Minorities Report from Melrose

The NO2NP roadshow visited Melrose on Monday 11 April, where we were especially delighted to see a contingent of local home educating parents concerned about the impact of the named person data mining scheme on their families. The evening’s speakers included Nigel Kenny, Gordon McDonald , Prof John Raven and Alison Preuss, whose (long version) presentation is reproduced below along with links and references.  There have since been another two roadshows in Broughty Ferry on Friday 14 April, followed by an action day on 16 April, and Castle Douglas on Monday 18 April, where a follow up action day is to be held on 23 April.

Pride & Prejudice

I keep getting told off by my Named Person Nigel for exceeding my time limit, so I’ll try to stick to the script. Anyone who wants links to my previous roadshow presentations can come and see me after class!

My own background is in elective home education and children’s rights, mainly in relation to privacy issues. I campaigned with colleagues against the ContactPoint database, which was part of the Every Child Matters agenda in England and later scrapped. Unfortunately the Scottish Government decided to copy the very worst bits and re-brand it as GIRFEC (Getting Information Recorded for Every Citizen), developing an even more intrusive scheme to impose a named person, with no opt-out, on every child, whose role is first and foremost to gather personal data from every possible source, often without the knowledge of children and parents. The First Minister was being quite disingenuous when she said parents and children could decline the Named Person ‘entitlement’ as the legislation and guidance tell a different story, and so did the government’s own lawyer in the Court of Session.

The Supreme Court hearing went well and those who watched it were impressed with the judges’ interrogation of counsel, showing that they really had done their homework – unlike the government’s QC who was sent home the first day with homework of his own after being unable to answer a number of points. Aidan O’Neill  QC stormed though our legal arguments, followed by counsel for Clan Childlaw who reinforced the arguments we have long made against non-consensual data processing and breaching confidentiality without any safeguards being in place.

In my opinion, it went from a car crash on day one to a motorway pile up on day two for the government, whose QC had to try and make the case for the legislation being necessary and proportionate, while hurried notes were passed to him by a desperate looking back up team. To add insult to injury, the easy-read leaflet for parents (the one about bedroom decor and TV programme choices) was met with howls of laughter…

…while the legislative drafting was criticised as imprecise, the wellbeing indicators were described as woolly and the accompanying guidance was said to be incomprehensible. Aidan O’Neill’s parting shot was a reminder of the cost of judicial review – 15 grand – if parents and children wanted to exercise the right complain to an independent tribunal. As we all know, the government’s complaints guidance in relation to a Named Person is like the road to nowhere – a choice between a dead end street or the circular route back to where you started.

Now we wait, and while I hope our dream of victory will be realised, I also have a recurring nightmare where the Named Person is struck from the statute books and everyone is celebrating except me – because the real danger lies in the collection of personal data which may be used against you at any point you decide you know better than a professional.

As a minority group, home educators have developed a keen sense of impending threat to our existence, never mind wellbeing, as we tend to be at the sharp end of square hole policy initiatives designed purely for round pegs. That’s why we were among the first to pick up on the government’s databasing drive more than 15 years ago, which was riding roughshod over every child’s right to privacy, and it’s how the kick-ass children’s rights group ARCH came into being.

Alice Through the Looking Glass has just posted a speech given in London by a Swedish lawyer back in 1999 warning that his government had achieved its  totalitarian power “by using persons whom the ordinary citizen believes to be their friends. …To make the citizens obedient, the Swedish authorities use doctors, nurses, midwifes, teachers, pre-school teachers and child-care assistants to do their dirty work for them.” Sweden was an enthusiastic adopter of early intervention, which perhaps sounds slightly less chilling than eugenics (which is how Tony Benn described Blair’s big idea for identifying delinquents in the womb, the same one that Scotland has now embraced).

Any home educators here? You can’t play as you’ll know the answers, but who else knows about the law relating to home education?  When does compulsory education age start? Whose permission do you need? What curriculum? Who supervises it? Will a Named Person know all these answers? Almost certainly not, but they may well mislead parents, as is currently the case in the majority of Scottish LAs.  And just think of the encyclopaedic knowledge every Named Person will have to have of every condition and disability a child may present with in order to assess wellbeing needs.

People are often surprised to learn that the responsibility for providing education belongs to parents, not the state. Councils just have to make school places available for parents who want to delegate, parents do not need permission to home educate and the only consent required is for the withdrawal of a school age child from a council school s/he has attended on one occasion or more (with several exceptions). So school is an ‘entitlement’, but anyone would think it was compulsory – a bit like the Named Person! The 2000 Standards in Scotland’ Schools Act places a further duty on LAs to “secure that [school]  education is directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential.”  Not a lot of people know that, and cue hollow laughter from those who have ever tried to get their children’s additional support needs met in schools.

Our children are the outliers who enjoy freedom to learn by their own lights – not to meet state dictated outcomes. But just because we take direct responsibility, we’ve been labelled, variously, as libertarians, hippies, religious fundamentalists, fringe groups and nutters. As have NO2NP campaigners, by those charged with implementing a Trojan horse surveillance scheme.

