Friday, July 22, 2011

"Threatening behaviour can consist of the deliberate use of silence."

- according to this document: 4.17 Working with Uncooperative and Hostile Families Practice Guidance, which was first mentioned on Lisa's post (which ties some prevalent issues together for us) which was brought to my attention by Raquel.

Are you deliberately using your silence in a threatening way? Be careful. You might be. And how would you know if you were? I'd love to hear how that would play out in a court of law (although if it was the Family Court - as it would be - nobody ever would): "She used her silence in a threatening way, Your Honour." Right. Bang her up then. How dare she?

This is being circulated as an official guidance document. By government officers. It's not only in Lincolnshire. It's also in Manchester, Bury, Sussex, Luton, Stockton-on-Tees, Salford, Doncaster, North East Scotland, Barnsley, and Cardiff (whose is actually listed in Google as that of Sheffield LSCB, which is where I understand this thing to have originated). And those are just the ones I could access in a quick Google search this morning. I suspect there will be yet more versions of this same document. So I want to have a look at it in more detail.

It consists of a number of trigger words. These are judgments made - not by a court of law - but by officials on the ground, off the hoof. These labels will be attached to people (and will stick) based on very little information of the person as a whole. In my view then, they're not judgments at all, in a fair sense. They're prejudgments ("An adverse judgment or opinion formed beforehand or without knowledge or examination of the facts.") This is a document about prejudice. And not how to combat it, but how to practice it, with official impunity.

I'm going to try my best to give it the benefit of the doubt. To work from the basis of an assumption that the author of this had the best of intentions to help people who were dealing with the worst of circumstances in the course of their everyday work. They perhaps didn't realise how it would read to the rest of us: ordinary parents who might have good and valid reasons for being [*prejudicial labelling alert:*] service resistant. We might imagine - you might say, foolishly in this day and age - that we could parent our children without official input and supervision, as our ancestors have successfully done for these past millennia. We might actually be capable - as our children's continued health, education and happiness would testify, should such a thing every be doubted (and what sort of society would doubt it?!) - of doing so.

So as that kind of ordinary parent, apparently doing a pretty good job (if I say so myself) I'm going to now go quickly through this document and highlight the elements of it that fill me with unease and alarm, from the sheer terror of imagining ever finding myself being [pre]judged in this way, and unknowingly/ accidentally attracting any of these damaging labels to my name. (Please note that the following excerpts are selective and need to be read in context with the full document.)

From time to time all agencies will come into contact with families whose compliance is apparent rather than genuine, or who are more obviously reluctant, resistant or sometimes angry or hostile to their approaches.

First, I want to know what constitutes an 'agency' in this context. What's its legal status? Is it a public body? How is it funded? What laws and regulations is it answerable to?

Then we get onto 'apparent compliance' rather than 'genuine compliance'. But before that.. compliance? With a service? Call me old fashioned, but I'm only in my early 40s and yet I still think of a service as being something that works for us rather than the other way around. An optional thing. Unless the meaning of the word 'service' has now been changed to 'agent of an aggressive dictatorship' when we weren't looking, then 'compliance' is an extremely odd and worrying term to be used.

So how are we, 'service users' - assuming we choose to be compliant at all - to know whether our compliance appears to be 'apparent' or 'genuine'? The answer to this is not yet made clear.

2.1 There are four types of uncooperativeness:

  • Ambivalence: can be seen when people are always late for appointments, or repeatedly make excuses for missing them; when they change the conversation away from uncomfortable topics and when they use dismissive body language.

What's classed as 'dismissive body language'? How are we to know? How can we avoid using 'dismissive body language' to avoid the label 'ambivalent uncooperative' - when we don't even know what it is? The answer is: we can't.

  • Avoidance: a very common method of uncooperativeness, including avoiding appointments, missing meetings, and cutting visits short due to other apparently important activity (often because the prospect of involvement makes the person anxious and they hope to escape it).

The message I take from that is this: Set your dealings with these people as your highest priority, over and above meeting your children's needs, your own needs, and the needs of other 'agencies'. Otherwise you might attract the label 'avoidant uncooperative'.

  • Confrontation: includes challenging professionals, provoking arguments, extreme avoidance (e.g. not answering the door as opposed to not being in) and often indicates a deep-seated lack of trust leading to a ‘fight’ rather than ‘flight’ response to difficult situations.

Not answering the door equals confrontation??! In crazy daisy upside-down world, maybe. But in this one - still, despite these people's best efforts - not answering the door is usually seen as an avoidance of confrontation. The complete opposite.

