As reported here, a batch of documents related to Welsh Assembly Government training for Local Authority education officers was released on 13 September. These pertained to outstanding questions from two sessions chaired by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales which the Welsh government had held for families at the end of June. The aim was “to clarify any queries families may have in relation to the new statutory guidance and parental handbook on EHE.”
Persistent follow-on requests to the Welsh Assembly Government has now led to the release of a further document. This appendix is a compilation of template letters and forms which the Welsh Government say are not statutory, though they also indicated in their response that these were already being implemented by Local Authorities.
What does it contain?
Annex 1 [pages 2-3] is a School Attendance Order and Education Supervision Order flow chart. It takes the officer through a number of steps beginning with “Are you satisfied that the child(ren) are receiving a suitable, full-time, efficient education?” and concluding with either “yes” or eventual prosecution. At each step, “yes” cannot be achieved without evidence being provided, even though the Education Act places no duty on parents to evidence their educational provision. In this flow chart the course of action outlined is to threaten parents with School Attendance Orders and ultimately Care Orders if a meeting does not take place, even though the Education Act only gives lawful duty to Local Authorities to act “if it appears” that educational provision is not in place, not if parents have not provided evidence at a meeting.
Annexes 2a, b and c [pages 4-6] are a series of template letters for Local Authority education officers making initial contacts with all home educating families by asking for meetings. Families (about whom there are no legitimate reasons for concern) are not offered the option of declining the meeting or told that a meeting is optional, and there is no mention of the fact that the presence of the children at such a meeting, should the parents desire it to take place, is also optional. Attached to the letter is Annex 3.
Annex 3 [pages 7-10] is a lengthy form designed to establish why the parents have chosen to home educate, and the type of education that is being provided. It asks for information which parents are not legally required to provide, without making it clear that this information is not mandatory. Included is a raft of subjective questions, some of which are philosophical in nature, about “hopes” and “opportunities for your child to… [d]iscuss personal, social, wellbeing and health issues…” and asks for the provision of “other evidence, such as any planning, records of visits/activities, examples of your child’s work.” It does not explain that parents are not legally obliged to supply this. It then concludes “Once we have taken into consideration the evidence you have provided, we will be contacting you: (i) If we have concerns about the suitability of education provided for your child or (ii) To arrange the next year’s discussion where you will again be required to provide evidence of how you are delivering a suitable and efficient education in line with your child’s age and ability and how you are providing for any ALN that they may have.” The incorrect impression given throughout is that this is an official form which parents have a legal duty to complete.
Annexes 4a and b [pages 11-15] are “Template[s] to secure child’s view” for two different age ranges. Children differ widely in their willingness to divulge personal information to total strangers, but in spite of any natural inhibitions they may have, the template prescribes that they be asked “Are you enjoying home learning?” “What are you good at?” “What are you proud of?” For obvious safety reasons, many parents discourage their young children from answering questions from people they do not know such as “Do you meet with other children? Where do you meet with them?” Personal information is being required of children without them being told that they do not have to give it, or that they are able to decline to meet with the officer if they wish.
Annex 5 [pages 16-21] All the above information is then to be digested by the officer onto a form (Annex 5). This includes yes/no questions such as, “Is the parent able to articulate what their plans are for the next year and what they see as the next steps in their child’s educational development and what next steps have they identified?” “Does the child have clear hopes and aspirations for the future?” At the end of the form is a space for parents to give their view of the report and “sign it off” once the final version has been shared with them. Not only that, there is also a space for the child to sign and give their view of the report, despite the intimidating nature and doubtful validity of either a parent or a child being required to sign such a document.
Annex 6 [page 22] bears the dubious title “annual EHE discussion contact letter.” This appears to be intended as a follow-up to a meeting which has already taken place, though it goes on to press for initial information about the education being provided. Once again, there is evidence of overstep in both the tone and assumption that meetings are a requirement rather than entirely optional and voluntary.
Annexes 7, 8 and 9 [pages 23-26] The final three documents lead incrementally to the issuing of a School Attendance Order, having escalated the demands for meetings in the event of refusal or silence until “Failure to comply with the requirements of this order is an offence unless you can prove that [name of child] is receiving suitable education otherwise than at school” is reached.
All of which leaves the reader or recipient with the distinct impression that the only way to inform one’s Local Authority that one is exercising one’s right to educate one’s child at home is by meeting with an Education Officer. Happily, this is not the case, and Local Authority education officer training urgently needs to reflect this.
If the Welsh Government’s previously stated desire to build bridges and improve relationships with home educating families means anything at all, there remains a great deal for them to learn about non-coercive communication, informed consent, data protection and human rights when it comes to home educating families.
An important first step in this direction would be for them to preface all the relevant forms with clear statements that informed consent is required from all those answering questions, and that such consent cannot be obtained lawfully if those people are of the belief that not providing it would have a negative impact on them.
Much of the information to be collected on these forms is potentially Special category data and subject to greater restrictions. Further, because a prosecution for failure to comply with a School Attendance Order is a criminal matter, a decision to take parents to court would potentially mean that all information supplied by them and their children would have to be treated as Criminal offence data, which requires a higher standard of protection.
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