Welsh Guidance on Elective Home Education is Far Worse than Hoped For

Welsh Guidance on Elective Home Education is Far Worse than Hoped For

Embedded throughout is the belief that the state rather than parents is the ultimate arbiter of the education every child should receive.

What’s been said?

The twelfth of May saw the publication of the long-awaited Welsh Government’s Elective Home Education guidance. (Note: an updated version was published on 19 May, because the original title page had erroneously referred to the document as a ‘draft’ when this is not the case.)

The introduction refers to the roles and responsibilities of both local authorities and parents, though ‘parents’ are conspicuously absent from the ‘Intended Audience,’ presumably bundled into the generic ‘other interested parties’ after local authorities, local health boards and independent schools.

The tone and approach of the document is summarised in §1.3:

“This guidance is informed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It has been developed to ensure that all children in Wales, including those who are educated at home, receive their rights as accorded by the UNCRC” [Emphasis added]

Other derived Welsh Government documentation also features. The roadmap “Our National Mission: high standards and aspirations for all” is referenced in §1.7, with a specific statement that these principles “apply to all children, including those who are home educated.”

Note too §1.5. This is considered in more detail in Section 4.

“Balanced against this decision, [to home educate] is the expectation that local authorities can assess the suitability of the education parents provide. In order for a local authority to carry out that function, it is not unreasonable for local authorities to ask parents about their approach and the education being delivered.”

Section 2, Legal Responsibilities and Rights, is long. It contains important material meriting careful scrutiny. It covers the rights of parents to educate their children (includes SEN/ALN); children’s rights; LA responsibilities; HE policy and scrutiny; using data to inform policy; off-rolling plus other matters expanded on in later sections.

Section 3 addresses means of identifying children within an area who are not known to a LA, with §3.2 encouraging LAs to be “proactive in looking for ways to identify children not known to them, doing all that is reasonable and appropriate.”

This leads on to the need for “robust measures in place to quickly identify when a child is missing or potentially missing education and to follow through with effective tracking and enquiry systems to locate them.”

Part 4 covers Efficient and Suitable Education. Despite some acknowledgement of the potential variety of educational approaches, this matter still rests on the premise that “Until the local authority is assured the home educated child is receiving a suitable education then the child is potentially within scope of the section 436A duty and Welsh Government statutory guidance on children missing education will apply.” This section therefore follows the lead of the 2019 English guidance.

Section 5 deals with School Attendance Orders and Education Supervision Orders, including situations involving SEN or ALN.

Section 6 considers the matter of support for home educated children, though the encouragement to LAs to provide such is accompanied by a ‘where resources permit’ caveat.

The final section deals with Safeguarding. Again, reference is made to other Welsh Government legislation, including the All Wales Safeguarding Procedures multi-agency Practice Guides on safeguarding children in specific circumstances – one of which includes a section on safeguarding children who are home educated.

Why does it matter?

Because of the opening statement that the guidance contains “both statutory guidance and non-statutory advice” without clearly identifying which sections are which, its application will almost certainly cause further confusion, with LA’s inevitably interpreting ‘could’ and ‘should’ as ‘must.’

Notably there are at least fifteen references to the UNCRC, in nine different paragraphs. §2.17, for example, states that “the Welsh Government has adopted the UNCRC as the basis for all its work for children and young people” and references further government measures imposing a duty on Minsters to “have due regard to children’s rights when exercising any functions.”

Those concerned about data issues will find plenty to reflect on in section 3. A reference to GDPR and DPA compliant information sharing and joint working with partner agencies in §3.7 also speaks of information sharing with English LAs, to ensure that “children who move across borders do not miss education.”

Worryingly, LAs are also encouraged to “cross reference school admissions data with the live birth register to identify reception-aged children not registered at a school” (§3.13), besides locating children potentially missing education through an inter-school secure data transfer website. This desire to track and trace all children is a stark reminder of the prevailing mistrust of parents now embedded within the British state.

Truancy sweeps (§3.11-12) are viewed as a potentially useful means of making contact with “families who are reluctant or refuse to engage with statutory services,” and this section makes disturbing reading.

