Friday, 29 January 2010

Khyra Ishaq and home education

Am I alone in wondering why there is no news coverage of the trial of those charged with murdering Khyra Ishaq? Normally, a horrible case of this sort would be guaranteed tabloid headlines, but in the last week or so, it has got no further than the Birmingham Mail. I can guess at a few reasons for this silence. One is that it is out in the provinces. If this hideous crime had been committed in London then I think it might be of more interest to the BBC and national press. Secondly, it involves a black family who also happen to be Muslim. This sort of thing touches upon many modern sensibilities. Since I am quite lacking in sensitivity about race, religion and so on, I thought I would outline a couple of points which have occurred to me about this case.

Just to remind readers of the circumstances behind this; Khyra Ishaq was a seven year old girl of Caribbean heritage. Her family were converts to Islam and the children were made to wear Muslim clothing to school. As result of this there was some teasing or bullying and in December 2007, the children were withdrawn from school to be educated at home. Several attempts were made to visit the family. People from the school came round, the police knocked on the door and a social worker also called. None were allowed into the house. Five months later, in May 2008, Khyra Ishaq died of infections caused by severe malnutrition; she starved to death.

While it is quite plain that Birmingham have fallen down badly on the job and not for the first time, we must not lose sight of who bears ultimate responsibility for this crime; those who starved and tortured this little girl to death. It is not hard to figure out why the local authority were not over zealous in pursuing this family and finding out what was happening to the child. Like Victoria Climbie, she was black. This means that local authority officers will pussyfoot about far more than they would if it were a white family. Nobody wants to be accused of racism! The child had been withdrawn from school, supposedly due to bullying she received for wearing a Muslim outfit. This is another of society's sacred cows. Where Islam is concerned, we must all tread carefully. (Understandable really. Upset a Muslim these days and the next thing you know you've got a crowd of bearded madmen calling for your decapitation). I strongly suspect that if this had been a white Christian family where there were welfare concerns about a very young child, a more active approach would have been adopted.

Readers will perhaps remember that the failure by Haringey Council in the Climbie affair involved a lot of "cultural sensitivity" towards those who were caring for the child. The fact that Victoria was plainly terrified of her aunt, for example, was attributed to the respect which black children traditionally have for their elders! Some of the worst failings were by officers who were themselves black. I can well imagine that as soon as people in Birmingham Council became aware that this was a black family and that there were allegations of Islamophobia being bandied about, they decided to take a very "softly, softly" approach.

How much did this have to do with home education? A bit, but probably not a great deal. Wicked people will always find a way to harm innocent children. It has happened before and it will happen again. All the safeguarding in the world will not stop a determined person from hurting a child. All the well known cases of child cruelty in recent years have involved children at school. At the same time, it must be remembered that it was because they found it so easy to deregister their children from school that the mother and partner of Khyra Ishaq were able to starve her to death in this leisurely fashion. Nobody set eyes on her for months after she was taken out of school. The parents stood on their rights to deny anybody access to their home and this is the reason why nobody noticed that the child was being starved to death. Five months is a long time for a child to be completely out of sight in this way. It would probably not have been possible to starve and torture her to death in this fashion had she still been at school.

The case of Khyra Ishaq is not a strong argument for the increased regulation of home education, but nor can the fact that her death followed deregistration from school and complete seclusion from society, be ignored entirely. Had the process of deregistration been a little more forbidding and formal, then it is quite possible that the family would not have taken this extremely serious step. As things stand, the withdrawal of a child from school in this way can be undertaken at a moments notice. This is probably not a good thing. Still, as I said above, wicked and cruel people will always find a way to hurt children. Tightening up the regulations surrounding home education might perhaps deter one or two cases like this, but they will not eradicate cruelty and neglect. These will always be with us.


  1. Simon please get your facts right.

    Only Khyra was not attending (as far as we know the others were still at school including her foster brother who was at a different school). Her mother stopped sending her. She telephoned the school and said she wasn't going to send her any more. This is not deregistration, this is non-attendance. There was no deregistration letter from the parent to the school.

    For 11 weeks or so she was non-attending. She was not down as deregistered in the LA records until March - and no-one can seem to find the dereg letter from then.

    The deputy head tried everything she could to intervene the day of the phone call in December, even gong round to her house personally, calling the police, calling and faxing social services. She had serious concerns about Khyra's welfare which were not taken seriously enough by the LA. If she had been taken seriously they would have been able to gain access using a court order. They did not.

