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Britain’s school reforms are leaving vulnerable children in the shadows

Roger Kline, 5 December 2012

I spoke last week at a national conference for education welfare officers and social workers in education. I was billed to speak about the individual duty of care of these professional groups, but I came away deeply concerned about something else: the impact of ongoing changes to schools regulation on society’s duty of care of children.

Many conference participants reported that a scandal is already underway -- and it flows directly from British Government policy. I was told about children who are unlawfully permanently excluded from school by heads (especially academy heads) whose education welfare officers are fearful of raising concerns in case they lose their jobs or the local authority that employs them loses the education welfare service contract with that school.

I was told about academy school heads who tell families that if they don’t opt for home education, their child will be excluded. I heard stories of such heads instructing an employee to advise a course of action that is both illegal and likely to be detrimental to the child’s welfare. I learned of heads who used the “B” code beside a name on the school register, which signifies the child is educated elsewhere, but who had no idea if they are actually being educated elsewhere.

The Office of the Childrens Commissioner is already investigating why children with special educational needs and children with a recognisable visible disability remain more likely than others to be excluded. Professionals at the conference seemed convinced it will get worse.

Jacquie Newvell of the National Association of Social Workers in Education told the conference that there is now real confusion about who is accountable for what in respect of children’s rights to be educated and safeguarded. While local authorities still have the statutory duty to ensure children are actually educated, the funding for carrying out those duties has largely transferred to academies, which are outside local government control.

Academy schools have private sponsors and there are now more than ten times as many of them as when the current government took office in 2010. (See this Guardian datablog and Public World’s 2006 report for more background.) Even before that wave got fully under way Public Concern at Work was reporting a sharp increase in the number of whistle-blowing calls from schools.

I asked my conference audience if they believed that in their own local area there were significant numbers of children who were not on school registers and who were not being educated. A quarter of the hands shot up.

One of the reasons it is likely to get worse is that the main statutory guidance on children’s safeguarding is currently being revised, as part of the government’s ‘war on red tape’. A growing numbers of experts and child abuse survivors are demanding the changes be withdrawn. The draft revised guidance hardly mentions education, ignores health visitors altogether, and places even more pressure on social workers, whose numbers are being cut at a time of rising demand.

There is, of course, no merit in regulation for its own sake. But there are now real concerns that one of the unforeseen consequences of the government’s reforms of schools and public regulation will be to push the welfare of some of our most vulnerable children into the shadows.

The conference delegates were concerned that many children will carry a lifetime burden as a result, because denial of education has that effect. By the time the consequences are fully visible Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove will have used his ideological stewardship of the country’s schools as a springboard to wherever his career might take him.

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