Home education: politics

Something that perplexed many home educating parents in 2009 was why a major review of the legislation should be commissioned only a year after the publication of the Elective Home Education Guidelines. It was clear many local authorities and other bodies weren’t happy with the status quo: what wasn’t clear was why.

Sharon Shoesmith’s book Learning from Baby P published in 2016, offers a convincing explanation – even though she doesn’t mention home education at all. I’ve blogged about her book previously.  The issues are important ones not limited to home educating families.  Here’s a slightly abbreviated version of my original post.

In August 2007, a toddler living in the London Borough of Haringey died. 18 months later on 11 November 2008 his mother, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother were convicted of causing or allowing the child’s death. The toddler was Baby P, eventually named as Peter Connelly.

Media interest was intense. On the day of the conviction, Sharon Shoesmith, director of Haringey’s children’s services, and Jane Collins, CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) held a press briefing that mentioned the disciplinary proceedings against individual social workers finding no evidence of gross misconduct. On the following day, November 12, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) issued a press statement condemning the behaviour of those convicted.

Later that day, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown (then PM) appeared to be taken by surprise by David Cameron’s (then Leader of the Opposition) criticism of the way Haringey Council had responded to Peter Connelly’s death. Cameron asked who was taking responsibility and why no one had resigned. He followed up his attack later with an emotive article in the Evening Standard, and the next day with a letter to the Sun. The Sun launched a petition calling for Sharon Shoesmith, the social workers involved, and a paediatrician at GOSH to be sacked, and by the weekend the petition had 1.4 million signatures. The Government’s reaction triggered a chain of events culminating in a ‘perfect storm’ that had significant, far-reaching repercussions for national and local government, the news media, social work as a profession, children’s services, individual social workers, and vulnerable children.

the government response

The Government’s response to the criticisms was swift and robust. A press officer was sent to Haringey Council and on 1 December the Council leader, and the cabinet member for children and young people, resigned. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced in a press conference that he was replacing Sharon Shoesmith with John Coughlan, then director of children’s services in Hampshire, and appointed Graham Badman, previously director of children’s services in Kent, as chair of Haringey’s Local Safeguarding Children Board. A week later, Shoesmith was formally dismissed by Haringey Council.

Shoesmith didn’t take her sacking lying down. She appealed and in 2011 the High Court ruled that Ed Balls and Haringey Council acted unlawfully in dismissing her. By 2015, she had completed a PhD analysing the psychosocial factors involved in the aftermath of Peter Connelly’s death. In 2016 she published Learning from Baby P, which draws on her research.

Shoesmith points out that by late 2008, the ‘New Labour project was running into trouble’ (pp.123-127). Gordon Brown had taken over from Tony Blair as PM the previous summer, but in May 2008 Labour had had its worst local government election results for 35 years and Labour’s attempts to reduce child poverty were faltering. In October the Healthcare Commission’s investigation into the Mid-Staffs scandal revealed significant failings, and the global financial crisis prompted a £500bn rescue package for UK banks.

Cameron’s framing of Peter Connelly’s death in political terms had significant implications for the Labour government. Their flagship strategy Every Child Matters couldn’t be seen to fail, nor could Ed Balls, who had previously been Brown’s chief economic adviser. Then there was Haringey. Haringey had a history of what Shoesmith calls ‘defining events’. It had witnessed the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 that had led to the Laming Inquiry and significant changes in child protection policy. In addition, Haringey Council had long been perceived as hailing from the ‘loony left’; understandably a centre-left government might want to distance itself. Lastly, the government felt compelled to align its narrative with that adopted by large sections of the public and press – that public sector services should be seen to take responsibility for Peter Connelly’s death.

All three key political figures – Cameron, Brown and Balls – used the press directly to manage the political narrative.  It could be argued that the press used politicians to the same end. In July 2007, six months after he’d resigned as editor of the News of the World following the conviction of two reporters in the phone hacking scandal, the Conservative Party had appointed Andy Coulson as its director of communications. The Sun, another News International paper, had a history of campaigning for changes in the law as a result of high profile child abuse cases. During the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, it was suggested that after the Baby P trial the Sun put pressure on Ed Balls to order resignations (p.183). The issue of resignation warrants further comment.

it’s a resigning matter

In 2004, the offence of ‘causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult’ was introduced to close a legal loophole. Although the offence can be committed only by people living in the same household as the victim (such as Peter Connelly’s), its title begs the question of whether police officers, social workers or paediatricians might be brought into the frame, something that could be inferred from David Cameron’s Evening Standard article (p.144).

But there’s another factor involved in the calls for sackings; it’s the assumption that if a public sector worker failed to prevent the death of child, they would have been able to prevent it if they’d acted differently. That’s nonsense of course. Even if a child were taken into care or a social worker were to live with the family, no child can be totally protected from harm. But the idea that children can be fully protected persists. Cameron, Brown and Balls all vowed to ensure that nothing like Peter Connelly’s death happened again (p.178) – even though, in reality, such promises are meaningless.

