Children’s Commissioner for Wales and Home Education

What’s been said?

When Professor Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, published her 2018 Annual Report in October, she commented that this was the third year she had “called on the Welsh Government to require parents to register the fact that they are educating their children at home.” (p51) What will alarm most HE parents is that her comments on HE appeared under the heading, “Protection from Exploitation and violence”. If the order means anything, then her worries about HE are greater than her concerns about “Sexual Abuse and Exploitation” which is covered in the subsequent sub-section. Interestingly there is some similarity between what she says in both. In each instance she provides case studies in which her office was involved, the common thread being that children were being mistreated by other pupils in school and their parents were dissatisfied with the school’s safeguarding response.

On 22 November, Holland appeared before the National Assembly for Wales, Children, Young People and Education Committee. HE featured in the discussion; paragraphs 65 to 105 [watch] being focussed on the Welsh Government’s response to her recommendations. She is unhappy that Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education, announced in January that the promised consultation on EHE would not be about a registration scheme, but about requiring “local authorities to establish a database to assist them in identifying children not receiving suitable education.” Holland stated that the First Minister had informed her there would be no primary legislation unless the new statutory guidance failed in its purpose. Williams had subsequently written to the Commissioner indicating that the new guidance would “come into force in March 2020.” Holland recognised that this meant that there is no possibility of a change in the law regarding EHE during the current Assembly term, which is scheduled to end in May 2021.

One other point is worth noting. In response to questions from Siân Gwenllian AM, Holland spoke of a lack of positive engagement from the Government “in terms of achieving those rights I’ve set out… for children.” (para. 72) She was pressed as to whether or not she was considering “using your powers as commissioner is an option that you could take,” if the Government did not do as she hoped. She had warned the First Minister that this was an option, but told the Committee that if she did this they would be uncharted waters as these had not been used before. She added, “my power is to review whether the Government has fulfilled its functions… I don’t have the powers to make Government do anything.”

Why does it matter?

Firstly, the above conversation provides some information on the Welsh Government’s timetable for the new guidance. In many ways their thinking appears similar to that of the DfE in England, which also has a preference for revised guidance over legislation. The consultation is expected in “late spring” 2019. (para. 84).

Secondly, Holland’s Annual Report and her appearance before the Education Committee remind home educators in Wales that she continues to regard HE as a significant danger to children, and that she is actively seeking to impress this view upon politicians, civil servants and members of the public. She obviously did not see the irony of the two examples of abuse cited in her report occurring in schools.

Finally, it is important to understand the foundations for her concerns. One name features more than any other in her justifications – Dylan Seabridge, the eight year old Pembrokeshire boy who died of scurvy in 2011. He has become another token example of HE abuse despite it being revealed that social services were warned about his health a year before he died, “by both a lawyer and a head teacher because his mother suffered from mental health issues.” According to the BBC, these concerns arose during an employment tribunal in which they became aware that his mother “suffered from mental ill health”. Despite this being another situation where a LA failed to follow up on welfare concerns when they were alerted to them, the narrative of Seabridge being a “hidden child” was advanced by the Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre report of October 2017. It is this document which Holland cites in her 2018 Annual Report as justification for her concerns.

What can I do?

If you live in Wales, remember that there is still an ongoing attempt to bring about registration and inspection. You should therefore continue engaging with your local AM, helping them to appreciate that the Children’s Commissioner’s objectives are unjust for your children. She has put forward three tests for HE children, the third of which states “that every [EHE] child should have the opportunity to be seen [by the state] and their views, including their views about their education, and experiences listened to.” Of course no one is suggesting that schooled children have a say about their education, nor, according to her own report, are their bad experiences listened to.

Wherever you live, HE families need to take note of arguments like Prof. Holland’s even though they recycle the same old scare stories. Remember too that there is another consultation due soon, which will need constructive responses. Although education is a devolved matter in Britain, we need to stand with one another to overcome what appears to be a mindset common to children’s services experts.