De-registering children to avoid trouble

Most parents who de-register their children from school do so in order to provide an education for them at home. It might be a strange or insufficient education, but the intention is definitely to give the children some sort of education. However, for at least the last ten years or so, it has been noticed that some are not choosing this option for the positive reason of home education, but rather to avoid ending up in the courts. When Ofsted surveyed fifteen local authorities last year, they spoke to a hundred and twenty home educating parents and received written submissions from many more. Local authority officers were also spoken to. In every single one of those fifteen local authorities, it was accepted by all parties that some parents had de-registered their children from school in order to avoid prosecution for their children's truancy. The Children, Schools and Families select committee found the same thing when they spoke to local authority officers last year. Not only were some parents hitting upon this scheme themselves to evade trouble, but schools sometimes collude with them in doing so. Ofsted found a couple of parents who had been advised by the Headmasters at their children's schools to de-register their children in order to avoid the stigma of permanent exclusion.

Cases like this typically occur when a child is missing a lot of school and the EWOs are not making any headway, or when there is so much trouble with the kid at school that it looks as though permanent exclusion is going to be the likely outcome. Now exclusions and prosecutions for truancy are pretty lousy for a school's reputation. Too many of either and people start poking around and asking awkward questions of the Head. They are also bad news for parents and pupils. The courts are quite ready these days to send a parent to prison if their child's persistent truancy looks as though it is being condoned. Permanent exclusions mean that the kid will have a very bad record in the future. It is therefore in the interests of school, parent and child if another solution can be found. The most popular solution was pioneered by Firfield School in Newcastle in the late 1990s. They simply typed out letters supposedly from the parents of regular truants, letters which announced that the parents were going to home educate their children, and then called the parents into the office. After putting the frighteners on them with threats of prosecution, they then produced the letters and got the parents to sign them. Problem solved! Unfortunately, the large number of disaffected youths hanging round the streets during weekdays was noticed and the whole scam was exposed.

Of course this sort of thing still happens in every local authority area, although some are worse than others. When a child is de-registered from a school to be educated at home, the school is supposed to notify their local authority. Some schools fail to do this. This is sometimes because they have been encouraging parents to de-register their children to 'home educate' and they are nervous that if the LA sees too many children being off-rolled in this way, that questions might be asked. So they simply don't tell the local authority. Some local authorities too are not over anxious to hear about any more home educated children. When we received a monitoring visit from Essex some years ago, I mentioned that I had been having dealings with another home educating family in the area. Quick as a flash, the adviser told me that she did not want to know of any family who was not already registered with Essex. It would just have meant more work for them and the HE department was already overstretched.

One of the worst local authorities for not wanting to find out about home educated children in their area is the London Borough of Enfield. I know of half a dozen children who have been de-registered in the borough, all of whom sent letters to their child's school. Not one was subsequently contacted by the LA. Since we are talking of four different schools, this means that it is probably a semi-official policy of the council not to take on new home educated children to inspect if this can be avoided. The inspections which they do undertake tend to be, shall we say, a little cursory. From time to time, Enfield get their fingers burned in this way. An unfortunate case from 2007 illustrates what can happen if you get too sloppy.

In January 2005 a mother de-registered her fourteen year-old daughter and younger brother from school in order to teach them at home. An EWO visited in April that year and then again in May. There was a certain amount of uneasiness about the family, but it was decided to sign them off for a year. In June 2006, there was another visit. Everything was fine according to the local authority officer. She did not notice that the mother was horribly depressed. Some people had concerns though, because the children's mother was a little strange. The following March, Enfield became aware that the daughter had actually died in early November the previous year! During that time, the corpse of the girl had been laying on the floor of the living room; the mother being reluctant either to arrange for its disposal or even to notify anybody that the child had died. The cause of death was never established and Enfield got off quite lightly at the subsequent Serious Case review.

The best way of preventing schools using home education as a way of shedding unwanted pupils would be to adopt Recommendation 14 of the Badman report and require local authorities to make annual returns to the Children's Trust Board about the number of home educated children in their area. If the Department for Education became involved in this, the local authorities would probably buck their ideas up a bit and also crack down on the schools which are operating this racket.