Thanks to our contributor who wishes to remain anonymous. She works primarily as an advocate for parents who home educate. In this post she discusses the legal framework around home education and how to deal with a referral to children’s services to prevent matters escalating.
Parents have a right to educate their children at home providing they fulfil the requirements of Section 7 of the Education Act 1996, which places a duty on the parents of every child of compulsory school age to cause him or her to receive efficient full-time education suitable to their age, ability and aptitude, and to any special educational needs that they may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.
Home-educating parents or carers are not more likely than others to abuse or neglect their children. However, there have been a number of serious case reviews where home education has been stated as a factor. This has led to the parents in these cases being viewed as having removed their child from school to avoid the scrutiny of safeguarding agencies. Despite there being no case in which home education has been found to be a ‘key’ factor, this no doubt explains the suspicion that some professionals may feel about parents who chose to home educate – and why those parents may sometimes feel as if they are under excessive or unfair scrutiny.
The Badman Review of home education (DCSF, 2009) recommended a formal registration scheme of children who are home educated and rights for local authority staff to access the home and interview children alone. This review has been subject to serious criticism from the HE community. They point out that these recommendations never became law but some LA rely upon this review to justify acting unlawfully. No doubt there will be continue to be a tension between those who wish to home educate and those who believe that an essential element of child safeguarding is permitting state agencies access to children.
I have been referred to children’s services because my child is home educated
It is not unusual for a report to be made to childrens’ services, solely because a child is home educated (HE). In fact around 10% of home educated children known to the Local Authority are referred, although HE children are considerably less likely to end up with a child protection plan than those attending school. Quite often this will be by a misguided neighbour, health visitor or GP, equally often it will be by the former school the child attended. In these cases a teacher will often express concern that the parent is not ‘competent’ to educate the child.
In the case of teaching staff, this is generally not malicious, rather it is because they have trained in a system which makes them view HE as quite alien in its practice and approach, to their own view of what education should look like. HE can be successful without formal learning taking place, where it is totally autonomous (Child led), where a parent has little or no qualification and where the child may appear to be ‘doing nothing’.
Most social workers are just as frustrated as you are that they have been caused extra work because someone does not realise that HE is a viable and lawful choice to make. Often their involvement will end with a ‘sorry to bother you and thank you for explaining’ if you approach matters in a reasonable way.
Legally you do not have to let a social worker into your home and there is no such thing as a ‘safe and well check’ for a HE child. This is because the duty of the social worker is to react to concerns, not to proactively investigate whether a child is at risk simply because the parents have made a minority choice. The Social worker must balance child protection needs with only intervening when it is appropriate. It is not appropriate to intervene simply because a child is HE.
What’s the legal position regarding home education?
However, just saying ‘no’ is not helpful to you, it is far better to explain to the social worker that your child is HE and that it is a legal choice for you to make. Do this politely and refer them to the relevant guidelines concerning elective home education for England which are well worth reading to enable you to understand the legal position (guidelines for Wales are currently being reviewed).
In the words of Graham Stuart MP (the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on home education)
…councils often conflate home education with a child safeguarding risk and seek to impose routine monitoring and inspections. These actions are at odds with government guidelines and can be accompanied by misrepresentation of the legal situation both on parents’ doorsteps and in local authority literature’
If you are prepared and knowledgeable, it is much more likely that any such referral is dealt with quickly and without distress to you or your family.
Update – Home Education, changes afoot?
Thanks also to this update from Looked After Child who examines the findings of the Home Education of Children Report 2017 (see below for link and summary) and considers what the rising numbers of children in home education is saying about the support available for disabled children.
It seems to have taken a while for the Department of Education, Ofsted and others to appreciate that rising numbers of children being home educated is one indication that a significant number of schools are excluding – both formally and informally – children who require adaptations or more support than the school is prepared to make/can provide. This 2017 Ofsted and Care Quality Commission report Local area SEND inspections: one year on makes for very depressing reading on that front.
The Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has recently said she is concerned that a number of schools are forcing or “encouraging” children with behavioural issues to leave school. She has also produced a briefing paper Briefing: Falling through the Gaps in Education
Sometimes it is about the cost and sometimes about changing the values and culture within the (specialist day) school to be more welcoming of children who have learning disabilities and/or autism and/or behaviour that the school finds challenging.
Dame Christine Lenehan and Mark Geraghty the authors of a recent report commissioned by Department for Education called Good Intentions, Good Enough? A review of the experiences and outcomes of children and young people in residential special schools and colleges has something similar to say :-
“There can be a vicious circle occurring within the ASD (autistic) cohort. A poor provider triggers challenging behaviour or physical meltdowns (or fails to prevent such events), often exacerbating this with their reactions e.g. restraint, punishment or confinement. Good providers in whose care this behaviour may not have occurred will now not accept the child due to their history and pattern of risk.
