Education CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Deirdre Woods

Elective Home Education

1. My name is Deirdre Woods and I am a home educator in the London Borough of Hillingdon. I have two children Ife Woods aged 16 and Jaden Woods-Chatham, aged 11 years. They have never been to school with the exception of my eldest child who flexi schooled for one school term. The eldest is now enrolled at Uxbridge College to continue her education from September 2012. My family has been known to the local authority since 2000.

2. My experience to date with the London Borough of Hillingdon has not been a positive. My family has generally been treated with great suspicion even though I have always responded to letters, and engaged in a dialogue with the Education Welfare Officer, Sharon Hodge.

3. I became known to the local authorities in 2000 following a neighbour reporting me to social services because my child, Ife, was not going to school. The enquiry was dealt with in a matter of weeks and they were satisfied that as an elective home educator that my child was not at risk. Our details were passed onto educational welfare. We were placed on a register, and contacted about our provision.

4. Following the breakdown of my relationship in 2004 due to domestic violence, and continued terrorisation by my former partner, including a kidnap attempt of my son, and him reporting me to social services, Ife started running away and our family became involved with social services again. Once again they were satisfied that my children were not at risk, or were being harmed, and the social worker, Yvonne Bennett, herself a former teacher was quite supportive of my choice to home educate. I was referred to the EWO, Sharon Hodge as standard procedure but also to get support.

5. I was contacted in January 2005 by the EWO, Sharon Hodge requesting a home visit. I declined the visit at the time as I felt that a home visit by the inspectorate would not be appropriate. After the recent visit with the social worker, Yvonne Bennett, Ife was quite anxious and perturbed. She expressed concerns about being sent to school. I felt that an inspection would be unduly upsetting to her. I offered to send samples of Ife’s work to the inspectorate.

6. In 2004 I also had an accident at work and by 2005 my health had deteriorated, and I needed support with some of my day to day activities. I asked the EWO for support to continue home educating my children and was told that I could not get any.

7. What followed can only be described as a nightmare. I was assigned to another social worker, who was intimidating and biased. She insisted that I must have an inspection and that somehow I was not fit or suitable to educate my children. I succumbed to the pressure, hoping that if I agreed to a home visit that I would be left alone.

8. I was visited by an independent inspector. The inspector came in and her first question was about the nearest school. The entire inspection was a farce, as she did not examine my provision but instead proceeded to continue with a school bias, berated Ife’s creative work that she had shown her and test both my children and criticise Ife’s literacy skills. Jaden was still four at the time and the education law is very clear about parental responsibility for education between the ages of five and 16.

9. I replied to the subsequent report with much disgust and refused to have any more visits. I was then threatened in writing by the EWO to a school order and to report me to social services for neglect. Fortunately Yvonne Bennett, stepped in with regards to the issue of neglect and said that there were no grounds for this. I responded with a letter on school bias and case law, with the view of taking the matter to the Ombudsman and possibly taking legal action. I was left alone for a few years after this. (Please note that I have misplaced some of these letters and will endeavour to recover this correspondence if they are required as evidence.)

10. During this period Ife suffered an assault by a group of young people and was traumatised for a long time, impacting on her behaviour. The police were involved, charges were pressed, and Ife had to give evidence on camera. Social services became involved and were instrumental in referring us to Child, Family and Adolescent Consultation Service (CFACS). Social services in a bid to support me as my conditioned had worsened helped arrange flexi schooling for Ife at the local primary school. This only lasted one term and was a damaging experience for Ife as she was bullied every day. Hillingdon only contacted me with regards to making a decision about sending her to secondary school. We opted not to and to continue with full time elective home education.

11. In November 2008 were subjected to our first ad hoc visit. EWO, Sharon Hodge accompanied by someone from the education and children’s services turned up on my doorstep around 9:00am on Wednesday 5 November demanding to see my children. I told them that they were sleeping as we had been up all night following the US elections. We then had a short discussion about their education and I offered to send a letter in due course. A letter was sent on 1st December

12. Once again we were left alone apart from an annual letter and form to complete about the educational status of my children. This was to maintain a register of elective home educating children in the borough.

13. In September 2010 we were subjected to yet another ad hoc visit. On Thursday 30th at 10:30 I was paid an unannounced visit by Educational Welfare Officer Sharon Hodge and her colleague. I was told that it was a “safeguarding” visit and that they wanted to make sure that my children were alive and well as they had not been “seen”. I queried this firstly in terms of safeguarding as I understand that safeguarding is a child protection issue. I made it known that I had done Hillingdon’s safeguarding training and that the practise of ad hoc visits was new to me. I further queried the issue of my children not being seen, and stated that they are seen regularly in the community by the GP, dentist, optician, local shops. They participate in local activities and various home education groups. The necessity of the visit was insisted upon because they are not “seen” daily by a teacher in school. I then proceeded to wake my sleeping children, and asked them to go say hello. My eldest child went downstairs and said good morning, whilst my youngest child remained at the top of the stairs, holding on to me, scared, and said hello. I was told that was all, thank you and then they left. I did not have any further communication with the EWO either verbally or in writing as to the outcome of this visit.

