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.