How to talk to your MP

TOP TIPS FOR TALKING TO YOUR MP ABOUT HOME EDUCATION

~ Martine Cotter (with Juliet English) as published on her blog on 3 April 2018

Over recent weeks, many home educators have approached their MP’s to discuss Lord Soley’s Home Education Bill.

A few have shared their personal accounts of such meetings on social media to help inspire others to take similar steps in the fight against regulation.

Consequently, it has become apparent that some home educators feel nervous about approaching their Member of Parliament simply due to a lack of confidence, experience or for fear of saying the wrong thing – which is entirely understandable.  We are home educators, not professional lobbyists!

To help those who are feeling anxious about approaching their M.P, we have put together a few simple tips:

TOP 13 TIPS

  1. You do not have to meet your MP in person.  You can make your feelings clear via email or in writing but remember to keep it factual and concise.  Too long or too emotional and they won’t read it.  Remember, all written communication is vetted by gatekeepers first.  Get your point or call-to-action across in the first paragraph.  Explain later.
  2. If writing, ask a critical friend to check that you are making your points ‘succinctly’.  Remember the KISS acronym (Keep it simple stupid) to bypass the gatekeepers.  Download Grammarly if you are concerned about spelling and grammar.
  3. Don’t ever assume.  It is entirely possible that your M.P has not read the Bill or is aware of the current legislation around the Education Act.  Don’t spend too long giving the background to an issue – ask them politely to read the relevant information before your next consultation.  Save your valuable ink/time for what they can do to help and why they should listen to you.
  4. Be clear about what you want them to do.  If you want them to write to a Government Minister on your behalf – ask.  Intervene with the local council – Ask. Raise the issue in Parliament – Ask. Help change a piece of legislation – You got it, ask!  Spell out your ‘asks’ and be as specific as possible. 
  5. Your MP is an ordinary person who has been elected by their constituents to represent their needs and concerns at Westminster.  They may indeed be intimidating or have an ego, but the reality is that they rely on votes, and as such, it is in their best interest to do a good job for the people they have a duty to support.
  6. Your M.P should set aside their own personal views about a subject.  If necessary, it is not unreasonable to clarify this with them.  If they support regulation for home education, ask why.  It is a great opportunity to try and understand their concerns.  Ultimately, you may agree to disagree, but this should not impact on their duty to represent and support you.
  7. Back up all agreements and actions in writing e.g. You agreed to do XYZ by ABC.  Try to pin them down to a timescale and chase them if you do not hear from them.  MP’s are busy and receive thousands of emails and letters.  They are used to being chased so don’t disappear into the night.
  8. Always be polite and respectful, even if they frustrate you.  You may win the initial battle by nailing them to the wall, but they will only avoid or ignore you in future.
  9. Be prepared, regardless of your method of approach.  Research – make sure your facts can be substantiated.  If writing, include links to further information or sources of research.  If meeting in person, have your questions and requests written down in front of you.  Base your appointment on approximately 20-30 minutes (at best) – this will ensure you both stay focused.
  10. Do not allow them to waste your time by over-talking or bamboozling you with their own examples, knowledge and political agenda.  This is your time, so keep them focused.  Don’t be afraid to mention the time and remind them that the meeting is about you.  If they stray off point, bring them back to the topic you wish to discuss e.g. whilst that is very interesting, I’m aware we are short of time so can I bring you back to….
  11. Avoid debating or arguing about topics outside of your control.  Focus on what you can both achieve.  Agree a plan of action with desired outcomes.
  12. Many MP’s will be thinking about how they can make an impact at a national level. You are likely to gain their full attention if you have an experience or an insight that will feed into a wider debate.   Think ahead – how will it be viewed at election time, if they can demonstrate to a wider audience that they were proactive in influencing national legislation.  Offer to share your insights and connect them to other relevant people or groups.  Don’t be afraid to suggest involving the local press or publicising their engagement with you via social media.
  13. Don’t forget to thank them if they take up your plight.  M.P’s work long hours and take a lot of criticism – it’s only right to acknowledge when they have done well.