Child protection had become a political football and government, opposition and the media were vying for control of the ball. Ironically, the outcomes had significant negative repercussions for vulnerable children. Directors of social services became very nervous about their jobs, and social worker recruitment and retention, already under strain, became even more challenging, further increasing the vulnerability of the children social workers were dealing with. Local authorities made sure they erred on the side of caution; between October 2008 and March 2012 the number of applications for care proceedings increased by 79% (p.19).

elective home education and the Badman review

The ‘Baby P effect’ rippled out to another group of children Shoesmith doesn’t mention – those educated at home. Home education has long been a contentious issue, and in November 2007 Jim Knight and Andrew Adonis at the then Department of Education and Skills, published guidelines for local authorities.  A year later, in January 2009, Ed Balls announced a review of elective home education. The review was framed in terms of home educated children being ‘hidden’ and home education being used as a cover for child abuse, even though there appeared to be no robust evidence of this actually happening.

The review was led by Graham Badman, introduced as the former director of children’s services at Kent County Council. A month earlier, Balls had appointed Badman as chair of Haringey LCSB, but unless they’d been following the news closely, most home educating parents wouldn’t have made a connection with the Baby P case. They would also have been unaware that in May 2008, seven year-old Khyra Ishaq had starved to death at her home in Birmingham. She had been educated at home for the previous six months. Khyra’s death came to public attention only in June 2009, when the trial of her mother and her mother’s partner began. Her death was presented as reinforcing the government’s call for reforming the law relating to home education, rather than as a trigger for the review happening in the first place.

In 2009 Graham Badman was busy. In November 2008 he’d set up an education consultancy, Nektus, that carried out two local authority progress reviews in its first year.  In December he’d been appointed Chair of Haringey LCSB.   In January 2009 had become a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, and Acting Chair of BECTA – being appointed Chair on 1 May. He became a Trustee and Board member of UNICEF in July. His elective home education report was published on 11 June, and his recommendations accepted in full the same day by Ed Balls.

Given all these commitments, it’s not surprising that more than one organisation complained that Badman’s account of what they said to him wasn’t quite what they recalled saying, and that Graham Stuart MP, a member of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, felt obliged to point out that Badman had made a significant sampling error in his assessment of the risk to home educated children.

The full government response to the Badman report wasn’t published until October 2009, towards the end of the public consultation, so many people who responded wouldn’t have read it. Throughout the review, I got the strong impression that the Government didn’t see those who disagreed with the proposals as citizens expressing their opinions, but as political opponents.  The high number of responses to the consultation prompted references to an organised campaign, despite the wide diversity amongst home educating families.

Conservative MPs had, not surprisingly given the political overtones of the review, been quite supportive of home educating parents. In December 2009, a record number of petitions protesting against the proposed changes to the law were presented to Parliament, a strategy initiated by Graham Stuart.  The Government planned to include the Badman recommendations in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, but instead they were abandoned in the ‘wash up’ prior to the 2010 General Election.

learning from the Baby P effect

The primary task of government, national and local, is to protect our liberty to go about our lawful business without let or hindrance. Obviously, there are going to be instances where legislation that protects one group of people infringes the liberty of another group – the law has to weigh up the various interests of different parties. On the face of it, it looked as if that the actions of government, opposition and press in the wake of Peter Connolly’s death could result only in beneficial outcomes for vulnerable children. But their focus was on only one aspect of child protection.

Other aspects got completely overlooked, including local authority priorities (disabled children are also children in need but LA thresholds for support are set so high many disabled children get no social care support), social worker recruitment and retention and the consequent impact on vulnerable children, and children being taken into care unnecessarily. The proposals for home educated children, such as social workers being entitled to enter the family home and to interview children alone had significant implications for a number of important legislative principles.

Government, opposition, and the press, framed child protection solely in terms of the behaviour of individuals, whether they were adults who might harm children directly, social workers who might fail to prevent harm, or elected members of local government responsible for implementing national policies. Little attention was paid to key legislative principles, the effectiveness of legislation, local authority resources, the impact of the government’s action on social workers and senior local authority officers, and on children deemed to be at risk when they weren’t. Good legislation requires careful thought and wide consultation, not a knee-jerk response to a party political attack. If government is seen as a party political project, rather than an institution that exists to serve the population, it puts everyone’s welfare in jeopardy, not least that of vulnerable children.

reference

Shoesmith, S (2016).  Learning from Baby P.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Home education: legislation

In England, parents can educate their children at home if they wish. It’s been estimated there might be as many as 50 000 children being educated at home. Home education tends to trigger strong opinions, including calls for the relevant legislation to be tightened up. In the next two posts I’ll attempt to summarise the legislative framework, the key features of recent home education debates, and the political context.

In November 2007, soon after Ed Balls became Secretary of State, the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) revised the Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities*. The guidelines were advisory only, but provided a clear explanation of the relevant legislation and powers and duties of LAs. In general, home-educating parents welcomed the guidelines.

