Serious Case Review – Khyra Ishaq

In July 2010, the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board published a Serious Case Review [SCR], in respect of the Death of a Child which was identified as Case Number 14. Though not named in the text, media reports made it clear that this was the case of of Khyra Ishaq, a seven year old girl from Handsworth, Birmingham who starved to death in May 2008. The full case review was originally made available on the BSCB website, but has now been removed. [Click here to download a copy.]

The case hit the headlines because the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families at the time of Khyra’s death, Ed Balls, made it his lead example in his argument for imposing regulation on home educating families. Whilst Khyra’s death was widely reported, what most of the public was not told until after the end of the trial of her mother, Angela Gordon and de facto step-father Junaid Abuhamza, was that Khyra had five siblings who were also mistreated and under-fed. Most of the facts of the case had been made known in a High Court care order hearing in relation to the five surviving children. The judgement in this case was given on 6th March 2009 and can be found here – this page according to the header information was prepared a year later on the 18 March 2010, though I am not sure when it was placed in the web archive of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute. My review of Mrs Justice King’s decision can be found here.

Overview

The publication of the SCR was delayed by the criminal case which ended on 25 February 2010, after both Gordon and Abuhamza pleaded guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility and also to five counts of child cruelty. Two weeks later her mother was sentenced to 15 years in custody and Abuhamza was jailed indefinitely for public safety (minimum term of 7½ years). As expected, the SCR confirmed the details which had been described in Mrs Justice King’s judgement. This was a tragic family; the natural father of all six children, Ishaq Abuzaire, had left the home in perhaps 2004 or 2006, and it has been claimed that when visiting the home after that he was abusive and violent towards his wife and children – though he denies this. After a while, a friend of his became friendly with Angela Gordon and it seems Junaid Abuhamza moved in and assumed a parental role in the family in late 2007. From a traumatic family background himself, Abuhamza it seems imposed stricter discipline on the household, associating this with good Muslim practice.

It appears that from this point onwards the situation in the home deteriorated. The six children were all under ten at the time, with four of them, including Khyra, having special educational needs. In January 2007 the three oldest children and Khyra all attended the same school, whilst the fourth, as a consequence of his special needs, attended a special school. The relationship between their mother and both these schools began to deteriorate, and the issue of food was a major factor in this. At first concerns were raised by Gordon, but in December 2007, according to the SCR, staff at Khyra’s school noted

“Clear evidence of the child [Khyra] stealing food from other children existed and other siblings within the family were indicating obsessive traits towards food and feeding.”

The mother was also resistant to the children taking part in PE and swimming lessons. She seemingly became more defensive in her relationship with Khyra’s school in particular. When Khyra was absent from school on 7th December 2007, the school telephoned the mother, who informed them that the child would be educated at home from then on.

After this the other children continued to attend the school, and the mother attended a meeting, during which she became aggressive with a class teacher. Three days later, 17th December, the other children attended the school for the last time. On 19th according to the SCR,

“Referral made by Deputy Head Teacher school 1 to Children’s Social Care. Concerns related to the child, information suggested the child came from a strict household and had been taking food from other children’s bags. Further that a sibling had been cramming food into their mouth; both children were reported to be thin but generally clean and tidy. Information was given that both children had a statement of educational need, they were reported not to socialise well with other children. The child had been out of school following a meeting with mother who had been very hostile towards staff.”

From this point onwards, according to the SCR, Birmingham Children’s Social Care [CSC] failed to respond appropriately, including a lack of due urgency, to the school’s concerns.

In contrast to the lack of an appropriate response from Social Services, the Deputy Head did all they could to precipitate action from them. They phoned a second time that morning, and then visited the family home along with a teaching assistant.

“Staff returned to school but did not feel reassured and continued to fax their referral to Children’s Social Care, needs were identified as emotional and behavioural development, health and basic care.”

