By Hilary White
LONDON, March 1, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The British government’s lead expert on education is pointing to the tragic death of a Birmingham child, who had been taken out of school by her mother, as an illustration of the need for more government regulation of homeschooling. Supporters of homeschooling, however, are calling criticisms of home education because of the case a “red herring” to distract from the negligence of the local Birmingham social services.
Seven year-old Khyra Ishaq died in 2008 of an infection complicated by malnutrition, five months after being withdrawn from school by her mother, who said she was going to homeschool the girl.
Khyra weighed just 37 pounds when she was rescued from her home by paramedics, along with five of her siblings. She and her brothers and sisters had been subjected to a regime of beatings, starvation and torture by their mother Angela Gordon, and her live-in “partner” Junaid Abuhamza. The court proceedings revealed that the mother, a convert to Islam, believed the abuse would drive out an “evil spirit” from the children. Both Gordon and Abuhamza have been convicted of manslaughter in the case.
But Graham Badman, the former Director of Children's Services at Kent County Council, said on Friday that, “What this tragedy points out is the need for absolute clarity about the roles and responsibilities of local authorities in intervening and supporting families who move children into elective home education.”
Badman had pushed for more regulation of homeschooling in a review of the issue that he was commissioned to do by the government, for incorporation into new education legislation. Homeschooling advocates said that in his review, Badman revealed his ideological hatred for home-based education and a strong bias towards the statist approach. Despite the criticism, the government adopted all the review’s recommendations for their pending Children, Schools and Families Bill. That bill passed the House of Commons last week and has now gone to the House of Lords.
Under the new regulations families would be forced to register with authorities and could face criminal penalties if they are deemed to be inadequately educating their children.
However, a judge involved in the case of Khyra Ishaq and her siblings, wrote last year that it was the failure of local social services that contributed to the child’s death. Mrs. Justice King said, “Had there been an adequate initial assessment and proper adherence by the educational welfare services to its guidance, she would not have died.”
Birmingham social services, which is under heavy criticism after having admitted they were aware of the situation at the children’s home, has also blamed Britain’s laws allowing homeschooling, saying it had been difficult for social workers to gain access to the child and her five siblings. They had been warned several times, however, of the children’s situation by Khyra’s former headmistress. Social workers followed up three calls from the teacher but say they found nothing wrong.
The Guardian reports that two education officials from the local authority questioned Gordon about home education but were not allowed to see Khyra. Twelve weeks after the last social worker saw Khyra in February 2008, she was dead. That social worker had concluded that there was no cause for concern.
Hilary Thompson, chair of the Birmingham safeguarding children board, said in a statement, “It is our view that the key authorities involved in the education and protection of children are hampered in their efforts by current legislation.”
But local MP, Khalid Mahmood, said that Birmingham city council was simply trying to shift blame. “The fact is that a month before she died, a social worker waited half an hour before someone answered the door. She then took a fleeting look at the child. What on earth were they thinking?” he said.
Fiona Nicholson, trustee of home education charity Education Otherwise, told the Guardian newspaper, “Ofsted [the government education authority] has already found that Birmingham is failing to protect children and questions have been raised over the high number of child deaths in the last few years. For anyone to blame home education is a red herring designed to distract attention from Birmingham's lamentable child protection record.”
The idea that homeschooling puts children at risk of abuse is a common theme among its opponents. In his review Badman wrote, “I am not persuaded that under the current regulatory regime, that there is a correct balance between the rights of the parents and the rights of the child — either to an appropriate education or to be safe from harm.”
Badman’s accusation that homeschooled children are at heightened risk of abuse was contested by homeschooling advocates. Action for Home Education group said, “For years home educators have tolerated unfair treatment by local authorities whose understanding of home-based education is, with few exceptions, minimal or non-existent.
“We are tired of being subjected to unreasonable suspicion and unfair scrutiny when we are doing the very best for our children. We believe there are moves afoot by government to restrict traditional freedoms to educate children outside the school system and we are determined to do our utmost to prevent this.”
The Conservative party’s Shadow Schools Secretary, Michael Gove, said last week that if the Tories form the next government, the new rules forcing homeschooling parents to register with local councils would be scrapped. Gove said that the rules “stigmatise” home educators, with local authorities required to set up databases of homeschooling families and make home inspection visits.
Gove said, “Government should support [homeschooling families] and we won’t allow the current government’s plans to stigmatise home educators to get through.”