In January 2009 the DCSF commissioned a review of elective home education, by Graham Badman, previously Director of Children’s Services at Kent County Council.   Badman’s 28 recommendations were published in June that year, and accepted in full by the government. A public consultation concluded in the October. There was considerable opposition to the recommendations from parents and from Conservative MPs. The recommendations didn’t become law; they were abandoned in the ‘wash up’ prior to the May 2010 general election.

To understand the Badman recommendations and the ins and outs of home education, an overview of the relevant legislation and the principles underpinning the legislative framework is important. This is my understanding of them. I’m happy to be corrected if wrong.

principles

A fundamental principle in a liberal democracy is the liberty of people to live their lives how they wish, unless that prevents others exercising their own liberty.  A primary function of government is to protect liberty –  by defending against attack and by maintaining law and order.

The law protects liberty too; it’s unlawful to go round killing people or stealing their stuff, for example.  The law also protects liberty from abuse by government. A person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and agents of government have to have reasonable cause to believe that a breach of the law is involved before even beginning an investigation. These safeguards are important in protecting individuals against harassment by those in positions of power.

A further principle is that legislation should be demonstrably necessary, i.e. should be evidence based. The number of ways in which people’s liberty can be infringed is almost infinite, so legislating against every possible risk would be impossibly burdensome.

The legislation pertaining to home education is firmly grounded in these principles.

legislation

In England, every child is entitled to a suitable education. That entitlement is framed in terms of a duty placed upon parents, set out in s7 Education Act 1996 (the specific meanings of the terms are explained in the 2007 Guidelines):

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable—

(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b) to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

One reason for allocating this duty to parents is that overall, they have a much better track record than the state when it comes to looking after children. Most parents delegate the task of educating their children (though not the legal duty) to schools. But it could also be delegated to a private tutor, or the parent could educate the child. The duty frequently prompts the question:

what if a parent doesn’t provide a suitable education?

The law’s answer is s437(1) Education Act 1996 (the Guidelines explain the steps that local authorities can take):

If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.

This inevitably begs another frequently asked question:

what if a local authority doesn’t know the child isn’t getting a suitable education?

The Badman Review responded with Recommendation 7; that children’s progress be monitored, that LA officers have right of access to the home, and have the right to speak with each child alone to satisfy themselves that the child is safe and well (p.40).

If your focus is the education and welfare of children, this recommendation might look entirely reasonable.   In fact it’s highly problematic because it runs completely counter to principles underpinning the UK’s legislative framework.

The Badman Review was based on different underlying principles. Badman saw home education legislation as requiring a ‘balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child’ (p.3), a principle widely cited by local authorities and others. It sounds plausible, but legislation isn’t simply a matter of ‘balancing rights’. Rights are expressions of the fundamental liberty that’s an underpinning principle in a liberal democracy. Rights might or might not be enshrined in law in the form of specific legislation. New legislation has to comply with existing legislation and the principles underpinning the legislative framework, or it will be unworkable.

There are several problems with Recommendation 7. It:

  • abrogates fundamental legislative principles
  • gives LA education departments significantly greater powers than the police have when investigating suspected criminal behaviour
  • overlooks the knotty problem of the reliability of child testimony, something the courts have had to wrestle with, and with which all teachers will be familiar
  • assumes that a LA officer who has never met a child before is in a position to judge what is a suitable education for that specific child
  • conflates education with safeguarding.

The last point brings us to a third FAQ:

what if a child is at risk of harm?

This question has dominated the discourse about home education. The scenario many public bodies have in mind is that if a parent wants to exploit, traffic, indoctrinate, or in any other way cause harm to a child, home education offers perfect cover, because local authorities don’t have powers to see the child.

What this line of reasoning overlooks is that the law treats education and safeguarding as two different things, and with good reason; a child could be getting a good education but be at risk of harm, or be safe and well but not be receiving any education at all.

The law’s answer is s47 Children Act 1989:

Where a local authority … have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, the authority shall make, or cause to be made, such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare.

The conflation of education and safeguarding has resulted in much avoidable confusion. Several tragic cases have been cited as evidence that monitoring of home-educated children is necessary.   In a 2014 briefing, the NSPCC cited seven such cases. On closer inspection, it transpired that the authorities were involved in each case. In some, they were very closely involved, and in some actually contributed to the harm the children experienced. Around 70% of the recommendations in the relevant Serious Case Reviews related to procedures being properly followed or to healthcare. I’ve blogged about the cases in more detail here.

It’s possible, of course, that there are home-educated children at risk of harm, hidden and unbeknown to the authorities, but home education has been lawful since at least 1944, and to date no such examples appear to have come to light. Those children must be extremely well-concealed or their number is vanishingly small.   Either way, there is insufficient evidence to warrant the regular monitoring of home-educated children on safeguarding grounds.

educational support

But what about educational grounds? Personally, I think there’s some justification for a register, although that raises constitutional questions. But if anything, it should be a register of all local children, not just particular groups. And not the huge national database proposed by the previous Labour government either; there are known problems with such databases that could have catastrophic outcomes for children.

