My child, my choice. A healthy motto?

05 July 2019

Most parents believe they know what’s best for their children, but on education, parents and schools can come into conflict. What’s the best way forward, and how might you help? Journalist Georgina Wintersgill reports.

Parental involvement in their children’s education is hugely important, and most schools are keen to get parents more engaged. But differences of opinion can present challenges – and sometimes relationships between parents and schools break down altogether.

There may be disapproval, or misunderstanding, over lesson content. In Birmingham recently there have been daily demonstrations outside primary schools (Busby, 2019) and hundreds of children withdrawn for a day (Parveen, 2019) in protest at lessons that included LGBT issues.

There may be conflict over school rules, such as term-time holidays. The number of fines issued to parents in England for taking their children out of school during term-time soared in the 2017-18 academic year, compared to the previous year (Department for Education (DE), 2019a).

What’s more, increasing numbers of parents are educating their children at home, particularly in England and Wales (Children’s Commissioner for England (CCE), 2019; Issimdar, 2018). It’s raised questions around why this great need is there and safeguarding issues that may arise. The government believes the rise in home education is due to factors such as difficulty in obtaining adequate provision in the school system, and disagreement with schools about academic and behavioural issues (DE, 2019b).

So what can be done to improve relationships between parents and schools, and vitally, ensure that children get the best possible education and preparation for their future? And can community practitioners play any beneficial role in the process?

Getting ready for life

Most parents would like to have some say in what their children are taught. A 2017 survey by Parentkind (a charity and membership organisation for Parent Teacher Associations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) found that 84% of parents with school-age children want to be consulted regularly by their children’s school, and 63% said schools should be more accountable to parents (Parentkind, 2018).

While parental engagement is important, is the potential for differences of opinion always helpful for children? Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham is the school that’s been at the centre of daily protests by parents angry that children are being taught about LGBT families in relationships lessons (Busby, 2019). While Parkfield Community School, also in Birmingham, saw about 600 Muslim children withdrawn for the day in protest at lessons teaching children about tolerance of diverse groups, including different races, genders and sexual orientations (Parveen, 2019).

From September 2020, it will become compulsory in England to teach relationships education in all primary schools, and relationships and sex education (RSE) in all secondary schools, plus health education for all ages (DE, 2019c). RSE should include LGBT content in secondary schools. Primary schools are encouraged to cover LGBT content if they consider it age appropriate to do so, but are not specifically required to (DE, 2019d).

However, responses to the government’s consultation on the reforms showed widespread opposition: 64% of respondents saying the proposed content for RSE at secondary level were not age-appropriate, while 58% raised the same concern about relationships education at primary level (DE, 2019c). Responses came from a wide range of respondents, including parents, grandparents and education professionals.

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy advisor at school leaders’ union NAHT, says that some parents also feel uncomfortable about religious education (RE) lessons – but this is often due to misunderstandings about the subject. Sarah, who used to teach religious education, says: ‘From my experience there are still misconceptions that it’s about making children religious, or that it’s narrowly focused on Christianity, or that it doesn’t take account of other beliefs – and good RE isn’t any of those.

‘It’s vital for preparing young people for life in modern Britain. RE gives pupils the space to engage with different beliefs and views, develop some understanding and respect for others who might have different ways of living or beliefs, and that prepares them for our modern world.’

She says that relationships education is also about preparing children for the world. ‘It focuses on building good relationships,’ she says. ‘It’s all about children knowing what’s good, keeping children safe and understanding relationships.’

Currently, parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education and from sex education. Sarah explains: ‘Sex education isn’t statutory in primary schools beyond what’s covered in the national curriculum, so particularly for science, but many primary schools do have some sex education for older pupils and parents have the right to withdraw their child from that. So if a parent doesn’t want their child to take part in sex education lessons in primary school, the head teacher automatically grants that request. In secondary schools the same is true and will remain so (although from September 2020, pupils can choose to opt in to sex education from age 15, regardless of their parents’ wishes (DE, 2019c). But good practice is to try to meet those parents and try understand what their concerns are.’

One of the advantages of meeting parents is to clear up any misunderstandings and combat misinformation.

Sarah says: ‘Particularly with social media, there’s lots of information out there that isn’t necessarily accurate. Schools are experts in education and they turn to expert organisations to help them teach in the right way, with good resources and age-appropriate information. So the opportunity to talk about what’s covered can often reassure parents.’

Education secretary Damian Hinds makes it clear that although schools can tailor lessons to the needs of their community, parents don’t ultimately get to decide on the curriculum.

He told Community Practitioner: ‘Head teachers have the flexibility in how they deliver these new subjects. We trust schools to tailor their lessons to meet the needs of their pupils. We also expect heads to consult with parents on the resources they will use.

