The tragic case of Dylan Seabridge and why home education is not the problem

In 2011 an eight year old boy named Dylan Seabridge died of scurvy. This was undoubtedly a tragic and utterly preventable death which was caused by this child’s parents failing to feed him properly and then misunderstanding his condition as ‘growing pains’, something they continued to maintain even after the child’s death and post-mortem exam. Even though this happened over four years ago, the story appears to have re-emerged last week and most of the coverage is now centered on the fact that the eight year old boy was home educated. This has raised concerns with some people, who say there should be stronger measures taken that would give the authorities more power over  home schooled children, with all home educated children being listed on a ‘register’, presumably with the occasional compulsory check up.

A lot of sources are reporting that the child was ‘invisible’ to the authorities because the child was home educated, even though it has recently come out that the child was known to the authorities for a year before he died. Concerns were raised by two people, a teacher and a lawyer and the education officials visited Dylans home, but were turned away by the parents. Apparently there were no further attempts to see the child. According to some of the press coverage, as the child was home educated under ‘current law’ they had no legal right to demand to see the child, and therefore he ‘slipped under the radar’ and they could take no further action.

As far as I understand, parents are not legally required to have regular check ups with the social services or education offices, and they can refuse to allow the education officers to see their child (as these parents in question did). However, the education authorities do have the power to take things further if they decide to do so.
According to http://edyourself.org/ , a website which offers legal advice and information to home educators: “Under paragraph 3.16 of the Government Guidelines, it states that “if it appears to a local authority that a child is not receiving a suitable education it may wish to contact the parents to discuss their ongoing home education provision. Contact should normally be made in writing to the parents to request further information. A written report should be made after such contact…stating whether the authority has any concerns about the education provision and specifying what these are…
Paragraph 3.16 of the Guidelines goes on to say that if a local authority considers that a suitable education is not being provided and the parents, having been given a reasonable opportunity to address the identified concerns and report back to the authority have not done so, the authority should consider sending a formal notice under section 437 before moving on if needed, to the issuing of a School Attendance Order.” Paragraph 3.5 – which only applies after it seems there may be a problem, and not from the outset – does not say that the authority “must”contact parents or even that it “should”, rather that it “may wish” to do so.
The concerns were voiced by a lawyer and a head teacher, who were worried because Dylans mother was mentally ill and as the child was home educated they were presumably unsure she could provide a suitable education for her child. The information above shows that whilst the local authorities did not have to pursue the matter, if they were concerned about the child’s education and the parents were not able to provide assurance, they could have gone on to issue a formal notice and if necessary involve the social services. I personally don’t believe that would have saved the child’s life, but they did have that power if they had chosen to use it. To say they had no further power because the parents refused to let them see their child is wrong. They did not have the obligation to take it further, but they did have the option to do so. http://edyourself.org/ also has another section of interest to this case. According to them: “4.7 The welfare and protection of all children, both those who attend school and those who are educated at home, are of paramount concern and the responsibility of the whole community. Working Together to Safeguard Children states that all agencies and individuals should aim proactively to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. As with school educated children, child protection issues may arise in relation to home educated children. If any child protection concerns come to light in the course of engagement with children and families, or otherwise, these concerns should immediately be referred to the appropriate authorities using established protocols.  Government’s Home Education Guidelines

The education officers have to give you a notice and give you some time to prove you are providing a satisfactory education, and if you do not then they can refer you to the social services. As far as I am aware, if the social services were concerned about child abuse (which would include neglect) they had the power to take the same actions they would with a child who attended school. The social services don’t seem to have been directly involved with this case, perhaps because the education authorities decided there was no cause for further concern, but if they had been they would have had the power to take further action if they deemed it necessary.
The idea this child was ‘invisible to the authorities’ is clearly untrue as the authorities visited his house and therefore clearly knew he existed and were, at least momentarily, concerned for his welfare. The idea they had no power to take action as he was home schooled is  incorrect, because as the information above shows it was within their power to take further action if they had decided to do so. They did not have the obligation to do so, but if they had been unduly concerned they had the option to issue the parents with a notice and, if they did not receive a satisfactory response, get the social services involved. This was within their power, but they did not choose to take to exercise it.

