A reasonably-informed rant on child welfare issues and the meaning of life
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DEAR MR GOVE: LETTER FROM A FAILING HEADTEACHER
"Thank you for giving those most involved in the delivery of education the opportunity to comment on your proposed changes to the curriculum and examination system for children aged 14-16. There is always a danger that politicians who've never worked in the relevant service will try to impose their own ideas without listening to those who will actually have to carry them out. As a former journalist yourself, I'm sure you will appreciate how important it is to get the real story across and allow a voice to those who know what they're talking about.
Here at St Jude's College (who, as I'm sure you will have learnt from your own school days, is the patron saint of lost causes), we are proud to admit pupils who've already been rejected by every other secondary school in the area. Our parents can't afford the local private schools, (whose staff, incidentally, tell me that the new proposed Ancient Languages content looks to be rather too difficult for most of their pupils, so that's an encouragement). Our Y7 children have already failed the entrance exam for the grammar school and been turned down by the very popular (and brand new) G4S Academy.
I can't emphasise enough how much our staff and pupils are looking forward to the new system. We have many lively and creative students here with skills in practical subjects, or who have special needs, learning difficulties and dyslexia. There's so much in these plans that's aimed at young people like them. They already speak 23 different first languages: how brilliant is that! Many have also been the victims of abuse or have spent years going in and out of care, without (unlike yourself of course) being able to attract adoptive parents who will give them every educational advantage or support them in winning scholarships, but obviously that won't make any difference.
Our staff are so excited by the prospect of being named and shamed in local league tables based on GCSE performance alone. What a waste of time it is to measure the progress that all children make in their learning. So much better to concentrate instead on one standard measure at the end that can only be achieved by a small elite and the cleverest few. With Ofsted's help, I'm sure everyone now understands that we are particularly bad at encouraging our pupils. We so want them to fail; that's why we all work here. Keeping them interested and achieiving by regular coursework deadlines was obviously a disaster. It will be such fun to see how our attendance and behaviour are affected once they realise that getting a 2 or a 3 in their final exams will set them up nicely for their future prospects. It will make coming to school every day so worthwhile for them, and for us.
Anyway, must close. Have to see some parents to explain (yet again) that they are hopelessly unrealistic in their expectations for their sons and would do much better to settle for them making their way through the criminal justice system. At least they'll get some education in the local YOI!! I'll let you know how things turn out. No doubt I'll still be here in 4 years' time; after all, who else would want me? But will you?"
14th June 2013
LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE DADS!
It was disappointing to hear a report this morning that so many children are still growing up without an active involvement in their lives by their fathers. Indeed, many never see a positive male role model at all, either at home or school. It is often my experience when I'm delivering child protection training that I'm the only man in the room. My son recently went through teacher training to work in a primary school and men were as rare as Michael Gove admitting he might be wrong about something!
Of course some men let the side down, or worse. Some seem to think fatherhood ends with the conception. Sadly most of those who abuse their position of trust are men, though not all. But it's as unacceptable to stereotype a whole gender as it is to stereotype a whole race or nationality. Most men do not abandon their responsibilities or pose any risk to children. What does this absence of men say to children, especially to boys, as they are growing up, I wonder?
The Children Act 1989 was supposed to sort this out. There is no such thing as a 'single' parent, unless the other parent has died. 'Parental Responsibility' does not end even if the relationship between the parents does. But courts still seem to have difficulty getting this message across, or don't stick to the principle themselves. Schools very often don't ask about other parents at a different address who still have every right to be involved in their child's education. Some parents are still being excluded from their children's lives for no good reason.
No-one gets 'custody' any more, though you'd never know it. 'Residence' just sorts out where the child will live; it doesn't award them to one parent at the expense of the other. The 'bedroom tax' will add yet another obstacle to staying involved for some fathers who want their children to sleep over with them some of the time. This is just not good enough. Surely it's about time we actually did what the legislation was intended to do almost a generation ago?
