At its starkest, many people don’t understand home education, don’t understand why parents would not send the child to school, and some just do not know it is a legal and valid option.
Increasingly, the narrative is that the home educated child is at increased educational or welfare risk. Increasingly, the societal message from government, local authorities, professional bodies (specifically educational, health or welfare) is school is a protective factor, and home education is generally a cause for concern: educationally, or welfare.
Professionals with a child remit are also members of the wider community in which we all live and they too hear this narrative and are professionally ill-informed about home education. These child professionals, no matter the field, have a strong welfare focus; they undergo regular safeguarding training and briefings, effectively they primed to be hyperalert to risk.
A particular issue is LA education officers who all too frequently lack training in home education, and are often ex-teachers who come to the role with a school paradigm of education. But while lacking training in home education they are given regular safeguarding training (Mukwamba-Sendall, 2012, 2019). The role comes with the expectation from their employers that they will carry out ‘safe and well’ check as part of their routine duties to visit families: a duty that does not exist.
Nonetheless, this expectation, skewed by safeguarding training, gives a false air of competency where none exists, impacting their practice so home education can, and increasingly is, seen as a safeguarding concern (Mukwamba-Sendall, 2019).
This is a recipe for a perfect storm, one where the conflation of home education and child welfare has come to be the starkest expression of mistrust in an increasingly risk-averse professional climate.
As a result, Education Otherwise and other home education groups have seen a noticeable rise in families being referred to Children’s [welfare] Services; still for most families this will not be their experience.
For instance, we are seeing a rise in referrals to Children’s Services for reasons which essentially relate to being a home educator:
- School: the child has been deregistered from the school roll
- Education officer: home educate child not seen or parent refused visit …
- School nurse: child not on a school roll
- Member of the local community: child seen playing out in school hours
- A&E department: child’s parent/s gave home educated as school
- General failure [by whoever] to realise home education is legal and valid
- Disgruntled ex-partner weaponising home education: wants child in school [even if previously supportive of home education]; or claiming resident parent is not providing a suitable education or is neglectful – do get advice asap!
However, please don’t expect this to happen, it is not the experience of the vast majority of home educators.
(Note I have used the term Children’s [Welfare] Services as local authorities give their service different names e.g. Children’s Social Care, Child Social Services.)
If you are contacted by Children’s Services
First do not panic, it may simply that someone doesn’t realise home education is valid and legal. Contact from a social worker, by letter, phone or on your doorstep certainly does not mean they are here to take your child. It simply means a referral has been made and they are having to respond to it. After speaking to you and making general enquiries they will likely decide no further action is required. So, breathe and don’t panic, although it is understandably stressful and worrying to go through the steps having been referred, so …
Secondly, do seek help and advice from the home education community and do listen to home educators with insider professional experience or who are experienced in supporting home educators.
Specifically, you can contact Education Otherwise helpline: 0300 124 5690, email: [email protected], or contact the Facebook Group ‘Home Education and your Local Authority: Help with dealing with officialdom’, both have a wealth of experience to assist you.
Remember anyone can make a referral including:
- an absent parent;
- wider family member;
- teacher or;
- health visitor etc.
Many of these reports are not serious enough for further investigation, let alone intervention. For instance, Children’s Services may make basic enquiries of the referrer if known and from this rule out the need for further investigation; also, some referrals are so sketchy or minor that these too can be closed.
As a parent the first you will know of a referral is when Children’s Services have considered the referral and deemed it has reached a basic level appropriate for further enquiries.
They will typically make contact via
- an unannounced home visit
- a letter advising you that a referral has been made and asking you to make contact to arrange a home visit
- a telephone call from a social worker saying they wish to speak with you
They should tell you the nature of the referral ‘this is what has been alleged’ [best practice] and they should not do this over the phone; ordinarily, they cannot tell you who made the referral and they may honestly not know an individual.
The social worker will however be relaying what someone else has told them, this can be incorrect but they now have a duty to investigate under Section 17 Children Act, 1989.
If you are contacted, they are not going to go away until they are satisfied that the child is safe: therefore, it is strongly advisable that you do not ignore contact from a social worker or officer from Children’s Services.
It is wiser to give a degree of cooperation, to answer their questions so they can as quickly as possible:
- evaluate if the referral is valid or not by assessing if your child’s needs are being met;
- reach a conclusion as to whether further action is needed or not to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare
As noted, such scrutiny is bound to feel extremely stressful yet such investigations are frequently closed with no further action.
