Let’s start with the most crucial question;
‘When should social workers assess and become involved with home educated children?’
An easy question to answer in practise, as they should become involved only if the circumstances are such that they would become involved with any child.
Despite this, we lose track of how frequently we hear members of the public and ‘professionals’ talking about home education as if it is a safeguarding issue, an abhorrent practise akin to serious domestic abuse, which puts children at risk of significant harm. It quite simply does not.
Much of the ‘Monitor! It’s a safeguarding risk!’ chatter stems around claims that home educated children are ‘invisible’, ‘hidden’, or ‘isolated’. Never, however, do the chatterers come up with any evidence to suggest that this is true. This is because it is simply not true.
Of course, you will find worthies such as the Children’s Commissioner for Wales proselytising ad infinitum about a poor little boy who died whilst home educated, a boy whose death has been cruelly exploited by her for political gain, but the most cursory glance at the evidence demonstrates that this is nothing more than cynical exploitation. In fact, that poor child’s plight was brought to the attention of relevant agencies by numerous professionals, over an extended period of time, including mental health and legal professionals. Home education may have been part of his later life, but it played no part in his death. Failure by the services supposedly in place to protect him did that.
Perception v Reality
Part of this misguided approach comes from the public perception of school as the norm, a fear of difference and belief that other forms of education are associated with lack of education, rather than a different, legal and equally valuable choice of education. Thankfully, however, most social workers recognise that difference does not mean ‘worse’, or somehow less acceptable. Most recognise that home education is not and should not be portrayed as, a source of child abuse.
The facts of the matter, as opposed to the rhetoric, can be found in research: In 2016, research found home educated children to be approximately twice as likely to be referred to Social Services as ‘at risk’, at 9.39 – 10.19%, than were children aged 0-4 years at 5.24% and children aged 5-16 who attend school at 4.93% (Charles-Warner 2015). Yet those home educated children were considerably less likely to be subject to a child protection plan. This makes clear that social workers had received misguided referrals which they dealt with appropriately.
In 2019, follow up research looking only at referrals of children said to be at ‘significant risk of harm’ (Charles-Warner 2019) found that 4.2% of all home educated children were referred on that basis, compared to 2.3% of under five-year-olds and 2.0% of 5-16-year olds, giving statistically significant higher referral rates for home educated children than other children.
Of course, if the higher rate of referral was justified, we would see a corresponding higher rate of child protection plans amongst home educated children, but that is simply not the case. In fact, only 0.4 per cent of home educated children were subsequently subject to a child protection plan, compared to 0.7 per cent of children under five, and 0.4 per cent of children aged five to 16. The rate for conversion from s47 assessment to child protection plan was only 11 per cent for home educated children, 35.4 per cent for under five-year-olds and 26.8 per cent for children aged five to 16 years.
Home educated children are not ‘hidden’, or ‘invisible’ but uniquely visible and often unduly scrutinised. In fact, by far the majority of home educated children have wider and richer social lives than school children do; not for our children a single set of 30+ identically aged children, in the same room for hours each day. Home educated children are of the community, within the community daily and often treasured by their communities.
Coming back to the poor beleaguered social worker, often faced with unwarranted referrals for healthy, happy, much loved and well cared for home educated children, when should they become involved? As we said, an easy question to answer: the social worker should apply the same criteria as they do to every other child and not be swayed by misguided and plain wrong notions about home education.
To every social worker receiving a referral for a home educated child we suggest the following:
- Come to the referral with an open mind, free from prejudice;
- Think ‘different’, but no less valid and effective choice;
- Think ‘different’, but no less valid types of socialisation;
- Think ‘different’, but no less valid social constructs;
- Think ‘would I consider this child at risk if the education choice was different?’ and
- If after looking at the situation with an open mind, you feel that help and support is needed, that is the only time to take the next step.