Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Consultation on changes to Legal Aid - closes 15th Oct

I've used solicitors on many occasions for advice on both personal and business issues. My general experience with them sadly has not been good and I have often wished I had chosen to represent myself instead. Some of my complaints about them were as follows:

  • Losing vital documents
  • Being incredibly tardy in house conveyancing, rendering us unnecessarily homeless for a month
  • Giving advice that I later checked and found to be completely wrong
  • Giving me the impression I would be represented through family court hearings by a solicitor and then fielding trainees at the actual hearings instead
  • The trainees in question then not taking proper instructions or information from me, so ultimately misrepresenting me in court (where I was not allowed to address the judge myself to correct anything due to being officially represented by a solicitor)
  • Acting like I had no say or possible knowledge about anything. Telling me how my case would be handled and what I must do instead of asking - and often not even bothering to tell me and just leaving me in the dark.

And always, always billing me in full for all of the above without any qualm or hesitation and pursuing me for full and immediate settlement with the charm and tenacity of a starving bulldog (suddenly *then* they can write a letter properly!) if I demurred. I tried to complain to The Law Society on several occasions, but found out that the primary purpose of this solicitor-run form of so-called self-policing seemed to be persuading people not to complain and being extremely reluctant to act on anything whatsoever. (Nowadays this service is independent from the profession and run by the Legal Ombudsman, to hopefully better effect!)

In short, if one is on limited funds with no access to Legal Aid and wishes to carry on with life, it is necessary to pay up and shut up and hope to never need to use a solicitor again.

I will hopefully never use a solicitor again. I would represent myself now in most legal circumstances, quite confident in the knowledge that I was likely to do a better job than any solicitor I have ever consulted would have done. (More information on this below.)

My experiences with barristers were very different: I have used them on two separate issues and they were excellent both times, putting the briefing solicitor to shame. Perhaps - even in the days of maximum Legal Aid - one still got what one paid for when it came to legal representation.

And I will even concede that some provincial solicitors might offer (not bark) accurate (not guesswork made to sound authoritative) advice (not instructions: the client is supposed to instruct the solicitor, not the other way round) and carry out tasks properly (not carelessly, making expensive and time-consuming mistakes) in a timely way to suit the client, (rather than their own business knowing that they will get paid either way).

And that is before we even get onto the issue of any potential hidden motives solicitors might have. It is not unheard of for firms who generate most of their income from a local authority to seem less helpful towards client families who are trying to defend themselves against the same authority, for example. The family could never be absolutely sure any problems were due to this hidden motive, but the suspicion is sometimes there.

Representing oneself in court can be less daunting than many people might think. The Clerk of the Court can supply information about procedures and schedules and I hear they can be extremely helpful, if approached in the right way. Case law and statutes are both published online and freely available now, as is other useful information and the process of self education regarding one's own individual issue that comes from becoming a litigant in person can be fascinating, as well as time-consuming and infuriating in turn.

BUT if you are ever in a tight spot and you feel you need a solicitor or barrister and you do not feel willing or able to research the law and precedents yourself as well as a professional might be able to, or that legal representation might offer you a better chance of success, you might be interested in responding to this consultation on the proposed changes to Legal Aid.

Here is some explanatory background information from the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association and home educators have been approached for responses by Ian Dowty, a barrister who has given much of his time to help home educators to very good effect.

The message I received reads as follows:

URGENT -please consider responding to a short (closes on 15th Oct!) consultation, against further cuts to legal aid. http://www.clsa.co.uk/index.php

In the years I have known Ian Dowty, he has been the one helping home educators-today he has written asking for people to consider responding to further cuts in legal aid. He's never asked me for help before, it's always been the other way round.

Ian said: "I am sorry to trouble you but if I don't I (and many others) might not be around to help when needed if Grayling succeeds in further slashing fees for legal aid work. He is also bent on decimating (unfortunately greater than its literal meaning) the number of firms allowed to do legal aid work.

Recently the profession defeated his previous scheme as he had failed properly to consult having hidden from us the result of research he had commissioned which was not favourable to his intentions. He proceeded nevertheless. Having lost he is now embarking on a 2 week consultation before carrying on as before. We are already halfway through that period!

All the details have been set out at http://www.clsa.co.uk/index.php?q=Request-to-non-lawyers-to-respond-through-the-hub

If I could persuade you to write in to the consultation and to let people know the position and ask them too to write in to object, maybe something would happen. In any event if we do nothing, it most certainly will.

A million thanks"

I suspect this was not exactly the hoped-for post when I was asked to blog the issue! But I hope it helps anyway as many people will have derived benefit and support from Legal Aid and I hope many others will also be able to do so in future.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Safety warning for families

From Knowsley, Liverpool area:

Thurs 4th September 2014 · Liverpool ·

"Hi all. Just wanted to give you all a heads-up/warning about something that happened to me today.

An older man in his late 40's early 50's came up my path and approached my children and their friend who were playing in the back garden supervised by myself and another adult from the kitchen. He asked them where their mummy was and hearing him from the kitchen I went to the door.

He was wearing an identity badge around his neck and carrying a clip-board he was scribbling on which was obscuring the badge.

Without introducing himself he asked why my kids weren't in school? I asked who he was and where he was from and he said he was an 'education welfare officer'. I then told him my kids were home educated and he asked to come inside. I refused and asked him to send me something out in writing. He then said 'have I asked for permission to home educate?' I told him I didn't need permission, my son was legally de-registered and I'd been in contact with education services. He again forcefully asked me to let him in and I again refused.

