The Children’s Commissioner has started to weave a dangerous and harmful web in the minds of society that home education is a choice made by people who simply don’t want to toe the line, who may be up to no good, and who must be put under state surveillance.Katherine Kowalski, On The Mother Hand
On Monday night, I sat up in bed to watch your programme about the huge increase in home education. I was interested as we are one of the families making up the numbers. Unexpectedly, my daughter is now one of the estimated 58,000 children in England being educated at home.
I felt a glimmer of hope that you might be speaking for my daughter in your report about “an unforgiving school system which appears to have lost kindness, skill and patience’… leaving increasing numbers of families to home educate as ‘a forced response to difficulties’…’the child struggling to cope with noisy corridors and classrooms .’
My daughter is that girl. Academically gifted with a love of learning. Kind. Empathetic and caring. Well-liked. The girl who never put a foot out of place at school. The girl who looked out for the vulnerable ones ignored or left out by the trampling crowds in the playground.
She should have an exceptionally bright and interesting future ahead of her.
And yet, for now, school is not part of that future. She is part of an ever-growing group of thousands of children battling with school-specific anxiety.
My daughter has endured years of escalating fear about going to school that has impacted not just her mental health but her physical health too.
In that time she has bravely managed two school moves with hope in her heart that ‘this time it would feel different’.
As a parent I have patiently encouraged and supported her through morning after morning of crippling panic. And night after night of sleep-prohibiting distress. For years.
Until one day she just couldn’t do it anymore. And even the SEND Co-Ordinator at school agreed that forcing her to come to school would be harmful. So we stopped. It was then expected that we would simply de-register her from school and home educate.
I asked for help. Asked for work to be sent home from school while we sought support from the GP, from CAMHS, and focused on re-building her emotionally. I contacted Education Welfare, I even spoke to my son’s Disabled Children’s care team about it. No help came. No school work came. We were left entirely alone.
So I went online and found thousands and thousands of families in just the same circumstances. Children effectively excluded from school by way of school-specific anxiety that nobody knows what to do with. Children without mental health support because in most parts of the country the system now only helps you if your child is suicidal.
Or children, like my daughter, whose sensory difficulties within the school environment were ignored and overlooked because they hid them behind a mask. The quiet, clever ones, who don’t attract attention, while silently choking down a panic attack.
And yet, desperate and sad parents who have asked for help, like we have, are instead threatened with prosecution as if they are colluding in some kind of feckless truancy.
Conversations with educators and local authority staff, the people who are supposed to help, are instead peppered with thinly-veiled threats and implications of abuse.
‘How do I know you’re not just hiding her in a cupboard?’
It is these desperate and sad parents, with children who have been let down by mainstream school, who need your help, Anne. And I’m afraid your call for a register of home-educated children and termly monitoring are light years far of the mark.
You call for increased monitoring on the basis that children are falling out of school at alarming rates and you are concerned about their welfare in the face of religious extremism and the potential for child abuse behind closed doors.
I don’t doubt those risks.
But what your programme did on Monday night was to spuriously imply that the massive increase in children leaving school to be home educated is led by a desire to religiously indoctrinate children in unhealthy ways or to conduct other forms of abuse.
And by choosing the inflammatory language that you did (Skipping School?), both your programme and report also perpetrated the falsehood that children leaving school to be home educated are truanting.
Whether this was your intention or not, you have painted a picture of thousands of children dropping out of school because their parents are reckless, weak, religious fanatics or abusers.
You have started to weave a dangerous and harmful web in the minds of society that home education is a choice made by people who simply don’t want to toe the line, who may be up to no good, and who must be put under state surveillance.
I’m not a parent who is anti-monitoring. Since I have another child who is disabled I’ve had to learn to live with social services being an almost permanent fixture in our homes and lives as it is the only way my son gets the support he needs.
But what you have missed is that monitoring home education (while perhaps necessary for other reasons) is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted for the thousands of children who are leaving school because they have been harmed mentally and emotionally by being there.
If you want to stem the runaway tide of increasing thousands who are leaving school to be home educated, you need to shift your focus to schools. Look closely at what is happening behind those closed doors.
Help teachers and educators to view parents with less suspicion, not more. Help them to really listen to parents when they have a concern. Not to brush it under the carpet. Because I believe that’s what most of them really want to do. They want to help, but are hamstrung by a system that prevents them from doing so.
Help create more flexibility in the system, not rigidity, to support children for whom noisy, group-based, peer-supported or classroom-based learning just simply does not work.
You talk a lot about the rights of children. So help protect the rights of those children who are telling us that they are not coping in school and need to learn in different ways.
Help put in place processes that enable children who cannot learn in the current mainstream school environment to be provided with access to the curriculum at home, if their family is unable or unwilling to build a programme of home education by themselves. (For us, we have found a brilliant online school called InterHigh, and plenty of social and enriching opportunities at local home ed groups for sport, art and music).
Help overhaul the school system first before you go looking outside of it.
A parent who needed help and didn’t get it.
If you’re a parent or a teacher of a child who is #notfineinschool you can find help by visiting Not Fine In School.
If you’re a parent in similar shoes who is receiving no help with educating your child who is at home due to school phobia, and wondering how to go about home educating, you can find lots of well-informed help and advice in the Facebook Group: Home Education UK.