10th June 2013
THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING
Today is the first of several days that I'll be spending with the staff of a large Midlands Local Authority as we plan together for changes in the way they provide support services to schools, especially around attendance. In line with many LAs, recent restructuring has brought many people into contact with schools who come from other backgrounds - social work, youth work, parenting etc. This more 'joined-up' approach to meeting children's needs is obviously a good thing - though I also welcome their decision to keep at least some professional identity for their Education Welfare Officers and the expertise that they in particular can be expected to have.
The difficulty is that the climate in the schools with which they will all be working is constantly changing too. Half of secondary schools are now academies with an increasing amount of autonomy - though I find it very interesting that not only are we now getting stories about how that independence can sometimes be abused, there is also talk at the DfE about creating a 'middle tier' of support to enable them to be more effective. We used to have it - they were called 'local authorities'! But that doesn't suit the more centralising trend that now seems to be taken for granted. We have to start from where we are.
The challenge for these new teams will be to strike a proper balance between supporting the schools and focusing on the needs of EVERY child and young person. The two are not always incompatible, but there is often a conflict. Attendance, like behaviour, often exposes the tensions. We do all we can to overcome the obstacles and get a reluctant child back in and then something happens which convinces the school that they shouldn't be allowed to stay there. The school's targets may even be seen as more achievable without them, and it's those on which they will ultimately be judged. But what counts in the end? Successful schools, or better outcomes for all children? Achieving the first must never be allowed to compromise the second.
3rd June 2013
IS THERE ANY POINT IN 'TRUANCY FINES'?
The Welsh Government is to introduce Penalty Notices as a legal sanction against parents whose children fail to attend school properly. They will be £60 or £120, for each parent and for each child, depending on how quickly they are paid. We've had them already for almost 10 years in England so it might be a good idea to ask if they work. Given that attendance is compulsory, it makes sense to have some legal sanction, and fines in response to deliberate parental indifference may seem reasonable. But do they actually get the children back to school? In my opinion, the jury is still out.
As in England, school attendance in Wales, where it has always been lower, has already been improving, (at least according to the published data). The evidence of impact in England has been somewhat skewed by the fact that a PN is often issued for very small amounts of 'unauthorised' absence, like a holiday taken without permission. These children may be in school nearly all the rest of the time anyway so there is no work for the fine to do. Many parents would consider it worth paying, compared to what they're saving. Maybe they should be required to go on some kind of 'Attendance Awareness' course instead, as you can do in reponse to a speeding ticket. That might be more useful. But are these families really a problem? And, of course, it's not 'truancy' - fines are only for when parents are at fault, not their children.
My suspicion is that while Penalty Notices may do something about the occasional absentee, and may even deter other reasonable parents from breaking the rules, they do nothing at all about those who are seriously disaffected. These parents may even choose not to pay it and face the prospect of a more serious penalty from a Court later, but their child still doesn't go back even then. The issues are far more complex for them. Surely, these are the children we need to be most concerned about? More about all this in my FREE book 'The Truancy Myth' available as a download on my homepage.
20th May 2013
UPDATE ON FLEXI-SCHOOLING
In response to my query, the DfE have now told me that they still don't approve of flexi-schooling (part-time school and part-time home education). The statement on their website doesn't make this very clear, but they have only withdrawn the prohibition in the recent 'Advice' so that any EXISTING agreements can continue. Their response explicitly says that such an arrangement is unfair as it allows schools to claim full funding for less than full-time provision and that legally, the two arrangements are mutually exclusive. It's now under review (again) and a response to a new consultation is expected by July. We'll see.
Also managed to get the point into Chris Woodhead's column in today's Sunday Times. He seems to approve of FS and called my objections 'emotive'. Odd really when you think how much he has criticised schools for not doing enough to raise standards. These children can apparently just have a bit of school now and again while the rest of what they do is entirely unsupervised and outside schools' jurisdiction. One rule for the articulate middle class and another for the poor parent who just wants a cheap holiday for a few days in term-time?
19th May 2013
ARE THOSE ACCUSED OF CHILD ABUSE ENTITLED TO ANONYMITY?
