What’s been said?
On 18 July the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman published a report by his Office under the headline, “Be clear about visits to home-schooled children says Ombudsman.” The report, dated 4 June, details the case of Miss X and her son Y, who complained about the way staff from Leicester City Council dealt with her between July 2018 and January this year.
In short, Miss X complained that the Council required her to provide details of her son Y’s home education without good reason to believe this was inadequate and when she declined to do so, sought to force her to accept a school place.
This situation arose after Y was withdrawn from school in February 2018 because he was being bullied. The family was routinely visited by Officer A in the following April, who did not record any concerns about the education Y was receiving. In July a school from a neighbouring council’s area complained about Y’s behaviour and that “he did not go to school.” Officer B contacted Miss X as a result, but did so without first ascertaining the full facts. The officer justified the hastiness of her action by saying that it was just before the end of term. Consequently she misled Miss X by providing incorrect information about the complaint. In particular, she initially said the complaint had been made by School 1, which was reasonably local to the family.
There was a pause in email exchanges over the school summer holidays, but these resumed in September. Miss X asked for a copy of the complaint – which had actually been made by School 2. This was not supplied. The situation escalated to the point where Officer B informed Miss X on 28 September that she had referred the case to the Education Welfare Service stating, “the education provided for Y is unsuitable.” Before that point was reached however, Miss X had complained to the Ombudsman about the Council’s actions.
Despite being informed by the Ombudsman’s office that it seriously questioned the reasonableness of the Council’s actions, the Council wrote to Miss X on 18 December giving her fifteen days to enrol her son at a school or they would issue a School Attendance Order [SAO]. Three days later the Ombudsman’s office contacted the Council by phone and email, emphasising that its position was that “the referral from School 2 did not seem to support its [LCC’s] actions.” The Council responded on 4 January, attempting to justify its actions. Three days later the Ombudsman again confirmed their position with the LA.
The Ombudsman’s report recommends that the Council cease its action against Miss X, which had resulted from the referral from School 2. It also recommends that the Council apologise to Miss X for having based its actions on a referral that did not justify those actions, and for failing to tell her what had been alleged against Y. Finally, the report also encourages the Council to make staff aware “that what is recorded about parents should be factual and non-judgmental.” The Local Government Act 1974 requires a LA to consider such reports at the highest level, and to report back to the Ombudsman within three months providing evidence that this has been done and detailing what action has been taken.
Why does it matter?
First and foremost it is good to be aware that there is an independent body to which parents can look for justice when a LA acts unreasonably towards them. In this instance the Ombudsman has intervened before the case reached court in regard to the SAO. It appears however that the Council can still decide not to pull back from its previous course of action, but should it take the matter to court, the judge would almost certainly find the Ombudsman’s report to be compelling evidence in support of the parent.
Further, in the announcement Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, says:
“Parents have a right to know on what basis a council proposes to visit them when they are educating their children at home. It may be a routine visit or one prompted by information which has come to the council, but it is vital that this information is passed on, particularly where a parent may need to provide an explanation.
“For the council to have continued to pursue the mother after we had repeatedly told it there was no basis for its actions was particularly disappointing.”
This is an important statement which, though it refers to one particular set of circumstances, does set a precedent for similar situations. EHE parents who find themselves under pressure from a LA which is withholding important information from them may find it helpful to refer its officers to this ruling.
This report is also important because it confirms the institutional prejudice against HE which is far too common in many LAs.
What can I do?
If you know Miss X, please thank her for reporting her Council’s attitude and action to the Ombudsman. Besides defending herself and her son, she has highlighted the existence of a service to which parents can look for support before a matter reaches the courts.
It has been difficult to summarise here the full circumstances surrounding these events, so we encourage you to read the report in full, where they are described more completely. This is especially important if you think it may be relevant to your own situation, or that of another family you know.
You could also keep information about this report on file for future reference – you never know when it might prove useful.
If you are considering contacting your Ombudsman with a complaint, please look at the information about how to do so on the relevant website first.