the evidence: NSPCC briefing on home education

When I first read the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews I thought the NSPCC had merely got hold of the wrong end of the stick about the legislation relevant to home education. That’s not unusual – many people do just that. But a closer examination showed there was much more to it than a simple misunderstanding.

The briefing claims to consist of ‘learning about child protection pulled from the published versions’ of seven serious case reviews (SCRs) involving children educated at home. [The full briefing has since been replaced with a summary, but the original is still accessible here. Also note that the Serious Case Review for Child S listed in the NSPCC summary is for the wrong Child S.] But the claims and recommendations made by the briefing aren’t an accurate reflection of what the SCRs tell us – about home education or child protection. The briefing also calls into question the current legislation relevant to home education, but makes no attempt to explain the legislation or the principles on which it’s based. So what ‘learning’ can we ‘pull’ from the NSPCC briefing?

legislation

The legislation and guidance relevant to home education isn’t explained or even cited, so anyone relying on the briefing for information would be aware only of the NSPCC’s view of the law, not what the law actually says or why it says it. Since the NSPCC doesn’t appear to understand the legislation, its view of the law creates a problem for unwitting readers.

claims

I noted 13 claims made by the briefing about the risks to children educated at home. Only one – that children could become isolated – was supported by the evidence in the SCRs, and that indicated only that some of the children involved could have been considered isolated at some times. In other words the risks to home-educated children that the NSPCC is concerned about are hypothetical risks rather than real ones. Laws aren’t and shouldn’t be based on hypothetical risks only, but this important distinction isn’t mentioned.

recommendations

The briefing cites only the 15 recommendations from the SCRs relating directly to home education – and overlooks the other 64. Over 30 of the others involved procedural issues and more than 20 involved healthcare. Two of the healthcare recommendations that the briefing does highlight relate to organisations that were defunct before the briefing was published.

opinion

Although it cites evidence from the SCRs, the briefing isn’t what I’d call evidence-based, that is, derived from a careful evaluation of all relevant, available evidence. It looks more like an opinion backed up by the selection of supporting evidence only.

NSPCC publications

The home education briefing isn’t typical of NSPCC publications. The research report on disabled children, for example, is exactly what you’d expect from a research report. It’s well written, well evidenced and well referenced. Most of the briefings that summarise straightforward legislation, guidance and procedures are what you’d expect to see too. It’s when a topic needs to be thought through from first principles that the charity seems to flounder. A couple of examples:

An earlier version of Checkpoints for Schools discussed at length bullying by children, but failed to mention how teacher behaviour or the way the education system is designed contributed to the problem. But I guess those omissions are understandable; after all most people think of bullying in schools as involving only other children.

The oversights in the briefing about Fabricated or Induced Illness (FII) (which I can no longer find on the NSPCC website but is available here) are more serious. A framework drawn up by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been amended so that simple parental anxiety and genuine and unrecognised medical problems both come under the umbrella of FII, which not only renders the concept of FII meaningless, it sees the children of anxious parents and children with undiagnosed medical conditions as being at risk. Also, despite referring to ‘genuine and unrecognised medical problems’ the briefing fails to alert healthcare professionals to medical conditions known to be under-diagnosed that have a significantly higher prevalence than FII.

I contacted the NSPCC about both documents, but rather than discuss the points I’d raised, the charity simply re-stated its position on bullying and FII. Communication with one of the authors of the FII briefing was more fruitful. Slides from a presentation by the authors are online and paint a rather different picture to the one presented in the briefing.

NSPCC and evidence

The NSPCC is entitled to express its opinion about these issues of course, but the steps that need to be taken to reduce bullying, improve doctors’ diagnostic skills or prevent children coming to serious harm are much more likely to be effective if they’re based on a thorough evaluation of the evidence about what actually happens.

In the UK legislation isn’t based on opinion, either, but again, on evidence. It has to be. Changing the law is a time-consuming and expensive process that can have serious unintended and unwanted consequences if you don’t get it right. And you’re quite likely not to get it right if you base it on people’s opinion about what they think happens instead of evidence about what actually happens.

If the NSPCC were a member of the public passing comment on children’s behaviour, medical diagnosis or an esoteric aspect of education legislation, their failure to evaluate the evidence properly wouldn’t matter so much. But the NSPCC is a major national charity funded by many millions of pounds from the public – and direct from government. It’s also the only organisation other than local authorities and the police that has statutory child protection powers.