Three days later, when there had been no response from Social Services, they phoned them again. Again CSC refused to accept the referral and when pressed, suggested the staff contact the Police for a Safe & Well check. The Deputy Head did so, and the police visited the home, saw Khyra on the doorstep and in their report

“described as fine and well”.

On 21st December 2007,

“mother rang Special Education Needs Assessment Service to say that she had removed the child from school 1 along with some siblings and wanted them educated at school 4. The reasons given were bullying by children and teachers, a lack of progress/ improvement, failure to challenge the children sufficiently and for calling the Police in relation to the child the previous week for non school attendance. Mother confirmed that she would not be attending any further planned meetings with schools and wanted the contact number for schools management in order to lodge a complaint.”

The same day she also phoned the Education Welfare Service [EWS], to say

“had decided to remove the child and some siblings from school 1 because of their behaviour towards her children and that she was going to teach the children at home until a suitable school place was found.”

At this point it seems she was saying that home education was not her permanent choice, but a tool to get the children transferred elsewhere.

According to the SCR there was no action taken by CSC over the following weeks, with the next recorded incident being on 8th January 2008, when Special Educational Needs Assessment Service [SENAS] received a letter from Gordon (dated 3rd Jan.),which was copied to EWS. This was typewritten and in it she stated that she intended to educate some of her children at home,

“at home because of the perfidious conduct of some of the staff members at school 1”.

The SCR hints that this letter may not have been all her own work. On 16th January EWS phoned the mother and seemingly completed an Education Otherwise referral form on the phone.

(N.B. At this point it must be noted that the SCR author was not originally clear that the Education Otherwise they refer to is not the charity of that name, but rather the Birmingham City Council’s department responsible for contact with home educating families. From the care hearing we know that this consisted of just one staff member, identified in the press as Irving Horne [IH]. When the SCR was published, I commented on this confusion here. From now on my use of the initials EO refer to IH’s department. It also appears that the BCSC revised the SCR in August 2010, as the version now available on their web site includes clarification of this as a note on the front page.)

Apart from EWS completing what is called a EO referral form on 16th January, no action directly relevant to Khyra’s welfare was taken by anyone employed by Birmingham City Council until 25th January when SENAS phoned Angela Gordon, who refused to allow them to visit the home. Three days later ESW [Educational Social Worker] attended a meeting at Khyra’s ex-school and was handed a referral concerning several members of the family. This prompted a home visit by an ESWstaff member later that day, though they only left a note as they received no answer. The SCR suggests that on the same day the Deputy Head of the school contacted CSC for the third time to make them aware that the mother intended to de-register the children and, because of the educational statements, SENAS would need to be involved. Furthermore, the Head Teacher wrote on the same day to EWS asking for advice regarding de-registration and querying whether a Common Assessment Framework [CAF] or multi-agency meeting might be appropriate. This seemingly followed on from a conversation between the Head and ESW at the school. It is important to note here the repeated efforts made by the staff at Khyra’s school to make their concerns known to different departments within Birmingham Social Services. The school must be, as the SCR acknowledges, praised for their ongoing efforts. Sadly CSC do not seem to have taken their concerns seriously!

On 30th January there was a series of phone calls motivated by ESW and also involving the mother, SENAS, CSC, EO advisor (IH), police and the Health Visitor, who had not seen the family since her referral to CSC in February 2007. The SCR does not record this referral as having been acted upon! However, after this round of phone calls CSC finally accepted that they should conduct an initial assessment and phoned EWS the next day to confirm that they would do so. However, no visit was made to the family home until 21st February – over two months after Khyra’s school had initially contacted CSC with an official referral. It was also three weeks after them accepting that they needed to investigate the situation further.

