Every year at this time one of the most common questions I get is what to do when school starts and you don't yet have an exemption? This year, there are the added pressures of the Covid pandemic/response and the significant increase in applications the Ministry is dealing with slowing things down.
First of all, please do read my main article on this topic - Truancy and the Home Educator - everything in it is still true and relevant today and I won't repeat it all here. Read it? Ok, so let's talk about what's happening right now.
Meanwhile parents who have chosen to home educate may be in various stages - application submitted some time ago and awaiting the outcome, application only recently submitted, or application not submitted yet. Those who submitted applications well before Christmas may understandably feel that it's not fair if they are expected to send their kids to school for the beginning of this term when they did their part in a timely manner, and it's the Ministry who are taking a long time. Parents who more recently submitted applications, or have not done so yet, can of course not have reasonably expected to have exemptions before the school term started, in most cases.
Regardless of the timing, there are a wide range of reasons why parents may not want to send their kids to school right now, including:
- They are all set up and ready to start homeschooling; want to get on with it, not disrupt the children's learning by putting them into school and then pull them back out again within a few days/week.
- Reluctance to expose their children to possible COVID in the school setting, with the country at Red, and Omicron starting to move through the country. In some cases, this may be because of medically vulnerable family members.
- Concern over vaccine mandates or mask mandates.
- All the other many reasons why parents want to choose homeschooling in the first place, and may not see any benefit or sense in sending the kids back to school while awaiting the exemption.
Ministry advice to schools
Since September there has been a significant increase in enquiries from parents about home education.
Information about home education and the application process is on our website for parents and whānau.
Here are some key messages about home education you can use if parents and whānau inquire.
- Home education is not a short-term solution. To home educate well, parents need to thoroughly research and plan their approach.
- If parents are concerned about their children attending school during the pandemic, they should first talk with their children’s teachers and principal about alternative learning options that the school may be able to support.
- Parents must apply for an exemption to home educate their children and they must demonstrate in their application that they can teach their children as regularly and as well as in a registered school.
- Applications are reviewed and assessed by our Ministry regional staff and exemptions are approved/declined at the regional level.
- We are currently assessing a large number of home education applications and decisions are taking longer than usual – on average more than six weeks. While families wait for their application to be assessed, legally all children aged over six years must be enrolled at and attending school (children can enrol at age five and then they must attend)."
What is missing from this statement is the fact that 5 year olds can be removed from school without an exemption. For more on that see HERE
Law vs commonsense
- All students aged 6-15 must be enrolled in and attend school
- Parents can apply for and be granted an exemption from the above for their student
- Attending suitable alternative tuition
- A transition plan to ease a student into full time attendance due to age, medical or psychological needs
- The student lives significant walking distance from the school (varies by age)
- Short term "justified absence" or "because it is sensible to do so" - however these are limited to 5 & 7 days respectively.
- A parent has submitted exemption applications more than 6 weeks ago, but the Ministry has not yet finished processing them. This family was anticipating being approved and beginning homeschooling from the beginning of Term 1. They've got all the books and everything set up ready to go. If they send their kids back to school, then it may only be literally days, or a couple more weeks, before they are approved, and would be taken back out of school. Sending them seems disruptive both to the student and to the school (as well as unnecessarily expensive if new school uniforms/stationery/fees are needed). Perhaps the family can discuss this with the school, and the school may be supportive of this, either marking this as acceptable alternative tuition as discussed in my truancy article linked above, or marking them as unjustified absence, but with no intention to refer the family to attendance services as long as the exemptions come through in the near future.
- A family has a medically vulnerable person and has genuine concerns about COVID, not wanting to send their kids to school until things settle down. According to the Ministry bulletin quoted above, schools may be able to provide alternative learning options for them. This could be instead of transitioning to homeschooling, or while transitioning to homeschooling if they plan to keep them at home in the longer term.
- A family has not yet submitted exemption applications; they recognise that it will take some time before they have the exemptions, and decide to send their children to school until they are received. This is sensible and appropriate unless there are reasons they cannot or should not be at school, such as health and safety reasons, mental well being issues etc, in which case they should likely talk to their doctor about a medical certificate in the meantime.
- A family has submitted applications recently; it may be a while until they receive the exemptions, but they believe they have genuine reasons for not sending the children to school in the meantime. Depending on the circumstances, they may be able to discuss this with the school, or a medical professional and come to some agreement.
- A family strongly feels that, though they need to wait upon the exemptions, that their duty of care to their children's wellbeing and best interests means that they are not able to send them to school in the interim. Despite the school being unsupportive of this, they make this choice, knowing that they may be followed up by attendance services, and could potentially face prosecution, though this usually only occurs in extreme or long-running situations. (For more on how that works, see HERE). This family would, if they have not already, get their exemption applications completed and submitted asap. Attendance Services, if they become involved, may apply commonsense by seeing that the family is genuinely working on/awaiting the application process, and has made this decision based upon what they believe is best for their children, and therefore taking no further action other than ensuring the exemption was approved in due course, so they can close their file.
The bottom line is, every family should do their best to remain within the letter of the law if at all possible. However, sometimes circumstances result in a wee bit of colouring outside of the lines during a transition phase. If that occurs, it should be kept to the shortest time possible, and reasonable communication should be maintained with others involved, such as the school, Attendance Services or whomever. It is very unlikely that the Ministry will be rushing to prosecute anyone who is genuinely transitioning from school to home education. However, if families take their kids out of school for long periods without gaining an exemption, that would be a completely different situation.
Does Red Level mean I don't have to send my kids?
However, as noted in the Ministry's bulletin to school leaders quoted above, schools may be able to offer alternative learning options if parents are concerned about their children attending during the pandemic.