Archive for July 2010

The case of mistaken identity?


Yesterday the Serious Case Review into the tragic death of Khyra Ishaq was published. It was politically notable because it was the first SCR to be published in full. The whole document is 180 pages in length and can be downloaded from the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board’s web site (click here to download the SCR as a PDF). They also provided accompanying press releases from themselves, Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Police and the relevant NHS, PCTs.  [Update Jan. 2012 – these documents have been removed from the BSCB site, so they are now hosted on this one.] The SCR Action Plan can be downloaded separately from the full review here.

At the time of writing I have not had the time to read through the SCR, nor the associated press releases. This post is therefore not a full response to the SCR, but an initial reflection and seeks to provide a note of clarification which is sadly needed to avoid confusion spreading unnecessarily.

The Birmingham Post published three reports yesterday covering the publication of the SCR and one more today. The first was advance notice of publication and can be found here. The most notable comment was in the opening paragraph:

Under-fire social workers in Birmingham were today bracing themselves for more criticism as the long-awaited findings of an inquiry into the death of Khyra Ishaq are revealed.

Once the report was published the headline “Birmingham social services missed chances to save Khyra Ishaq, says report” confirmed what many people were expecting. This extract from the article highlights these failures:

Hilary Thompson, chairwoman of the BSCB, said: “The serious case review concludes that although the scale of the abuse inflicted would have been hard to predict, Khyra’s death was preventable.

“The report identifies missed opportunities, highlighting that better assessment and information-sharing by key organisations could have resulted in a different outcome.”

It said: “There were a number of early missed opportunities for intervention by professionals.

“Three incidents during March 2006 were not progressed, either by failures of paperwork to reach the correct departments, failure to follow safeguarding procedures, or to conduct thorough checks prior to case closure, resulting in any knowledge and intervention remaining purely single agency at that stage.”

The review, which began in May 2008, concluded: “Had there been better assessments and effective inter-agency communication over a period of time it (Khyra’s death) could have been prevented.”

A complaint of harassment by Khyra’s mother, Angela Gordon, against a social worker who visited their Handsworth home in February 2008 “generated a reluctance” to complete an assessment, the report found.

It said: “The complaint by the mother… appeared to impact upon the Children’s Social Care manager and practitioner.

“This action appears to have generated a reluctance to follow through on plans with a partner agency to effectively pursue assessment procedures, for fear of wider repercussions within the complaints process.”

The report continued: “Whilst a number of agencies and individuals sought to deliver effective services to the child… there were others who lost sight of the child and focused instead upon the rights of the adults, the adults’ behaviours and the potential impact for themselves as professionals.”

Now these observations did not come by surprise. In March last year Mrs Justice King giving judgement in a care hearing in the High Court (Family Division) Birmingham District in respect to the five surviving children, expressed similar conclusions:

K’s death was caused by and is the responsibility of her mother and the Intervenor, but on the evidence before the court I can only conclude that in all probability had there been an adequate initial assessment and proper adherence by the educational welfare services to its guidance, K would not have died.

(For a fuller review of her judgement see here.)

The Birmingham Post accompanied their report with a list of the Recommendations from the Serious Case Review. Just two of the eighteen recommendations, 13 & 14, refer to home education [HE] and I will comment on these in the future. Today (Wed. 28th Jul.) the Birmingham Post did a follow up article with the headline, “Khyra Ishaq: Council and social workers failed to act on signs of abuse”. Two comments in it are worth noting here:

Teachers and concerned members of the public attempted to alert social services and the city education department to what was happening but their cries went unheard, the inquiry found.

As HE parents who have looked carefully at information which has been in the public arena for some time concerning Khyra’s tragic death have been saying, the failing were not in the laws concerning HE, but in the capability of the local authority’s children’s services. (Many us us also believe that underfunding is a major factor in causing these failures. Sadly I suspect that in a society whose members neither want to take responsibility themselves nor pay taxes to equip others to fully fill the gap so created, and in the face of global financial crisis, such pressures are likely to increase rather than to be resolved no matter which political party holds the reigns nationally or locally.) The BP reporter goes on to confirm that concern raised about  HE by the LA was a red-herring by adding later:

The inquiry’s central conclusion – that education officials were out of their depth when agreeing the emaciated Khyra could be taken out of school and educated at home – flies in the face of the council’s official explanation earlier this year that nothing could have been done to save her.

From Mrs Justice King’s ruling it was clear that key members of Birmingham’s children’s services did not understand the law concerning HE and this included “a man called I H who is [Birmingham CC’s] ‘Educating Otherwise adviser'”, since named in the national press as Irvine Horne.

This lack of understanding concerning the law on HE though is not confined to Birmingham City Council staff. It is found in many local authority offices as well as in the minds of more important civil servants such as the Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Artkinson. When she appeared before the CSF Select Committee in October last year quoted Khyra’s name as all the justification she needed to argue for a change in HE legislation (transcript here – see Q36). She was however doing nothing other than singing from her sponsor’s song sheet. That sponsor was of course Ed Balls, at the time the Secretary of State for CSF, and who also over the months has used every opportunity to use Khyra’s death as justification for his attempt to nationalise the children of England. We are grateful he failed. Others who it appears don’t understand the law concerning HE include OFSTED, who recently published a very poor report on LAs and HE – see here for my comment on it.

One ray of hope in all this is that the present Secretary of State for Education, seems to be better informed. His statement on the publication of the SCR can be found here. Two of the five paragraphs refer directly to the situation concerning HE.

On home education, Michael Gove said:

We respect the right of parents to educate their children at home and most do a very good job, some of them picking up the pieces where children have had problems at school. We strongly encourage local authorities to develop a positive relationship with their home-educating community.

