Do the Education Secretary’s words demonstrate that the Government believes in the primacy of families, or will his rhetoric fade away in the future reality of policies such as a register of EHE children?
What’s been said?
Speaking in his role as “Cabinet Minister responsible for family,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson addressed the Centre for Social Justice [CSJ] on 20 May.
Established in 2004, the Centre for Social Justice is an “independent think tank that studies the root causes of Britain’s social problems… recommends practical, workable policy interventions,” and aims to “give people in the UK who are experiencing the worst disadvantage and injustice every possible opportunity to reach their full potential.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that in such a setting Williamson should place great emphasis on the family. But given the wider socio-cultural background familiar to many home educators where parents are regarded with thinly veiled contempt by many professionals, he made some astonishingly positive statements.
From the start, he stressed the vital importance of family, “a subject that is all too often neglected by politicians in Westminster.” After highlighting renewed appreciation of family due to lockdown, Williamson went on to make these remarkable assertions:
“I don’t believe we talk about family enough in Westminster… we have perhaps lost the confidence to talk about family in a positive way and the positive contribution families make to our national life.
Too often we have surrendered to the language of statism, stuck in the tired pathology that Government intervention has all the answers to societies woes.
This could not be further from the truth.
Families have many of the answers and we must give families, in all their shapes and sizes, the chance to thrive without the need for state intervention.”
Of course there was acknowledgement that family structures have changed over recent decades, but still Williamson stuck to his theme tune – “the importance of family has not [changed],” and “being part of a stable, loving family is one of the best mechanisms for boosting life chances.”
Ideology alone, however, cannot govern a country. Practical application and policy must follow, and here it was: “…the evidence is clear that if we are to increase social mobility and make this a country that works for all, we need to champion the institution of family at every opportunity…. We should be doing everything in our power to support parents in carrying out the most important job they will ever have.”
Specific DfE initiatives featured next; more Family Hubs, an Independent Review into Children’s Social Care, a new Chair for the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board, and more.
Beyond that, Williamson was at pains to point out that across government departments, the penny had dropped about supporting families: Andrea Leadsom and the Dept. of Health and Social Care’s The Best Start for Life; a recent relaunch of Supporting Families from the Housing Secretary; a new Reducing Parental Conflict Programme from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
And finally, a word of explanation about why public services work in this way: “services joining up to ensure that more families get access to early, coordinated support to help them overcome their problems before they escalate.” [Emphasis added]
Robust analysis was of course to hand to indicate some early successes to justify the now familiar policy of early intervention.
Why does it matter?
Given his audience, it is unsurprising that Williamson chose to emphasise the importance of family.
But are we convinced that his rhetoric reflects a genuine determination to apply such values and priorities across the range of work overseen by the DfE? Can home educating parents really believe that his closing words will apply to them?
“Every time Government legislates, spends, taxes, and regulates, we should think how this impacts families up and down the country. How does it strengthen the family and how does it support family life?”
In the prevailing atmosphere of statism and mistrust of parents, it’s understandable if nagging doubts remain. The early intervention culture and concept of state ownership of children go back a long way. Read an interesting review of Social Policy in the Noughties to get Every Child Matters and subsequent initiatives in their context.
Older parents or grandparents, of course, can remember a time when extended family and the local community fulfilled two very important functions. They would model positive parenting to the next generation, and they would be there to help in hard times.
Recent decades have seen two significant changes. First, dispersal of families along with the breakdown of wider family and community structures means that some of those intermediate stages are now missing, leaving parents more isolated. Secondly, agency has been steadily shifted from parents to the state, leading to a dependency mentality amongst younger parents, who have grown up with the expectation that Nanny State will sort everything out.
Having created that cycle of dependency and encouraged a professional-dominated environment where parents are not rated, the government is now reaping what it has sown. Having bought into the mindset that it can and should solve every problem, there is huge pressure both to deliver and to protect itself from accusation of negligence in a risk-averse society. Proactive safeguarding is the result – but this only enhances the culture of mistrust of parents. A classic feedback loop.
What can I do?
In view of all this, there is one very important question we should all be asking: Do “family friendly” government policies from earliest years do the same as strong and robust families taking responsibility for themselves in a proactive way?
Can an institutionalised approach really achieve the same as a natural, relational one?
Gavin Williamson appears to think not:
“Government should be here to empower and equip parents, not to strip them of their role and responsibility. The last thing any child needs is for Government to take away a parent’s rights to decide and responsibility to provide for their child.”
So can his words inspire us as parents to take every opportunity to stand against the erosion of the family, to reclaim our sons and daughters, to stand up for parental responsibility and trustworthiness in the wider arena – not just in home education – and to push back against the institutionalised culture of parent-blame?
Many families are alarmed by the growing pressure for not only a register of EHE children but also for monitoring and assessing their academic progress. Those with children who have been damaged by schools not meeting emotional and educational needs especially fear that having failed them once, the state machine is now seeking to envelop their children again. The DfE regularly restates its commitment to a register of children not in school, but there is no indication when the next step in that direction will be taken. Whenever that is, it will be important that all home educators challenge the Government to demonstrate that their proposals are genuinely for the good of the majority of children, and not simply a response to a decade of alarmist rumour mongers.
And finally, the reflections of Maggie Mellon, an independent social worker, on the role of family and the state on the fifth anniversary of the defeat of the Named Person Scheme are an important reminder of what is at stake.