The briefing on home education is out of date, sloppily written, poorly presented and pays only lip-service to the evaluation of evidence. It’s pretty clear that the NSPCC doesn’t like the idea of home education, an opinion it’s entitled to hold. But I also got the impression it doesn’t actually value home educating families very highly. Neither the few home-educated children who came to harm, nor the vast majority who won’t, appear to be worth the effort of producing a well written, well presented booklet that contains sound information and a proper evaluation of the evidence.

The NSPCC has no business cherry-picking evidence. Nor does it have any business using its high-profile status to publish advice or recommendations based only on evidence that supports its opinion. It doesn’t always do that so why do it at all?

help: NSPCC briefing on home education

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews highlights recommendations from seven serious case reviews (SCRs) published between 2008 and 2013 involving home-educated children. [The full briefing has since been replaced with a summary, but the original is still accessible here. Also note that the Serious Case Review for Child S listed in the NSPCC summary is for the wrong Child S.]

In the previous post I mentioned that the primary purpose of legislation is to protect the liberty of the individual. Historically the primary purpose of national government has been to protect liberty by defending the nation from attack from abroad, and of local government to do so by maintaining law and order.

But you’re unlikely to enjoy your liberty very much if you’re starving, sick or homeless. The massive increase in urban populations following the industrial revolution eventually resulted in the UK government, national and local, turning its attention to people’s quality of life. Over the last century or so national education, health and social care systems have been developed. Currently, education and healthcare are universal services, available to all. Significantly, social care isn’t.

social care for children and families

The parent of any child ‘in need’ according to the criteria set out in s.17 of the Children Act 1989 can request a social care assessment. The definition of a child ‘in need’ can be summarised as;

• unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by a local authority
• health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services; or
• disabled.

But there appear to be a number of hoops to jump through before a child ‘in need’ can hope to access support.

The first hoop is meeting the eligibility criteria for an initial assessment. Here, for example, are those of the Royal Borough of Greenwich. I’m not knocking the Royal Borough. Their criteria are explicit and specific. At least you know where you stand.

The second hoop is an initial assessment that determines whether or not the child is sufficiently ‘in need’ to be eligible for a core assessment. For many local authorities, the criterion for a core assessment is not so much about the child’s needs as about whether they are at risk.

The third hoop, the core assessment, presumably identifies what sort of support the child needs. Or not.

Despite s.17 of the Children Act 1989 saying

It shall be the general duty of every local authority…
(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
(b) so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,
by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

the current focus of social care services appears to be on the safeguarding element of their general duties, not on the promotion of welfare element. The initial assessment prioritises safeguarding children already ‘in need’, not on preventing them from becoming ‘in need’ in the first place. This looks rather like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In practice, it means you could be the parent of three children, each with complex disabilities and Statements of Special Educational Needs and repeatedly excluded from school, have a broken marriage and be estranged from your extended family as a consequence, be seriously sleep deprived, suffering from a bunch of mental and physical health problems and be unable to hold down a job because of your caring responsibilities, but if your children are not deemed to be at risk of harm or of harming others, you can still not be eligible for a core assessment.

Local authorities justify rationing support in this way by saying they must prioritise children who are most in need. On the face of it, this looks like a responsible use of taxpayers’ money. It isn’t of course. Low-level social problems don’t just resolve themselves because services are rationed; the costs are simply shifted elsewhere. Parents and children absorb many of the costs – financial and in terms of quality of life. Schools are expected to patch together the children’s lives and parents and children pitch up at GP practices with recurrent health problems. And in many cases social services end up having to support families anyway once their problems have escalated to the point where the children are deemed to be at risk of harm.

safeguarding

The task of safeguarding as presented in the seven SCRs involving home-educated children has three main features;

• identifying children already at risk
• monitoring their welfare
• intervening before they can come to harm

The focus of politicians, the media and the SCRs themselves has been on the failure to intervene in time to stop the children being harmed. The focus of those advocating increased regulation of home education is on monitoring the children’s welfare. The focus of social care assessments is on identifying children already at risk. It’s clear from the SCRs that none of the three features provide any guarantee that a child will stay safe – almost 30% of all children who were the subject of a SCR have had current or discontinued child protection plans. So why the focus on identifying, monitoring and intervention?

promoting welfare

The purpose of the seven SCRs was to examine the specific circumstances that led to a child coming to serious harm, not to catalogue all the support families received, so there’s little mention of what help parents asked for and what help they got. Most home educating families don’t want or need help, but in all seven cases cited by the NSPCC briefing parents had approached the authorities voluntarily at some point. That might simply have been impression management on their part, but let’s assume for the moment the approach was a request for help. What did they ask for? The evidence suggests that in six cases it involved specialist expertise; about developmental disorders, complex health problems, special educational needs, mental health and adoption. Specialist expertise isn’t always easy to access. Parents with children not deemed to be at risk have long reported difficulties getting it.

