Sunday, October 26, 2014

NSPCC: determined to learn the *wrong* lessons from case reviews

The NSPCC has quite a long history of slurring home educators as child abusers. This year's effort at least begins with the concession that:

"Home-educating parents or carers are not more likely than others to abuse or neglect their children."

In fact I think they are far less likely than others to do so, but this statistic is conveniently excluded from its report into the seven Serious Case Reviews that have involved children not attending school. It predictably continues:

"There is, however, a risk that home-educated children can become invisible to the authorities."

Do all children have to be visible to the authorities? All the time, 24/7? If they were, would this actually help to ensure their safety or might it have the damaging effect of unsettling their peace of mind which relies on their family's enjoyment of autonomy, privacy and trust? Are 'the authorities' to be relied on to keep our children safer than parents are, in general? Certainly not, according to this map of convicted cases of professional child abuse.

Is being known to authorities any protection for children at risk? Absolutely not, according to every single one of the seven serious case reviews cited in this report.

"Under current legislation and guidance, there is no formal registration process for elective home education which means that some home-educated children may be completely unknown to the local authority."

Yes, but only those children about whom no concerns have been expressed to the local authority. Anyone else would be known to them. All of the children in the Serious Case Reviews listed were known to their Local Authorities!

From the Case of Child ST, Enfield 2007:

"3.2 In January 2005 ST and her younger brother were withdrawn from school and educated at home by their mother, Mrs A. She complied with all statutory requirements in relation to children in elective home education. She co-operated with visits from the London Borough of Enfield Education Department in April and May 2005 and June 2006. The visiting officer had no concerns about the family or their circumstances, and was satisfied with the programme of education proposed."

From the case of Siôn D, Flintshire 2012:

"2.3 Health and education professionals had become very concerned that this lack of engagement with services would have a detrimental effect on Siôn’s development, but they were unsure how to proceed. They began to meet together to discuss what they could do to make a difference. Staff from children’s social services were also involved in discussions about Siôn and they attended one formal meeting when it became known that Siôn had attended an eye appointment with what appeared to be a small bruise on his forehead, concealed with make‐up. However, despite their concerns, no professional talked to Mr and Mrs D about them and there was no investigation of the reported concealed bruise."

From the case of Family W:

"In a week-long hearing, held in private, the judge heard there were four occasions when the local authority, which cannot be named, was alerted to the mother's inappropriate behaviour towards her children but did not find cause for concern."

From the case of Child A, Caerphilly:

"Despite the interventions of professionals, Child A, who was involved in low-level crime, stopped going to school and his mother said he would be home-schooled. There was also concern when the mother’s partner came out of prison to live with the family because of his past drug use."

From the case of Child case number 14, Birmingham 2010 (Khyra Ishaq):

"Following changes to the mother’s behaviour, deteriorating relationships with schools, increased aggression to and reduced co-operation with all professionals, the child and some siblings, were removed from state education during December 2007 and a clear statement issued by the mother, of her intention to educate them at home."

From the case of Mrs Spry, Gloucestershire (2008):

"Mrs Spry’s contact with Gloucestershire Social Services began in 1979 when she applied to become a childminder. This application was initially declined because of unspecified concerns from the health authority but these concerns were subsequently lifted and approval was granted. Mrs Spry’s first application to become a foster parent in 1983/4 was declined because she was a Jehovah’s Witness and it was felt that this lifestyle would not accommodate being a foster parent. These objections were removed and she was approved as a local authority foster carer from 1985 until 1994."

And from the case of Child S, South Tees (2008):

"Child S. had many health problems from a very early age. He had many visits to his G.P. and to hospital including admissions to hospital. By the time he reached seven years of age this had escalated to an alarming degree. Between the ages of eight and nine he had 28 G.P. appointments, 10 hospital attendances, plus hospital admissions, 6 appointments with psychological services and regular telephone contact with the paediatrician."