There has been a lot of controversy regarding the social services in resent years, with cases like Baby P highlighting the clear failure of the social services to save a child’s life where they had the opportunities to do so and real cause for concern. Now, I don’t think any of us who do not work in the social services sector can fully appreciate how hard it must be to investigate these cases, and to toe the right line between taking enough action and not unduly interfering in a family’s life, both of which can cause a backlash if done incorrectly. There is an uproar if they fail to see the danger a child was in in time, and rightly so, but there would also be an uproar if they tore a family apart without adequate evidence that it was necessary. These are human people, and the ultimate fault must still lie with those directly responsible for the abuse i.e the parents/carers.
I do not feel that home education is really the issue here. There have been documented cases of children who went to school who were obviously being abused, which was either missed by the school or reported by the school and yet still was not adequately dealt with. The terrible case of Daniel Pelka comes to mind, as this child was also described as being ‘invisible’ to the professionals despite the fact he attended school. This child was starved and beaten at his home, became severely underweight and died as a result in March 2012.  It has been reported that the child arrived at school with visible bruises and was seen scavenging for food; a teaching assistant described him as a ‘bag of bones’. This was another tragic and preventable death, and it was said that because English was not the child’s first language (he was Polish), he lacked the ability to speak up about his treatment and his parents may have used it as an excuse not to cooporate.
I would not blame the school for this, as it appears teachers did report it. However, I would say that this case weakens the assumption that if Dylan Seabridge had gone to school it would have made a difference in the tragic outcome of his death. Scurvy is, as far as I am aware, not immediately noticeable or easily identifiable by a non medical professional. If he had attended school there may have been concerns about his welfare, but I am not sure the school would have been able to identify what was wrong. They may have alerted social services, but this does not mean adequate action would have been taken.

The parents are still have been intimately responsible for the child’s welfare regardless of his education. The sad and horrible fact is that some parents do terrible things, whether it be neglect their child, not feed them a healthy diet, or even physically abuse and starve them. Child abuse is a real concern for our communities and authorities, and I agree there should be an over-view of how social services treat different cases and that they are fully aware of the powers they have and what action to take in which instance, although clearly it is not a simple issue with a one answer fits all solution. What I would say though is that home education is not the cause for concern, and it is not to blame here. The authorities appear to already have authorization to take action against home educating parents if they believe the child is being abused or not receiving a satisfactory education. I would maybe suggest that rather than leave it to the authorities discretion,  if they have valid cause for concern that the child is not being educated and/or is being abused they would be required to take further action rather than simply have the option to do so, but that would require a change in wording and a requirement that they use the powers they already have, not a change in the law.  If they are concerned, they already have the power to take action. Registering all home educated children on a database would not change the rights that the authorities already have, but it may be a stepping stone to allowing more state interference in the education side of home education.

I think the basic concern lies in the idea that home educated children could be ‘locked up’ from the outside world and have no interactions with people outside of their family and thus it may be easier to abuse them as no one would ever hear about it, but in reality this isn’t what happens, nor was it the case here. Dylan’s parents were known to several people who reported their concerns, so clearly they were not unknown to anyone outside of their family.  The vast, vast majority of home schooling families go outside regularly; to museums, art galleries, parks, home educating events and clubs, friends houses, historic buildings etc. There is a vast and active home educating community all over the world, it is not a collection of anti social individuals who never go outside. You may say that a compulsory register could help save the few home educated children who may have abusive parents, and should not affect the majority of families who home educate to the best of their ability and do not neglect their children, but the fact is that there is a genuine cause for concern which has nothing to do with abuse. If being registered means the authorities can come and inspect your ‘progress’ on a regular basis, parents may be concerned that this would allow the authorities to dictate how their children are to be taught, and popular methods like autonomous home education may not be deemed ‘appropriate’ as there is not a universal way to test it, even though it can and does work well for many children. As the authorities already have the power to tackle abuse, I see no reason to put extra measures onto home education in itself, or to say that home education is in itself to blame. These parents are to blame, the authorities who did not take action and then tried to cover it up by saying the child was un-known to them (even though it has since come out that he was) are partly to blame as well. But the majority of responsible home educating parents are not to blame. I hope the full report sheds further light on all that happened in this tragic case, and I hope the powers that be use their common sense and look into this case properly before taking any measures that could harm the innocent and do nothing to help children who are actually at risk.