He then said I needed to fill a form in and request permission to home educate, I told him that was not true and I was well aware of my legal responsibilities which had all been met. He was not happy that I was not complying and was acting aggressive and pushy but luckily I was not home alone and we did get him to leave, although he almost ran down one of us as he was leaving abruptly in his car.

I contacted education services immediately and they have said he was definitely not a member of any of our local education services and we should contact the police immediately. The police have taken a report and are concerned as all of his behaviour was illegal and unprofessional and are investigating this as a report of a suspicious male and a bogus official.

Please all take extra care and be aware that anyone official has to inform you in writing if they are visiting you. You also have no responsibility to allow ANYONE into your home, and please make sure you see proper identity before engaging with any cold calling 'officials'. This happened at 2.30 today in Knowsley."

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Section 7 and the role of the state in home education

Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 states that:

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable —

(a)to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b)to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

Home educators of course comply with this section of primary legislation in the 'otherwise' sense and this is one of the few positive duties imposed specifically on parents in statute.

It's interesting to wonder why there isn't a section of the law stating that the parent of every child of any age must cause him to receive efficient full-time nutrition, oxygen, shoe leather and so on, because the educational part should go without saying as well and I'm sure, prior to 1870 that it did, or nobody would have ever learned anything facilitated by their parents before adulthood and we know that this was not the case.

But in 1870,

"The views expressed by industrialists that mass education was vital to the nation's ability to maintain its lead in manufacture carried considerable weight in Parliament."

Children had to be kept out of the factories safely, so their parents could be free to focus on work and the children could be trained to varying degrees in classrooms. I suppose by lobbying for this to be compulsory, the industrialists were hoping to secure tax funding for the enterprise which of course they did, and we are again (still?) in a situation whereby only the reasonably well paid can afford a non-waged spouse to focus only on the care and education of the family's children.

The other question people sometimes ponder is why Section 7 made the parent responsible for the child's receipt of efficient full-time education. Since the state was eventually going to be providing free education in most schools (and according to Hansard it already was) why not impose the duty on local authorities instead?

Possible answers to this which spring to mind are as follows:

  • Children, at least historically, were seen more as members of families than as citizens of the state
  • Parents could be prosecuted for non-compliance perhaps more easily than local authorities
  • Should the education prove to be unsuitable for the child, the parent would be liable and not the state.

When I read arguments from political types who do not home educate, as I have this week, calling for all home educated children to be forced to follow the National Curriculum, to be submitted for state testing and regular checks and so on, I think of Section 7 and this *parental* - rather than state - duty it confers. To what extent can the state make specific stipulations as to the nature this education can take when not delegated to its own agents (the local authorities or schools) without breaching the parental role so much that it effectively takes the duty to cause receipt of the education upon itself?

If parents are to retain the duty to cause receipt by their children of suitable education then parents must be given the leeway to decide what form this education should take. If they have no leeway to decide upon form and content, then logically they cannot be held liable if the education proves to be unsuitable - for example, at the end of a disastrous period of tuition at school followed by poor outcomes for the child on leaving. If parental freedom to choose the form and content of the provision is curtailed, then parental liability for its suitability becomes void and some other body would become liable, possibly the local authority or the state itself.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What I think about the LSCB report into the case of Family W as it relates to the law relating to home education.

The report is here [pdf]; the Serious Case Review 'overview' is here [pdf] and there are news stories on the case here in the Guardian and here on the BBC.

I think what went wrong with regard to child protection procedures in this case is best summed up in the first two sentences of the BBC report:

The authorities missed opportunities to intervene in the case of a mother who forced her adopted child to impregnate herself so that she could have another child, a serious case review has found.

Social services were contacted four times with concerns before the 17-year-old girl gave birth to a son.

And again in the Guardian one:

On four occasions social services were alerted over concerns about the children's welfare but on each found no immediate child protection concerns. On two of those occasions, a neighbour, worried about the children's isolation and the mother's shouting and swearing, had called. On another, the mother's GP raised concerns about who was looking after the children when the mother was admitted to hospital for a month.

The local authority was also alerted by an anonymous acquaintance who wrote to agencies and officials in the country from which the mother was seeking to adopt a fourth child, apparently raising concerns over her suitability. This ultimately resulted in her being denied approval. The court heard there were also questions over whether the third adoption had been legal, or if it had flouted international loopholes.

It really could not be clearer that - after the adoptive mother - the local authority is firmly in the hot seat in respect of failures in its duty of care towards these children. Social services alerted on no less than four occasions, and insufficient action taken.

So, what does the Local Safeguarding Children Board do? Use the case to call for a change in the law on home education, in an attempt to shift the blame onto that for its own mistakes.

Were it not for the fact that reports like these are probably used to lobby governments to follow through on such ridiculous suggestions, they would be far better treated with the contempt they deserve but as they are, it seems some sort of response is in order, of which I'm sure mine won't be the only one.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that all three children were adopted from abroad, and that the mother tried to adopt a fourth, but was turned down in the adoption procedure. So there was a reason she was turned down (the 'anonymous acquaintance' mentioned in the Guardian) and she presumably underwent scrutiny by an adoption panel for the first three children. This was not, therefore, a family who was completely unknown to the authorities.

