Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Fred West and home education

The county of Gloucestershire seems to exert some sort of jinx on home education in this country. A few years ago it produced Eunice Spry, perhaps the only known and registered home educator to be convicted of brutally abusing the children in her care. This case triggered alarm generally about the vulnerability of home educated children and quite possibly helped precipitate the Badman review of elective home education. Many years before the trial of Eunice Spry was of course the case of Fred West; also in Gloucestershire and also bringing in its wake calls for a closer look at how home education is monitored.

On the face of it, it is odd that that Fred and Rosemary West's arrest should be tied in with home education. After all, they were neither of them home educators, so why should their crimes have caused concern about this issue? Fred West, as readers are probably aware, murdered a number of young women throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. His wife helped him to do this. In 1971, while her husband was in prison, Rosemary West found herself stuck with Charmaine, his eight year old daughter from a previous marriage. Nobody knows why, but Rosemary West took it into her head to murder the child and bury her in the coal cellar. When he came out of prison, Fred West then chopped up the body and re-buried it under the kitchen floor. For the next twenty three years, nobody was any the wiser. A little girl had been withdrawn from school and then vanished from the face of the earth and nobody took any notice at all!

When I gave evidence to the DCSF select committee last month, I made the point that when I moved from Haringey to Essex, nobody had any record of my daughter's existence. Had I murdered her before I moved, buried her on Tottenham marshes and moved to Loughton as a single man, nobody would have been any the wiser. She too, just like Fred West's daughter Charmaine, could have dropped out of sight completely with no questions being asked by anybody about her disappearance.

Shortly after Charmaine West's body was unearthed, Gloucestershire County Council decided that something really needed to be done about home education. Or more precisely, they decided that something needed to be done which would allow the LEA to see what was happening to children once they were being withdrawn from school. They approached central government and expressed their fears to anybody who would listen, but perhaps the time just wasn't ripe. Maybe there simply weren't enough home educating families fifteen years ago to make it a big enough problem. For whatever reason, nothing came of it.

The nature of Gloucestershire's concern should be obvious to everybody. It has nothing to do with home education as such, but the ease with which parents can withdraw their children from school and not give any forwarding address or details of what provision will be made for the child is a little worrying. Put bluntly, someone can de-register their child from school and in many cases nobody has the least idea what becomes of the child. That's why Rosemary West was able to dispose of her unwanted stepdaughter so easily. It cannot be doubted that if a system had then been in place to track children and their places of education, then Fred West's career as serial killer would never really have got off the ground. Enquiries would have been made about Charmaine's whereabouts and what educational setting she was currently in. The inability to produce the child would have led almost immediately to the discovery that she had vanished.

People on several home education lists lately have been asking about the Fred West case and scratching their heads in bewilderment as to what in fact it has to do with home education. This is the answer. Nothing at all to do with home education, but everything to do with ensuring that children do not fall between the cracks and vanish from sight completely.


  1. You know, I still don't understand why Schools are characterised as being 'safety nets'. For one thing, are the schools which are so safe they need CCTV and bouncers and metal detectors, really 'safety nets'? Even children who are schooled, and attend school regularly, may be molested and neglected and hurt and murdered, sometimes by their parents, sometimes by family friends, sometimes by total strangers.

    We cannot eradicate all risk in life, we cannot prevent bad people from doing bad things. Every move Govt makes to 'safeguard children' can be subverted by those who are determined to cause harm, whilst the intrusion of the state into family and community life paralyses those who would only wish to do good and honest works, and love and support others. AIUI Fred West was known to police in his area. Do you really think the Badman recommendations would have prevented the death of his daughter and dissauded him from helping his wife to cover up her crime? Would the recommendations really have saved little Khyra Ishaq, as the Children's Commissioner in Waiting would have us, and the CSF Select Committee, believe? Did being 'known to Social Services' save Baby Peter, or all the others?

    We don't need stronger powers for Social Services, which weakens the communities, which leads ordinary people to walk on by because they are frightened their motives will be questioned, because it's 'not their job', because it's for the Authorities to intervene. We need to rediscover ourselves as loving caring human beings, capable of living in healthy communities who look out for each other and our children. It takes a village to raise a child, a village populated with real live, loving, living people, not officials and social workers.

  2. I don't understand what you are saying, but maybe I am feeling particulaly dense this morning. Are you trying to tell us that there could be lots of dead home educated children?

