Back in January 2012, I wrote about the effects of the Welfare Reform Bill and Universal Credit on home educating families. I also shared the letter of response I received from the Department of Work and Pensions. At the time, very few home educators were interested in the implications of Universal Credit, probably because it seemed so far away, but the roll out has now been accelerated. Over the last few days it seems that home educators are finally paying attention and worrying about how it will affect them.
What is Universal Credit?
Universal Credit is a single monthly payment which will replace Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit.
Why will this affect home educators?
There are two main reasons why Universal Credit will affect many home educators. Firstly, self-employed people will be expected to earn over a certain amount. Secondly, both parents of a couple will be expected to work once their youngest child reaches the age of 5.
Under Universal Credit, self-employed people will be expected to earn the equivalent of minimum wage for the required number of hours. If they earn less, this minimum income floor will be used to calculate their payments rather than their actual earnings, potentially leaving families worse off by hundreds of pounds each month.
Self-employed people will have to supply monthly accounts or have their payments suspended. New businesses will get a 12 month start up period during which the minimum income floor will not apply, and individuals are limited to one start up period in every five years. Those who are already self-employed when transferred onto Universal Credit will get a 6 month period during which the minimum income floor will not apply.
This change will particularly affect single home educating parents. Currently, many single parents choose to be self-employed and work 16 hours per week in order to claim Working Tax Credit to top up their earnings, regardless of how much they actually earn. This will no longer be possible, meaning that many single parent home educators will need to seek employment or give up home educating if they are unable to make their business profitable enough.
From April 2015, self-employed people will have to prove that their self-employment is genuine and effective if they earn less than the equivalent of national minimum wage for 24 hours per week. Failing to do so could presumably result in the loss or reduction of Working Tax Credits, although there is very little information available yet about how this will be implemented. This change is separate to Universal Credit.
Couples with a stay-at-home parent
Under Universal Credit, couples with children will have to nominate a “lead carer”. The non-lead carer will be expected to work full-time, whilst the lead carer will be expected to look for part-time work once the youngest child is 5 years old and full-time work once the youngest child is 13. Before that, when the youngest child is aged 1-4, there will be various work-related requirements which the lead carer must comply with. People who do not meet the requirements set out in their claimant commitment will have their benefits sanctioned.
Update: it was announced in George Osborne’s summer budget speech 2015 that “we now expect parents with a youngest child aged 3, including lone parents, to look for work if they want to claim Universal Credit.” It is expected that this change will take effect from April 2017.
At the moment, couples with one parent in work are able to claim top-up benefits according to their household income. This means that families can currently choose to have the other parent stay at home and make do on a low income. Under Universal Credit this choice will no longer be available for low-income home educating families. The lead carer will have to work or seek work, dramatically reducing the number of hours they have available each week for home educating their children. Those who are seeking work must make preparing for and getting a job their full time focus. Even once in work, there will be continuous pressure to increase their earnings as much as possible.
Although the guidance states that normal school hours and childcare availability will be taken into account, it is unlikely that this will be much help for home educators. In fact, it could be argued that home educators will have less choice about the jobs they apply for because home education does not need to take place between certain hours. The letter I received from the Department of Work and Pensions made it very clear that home educating parents claiming Universal Credit will be expected to find work regardless.
Will Universal Credit really go ahead?
Yes, it is really happening. It’s true that Universal Credit has been delayed and there have been many problems rolling it out. However, it is estimated that 1 in 3 Jobcentres will be using Universal Credit for new claims by early 2015. Most existing claims will be switched over to Universal Credit during 2016-2017. Some parties have stated that they would review Universal Credit if elected in the upcoming general election, but it is unlikely to be scrapped completely due to the huge costs involved.
Why does it matter?
Home education should be an option for all families, not just those with high incomes or two parents. Couples should be able to choose between living on a single or joint income, based on what is right for their family. It should not be up to a stranger to decide how many hours per week a parent is capable of working. Increasing the minimum wage to a living wage would be a far better solution than devaluing the role of stay-at-home parents and putting pressure on them to work longer hours and earn more.
Some people argue that the taxpayer should not have to pay for parents to stay at home. However, economists have demonstrated that investing in the care and education of children actually offers better economic and social returns than traditional forms of investment. Home educators already save the taxpayer money by not sending their children to school, and single earner families pay significantly more tax than dual earner families on the same household income. Additionally, if both parents have to work then the taxpayer will have to pay for up to 70% of any childcare costs, which for parents with two or more children could actually exceed their hourly wage.
Some families will be able to meet the Universal Credit work requirements and continue home educating their children, but many more will not. Those families will have to choose between sending their children to school or living in poverty. Don’t assume that just because you don’t claim benefits now that it won’t affect your family, unexpected unemployment can happen to anybody.
There have been a lot of social media discussions recently about which parties support home education. I’m not going to talk politics (not in this post anyway!), but I just want to point out that despite claiming to support freedom for home educators, the Conservatives are effectively attacking home education through the backdoor by making it as difficult as possible.