In between these two dates IH had visited the home by arrangement on 8th February 2008, accompanied by Richard Lewis [RL], a senior Educational Social Worker. They were at the home for about an hour, discussed the mother’s plans, but did not ask to see the children, nor did they appear in the room. (According to the care hearing Junaid Abuhamza was present at this meeting.) Commenting on this visit the SCR reads,

“On the basis of the information received it could be inferred that the purpose of the joint visit was for personal safety of the professionals in response to the increased aggression demonstrated by mother towards other professionals, as opposed to an opportunity for two professionals to make a wider assessment of safeguarding risk and home education potential.” In section 11.95 the author further adds, “It is concerning to note, that the ESW EO [RL] whilst not undertaking any assessment, also did not make any record of events and reinforces the view that the home visit was both poorly planned, conducted and that a lack of child focus and professional curiosity was evident throughout.”

The meeting ended with Gordon agreeing to send EO teaching plans by the end of February – these plans were never received.

On 18th February, the school again raised their concerns with an ESW at a liaison meeting. Following this the ESW arranged to visit the home with a Social Worker at 3pm that day, but this was then rearranged for the afternoon of 21st. In this gap Mr IH emailed EWS to confirm his visit to the home and to say that he had not seen the children. Also the school faxed Khyra’s attendance record for 4 Sep. 07 to 8 Feb 08 to CSC. This showed 100% attendance up to the point she was withdrawn by her mother.

21st January 2008 could have been a day which helped to rescue Khyra and her siblings. Anne Gondo, CSC Senior Social Worker and ESW Sayna Scott saw several of the children on the doorstep. Gordon, accompanied by Abuhamza, was not happy with the visit and though a follow up visit was arranged for the next day, once the social workers had left she phoned CSC to make a complaint that they were being harassed. At this point section 11.102 of the SCR records,

“Following a discussion with Team Manager 3 the worker’s assessment was that although the children were slim and very shy there were no obvious concerns from the brief encounter with the children. The Manager subsequently agreed that because some of the children of whom there were concerns had been seen that the planned follow-up visit the following day to see the remaining children would not go ahead because of the complaint. Instead, the outcome of the assessment for the children to become educated at home by the EO would be awaited. [emphasis mine]

Not only does this suggest a complete lack of professional care for the children, it also demonstrates total ignorance of the role of local authority home education advisers – an ignorance which seems to have been shared by SENAS staff as well as senior CSC employees. The SCR concurs, as the next paragraph starts by saying,

“A significant weight was placed upon the outcome of the EO assessment and this alone demonstrated assumptions and ignorance of the EO assessment process.”

Effectively at this point CSC excused themselves from further responsibility with regard to this family.

On 22nd January, EWS phoned IH at EO, who told them of his visit and said that he planned to visit again. On 28th IH phoned SENAS and told them of his visit. Reporting that conversation, the SCR states,

“The EO had been satisfied that they were sufficiently set up for home teaching and agreed to confirm in writing.”

The same day the ESW phoned CSC to ask whether the family had been seen since the joint visit a week earlier. The SCR records,

“ESW was informed that EO assessment had been positive for the children to be educated at home. ESW were contemplating closing the file.”

Nothing further was done until 7th March, when in a meeting at the school involving SENAS and a Speech & Language Therapist, SENAS stated that

“the child had left school and was being home educated.”

The same day SENAS received a copy of IH’s report that he had visited the family on 8th February, though it also noted that the promised teaching plans had not arrived at the time of writing. In 11.110 the SCR records contact on 10th March by an ESW with CSC in which she was told that no follow-up visit was made because the mother had phoned to “CANCEL” the visit.

“Further ESW2 recorded that Social Worker had no further concerns regarding the welfare of the children.” [emphasis mine again!]

Three days later ESW contacted SENAS who “confirmed that the children have now been recorded as Educated Otherwise.” These comments were reported to a liaison meeting with the school on 17th March.

By 20th March IH still had not received any plans from Gordon and reported this to SENAS, promising to write to the parents again. He did not do this until around three weeks later on 9th April, when he sought to arrange a visit on 16th April. The next day he updated SENAS on his action. When he did visit the home, he received no reply.