Therefore, the child is placed in a more restrictive or secure setting which can result in a worsening situation. Eventually, the child reaches a secure NHS setting which often is wholly inappropriate for their ASD needs. In different circumstances, a good specialist day placement could have worked for this child”.
In this context, a significant number of parents, whose children have neurodisabilities including autism, find themselves considering ‘Home Education’. Years of battling to get a child’s needs first recognized and then met in a school setting, while watching the child’s anxiety increase to the point that they develop extremely poor mental health, brings some parents to consider all alternatives including home-schooling. It is a daunting prospect for many and is likely to involve loss of a household income. Most of us would find it difficult to teach the national curriculum in one subject, never mind all however some parents see no viable alternative. There are also parents who home school by choice.
Review of Home Education following the death of Dylan Seabridge.
The death of Dylan Seabridge in December 2011 raised questions about whether existing safeguarding mechanisms are sufficient for children who are home educated. A review was commissioned by the National Independent Safeguarding Board of Wales in February 2017 to explore possible risks in relation to safeguarding, health and well-being for children and young people who are educated at home.
I’ve extracted sections from this report below because it helpfully analyses the current context and makes recommendations for change.
The report is clear that although some home educated children are abused and neglected there is no reason for believing this is any more or less common than in the general population.
An evidence based review of the risks to children and young people who are educated at home Final Report
Review of existing evidence
Only a small proportion of children are home educated –perhaps 2-3,000 in Wales ( there is no register) There are signs that the numbers are increasing–perhaps doubling over the last 6 years
They are a diverse group of children, including those whose parents choose home education from birth and a larger group who leave school. Often the reasons for children leaving school include bullying, additional needs or a child having other problems at school. Home educated children tend to have poorer access to both universal and specialist services that are provided for children in school
Serious Case Reviews and Child Practice Reviews:
Home education was identified as a feature in 11 Serious Case Reviews and Child Practice Reviews
These broke down into two types of case:
“Withdrawers” in four families home education was part of a withdrawal from services following the identification of concerns. There was evidence that professionals failed to respond to this sufficiently robustly.
“Avoiders” in seven families home education was part of a strategy by parents that prevented, limited or controlled professional contact with children.
This seemed to be associated with controlling and apparently eccentric parents, several of whom may have had undiagnosed mental health problems.
It is clear that where children are maltreated it can be more difficult for this to be identified if a parent wishes to limit access to a child, and home education can and did contribute to that in the serious cases under review. Parents who are abusing or neglecting their children can, do and have used home education as one of the ways of limiting professional contact and therefore protection. Current practice leaves some children at risk because their parents are using home education as a way of controlling and limiting contact with their children.
Recommendation 1: A significantly enhanced support service for home educated children.
A Clear duties for local authorities to support the education and well-being of children who are home educated.
B The Welsh Government and local authorities should ensure that funds are available to deliver this duty to support home educated children, for instance by providing a proportion of the per-pupil funding that is provided for school educated children
C This support service should be delivered by professionals who understand the particular needs and circumstances of home educated children and their families.
D Such support to be developed in partnership with the local home education community as consistent with principles of co-production.
E. The proposed home education support service should fund the sitting of examinations as a right for each child in Wales not only those in school.
F Where children leave the school roll the family should have access to an independent assessment of their child’s educational needs. This assessment would identify whether reasonable steps could be taken by education services to ensure the child remains in school and/or the support needed for the child to be educated at home.
G Schools should be encouraged to be creative in addressing the needs of children who might become home educated where this is not a positive choice by parents, and in particular explore shared educational options. Inspection of schools and evaluation of attendance figures would need to recognise this as a valid option for some children, for instance by excluding them from attendance measures
H Where a child is withdrawn from school and home educated the school and other professionals should assess whether this change might give rise to care and support needs or pose a risk to the well-being or safety of the child. If this is the case a referral to social services should be made.
Recommendation 2: Clearer assessment of the needs and wellbeing of home educated children
A. There should be a register of home educated children in a similar way to the school register.
B. A more holistic assessment of the well-being and education of children educated at home should be undertaken at regular intervals. Such assessments would focus on ensuring that the child is thriving, their education is adequate and would help provide and plan for appropriate support services.
C Such assessments should involve children, as appropriate for age and ability. They should also take place in the child’s home as their place of education.
D. A key decision is whether registration and/or cooperating with assessment should be a legal expectation on parents. Making registration and assessment compulsory would create high levels of resistance from a significant proportion of home educating parents. Yet, a voluntary scheme
would be unlikely to have protected Dylan Seabridge or other children known to have suffered serious abuse or neglect whilst home educated. We therefore recommend that registration and regular assessment should be legal expectations for parents choosing to home educate.
