Rachel de Souza is far from alone in calling for all children to be in school, with the Government’s own report on the first meeting of the new “attendance alliance” demonstrating that Children’s Services have become an echo chamber for this message.
What’s been said?
The Children’s Commissioner’s name hit the headlines in the week beginning 17 January as several media outlets reported on the launch of her inquiry to track down the “thousands of children who have fallen off the radar during lockdown.”
The Telegraph spoke of “track[ing] down youngsters who may be at risk because they are not in the classroom;” the Daily Mail had “find[ing] the lost children of lockdown,” and Woman’s Hour on 19 January opened with a ten minute interview with Dame Rachel de Souza on these themes.
A BBC News article chose to highlight the alleged numbers affected in their piece: “Covid in schools: Inquiry launched to find 100,000 pupils absent in England” [Emphasis added], though de Souza was later reported to have claimed that between eighty and a hundred thousand children “were not on any school rolls at all.”
Is this a one-woman crusade, or is there more behind it? To answer that question, we need look no further that a government press release from 9 December 21. Here we find details of an “attendance alliance” kickstarted by Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi. Its stated aim could not be clearer: “Leading experts come together to supercharge efforts to improve school attendance.”
Indeed, no effort has been spared in recruiting the support of big names from the world of education and children’s services. Quotations from representatives of no fewer than fourteen organisations are included in the press release.
Despite the variety of singers though, the song is always the same – from school being “the best place for [children’s] development and wellbeing” to “schools play[ing] a vital role in keeping children safe” – the ‘all in school’ mantra or its equivalent featured almost as many times as the number of spokespersons.
Zahawi’s own words however – if taken as a stand-alone comment – have to scoop the prize for irony: “Where children aren’t in school without good reason or don’t want to be in school something has gone substantially wrong and needs fixing.” Unfortunately though, given the difficulties of achieving radical reform of established systems, it appears certain that more effort will be put into getting bodies back in buildings than into fixing the root causes of the problems.
Why does it matter?
For those who may have been hoping for some post-pandemic blue-sky thinking about education and schooling, the government report demonstrates one thing: on Nadhim Zahawi’s watch, all key players are committed to following the party line.
In fact the press release assures us that they have all “pledged to engage with their members, stakeholders… to make sure they are following best practice…”
From a home educator’s perspective, the significance is broader. The overall tone of the Children’s Commissioner’s words and the statements from other leading figures such as Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman and Chief Social Worker Isabelle Trowler all feed into the ubiquitous, negative narrative about any educational option other than school.
This hostile environment has been ramped up in response to a number of factors which have been conflated and turned to the advantage of the “school is the best place for all children” lobbyists. In fact the ideology has now progressed so far as not even needing to mention the fact that other options may exist.
The press release acknowledged that a variety of factors could affect school attendance, listing “anxiety exacerbated by the pandemic, mental health issues, children’s home life and issues at school like bullying.” It spoke of bringing together “those who have the power and expertise to effect change across the full spectrum of issues.”
But the conflation of such issues does nothing for a clear-headed or logical approach. In fact it turns the embarrassingly (for the authorities) high number of children that no-one seems able to account for into a reason for more draconian assertions that school is the answer – the great panacea.
The factor of the large number of children waiting for a school place went unmentioned. What percentage of the ‘hundred thousand’ are in that category? In their haste to sing from the ‘all in school’ hymn-sheet, Attendance Alliance participants seem to have forgotten that a single solution cannot solve a multi-faceted problem. The Children Not in School category existed before the pandemic, an umbrella under which home educated children have been squeezed along with other categories, including those who are being let down by the school system in a variety of ways.
In reality we know that boosting school attendance per se will do little for the issues within schools which may have contributed to parents’ and children’s decisions to abandon ship in the first place. But the arguments are emotionally charged and therefore difficult to refute without appearing uncaring.
The BBC News report raised another spectre: “The children’s commissioner for England is calling for every child to have a single identifying number that can be used by schools, health authorities and the police” along with “a national database to see attendance data in real time.”
A live school attendance database would result in state surveillance of all children! And the industrial scale data-sharing that would have to go on between agencies if the Commissioner’s ‘single identifying number’ ever got off the ground is frightening.
All parents need to wake up to the fact that these parallel demands for data-sharing and state control are mushrooming. If they don’t want their children (already considered by some civil servants to be “autonomous, rights-bearing citizens”) to fall victim to this aggressive agenda, fitted with a number plate from cradle to grave and therefore having their every movement tracked throughout life, they need to stand up now against this erosion of liberty and privacy.
Against such a backcloth, being ‘out of school’ is increasingly perceived and portrayed as a dangerous, unsafe place to be. Home educating parents have always known the playing field is not level. They have been accustomed to having to justify the credibility of their choices, and push back against ignorance or prejudice.
But we are now seeing the fruition of an underlying mentality that “school is safe” and “home is not safe.” We know the first statement is unjustifiable and the second a non-sequitur, but ideologies are not driven by sound logic. They appeal to people’s emotions. The greater the level of rhetoric, the less real thinking takes place.
In this case the appeal made to the tragic death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes will probably persuade most of the general public that increased state intervention is justified. Young Arthur was most certainly known to welfare services, and had been in school, but lockdown provided the space for things to escalate with tragic consequences, and we now see this very unusual case being called by lobbyists as supporting evidence for an ideology they already endorse.
Unthinking members of the public tend to take emotive appeals for increased state intervention at face value. In fact, many base their opinions on a headline and rarely apply logic or reason to dig down for the actual facts of a matter. Such is modern-day reporting and its readership.
De Souza is right about attendance being more than “an abstract metric,” but unfortunately she has bought into a solution which dismisses the huge value and significance of individual parents and family. If implemented, it will move society another step nearer to compulsory state scrutiny of every child through an over-reliance on the ‘children’s professional.’
Parents, however, were raising families well before children’s professionals were ever thought of.
What can I do?
As far as your own reading and thinking are concerned, you could read up on the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry, and the government’s school attendance alliance.
Be aware that media reports inevitably contain rhetoric, and illogical, emotive or speculative comments. Learning to spit out these bones will help to improve your discernment, and make it easier for you to appreciate the actual facts of a matter, spot unhelpful conflation and identify underlying ideologies which colour a narrative.
Look out for items conveying another viewpoint to the status quo. Not all of these will be credible, but there are still some sane free-thinkers out there.
In terms of the people you meet, be aware that the personnel you encounter from the world of education and children’s services have most probably been in school themselves and then been trained in the ‘school is the best place for children’ mindset.
You may be able to encourage an individual to rethink some of their assumptions, or you may find yourself having to defend your home and family against unwarranted state intrusion.
In either case, it’s important to remember that one amicable employee does not mean that the system they represent is kindly intentioned towards your family’s lifestyle or educational choices.
Remember too that it’s not just this country where the underlying narrative is hostile to family, parenting and educational choice. Governments everywhere are locking down on HE and educational freedom in general.