Union Leader Challenged for Suggesting that HE Children are Prone to Involvement in Gang Culture and Drugs

Union Leader Challenged for Suggesting that HE Children are Prone to Involvement in Gang Culture and Drugs

When the ex General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, appeared on Radio Suffolk, he discovered that the programme’s host, Wayne Bavin, wasn’t going to let him justify HE registers by making unevidenced claims!

What’s been said?

Home educating families are well aware that rumours of abuse and other dangers faced by HE young people have abounded in the media and in Parliament for a long time. Any thinking person should realise that such unevidenced accusations are in fact an admission that there is no actual evidence to support the changes which have been extensively lobbied for since 2006. However, because the lobbyists have been prominent politicians, public servants and other “well connected” organisations, and home educators are a very small minority of the population, no balance has been sought by reporters.

This is why the HE-Byte has been regularly encouraging families to work hard at seeking to change the narrative, not just at national level but locally too. Recent months have seen some encouraging early signs that the desired change is beginning to happen. Over the years the BBC has been a main outlet for many of the unevidenced claims, with the example set by national radio and TV channels usually being followed slavishly by local reporters. In mid-February there were indications that this practice was wearing thin.

First, BBC South reported widely on the rise in EHE numbers across its website, local radio stations and the early evening regional TV news programme. (Several recordings archived here.) Whilst questioning the HE parents who participated in the shows, the presenters showed a real and remarkable interest in both parents’ and children’s experiences. The usual aggressive negativity was replaced by a more supportive attitude.

Two weeks later BBC Radio Suffolk ran a similar theme on their breakfast show which is hosted by Wayne Bavin. Besides featuring in the regular news bulletins, one local HE parent, Jax Blunt, spoke with Bavin for over ten minutes. Interestingly, after referring to the rising numbers as he introduced the segment, Bavin commented that he has “a few friends who do it.” The HE parent interview went so well that sizeable clips were used in the 8:00am news bulletin and as an introduction to the following segment. This took the form of a conversation with Geoff Barton who was serving his final weeks as General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL). A recording of the two news segments and both interviews is available here.

This article focuses mainly on one section of Barton’s comments. Bavin asked if the rise in numbers was a concern to him. After the usual statements about some parents doing a marvellous job, Barton asserted that “the majority of young people need to be in school,” and went on to state:

“because we haven’t got a national register that those young people who aren’t in school may be getting high quality home education, but some may not, and we might not know exactly what’s happening and what will be, they might just be prone to falling into gang culture and drugs and so on and so forth.”

To his credit, Bavin came back to challenge him as soon as he could:

“That’s quite a strong statement to make, Geoff, isn’t it? You know, insinuating that children who are home schooled could fall into knife culture, gang culture and crime?”

Barton faltered, “It’s simply a statement,” to which Bavin quickly retorted, “Well, it is if you’ve got no evidence to back that up.” When Barton insisted that there is evidence, he was challenged to produce it, and responded thus:

“The most striking example of this was in a leafy part of Yorkshire, where a headteacher of a really good school was concerned that there was absenteeism from some of their young people. It wasn’t because of home schooling. The kids were simply not turning up at school, and what they found out through the police is that those youngsters were being used as drugs mules. In other words, they were being paid £40 to carry drugs from one side of the town to the other side of the town.”

Bavin was quick to point out the irony of this ‘proof’:

“All those children you just talked about there being drugs mules, the police told you they were all home schooled or weren’t in school?”

Barton tried to brush the objection aside by saying that the children involved “were certainly not in school.” This seems to have frustrated Bavin, who came back with:

“So there’s a big difference there, isn’t there, between being home educated and not going to school, being true. There’s a big difference.”

Before Barton could defend his point, Bavin interjected:

“So you haven’t got evidence to back up your statement then have you, that if you are home educated, you could fall into crime and gang culture, because any child at school, even with a good education, can fall prey to gang culture and crime.”

A transcript of this part of the interview is available or you can listen to it below.

Why does it matter?

Geoff Barton stepped down from the leadership of the ASCL at the start of April, having been in post since 2017. (He has been succeeded by Pepe Di’Iasio, previously head of Wales High School, Rotherham, who also served as ASCL’s President for 2021/22.) Whilst he was still in post, the HE Byte team reached out twice to Barton’s office to ask if he would like to provide us with a statement reflecting on what he had said to Bavin. We received no reply from anyone at ASCL, but should Mr Barton respond to this article, we will publish his statement as a post publication note.