Point 1.5 states:

The LSB is concerned that as identified in the SCR the current legal framework provides serious limitations upon the degree to which local authorities can lawfully and effectively investigate to establish the suitability of the education being provided to home educated children, and so also be aware of any child protection issues which may arise from the nature of the education and the home in which it is being provided.

So I agree with this statement, but disagree that the situation should be changed. The LA had *four alarms* about this family prior to the birth of child D and the weird behaviour of the adoptive mother which finally triggered its action. Blaming the law on home education for limiting its ability to carry out its duties after that degree of failure just reeks of spiteful blame-shifting I'm afraid.

The legal procedures for child safeguarding are in place and are perfectly adequate - the Serious Case Reviews prove this again and again and again. They just aren't - in these Serious Cases - properly executed by the authorities. What is needed is not a change in the law, but better training of social workers and other officials to apply the law and guidance to good effect.

2.4 The older children are articulate and literate. It is a fact though that prior to their removal into care neither had achieved any formal qualifications at an age they would be expected to do so. In particular by the time of the birth of D, by which time ordinarily she might have been sitting "A" levels, A had no qualifications at all, even at GCSE level, despite subsequently being assessed as being in the intellectually gifted range.

Having no qualifications is NOT an indication of a failure in the education provision. As this report itself later states:

a "suitable" education is one that "primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so".

Neither statute nor case law say anything about the compulsory taking of GCSEs or A levels. I have particular interest in this point, since my three now adult children all opted out of taking GCSEs and A levels, preferring to continue pursuing their own individual learning paths. On reaching adulthood, one set up his own IT company, one used his self-taught skill with the Russian language to become a translator and one used her experiences as a home educated child to become the local home education nanny. All three are self-supporting and extremely well equipped for a life within the community of which they are members and their future options to do other things are not foreclosed due to lack of qualifications, which they can take at any time they wish.

Had they been forcibly diverted from their own individual paths of study in order to take GCSEs and/or A levels against their wishes, this would have impeded their chosen goals: to be an IT expert, a translator and a nanny. They may have still achieved their goals in one form or another, but these would have been much delayed due to unnecessary unrelated coursework.

So no more about lack of qualifications indicating lack of suitability please, safeguarding boards.

The points in section 2.6 just scream to me "School Attendance Order":

2.6 The degree to which M was offering "suitable" or "efficient" education to her adopted children is highly likely to have been impeded given the following factors described in the judgments of the civil court:

  • The significant over reliance upon A to care for her youngest adopted sister C
  • The significant amount of time that was taken by M in seeking to adopt children, including travelling for extensive periods with A and B to the country of C's birth in order to adopt C
  • The occasions when M either left A or C alone in order to holiday with B (travelling to Arizona, for which she was later to be convicted of child cruelty)
  • The period in which M was hospitalised in 2009, leaving the children alone for weeks without any arrangement for their education.

The authorities were aware of every single one of these - or should have been - and yet failed to set in motion the process for issuing a School Attendance Order.

I don't actually think this would have solved the problem. As the report itself later admits:

attendance at school is no guarantee of a child's safety

and these children obviously needed far more intervention than a School Attendance Order. Which proves my next point: that education and welfare cannot - canNOT - sensibly be conflated. Education neither causes nor prevents child abuse and the same is true for schooled children as it is for home educated ones. The two issues are treated differently in law and should be treated differently and separately by local authorities.

2.8 This dreadful scheme was instigated and controlled by the sole person responsible for the children's education, and took place in the same environment in which they were in receipt of elective home education.

Where do I start with this?

Firstly, the sole person responsible for a child's education is always the parent. Sending a child to school only delegates that function, but it doesn't absolve the parent of the duty according to Section 7 of the Education Act:

The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable —

(a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and

(b) to any special educational needs he may have,

either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

That's the parent, not the local authority. Would the child safeguarding boards really like to overturn that responsibility, given all of the legal repercussions that would cause?

Secondly, it might be called home education but many home educated children are actually mostly educated at groups and activities and venues and in the car and at the bus stop and in the supermarket aisle and so on and so forth.

Thirdly, two unrelated things happening in the same space can't be said to impact each other just because they happened in the same space. If I eat a delicious meal in the same room as someone was murdered, the murder doesn't taint the food. I do kind of take the point that a woman who was capable of coercing her adoptive child to be artificially inseminated to produce another adoptive child for herself to raise should not have been home educating, but then again I don't think she should have been parenting either. And there are procedures in place to remedy this, and enough information was known to the authorities to set them in motion.

Also if my point there was the one the report wanted to make, it should have made that point instead of coming up with nonsensical ideas about "environment".

3.1 ...................

"This was of course a key issue in this case. A and B were "off the radar" until they were twelve and eleven yeas old, when the first child protection referral was made."

3.2 Thus it appears that there was no opportunity for any evaluation of the suitability of the home education being provided until A and B were already of secondary school age, by which time it is now known that they and their youngest adoptive sibling C had already experienced significant harm in M's care.

If there were issues regarding their well being, these should have been pursued. The education could have been looked into then, since there would also have been reason to believe the provision was unsuitable - as per section 437 of the education act:

(1)If it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they shall serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education.

Back to the report. I am now onto the section which looks at the law pertaining to home education.

