This post contains a report on the debate around the Minister’s statement on 6 June, followed by a comment on the implications of the Welsh Government’s policies in regard to home education.
Key points from the Minister’s statement
In his view, (§155) the purpose of the guidance was to “support local authorities in their duties to ensure all children are receiving a suitable education and to ensure the educational needs of all children are met.” Pointing out that no change had been made to the “existing legal definition of a suitable education,” Miles believed the guidance helped local authorities to “apply it in the context of elective home education.”
He then expanded (§156) on the “expectation that local authorities should meet with all electively home-educated children and their families,” going on to place his customary emphasis on the guidance being “supported by a wider package of support for home-educated children, to enhance their learning experience and development opportunities.”
Announcing that the new home educators’ handbook would be published in the week beginning 12 June (now available here), Miles then spoke (§157) of plans to “monitor and evaluate” the effectiveness of the guidance. This process would begin in summer 2024, exploring the usefulness of the guidance in “identifying home-educated children who are not receiving a suitable education,” and the extent to which any LA support for home educators was proving “effective.”
He also spoke (§158) about expanding the range of data about EHE children supplied to the Welsh Government by Data Cymru, adding that he would be making regulations requiring a database of children:
- not registered at a school;
- not in receipt of education other than at school;
- or not known to the local authority as being suitably home educated.
This, he stated, (§159) would “identify children… potentially not receiving a suitable education.” It is his intention to consult on the database regulations by early 2024, then pilot it for a year from spring 2025, accompanied by draft guidance for participating local authorities.
Miles’ closing words (§161) refer to the way in which children’s rights underpin the whole policy:
“I am proud of our record of upholding children’s rights, and it is this principle that sits at the heart of these proposals.”
Opposition from the Opposition
The high level of home educators’ concerns was then reflected by several of the subsequent speakers.
Conservative Spokesperson for Education Laura Anne Jones began by highlighting the priority of parental choice (§162):
“We in the Welsh Conservatives place parental choice above all else in importance when considering a child’s education, and believe that this decision should be respected to the fullest extent by the Welsh Government and local authorities, so long as the well-being of the child is confirmed.”
Demonstrating that she had listened carefully to the range of concerns raised with her party by constituents, Jones continued to push back strongly:
“We in the Welsh Conservatives therefore oppose placing undue restrictions on home educators, as parents know better than the state what is best for their children. Parents’ choice should be respected, not impeded.” (Emphasis added)
She then raised queries about the legality of the proposed database, asking “who is to say what is suitable – you, the local authorities, who?” and asserting how home educators could be left to the whim of different people’s interpretations of the word ‘suitable.’
Getting right to the heart of the matter, she then threw out a fundamental challenge to the basis of mistrust on which the whole guidance appears to be predicated:
“Home-educating parents and families are sadly being treated as a problem to be solved in your statement, not as people engaging in an equally valid form of education, as is their legal right.”
Having contested the ill-defined standards of training and preparation for local authority officers tasked with evaluating a ‘suitable’ education, Jones went on to challenge the very essence of this definition, calling it a ‘pseudo-statement’ with “no legal or workable framework” offered. Pointing out the dangers of the Minister and/or the personal judgement of local authority staff being effectively “judge and jury” for the new guidance, Jones returned to the importance of the role of parents, asking:
“What gives you the confidence that untrained local authority employees are best placed to judge a child’s needs rather than their parents?”
She closed by questioning the lawfulness of insisting that local authorities should see a child, “when reports by David Wolfe KC deem this to be unlawful on multiple points” and enquired about any external legal advice sought by the Welsh Government, “so that the Senedd can undertake its role of holding this Welsh Government to account.”
After the Minister had had opportunity to “put right …her [Jones] misrepresentations,” Heledd Fychan followed for Plaid Cymru. Though supportive of the children’s rights core, she raised concerns about the tone and volume of feedback she too had received from home educators, commenting thus:
“I think we need to bridge build with that community, because there are grave concerns. There is a perception here that they think that they are being persecuted, that the Government does think that the children are unsafe if this is the choice, and this is the impression that’s been given.”
Fychan expressed sympathy for the many cases where school provision was proving unsuitable, requested more clarity about proposed meetings with children, and highlighted the potential for varying interpretation of the guidance. She concluded with a plea for more collaboration with the community, fearing now that “there is some alienation occurring.”
In response, Miles was quick to assert that there was no evidence to suggest that a child taught at home was at greater risk in terms of safeguarding as compared to a child taught in school. But, significantly, he pressed his point about confirming the suitability of education: “There has to be a connection with the system to ensure that the education of the child is adequate. That’s an entirely different question to one of safety and safeguarding.” [Emphasis added]
To and fro across the Senedd
Jenny Rathbone (Lab) spoke next. Having reaffirmed the current approach to the UNCRC Rights of the Child, she acknowledged the need for schools to be more adaptive and accommodating to individual needs. Stating that she knew lots of children who were “very successfully home educated,” Rathbone closed with a familiar question about the need to safeguard children who were potentially being withdrawn from school “for the wrong reasons.”
Sam Rowlands (Con) returned to the matter of parental choice, applying it not only to the decision to home educate, but also to the type of education home educated children receive.
