Skipping school: Britain’s invisible kids

This was the title of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme broadcast on Monday this week.  It was about home education and presented by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield.  Ms Longfield called for a complete overhaul of the system relating to home education, but her call was based on some significant misunderstandings of the current legislative framework. There are some key principles that need to be taken into account before any legislative changes are considered.

education should be suitable to the individual child

The Education Act 1996 (s.7) gives parents a duty to cause their child to have a suitable education – suitable to the individual child (s.7 uses the now somewhat archaic ‘he’). That’s important because if the education isn’t suitable to the child as an individual, they are unlikely to learn well.

In contrast, the current education system requires teachers to deliver an education suitable to the average child. Teachers are expected to differentiate their teaching for the many children who are not average, but have little training in doing so. This inherent tension appears to be a major factor in the increasing numbers of home-educated children – all the children who appeared in the documentary had had significant problems with school.

the law treats education and welfare as distinct issues

That’s important because a child could be well educated but at risk of harm, or safe and well but poorly educated.

If it appears that a child is not receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) Education Act 1996), a local authority has powers to make inquiries about the child’s education and to issue a school attendance order if necessary.

If a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect a child is at risk of significant harm (s.47 Children Act 1988), it has powers to make inquiries about the child’s welfare, including entering the home and seeing the child if warranted.

home-educated children who have come to harm have not been invisible

In 2014 the NSPCC published a briefing featuring seven Serious Case Reviews for home-educated children who had come to harm.  I have been unable to find any additional similar Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) prior to this date, so I think it’s fairly safe to conclude that Ms Longfield’s concern that there might be thousands of home-educated children at risk of serious harm might be disproportionate.

In each case, the child in question was previously known to the authorities. Almost 70% of the SCRs’ recommendations related to the failure of the authorities to follow procedures correctly. In five cases, the failure of healthcare services to do so may have contributed directly to the harm experienced by the child.  I’ve blogged about the briefing in detail here.

In Skipping School Ms Longfield highlighted the tragic death of Dylan Seabridge in 2011, and commented that he was ‘all but invisible’. But Dylan’s mother worked at a school in a neighbouring local authority and the Head Teacher had raised concerns about her children in 2007. In 2010 Ceredigion social services considered her vulnerability due to her deteriorating mental health, but didn’t alert the local authority for Pembrokeshire where the family lived.  Fiona Nicholson has documented this case in detail here.

The Seabridge family’s welfare was a welfare matter. The fact that the local authority didn’t have right of entry to the home to check on the children’s education is beside the point. Exactly the same conflation took place prior to the death of Khyra Ishaq, where concerns about the welfare of Khyra and her siblings had been raised by the school she had previously attended, but the local authority complained that education legislation prevented them from seeing the children.

home education and illegal schools are two different things

The boundary between home education and an unregistered school is blurred only because the criteria for school registration are unclear (notably about the number of hours involved), not because home education is on the rise.  Fiona Nicholson has documented this issue in detail too, here.

conclusion

The programme began by attributing the increase in home education to schools ‘off-rolling’ difficult pupils. It concluded by calling for local authorities to have powers to register and monitor home-educated children on the grounds of ‘the rights and best interests of the child’. But if local authorities cannot ensure that their own schools provide a suitable education for those children, where does that leave the rights and best interests of the child?

Local authorities already have powers to intervene if they have concerns about the welfare or education of home-educated children – but are often unclear about what those powers are. That lack of clarity has been a factor in home-educated children coming to harm.

I agree wholeheartedly with Anne Longfield that a good education is vital to children and the wider community, but if schools are failing to provide it, I can’t see how local authorities monitoring the education provided by despairing parents will address the root cause of the problem.

I’ve suggested in response to previous government consultations that if a child is removed from a school roll to be educated at home, their per capita funding be retained by the local authority and ring-fenced to provide resources and advice centres – maybe based at local libraries – to support any families who need it.

Home educated children are not skipping school. Nor are they invisible. And what they and their families need from local authorities is support – not ineffective registration and monitoring.

 

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