I also think there’s some justification for giving local authorities a duty to support home educating parents. I’ve previously proposed an educational resource centre, for public use, using the funding schools lose when children are taken off their roll.

The purpose of local authorities is to provide services to local people, and the Badman Review did recommend support – but almost always in the context of monitoring. This would create a bizarre Escher staircase of accountability; home educating parents would be accountable to LAs, who in turn would be accountable to them as local residents. The potential legal consequences could be challenging. Especially if parents were home educating children with special needs because who couldn’t access suitable local authority provision.  A resource centre, in contrast, could improve the quality of local education in general, and could reduce the risk of any child not getting a suitable education.

This post has discussed the legislative issues relating to home education. Most home-educators would have been unaware, during the Badman review, of the political context – the subject of the next post.

 

*’Elective home education’ is used to denote home education as a choice made by parents, as distinct from ‘education otherwise than at school’ (EOTAS) which usually refers to a local authority service for children who cannot attend schools.

 

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.

risk: NSPCC briefing on home education

This is the fourth in a series of posts prompted by the NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews. The briefing 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 my view, the briefing’s perspective on home education legislation is based on a misunderstanding of the legal framework that underpins it. I think the briefing also misunderstands how the law tackles risk.

legislation and education

In a democracy, the primary function of legislation is to protect the liberty of individuals. But there’s a tension inherent in that principle because protecting the liberty of one person usually means limiting the liberty of another. So legislators have to weigh up the costs and benefits of legislation to different people. I think this is what Graham Badman was getting at when he opened his 2009 report on elective home education (EHE) with a quotation from Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty:

The need to choose, to sacrifice some ultimate values to others, turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament

But Badman then goes on to frame UK education legislation relevant to EHE in terms of a “balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child” (p.3). Not only is the legislation not about ‘balance’, it’s not framed in terms of ‘rights’ either, although its purpose is to protect children’s liberty; it’s about parents and local authorities having specific duties that they are required to carry out in certain circumstances. Giving people duties doesn’t sound like it protects anyone’s liberty. It does in the case of education because education should help people understand how the world works and understanding how the world works helps people protect their own liberty and that of others. Under UK law, parents have primary responsibility with regard to educating children and local authorities have powers to step in if the parent asks them to or if it appears that the parent is in breach of the law.

What Badman, the NSPCC and many local authorities are most concerned about is the risk of harm to children educated at home. They argue that home-educated children are denied safeguards applied to children who attend school. In their view, home-educated children are by definition at risk of suffering harm that ‘the authorities’ wouldn’t be able to prevent because they wouldn’t know about it. What they are concerned about is a hypothetical risk.

legislation and the risk of harm

The law takes a dim view of harm and much legislation is about protecting people from it. But hypothetical risks pose a problem for the law because there’s an almost infinite number of them and it would be impossible (and sometimes counterproductive) to legislate against them all. As a consequence, legislation is almost invariably based on evidence of real risk.

For example, Mr A might take it into his head to go on a shooting spree and kill and injure several passers-by. To say that there’s substantial evidence that being killed or injured constitutes a real risk of harm is a something of an understatement, so the law prohibits people from killing and injuring each other. The real risks associated with people being killed or injured are pretty clear-cut. Other risks aren’t so straightforward, such as the consequences of not wearing a seat belt when motoring.

In the 1970s Ms B might have argued that she’d been driving in the UK for forty years without a seat belt and had come to no harm – and even if she did it would be her lookout, so making the use of seat belts compulsory was nothing more than an infringement of her liberty. All that Ms B’s evidence tells us is that not wearing a seat belt doesn’t inevitably lead to harm. As for it being only her business, if she’d been thrown through the windscreen she wouldn’t be the one picking up the pieces; personal tragedies have a wide impact.

On the face of it, the campaign for seat belt legislation and motorists’ objections to it look remarkably like calls to tighten up home education legislation and parents’ objections to that. One obvious difference is that they involve very different activities. A less obvious difference is whether there is evidence showing that not wearing a seat belt or educating children at home constitute real risks as distinct from hypothetical ones. Evidence of the real risk involved in not wearing a seat belt could be seen in casualty departments in hospitals up and down the land in the 1970s. Evidence shows that the real risk attached to being home educated is so vanishingly small that it’s non-existent.

major incidents and serious cases

In the BBC documentary Baby P: The Untold Story, Edi Carmi, who led the serious case review, observed that all the agencies involved made mistakes, but it was when they all happened at the same time that tragedy struck. Mistakes happening at the same time is a familiar scenario in risk management. It was a key factor in the Three Mile Island and Bhopal disasters. The people who design safety-critical systems like those in nuclear power stations and factories handling toxic chemicals take it for granted that mistakes will happen. But they design systems to ensure that if and when mistakes happen, they are very unlikely to happen at the same time. The key phrase is ‘very unlikely’. Systems designers can only minimise risk – they can’t eliminate it entirely.

