Representatives from the Scottish Home Education Forum met with three civil servants from the Scottish Government’s Learning Directorate and Children & Families (GIRFEC) Directorate on 8 August. The forum administrator had contacted the Learning Directorate in May to raise a number of concerns on behalf of home educating families, and her initial communication and follow-up exchanges have been reproduced in this blog post.
In the interests of transparency, we are now posting the email we sent as a follow-up to the meeting (with the names of participants redacted to respect their privacy).
Thank you for meeting with my colleagues and me on 8 August to discuss the home education related issues I raised in my communication of 18 May on behalf of the Scottish Home Education Forum. As we noted, some of these points have since informed the joint parliamentary petition for a public inquiry into the human rights impact of the wider GIRFEC policy.
We all welcomed the opportunity to outline our concerns, which are ongoing, as well as to provide insight into the home education landscape in Scotland. We appreciate that, as a minority interest, home education has not been a priority policy area and also note that that departmental and personnel changes have meant the 2007 statutory guidance has not been refreshed as planned.
We did, however, want to underline the failures of some (but by no means all) local authorities to have proper regard to current guidance, and to place on record the fact that some do not even comply with overarching (and mandatory) legislation, namely the ECHR and GDPR.
We referred specifically to several serious complaints about Dumfries and Galloway Council, not only for failing to follow national guidance, but also for routinely infringing the data protection and human rights of families, especially those seeking to withdraw children from schools. Other councils have also been unresponsive to our enquiries on behalf of families about their home education policies, or even willing to provide a named contact with whom concerns can be discussed.
The SPSO has already upheld a number of home educators’ complaints about council maladministration and we are aware of several others in progress. One of our members, whose subject access request was refused by her council, was forced to obtain a court order and deploy sheriff officers to collect the withheld records, which demonstrated unlawful information gathering and sharing by all but one professional involved with the family. Another parent discovered a longstanding, but false, record of her alleged admission to a mental health unit (presumably a different person’s data) which had nevertheless been widely shared and used to initiate child protection proceedings. These represent serious failings of the GIRFEC ‘early intervention’ model, which relies on data mining and sharing (including fabrication and subjective opinion) and disproportionately affects home educators as a minority group.
Although the Scottish Government rightly does not intervene in council matters, it must surely, in our view, take responsibility for reminding public bodies of the need to follow national statutory guidance as a matter of good practice where serial offending has been identified, and that adherence to the law is not optional. If the government is unwilling to do so, we would suggest that, at the very least, an update of the contacts in the 2007 guidance should be circulated to reflect the range of currently available support for families and specialist advice for local authorities in relation to home education.
I mentioned that I had raised similar issues with Michael Russell MSP in his previous role as education minister, and that he subsequently issued what amounted to a reminder (in September 2010) in response to a series of PQs tabled by Robin Harper MSP. An earlier parliamentary motion in 2005 had called for the removal of the consent anomaly from the 1980 Act, attracting support from a considerable number of MSPs at the time.
We also referred you to the survey we conducted earlier this year on the reasons for children being in home education in Scotland. The findings, which can be found at http://www.home-education.biz/education/3541/, will hopefully be informative for personnel who are new to the remit. There has been an exponential increase in children being withdrawn from school due to unmet additional support needs, most especially ASD, and parents are increasingly choosing not to use schools (or nursery provision) from the outset.
We mentioned the lack of flexibility for children with ASNs who are unable to attend school due to disabilities and/or chronic conditions, including ME, and that we work closely with other peer support networks whose memberships overlap with ours, allowing us an to identify emerging issues and gaps. In England, for example, provision is made for virtual schooling which allows flexible, home-based access to the curriculum, but there is no equivalent offering in Scotland which would allow children to remain on their school roll.
Our concerns about exclusion and ‘abandonment’ of children unable to access mainstream provision are also shared by social workers and other service providers who do not have the resources to meet needs identified by parents, including timely diagnosis, assessment of ASNs and access to specialist support. Many families are therefore home educating in the absence of suitable ‘education at home’ being provided by the local authority and turning to our national elective home education forum and local networks for support.
A’s participation in the meeting was welcome, since we were able to highlight why so many of our (approximately 2300) members have lost confidence and trust in public services and third sector agencies. Our evidence suggests that this is a direct consequence of GIRFEC, which relies on subjective ‘wellbeing’ data gathering and sharing without informed consent well below the legal ‘necessity’ threshold for interference with Convention rights (as upheld by the Supreme Court in 2016). We are seeing peer support replacing conventional services for families, especially those whose lawful parenting choices, like home education, are largely misunderstood and routinely misrepresented by ‘professionals’. Our forum regularly hears from parents whose health visitors (with no knowledge of education law) have insisted school registration is compulsory and referred them to social work even before children have attained compulsory education age (which they invariably also fail to get right). Similarly, teachers, who are not experts on specific medical conditions or disabilities, have reportedly ignored formal diagnoses and parental instructions, placing some children at risk of harm. Instances of physical restraint, isolation, assaults and injuries are also being reported by parents with alarming regularity, which has led to children being removed from unsafe school environments.
My colleague L spoke of her own experience as a carer, home educator of a child with ASNs and advocate, while M referred to a dedicated autism support group for home educators in Perth and Kinross, such are the numbers of families in the area who have chosen to educate outwith the school system. Many more parents are declining engagement with ‘voluntary’ services since it is parents who are responsible for ensuring the best interests of children and they have no confidence in a school system and other agencies which are routinely failing to meet their children’s needs.
The state’s role is to offer universal and specialist services, where required, to assist parents, not to impose them and categorically not to treat ‘non-engaging’ families less favourably for exercising lawful choices in the care, upbringing and education of their children. We made the point that many of our members are philosophically opposed to outcome-based education (OBE) and the state-dictated ‘wellbeing’ outcomes inherent in GIRFEC and CfE, Whereas the ethos of our forum is rooted in self-defined human rights, OBE is antithetical to the rights of children and parents as set out in the UNCRC and ECHR. Autonomous education (known in the USA as ‘unschooling’) is practised by many home educating families who oppose OBE and whose philosophical convictions are rightly protected under the Equality Act.
My original email of 18 May remains on record as setting out the ongoing difficulties experienced by families as the result of misinterpretation of the home education guidance, and ignorance or wilful misrepresentation of the law, on the part local authorities. Regardless of councils’ views, it is home educating families who are the primary stakeholders, and home education has equal legal status to schooling. Moreover, the overarching legislation cannot lawfully be modified in the wake of an unassailable Supreme Court judgment which upheld the established threshold for interference with Article 8 rights. Current legislation and guidance must also be applied in such a way as to comply with that ruling, and we are confident that the consent anomaly in the 1980 Act must also be read down accordingly, since it is patently unreasonable to apply unlawful conditions for a child’s withdrawal from school when the provision of education is a parental duty.
As co-petitioners with Tymes Trust, we will continue to actively pursue our call for a public inquiry into the human rights impact of the GIRFEC policy on home educating families, whose experiences of prejudice, discrimination and ultra vires interference by local authorities and other services in the guise of ‘early intervention’ (also known as remediation) are shared on our forum on a daily basis.
We will publish our correspondence (with participants’ details redacted) in the interests of transparency, and would meanwhile ask that you do not hesitate to contact us if you feel we can be of further assistance.