EXAMPLE DISCUSSION OF M.P MEETING:

If the tips are not enough, below we have included an example of a real meeting shared by a home educator.  This is a brief summary to demonstrate the flow of the conversation.  Though every conversation will be different and based on individual beliefs, needs and concerns, we hope that it is useful in guiding your own approach.  

Home Educator (HE): I am here today to discuss Lord Soley’s Private Members Bill regarding Home Education.  Have you had the opportunity to read it?

MP:  No, I have not had the chance yet.

HE:  That’s okay.  Can I politely request that you do so before our next correspondence?  It will help to make our future meetings more meaningful.

MP Of course.  What don’t you like about the Bill?

HE:  I have a number of apprehensions but in order of priority, I have significant concerns about a national register.

MP:  I can’t see a problem with keeping a register, it seems perfectly reasonable to me

HE:  On the face of it, a register does seem rational, but can I be frank – I’m aware we have little time…

MP:  Of course

HE:  In my opinion, the school education system is broken.  It does not cater for the needs of children who are either gifted or who are unable to keep up with a rigid and unaccommodating curriculum and test-driven culture.  Children are suffering.  CAMHS are busting at the seams.  Children, unlikely to contribute positively to league tables, are being off-rolled.  Academies have found a way to exploit the league tables by steering ‘soft exclusions’.  Parents do not have a means of raising complaints about off-rolling or SEN discrimination to the Department of Education.

Consequently, parents are being forced to review their decision to outsource education as it is not fit for purpose.  They have joined thousands of others, some of whom have never outsourced education, to exercise their legal right to educate their own children at home. The problem is, we are growing in numbers, year on year, and it is starting to create attention.  To some extent, the Government are losing control of a growing population.  But, rather than address the elephant in the room (the broken education system), they are demanding that Home Education requires more legislation – and it starts with finding out who we are and where we are. It feels like we are the easy option because overhauling the education system is in the too-hard-to-do box.

MP:  Yes, I see what you mean

HE: You want a register, but a register cannot be implemented without sanctions.  There must be penalties for not complying.

MP:  But why would you not want to comply?

ME:  Because I have a human right to be presumed innocent before being found guilty.  Can you name any other national register that is compulsory? National registers exist for sex offenders and for violent MAPPA offenders. The government have shown little interest in a national register for serious and serial domestic abuse perpetrators, despite being petitioned for one, so, the only other national registers in existence are for known criminals – the worst of the worst.  On top of that, you want to consider a register for home educators BEFORE a register for convicted dangerous domestic abuse perpetrators.  Can you understand why we would feel aggrieved by that?

MP:  Yes

HE:  Furthermore, I am not happy to sign anything that I don’t understand.  I fail to understand the purpose of this register

MP:  Well, every child deserves an education. We have to make sure that happens.

HE:  How would you define ‘an education’?

MP:  (Sample response – this may differ) My definition of an education is one that prepares a child for life in the world in which we live.  Experiences and community. Learning is lifelong.  My colleagues define education differently.  They often describe it as academia.  I don’t agree.

HE:  So, you can see our first stumbling block? You want a register to make sure every child is receiving a suitable education, but you can’t even agree within your own party what constitutes an education.

MP:  Yes, some serious thought would need to be given as to how this would be implemented.

HE:  I agree. So, what other reasons are there for the register?

MP:  It is unacceptable for us to not know how many children are being home educated. We need to know that at the very least.

HE:  Why?

MP:  For one, I’d like to know just how many parents are deregistering from our schools because schools are deemed unfit to cater for their child’s needs.

HE:  I believe that information is already available?  Even so, you want numbers?  Wouldn’t that be called a Census?

MP:  I like that.  That would be a good compromise in my opinion.  But what about the child protection element?

HE:  I’m glad you raised that.  I have been saddened by the behaviour of Lord Soley and his supporters who think it is acceptable to compare us with child abuse cases here and in America, just because there is a tenuous link with home education.  In my opinion, this is our biggest problem.

If I said to you now, ‘you are a computer user, therefore you might be using the dark web’.  If I said, ‘you are a pet owner, and therefore there is a chance you are mistreating your dog’ – how would you feel?

You might feel the same way as I do, when Lord Soley says ’You are a home educator, therefore you may be abusing your child’.

