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Bromsgrove Regional Campaign Workshop Saturday 31st March 2007

"My abiding memories of the Bromsgrove Campaign Workshop are:

  • Meeting so many people I only knew from the internet, none of whom helped me out by wearing name tags which I privately think gave them an unfair advantage since they knew who I was already;
  • Carrying huge quantities of milk to my car after the workshop, driving it back to Sheffield, taking it out of my car and putting it in another car, driving it down to Orpington a few days later and bringing it all back home. It is currently stacked in my bedroom and thank goodness it is UHT because I can't abide waste. We will have to run some more workshops to use it up;
  • The third thing I remember from the Bromsgrove Workshop is my teenage son Theo carefully placing a copy of the Times Educational Supplement on the floor in the middle of the hall and dancing up and down on it till it was shredded because it was annoying him; at which point we discovered that some people present had not read the offending articles about home education which had provoked his wrath, so we had to sellotape the rag back together again so that everyone present could be duly appalled.
Julie Bunker has found a great venue for local home educating families which we were also able to use for our workshop. Blackwell Court Adventure Park is set in acres of parkland with trees and an adventure playground. The meeting itself was held in a large hall marked "Dry Store". There were lots of chairs set out and the hall soon began to fill with people. Next door in a separate building there was a large Children's Room with activities and a registered CRB-checked young person (formerly home educated herself) ready to do activities with the children.

We began at 11ish. Julie gave us an overview of the day and explained to the meeting what we wanted to cover by the end of the afternoon session. In the morning Annette and I introduced ourselves as members of Education Otherwise National Government Policy Group as well as active Local Home Education Group members in Sheffield.

We talked about what was happening with the DfES, how we expected that the consultation into the monitoring of home education would be nearly over by now whereas in fact it has not even begun and we do not have a date for it to start. We talked about what the DfES had said to Education Otherwise Government Policy members at a brief meeting in December. We gave information about Arthur Ivatts, retired Schools Inspector whose report on Elective Home Education in the Traveller, Gypsy, Roma communities demands that the Government act to tighten controls on home educated children.

We further set out the background to the possible changes threatened by the DfES which are largely to do with the Children Act. This brought a complete overhaul of every aspect of Local Authorities work with children. Perhaps most notably for home educating families we now find integrated Children's Services down at the Local Authority rather than a separate Local Education Authority or LEA.

Once more hauling out well-travelled visual aids in the form of large coloured envelopes with the 5 Outcomes of Every Child Matters I set out what I believed might be the implications of this for home educators in terms of Local Authority employees perhaps wrongly believing that they had a duty to oversee parents in the fulfilment of these 5 Outcomes.

We also spoke about the National Database aka the Information Sharing Index which was introduced as Section 12 of the 2004 Children Act. I recounted how many practitioners might have access to this database (up to half a million). We also discussed the ramifications of Section 4 of the Education and Inspection Act 2006 which puts a duty on Local Authorities to categorise the place of education of each child of compulsory school age. A child or young person is to be classed as potentially "missing education" if not on the roll of a maintained school until the child's alternative place of education is established. (Including the legally valid option of home education) Annette and I make the case that the old answers will no longer work. We cannot simply say that we are "making private arrangements" and we cannot reasonably expect to remain unknown to the Local Authorities for an indefinite period. As a point of interest to the meeting , I made myself known to my Local Authority but Annette chooses not to do so, even though she is down at the Council offices representing the local home education community on a regular basis.

We asked: if we will indeed increasingly become known how can we take charge of the process and turn it to our advantage?

Julie then introduced our Guest Speakers, Iris and Geoff Harrison together with Sam Woods who had come over from Leicester to talk about her work on Education Otherwise Telephone Helpline. The Harrisons are known to the home education community as the famous court case Harrison vs Stephenson in Worcester Crown Court 1981 and where the Sunday Times journalist relates: "Three of the Harrisons' children had such profound dyslexia, they were told they would never learn to read or write. In 1970, when their eldest daughter, Wanda, then five, began to hide rather than go to school, Iris decided to keep her at home. To escape the authorities, the family fled to a remote Scottish island, to a hut with no running water. The nearest shop was a boat ride away. Iris recalls Wanda learning to read from old copies of Exchange & Mart. "In the end we decided we couldn't keep running. We came back, hoping we'd be forgotten." They weren't. They were threatened with legal action and told that the children, including six-month-old Newall, would be taken into care." Iris Harrison spoke movingly of her long experience in working on the Education Otherwise Telephone Helpline which takes calls all year round from worried parents and children who are in many cases scarcely able to believe that home education is a legal option. Sam and Iris both said how many of the calls they take are about bullying and children and young people suffering abuse in schools and frequently becoming ill as a result. Iris also told us proudly of the work of her husband Geoff in setting up a Dyslexia Support Charity by which dyslexic children and young people can use computer software which recognises the spoken word and translates it to the printed word on the screen or page and which can also translate back the written word into speech. Geoff now uses this software himself to write letters and articles.

