8.1 Of all the matters considered during the course of this inquiry the question of safeguarding electively home educated children has prompted the most vociferous response. Many parents have expressed anger and outrage that it was suggested that elective home education could be used as a cover for abuse. They have not been slow to point out that the most dangerous and damaging abuse of children is often before statutory school age or where children have been withdrawn from school or are already known to children’s social care.
8.2 Many home educators argue that press coverage of this review has cast them as “guilty” with a need to prove “innocence” just by virtue of being a home educator. And many have argued for a measured response to prevent “hard cases becoming bad law”. In addressing this issue I have tried to answer two fundamental questions:
*First, if there is abuse of children within the home education community, is it disproportionally high, relative to the general population?
*Secondly where abuse does exist, would a change of regulation with regard to elective home education have either prevented or ameliorated such abuse?
8.3 It would be wrong to assume that home educators do not take the question of child safety, their own and others, very seriously. Some home educators who contributed to this review argued for periodic spot checks by authorities. The view was also expressed that attendance at school was no guarantee of a child’s safety, as other tragic cases have indicated.
8.4 I understand the argument but do not accept it in its entirety in that attendance at school brings other eyes to bear, and does provide opportunity for the child to disclose to a trusted adult. Furthermore the 2004 Children Act, with its emphasis upon five outcomes for children including their safety not just their achievement, places new responsibilities upon schools to work with other agencies in a preventative way.
8.5 Some home educators have access to support and guidance from their organisations on recognising and dealing with child protection and many in conversation stressed to me the importance of their informal networks and knowledge of their own community. I am not persuaded that, although laudable, this is sufficient. Apart from which, on the basis of local authority responses to my questionnaire, there are many children likely to be unknown to the authorities or engaged in such networks. The process of registration recommended earlier should address this issue.
8.6 In seeking to answer the two questions posed earlier I have sought evidence and advice from protecting services and a range of third sector and other agencies that are engaged in the promotion of child safety and the protection of children. I have also analysed recent serious case reviews and sought information from local authorities on the number of electively home educated children subject to a child protection plan or were previously on the Child Protection Register.
The NSPCC is quite clear in its response in seeking a registration scheme and changed guidance. (20)
“We do not agree that the status quo should be maintained and do think that monitoring should be strengthened. We are concerned that the child’s safety and welfare should be paramount and that there is nothing in the current guidance or framework that would prevent children from being abused by people who may claim to be home educators. The current guidance on EHE [elective home education] says that the local authority can investigate if they have a concern about the child’s education, but they do not have the powers to visit or meet the child. The guidance (paragraph 2.15) refers to the ability to see a child under s47 of the Children Act 1989. In order for a professional to use s47 they “must have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives or is found, in their area is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm”. If a child who is being abused is not afforded opportunities outwith the house, then the slim chances of them being identified become even smaller than they already are. In such a situation, because there is no education concern, the local authority does not investigate, as there are no grounds to do so. If a member of the public sees the child (and this would need to be regularly) then they are unlikely to contact an appropriate body. It then becomes a catch 22 as no concern is raised, because the child or the environment in which they are cared for is not seen.”
8.7 The National Children’s Bureau both in its response and through membership of my reference group to this inquiry have raised similar concerns.
8.8 The National Association of Social Workers in Education (NASWE) is more equivocal in its response but recognises the difficulty for local authorities under existing guidance to exercise their duty of care.
(20) NSPCC Response to DCSF Call for Evidence, April 2009
“The lack of regulation has made it very difficult for local authorities to exercise their duty of care to the child or young person concerned and may compromise a child’s right to education. The legislation only makes it possible to consider the education on offer and this goes against all other aspects of their work with children which, encourages the consideration of a range of factors contributing to the ECM outcomes. EHE is not in itself a safeguarding issue although the failure to provide a satisfactory education (in any context) may seriously compromise a child’s future opportunities. EHE removes the opportunity for what is a very efficient method for monitoring and surveillance through attendance at school. Consequently the issue of EHE has become conflated with safeguarding concerns which may exist regardless of the method by which a child receives education.”
8.9 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), in her submission, makes it clear that irrespective of the number of cases, change in regulation is necessary, furthermore that there is an unacceptable variation in the practice of local authorities and Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCB):
“Our experience from inspections of children’s services and evaluations of serious case reviews is that there is variation across the country in how proactively local safeguarding children boards ensure these children are safeguarded. Some local child protection procedures address this robustly while others do not. Current DCSF guidelines for local authorities on elective home education place insufficient emphasis on safeguarding the welfare of children. In a small number of cases, our evaluation of serious case reviews has identified that a lack of oversight of children receiving home education contributed to a serious incident or the death of a child. Schools have an important responsibility to monitor children’s safety and welfare but this safety net is missing for children educated at home. In addition, children who are educated at home may have less access to trusted adults who they can turn to if they are concerned about their home circumstances.”
