WHITTER                                   News and views on education welfare issues

If a report in yesterday's Daily Telegraph is correct, another local authority is in danger of making a fool of itself. Westminster Council has served a School Attendance Order on the parents of  a 12 year-old girl who has always been home educated and has recently played Matilda in the West End. It seems they have previously issued the necessary performance licence, (which they should not have done if they were not satisfied that she was being properly educated). The Council say they were not aware of her till then: because there is no requirement on home-educating parents to notify the LA that they exist. Education 'otherwise' doesn't need to mimic what is provided in a school even though the parents say they have also supplied examples of her work. But clearly she is learning useful skills and gaining valuable experience for her likely adult life by performing, let alone the additional educational activities her parents do with her.


Children do not have be enrolled in a school for parents to meet their legal duty. That has been a fundamental principle of our system for 150 years. If the LA persists in trying to enforce the Order, they will have to prove that she is not being properly educated. (The parents do not have to prove that she is). Given the broad definitions in law and in DfE Guidance, I do not see how they can possibly do that. As I discussed below (30.01.18), there are many weaknesses in the current law and many children about whom we should all be concerned - but this is surely not one of them?  15.02.18


How far should schools go in finding out where a child is when they don't turn up as usual? The case of the 2 children left alone at home all day when their father had died suddenly while their mother was away, raises some important questions. Another even more tragic case was the child who starved to death after no-one could get any answer from his mother because she had died first. Staff tried to visit more than once. When I was at school they probably wouldn't have done anything at all. The climate is certainly different now and we would reasonably  be expected to try all the numbers on the contact list if there's no answer to the first one - if, that is, parents have given the school more than one number and then kept them up to date with any changes. Many don't.


It is a difficult thing for schools to get right. We can't assume that a non-arrival without notice necessarily means some major crisis.  Most of the time I suspect parents just forget, or just don't think to do it. Some don't contact us if their child will be away because they assume they will get into trouble, even if the reason is a legitimate one, or because they're under compulsory age. And it can be very time-consuming only to find out there is nothing amiss. But making every reasonable effort to contact a parent (or grandparent) is certainly best practice. Otherwise a child who travels independently might not arrive and their parent wouldn't know for 6 or 7 hours. The more we can get parents to co-operate in letting us know what is happening, the better the outcomes will be. Then if we don't hear from them, the alarm bells might reasonably start ringing.  31.01.18


A man knocked on my front door this morning from one of those religious organisations that sees it as their mission to disturb people trying to get some work done at home. He had a boy with him, about 12 years old. Not a 'truant' but 'home educated'. He is spending today standing about in the cold while his father tries to convince people like me that we need his particular brand of faith. 


Adults are of course free to believe whatever they wish. Most home-educating parents act responsibly. But this is the reality of 'education otherwise' for some; (we have no idea how many as there is no system of compulsory registration). No standards; no curriculum; no effective monitoring. The Government (in England anyway) seems not to want to tighten the law but is content just to issue new Guidance in due course. In effect this continues to allow some parents to treat children as an extension of themselves, with no independent right to receive a proper balanced and broad education if their parents don't want them to, even if they have significant special needs. Virtually anything a parent provides will meet the current test, if anyone  ever asks. But if you enrol your child in a school you can get a criminal record for spending 4 days on holiday together at the only time you can afford it! 30.01.18


There's a piece into today's TIMES about doctors appealing to schools not to expect parents to provide medical 'evidence' for routine short absences. The appointments and time involved are clogging up surgeries that are under enough pressure to see those patients who actually need them. GPs and other surgery staff are under no obligation to do such work and it's a waste of their precious time. This is all an unnecessary over-reaction by some schools and LAs (thankfully not all) who have become overly-concerned about very small amounts of absence or lateness.


DfE guidance is clear. Don't ask for medical 'proof' unless there are genuine reasons to believe that the parent is being untruthful, not as a part of routine authorisation procedures. Most chidlren's illnesses, even when it's enough to be off school for a day or two, will not require a doctor, (just like adults who can have a week self-certified). It can all get just a bit too heavy-handed.  I've just seen a letter issuing a legal warning about a child's attendance at 96.3% with 9 minutes lost in a term to lateness. Children get ill. It's normal. Not everything in life can always revolve around school all the time. Professionals need to use their common sense and discretion. Or we end up like the school that  banned some children from using new play equipment because their parents hadn't paid a 'voluntary contribution' towards it, and then had to issue an embarassing apology. Please let's keep a sense of proportion and think before we act. 13.01.18


The new head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman seems to have noticed at last that many children, especially some of the most vulnerable, 'disappear' from the eventual published performance tables. Our whole focus on raising attendance is meant to ensure that EVERY child receives the education to which they are entitled. That's why parents can be held to account and (allegedly) the reason why taking your child out of school, even for a brief holiday, has become the subject of so much criticism and led to hundreds of thousands of fines.