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Home education: Welcome to my life

I’ve spent the last week in a very temperamental part of Wales for the annual Home Educators seaside festival that takes place around July-August every year in the UK. The festival is called Hesfes, and I’m going to write a proper blog/review thing in the next few days about it.
It was a bit of a surprise to realize that I haven’t mentioned anything about home education before on this blog, and haven’t even mentioned that I was home schooled as a child. I guess being 22 and a post-uni office worker it didn’t seem important anymore, especially as I’d been in ‘formal’ education for around six years. It used to be such a big part of life, but now I rarely think about it. However, after having been to this festival its reminded me that I have a whole other area to talk about, something that most people may know quite little about and have misconceptions and wrong ideas about.
So here goes: I have never been educated in a school. I have very rarely even set foot in a school. I did not go to primary school, I did not go to secondary school, and I did not sit my GCSE’s in a school. This is not because I was a truant, or that I was expelled or had issues. My parents chose to educate me at home, which is legally allowed as long as the child receives some form of education. I had to pay quite a lot to sit my GCSE’s  as I was really adamant at the time I wanted to do them at the ‘right age’ (sixteen), and I wanted to go to college and uni at the same age as other people (as I went to a further education college and many of my classmates and friends ended up being over sixteen it wasn’t that important, but at the time I just didn’t want to be behind my age group and thinking about it now it was probably the right decision). Yes, I did have friends. Yes, I did have boyfriends, and some were home educated and some were not. My life wasn’t the same as yours, but it was not incomplete.
I did go to college to do A Levels, I did go to university and whilst at university for the first time ever I went to a school during school hours to invigilate GCSE’s and A Levels, which was a bit of a culture shock but was very interesting for me. Some people do originally go to school and then are taken out for various reasons, but I wasn’t like that. I simply never went, and although I was curious about it and there are times when I wonder what it would have been like, I don’t regret it.

Furthermore, as well as being home educated my education was mostly autonomous, which means that apart from basic reading, writing and math I was largely left to my own devices to learn ‘through living’ rather than having set lessons, in fact I didn’t have set lessons at all. I went to museums and art galleries, I went for walks in the forest, I went to Australia (twice), I went to the theatre and saw ballets, plays and musicals (I really, really like anything to do with the stage), there was a time when I went to the Zoo every week (I now volunteer there) and in between I read a lot of books. I only decided to study history during my first year of college when it turned out I was actually pretty good at it (and only decided to try and be a journalist recently when I realized it is quite similar to history) but throughout my childhood I read all the horrible history books, I went to historical museums and buildings and I read a lot of Charles Dickens. I was able to be interested in it for myself, rather than being forced to learn it for the eventuality of passing an exam in ten years time. I learned about money, spelling and grammar online (Neopets was great for that) and I managed to learn how to type very, very fast just because I spent more time on a computer. I don’t know how I would have turned out if I’d gone to school, it would’ve given me more of an opportunity to study science (which can be hard, although not impossible, if you’re home schooled) and maybe I would have gone to Oxford, maybe my life would be very different. But realistically, I live in south east London and I know people who went to my local schools, and I’m quite happy I didn’t go there. I would have been different, but realistically everything considered home education worked out pretty well for me.

I have a mixture of home schooled and schooled friends. Home education does not make you a better person, and it doesn’t necessarily make you smarter, more accepting or a more rounded human being. It can however work out pretty well, I know a lot of very impressive young adults who were home educated. For example, one is studying computing at Oxford, another was recently invited to an exclusive scientific conference on artificial intelligence in California without ever having gone to university, another is going to Kings college in September to do a teaching course and become a secondary school teacher (even though she never went to school herself) and one runs her own Canine behaviour and training business. Hesfes (the festival I went to last week) is great because it shows how far many of the people I grew up with have come, and how diverse their interests are. Many are skilled musicians, many are academic, many are accomplished artists who have been paid for their artwork and all appear socially able enough to manage relationships and friends just like anyone educated in a school. They may not be representative,I may not be representative, and I don’t deny that especially in isolated areas being home schooled can be quite a lonely experience, especially if you have a lot of schooled friends who have this whole other life you can’t even imagine. However, for me and for most of the people I’ve known it doesn’t appear to have hindered our lives in any way, if anything it has allowed people to excel in what they are interested in, without making them feel bad that they didn’t excel in something else.

It does make me wonder at the school system. If children can spend ten years, from ages 5-15, in a system that is based on exams from such an early age and spend years trying to gear up to these all important GCSE’s, and  even though schools dedicate so much time on passing exams, how is it that the last time I checked there was at  60-70% pass rate for GCSE’s per year. This isn’t to suggest there is something wrong with the children, or wrong with the school itself. I understand there can be numerous factors, and if there is one thing home schooling can teach you its that some people just don’t do well in school. Some people don’t do well in exams but can still be very intelligent, and some people have very impressive talents that are not academic that will still take them far in later life (art, music, making things etc) that do not necessarily even require a formal education. However, it does confuse me somewhat when people say that the education system is hard. In my experience, it is really rather easy. Not easy in that that you don’t have to work for it, but easy enough that realistically you don’t have to work that  hard. I think perhaps the importance schools place on these exams can hinder individual students, that rather than being encouraged to find things interesting they learn from a young age that learning means boring lessons and scary exams. This wouldn’t be true for all children, or even most, but it is something that home schooling tries very hard to counteract. That you don’t need formal education, you don’t need to be scared of learning, and all you need to do is develop your interests and learn in your own way, that you can learn for the sake of it rather than memorizing a bunch of facts and forgetting them straight after the exam. It may not work for everyone, but it does work.

