Review: Skipping School (Dispatches, Channel 4)

A young boy wearing a pink T-shirt holding a wooden stick vertically in his hand, playing on a set of wooden logs stood against a tree branch.
Kobi, whose parents took him out of school in protest at its all-work, no-play culture.

Last night, at the rather late hour of 10:15pm, Channel 4 broadcast an hour-long Dispatches programme, presented by the children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, about concerns that home-schooling is being used as a cover for illegal unregistered schools, that families are being forced into home-schooling by schools which “off-roll” their children because they have special needs, and that children have died of neglect unknown to the authorities until after they have died because local authorities have no way of knowing who is being home-schooled, especially if they were never sent to school as opposed to withdrawn. I know a few parents who are home-schooling for different reasons, and many of them have said this was a dreadfully biased programme which did not really show home-schooling as a positive choice but rather as something forced on some parents (unwillingly) by necessity and chosen by others for nefarious reasons, and the very title, a euphemism for truancy, gave the impression of bias from the beginning.

They interviewed a number of home-schooling families, only one of which — a middle-class couple which had withdrawn their son from school because they disapproved of the all-work, no-play culture — appeared to be educating their child successfully. The others included a mother with a son with a variety of health needs who had been accused of making him ill, another with dyslexia who had withdrawn her son because of his own special needs which the school were not meeting, but was struggling to even read herself and was getting no support, and a family of a daughter of secondary school age who, again, they had withdrawn because the school environment was threatening her mental health although she wanted to be in school. They also interviewed a retired headteacher who said that families were being forced into home-schooling because of schools “off-rolling” children, particularly those with special needs, and giving them the choice of finding another school or home-schooling; however, families are very much on their own, with the state providing no support even if it was the schools’ failure that led to their being withdrawn.

The last half of the programme was given over to the matter of abuse: eight-year-old Dylan Seabridge who died of scurvy in a remote village in Wales after local officials failed to investigate his situation, believing they had no right to as his father refused them entry to his home, and the matter of unregistered schools which often pose as home-schooling support centres but where in fact children spend the whole week. The first story was a tragedy but this single case does not outweigh so many situations in which children’s and young people’s physical and, especially, mental health is impacted by mainstream schools. The young autistic people featured in this programme really were in danger at school; some children have killed themselves as a result of bullying and others have had mental health crises so bad that they have needed to be admitted to hospital or sectioned. Children who have been in school have died as a result of parental abuse and sometimes the signs were missed by social services or others. Children in special school or hospital have died as a result of abuse or neglect there. Even if Dylan Seabridge had been on a register of home-schooled children, which is the proposed solution to these sorts of situations, his parents might have found a way to shield him from any inspection.

As for the unregistered schools, clearly Ofsted already have the power to investigate and bring prosecutions for these places whether they masquerade as home-schooling tuition centres or not. As the programme said, there is no way of making sure that the teachers who work in these places are vetted for criminal convictions or that they have any educational qualification. They featured one Muslim school which had been running under this pretence in west London whose owners were prosecuted; they also showed examples of the things which appeared in the school’s textbooks, including the statement that a husband should not have anal sex with his wife which is indeed an Islamic teaching. What age the pupils were given this information is not clear; if they are primary school age then it is clearly unacceptable, but if they are in their teens then this is quite acceptable given that this is a religious school and there is currently pressure to teach young people about sex at a younger and younger age.

The programme was not as bad in some respects as I had feared; there was no speculation about young people in home education being vulnerable to ‘radicalisation’, for example. This is significant as I know of parents who were fearful about moving to home education (in one case after their child experienced racism at school) because it might attract the attention of the police through the Prevent initiative. As it is, children have been interrogated by the police as a result of this system because of opinions they have expressed in class or in their work and some are being advised not to talk about politics at school from anything that could be considered an Islamic viewpoint.

Still, it showed home education in a mostly negative light, implying that it could really only be successful if carried out by middle-class suburban parents. It showed it as a threat to children’s well-being, when in fact for many children school itself is a worse threat. It did mention the lack of support for parents, but did not suggest offering such support; the only solution to any of the problems mentioned was a register and it strongly suggested that the lack of any guidance on what children should be learning was a problem. It mentioned that home-schooling was banned in Germany, as if this should make any difference for us (it is not banned in the USA, France, Canada or many other countries), but Germany offers a range of types of school, including Steiner schools, which the UK does not.

The commissioner proclaimed towards the end that “the right of a parent to remove their child from school can no longer come before the best interest and rights of the child”, when the reasons a parent chooses home-schooling often has to do with the right of a child to a varied and engaging education or to a life free of abuse. While the state of mainstream schooling is getting worse — increasing class sizes, political interference such as forced academisation (often at the cost of alienating both parents and staff), and curriculums dominated by English and maths and geared towards key stage tests, it should be no surprise that some parents want better and some children need better, especially as some parents have had such an unpleasant experience of school themselves.

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