The parents of one of the child stars of the West End stage show Matilda are facing legal action in a row with their local council over their daughter’s home education.
Lilian Hardy, 12, who played the title role for six months last year and hopes to study English at Oxford, has never attended school. She has been educated at home throughout her life.
Her parents, Edward Hardy and Eileen Tracy, who say their daughter has thrived as a result of home schooling, may have to go to court if the local authority is not satisfied that Lilian is receiving a suitable education.
Westminster council was only alerted to Lilian’s situation when the Royal Shakespeare Company, which produces the multi-award-winning stage show, applied for a child performance licence for Lilian after she was cast in the title role.
Lilian had never previously appeared on stage, though she attended a small drama and music group for home-educated children. She auditioned for an ensemble role in the West End musical but ended up landing the lead, and performed at the Cambridge Theatre in London until last September.
Her parents have been sent a school attendance order, which requires them to either enrol her at a local school within 15 days – in her case Westminster Academy – or prove that she is receiving an adequate education. If they fail to comply they could be prosecuted or fined.
Hardy and Tracy say they have sent ample evidence of Lilian’s progress to the local authority, including samples of her work and details of her studies, which they say prove she is being suitably educated. But the council has said it is not enough and is seeking to arrange a meeting with the authority’s home education adviser, or evidence provided by a third-party education professional.
Home schooling is an increasingly fraught area of education policy, with growing numbers of children being educated outside school. A freedom of information request by the BBC found that the number of home-schooled children in the UK went up by 65% between 2009 and 2015. FoI responses from 190 local authorities showed 36,609 children were in home education, but the true figure is likely to be much higher.
Under the current system, schools must inform local authorities if a pupil is taken off their register, but children who have never gone to school are not reflected in the statistics. Councils have powers to intervene if children are deemed to be at risk or are not receiving a suitable education.
Last November the government said it was drawing up tougher guidance on home schooling for both parents and local authorities after some councils complained they did not have sufficient powers to intervene. Part of their concern was around illegal schools, which they fear may be exploiting home education rules.
Lilian’s parents say they were shocked to find themselves being pursued by the council, and believe the local authority should be focusing its attention elsewhere.
Tracy said: “Lilian has really thrived on being home educated, in ways that have regularly surprised and delighted us and that have also clarified for me as an educator how children learn best – through being given freedom to follow their noses.
“Through home education, parents exercise their right to let their child develop at their own pace and cherrypick their academic pursuits and other passions without confused outsiders breathing down their necks.
“Local authorities have sufficient powers if they see a problem. But that ‘if’ is key. It’s to do with the fundamental British concept of presumption of innocence, which is enshrined in UK law. If the state doesn’t have evidence of a problem, as in our case, then it’s really important that state officials don’t have the power to intervene, so that children and their families can be left in peace to work their own magic.”
A Westminster council spokesman said the council respected the rights of parents to home educate and was committed to supporting parents who made that choice. But he said local authorities had a statutory obligation to ensure that resident children receive a suitable education.
“In Westminster, the majority of families meet with the home education adviser to discuss their education. Alternatively, parents have the option to provide endorsements from an education professional involved in the delivery of child’s education,” he said.
“We have explained to Mr Hardy and Ms Tracy that we cannot solely rely on samples of their child’s work to form a view about the suitability of their education. They unfortunately have also declined meetings and have not provided the endorsements we have sought. We remain keen to resolve this matter amicably.”