The above thesis has been advanced several times by Sharon, a regular poster to this Blog. She is concerned that if local authority officers visit every home educating family, carrying out so-called "Safe and Well" checks, then there will be many false positives. That is to say that evidence of abuse or neglect will be spotted where none exists. It is a bit like screening for cancer of the cervix. Some women will be told that they have pre-cancerous changes when they don't. The more checks one conducts, the more of these false positives there will be. In essence, Sharon appears to be worried that if lots of checks are carried out on home educators, then lots of parents will be falsely accused of abuse or neglect.
Let us look first at how Health Visitors and schools carry out their duties in this respect. After the birth of baby, Health Visitors come round to see if they can offer help and advice. While they are in the home, they cast an eye round for any warning signs. These can be vague, perhaps there are dirty and unkempt children around, the home might be so filthy that it is a health hazard, the mother might present as an alcoholic or drug user or bruises and contusions might be noticed on a child. In such a case, she will report her concerns to a superior and the result might be extra attention to that family. Precisely the same thing happens at schools. Last year there was a good example of this when a teacher spotted a bite mark on a child's arm and reported it to social services. The mother was subsequently arrested. This sort of informal surveillance is, if you like, a first layer of protection for children.
The above protection is sometimes lacking for children educated at home. In other words, it might be possible for a child to be filthy and unkempt and this fact will not be observed by a professional. A home educating mother could bite her child's arm and then make sure that nobody saw her son's bare arm until the injury had faded. This is not possible when a child is at school. The worry is that a small number of children could be at risk in this way. This is not really a screening programme as such, more an attempt to extend the protection enjoyed by schooled children to those who are taught at home.
One thing we are able to state confidently about this scheme is that some children who are at risk will not be spotted and that other children who are not at risk will be labelled incorrectly to be in danger of harm or neglect. This is inevitable. No system will save every child, just as none will avoid false accusations against some innocent parents. This has happened in the past, is happening now and will happen in the future. Thus, we try to balance these two points. On the one hand we hope that no child at risk of harm will escape notice and on the other, we hope that innocent parents shall not be wrongly accused. So far, I do not think I have said anything at all controversial; I think that we all agree on the nature of the problem.
The government's evident intention is that officers from the local authority shall visit home educators every year or so and cast a benevolent eye over their children. The object of this exercise will of course be to offer help and support to those who appear to need it. Sometimes this might be done by a CAF; perhaps social services will become involved. The sole and direct purpose of this activity is to protect children and help their parents. It is really not part of a plot to force home educated children back into school!
What harm might result from a false positive? Most probably, none at all. The worst case scenario might entail somebody from social services visiting the home as a result of some observation reported by an EWO. This is no disaster. In the first place, most such visits fizzle out and end up with a report stating that there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes, parents are glad of the chance to talk and the social worker is able to make referrals and arrange other services for the family. Unless there is genuinely something wrong, then matters are usually resolved amicably. I am of course aware that for many middle class parents, the prospect of a social worker turning up at their house is the ultimate nightmare and inevitable precursor to the children being taken into care. Many parents though, actually welcome social services involvement as a way to gain access to other services. Sometimes, the very fact that social services are hovering around can in itself be protection for a vulnerable child. It makes the parents think hard about their lifestyle and how they are behaving.
When we set the possibility that a child might end up being neglected, abused or murdered against the possibility that a certain number of people will be inconvenienced and very possibly subjected to annoying and intrusive questions, then we have a very difficult balancing act to perform. In a sense, we will never get it completely right because as I said earlier, some children will always fall through the net, while others will be incorrectly diagnosed as being at risk. It is not a perfect world.
I do not personally view the recommendations contained in the Badman Report as being a blueprint for an exercise in mass screening. Perhaps this is mere semantics. If it is mass screening, then it looks to me as though it will be a very mild and fairly low key operation, unlikely to cause much harm, but with the potential to do a lot of good. We should be welcoming this move, not sounding the alarm bells.