2.2 Reasons for Uncooperativeness

There are a variety of reasons why some families may be uncooperative with professionals, including the fact that they:

  • Do not want their privacy invaded;
  • Have something to hide;
  • Refuse to believe they have a problem;

Maybe they actually don't 'have a problem'. Who gets to decide whether a person 'has a problem' or not? This is where I worry about the legal status of such 'agencies' and the basis of their power. And to crave more accurate definitions and more thorough rationale. I don't think it's too much to expect from people trying to wield such immense and potentially destructive power over their neighbours' lives.

2.3 A range of social, cultural and psychological factors influence the behaviour of parents. The more uncooperative the family, the more likely it is that the main influences are psychological.

This is blatantly not true. I know lots of families who would resolutely deny official screening of their homes and families, who would - no doubt - present as 'extremely uncooperative' in such circumstances (but who are perfectly nice people in other circumstances, and exemplary parents). Without exception the main influences of this would be idealogical. Political. Emotional. Protective. Not psychological, which makes it sound like an irrational choice. (Although I suppose, if these 'agencies' are threatening to remove children from families on an arbitrary basis, then anything other than a terrified and absolute compliance could increasingly be viewed as irrational! One of the main problems with this being, it would be difficult to work out from this document even how to demonstrate such compliance in the 'correct' way! How have we come to this?)

2.4 In general a parent will try to regain control over their lives, but they may be overwhelmed by pain, depression, anxiety and guilt resulting from the earlier losses in their lives. Paradoxically, the uncooperativeness may be the moment at which the person opens up their feelings, albeit negative ones, at the prospect of help. They are unlikely to be aware of this process going on.

I simply cannot believe the patronising tone of that paragraph. Bear in mind, these might be people who have had their beloved children forcibly removed from them, or received explicit threat of such. By those very people who are there to 'help' them, whether they like it or not.

3. Impact on Assessment

3.1 Accurate information and a clear understanding of what is happening to a child within their family and community are vital to any assessment. The usual and most effective way to achieve this is by engaging parents and children in the process of assessment, reaching a shared view of what needs to change and what support is needed, and jointly planning the next steps.

This sounds quite cosy, doesn't it? I wonder if the family and community are also made aware that if they are accidentally silent or seen to be using the wrong body language, this could affect their treatment considerably. It would be only fair to tell them in advance, so they could be sure to keep any gaps in the conversation well filled at all times.

3.2 Engaging with a parent who is resistant or even violent and/or intimidating is obviously more difficult. The behaviour may be deliberately used to keep professionals from engaging with the parent or child, or can have the effect of keeping professionals at bay. There may be practical restrictions to the ordinary tools of assessment (e.g. seeing the child on their own, observing the child in their own home etc). The usual sources of information/alternative perceptions from other professionals and other family members may not be available because no-one can get close enough to the family.

This harks back to the old chestnut that 'a child not seen is a child at risk'. Not true. Not true. Could just be that the parents want to protect their child from the stress of being interviewed, of knowing their conduct is under question, of feeling insecure. Could be that the parents are - quite justifiably, reading documents like this - worried about being misjudged or prejudged, based on their 'presentation'. Or their child's. Could be that they struggle to see why their privacy should be invaded if a convincingly valid reason for this has not been properly cited. (To be fair, the document does mention this reason, but I think only in the context of yet another obstacle to be patiently surmounted by the official.)

There's a lot more, but I've had enough now. Suffice to say (in suitably panicked tone):

  • If it doesn't look like there's 'enough' food in my fridge, that's probably because I haven't been shopping yet today. (Are we all to go shopping all the time and keep excess food stores in case of spot checks?)
  • If my child is happy with her sleeping conditions, why do they need to be checked?
  • Why can you not take anything I say as a parent at face value, whatsoever?
  • Why must we have this climate of policing one another with perpetual mistrust?

Yes, child abuse happens. It happens in the upper classes, in the middle classes, and in the under classes. It happens - as those examples show - both at school and at home. It happens to children in 'care' and in church. It is surely endemic, across the board.

But it is still the exception, not the rule. Most parents are good and loving parents who are their children's best advocates and staunchest protectors. We are the people who know and understand our children best - the only ones who can offer them truly unconditional love. The document I've been reading today completely overlooks this crucial aspect of the picture. In its tone - in my opinion - it is patronising, superior, careless and suspicious. It seems to be designed to engender conflict rather than to resolve it.

I accept there are problems in society and some families, and that some children need help. But this kind of 'help' cannot be the way. Why aren't we looking for causes of the problems, instead of dirty, ineffective sticking plasters like this? Why don't we address the issues that cause unbearable stress for some families (mostly, IMO, based on lack of sufficient natural space, resources and influence over their environment such as is required for good mental health) instead?

