Saturday, 30 January 2010

Possible drawbacks of the current system for regulating home education

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

registration period;

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

registration period;

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.


  1. I am still unclear though how even if the law says that there shall be x meetings, this would be enforced? Those who close their doors to social workers won't open them to the LA; and if it is difficult to get an EPO without real evidence of risk to the child, what will happen if the LA are refused entry? If the only option is an SAO, then we are back to the old problems of their ineffectiveness!
    A change in the law may deter a few parents from withdrawing school refusers (since they may see that it will just involve a different lot of snoopers from the ones who are already harrassing them for truancy- so it isn't an easier option) but I am still not convinced it will deter the abusers.

  2. My understanding is, Julie, that this will streamline the whole process and make things happen faster. At the moment, it is very difficult for a local authority to apply for a School Attendance Order, because without seeing the child it is impossible to say that he appears not to be receiving an education! If registration were introduced as outlined above, then any parent who did not agree to meet with local authority officers would at once be liable to court action; her child would be assumed to be absent from school without good reason and not receiving a suitable education.

    In the first place, there is a great difference in telling a social worker on your doorstep to get lost and ignoring a summons from the court. I am a notoriously awkward individual who would chuck a social worker out without thinking twice, but always takes court cases seriously. Most people are like that.

    Secondly, once a child is definitely regarded legally as not receiving an education, things can swing into action far faster than if a deputy head just has a bad feeling about things.

    Finally, the whole attitude of parents considering this step would, after a the law had changed, undergo a sea change. Rather than something one can do immediately, it would become a serious process which needed some thinking about. I am aware that this would be bad news for some real home educators, but I honestly think that taking a child out of school is a very big deal and that anything which impresses this upon parents cannot help but be a good thing.

  3. You are of course also right that any law will not prevent wickedness of the sort seen in the Khyra Ishaq case. If she were not starved to death, then it is quite possible that she would have been murdered in another way. I am sure that we are both old enough to remember a string of such cases over the years, all of whom were usually registered pupils at schools. I believe though that in this case, it ws the mother's belief that she had all the rights on her side which contributed to the situation. She threatened the social worker who peered through her door with action under the Human Rights Act!

  4. "She threatened the social worker who peered through her door with action under the Human Rights Act!" now that definately is typical of today's world - and the internet etc - everyone is so aware of their legal "rights" that often we all get tied up by people worrying what might happen! The result is that actions which might be seen as entirely reasonable at one level (ie social worker showing concern about a case) ends up as being described as almost the "work of the devil". If the mother of this child had been on an internet home ed list she would have course been advised to refuse the visit anyway - but then Simon you admit that you would have turned away a social worker at your door! How do we decide what are reasonable actions?
    There is a current case in the news about a baby being taken away from a mother who is supposedly "too stupid" to raise the child, and there is a lot of public outcry about the case. At one level that is understandable; who wants ss to be the arbitrators of what constitutes a good parent? -although at an other level there are sadly too many cases where not enough notice has been taken of the ability of a mother to either parent or protect their child until it is too late. What does seem evident to me is that a) there is often a lot more going on behind the scenes that the press aren't privy to and b)premature actions (such as fleeing the country or denying ss access) often make matters worse. Every case I know (and I have come across quite a few in 20 years of fostering) that have involved a new baby being removed at birth have arisen because of the refusal of parents to cooperate with the authorities...when the parents have cooperated they have had custody of their child whilst undergoing lenghty assessments in parent and baby units or being supported in the community. Sometimes the final outcomes were not "good" in the sense they lost the child, but they had been given a fair attempt and the evidence became overwhelming, but often they did well enough with supervision and retained custody.
    So what should you do with the social worker at your door? Cooperate politely , I think, even whilst gritting your teeth.

  5. Well of course you are quite right, Julie. It's just that like many home educators, I have an instinctive repugnance of what I see as the busybody, well meaning social worker type! Of course they have an important job to do, no matter how annoying I find them. Which is why I usually co-operate. It's a bit like the time when I was stopped and searched on the tube under the terrorism act. I knew that the police were wasting their time, but of course it was good that they were on the ball.

  6. "When a parent simply refuses to open the door or let anybody speak to their child, there is precious little that can be done."

    Exactly the same situation applies until a child reaches compulsory school age and during school holidays, unless you are you suggesting that 6 weeks isn't long enough to kill or abuse a child? Besides, more than this happened in Khyra's case. As far as it's possible to tell, they failed to de-register correctly (so officially they were not home educating) and (from the sound of it) they refused all contact with the authorities, providing no evidence of education so the LA would have been able to conclude the appearance of no education and issued a SAO (according to case law).

    "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."

    The problem with this case is lack of information. I suspect that those of us suggesting that the LA should have moved more quickly in this case believe that there must have been significant evidence of risk to cause the deputy head teacher to take such an interest that teachers visited the house, she rang SS 4 times in one day, and asked the police to carry out a safe and well check (which they failed to do as the door was not answered - why did they not try again until they had seen the child - otherwise why have such a thing as a safe and well check?). On the other hand, you have decided that there was little or no sign of risk and the teachers were just busy bodies who would have done the same for any child withdrawn after truancy.

    "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."

    So do you think that a visit within 4 weeks of de-registration (if no concerns had been raised previously) would necessarily have revealed a problem in this case? You don't think the parents could have prepared the house and the children sufficiently to pass the visit considering the child was seen in school only 4 weeks previously and in your view did not appear to be at enough risk to justify an Emergency Protection Order? In any case, I'm guessing it would be easy enough to string the authorities along for well over 10 weeks even under the new system; making and breaking a few appointments (taking us to maybe 8 weeks after de-reg), issuing a SAO, a few weeks to decide that they should be prosecuted (taking us to about 10-16 weeks after de-reg), time waiting for a court date, etc. I read recently that the typical wait for a magistrate court dates is 12 weeks so potentially around 28 weeks since de-reg and they still will still not have sight of the child unless it's usual to take the children to the magistrates court?