One characteristic of major incidents is several rare events happening simultaneously; a plane crashes because two engines fail at the same time as a pilot is taken ill and a passenger has a heart attack. I expected to see a similar pattern of rare events coinciding in the seven SCRs; a social worker crashes her car on the way to visit a parent who’s just received a diagnosis of cancer and whose eldest child has just been arrested.

Instead, the SCRs paint a picture of long-term challenging circumstances for the families, coinciding with a series of commonplace mistakes on the part of the agencies supposed to be supporting them. The children in the seven SCRs were adopted, chronically sick, disabled, bereaved, had special educational needs or faced housing crises. The mistakes made by the agencies were typical of those made in organisations that are overstretched; staff lacked relevant knowledge or experience, there was high turnover and problems with cover. Information wasn’t passed on promptly, or wasn’t passed on at all. No one had an overview of individual cases and no one had time to check that procedures were being followed and agreed actions carried out.

home-education and risk

According to the NSPCC, there were seven cases of home-educated children coming to serious harm between 2008-2013 – around 1% of the total number of SCRs for the equivalent period. In the University of East Anglia’s biennial surveys of SCRs I could find no mention of any additional cases between 2003-2007 involving home-educated children. If those seven cases are the only ones in the last decade, the 1% proportion would be more or less halved. In other words, only very small proportion of children coming to serious harm were home-educated.

A closer look at the seven SCRs shows that being home educated doesn’t itself constitute a real risk to children – and that monitoring home-educated children doesn’t guarantee that they won’t come to harm. What characterized the part played by home education in the seven case reviews is local authority confusion about it. LA officers were unclear about the law, their statutory duties or about who was responsible for doing what. But the fact that home education posed a problem for ‘the authorities’ doesn’t mean that it put the children at risk. If there is no evidence of home education posing a real risk to children, why do some people working in child safeguarding think there is one?

risk perception

Child safeguarding, like any other specialist area, is a small world, and people working in a small world tend to use that world, rather than the wider context, as their frame of reference. Child safeguarding is also a difficult and stressful occupation and agencies are clearly overstretched and have been for some time. Professionals working under intense pressure with inadequate resources are likely to perceive unusual family circumstances such as children being educated at home, coupled with an inadequate understanding of the relevant legislation, the ensuing confusion about what procedures to follow, and the risk of serious consequences if they fail to protect a child, as a real risk when in fact it’s a hypothetical one. Research into risk perception suggests that people find it difficult to make a distinction between hypothetical risks and real ones. That’s why basing policy on evidence rather than opinion is so important.

The evidence shows that there are particular groups of children at real increased risk of harm; being a young child or using roads for example. Over 60% of all SCRs involve under-5s and around 2,000 children are killed or seriously injured on UK roads every year. Steps have been taken to reduce those risks through legislation, but legislators are aware that they are risks that are unlikely ever to be eliminated completely. By contrast the evidence indicates that that being home educated isn’t something that poses a real risk to children. Tightening up the legislation might make the people worried about a hypothetical risk feel better, but it can’t reduce a risk that doesn’t exist.

What did put the children in the seven SCRs at risk was a combination of challenging circumstances for their families and mistakes on the part of the agencies whose job is supposed to be to help them. In the next post I look at something the NSPCC briefing and the SCRs mention only in passing – what services were on offer to help the families with the challenges they faced.

the recommendations: NSPCC briefing on home education

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews highlights a number of 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.]

The task of SCRs is to examine why a child came to harm, why the harm wasn’t prevented and to make recommendations that should ensure those things don’t happen again. SCRs tend to be detailed and rigorous in their analysis, so I’ve taken the recommendations made in six of the seven serious case reviews (Child 5’s was available only as a brief summary) as a proxy for the factors involved in what happened to the children.

the recommendations

By my reckoning, the six SCRs made a total of 79 core recommendations – although there were additional ones in relation to specific local agencies. Some recommendations were made in more than one review. To get an overall picture of the key factors I ranked the recommendations in order of the frequency with which they occurred. Recommendations from more than one SCR were:

• contact the DfE or equivalent body regarding elective home education (EHE) and safeguarding (5 SCRs)
• issue local multi-agency guidance regarding EHE and safeguarding (3)
• training and development with regard to combative, aggressive or non-engaging parents (3)
• EOTAS teams made aware of safeguarding issue (2)
• monitor health of EHE children (2)
• ensure procedures were followed with feedback to referrers (2)
• ensure agreed actions were taken (2)
• provide evidence of managerial oversight (2)
• promote public awareness about safeguarding other people’s children (2)

23 of the recommendations (about 30% of the total) occur in more than one SCR, but most of those are in only two or three reviews, indicating that there’s quite a lot of variation across the six cases in terms of specific recommendations.