But not all the help needed was so highly specialised. In two cases, there were problems with housing. Child 3’s mother had sold all her furniture in an attempt to avoid the house being repossessed; it was during repossession that her daughter’s body was discovered. The chaos and tragedy into which Child 4’s family was precipitated appears to have been triggered by the mother’s attempts to improve their circumstances; she went on a diet, her partner moved in and she planned to relocate the family to a better neighbourhood. But her ‘healthy eating’ regime deprived her children of food, her partner had a troubled history, and she couldn’t get a tenancy transfer until she had ‘tidied up’ the house – the children had scribbled on the walls. Mrs Justice King, hearing the application for a care order for the surviving children, noted the chaos that the family descended into as a result of the mother’s partner attempting to lay laminate flooring throughout the house. Without wishing to trivialise the tragedy that followed, the outcome might have been very different if a lone parent with six children, some of whom had significant learning difficulties, had had access to old-fashioned services like meals on wheels and home help.

In some cases, the help the families did get appears to have made things worse. One parent experienced frustrating delays getting responses from the EOTAS service. Health interventions included two cases of over-prescription of medication, no conclusive diagnosis, being removed from a GP list and a suspicion of Fabricated or Induced Illness. Parents did get appointments with professionals – 130 in a year in one case, but the focus of social care appeared to be on assessing the risk to the children, rather than providing the support the family needed to lessen the risk. This might go some way to explaining the ‘combative’ and ‘aggressive’ attitude of parents.

Social workers, understandably, point out that a focus on high profile cases where they have failed to prevent children coming to harm doesn’t take into account the thousands of children that they help. That’s undoubtedly true, although I’ve never heard social workers elaborating on what sort of help families get; a recent interview on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour (from 33m 40s) is a case in point. But I don’t think it’s the social workers who are responsible for the difficulty families have in getting help; the way social care services are designed makes this situation inevitable.

it’s the system

Most of us, at some times in our life, are faced with challenges we can’t cope with on our own. Some people have robust social networks they can call on for help. For others, their social networks are part of the problem. That’s what public sector services are for; to help people cope with those challenges.

In the early 1900s, the first social worker training course offered by the University of Birmingham included topics like British constitution, industrial history, economic analysis, statistics, law, and sanitation and hygiene. The emphasis was on understanding the wider context for the problems families faced. In the intervening decades, the focus has shifted from designing systems that improve people’s lives, to resolving individuals’ specific problems, to, more recently, a preoccupation with procedures.

For example, the 2013 statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children reads less like statutory guidance than a handbook consisting of 97 pages of advice. Some of the advice is probably useful – there are flow charts for different types of cases, for example. But is it really necessary to tell experienced professionals planning a strategy discussion that it “might take the form of a multi-agency meeting or phone calls and more than one discussion may be necessary” (p.33)? It’s not surprising, with this level of micromanagement and the dire consequences of not paying attention to it, that local authorities’ focus is on following the procedures related to safeguarding rather than on promoting children’s welfare.

failure demand

If people don’t get the help they need when they need it, their problems don’t just go away. Services then have to deal with repeat referrals, complaints and worsening problems. This is what John Seddon calls ‘failure demand’ – demand caused solely by a failure to do the job properly in the first place. Successive governments have believed that the obvious way to deal with shortcomings is to use carrots and sticks to get services back on the strait and narrow. Unfortunately, the obvious way isn’t always the most effective. The focus of those working in the public sector has gradually shifted away from serving the public towards collecting the carrots and avoiding the sticks.

Increasing regulation in response to service failures, which is how government has responded and what the SCRs and the NSPCC recommend, won’t help. It will simply add to the services’ workload and make it even more difficult for them to help the people who need it. Counter-intuitively, what would reduce demand and service failures is making social care universally accessible and ensuring that front line professionals have the expertise, resources and flexibility to help prevent minor problems escalating into major ones. Not only is that likely to reduce overall demand but it could also make people’s lives better.