The Review of Elective Home Education - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)

WEDNESDAY 14 OCTOBER 2009

SIR PAUL ENNALS, ELLIE EVANS, PHILIP NOYES AND PETER TRAVES

  Q100  Chairman: A health visitor has the right to enter any premises, I understand, unlike social workers.

  Ellie Evans: But parents can still opt out and, in my experience, health visitors wouldn't force themselves on a family unless, again, there was some sort of concern.

  Chairman: What about our two wingers here, Paul and Phil? Is that right or not?

  Sir Paul Ennals: I am not quite sure.

  Philip Noyes: I'm not sure. I thought not, actually. I thought there was one statutory visit that health visitors have to make at 15 days for the baby and after that contact with a health visitor, I thought, was voluntary.

  Chairman: Sorry, Lynda, back to you.

  Q101  Lynda Waltho: I am quite happy with that answer. In three of the four cases that Badman cites in the serious case reviews, the children had been seen by social services several times prior to the incident that caused the review. In the light of that, how valuable will additional home visits be in those situations?

  Ellie Evans: Sorry, are we talking about safeguarding concerns or education provision?

  Lynda Waltho: Safeguarding.

  Ellie Evans: It depends on the level of the concern. If social care is engaged, it doesn't necessarily mean that it has gone to a child protection plan. It could be an initial assessment or something like that. It doesn't necessarily mean that we have moved on to a child protection plan. Additional visits, certainly from education professionals, will primarily monitor the educational provision.

  Peter Traves: The other thing is that, although it is taking a while, there is a growing sense of an overall children's service around the five outcomes. I used to do a lot of home visits when I worked in Shropshire in the 1990s. Now, there is a greater view about the five outcomes and a greater sense that the people involved in educational visits and the social workers involved in social work visits will take a broader view across those five outcomes. It is by no means complete yet, and we have not arrived at that destination. However, the speed of the growth of awareness should not be underestimated. I think that those serious case reviews were picking up failures on the part of the process, rather than an improving trend.

  Philip Noyes: I was going to give the slightly different answer that safeguarding—and good it is—means trying to remove false negative information or missing things and eliminating false positives or thinking abuse is there when it is not. The fact that some things have been missed does not militate against the need to be concerned and vigilant. With Every Child Matters and the five outcomes has come the verb "to safeguard" and the sense that safeguarding is preventive and not just the storm-trooping kind of child protection work. The mindset that the DCSF quite rightly wants to inculcate in everybody is a sense that safeguarding is everyone's responsibility: everybody, regardless of whether they are specialist professionals or people at the periphery of children's lives, should have a soft-touch awareness of when a child might be at risk and know what to do next. From our point of view, those failures to recognise abuse are serious as they stand, but they do not militate against the need for a sensitive, soft-touch approach to a sense of vulnerability or what the home visitor does next if he or she is concerned.

  Q102  Lynda Waltho: How about the confidence of home educators in the people who will be visiting? How do local authorities typically staff their home education teams? How much knowledge do the officers have of safeguarding matters?

  Chairman: Who wants to take that? Ellie?

  Lynda Waltho: I am sorry, it is just that you are the expert witness on this one.

  Ellie Evans: The advisory teachers that we have in our authority are education-based. However, they all have safeguarding training on a rolling programme. I feel quite confident that they have the ability to recognise abuse, for example, and know where to go next. They are fully conversant with the process. As I say, they are primarily education-based because the bottom line is that that is what we are asking them to check out the provision of.

  Q103  Lynda Waltho: Would that be the case across all local authorities or the majority of them? Do you have that information?

  Sir Paul Ennals: I think that is what I wanted to say. In the same way as the home education community is not homogenous, I do not think that local authority services in this area are. Many—I would say most—of them are largely staffed by people whose expertise and background is in education, maybe from inspection and advisory services. There are more now that involve and bring together the services with children missing from education, which strengthens the safeguarding aspect. On one level, that is positive and on another, it might make home educators feel more nervous and anxious. There are different levels of qualification in teams across the country. There is not a standard level of qualification. The education and social work population is quite varied in its levels of qualification currently.

  Q104  Lynda Waltho: Would it be useful if there was a standard or a level?

  Sir Paul Ennals: I am not sure about a standard. I would certainly like to see a higher level of qualifications across the piece and more effective and appropriate training made available. It is one of Graham Badman's recommendations that something be done about that. The circumstances in Somerset are very different from those in Hackney and Tower Hamlets. It would be quite hard to produce one national model that requires a certain level of qualifications, size of team and certain backgrounds.