What is remarkable about this exchange is not Barton’s unevidenced rhetoric – there are many articles on this site covering such fictitious claims which imply that home education puts children at risk. In one way we cannot blame Barton for being caught up in the atmosphere of the circles he has moved in for the past seven years. After all, he has been rubbing shoulders not only with politicians and the press, but also with high level public figures such as Children’s Commissioners and past Ofsted Chief Inspectors, who have all been committed to smearing HE parents with unfounded rumours of abuse, neglect, radicalisation and the like. It is hard to keep a clear head when the majority of other ‘important’ people are singing to the same tune and expect others to join the chorus.

What is remarkable about the exchange under discussion is that a BBC employee decided to go against the prevailing narrative by calling out the lack of evidence for rumours which were once again being advanced on the airways. Wayne Bavin’s firmness and clarity in the course of this interview needs to be recognised and appreciated by every HE family. As noted above, there had already been a change of tone from other local BBC staff in previous weeks, but Bavin went even further than his colleagues.

It was not hard to spot the fallacy in Barton’s example. As Bavin could see, these were young people who were on a school roll but who had not been attending. It also appears that despite Barton’s claim that “this was a really good school,” and that the head was ‘concerned’ about their absence, no one in the school had done anything to locate them until the police informed the school of what was happening.

These children were known to the state, on a register, and their absence from school had been noticed. Despite all those factors being “in place,” these school pupils were not safeguarded! How then can it be claimed that LA EHE registers will protect young people? Barton’s evidence simply demonstrates the exact opposite – registers don’t protect!

What can I do?

It is hoped that the recent change in attitude in small corners of the BBC will encourage all HE families to understand that a significant shift is taking place in the public narrative. Three days after Barton’s encounter with Bavin, the East Anglian Daily Times carried a report with the headline, “Almost 600 more Suffolk children homeschooled since Covid.” Being a local ‘celebrity,’ Barton was again asked for comment. This time though, he was far more circumspect in his response:

“It is a real concern that there has been such an increase in home education following the pandemic.
The reasons for this are numerous and complex but major factors are likely the worsening mental health among young people and the growing number of children with unmet special educational needs.
The crisis in SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) funding is limiting the amount of specialist help that schools are able to offer, while cuts to children’s services mean there are often long waits for external support.”

For over a decade, home educators have lived with an overwhelming amount of negative press. This has resulted in an understandable wariness of the media, especially the BBC. Whilst nothing has changed at the top yet, February’s reports provide some evidence of a shift at grass roots level. It is all too easy to forget that all organisations are staffed by ordinary human beings, many of whom in time realise that the emperor’s new clothes don’t actually exist!

Bavin’s comments following the 7:00am news may give some indication as to why this change has begun to happen. The fact that he has several friends who HE was noted above. Whilst the number of HE families was rising before the Covid-19 lockdowns, for a whole variety of reasons the lockdowns served to alert a significant number of families to the truth that school was not the best place for their children. Almost overnight, every family encountered a taste of what school was like for their children, and in time some parents saw their children were flourishing by not being in school – this despite all the difficulties of lockdowns and remote pandemic-schooling. There is now a new cohort of motivated home educators, and more and more people like Bavin have friends or family “who do it!”

Secondly, as Barton recognised in his comment to the East Anglian Daily Times, the nature of schools these days is making them not the best places for many children. He is not alone in this. In January Robin Walker MP, Chair of the Education Committee, long-time advocate of HE registers and a ‘supporter’ of Flick Drummond’s Private Member’s Bills, took part in a debate on SEND Provision and Funding. During that debate he stated:

“Not only are specialist and mainstream settings in every constituency struggling to meet the demands of the parents and families that they do accommodate but, as my right hon. Friend made clear in his granddaughter’s case, too many children are not in those settings when they ought to be. The Education Committee has heard that non-elective home education is too prevalent in this space.” [emphasis added]

So there are early signs that the narrative is turning in some quarters, though not in all. This is a moment therefore for home educators to take advantage of any opportunities which are presented to them. We congratulate those HE parents who decided to bite the bullet and take the risk of speaking with their local radio stations in February. You did an excellent job.

It is hoped that others will follow their example should similar opportunities come their way. If you get the opportunity to defend your decision to home educate in the public square, please don’t turn it down automatically.