child with a mathematical ability five or six years in advance of its peers. Similarly, a sportsperson (a swimmer or gymnast, perhaps), a dancer or musician may be gifted with an outlying level of ability that cannot be appropriately developed around the limitations and requirements of school, however flexible the institution may try to be.

These are perhaps extreme examples: but the particular needs of gifted young musicians were brought home to me when, post-retirement, I found myself interim head of a specialist music school. For most such boys and girls the hours that they needed and wanted to put into practising were incompatible with normal schooling, and many had spent time in home-education before moving with great relief and happiness into the specialist environment.

There are two main potential disadvantages that home-educated children may face. First is the lack of any support from schools or the LA. Parents are still routinely informed, if they discuss the choice with either, that there will not be any support available, nor in general any access to the kind of extra-curricular activities offered by schools outside normal hours through after-school clubs.

Second, it can be hard and is frequently impossible for home-educated children to sit national exams, even as external candidates at schools or colleges. That problem was identified in the Select Committee’s 2012 report “Support for Home Education”, but there has been little progress. Coursework or any other form of continuous or in-course assessment is also ruled out. The situation was highlighted and exacerbated this year by the cancellation of summer exams as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Such support appears rare and hard for parents to gain access to. Home-educators are generally left in no doubt that there will be no support, financial or otherwise, if they withdraw their child from the system: that means no help either with transition into FE or HE. The 2012 report suggested that online advice form universities and colleges is good. This is just as well, since LAs appear to offer no mechanism for such help.

Children with special educational needs, disabilities, mental health issues or caring responsibilities invariably still get a raw deal within and outside the system. SEN in its broadest sense presents a huge challenge to the education system: resources to support children with SEN in the system are hopelessly inadequate, notwithstanding occasional bland statements from DfE congratulating ministers on securing additional funding.

Children with SEN who are insufficiently supported in school frequently prove hugely disruptive to the institution: they also risk pulling down the school’s results in an accountability system that makes no allowances for those children. The school is thus conflicted: the child it might wish to help will contribute to poor figures that might (and frequently do) contribute to an adverse judgement from Ofsted.

There is therefore a perverse incentive for the school to “persuade” the parents of such children that it might be best to withdraw them: this “off-rolling” is all too common. Weary beyond belief from fighting the system to try to get adequate support for the child (but failing), the parent accedes to the suggestion: the child is withdrawn. The school is absolved of responsibility: the child receives no support, but has become invisible to the system.

We should not be surprised: many children in schools even in possession of EHC Plans nonetheless receive only part of the support that their Plan designates. This stems from a mixture of lack of will and lack of resource. If this happens in schools, it is small wonder that children out of school receive little or no help.

Whether excluded or off-rolled, children eased out of the system are not being electively home-schooled, and should not be regarded or counted as such. Their wellbeing and academic achievement are not being monitored, let alone acted on if unsatisfactory: this level of state neglect is unacceptable.

As I understand it, the current regulatory framework is sufficient – in theory, at any rate. Once again, it is a lack of both will and resource/funding that means it is not implemented. When LA educational staff or social workers (or both) are overwhelmed, the system is thus dysfunctional: then there is real danger for children.

Take, as an example, the tragedy that became a cause célèbre, the death in 2000 of Victoria Climbié. As the media unfolded the horrifying story of neglect, abuse and death, it was frequently reported that she had been home-educated. That was far from the truth. The five-year-old was not at school, but there was no pretence of home-education by her abusive guardian. The failure to protect her was laid squarely at the door of social services which had failed to act on concerns reported to them.

Since then, LAs and social services have suffered cut after cut. If they weren’t coping back then (let alone at the time of the 2012 death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka who, though starved and beaten at home, was in school, was reported to social services by the school but was still not saved), it’s hard to see how it can be significantly better now after a further eight years of cuts to LA funding.

Light-touch, sensitive inspection – a quality-assurance process that seeks to understand what parents are trying to achieve for and with their child (“efficiency”) and does not seek to impose any kind of template - would be unexceptionable. Unfortunately, inspection can too easily morph into a heavy-handed, judgmental approach. Sometimes, I understand from home-educators, LA inspectors demand to see not only a child’s work but also the parent’s scheme of work: not in itself a threat, they fear that it is only a small step from there to being judged against National Curriculum structures, content and standards.

The 2012 Report commented on the prevalence of former mainstream schoolteachers among LA officers with responsibility for home education. This is an understandable career development for them: but there is a clear danger that they may see home education through the lens of schooling, and may make unhelpful and restrictive judgments from that narrow point of view, forgetting that the family has opted for an alternative approach which it regards as more suitable to meet their child’s needs. (Over the years I have heard periodic – and, to my mind, glib - calls from politicians and commentators for the National Curriculum to be imposed on home-educators).

The 2012 report reminds us that a parent’s right to pursue the alternative approach of home education is enshrined in law, and includes helpful definitions from case law of “suitable” and “efficient”. That right must be protected and upheld, not undermined by ill-considered comparison to, or even imposition of, national frameworks and assessment systems.

My information on improvements since 2012 this aspect is only anecdotal: but I sense that very little has changed, despite the report’s encouraging words. This lack of progress has mostly to do with the constant squeeze on funding and therefore reduction of capacity in LAs.

The well-publicised inability of home-educated candidates to gain grades this summer, in the absence of written exams, highlighted an alarming gap: action must be taken to avoid a repeat. I have no idea whether home-educating parents having to work from home, being furloughed or losing their livelihoods coped better with the need to keep their children’s education going, or worse. One would suspect the former: I wonder if there is any research on that.

November 2020