4.11 Firstly if children have never attended school local authorities may not be aware of their existence:

"Parents are not required to register or seek approval from the local authority to educate their children at home."

This is increasingly less likely to be the case and needn't be at all. The local authority keeps databases of school attendance or has access to them. It can also easily acquire access to child benefit data. Put the two together and you have the children not attending school. The authorities can therefore very easily be made aware of their existence. Indeed, it has a duty to ascertain this "so far as it is possible to do so" set out in the unfortunate Section 436A of the Education Act:

(1)A local education authority must make arrangements to enable them to establish (so far as it is possible to do so) the identities of children in their area who are of compulsory school age but -

(a) are not registered pupils at a school, and

(b) are not receiving suitable education otherwise than at a school.

And as the report goes on to explain, the associated Children Missing Education Guidance [pdf] directs local authorities to the home education guidance in the case of (b) above. And it's with the home education guidance [pdf] that it has a problem.

And yet this guidance does extrapolate the law on home education very well. Even this report does not dispute it. So it is essentially calling for a change in the law.

4.17 The issue arises how the suitability of home education can be established if a parent does not wish to voluntarily enter into a dialogue which allows the authority to properly verify the suitability of the education using methodology which goes beyond accepting what the home educator indicates at face value.

The local authority must wait, as the law and guidance tells it to, until it has cause to believe the education might not be suitable. There are good reasons for this. Firstly, because section 7 makes parents and not the local authority responsible for the child's education. And parental decisions enshrined in law cannot be constantly second guessed by officials or there would be no parenting left to be done. Secondly, those about whose provision there are no concerns would never be able to provide our children with individually tailored and focused provision if we had to keep taking time out to convince the local authority of its suitability, thirdly we should be innocent until proven guilty, and fourthly there are already sufficient legal remedies for child abuse, which only need to be correctly followed!

4.19 This leaves local authorities with the unfortunate conundrum that where home education is said to be being provided, they are required to intervene if there is reason to believe that the education provided to the child is "unsuitable or inefficient", but under the Guidelines such reasons can only be established in the first place if there is already evidence of this. As described above, such evidence must apparently be discovered without having monitored the education provided, without having a right of access to the child, and without having a right of access to the home in which they are being educated.

They don't need to get evidence from monitoring. Concerns about home education provision can come to local authorities from a variety of sources, often relatives, neighbours and other acquaintances. And it stands to reason that if there are concerns about the child's welfare, the suitability of their home education provision might also be in doubt, which *should* trigger the section 437 response described above. The fact that the law was not properly applied in this case does not logically mean the law therefore needs to be changed.

As for having a right of access to the home and the child to assess the educational provision, this is madness. Educational provision is just that. It can be set out on paper, described in a meeting, over the phone or on a website. It does not need to be tested and verified by inspections of the home and the child unless the author of this report is asserting that no parent is ever to be trusted and that the word of parents is always to be disbelieved as a matter of course. Luckily, the law disagrees and so we live in a relatively sane society not a crazy Orwellian one. Or not quite.

4.20 This means that unless local authorities have grounds for monitoring of the child on child protection grounds, there are no powers to insist on entry to the home for an evaluation of the suitability of their education.

What's with this obsession for entering our homes? Should all families have their homes inspected for signs of child abuse? Should the contents of everyone's fridge be evaluated for nutritional suitability? Their beds for the thread count in the sheets? I am starting to think that the authors of this report would wish it could be so. Armies of people given free and open access to officially evaluate people in their homes like the Stasi. It's quite chilling.

4.21 It is also clear that the legal duty upon local authorities to "safeguard and promote the welfare of children" under the Education Act 2002 "does not bestow on local authorities the ability to see and question children subject to elective home education in order to establish whether they are receiving a suitable home education"

Yes. Amazingly, the law states we parents should be believed unless there is reason to think we might be lying. And our children can be protected from routine interrogation by official too. Hallelujah!

4.27 The nature of what is considered suitable is extremely flexible as identified at paragraph 2.9 above. The current Guidelines indicate that in their consideration of parents' provision of education at home -

Local authorities may reasonably expect the provision to include the following characteristics:

  • consistent involvement of parents or other significant cares
  • recognition of the child's needs, attitudes and aspirations
  • opportunity for the child to be stimulated by their learning experiences
  • access to resources/materials required to provide home education for the child - such as paper and pens, books and libraries, arts and crafts materials, physical activity, ICT and
  • the opportunity for appropriate interaction with other children and other adults.

4.28 It is unclear however how local authorities can properly resolve whether or not these elements are in place without any independent verification. Currently local authorities are expected to consider these matters on the basis of a paper report provided by the home educator alone.

Yes. We are innocent until proven guilty. We are not all automatically under perpetual suspicion of mendacity.

5.2 The LSCB considers that the current statutory framework hampers the capacity of local authorities to exercise effectively their primary function to protect children from harm, including the harm to their development which arises from an unsuitable education. The limited nature of the legislation in this area effectively acts as a straightjacket on local authorities where there is not yet a referral which meets the criteria to justify an investigation of a child's welfare under the Children Act 1989

Some local authorities (with the evident exception of the one discussed in this report!) apparently need to be straightjacketed when it comes to protecting children from harm, when there is no suspicion that any harm is occurring.

