The Scottish Home Education Forum invited home educating families to share their experiences of the health visiting service in Scotland after observing a steady increase in members’ reporting of concerns about engagements with health visitors, both via direct enquiries and in our members’ forum. These concerns, which were also being raised in local groups, predominantly focused on the quality and accuracy of information and advice offered in relation to childcare, nursery and school options for children, and the lack of openness regarding the voluntary nature of the heath visiting service.
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Although there is undoubtedly some exemplary practice within the health visiting service in Scotland, our findings will nevertheless make uncomfortable reading for practitioners and their representative and regulatory bodies. They will also send a strong message to the government that a main plank of its GIRFEC policy is categorically not working for a significant number of home educators, who, as responsables for the care and wellbeing of their children, favour child- and family-centred learning over often-inflexible institutional settings.
Home educators are exercising an equally valid choice enshrined in law and feel stigmatised by references to ‘unseen children’ and ‘hostile, non-engaging parents’ which have been used by health visitors and fellow professionals to ‘other’ our minority community. This baked-in bias has contributed to the hostile environment described by our members and is, we believe, at least partly responsible for incidences of ‘home-eduphobia’ (hateful conduct towards home educated children and their families), often by those who should know better.
The re-building of respectful relationships will be a prerequisite if mutual trust is to be re-established between home educators and health visitors, and we are hopeful that, by pointing out some of the issues that have arisen for our community, the process can now begin in earnest. Unless the problems are addressed, home educators’ engagement with health visiting services is likely to decline, which will inevitably lead to further conflict and complaints.
We acknowledge that many of these problems are not of health visitors’ own making and lie at the door of government. They have simply been swept along with the GIRFEC policy tide that has sent them perilously close to the jagged rocks of GDPR and human rights
Our forum representatives have been invited to speak to practitioner teams on an ad hoc basis, but no formal arrangements are in place to ensure universal services are equipped with a universal understanding of home education issues. An experienced home educating health visitor has also highlighted the inconsistent practice in the profession and suggested that visitors with specialist knowledge and additional training could advise teams on home education ‘cases’, rather than automatically dumping them into ‘unseen’, ‘non-engaging’ or ‘additional needs’ categories.
In an effort to progress this, we have twice met with the Scottish Government and stressed the need for dedicated training in relation to home education for health visitors and all family-facing GIRFEC professionals, for which agreement in principle was secured, albeit with no indication of a timescale. Given our survey findings, we now consider this to be a most pressing priority and would welcome support from health visitors and their professional body in bringing our recommendations to fruition.
Our thanks go to all the parents who took time to complete our poll and survey and to those who offered more detailed accounts of their experiences and insights, not forgetting the home educated children whose photographs we have included, with permission, to illustrate some of their everyday activities. We sincerely hope our report will be a useful contribution towards making the necessary improvements to policy and practice within health visiting, and indeed wider universal services, to better serve the needs of children and families in Scotland.