Sunday, October 18, 2009

Notes on the transcripts (3) - Child abuse and FOI requests

First, I want to tell you that there's another post on the Dark Lord Badman blog, about the ghost of education past and the ghost of education present, both depicted in a startlingly realistic way! I'm really looking forward to meeting the ghost of education future in the next episode. So we've seen Badman as Fagin [opens YouTube] and now Badman as Scrooge. I hope he can manage to rise above his personal feeling of being offended and analyse the reasons why he's the subject of this kind of satire. It's not just comforting for us when we're under attack to pillory by way of defence - it's also an excellent medium for the message we need to convey: We think you'd better think it out again.

Now back to the [uncorrected] transcript of last Monday's oral evidence for the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee short inquiry into The Badman Review [opens pdf]. (Please note that the quoted sections below are excerpts from an an uncorrected transcript and therefore neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record.)

After Mr Badman's initial introduction and explanations, there is a question from Paul Holmes (Lib Dem, Chesterfield) about the statistics regarding the numbers of home educated children 'known to social care', including the following:

Just to help further with the process of clarifying that and setting people's minds at rest, one of the concerns was paragraph 8.12 of your report, where you said that "the number of children known to children's social care in some local authorities is disproportionately high relative to the size of their home educating population." What home educators feel is that we need some clarification about this. Who is classified as being known to social care? Lots of children in home education-certainly lots of children I have met over the years-have left the mainstream system because they have special educational needs, and therefore would be known to the education and social care system, but not because of any danger to them. They're known to the system because they have a problem, and that problem has led to them being bullied at school or not being dealt with properly, and so they've been taken out of the system. So, how do you define "known to social care"? Who comes under that category?

- to which Mr Badman took some considerable time to say that he knew of 41 cases of home educated children who were the subjects of Child Protection Plans.

Personally I think this talk of statistics is something of a smoke screen, or, as Blogdial asserts of sections of Wednesday's hearing, a straw man. The Badman/DCSF case seems to hang on the validity (or otherwise) of the statement that home educated children are in need of extra safeguarding measures. To 'prove' this point, they evidently feel the need to demonstrate that home educated children are more at risk of abuse than others, so they've taken data from a very small number of Local Authorities and are trying to extrapolate that to apply to the wider community.

But not only is he on shaky ground statistically, the raw data is messy: there are a lot of other prevailing factors that we don't get to hear about. It wouldn't be hard, in most cases, for many caring and loving home educating families to fall foul of the NICE guidelines on When to Suspect Child Maltreatment, for example. Some of us tend to want to do 'dangerous' things like take our children's opinions into account on issues like bedtimes, dentistry, needing hugs and talking to strangers. In the present climate of insanity centred around 'child protection' it's not at all surprising that an increasing number of us might be the subjects of 'child protection plans', but this doesn't make us child abusers - far from it. I think there's a poweful agenda of enforcing compliance currently permeating the UK Children's Services sector. You only have to read Ed Balls' recent lecture to The Fabian Society to get a sense of it. It's a much bigger picture than anything to do with home education or the real abuse of children by their parents.

I'm not saying that there is no real child abuse in any home educating families - that would be a stupid thing to say. But there are already systems for identifying and dealing with child abuse: there doesn't need to be any special ones set up for children who don't go to school. School should be a place of learning, not a substitute child welfare centre!

This is interesting though. Graham Badman again:

Clearly, what my report does is to draw attention to those five key morbidities that we know are so important in terms of child protection-drugs, alcohol, substance abuse, domestic violence and learning difficulties-as possible precursors to need in regard to the child's education, not of a one-to-one relationship. We are just saying there is a risk. All my report tries to say is that local authorities must be diligent in pursuing that risk and determining whether or not it is a risk that needs action or a risk that can be managed. And so, although there will be, if this report goes through, the power of local authorities to refuse registration, they do not necessarily have to do so.

I wonder if he understands - or really cares (unlikely) - that this is exactly what we're upset about, because to date it's been parents who have evaluated the risks for their children, not government officials. For the nanny state to remove this decision-making power before there have even been any problems is [yet another] step too far.

