A Tragic Case Politically Reported

What’s been said?

On 8 March Derbyshire Live carried an article by Eddie Bisknell reporting the death of a young person who was home-educated over “a number of years” and “is known to have lived a happy life but died tragically having consumed a lethal amount of alcohol”.

Full details of the case cannot be published for identity reasons, but Bisknell reports on a brief Single Agency Learning Review Learning the Lessons commissioned subsequently by the Derbyshire Safeguarding Children Board. This established that “several professionals, including at Derbyshire County Council, held separate pieces of information about any “potential risks and vulnerabilities” to the teen,” but points out that “no one service had a full picture.”

Unsurprisingly, Bisknell’s opening paragraph had picked up on the “need for councils to keep a closer eye on home-schooled children,” and of the Review’s five Lessons Learned, two have similar themes: “The importance of ensuring that the needs of children who are not educated within the school system are known and they have access to eligible services and information,” and “The importance of communication and information sharing between professionals regarding potential risks, particularly when families have declined support.”

The second half of Bisknell’s article explores the difficulties faced by local authorities because “there is no legal requirement for parents or carers to notify the council if they have chosen not to register their child… with a school,” then details the progress of the Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill through Parliament. He anticipates that this legislation, once adopted, will enable local authorities to monitor HE families more easily.

However, his closing paragraphs are now irrelevant because on 15 March, the day the Bill was listed for a further attempt to gain a Second Reading, significant changes were made to its webpage. All reference to the Second Reading was removed, and this statement added – “This Bill has been withdrawn.”

Why does it matter?

Sorrow over the tragic death of a young person and empathy with their family are the primary reasons the Derbyshire Live report matters.

Given its association with home education and the media tendency to milk any such connection, it’s important for HE parents to be aware of this case and get a good grasp of whatever information is available. It’s tempting to hide our heads in the sand, wishing that events like this never happened or reports like this were never published, but that approach will not equip us to speak wisely in defence of HE or expose confused thinking or biased reporting.

For instance, in the case of Khyra Ishaq (who died 2008), the child had indeed been withdrawn from school to be home educated, but several concerns about her wellbeing had been raised with authorities before this, demonstrating Ed Balls’ error in attributing her death to the fact she was home educated.

Home education in England has come a long way since the 1950’s when Joy Baker first challenged the state’s assumption that their provision was preferable to what a parent could offer, but the essential issue of potential state over-reach into areas of parental responsibility remains the same.

The HE community is now large, consisting of families whose children have never been to school plus those who have withdrawn their children from school for an ever more complex variety of reasons.

At the same time, legislation such as the Children Act 2004, “now the basis for most official administration considered helpful to children, notably bringing all local government functions of children’s welfare and education under the statutory authority of local Directors of Children’s Services,” (source: Wikipedia) has caused representatives of the state to view their role in terms of ownership and oversight of all children, whether their parents have opted for school education or not. The creation of the Children’s Commissioner’s role is further evidence that state preoccupation with welfare and safeguarding now functionally trumps the important matter of parental choice about education in the minds of a range of professionals, although the law remains unchanged.

The news article drew no direct connection between the teenager’s death and the fact they were home educated, but the stated aim of the Review “to disseminate the learning for all Derbyshire County Council staff and multi-agency partners to better safeguard children in the future,” [Emphasis added] demonstrates the prevailing official mindset that the welfare of all children now falls within their remit.

Establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries between parental and state areas of responsibility has therefore never been more crucial.

What can I do?

Read the Derbyshire News report and consider the five points raised in the Learning the Lessons document.

Be thankful that Lord Soley’s Private Member’s Bill is no more. Reports are circulating amongst home educators that Frank Field MP, who was sponsoring the Bill in the Commons, has said that it ran out of time. Whilst he has also been quoted as saying that he would like to reintroduce it, that has to be understood in the light of Parliamentary procedures, which would require a new Private Members Bill to start the journey through both Houses all over again.

Don’t be naïve and take your eye off the ball though just because this particular attempt at legislation is over. Other individuals and groups are determined to see home education regulated and monitored, and continue to work hard behind the scenes towards this goal.

Like it or not, these are days of multi-agency collaboration when it comes to children’s welfare. HE parents need to know their rights and responsibilities and be unafraid to stand up for them in a firm but courteous manner should representatives of the state come pushing the boundaries, knowingly or in ignorance.