Conflicting Views on the ‘Voice of the Child’

Conflicting Views on the ‘Voice of the Child’

Scottish Government publish the responses to their home education guidance consultation along with an analysis of them

What’s been said?

On 2 February the Scottish Government Children & Families and Education Learning Directorate published their summary and analysis of responses received to their home education guidance consultation. All subsequent paragraph [§] references in this Byte link to this document.

The consultation ran between March and August 2022. It sought views on draft guidance, aiming to bring the present Scottish (2007) guidance up to date with legislative changes that have taken place since then, notably the General Data Protection Regulation as applied in the UK (UK GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018. When the consultation was published, the Scottish Government was working through the implications of the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that their attempted adoption of the whole of the UNCRC was outside their ‘competence.’ Thus the statement in §4.2 that the Scottish Government “has committed to the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law” appears premature.

A total of ninety-eight responses were received, fifty-three from individuals and forty-five from organisations. Of the latter, twenty-four came from local authorities, eleven from education stakeholders and the remainder from either third sector or other professional stakeholders.

All eleven questions are listed in §2.2. Readers will recognise some familiar issues. Section 4 categorises responses according to key themes, and is probably the quickest means of picking up an overall flavour of the range of views expressed. Topics include respectful relationships, local authority contact with home educators, perceived disparities, access to qualifications, data management, and a few other issues deemed to be “outside the scope” of the guidance.

Why does it matter?

Few home educating parents have time for deep dives into government publications, but considering a small number of varied responses can provide a broader understanding of the landscape in which HE practitioners find themselves.

All publicly available responses are listed here, and we comment below on four, selected to give insight into a range of views. These are from Social Work Scotland; a randomly selected Local Authority (North Lanarkshire); the Christian Institute (which led the challenge to the Scottish Named Person Scheme in 2016) and the Scottish Home Education Forum.

The team found Social Work Scotland’s response notable for its emphasis on the importance of professionals and the rights of the child, whilst conveying a very non family-friendly tone and a lack of respect for the role and responsibilities of parents. In Social Work Scotland’s view, the guidance “does not adequately address the need for guidance in relation to wellbeing and safeguarding issues for children who are home educated.” As a whole, their response makes for disturbing reading, communicating both systemic mistrust of family and pressure for ever-increasing involvement of ‘professionals’ in the lives of children, as will be evident from the following quotations:

“The Guidance is for local authorities and it is important that it reflects the responsibilities of local authorities rather than only that part of the local authority based in education settings. It is also important that the responsibilities of colleagues in education settings are broader than education and this should be strengthened in the Guidance.”

“It can be difficult to hear the voice of the individual child if they do not have contact with professionals outside of the family home; if all professional contact is in the presence of the parents/carers; or if there is no relationship base with the professionals involved.”

“Strengthening the role of the named person or a relevant home education link person would enable local authorities to respond to the needs of potentially “invisible” children.”

“While child protection data would suggest that home education in itself is not an indicator or increased likelihood of child protection concerns, lack of ‘eyes’ on a child would be – and there is knowledge of increased concern for ‘invisible’ children. It is difficult to identify whether a child’s wellbeing is being maintained, and if any child protection – or where relevant adult protection – concerns exist if the child has no contact with professionals or anyone outside of the immediate family.”

As noted above, the recommendations made in this response communicate large-scale mistrust of parents and the institution of the family, and would, if implemented, unacceptably skew the balance between individual families and the state.

North Lanarkshire Local Authority’s response at least acknowledges the role of parents in their statement, “Requests to home educate are generated by parents as it is a parental responsibility as to how their children are educated.” Though they can see possible benefits in “moving back to face to face meetings,” they also realise that parents “do not have to engage” in this process. They query how gathering more data from HE families would sit with GDPR guidance, again aware that there may be “families who do not want to engage/are not obliged to engage once consent has been obtained.”

Overall, this authority seems to be more aware than Social Work Scotland of the delicate balance between the rights of parents and the responsibilities of local authorities. Their response is more thinking, in that it poses questions, asks for clarity and points out areas of potential lack of consistency or contradiction, though it does betray a subliminally school mindset by the use of the term “pupil voice” when referring to a lack of direct dialogue between LAs and HE young people.

From the start, the Christian Institute’s response is robust in its defence of the parental role. In answer to question 3 about how local authorities might hear the individual and collective voices of home educated learners, they come straight in with “The parent, therefore, is the legitimate and appropriate ‘voice’ for the individual home-educated learner. Parents are ideally placed to represent them,” later adding, “A child’s voice should be listened to, but this is for parents to do.” They also support retaining the explicit statement in the draft guidance that parents do not have to give a reason for choosing home education.

They advocate for any enquiries about reasons for requesting withdrawal of a child from school to be made in a “light touch and non-intrusive way,” emphasising that no pressure should be put upon parents for their child to remain within the school system. Neither should a family opting not to seek the support or advice of the local authority be taken as evidence to “raise a ‘red flag’ in the minds of local authority officials.” The points the Institute raises in response to question 10 about a national register are well argued and categorical.

The Scottish Home Education Forum’s thorough and comprehensive response runs to over twenty pages, opening with disappointment that the organisation’s input into the 2019 Review of Home Education Guidance discussion paper had not been engaged with nor referenced in the present consultation. Neither had their own 2020 Home Truths report featured, despite being “the most comprehensive piece of research on home education in Scotland.”

SHEF pushed back hard in this regard though, by citing numerous Home Truths recommendations in support of their reasoning. They also advocated for “data minimisation,” and referred the Scottish government to Defend Digital Me’s research particularly their 2020 report on The State of Data.

What can I do?

Readers from all parts of the UK could benefit from reading the generic summary and some selected responses. Scottish readers might also wish to check the list of Local Authority responses to see if their own authority made a submission.

It is also important to recognise that the publication and analysis of these responses is only the first step in the Scottish Government’s response to the consultation. The conclusion makes clear that more is to come: “Further work will now commence on taking forward revisions to the home education guidance, and this will be brought forward in due course.”

Most importantly, some of these submissions remind home educators that the prevailing narrative amongst politicians and children’s professionals has much invested in the state knowing best. ‘Safer in the hands of the state’ is an unspoken assumption in the minds of children’s professionals, almost inevitably resulting in an implicitly patronising or dismissive approach towards parents. It is important to push back against this wherever possible, reminding any who will listen that parents are their children’s natural champions. They are experts in their own children, and in the vast majority of cases are motivated for their good. Professional oversight will always lack that level of commitment.