Surely, you understand you can’t legislate for abusers who hide out in every section of the community?  It is not home educators who hide and mistreat their children.  It’s abusers.  It’s ludicrous to target one group of individuals. Child abuse is pervasive and exists in all walks of life and across all demographics, regardless of where or how they are educated.  It’s not a 9am-3pm problem.  Does that make sense?

I’m not convinced this register is about the protection of children.  Otherwise, you would prioritise a national register of convicted child abusers.  It feels like a façade to the real purpose – control.

MP:  (This response might differ depending on MP’s own political views) I see where you’re coming from.  I think most of my colleagues are willing to fight for home educators and know that the majority of them do an outstanding job.

I know the government can easily become control focused – I have challenged it myself.  Sometimes they lose sight of the rights of parents and think it’s their job to control everything.  There are a few who are automatically suspicious of anyone who wants to home educate…

HE:  Have they considered meeting with home educators, and perhaps even their children, to find out more? Could you encourage your colleagues to spend time ‘at the coalface’ so that they can better understand the issues facing parents both within the education system and at home? Perhaps they could meet the parents of the children who have been bullied, or the children who have had not had their SEN needs met? In fact, why don’t they review the industrial-aged system to see if it still prepares children for life in a modern world and job market?

We come back to the issue of the education system being broken.  And it being highly unlikely of ever being fixed.  Which means that home education will continue to grow exponentially over the coming years – something the government will try to control to prevent, rather than seek to reform the current education system.

MP:  I agree.

HE:  As parents, we are left with few options when schools fail our children. Sometimes, we are the only ones actually listening to the child, and willing to take action to save them from a situation that is mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically harmful to them.

It can take months for a child to recover sufficiently and regain their confidence – and this is only possible when they are removed from the harmful environment. So, what choice does a parent really have if they want to give their child the best chance of a happy and secure childhood, and a positive learning experience?

Having made the brave and bold decision to do what is right for our children, often sacrificing a salary in the process, because the state-schooling has let them down, we find the idea of being on a register and subject to intrusion by a local authority officer of undetermined qualification, totally unacceptable.

And, for that officer to have the power to enter our private family home, our safe space – yet another breach of our human rights – to interview the child ‘they’ have damaged, and to assess their education against a dubious definition (when their own attempts were unsatisfactory), is simply insulting.

We are rightfully indignant.  We have no faith in a system that has let our children down. We have a right to be suspicious. There has been no honest dialogue about why this register is needed, or what it will achieve.  No robust evidence has been provided to support the concerns or claims.  There is simply no substance to the requirement unless you know of anything different?

There are daily cases of local authorities misquoting legislation and “door-stepping” parents.  Local policies sit side by side with national guidance, which is open to personal interpretation. Lords and journalists actively mislead the public in national newspapers.  We have no reason to trust that a register would not be equally abused and exploited in a way that is harmful to families and children.

MP:  It does seem like a slippery slope. I don’t think they’ve considered all the implications. Equally, I don’t think they have thought about how it will be implemented or costed.

HE: You’re not wrong. What can we do as a community to at least encourage honest and open dialogue about this Bill?  How can I help you?

MP:  Good Question.  I don’t know. Without a single spokesperson, it is difficult to communicate with the government directly. However, MP’s love nothing more than representing a large number of constituents with the same issue.  I would advise all Home Educators to lobby their MP’s.  It can be very powerful and effective.  If you want to organise a group meeting here before or after the committee stage I will happily ask questions and lobby this Bill on your behalf.

HE: I will take on that responsibility and organise a group meeting and come back to you with proposed dates.   In the meantime, can you please seek clarification from the Education Secretary in terms of the Government’s response to the proposed Bill?  Can I also ask what amendments the Government intends to make to the current guidance?  Can we agree that you will represent my concerns at every stage throughout the process of this Bill being passed or rejected?  Will you also inform me of any developments regarding home education, both in relation to this Bill and otherwise?And finally, can I thank you for taking the time to meet with me today and for taking my concerns seriously.  We may not agree on everything, but I am relieved and pleasantly surprised by your willingness to represent my concerns at Westminster.  I hope we can work together to find a satisfactory conclusion that is respectful of the rights of the missing voices here – our children.