The morning session finished with the assurance that the afternoon would talk about the positive ways in which we could all now move forwards, particularly in helping the Local Authority to understand more about home education.

The afternoon session was about how we can help our Local Authorities to get it less wrong about home education. Annette suggested that there is a great deal of paranoia down at the council as to how many hundreds of thousands of home educated children there might be and where they are and what might be happening with them. At this point or hereabouts I read aloud sections of the Tony Mooney and Myra Robinson articles from the Times Educational Supplement which had come out the day before (see Ann Newstead's blog about how she has been misquoted by the media). I have to read Ann's link online now because as I mentioned at the beginning of this report Theo trashed my copy of the paper.

The meeting also discussed at various points the implications of the Gloucester abuse case for local home educators. This case was cited in the TES article. One result of the workshop is that a group of home educators in the Gloucester area began to discuss how they would want to respond to the Children and Young People's Director calling for more surveillance of home educated families and subsequently decided that they would approach the Authority and request a meeting. Annette and I were asked what Education Otherwise planned to do about the issue as a follow up from EO's Press Release. Annette and I said that we would be guided by the wishes of the local group and that the national Government Policy Group at Education Otherwise would be drafting a letter to Gloucester CYPS and would pass it to the local group for their comments before sending it. Eunice Spry is to be sentenced on April 10th at which point Annette reminded the workshop that we might expect further media reports and enquiries about the wellbeing of home educated children and that we should be making a plan for this now.

Annette and I then went on to outline how we have been helping our Local Authority in Sheffield to understand the home educators' perspective. We first tackled the Authority over abuse of Truancy Sweep Protocols where local families were bullied into giving names and addresses and generally made to feel like criminals. Phone calls and complaints to the Police resulted in apologies but the situation was never satisfactorily resolved. Finally Annette decided to complain at Council level and by sleuthing on the Council website we found the link to the Children and Young People's Directorate Scrutiny Board. Annette and Fiona attended two Board meetings plus a series of meetings with members of Sheffield Council's Access and Inclusion Team and Local Delivery, culminating in the positive outcomes detailed in the minutes to the February Scrutiny Board where it was announced to local councillors that home educated children and young people in Sheffield were not legally required to give their names and addresses and that the local Police and Education Welfare Officers had now been briefed about this. Annette and Fiona told the workshop that the local home education group had also secured a positive two page article in the local paper at the end of last year and that they were now in an ongoing series of discussions covering among other things access to local registered exam centres for home educated young people as well as funding for college places for 14-16s plus funding for Special Educational Needs which at present is restricted to provision for school children.

Julie Bunker then told the workshop about how Worcestershire Home Educators had been encouraged to hear of the trifold leaflet produced by Sheffield Home Educators' Network for the Local Authority to hand to new home educating families. The Worcestershire Group has now produced a similar leaflet. Worcestershire have also followed the example of home educators in the Brighton area and produced their own Questionnaire and Local Authority Satisfaction Survey which they took back to the Local Authority in place of the LA's own Questionnaire which had not been well received by the local home education community.

Annette, showing her teacherly background, then split the meeting into different groups with home educating parents from different Local Authority areas. This proved to be a very useful session and later Julie told us that she had been asked to set up a regional LA network group similar to NERHEN in the North East which was set up after the Sunderland workshop in early March. I see that the list has 30+ members already joining in the first week and this is what Julie has to say about it: "this group exists primarily for home educators from across the Midlands region to join together gaining support in improving home educators relationship with LAs and the DfES, whist protecting our right to home educate in freedom without mandatory inspections, monitoring or an imposed curriculum".

The meeting drew to a close after 3 with informal discussions on home education issues and tea and cakes in the Children's Room (where it must be stated that not nearly enough milk was consumed) I had a good time talking to everyone but Theo was vastly unimpressed by all his socialising and was quite clear that we should be setting off for home.

I'd just like to say thanks to Julie and Roxy and Sue for organising such a busy and well-attended workshop. Big thanks also to Carrie Ann who took lots of notes at the meeting which have been invaluable in refreshing my memory for this report. Special thank you to Iris Harrison for speaking at the meeting and also for bringing a chocolate cake for me and Theo (NB to future workshop organisers: this cake thing has become an instant tradition at Regional Campaign Workshops, though I have not yet fully recovered from the disappointment of leaving Steph's cake behind in London).

So I began the Report with milk and ended it with cake."

Fiona Nicholson
Chair of Education Otherwise Government Policy Group
Local Contact for Education Otherwise in Sheffield

Food for Thought:
Home Education for Teenagers

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