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Okehampton Campaign Workshop - Sunday 11th February 2007

This workshop went extremely well.

We opened promptly(ish) at 11am to a busy room. Once again people chose to sit in a circle rather than in rows facing the front.

I spread out lots of printouts on the table under 5 main themes:

  • INTRO
  • LAW AND LOCAL AUTHORITY
  • LOBBYING MPS AND COUNCILLORS
  • GETTING THE MEDIA ON YOUR SIDE
  • MORE IDEAS
This seemed like a great idea at the time. Especially when I was stapling it all together at 5 o'clock on the Sunday morning. However, honesty (or something) compels me to say that the most frequently asked questions were:
  • "If I only take one thing what should it be? "; or
  • [when people saw Theo's banner across the top of all the pages] : "Oh, so is this all available on the website, then?"
I am hereby recommending the Home Page of the Freedom for Children to Grow website as The One Thing.

Annette called the meeting to order promptly at 11am. We had a strong attendance from the people already staying at the Youth Hostel and also a number of EO members had come in from the South West region.

I opened with an overview of Every Child Matters legislation. I talked about The Children Act 2004 and how it was affecting everything. I showed [visual aids!] the colour picture A4 envelopes used by Sheffield Council in their Every Child Matters Focus Group work last Summer.

  • Be healthy
  • Be safe
  • Make a positive contribution
  • Enjoy and achieve
  • Achieve economic wellbeing
I outlined how some Local Authorities now believed that this put the onus on them to ensure that these aims and outcomes were met for all children in their area.

I also set out how there were no more LEAs but rather Integrated Children's Services so that Education and Welfare were now conflated. We returned to this theme at intervals during the workshop.

The workshop began to explore the idea that this ECM agenda is not going to go away whatever happens or not with the DfES in the short term. A number of people contributed their own personal and professional experience of ECM. I chipped in with my own ideas on what everyone was saying but I finally twigged that Annette was following protocol and giving everyone a chance to speak in turn so it wasn't exactly fair that I got my turn all those extra times. (Of course once I DID twig this, I naturally still had one or two things I needed to finish saying)

We discussed the timescale for the consultation. Phil Hicks, Chair of Education Otherwise Government Policy Group outlined the EO meeting with the DfES before Christmas and how the information EO were given initially has not been borne out by subsequent events, for example we were told at in December that the consultation would be early in the New Year, and yet at the end of January a spokesperson at the DfES was saying we were now looking at March.

We discussed how Education Otherwise would formulate a consultation response to the DfES in due course and also how individuals and local groups could also respond to the consultation themselves and how they could use the material which EO would release in advance as a springboard for their own response.

Annette then made a splendid rallying speech about how there was a great deal we could do to protect our freedoms and also to campaign for better treatment and that we would cover this after lunch.

We then had a break. The visitors brought out sandwiches as we had entreated them to do. Extrovert people who are rejuvenated and energised by social contact went down to the cafeteria. Those of us who probably come out differently on the Myers Briggs temperament scale happily went off to eat cold pizza in the car on our own.

The afternoon session dealt with setting out your stall to Local Authorities. LAs now have a duty to consult parents and families so Annette and I put the case that we are helping the Local Authorities to do their job better if we go and talk to them about what we want and what we don't want.

We talked rather a lot about Sheffield and how we go about things here. Not in the sense that there is a template or model way to go about approaching your Local Authority, but with different people in different areas describing what worked for them and noticing that there were often similarities.

For instance I showed some examples of our Home Education in Sheffield Leaflets . I think everyone would have been interested to take a copy away, but we only did a tiny initial print run in colour, so people had to pass it round.

I explained how we had come to realise that the first port of call for new local home educating families was mostly not the local group or the internet but the Local Authority. And that while the LA Elective Home Education Advisor always mentioned that I was Education Otherwise Local Contact and gave my details (agreed with me in advance) this did not actually mean very much to anyone.

So we needed some information which the LA person could pass on to the home educating families and we discussed in our local group about what should be included and whether people wanted their personal details known to the LA since some of the most active home education organisers locally (eg Annette) are famously "not known" to the Authorities.

We discussed the idea provisionally with the LA Advisor and then agreed the text with the local group. The Director of Local Delivery at the Council also thinks it is an excellent idea and of course it is another way to get across the message that home educated children are out and about, that they meet in groups, that there is a viable social network, that we share skills and experience and so on.

It then turned out that a few other areas had already done a similar thing and they reported that it was working well both in building bridges to new home educators and also in raising the positive profile of home education to the Local Authority.

We went on to discuss other ways of being assertive with the Local Authority, again drawing extensively on our experiences in Sheffield for example with their Truancy Sweep Protocol.

The workshop then discussed making contact with councillors and MPs in order to get your MP to ask questions of Alan Johnon, the Secretary of State for Education. We covered how to make the initial approach, where to find out the basic information, the kinds of things you might say in a letter or surgery visit, how to stay positive when you got a standard reply, suggestions for further reading and so on.

The people at the workshop turned out not to be representative; it turned out over two thirds of us had previously written to our MPs, whereas it was felt that for many home educators this would perhaps be their first experience of making contact with a Member of Parliament and that some background information would be more than welcome (particularly since it is important that we all speak for ourselves; a standard letter is much less successful than the personal approach).

This brought us on to how many home educated children there were because I have seen letters from MPs saying that they have heard there are upwards of 170,000 home educated children and that this figure is growing all the time. However, many home educators who have studied Mike Fortune Wood's research based on Freedom of Information requests to Local Authorities believe that if LAs know of perhaps 20,000 home educated children, then it is not reasonable to suppose that there are more than three times as many as this number who remain unknown. Which means that we can provisionally state that there are most probably between 40,000 and 60,000 home educated children in England.

I put forward the thesis that the ECM agenda, set against the background of unwarranted beliefs that there were almost 200,000 children, perhaps fuelled the paranoia about home education on behalf of the Local Authorities and the DfES.

We then went on to talk about building up a relationship with the media because this is another way we can win the battle for hearts and minds. Unsurprisingly Sheffield featured heavily in this part of the workshop as well. There was a lot of interest in taking copies of the two page positive feature on home education from The Sheffield Star, November 2006. We also touched on how to get onto local radio and how we would need a hook to get into the national press, and ideas of how to look out for a likely peg on which to hang our home education stories or beliefs (such as the recent example of Ruth Kelly's child being sent to an expensive private school because of the failure of the maintained system to cope with his Special Educational Needs.)

Annette and I encouraged people to continue to send links to the campaign website or to post on message groups which we could then feature in Latest News section on the website.

We had to wrap up the meeting before we had really covered everything because we had a shorter time allocation than will generally be the case with other Regional Workshops so we only briefly had time to touch on other ideas such as the Hands Up 4 Home Ed children's campaign.

One idea which Annette adopted at Okehampton was to pass round a Skills Register where people could fill in their names and list any particular relevant skills they felt they might contribute to the local and national home education campaign and we are already following up some of these leads.

Once again the time after the meeting proved to be invaluable for mutual support and for a more informal exchange of ideas. For this reason we have wherever possible booked any future venues for an hour before the meeting is due to start (setup) and an hour afterwards specifically to allocate time and space for this winding down time. (Tea and cake would be nice here, perhaps especially chocolate cake….)

Fiona Nicholson
Education Otherwise Government Policy Group
Education Otherwise Local Contact in Sheffield


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