Doorstepping in Suffolk

I have been trying, not for the first time, to try and make sense of what is happening in the world of home education by putting myself in the place of the participants and thinking how I would feel and act. In Suffolk, at least one parent has received a letter from the local authority, saying that because they have not seen the home educated child for five years, they wish to pop round and assure themselves that the child is still physically alive and well and in the county. There have been predictable howls of outrage about this.

Let me first try and put myself in the place of the parent and see what I would do in a similar situation. This should not be hard. I was never overenthusiastic about having apparatchiks from local government poking into my affairs. I am still not. It should not be difficult for me to put myself in this person's place, because exactly the same thing happened to me when I was home educating. The local authority told me that I had been living and home educating in their county for years and that they wouldn't mind seeing the kid, just to make sure everything was OK.

The first thing to say at once is that I found this irritating. I knew the child was safe, well and receiving a far better education that she was ever likely to get at the local maintained school. What the Devil business was it of these people? Judging by what has been said on the lists, this was not the initial reaction of the parent to whom Suffolk sent a letter. Apparently the family were 'traumatised'. This sounds a bit rummy to me. What on earth is going on in their house that they would be traumatised at the prospect of a knock on the door from a local authority officer? Their child was apparently in tears. Now call me Mr Oldfashioned, but if I got a letter through the post that I thought might upset my child, I would not even mention it to her. Why would I? I'm the adult, it is for me to tackle things like that. What would I actually do in such a circumstance? To begin with of course, the bit about the unannounced visit is just designed to encourage the family to engage with their local authority. I might allow such a person into my home; I might not, depending upon how I was feeling that day. I would be inclined to ring Suffolk County Council and say something to the following effect;

'I have your letter and quite honestly it's a bit of a sauce. There's no point at all in your coming round at random like that, because you won't get into the house or see my child. If you want to meet her and see that she is alive and well, then I don't mind arranging to meet you in the library. What about next Thursday lunchtime? I don't mind doing this once in a while, although it's a great nuisance. If you pester me too much though, I shall make such a fuss to MPs and so on that you will think that you would better have stuck your head in a hornets' nest'.

Everybody is now happy. The parent and his family are freed from the fear of an unannounced knock on the door and the local authority are able to satisfy themselves that the child is alive and well.

Looking at the matter now from the point of view of Suffolk; it is possible to have some sympathy for them. Some home education advisors employed by local authorities behave as though they are running semi-autonomous fiefdoms. They play their cards close to their chests and often nobody actually sees their files and records from one year to the next. When somebody moves on or dies without handing on the caseload with plenty of notice, it can be discovered that everything is in a terrible state and it is impossible to know who has been seen and who not or even who is still being home educated. The last thing any local authority wants is for it to come to light that some kid in their area has died or is being cruelly mistreated without their knowing about it. It looks lousy when that sort of thing turns up in the papers. The easiest thing would be to trawl through the jumbled up files and then physically visit every one of those families just to make sure that they are still in the local authority area. Again, a very similar thing happened to me when a new officer started work in Essex and wanted to visit every family on the books, even though I had just allowed a visit six months earlier.

It strikes me that with a little bit of give and take, it should be possible to resolve these difficulties without recourse to the Human Rights Act!