‘But that does not mean learning about equality and diversity is optional, or that parents can veto curriculum content.’

So what’s the best way for schools to pre-empt potential conflicts and ensure that children’s social development and belief system don’t suffer? The charity Parentkind has developed a blueprint for parent-friendly schools (see Resources, page 39), which sets out a strategy for building positive partnerships.

External affairs manager of Parentkind Ruth Lowe says: ‘Parent councils or other consultative groups, where school policies are discussed and parents are given the opportunity to contribute their ideas, are great examples of how this can work in practice. By engaging mums and dads, schools are constantly working with the parent community, building trust and positive relationships.’

School of mum and dad?

Many families make a positive choice to home educate. And it’s a choice health visitors or school nurses (SNs) may come across in their practice. In 2018, almost 60,000 children in England were being home educated at any one time (CCE, 2019), although the exact number is unknown as there is not currently a register.

However, the government believes that the dramatic increase of recent years is due to more negative factors, including difficulty in obtaining adequate provision in the school system (especially for children with special needs); disagreements with schools about academic or behavioural issues; and a perceived lack of suitable alternatives (DE, 2019b).

Research by Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary reveals that nine out of 10 local authorities were concerned about ‘off-rolling’ (CCE, 2019) – which involves: encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than the pupil; or when a parent removes a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion (Ofsted, 2019).

The report published in February by Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield OBE noted that while many parents make a positive choice to home educate their children and provide a high-quality education, others feel they have no choice and struggle to cope (CCE, 2019). She said: ‘Many of these children are very vulnerable, have special educational needs, or are unable to cope with a “one-size-fits-all” school system. Schools should be for all children, including those with complex needs and those who struggle academically.

‘We need to know who these children are, where they are, whether they are safe and if they are getting the education they need to succeed in life.’

Research for the Dispatches documentary suggests that 22% of the children withdrawn from school to be home educated in 2017-18 had special educational needs. It also revealed that 92% of councils do not feel they have enough powers to assure the safety of home-educated children (CCE, 2019).

In her report, Anne called for the government to introduce a compulsory register for all home-educated children, as well as stronger measures to tackle off-rolling, more support for families who home- educate, and a greater oversight of home-educated children (CCE, 2019).

One health visitor in north west England, who asked not to be named, shared her concerns about the safeguarding aspect of home education. She says: ‘I have one family where the home circumstances are difficult, they’re on a low income and there have been safeguarding concerns regarding the state of the house and the general chaos there. The family were pretty anti-establishment and it was always very difficult to interact with them. I haven’t seen them for a while, but I know their plan was to home educate. If the kids were in school they would be seen every day but, as it is, they’ll never be seen unless someone brings them back into the system as there’s never been enough of a concern to do anything really active.’

Like many HVs, she focuses on under-fives, so only encounters home-educated children when visiting younger siblings to deliver the Healthy Child Programme. ‘We wouldn’t have much to do with the older kids,’ she says, ‘although, obviously, if we saw something that was a concern while we were visiting, we would have some responsibility for sharing what was observed with an appropriate practitioner. When the younger kids are five and our service has finished, it’s really only if they go to the doctor that they’ll get seen.’

The government recently held a consultation (which closed last month on 24 June) on the proposed legislation for local authorities to maintain a register of children who are not in school in England; for parents to register their children with local authorities if they are not in school; and for local authorities to provide support to home-educating parents if required (DE, 2019e).

Last year, the education secretary for Wales announced plans to consult on requiring local authorities to establish a ‘reasonably complete’ database identifying children not in school, though parents would not be required to register their child (Welsh Government, 2018).

Liz J from Wiltshire, a mother who has always home educated her daughters, now eight and 11, is against the idea of the register proposed for England.

She says: ‘It would be unhelpful and detrimental to the children, and the wider home educated community as a whole. It would be unmanageable to maintain and wouldn’t achieve anything. It wouldn’t help safeguarding,since education and welfare are separate issues.’

She believes council officials need more training in home education. ‘Unfortunately, there is a distinct lack of training,’ she says. ‘Many EHEOs (elective home education officers) only do the job part time, spending most of their time as education welfare officers or truancy officers. As such, they spend most of their time trying to coerce children into school, so do not understand that education is wider than schooling and home education does not have to replicate a school.’

Liz believes that one of the benefits of home education is that it enables parents to tailor their children’s education to their individual needs, including if they progress faster than average for their age.