  7. "At the moment, it is very difficult for a local authority to apply for a School Attendance Order, because without seeing the child it is impossible to say that he appears not to be receiving an education!"

    Rubbish. The LA do not have to apply for a SAO, they just issue them.

    I really cannot see why it is necessary to see the child in order to conclude that they appear not to be receiving a suitable education. Evidence that an education is being provided is easy enough - photos taken at activities and visits outside the home, photos of the book shelves, photos of science kits, photos of ongoing experiments or other educational activities at home, a printout from the library of all the books taken out over the last year, ticket stubs from visits to museums, etc, work the children have done if that is acceptable to child and parent, etc. Obviously this could all be a fabrication, but honestly, I think it would be easier to provide the education! Certainly case law has established that a home visit should not be the only acceptable form of evidence in all cases (though the judgement specifically did not rule out the idea that sometimes a home visit will be necessary) so at least one learned judge decided that it shouldn't be impossible and parents should not automatically be assumed to be lying.

    A child could be provided with a brilliant education but not take any of it in either at school or home. Does this mean that he is not *receiving* that education and the parent is failing in their duty? If so, how can this be tested fairly, I mean, if a child is not very intelligent they may not even be able to communicate what they have taken in very effectively? Maybe all children need to be IQ tested and a judgement made about how much they should be able to absorb, understand and regurgitate based on that IQ? Then the parent's of any child not reaching their potential, either at home or school, could be prosecuted for not ensuring that the education provided is not received into the child's brain.

  8. Of course, when I talk of the local authority having difficulty "issuing" a School Attendance Order, what I meant was "issuing one and having the parent comply with it". Because having issued the SAO and after the fifteen days have elapsed, the local authority then needs to prosecute the parent for not abiding by the order. This is tricky and expensive, it means tying up the borough solicitor for half a day in court. At the end of the case, magistrates will bend over backwards to see the parents point of view. This is why such prosecutions are rare. This in turn explains why so few are issued.

  9. But the new system still involves SAOs.

  10. Yes, and if the registration process is not adhered to, then there will be an immediate presumption that a suitable education is not being provided. This will make successful prosecutions a racing certainty, rather than the hit and miss affair which they currently are. Instead of the magistrate being asked to decide whether a parent has provided evidence of a suitable education, he will simplyu
    have to decide if the steps in the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009 have been complied with. As I say, a streamlined mechanism.

  11. Which ignores the provision of a suitable education where it exists and also, potentially, what is best for the child. But then, why should they bother with what is best for the child, as long as their administration procedures are easier and more streamlined?

  12. Maybe this has already been commented on but Khyra WAS SEEN by the EHE visitor after the SEN person referred them as being EHE - but in the absence of any knowledge of previous welfare concerns , he only concentrated on the provision of education. He was still waiting for the mother to send in plans and possibly if Khyra had not died , he would have pushed further for these plans if they were not forthcoming. I would like to think that in the absence of satisfactory formulated written plans and/or a follow up visit this EHE advisor would have had some educational concerns for these children, 2 of whom were SEN.
    It remains unclear in the court trascript whether he did or did not 'sign off' this family after one visit and no further involvment. The SCR will almost certainly answer that question.
    One thing is clear - he had NO REASON to suspect welfare concerns as no-one had informed him there were any- after all the social worker ten days later did not know there were any welfare concerns.
    He could also have had no comparison ,even if he saw the children ,that they were skinnier than they were in school .NO way of seeing how they acted around food (unless he spent all day there) A malnourished child may not appear so dreadful as to raise concerns but one dose of the flu can kill them- one wandering virus or bacteria can kill them very quickly indeed.This is the reason children age 0-7 in developing countries do not stand such a great chance of survival.
    The question is WHY did the EHE department not know that there were safeguarding concerns before they visited and after they visited?

    Why did the Social Worker take an ESW round to the house ten days after the EHE visit?
    Why did they both consider the nature of the concern to be educational- i.e.technically CME as the children were on a school roll (mother did not instruct school to deregister) and not attending?
    Why did they not know that the EHE department had even visited?
    Why - or rather, how is it possible that the Social Worker eventually given the task of an initial assessment on all 6 kids (even the ones who were in school)did not know that there were safeguarding concerns and that these concerns had been originally disclosed by the school before and after she removed the children?
    Why did the Social Work department not have these concerns written down so that anyone reading the documents could see why there were concerns? After all the school called twice about the concerns-the second time was after the children stopped attending.
    I cannot help but wonder whether the Social Worker and ESW considered the CME /Home education issue more because of their own prejudices about EHE and had they not been blinded by their own ideas about EHE may have, after discovering after thier failed visit that the children were now officially EHE, stopped to ask why they were tasked with an initial assessment of all 6 kids when 2 were in school when there was no whiff of any safeguarding concerns as far as they were concerned ?

    If the departments (SW and ESW/ EHE had better liasons amongst eachother and understood each others roles and were not so understaffed that things got missed , then maybe all 3 professionals would have communicated better.
    I still fail to see how the EHE visitor seeing the children would have changed the end result and therefore fail to see how schedule one would make a difference-unless of course IN THE ABSENCE of any previous welfare concerns, ALL parents and children who choose to home educated should be seen by a social worker qualified to spot signs of neglect and abuse or all EHE visitors take on the Social Workers role?
    If the welfare concerns were noted properly they would have had every power to demand that a social worker see the children.