  Ellie Evans: I want to add that my team have gained greatly from the home educating community as well. Some of my members of staff have been there for 10 years and have learned a great deal from the home educating community. I think that it has been a bit of a two-way process, for sure.

  Chairman: Helen, do you want to ask a supplementary question on this subject?

  Q105  Helen Southworth: Yes. May I ask a question in general terms about orthodoxy. In terms of a home visit, it is a judgmental home visit by its purpose. How confident are you that the issues around the cultures of home education by choice are understood by people within the home visit process and that that understanding can be built into this? Are you confident that there will not be culture clashes, misunderstandings and bad judgments?

  Peter Traves: I am quite happy to answer that one.

  Q106  Chairman: Peter, are you from a social background or an education background?

  Peter Traves: I am from an education background.

  Chairman: Thank you. I asked because we have not had your CV.

  Peter Traves: Sorry. I was a teacher in inner London for many years and I worked in an advisory service, both in London and in Shropshire. I was a head teacher and now I am a director of children's services. In terms of orthodoxy, I must say that there is a danger of a mystique being created here about what we mean by "good education". What we are talking about is differences in terms of pedagogy and differences in terms of methodology. Anybody who is half-decent who goes to look at home education and expects to see a replication of what takes place in a school is entirely missing the point, because the whole advantage of educating at home as against school is that freedom and that flexibility. What we should be looking at are the outcomes. Is that child growing in confidence, in relation to the situation that they are in? I say that because I take the point that some children have been in pieces from their educational experience before, and it would be utterly unrealistic to make the same demands of them. Is that child, over a period of time, gaining a wider view of the kinds of knowledge that common sense would suggest we require to operate in our society? I think that the point was made by one of the witnesses in the first group that literacy is not a negotiable skill for most people. If somebody ends up at the end of their education experience being illiterate or poorly literate, that is inappropriate education. So I think that there is a danger here that we are confusing methodology—I think that most visitors are sympathetic to a variety of methodologies—with the outcomes. What is the child learning? What progress are they making in terms of their self-esteem, their confidence and their love of learning?

  Chairman: Right. Two quick supplementary questions. You first, Edward.

  Q107  Mr Timpson: You might have heard from those giving evidence earlier that one of their main concerns about the Badman recommendations is the proposal for the local authority officer, whoever that may be, to have the right of access to the child and to interview the child without the presence of the child's parents. They are right to be concerned about that, are they not?

  Ellie Evans: It is my understanding that that is only if appropriate. We tend to miss the condition "if appropriate", which is really substantial in this regard. If it is appropriate, the child will be seen. I have experience of children who have not wanted to continue with home education but the parent has desired it. It would have been appropriate at that point to obtain that child's views, and it was only because his cousin had gone into a school and said that he was so discontented that we managed to ascertain that. That would have been appropriate, because of the age of the child. There is also a proviso that another "trusted adult" could be present. I think that the idea of an officer sitting in a room who is a stranger to a child is not appropriate. We must remember that there are additional words in that whole phraseology, rather than just, "We're going to interview a child on a one-to-one basis", because that is not what Badman intended, as I understand it.

  Q108  Mr Timpson: But it goes back to Helen's point about the fact that a judgement will have to be made in each individual case, and that judgement will be subjective. One of the concerns is, as has been demonstrated with some home education teams around the country—Paul alluded to this earlier—that there is a range of ability in the people involved in that process and that they will not have the skills to make an appropriate judgement. Is that judgement based on looking at educational attainment, or on a safeguarding issue? It is a very grey area and I am not sure at the moment that we know exactly what "if appropriate" means.

  Ellie Evans: But we would have the freedom to commission somebody who did know.

  Q109  Mr Timpson: Then we are into a resources issue, aren't we?

  Ellie Evans: Yes.

  Q110  Chairman: But Ellie, surely in our recent experience of high-profile tragedies in the child care area, the social work profession has been criticised in particular cases where it did not talk to the child on its own. One of the major criticisms of work in one or two of the notorious cases that we have had was the failure to talk to the child on their own. Why is that appropriate to social work in one situation but not in another?

  Philip Noyes: We supported the recommendation to see children on their own, but there would be a caveat. If there was a situation in which the child was clearly in distress and really could not cope with seeing the visitor on her own, it would be perfectly reasonable to write down the fact that you could not see them. But it is an important matter of principle, for educational reasons as well as for the general role, rather than just safeguarding, that the child sitting on her own has an opportunity to say what she thinks.

