During a plenary session on 30 March, Laura Anne Jones MS, a regional member for South Wales East and Shadow Minister for Education, made a remarkable connection between peer-on-peer sexual abuse in schools and home educated children. It has to be asked if politicians will ever refrain from projecting the problems of the school system onto families who prefer their children to discover the joy of learning outside such regimes.
The following exchange took place during a section devoted to “Questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language.”
The official transcript of Jones’ question and the Minister’s response is available on the Senedd’s website, as is a video of the exchange.
Laura Anne Jones MS
Diolch, Presiding Officer. Minister, I could ask you a myriad of things today, on free school meals, the Queen’s jubilee book, exams, as my colleague just outlined, or anything, but I have some really pressing matters I wish you to address. It has come to light during our peer-on-peer sexual harassment review that we’re holding currently in the Children, Young People, and Education Committee that there has been no-one commissioned by this Government to collect evidence on the impact that it’s had on home-schooled children. This obviously started alarm bells ringing with me, as Wales has seen an uptake in home-schooled children over the past two years. So, one could say that this evidence is actually vital, and leads to further questions on what evidence there is on home-schooled children full stop. So, Professor Renold, who was commissioned by your Government, made it clear that there is no evidence, and, to quote her, she said there absolutely needs to be. So, do you have evidence, Minister, on home-schooled children and how they’ve been affected, not just by peer-on-peer sexual harassment, but by the pandemic and more generally? And what protections are there in place for these children whilst being home schooled?
Jeremy Miles MS (Minister for Education)
The Member asks a very important question about a very serious matter. And she’s right, obviously, to identify the fact that it is more challenging to be able to understand the experience of home-schooled children, which is why we are keen to make sure that children are being taught in school with their peers, subject to the safeguarding regime that all schools operate.
She will know that the work that we had in train to bring forward legislation to update the home-schooling laws has been postponed effectively, or paused effectively, due to COVID. But I can say that we are looking to bring forward legislation in this space—hopefully to be bringing forward legislation this summer—which would have the intention that it would be in place by next year, which would strengthen the tools available to local authorities in this area.
Update: The Children, Young People, and Education Committee referred to by Jones took place on 24 March. The relevant section of the hearing is available as text or video.
If home educators are wondering exactly what the Welsh Government is planning for their children’s futures, Miles’ assertion, “we are keen to make sure that children are being taught in school with their peers” could not be clearer. Of course, the irony of this is that his justification for this ambitious plan is that “the safeguarding regime that all schools operate” clearly isn’t fit for purpose! If it were, there would be no scandal about peer-on-peer sexual abuse in Welsh schools, and neither would parents have to deregister their children due to bullying.
These comments have been made at a time when Families First in Education – Wales are preparing to meet with a member of Jeremy Miles’ staff. In preparation for that meeting we have asked home educating families to send us their comments about the Government’s intentions regarding EHE for us to pass on to the Department. More details available here.
(We are aware of some technical problems with the site recently, so if you have difficulty accessing the previous link, here is an alternative method).
For those unfamiliar with what the Government is planning, in 2019 they consulted on new statutory guidance for EHE (currently the guidance is “non-statutory”). In 2020 they consulted further on a national database for all children in Wales, though this has always been closely linked with identifying “unknown” HE children. Action arising from these consultations was put on hold in 2020 because of pandemic pressures.
Through recent comments like the Minister’s response above, a picture is emerging of the Government’s desire to revive the previous administration’s plans. They are signalling that they intend to create a database of all children in Wales, based on sharing data from the health departments, and using it to identify children not on a school roll in order to come and inspect them – even when no concerns have been raised and parents have not asked for their help or support.
This has worrying data protection impacts for everyone, as well as implying that the state should always be considered a better judge of what is right for a child than that child’s parents; and of course it will use up manpower and resources doing tick-box checks on families that don’t need it when there are plenty of parents begging for support that they’re entitled to but not getting.
They are also looking to create an official definition of “suitable education”, which at the moment in education law is deliberately open so it can encompass what is right for an individual child, rather than tying parents into inflexible, ‘one size fits all’ criteria. It is not known exactly what they mean by that, but it is a further step towards overriding parents’ responsibilities for their children.
Families First in Education – Wales came together in response to ongoing pressure from the (retiring) Children’s Commissioner, Sally Holland, for the Welsh Government to monitor all HE children. Details of our initial open letter and submission to the Education Minister can be found here. Since then we have tried to report on other relevant statements in our News section. You may find these categories helpful in searching that section: Welsh Government, Senedd & Correspondence.
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