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Senedd Plenary – 24 October 2023

Senedd Plenary 24 October 2023

Statement by the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language: Attendance Guidance

Agenda item 6 at the Senedd Plenary session on 24 October took the form of a parliamentary statement from Jeremy Miles, timed to coincide with the publication of new attendance guidance entitled ‘Belonging, Engaging and Participating.’

Miles’ opening words left no doubt as to his own position on school attendance:

“Members will be aware of the importance that I attach to improving attendance rates at our schools.” He went on to speak of the abiding effects of the pandemic, and measures taken to encourage and support families struggling with school attendance. Early intervention and a multi-agency approach were favoured, with Miles also announcing a new weapon in the armoury.

Representatives of the different political parties and the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee then had opportunity to question the Minister on what he had said.

The ensuing exchange between Jenny Rathbone (Labour Constituency Member for Cardiff Central) and Jeremy Miles (Minister for Education and the Welsh Language) shines a spotlight on the Welsh government’s attitude to elective home education that will make many a home educator shudder. In his statement the Minister had spoken of the new multi-agency national [school] attendance task force, created to look at reasons behind non-attendance, improve learner engagement and therefore attendance.

After some comments on school attendance from her own experience, Ms Rathbone then associated the work of this task force with home educators, by asking:

“This national attendance taskforce – will they look at best practice in how local authorities keep an eye on young people who are allegedly being home educated?” (para 275)

There is a worrying slur being made here (covered by the use of the word “allegedly”) which uses speculation and hearsay to build a narrative of suspicion. Home educators are being portrayed as safeguarding risks with no basis in evidence. Public perceptions of home education are, unfortunately, still influenced by such unevidenced claims and it is disappointing, to say the least, to find they are still being used even after Amanda Spielman was rebuked by a tribunal for doing just that in England.

Ms Rathbone continued in the same vein with the following rationale for her suspicions,

“Because some of them are working. Some of them are simply not getting any education—it’s fairly obvious from just observation. Whilst there are many people who are very dedicated to home educating their children, others are simply doing it for different reasons, and this seems to me an area where we need to ensure that there is best practice by all local authorities.”

The minister’s reply to the first part of Ms Rathbone’s question (para 277) is not reassuring. Does he tell her that home educators need not fear that the task force will be looking for them? No. Instead he speaks of the task force looking at ‘best practice’ – a commonly used but ill-defined phrase which can have very different meanings for different people – and goes on to imply that the goodies on offer to home educators from LAs are, in fact, designed as a covert strategy for getting as many home educated children as possible “back” into school. He says:

“I want the relationship between schools and home educators to become more porous, so that where families feel they can bring their children back to school they have a path for doing that in a way that is supportive and encouraging, and so we’re looking at what more we can do to provide access to exam centres, to Hwb and other resources, alongside, of course, the existing statutory school-based services that home-educating parents are already entitled to.”

Where in all of this nice-speak is there any acknowledgement that (even just for some children, let alone many) education at home is a better option than school? In this exchange, home education is seen as some sort of second best option if school should fail to meet a particular child’s needs, but of course, if at all possible, it would be best to talk the parents out of it.

The term Task Force originated with the US navy and the picture it conjures up has a stern and military attitude. Concepts such as ‘belonging, engaging and participating’ on the other hand are woolly, lack focus and seem to be chosen to evoke warm feelings rather than to set out anything concrete. (As far as they have any definite meaning,’belonging, engaging and participating’ surely refer to things that have been happening in families and in the wider community for rather a long time with or without school.) Might home educators be forgiven for suspecting that the second attitude in reality masks the first?

Note: Rathbone’s questions and the Minister’s reply can be watched on Senedd TV.


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