He too reiterated the issue of perceived mistrust, noting how “the Welsh Government’s starting point with home education can be seen as one of suspicion and questioning the motives of parents, rather than trusting them.”
His own view was that parents chose this route because they loved and cared for their children and wanted what is best for them, and he specifically asked the Minister if he recognised the stance that the Government was seen to be taking – one of suspicion and mistrust. What would the Minister do to reverse this and show his support for parents in the choices that they make?
Rowlands’ question was an important one, because it demonstrates the world of difference between an official provision of opportunities or practical support and a genuine, unbiased acceptance of a legitimate choice.
No amount of increased access to educational resources, Welsh language support or Cadwr sites can compensate for that element of trust in parents to which Jones had so meaningfully alluded at the beginning.
Jane Bryant (Lab), Chair of the Children’s Young People and Education Committee, confirmed that they too had received expressions of concern about the guidance. She requested reassurance that dialogue with home educators would continue, and that children’s rights would be at the forefront of the changes.
Paul Davies (Con) then spoke of constituents of his who already had a positive relationship with their local authority under the existing non-statutory guidelines. He feared however that the new guidance could “jeopardise that relationship and could do a disservice to many home educators who work hard to ensure their children have everything they need to succeed in life.”
Asserting that the Welsh Government should be working with such people, Davies expressed concerns about the determination of a suitable education, the insistence on mandatory meetings with child and parent, and potentially severe consequences for non-compliance.
He pressed for confirmation about a very important point:
“whether parents and children will legally have to meet with a local authority, and what consequences will there be for home educators who do not attend mandatory meetings with their local authority?”
The Minister’s closing response demonstrates that his understanding of the word ‘relationship’ differs by a country mile from the one commonly held by the majority of the population.
On the one hand he affirmed that such meetings were not mandatory, but then went on to say that without such a meeting it was questionable whether a local authority could “form a rounded view about whether a child is having a suitable education.” The authority was entitled “in satisfying itself whether that child is receiving a suitable education, to ask for evidence of that, and, in the absence of provision of that evidence -. [sic] And there is no real basis on which that should not happen.”
Clearly, Miles is committed to the prevailing view nurtured through present-day interpretations of the UNCRC that the state is ultimately responsible for every child, and therefore must proactively intervene in their lives. This is the commonly accepted position around the world today. It is so because states provide ‘free’ education for the majority of children and exercise supervision of schools funded through other means. This leaves home educated children as outliers from that system, and educationalists internationally are increasingly uncomfortable with that arrangement.
What has happened in France since 2020 is a clear example of this shift, according to the European Centre for Law and Justice. In a post highlighting its submission to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, the author shows how the balance of responsibility for education has been radically changed. This follows similar lines as we now see being implemented in Wales:
“The right of parents to educate their children, which was a fundamental principle recognized by the laws of the Republic, has become a derogation. This is a paradigm shift that means the following: the state is in charge of the education of your children and, if you ask, it can exceptionally grant you the right to educate them. The state claims to take the place of parents and decide for them what is in the best interest of their children.”
It should be clear from the Minister’s approach to this issue that human rights are not a simple straightforward matter. They can be used against citizens as well as for their benefit. The HE Byte has already commented on how the absurdity of a child declining to meet with LA staff may result in a LA considering their education to be unsuitable. Behind the UNCRC are reams of documentation known as General Comments, which in truth require lawyers to argue over continually. By now, many will be aware that §16 of General Comment 12, The right of the child to be heard reads:
“The child, however, has the right not to exercise this right. Expressing views is a choice for the child, not an obligation. States parties have to ensure that the child receives all necessary information and advice to make a decision in favour of her or his best interests.”
It appears the Minister’s opinion is that children are obliged to be heard, and he is not listening to what they, their parents and now opposition Members are saying to him.
This brings us to the other main takeaway from this session. It illustrated the value of engaging with politicians. Both Jones and Fychan were far more supportive of the concerns of home educators than they had been two or three years ago. Jones, in particular, clearly expressed the genuine concerns of home educators across Wales that the state will prove itself less than benevolent in executing the guidance as it has been set out. For Plaid Cymru this is a more difficult path to tread, because of its left of centre commitment to expanding the role of the state in the lives of its citizens. That said, Fychan has seen that there are restraints which should not be disregarded when seeking to pursue such a vision. Whilst Rowlands’ own experience of being home educated makes him a willing contributor to this debate, the contribution from Davies also highlighted that other politicians are able to hear and understand the concerns of their constituents.
There is still a long way to go in resisting this attempt by the Welsh Government to assume parental responsibility for every child in Wales. What is clear is that it is the voices of HE children, and those of their parents, which need to be heard in the Senedd and elsewhere if it is to be overcome. They need to be heard by the public too, because home education is now the last refuge for those whose experience of the state education system has had a negative effect on them. A recent Judicial Review concerning the Welsh curriculum highlighted the established principle “that parents were not obliged to take advantage of the free education provided by the state, but if they did, they had to take it as a whole.” [para. 98] The freedom not to opt in to the state’s provision must be preserved for the benefit of every child and parent, or else there will be no place of safety available when, as increasingly common, the system seeks to protect itself rather than seek the best for every child.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to education. Every child, every family is different.
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