But if the recommendations are grouped together according to the factor they refer to, they cluster into five broad themes:

• children with disabilities – 3 (4%)
• behaviour of parents – 5 (6%)
• elective home education – 14 (18%)
• healthcare – 21 (26%)
• procedural issues – 34 (43%)

In addition, there was one recommendation about developing children’s sense of identity and ethnicity and another about contacting central government about issues outside the scope of the review. (The percentages don’t add up to 100 due to rounding.) In this post I look more closely at the top three factors. I’ll come back to the behaviour of parents and children with disabilities in later posts.

The NSPCC briefing is about home-educated children so it’s not surprising that most of the recommendations it highlights are about legislation relating to home education. But the SCRs are also about home-educated children, and most of their recommendations are not about home education legislation. Almost 70% related to either procedural issues and/or healthcare.

procedural issues

Problems with procedures have been the focus of media attention in recent high profile child abuse cases. In the six SCRs they include some very basic issues such as ensuring staff have appropriate training, making sure procedures are followed, that agreed actions have been carried out and improving communication between agencies. The only reference to procedural issues in the NSPCC briefing is in relation to professional awareness that there isn’t a safeguarding element in education legislation. I’ll return to procedures in a later post.

healthcare

The briefing does mention health services (including, oddly, making recommendations for the Primary Care Trusts that were abolished months before its publication) but doesn’t go into detail about the role played by healthcare in the harm incurred by the children. That looks like a serious omission. Not only were health services actively involved in the lives of the children, in several cases it’s possible they could have contributed to the harm they suffered. Let’s take a closer look the role of health services in the seven SCRs.

Family 1 initially fostered some of the children privately, and later adopted them. The adoptive parent thought some of the children had ADHD/ASD/Asperger syndrome. One has to wonder what circumstances led to the private fostering arrangement and whether the children’s behavioural problems were solely attributable to the adoptive parent’s parenting style as the SCR suggests. Three of the children were prescribed Ritalin for excessive periods of time without the required regular reviews. Over-prescription of medication also featured in the case of Child 2, whose mother had repeatedly raised health concerns about her son. Not only was the dose too high for a child of his age, but Child 2’s mother was able to obtain the medication from her GP after the hospital had said it should be discontinued. Since the parents of Family 1 and Child 2 couldn’t have prescribed the medicines themselves, presumably health practitioners had felt there was a good reason to do so. Child 3’s mother also raised concerns about her daughter’s health before her GP removed the family from his list without following the proper protocol. Child 4’s family had extensive contact with health services. Child 5 had been referred to a clinical psychologist. Child 6’s parents stopped engaging with the authorities when they couldn’t get a clear diagnosis for his developmental problems. The mother of Family 7 had been attempting to artificially inseminate her eldest daughter, A, but the GP they saw after claiming that A (then aged 14) had been sexually assaulted and might be pregnant, failed to follow up her case because he didn’t believe their story.

The SCR also draws attention to the number of medical appointments Child 6 had – as an indicator of his mother’s misplaced focus on his health. She is suspected of fabricating or inducing her son’s illness and FII is referred to repeatedly in the SCR despite nobody appearing to be clear about whether or not Child 6’s health problems were genuine. In contrast, the mother of Child 4 had a track record of missing appointments. Between 1998 and 2008 she missed 129, a third of which were health related. In 2007, the year before Child 4 died, “the pattern of failed appointments escalated dramatically… 26 (20%) appointments were missed, as relationships with professionals deteriorated”. That means that in the course of a year the mother, then a lone parent with six children (several of whom had statements of special educational needs), was expected to attend 130 appointments including medical ones. That’s almost three a week. It’s not surprising that parents of children with disabilities complain that managing appointments with professionals feels like a part-time job. There are clearly some lessons to be learned from a system that expects lone parents to attend three appointments a week but sees missing one in five of them as a danger signal. One of the recommendations of the case review is that agencies should “provide evidence to demonstrate an effective response to missed or failed appointments” – the most obvious solution doesn’t appear to have been considered.

home education recommendations

The third most frequent factor referred to in the SCRs is home education – almost 20% of the total recommendations. Most of the home education recommendations were either about improving agencies’ knowledge of the legislation or about raising awareness of the issue the NSPCC is concerned about; that there isn’t a safeguarding element in education legislation – a concern that, as far as I can see, is based on an inaccurate understanding of the legal principles and on speculation rather than evidence.

The NSPCC briefing frames the recommendations from the SCRs only in terms of home education, so the unwary reader might conclude, wrongly, that the problems with procedures and healthcare arose only because the children were home educated. What the SCRs indicate is that most of the problems with procedures and healthcare – such as checking that actions had been carried out and over-prescription of drugs – were nothing to do with the children being home educated; they could equally well have occurred if the children were at school.