    Khyra was not hidden, she was not unknown, there were powers they could use. They just did not use them.

    (By the way: The term "withdrawal" is a Scottish legal term and should never be applied to English EHE cases. The term we have here is "deregistration".)

  2. Alison- do u remember who it was who recieved the FOI response that indicates the above that you have written- a link to the response from Birmingham about the 'dereg' letter being sent 11 weeks later (after headmaster raised numerous concerns and social services notified and visited) would be good....

  3. The new law wouldn't have made a difference in this case yet 'they' still seem to think it relevant to their arguments. Obviously welfare concerns had been raised, hence the involvement of the police. Under the new system the same would happen. Welfare concerns would be passed onto Social Services and it would have been out of the hands of the education department. I doubt 10 weeks (the length of time Khyra was de-registered for) of home education inspectors attempting to contact the family to arrange a visit, refusing registration because of lack of contact and eventually issuing a SAO would have made the slightest bit if difference to the outcome when 3 months of teachers reporting concerns to SS and SS and police visiting the home failed.

  4. My facts are right. Following the mother's telephone call to the school on December 19th, the school arranged for a meeting on January 7th, to which the family were invited. They did not attend but subsequently sent a letter directly to the local authority withdrawing or deregistering the child from school. I dare say that the mother was not as familiar as you with the 2006 Pupil Registration regulations and felt that the telephone call was sufficient. Khyra Ishaq was certainly hidden to the extent that nobody saw her for five months. The question of whether she should have been allowed to remain hidden is another matter entirely. I use the terms withdrawn and deregistered interchangable because I am not writing here for an audience of local authority officers or legal experts. It is enough if the language I use conveys my meaning unambiguously. In this case, the use of the expression "withdrawn from school" fits the case perfectly. As you yourself pointed out, she was not properly deregistered to begin with, but she had been taken out of school. I think "withdrawn" is the best word to fit the case.

  5. Tania, Astrid Brand made an FOI request to Birmingam about this and found out that the initial attempt to deregister was made by telephone, which was followed up by a letter to the LA.


    The phone call was made on December 19th 2007. Khyra was apparently deregistered on March 8th 2008. Ten weeks later. This was testified in court and confirmed by Maggie Atkinson in her interview with the select committee. The de-registration letter was not produced as evidence, so there is no proof that she was ever de-registered at all.

  7. That Khyra's mother did not know the law does not alter the fact that for the 10 weeks that she was absent without authorisation from school, and for the subsequent months that she is alleged to have been HE, social services did not follow up the head teacher's concerns. She was not hidden; no-one was looking.

  8. Sorry. Eleven weeks later.

  9. Well it's not really true that social services did not follow up the deputy head's concerns. A little over a months after she was taken out of school, on January 28th 2008, a social worker called Ranjit Mann called round at the house. The mother wouldn't open the door, so the social worker had to shout through the letterbox.

    The mother had made it plain that she intended to home educate and the although technically her daughter was away from school without permission, there is usually a lot of leeway in how vigorously such families are pursued. I'm not clear, Erica, whether you are saying that School Attendance Orders should be issued more often and faster than is now the case?

  10. Would a SAO have made any difference? After the two weeks notice they are required to give before issuing the SAO, how long does it take on average for it to reach court? And even then, this still does not necessarily involve sight of the child. As far as I can see the new system would have added nothing in terms of safeguarding Khrya.

  11. "At the same time, it must be remembered that it was because they found it so easy to deregister their children from school that the mother and partner of Khyra Ishaq were able to starve her to death in this leisurely fashion. Nobody set eyes on her for months after she was taken out of school. The parents stood on their rights to deny anybody access to their home and this is the reason why nobody noticed that the child was being starved to death."

    This is rubbish though. The starvation began whilst she was at school (or at least the teacher was concerned enough about her safety to ring SS 4 times in one day). The authorities could have gained access to the home if they had taken the teacher's concerns seriously. The ease of de-registration and a families right to deny access just to assess home education has nothing to do with the outcome in this case as they had other criteria that would have given them access.

