Robert Halfon: We need to get a handle on home education – and the surge of kids who’ve vanished from the school roll

28 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that around 93,500 children missed over 50 per cent of their school sessions in Autumn 2020. As disturbing as this may be, at least we are aware of these children and can track them with the hope of getting them back into education.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many thousands of children across our country that are being home educated. We have little information, limited data and no analysis of these pupils’ outcomes. Astonishingly, the Department for Education does not even collect national figures on the number of children in elective home education.

For too long, a fog has shrouded home education.

Compared with our European neighbours, the English model is relatively permissive. A survey from 2018 showed that in a dozen countries, including Germany, home education was possible only in exceptional circumstances and in many cases, parents had to get authorisation. Students’ progress was “monitored and assessed everywhere except in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”.

Survey figures suggest that, over the year to October 2020, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of home educated children, with around 75,000 being educated at home. Further to this, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, has identified around 20,000 thousand children who have completely vanished from the school roll. We are faced with a surge of missing children, catalysed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Education Select Committee, which I Chair, published a report this week looking at what steps can be taken to strengthen and support home education. The report was passed unanimously by the Conservative and Labour members of the Committee.

First, our report recommends that the Department for Education should collect much more data and information about home educated pupils. One way of achieving this would be to have a register collected by local authorities. Data from the register would be anonymised nationally. It would enable resources to be targeted. The Department for Education would be able to seriously lend a helping hand to the families of children who have been let down by the school system.

Second, our report notes that every parent is required to secure a suitable education for their child. As we point out, home education should aim to enable the child, when grown-up, to function as an independent citizen in the UK. Individuals are surely independent if they have the qualifications and basic key skills in numeracy and literacy needed to gain access to the jobs ladder of opportunity.

Our report suggests that home educated children should be assessed at least once a year in maths and English. It is worth noting that Anne Longfield, the respected former Children’s Commissioner, has argued for termly visits to home educated children.

Third, too many parents have been forced into un-elective home education. This is especially true of families of children with special educational needs. One parent told our Committee that support for children with special needs was inadequate and that many parents remove their children from school in order to protect them. We are, therefore, proposing the introduction of independent advocates for these families to help them wade through the treacle of bureaucracy and to get the right support for their child.

Fourth, if it is agreed that there should be a register and that home educated children should be assessed, it only seems fair that there should be a level playing field for exams. In practice, this would mean that the Government would fund home educated pupils who wish to complete GCSEs, A-Levels and other relevant qualifications.

Finally, it is worth noting data from the former Children’s Commissioner, suggesting that five per cent of schools were responsible for 40 per cent of children being withdrawn to home education in 2017-18. The Commissioner could not say whether these high numbers reflected parental dissatisfaction or were the result of pressure or influence from the school to withdraw a child.

During the 2018-19 school year, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted was investigating around one hundred schools for high levels of pupil movement, potentially linked to off-rolling. Of course, permanent exclusions for serious misbehaviour will still be necessary, but there should be a requirement for schools to publish data on their websites about the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions alongside the number of children taken off the school roll.

With all that being said, there will be many examples of where home education has proven to be successful. However, some families may be struggling. It does not follow that every home educating family has access to the networks and resources they need to provide a “suitable” education.

Neither is it wrong to suggest that home educated children need to have a basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy. After all, pupils in schools are required to take SATS and other examinations. Moreover, by having a register, we can ensure that assistance and resources can be directed to home educated families who are having difficulties.

Robert Halfon: I’m not a lockdown sceptic. But I am a “school-down” sceptic – and fear for the impact of these closures.

27 Jan

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Media speculation in recent days has suggested that pupils may not be back into the classroom until after Easter. This is despite the previous indication that schools and colleges would reopen after the February half-term, when Lockdown III was announced on January 4.

To be clear, I am not a lockdown sceptic. In fact, I voted for all the Government measures to control the virus. However, I am a “school-down” sceptic. I worry enormously about the impact that prolonged school closures will have on the mental health, social development, academic attainment and safeguarding of children.

The Times this week published a letter from leading clinicians and paediatricians, warning that: “Anxiety, depression and self-harm are all at frightening levels” among our young people, and that: “Parents are showing signs of psychological stress and even breakdown as a result of the pressures of trying to home-school their children and sustain their jobs and businesses”.

