The launch of the Association of Elective Home Education Professionals took place in the impressive surroundings of the Gladstone Room in the Palace of Westminster on Thursday February 26th.
Graham Stuart opened by reminding the audience of the recommendation of the Select Committee for the formation of a national body to share good practice. He felt this could be particularly valuable for officers new in post and said that the national body would build on the work of the regional forum groups.
Members on the ground would be able to point to their national association and thereby allay the fears of elected members [councillors] and people higher up in the council organisation. There was recognition that pressure could be put on officers to conflate education and safeguarding as nobody wanted a disaster to happen on their watch.
Jenny Dodd, Chair of the Association, welcomed everyone and said that going forward from this very first meeting, the organisation would want to agree common goals. Membership of the association is free. Terms of reference are yet to be published but include supporting parents and achieving a common understanding of the law.
A panel of speakers comprising Lord Lucas Dave Harvey Jenny Dodd Graham Stuart Daniel Monk and Stephen Bishop from the Department for Education each spoke for 5 to 10 minutes and then the meeting was opened up for questions from the floor.
A speaker from the NSPCC was due to take part but never arrived. For those who may be wondering, Barry Sheerman was not at the event. I was under the impression that he had been invited, but apparently this was not the case.
Minister Nick Gibb was invited but was unable to attend. The Committee was not expecting the Minister.
The NSPCC appeared to be a clear case of no-show, as the officers of the AEHEP were quite obviously scanning the room and asked several times if anyone had arrived from the NSPCC right up to the point when they were due to speak.
Each of the regional forums nominates 2 representatives to sit on the national committee, which was set to meet for the first time directly after the launch. Regional reps who were dispersed around the room then stood up and briefly introduced themselves. I didn’t catch all the names and will now ask for a list. The elected officers are Jenny Dodd, Chair, Dave Harvey Hampshire Vice Chair and Kevin Grant Bromley Secretary.
Lord Lucas said his role as a politician was to help when asked. He felt the association could be useful in developing and refining officers’ professional judgement, as officers needed to feel confident in their ability to take sometimes difficult decisions. He felt strongly that the initial approach from a local authority to a new family was of key importance in setting the tone, and that there was no need to react as though home education per se were an immediate cause of worry. LL said he understood that some schools do push unwelcome children out and that parents might want to talk to someone about this.
Daniel Monk said he was delighted to be invited and to see so many familiar faces from talking to local authorities about the law over the years, going on to say that it was laws in the plural rather than a single law, much of which was open to interpretation and there were grey areas in crucial areas such as the phrase “if it appears”. DM said setting up a national body was timely. He asked what does it mean to talk about a child’s right to education. There was a tension between the rights of children and the responsibilities of parents. There were also dangers inherent in state control of education and agreement across the political spectrum in this country that a surveillance state is a bad thing. Nonetheless, on occasions the state is required to intervene and we all have a collective responsibility as a society for the welfare of children.
DM said home education always provoked a passionate debate and that home education was also part of a broader debate about the state and parents. Local authorities were grappling with complex combustible issues. There was an inherent tension in local authorities having many powers removed but at the same time being expected to deal with for example children missing education and child protection.
DM went on to say that interpretation was tough and required cross-referencing provisions from within human rights, Every Child Matters, child protection and case law among other things. He said professionals are required by law to exercise discretion, indeed that’s what being a professional means. Even where the law is perfectly clear, it is still a question of judgement.
DM paid tribute to local authority officers whom he has met over the years and said he was impressed with their professional approach, dedication in challenging times, and their commitment to home education.
TO BE CONTINUED