CHANNEL 4 DISPATCHES: REACTIONS

The prejudicial title and trailer of Channel 4’s Dispatches show “Skipping School: Britain’s Invisible Kids” on Monday 4 February 2019 had many fearing that this would be a narrow, biased, badly researched piece which would fail to deal with the real issues within the education system. Sadly, this was indeed the case.

One has to wonder why the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, agreed to present this show for Channel 4. What could she possibly hope to gain from it, particularly when it is clear that she does not really understand home education, and shots of her facial expressions during interviews with families made it all too clear what her views really are? 

Of the home educating families interviewed, only one can be said to have been an elective home educator. Although the father and son are shown happily going about their day, Anne was clearly not won over, and took time to quiz the child, no doubt assuming the child would have a different view to his parent.

It seemed to bother her that parents don’t need to have “qualifications” and are allowed to educate with little interruption. Apparently parents teaching their child “whatever they want” is reason to be suspicious. Yet school-attending children are not at school 24/7, so no doubt their parents have some input into what they teach their children to think and believe? For instance, schools do not actively teach racism, bullying, swearing, yet children learn these anyway. Would she then propose that all children be institutionalised for the entirety of their childhood, and have the State parent them? Clearly she has given no thought to the logic of her arguments.

The other families that Ms Longfield interviews are essentially “refugees” from the education system, where children had special educational needs that were not being met, mental health issues, or suffered bullying or other types of abuse. None of them had made the decision lightly, but felt that they had little choice if they were to help their child. The documentary seemed to go to some lengths to highlight parental shortcomings, including a belittling shot of a mum with dyslexia asking for help to read the word “cataclysmic”.  One has to wonder why Dispatches would seek to humiliate a sincere mum who is doing her best for her son under difficult circumstances, and who must’ve been educated at a UK school. If spelling were the measure of a teacher, and of good parenting, then the UK is in a lot of trouble!

Mum Louise who was featured in the show later said: “I feel we were manipulated and put in a very vulnerable position. Anne didn’t tell our whole story but it felt like she used us for her own agenda. Her conclusions even contradict her own report into how well elective home educators provide for their children and how badly the education system lets far too many children down. It was good to meet with Anne and for the boys to be able to share their experiences and opinions with her. However, Anne comes across as patronising, and at times rude to my children, undermining me as a Mum. Anne was asked by my 9-year old son not to show the part where she invaded his space and upset him. He has PTSD from school and she triggered that, and it was kept in the documentary despite his request. I have fought to defend my family from abuse by a head teacher, social services, and now Anne Longfield. I expected better from the Children’s commissioner and Dispatches. This could have been such a good documentary and used to pave the way for real change. Our “Not Fine in School” children are being let down and no one seems to be willing to ask why, or to ensure they have their SEND and health needs met so they can access education and achieve their potential.”

Throughout this segment, Anne Longfield appears to be trying to portray Louise as a mum who is not on top of things with regards to her children. She totally ignores the fact that the children seem confident and happy, something that school had robbed them of.

The documentary goes on to conflate welfare with education, citing the cases of Dylan Seabridge and Khyra Ishaq as reasons to be concerned about home education. Although concerns had been raised about the welfare of both children prior to their deaths, authorities did not make use of the powers THEY ALREADY HAVE to intervene in such cases. Laws already exist to protect all children, and the register of home educators that Anne Longfield is calling for would not prevent abuse – attending school is not a guarantee of protection for children, as the Daniel Pelka case proves.

While Ms Longfield appears to be pointing the finger at failings within the education system, and particularly the practice of “off-rolling” children whose needs the school can’t or won’t meet, somehow the conclusion she comes to is registration and monitoring of home educators? She throws out some figures based on a scant 11 Local Authorities (and for some questions only 9 responded), but the responses themselves offer no substance to her arguments. For example, “93% of councils say they don’t feel confident that they’re aware of all the home educated children living in their area” – How confident the Local Authority feels is certainly not a measure of the success (or failure) of home education! Her statement about only 263 home educated children sitting GCSE’s last year, is shown to be totally false, as she goes on to say that only 31 councils kept a record! It’s hard to fathom why someone of her standing would dare to use only partial data. Our local private exam centre accommodated at least that many students last year, and home educated children are managing to sit GCSE’s all across the UK at many exam centres. Inadequate record-keeping is not a reason to make such dire predictions about home educated children.  It is true that many home educated children are not GCSE age – it is quite common now to be sitting GCSE’s as a home educated child from age 12 (and even as young as 10), and there may be some who are a little older – so that may have skewed the figures. However, it is unprofessional for the Children’s Commissioner to bandy misleading figures about and fail to represent the myriads of children being home educated successfully. This is just one instance in which Anne Longfield missed an opportunity to reflect a neutral and balanced view.