At a CSC supervision meeting held on 21st April, the Team Manager discussed the case with Social Worker Anne Gondo, and they

“agreed case could be closed because home tutoring had been approved. It was understood by Children’s Social Care that a review would be undertaken and the family would be monitored by the EO Service.”

The SCR then reports that the case was never written up and so technically was still open when Khyra died. The author states that it was not clear if the failure to close the case was due to

“a capacity or competence issue for the individual Social Worker”,

but they do note that it failed to meet expected standards.

The time-line set out in the SCR records one further significant date before Khyra was admitted to hospital. This is important because it concerns one of her siblings who was still attending school. From the care hearing this was M, the brother who was born before her and was considered to have very significant special needs and so attended a different school. In preparing for a medical on 7th May, his class teacher described him as,

“thin, weak, tired easily, felt the cold easily, skin was a little better at present. Academically was making some progress, but slow, keen to participate in activities except swimming, said mother did not want this child to swim. Behaviourally whenever food was available would constantly ask for more, did not seem to chew food and had a limited social circle.”

Gordon did not attend the medical and though M’s weight was down and his height was static, a further review was not arranged until the following September. From the care hearing we know that this was not the first time teachers at his school had been concerned about his loss of weight – at one point it was recorded he had lost so much weight, he was having to hold his trousers up. The SCR author severely criticises the Primary Care Trust for not arranging an earlier review, for not arranging follow-up home visits by the school nurse, and for not informing other agencies.

For the purpose of my review, this medical is important because it makes clear that whilst some of the children had been withdrawn from school, not all of them had. This point was noted by Mrs Justice King in paragraph 256 of her judgement.

“The fact remains however that M’s school was seriously concerned and the school of L, Z and K were voicing their concerns about these children, in particular their concerns relating to their belief that the children were not being fed properly. The schools did all they could to bring their concerns to the attention of the relevant authorities. These concerns were not taken sufficiently seriously and were not adequately investigated.”

For the completeness of the record, elsewhere in the care hearing judgement we are told that the eldest sibling had, at the start of the school year concerned, moved from the school attended by Khyra to a secondary school. The youngest child was three during the crucial months and was initially attending a nursery. However, Gordon withdrew her from the nursery on 5th December 2007, saying that the family was going away and that the child would return after Christmas, although they never actually did.

The next item in the SCR time-line took place on 17th May 2008, when her mother phoned for an ambulance some time before 6am. Khyra was admitted to hospital at 6.05am and just twenty minutes later she was pronounced dead. Mrs Justice King tells us that when the other five children were later admitted to hospital they were all underweight and also exhibited unusual eating behaviour when given food. This reminds us that this tragic case, unlike the SCR which focusses on “the death of a child”, is about the mistreatment of six children by both their parents, a de facto father and seemingly the wider care system. The SCR acknowledges that these children were failed by professionals when it states (in the Conclusion of the Summary and in the Final Conclusion of the main document),

When considering all of the information presented within this report and specifically, that contained within Section 11 missed opportunities, it can only be concluded that the death of the child was preventable. This finding concurs with judgements made within the care proceedings that the death of the child is the responsibility of the mother and the adult male, but can only conclude that had there been better assessments and effective inter-agency communication over a period of time it could have been prevented.”

The SCR and Home Education

As mentioned above, Khyra’s death was was taken up by Ed Balls and others as a political point to justify attempts to introduce a registration scheme for home educating families. That scheme has been discussed at length both on this blog and elsewhere, so I will not comment on it now. My purpose here is to examine what the SCR said about the role of home education in the events leadingup to Khyra’s premature death. First, it is important to note that the SCR does not mention home education [HE] in its conclusion at all. Instead it lays the responsibility firstly at the feet of Gordon and her partner, whilst having to acknowledge that a number of care professionals had failed to fulfil their responsibilities. If they had conducted themselves as expected by the system, then the SCR had to acknowledge that Khyra’s death could have been prevented and, let me add, the suffering of the other children brought to an end sooner.