Paul Holmes then asks another good question:

Your initial findings, and then the later September wave of requests that you made, showed huge disparities between different local authorities on what these percentages were. How would you explain that?

To which Graham Badman replies:

Graham Badman: Without going back to those local authorities, that is difficult. Not all children's social services departments work in the same way, as we have discovered. I suspect that there will be a variation in terms of the elective home education population because they are not spread universally across the country. There are concentrations of home educators. Equally, I would imagine there are some issues around deprivation that would be important. There are also issues around the quality of schooling in that if you can create a schooling system which satisfies everybody, the movement to elective home education would be probably be less. It is a question worthy of further asking.

- essentially admitting that his figures have very little real meaning.

He continues by saying:

The aggregate figure is correct and I stand by it. It is slightly in excess of double the proportion.

Home educators, of course, disagree. (Not that either position should really matter.)

But yes, if one of my recommendations is carried out, namely that local authorities reflect on why children have left, they also might want to reflect on what they don't know about them and whether they are assessing that risk adequately.

This makes three fallacious assumptions:

  1. that it's any of the local authority's business why a parent might deregister their child;
  2. that local authorities should gather information about innocent families; and
  3. that deregistration from school should a time for local authorities to be assessing any 'risks'. Khyra Ishaq was one case, the full details of which have not yet emerged. As Mr Badman says himself about five minutes after this: "I don't want to fall foul of the trap of forgetting that hard cases make bad law."

Regardless, he goes on to say:

I said in my report that I had considered serious case reviews. The identification of serious case reviews was quite difficult because it is not axiomatic that serious case reviews name the place of education. It is not always known. There were, in fact, only four where elective home education was a feature. I will not go into the detail because some of it is confidential. Two of them were stark in their concerns for those young people. All of them made recommendations to make changes in regulation to provide greater powers of scrutiny. Some of the evidence, and certainly that offered by local authorities, was that they were hampered in their task. So it may well be that the disparity in local authority figures was because some local authorities don't know what they don't know.

Mr Holmes then goes on to pose a question about false reporting, which Mr Badman refutes, then Mr Holmes asks about the speed and the timing of the whole process, with particular regard to Freedom of Information requests. A fascinating little exchange then takes place about this:

Paul Holmes: Finally, one of the concerns of home educators is the speed at which all this has happened. They put in freedom of information requests so that they could look at your original data and then they have not had time to do that for the September data. Will all this data be put on the website so that home educators can go through it and come up with counter-arguments? Perhaps the Minister can answer that.

Chairman: Minister?

Ms Diana R. Johnson: Freedom of information requests are being dealt with. I think that more than 150-

Penny Jones: Yes, 150.

Ms Diana R. Johnson: More than 150 freedom of information requests have come into the Department. That is clearly a lot of work. With that volume of requests things have not happened as quickly as they need to. We are well aware of the need to get on and sort out the freedom of information requests. There has been a huge number.

Paul Holmes: Can you not just put all the responses up on the website so that people can read it directly anyway?

Ms Diana R. Johnson: As I recall, these FOI requests are all slightly different. There is no common thread.

Penny Jones: FOI requests cover quite a broad range. We have put up an analysis of the second report. That was up with a letter from Graham, so that is all up on the website for everybody to see. We go into quite lot of detail, giving graphs of the spread of findings and that sort of thing. The general line that we have taken is that we do not release the information that individual authorities have sent to us because the numbers tend to be small, and there is always the danger that an individual child can be identified, and then, of course, there are exemptions that apply for the protection of those children who are vulnerable.

- which completely and spectacularly fails to cover DCSF's flat refusal to comply with home educators' FOI requests for specific - some would say spurious - reasons.

This post is too long already. More later.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again, magnificent work, Gill. Pity you weren't asked to meet the committee as well as our other amazing representatives.


5:16 pm, October 18, 2009  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks Danae, you're very kind. It's a pity you're not going, too!

BTW, must also mention this post as being well worth a read, if anyone hasn't seen it yet.

6:22 pm, October 18, 2009  

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