Education is compulsory - school is optional

HE in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland parents have the primary responsibility for ensuring that their children receive an effective education. Although this responsibility is usually delegated to schools, some parents choose to exercise it directly by providing an education based at home.

The following summarises the legal responsibilities of parents and local education authorities in relation to elective home education of children of compulsory school age. However, it should be noted that there is no case law known to us about home education in Northern Ireland, and it is assumed that, should a case arise, England and Wales case law would be considered.

Parental Responsibilities

Responsibility to Ensure a Suitable Education

The responsibility of parents is clearly established in section 45(1) of the Education and Libraries Northern Ireland Order 1986 SI 1986/594

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

Definition of Suitable Education

The following again assumes that England and Wales case law would be relevant in Northern Ireland should a case come before the courts.

An interpretation of some terminology used in the Education Act 1944 (replaced by the 1996 Act) was provided by an appeal case which was brought at Worcester Crown Court in 1981 (Harrison & Harrison v Stevenson). In this case, the judge defined a ‘suitable education’ as one which was such as

  1. to prepare the children for life in modern civilised society, and
  2. to enable them to achieve their full potential.

The diversity of modern society and styles of education give parents considerable freedom of choice in enabling children to achieve their potential. In the case of R v Secretary of State for Education and Science, ex parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust (1985) (Times, 12 April 1985) Mr Justice Woolf held that:

education is ‘suitable’ if it primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so.

Examining the meaning of the expression full-time shows the hours spent on teaching in schools are not relevant to home education, which generally takes place on a one-to-one basis, or in small groups, in very different conditions.

Provided the child is not a registered pupil at a school, the parent is not required to provide any particular type of education, and is under no obligation to

  • have premises equipped to any particular standard
  • have any specific qualifications
  • cover the same syllabus as any school
  • adopt the National Curriculum
  • make detailed plans in advance
  • observe school hours, days or termshave a fixed timetable
  • give formal lessons
  • reproduce school type peer group socialisation
  • match school, age-specific standards
  • seek permission to educate 'otherwise'
  • take the initiative in informing the Board
  • have regular contact with the Board


Education and Library Board Duties

Enquiries about Educational Provision

Schedule 13 Enforcement of duty imposed by article 45 place a duty upon the board to take certain actions if it appears that a child is not being properly educated.

Part 1

1(1) Where it appears to a board that a parent of a child of compulsory school age in its area is failing to perform the duty imposed on him by article 45(1), the board shall serve on the parent a notice requiring him, within such period not being less than fourteen days from the service of the notice, to satisfy the board that the child is, by regular attendance or otherwise, receiving efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

The Board’s legal duty is concerned solely with children who appear not to be receiving suitable education. There is no implication that a Board should be active where it appears that a child is receiving suitable education at home. Nowhere in the act is it stated that regular monitoring of suitable education is a legal responsibility of the Board.

Evidence of Suitable Education

Although the legal duty of Boards is concerned only with children who appear not to be receiving a suitable education, case law in England and Wales (Phillips v Brown, Divisional Court [20 June 1980, unreported] ) has established that an LEA (Local Education Authority, equivalent of Northern Ireland Board) may make informal enquiries of parents who are educating their children at home to establish that a suitable education is being provided. In Phillips v Brown, Lord Donaldson said:

Of course such a request is not the same as a notice under s37 (1) of the Education Act 1944 [now s 437 (1) of the Education Act 1996] and the parents will be under no duty to comply. However it would be sensible for them to do so. If parents give no information or adopt the course … of merely stating that they are discharging their duty without giving any details of how they are doing so, the LEA will have to consider and decide whether it ‘appears’ to it that the parents are in breach of s 36 [now s 7 of the Education Act 1996].

If a Board chooses to approach a family and informally ask for information, parents can provide evidence that a child is receiving an efficient and suitable education in a number of ways. Parents might, for example

  • write a report
  • provide samples of work
  • invite an inspector to their home, with or without the child being present
  • meet an inspector elsewhere, with or without the child
  • have the educational provision endorsed by a recognised third party
  • provide evidence in any other appropriate form


In their leaflet, "Educating Children at Home, England and Wales" (received June 1998), the DfEE state:

3. LEAs, however, have no automatic right of access to the parent’s home. Parents may refuse a meeting in the home, if they can offer an alternative way of demonstrating that they are providing a suitable education, for example, through showing examples of work and agreeing to a meeting at another venue.

It is assumed that the same would apply to Northern Ireland.

Occasionally, after examining the evidence, a Board may have genuine concerns about a child’s education, but the way the evidence is presented should not form the basis for these concerns. Parents need only present evidence that would, on the balance of probabilities, convince a reasonable person that a suitable education was being provided.

Disputes Between Parents and Boards

It should be possible to resolve most disputes without recourse to formal statutory procedures. However, where children of compulsory school age are not being educated at school and the Board has serious doubts about the parents’ educational provision, the following scenario will apply.

Initially the Board may make an informal request for information. If the parents provide such information and the Board is satisfied that it appears that a suitable education is being provided no further steps should be taken.

If, after making informal enquiries, and then giving the family reasonable time and opportunity to explain or improve on their arrangements, it still appears to a Board that a child is not receiving a suitable education, then it may decide to serve a school attendance order. The Board should bear in mind, however, that should the case proceed to court the action will fail if the parents can satisfy the court that they are providing a suitable education. The court will accept evidence in a number of forms and will be looking for evidence that would convince a reasonable person on the balance of probabilities (rather than beyond all reasonable doubt) that a suitable education is being provided.

Schedule 13 Enforcement of duty imposed by article 45

2(1) Where, at any time whilst a school attendance order is in force with respect to a child, the parent of the child makes an application to the board by whom the order was made requesting ... that the order be revoked on the ground that arrangements have been made for the child to receive otherwise than at school education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, the board shall amend or revoke the order in compliance with the request unless it is of the opinion that - ...

(d) no satisfactory arrangements have been made for the education of the child otherwise than at school.

De-registration

There are no known cases where parents have had difficulty deregistering a child from school.

The parent does not need to ask permission from the Board to begin home education and, as long as the parent has notified the governing body of the school, usually through the head teacher, of the intention to home-educate, the parent is under no obligation to inform the Board of their intention.

Procedures for deregistering a child are mentioned in Section 48(3) of the Education and Libraries Northern Ireland Order 1986, although it has not been possible to trace the procedures at this time.

Parents seeking to home educate children registered at a special school, however, must obtain the consent of the Board to withdraw their child from the school. Again, there is no case law to indicate that consent has been with-held.

Home Educating Children with Special Educational Needs

The right to home educate a child with special educational needs is also given in section 45(1) of the Education and Libraries Northern Ireland Order 1986 SI 1986/594

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable to his age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

Parents of children with special educational needs do not need to have any special qualifications or training to assume direct responsibility for their children’s education. Furthermore, they do not need to inform the Board of their intention to home-educate unless the child is registered at a special school when the consent of the Board is necessary to withdraw the child from the school.