Review: Skipping School (Dispatches, Channel 4)

Indigo Jo Blogs - 5 February, 2019 - 23:51
A young boy wearing a pink T-shirt holding a wooden stick vertically in his hand, playing on a set of wooden logs stood against a tree branch.Kobi, whose parents took him out of school in protest at its all-work, no-play culture.

Last night, at the rather late hour of 10:15pm, Channel 4 broadcast an hour-long Dispatches programme about concerns that home-schooling is being used as a cover for illegal unregistered schools, that families are being forced into home-schooling by schools which “off-roll” their children because they have special needs, and that children have died of neglect unknown to the authorities until after they have died because local authorities have no way of knowing who is being home-schooled, especially if they were never sent to school as opposed to withdrawn. I know a few parents who are home-schooling for different reasons, and many of them have said this was a dreadfully biased programme which did not really show home-schooling as a positive choice but rather as something forced on some parents (unwillingly) by necessity and chosen by others for nefarious reasons, and the very title, a euphemism for truancy, gave the impression of bias from the beginning.

They interviewed a number of home-schooling families, only one of which — a middle-class couple which had withdrawn their son from school because they disapproved of the all-work, no-play culture — appeared to be educating their child successfully. The others included a mother with a son with a variety of health needs who had been accused of making him ill, another with dyslexia who had withdrawn her son because of his own special needs which the school were not meeting, but was struggling to even read herself and was getting no support, and a family of a daughter of secondary school age who, again, they had withdrawn because the school environment was threatening her mental health although she wanted to be in school. They also interviewed a retired headteacher who said that families were being forced into home-schooling because of schools “off-rolling” children, particularly those with special needs, and giving them the choice of finding another school or home-schooling; however, families are very much on their own, with the state providing no support even if it was the schools’ failure that led to their being withdrawn.

The last half of the programme was given over to the matter of abuse: eight-year-old Dylan Seabridge who died of scurvy in a remote village in Wales after local officials failed to investigate his situation, believing they had no right to as his father refused them entry to his home, and the matter of unregistered schools which often pose as home-schooling support centres but where in fact children spend the whole week. The first story was a tragedy but this single case does not outweigh so many situations in which children’s and young people’s physical and, especially, mental health is impacted by mainstream schools. The young autistic people featured in this programme really were in danger at school; some children have killed themselves as a result of bullying and others have had mental health crises so bad that they have needed to be admitted to hospital or sectioned. Children who have been in school have died as a result of parental abuse and sometimes the signs were missed by social services or others. Children in special school or hospital have died as a result of abuse or neglect there. Even if Dylan Seabridge had been on a register of home-schooled children, which is the proposed solution to these sorts of situations, his parents might have found a way to shield him from any inspection.

As for the unregistered schools, clearly Ofsted already have the power to investigate and bring prosecutions for these places whether they masquerade as home-schooling tuition centres or not. As the programme said, there is no way of making sure that the teachers who work in these places are vetted for criminal convictions or that they have any educational qualification. They featured one Muslim school which had been running under this pretence in west London whose owners were prosecuted; they also showed examples of the things which appeared in the school’s textbooks, including the statement that a husband should not have anal sex with his wife which is indeed an Islamic teaching. What age the pupils were given this information is not clear; if they are primary school age then it is clearly unacceptable, but if they are in their teens then this is quite acceptable given that this is a religious school and there is currently pressure to teach young people about sex at a younger and younger age.

The programme was not as bad in some respects as I had feared; there was no speculation about young people in home education being vulnerable to ‘radicalisation’, for example. This is significant as I know of parents who were fearful about moving to home education (in one case after their child experienced racism at school) because it might attract the attention of the police through the Prevent initiative. As it is, children have been interrogated by the police as a result of this system because of opinions they have expressed in class or in their work and some are being advised not to talk about politics at school from anything that could be considered an Islamic viewpoint.

Still, it showed home education in a mostly negative light, implying that it could really only be successful if carried out by middle-class suburban parents. It showed it as a threat to children’s well-being, when in fact for many children school itself is a worse threat. It did mention the lack of support for parents, but did not suggest offering any; the only solution to any of the problems mentioned was a register and it strongly suggested that the lack of any guidance on what children should be learning was a problem. It mentioned that home-schooling was banned in Germany, as if this should make any difference for us (it is not banned in the USA, France, Canada or many other countries), but Germany offers a range of types of school, including Steiner schools, which the UK does not. While the state of mainstream schooling is getting worse — increasing class sizes, political interference such as forced academisation, and curriculums dominated by English and maths and geared towards key stage tests, it should be no surprise that some parents want better and some children need better, especially as some parents have had such an unpleasant experience of school themselves.