The report itself earlier admits that

5.1 The premise of this report is not that parents who home educate their children are prone to abuse their children, or that the nature of home education is abusive. The premise of this report is that as with society as a whole a very small minority of parents are abusive, and that this is likely to be the case irrespective of whether a child attends school, or is educated at home.

So we have effective child protection procedures for all children, which - when exercised properly - provide the best protection for children whilst balancing this with our article 8 "right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence."

5.7 The issue for local authorities is how within the constraints of the law they can have sufficient information to trigger the power under Section 437 Education Act 1996

No. The issue for local authorities is how they can follow the law when there are no good reasons not to. They should have set in process the Section 437 action directly upon receiving the referral in 2007 and evidently did not. Was it because this is a bit arduous and they could not be bothered?

5.12 In the area of the local authority with responsibility for A, B and C, almost one in five referrals which lead to the assessment of children by Children's Services under the powers conferred by Section 17 and Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 arises from referrals from schools.

Only one in five? 20%! So 80% of such referrals come from sources other than school - sources just as likely to report on home educating families. Indeed, one could argue that they are more likely to report on home educating families since these are often out in school hours and thereby attracting special attention to themselves.

5.13 If children are not in school, are not given access to adults beyond those selected by their abusive parent, are rarely seen by other public agencies with a duty to promote their welfare, and only then in the presence of an abusive parent, it is clear that there is effectively little if any means to evaluate their welfare beyond the hope of a child protection referral from a member of the public.

And yet, since 80% of referrals come from non-school sources, it seem there is a very high hope of a child protection referral from a member of the public. Indeed, the children in Family W were subject to no less than four such referrals, none of which was sufficiently acted upon.

5.16 This approach whilst correct in so far as the parents' legal right to refuse access is concerned, is contrary to the usual safeguarding approaches, where (informed by decades of research) refusal to allow access to a home or child may very well heighten concern. This is made more acute because, under the framework described above, the request to see the home or children may very well only be occurring after local authorities already have reason to believe that the education being provided may not be suitable.

But a Section 17/47 action involving social workers and always on receipt of child welfare concerns has a completely different status to that of a request for information about home education provision, and so it should. I agree that a refusal by parents to allow access to the home or child after welfare concerns have been expressed and particularly in the case of section 47 possibly should heighten concern. But this is after concerns have been reported. A common and initial request for information on the educational provision for a child comes before concerns have been reported. The first denotes a healthy function of the state (although it worries me that we seem to rely increasingly on the state to perform it in our ever fragmenting society) and the second would effectively relate to a police state. It's a subtle but important difference and one which I hope the LSCBs can soon master.

5.19 The sad reality is that abusive parents have a vested interest in restricting access to their home.

We ALL have a vested interest in restricting access to our homes! These are supposed to be safe and peaceful havens for our families, which are essential to our health and well being, hence this being enshrined in human rights law. Inspections and interrogations are invasive and damaging to our peaceful family lives and to use these as part of a screening process is abusive in itself. The ends do not justify the means. And anyway, Eunice Spry the abusive, home educating foster mother had annual visits from local authority officers seeking information on her educational provision in which the children were seen, and the abuse was still not detected by them. So unrestricted access to our homes is not only a breach of our families' Article 8 rights, it has also been shown to be utterly ineffective in detecting abuse.

Friday, May 16, 2014

News from Northern Ireland

A guest post today from Sarah Dickinson at HEdNI in Northern Ireland. Personally I think the key quote from her excellent post is:

"The duty to educate belongs to the parent and the ELBs should not attempt to usurp that crucial role."

I wish the very best of luck, energy, focus and motivation to Sarah and to all other home educators in Northern Ireland, so that they can work together successfully to defeat this attempted incursion into their children's education and their family lives.

___________________________________

"Round and round it goes. Northern Ireland is facing the latest attack on home education as we know it.

Northern Irish law is, and is not, the same as English law on home education. The crucial phrases are the same "The parent of every child ... either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." (Section 45 Education and Libraries Northern Ireland Order 1986 SI 1986/594) and "Where it appears to a board that a parent of a child of compulsory school age in its area is failing to perform the duty".. (Schedule 13 of the same Order). but the titles are different and we lack the case law and guidance that help to define these duties and powers in England.

Instead of Local Authorities we have five Education and Library Boards (ELBs or Boards), and these are due to be replaced by the Education and Skills Authority (ESA) one day, if Sinn Fein and the DUP can agree.

In preparation for the launch of the ESA, the Boards have drawn up a draft Policy on Home Education intended to cover all five Boards. The whole conduct of the Boards has been calculated to imply that the five separate consultations are separate, minor, local matters.

However a policy covering the whole Region could have quasi-legal force, particularly in the absence of case law or guidance. The Boards appear to take the view that the interpretation of the law is up for grabs and with the weight of every Board behind their view, and a notably conservative judiciary, they might indeed be able to twist the law enough to make life very difficult. Nobody wants to be the test case that proves them wrong in the higher courts.

The Boards take the view that their role is pro-active. A duty to react 'where it appears' there may be a problem is transmuted, with a little hand waving and muttering about the importance of protecting children, into a duty:

  • to assess the learning environment for safeguarding concerns
  • to ascertain the child's "opinion"
  • to require that a "programme" of education is submitted and evaluated before de-registration from school is permitted
  • to ensure that parents meet "minimum standards" to be judged subjectively by visiting education officers, which include the child's "physical, social, emotional health and wellbeing needs"
  • to subject children with Special Educational Needs to assessment by an Educational Psychologist, to check that "reasonable progress" has been made

In support of these welfare-related powers the Boards offer the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. The UNCRC is quoted selectively and could just as easily be used to argue against the proposed scheme. In any case has this Convention has not been incorporated into Law and cannot create such draconian powers. The Children Order, on the other hand, relates to matters to be taken into consideration by the Courts; to apply court procedures to families about whom there are no concerns is to turn the presumption of innocence on its head.

