Welsh Petitions Committee Insists on an Evidence Session

Independent Assembly Members want to hear directly from the Education Minister

What’s been said?

The Welsh Petitions Committee met on 4 February to consider thirty-three petitions. The HE community’s attention was however focussed on just two of these; agenda items 3.6, P-05-922 Withdraw the proposed home education guidance and 3.7 P-05-923 Are you listening to us? Home Education Rights and Respect! Both were in response to the Draft EHE Guidance for LAs consulted on last year.

The petitions were last considered on 3 December when it was agreed to write to Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (LibDem), asking her about the response rate to the consultation, for confirmation that the legal opinion is being considered and for an indication of the timescales for determining the next steps.

On 11 December Williams published a statement recognising that the submissions “raised complex technical, policy and legal matters which require careful consideration.” Ten days later she replied to the Petitions Committee stating that over four hundred responses had been received and these were under consideration. (More recently, on 21 January, an analysis of responses was published, stating that of the four hundred and thirty-seven responses received, three hundred and thirty-six were from individuals.) The Minister also referred to her published statement which indicated that a full response from her department was being delayed.

Following the publication of William’s letter, the committee received written responses from both the petitioners Wendy Charles-Warner and Mountain Movers Education. Together they seem to have made a clear impact on the members of the committee.

The relevant six and half minutes can be watched here. Committee members are: Chair Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con); Michelle Brown AM (Ind); Neil McEvoy AM (Ind); Jack Sargeant AM (Lab) and Leanne Wood AM (Plaid Cymru).

Following an introduction by Finch-Saunders, McEvoy noted that the views expressed by the petitioners were very strong, before asking if other members “would want an evidence session?” Without hesitation Brown said she supported one, as did Sargeant. Brown also stated that she wanted to hear from the Welsh Government why they don’t seem to be giving the QC’s legal opinion the attention she feels it deserves.

The one voice of dissent was that of Wood, who said she understands “the government’s preference for most children to be in school.” She added, “I’m keen to ensure that every single child in Wales has a high quality education, and that they are safeguarded.” Explaining that the guidance has to balance those two things (presumably education and safeguarding) Wood went on to acknowledge that if guidance is drawn up without reference to those who are home educating, it will be found wanting.

Speaking for longer than the other three members, Wood also expressed concerns that the petition seemed to be a UK-wide one, seemingly to undermine its validity. From this springboard she argued that the committee “should take the advice of the Welsh Children’s Commissioner, at the very least.”

Once holding an evidence session had been agreed the Clerk, Graeme Francis, sought clarification on how the process should move forward. At one point Wood asked if there was a single organisation which represents HE in Wales. In response to a further question from Sargeant, Francis confirmed that both the petitioners are Welsh-based. The Clerk also suggested that they could enquire if there are any other Welsh HE groups and request their views. He also received agreement from the committee to write to the Children’s Commissioner for her comments, before taking oral evidence from the Minister. [Minutes]

Why does it matter?

This discussion could be of vital importance to the future of HE in Wales. It has to be noted that it was the two independent AMs, Brown and McEvoy, who saw the importance of listening to their constituents and their concerns. Brown in particular pressed the matter of the legal opinion, and why the WAG was seemingly ignoring it. Neither Williams’ letter nor the subsequent summary of responses had made any direct reference to QC David Wolfe’s opinion. Brown also wants there to be “a debate in the chamber.”

Wood’s response contrasted sharply with Brown’s and McEvoy’s. She was clearly uncomfortable with the thought of holding an evidence session. When she did agree to taking evidence from Williams, it seemed to be through gritted teeth. Wood repeated the type of concerns for the welfare of children, which HE families are familiar with hearing, as excuses to breach their privacy. She also sought to undermine the validity of one of the petitions because it contained signatures from outside Wales. One also wonders what she hoped to achieve by asking if there is “one overarching organisation which represents home educators?” The lack of such an organisation often frustrates politicians, but it is one of the strengths of our diverse community.

What can I do?

Take encouragement that some politicians seem to be listening to the people who elect them. If you are a constituent of Brown, McEvoy or Sargeant, please thank them for taking this matter further. If you have already spoken with your AM, and they have communicated with any of the above, please thank them.

If your AM is Wood, you will probably have to try a different approach. Perhaps you could ask her why she holds the views she does.

Finch-Saunders is a member of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, which is very supportive of Children’s Commissioner Sally Holland’s drive for monitoring of all HE children. As Chair, she is to be commended for not imposing her view on the Petitions Committee. It would be very helpful to know what she really thinks.

If you don’t live in Wales, still take encouragement from this meeting and learn something of the value of doing something even if it feels like swimming against the tide.