There is currently much debate about whether the principle of 'innocent till proven guilty' entitles those accused of abuse against children to remain anonymous until they are actually charged, or even convicted. Teachers, (only teachers, not anyone else who works in a school), have recently won the right for their identity and school not to be published until they are charged - though this won't of course stop people talking about it when somone is under investigation. A school may well still have to make a statement of some kind to prevent inaccurate and potentially more damaging speculation. But it would be an offence to write their name on a Facebook post or in a newspaper.
That seems fair, though I don't see why it should only apply to teachers. On the other hand, recent cases involving celebrities have only become charges because people who had been their victims in ther past now knew that they were being investigated and came forward. This could also be true of someone in a 'position of trust'. When a teacher left the country last Autumn with one of his pupils, the publicity was essential in finding them. The Police (or anyone else) can apply to a Court to have the restriction lifted, but how often will that happen? I guess the media will test it before long.
Almost everything in child protection requires a balance to be struck between the rights of the various people involved. Some allegations are untrue, or at least can never be proven. Careers and reputations shouldn't be ruined on no basis at all. But I don't see how we can depart from the general principle that the interests of the child/victim must always take priority. Any system weighted in favour of the accused can only add to the sum of unreported abuse that we already know is far higher than that which ever comes to light at the time.
8th May 2013
WHY THE CLIMBDOWN BY DFE ON FLEXI-SCHOOLING?
The decision by the DFE to totally reverse its Guidance on not allowing 'flexi-schooling' (which it only issued 6 weeks ago), may be far-reaching in its implications. Who has been lobbying who I wonder? My guess is that some small rural schools have found this a way to keep open by attracting home-educating parents who want to dip into school now and again, (though they must have a lot of absences if these children are properly on roll and, if so, surely they are breaking the rules on the National Curriculum?) One or two MPs have certainly taken up their cause to my knowledge.
But this change permits, even encourages, schools to agree to part-time education, all of which will be hidden in the authorised absence data. So it will also be another way that some schools will seek to avoid their responsibility to properly educate their pupils to add to the list in the Children's Commissioner's report published yesterday. The revised Advice even says that schools are not then responsible for what the child actually does during that time. 'Perhaps you might like to do something with your child at home in the afternoons? So much better for him than having to consider a proper (legal) exclusion'. Who will bother to check what they did? It's just authorised absence, not any kind of proper alternative provision.
It also creates a major confusion between 'home educated' and being a 'registered pupil'. You can't be both at once; they are mutually exclusive. Being a 'registered pupil' has always meant you are required to attend school 'full-time'. 'Home educated' is an entirely different legal status. It's not just doing so-called work under a parent's so-called supervision some of the time. It's a dangerous climbdown and undermines attempts by local authorities to enforce attendance where parents are seeking to avoid it: ('If they can keep their child at home, why can't we?'); it promotes back-door illegal exclusions and does absolutely nothing to raise standards, which is supposed to be at the heart of all we do.
25th April 2013
SCHOOLS ARE NOT THE ONLY ROUTE
The Government is planning new vocational qualifications for post-16s. That sounds like a good idea; not everyone needs or wants to go to University. The problem is that they will be too late, and too difficult, for many of those who need them most. Of course life has changed. The sorts of jobs that existed in the Black Country where I live are no longer there. But the children who used to go into them are. And they haven't necessarily become any more interested in more years of academic study or gaining higher levels of skills in numeracy. They just want a job.
It seems to me we need to grasp the same nettle as many of our European counterparts and start this vocational route much earlier; certainly by 14. This kind of provison doesn't have to be poor quality and 'second best'. It must lead to proper qualifications but this might be exactly what a young person needs to keep them motivated. The data clearly shows a dropping off of attendance in years 10 and 11 but we don't seem to be recognising that this voting with their feet might suggest there's something wrong with the product on offer. We still blame them, or their parents.
In fact, many of these 'disaffected' young people do work already. They have part-time jobs alongside school, most of which are currently illegal under our totally outdated licensing system (see 'Resources'). Wouldn't it make more sense to recognise reality and let some pupils work as part of their 14-16 education? Why can't we have programmes that combine an element of properly supervised employment and formal education at school at the same time? Maybe the jobs aren't there, though there are plenty of things that need doing and the payments could be very modest. Or maybe we just don't have the imagination to do something different for those who need it most, and before it's too late and they're too far behind to catch up.
