On 30 November, the First Minister announced a Winter support fund for families and children in the name of ‘equality and rights’. What was not to like about the promised ‘£100 million package to help communities at risk’?
Funding to help people pay for food, heating, warm clothing and shelter during the winter is part of a new £100m support package.
With winter approaching, some of Scotland’s most at-risk communities are facing rising costs for food, fuel and other essentials.
Key elements of the plan were said to include:
£22m for low income families including £16m to give the low income families of an estimated 156,000 children in receipt of free school meals a one-off £100 payment by Christmas
Free school meals (FSM) are, of course, only available to children who are educated at school. but home educators hoped that, in the spirit of inclusion, hardship payments would be extended to those of them who met the ‘low income’ eligibility criteria by other means, including being in receipt of the qualifying benefits used to determine FSM entitlement. Like Covid, hunger is no respecter of the demarcation between home and school, and our government claims to want to Get It Right For Every Child and uphold the UNCRC.
An initial discussion of this issue on our forum drew hundreds of comments, which revealed that some families had received payments on the basis of ‘low income’, while others had been told they were ineligible. Having been policy victims time and time again, we know only too well that home educators do not register in government ‘thinking’ unless it is to make our lives more difficult – although we should say that there are some green shoots of inclusion emerging within the Learning Directorate, if nowhere else.
On 10 December, a screenshot of the mygov.scot page ‘Covid winter hardship payment (£100 per child)’ appeared to confirm that ‘home schooled’ <sic> children were ineligible for the winter support payment.
A page update has since corrected the mis-terminology (small mercies after years of pleading with them to do so!) but reiterated the ineligibility of home educated children, despite many families being on otherwise qualifying benefits.
We do, however, tend to doubt the accuracy of the mygov.scot site’s content as they also omit to mention that home educated young people from low income families in Scotland are eligible for the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), despite this being made crystal clear in the home education guidance.
It became apparent from ongoing forum exchanges that parents were receiving inconsistent information about the winter support payments, with some having received the money and others being told ‘home schooled’ children were ineligible for what had been pitched as a supplementary hardship payment for those on low incomes and in receipt of specific benefits.
Having listened to government spin, parents had good reason to believe that the FSM criterion was not the sole access route but simply one trigger for the payment, whereas those not on FSM but in receipt of other benefits would have the option of applying for the payment directly. One parent thought it should have been added to the payment of child tax credits as one of her qualifying benefits.
However, home educators soon discovered that the playing field was anything but level and it was reported that a ‘code’ was required by some local authorities, which could not be obtained without specifying a school.
Specific concerns were raised on behalf of those who were home educating of necessity, exacerbated by Covid withdrawals since August, those with children under school age and those with both school-going and home educated children. Was it only the schooled child in the family who was deemed worthy of feeding? Surely it was FSM eligibility that should count, not FSM take-up, especially as some children have special dietary or sensory needs that already necessitated parent-supplied lunches and snacks?
Amid the confusion and mixed messaging, some parents who had received a payment were worried about it being clawed back after claiming it in good faith and double-checking eligibility with their councils. We soon surmised that those who had most recently withdrawn their children from school (since August) may have still been on the FSM system with the payment being auto-triggered, whereas others had found it impossible to navigate the school-centric application process.
Comparisons were also drawn with lack of consideration for home educated children on the supply of laptops and other ‘holiday’ payments to compensate for loss of schooling during lockdown and/or school-supplied breakfasts and dinners. It is, after all, not just school pupils going hungry in the midst of Covid when many more are at home due to health concerns or self-isolation. So much for inclusion, GIRFEC and the UNCRC.
After some councils had simply said no to parents, insult was added to injury when elected members and officials declared home education to be ‘unnecessary’ when it had, for many families, become the only way to meet children’s additional support needs. Parents argued it should be a means-tested hardship payment and not a school-based payment, and to withhold it from those out of school due to disability or chronic illness was discriminatory.
One parent shared the ‘schoolsplaining’ response she received from the government’s ‘Social Justice Strategy Unit’, which ended by curtly signposting her to the CAB and hardship helplines:
Since home educators’ voices have once again fallen on deaf ‘social justice’ ears, we thought we should platform just a few of them here:
I’m bitterly disappointed, we are left out in the cold once again.
[We] have been on furlough since March and really anything that we could get would be amazing but I realised that our children and our way of educating isn’t supported or rewarded by any help at all.
What legislation binds them to discriminate by attaching a poverty payment to the means of education?
I can understand not being granted a clothing grant or free school meal payments but the winter children’s payment is for low income families. I believe we should be entitled! It’s outrageous, we are being discriminated against.
This new grant has been couched in terms of tackling poverty and inequality. This is not a benefit related to the school environment, therefore the criteria should be consistently inclusive for all children who meet the criteria for free school meals, whether they are actually receiving them or not.
Why on earth they can’t make this grant available to all children who either do qualify for free school meals as a result of circumstances as well as those who would qualify if they were still attending a school. Setting the criteria in this way does not tackle the issue of child poverty, it simply highlights yet another disparity between school children and home educated children. Given that the legislation gives equal status to both school and home education, it is lazy and downright insulting to exclude our children. I’m fairly new to home educating and I’m absolutely appalled at the bias against us. Utterly disgraceful.
Special thanks to Mark Nixon, vice-convener of HES, for allowing us share his letter to the Social Justice Strategy Unit, which powerfully relays the strength of feeling on this issue from across the home educating community, regardless of families’ financial circumstances.
I have read with dismay that the £100 COVID Winter Hardship Payment is to be withheld from home educated children, many of whom live in poverty. It is a clear case of institutional prejudice.
However, my concern goes further. We know from research published by the Scottish Home Education Forum in 2018 that around a third of home educated children are not home educated by parental choice, but because they have been forced out of schooling. In most cases, the children to which this applies are children with additional support needs. Thus, this discriminatory policy disproportionately affects children with ASN.
It beggars belief that a part of the Scottish Government known as the Social Justice Strategy Unit is not willing to take a position on this which supports, and asserts the need for justice for, children with ASN living in poverty. These children are arguably our most vulnerable children, many of whom are already subject to both social and institutional prejudice. In many cases, of course, their parents are unable to work due to their child’s complex needs; you will be aware that financial support for full-time carers is pitifully inadequate.
This policy, which discriminates against home educated children, and in particular home educated children with additional support needs, must be revisited. Social justice demands it.
We agree that the government’s discriminatory stance is untenable for all the reasons outlined by our community members. Excluding home educating families on low incomes from hardship payments disproportionately affects those with disabilities, chronic conditions and ASNs and is insulting to those struggling to make ends meet.
It is shameful that school-centricity should be so deeply embedded in ‘social justice’, ‘equality and rights’ and ‘children and education’ policy areas – all supposedly underpinned by a commitment to the UNCRC – with no consideration whatsoever of the impact on minority communities such as ours. It is not a good look and we are calling it out.
Since publishing this post, Twitter has confirmed that elective home educators in England are eligible to apply for the equivalent payment through their councils (although a ‘postcode lottery’ may still apply). All the more reason for Scotland to follow suit!