Tuesday, September 29, 2009

About that 2007 EHE guidance

Some of us went to our local authority on Thursday, on our MP's advice. We spoke to two officers with line responsibility for dealing with elective home education.

Our MP had advised us to go to discuss the Badman recommendations and to 'develop a working relationship' with them, but we found that before we could do that, we needed to take them to task on their current practice.

This is the current practice:

On deregistration: the family is referred to Education Welfare Officers, if not already known to them. An EWO then turns up at the house, unannounced (as I understand it) with forms for the parent to fill in and an explanation that if the forms are signed, the Local Authority has no further legal responsibility towards the child's education.

If the house and family look, respectively, 'suitable' and 'capable of home educating' then they are referred onto what used to be called the 'Education Effectiveness' department. (I don't know what it's called now.) They're then usually informed by letter on an annual basis that a home visit will take place on a certain date at a certain time.

The officers we spoke to said that "most families welcomed the visits and found them useful". It occurred to me that they would say that, wouldn't they? My family has had such visits too, years ago, and might well, if pressed, have called them 'useful' in the hope of ticking another box of reassurance for them to get them off our back. It was about five years before I was told by the council that I had any option but to accept the visits. (Although in the event, some of them were useful to us because the LA later helped us to resist a court order application from my ex-husband to force the children's return to school. But I'd still have liked the choice.)

Most home educating families in the area known to the local authority because they've deregistered are not told, in their annual letter, that they have any choice about whether and how to supply information about their educational provision. I was told several years ago that this would change and it didn't then. Again, those of us present at Thursday's meeting were invited to work with the local authority on improving the letter, although they didn't want to bother changing much "in the light of the Badman report," in case their efforts were wasted when everything changed.

We explained to them how home visits from the local authority could be damaging to a child's education, and they explained about how they needed to carry out checks to cover themselves in the event of something not being right with a family. In turn, we explained that by assuming a duty they didn't have, they were in fact taking on a professional liability that the law didn't give them. We read out the underlined section in point 87 of the 2009 guidance which refers officers back to points 2.7-2.11 and 3.4-3.6 of the 2007 guidance which includes the phrase: "Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis."

After that, the officers explained that if a family didn't want a visit, they were perfectly free to respond in writing to the Local Authority's inquiries and that this could be a relatively short piece of writing, so they weren't exactly monitoring on a routine basis. (A 'paragraph a year' would be the minimum they would accept, I think they said.) One of us said something along the lines of: "Doesn't once a year count as 'a routine basis'?" The officers didn't reply, and didn't offer to change their approach. They went back to insisting that the annual visits protected their position in respect of liability.

We're going to have some more meetings with them I think, but that 'no point putting a lot of time in so close to legal changes' feeling is kind of infectious, I'm ashamed to say. The mystery of the disappearing guidelines is a deliberate contributory part of this process of attrition I think, which is a powerful tool of government that we the people often overlook. This person does, anyway. It's subtle, isn't it? Announce a review into 'those child abusing home educators', publish the ensuing recommendations calling for compulsory monitoring. Then remove the old guidance which - still in effect - says monitoring is not compulsory and tell home educators there's no point in trying to resist compulsory monitoring because it's coming in soon anyway. This is all before the recommendations have been publicly consulted on, and before the Commons Select Committee has conducted its inquiry into them.

Incidentally, going back to my local authority's current procedure, if that initial doorstepping from the EWO raises any concerns, the family's file stays with the Welfare Officers and is never moved wholly across to the other department. In practice, this means more regular EWO visits. We know of one family who is still being visited every three months, despite managing perfectly well with their child's home education, although we did have some sympathy with the officers when they said that some families, on being asked "What have you been doing?" invariably answer: "Nothing," even on their third or fourth visit, when they've been advised that helping with the shopping, or fixing a car, or playing with lego etc could all count as educational activities.