23rd April 2013
IS LESS REALLY MORE WHEN IT COMES TO KEEPING CHILDREN SAFE?
The DfE has published the draft of its new Safeguarding Guidance for Education - a copy is on my 'Resources' page. Responses have to be in by June 20th, but I doubt much will be changed. Like every other document about children from this Government, the new one is much shorter, far less prescriptive and it leaves a lot more to local discretion. At the moment at least, there will no longer be a requirement on schools to ensure all staff have training every 3 years, or that the designated person is trained every 2 years. It will also no longer be necessary to have someone trained in safer recruitment on every interview panel (mainly because the training is often not available), though most of the Guidance is about the checks that are still required, even if these are now slightly reduced from before in some cases.
Some of this sounds worrying, but I don't see it as a total disaster. It will be essential for schools to recognise that the law hasn't changed. They still have the same clear legal duty to keep children safe. In some ways it helps to tell schools that they are just like every other agency, not a special case. The Guidance gives rather more prominence in my opinion to the significance and role of the designated person and it clearly includes procedures for dealing with allegations against staff as a central element. I welcome both of these emphases. Taken with the new 'Working Together', schools still have to do all they do now and, crucially, they have to demonstrate that their policies and procedures are in line with the requirements of their local Safeguarding Children Board.
Given that many of the people and schools I train seem to have very little awareness of their LSCB, even to the point of not knowing the name of the LADO for reporting allegations or who the education LSCB representatives are, this suggests that serious work will be needed at the local level to make sure ALL schools are as involved as they should be. This is my biggest worry. All this local discretion to put flesh on the bones will require a lot of effort by local practitioners, working parties, meetings etc. And who on earth, in the current climate, will have the time to do it?
6th April 2013
EASTER FOR ATHEISTS!
Every now and then on this blog I take off my education welfare hat and put on my 'humanist spirituality' one. It's Holy Week: a very important time for Christians as they follow Jesus of Nazareth to the cross (and for them at least, beyond it). I don't believe in a God, or therefore that 'Jesus died for me'. There is no gulf between us and a God so there is no need for anyone to die in order to put it right. The belief that a God became His own Son in order to save me from some kind of eternal punishment (when I didn't ask to be born here in the first place!) is frankly meaningless to me and millions like me.
But I will probably be in a church briefly on Good Friday and I am sad that it is turning into just another shopping day. Because this is a good day for remembering those who suffer unjustly in this world and reflecting that our common humanity is so often undermined by bigotry and cruelty, especially towards those who, like Jesus, dare to be different and to challenge human power and authority where it stands in the way of what is best for us.
And this, of course, is the massive irony which makes it so obvious that religions are just human creations. The very organisation that will be keeping Good Friday has also persecuted those who are gay, women, dissidents, free-thinkers, ethnic minorities, those of other faiths and many others who challenged those claiming to know all truth (and enjoyed the power that went with it). I hope this Easter we will hear a great deal more about where religions so often get it wrong and much less about how they alone are always so bloody right about everything!
Much more about all this in my current books and in my new one coming soon on Kindle: 'The Apostate's Creed'.
25th March 2013
LET'S GET REAL ON TERM-TIME HOLIDAYS
The knives have been out again for those 'irresponsible' parents who take their children out of school for a week to go on holiday. (I refer to my blog below about the total lack of sanction if you take your child out of school altogether!) Let's just think about this:
- Holidays at peak times will always be more expensive. It's called supply and demand. If the whole country has to holiday in the same 6 weeks the prices then will be even more astronomical and most families won't be able to afford a holiday at all
- There's simply not the capacity for 11 million children all to go on holiday in such a short time. Most holiday companies, airlines and hotels etc. would go out of business if they couldn't operate for most of the year. What would be the effect on unemployment?
- Doctors, nurses, police officers, shop workers, bus and train drivers etc. are mostly parents. There will be no services running during the 6 week holidays or nothing to do, because they'll all be on holiday too!
