Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Dani's response to the HE review

Now sent (slightly amended - the final version is now shown here). Response number 624.

Question 1: Do you think the current system for safeguarding children who are educated at home is adequate? Please let us know why you think that.

No Response

I am not prepared to answer this question as written, as it presumes that there are specific issues to do with the welfare of home educated children as a group, and I do not accept this premise.

As the questions on this review are so ambiguous and confusing, I think it will be difficult for many respondents to give yes/no answers which accurately reflect their opinions. I hope you will therefore give due weight to the actual content of the responses, and not attempt to draw inferences from the statistics.

If you are asking whether home educated children are as well protected as school children by the current safeguarding system, my answer is yes. You cannot presume that children are kept safe if they attend school, and there is no reason to presume that home educated children are seen by fewer trustworthy people in the course of their day to day lives than schooled children are. My home educated children, for example, spend time with dozens of other children every week, and are regularly cared for at clubs, classes and groups by ten different trusted adults outside their immediate family. Home education, in itself, is not a significant risk factor, and does not merit this kind of special attention.

As I understand it, the current system for safeguarding children who are educated at home is the same as the system for safeguarding children who are educated at school. Unless there is reason to believe otherwise, parents (whatever their educational choices) are presumed to be caring for their children properly. If anyone (teacher, neighbour, friend, member of the public, health professional) has concerns about a child's welfare, they may report their concerns to the relevant local authority, who are supposed to investigate and offer support and services to help the family. In cases of severe abuse or neglect, local authorities have powers to become very closely involved with children's upbringing, including to the extent of removing children from their families.

If you are asking whether this current system is doing an adequate job for children (whatever their place of education) who experience abuse, I would say no. I don't think the current system addresses the root causes of child abuse. There are numerous cases of children who were well known to the relevant authorities but who nonetheless suffered serious harm at the hands of their parents. There are also numerous cases of children who have suffered serious harm within the care system, and many others who have suffered harm as a result of the system's unwarranted scrutiny of their families. Yet more children face abuse at home or at school, without being able to get any help from 'the system'. Either their carers do not notice their distress or do not care enough to take action, or the children themselves are silenced by shame or fear of worse consequences if they speak out.

Underlying all these failings of the current system is not a lack of information about home educating families, but a lack of respect for children's rights and freedoms. These rights include the right to be heard and listened to with regard to their education and all aspects of their lives, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom from harm and abuse of all kinds. I do not think that the current system for safeguarding children is actually based on a commitment to respect these rights, and so it fails to keep children safe.

It seems to me that if you want to improve the current system for safeguarding children, you should make a fundamental shift away from imposing a single set of values on everyone, and put serious resources into offering real, responsive and sympathetic support to families who are having difficulties. You should give children a real voice in society, so that they are more likely to speak about abuse wherever it occurs. You should look at the abuse that happens every day in schools, and break down the ingrained power structures that enable it to survive and thrive there. You should stop wasting energy and resources trying to micromanage every aspect of the lives of law abiding families, and accept that there is value in difference and diversity.

2. Do you think that home educated children are able to achieve the following five Every Child Matters outcomes? Please let us know why you think that.

2 a) Be healthy

No Response

I am not able to answer yes or no to any of the parts of this question as written, for two reasons. Firstly, I do not accept the notion of 'outcomes' to be 'achieved' by children. I understand that local authorities like to be able to measure the impact of their own activities by asking the public if they have benefited or if their lives have been improved. This is a very far cry from setting these 'outcomes' out as if they are hurdles for individual children to jump. This is completely at odds with my approach to raising my children. I do not have ambitions for my children, other than ones they choose for themselves. I am not prepared to measure them up against someone else's ambitions for them.

Secondly, even within this flawed framework, the question does not make sense, because home educated children are not a homogenous group. As I understand it, the question is not asking about my own children, but about home educated children in general. I have included some specific comments regarding each outcome.

Of course home educated children can be healthy, if their health is good. If they are ill, then they are not able to be healthy. Being home educated has no relationship with whether people are able to be healthy. This is like saying "do you think that bus drivers are able to be healthy?"

I find it offensive that children who are living with ill health, and their families, should be portrayed as being some kind of failures by the glib phrasing of this "outcome".

2 b) Stay safe

No Response

This is like saying "do you think children who go to Girls Brigade are able to stay safe?" Whether a child is safe depends on the individual circumstances of their life, not some incidental factor like whether or not they are home educated. My home educated children, like all other people, make decisions about risk and safety every day. As their parents, we give them information which we hope will help them to make wise decisions. Sometimes they have accidents and hurt themselves. Sometimes they make wrong decisions and learn from this experience. They are loved and supported, whatever they do. I think "stay safe" is a simplistic and meaningless phrase when applied to the complex business of living a life.

