For to be free is not to merely cast off one's chains,
but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
- Nelson Mandela -

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Cumbria LA showing BadManners?

Cumbria has for a long time been a county with a well functioning EHE (Elective Home Education) department within the LA, headed by Marie Barnes, who is both approachable and knowledgeable about EHE and alternative education. Thanks to her positive attitude and the hard work of local home educators in years gone by, the EHE department was well informed about both the legal and educational aspects of home education. Their website and leaflets held adequate legal information and referred to existing home educating networks and contact details.
It wasn't quite paradise, with still the odd occasion of door-stepping and intimidating behaviour by SS, EWO's or other insufficiently informed civil servants, but once people found their way to the EHE Department or a well informed fellow home educator, matters could be addressed and redressed.

However, things are changing. Rapidly. For all Balls' CSF Bill got drowned in the wash-up and Badman's Review made its way into history deservedly labelled as 'rushed, badly researched, disproportionate and offering little in the way of evidence to justify his recommendations', a substantial amount of damage was caused. And while we were kept busy with Badman, DCSF managed to sneak CME Guidance 2009 in - more or less creating the hole in the wall for the back door to registration. The consequences are now noticeable all through the country. Even in our beautiful and reputedly laid-back Cumbria.

Jayne Richardson, local contact for home education in Cumbria remarked: 'In the last four months I've had more complaints from home educators about ultra vires behaviour by Education Welfare Officers and CME (Children Missing Education) officers, than in the four years previous.'

And it's not going to get less. A few days ago we were informed that, following the recent spending review, Cumbria County Council have terminated the contracts of all external consultants, which means that the three well trained, experienced and mostly well liked Home Visitors of the EHE Team are out of a job. To our relief Marie Barnes is still in post, and the EHE Department remains under the remit of the School Improvement Team, rather than Education Welfare. Marie is now facing the task of quickly putting a new team together, recruiting from people currently working as School Improvement Officers. We trust she will try and choose open minded people, but we know for a fact that it takes more than a day's training to acquire a good understanding of EHE, and to appreciate the huge difference with the school system.

I have been attempting to help Jayne with the increasing amount of work coming her way as a consequence of the changing attitude, and the picture I'm getting about the current situation is rather worrying.
Here are some examples of what I've witnessed in the past five or six months:

* Home educators have been door-stepped by EWO's, in some cases accompanied by police, after a visit to A&E and/or other health care providers, where they were asked which school the child went to and had answered to be home educators. We are very concerned that the question is asked in the first place, and that it might lead to people hesitating to seek help when they need it.

* We were told that visits to new home educators are being increased, because the LA have reason to believe that schools are advising 'badly performing' students and students with attendance issues to deregister and home educate, to avoid legal procedures. Apparently some schools even assist in drawing up deregistration letters. The LA feel this issue needs to be addressed under CME Guidance. Am I the only one who thinks this problem has nothing whatsoever to do with home education, but lies entirely with the school system and should be addressed there?

* The above behaviour has a negative effect, not only on existing home educators, but especially on people who deregister to home educate because for various reasons they have decided it will provide their child(ren) with a more suitable education. In one particular case I think the decision to deregister may have saved the child's health, if not its life.

* Newly deregistering people are being told that the LA 'has to offer a visit within 14 days'. This may be their policy, but it certainly isn't required by law. It is completely ignoring the often traumatising experiences and the processes that people have gone through to come to the conclusion that deregistering and home educating is the best possible choice to make in their situation. The official excuse is that they want to offer these people the 'Home Education Package'[opens PDF] as soon as possible, to make them aware of the existing networks and contacts. I see absolutely no reason why they can't send these packages in the post.

* This 'Home Education Package' that the EWO presents newly deregistered home educators with, contains a form called 'Notification of Elective Home Education (Form HE2)' [opens PDF], which they kindly ask you to return. You have to read the enclosed leaflet to know that you are not legally required to do anything, but that it would help [the LA] considerably if you were to complete the form, or write to the Director of Children's Services instead. Everything is geared towards getting people on the books.

* We have found that in spite of an official deregistration letter, children are kept on the school roll. When asked, we were told that this was done because they didn't want people to lose their place, when after a 'cooling off' period they decided they'd made the wrong choice and wanted the child to go back to school. How patronising is that?

* The travellers' community is often brought in as a reason for employing CME Guidance. Surely we must understand that those children are missing education? I have not enough insight into the travellers' community, nor into that of Hasidic Jews or others who have ways and beliefs different to mine, to pass any judgment on them at all. But generally I'd say that they have as much right to raise and educate their children according to their own customs and values as you and I have. Or are supposed to have, anyway.

Time and again I am shocked that, rather than recognising there is something structurally wrong with the school system and considering that maybe schools are not providing suitable education, these civil servants choose to doubt the ability of parents to decide on the best suitable education for their children. And what makes them the expert on OUR children?

The biggest shock to my system, however, came when Jayne and I were invited to talk about home education at a training session for Local Authority's Children's Services Staff - most of them were EWO's, who also 'did' CME. I was taken aback by their limited knowledge about the daily practise and reality of home education. I had expected to discuss EHE legislation, but instead we were answering basic - and prejudiced - questions about socialisation, qualifications, covering the curriculum, suitability of parents as teachers, etcetera. Yes, they knew that home education was a legal option and it was the parents' responsibility to provide a suitable education, but it took some talking to convince them - if we managed at all - that home educated children were by definition NOT missing education.
Having said that, I do appreciate that we were given the chance to explain our way of life and education from our point of view. And I hope we will be able to keep the lines of communications open, because I sincerely believe that the only hope we have of solving the lack of insight and knowledge, and breaking through the barriers of prejudice, is to educate, educate and educate.