We have even been accused, without a shred of evidence, of neglectabuse and radicalisation, and opponents of the Named Person surveillance scheme have been subject to similar demonisation for daring to express dissent and challenge its legality in the courts.

We also hear a lot about ensuring a home educated child’s views are respected, yet the same children’s rights proponents  pay no heed to those of school pupils, even the ones who choose to vote with their feet. That’s always the parents’ fault (because every school provides an excellent, inclusive education for every pupil and has an anti bullying policy, after all). Essentially, children have no choice but to take up their ‘entitlement’ to education by going to school, or else wellbehaving interventions will be applied to make them comply. The only possible escape is for those whose parents elect to educate them “by other means”; meanwhile, no such exit clause exists in respect of the Named Person scheme.

Dealing with deep rooted prejudice and ignorance is nothing new for minority groups, but when personal opinion starts to inform professional practice, unlawful discrimination may result. Now we can all hold strong views as individuals, but having seen some extreme comments by people identifying as public servants, it’s worth noting that Religion or Belief (including philosophical belief) are protected characteristics under the Equalities Act. No one characteristic is superior to another, although we seem to be seeing a hierarchy develop whereby some are proactively defended and others are considered fair game – discrimination in itself and rather reminiscent of the government’s deliberately selective application of the UNCRC (where Article 16 is invariably airbrushed out as an inconvenience since it affords children the right to privacy). Named Persons really had better get their diversity training in. (I can recommend someone!)

Taking Scottish Borders Council as an example. Not so long ago there was a very  positive relationship with the home ed community, but the trust was lost overnight as the council overturned the ban on ‘hunting with doggedness’ to make sure home educators were ‘engaged’ and made to realise their big mistake in declining their schooling ‘entitlement’. We’re already planning to send them off on a few time wasting “wild child chases” to keep them busy. Not so much Tally ho! as Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war. 

They’re not alone. Glasgow wants the law changed to give them greater powers to GIRFEC our community. Falkirk has already rewritten the law without reference to Parliament, inviting parents to apply to “homeschool” (an American term that appears nowhere on the statute books or in guidance). It’s bit like suggesting we apply to the butchers’ federation to become vegetarians.

Diversity has turned into a dirty word, as we can see from the SHANARRI wellbeing indicators, where even being under 5 is a risk. In Haddington we heard from a parent of five under 11s, two of whom were under five, all home births; the family don’t vaccinate, they home educate, and the dad was brought up in care. Alarmed by Lesley Scott’s long list of 200+ risk indicators and 300+ outcome signifiers, he wondered if his family should perhaps consider getting a telly to improve their wellbehaving credit score, as the health visitor was becoming more persistent than a double glazing salesman !

We are fast moving towards a parent licensing system. Too many penalty points on your licence and you’ll have to go on a course to learn about the dangers of parenting infringements (so try not to get caught speeding through Asda with a trolley full of ready meals).  Under the totting up procedure you could ultimately lose your licence and your kids.

Some of you will have heard the recording of the Borders child protection officer training third sector groups to report any ‘concerns’, no matter how trivial to the Named Person – even conversations in taxis. Well, one parent I know has every reason to be grateful to the taxi driver who transported her disabled son to school. He noticed worrying changes in behaviour in the non verbal child which he reported to the parent, not the named person. When the parent arrived unannounced at school to follow up on these concerns, let’s just say she found her son’s treatment by staff falling far short of what should be expected in terms of respecting his dignity – he is now happily home educated.

That experience is not isolated, and we have heard from a parent about the abuse her son and others suffered in a special school which is now at the centre of a police investigation – only thanks to a determined parent-led campaign. Then there was the Borders child who was handcuffed at school, whose mum was told to attend parenting classes before a rare form of autism was diagnosed. She said: “No one was listening. We were getting the blame. We were picked on and being accused of there being something wrong at home.”  

So much for that helpful single point of contact .The reality is that everyone who works with children now has a duty to collect as much information as possible, including hearsay and gossip, on parents, siblings and others, to be added to databases that ‘speak’ to each other, including the one that holds your NHS records. The GIRFEC Cluedo story reported recently, which was picked up from our home education forums blog by a tabloid newspaper, shows just how low they will go to dig dirt on families. The aim of that game is to get professionals to determine parents’ capacity to provide ‘wellbeing’ by data mining without consent “at even the lowest level of concern”, as opposed to on child protection grounds.

Essentially, privacy is being systematically demolished on the basis of mere suspicion, allowing the state to call up a single view of any citizen at the click of a mouse and more easily identify those of us in need of remediation: the square pegs that don’t fit the round SHANARRI wheels of the GIRFEC bandwagon.

