Asking is not the Same as Listening

Asking is not the Same as Listening

The Children’s Commissioner for England’s “The Big Ask” appears not to be an exercise in providing children with a platform for their voices to be heard!

What’s been said?

Politically aware elective home educating families will be familiar with the constant cry from children’s professionals that children’s voices need to be heard. Ironically, that does not imply heard by their parents, but by a state employee. The evidence is mounting however that state professionals, though supposedly trained in the necessary hearing skills, often fail to listen to what children have to say.

This is not the place to catalogue the repeated failures of social workers, police and others involved in child protection to take notice of repeated complaints from children about being groomed by large groups of adults. Nor can we discuss the number of parents who have deregistered their children after their school repeatedly failed to address complaints about bullying by other pupils. Recently the Everyone’s Invited website focussed attention on the fact that whilst “sexual violence is normalised in schools,” it commonly remains unaddressed by the responsible professionals.

Such institutional deafness is not limited to the lower ranks of the state’s machinery. In March Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, published her “Review of the Welsh Government’s exercise of its functions.” Holland’s concerns focussed on both home education and independent schools and at the end of the Foreword, she stated:

“I have spoken with many of you who are either home educated or are educated in an independent school, who feel safe, are having fabulous experiences and are thriving – I want to make sure Wales is a country which offers this to every child.”

This leaves the impression that in speaking with these young people she was simply carrying out a procedural exercise, rather than actually wanting to listen to what they had to say.

When the the HE Byte team heard about the new Children’s Commissioner for England’s “Big Ask” in mid-March, we were undecided whether to encourage HE young people to participate in it or not. On one hand it could have been a great opportunity for their voices to be heard. Yet there was also a niggling doubt that her staff would do anything but listen to the voices of children.

The week before the survey went live on 19 April, Education Otherwise revealed that they had been asked to “arrange for a group of 7 home educated young people, to take part in a focus group” with Dame Rachel de Souza’s staff. Confidentiality constraints limited what could be said afterwards, however they did comment that the children’s ability to express themselves had left an impression on her officials. The post on EO’s website concluded by encouraging “all children to take part and have their voices heard.”

Even after the survey went live, it took us a while to digest its contents. It is not easy to preview the questions as a whole. There are four different response age bands for children (5-7, 8-10, 11-16 & 16 plus), plus an option for “Adults” if they are care leavers, parents, or if they work with children. (At the time of writing the adult section has been unavailable for several days.) Each of the children’s sections has three pages of multiple choice answers, and every question has to be answered before moving on to the next, which makes it difficult to grasp the overall emphasis of this survey.

We are now able to make copies of each set of questions available as text files – these were obtained as the result of a Freedom of Information Request and can be downloaded from this page.

Why does it matter?

One aspect of the demand that HE children are interviewed regularly by a state employee, (which many parents are extremely wary of) is that these intrusive encounters will be conducted far too often and with a complete lack of empathy for the child and their family. Further, the hostile environment which has resulted in EHE being seen by many professionals as a “safeguarding risk” makes it essential that such interviews should probably be conducted under caution, making sure the child is aware that anything they say could be noted and used against their parents!

Of further concern is the fact that civil servants are now trained in a tick-box approach to everything. It is easy therefore to envisage a LA “inspector” of HE arriving with a clipboard and set questions to ask each and every child, in order to satisfy their managers that they were doing their job properly. But such an approach would be a travesty, because in order to hear a person’s voice, no matter what age they are, one has to make time to listen to them and allow them to express themselves in their own words. Firing a list of pre-set questions at a child actually prevents their voice from being heard! Instead the responses will be nothing more than an echo of the interviewer’s own voice, or that of their superiors.

Above all other civil servants, Children’s Commissioners are charged with taking children’s views and interests into account, and representing them to policymakers. The Big Ask however seems to fall short on the listening aspect of this mandate, which seems to be the most significant thing about its name. It would have been far better if de Souza had decided to make this exercise the Big Listen rather than the Big Ask.

How much more helpful if she could have given young people free space to answer more general questions, instead of limiting them to ticking boxes on a computer screen. The way this survey has been structured indicates that the majority of responses will be simply processed as data, and every child’s efforts merged into an amorphous cloud of percentages. Consequently their individual voices will remain unheard. Even the “open question” in each of the older three age groups is narrowly worded and limits the children’s ability to speak about wider matters.

What can I do?

In pointing out some of the weaknesses of this children’s survey – and there are others – we are not saying that home educated children should not participate in it. However we wish to encourage them and their parents to approach it wisely. Here therefore are our suggestions:

First, that they look at the questions in advance and make up their minds if they feel taking part would be worth their time and effort.

Secondly, Education Otherwise reported that the young people who participated in the focus group had “challenged the Commissioner to do better.” Certainly her predecessor Anne Longfield was very negative about home education, and it is hoped that there will be a change of culture in the Children’s Commissioner’s Office following her departure. If any HE young person in England feels strongly about their own lives or other matters such as the negative national narrative concerning their educational experience and wishes to make their thoughts known to Rachel de Souza, they don’t have use the Big Ask to write to her – but it does provide a reason for doing so.

If young people wish to write to their Children’s Commissioner as part of the Big Ask, they should use The Big Ask email address.

Those who wish to write to her outside of this survey may find this a better email address to use.