Bernard Trafford: Guardian letter – Why Point The Finger at home-educators?

The Guardian Tuesday 31st March 2009 

People are likely to stand back and think when Dr Bernard Trafford, one of the UK’s leading headteachers speaks out in defence of home-based education. His letter in the Guardian illustrates what how unecessary and unwarranted the latest concerns about home educators and child abuse are. Bernard sets out the some of the many arguments home-based educators and groups like ours have made. It’s all the more powerful that Bernard’s daughters were home-educated for part of their education.

Bernard has spent his career seeking to democratise schools. More about Bernard and  his many publications can be found at including links to ‘Participation, power-sharing and school improvement’ found in  our own Educational Heretcis Press catalogue

It is commonplace nowadays to talk about the surveillance society. One agency after another becomes part of the mechanism, so we should not be surprised that schools are now becoming the latest designated instrument for checking up on families.  This is not a purpose formally determined by ministerial decree, rather a semi-official line coalescing among various offices and organisations with an axe to grind.  Bowing to their combined pressure after the succession of notorious child abuse cases that has the media screaming for action and policymakers devising ever more layers of safeguarding procedures, the government has asked Graham Badman, former director of children’s services for Kent County Council – and now chair of Haringey’s local safeguarding children board, replacing Sharon Shoesmith, sacked after the Baby P inquiry – to review the safeguarding and support of home-educated children.   A recent article in the Independent (Is the government right to be concerned about home-schooling?  February 26, 2009) quoted Children’s Minister Baroness Morgan: “If there are problems we have to look at the evidence. Home education is a small but important part of keeping children properly safe.”
Lynch-mobs need scapegoats so, in the storm of outrage that followed the tragedy of Baby P so soon after Victoria Climbié, fingers were bound to be pointed. Inexplicably they are now being pointed at home educators.  The estimated 20,000 parents who choose to educate their children themselves rather than in school currently stand accused of motives that are suspect at best and abusive at worst.

Why they are suddenly a target is unclear. Outrageous allegations are made and apparently accepted without proper examination. Thus the Independent report described education authorities’ fears that parents home educate to mask their children’s truancy; to hide forced marriages or children babysitting younger siblings.  A NSPCC spokesperson observed, “We have no view about home education, but we do know that to find out about abuse someone has to know about the child.”  The inference is made.  Mud sticks.

The suggestion is that only if children are in schools can we be sure that their parents are not abusing them, but the smug moralising surrounding the issue is unjust and inaccurate.  Victoria Climbié was not in school at the time of her death: but she was not being home-educated.  Eunice Spry was jailed after abusing her foster children for 19 years: no one noticed the three children’s bruises and broken bones because, it is said, they were home-educated.  But they were fostered!  Where were the social workers in both cases?  OFSTED gave Haringey children’s services a positive inspection report only months before the death of Baby P.  One failure after another: yet this attack centres on individuals and families, not the agencies or system that have demonstrably failed.

Home educators deserve better treatment.  I know, because I’ve been one.  Between 1991 and 1996, when I was a newly-appointed secondary school head, my wife taught our two daughters at home. Those five years were some of the happiest we have known, full of the joy of discovery and learning. The girls went back into the system for the secondary phase (their choice) and are now happy, self-confident, well-qualified young adults with jobs.

It worked for us, but we were regarded as odd. Some friends and colleagues were profoundly uncomfortable with our decision.  People are wary of difference, of course: but parents often turn to home education in desperation precisely because their children are different in some way and are bullied in school as a result. Others do it on principle or, as we did, because they reckon they can offer something better: what decided us was the newly-imposed National Curriculum which we felt had blitzed primary education.

The image often painted of a reclusive, secretive approach is misleading: most home educators do it openly and network widely.  I guess some do hide their children away from the world: there are religious fundamentalists among them, too.  I don’t like either approach, but I claim no right to ban them. Perhaps a tiny minority of home educators are indeed abusive. Statistically a minute percentage of judges, politicians, doctors, lawyers, church leaders, teachers and even social workers must also abuse children: but we don’t proscribe all those jobs in response. And, remember, home educators are already inspected.

Paranoia about systemic failure in safeguarding is leading society to demonise a few free spirits. And schools, which should be the cradle of creativity and personal development, are now set to be the mechanisms of control and supervision.

We should not be surprised. We inhabit a world where police keep our DNA on file even if we are innocent of any wrongdoing and where we are filmed on CCTV wherever we go.  Amid the hysterical reaction to abject failures in child protection, the rights of a few families on the fringes will be seen as an acceptable sacrifice on the altar of obsessive security.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of the Royal grammar school, Newcastle upon Tyne, and current chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC).  The views expressed are personal.

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