We will no doubt all remember for a very long time that fateful day, back in January 2009, when the UK Government declared open season on home educators in England by announcing a review of home education with a remit “to consider what evidence there is to support claims that home education could be used as a ‘cover’ for child abuse such as neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude”.
In a vituperative attack on families who refuse to sacrifice their children to daily incarceration, regimentation and bullying, the offensive, uninformed and highly irresponsible Government minister, Delyth Morgan, pronounced that home educators were now all under suspicion, simply because some local authorities who were hostile to the educational freedom enjoyed by a minority group had misrepresented a few cases and made up some others for good measure. It wasn’t long before the NSPCC chimed in with their two penn’orth, making it all up as they went along because it was potentially a nice little earner. Did you know that Victoria Climbie was home educated? Thought not (probably because she wasn’t). When the facts don’t fit, they just make them up.
Let’s look at a some facts and cite some real cases.
Eunice Spry was an abusive parent who happened also to home educate. It is tiresome to hear this case trotted out on a regular basis by local authorities, especially when one of them (Gloucestershire) had approved Spry as a foster parent and the family was visited on a regular basis by an education officer who declared the home education provision satisfactory. This article, written by a Gloucestershire home educator, fills in the details of this appalling case, where the State failed to use existing powers, despite reports of abuse being made by the children themselves and others in the community.
There have been a number of cases where attempts have been made to link child murder to home education, which one parent has described as “tantamount to grave robbing”. Danielle Reid, for example, was a school pupil in Inverness whose mother claimed she had moved to Manchester when in fact she was already dead, murdered by her psychopath stepfather. She was never home educated and was known to be at risk. Details of the State’s failure to act can be found in this TESS article. Victoria Climbie’s death was also preventable, but the authorities, including Social Services and the NSPCC, failed to act to save her and were severely criticised in the subsequent inquiry. Like Danielle, Victoria was never home educated and was known to be at risk of significant harm. Nevertheless, both girls’ deaths have been used to push a universal child surveillance scheme which would have saved neither.
Let’s also look at the track record of the State in spotting or preventing abuse, sexual exploitation, trafficking and some of the other ills they are trying to desperately to pin on home educators in England. It is far from satisfactory, as the following examples illustrate.
According to a secret Border and Immigration Agency report obtained by the Guardian, organised criminal gangs have exploited a children’s home near Heathrow airport for the trafficking of Chinese children to work in prostitution and the drugs trade. At least 77 Chinese children are said to have gone missing since March 2006 from the local authority run home. Surely these highly vulnerable ‘looked after’ children had the right to expect better from the State?
Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, eight members of a paedophile network have been convicted of a catalogue of charges relating to child abuse and indecent images of children. One of the guilty was chief executive of a high profile youth work agency, presumably ‘approved’ by the State as suitable to work with young people, but he still sexually abused a very young child, and invited fellow paedophiles to do likewise, after gaining a family’s trust. So much for the effectiveness of Disclosure Scotland and CRO checks.
The number of teachers, social workers, medical professionals and police officers who have been convicted of child abuse and sexual exploitation are too many to list as cases are reported in the media on such a regular basis. Such ‘trusted’ professionals were disproportionately represented in the network of abusers and pornographers uncovered by Operation Ore and are similarly over represented in the abuse conviction statistics in the UK. While home educators are unlikely to be immune from an evil which cuts across the whole of our society, they are most certainly not over represented as child abusers.
Whereas there is no denying that social workers have an incredibly difficult job, they can get things very wrong. On the one hand, children can end up seriously abused, neglected or even dead, while on the other, families may never recover from being subject to statutory interventions, including compulsory measures of care and supervision, based on flawed information, overzealousness and poor professional judgement.
The Baby P case touched the heart of the nation and sparked unprecedented public outrage as it was revealed that there were countless missed opportunities for State agents to save the child’s life by removing him from the family home to a place of safety. It wasn’t long before recriminations started flying and those seen to be responsible were summarily dismissed for incompetence. In the recently broadcast Baby P: the whole truth? Panorama revealed a catalogue of failures on the part of the local authority, the frustration of the police who wanted to take action and the outright failure of the ‘joined up working’ we have all heard so much about.
Baby P is Victoria Climbie all over again. Lessons have not been learned, the most important one of all being that, in order to protect vulnerable children, the State needs to invest money in well trained social workers rather than expensive databases of children, the majority of whom are categorically not at risk from their own parents.