  Q111  Chairman: But when we looked at looked-after children, there were some who said, "We never got the chance to talk to anyone on our own. There was always someone—a carer or someone else—who we were worried might overhear what we said."

  Philip Noyes: In the safeguarding context, we hope that that will be the No. 1 point in the new "Working Together" document. They must be seen on their own and have the opportunity to say what they think. There is a skills issue linked to the quality of the person on the other end of the conversation. They must be able to understand what is being said and be able to listen to what the child is saying and deal with it sensitively. That is a whole other area around training for the role.

  Q112  Mr Stuart: Do you all accept the fundamental right of parents to home educate?

  Philip Noyes: Yes.

  Peter Traves: Yes.

  Ellie Evans: Yes.

  Sir Paul Ennals: Yes.

  Q113  Mr Stuart: Peter, you said you didn't understand the argument against registration. Isn't there a principle that regulation and registration in almost any area should have to pass a high hurdle of need before it is brought in? There should not be an assumption that the state regulates and registers us all in business or our personal lives for its convenience. You said that there are responsibilities and that it is not very helpful for us not to have all that data. Parents and children are not there to help you meet your responsibilities.

  Peter Traves: May I be clear about what those accountabilities are. If something happens to a child in terms of any of those five outcomes, we are held directly to account. This is not some kind of button counting. We have seen recently what happens to directors of children's services when things go seriously wrong. It is not only a case of sacking; it is public humiliation. It is a very serious matter. If I get it wrong in my job with children across a broad area, I am held to account for children's welfare. I think that not knowing that there are children living and being educated in my area is unreasonable if I am being held to that account. It is not about state control; it is about being aware. What we do with that information can either make it an oppressive or a reasonable relationship.

  Q114  Mr Stuart: Do you think a higher percentage of children are failed in poorly performing schools than in home education overall?

  Peter Traves: I think a higher proportion of children are failed in relation to their social background in this country at the moment. That is the biggest single issue in terms of failure in education.

  Q115  Mr Stuart: My point is about failing schools. You say that you cannot see the argument against registration. The irony is that, on average, four in 10 boys leave primary school unable to write properly according to Government levels. That means, in the worst schools, it is massively hard now. The worst parents in this country, as we know from our looking into looked-after children—

  Chairman: No other member of the Committee would recognise that.

  Mr Stuart: That is not necessarily the case. I often don't recognise what is said by other members of the Committee; you don't have to agree with all the questions, Chairman. The point is that when you look at children in care, you will see that the worst parents in the country appear to be corporate parents. So we have local authorities who are failing with schools and with looked-after children, and they are sending officers to the homes of people who have withdrawn their children very often as an act of safeguarding from failing local authority provision. Can you not see an irony there, and should there not be a very high bar before the state, regardless of the responsibilities you hold—

  Peter Traves: May I respond to that. I don't see how the issue of failing schools negates the issue about our responsibility to children who are not educated in schools. We have a responsibility to improve all schools, and that is absolutely right and proper. On the issue of withdrawal, parents withdraw their children from school for a whole range of reasons. I did six years of home visits, and there were parents who withdrew their children because we had failed them—that is absolutely true. There were parents who had withdrawn their children for ideological reasons because they had a profound belief in a different form of education, which I respected. There were also parents who withdrew their children for particular religious views because they wanted those views inculcated in that child. It is not just about the rights of parents, but about the rights of children. It is not necessarily about the state's responsibility to children, but about the community's responsibility to them.

  Sir Paul Ennals: Much has already been said about this. With regard to the constraints on introducing a new registration system, we need to be satisfied that it is a proportionate response to a problem that is there. I do believe that there is sufficient evidence of weakness, either on some safeguarding issues and/or on the need for the local authority to be more able to provide the right support for the family, to justify a registration system. I think that the registration system should be only light touch, and it does not need to be over-elaborate. I am actually not sure that a new criminal offence is required for not completing it, because with the legal framework on school attendance orders, as amended in 2006, the necessary legal framework is already in place to ensure that if someone has refused or failed to register, there is an existing legislative means for following that up. As long as it is light-touch, sensitive and formative, rather than simply trying to catch people out, I believe it is a proportionate response to the situation.

  Ellie Evans: I agree with Paul. However, the registration process, going back to the legislation on children missing education, is learning from a serious case review for a serious case. Lord Laming had done considerable research, and that inquiry was not rushed and is considerable. Out of that came the recommendation that local authorities must identify children who are not in suitable education. If we do not do something about the registration process, we are almost contradicting ourselves.

