What’s been said?
Our previous Byte reported the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’ recent comments on home education. On 28 November the Welsh Government published its response [PDF] to her Annual Report. Both documents are wide-ranging, but this Byte focusses on what they have to say about HE. In her report Prof. Holland urged that consultation on an updated policy be brought forward in order to meet the following three tests in full:
- Firstly, that all children in Wales can be accounted for and that none slip under the radar of universal services, and society in general;
- Secondly, that every child receives a suitable education and their other human rights including health, care and safety; and
- This cannot be achieved without the third aim, that every child should have the opportunity to be seen and their views, including their views about their education, and experiences listened to.
The Government’s response starts on page 4 of their published reply, and contains two important elements. First, ministers accept all three tests; secondly, they explain why they cannot implement them in the way she is urging. The main reasons given for the latter being “Developing the regulations and statutory guidance requires considerable work,” and includes “extensive engagement with a wide range of stakeholders.”
Ministers also state that the Government “shares the Commissioner’s view that all children in Wales should be accounted for,” and that children should “have access to, and be seen by, public services and that this prompts an appropriate and proportionate safeguarding response.” Promising to improve support for HE families, they say that this is to help all children in Wales to “have the same opportunities to access universal services.” Finally they explain that if they become convinced in future that new guidance “has been insufficient to assist local authorities to meet their duty to identify children not receiving a suitable education,” then they will “consider what further measures we need to pursue, including the possibility of new legislation.”
Why does it matter?
Their published response confirms and clarifies the details which it was possible to piece together from the Commissioner’s recent appearance before the Education Committee. Furthermore, it identifies areas of clear agreement between Holland and politicians. For example, they both want all children to be accounted for, and seen by public service employees in order to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities. Many home educators are perplexed by this argument, which has been increasingly employed elsewhere. As illustrated by the recent English Consultation, it is now safeguarding concerns rather than educational law which are cited to justify state oversight of parental responsibilities.
The root of this change of approach in Wales appears to be the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. In our previous Byte we noted that Holland bases her concerns on CASCADE’s 2017 report into “the risks to children and young people who are educated at home.” This report is worthy of consideration. Under “Key terms and definitions” on page 5, the authors define “well-being” in terms of this Act, claiming the term has a wider scope than “welfare” in the Children Act 1989. This becomes important in §1.4, a three paragraph summary of the Discussion (§8) which interprets the findings of their research. The first paragraph recognises the importance of parents and acknowledges that the state should support them, with the caveat that it should “intervene proportionately when children may be experiencing serious harm.” This understanding, the authors argue, should “undergird policy and practice responses to children who are home educated.”
The second paragraph illustrates how this approach is considered to take priority over education law, which places the responsibility to ensure that a child receives a suitable education on their parents. Instead the authors insist, “Our duties as a society to support, protect and ensure the education of children do not end if they are home educated.” By removing the stipulation for evidence of failure by parents recognised in the earlier paragraph, the state is thereby placed above the parents.
The third paragraph recommends “a new approach for home education in Wales” based upon the 2014 Act, in order to “prioritise support and co-production.” What is meant by co-production is not defined. Such reasoning led them to conclude that it is “reasonable for society to know” the number of HE children, and for it to actively assess their safety, well-being and education.
What can I do?
We have said previously that it is important for HE families to understand the mindset of those involved in Children’s Services. Doing so dispels confusion over what seems at first to be a contradictory statement by the Welsh Government. Both parties in fact share the same objective, disagreeing only about how best to secure the desired outcomes. Registration would require legislation – which ministers wish to avoid. If that sounds familiar, the same approach is being taken in England. The question which needs to be asked in response to their common purpose is whether legislation designed to improve Social Services can justly be applied wholesale to families?
Whilst reading official reports is not to everyone’s liking, the five pages of Discussion in the CASCADE report are worth the time and effort. Some important truths are recognised in it: “there is no evidence that children educated at home are at greater risk of harm than children at school.” In sharp contrast, it also suggests that the only way to verify that a child is “in fact receiving an education at home” is for them to be seen regularly by professionals. Arguments like these need rebutting firmly if registration and assessment legislation is not to be enacted in Wales and elsewhere.