I should point out that I’m not attempting to shift the blame from parents, three of whom clearly neglected and maltreated their children. But if the focus of LSCBs and the NSPCC is on the wellbeing of children, it’s imperative that the real causes of harm are identified – even if public sector services are implicated.

So why would the NSPCC briefing make claims about home-educated children that aren’t supported by the data? Why would it present recommendations in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect the way they are presented in the SCRs? And why is the most frequently occurring specific recommendation in the SCRs about home education and safeguarding if there isn’t a problem with safeguarding home-educated children?

The answer, I suggest, is that the NSPCC is interpreting the data from the SCRs in the light of its concerns about possible risks due to home education, rather than basing its concerns on evidence about real risks. And the NSPCC’s concerns are, understandably, very influential amongst people who work in child safeguarding; two of the authors of the SCRs worked for the NSPCC at the time they wrote the review or previously.

Possible risk versus real risk; the subject of the next post.

the claims: NSPCC briefing on home education

The NSPCC briefing Home education: learning from case reviews claims to consist of ‘learning about child protection pulled from the published versions’ of seven Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) published between 2008-2013. [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 this and subsequent posts, I want to focus on the patterns of events that emerge from the case reviews, but I’ll also refer to examples of what happened to specific families or specific children. I’ve numbered the cases to anonymise the children as much as possible, but have linked to the published versions of the SCRs. I’ve listed brief details of each case below for reference.

Family 1 2007 serious maltreatment of adopted children
Child 2 2008 non-accidental poisoning with prescription drug
Child 3 2009 unexplained death
Child 4 2010 death due to severe malnutrition
Child 5 2011 suicide
Child 6 2012 death due to natural causes
Family 7 2013 neglect, and sexual abuse of adopted child

In this post I examine some of the claims about home-educated children made in the briefing and to look at how well they are supported by the evidence in the SCRs.

home education highlighted as a key factor

All the SCRs mention home education but comments range from a brief reference in the case of Child 2, to a lengthy discussion referring to the Badman Review and another high profile case from the anonymous author of Family 7’s review. Overall, the claim that home education was a ‘key factor’ appears to be due to local authorities’ lack of clarity over the distinction between education and safeguarding rather than being a key factor in the harm suffered by the children. I’ll look more closely at the causes of harm in the next post.

becoming invisible

The second claim made by the briefing is that children ‘can become invisible to the authorities’ once they are educated at home. In all cases except one – Child 3 – ‘the authorities’ were aware that families faced challenging circumstances or that children were at risk. Child 3 was visited at home by an officer from the local education department three times in the months prior to her death and no concerns were raised about her welfare. In short, none of the children ‘became invisible’.

being unknown

A third claim is that home-educated children ‘may be completely unknown to the local authority’. This could happen if a child has never attended school or has moved from another area. The implication is that being unknown to the LA in and of itself puts the children at increased risk of harm. ‘Unknown’ children were of great concern to Graham Badman during his 2009 elective home education review. They were the subject of a lively exchange between Mr Badman and Graham Stuart of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee,  that I’ve looked at in more detail here. Again, the SCRs don’t bear out the claim. The people who contacted the authorities about the children included teachers, medical professionals, neighbours and the parents themselves. None of the children were unknown to the LA prior to coming to harm.

A fourth claim is that ‘there are some common threads running through the learning points and recommendations highlighted in these serious case reviews’. The briefing ties together several of the common threads. For clarity, I’ve teased them apart.

isolation

There were clearly no concerns about isolation when the children were adopted into Family 1 and Family 7, and it was members of Family 1’s religious community who alerted the authorities to the maltreatment of the children. Four other children initially attended school and were all seen by ‘the authorities’ whilst being home educated. Child 6, who never attended school, had siblings about whom there were no concerns. In short, the children’s isolation varied considerably.

no right to express views formally and participate in the assessment or decision-making process of home education

There’s been much rhetoric in recent years about the ‘voice of the child’. Despite this, most children don’t get a say in whether or not they go to school, and have little say about how they are educated when they get there. Many home-educated children, in contrast, are educated at home because they have been listened to, and they actively participate in decisions about their education. It’s not clear how much say the children in the seven case reviews had about their education – either at school or at home.

no right to independent access to friends, family or professional agencies

Again, children who attend school don’t have these ‘rights’ either. Most children are dependent on their parents (or teachers) for access to friends and family and most children need parental permission to access professional agencies.

no mechanisms to ensure that they continue to receive a ‘suitable’ education or adequate care without the express consent of their parents/carers

This claim betrays a lack of understanding of the legal framework. One of the services local authorities provide for local people is schools. The ‘mechanisms to ensure that school pupils receive a suitable education and adequate care’ are in place because LAs are providing a service for parents paid for by the community. There are no mechanisms to ensure that parents are providing a suitable education or adequate care because local authorities do not have powers to check up on everyone in their local area to make sure they are all complying with the law. Giving LAs those powers would be a huge waste of resources because the majority of people would be found to be doing nothing wrong. The system we have at present, where LAs have powers to act if they have reason to believe the law has been broken, is consistent with the principles of democracy and is far more cost-effective. How effective it is in protecting children from harm is a point I’ll return to in a later post.

