“Bringing them in the tent”

“Bringing them in the tent”

Pembrokeshire Council Scrutiny meeting provides valuable insights into one LA’s approach to EHE

What’s been said?

Pembrokeshire County Council’s Schools and Learning Overview and Scrutiny Committee met on Thursday, 30th June (2022). Item 8 on their agenda read:

“To receive an update on the current position of Elective Home Education pupils (following on from the January 2021 Committee report)”

Councillors heard an update from Principal Education Welfare Officer Cara Huggins, followed by opportunity for questions.

For the sake of new committee members, Huggins explained in some detail the legislation around EHE, and the LA’s current approach.

The Western Telegraph published a brief report on the meeting, but more insight can be gleaned about the attitudes of participants and the reasoning behind the LA’s approach from the half-hour recording. Despite a few audio glitches at one point, it’s a worthwhile listen, whether you home educate in Pembrokeshire or elsewhere.

Huggins stated that, as in neighbouring authorities, Pembrokeshire had seen a steady increase in the number of children known to be being home educated (180 in 2019; 270 in 2021; 367 to date.)

She confirmed that LA powers currently remain the same, with “no express requirement for them to investigate actively whether parents are complying with their duties under Section 7.” This, together with “the children we don’t know about” were matters of concern to her and her team.

She spoke positively of Welsh Government intentions to have a register of EHE children and young people in Wales, but said that for now her team are working with an ‘engagement model’ which has been proving very successful.

The exchange also provided helpful insights into the range of views held by councillors. At one point councillors asked about potential isolation or lack of socialisation. Here Cara Huggins gave credit where credit was due, reassuring them that “the breadth of opportunities some of the HE families give their children are vast… in fairness to the community, some of what they offer is extensive.”

Why does it matter?

Wherever you live, this item is relevant for three reasons:

  • It is an interesting window into one LA’s approach, and probably also reflects that of others, given the Welsh Government’s current motivation for engagement with home educators. It provides a different perspective to the generic statements presently issuing from the Minister and Senedd.
  • It provides a helpful insight into the range of views held by councillors, from the poorly informed and rather hostile to the surprisingly supportive.
  • It serves as a reminder to home educating parents of the value of engaging with local councillors.

In this case, the provisions being offered through the engagement model are wide-ranging: workshops, online resources, outdoor sessions, sport & music. But the motivation is the same – the LA staff wish to engage with EHE families, “to bring them into the tent, to talk to them about what they are doing.” [emphasis added throughout]

Huggins felt her team now had good relationships with the majority of EHE families they knew of, which gave them “much better reach in speaking to those young people when we do visits.” For the moment, the majority of visits were online or by phone, but she expressed the hope that from September more would be “in the home – especially where we feel we need to dig a bit deeper, see more evidence of what the children are doing…”

She went on to speak of taking a “strength approach” in such cases, adding that they felt the Goodred v. Portsmouth case in England “secures us to ask those deeper questions about what parents are providing for their children.” She also linked the possibility of carrying out more thorough investigations where necessary with the appointment of a full-time EHE advisor.

Longer-term allocation of government funding had enabled the appointment of a trained primary school teacher to this post from April, (although such a qualification was not a requirement). Huggins felt that keeping good officers in place for longer had contributed to more consistent and effective relationships with EHE families, and was pleased to report that staff are now speaking with the child in around 70% of their visits.

The fact that families were also encountering the team in the context of engagement model activities was a big factor in this, in her view. She was anxious to avoid “what can be perceived as the LA having a top-down approach,” and reaffirmed that the “bringing them in the tent” approach was much more effective.

She noted that the establishment of a register would enhance LAs’ abilities to “support EHE parents, to give them appropriate advice and really hear the voice of the child.”

An appreciation of why support is being provided for home educators in Wales is important. For instance, it sheds light on why  Lord Soley insisted recently in the House of Lords that the registers proposed in the Schools Bill are “all about support”, when they are actually about oversight and control.

What can I do?

This item serves as a helpful reminder to home educating parents of the value of engaging with local  councillors. The degree to which councillors are well-informed or ignorant of the realities of elective home education will always depend to some extent on their own motivation, but a rather under-used opportunity for public engagement with committees of this nature is reported here.

“Scrutiny provides opportunities for members of the public to get involved with the work of the Council. If there is a topic that you feel strongly about or one in which you have a particular area of expertise, you can make a request to speak at an Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting. Alternatively, members of the public can submit written views on a matter being considered by a Committee which is already on the Committee’s work programme, or can suggest a topic for Scrutiny.”

A generic publication from the English Local Government Association A councillor’s workbook on scrutiny confirms on page 8 that opportunities for public engagement exist in English local authorities too. There are no similar guides on the Welsh LGA website.

Lived experience and real people’s stories can be very effective. If this feels a rather daunting challenge to undertake on your own, perhaps you could team up with other local HE families to make an approach. Or you could invite councillors to meet with you or attend an HE event. The main thing is to be well prepared, to know your facts, to know what arguments you are likely to encounter and be ready with responses.