Out of school, out of sight

4th November 2011 at 00:00
As many as 100,000 children may be in home education; the true figure is not known. The vast majority are in the charge of loving and conscientious parents, but hundreds are at risk of abuse and neglect

Khyra Ishaq, a bright, happy girl from a chaotic but apparently loving family, had a perfect attendance record at school until the day she was suddenly withdrawn from lessons, along with some of her five siblings. Concerns had been raised - including claims that Khyra and her brother had been stealing food from classmates - but for the most part she seemed to be thriving at her Birmingham primary school. So her teachers were dismayed when, in December 2007, they received a note from her mother, Angela Gordon, informing them that she would be educated at home instead. Over the next five months, hidden from the world in conditions likened to a Victorian workhouse, no one in authority noticed as Khyra was repeatedly beaten and slowly starved to death. Aged seven when she died, she weighed just 2st 9lb and her emaciated body carried marks from more than 60 injuries.

A High Court judge who later ruled on the case said it was "beyond belief" that such a shocking and utterly preventable tragedy could be allowed to happen in a 21st-century city such as Birmingham. But, for years, many teaching and child protection professionals had been warning that such a death was not inconceivable at all - in fact, they say it was inevitable given the current state of the law surrounding home education. Impossible, contradictory regulations, they argue, prevent them from doing their jobs properly and mean some of society's most vulnerable children are allowed to disappear from view.

Like other parents who make the same choice every week, all Angela Gordon had to do to take her children permanently out of the school system was announce that she was exercising her right to home educate. And there was little anyone could do to stop her.

The freedom to determine how a child is educated is cherished by tens of thousands of parents across the country who, for one reason or another, believe schools cannot provide what their families need. Undoubtedly, the great majority of home educators are caring, conscientious parents who dedicate themselves to providing the best for their offspring, and many of these children will get the kind of personalised one-to-one tuition no school could match. It is the minority that worries the professionals.

While Khyra's case is an example of the very worst that can happen, schools and local authorities have long been warning that hundreds or perhaps thousands of other children are being abused and neglected, or simply not receiving any meaningful education, all under the cloak of parental choice.

You can read the full article in the November 4 issue of TES

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