She also failed to talk about the thousands of thriving support groups, extra-curricula activities, and other social opportunities that home educating families avail themselves of across the country. In somewhat doom-laden tones, she makes statements about home educated children being disadvantaged, and “worries” about how will they pass exams, or get a job – all creating a negative bias based on incorrect assumptions about how children learn and grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults. Her statement: “No matter how bad it is, I’m not convinced removing children from school is the answer” reveals the extent to which she is entirely blinkered with regards to damage (sometimes resulting in suicide) that has been caused to thousands of children within the school system, as well as her ignorance in respect of international research (Links on this page)which supports home education. Clearly she has made no effort at all to try and understand what home education truly is, and its huge benefits, but has embarked on this venture with strong prejudice against home education as a valid and positive option, holding the views of just 11 Local Authorities (my home educated 15-year old tells me this is known as “sample selection bias”) as being more important than those of home educators, alternative education researchers and academics.  Perhaps her own education was lacking, since she clearly demonstrates an inability to keep an open mind?

If Anne Longfield truly wanted to hear the “voice of the child”, it would have served her well to interview the many children leaving schools due to bullying, mental health issues, educational needs not being met, or failure to thrive, as well as interviewing young people who had been home educated and are now at university, or in employment. She claims “home educated children are 4 times more likely to be NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training)” with no figures to back it up at all – something that could no doubt be easily tracked through Job Centres across the country. With many young people unemployed who have been through the school system, this is certainly not a fair claim to make. One also wonders how young people who were removed from schools because of mental health issues would’ve fared if they’d been forced to stay there, against their best interests?

Ms Longfield is correct in her assertion that the education system needs to be completely overhauled so that it can adequately meet the needs of all the children entrusted to its care. It’s obvious by the huge numbers of children being deregistered from schools that the system needs “fixing”. However, a register for home educators is not the answer for reasons given here. If the Children’s Commissioner wants to help stem the tide of families “voting with their feet”, her time and efforts would be better served fighting to address the problems within the education system itself, rather than seeking to place oppressive measures on families who have opted to fulfil their parental duties themselves.  

5 thoughts on “CHANNEL 4 DISPATCHES: REACTIONS”

  1. Well said. This was a terrible programme and dispatches should be ashamed of themselves. In particular they owe the dyslexic mum a public apology.

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  2. This expressed every thought I had over this programme. Thank you. Skipping School seemed hugely disjointed, and I felt incredibly sorry for the families used who were portrayed in such a bad way. I would like to see how willing to cooperate Anne Longfield would be if some stranger bathed into her bedroom for an interview. For a children’s commissioner, I found her to come across cold and uncomfortable with children.

    The absolutely low point though was the way in which she used child abuse cases in an a emotive rhetoric. The lady giving a description of a dying boy she had never met was vile. How dare they use this boy’s death to try to prove a point? The point was lost however, as if Dylan was never registered at school, it’s a failing of the local authorities that that was never questioned. Surely if a child of school-starting age is not registered then the same protocol would /should be triggered as a child being de-registered, with informal contact made from the EHE. That the EHE were eventually called out when concern was raised over the children’s well-being is another failed point, as EHE ARE NOT social services.
    What Anne Longfield should concentrate on is filling in the gaps that allow vulnerable children to fall between services, and to reform formal education. Why not make a documentary about the recruitment and retention of teachers crisis, or the soaring number of SEN diagnoses, kids being referred to CAMHS and ECHPs applications. Oh yeah, because then the real problem would come to light: an outdated education system and not enough money to properly support everyone in that system.

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    • Thanks Susie. I’ve fixed the link – it was just to another page on the website where I’ve linked to research that people can access if they want. By no means the only research there is – just under time pressure trying to keep up with all that is going on for home edders right now, and have a life at the same time!

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