Ofsted finds home education is most often not a choice – and off-rolling is a key culprit

NEW POST: A new Ofsted study finds home education is most often not a choice - and off-rolling is a key culprit.

More evidence that inclusion isn’t working has come from Ofsted, which has published research to show home education is often a last resort for families, rather than a lifestyle choice, because their child’s needs are not being met at school.

Ofsted’s report, published today says special educational needs, medical, behavioural or other wellbeing needs were the main reasons behind removing their child from school for parents and their children. 

The study, conducted across seven local authorities in the East Midlands, explored how and why children move from secondary school to home education. And while seven out of 152 local authorities in England is clearly just a fraction, it would be sensible to assume these seven are not outliers, and that similar situations can be found across the country – and the rest of the UK for that matter. 

I feel safe in saying it’s a fair assumption because of the many families I am aware of who have felt no option but to educate their child at home. A small percentage of families will always opt to home educate as a genuine preference, but the report shows most faced difficult circumstances at school and opted out to ensure the wellbeing and education of their child. 

In fact, 58,000 children are estimated to be educated at home and this number has risen 27% on the previous year, a HUGE increase. More of them are children with SEND.

“Growing evidence suggests that, overall, a disproportionate number of children who are removed from the school roll of a secondary school and do not move to another setting have special educational needs, are from disadvantaged backgrounds or are known to social care services, or have a combination of these characteristics.” 

“It was clear that children in this research had all moved due to difficulties they had experienced in school, although the perspectives of those difficulties generally differed.”

“School leaders reported using various strategies to support children who were having difficulties at school, although limited access to in-school and wider support services has made it more difficult for schools to provide appropriate support for some children.”

Ofsted report: Exploring moving to home education in secondary schools
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Quick moves

The report doesn’t investigate the quality of education children are receiving but it does point to the fact that the decision to remove their child often seems to have been made quickly. Most often, parents have no legal obligation to inform the local authority that a child is being home educated. In some cases, the process of making the move to home education can take less than a day, as soon as parents find out they can home educate, and there is little communication with schools or local authorities. 

On the face of it, this sounds almost irresponsible doesn’t it? But although a decision to act may be made quickly, it doesn’t come from out of the blue. Behind it will lie months, if not years, of a child failing to thrive at school, perhaps a lack of the right, or any, support put in place despite a parent asking. In all cases, Ofsted found the relationship between the parent and the school had broken down irretrievably.

Offrolling evidence

There are many reasons why parents decide home education is the only option. If a child is too anxious to go anyway, parents may decide it’s the least stressful option compared to being threatened with fines. The study found that children can be ‘off-rolled’ into home education by letters from parents asking to move a child to home education that were actually prepared by the school, ..One LA had previously received letters from parents asking to move a child to home education that were written on school-headed paper but signed by parents."

But sometimes, parents are coerced into removing their child, threatened otherwise with exclusion. Pressure to remove has also been identified by Ofsted during SEND area inspections, complaints, and other research, which showed that nearly a third of teachers believed pupils who had been off-rolled didn’t enrol at any other school: “In these circumstances, the move to home education is not, and cannot be described as, truly ‘elective’. We believe that off-rolling is always wrong. We are committed to reporting when we find off-rolling in schools."

The report emphasised that school leaders in its research were clear that they would not pressurise parents into moving to home education. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? 

However, in all this, it has to be emphasised that it is not all schools and you may well know if yours is one of them via the school grapevine:  “Schools that do not participate in off-rolling children will act in the interests of the child rather than the school…Some school leaders talked about this commitment in terms of a moral duty.”

As ever, it’s the more vulnerable parents whose children are most at risk. Previous Ofsted research shows parents with less understanding of the education system are most at risk of being pressured by schools to remove their children. Arguably, it’s these children who need more support, not to be left to be taught at home as best a parent can manage. 

An astonishing claim

“… school leaders told us that, rather than schools not meeting children’s needs, some parents home-educate because they struggle to support school policies, for example around attendance and behaviour. Ofsted’s recent commentary on managing behaviour in schools highlights how crucial it is for parents to work with the school to support its behaviour policy”

Ofsted report: Exploring moving to home education in secondary schools

To this I say, school leaders should really think long and hard about why children cannot attend school or display difficult or unmanageable behaviour. Are they just bad kids? Or is it, in fact, more likely that behaviour a response to their needs not being met? And is an “attendance” issue actually school avoidance brought on by severe anxiety? How much had these school leaders done to help the issue, or had they just, in their smug rightness, decided that supporting school policies was more important than meeting the needs of all the children on roll?

