“The Safest Place for a Child to be is in School”

Essex councillors are concerned that your children are not being monitored

What’s been said?

We recently highlighted a briefing presented to councillors in Essex seeking approval to lobby government for greater powers to register and monitor HE. Behind it lay concerns that children whose parents claim they are being educated at home are getting involved in gangs and drug-dealing.

In this Byte we look at the half hour discussion around this document, during the People and Families Policy and Scrutiny Committee on 16 January. It is difficult to summarise everything that was said, so we encourage you to listen to the whole discussion to gain an understanding of how local councillors are now thinking about HE. To do this, scroll down the agenda to item 5 and click on the arrow icon – the audio will start at approximately 87:50 into the recording.

The briefing is presented by Councillors Ray Gooding (Con) and Ivan Henderson (Lab), along with Clare Kershaw, Essex’s Director of Education. (A picture of this panel is available on Twitter.) Other councillors taking part in the discussion are Chair Jenny Chandler (Con), Carlo Guglielmi (Con), John Baker (LibDem) and Patricia Reid (Lab).

Gooding introduced the report saying it was a very important package on which Councillors Baker and May (Independent) had also worked. He acknowledged that “for some of” the large number of children being EHE it is “not a bad thing”, and “traditional” home educators “often end up with very good outcomes.” He continued, “If anything, we would like to work with those people to address the needs of those people we do have concerns about.” However, he did not say that any approaches to such responsible HE parents had already been made, nor is there any reference to their opinions in the briefing or the ensuing discussion.

The prevailing mindset of many LA members and staff was articulated by Gooding after about nine minutes, when referring to last year’s Children’s Commissioner’s report and the implied perils which the growing number of HE children face from gangs by “being on the streets.” He then stated, “The safest place for a child to be is in school.”

Clearly he and others have not read Wendy Charles-Warner’s excellent research on the “Safeguarding Myth.” Further, they have not bothered to join the dots across the country as report after report describe large numbers of girls being sexually exploited by grooming gangs. This recent academic article states that amongst the circumstances contributing to the victims’ vulnerability was the fact that “they were in care, truanting from school,” thereby confirming that these were not unseen and therefore not “missing” children.

Two minutes later Guglielmi, Chair of Essex’s Task and Finish Group, on drug gangs, knife crime and county lines, expressed his fears about those “who have been excluded from school and are either home schooled or not.” He also claimed that there is a proven case that some parents are “taking their children out of school to have a prolonged summer holiday on the cheap.” Recognising that there are good home educators he continued, “it just needs to be regularised and regulated, which you know now is the time to do that.”

Director of Education Kershaw, speaking about sixteen minutes into the discussion, was of the view that parents should have to apply for permission to HE, and should welcome having to do this! Her reasoning leaves much to be desired; “If you absolutely as a family want to HE your children, we hope that making it a little bit more stringent in terms of the application process to do that, and then the monitoring, you should welcome that because you are engaging in what you want to do.”

Three minutes later Baker raised the issue of safeguarding by stating, “it’s about young people, children who are resident in Essex, that we have a responsibility for, and it is a major issue.” [Emphasis added] Here then is the heart of the matter; if children are in the care or supervision of an LA, then they do have a responsibility for them – but what if they are not? The political conversation has morphed in recent years, and many now believe that the state has responsibility for every child, even when they are in the care of the most capable of parents.

To put it simply, the core issue of the last decade during which HE freedom has been undermined is, are children ultimately the responsibility of their parents or of the state?

This point was illustrated when the meeting moved on to discuss “invisible children” and the need for a registration and monitoring system. Four minutes before it was brought to a close, Gooding cited his experience as a football coach and attending a safeguarding course. He was taught how to monitor young players,

“and they show you what areas to look out for. Absolutely right. These young people when they are out of school, who’s monitoring them? Who’s being able to look out for them? Because they are not going into any clubs, any sports club, there’s nobody monitoring them.” [Emphasis added]

Why does it matter?

Audio recordings of meetings like this are far more helpful than written minutes because they provide a window into the thinking of local councillors. Whilst this meeting does not fully explain how these men and women have been influenced to think about EHE as they now do, it does illustrate the slow but sure impact of high profile figures like the Children’s Commissioner casting doubt on genuine HE through associating it with child abuse, drug-dealing gangs, exclusion and off-rolling – not to forget radicalisation – all with very little evidence.

The meeting also highlighted that, generally speaking, local authority councillors are not hearing from genuine home educating families!

What can I do?

Please listen to the full discussion – it is impossible summarise it here.

In the earlier Byte about the briefing we encouraged HE families to engage local councillors in more general ways. Here we wish to motivate you to also speak to them directly about EHE, and the dangers of the present trend of assuming state responsibility for children over and above that of their parents.

This is especially true if you live in Essex. Gooding specifically said they would like to work with genuine HE families. Take him at his word, and make the opportunity to speak to him and the other members of the cross-party group which prepared the briefing.

If council members don’t hear our voices, how can we expect them to listen to us?