Essex Councillors Fear Home Educated Children are Joining Gangs

Guilt by rumoured association is on the increase, thanks to Longfield and Spielman

What’s been said?

The misleading headline “Essex parents who home school now face a £1,000 fine if they mess up their child’s education” appeared on the EssexLive website on 17 January. Written by Piers Meyler, the report highlighted “a briefing on Children Missing from Education by cabinet member Cllr. Ray Gooding” which had been presented at the previous day’s People and Families Policy and Scrutiny Committee.

An audio recording of the meeting is available. We will comment separately on this. (To listen to the half-hour discussion, click on the arrow icon in item 5 “Education Portfolio Update” of the agenda.) Here we consider the three page briefing which Cllr. Gooding (Con) along with Cllr. Ivan Henderson (Lab) and Clare Kershaw Director of Education presented to the Committee.

The briefing opens with the assertion:

“Children can be outside of the mainstream education system for several reasons (including exclusion from school), but mostly due to parents choosing to home school their children.”

This is not stated as a cause for celebration as many readers might hope. For the working party of councillors behind this briefing, it is a matter of grave concern.

Gooding’s briefing continues by paying lip-service to “parents who wish to home educate their children,” before using off-rolling as justification of the need to track children. He relies heavily on last February’s “Invisible Children” report by Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, and consequently echoes her calls for a register and much more. Concerned about the “lack of statutory powers available to local authorities to ensure that we have oversight of the system,” Gooding used his report to seek the Committee’s approval for Essex to “lobby government for additional powers.”

We cannot comment individually on each of the briefing’s five recommendations, which are based on the Council’s submission to last year’s consultation, so we encourage you to read the three page report. Here are the headlines of the first four recommendations:

  1. Mandatory registration of children educated at home (with duties on both local authorities and parents).
  2. Development of guidelines/criteria and an application process which parents should be required to follow in order to be approved for elective home education by their local authority.
  3. Specific duties for local authorities to monitor, at stipulated intervals, the quality of home education provision.
  4. Breach of School Attendance Order should carry greater consequences than the current £1000 fine that may be imposed by courts in such cases.

The fifth recommends that schools should be forced to readmit children who were “withdrawn… to be home educated” when their parents subsequently change their minds about HE. There is nothing in it, however, to require schools, or a LA, to rectify any shortcomings which may intentionally or otherwise have put pressure on parents to deregister their children in the first place.

Why does it matter?

If nothing else, this briefing highlights that whilst last year’s Children’s Commissioner’s report has not been in the headlines for some time, it has been busily doing its work in the minds of local councillors. It therefore lifts the lid on how the many misrepresentations contained in Longfield’s work continue to influence councillors and children’s professionals.

The ground for Longfield’s charges was prepared by comments from Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman in November 2018. Speaking about “local authority children’s services, criminal exploitation of children and county lines,” she carefully referred several times to home education, without actually claiming a direct link between the two. We pointed out shortly afterwards that a report in the widely read Children & Young People Now joined the dots – as she almost certainly intended. Whilst an eagle-eyed reader pointed out the inaccuracies with the wording, it seems the subsequent editorial amendments were not implemented in time to stop councillors from assuming that the case was made. Gooding states:

“There is also increasing evidence that children who are not in school are becoming involved in gang and county lines activity which coincidentally is also on the rise in Essex.”

Whilst one may think this is a minor case of confusion, there is a strong possibility that this briefing has been influenced by councillors’ own concerns over these very issues. As recently as November, Piers Meyler wrote two articles on the growing problem of gangs and drugs in Essex. The first, headlined Essex children are joining gangs at an alarming rate, recognised that “Essex is one of the top destinations for young drug dealers involved in London county lines gangs.” In the second, Meyler refers to “Essex County Council’s task and finish group working on drug gangs, knife crime and county lines,” and lists amongst its members Councillor Gooding and Councillor Carlo Guglielmi (Con), who spoke strongly in support of the briefing’s recommendations at this recent meeting.

As we highlighted in June, “all these things conflate” and whether we like it or not, the HE community must now understand that in too many people’s minds we are part of the problem, even though it is society at large which is falling apart and not, generally speaking, home educating families.

What can I do?

There is a need to break the negative feedback cycle about HE in political circles.

Perhaps in all that HE parents are doing to that end, a neglected aspect is engagement with local councillors. They are however an important part of the cycle, as this Essex briefing illustrates.

Councillors are ordinary people, and therefore rarely engage with HE families – use this report to motivate you to change that wherever you live. If you are part of a HE group, invite your local councillor to visit and tell the children about the work they do.

Investigate your local council’s website and find out when meetings are happening, especially those committees that discuss children and young people’s services. The public are normally able to attend. Use these as educational opportunities, if your children are of a suitable age.

Perhaps two or three people (even older children) in your LA area could take on the role of looking out for forthcoming meetings which feature HE related items on the agenda, and then alert others families so they can lobby councillors before the meeting.

If you have other ideas, please send us your suggestions.