The SCR is on the whole a formal and factual document, but the noticeable exceptions to this are when the author addresses the issue of HE. On these occasions John Radford (NSPCC) adopts more of a campaigning tone. Take for example these two paragraphs from his Executive Summary:

The responsibility for a child’s education rests with parents. In England education is compulsory, but school is not. Some of the children in this family were removed from state education during December 2007. At no point, were any of these children given the right to choose the location, the nature of provision, or any right to consultation to express their views as part of this process. There was no independent access to friends, family, or professional agencies; they were isolated. On this occasion, legislation contributed to an unintended outcome of constricting access to those children by professional agencies and removed any effective oversight of their welfare, or development.

The above highlights a major safeguarding flaw within home education legislation, which focuses upon parental choice and rights at the expense of children’s rights, wishes, welfare or protection. There are no mechanisms to ensure that a satisfactory education continues to be received, or that young people’s welfare is appropriately safeguarded, except with the express co-operation and participation of parents and carers. This situation is particularly advantageous for parents who may wish to conceal abuse. A review of existing legislation by government would be advantageous, recognising a parent’s right to home educate balanced with the Local Authorities duty to safeguard children and the child’s right to protection.”

The same sentiments are addressed elsewhere in the SCR, sections 12.5.11 to 13, the whole of 12.6, 14.2.2 & 3 and 15.9. HE is also covered by one of the eighteen recommendations made by the SCR. This is Recommendation 14 which reads:

The Strategic Director of Children’s Services should communicate to the DCSF Secretary of State, the current safeguarding inconsistencies within legislation surrounding children who are educated from home, emphasising that the parents right to home educate does not outweigh the rights of the child.”

Besides being a political statement, this recommendation like the other comments on HE in the SCR highlights perhaps the most important issue which lies behind the current debate over HE law. It is the setting of parental rights and responsibilities against the rights of children. To understand this however, we need to look at what supports this argument, who decides what rights are possessed by parents and children and who is charged with ensuring that one does not override the other. The clearest statement in this regard in recent years was made by Baroness Deech, during the Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill in the House of Lords on 8 March 2010. The full text of the Second Reading debate starts in Hansard here and the full video of the session can be viewed here. I reported on it here, so I will not repeat myself except to quote the Baroness again:

Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights also grants the right to education while respecting the rights of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their views. The European Court has held that this, of necessity, implies state regulation of the education that the child receives. The court held that Germany was entitled to ban home education. It is the duty of home-educating parents to secure for their children the education pledged in international treaties; the parents do not have stand-alone rights to determine that education in any way that they wish without state regulation.”

This Noble Peer is not alone in taking the position that the State has ultimate authority over children and that their parents’ rights are limited to those choices which the State approves. This is the thinking which motivated Ed Balls and his fellow DfCSF ministers to propose the changes to English HE legislation along with other laws which preceded it. It is the thinking which is espoused by civil servants like Graham Badman and Maggie Atkinson, the latter infamously stating in a speech when she worked as Director of Children’s Services for Gateshead Council that all the children and young people in Gateshead whether they wanted to be or not “are mine”, along with their families. (For details of her speech see this post.) This mantra is not only believed by those at the top of children’s services, but it is impressed on those at every level in social work from the day they enter training. The take-home message is that parents cannot be trusted, but the State can.

