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 A little girl had been withdrawn from school and then vanished from the face of the earth and nobody took any notice at all!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that something needed to be done which would allow the LEA to see what was happening to children once they were being withdrawn from school.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.