Home Education - A Safeguarding Issue?

In the week that the consultation period on home education ended, Children and Young People Now has published an article detailing the response of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) to the consultation.

In the article, Stronger laws needed to send home-educated children back to school, says ADCS, we see the usual arguments against home education, thinly veiled as concerns about children's safety and welfare. It reads well. It seems reasonable. But a closer look at the claims that are being made reveals a case that is built on assumptions and suffers from application of the 'safeguarding lens' that those in children's services are so accustomed to viewing everything through.

I am a former teacher and, until recently, a foster carer. I know about safeguarding. I know that schools have a vital role to play in identifying children who may be experiencing abuse and neglect. I also know that schools are not the only bodies with this responsibility. Healthcare providers, youth clubs, religious organisations, voluntary organisations and so many other bodies also have a duty to have proper safeguarding procedures in place.

Is it possible that a child who is home educated could live in an abusive and neglectful home? Yes. Is it possible that a child who attends school could live in an abusive and neglectful home? Obviously yes. Do abused and neglected children who are known to children's services, healthcare providers and education providers sometimes slip through the net? A quick glance through news stories on the subject will confirm that the answer is yes. In fact, even when a case of an abused home-educated child hits the news, we often don't have to read very far before we discover that this child was in fact already known to children's services before they were de-registered from school.

As is so often the case, this article conflates concerns around a 'suitable education' with concerns around welfare and safeguarding. Both are important, and local authorities already have clear duties with regards to both.

The article says, "Currently councils can apply through the courts for a school attendance order (SAO) for the child to return to school if they believe the education on offer at home is unsuitable, in terms of educational progress, attainment, health, safety and welfare."

The Education Act 1996 gives local authorities power to intervene and issue a SAO if it appears that a child is not receiving a suitable education. No mention of health, safety or welfare. The Education Act 2002 does state that local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children, but it does not give powers to monitor home educating families.

Powers to promote safety and welfare of children give local authorities the right to insist on seeing children if there are grounds for serious concern, but do not give them powers to see and question home educated children purely because they are home educated because home education, in itself, is not a safeguarding concern. In particular, local authorities do not have a duty or power to ask children their opinions on being home educated (which my LA routinely says it intends to do) any more than it gives them a duty to ask children their opinions on going to school. These two areas - safeguarding welfare, and education - are separate in law, and the duties pertaining to one area do not automatically apply to the other.

The article says, "According to Ofsted's 2016/17 annual report, home-educated children are at a greater risk of harm as they can be isolated from health and care agencies, making them harder to protect."

The Ofsted report actually states, "Home-educated children can be isolated, which makes them hard to protect if they are at risk at home." There are no statistics to back this claim up. Obviously home-educated children can be isolated, as in, it's possible to do so, but what evidence is there that this is happening? Why would a home educated child be more likely to be unknown to health or care agencies than a non-home educated child?

My children are registered at the GP and the dentist. Every time we visit a healthcare provider, they ask where the child goes to school, and note 'home educated' on the file. I know this information is shared because it was shortly after OB's (elective) visit for a routine hearing test (he was recorded on their form as home educated) that I received my first contact from the local authority to ascertain that he was receiving a suitable education. When I took one of my foster children to get weighed at the clinic, the health visitor tried to write "brother is home educated" on the baby's file until I pointed out that they weren't actually brothers.

It's not actually that easy to 'isolate' your home-educated child from all external agencies. If someone is determined and canny enough to do so, I doubt that stronger powers around SAOs for local authorities will make much difference. The assertion that home-educated children are at greater risk of harm is one that is made often but, without evidence to back this up, it remains an assertion.

The article says, "'In no other area of children's services would a professional make a judgment about a child's educational progress, attainment, health, safety or welfare without seeing or meeting the child, it is unclear why children who are home educated are treated differently in law.'"

Let's be clear: home educated children are not being treated differently in law as far as health, safety and welfare are concerned. Children's services assume that the health, safety and welfare of children are being appropriately catered for by their families unless they receive information giving them cause to believe otherwise. That is a judgement made without any children's services professional ever seeing the child. In every area of children's services, judgements are made about children's health, safety and welfare without ever seeing the child. If it were otherwise, every parent in the land could expect routine visits from children's services so that they could confirm their judgement that everything is fine. We wouldn't stand for that.

Home educated children are not being treated differently in terms of education or attainment either. The law places a duty on parents to ensure that their child receives a suitable education, either by attendance at school or otherwise. Local authority duties are restricted to identifying children who are not receiving a suitable education. Apparently, children's services are happy to make judgements about the education and attainment of schooled children without ever seeing or meeting them on the assumption that schools must be doing a great job. Did we ever hear of somebody from children's services asking to interview a schooled child who failed all their GCSEs in order to find out if they were receiving a suitable education?

I know personally of a considerable number of families who are home educating, not by choice, but because their children have been spectacularly failed by the school system. This is often not the fault of individual teachers or schools, but more a recognition that one-size education systems are not suitable for every child. Every single home educating family I know is home educating out of a deep desire to achieve the very best outcomes for their child, whether they chose home education or were forced into it. The ADCS says that, "children's outcomes must be at the heart of every decision and discussion." We agree. That's why we're home educating.

As a home-educating parent, would I be prepared to submit to a little inconvenience so that local authorities had the powers they needed to ensure that a very small number of children weren't being neglected and abused under the guise of being home educated? Yes, I probably would. But I'd need assurances that the representatives of children's services I'd be dealing with would have a full and proper understanding of the wide variety of approaches that can constitute a 'suitable education' and that they would not routinely be over-stepping their legal powers as my LA currently attempts to do.

I have looked at the rigid approaches followed by many schools, the narrow curriculum, the damaging emphasis on exams at the expense of wellbeing, and I don't like it. It's not the way they do it in many other countries, and I don't choose it for my children. I am safeguarding my children's education, attainment, health, safety and welfare, and I'd thank the powers that be to assume that is the case, just as they do with every other family unless they have reason to believe otherwise.


UPDATED 07/07/18

A reader has sent me some research into safeguarding in home education which is simply too good not to share. She implied that I might change my view in the penultimate paragraph of this blog post if I saw the actual stats. She was correct.

There are two articles, linked below. They are worth a read. If you don't have time to read them right now, here are a few key points:

  • Far from being invisible or hidden, home-educated children are actually approximately twice as likely to be referred to children's services as other school-aged children
  • Despite this high rate, referred home-educated children are 3.5-5 times less likely to then be put on a child protection plan than school-aged children generally - home-educated children are actually at lower risk than other children
  • An NSPCC report (2014) investigated seven Serious Case Reviews where home education was thought to be a factor; in fact in every case, the child in question had already been known to the authorities and the SCRs criticised professional failings, including referrals not being followed up 
  • In response to a Freedom of Information request about radicalisation of home-educated children, 146 local authorities responded, and every single one reported that they had no evidence to suggest that any home-educated child in their area had been radicalised

Home Education and the Safeguarding Myth: Analysing the Facts Behind the Rhetoric
Radicalised Children and Home Education


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