    The problem with the 'could be' statements is that we can let our imaginations go wild with them.

    For eg, wives who are caring for elderly husbands with dementia 'could be' being cruel to or neglectful of them. But we don't force them to have to register as carers if they don't want to, we don't have inspectors visit their homes and assess their care, we don't have the person with dementia scrutinized for signs of abuse. On a yearly basis.

    No, what we do is acknowledge that the love-bond between family members means that people are, in most cases, likely to do their best for their loved ones.

    And we don't legislate to try to 'ensure' that no one is ever cruel or evil.

    There has to be a certain amount of trust between people and the state or we will end up with an intolerable level of surveillance in our society.

    Also, I agree with everything Louise has said above and would add that the more we DEPEND on the state to protect vulnerable people, the deafer and blinder we become to neglect and abuse going on around us. We ASSUME the state is dealing with it already and so do nothing to intervene ourselves.

    Mrs Anon

  3. What I was saying was quite straightforward, Anonymous. I have seen several people asking what the connection ws between Fred West and home education. This was because there was some talk about the fact that in 1995 Goucestershire County Council urging that new regulations be introduced to keep track of children being withdrawn from school. I was just explaining why Gloucestershire felt that way.
    Louise, the sort of checks being proposed now would not hvae prevented Rosemary West from murdering her stepdaughter and burying her in the coal cellar. They would though, have ensured that the whereabouts of Charmaine West was investigated and almost certainly have led to the discovery within a short time theat she had been murdered. As it was, the Wests had another twenty three years of their activities.

  4. So, can we do some sort of statistical comparison then? The number of deregistered children to have died, compared with the number of registered ones who have?

    And, depending on the results of this, shouldn't we do something about the safety of school-registered children? I think parents should have the right to do spot checks and interview their children alone, myself.

  5. I worked in a number of public sector organisations in the 1970s and 1980s and at the time, there was an active and usually effective informal network of information-sharing in operation amongst public sector organisations. If as you say, Charmaine was withdrawn from school in 1971, there would have been nothing at that time to stop the local authority trying to find her whereabouts if they had concerns. And they might well have had concerns if her father was in prison. Visiting the family at home would not necessarily have prevented the murder, because Rose could have killed her and then done a bunk between LA visits, or done a bunk and then killed her. The only way SS could have prevented Charmaine's murder would have been to take her into care, and the only way they could have guaranteed finding out about her death would have been to do a daily visit and to have kept the house under surveillance, a hugely costly operation.

    What is clear in report after report into the tragic deaths of children at the hands of parents and carers is that those children are usually known to the authorities, are known to be at risk, and that poor information-sharing is a key factor in the failure to protect them. Messages are not left, files are not updated, phone calls to other services are not made, or information does not get passed on to the right person. These are all classic signs of overstretched organisations.

    Adding layers of bureaucracy in the form of more visits or more databases is likely to make things worse rather than better, because it takes longer to enter or retrieve information from a computer system than it does to write it on a post-it note or pass it on by phone or in an email. Significant amounts of time are going to be spent monitoring children who are safe and well and receiving a suitable education. Given the record of well-being and education of children in receipt of LA services, I'm not at all sure that this is a good use of public resources.

  6. You seem to have a great deal of faith in the police's ability to detect crime, Simon, and I wonder, given all the information available to police in the Baby P case, why they weren't able to detect the crime of child abuse and neglect in his case, and intervene before he was tortured unto death by his mother's consort. But, maybe Baby Peter's was an isolated case, and hard cases make bad arguing points. For a moment let's say that you are right, perhaps the Badman recommendations would have saved all the other women who fell into the West's clutches. So, from this, should we conclude that we now have to have parents proving, on a yearly basis, that they are not abusing or neglecting their children, not only to save the children, but also a succession of vulnerable adults from potential serial killers. The link is tangential at best. The measures would tar all parents with a 'you could be a child abuser and serial killer' brush, instead of sending the message to parents and wider society that they are capable of loving their children and treating them with kindness and respect. There are plenty of disproportionate measures we could employ to prevent all sorts of evil acts being perpetrated against all sorts of groups in society. We don't employ these measures because we believe, or used to believe, that civil liberties are a common good, which needs protecting.