  Q116  Annette Brooke: Can I quickly backtrack to the home visit. I feel that perhaps there is the wrong entanglement between the need to assess on educational grounds and to make assessments on safeguarding. In the school situation, I would expect teachers to be trained to recognise certain symptoms and then report them so that there will be justification for further investigation. I feel that home educators are feeling threatened because the person who is coming to assess the education is assessing them on safeguarding. Is there a case for having home visits, with working in partnership and all the things we like, such as a formative process, but in a way that that person is highly trained to pick up signals and then report them so that action is taken when needed, rather than this process of casting everyone in the same light?

  Sir Paul Ennals: I agree entirely with that.

  Annette Brooke: Do I get agreement on that? Gosh! Thank you. That has made me feel better about it.

  Chairman: For the purposes of Hansard, all the witnesses agree.

  Q117  Annette Brooke: It is so unusual for people to agree with me that I shall keep going. My real question is about the other tricky position: having to provide a statement. I have not got my head around what will be the right balance between encouraging exciting forms of education for children that are right for the child and actually ensuring that there might be a minimum requirement, say, in literacy. Peter and Ellie, what on earth will the statement look and feel like?

  Peter Traves: I have to say I think that the last people who should write this on their own are local authorities, quite frankly. I do think that this is something we would have to do in negotiation and discussion with home educators. I come back to the point that I don't think it is beyond the wit of human beings to define what we think children ought to be demonstrating in terms of a sound educational experience. I think the problem would be if we in any way linked it. There are some worrying things about age-appropriateness that have all the signs of national curriculum about it, and I do think what we need for the next stage is a sensible discussion with organisations like Education Otherwise to say, "How can we reflect the strengths of home education but also protect the right of children to grow up so that they do have the skills and knowledge that are going to be necessary for them to perhaps make different decisions from their parents?"

  Ellie Evans: On Monday, I noticed that Graham Badman alluded to an article by Daniel Monk. Within that article on planning an education provision for a child, it was the intention—the actual provision had been thought through as a basic fundamental—that there was going to be consistent involvement of parents and other significant carers; that there would be thought-through reasons for electively home educating, signs of commitment and enthusiasm from the parents, and a recognition of the child's needs, which is quite key and core to this; that there would be opportunities for the child to be stimulated by their learning experiences and involvement in further activities; that there would be a wide variety of interests appropriate to the child's development and access to resources to meet their objectives; and that there would be opportunities for children to interact with their peers and others. I think that is probably quite a good basis for a statement, but obviously it would have to be discussed further. I would very much like to work with the home educating community to derive that statement, but I think that is quite a good basis, particularly with regard to the commitment and enthusiasm of the parents, because I am aware that people do withdraw children, perhaps to avoid prosecution, and they haven't thought about it at all. It is an alternative to being prosecuted, or to having the local authority on your back for your child not attending school, for example.

  Q118  Annette Brooke: I am pleased that Paul wants to add to that. What is the balance, Paul?

  Sir Paul Ennals: The key thing, if anything, is the last one. I am most interested in using it as a trigger to avoid—to flush out—those cases that we referred to earlier on, where local authorities and schools, on some occasions, are inappropriately advising parents, or, similarly, where some parents are inappropriately, on the spur of the moment, taking decisions, maybe out of a fit of pique with the school. Simply the requirement to set out—I tend to think no more than two pages would do it, I suspect—the basics of what they actually intended to do with their child would flush out, I believe, some of the ones that are of greatest concern to me. I do believe it would not represent a challenge or an unnecessarily high hurdle to the vast majority of home educating parents, who are more than able to design the way in which they're intending to educate.

  Chairman: Annette, what do you think?

  Annette Brooke: I'll pass on that. I don't think we're quite seeing what this is going to look like, but perhaps—

  Q119  Chairman: Can I just ask you this, because I didn't ask the former group of witnesses, although I know some of them are in the room so they'll hear it. As I read Badman, I felt that having in every children's trust and every local authority area a group who are knowledgeable about home education meeting, and a sub-group of the children's trust, seemed like a very positive idea. Would you value that in terms of being able to meet on a regular basis to consult and learn from them?

  Peter Traves: We have in Staffordshire appointed, through the trust, the children's commissioner, whose function is actually to answer directly to the trust and to relate to the different groups of parents: all parents, but also particular interest groups. I think, for us, that would be a good means of connecting it through to the children's trust: for the commissioner to say, "It's your job to relate to this group, to find ways of talking." However, she is not the employee of the local authority. She is not answerable to the local authority; she is answerable to the trust, and she is primarily there to promote the interests and views of parents.


 
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