Whilst the CSR author John Radford was independent of the Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board, he came to this awful task not independent/unaware of the ongoing debate over HE. His employers are the NSPCC, though it is difficult to discover his role with them – the web site LinkedIn state that he is UK Head of Business here. Whilst it does much good work, the NSPCC has been very clear about its commitment to seeing the law on HE being changed. In 2009 they made two submissions to the DfCSF concerning HE (here & here) supporting Graham Badman’s review and in 2010 produced a briefing on the CSF Bill here, in which they also lobbied in support of the proposed HE changes. Further, in February 2009 Vijay Patel, a policy adviser at the NSPCC, told the Independent:

“Some people use home education to hide. Look at the Victoria Climbié case. No one asked where she was at school.” (Full article)

Later the NSPCC’s Director of Public Policy, Philip Noyes, wrote to both the Victoria Climbié Foundation and to Education Otherwise to apologise for the remark, stating,

“I would like to apologise for the offence this has caused. Clearly there is no connection between home education and Victoria’s tragic death as she was not being educated at home.” (Report & Letter)

This is not the place to do a full study of the NSPCC’s distrust of HE families; that has been detailed in several blogs, as has their admission that they have no actual evidence to support their linking of HE with child abuse. My suggestion is that their institutional prejudice in this respect probably explains the campaigning tone of the sections of the SCR which look at the role of HE in the suffering of Khyra and her siblings. This tone was adopted even though the conclusions of the SCR do not mention HE, but lay responsibility for her death with Gordon and Abuhamza, adding that it probably could have been prevented if the majority of the professionals connected with the case had done their jobs properly.

Irrational arguments, driven as they are by dogma, usually produce silly conclusions. Could the NSPCC, along with other anti-HE lobbyists, be driven by uninformed ‘professional’ opinion rather than by understanding and facts? Above I have linked to their submissions in respect to the DfCSF HE review and I have read other similar documents available on their web site. These often introduce the NSPCC with words like these,

“The NSPCC believes that, given the will, all cruelty can be prevented.”

Whilst sounding very good, this is a totally unrealistic view of human nature. Recent decades have seen the introduction of many new phrases into our work lives – one of these is ‘risk assessment’. Thinking ahead about the risks involved in an activity is wise, but many public organisations, in a tide of over-enthusiasm, now practice ‘risk avoidance’ rather than risk assessment. The reality is that life is full of risks, and whilst risk-taking can be reduced by careful thought, risks are impossible to eliminate. That risks can be totally eliminated is a myth of modern society, as is the NSPCC’s belief that “all cruelty can be prevented” – they really do not understand human nature. Child cruelty can be reduced, child abuse can be curtailed through good practice, but no matter how much society is policed, people’s nature is such that the most determined will devise ways to try and cover their tracks. And of course if greater policing is their answer, it must be asked, who will police the police?

Running through the SCR criticism of the HE law is the assumption that the State is a safe pair of hands for the welfare of children. The irony of this is that in the tragic case of Khyra and her siblings,the State’s hands proved to be anything but safe. How often has it been said that children who attend school are visible to responsible adults, whilst children who are kept at home are not? (BTW, that is an insult to the majority of HE parents.) Well, all six Ishaq children were attending either State schools or a nursery when staff at two of them became concerned about their welfare. The moment the mother withdrew them from school, the staff rang the alarm bell repeatedly, only to be effectively told more than once to “Go away!” It took Birmingham CSC two months to take any action and even then their staff were all too ready to wash their hands of this family. I am no expert in Serious Case Reviews, but those which do make the news usually have to acknowledge somewhere along the line that someone who was considered to be reliable failed to do their job properly. Now I am not to seeking to beat these individuals for their shortcomings, but to remind us all that parents and “care professionals” have one thing in common; they are all human and every human is far from perfect. HE parents too, it has to be recognised, are not exempt from this flaw, but why do so many social workers, teachers, bureaucrats and certain politicians constantly insist that State-trained and certified ‘carers’ are unable to get it wrong?