I might even support current the legal response in trivial cases, (well, maybe not!) if we didn't also know, and have always known, that many other children, mostly those who really are at genuine risk of missing out, have been been eased out of mainstream schools by formal and illegal exclusions, pressure on parents to home educate, part-time provision, extended 'study leave', unmet special needs and simple slight of hand. Once you start to evaluate the quality of a school almost entirely by crude statistical data, it is inevitable that leaders will seek to ensure that they meet all the necessary targets. Education becomes not about all children; only about those who will bring you the credit you feel you deserve.


I don't blame schools for this - they've only  been doing what they've been asked to do.  So Ofsted, if you want things to change, lead the way in praising those schools that put children first, not the figures. Stop making judgements about a school before you've even been there, based only on what the data says. Dig beneath the surface; ask the awkward questions; talk to those who don't just tell you what you want to hear. Give more credit to those schools battling against unbelievable odds that many 'outstanding' schools never have to face. Schools are not supermarkets or football teams. 'League table' positions should be regarded with enormous suspicion. I know. I support Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion!! 12.12.17


More shoddy reporting yesterday, this time from the BBC News website, making all kinds of claims about 'truancy' without making it clear which figures they are using. It would be difficult as there is no such measure. The true truant, who comes into school and then absconds, will be marked present! I assume they mean ''unauthorised absence' but that's about parents not childen. A parent can't truant. A 5 year-old who is kept off by their parent is not a truant.  Sometimes they seem to be talking about 'persistent absence' or 'overall absence' both of which include children with a life-threatening illness and absences the school has authorised. Makes the whole article and the conclusions it draws utterly meaningless. 08.12.17


The East Sussex 'Get a Grip' campaign is back in the news again after the Council voted to continue using it, despite objections from over 11,000 parents about its patronising and confrontational tone. They are generally right in their criticism in my opinion, but my main objection is that the leaflet, or at least the version of it on the LA website, is simply factually wrong.


It says the Penalty fine is £120. It's actually £60 if paid within 3 weeks; it's only £120 after that. It says that independent medical proof is required for every sickness absence. That contradicts the DfE Guidance to schools. Parents normally decide. Other evidence should only be required if there is genuine doubt over whether they are being truthful. It says there are no good reasons for missing school other than a religious festival and 'serious' illness. Obviously not true. Bereavement? Family breakdowns and disruption? Homelessness? And heads should always be prepared to consider allowing leave on compassionate and pastoral grounds; even for a holiday if the circumstances are 'exceptional'. Children have lives outside school that sometimes get in the way. Just telling parents to get them to bed earlier or take away their phones is making a massive assumption.  


This looks like a crude attempt to put pressure on parents without actually doing any proper work to understand the various reasons for absences and what can be done about them, (most of which are authorised anyway).  If they have such an issue with persistent absence, as they claim, (though they may be including everyone under 90% so far, not just those below 90% over the whole school year which is the actual measure), this campaign will only make things worse and create even more barriers to effective home-school relationships. Parents won't talk to us if they think they will always be criticised. 'Get a grip'? Someone should! 06.12.17  


It looks as though the DfE (in England) is going to consult on some revised Guidance on Elective Home Education. (Wales is set to get a proper register). This falls way short of the wishes of those who wanted to see a tightening of the law and a more thorough registration and inspection process where parents choose not to send their child to a school. I suspect the Guidance will mostly be about illegal schools, where there are concerns about both safeguarding and links to extremism, not about what most parents provide themselves.


I have absolutely no problem with parents taking responsibility for providing their own children's education. School is not the only way to learn and not every child necessarily benefits from such an increasingly rigid and academic curriculum. I do have a problem with parents whose children are not safe and who are trying to escape detection; or those whose idea of 'education' is making their children read the Bible all day, do household chores, look after a baby or work illegally in their parents' business. The problem is we have no way of telling the difference at present.


We need the genuine home education lobby to throw its weight behind a proper system of regulation, not see it as as threat. If they are doing it effectively (and it doesn't have to look anything like a school) they have no reason to fear a system that at least ensures we know that they and their children exist. Leaving it up to every parent to make their own decision, with virtually no external monitoring, is just not enough to protect the rights of every child. We have a database of every car, but not of every child. Perhaps we at least need a shift in our priorities. 29.11.17 


Make a loan.  Change a life.


My website has had a makeover. You'll still find everything you need for my professional offer as an Independent Education Welfare Consultant and Trainer on the 'attendance' page.


I am committed to a welfare-based strategic approach to attendance and absence rather than a focus on enforcement. I may not always tell you exactly what you think you want to hear or repeat what you always thought was true. But I will offer you an informed and independent voice that gives you real practical help in carrying out your statutory duties and seeks to promote  creative solutions for those children and young people who most need them. I don't do twitter but I do 'whitter' about education welfare issues. Currently:'More nonsense over home education'.


But there is more to life than work so you'll also find a page about my humanist approach to spirituality where I write about the dialogue between faith and life for those who are not convinced that conventional religion necessarily takes us where we need to go as modern, thoughtful human beings. Life before death is what matters, not speculation about what might happen afterwards.


Feedback and comment are always very welcome.


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