Darlington Safeguarding Children Board Considers HE a Problem

Local reporter spins their report to spread unjustified fears

What’s been said?

On 5 November the Northern Echo carried an article entitled “Fresh law calls to protect home schooled youngsters.” Written by Stuart Minting (Local Democracy Reporter), the article reported on a meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Committee on 4 November, at which Independent Chair of the Darlington Safeguarding Children Board Ann Baxter presented the DSCB 2018-19 Annual Report. Minutes of the meeting are available as a PDF.

The Report’s Introduction supplies DSCB’s mission statement: “Safeguarding is everyone’s business and everyone works together to protect children and young people from harm and promote their welfare which allows them to become confident adults.” Further details about how this is achieved follow on page 12, “Effective safeguarding relies on the collective contribution of all multi-agency partners working in collaboration.”

The explosive growth of the safeguarding industry has spawned a mind-blowing number of agencies, sub-groups, acronyms and official bodies, as demonstrated in the Report’s Appendices and page-long Glossary of Terms.

In their role as Inspectors of Local Authority Children’s Services, in February of this year Ofsted conducted “a focussed visit” to Darlington to consider the Borough Council’s “arrangements for children who need help and protection.” Improvement was noted since their March 2018 inspection, and Darlington was officially declared by the Community Safe Partnership to be “a safe place to live.”

The Report addresses a range of topics associated with the provision of effective safeguarding and the promotion of child welfare, and the section on EHE (page 19) covers only half a page of a thirty-six page document.

The main points may be summarised in this way:

  • effective safeguarding mechanisms need to be in place for children who are home educated as well as for those who go missing in education;
  • Darlington’s dedicated EHE Officer offers home visits to check suitable education is in place, and offers support to families;
  • a Multi-Agency EHE Monitoring Group including representatives from local authority, police and health services meets termly to consider all children on the EHE database. Investigations are escalated should the EHE Officer have safeguarding concerns.

The section closes with statistical data about children registered as EHE, and those Children Missing in Education [CME].

Why does it matter?

As indicated above, safeguarding in Darlington was reconfigured in July 2019 to facilitate collaboration between three statutory safeguarding partners – Durham Constabulary, the Local Authority and the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) which “have joint and equal responsibility for ensuring the effectiveness of safeguarding within Darlington.” [A Byte from June 2018 reported on home educating families receiving visits from Durham Constabulary.]

Although the Council may congratulate itself on having achieved an increased level of safeguarding efficiency, the DSCB Annual Report is very imbalanced. There is no reference to parents’ legitimate right to choose home education and go about this freely. The way that the EHE material is grouped together with CME, following sections on children missing from residential homes and tackling child sexual exploitation all serve to confirm that the Council’s view is that home educated children are just another problem category in need of safeguarding.

As far as the Northern Echo article is concerned, Minting chose to focus solely on the EHE component of the Scrutiny Committee meeting and the Report. Not only that, his article was written entirely from the Council’s point of view, featuring not a single interview or comment from home educating parents.

He quotes DSCB Chair Ann Baxter as saying that the EHE issue is “being ‘grasped very closely’ in the borough.” He also cites Jane Kochanowski’s, Assistant Director of Children’s Services, words about the need to visit home educated children who have been identified as vulnerable more frequently than once a year: “We don’t think that’s effective so we visit more regularly. It is really an emerging issue around the safeguarding of young people.”

In places he resorts to pure speculation, writing of possible outcomes, as highlighted here: “children who do not attend school can become hidden, meaning authorities are less able to help and protect them. Some of these children may experience risks within their family, such as abuse and neglect. There may also be risks outside their family, such as radicalisation or exploitation.” [Emphasis added]

Minting’s article echoes the tone of a multitude of other items about HE which have featured in local media in recent months and years. In that sense there is nothing new or newsworthy about it.

The more chilling aspect of the DSCB report is the co-ordinated way in which this Council views its safeguarding responsibilities, and the fact that HE families living in this area could so easily find themselves the subject of unjustifiable surveillance. Collaboration between the three organisations who are the statutory safeguarding partners could, without proper checks, become very sinister.

What can I do?

In this climate, living under a shadow of unwarranted suspicion might feel inevitable to HE parents from this region. But if you have evidence that you as a home educating parent have been discriminated against by your local authority and you cannot get its staff to respond as they should, consider contacting the Local Authority Ombudsman.

To understand issues in Darlington in their wider context, read the article about the Safeguarding Industry in our Library section.

On 28 November, Minting followed up his first Northern Echo article about HE with another on the rising numbers of young people being home educated in North Yorkshire. Claiming that this rise is ‘not linked to school funds crisis’, he uses this piece as another opportunity to call for increased legislation about HE.

Some well-worded contributions to the Northern Echo letters page by HE practitioners might get his attention – or even provoke him to talk to a real HE family!