The law is not up for grabs in this way, such powers as the Boards desire can only be created by clear and explicit primary legislation. They are attempting to give themselves powers unavailable to even to the Police or Social Services.

The duty to educate belongs to the parent and the ELBs should not attempt to usurp that crucial role. The duties of the Board should be interpreted (as required by Article 44 of the Education Order) with regard to the general principle that a child should be educated in accordance with the wishes of the parents. The Boards' role is purely reactive and their powers are triggered by outside forces- it must "appear" to them that there is reason for concern before they can do anything at all.

Nor is the atmosphere of distrust and threat that hangs over the document conducive to good relationships with those they profess to be so keen to engage. Their 'expectation' that parents whose children have never been in school will register and submit to this scheme is almost comical. In fact many home educators have been so concerned that they will become known to the Boards that they won't attend the farcical focus groups (minutes to the first meeting here) or submit a response to the consultation.

The Boards have admitted in response to Freedom of Information requests that no research was done before the drafting, and nor was any stakeholder consulted, despite the fact that many home educators attempted to make contact. They tell us that they are drawing on their own experiences of dealing with home education! The lack of legal preparation is highlighted by the fact that they quote an un-amended version of the legislation, last modified in 2005. The Boards have so far been unable to produce any costings or impact assessments, or even crucial elements of the scheme - the application form to home educate and the form to be filled in during the home assessment.

We insist that the Education and Library Boards act within their legal powers, build the trust that is so painfully absent and support a parents right to choose.

Please sign our petition, write to the Northern Irish Minister for Education and keep up with news at HEdNI, where you will also find template letters. Thank you for your interest and support."

- Sarah Dickinson, HEdNI

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Things that don't really add up.

  • The much quoted recommendation 4, from the Education Select Committee inquiry into Support for Home Education:

    "The development of a more formalised professional association of, and/or annual conference for, home education officers, driven by those in the profession themselves, could be a welcome step in terms of sharing best practice nationally, and in turn might consider issues such as accreditation and improved training for local authority officers." [My emphasis]

  • That infamous note, buried amongst the others in the Notes from the All Party Parliamentary Group Home Education Event, October 22nd 2013:

    "At the end of the meeting Graham Stuart MP offered to assist with the launch of a national body for elective home education professionals working within local authorities to network and share models of good practice as recommended by the Education Committee.

    "This was widely welcomed and the next APPG meeting in February will take this forward." [My emphasis]

  • The comment from a home educator who was present at the above meeting:

    "It hasn't been mentioned since until Graham Stuart raised it as topic for next APPG when he closed the last one - there was no opportunity for any discussion." [My emphasis]

  • And finally, the Tweet from Graham Stuart:

    "There's been a bit of speculation lately about the Home Education APPG. The most recent group meeting, and the next one in Feb, will be invitation only. This is to help bring together home education experts from local authorities to set up a group to exchange info and expertise." [My emphasis]

Some of those selected phrases again:

"driven by those in the profession themselves,"

"offered to assist with"

"help bring together"

Are Local Authority officers themselves really driving the formulation of this new professional association? If so, I'm very puzzled as to why they seem to need so much help and assistance in so doing from Graham Stuart and the APPG.

Lisa set out her concerns about the process and organisation of the APPG very well last Wednesday (including a link to this worrying post) and indeed I have wondered about its purpose ever since it was set up.

This is stated as follows:

"To raise awareness of the subject of home education in Parliament and to provide a platform for a full range of views about policy on home education."

And yet in the case of this supposedly industry-driven new professional association:

"there was no opportunity for any discussion."

Even though, according to the notes, there *was* opportunity for it to be..

"widely welcomed."

And now the meetings are no longer open, while this professional association the local authority officers are supposedly driving is being set up. Where was the discussion, incorporating the "full range of views" for this incentive? Why is it suddenly a fait accompli, whether we like it or not? Why does it need to be dragged into existence by Graham Stuart, this new body which could so easily be turned against us?

I really hope I'm wrong, but I keep imagining a certain conversation between Michael Gove and Graham Stuart, in which the latter explains: "We don't need to regulate the home educators: we'll just organise the Local Authorities to do it for us."

It does fly in the face of what we thought we knew of him, but then he is the man who planned to "be upfront and have a high profile, not only within the constituency but nationally". And it could be said that championing the cause of home education has helped him to achieve this. Are his children home educated, if he is such a fan?

And if that imagined conversation does fall wide of the mark, then why else is this national body for elective home education professionals working within local authorities being formed? Mr Stuart is not a stupid man. I'm sure he realises what it could do to us in the next parliament, if not this one.

Monday, November 04, 2013

A national body for elective home education professionals working within local authorities. What could possibly go wrong?