    Oh, and Gloucestershire are calling for tougher regulations and stronger powers are they? They can't do the job they think they need to do using current legislation and guidelines, even though other LAs appear to manage perfectly well? Isn't there a saying that 'Bad workmen blame their tools'? Given the appalling failures of LAs to deal with cases of abuse and neglect in children *known* to them, none of which have been shown to be down to lack of power to act, I would suggest that perhaps they need to start using the powers they do have better, before asking for more.

  7. I didn't say that Goucestershire are calling for tougher regulations; I said that they were doing so in 1995. Nor did I say that they were right to do so, only that I could see their point. I was really just putting this stuff up because people could not see the connection between Fred West and home education. I just thought I'd explain what the connection was.

  8. Well, even if it's not Gloucestershire in particular, we know LAs, the ADCS and NASWE are all lobbying for more powers ostensibly only in respect of the 'anomaly of EHE', but which will ultimately affect all families. I understand your desire to provoke debate and discussion, but, if your original blog post doesn't reflect your personal pov, perhaps you could let us know what it is.

  9. Very sharp this morning, Ms. Thorne! My own point of view is a simple one. I can see that there is a good case to be made for keeping track of children and checking what educational setting they are in.

  10. It's Mrs Thorn actually :) Terseness not intentional.

  11. "I can see that there is a good case to be made for keeping track of children and checking what educational setting they are in."

    OK, but I need more details about Charmaine West before I can tell if she is relevant to the point you are trying to make. Was she actually de-registered from school to be home educated before she was murdered, or did she simply stop attending?
    If she just stopped attending, did the Education Welfare department make the enquiries that they have a duty to make in the case of any child with poor attendance?
    If she was de-registered to be home educated, did the LA dept with responsibility for home education make the enquiries that they are entitled to make, and did Rosemary West respond to their enquiries in such a way that they had no reason to believe that she was not home educating Charmaine?
    If the LA had reason to believe that Charmaine was not recieving education, did they take any further steps to satisfy themselves that she was?

  12. Slightly taken aback in this day and age, to find a woman who defines herself by her marital status. But then I am myself rather old fashioned in some ways and am hardly in a position to criticise.

    Erica, you put your finger right on the point when you say that the local authority was "entitled" to make enquiries. Entitled, but not obliged. There is a great deal of variation in the way that local authorities handle children who drop from sight. I have mentioned Haringey who, it will surprise nobody to learn, are always misplacing children. The neighbouring borough of Enfield is not much better. I know of several children who have been de-registered from school there and whose parents heard nothing more about it. The whole point of the proposed new legislation is that the local authority would have a duty to check on what happens to children after they are withdrawn from school. They will be obliged to make regular returns to the DCSF, which might keep them on their toes a bit. As for Charmaine West, no I don't beleive she was de-registered properly. Rosemary West, by all accounts, simply told the school that she had gone to Scotland to live with her mother.

  13. Simon:
    ''I can see that there is a good case to be made for keeping track of children and checking what educational setting they are in...ensuring that children do not fall between the cracks and vanish from sight completely''

    Education aside, and the fact that keeping track of Charmaine wouldn't have prevented her death, but only that her remains would be found earlier- at what point in a child's life, Simon, do you think that Authorities should start to 'keep track' of them?'

    If Charmaine had been 2 and not 8, she would have had no educational tracking. My children are under compulsory educational age. We are not tracked.
    I do not have to opt into playgroups, nursery, or my Health Visitor. In 'tracking children' what do you see as the solution to the under 5's?

    Maybe we could CRB the parents? Maybe at birth? Or even decide who should be allowed to reproduce in the first place? Mandatory Health Visitor appointments? Mandatory Nursery? That'll definitely stop bad things happening to children. I'm pretty sure that some of these are already in the pipeline...

    Or maybe we should just submit to the State intrusion into our every civil liberty and concede that parenthood is A Bad Thing. We can abandon procreation, and the State can start decanting our kids in a State-Run-CRB-Checked-Child-Raising-Facility. Get some caste system in place and we are all sorted. Anyone who doesn't want to do this will have to move out of the country and call themselves savages...


  14. I believe Enfield isn't much better because there are no schools to put children into even if the education provided by parents was substandard.

    There was an article in the Evening Standard recently which said that several boroughs will need more than 2000 extra places each over the next three years.

    The manpower needed to implement these changes, if they were to happen will be far too costly. Nothing is going to change imo.