We happened to be there on the day the budget cuts were announced and the woman who ran the session explained that everybody was tense, because they weren't sure how safe their jobs were. When we were leaving she gave us some brochures and a draft document of the Council's Policy on Children Missing Education. (A document, by the way, that the previous government asked them to draw up. I haven't yet read through it thoroughly, but up to now I don't see the change in attitude towards civil liberties and freedom that we were promised under the coalition, reflected.) Apart from announcing that we were probably not going to like what we read in there, she also commented: 'At least CME keeps us in work.'

That last statement brought home the reality of the situation home educators are facing, not only in Cumbria, but throughout the whole of England. The Civil Service, expanded to monstrous proportions under NuLabour, is undergoing huge cuts and trim-backs from the current government. So are quango's, such as NSPCC and other institutions who, horribly, exist because of cruelty and abuse of children. If they want to survive, they will have to prove their right to existence. For that, they will have to achieve, produce numbers, be seen to act.

At a meeting with the EHE department and the Strategic Development Officer CME last June, we were presented with statistics showing a huge increase in numbers of Cumbrian home educated children 'known to Social Services'. To this day we haven't received the requested clarification and specification of the numbers, but I hazard a guess that these were very 'Badmannered' stats. They'll have included, for instance, children with special (educational) needs, who've applied for certain services, or families who've been involved with Social Services for other reasons than child welfare issues. Also, if in a family with four children one is known because of special needs, there will automatically be four ticks in boxes.
'Known to Social Services' most definitely does not equal 'At Risk'.

I'm sure quite a few people in Children's Services are personally nice people, and some of them even have the best intentions. Or think they have the best of intentions. Because how very badly informed are they to justify the existence of CME by saying, as one of them did (echoing the likes of Graham Badman): 'You must agree that as long as it saves one child, it is worth it, isn't it?'

No, I don't agree. Not at all. Because I know for a fact that while you're out trying to save your job and looking for that one child to save, you're damaging and possibly destroying the life of many, many others - and their families.

And do you, professionals, really need me to point out that as a matter of fact there are sufficient mechanisms in, for example, the Children Act, for Social Services to get involved if there are grounds for concern.
And while we're pointing fingers, I'm assuming you know that the inquiries into high profile cases such as Climbie, Ishaq and Spry found that there definitely were plenty of grounds for concern – as well as full access given to the children for any professional who asked for it. So much for the theory that 'official visits prevent abuse'. In all cases it was found that the officers in question had enough information to take sufficient preventative action under the law as it stood then, but chose not to take it.

So excuse me, while I dive into the mess that is English legislation surrounding education - and specifically home education. Excuse me, while I talk to my MP and other politicians to point out that in exercising the current legislation not only money, but quality of life and possibly life itself is being wasted. Excuse me, if I don't sit around waiting for others to try and secure themselves a living, whatever side of the fence they're on. Excuse me if I don't read or listen to endless ramblings that distract from the main issue, which is:

The urgent need to secure the freedom to home educate.

And as long as we provide our children with an education suitable to age, ability and aptitude and all special educational needs they may have - and as long as there is an 'absence of due concern' - we want to get on with it, without state interference.


Anonymous said...


'It is possible that a family is involved with Social Services and this is not known to EHE officers. Social Services cover a very wide remit and not every involvement would impact EHE directly. We would know if safeguarding issues were involved. '

'Number of Child protection PLans in EHE community- Zero'

Mieke said...

Yes, thanks. That goes to prove what I said, doesn't it, that 'known to social services' does not equal 'at risk'.
This FOI is from August 2009 and I have seen nothing to suggest it was different in June 2010.

A human being just trying to understand. said...

Good to hear from you again Mieke, so furious that this is happening. These people have no respect for the law or the truth, they did not get theirnwaybsomthey are behaving as if they did anyway, and lying (what's new there eh) to the people whom pay their wages. They are beneath contempt.

Mieke said...

It is an infuriating situation to be in, and the need for clarity is urgent, because every day people are unnecessarily suffering the bad legislation.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that the people in our LA are beneath contempt. I really don't think so. And beneath contempt in my books is reserved for a selected very very few ;).
Overall I genuinely think we need to communicate - and we need the Coalition to not only help us (home educators) by providing clear and undisputable legislation - or rather, to get rid of bad legislation - but to also offer and/or create new scope of work for civil servants. There must be a lot of good, useful and truly supportive work these people can be asked to do. I can think of a lot, actually... hmmm, that might be a next blogpost ;).

Barbara said...

with over half of the population working for the government and paid for by working people, and a larger than copeable number of people not in work for one reason or another, we are in a dire situation. But we cannot continue to sustain such a large civil service and the best way to reduce it is to get rid of these persons who interfere with our liberties, check up on us, fine us without reasonable access to justice or representation and generally tell us how to live. They are all making their living off the backs of us and they want to pay their rent of the backs of our children's lives. I don't know how they live with themselves to be honest.

Lil said...

Have you notified Nick Gibb MP of what's going on in Cumbria? The DofE want to know of any LAs that overstep their powers.

Mieke said...

Thanks, Lil - yes, we are working on that :)

Kelly said...

Thanks Mieke. Brilliant observation and analysis. Really useful.