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Home Education met last month, notes here. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky there are some notes available from these meetings and that they are open for any and all home educators to attend, in stark contrast with some previous conversations between certain home educators and government on the subject. To date they seem to have been discussing access to exams and so on, but the notes from the October 22nd meeting also include this sentence:

"At the end of the meeting Graham Stuart MP offered to assist with the launch of a national body for elective home education professionals working within local authorities to network and share models of good practice as recommended by the Education Committee."

I gather that this idea is one that Mr Stuart has been pushing for some time, but I am puzzled about his possible reasons for it. To be seen to be doing *something* in an attempt to head off another Badman-type inquiry after 2015, perhaps? And sharing good practice does sound like a good idea. But would it stop there, realistically? How long before the members of this national body collectively start to identify 'problems' in staying within their legal remit in liaising with us? We already know, from their responses to the various consultations and reviews over the years that many individual officers would seek to extend their legal responsibilities over us if possible.

We also know from the Badman report the extra emphasis given to professional bodies in the collection of evidence and opinions for decision-making. So I'm just wondering why some home educators seem to be attending the APPG meetings but perhaps not arguing against the setting up of such a national body for elective home education professionals working within local authorities, which would almost definitely become an effective, professional lobbying group *against* our current freedoms.

I am trying to keep an open mind and can see why the apparently worsening postcode lottery for local authority treatment of home educators might make such a national body look like a good idea. But I am worried about the medium and longer term outcomes from it for us and would love to better understand the thinking behind it.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

My thoughts on home education ID and membership cards

I've been home educating for quite a few years now, and the subject of home education ID cards has come up every now and again. People are attracted to the idea of using them to gain negotiated discounts and entrances and those who distribute them are perhaps attracted by the role of benefactor for whatever reason, or just want to be at the centre of things.

That's all well and good if everyone participating is happy, but could they be seen as a step along the route of mandatory home education ID? The gradualist approach of government takes what people have accepted as normal, then makes it official, then makes it compulsory. So you can start with some home educators joining a voluntary ID card scheme of their own making, and end up with this as a form of registration/regulation, with home ed ID cards being government-issued and dependent on certain hoops being jumped, and these then being raised ever higher, of course.

My children have benefitted from free home education, in pretty much every respect. It has cost us very little in either money or compliance, and it has still been possible, and enjoyable, and fruitful. It has been full-time, efficient and suitable to their ages, aptitudes and abilities etc as a more schooled education could never have been. We have deliberately avoided any kind of fund-raising and the compliance that comes with this, and have kept official intervention in our lives to an absolute minimum. I want my grandchildren - and all our children and grandchildren - to enjoy the same freedom, if they want it.

But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and part of this is to watch yourself, and be aware of how much free grain you might be eating, and whether the fence posts are quietly, slowly going in behind as you munch.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Elizabeth Truss is not our enemy.

On Monday of this week, the DfE produced some new guidance on school attendance, which effectively outlawed the growing practice of flexi-schooling. Elizabeth Truss has been named as the minister responsible for the decision, which has reminded me of a post I meant to write back in October 2012, when she gave oral evidence to the Education Committee's inquiry into Support for Home Education.

I'm sorry for any distress and potential upheaval caused to flexischoolers by the above guidance, but flexischooling is NOT home education. It is permission requested by parents and granted by school heads at their own discretion (until now) for authorised study time off-site. The school retains full government funding for the child's full-time education for which it is, in any case, answerable to the government.

When Elizabeth Truss spoke to the Education Committee, she showed an excellent understanding of what is meant by full-time home education in comparison, I thought. Certainly better than anyone on the committee and most of the other evidence-providers. Here are some short clips of her evidence, with the words she said in them pasted below:

video

(Alex Carmichael: How do you actually track success and how do you actually ensure that there is some sort of challenge in there, particularly if you don't actually know who these people are?

Elizabeth Truss: Let's be clear. We're talking here about purely educational issues. So it's 'Is the child receiving a suitable education?'

Alex Carmichael: But we don't know if the child is. We don't know, you know, where these children are. How do we know that they're being suitably educated?

Elizabeth Truss: Well, the point is, it's the parent that has legal responsibility to make sure that child has a suitable education. So it's their legal responsibility and if they're not fulfilling that - if it comes to the notice of the local authority, then the local authority have a duty to follow that up. But it is the parent's responsibility and I think we've got to be careful about legislating from Westminster to try and interfere with that current position because the more duties we end up putting on local authorities to register, you then take the responsibility away from the parents and I'm very clear that when parents make the decision to home educate for, in many cases very good reasons - whether that's reasons specific to the way they want to educate their child or whether it's issues at school - they have taken that responsibility on and it's the parent that is accountable rather than the local authority.)

I think it's important for home educators to understand the importance of what this government minister is now on record as having said. When we try to share the funding of our children's home education with local authorities and/or schools, we are also asking for the responsibility to be shared. And currently what protects us from undue local authority intrusion into our educational provision is the fact that we, the parents, are legally accountable for it. The local authority is not.

