An edited excerpt from this article was published in the Sunday Times Scotland on 29 May 2016: ‘I wouldn’t talk to a stranger’. Faith is home educated and a member of our forum.
Faith and the First Minister
As a self-proclaimed “selfie expert”, Nicola Sturgeon knows how to use a camera phone to her advantage. Selfie seekers are never turned away – even those who accost her in the ladies loo – and her familiar grin graces the social media profiles of many hundreds of fans who have been happy-snapped by her side.
Fifteen-year old Faith Armour has one such souvenir selfie, taken at a high profile youth engagement event in March. It serves as a reminder of the First Minister’s promise to respond to her concerns about the lack of support for home educated young people. She is still waiting.
Mental health, social justice issues and LGBT rights were among the issues brought to the interactive ‘Ask the First Minister’ session in Edinburgh, where Ms Sturgeon underlined her commitment to equality and “making Scotland the best country for young people to grow up”. Faith wonders if the young man who pointed out a discriminatory anomaly regarding tuition fees ever received his promised response.
As part of a large, close-knit family from North Lanarkshire, Faith is an intelligent, thoughtful young woman. She is deeply concerned about the named person scheme, due to come into force in August, which will assign a state guardian to every child and young person until the age of 18 – ostensibly to safeguard and promote their wellbeing, but seen by many as unacceptable intrusion into family life. There is no opt out.
As a home educated young person, Faith worries that her own compulsory monitor will be a “total stranger”. “Why on earth would I want to approach a complete stranger for any advice when I’m a part of a happy and caring family?” she asks.
Home educators have been vehement critics of the scheme, fearing that they and other minority groups will be targeted by council and NHS personnel using a government checklist of over 200 risk indicators – all open to wide interpretation – to assess their “parental capacity to provide wellbeing”.
The threshold for action by practitioners has been lowered from “risk of significant harm”, as defined in child protection legislation, to the nebulous concept of “wellbeing”, so that children’s and parents’ data can be gathered and shared without their consent, or even knowledge. Interventions may then be applied to those who tick too many risk boxes, with few checks or balances.
Twelve-year old Lara White (not her real name), who lives with her unconventional (by their own admission) parents and two younger brothers in the north of Scotland, describes her putative named person as “creepy”. She wants the right to opt out of a scheme that will permit him to access her personal information without her express consent.
She resents having a named person forced on her and blames the overarching ‘Getting It Right For Every Child’ policy for “allowing the council to attack my mum for an illness she can’t control and me and my brothers because we are home educated”.
“They nearly destroyed my family”, she says, “and I don’t want this person in the same room as me without my parents present. He makes me uncomfortable and I am not going to talk to him just because he’s now called my named person instead of the council’s inclusion officer.”
Lara’s mother has M.E. and one of her brothers has endured relentless bullying by local school-going peers over his different appearance. When an over-zealous shop assistant apprehended him and alerted the police because he was not in school (he had been given a budget for a cookery project and was shopping independently for ingredients), his slowly returning confidence was left in tatters. A subsequent referral to the Children’s Reporter, and investigation on the basis of a misunderstanding of his educational status, caused further distress to the whole family.
Faith worries that her named person will have little knowledge of home education and may well deem it a risk to her wellbeing through ignorance or prejudice. Along with other designated risk factors – like being part of a large family – a perfectly legitimate educational choice could easily be held against her parents, she fears.
At the same time, she is well aware that not all young people’s circumstances are as comfortable as her own. An older brother and sister both work in care settings for children who have suffered trauma, while three other siblings are in social work and nursing. Her considered opinion is that “assigning a named person to every child will take valuable time and resources away from those who really need help”.
Lara agrees. “Children have died, with or without a named person in place, and it has not helped in the areas it has been trialled”, she says.
She also believes that molehills can easily be turned into mountains by clipboard carrying council officials. Recalling previous exchanges with the man who is set to become her named person, she says he once insinuated that her mother might leave medication lying around. Already bruised by intrusions into her private life, she feels disempowered by professionals “who have no respect or intention to listen to young people.”
Both girls are knowledgeable about the new legislation – more so than many professional commentators – and they worry about their confidential information being shared without consent. They say they will now be reluctant to access NHS services, one of several unintended consequences highlighted by children’s legal charity Clan Childlaw.
As families across Scotland anxiously await the outcome of the legal challenge to the Children and Young People Act, which mandates a named person for every child with extensive new non-consensual information sharing powers, Faith has already given up on waiting for the First Minister’s reply.