If you thought the Data Protection Act was there to protect you, you’d be wrong. Although it is reserved UK legislation, which derives from the EU Data Protection Directive, the Scottish Government thought they would just circumvent it by passing the Children & Young People Act as an enabling mechanism to legalise data theft north of the border, where children are apparently at disproportionate risk from their parents. They fooled the parliament and the public by conflating ‘wellbeing’ risks (which can mean anything and everything) with ‘welfare’ risks (which are about significant harm).

As we’ve heard Maureen Falconer confirm, our own data protection “watchdog” has rubber stamped a policy that has left Scots citizens with less protection than their counterparts in the rest of the UK, contrary to the Minister’s assurances. And despite the GIRFEC cheerleaders’ claims, this re-interpretation of current UK legislation (which they have been relying on for more than 3 years as justification to share our data without our knowledge) is actually just one guy’s opinion. Moreover, it is an opinion not shared by other DP experts, including former UK ICO Richard Thomas and the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The GIRFEC narrative of course maintains that it’s possible to identify problems and intervene at an early stage to prevent bad outcomes, like teenage pregnancy, poor educational attainment, drug use or criminal activity (ironically the same bad outcomes that disproportionately affect children in the care system). The idea is to look for ‘signs’ and calculate risk on a statistical probability basis so that interventions can be offered (or imposed) at the earliest stage. In the brave new world of GIRFEC, toddler tantrums and teenage truculence can no longer be considered just part of growing up and will be plotted as wellbeing risks by anyone with a SHANARRI wheel to spin.

Forget Mystic Meg! We’ve now got wellbeing assessments, school surveys and ‘circle time’ to extract information from young children as reliable predictors of future problems, so that ‘timely’ interventions can be applied to get families back on the state approved path of ‘getting it righteousness’. That might include the naughty step of compulsory parenting classes, usually provided by ‘leading’ children’s charities in exchange for large fees.

Putting the jackboot on the other foot, parents are now starting to play detective themselves. We know the vast majority of professionals do good job, but how can we tell which Named Person might do a Dayna Dickson-Boath unless we check up on their private lives? Who could possibly object?

As for getting I.T. right, you can forget any state of the art secure system as there is just going to be a wellbeing app added on to existing leaky databases that will be joined up – probably because they can’t afford anything else. The data security assessment of ContactPoint was so damning it took us two years to get it released under the FOI Act, and we strongly suspect the Scottish Govt hasn’t even bothered to commission a report.

Top security experts Ian Brown and Ross Anderson (even my own son, who is an ethical hacker), have sounded alarm bells about the vulnerability of databases accessible by multiple users, at least some of whom will be prone to bribery, blackmail, scamming or plain carelessness. That’s before considering cyber-attacks and criminal hacking which are becoming ever more sophisticated and can quickly compromise entire systems – remember TalkTalk and Lincs Council which recently lost access to electronic child protection records. Children’s data is especially highly sought after by those with malicious intent, and Contact Point had become known as the paedophiles’ address book before it was finally scrapped.

We’re probably all familiar with the haystack analogy first used by child protection expert Eileen Munro, who warned that adding more hay would make finding a few small needles much more difficult – a view shared by others in the social work profession. We already know that child protection social work works when adequately resourced, so why is such an essential public service so over-stretched and chronically under-funded when there’s a bottomless pit of taxpayers’ money to implement a scheme most families neither need nor want? As my former colleague Terri Dowty said: “It’s a bit like the parent who tells their child, ‘Sorry you haven’t got any shoes, but I really need this new laptop’.”

We are already seeing much higher thresholds for access to services as there are nowhere near enough practitioners to meet demand (think CAMHS waiting times); yet at the same time the threshold for data sharing, reporting and intervention in relation to alleged ‘risk’ has been  significantly lowered. It is a recipe for meltdown, which is exactly what happened in the Isle of Man where a public inquiry is underway into the damage caused to innocent families subjected to unnecessary investigations.

We have also seen several deaths in areas where the Named Person scheme has already been rolled out. In Edinburgh, there was Mikaeel Kular, known to be at risk of significant harm, and Chloe Sutherland, whose mother was refused help for post natal depression. In Highland, where the NP has been running for years, two-year old Clyde Campbell died after being left home alone. And in Aberdeen, Bailey Gwynne was stabbed at school by a classmate who probably shared the same named person, despite neon signs having been flagged up about him. Scapegoating individuals is not my intention, but conscripted amateurs spinning wellbeing wheels are in danger of getting it tragically wrong when it comes to the deadly serious business of child protection.

I’ll finish with a quote from Lyndon B. Johnson which our elected representatives would have done well to heed:

“You do not examine legislation in the light of the benefits it will convey if properly administered, but in the light of the wrongs it would do and the harms it would cause if improperly administered.”

No such examination was ever undertaken on the Named Person surveillance scheme and the Government just carried on regardless, ignoring mounting evidence of things going badly wrong for families and papering over ever widening cracks.

There is a saying in home education circles that “parents make difficult and dangerous prey”. I reckon the government has seriously underestimated the power of love, which “conquers everything” yet appears nowhere on their SHANARRI wheel. It’s time to admit they got it badly wrong. 


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