"There was no evidence that any liaison had taken place between the hospital and the Children Families and Learning team although the child had been in hospital on three occasions. No second meeting took place as agreed in the action plan of the multi agency meeting and other than the child being admitted for observations and monitoring of his fitting, there was nothing to demonstrate that any other part of the action plan had been accomplished."

The fact that no 'invisible to the authorities' children feature in the serious case reviews repeatedly demonstrates two facts beyond any reasonable doubt:

  1. Being known to the authorities offers no protection whatsoever, even for those children who badly need it; and
  2. The reliance that the current regulatory system for home education in England places on the raising of background concerns for children in need or at risk is quite correct and does not need to be changed.

I am quite perplexed that the NSPCC has chosen to call for the complete opposite of its own findings! This makes no sense and needs explaining, especially in the context of its supposed reputation and the level of public funding involved. Surely we can expect better than this?

Aside from this glaring disparity, the rest of the report is littered with misunderstandings, incorrect assumptions and legal inaccuracies.

"The isolation and invisibility of home educated children was flagged as a serious issue in most of the SCRs."

As all seven cases were known to local authorities, this should always have been known and addressed as a welfare issue. The fact that it was not is not due to any lack in the current regulations, but squarely the fault of those professionals who did not properly apply the correct welfare protocols. The vast majority of home educated children are less isolated and invisible than even their school counterparts and should not be made to lose their essential freedom or privacy because of this shameless buck-passing exercise.

"One case review criticised current legislation which denies children the right to express their views formally or participate in the assessment or decision-making process of home education."

This right is NOT denied to home educating children! Every home educated child I know and have ever known has participated in a major way in the decision-making process about his or her education, to a far greater extent than school children do. How many school children would be home educated if they chose? How many are asked if they would like to be? Home educated children are regularly asked if they would like to go to school, and if not then how they would like to be home educated. To suggest otherwise is a blatant lie.

"In addition, they are isolated by having no right to independent access to friends, family or professional agencies."

I fail to see how this utterly bizarre assumption has been drawn. Our children all have computers, internet devices, phones, their own money, friends and so on. They are not isolated. They have full-time, independent access to family, friends and professional agencies. How could this not be the case?

"There are no mechanisms to ensure that they continue to receive a ‘suitable’ education or adequate care without the express consent of their parents / carers."

There ARE mechanisms to ensure this. They work perfectly well, as demonstrated above. They are set out in the Elective Home Education Guidance for Local Authorities.

"This highlights a ‘major safeguarding flaw within home education legislation which focuses on parental choice and rights at the expense of children’s rights, wishes, welfare or protection.’ (Birmingham LSCB, 2010)"

There is no safeguarding flaw. Khyra Ishaq's death was not the result of any flaw in the current regulatory system for home education in England. It was the result of her mother's actions and lack of support from the wider community - and safeguarding from the authorities which knew full well that there were serious concerns and utterly failed to act on them properly. The same is true for every single serious case review listed in this report. Different regulations would not have helped the children in any of those cases.

"Specific recommendations made in the serious case reviews include:


• Formal review at 6 weekly intervals in respect of those families who do not engage in the services offered by Education Other Than At School services (EOTAS)."

And there is more serious confusion here from the author of this report. EOTAS services are provided by Local Authorities to children who are *not* Electively Home Educated. These children tend to be too sick to attend school, or too pregnant or geographically isolated, or have been suspended or expelled. They have not being deregistered, so the Local Authority does have responsibility for their educational provision, unlike Electively Home Educated children.

"Four of the case reviews identified parents/carers who were extremely well-informed, articulate, hostile, aggressive and/or resistant to professional intervention. Their attitudes and approach intimidated professionals and diverted the process away from the children's welfare. The SCR reports found that they had used home education to avoid scrutiny of their child case and were able to monitor, limit and/or deny access to the children. According to one serious case review such actions 'reinforced a power imbalance that undermined the rights, welfare and protection of home educated children' (Birmingham LSCB, 2010)."