I'm wondering who wins, in this current situation. Not the abused children, for whom adequate salvation is often not found regardless of the quality of 'interventions'. Not the non-abused children, who have to live in this environment of perpetual suspicion of all parents, just in case. Not the abusing parents, whose real problems are invariably never addressed. And not the innocent parents, whose innocence is never trusted or taken at face value, so that we're all treated as guilty until proven innocent. Not the 'agency operatives' (officials, social workers, etc) who are paid to execute this crazy process. I can't imagine a more stressful career.

So who wins? Who profits from a nationwide climate of fear, suspicion and separation? If we can work this out, we might stand some chance of collectively resisting it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Government monitoring of home education provision: some points.

The government's own, existing EHE Guidelines for Local Authorities clearly state:

2.7 Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis.

None. No annual visits. No annual reports. No biannual visits or reports or meetings elsewhere or otherwise jumping through hoops to get permission from anyone else to home educate our own children.

If you can get your head around the unarguable reality of that legal position, you can perhaps start to understand something about how important it is, and why it's vital for home educators to work hard to maintain it. Or at least, do nothing to erode it.

It's the position that stops the inevitable bureaucratic turn of the screw. If you don't know what I mean by that, then Adam Curtis's The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, aired on the BBC in 2007, the same year as those guidelines were published (DVD here) is the best explanation I can think of citing.

Some home educators think we should all be monitored by the state. Read that again if you like. Believe it, because it's true. Some of the reasons I've heard for this are as follows:

  • "If it saves one child.."

    But monitoring of elective home education won't save any children at all. Eunice Spry was monitored, every single year. Home visits and everything. But because routine monitoring is not, by definition, a response to specific concerns, it becomes just that. Routine. Blasé. Easy to fool.

    There is already a good enough Child Protection system in this country, which applies to all children: home educated and schooled. Yes, I think it's a mistake to focus this on schooled children, but would I sacrifice the freedom of home education to fix that? Of course not! I'd switch the focus of it back to the community instead, duh.

  • "The reputation and therefore the value of good home education is sullied by those people who aren't doing it properly. We need to sort the wheat from the chaff so that our children stand a chance of getting into some of the better universities.."

    Here is my answer to that. It's a very dangerous position to take, because once you've opened yourself up to monitoring, it won't stop. That screw just keeps on tightening until your own provision is monitored out of existence along with all the others. Your child has a proven academic record of excellence? Some officials would think this meant she was being hothoused and socially deprived. You live in a good neighbourhood? Some officials would think this meant your children were 'denied the opportunity of getting to know and understand other children from different backgrounds.' There's always someone who will disagree with what you're doing and seek to stop it, whoever you are. Whatever you're doing. So don't give them the power. Don't fall into that trap.

  • It doesn't do any harm and it's good to get some feedback to know whether I'm on the right track..

    I answered this a couple of years ago: suffice to say, speaking as someone who's done about 17 years of different kinds of home educating now (yes, I was a hot-houser once upon a time!) I now know that it does do harm and - to be blunt - if you feel the need for official sanction of your home education provision... well. You perhaps need to rethink a few things! Anyway, officials are always available to be consulted on an as-and-when basis for people who want to do that. It's not a right I'd take away from them.

So I'd really appreciate it if they didn't try to take my rights away from me.

Once again:

2.7 Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis.

A 'family' of home educators in Wigan has tendered for and secured the job of monitoring home education provision in Wigan, which is the reason for this post, and my current feeling of despair.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Localism Bill - emergency Trojan Horse alert for home educators.

I haven’t blogged for a long time. Apart from some talk about a bunch of clowns trying to write a set of guidelines to which they daren’t even put their names, nothing much seems to have been happening in the world of home education politics since Graham Stuart’s speech to the Commons at the defeat of the horrific 20-day deregistration clause. Consequently I've been digging our field instead of blogging.

But now there's something to cause us to jam the brakes on developing the self-sufficient dream, stop cruising happily along and come screeching to a halt, dropping the spade and everything. To look, suddenly, in the field full of horses nearby - because something's not quite right with it somehow. They all look innocent enough, quietly grazing away there - except one, which looks a bit oversized and yes.... wooden. A fake horse. A Trojan Horse. Quite convincing though - I wouldn't have noticed it if it hadn't been for Neil T's helicopter searchlight patiently shining on it, pointing it out to anyone with eyes who cares to see.