After a detailed list in §4.13 of criteria which home educators are not required to meet, the subsequent paragraph indicates that the home education being provided could be deemed suitable if it consisted of “aspects of the Basic curriculum for Wales/Curriculum for Wales or independent school standards.” English Minister for Schools Nick Gibb made a similar statement in a Westminster Hall debate on home education on 27 March. Whilst some may see such suggestions as helpful because they happen to be incorporating such components themselves, it must be recognised that simply lowering one’s guard because there is no immediate personal threat actually concedes ground to the notion that the state must be satisfied that every child must be taught in accordance with its criteria. That view undergirds this new guidance.

This explains why, having stated the need for sensitivity to individual family circumstances and ethos, §4.21 states:

In order for a local authority to satisfy itself of the suitability of education provided by the parents, the local authority should see and communicate with the child. In the absence of seeing and communicating with the child, it will be questionable whether the local authority can reasonably assess suitability of education and to know if evidence of the suitability of the education provided by the parent relates to that child.” [Emphasis added]

Subsequent paragraphs are also of great concern. On the one hand there are statements like “Parents and Gillick competent children are not, however, obliged to meet with the local authority and are free to decline a meeting if they so wish.” On the other, references to LAs needing sight of multiple examples of work in order to verify suitability.

Twice reference is made to the Goodred v. Portsmouth City Council judgment from November 2021, both instances (§2.22 and 4.33) introducing citations from that ruling with the phrase “Legal precedent has established that…”

Though §7.13 and 7.14 both open with statements about home educated children being at no greater risk of neglect or abuse than school educated ones and a decision to home educate not being a ground for concern in itself, the subsequent ‘howevers’ and the overall tone of this section do nothing to reassure home educating parents that they will be treated equitably.

§4.26 advocates for the establishment of a positive relationship between LA staff and home educating families, but given the prevailing tone of mistrust of parents running through this guidance and the assumption that it is the state’s role to determine suitability of education, this will be extremely difficult to achieve.

The commonly repeated mantra “Safeguarding is everybody’s business” features more than once, and the potential abuse of the statement in §7.21 about information sharing being central to good safeguarding practice will also be of concern to parents.

Responding to Topical Questions in a Plenary session on 3 May, the Minister, Jeremy Miles, had answered Conservative Spokesperson Natasha Asghar’s request for “an update on the Welsh Government’s plans to develop home education legislation,” by describing the guidance in the following way:

“We intend to publish statutory guidance very shortly that will enhance learning opportunities for home-educated children, encourage greater access to universal services and ensure that all children have access to a suitable and efficient education.”

Having been contacted by several constituents with concerns about the proposals, Asghar pressed further, citing worries expressed to her by parents that despite best efforts, the Minister was not “listening or engaging with them.”

Miles, of course, could point out at that stage that the guidance had not yet been published. He believed that there had been “a very significant level of engagement,” and emphasised the “wide offer of support.” But his closing few words are what really concern home educators – “alongside the regulatory change that we contemplate.”

Despite his upbeat response to Ashghar, we now know what he had in mind.

There will be an opportunity to hear more from the Minister and other members on Tuesday 6 June, when as part of Government Business thirty minutes are allocated for a “Statement by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language on Elective Home Education Guidance.”

What can I do?

Make time to read the guidance yourself, and monitor developments through the Families First in Education – Wales site.

Now is an important time for Welsh residents to connect (or reconnect) with their Senedd member and Regional MSs. The above dialogue between Asghar and Miles illustrates the importance of communicating with your representatives, so they can then adequately represent your concerns in Senedd.

Another example of this principle in action was the input from English front bench Labour MP Naz Shah at the recent Westminster Hall debate on home education. (Full transcript and video of the debate.)

As pointed out prior to the debate, “Those opposed to parental choice have successfully generated a negative narrative around HE, and on the whole that is the only message which politicians, and Ministers in particular, hear.” Much of Shah’s input had been informed by contact with her constituents, and she acknowledged that her own thinking about the topic had been significantly affected.

If you’d feel happier making a joint approach to one or more of your representatives, perhaps you could team up with another home educating constituent. An in-person meeting or video call will usually have more impact than an email, though busy diaries sometime preclude this.

Use your own words, remembering to include some of the benefits home education has brought to your family as well as detailing your concerns – trying to home in on key ones rather than presenting a lengthy list! Alerting your Senedd representatives to your concerns about the guidance as soon as possible would help them to prepare for the aforementioned Ministerial statement on 6 June.

And for English readers – keep up your own lobbying. Remember that the two education departments work in tandem, despite devolved administrations. What gets through unchallenged in Wales today will surely influence the planned revision of English guidance due this year.