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Dear Elaine Haste,
Further to the prospective consultation on "light touch changes to the monitoring of home education", we have read with interest the information forwarded to home educator Stephen Tarlton, following his Freedom of Information requests on this matter. The details of this have been widely circulated in the home education community.
We are interested to note that you wrote on 24th October 2006:
"I do not know how we can answer the FOI request about EHE parents who abuse their children. To my knowledge we have no specific examples, as we do not get involved in casework. All we have is anecdotal evidence from LAs of concerns about a very small minority of parents."
and that on the matter of
"the number of SAO's issued in England and Wales every year, the Dept does not collect the information...".
Given that evidence on these matters is not forthcoming, and given that with the recent introduction and implementation of the Children Act 2004 which is aimed at ensuring the safety and well-being of children and which requires the sharing of information between
agencies, we would question the need to pursue the matter of monitoring home educators any further, since we believe that the current legislative framework already provides adequate means for local authorities to deal with situations where it appears that a suitable education is not taking place.
However, we do understand that LAs are still making representations to you demanding further powers and that you are therefore feeling under pressure to act to change the legislative framework. For example, we hear that that Gloucestershire Local Authority have recently been asking for further rights to intervene in the lives of home educating families, prompted, we believe, by the fact that that they have recently been shown to have missed a case of abuse in a fostering/adoptive family.
In this particular case of abuse, the family were visited by a number of services over a long period of time, concerns about them had been raised on numerous occasions, and yet the LEA failed to address these concerns. Indeed at sentencing, the judge condemned social services and health workers who failed to spot abuse. Given the amount of contact that the services already had at that time, we suggest that this was a matter of mistaken professional judgement rather than a matter of insufficient powers to see the family.
Further, since the time that the abuse in that case was occurring, we have seen the introduction of the Children Act which is in part aimed at addressing the problem of missing abuse of children. In other words, Glos LA already do have more powers to help them spot this kind of abuse than they had at the time of this particular case. Glos LA do not need and should not be demanding any further powers to intervene in the lives of legitimately home educating families than they already do have, since they have perfectly sufficient powers to deal with this sort of problem and to demand more is to risk destroying the proper relationship between the law-abiding citizen and the state.
Yet we hear that Glos LA are proposing that they should have a legal right to enter homes of HEors and/or have access to children without parents being present apparently on the basis that these families home educate. There is also a strong hint that Glos LA want the right to 'doorstep' HE families, i.e. turn up unannounced. It seems that there does not need to be any reason to suspect that these families are breaking the law in these cases. Further, we hear that if a family refuse entry, they will be flagged as being "at risk", thereby immediately creating a problem out of nothing more than a family's desire to maintain some autonomy and privacy.
We feel that this is an outrageous infringement on the rights of citizens where there is no reason to suppose that they are breaking the law and we will be seeking legal advice on this point if necessary.
Entry to the home is indeed a proportionate measure in the situation that there is good reason to suspect that abuse or educational neglect is occurring. As the law is currently framed, LAs are within their current rights to make inquiries of families in order to establish that on balance of probabilities it appears to a reasonable person that a suitable education is being provided, but these should only rightly take the form of preliminary inquiries, which would not include unannounced access to families and children or insistence upon home visits. We believe we need to be mutually clear that home-based education should NOT be used as a prima facie argument for infringement of the rights of citizens to privacy and freedom from state intervention.
If we were to draw any sort of analogy, or extrapolate as if such a precedent were established, it would be logical to assert that say, OFSTED or some such body should be demanding the right to enter the homes of all teachers on the basis that some of them have been known to have relationships with pupils or have downloaded questionable material onto their computers. In other words, once this precedent is set, there is no hope for any citizen of any privacy, and it effectively establishes the mechanisms of a police state.
Further, we understand that sections of the Children Act 2004 deal with the intention to respect the needs of children. It is the case that many HE children have no desire whatsoever to live with the idea that any moment of the day, a complete stranger could turn up on their doorstep, demanding a right of access to them without their parent present, in order that this stranger may pass judgement on their entire way of life, in all probability with next to no knowledge about it. In other words, in demanding such access to homes and children, LAs will be failing in their duty to respect the needs and desires of children and government employees will be failing to respect the spirit of their own laws. Indeed, authorities need to ask themselves at what point they perpetuate rather than solve the problem of abuse. We feel that if an LA demands such powers, that they will have gone way beyond their remit and children will suffer needlessly because of it.
If the picture we are building is not sufficiently vivid, we would just like to ask you how you would feel in a similar situation. How would you feel if someone in authority had total access to your home and children at any time, without any warning, and without you having done anything wrong and with the power to alter your life in a hugely significant way?
Such a proposal is not proportionate, is not necessary, and sets a dangerous precedent.
To conclude, to increase the powers of the state in such a way as Glos LA seem to be demanding is to risk destroying the balance between the rights of innocent private citizens and the responsibilities of the state. Instead all that need be done is for local authorities to use the powers they currently have in an appropriate fashion and to intervene only when there is good reason to suspect that problems do indeed exist.
We look forward to your reply