The fact that this horse must have been there for quite some time, slowly advancing below the radar, is pretty scary. Its builders must possess some skill and so I just know that whatever's concealed inside it can only mean one thing: Big Trouble.

Sigh. I'd much rather just keep digging away here and keep ignoring the weird looking things in other fields, despite my growing unease and despair about them all, despite my - surely paranoid? - feeling that they all seem to be getting closer. Digging earth and tending crops are quiet and contemplative activities, while the children play happily nearby in the grass and the trees. For a long time I can pretend that all is still right with the world. But I know that to ignore that particular searchlight is to lay down and die. And I can't do that to my children and future grandchildren. I have to address the issue - which means approaching the horse and inspecting its contents.

Luckily Neil has beaten us to it, extracted them and laid them out on the grass for us to see. And he's jumping up and down with his searchlight again, shouting "OVER HERE!" He's even made some helpful, eye-catching signs in large print, comprising full explanations in case we didn't recognise them for what they are. I don't know what we'd do without his help, and that of a few others of his ilk. Next to nothing, in my case, except keep digging and try to look the other way - even though I was fast running out of other ways to look.

What exactly is laid out on the ground, then? Some parts of a huge machine: it can only be the one taking shape in the distance - the only machine anyone's working on, these days. (In fact, most people seem to be working on it in some way or another - whether they realise it or not!) So big by now that it keeps blocking out the sun. The machine we're told is going to help us all, but I can't see how my crops can grow and my children can thrive without sunlight, so I don't believe them.

However, I don't see how I - just one insignificant person - can do anything to stop it being built, so I've been trying to ignore it and concentrate on helping the crops and kids instead, in spite of the lengthening cold, dark times. What else could I do? Also - significantly - I don't personally remember asking for help in the first place, but never mind. Such details are lost in the midst of time now, and we're here. Looking at these things on the ground.

These parts look like yet more of the same kind of universal little cogs we're all so used to seeing everywhere around that they've become part of the scenery. But according to Neil's signs, they're quite definitely not the same kind. No, these are *vital components* in transit. In disguise, wrongly labelled, packed up in a Trojan Horse. Neil's right: they must be important.

The box is labelled: Localism Bill, which sounds like a good and useful thing, surely? We've all been feeling starved of proper communication and real democracy at the local level - not to mention that nourishing sense of belonging and protection one feels from prolongued co-operation with one's neighbours. Real local community. That's where most of the important decisions should be made - collectively and face-to-face, in people's kitchens or at most, in village halls. With everyone given chance to speak, no matter how big or small. This might be good news then...? Neil's shaking his head slowly. (First group on this page, if you want to read for yourself, although posting anything on there is a bit like blogging, or booking a spot on the open mic session at a big, busy pub. Pretty daunting in itself! Crowds of spectators, loads of whispering behind hands. Lots of not paying attention. Not much open feedback or response, since responding in itself is to grab the mic and draw attention to oneself, isn't it?)

Its contents include, in 'plain English', the following:

General power of competence

Local authorities´ powers and responsibilities are defined by legislation. In simple terms, they can only do what the law says they can. [Neil says: "ie. they are not free to act ultra vires." (outside the law)] Sometimes councils are wary of doing something new - even if they think it might be a good idea - because they
are not sure whether they are allowed to in law, and are concerned about the possibility of being challenged in the courts.

The Government thinks that we need to turn this assumption upside down.Instead of being able to act only where the law says they can, local authorities should be free to do anything - provided they do not break other laws. [Neil says: "In other words, be free to act ultra vires."]

The Localism Bill includes a `general power of competence´. [Neil says: "ie. power without competence!"] It will give local authorities the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited; they will not, for example, be able to impose new taxes, as an individual has no power to tax."

More from Neil:

"Legally [it will mean] I can ask you if I can come and visit you in your home and see you home educating your child! Currently, despite such widespread and long established custom, this is currently an abuse of power, a misrepresentation of powers they do not possess when the LEA does it. They will be able to fix that, and goodness knows what else if the localism bill becomes law. :-( Oh, and they will have the power to tax us for these 'services', so the above example is as disingenuous as it is possible to be."

In other words, our current power as families to restrict officials' ability to monitor, test and otherwise control our home education provision - our ability to say "STOP. You can't do that, because it goes beyond the law," (and the only means we had to keep the Badman/Balls dream from becoming a horrific reality) - will be removed from us. This power will be negated. We won't be able to use it any more. It will no longer apply.

That's what was in the Trojan Horse, and how it will affect home education in England.

So now we know, now that we've all seen it for what it is (in part. I'm sure it's lots of other things besides!) - what are we going to do about it?