Many parents choose home education because their child’s needs weren’t being met by the mainstream schooling system (for example, some autistic children). Some of these parents worry that a register will be intrusive, and may lead to local authorities getting more powers to visit them at home (Breitnauer, 2019) and potentially force children back into school with a School Attendance Order. Currently, councils can only make an informal enquiry to check children are getting a suitable education (HM Government, 2019b).

The North-West HV meanwhile has concerns that some families who home educate could become isolated. ‘If you haven’t got much money, you can’t do the social networking that other children will naturally do when they go to school. It’s fine if you have enough money to do extra-curricular activities and link in with other home-educating families; [in fact] I see another home-educating family who do all of that and they clearly have a good social life and lots of support. But I can’t imagine that the first family I alluded to would have much money to do that.’

Anti-vax action 

Childhood vaccinations may be another area where schools and parents come into conflict.

In Italy, children under six may not attend school unless they have been immunised (BBC, 2019).

In the UK, there are no such sanctions. However, SNs are well-placed to offer parents, children and young people the information they need to make an informed choice. As reported in the June issue of Community Practitioner (Astrup, 2019), a poll of 1674 parents by Public Health England (PHE) found that 93% had confidence in the vaccine information given by healthcare professionals (PHE, 2019).

In some areas, home-educated children can access a school nurse service or a school-based immunisation programme team offering community clinics for childhood vaccines, such as the children’s flu vaccine, the HPV vaccine, the 3-in-1 teenage booster, and the MenACWY vaccine (NHS, 2016). The area where the North-West HV works offers no access to a school nurse service for home-educated children, but does have a school-based immunisation programme team who offer immunisations in community clinics.

What’s the answer?

Inevitably, parents and schools won’t always agree, but working hard to build and maintain positive relationships can go a long way, says Rob Williams of the NAHT in Wales. ‘It’s about making sure we engage with all the parents as much as we possibly can, especially those families who are harder to reach,’ he says. ‘Schools need to be as proactive as they can, because often it will mitigate against circumstances where there is any misunderstanding or concern.’

He continues: ‘We work with organisations like Parentkind to look at ways to maximise the opportunities to build that essential partnership with parents, because we’re in the same boat, we want the same, we want the best for our children in terms of education and achievement and wellbeing. To achieve that, we need to understand where each other is coming from and how we can best support each other.’

To stay informed, and help signpost concerned parents on the issues raised here, see Resources below.

A break for wellbeing? 

Every year, thousands of parents take their children out of school for term-time holidays, when prices are considerably cheaper. But the break can cause conflict with schools, which argue that the cumulative effect of missed days is harmful to education.

Head teachers in England are only allowed to grant term-time leave to families in exceptional circumstances, and the council can issue £60 penalty notices to parents who don’t comply (Parliament UK, 2017; HM Government, 2019a).

In 2017, Isle of Wight dad Jon Platt lost his case against the Supreme Court, after challenging the penalty notice he’d been given for taking his daughter on a term-time holiday (BBC, 2017).

The number of penalty notices issued to parents in England then rose by 93% in a year, to almost 223,000 in 2017-18 (DE, 2019a).

In Scotland and Northern Ireland there are no automatic fines for term-time holidays, although they are not encouraged (NI Direct Government services, 2019; HM Government, 1980, updated 2019). In Wales, schools can grant children up to 10 days absence for a family holiday during term-time, at the head teacher’s discretion; parents taking children for unauthorised holidays can be fined (Welsh Government, 2013; Welsh Government, 2010).

Rob Williams, policy director for the NAHT in Wales and a former head teacher, says: ‘Some head teachers want a very clear-cut, national decision but that’s almost impossible, because there are always situations where it’s more difficult.

‘There are some circumstances where term-time holidays can be perfectly appropriate. I’ve worked in schools where there were military families who didn’t know when parents were coming off a military tour. The idea that you’d stop them going on holiday because it happened to fall within term-time, when they hadn’t seen each other for months, is clearly ridiculous.

‘It’s about applying common sense and equipping parents to understand they have a role in explaining why that holiday in term-time is essential.

‘The issue is when you’re having frequent holidays where attendance in general is not high enough.’

Rob does have some sympathy for the families, however, given he’s seen some who simply couldn’t have afforded the price of school holidays had they waited for term-time. ‘That’s something that’s out of the hands of schools and parents – it’s a government decision and an industry decision.’

The NAHT has published guidance on how head teachers can decide whether to grant term-time leave (see Resources). An absence for a funeral, important religious observances, or the death of a close family member were examples of exceptional circumstances, it said.

Good communication is essential, according to Ruth from Parentkind. ‘Policies can often be buried on the website. The key thing is to be upfront and transparent about expectations, highlighting clearly the most relevant elements to parents.’


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