- It will always be cheaper to pay the fine and go anyway, (which many do). I've even known travel agents discount the holiday to cover the cost
Demand has already reduced. I have no problem with that. A week is enough. I wouldn't authorise any more unless the circumstances are exceptional. But we have to be realistic on this particular issue, like illness, or change the whole economic basis of the holiday industry and people's working lives. It would help if we reformed the school year so that the longest holiday can be when the weather is at its best, not in the near-autumn (a relic from when children were needed for harvesting). Who wouldn't rather be off in May/June? Holidays in September have become more popular as our Augusts have recently been so poor.
Schools are not the only factor people have to deal with. Not everyone can choose when to have their holiday. Punishing parents who take a week off when their child is in school the rest of the time is simply unjust, especially if that's all they can afford. The huge increase in the number of fines shows that many are having to pay them who are actually no problem. It's just picking off an easy target. And, most importantly, it does nothing at all to tackle the real issues of chronic disaffection and alienation from education. They're the ones we should be worrying about.
21st March 2013
ARE WE IN DENIAL ABOUT CHILD ABUSE BY TEACHERS?
This weekend has seen another example of a teacher charged with sexual offences against children. Of course these cases are rare - I wouldn't begin to suggest otherwise, though maybe not as rare as we like to think. But we don't really know how common they are, as experience suggests that many cases, like all child abuse, won't be discovered. There has been a great deal of attention paid recently to historic abuse by people in 'positions of trust' - like clergy and various celebrities - but education is the largest service working with children and must therefore be at most risk of attracting those into the profession who are just not safe to be there.
I always raise this issue in any child protection training I do with schools. We have a duty to make sure children are safe in our care, as well as being vigilant about what may be going on at home. It's obvious that most people haven't thought about it much before. They've never heard of Nigel Leat - the teacher who sexually abused little girls in his classroom for over 10 years - even though the government claims to have sent every school a copy of the Serious Case Review about the lessons to be learned. They haven't discussed an agreed staff Code of Conduct and hardly ever know who the LADO is, (the Local Authority Designated Officer with whom all serious concerns should be raised immediately they arise, not months later). They've never read the guidance (that could be applied to them) on the correct procedure to be followed. They need reminding that Jeremy Forrest is still in prison awaiting trial on very serious charges arising from his unlawful behaviour with a 15 year-old girl supposedly in his care.
All this surely ought to be at the forefront of our minds? Not because it's common, but because abusers are clever. They groom their colleagues, let alone the children, to make sure no-one finds out. The innocent are vulnerable to doing something stupid because they haven't consciously thought about the risks and anticipated them. The guilty will exploit this lack of awareness for all it's worth. Not good enough, either way.
17 March 2013
IS IT TIME WE STOPPED PARENTS HOME EDUCATING?
This is a right that goes back to the beginnings of compulsory education in the C19th. Parents didn't have to send their children to a school (many of which weren't very good) and could make other arrangements, private tutors etc. or teach them themselves. They still can. But now that you can be fined just for taking your children on holiday for a few days in term-time, it seems a nonsense that other children don't have to go to school at all.
If you move house after removing your child from a school, or never send them to a school at all, there is no duty to tell the Local Authority that you are there, so we can't be sure how many home educated children there are but it might be as manay as 80,000. There is no curriculum or set method for home education except that it is 'otherwise than at school'. No number of hours per week is required; there's no testing or exams. Just a few books or activities will do but there's no requirement to prove that the child has learnt anything. The LA has no right to see them in person; anyone could have done any work the parent produces. It's almost impossible to enforce admission to a school, even with a School Attendance Order, if the parent continues not to co-operate. Some do give in at that point, which suggests they hadn't been providing much before, but the child may be way behind their peers by then and school is now unsuitable.
Given that it's now the C21st, when qualifications are everything, shouldn't we at least set down some minimum standards that require parents to register the arrangements and allow what they provide to be inspected? Most take it seriously, but some don't and it offers ample opportunity for the few who are just not safe to keep professionals at bay. In fairness to all other parents, perhaps we should do away with compulsory attendance altogether if this is an acceptable alternative. Personally, I would prefer the option not to be available, unless it's through an agreed partnership with the LA (which is still responsible for ALL children), and that holds parents to account for what they are doing. What's the problem with that?
01 March 2013