  15. So Charmaine West was not de-registered to be home educated. What has she got to do with home education then? All you have proved is that like Eunice Spry's children, Khyra Ishaq, Baby P and Victoria Climbie, she was not a victim of any inadequacy in the law concerning home education and and has no relevance to the point you are trying to make. You are making exactly the same mistake as the NSPCC and Graham Badman did.

  16. In a sense, you are of course right; this has nothing to do with home education as such. However, the same situation which allows parents to withdraw their children from school without any formality to educate them at home, also permits others to withdraw children in order to abuse or even murder them. This is not a mistake; it is how things are.If you forget for a moment about home education and focus instead upon children being taken out of school, then you might see what concerns people.

  17. See Lisa's answer above. Children who are withdrawn from school are only a tiny proportion of the children who are not being "tracked". Isn't Contactpoint supposed to address this?

  18. Where do you stand on the civil liberty vs safeguarding issue, Simon? Do you think all children should be visited at home and interviewed alone, if they are able to talk? Should babies be examined for injuries regularly? Should all parents and other relatives and friends be CRB checked? Should all parents of under-fives be compelled to register with the LA when they move house, and be subject to criminal prosecution if they don't?

  19. Although this does explain why the name of Fred West etc has come to light in recent days on home ed lists, there isn't actually a solution to the problem. Yes, the LA could or should have checked up as to what happened to this poor little girl, although it was probably too late to save her; it may have saved the later victims of the Wests, but as many the more recent cases of child death and abuse show, it isn't knowledge of the childs wherebaouts that is a major issue - it is the inability of the various services to interpret and act on information.

    If Charmaine had been followed up, I have no doubt that the Wests would have delayed the whole issue by claiming (as you say) that the child was with her birth mother. Since I think that she was already dead, there would have been a futile and slow search for the missing part of the family- and I am convinced that the info (or lacking info) would havenever got much further than lying in a filing cabinet somewhere - all the social services are far too overworked trying to look after the children they know about than to chase rabbits as in cases like this.

    Someone close to me was left aged 3 months with a family acquaintance to be babysat whilst the mother went to bingo. The family was already known to social services (having already had 2 children taken into care) but they failed to notice that the baby was no longer living at home for 4 years! To me the whole issue here is not chasing the unknowns just because they might be at risk - it is looking after the known risks properly.

  20. I suppose Erica, that when you talk about parents being CRB checked, you are referring to the pilot scheme which has been running for the last year or so in Cambridgeshire, Warwickshire, Hampshire and Cleveland? Can't see anything wrong in it at all. There are weird men who target women in relationships just to gain access to their children. You set up civil liberties and safeguarding as antitheses; they are nothing of the sort, they are complementary. Without security and safety from harm, there can be no liberty. I have no problem with children being spoken to alone, although I doubt that is intended to be routine.

  21. Do you think a CRB check actually safeguards children?

    Or does it lull some people into a false sense of security? ''Oh it's okay they've been CRB'd'', with no understanding that a CRB only tells us that a person hasn't been convicted of an offence.

    Again , Simon, I ask, when do you think children should be kept 'track' of?


  22. Well Lisa, it was Erica who mentioned CRB checks and I was just responding to her question. I imagine, although she was not specific, that when she talks about parents being CRB checked she is referring to the scheme which I describe above. You ask if I think that a CRB check safeguards children. Yes, of course it does sometimes. Most voluntary groups have had the experience of somebody wanting to do stuff with kids. On being told that a CRB check will be required, they fade away. It is a fair guess that a potential abuser may have been thus deterred. Of course CRB checks must be combined with common sense; not all paedophiles have convictions. I see them as a useful tool, but not an infallible one.

  23. I'll ask you again, Simon, do you think the recommendations of the Badman report wrt safeguarding should be applied to all children who are not at school, including under fives and schoolchildren during the holidays?

  24. False positives are a major problem when looking for abuse. Much research into detection of abuse has been carried out and the false positive rate is always too high to justify looking for abuse in the general population. In one review of various studies the average false positive rate was 50.6%, so for every true case of abuse that was detected, another was falsely suspected. The best rate for an individual study covered by the review was 20%, so even well trained researchers misidentified as abused one in every five children about whom they made predictions. The highest false positive rate was 95%. Rates of missed cases of genuine abuse ranged from 16% to 63%. There are costs involved with false positives, both monetary and emotional.

  25. "Without security and safety from harm, there can be no liberty."

