Children’s Commissioner Continues her One Woman Campaign against Home Education

Sally Holland questions Welsh Government’s decision to put HE guidance and database proposals on hold

What’s been said?

The official website of the Children’s Commissioner for Wales (Sally Holland) reports on her letter informing the First Minister of her intention to conduct a review into “how the Welsh Government made decisions about protecting the rights of children who are educated at home or at an independent school.” (Note: Report published on 9 Sept 2020, though a typing error states that she wrote on “October 7th 2020!”)

This new move has been prompted by the Welsh Government’s decision in June to put proposals for home education statutory guidance and draft database regulations on hold, due to the need to prioritise Government resources in “unprecedented times.”

Holland intends to review how this decision was reached, and establish whether the Welsh Government fully considered “the impact on children’s human rights.”

BBC News reported this on 22 September, under the heading “Home school – review to be held into database delay”. A good portion of the article focuses on the death of Dylan Seabridge in 2011, a case repeatedly revisited by Holland as justification for her campaign for stiffer legislation around HE. Despite the headline, this incident along with the implication that home education is dangerous could easily be the take-home message for the casual reader. We will not comment further, having already written about the anomalies of the case here.

Wales on Line and the Western Mail both reported Holland’s intended review on 24 September. Wales Online however emphasised that the Seabridge case was a “very unusual” one, and noted that the Crown Prosecution Service “had decided not to pursue a case of neglect against Dylan’s parents… after both weren’t considered fit enough to stand trial.”

Western Mail noted other recurring concerns of Holland’s:

“At the moment, home education throughout the UK is very unregulated, compared to the rest of Europe… If I don’t look at this decision, I’m afraid nobody will and it will get dropped.”

Why does it matter?

Picking up on her persistent focus on the Seabridge case, Western Mail noted Holland’s significant admission that “it was rare to pursue a change of law based on just one case.”

This is very true, particularly in view of the prosecution’s statement at the time: “I’d like to point out this is not a case in which the prosecution would have been seeking to allege the parents were unkind or uncaring…  It’s a very unusual case.”

Hard cases commonly make for bad law, so one is left wondering why Holland is pursuing registration and monitoring so vigorously.

Having cited her concern for “any other Seabridges out there,” Western Mail quote her thus:

“Of course, it doesn’t mean every home-educated child is at risk. There are a large number thriving in those circumstances. But it is extraordinary in Wales and the UK that you don’t have to inform anyone of your decision to educate your child at home.[Emphasis added]

A further issue is the selective way in which Holland handles children’s rights. Firstly, her concern that a small minority of home educated children might not be getting their right to a suitable education is nowhere counterbalanced by a realistic assessment of what percentage of schooled children are in receipt of their right to a suitable education, particularly under present restrictions.

Secondly, Holland strongly emphasises  positive rights (e.g. the right to a suitable education), but fails to mention corresponding negative ones such as a child’s right to privacy. We have previously discussed the differences between positive and negative rights with reference to the current Isle of Man Education Bill.

The effect of the proposed council databases upon the home educating community is, of course, the other reason all this matters. For the BBC to report that these “have not been universally welcomed” is a huge understatement.

Fortunately they then included comments from Wendy Charles-Warner, Education Otherwise, claiming that “the planned legislation would not be lawful.”

Charles-Warner also challenged Sally Holland’s use of her position “to seek to force the minister to introduce steps, which the majority of home-education stakeholders consider to be wholly unacceptable and draconian,” saying this was “oppressive and misguided to say the very least.”

Finally she pointed out that a “significant number of families choose to home educate their children because of failures within the state system.” [Emphasis added]

What can I do?

Be aware that this has much more to do with ideology than process.

For some civil servants with a statist mentality, the fact that parents may opt to provide suitable education for their own children with minimal state intervention is both offensive and threatening.

This was the self-declared view of Prof Roland Barr, the chief architect behind the IoM Bill referred to above. Three days after the publication of a report critical of his Department on 22 September, Barr resigned as Chief Executive Officer at the DESC. We trust that will see this much criticised Bill withdrawn.

Clearly Sally Holland falls into this category too, when one considers her determined but selective promotion of children’s rights alongside her negative perception of home education. Her general aims may be viewed in her 2021 manifesto, whilst a blog post from 6 May confirms her view that schools are “essential for our children’s wellbeing as well as their education.”

As HE families, especially those in Wales, think over how they might most usefully protest Holland’s intervention into the Government’s decision, Charles-Warner’s comment above about Holland’s use of her position is an important one to note.

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