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Children, Young People & Education Committee – 23 June 2022

The Senedd Children, Young People & Education Committee is currently holding “a short focused inquiry on pupil attendance.” Witness sessions are incorporated into their regular meetings.

The majority of the inquiry’s Terms of Reference seek to understand more about persistent absence, along with strategies for encouraging pupils back into regular school attendance. However, home education features in one of the terms:

“Whether absenteeism has resulted in a higher level of pupil de-registration and any cross-over with elective home education.”

If time allows, reading these transcripts or watching the sessions as a whole can be quite enlightening. The meeting on 23 June revealed how much pressure schools staff find themselves under.

Some very familiar themes also emerged: conflation of being in school and being in receipt of a suitable education, the authorities’ felt need ‘to know’, and their desire for more data.

The view that school is the best place for children inevitably predominated in such a context. With so little understanding about what home education really is and why parents opt for it, the usual confusion was evident in the first two witness sessions. (Transcript paragraph numbers indicated in [ ] after quotations and emphasis added in all instances.)

When asked whether specific groups of learners were impacted more by persistent absence, Mary van den Heuvel’s answer (National Education Union) soon revealed wider concerns about the perceived ‘need to know’:

“But, actually, one of our issues around this is that we don’t have a register, necessarily, or a database. There was consultation a while ago about having a register or database of young people so that, actually, local authorities know where their young people are, because we don’t necessarily know everybody who’s being educated at home at the moment, whether that’s elective home education, what support they’ve got. We don’t necessarily know all of those things. Some people might be on a school register but are actually being home educated. So, we need to know all of those things in terms of where young people are so that we can properly plan, so that schools can plan and that local authorities can plan…” [55]

Laura Anne Jones (Conservative Spokesperson for Education) revisited issues she had raised in previous sessions, seeking to know both why numbers were increasing, and whether witnesses were concerned about this:

“…we need a lot more work done on the home education register and home education full stop. But we’re still seeing, regardless of that, a significant increase in the numbers being deregistered and being home educated” [69]

Whilst acknowledging that school can be a struggle for some young people, van den Heuvel reiterated the standard view that “School has got such well-being opportunities, mixing with other young people and learning other skills for life, we think it’s really important that young people are in school… So, we would say that the best place is in school.” [71]

Menai Jones (NASUWT) concurred, adding:

“…yes, it’s a massive concern. Socially and educationally, we firmly believe that it is important for as many people as we can get to be in school. The resource implications for that are also massive, clearly, if we’re supporting people home educating. I think it is really important that when pupils are deregistered that parents and carers are examined as to the reasons for that so that, if there are push factors, I suppose, rather than positive factors for home education, and if the push factors are things that they don’t feel that they’re getting through the education system, obviously, we need to know about those so that we can put in plans to address them.” [75]

Van den Heuval also spoke of the need for a more integrated multi-agency approach: “… we need social work support, we need local authorities – those links have got to be really clear.” [120]

Education and being in school were perceived as one and the same by Headteacher Llinos Jones, who wanted parents of absent pupils to know that they were ‘disenfranchising them from special and particular opportunities’ if their children were not part of the school community. [124]

The second evidence session was attended by Mark Campion, Her Majesty’s Inspector and two Estyn assistant directors. Despite asserting a strong correlation between school attendance and attainment, Campion later conceded that wellbeing and mental health could be big disincentives to attendance. In fact, he went on to acknowledge something home educators know well:

“Sadly, school is not a pleasant experience for all learners. It may be because they feel unfairly treated, maybe they feel bullied or harassed, they don’t feel valued, or they don’t feel that their individual needs are being met,” [191]

Laura Anne Jones was quick to interject with her own views about the importance of tracking learners, once again connecting the need for more data with the increasing numbers being home educated. [193]

The ensuing dialogue was revealing. Though Campion had some understanding of why parents may deregister their children, and asserted that home education was not ‘inherently damaging,’ he still voiced concerns about the lack of a “statutory system in Wales to ensure that children who aren’t in school or other provision receive their right to a suitable education.” [194]

Estyn, he said, “would support the introduction of statutory guidance, which we think would certainly support local authorities in their work with home-educated families as well as schools.”

However, the concept of support was not portrayed so much as being for the benefit of individual children but rather as a means for LA staff to track them and gather more information. In fact, thinly veiled dissatisfaction was expressed about the voluntary nature of families’ engagement with what was on offer. [197]

But probably Mark Campion’s most significant statement was his admission that the desired data about specific individuals was already readily available pre-pandemic and just not analysed at present by the Welsh Government. [199]

“You mentioned data, and it’s really important, as you say, to try and understand who is moving from school into home education. To be fair, there was quite a lot of information around, pre pandemic, about this. So, we were able to see which year groups children were being deregistered from… We knew information about their background, their gender, their ethnic background, their free school meal entitlement. All that information was available pre pandemic. So, we would have expected local authorities, in particular, to have analysed their local data and picked up patterns… That data wasn’t generally published by Welsh Government. So, the onl`y data that you will find if you do a search on home education in Wales on the Welsh Government’s website is the high-level information about the number of learners and the rate of learners by local authority by year.”