Very nearly an hour and a half was spent at last week’s Scrutiny meeting discussing vulnerable children.
There are children that do not have a school place at all, there are those that do but are nonetheless missing and there are those supposedly being home educated.
There are also children who live with parents or are in care and who simply run away, some very regularly. The Council monitors the problem closely and keeps a daily tally. The number in Bexley is higher than the national average and higher than in other nearby boroughs.
Another vulnerable group is those who are exploited by criminal gangs, moving money and drugs. The so called County Lines problem.
Home education is a parent’s legal right and the number who choose that course is growing nationally and is around 230 in Bexley despite the Council persuading 75 to return to school last year.
Councillor Camsey (Conservative, Crooklog) harking back to her days as a Headmistress, was concerned about schools ‘off rolling’ troublesome pupils. She was assured it is not happening in Bexley but if any evidence arose it would be jumped on severely.
She was also very interested in the reasons for home schooling which are principally to avoid permanent exclusion, bullying, to avoid prosecution for non-attendance and dissatisfaction with schools generally.
One of her concerns was that pupils who are permanently excluded, for example, for carrying a knife become particularly vulnerable to the criminal gangs; what are we doing to re-educate them and their families and what were the police doing about it?
She was told the Governors and Youth Offending Team would most likely become involved.
The police officer present said they were training school staff on how to spot County Lines activities and the police would like to be told at the first sign of behaviour likely to lead to exclusion.
The first indicator of County Lines activity is not usually the carrying of a weapon but that a child goes missing and it is only when the exploitation becomes severe that they choose to carry a knife.
Councillor Wendy Perfect (Labour, Northumberland Heath), drawing on her experience of working in schools, believed that it was “low ability students” who were fuelling the rise in home schooling because they “struggle with the curriculum which is far too academic”. People would be shocked by what goes on in schools”. Pupils who can barely write or get through the first page of a maths test. Home schooling “reinforces their inadequacies”.
“Is there a plan to change the curriculum to engage these young people?” She was reminded that the Council cannot set the curriculum.
Councillor Richard Diment (Conservative, Sidcup) said that he had heard of pupils being encouraged to take a knife to school so that they would be excluded and quickly recruited by a criminal gang. The implied question did not get a direct answer. Schools were asked to tell the Council if they saw a risk.
Councillor John Davey (Conservative, West Heath) knew of one case where a school had asked a parent to home educate a child, He wondered how common that might be.
Councillor Alan Downing (Conservative, St. Mary’s & St. James) had noticed that children who were an hour late home were being recorded as missing persons. “At what stage do they become a missing person?”
A very long pause followed as Council officers scratched their heads. Eventually the Director of Children’s Services was heard to say “right, let’s see if we can unpick this.”
In summary, if a child in care is asked to be home at a particular time and they are not but their whereabouts is known the carer will still report the child as missing.
Councillor James Hunt (Conservative, Blackfen & Lamorbey) asked how the traveller community fits in to Bexley’s arrangements and in particular home education.
The answer was that they are visited but the numbers of children were not known to the Council Officers present at the meeting. An offer was made to provide the statistics “in the coming days”.
He also asked about the arrangements made for the children of Bexley residents being temporarily housed outside Bexley. A fair enough question but once again there was no answer.
To be continued.