8.10 Ofsted go on to report findings from a small study they conducted in 2008 into the effectiveness of local authority policies to manage the risks to children who are not attending school nor receiving education elsewhere.
“Some authorities expressed the view that securing adequate safeguarding would be easier if they had a clear right of access to family homes in the course of monitoring the suitability of home education. Some authorities reported that national organisations for home education were advising parents to deny access to officers from children’s services who were attempting to establish the suitability of the provision. Ofsted is concerned that this advice may increase the risk of harm to some children. Children who are educated at home but are not known to the local authority may be more likely to be at risk. Local authorities are notified when children are removed from local authority school rolls. However, during the survey referred to above, five local authorities expressed concern that some independent schools in their area did not notify them when pupils were taken off roll.” (21)
8.11 Some of the concerns raised by the above are dealt with in earlier recommendations. However, in the light of the submission by HMCI and the other evidence, I recommend:
That the Children’s Trust Board ensures that the Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) reports to them on an annual basis with regard to the safeguarding provision and actions taken in relation to home educated children. This report shall also be sent to the National Safeguarding delivery Unit. Such information should be categorised thereby avoiding current speculation with regard to the prevalence of child protection concerns amongst home educated children which may well be exaggerated. This information should contribute to and be contained within the National Annual Report.
8.12 To return to the two questions posed earlier. First, on the basis of local authority evidence and case studies presented, even acknowledging the variation between authorities, the number of children known to children’s social care in some local authorities is disproportionately high relative to the size of their home educating population. Secondly, despite the small number of serious case reviews where home education was a feature, the consideration of these reviews and the data outlined above, suggests that those engaged in the support and monitoring of
(21) DCSF is planning to implement Sir Roger Singleton’s recent recommendation, as outlined in his report ‘Keep our school safe’ (2009), to “ensure that all independent and non-maintained schools are required to notify the LA when children of compulsory school age leave the roll, and to inform them of the destination where this is known to them”. This change will be included the revision of the Independent School Standards that will take effect from September 2010.
home education should be alert to the potential additional risk to children. So saying is not to suggest that there is a causal or determining relationship, but simply an indication of the need for appropriately trained and knowledgeable personnel. To that end, I recommend:
That those responsible for monitoring and supporting home education, or commissioned so to do, are suitably qualified and experienced to discharge their duties and responsibilities set out in Working Together to Safeguard Children (22) to refer to social care services children who they believe to be in need of services or where there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm.
That local authority adult services and other agencies be required to inform those charged with the monitoring and support of home education of any properly evidenced concerns that they have of parents’ or carers’ ability to provide a suitable education irrespective of whether or not they are known to children’s social care, on such grounds as:
*alcohol or drug abuse
* incidents of domestic violence
*previous offences against children
* And in addition: anything else which may affect their ability to provide a suitable and efficient education.
8.13 This requirement should be considered in the Government’s revision of Working Together to Safeguard Children Guidance. Local authorities have a general duty, when carrying out functions in the education context, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (section 175 Education Act 2002). Provision for the protection of children is contained in the Children Act 1989 and includes provision that local authorities have a duty to investigate where they have reasonable cause to suspect
(22) DCSF (2006) Working Together to Safeguard Children, TSO, London.
that a child in their area is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. Whether a child may or may not have already come to the attention of the local authority because of safeguarding concerns, I believe it is of crucial importance in any registration scheme to give the local authority a discretion to prevent a child being electively home educated for safeguarding reasons. I therefore recommend:
That the DCSF make such change as is necessary to the legislative framework to enable local authorities to refuse registration on safeguarding grounds. In addition, local authorities should have the right to revoke registration should safeguarding concerns become apparent.
8.14 With regard to other specific groups within the remit of this inquiry I can find no evidence that elective home education is a particular factor in the removal of children to forced marriage, servitude or trafficking or for inappropriate abusive activities. Based on the limited evidence available, this view is supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers. That is not to say that there are not isolated cases of trafficking that have been brought to my attention.
8.15 The foregoing would confirm my view that had there been different regulations in place as proposed, they may well have had a mitigating effect without necessarily guaranteeing prevention. However, any regulation is only as effective as its transaction. To that end I believe it is important to hold local authorities to account, identify and disseminate good practice and ensure that in addition to the training proposed earlier, that local authority and other staff are adequately and properly trained in safeguarding procedures and requirements:
That the DCSF, in its revision of the National Indicator Set indicated in its response to the recent Laming Review, should incorporate an appropriate target relating to the safeguarding of children in elective home education.
DCSF should explore the potential for the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People’s Services (C4EO) and other organisations, to identify and disseminate good practice regarding support for home education.
It is recommended that the Children’s Workforce development Council and the National Safeguarding delivery Unit include the needs of this group of officers in their consideration of national training needs.