There ARE existing procedures, protocols, regulations and recommendations currently, sufficiently to enable professionals to surmount this problem. A change in home education regulations would not help. A more professional adherence to the current systems would. Do the professionals need better training and support in their roles? The NSPCC report goes on to say this very thing although it appears surreal in this context:

"Specific recommendation made in a serious case review:

• The Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) should ensure that programmes for the training and development of staff address the issue of working with challenging parents who are combative and articulate."

Probably true, but what does this have to do with Elective Home Education? Absolutely nothing. It is a general, in-house issue and does not relate to us or our regulations.

"Education Other Than At School services (EOTAS) are offered to parents who choose to educate their children at home."

This is factually incorrect and a grave misunderstanding of the legal position. (See above.)

"One of the reviews found that these professionals did not have the necessary knowledge or skills to address safeguarding concerns. This was compounded by children’s social care staff’s lack of awareness of the limitations of home education legislation. They also made assumptions about the depth and adequacy of the safeguarding and welfare component of the EOTAS assessment process that impeded their professional judgement and decision making."

This is obviously not the fault of the regulations, but of the professionals failing to understand them. Changing the regulations will not help, and extra monitoring will often damage our children's learning, which is why we resist it so much. Interventions need to be carefully balanced and only enacted when necessary - and then done *properly* in light of the full range of recommended protocols. We cannot have unnecessary, blanket welfare checks at the cost of our children's optimum learning methods and emotional wellbeing, the two of which are invariably intertwined. Yes, the legal position of elective home education is now something of an anomaly, but there are some very good reasons for this, into which anyone wishing to express a professional opinion would do well to first inquire. It is also not so easy to change this as might be supposed.

"Specific recommendations made in the serious case reviews:

• Update guidance for professionals on home education which specifically covers the issue of the local authority’s responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need.

• Ensure learning advisers undertake induction and basic child protection training.

• Where safeguarding concerns are identified and professionals do not possess the necessary skills to undertake these tasks, then a joint assessment with a suitably qualified and experienced worker should be conducted as a minimum standard.

• Local Safeguarding Children Board should assess children’s social care staff’s understanding of the role and responsibility of the Education Other Than At School services (EOTAS).

• Head of safeguarding and manager of EOTAS should review current practice guidance and draft new guidance to improve joint working between social care and EOTAS when there are concerns about the care of home educated children.

• Ensure EOTAS team develop further understanding of safeguarding and are able to consult with CSS to do this. • To review and amend the draft Elected Home Education Policy to ensure more robust information sharing between EOTAS and social care."

Again, the conflation of EOTAS with EHE here, but some of the above would be useful especially the child protection training and the assessing of people's understanding of the issues. But again I reiterate the need to retain the current delicate and correct balance between the freedom that facilitates maximum learning and the mechanisms in place to deal effectively with any welfare issues. This is the subtle but crucial issue on which any would-be regulators must focus.

"The health care of home educated children

Children educated at home do not have access to school nursing services. School nursing services may be the first to detect children with health problems and identify those whose immunisations and routine health checks are not being followed up."

Immunisations are not legally compulsory and it is for parents to decide whether or not they are administered. Many of us have very good reasons for bypassing them in our children's health plans.

"Specific recommendations made in the serious case reviews:

• The Primary Care Trust (PCT) should consider whether any extra action is required to meet the health needs of children in elective home education.

• The PCT should ensure that health surveillance arrangements are offered to children who do not attend school.

• For all GPs / Health Visitors to be informed that a child on their case load is being home educated.

• Education service to consider the development of closer working links with school age nursing team to monitor procedures and share information about children who are elective home educated.

• Where it is clear that a medical condition is preventing a child from attending school then clarification should be sought without further delay from medical professionals."

These recommendations - especially the third - assume no knowledge or active participation on the part of the parent in respect of the child's health. Our role is not just to sign forms and attend appointments: a good parent will have near expert knowledge of her child's constitutional health patterns and requirements and will navigate the healthcare system accordingly, by careful selection. There is no need to try to tag the healthcare of particularly home educated children as a potential problem, because it is not. The last recommendation seems to imply that school is a superior choice of learning style and place, but statistics about home education outcomes beg to differ.

