Exploding a myth
It will perhaps surprise nobody to hear that I have once again managed to piss people off on a home education forum. I have to say that on this occasion, I was genuinely trying to help vulnerable parents and reassure them that they should stop worrying. This came about because the thesis was advanced that some local authorities in England and Wales bully and badger home educating parents into either abandoning home education or altering the form or content of it so that it more closely resembles a school type model. One person referred to parents being made ’to jump through hoops’ and forced to teach reading in a structured way. This sort of thing is usually done under the threat that a School Attendance Order will be issued, the parent prosecuted and the child returned to school if the parent does not do as the local authority officer requires. So far, so good; I don’t think that anybody here could disagree that this sort of thing happens. I then went on to suggest that it was astronomically rare for home educating parents to be issued with SAOs and then prosecuted for not obeying them, convicted in court and forced to send their children to school. Indeed, I expressed doubts as to this ever happening at all; upon which, a number of people became very angry.
The best way of seeing just how rare this process is, is to look at the figures. Let us begin with two local authorities who are famous for taking what some describe as ’ultra vires’ actions; Staffordshire and Birmingham, for instance.
Here is a Freedom of Information request made to Birmingham about the number of SAOs that they issued in one particular year;
It will be observed that no SAOs at all were issued. Freedom of Information requests on this subject have been made to every local authority in England and Wales and the picture is same across the entire country; most never issue SAOs. Some issued one or two, but these were hardly ever to home educators. Staffordshire, for example has issued one School Attendance Order in the last five years, although not to a home educating family. See here:
Most of the tiny number of SAOs which have been issued over the last few years have not been to home educators. Of those which were, only a few reached the stage of prosecution. I can find not a single case where a local authority has issued a School Attendance Order to a home educating family, prosecuted them in court and then managed to secure a conviction and force them as a result to return their child to school.
I found this to be very reassuring for home educating parents. Knowing that this favourite threat of local authorities is an empty one which can generally be disregarded should allow home educating parents to form a more equal partnership with local authorities; one which is not founded upon fear and threats. Of course, not everybody seeks such a healthy relationship with their LA and some parents might be happy to be bossed about by petty bureaucrats. This is fine; I was not trying to bully anybody into changing how they deal with local authorities; merely pointing out that there is more than one way.
Actually, I thought that digging around might perhaps uncover one or two cases of home educating children forced back into school by their parents having been prosecuted for disobeying a School Attendance Order. In fact, I have not been able to come up with one case of this happening. May I ask, does anybody know of a case where a home educating parent has been served with a School Attendance Order, prosecuted for breaching it and as a result been convicted in court and forced to return their child to school? If so, could we just be told the name of the local authority? Since this is the only way that a home educating child can really be forced back to school by a local authority, it would be interesting to know if it ever happens. Is this some sort of urban myth? Can anybody give a real example?
There is one final point. One can readily see why local authority officers would maintain the fiction that they might issue an SAO to home educating parents, take them to court and force them to return their children to school. This suggestion would be very distressing to many parents and they might well back down under the very threat and do as they are told in order to avoid it. What puzzles me is why some home educating parents themselves seem so keen to buy into this myth and help local authorities to keep the pretence going. This seems to me to be a psychological question, rather than a legal one!