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Elective Home Education in a post-pandemic world: why more needs to be done for our growing number of home-schooled children

A second year of exam cancellations and equity issues has fuelled concerns of a ‘lost generation’ of home-educated children and young people who may be struggling to navigate their transitions and next steps

Amber Fensham-Smith

Experiences of school-assisted online learning during lockdown and concerns about the risk of transmission when schools in England re-opened in the autumn of 2020 are thought to have played a role in a spike in Elective Home Education (EHE) numbers.

Home schooling or home education, as EHE is also known, is a growing trend across the UK and internationally. In England it is a policy arena where, historically, the triad of parental rights, children’s rights and the duties of the state have tended to produce relations of conflict, rather than cooperation and trust, among its stakeholders.

Drawing on partial and incomplete self-reported data of local authorities (LAs), the most recent home education survey by ADCS (published November 2020) reported an increase of 38% in England’s home-schooled children over the previous year, up to 86,335. It is unclear what proportion of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) were represented in this rise.

Based on their own freedom of information requests, the charity Education Otherwise (EO) reported that the 38% spike may have plateaued to 83,974 in April 2021. However, according to research just published by the BBC, the number of children registering for home education across the UK rose by 75% in the first eight months of the 2020/21 school year.

Widening inequalities?

While EHE is a legitimate and viable education alternative for many families, questions persist about the extent to which this pathway is widening pre-existing inequalities in mainstream schooling. Reports of EHE families struggling to access specialist support which may have been specified as part of a previously agreed Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan, as are challenges in securing new such plans following an assessment and/or new diagnosis.

Contrary to being a positive elective choice,  research has highlighted a rise in the number of last-resort families who are ‘pushed’ into EHE as result of:

  • Lack of support/provision for (diagnosed and undiagnosed) SEND in state-maintained schools. Under current arrangements, If a child or young person with SEND but without an EHC plan is home-educated, LAs do not have a legal duty to provide provision such as software, home-learning equipment, speech and language therapy, but may fund these needs when it is ‘appropriate to do so’.
  • Children’s declining mental health and wellbeing in schools and bullying.
  • Racism and temporary and fixed-term school exclusions and off-rolling.

Research funded by the Nuffield Foundation has revealed that support services for SEND children and young people were significantly impacted over the course of the multiple COVID-related national lockdowns. In addition to IT access issues, many of the online learning materials and resources offered by schools to facilitate home learning required significantly more parental input to meet the needs of children and young people; these challenges and experiences are not divorced from the growth in EHE in 2020 and 2021.

Data collected for the first time by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2020, and again in 2021, showed a 23% increase (to 3,660) in the number of EHC plans relating to home-schooled children and young people in England. But the extent of families without an EHC plan (or pending an assessment and/or review) who faced a trade-off in relinquishing this existing or future entitlement to specialist support in order to mitigate the risks of transmission of COVID-19 is not comprehensively understood. What is known, however, evidentially raises questions about the longer-term challenges that this key collection of families might face in seeking to move from EHE to other educational settings.

Exam cancellations: a lost generation?

There is no state subsidy towards the costs of EHE, including the cost of examinations. Instead, parents assume the costs and EHE children and young people sit for qualifications as external private candidates. The exact number of EHE children and young people who sit public examinations is unknown.

The DfE’s decision to cancel public examinations during the summer of 2020 and award outcomes on the basis of teacher-assessed grades left an estimated 10,000-20,000 EHE children and young people (private exam candidates) without GCSE or A-level grades in what has been called a postcode lottery of support. In early 2021, a private candidate support grant was launched as the DfE aimed to support private candidates in registering with an exam centre with available capacity.

Anecdotal evidence of families travelling significant distances to register with an approved exam centre, and a reduction in the number of entries as a result of the rising costs of these assessments, has emerged. Ongoing research at the Centre for Social Mobility, University of Exeter is seeking to evaluate how this context has and will continue to impact upon EHE young people’s access to higher education, employment, or further training.

A second year of exam cancellations and equity issues has further fuelled concerns of a ‘lost generation’ of EHE children and young people, who may be struggling to navigate their transitions and next steps. Little is known about the range of long-term outcomes, opportunities, and challenges that EHE young people face as they transition to adulthood, seek employment, and lead their own independent lives.

Recommendations for action

The evolving needs of EHE children and young people among this small – but growing – heterogenous collection of families needs to be supported by robust evidence-based policymaking. Much of the existing empirical evidence comprises small-scale, qualitative case studies, so new and emerging evidence needs to be shared among stakeholders. Crucially, this necessitates extending knowledge-exchange activities between LAs to review, share and disseminate good practice for building familial engagement and trust. In particular:

  • Reviewing existing partnership models between schools, EHE families and LAs and planning transition policies;
  • An evaluation of the private candidate support grant and funding skills considerations for EHE children and young people impacted; and
  • Longitudinal research into the transitions and experience of EHE adults.

Against the backdrop of the Education Committee’s ongoing home education inquiry, it is anticipated that a statutory register of children not in schools in England is imminent – although it is not yet clear how the existing duties of LAs might change, nor what this might mean for a system of additional support and monitoring of EHE families. Any review of LA duties needs to address the gaps, inconsistencies and equity issues between new and existing EHE families that may have widened during and post-lockdown.

About the author

Dr Amber Fensham-Smith is a Lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at the Open University, and Convenor of the British Educational Research Association’s Alternative Education Special Interest Group. She is currently leading a knowledge-exchange project funded by Open University with Education Otherwise and local authorities to review best practice in familial engagement and training needs.