As stated in a recent news post, the Senedd Children, Young People & Education Committee is currently holding “a short focused enquiry on pupil attendance,”. Witness sessions are being incorporated into their regular meetings.
Most of the inquiry’s Terms of Reference seek to understand more about persistent absence from school, and strategies for encouraging pupils back into regular attendance.
Jeremy Miles MS, Minister for Education and Welsh Language and Sian Jones, Head of Supporting Achievement & Safeguarding, were invited as witnesses to the meeting on 29 June. Transcript or watch. They had already submitted written evidence.
The item of greatest interest for home educators is Mr Miles’ written response to the enquiry question about whether absenteeism has resulted in a higher level of pupil de-registration, and probing whether there is any cross-over with elective home education.
Noting that more children were being educated at home post-pandemic, Mr Miles wrote that his department had “proposals… under development” to “help to ensure that those learners have access to an efficient and suitable education”. This would include access to Hwb, though no further details were given. The stated objective, however, would be to “enable these learners to return to school.”
This was not qualified by “if they wish to do so,” nor did the minister concede that HE could be an acceptable and effective alternative, not just an undesired outcome of some resolvable difficulty at school. He went on to quote 2021 figures from Data Cymru identifying Covid19, anxiety, bullying, child medical and SEN/ALN needs not being met in school as some of the reasons for de-registration – though these accounted for less than 50% of cases. De-registration was seemingly viewed as a form of “absence from school,” without any qualification.
However, citing University College London 2021/22 research the minister did make a significant acknowledgement when he referred to a “mismatch between the school offer and child learning needs” in the case of children with neurodevelopmental conditions, leading to “attendance problems and de-registration.”
Mr Miles referred again to the WAG’s provision of £1.7m in the current year for the support of EHE, in response to the increasing number of young people being home educated in Wales. All EHE children were once again grouped in the category “absent from school.”
In addition to his written submission, the Minister was also present at the meeting and answered further questions. Laura Ann Jones pressed him about the reasons for more families choosing EHE. In reply, the Minister again expressed concern about the increasing numbers. He reiterated the Data Cymru percentages, adding that 29% of families had cited “lifestyle” reasons.
Referring to earlier discussion about education reforms, he said,
“in order to get the full benefit of reforms, children need to be at school, so I want to see children coming back to school…. For the overwhelming majority of children, being in school is far and away the best way of getting their education… parents are entitled to make a different choice for their children, but the key thing is the right of the child to receive a suitable education, obviously.”
Thus he raised once again the question of who decides what is suitable. If it is not the parents but the government, then there is no right to EHE. Permission will be required.
Laura Ann Jones continued, asking about support – support, that is, “to get back into school in terms of mental health, anxiety, all that sort of thing…” though she was anxious that schools should not have to bear the costs of this. The minister spoke of “a system-wide approach”, reaffirming that the Welsh package of support was the “most generous… available to home educators across the UK”. Acknowledging that there are some “very long-established choices here,” (which we take to mean long-standing home educators) the Minister was particularly keen that families who have recently made the choice to home educate should be encouraged to bring their children back to school.
He mentioned “a set of ways in which the resources available in school are more porous… so that parents… choosing to home educate can make use of them,” and hoped that making these available would, “develop a different kind of relationship with the school, and make it easier for those parents who have maybe recently made the decision to encourage their children back.”
Laura Ann Jones reiterated the need for “more data [to be] available on who is home learning, what their situations are and what they need.” The minister assured her that Data Cymru was working on accessing this. The data would be anonymised. Covid had paused the implementation of the proposed database of those who are home educated, he said, with additional delay in getting “some particular pieces of evidence.” He then added that the work has been restarted and proposals should be published in September 2022 and be in place by April 2023.
In reply to a further question from Laura Ann Jones about providing LAs with greater powers and further statutory guidance regarding EHE, the minister made it clear that the database proposals also look at “regulations that will provide strengthened statutory guidance” for LAs.
James Evans asked about children with Additional Learning Needs (ALN), citing parents in his constituency who are removing children from school because of anxiety problems relating to the kind of education provided at school. The minister talked of the importance of maintaining the trust of families and keeping them informed of “the reforms, which are being introduced,” adding that the government is “nine months into a three-year implementation programme of the new reforms.”
He also mentioned, “122 children who were not previously known to local authorities [who] have now come back into the school environment,” which he said was, “a positive step,” although it is unclear from his remark how many, if any, of them had ALN. He also spoke of the, “… need to move from a relationship between home educators and local authorities that is one of a policing relationship… into one that is one of mutual support and trust.” He considered that good examples of this already existed in Wales, but it needed to be universalised. When evaluating these exchanges, it is important to recognise that they took place in the context of an enquiry on pupil attendance. Home Educators would therefore be inclined to dismiss this as irrelevant, since children who are being educated at home are by definition not school pupils, and are absent neither from school nor from education. However, the minister and those questioning him from whatever political party consistently conflated these two categories. One wonders how a relationship of “mutual support and trust” is going to be fostered in an atmosphere where everything on offer is for the stated purpose of getting children “back to school.”
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