At the end of December, Dr Karen Street, an Officer for Mental Health at the RSPCH, wrote about the harrowing 400 per cent increase in eating disorders among young people, in part due to school closures and social isolation.

Mental health is inextricably linked to children’s ability to learn and their attainment outcomes. The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing also predicted their later academic progression. For example, children with better wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage two score 2.46 points higher (equivalent to more than one term’s progress) than pupils with poorer wellbeing.

We know that education inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The IFS’s New Year Message report stated that “a long-term consequence of the pandemic will be to halt, or even reverse” the closing of the attainment gap.

So now, more than ever, children need to be in the right headspace to learn.

The Department for Education’s roll-out of more than one million devices for children on the wrong side of the digital divide will undoubtedly make a difference. But for all the laptops in the world, children need to have the motivation to open them, study independently at home, and have the support from parents, which may not always be possible if the parents are struggling with work, alongside looking after their kids. Millions of laptops also doesn’t necessarily mean we deal with the huge mental health problems now faced by many pupils.

So, what is needed? A mental health practitioner available to pupils, parents and school staff, stationed in every school, both online and in person. Place2Be, for example, worked with 33,000 children and young people last year and delivered 29,869 support sessions for parents. The charity’s impact assessment states that 81 per cent of those with severe difficulties showed an improvement in their mental health.

What’s more, those pupils receiving one-to-one support were able to keep pace academically with their peers (of the same attainment and background characteristics), suggesting that the possible negative impact of their mental health difficulties on their learning were mitigated.

While the Government has invested more in mental health, after the Coronavirus, there is going to be a radical rethink as to how children are supported with mental health and counselling.

A growing source of unease for many pupils, parents and school staff is the lack of certainty or a plan for school reopenings. We need an educational route map out of Coronavirus for schools and colleges.

No one expects a specific date for reopening. Of course, decisions should be guided by the scientific evidence on community cases and transmission rates.

However, school and college staff, pupils and their parents deserve a clear explanation of the criteria and the conditions that need to be met before the Government reopens schools, so that they can prepare.

Public Health England officials concluded this week from its monitoring of infections in schools that: “There’s a strong case for primary schools to reopen” after the February half-term, “once infection rates start falling and are sufficiently low to allow easing of national lockdown measures” and that the “evidence is building to show that primaries are a safe environment.”

Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, told my Education Select Committee last week that: “School children definitely can transmit infection in schools. They can transmit it in any environment. But it is not a significant driver, as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections. Rather it is the other way round, that if there is a rise in community rates, you will see a rise in children as well.”

For all these reasons, we must get schools open again and sooner rather than later. In areas of the country – or in primaries – where the science suggests it would be safe for schools to reopen, they absolutely must do so.

Regular testing of pupils and staff will be important to keep schools open safely. That is why I, alongside Miriam Cates MP, and nine other MPs, wrote to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation should also look at making teachers and support staff a priority for vaccinations – purely, on the basis it will mean schools can open sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, there is a growing coalition to get schools reopen again – not just the parent group, UsforThem, but children and young people’s charities.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has added to the calls for clarity, saying: “Children are more withdrawn, they are suffering in terms of isolation, confidence levels are falling, and some have serious issues…Families will need hope and clarity about what comes next, and that of course is what the speculation we’re hearing really feeds into, that confusion.”

It is worth noting that not all teaching unions are opposed to educational professionals being back at school. As Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Today programme on Monday: “Without anybody jumping the queue over vulnerable people… if you’re able to give the reassurance to those people working in schools and colleges that they’re not suddenly going to disappear into self-isolation because of vaccinations, starting with the staff, that would be reassuring I think so that we can get some continuity. Similarly, if we are able to do that with children and young people, the same thing.

“But, I don’t know that we need to wait for [vaccinations to reopen schools]. I think if we’ve got a very clear idea of what the scientific principles are, which then lead to the educational principles, could we not have more young people coming into school as appropriate, rather than this revolving door we’ve got at the moment?”

I recognise that the Government is firefighting in dealing with the Coronavirus, but surely one of the most important functions of the engine of the State is to get our schools and colleges open soon. The Secretary of State for Education and the Government should form an education “coalition of the willing” to get all children learning full-time again.

Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

4 Nov

Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.