Is the increase in home schooling a direct result of pupils’ needs not being met?

This week, The Guardian published an article which shared feedback from parents about why they were opting to home school. Data clearly shows that the number of children and young people being home-schooled has increased substantially and is continuing to rise.

Of course every case is different and parents come to home schooling for all kinds of different reasons. For some it is a positive choice, for others it is a last resort after other options have not worked out. However, it was interesting to see how closely the concerns raised by parents in the article mirrored key concerns frequently expressed by school leaders. A few key issues stood out from the article:

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  1. The crisis in the SEND system. The significant issues currently faced by many children with SEND have been well-documented. Many children find themselves falling between the gaps – on lengthy waiting lists for assessment or judged not to have needs that warrant an EHCP, whilst schools lack the resources to meet their needs. Without adequate funding, pupils may find that their school can only accommodate them part time or without the additional support they require to succeed. This is not the choice of the school, the pupil or their parents, it is a reflection of inadequate funding for schools and wider services.
  2. Challenges faced by neurodiverse pupils. A number of respondents in the Guardian article referred to schools being unable to meet the needs of their neurodiverse child. Clearly school can present a significant challenge for some young people. If, for example, a child experiences sensory overload when faced with large crowds or excessive noise, the corridors of a large school will inevitably be challenging. Schools can, and do successfully make adaptations which enable neurodiverse pupils to thrive, but many of these adaptations are expensive. At a time when school budgets are stretched to the limit, it is not surprising that some schools find it is not possible to provide the staffing, opportunities for smaller group work and specialist support that might enable a young person to succeed in school.
  3. Limited support for mental health. As the work of Professor Barry Carpenter has shown, the impact of the pandemic on pupils’ mental health has been profound. Schools have seen a significant increase in the number of pupils presenting with mental health difficulties such as anxiety and eating disorders. At the same time, the underfunding of specialist services means that many young people cannot access the support they need. Clearly a young person with unmet mental health needs is unlikely to thrive at school. It was striking that a recent Teacher Tapp survey indicated that 66% of respondents said that they had been told a pupil was not able to attend school due to anxiety.
  4. A packed curriculum. Since 2010, curriculum reforms across all key stages have aimed to increase the level of difficulty and, in practice have added a considerable amount of extra content. Whilst this level of challenge will work well for some pupils, this has undoubtedly alienated some young people. Planned changes to vocational provision at key stage four run the risk of exacerbating these issues further.
  5. Significant problems with recruitment and retention. Whilst only briefly alluded to in the article, there is no doubt that the significant challenges many schools face with recruitment and retention impact on young people. School leaders clearly do all that they can to build a high quality team, but where pupils experience frequent staffing changes and high numbers of temporary staff they may well feel unsettled and less engaged than they may have been.
  6. Disruption to the bond of trust between parents and teachers. Many school leaders report that the experience of homeschooling during the pandemic has fractured the relationship between home and school. At its simplest, it suggested that a different approach was possible – that attendance at school was not a necessity. At the recent ASCL conference, the current president, John Camp, highlighted a Teacher Tapp survey which showed that a third of school leaders surveyed had had seen pupil absence due to a parental dispute with the school. He highlighted the negative portrayal of schools in the popular press and the part this has played in eroding trust.

Clearly homeschooling does not always mean that a child or young person is missing out. Many parents who opt to homeschool do so very successfully and the increased availability of online learning opportunities has helped.

However, the key factors highlighted in the Guardian article suggest that some children are not in school because their needs are not being met – and this necessitates further discussion. This is not a story about schools ‘failing’ but rather the system failing to meet the needs of some of our young people. Schools cannot resolve this alone, particularly when they lack adequate funding and staffing. A collective effort is needed to fully understand what young people are telling us, to identify what would help and to provide schools with the resources that they need to change the narrative.

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