    Or, alternatively, "those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither" - Benjamin Franklin. Our liberties are hard won, but our security will always be an illusion. Evil can never be legislated out of being.

    I have had many CRB checks over the years. I currently have six for different establishments (all of which will expire over the next eight months). I think is ridiculously over the top, and I won't be having any more. I wonder if when I refuse to have another one people will assume I have some hideous guilty secret. I'd like to think that the people I work with know me well enough to think that there just might be another reason for refusing another check. Either way, their hands will be tied. They cannot legally trust me without that bit of paper that says I'm clean.

    Another Lisa. Posting as anon.

    P.S. I think in being taken aback by Louise defining herself by her marital status, you may have been jumping the gun. She could merely have been responding to your inaccurate spelling of her surname, and probably thought she'd correct you on the Ms thing as well. Ms has long been used as a slur by men so it's understandable that you'd be corrected whether Louise was offended or not.

  26. "Ms has long been used as a slur by men" This is an extraordinary thing to say. I work in a London borough where it is considered very bad manners to call a woman "Miss". I always use "Ms". I have never heard it called a slur before! The bit about defining herself by her marital status was of course a joke; I assumed that that was obvious. The give away was the fact that i referred to Louise as old fashioned, which she is almost certainly not.

  27. Erica, if I understand you correctly you are asking whether I believe that the recommendations in Chapter 8 of the Badman Report should also apply to those working in schools, whether maintained or independent. Is that right? The answer is, yes. But most of those things are already standard anyway. The whole idea is to extend similar protection to those being taught by their parents.

  28. No, I am asking you if you think that families with children who do not attend school for reasons other than being home educated (for instance under fives and school children during the holidays) should be subject to recommendations of the Badman report wrt safeguarding. I did say this quite clearly. In other words, should it be a criminal offence for them to move house without informing the LA, should their homes be visited regularly for the purpose of ensuring that the children are safe and well, and should children under five be interviewed alone?

  29. I certainly think Erica, that it is a good idea for local authorities to know of the children living in their area. Most people register with a school when they move with their children. So, yes this seems to me to be a good idea. Children at school are seen regularly, so it would probably not be necessary to visit their homes. As for children being spoken to without their parents being present, well this happens all the time. It happens at nurseries and schools for instance. I have never seen what all the fuss is about here. I like the use of the word "interview" with its formal implications and hint of police stations! When a teacher speaks to a child in the playground without the parents being there, is that an "interview" as well? Would you say that children of three and four in nurseries are "interviewed" regularly? I suppose this is better than the word "interrogation" which I have also used to describe this. There has never been any suggestion that this would be routine practice.

  30. So you do believe that Badman's recommendations wrt safeguarding, which I listed above, should apply to all children who are not at school? In other words, to all children under 5?
    A yes or no answer will do.

  31. No. I made this clear. You said;

    "should their homes be visited regularly for the purpose of ensuring that the children are safe and well,"

    I responded;

    "Children at school are seen regularly, so it would probably not be necessary to visit their homes."

  32. But I'm asking you about children who are *not* at school, Simon. I understand that you don't think schoolchildren need visiting even in the long holidays, but what about the ones who are not at school because they are too young? Do you think Badman's recommendations wrt safeguarding, which I listed above, should apply to them?

  33. I don't think that there is any harm at all in keeping a benevolent eye upon children under five who are not at school or nursery. Most are seen for visits to clinics and Health Centres in any case. Add in visits by Health Visitors, vaccinations and so on and I think most of them would be observed one way or the other every year. Often, warning signs spotted on such occasions lead to somebody popping round to visit the family. As with children being spoken to alone, I find it hard to understand this antagonism to having people visit the home.

  34. But you still haven't answered my question. Many people don't take their children for developmental checks or have them vaccinated. Many people also decline visits from health visitors. Do you think these people should be compelled to register their children with the local authority, and do you think Badman's other recommendations, as I listed above, should apply to them?

  35. I do think it a good idea that the local authority should know how many children are living in their area and that they should forward this information to central government. I feel that this should apply to schooled and home educated children alike. In order to get everybody to comply, it is probably necessary to have some sort of sanction.

    I also think it a good idea if children have the opportunity to speak to other adults without their parents being present. I think that once a year is the absolute bare minimum for this. I feel that this should also apply to both schooled and home educated children. In the case of those at school, this usually happens as a matter of course.

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