2 c) Enjoy and achieve

No response

This is like saying "do you think local government officers are able to enjoy and achieve?" What on earth does it mean? Enjoy what? Achieve what? All the home educated children I know (some hundreds of children) enjoy their lives for a good proportion of the time, and achieve a wide range of amazing and impressive things they have chosen for themselves to do. Nobody enjoys every single day of their life, but again, this has very little to do with whether or not they are home educated, go to Girls Brigade, like toffee, or any other incidental fact about them.

2 d) Make a positive contribution.

No response

I don't understand what this means. Make a positive contribution to what? Who defines 'positive'?

2 e) Achieve economic well-being

No response

Are children supposed to 'achieve' this while still children? Is this not actually about measuring the levels of child poverty in the country? If so, there is little any individual child can do about it, home educated or not.

3. Do you think that Government and local authorities have an obligation to ensure that all children in this country are able to achieve the five outcomes? If you answered yes, how do you think Government should ensure this?


The Government does not have an obligation to ensure anything of the kind. The Government's obligations are set out in law. The relevant section of the Children Act 2004 is Section 10, which obliges local authorities to "make arrangements to promote co-operation between—
the authority;
each of the authority’s relevant partners; and
such other persons or bodies as the authority consider appropriate, being persons or bodies of any nature who exercise functions or are engaged in activities in relation to children in the authority’s area."

These arrangements are to be made "with a view to improving the well-being of children in the authority’s area so far as relating to—
physical and mental health and emotional well-being;
protection from harm and neglect;
education, training and recreation;
the contribution made by them to society;
social and economic well-being."

This is not the same as ensuring that all children are able to achieve the five outcomes.

The act goes on to say:

"In making arrangements under this section a children’s services authority in England must have regard to the importance of parents and other persons caring for children in improving the well-being of children."

So the obligations of Government and local authorities are *not* to ensure any particular outcomes for individual children, but to cooperate with partners in order to improve children's well-being, having regard to the importance of parents.

Section 11 of the same Act requires local authorities to carry out their *existing* duties with regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. It does not give them additional duties or powers. Nor does Section 175 of the Education Act 2002.

If the government did have an obligation to ensure that all children were able to achieve these five 'outcomes', the government would be in big trouble.

When my local authority installed a zebra crossing on the busy road between my house and the nearest park, this improved the well being of all the local children with regard to their safety and gave them easier access to the park, thus making it easier for them to be healthy.

But it did not *ensure* that my children are able to "be healthy" or "stay safe". If my children don't use the zebra crossing to get to the park, or don't want to go to the park at all, or if a driver ignores the zebra crossing and my children are injured on the road, I would have no claim against the local authority or the government for failing to ensure their safety or health.

Nobody can ensure these things. That is not to say we should not think about them, but ultimately each person is responsible for their own decisions and the consequences of their choices and actions. I cannot control the future for my children, and nor can the government. It is a waste of everyone's energy trying to come up with ways for the government to achieve something that is impossible.

4. Do you think there should be any changes made to the current system for supporting home educating families? If you answered yes, what should they be? If you answered no, why do you think that?


I think local authorities should give supporting home educating families a try. They might find it helps them to fulfil their obligations. As things stand, very few authorities offer real support, which I would define as services that assist families to achieve their own aims. Some home educators would like easier access to public exams. Some would like a free venue in which to hold group meetings. Both these things are easy for local authorities to provide, and difficult for individual families to arrange for themselves. But very few local authorities even ask home educators what they would like in the way of services. Instead, they send letters inviting themselves to visit, in order to assess the suitability of our children's education (something that is well beyond their remit). This is not support. Support is something that is offered, without strings, in response to an expressed need or request from the recipient of the support.

5. Do you think there should be any changes made to the current system for monitoring home educating families? If you answered yes, what should they be? If you answered no, why do you think that?

No response

I can't answer this, as there is no "current system for monitoring home educating families". I don't want to see a change to this situation, as nobody has the authority to monitor us and I think this is how it should stay.

However, most local authorities, and apparently the author of this review document, seem to think that there is a system for monitoring us and that local authorities have a duty to do so. This is frustrating, as we all spent a lot of time and energy on the 2007 consultation leading to the publication of the DCSF guildelines on home education, which clearly state at paragraph 2.7 that "Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis."

