Gateshead’s EHE Multi-Agency Group is an Alarming Signal

Why Gateshead’s Draft EHE Strategy also matters elsewhere

What’s been said?

A recent Byte alerted home educators to a consultation on their Draft Elective Home Education Strategy 2020-25 opened by Gateshead Council on 13 December 2019, and closing on 17 January 2020.

Despite its limitations and the brevity of the five week consultation period, it is important that as many HE families as possible make a response, to challenge the mission creep evident in this and many other local authorities’ approach to home educated children.

Why does it matter?

Given that Gateshead is ex-Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson’s former stamping ground, it should come as no surprise that their Council’s EHE Strategy reflects the hubris of a local authority that has convinced itself that its responsibility for the well-being of children in its area knows very few bounds.

After introducing the Council’s intention to “help young people who are home educated thrive,” the Guiding Principles declare a desire “to develop positive and supportive relationships with parents, working together, to ensure every young person who is EHE in Gateshead, reach their full potential.”

It is the Council’s “duty under section 436A of the Education Act 1996, to… establish the identities, of children residing in Gateshead of compulsory school age, who are not on a school roll and are not receiving a suitable education,” which leads it to deduce from the DfE Guidance for Local Authorities (April 2019) that “until a local authority is satisfied that a home-educated child is receiving a suitable full-time education, then a child being educated at home is potentially in scope of this duty.”

The Safeguarding section rightly states that an LA’s general duties with regard to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children apply equally to schooled and HE children, also acknowledging that this does not entitle them to “insist on visiting a child’s home, or seeing the child, simply for the purposes of monitoring the provision of home education.”

However, “information sharing protocols” with “partners [of LAs] who deal with children” are justified from the DfE Guidance in the case of “children who appear to be home educated and about whom there is a concern as to the suitability of that education.”

Despite a recognition that “safeguarding concerns are no higher in the home education community than those young people who attend school,” the Council appeals to its child protection duties in cases where a child’s “intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development” could be impaired if a child were receiving an “unsuitable or inadequate education.” One can only assume that a “school model” of education informs the majority of such evaluations.

A careful reading of pages six to twelve is recommended to fully grasp the chain of justifications by which “information may be shared where concerns are raised”, and “a multi-agency group [MAG] will meet when concerns are identified.” The incidence of speculative words such as “may,” “could,” etc. should also be noted, indicating a fear of what they don’t understand and a possible element of self-protection on the part of the authorities, as opposed to evidenced, genuine risk.

The following observation is cited in Appendix 1 as further support for interventions such as the MAG, “We are also seeing an increasing number of parents who choose to home educate who may not have the capacity to provide an education that is efficient and suitable for their children.”

The citation of Eleanor Schooling’s (former Ofsted’s National Director Social Care) recommendation in this appendix is also noteworthy, namely “the need for different types of child protection issues to be linked, taking a more strategic approach to identifying risks and providing an effective response for home educated children.”

We commented thus in March 2018: “Schooling asserts that school is a protective factor in children’s lives and that schools play a vital role in developing children’s skills to participate fully and constructively in society. The tacit assumption is that the State is better at both safeguarding and education than parents.”

Despite its opening words about working together with parents, that assumption exactly expresses the very different overall tone of this Strategy document. The expanded definition of safeguarding is the most worrying feature of it, and illustrates Schooling’s linked-up approach perfectly.

Pages nineteen to twenty-one should also be studied carefully, as we read there that “Safeguarding is not just about protecting children, young people and/or vulnerable adults, from deliberate harm, neglect and failure to act. It relates to broader aspects of care and education…” Several bullet points then detail various aspects of children’s lives which would until recently have been considered to fall within the remit of parents and the family home.

If state authorities are taking unto themselves responsibility for the whole-life wellbeing of all children, is it any wonder that HE families are viewed with suspicion?

The alarmingly titled EHE-MAG “meets monthly for an hour… to share concerns and discuss potential ways forward.” The breadth of organisations represented on this group and the number of possible scenarios which might render a home educated child eligible for discussion are truly frightening!

The climate of surveillance and suspicion engendered by such proposals will do nothing to improve good relationships between the HE community and their LA. In fact, it will have entirely the opposite effect.

What can I do?

Wherever you live, read the Strategy document carefully, alongside these two articles from our Library, Child of the Parent or Child of the State? and The Rise of the Safeguarding Industry.

Use your meagre allowance of characters to best effect in responding to the consultation by 17 January. You don’t have to be a Gateshead resident.

You could also consider submitting an official complaint over the timing of the consultation.

Observe well the overall direction of travel, not just in Gateshead, but in the growth of the many-headed hydra that is threatening the boundaries of natural parenting and family life.