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New claims, scant evidence as FGM activists play whack-a-mole

Indigo Jo Blogs - 4 February, 2019 - 14:44
A South Asian woman wearing a dark blue dress stands in front of a projector screen next to a poster from the FGM "Freedom Project" in a school auditorium. Teenage boys and girls in school uniforms with grey blazers sit in the ranks of red seats.An anti-FGM presentation by the Freedom Project at a school

Last week the number of successful prosecutions for female genital mutilation (FGM) in Britain went from zero in more than 30 years since a specific FGM law was passed, to one. A Ugandan woman who had subjected her three-year-old daughter to some form of it (and relied on curses to keep police and social services at bay) was remanded in custody and warned of a lengthy prison term when she returns for sentencing in March. Her partner (who is from Ghana) and the doctor alleged to have performed the procedure were acquitted. Jess Phillips, the Birmingham Labour MP, called on Twitter for the conviction to lead to “greater action, education and fear of this brutal crime”. Today, the Victoria Derbyshire programme, which was contacted by the mother who was convicted last week who claimed that social services were “putting lies on her family”, reported new claims by a so-called expert that FGM was increasingly being performed on babies who were too young to go to nursery or school and thus could evade detection. As usual, the story is heavy on emotion and anecdote and light on empirical evidence. (The programme can be seen in the UK here, interspersed with another story about the price of drugs for cystic fibrosis, for the next 29 days; the segment starts about five minutes in.)

Last week’s FGM conviction happened because doctors became aware of the girl’s condition when they were treating her for something or other (they do not say what). It could have been complications from the procedure or it could have come to light when, say, staff had to bathe, change or catheterise her when she was in hospital for an operation and her mother was not present. We would be seeing more situations like this if FGM really were widespread in the UK; quite apart from the fact that some of the procedures carried out on young girls in places like Somalia and Sierra Leone are potentially lethal and even if the cutting was mild, even with the best hygiene in the world, sooner or later someone will develop an infection. It is not something that can be concealed for anything like this long and none of the explanations offered by activists account for why so few cases have come to light in children, only in adults years after the event.

Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister and “FGM expert”, claimed that there was “a lot of anecdotal data which shows FGM is now being performed on babies” and, because they were in neither schools nor nurseries, “it’s very difficult for any public authority to become aware”. In one report, in Yorkshire, the child was just a month old and West Yorkshire Police had said, in response to a Freedom of Information request, that a quarter of its FGM reports involved children aged three or under. WYP appear to have refused most FOI requests concerning FGM but did indeed publish some figures (PDF) which indicate that they were aware of cases of FGM in children that age, but most of the cases in the report took place outside of the UK and in one case involving a young child, it was not known whether it took place in the UK. So, this in no way proves that FGM is happening to small children in the UK.

Given the paucity of evidence to support the claim, the rest of the BBC’s report is padded out with old content and follows the familiar pattern of a survivor’s (and well-known activist’s, in this case Hibo Wardere’s) story, a mention of how they do it in France (by subjecting all girls, or is it all girls from families presumed to be that way inclined, to genital examinations on a yearly basis) and an oft-repeated claim about why they have been unable to find any cases, in this case the old saw about “they’re worried about being accused of racism”. FGM has been in the news every couple of months for years, with the reports often lurid and spiced up with racist language such as ‘barbarism’, even in liberal newspapers; the communities affected are often Muslim and are regularly accused in public of all sorts of things from disloyalty to separatism to extremism to terrorism. This is a claim that might have had some truth to it in 1985 but today, it is laughable.

FGM campaigners are playing a game of whack-a-mole; one claim is discredited and they respond with new ones, and as it’s a good human interest story and a good bit of bait for racist politics, the media go along with it every time even when there are obvious holes in the evidence. To reiterate: the idea that several large communities, which are not closed and whose children socialise with others on a daily basis, could continue to uphold a practice like this for 30 years and go undetected for that whole period is preposterous. If it were happening, medical staff would have been dealing with its consequences on a regular basis and there would have been fatalities; we would not be relying on statistics of old cases and on speculation and assumptions. FGM is being used as an excuse to harass and intrude into the lives of minority populations; the obsession is rooted in racism, and it is time for every claim about it from an ‘expert’ not to be considered as news. We do not need greater fear; we need more robust examination of the evidence.

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The Guardian World news: Islam - 4 February, 2019 - 12:46

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The Guardian World news: Islam - 4 February, 2019 - 05:59

Attacks on a young US congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, show Muslims are expected to prove their liberal credentials

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