I would not want you to think that answering No to this question meant that I was happy with the current situation. What I would like is for local authorities to understand the law on home education, offer real support where it is required, and otherwise to leave home educating parents alone to get on with raising and educating our children, as is *our* duty under section 7 of the Education Act 1996.

6. Some people have expressed concern that home education could be used as a cover for child abuse, forced marriage, domestic servitude or other forms of child neglect. What do you think Government should do to ensure this does not happen?

Abuse of children occurs in all kinds of homes. Any family *could* be used as a cover for child abuse. Having read extensively and thought seriously about this issue for many years, I believe that the key thing which enables adults to harm and abuse children is the fact that adults are able to control many aspects of children's lives, through a complicated web of practical and emotional relationships and structures. Because we generally live in small family groups, where all the economic resources are controlled by adults, and because children rely in the first instance on their parents to meet their emotional needs, parents have a lot of power over children in all families. Most parents have no wish to harm their children, and take care not to use their power to do so, even unintentionally. Some parents who have been damaged by their own life experiences, do cause harm to their children in a variety of different ways. When this happens, the very structures which give parents power and control over children also make it possible for the abuse to be concealed or explained away.

I don't think the government can ensure that this does not happen in home educating families, any more than it can ensure it does not happen in families where the children attend school. I think there are things the government could and should do, but unless the power relationships between children and adults change, and people who have been emotionally damaged are supported through appropriate therapy to acknowledge and control their behaviour as adults, there is no way the government can ensure that abuse is prevented in any group or community.

Having said that, there are valuable practical steps that can be taken to support children who are facing abuse, and there are things the authorities could learn from home educators about how to provide services that would actually be of help to home educated children who experience abuse, whether this is in their home or elsewhere.

The first thing is to provide training for local authority staff with responsibility for child protection, so that these staff have a better understanding of home education. Home educating families are often erroneously or maliciously reported to social services because their children are visibly not at school, and it can be extremely distressing for perfectly law-abiding parents and their children if they are visited by a social worker who approaches home education from a position of ignorance and prejudice. Home education *in itself* is not a cause for concern, and if social workers were more knowledgeable about the law and about home education methods, there would be a much better basis for communication between home educators and local authorities. This in itself would, over time, enable home educators to feel more able to communicate with the local authority if they have concerns or fears about a child.

Secondly, local authorities should offer universal services for children, regardless of their educational setting, and should make an effort to publicise these to home educated children as well as schooled children. Many areas have active networks of home educators, with regular meetings and gatherings. If approached politely and respectfully, HE group organisers may well be willing to distribute information about an open access helpline or children's advocate, if this were something available to all children in an area.

At a national level, the government could clearly indicate support for a shift in the unequal power relationships between adults and children by changing the law to give children equal protection from assault, and abolishing the archaic and unjust defence of "reasonable punishment". This government's persistent refusal to take this step gives the lie to their claims of being concerned above all with keeping children safe.

Finally, I think the government should put more resources into talking therapies for people who have experienced abuse and anyone who abuses their power over children. I think this would be a much more valuable and effective use of funds than attempting to track every child and tick boxes for the simplistic 'outcomes' discussed in documents like this review.


peri said...

Trivial response - Dani - you rock!

Serious response - Well thought out, very informative, concise and detailed. I really like a measured attitude to such dumb questions especially the 'outcome' ones. I also quoted the UNCRC and child rights in my responses and covered many similar points - though most likely in a less erudite manner.

Nic said...

Excellent response Dani.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely amazing and brilliant well done.
Especially this bit "You should look at the abuse that happens every day in schools, and break down the ingrained power structures that enable it to survive and thrive there"
That is really the absolute crux of things. You really understand it methinks. You could also say something similar about abuse within families mirroring the abusive relationship of state to citizen. But even if you don't it's great as it is :)

emma said...

Great response.

What really interests me in this is the way that people with very similar reactions to the review and its terms are choosing quite different YES, NO, NO RESPONSE choices and then explaining which they've given the answers they do. In my response, I said explicitly that this would be the case and that they absolutely couldn't do any quantitative anaylsis of the data because it would be fatally flawed. Might be worth adding something similar? I'm sure it wouldn't do any harm if several of us point that out!

mamacrow said...

Thanks for laying out the legal aspects Dani - lots I didn't know there, very useful.

Jennifer said...

Oooh thank you for posting that. Really well put and lots of food for thought.

Elizabeth said...

What a well thought out, and well written response Dani.

brian said...

An excellent response. I would suggest that a similar review document be published with the same questions, but substituting "state education" for "home education". The see what answers they get!