14. Legislation and Guidelines relating to the visit in September 2010

The DCSF Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities, 2007 are very clear about the responsibilities of the local authority. Sections 2.12 to 2.15 refer specifically to the safeguarding and welfare of children.

2.12 Local authorities also have a duty under section 175(1) of the Education Act 2002 to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This section states:

“A local education authority shall make arrangements for ensuring that the functions conferred upon them in their capacity as a local education authority are exercised with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.”

Section 175(1) does not extend local authorities’ functions. It does not, for example, give local authorities powers to enter the homes of, or otherwise see, children for the purposes of monitoring the provision of elective home education.

2.15 As outlined above, local authorities have general duties to make arrangements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (section 175 Education Act 2002 in relation to their functions as a local authority and for other functions in sections 10 and 11 of the Children Act 2004). These powers allow local authorities to insist on seeing children in order to enquire about their welfare where there are grounds for concern (sections 17 and 47 of the Children Act 1989). However, such powers do 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 education.

Yet in the 2010 EHE leaflet it stated that the London Borough of Hillingdon will:

“Arrange both ad hoc and planned visits to families that have not been seen or heard from for a period of time. This is done as a safeguarding action with the child’s welfare being paramount.”

This is an unnecessary extended function. Simple inter agency contact would have revealed that my children are indeed alive and well, and seen. This is the expected co-operation between the local authority and partners under the current London Child Protection Procedures (3rd Edition, 2007).

I have also examined the Children Educated at Home LBH Policy (Draft Consultation) that is available from the local authority website. In particular I looked at the sections Access to the Home (3.17) and Part 4, Developing Relationships #(4.1), Contact with Parents (4.7) and Child Protection (4.10). It is reiterated throughout that “Parents are not legally required to give Hillingdon EHE teacher access to their home.” There is also no mention of ad hoc visits or visits being necessary to ensure the safeguarding and welfare of children educated at home.

Elective Home Education is not in and of itself a sufficient reason to meet the threshold of children being at significant risk. Nor is a family’s choice not to have a relationship with the local authority. What specific rules, regulations and statutes give an EWO the right to demand to see children because they are home educated and “not seen daily by a teacher in school”? The only provision that local authorities have to see children is if those children are subject to a child protection order or a court order under the provisions of the Children’s Acts 1989 or 2004.

The Hillingdon practise of ad hoc visits was therefore erroneous and not supported by any legislation. Furthermore following the general elections, under the current government the Department for Education had issued a directive that after May 11th 2010 the terminology of Every Child Matters, the five outcomes and safeguarding should be changed. Safeguarding is no longer the acceptable term, child protection is. The leaflet needed to be amended, and the practise ceased.

15. Since this time Hillingdon home educators have come together to challenge Hillingdon’s policy and practices with e support of the Home Education Advisory Service (HEAS) and solicitor Ian Dowty. (See attached Documents)

16. Ad hoc visits in Hillingdon are supposedly suspended however current leaflet available on their website still states “Arrange both ad hoc and planned visits to families that have not been seen or heard from for a period of time. This is done as a safeguarding action with the child’s welfare being paramount”.

17. Hillingdon have consulted with home educators on their Draft Policy in April 2012 to which I responded by email( see attached document Comments re Draft Policy)

18. Support Available and Support I Would Like to See Available

Received a letter in June about contact details for information, advice and guidance on further education, training and employment. This is rather late and would have appreciated this information a year ago. I have had to use my own initiative, contacts and resources to research options for my daughter. She is now successfully enrolled on an NVQ level 1 course at Uxbridge College and is due to start her studies in September.

19. I have had to pay for and arrange privately for my daughter to sit GCSE examinations in North London. I would like to have local provision and examination fees paid.

20. I do not know what provision is currently available in Hillingdon under Alternative Provision arrangements

21. I would like financial support for disabled parents whose main source of income is currently incapacity benefit. I am in receipt of long term incapacity benefit and as such ineligible for financial support where financial support is offered for those on means tested incomes. As such I am currently struggling to get the money to buy the uniform, kit and materials my daughter will need for her course. Tuition fees are fully funded.

22. I am unaware of how the benefit changes currently underway will impact on future eligibility.

23. I would like to see the home education community, and home education groups make use of the Extended Schools Network to access facilities and other resources.

July 2012

Prepared 19th December 2012