Directors of Children’s Services and Home Education

What’s been said?

In the week leading up to the failed second reading of Lord Soley’s Bill (26 October), two HE-related media items featured Directors of Children’s Services [DCS]. Both expressed frustration with the current legal position concerning HE, but both also demonstrated a lack of accurate knowledge regarding it.

On Wednesday, 24 October, the Yorkshire Post’s Richard Beecham reported on a recent meeting of Leeds City Council’s Children’s Scrutiny committee. He focussed solely on HE, even though it did not appear on the agenda, nor in the “Scrutiny Inquiry – Is Leeds a child friendly city?” prepared by DCS Steve Walker. Draft minutes of the meeting have now been published, and again there is no reference to HE. One has to wonder therefore if this is another case of a reporter looking for a “lobby-horse”. According to Beecham, Walker raised the rise in the number of HE children in the city between 2012 and 17. When a member asked why this was so, he responded “I think there are parents who are frustrated with the education their children have been receiving.” The report added that Walker warned the council it had “limited powers to ensure children were being educated properly” and stated that “Edward Timpson has been asked to head an inquiry by the Government to look at the issue of home-educated children.” The latter is incorrect.

The following day, 5 Live’s morning programme feature on HE included an interview with Debbie Barnes, speaking on behalf of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services [ADCS]. Barnes is Lincolnshire’s DCS, having been in post since 2012. Given her experience, it was disappointing to hear her claim, “Tragically we have had a number of serious case reviews over the years which identified that those [HE] children have been hidden.” Mike Wood [HE-UK] was able to correct that claim on air a few minutes later. In the recent consultation the DfE acknowledged twice that in the cases frequently cited, the children had “normally been known to relevant agencies”. (Call for Evidence Section 2.3f & Draft Guidance for LA’s 7.2)

Why does it matter?

What is concerning about both these instances is that two people in senior Children’s Services posts were unaware of important facts. Wood rightly invited Barnes to provide him with the details of any SCR concerning a EHE child who had been unknown to the LA. By raising the myth of documented cases of hidden and abused HE children, Barnes did her colleagues in the ADCS no favours.

As for Walker’s claim that ex-minister Ed Timpson is overseeing an inquiry into HE, this is yet another case of a lack of clarity, misinformation or even fake news. It is true that in March Timpson was asked by the DfE to carry out a review. The review however is of school exclusions, not HE children. The terms of reference in fact make no mention of EHE, and focus on the behaviour of schools not children.

Both these instances serve to remind home educators that those in the forefront of providing LA services to children and their families are not necessarily the best-informed. That is to be lamented especially because these misunderstandings filter down to LA staff, who consequently come to believe that they have responsibilities (and powers) that they don’t have. One of the main drivers of this misconception in the last decade has been the focus on state safeguarding, as illustrated by the recent consultation. This belief doubtless lay behind Leeds DCS Walker’s assertion, “Our responsibility is to make sure that they are receiving appropriate educational provision,” [emphasis added.] As nearly every home educating parent knows, that responsibility is legally placed upon parents not the state and its employees, and there are good reasons why this is so. Home educators, it seems, are now the last line of defence of this and other important parental responsibilities in England.

What can I do?

Comments by DCSs provide helpful insights into the prevailing mindset in Education and Children’s Services departments. Home educators will find it helpful to gain a better understanding of what these authorities believe their responsibilities to be to every child in their area. It’s essential to understand their thinking if we are to effectively stand against their arguments.

The role of DCSs was created by the 2004 Children’s Act. One of the first to be appointed in 2005 was Maggie Atkinson, who in 2010 became Children’s Commissioner for England. In 2009 she gave a keynote speech at an event organised by the RSA and the (now defunct) Learning Consortium. In her fifteen minute talk she describes her work as a DCS. The video below is well worth watching if you want to understand the prevailing mentality within today’s Children Services. Most HE families will find the opening three minutes alarming, but they do help to explain why the ADCS is campaigning for a register of EHE children.