"Limitations of current legislation and guidance

Current legislation and guidance inadvertently helps the small minority of home educators who use elective home education as a cover to conceal child neglect and abuse."

Wrong. This is an absolute fallacy, as I set out above.

"Local authorities do not have the power to monitor or inspect home education provision, which means a missed opportunity to ensure that the children are safe and well."

Wrong. They have the power to inspect *where there are concerns* - as there were in all the cases listed in the serious case reviews. They don't have the power to monitor educational provision because "if parents are to retain the duty to cause receipt by their children of suitable education then parents must be given the leeway to decide what form this education should take." The seven serious case reviews involving children who did not attend school all show that missing opportunities do not come from lack of legal powers, but from the incorrect application of the powers that are currently available.

"Specific recommendations made in the serious case reviews:

• Central government to review its guidance and consider further statutory procedures in terms of the role of the local authority and requirements placed on parents in monitoring and evaluating the educational progress and welfare of a child who is home educated."

There is no need for this. The serious case reviews prove it would not help any of the children who were at risk of serious injury or death.

• "Central government review guidelines and consider statutory intervention procedures for LAs in situations of non-compliance in the statutory assessment of child’s special educational needs."

There is statutory assessment of a child's special educational needs? I am woefully ignorant of the situation with regard to special needs children in home education. Statutory intervention and assessment sounds most alarming to me.

• "Ask Department for Education (DfE) to re-evaluate evidence of safeguarding concerns for children who are electively home educated including any SCRs where this is a feature, to satisfy themselves the national guidance in relation to safeguarding of these children is sufficiently robust."

Yes, do re-evaluate it if you want to. Find a child in the SCRs who was not known to the authorities and thereby insist all children must be known to the authorities as a safeguarding measure. Except: there are no children in the SCRs who were unknown to the authorities, so there is no logical basis for the insistence. The system works. It ain't broke, so please don't try to fix it.


The SCRs examined identified that, in a small number of cases, elective home education can lead to isolation and obscuring of children from normal services that could act as a monitor of their welfare."

I disagree, and this is entirely the point. Where children at risk are unknown, concerns are invariably raised about them. Any changes should centre around the management of these reported concerns and the formulation of correct responses. The 'isolation and obscuring of children from normal services that could act as a monitor of their welfare' has never been a problem that has led to a Serious Case Review. Not a single one. To attempt to link 'invisible and unknown to the authorities' home educated children with these Serious Case Reviews is therefore fallacious. It risks damage to children's learning *and* is a missed opportunity to focus on the real problem, that of poorly trained and monitored officials.

"The recommendations address the need for government to review powers for authorities to see home educated children."

A child being seen by authorities does *nothing* to help safeguard it, as most of the Serious Case Reviews, where families were regularly visited and children seen and spoken to, demonstrate completely.

"There are further recommendations to ensure that all staff who deal with home educated children, directly or indirectly, are aware of the signs of child abuse and the current limitations on powers to see these children."

They should understand that in order to bring a Section 47 action under the Children Act which would enable them to see the child, they must 'have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm'. This is the only ethical reason to disturb our vital Article 8 'right to respect for our private and family life, home and correspondence.'

"These SCRs highlight that it is important that consideration is given to these issues so that the very small number of children who are abused in a home education setting can be protected more effectively."

No. These SCRs highlight that the current regulations are sufficient to protect children at risk and that these need to be implemented more carefully and thoroughly by professionals.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Consultation on changes to Legal Aid - closes 15th Oct

I've used solicitors on many occasions for advice on both personal and business issues. My general experience with them sadly has not been good and I have often wished I had chosen to represent myself instead. Some of my complaints about them were as follows:

  • Losing vital documents
  • Being incredibly tardy in house conveyancing, rendering us unnecessarily homeless for a month
  • Giving advice that I later checked and found to be completely wrong
  • Giving me the impression I would be represented through family court hearings by a solicitor and then fielding trainees at the actual hearings instead
  • The trainees in question then not taking proper instructions or information from me, so ultimately misrepresenting me in court (where I was not allowed to address the judge myself to correct anything due to being officially represented by a solicitor)
  • Acting like I had no say or possible knowledge about anything. Telling me how my case would be handled and what I must do instead of asking - and often not even bothering to tell me and just leaving me in the dark.

