Revealed – 800 pupils home educated as evidence found of schools pressuring parents
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More than 800 children in Suffolk are being taught at home according to new figures – including eight confirmed cases in one year where schools pressured parents to home educate so as not to bring down school results.
Latest data published by Suffolk County Council showed 828 pupils were taught at home as of January this year, with a 52% increase in the numbers being home schooled between 2014 and 2017 - above the 40% national average increase.
The data also said that there were eight cases in 2017/18 where pupils were 'off-rolled' - schools deliberately encouraging parents to take their child out of school because they are disruptive or bring down a school's overall results.
A report prepared for next week's council scrutiny committee said: "Parents have a right to decide to educate their children at home, and the education they provide can be very effective when they have made a positive choice for social or philosophical reasons and are committed to their decision.
"However, recently there has been national and local concern about some children who are being electively educated at home because they have been withdrawn from school due to dissatisfaction or conflict, or because their parents are unable to obtain a place at a school that meets their needs.
"There is also evidence of parents being illegally pressurised by some schools into voluntarily removing their children to educate them at home, a practice known as 'off-rolling'.
"Children in these situations may not be receiving a satisfactory education and are more likely to be exposed to undetected safeguarding risks."
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Nationally, around 57,000 children are taught at home.
Key reasons why parents chose to home school include practical reasons such as transport, or the ethos of parents, as well as other more problematic reasons such as a lack of appropriate provision for youngsters with special educational needs and parents not gaining their preferred school options.
In the cases of 'off-rolling', the council confirmed it would be following up these cases with the schools themselves and the regional schools commissioner.
Most of the increase in home schooling had been coming out of academy schools, rather than those run by the local authority, according to the council report.
However, concerns have been raised over the impact a lack of appropriate special educational needs placements has had.
Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said: "More parents haven't suddenly decided to home school out of personal choice, it's because they've been left with no other option.
"Overwhelmingly this is impacting children with SEND - regular exclusions, part-time timetabling and inflexible attendance expectations are forcing parents into making impossible decisions. This is off-rolling, plain and simple.
"The educational and social cost to children is immense and parents are being left isolated, exhausted and desperate. Frankly, it's disgusting how families are being treated.
"Those in power at Suffolk County Council have been warned time and time again about what is happening, but little has changed - families don't need platitudes and excuses, they need action."
A county council spokesman said reasons could include bullying, cultural or religious reasons or schools not meeting a child's needs.
"It has become apparent that in some cases, parents have been encouraged by schools to elect to home educate with no real understanding of how much responsibility this decision brings," the spokesman said.
"However, the council will not always be aware of this and there is no national or local record of this type of 'off rolling'.
"The Department for Education guidance is clear however that: 'Schools must not seek to persuade parents to educate their children at home as a way of avoiding an exclusion or because the child has a poor attendance record. In the case of exclusion, they must follow the statutory guidance.'
"Where the council is made aware that this has happened, we have intervened. In the case of maintained schools that has been directly with the school. In the case of academies this has been with the trust and with the regional school commissioner.
"The council has also worked with Ofsted about this issue. Our aim is to ensure children receive an education in school, or where parents do elect to home educate, they meet the requirements placed up on them."
Bec Jasper from Parents and Carers Together (PACT) said the threat of fines and the emotional wellbeing of their child were among the key reasons behind parents deciding to home school.
She said: "There are common themes which we hear regularly from our parents in the county, such as a lack of support or understanding for children and young people with diagnosed, or suspected, SEND including mental health issues as well as a lack of a robust and timely process for an EHCP [education health and care plan] to understand the issues a child may have.
"Another recurring theme is anxiety-based 'school refusal' which without support, understanding or intervention may lead to periods of 'persistent absence'.
"A lack of direction for and by headteachers around how these cases should be marked in the register, and what constitutes evidence of illness and when it is required, which can lead to unauthorised absences, fines and eventually a threat of prosecution.
"This is not a purely Suffolk issue and can be seen country wide, although we do in Suffolk have a higher than average number of parental fines for absences.
"PACT continues to work alongside the Suffolk attendance team in terms of highlighting the common issues and working together to try and find proactive methods to support schools and families to ensure the child is at the centre and to lessen the pressure sometimes created to de-register a child when it's not in their best interests."