Recommendation 3: An improved response to children where actual or suspected harm is identified and the child is or becomes home educated.
Home education is not a risk factor for child abuse or neglect. However, where there are concerns for a child’s safety or wellbeing home education significantly reduces professional access and child safety monitoring opportunities. Responses to any risk of abuse or neglect identified about a home educated child need to take seriously this reduced level of scrutiny
A. Failure to educate a child may harm their wellbeing and can in itself be a form of neglect. If there are grounds to believe a child is not receiving education, this should result in a referral to social services, either for an assessment of any care and support needs the child and family might have, or, where the level of risk is higher, as a child at risk of neglect.
B . Where actual or suspected abuse or neglect has led to a child being allocated either as a child in need of care and support or on the Child Protection Register, and that child is or becomes home educated, the plan should include as appropriate.
C Where actual or suspected abuse and neglect is identified professionals should assess whether home education appears to be an attempt to avoid professional scrutiny. Where there is evidence that
this is the case it increases the risk of harm to the child. Appropriate legal action and statutory safeguarding procedures should be used to ensure the child is safe.
D Where home education is considered to increase risks to a child, professionals should be aware that education legislation will not provide protection. The safeguarding provisions
of the Children Act 1989 need to be used as appropriate for the child and their circumstances.
E Each local authority should have a named individual with responsibility and expertise in relation to home education and safeguarding. This individual should provide advice and consultancy for the relatively small number of families where home education and safeguarding issues arise.
We recommend that Estyn be given a duty to inspect the adequacy of local authority provision to support and assess home education. Such inspections would need to include educational and social care expertise and knowledge of good practice in home education. This should include designing criteria for inspection that do not take a negative approach to flexi-schooling arrangements.
Such inspections should also consider the adequacy of support and safeguarding for home educated children within each authority.
Parents who home educate may be very alienated. They and their children may become ‘invisible’ by choice or because services are not configured to meet their needs.
Home education is not a reason in and of itself to consider a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. However, where a child is ‘hidden’, intentionally or not, from services (i.e. there is no engagement with education, health services, or other statutory agencies) it seems unclear how the State is able to fulfil its obligations under Article 19 the UNCRC – Governments must do all they can to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and bad treatment by their parents or anyone else who looks after them.
Our duties as a society to support, protect and ensure the education of children do not end if they are home educated. The state (some elements of safeguarding continue to be affected by legislation and policy from both the National Assembly for Wales and the UK Parliament) is not currently supporting home educated children or their families. Equally, we can have no confidence that the minority of children educated at home who are being abused or neglected are being identified or protected.
This report was commissioned following the death of Dylan Seabridge in 2011 and it examines Welsh legislation and practices. The authors conclude that home educated children are diverse and are no more likely to suffer abuse than children in the general population but made a number of recommendations:
- A significantly enhanced support service for home educated children
- Clearer assessment of the needs and well being of home educated children – including a register
- An improved response to children where actual or potential harm is suspected and the child moves to being home educated.
Websites and blogs
Education Otherwise -This site provides information and resources for home educating families and those considering home education for the first time, including guidance on home education and the law, SEN and disabilities; downloadable fact sheets covering many aspects of HE; and links to local HE groups across the UK.
Home Education UK – a celebration of families as places of education and parenting.
Home Education Forums – founded in 2009, an information portal and networking community for UK based home educators
Read why this blogger made the decision to home educate her son.
Information from Serious Case Reviews
The Report from the NSPCC Home Education: learning from case reviews . This briefing is based on seven case reviews published since 2008, where elective home education was highlighted as a key factor.
The Serious Case Review looking at the W Family – which deals with a mother who had chosen home education to conceal her abuse of the children and the implications of this for agencies with safeguarding duties for children.
See also the case of Khyra Ishaq and comments from the ‘No Nationalisation of our Kids’ website:
In July 2010, the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board published a Serious Case Review [SCR], in respect of the Death of a Child which was identified as Case Number 14. Though not named in the text, media reports made it clear that this was the case of of Khyra Ishaq, a seven year old girl from Handsworth, Birmingham who starved to death in May 2008. The full case review was available on the BSCB website but has been removed – click here to read it.
[Also see this article for extracts from the SCR]
The case hit the headlines because the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families at the time of Khyra’s death, Ed Balls, made it his lead example in his argument for imposing regulation on home educating families. Whilst Khyra’s death was widely reported, what most of the public was not told until after the end of the trial of her mother, Angela Gordon and de facto step-father Junaid Abuhamza, was that Khyra had five siblings who were also mistreated and under-fed. Most of the facts of the case had been made known in a High Court care order hearing in relation to the five surviving children. The judgement in this case was given on 6th March 2009 and can be found here.