And always, always billing me in full for all of the above without any qualm or hesitation and pursuing me for full and immediate settlement with the charm and tenacity of a starving bulldog (suddenly *then* they can write a letter properly!) if I demurred. I tried to complain to The Law Society on several occasions, but found out that the primary purpose of this solicitor-run form of so-called self-policing seemed to be persuading people not to complain and being extremely reluctant to act on anything whatsoever. (Nowadays this service is independent from the profession and run by the Legal Ombudsman, to hopefully better effect!)

In short, if one is on limited funds with no access to Legal Aid and wishes to carry on with life, it is necessary to pay up and shut up and hope to never need to use a solicitor again.

I will hopefully never use a solicitor again. I would represent myself now in most legal circumstances, quite confident in the knowledge that I was likely to do a better job than any solicitor I have ever consulted would have done. (More information on this below.)

My experiences with barristers were very different: I have used them on two separate issues and they were excellent both times, putting the briefing solicitor to shame. Perhaps - even in the days of maximum Legal Aid - one still got what one paid for when it came to legal representation.

And I will even concede that some provincial solicitors might offer (not bark) accurate (not guesswork made to sound authoritative) advice (not instructions: the client is supposed to instruct the solicitor, not the other way round) and carry out tasks properly (not carelessly, making expensive and time-consuming mistakes) in a timely way to suit the client, (rather than their own business knowing that they will get paid either way).

And that is before we even get onto the issue of any potential hidden motives solicitors might have. It is not unheard of for firms who generate most of their income from a local authority to seem less helpful towards client families who are trying to defend themselves against the same authority, for example. The family could never be absolutely sure any problems were due to this hidden motive, but the suspicion is sometimes there.

Representing oneself in court can be less daunting than many people might think. The Clerk of the Court can supply information about procedures and schedules and I hear they can be extremely helpful, if approached in the right way. Case law and statutes are both published online and freely available now, as is other useful information and the process of self education regarding one's own individual issue that comes from becoming a litigant in person can be fascinating, as well as time-consuming and infuriating in turn.

BUT if you are ever in a tight spot and you feel you need a solicitor or barrister and you do not feel willing or able to research the law and precedents yourself as well as a professional might be able to, or that legal representation might offer you a better chance of success, you might be interested in responding to this consultation on the proposed changes to Legal Aid.

Here is some explanatory background information from the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association and home educators have been approached for responses by Ian Dowty, a barrister who has given much of his time to help home educators to very good effect.

The message I received reads as follows:

URGENT -please consider responding to a short (closes on 15th Oct!) consultation, against further cuts to legal aid.

In the years I have known Ian Dowty, he has been the one helping home educators-today he has written asking for people to consider responding to further cuts in legal aid. He's never asked me for help before, it's always been the other way round.

Ian said: "I am sorry to trouble you but if I don't I (and many others) might not be around to help when needed if Grayling succeeds in further slashing fees for legal aid work. He is also bent on decimating (unfortunately greater than its literal meaning) the number of firms allowed to do legal aid work.

Recently the profession defeated his previous scheme as he had failed properly to consult having hidden from us the result of research he had commissioned which was not favourable to his intentions. He proceeded nevertheless. Having lost he is now embarking on a 2 week consultation before carrying on as before. We are already halfway through that period!

All the details have been set out at

If I could persuade you to write in to the consultation and to let people know the position and ask them too to write in to object, maybe something would happen. In any event if we do nothing, it most certainly will.

A million thanks"

I suspect this was not exactly the hoped-for post when I was asked to blog the issue! But I hope it helps anyway as many people will have derived benefit and support from Legal Aid and I hope many others will also be able to do so in future.