The infamous Criminal Record Bureau [CRB] checks, we are told, exist to prevent abusive adults having unsupervised contact with children. No-one, it seems, is bright enough to recognise that the best they can do is curtail the activities of some of those people who are known to the police and courts to have at some time been involved in abuse. We do not need reminding that there are many people who have not been required to sign the Sex Offenders Register simply because they have never been caught. Three frightful cases should be all the evidence needed to make clear that systems like CRB checks are of limited value and can never fully protect children. December 2008, Vanessa George, a member of staff at Little Ted’s Nursery, Plymouth was arrested and later convicted of abusing toddlers (report); December 2010, Nigel Leat, was arrested and later jailed indefinitely for thirty-six offences abusing children at Hillside First School in Weston-super-Mare, where he had worked for 15 years (report); January 2011, Paul Wilson, a worker at Little Stars Nursery, Nechells, Birmingham was arrested and has since been jailed for life on 47 charges including rape and grooming (report). All these people had seemingly provided clean CRB checks or else they would not have been employed in jobs where they were able to abuse their victims. The problem is not that the State failed to protect children, but that it believes, along with the NSPCC, that “given the will”, all abuse can be prevented. My own view is that this illusion can at times causesome people to be less vigilant – if someone has been ‘checked’, they must be ‘all right’.

Understanding that no matter how hard it tries, the State can never be a safe pair of hands for all children raises many questions. Not least, whether it is right to call into question the moral motivation of parents who decide that they want to say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the State’s offer to take their children off their hands and to give them what is considered to be a good education. (Whether it is always a “good” education, I will not discuss here.) Alternatively could it be as Gerard Kelly, editor of the TES magazine acknowledged in November 2011, a case of the professional pride of some being injured, reacting to parents decision to HE as being:

“hard not to see their choice as a slap in the face for the profession.” (Article)

If so, then it is their own welfare not the welfare of the children such critics have at heart.

There is just one other myth about HE propagated in the SCR which I want to address in this lengthy comment. Referring again to the rights of children, the author wrote,

“At no point, were any of these children given the right to choose the location, the nature of provision, or any right to consultation to express their views as part of this process.”

Does he think this is a reasonable choice to put before children? Does he think children as young as five should be asked if they want to be educated at home? Do the many critics of HE believe that children should have the right to veto their parents’ decision not to abdicate the work of educating their offspring to the State? Mrs Teacher, Mr Care Worker, Sir Educationalist, Baroness Deech, are you really prepared to argue that it is a child’s right to decide how and where they are educated? If so, then please begin the task at every school gate, for what is the right of HE children must also be a privilege available to every child in the country! Justice demands that before enrolling any child on a school register, you gain their permission to do so. How often would you review the choice to be HE should a young person say that it is their wish? Once a year, or less frequently? For if you offer the freedom to change their mind to some children, you must sit in every classroom at the same interval and ask how many wish to continue at school. What provisions will you make for those children who wish to be educated at home, but whose parents both wish to work? You may think I jest, but I do not! The rights which you argue belong to some children are not rights at all if they do not belong to all.

Those who argue for these supposed rights for children, are probably too frightened to face up to their real implications. If they did offer them to every child, then it would solve classroom over-crowding problems overnight. I also suspect it would slash education budgets instantly, enabling the closure of multiple State schools. Could it be that they are so deluded by their own importance that they believe that no child in their right mind would choose not to go to school? They know that this is not true, but they continue to assume that school is the default choice for every child. When children choose not to attend school, the State system labels them as having a problem. According to author Jenn Ashworth, who spent several years from the age of eleven refusing to go to school, today school refusers are considered to be ill and are looked after by the medical educational services. In her Guardian article here she points out that her choice not to attend school meant she was “lumped in with the naughty kids”. She was sent to units for kids with behavioural problems who were in danger of, or had been excluded. She was offered the opportunity ‘to choose the location, the nature of provision, or any right to consultation to express her views’ on how and where she was educated. I have no figures to back this up, but I am bold enough to suggest that a higher percentage of HE children have been offered an element of choice regarding their education than those on school registers.