    Routine home visits to check home education used as a fishing exercise for signs of abuse are discriminatory unless they are applied to all (and morally wrong and harmful so shouldn't be applied to all!). There is no reason to believe that HE children are more at risk than other children or vulnerable adults who are not seen regularly by the authorities (under 5's for example). There are also likely to be types of abuse that could only be revealed by a home visit, for e.g. a neighbour of a friend lived in appalling conditions (animal excrement all around the house including the kitchen, dirt, mould and things growing throughout the house, , the children slept on sofas in the living room so couldn't go to bed until their parents did, no heat, etc) but the children were always turned out well for school so a case could just as easily be made for regular home visits for school children too.

  12. No, I'm not saying that, Simon. I'm saying that SS could have taken the deputy head's concerns seriously and used the powers they _already have_ to gain access.

  13. I'm surprised at you Erica! You seem to be saying, if I understand you correctly, that if a child does not attend school for a while and the school are uneasy about the parents ability to provide an education or look after the child properly, then the next step should entail somebody kicking the door down. People were knocking on the door and it was either not being answered or those making enquiries were refused entry. What powers are you suggesting should have been used to gain access?

    I can just imagine the outrage on the HE lists when news comes thorugh of some home educating parent having her home invaded because she was a bit slow off the mark in sending the deregistration letter!

    Where I work in Hackney, children are often missing from school for weeks, even months at a time. Even when the teachers are unhappy about the family, nobody suggests that their door should be kicked in and the children checked for signs of malnutrition. As I said in my original post, it is the mother and boyfriend who are the villains here, not the local authority.

  14. Now you're just being silly, Simon. See Anonymous's post above. The teacher was concerned enough about Khyra WHILE SHE WAS STILL AT SCHOOL to ring SS 4 times in one day. Are you suggesting that even when teachers are seriously concerned about the welfare of a child in their school, SS shouldn't exercise their right to gain entry to the child's home? How would changing the law on home ed improve the performance of SS?

  15. The teacher didn't ring social services four times while the child was at school. She rang them four times in twenty four hours the day afer the child had been removed from the school. Using capital letters does not alter this fact. Do you actually know how social services go about gaining entry to a home against the wishes of a family - that is to say by breaking down the door?

  16. It is of course possible to go to court for an Emergency protection Order under the 1989 Act. You can ask the court for a warrant to be attached to this. This will allow a police officer to force entry to the home. There are two problems here. Firstly, there was no reason to think that the child in this case was actually in danger. You can't go round breaking into people's houses just because you are uneasy that they have taken their kids out of school, as many home educators will be aware.
    Secondly, does anybody remember the Handsworth riots in 1985? Did anyone in Birmingham council feel it would be a smart move to send the police to Handsworth to break down somebody's door and snatch a black child? Perhaps not. This is the problem when parents simply refuse to answer the door or co-operate. How much force should local authorities be able to use against parents who have taken their children from school? This debate is very relevant to the discussion taking place about the new Children, Schools and Families Bill.

  17. "This will allow a police officer to force entry to the home. There are two problems here. Firstly, there was no reason to think that the child in this case was actually in danger."

    Would the Police have been involved if there were no danger to the child involved? What level of concern would justify the police attending once but no follow up visits are required when the door isn't answered?

  18. Simon said: "there was no reason to think that the child in this case was actually in danger."

    "Teachers were also concerned for Khyra's welfare when she stole food from a pupil. A boy of nine living in the same house was seen stuffing his pockets with fruit.

    The woman deputy head, who cannot be named, visited Khyra's home and talked to Gordon, 34, on the doorstep. She said: "She was agitated by our presence. We didn't see the children." She added: "Social services said the referral didn't warrant an initial assessment....
    The court also heard a teacher at another school attended by a boy of seven - one of the six children in Khyra's household - was worried as the "gaunt" lad was holding up his trousers."

    Seems pretty clear that there were concerns about the family while Khyra was still at school, which is why the deputy head made such an effort to get SS to act when she didn't turn up. HE was not the reason for concern.
    "Social services said the referral didn't warrant an initial assessment."

  19. Yes, I too read this Erica. Stealing food and stuffing one's pockets with friut do not nevessarily suggest that children are about to be starved to death. It's the sort of thing a lot of kids too. Nobody contacted social services until the child was taken out of school. It was this which led to a social worker calling round the house.

  20. If no-one contacted SS when the children were in school, how would a visit once a year to assess their HE provision have helped? And as the mother didn't follow the correct procedure for de-registering a child from school, how would making that procedure more "forbidding and formal" have made any difference?