The overall feeling I think we were left with was that the local authority is broadly supportive of what it sees as 'genuine home educators' but worried about 'those other families' who it sees as being neither capable nor willing to home educate at all. This is consistent with their attitude of several years ago when I met with different officers at the same authority (now retired). I gather it's a very common one amongst local authorities everywhere. If some children really aren't being educated at all due to deregistration, is that a problem? If so, whose problem should it be, and how should it be resolved?

Well, the current law contains the resolution in paragraph 2.8 of those mysteriously disappearing guidelines:

2.8 Prior to serving a notice under section 437, local authorities are encouraged to address the situation informally. The most obvious course of action if the local authority has information that makes it appear that parents are not providing a suitable education, would be to ask parents for further information about the education they are providing. Such a request is not the same as a notice under section 437, and is not necessarily a precursor for formal procedures. Parents are under no duty to respond to such enquiries, but it would be sensible for them to do so."

'Information that makes it appear that parents are not providing a suitable education' perhaps coming to the Local Authority from concerned acquaintances, neighbours and extended family members - a route of communication in which Local Authorities seem to have little faith. But really, until and unless they receive such information, it's none of their business who is and who isn't receiving a suitable education because Section 7 of the 1996 Education Act makes this a duty of parents, not local authorities. I wonder why parents are never prosecuted under this article? We asked at Thursday's meeting how many School Attendance Orders had been issued and were told that none had been.

Yes. I think we do need to have another meeting with them.


Blogger Allie said...

We've spent long hours 'working with' our local authority on issues such as letters. In the end, I'm afraid, I started to get a bit miffed that my family was often having to use annual leave from our jobs to facilitate this, while the LA staff were getting paid to be there. The whole business has been like walking through glue anyway. Good on you for trying!

4:58 pm, September 29, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

waste of time in my view having meeting with LA! but i do love reading your blog it is really good and helps t okeep us informed as to what is going on and we love to know where the guildlines have gone!

5:50 pm, September 29, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

The missing guidelines can also be seen here

11:43 pm, September 29, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

So Allie and Dani, can I ask for your advice about ours, given your experience with yours?

Would you bother persevering, in the face of their apparent determination to go beyond what the guidance sets out? Or is a paragraph a year - for those privileged few who dare to push for it - a reasonable deal in your opinion?

8:55 am, September 30, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

I think a paragraph a year is probably the best you are likely to get in real life anywhere in the UK except Milton Keynes, under the current law and guidelines.

We did manage, earlier this year, to get our local LA bod to accept that we (our family, not HErs in general) didn't have to send in anything unless he had reason to ask us for it. But we have previously supplied much more than a paragraph a year, and we did once accept a visit, and I think his decision was based on that, as well as on the letter of the law.

The same LA responded to a friend's refusal to let in the EOTAS officer who knocked on her door unannounced, by referring her to social services.

I don't think that's reasonable - as you say, it's one result for a privileged few and quite a different experience for people who are unfortunate enough to be suspected for whatever reason.

As to whether it's worth persevering, I can't say. We just ran out of energy for it. I think we did improve the wording of their initial letters, but we certainly didn't get what we were aiming for, which was a clear policy, consistently applied, by properly trained staff.

I think it can suck you dry, getting involved in a process like that.

All kinds of other dangers too, like finding yourself becoming the LA person's confidant, or feeling you have to make some kind of concession, in the interest of developing a good relationship with them, or not reporting back to the HE community, because you haven't been able to make any headway.

None of these things happened to us, but I could see how they could easily happen if you were not watchful.

4:39 pm, September 30, 2009  
Blogger Dani said...

Forgot to say, the EHE guidelines have reappeared on the DCSF website. Here they are.

4:41 pm, September 30, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks for that Dani. I really appreciate your helpful and considered reply.

I can relate to you running out of energy for the process. That's happened to me before and might well this time too. The three dangers you list are prescient. I think collectively around here we might be vulnerable to one or two of them.

I'm still just shaking my head at the LA officers' determination to take on a legal liability that goes beyond the law, because they think it will protect their position. At the very least, I'm going to be restating this crazy aspect of their policy in any follow up I think.

6:10 am, October 01, 2009  

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