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?

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