Apart from the headline grabbing cases in which the State has failed to take action to save a child, there are numerous cases where families have been wrongly accused of abuse or worse. Louise Mason’s case was one which made headlines; many others go unreported. Her story makes chilling reading for any parent and demonstrates the extreme fallibility of a system which is supposed to protect children but instead can lead to the persecution of innocent parents. Louise was falsely accused of child abuse when her baby was in fact suffering from a rare form of cancer, and social workers took all three of her children away. Although two have been returned, one child remains in foster care where she is settled, since it took Louise years to clear her name. What a travesty.
In another particularly disturbing case, the reputation of a home educating family, whose child had tragically died from natural causes, was deliberately sullied in 2004 by the general secretary of the Association of Education Welfare Managers. In a letter to the then Children’s Minister Margaret Hodge, it was erroneously claimed that the child had been removed from school “then subjected to child abuse”. A retraction was duly made and a full apology issued, but the episode marked a new low in the mud slinging stakes by an opportunist who hadn’t bothered to check her facts in a desperate bid to smear a minority community on the basis of one case twisted to suit her own purposes.
There have been other high profile travesties, such as the Orkney child abuse scandal, the Cleveland scandal and the Rochdale satanic abuse case. On the basis of no more than rumour, hearsay, suspicion and improper medical diagnoses, social workers removed children from their parents who were all subsequently absolved of any wrongdoing.
Social workers are of course carrying an unrealistic workload, the profession is in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, and its practitioners make convenient scapegoats when things go wrong. Social workers can and do provide excellent support to families and children, but too many are poorly trained and lack experience of real world diversity, including home education as a lawful alternative to schooling. They tend to eye home educators with suspicion due to a combination of ignorance and prejudice, a situation which has only been compounded by the Government’s latest incitement to discrimination against a law abiding minority.
Liz Davies is probably best known for her whistle blowing in the Islington abuse scandal that exposed the abuse of children within the borough’s care system and is a respected social worker and senior lecturer. In an article published by No2Abuse, she outlines her own experiences of the care system and the problems facing the social work profession. Home educators who have come into contact with social workers share many of her concerns and those of No2Abuse.
Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, has pointed to the bureaucratic burden carried by social workers and the need to focus on those who are most at risk rather than surveilling all children. A vehement opponent of the Government’s misguided ContactPoint database which will record the personal details of all 11 million children in England, she argues: “When you are searching for a needle in a haystack – a child at risk – why make the haystack bigger?” Quite.
Coming on to the spurious allegation of home educated children being forced into marriage (or at risk of being forced into marriage?) no cases have ever been cited to demonstrate even a tenuous link. Indeed it is bizarre to pin such a ‘crime’ on home educators, since schooling parents have just as much opportunity during the long summer holidays to seal a mandatory matrimonial deal for their offspring. We can only assume that the Government has no understanding of the difference between arranged marriage (entirely lawful) and forced marriage (criminal), and it seems likely this particular allegation stems from racism and religious discrimination on the part of delusional local authority ‘informants’.
Despite the Government’s stated concerns that home educators might force their young people to marry against their will, some ministers appear to have no such qualms about forcing unmarried parents into wedlock. Their somewhat schizophrenic stance on forced marriage was revealed in a recent Telegraph article which reported the mooting of an idea that couples with children outside wedlock should be automatically married by the State without their consent. An indecent proposal, or just hypocrisy?
Domestic servitude is a difficult one. Does it mean home educators stand accused of being more likely to allocate household chores to their offspring? If so, they are quite possibly guilty as charged as households don’t run themselves and ‘domestic engineering’ is seen by most to be a useful life skill. If, however, it means selling children into slavery, it is difficult to imagine any such case escaping the attention of the media. Since none appears to have been reported, we can safely assume this to be another fabrication designed to smear a minority group. Sigh.
As a matter of record, the Scottish Government makes it abundantly clear in its guidance to local authorities that there is no evidence to suggest that home educated children are any more likely to suffer abuse (or any of the other ills) than their schooled counterparts. It also makes it clear that home educated children are not deemed to be ‘Children Missing from Education’ (CME) and allows eligible home educated young people to claim the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).
Why, then, does the UK Government insist that home educating families in England should be disproportionately disposed to abusing their own children? Why does it also insist that home educated children south of the border should be defined as ‘missing from education’ when they clearly are not, and why are eligible young people in England denied the EMA?
No evidence has ever been forthcoming to support these vile allegations, which are aimed exclusively at home educators in England, or to justify their less favourable treatment south of the border, although plenty of smears have been bandied about. What is the real reason for the elective home education review, and how much money is being thrown away by the UK Government on what is simply an exercise in rubber stamping its own pre-decided agenda? We would really like to know.