I do have to say that I question how children who do go to school for ten years can fail GCSEs. As I was autonomously home educated, when I was fifteen I hadn’t done much maths at all and I basically had to learn about seven years of maths in a year to sit my GCSE. I also didn’t have much writing ability, and my hand writing was barely legible. I had spent the last how ever many years just reading books and had never, ever sat an exam and so before getting my GCSE results I was really scared. I had no prior basis to judge my intelligence or exam aptitude. But I did pass. I got 7 GCSEs graded A-C (three A’s) and I went on to achieve ABB at college, and later a 2.1 at a Russell Group university. During my final year of college I also got an interview at Magdelen College, Oxford. I didn’t get in, partly because I didn’t prepare enough for the interview but also because realistically I wasn’t ‘Oxford material’, but I did get an interview. I passed the HAT test (History Aptitude test) and I got to spend four quite nice days in the beautiful college that Oscar Wilde attended and got free dinners in the beautiful canteen. And later at uni I was talking to my friend, who went to both state and private schools, who applied to Oxford and did the HAT test, and didn’t get an interview.  I, who never received a formal education from a school, who learned grammar and spelling from chat rooms on the internet and who learned the entire GCSE foundation maths syllabus in a year got an interview at Oxford university. I’m not saying this to brag, but just to show that going to school doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage, if anything being home schooled makes you stand out to universities. I got conditional offers all of the five universities I applied to.

For most of my life, people were fine with my having been home schooled. My friends at college thought I was a bit wacky, but that’s kind of a separate issue. I am a bit wacky.  I never had any serious problems with being home schooled before university, sure people ask a lot of questions and tend to assume at first that you must be a social recluse, or a child genius or both, but most of the time people realize quite quickly that you are a normal person who just didn’t go to school. However, that was not always the case at university. Most people were fine, and I went on to meet some great people, but my first year flat mates for a variety of reasons were quite special young ladies. They seemed to assume that because I was home schooled I didn’t ‘understand the world’, that I didn’t know the difference between football and rugby, that I was somehow less capable at life then they were. They criticized many, many things about me. They assumed because I wasn’t exactly like them there was something wrong with me. And it wasn’t pleasant. It’s over now, and I’m far more secure and capable then I was as an eighteen year old fresher, but at the time it was very annoying and being a timid little fresher who didn’t want to cause too much drama I didn’t really retaliate at the time. However, it still makes me angry  and so for the end of this post I’m going to write a little, admittedly belated,  response to how my first year flat mates acted. It was a while back and people change, and they (like anyone else) had good and bad in their personalities, so this is not intended to be vindictive or angry but rather reflective and for the present and future home educated people.

Please try to keep an open mind about other people’s upbringings, and don’t assume based on stereotypes about groups of people you have never even encountered.Please do not assume that your experiences are the only ones that are valid, and please learn the difference between ‘different and ‘inferior’. Please do not assume that your limited, sheltered girls grammar school experience has taught you more about life than my own childhood did, and please do not assume that being a squealing, screaming, make up obsessed, incredibly immature and horrendously stereotypical girl is the only or the best way to be. Before assuming someone with a different background is lesser than yourself, please consider how it is that they ended up in the exact same place you did, that they went on to do the same or better in their chosen field and are now as much or more a productive member of society as you are. Believe me when I say that I have met many people who went to school who have a variety of social problems, that there are many people who went to school all their lives who have many, many problems with other people, who do not know how to act around other people. This can happen either way, and it can also not happen either way, and before assuming such things about other people please take a look at your own life, and your own behaviour and attitude towards other people. And please, for the love of god, do not assume that living the norm is necessary for a good life, and that school is the only way to be socialized.  Because with total honesty, if I had to choose between your life and mine in the past, present, or future, I would choose mine single every time.

Further information on home education: Hesfes: http://www.hesfes.co.uk/
My old home education group: http://www.theotherwiseclub.org.uk/
Other links: http://www.heas.org.uk/