a major safeguarding flaw within home education legislation

This claim rests on an implicit assumption that education legislation requires a safeguarding element. It doesn’t. Welfare and education are separate issues in law, and with respect to each issue, LAs can make enquiries and take further action if necessary. A common thread running through the narrative of ‘the authorities’ concerning home education is a failure to make a distinction between the two areas of legislation and an attempt to piggy-back safeguarding onto education. Of course LA officers making enquiries because it appears a child isn’t getting a suitable education might pick up safeguarding issues. Teachers might do so in respect of children attending school. Whether they should be expected to is another matter. Professionals with education expertise don’t necessarily have expertise in child protection. There’s a risk that giving superficial safeguarding training (or none at all) to educational professionals will lead to false alarms and consequent needless distress for children and their families.

dominant personalities of parents/carers

Many years of my working life have involved ‘interfacing’ with the public. Most people have been polite, reasonable, helpful and friendly. A small minority was deceitful, manipulative, aggressive or violent. People working in child protection are likely to encounter a disproportionate number of the second group, for obvious reasons. But the briefing doesn’t draw attention to them – it warns against parents who are “extremely well-informed, articulate, hostile, aggressive and/or resistant to professional intervention”. These traits, claims Birmingham LCSB, “reinforced a power imbalance that undermined the rights, welfare and protection of home educated children”.

The NSPCC seems to have a particular problem with parents being articulate and knowledgeable, and takes a quote from Child 4’s review out of context to reinforce the point. The original text blames the shift in focus away from the children’s welfare, on the professionals’ response to the parents’ attitudes and behaviour. The briefing omits the criticism of professionals and in doing so manages to blame the parents for the professionals’ shift in focus. There’s no discussion about why parents and carers might have been well-informed, articulate, hostile, aggressive and/or resistant to professional intervention. I found it baffling that local authorities need to be reminded to train staff involved with child protection to cope with hostile or aggressive parents. But if they need specific training to deal with parents who are ‘well-informed’ and ‘articulate’, there’s something very wrong with the system.

EOTAS services are offered to parents who choose to educate their children at home

EOTAS stands for Education Otherwise Than At School in reference to the 1944 and 1996 Education Acts. You might assume this means LAs have teams waiting in the wings to support parents home-educating their children. You’d be wrong. Some do, but most EOTAS provision is for children registered with schools but unable to attend due to medical and other reasons. LAs don’t have a statutory duty in respect of home-educated children, unless ‘it appears’ the child isn’t being suitably educated, so the services they offer are sometimes not services at all.

In my own case, I was persuaded by my LA to have a visit from an ‘adviser’. When he arrived the adviser told me that he couldn’t advise me on my children’s education because that was my responsibility; his job was check that my educational provision was suitable – even though the LA had no reason to suppose it wasn’t. The Education Select Committee drew attention in 2012 to the finding that only 30 out of 152 local authorities had information on their websites that accurately reflected the legislation relevant to home education. It’s hardly surprising that LA staff are confused.

children educated at home do not have access to school nursing services

True, they don’t. [Apparently they do: see comments below.] But they do have access to the rest of the health service. The children in Family 1 ‘received considerable specialist health interventions’. Child 2 was harmed because of too much medical treatment. Child 3’s GP removed the family from his list without following the proper procedures. Medical services were criticized in Child 4’s review because they intervened too late, despite concerns raised with social services by teachers. Child 5 had seen a clinical psychologist. In Child 6’s case, parents stopped engaging with professionals when they couldn’t get a clear diagnosis for his developmental disorder. Family 7 had a good deal of contact with health professionals. In none of the SCRs does the lack of access to school nursing services appear to have impacted on the child’s health.

current legislation and guidance inadvertently helps the small minority of home educators who use elective home education as a cover to conceal child neglect and abuse

In each of the three cases where there is unambiguous evidence that the parents or carers neglected or abused their children, local authorities were aware of the challenges faced by the families and public sector services were actively involved with them. The only problem posed by the current legislation and guidance appears to be that local authority officers didn’t understand it properly and weren’t clear about who was responsible for what.

elective home education can lead to isolation and obscuring of children from normal services that could act as a monitor of their welfare

The key word here is ‘can’. Elective home education certainly has the potential to lead to isolation and ‘obscuring’ the children from ‘normal services’ in a way that puts their welfare at risk; but so far, there’s no evidence to suggest that that has actually happened. More on that in another post.

Although the NSPCC briefing does indeed pull ‘learning about child protection…from the published versions of the reports’, that learning is based on a flawed understanding of the relevant legislation and the principles underpinning it, and only one of the claims made in the briefing (about isolation) is supported by the evidence from the SCRs – and that support is only partial. The briefing also highlights a number of recommendations, which I’ll look at in the next post.