We note the views of the Birmingham LCSB about the law as it applies to home-educated children and we are aware of the very strong views held by local authorities and by home-educating parents on this matter. Clearly lessons need to be learned by the tragic events in this case, and I will consider the letter I expect to receive from Birmingham shortly, to see what changes need to be made to the existing arrangements and reply in due course.

Need I remind HE families of what was said by both parties now in the governing coalition before the general election? Whilst they both condemned Labour’s policy, they both said that there would have to be changes in the future! HE families need to keep their eyes on what is happening!

Moving on. Unfortunately confusion also seems to have spread to authors of this SCR and that too is a real cause for concern. The BBC web site carried two reports on the day the SCR was released. One,  “Starved girl Khyra Ishaq’s death ‘was preventable'” was much in line with those from the Birmingham Post. However, the second was seemingly written with the assistance of the Balls & Badman Department of Spin. Titled, “Khyra’s home education ‘helped conceal abuse'” it claims:

The report, released on Tuesday, said the current legislation for the assessment requirement for home education was “weak”.

There is “no mandate to monitor, assess or inspect the quality of home education provision once approval has occurred,” it added.

“This situation is particularly advantageous for parents who may wish to conceal abuse.”

These quotes are taken from the Executive Summary and my comments on them and the rest of the SCR will have to wait until I have read it. The confusion in the article however went further as the reporter jumped to the wrong conclusions about this statement on page 8, which is in the Executive Summary:

Education Otherwise (EO) provides advice, support and assessment to parents who have elected to educate their children at home. The lack of a robust and rigorous process by EO, during February 2008, to assess the capability of adults within this household to provide effective home education, coupled with the absence of any risk assessment process to address safeguarding concerns previously communicated by education welfare, must be viewed as a significant failure.

This was taken up in the BBC article and, when it was first published and the reporter had contacted what everyone in the HE community knows as ‘EO’ (an independent charity) for their comments. Unfortunately, I did not make a copy of the BBC report when it was first published, because on reloading the page today I found very different wording in it. The interviews with EO representatives were gone and instead there was these paragraphs:

One organisation criticised in the report is Education Otherwise (EO), a department within Birmingham City Council, which gave support and advice to parents who opt to teach their children at home.

The report said other agencies were hoping to rely on assessments carried out by the city council’s EO but ignorance of home education legislation around those processes “clouded professional assessment and decision making”.

The phrase highlighted in italics has not been changed (and it shows), but originally it went on to describe the charity Education Otherwise. Alerted to this case of mistaken identity EO did publish a press release yesterday on their web site. It reads:

Tuesday 27 July

Press Release – Confusion in Khyra Ishaq Serious Case Review

Confusion in Khyra Ishaq Serious Case Review over use of “Education Otherwise”

A spokesperson for the leading Home Education charity, Education Otherwise reacted with dismay at the confusion in the Serious Case Review into the death of Khyra Ishaq.

Fiona Nicholson, Trustee of Education Otherwise said, “Like all parents I am horrified at the death of Khyra Ishaq. However, due to the confusion caused by Birmingham City Council I need to make it clear that the charity Education Otherwise has no role in the assessment of home education. Birmingham City Council used the same name for their internal department and this has not been made clear in the serious case review or any publicity.”

Annette Taberner, Trustee of Education Otherwise has written to the Select Committee and to Birmingham Council highlighting a number of errors in the Serious Case Review, which should have been corrected before the final draft was agreed in April.

Ian Matthews, Media Spokesperson said, “Despite the agreement of the courts in March, Birmingham City Council are still persisting in causing confusion in the media by using the name Education Otherwise. Criticism intended for Birmingham council in the Serious Case Review appears instead to be directed at the home education support charity. We will be advised by our lawyers on how to proceed.”

See full press release document for footnote references. [N.B. – this file is now hosted on this site as EO have not moved it to their new web site.]

What a mess! At least Mrs Justice King was accurate enough to refer to Irvine Horne as “the Educating Otherwise adviser” for Birmingham. Perhaps this was because he was at pains to “explained that he is the only adviser to Birmingham City Council with regard to Educating Otherwise”.

The SCR was, according to today’s article in the Birmingham Post, “led by a senior NSPCC Inspector”. The NSPCC has sadly over the last two years been at the front of the campaign to invade the lives and homes of HE families. In April 2009 it apologised after one of its staff suggested that home education may be a cover for child abuse cases like that of Victoria Climbié (see here). Whilst I am not going to comment on whether or not another of its staff has been guilty of using this SCR to convey that same message, until I have read the whole review, I am left to wonder why a senior official was unable to distinguish between a national charity, Education Otherwise, and a department within Birmingham CC, labeled Educating Otherwise?

I would like to think that this confusion was caused by incompetence rather than mischief. Then again  if the authors did not have the ability to distinguish between the two very different organisations, it really does not reflect well on them!

It is a pity too that Caroline Gall in rewriting her report on the BBC’s web site, did not have the grace to include a comment and an apology about the error in the original copy she posted. She could have even expanded the story by highlighting the misleading wording of the SCR, and especially its repeated use of EO’s initials! Perhaps if she had done so, this piece would not have been so long!

Finally, I know that in the HE community their are mixed feelings about EO. Some families think it is wonderful, whilst others give it a wide berth. I would hope though that whatever our feelings towards the charity, all HE families would not wish it to be confused with a section of a LA’s underfunded and ill informed children’s services which seemingly did not understand the law concerning HE. I think there is one thing we will all agree about concerning the real EO – its representatives do understand HE legislation!

Hopefully, in my next post I will be able to give an in depth response to the SCR in relation to its comments on HE.

Khyra Ishaq: Council and social workers failed to act on signs of abuse