Cuts, cuts, cuts

The study found that those schools who do try their best to support every pupil were now finding it impossible to do so after cuts to pastoral care and learning mentors: ‘One of our secondary schools almost apologised for the fact that a child was becoming home educated. They said that they would have previously supported this child, but no longer have that provision available.’ 

External services such as early help and mental well-being services has also become hard to access. As one school leader commented: ‘The effects on external agency support for both schools and families has created a crisis, and the increase in home education is one of the results of that.’ 

This latest study only adds further weight to last week’s major report from the Education Policy Institute that found one in 10 children had "unexplained exits" from their school, with large multi-academy trusts the worst culprits. That report found pupils more likely to experience an unexplained exit from school include: 

  • Over 1 in 3 (36.2%) of all pupils who had also experienced a permanent exclusion;
  • Around 1 in 3 (29.8%) of all looked after pupils (those in social care) – who’s home schooling them?
  • Over 1 in 4 (27.0%) of all pupils with identified mental health needs (SEMH);
  • A majority of pupils experiencing unexplained exits (52%) fail to join any school in the term immediately following the exit.  
  • Read this report here 

Today’s  Ofsted study shows exactly how this happens: “We have also seen examples in our inspection evidence of schools giving parents an ultimatum – permanent exclusion or leave – or pursuing fines when a reasonable adjustment for a disability would have been more appropriate.”

What does guidance say?

Current guidance, simply advises parents it’s ‘sensible’ to inform their school and LA that their child is ‘being withdrawn for home education. Most parents just write to their school to inform them.  It's very hard to believe a school simply has no idea until they get a letter from the parent saying the child has left. Most parents will have repeatedly tried to get support or help. It’s not a small thing moving to home educate, certainly not time-wise.

I myself withdrew my children from their mainstream school in just one day after an incident in which my youngest was discriminated against. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I’m sure that for most parents, what seems like a sudden withdrawal to the school will be the same culmination of upset, poor support and indignities that finally make you say: No more!  

I didn’t home school; I had another amazing school lined up for the next term, but quick work meant they started there the following Monday instead, fully-uniformed. Don’t mess with Mrs Tirraoro or her kids!

The study finds when some schools had more notice of a move to Home Ed, they could be more proactive. One school had developed a new protocol, "One of the shifts we made, we tried to be more proactive. We identified children with needs and tried to intervene earlier... it has opened up dialogue with parents and are willing to come and talk to us. We do think that we have had an impact." 

So how is it that some schools, despite being under the same financial constraints, manage to keep all their children and meet their needs imaginatively and holistically, while others can’t wait to kick them out of the door? To me, it is clearly down to leadership and an understanding of SEND.

Alternatives?

For many parents there simply is no alternative provision close enough or suitable enough. Often, their child has been so traumatised they cannot cope with school anyway. 

“Parents appeared to reach a crisis point when their child was at secondary school, at which point they moved their child to home education. Parents, almost invariably, described a cycle of children’s needs not being met and ineffective support from the schools. In parents’ discussions, there was a belief that these difficulties were worsened by the school’s approach. Some children were subsequently unable to cope at school, according to parents.” 

Ofsted report: Exploring moving to home education in secondary schools

One LA spoken to in the research said, “To be fair to the school they’re probably now at a desperate point of “I don’t know quite what to do next with this child,” and therefore the only option is to just let them go.”

Yes. Just “let them go” and hope someone else will do their legal duty for them. 

Home education is a huge responsibility

As any parent who undertakes to educate their child at home or through informal (and often unregulated) arrangements will tell you, it is a massive responsibility and can take over your life. Done right, a vulnerable child can benefit far more than they would have at school, but parents say there is little support, something that comes as a shock to less well-prepared parents. 

Ofsted says its study suggests a significant gap in support. It welcomes The DfE’s recent consultation on children not in school and any potential legislative changes that would allow better support parents and home- educated children. But many parents are very suspicious of any moves to regulate home education. 

