Not Skipping School: Not Invisible Children

What’s been said?

On Monday 4 February Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, launched a media storm seemingly to persuade the public that “there are tens of thousands of children in England” in grave danger because they are not seen by state employees on a day to day basis. Her campaign was based around her report Skipping School: Invisible Children, which was accompanied by a statement and followed up by an episode of Dispatches [available until 6 March] in which Longfield “starred”.

Whilst this trilogy contains some very useful new information (albeit from just eleven local authorities), her rhetoric is very familiar to HE families. The usual topics were highlighted – without any supporting evidence. Longfield seemingly feels it is far more effective to alarm the public than to present real evidence to the government – which is surprising, given her role.

Across the three pieces she raised fears about HE children being potentially abused or radicalised – the latter in connection with Ofsted’s concerns about unregistered/illegal schools. Rightly, she also focussed on schools’ failures to provide an education suitable for SEND children, and the apparently difficult-to-detect practice of off-rolling. One wonders however why the topic of bullying, a significant reason for children being withdrawn from school, only received passing mention in the report and was not discussed at all in the programme.

Why does it matter?

The office of Children’s Commissioner carries with it important responsibilities, not least to “promote and protect the rights of children.” It is important therefore that she should deal in facts, not speculation. In July The Guardian reported that she was initiating an inquiry “to establish how many off-roll children are drawn into gangs”, along with her claim that both pupil referral units and home education are “associated with worse educational outcomes.”

It seems that the new report is the result of that inquiry, but mention of any research into outcomes for EHE children is conspicuously absent. Instead Longfield relied on her own lack of evidence to suggest that HE children “often reach school leaving age without any qualifications,” adding, “data on future outcomes of home educated children is inconclusive.” It was not beyond her resources to do substantial research into the life-outcomes of EHE children – perhaps she was afraid of uncovering a higher percentage of university graduates than most schools could ever hope to achieve!

The first indication that a documentary on HE was being produced came a few weeks after Longfield’s initial announcement. Last August Marika Cronnolly from Blakeway North, the production company responsible for this episode of Dispatches, contacted members of the HE community seeking volunteers to help with their research. (Cronnolly was credited as the Assistant Producer of the programme.) Instead of using the intervening six months for meaningful research into what HE young people actually achieve, Longfield preferred to cite Graham Badman’s claim that they are “four times as likely to end up classed as NEET – not in education, employment or training – once they turn 16.”

Why did the Commissioner not use the resources jointly available to her office, Dispatches, The Association of Directors of Children’s Services and The Local Government Association to seek a more reliable statistic than Badman’s? The good news however is that she appears to have found no connection between HE and gang membership.

Most readers will have spotted that Longfield’s report and associated materials contained much misinformation, making it impossible to comment on every detail here. Those interested in the new data it contained will find this in the Technical Report.

Dispatches featured one elective HE parent and three non-elective home educating parents. These families were not coerced with threats of exclusion, but were desperate home educators whose children had been failed by the education system. Who can forget Lily’s mum Mandy forcefully asserting, “nothing elective about this… when your child says… she’d ‘rather be dead than go to school.'” Sam and Baillie felt abandoned by a system whose only answer is school, even when a child’s needs are unmet. Many viewers will have empathised with the relief and anguish expressed by Leo’s mother Louise, on being informed (by phone and on camera) that the LA had been wrong to question her mental health.

When parents elect to accept the government’s offer to educate their children, the government’s first responsibility is to provide a suitable education for every child it agrees to take onto its roll. What Dispatches highlighted above all is the state’s failure to meet its own commitments in far too many cases. Given this, one might have expected the Children’s Commissioner to be calling schools, LAs and the DfE to account. Instead she proposes monitoring the only escape route available to many families, thereby calling into question her own role as the national children’s champion.

What can I do?

Elective home educators are eager to retain freedom for their children not to be squeezed into the state’s educational mould, because one size does not fit all. Longfield’s efforts highlight the horrendous pressures put on some families, forcing them to become home educating refugees. Some discover a joy they never expected, but many don’t. Such families need to have their voices heard.

Supporting the right of these parents to hold the government to account for its failure to provide an education suitable to their children may also help overcome the rhetoric of HE nay-sayers such as Badman, Soley, Wilshaw and Longfield.