I feel I can't overstate the value of Elizabeth Truss's keen grasp of this position and the fact that in this, she is very much our ally - not our enemy.

video

("Because what we're saying here is, parents who have taken the responsibility to educate their children at home, that's their responsibility. It's not the local authority's responsibility. And local authority clearly have a responsibility to establish and identify children in the area that are of school age that aren't registered pupils at school and are not receiving a suitable education and if they hear of, or indeed identify where that's not the case, then they have a duty to follow that up. Well I think we're... in the question between, sort of, freedom and sort of tracking, keeping up with people, I think we're roughly in the right position and I don't think, um, given that there isn't any evidence that home education produces worse outcomes than other forms of education, I don't see a substantial reason at this stage, to change that.")

video

("I think that the balance at the moment is, roughly speaking, around the right place. So I think that we give home educators considerable freedom. We also give them responsibility to provide a suitable education for their children. We don't ask them to register. We don't have undue interference, which I wouldn't be in favour of, but at the same time we understand that it's a profound decision to educate your child at home and when a parent makes that decision they do have to take financial responsibility for that. I'm aware, the Secretary of State, when he came into office was pretty clear was pretty clear on the funding issue, given the general financial constraints the government face and in particular the Department for Education faces.")

It could not be more clear. As parents, we have full responsibility, set out in Section 7, for our children's education. If we do not wish to delegate this responsibility to the local authority and/or a school, then we MUST take full financial responsibility for it ourselves.

I speak as a single parent on minimum income, who has fully home educated three children to adulthood and is still home educating a further two. It can be done: I am doing it, and I have done it. Furthermore, I would recommend it to anyone.

If you want to watch the above evidence hearing in full, you can do so here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

"The Government wants to change the law so that all children have to go to school" - Consult deadline today!

It's not as dramatic as it seems, from the quote in the title. At least I hope not. The excerpt is from the children's version of a consultation about changing the Education Act in a part that relates to school attendance for travelling families (Section 444(6)) with a view to repealing it.

Nothing to do with Elective Home Education you might say, but the terminology and spirit of the documents is absolutely anti-home learning and pro-school. As any parent knows, children learn all the time, in all situations and often the most natural situation for a child's education is the most effective for that child. Education is not all paperwork, it's also computer work, craft work, industry, satisfying curiosity, finding questions and answers in a multitude of places.

We are all unique in our interests and learning styles, BUT we live under a government which has an economy to drive, and the education industry is very much a part of that. My fear, borne out by documents like this, is that the economy's needs risk over-riding whatever might be best for people including their freedom to decide what might be best for themselves.

My adult children have no qualifications and yet all do earn as much money as they want and need to earn. Instead of restricting their academic studies to those set out by someone else on a curriculum or syllabus, they have used their time instead to keep following their interests freely and hone their potentially commercial skills, which has enabled them to enter the workplace free of debt and contract, so they could partake on their own terms. I imagine this outcome is just as easily available to traveller families, if not moreso, and it is a option to be valued, not dismissed because it doesn't fit with wider international social and economic plans for us.

Section 444(6) of the Education Act 1996 says...

444 Offence: failure to secure regular attendance at school of registered pupil.

(6) If it is proved that the child has no fixed abode, subsection (4) shall not apply, but the parent shall be acquitted if he proves— (a) that he is engaged in a trade or business of such a nature as to require him to travel from place to place, (b) that the child has attended at a school as a registered pupil as regularly as the nature of that trade or business permits, and (c) if the child has attained the age of six, that he has made at least 200 attendances during the period of 12 months ending with the date on which the proceedings were instituted.

Some home educators I know are in touch with travelling families and have asked for their views on this. Their response has included concerns about the break up of families when men are travelling for work and children have to attend the same school consistently, and also about the lack of legitimate places for travellers to stay without being moved on for long enough to ensure the required school attendance.

In 2001 a Gypsy took the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights for preventing her from stationing caravans on her land, a breach of her right to private life. The judgement included the following legal requirement:

..the vulnerable position of Gypsies as a minority means that some special consideration should be given to their needs and their different lifestyle.

- and the proposal to enforce full school attendance would breach this special consideration legal requirement.

I have also read the adults' version of the consultation and the wording is nearly as bad as the children's one:

Evidence tells us that regular, consistent attendance at school is associated with good achievement. To ensure that each child has the opportunity to achieve their best the Government is determined to improve school attendance for all children. We know that significant absence from school reduces the opportunity for children to fulfil their potential.

- and I want to challenge this notion that achieving one's best and fulfilling one's potential always necessitates qualifications, compliance and even excessive affluence. In whose interests is it all, really? High attendance might produce better qualifications, but might its dogged pursuance be at the expense of an entrepreneurial, innovative - but essential - element of society?

Other home educators speak of traveller friends being effectively prevented from home educating by prejudiced official interventions in their family lives (however well-meaning these might be) and feeling forced to register their children at school purely to relieve some of this pressure, even when their preference is to home educate and they are perfectly well able to do so.

Is this consultation evidence of a further move to phase out Nomadic living in England as it has been in the Nordic countries and elsewhere? Are settled, housed communities really so threatened by the mere existence of travelling people? I am currently reading a book about, amongst other things, the early coexistence of both nomadic and early farming communities and the problems and benefits both might have experienced as a result - are we still grappling with the same kind of dynamics as our forebears from 3,000 years ago and more?

If we are not careful, we risk Elective Home Education becoming a preserve of the elite, of which only "green light families" can avail themselves. This would be a wrong turn, in my view. Instead, we should embrace freedom and differences, and continue to let Traveller families dip in and out of schools at will, trusting them as much as any other parent to cause [their children] to receive efficient full-time education suitable — (a) to their age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs they may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

As my response to the consultation, I will be emailing a shortened version of this to the government. After all, if they don't trust Traveller parents, who will be next?