If you want to home educate you are, and should be, allowed to. But no parent should feel they have no other choice. What’s needed is for schools NEVER to off-roll for convenience or for exam scores. What’s needed is for better training to identify and support children with additional needs. And most of all for teachers to stop and try to find the roots of why a child has poor behaviour and take positive action whether that’s nurture, family support or special educational needs help. It’s not rocket science, it just takes training, empathy, and the will to care.

Download the report here

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Parents' experiences revealed

I asked our Facebook page and group readers if they home educated was it a lifestyle choice or otherwise. Within just a couple of hours there were almost 100 comments. Here are just a few of them and you can read them all here

Lynn: Felt I had no choice my child’s needs were not being met in mainstream what support he should have had kept being removed. His mental health had deteriorated and he was self-harming

Lesley: My daughter was home tutored from last September until this June, due to the school not taking any notice of her EHCP. And the school could not make her safe.

Naom: I Felt we had no choice after no support lots of dangerous situations, drug errors, ended with a TA said they wished they could kill my son because his alarm was annoying them, and being told he couldn’t go on a school trip in his wheelchair or without it.

Stacey: Left with no choice! My child was placed on a forced reduced timetable for almost an entire school year, EHCP reassessment has taken in-excess of eleven month. All whilst my child is left at a school who do not want to support their needs, but instead wants to treat my child like a badly-behaved child instead of one who’s in need of support! 

Hayley-Jane: Because I had no choice school closed her place and the authority decided school wasn't for her .

Emma: We had no choice - the head teacher practically admitted they wouldn't make the appropriate adjustments ('We don't know anything about autism here! If you do keep her here, we will continue to make mistakes, I'm sure!'). I think we were subtly off-rolled…When she started self-harming (age 5) we knew we could not take her back. Home education has been a blessing and a revelation. She is happy, and as a former teacher it is a pleasure to have her as my learning companion! 

Rachel: We were forced to remove our daughter from school in 2015 because she was about to have a breakdown. Our LA had been told by SENDIST to issue a statement after a long appeal. But her school were saying that they still didn’t believe she needed support. She was meant to be home ed for two years but then the LA took 81 weeks to convert her statement to an EHCP and she ended up only getting seven hours of funded provision for yr 11. The whole of the four years apart from those seven hours a week last year has been funded by us.

Joanne: I had no choice with my oldest. He was being bullied relentlessly to the brink of suicide. My youngest was dragged into school on his 3rd day by his arms by twoTA’s. He was five.

Jo: We had years of fighting for the right provision for her, then there was an incident where she was 

Susan: No choice, my middle son had a level of 1:1 and small group support in years R, 1 and 2. The school became an academy at the end of his yr2 and sacked all the support staff…His yr 3 teacher said she couldn’t teach him without him having 1:1…in the end the fantastic SENCO said she had no staff to support him and that he would only get an EHCP if he broke (her actual words). I gave up pursuing support at school and began to home ed. 

Natty: We had no choice. I was having to sit in school full time with my children and their anxiety was crippling. It was destroying all of our lives - we were just existing, not living.

Heidi: We had very little choice. School refusal plus an unsympathetic academy who wanted high attendance at all costs. They ignored the diagnosis, denied any need for support and told us he didn’t need an EHCP. Home Ed, despite a rocky couple of years, has proven to be fantastic, and my child now has an excellent EHCP and future goals.

Miriam:  The LA recognises that there are currently no schools that can really meet my child’s needs and it's been slow but we are attempting to work on EOTAS , but therapists lead. As the reality is that alternative communication systems are needed and this takes a lot of work.

Sarah: No not a choice and I crossed out ‘elected’ on every document. His previous mainstream primary school treated him horrendously despite him having a Statement. I took him out under the then DDA and Equality - access to education. I HE’d for four years whilst we struggled to find a school which could meet his needs and whilst we fought to get a Statement that was worth the ink on the paper. At no point did I choose this route, at no point did my son choose this route. When he did go back to school (a fantastic Independent Specialist School) he was ahead of his peers academically, despite having profound dyslexia alongside his medical and health issues. I did more than trained teachers had done, and if that’s my life’s work then I’ll die proud of what I achieved when others who are paid to do this job failed so spectacularly.

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two young adults with autism. Tania is a member of the Whole School SEND Expert Reference Group for SEND Leadership, the Ofsted SEND Inspections Stakeholders Group, and sits on the Advisory Board of the Royal Holloway, University of London Centre of Gene and Cell Therapy.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
Tania Tirraoro
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