I have been reading some of the comments made on my piece yesterday about Khyra Ishaq. I honestly can't decide whether people are being deliberately obtuse or if they do see the problems but are just pretending not to understand why some of us are concerned. Let's look at how things work at the moment and see if the arrangements for home education now could perhaps be improved.
All that is needed as things stand, to take a child out of school legally and permanently is to drop a line to the school telling them what you are doing. That's it. One can then refuse all access to one's child to pretty well anybody. If you want, you could keep the kid locked up in the house and out of anybody's sight for six months or so. Of course, very few home educators actually do this. My own daughter was seen out and about far more than children who were at school; we were very well known to everybody locally. I suspect that this is the case with many home educated children and their parents. All the same, it would have been possible to keep the child locked in the house and refuse to let anybody see her if that was what I had wanted. This is worrying.
People yesterday said that local authorities have many powers which they don't use. It's not really as easy as that though. When a parent simply refuses to open the door or let anybody speak to their child, there is precious little that can be done. Of course, if a social worker believes that the child is in danger, then an Emergency Protection Order can be obtained from the courts. These are not issued lightly. The court would want a good deal more evidence than, "I have not seen the kid and wondered how he is keeping". They would require actual evidence of danger and potential harm. If you have not been allowed in the house and cannot see the child, how would you establish this to a magistrate's satisfaction? Because handing a social worker one of these orders with a warrant attached, means that she will soon be accompanying a squad of police who will be breaking down the door of somebody's home to gain access to their children. I'm sure none of us would want courts to dish out such powers just because a parent was not co-operating with their local authority, now would we?
Even without officially deregistering a child from school, it is quite possible to take her out for weeks or months without anything much happening to you. After a long time, the local authority might get tough and threaten you with an SAO, but this would typically take months.
Something that I found a little surprising yesterday was that many of those commenting seemed to think that schools should act quickly and decisively when a child is withdrawn. It is true that this would prevent those very rare cases like Khyra Ishaq where a child was in danger, but it would also cause a lot of problems for those whose children were, for example, simply school refusers. This is the essential problem. How do we devise a system which will catch evil parents who have taken their children out of school in order to harm them, without inconveniencing the great majority of parents who are having trouble with their children or are intending to educate them at home?
The fact is that it is only in the last fifteen or twenty years that ordinary parents have become aware that they can take their children out of school legally. The perception used to be that school was compulsory. Any mother like that of Khyra Ishaq's would not even have considered not sending her child to school; she would have been nervous about the possible consequences. Again, this is good for deterring wicked and cruel people, but bad for those who genuinely wish to teach their own children. It was because she was probably aware of others who had withdrawn their children from school, that Khyra Ishaq's mother felt confident in doing so.
Would the new Children, Schools and Families Bill currently being debated have made any difference in the case of Khyra Ishaq? It is certainly possible. Although she notified the school of her intention to home educate, no letter was sent until some time later. As things stand, that was all that was necessary to make the matter quite legal; a simple letter sent to the local authority or school. Let's look at the relevant part of the notorious Schedule 1 and see what would be needed there;
holding at least one meeting with the child during the
holding at least one meeting with a parent of the child during
the registration period;
if they consider that a person other than a parent of the child
is primarily responsible for providing education to the child,
Children, Schools and Families BillSchedule 1 — Home education: England
holding at least one meeting with that person during the
visiting, at least once in the registration period, the place (or
at least one of the places) where education is provided to the
In other words, while the child was actually being starved and mistreated, this new legislation would have made it a requirement that the local authority officers met and talked to Khyra Ishaq in her own home. They would have spoken to her mother as well. Since this woman was refusing to allow anybody to enter her house and would not even answer the door, I'm guessing that something like this, rather than the sending of a letter, might have acted as a deterrent.
In short, any parent can remove a child from school at any time, for any reason. Most intend to educate their children, some wish to harm them. Others don't intend to educate them at all. Those who have other intentions beside educating their children might very well be discouraged from deregistering their child if it means a formal interview with local authority officers in their own home. (Of course it may put off some genuine home educators as well, but that is another matter.) So if Khyra Ishaq's mother had known from the beginning that deregistering her child was a serious and formal business that would entail local authority officers entering her home and asking questions, I think it quite possible that she would not have embarked upon that course of action. Whether this would have saved the little girl's life is open to question. But it is probably fair to say that event would have taken a very different course if the mother of this child had not regarded taking her child out of school as something which could be done lightly and with impunity.