Some things to note
Social workers have no right of entry into the home unless they have a genuine concern that a child is at real and imminent risk of harm when they have to draw on police powers.
However, it is wise to invite them in or arrange a suitable time for them to visit and to let them see your child. If they doorstep you and you or your children are not comfortable enough to invite them in immediately, do arrange a time when they can return. Our fact sheet can be given to the social worker or you can send them a link to view advice for professionals before any visit.
Expect lots of questions. Some will be personal or may even seem strange: who is in the family?; does your child play with other children, or belong to clubs, do team sports?; do they visit the GP, see the dentist or optician regularly?; have they had their vaccinations?
Answering their questions
- calmly and honestly- however stressful it is, aim to appear relaxed
- openly and in a cooperative manner- as non-cooperation can be viewed negatively and may raise an additional cause for concern
will help avoid any further groundless investigations.
It can be difficult to understand, without experience of social work, why they are wanting to view your home. In short, what they can see, in terms of neglect and harm, on a daily basis would give many of us nightmares. They will want to check that your children
- all have beds to sleep in and appropriate bedding;
- if they have enough clothes, toys, etc;
- is there food in the cupboards?;
- are the house and any outside space clean and safe?
So do make sure there is nothing that they could view as making your home ‘dangerous’ [e.g., ensure detergents & cleaning products, power tools, medicines are locked away/out of reach; animal areas are clean]. But do not worry if there are toys are on the floor, the last meals dishes are stacked for washing, or a pile of clothes for the wash/iron – these are signs of ordinary family life.
They will ask you to give consent for them to contact other agencies, e.g., Health visitor, child’s former school (if attended), GP etc, in order to obtain information about you and your family, and to also share information with those agencies. The pragmatic choice for a swift investigation is to give this, as a refusal will possibly raise red flags.
Speaking to the child
Expect them to want to speak to you child/children alone. They should ask you before they do so (unless there are exceptional circumstances).
Many parents, understandably, find this difficult, as do some children. Here there is a possible conflict between the social worker wanting to ensure the child is given the chance to express their views freely and the parent not wanting their child possibly interrogated. To mitigate stress for your child you could suggest places where child would feel more comfortable or that a friend or family member is present, or even seeing if the child would like to wave and say hello out of the window to ease them into any further visits.
Ultimately you can refuse, but aim to do this in a calm and reasoned manner and consider if a refusal will increase their concern about your child’s welfare and the possibility it could lead to further or ongoing involvement or action.
Hopefully, after this visit and enquires have been made (see notes below) they will decide your child/ren are safe and well so ‘not in need’ of intervention and you will be informed that they are closing the case.
Notes on enquiries conducted under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989:
The assessment must be carried out within 45 days from the date of the referral. Its purpose is to gather information and to examine the needs of the child or children and/or their family, and identify if there is any risk of harm to the child including its nature and level.
As with home education, each Local Authority’s Children’s Services will have its own child protection procedure and protocols for assessment. Generally, each investigation will require that a social worker:
- visit the family and discuss the allegations made;
- conduct an interview with the child away from the family;
- liaise with other professionals who are involved with the child and/or family;
- assess the developmental needs of the child;
- assess the ability of the parents to respond to the child’s needs and
- consider the impact the family, the family history, the wider family and environmental factors are having on the parents’ capacity to respond to their child’s needs and the child’s developmental progress.
As a result of the investigative assessment the social worker will decide one of the following outcomes:
- that the child is not ‘In Need’- in this case, no further action will be taken although some will provide information and advice;
- that the child is ‘In Need’, but it has been determined that the child is not suffering, or considered likely to suffer, significant harm -in this case, Children’s Service will determine the support which will be provided and draw up a ‘Child In Need’ plan accordingly or
- that the child is ‘In Need’ and that there are concerns that the child is suffering, or considered likely to suffer, significant harm- in which case, Children’s Service will initiate a Strategy Discussion to determine whether a Section 47 action is necessary, and consider whether any immediate protective action is also required.
Note if the latter is the outcome and you haven’t already sought advice do so now!
Mukwamba-Sendall, F., 2019. Policy interpreted: the effect of local authority administration and officer perception and practice on national home-education policy implementation (Doctoral dissertation, Lancaster University).