I suspect that Jenn Ashworth speaks for far more young people than educationalists and children’s welfare workers care to count when, as a respectable author, she states:

But isn’t it also true that there are plenty of adults (most, perhaps) who would not choose to spend their days locked into a series of rooms with 30 people dressed just like them; to be startled by a bell every 35 minutes; to queue for 40 minutes of a 50-minute lunch break in order to eat; to stand outside in the cold for 15 minutes twice a day; to be told to “shoo” when standing in the wrong place; to be forced to sit on a sports hall floor in rows and be lectured at for 20 minutes twice a week; and, most of all, to be bored, bored, bored out of your mind – bored to the point of depression, to the point of rage.

I have worked in a prison. It is not that different. Most grown-ups would not volunteer to spend five years of their life like this. This is what I wanted to say then and what I still want to say now: disliking mainstream school and declining to take part in it is not an illness. It is not a mental health problem, or a behavioural problem.[emphasis mine]

Could it be that one of the reasons politicians, educationalists, children’s welfare professionals and bureaucrats have repeatedly sought to argue (wrongly) that Khyra’s death could have been avoided if the law on HE had been clearer, is because they themselves are so institutionalised, that they are too frightened or narrow-minded or driven by ideology to allow others the freedom to think outside their box?

Whatthis SCR does recognise, like the care hearing judgement, is that if Birmingham City Council’s CSC and some other departments had acted responsibly, then there is a probability that Khyra would have been alive today. However, after reading it and its list of recommendations, I for one was left with the impression that the author was not willing to identify why there was a shortfall in the safeguarding provisions. We are not told if it was incompetence, staff shortages caused by underfunding or simply too high an expectation of human nature in public employees. What we are now being told by the courts is that there has been a dramatic rise in recent years in the number of court applications to take children into care in England. This according to the Guardian article is said to be because of the fear of being involved in the “next Baby P” case . This is why it is important that an accurate understanding of Khyra Ishaq’s case is maintained.

I was present when Maggie Atkinson, now the Children’s Commissioner for England, abused Khyra’s memory by telling a House of Commons Select Committee, that her name was the only argument needed for changing legislation concerning HE:

Paul Holmes MP: “What do you think we should be saying as a Committee regarding the legislative process and the Badman report, and whether it is protecting children’s interests or trampling all over the interests of home-educated children?”.

Maggie Atkinson: “I would give you two words, and they are the first and second names of the child who died — Khyra Ishaq” (quoted here)

I have no doubt that some educational and welfare staff have it already impressed on their thinking that they will do all they can to avoid any HE family they are involved with becoming the “next Khyra Ishaq” case. The best way to avoid that is to get the children into school where they will be safe. The one group of people who both Mrs Justice King and John Radford acknowledged had done all they could were the staff of Khyra’s last school. They were let down by those who were charged with safeguarding Khyra and her siblings. The two siblings who were still attending school when Khyra died were not safeguarded from abuse and malnutrition at home, and those who want to lay the blame for her death at the door of home education should remember that.

I will close with my own version of Jenn Ashworth’s heart cry: parents who dislike mainstream school and decline to make their children take part in it are not ill. They do not have a mental health problem, nor a behavioural problem. They are not a danger to the welfare of their children, nor are they in need of supervision. They are for the most part parents who make many sacrifices to do what they believe is best for their family. They are not insulting the majority of teachers by implying they can do better, but they often recognise some of the problems with the system which hard-working teachers encounter daily. They are simply parents who choose to fulfil their responsibility to make sure their children get a suitable education, without making use of the State’s alternative – which began in the nineteenth century to compensate for the failure of many parents to educate their children. By contrast, the above do not seem to be the reasons for which Angela Gordon withdrew her children from school; rather her family was already falling apart, and she needed help -help which did not come from her community and was not being offered by the State in a way which gave her the support she needed. She perceived the intervention offered as a threat, and ended up looking to someone whose own life had ill prepared him for de facto fatherhood. This was a very tragic family before they became a political football.

[P.S. If you have found this page helpful, you may also be interested in this post: Khyra Ishaq – Abused in life, abused in death and this page: Mrs Justice King’s Judgement.]

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