Counting Children

Counting Children

Challenging rhetoric and addressing long-standing confusion over the assertion that collecting data on every child matters

What’s been said?

This Byte reports on four recent items, two from Defend Digital Me [DDM] and two from Counting Children [CC]. All are relevant to the issues of data protection and the proposed registration of children which are preoccupying many home educators right now.

DDM had a letter published in the Telegraph on 30 March under the title “There’s no secret ghost army of Oliver Twists.” This of course was a reference to a phrase popularised by Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee. At the time, Full Fact had investigated the numbers alleged by Halfon and claimed that the figures were out of date, but by then the rhetoric had taken root in the political domain.

DDM’s letter asserted that there “is no proportionate case for creating a new national database” and advocated making better use of statistics that are already available. Then on 7 April, DDM published a Blog News item entitled “Counting children outside schools in national records.” This is a long but very worthwhile read. It explains those confusing categories which we have probably heard of but never quite understood, and highlights the problems that occur when sub-sets of children in different circumstances are unhelpfully bundled together under a “children not in school” umbrella.

DDM have also been busy reaching out to other organisations, and the launch of the Counting Children coalition later in April was a welcome and very timely development. Besides individuals supporting the coalition in a personal capacity, several other organisations have endorsed CC’s aims and objectives, namely Big Brother Watch, Square Peg, No More Exclusions, Not Fine in School and York Travellers Trust.

Counting Children brings together a broad range of expertise and experience. It describes itself as “a coalition of organisations and academics with intersectional interests from across the fields of safeguarding and child protection, education, SEND, data protection, law, and human rights.”

Home educators who share many of CC’s concerns will find themselves encouraged by the relevance of the coalition’s stated aims:

  • increase the level of informed knowledge in public discussions and media;
  • create a place to stay up to date with proposed policy and legislation;
  • understand shared concerns and consensus, and any areas of disagreement;
  • create a pool of expert and experienced voices for better evidence-based policy

The lead item on Counting Children’s Policy page is a Briefing on the Schools Bill. This is a useful read and will no doubt prove extremely helpful to EHE parents as they attempt to marshal their thoughts prior to engaging with politicians.

Why does it matter?

A cursory glance at the headings from the DDM Blog demonstrates the existing level of confusion. Clarity is desperately needed. We should not forget that these ‘categories’ refer to real children from real families whose lives and educational experiences are being adversely affected by the ongoing confusion.

Home educating parents need clarity. So do local authority staff, and it is absolutely paramount for those who develop policy at the DfE, otherwise these unworkable and confusing situations will be perpetuated.

So it is good to see organisations and individuals from the wider sphere coming together to articulate shared concerns and challenge inconsistencies or unnecessary data collection. Counting Children home page leads with their concerns about the “current quality and standards in debate about children out of school and the inaccurate use of facts and figures by senior politicians, institutions, and their apparent lack of understanding about law and practice on children’s databases in England and Wales.”

Quite a catalogue there, with far-reaching implications. It’s not the first time the HE Byte has commented on the effect of ill-informed remarks from public figures. Statements from politicians and high profile children’s professionals shape the thinking of the general public. Once misinformation is out there, it is hard to undo, and inaccurate media reporting only exacerbates the problem.

Hence the importance of separating the strands of this extremely tangled web, and pressing for clarity in legislation and in practice. If policy is based on speculative data or bias rather than on established facts, how can it hope to address real need? Besides which, families who should be left to get on with their lives without further ado endure unnecessary intervention and continued stress.

As DDM’s work reminds us, those arm’s-length bodies bodies are influential, and the misleading numbers and associated inferences are damaging. And their point about the proposals to collect more data about children in a new national database in order to “find them all” is positively chilling.

Many home educators have been aware of this for some time, but it isn’t hard to see how these things will potentially affect other families too – parents whose children may be “out of school” for other reasons than elective home education, for example – and as for “finding them all,” this will affect any parent who is unhappy with the idea of a national database encompassing all children.

What can I do?

Picking up on the “finding them all” thread, draw the attention of parents outside home educating circles to the civil liberties implications of data collection and unique child identification numbers. Engage them in conversation about the proper boundaries between parents’ and state’s responsibilities. Try to communicate the fact that registering home educated children is only part of the problem, and other families could just as easily be affected or see intrusion into their privacy.

Defend Digital Me identifies itself as “a call to action to protect children’s rights to privacy and family life. We are working towards safe, fair and transparent data.” Their name denotes the policy area they are working in. It also indicates their proactive approach – they have something to defend. And everyone can identify with that personal pronoun – we all have a part to play.

For years there have been murmurings about imminent registration. With the Schools Bill now in plain sight, it looks like it’s time for each one to embrace a Defend Home Educating Me approach.

  • The moment is upon us.
  • We have something to defend.
  • We cannot stay within our nice cosy HE bubble and ignore what’s going on.
  • We need to get out there, raising concerns with the public as well as with politicians, speaking about the follies of unregulated data collection and unrestricted sharing.

The bottom line is: the state may only collect data with the informed consent of the provider and for purposes which have been demonstrated to be absolutely essential.

Let us each do all we can to raise a defence against the erosion of our civil liberties and state invasion of family privacy. The primacy of parents in overseeing their children’s education is certainly worth it!