When a Consultation is not a Consultation

Welsh Government “Table Talk” workshop shuts down contributions from HE stakeholders

What’s been said?

On Sunday (8 March) Protecting Home Education Wales [PHEW] announced that they had reached their funding target to enable them to obtain a legal opinion on the proposals for Local authority education databases of children not on school rolls. This is good news, especially in the light of the additional information about the consultation process contained in their announcement.

Many HE families may have missed mid-February’s addition to the consultation webpage of a PDF file containing an invitation to one of three “‘Table Talk’ Regional Workshops.” The first of these was held on Friday 6 March in Llandudno, whilst the other two are planned for 13 & 26 March, in Swansea and Merthyr Tydfil respectively.

Feedback received by PHEW following the first Workshop was far from positive, as their report highlights:

“We understand that the organisers refused to discuss the legality or the need to enact the draft data-sharing regulations. Instead, the talks revolved around how the regulations would be implemented, thus suggesting that the proposed regulations were a fait accompli, (interestingly, something similar happened last year in the Table Talks about the consultation on the Guidance on home education.)”

They also report that attendance was low due to a failure to notify applicants that they had been allocated a place and that the session was cut from three hours to just one hour “to accommodate the Local Authority staff.” These and other factors conveyed the impression that the sessions were intended to “achieve a pre-determined result in favour of the regulations.” PHEW anticipate the likelihood of formal complaints about the event being submitted to both the Welsh First Minister and also the Education Minister.

The HE Byte has also been provided with notes of the meeting by one of the three members of the HE community who did attend. They report that the other attendees were three LA education officers and two people who “appeared to be connected in some way to a business working with looked after children, and were not stakeholders in the issue at hand.” Despite this, one of these two people was allowed to dominate the discussions, shifting the focus onto “looked after children,” something which the person in charge willingly allowed.

The author of these notes gleaned that the person facilitating the meeting was working from prepared questions, against which they had to record the “votes” of those present. However there was no indication that the differences in opinion between home educators and professionals were being noted. Our correspondent reports:

“Whilst we tried to put our points across, we were shut down on every occasion, and the atmosphere was loaded with negativity toward the home educating stakeholders.”

Our correspondent later adds :

“Discussion from the home education stakeholders was cut off rapidly, without allowing them proper opportunity to make their points.

“All in all, the meeting appeared designed to provide a pre-determined response to shore up the proposal with the facilitating company’s report.”

Why does it matter?

In her letter to the Children, Young People and Education Committee dated 11 July 2019 which announced plans for both consultations, Education Minister Kirsty Williams was clear that she was committed to the proposed changes being implemented. She stated that she did “not believe it would be possible to make an informed judgement about whether a child is in receipt of suitable education without seeing the child.” She also explained that her officials had already engaged with a range of stakeholders when developing the guidance, including all twenty-two LAs and the Children’s Commissioner for Wales. Because of these measures, she expressed her confidence that “the draft statutory guidance has been informed by a children’s rights approach.”

One might ask why she proposed two consultations on them if she was already confident that her proposals were right. The answer appears simple enough – because she is required by law to do so.

It must therefore have come as something of a shock to her to discover that not everyone agrees that her proposals are well “informed by a children’s rights approach.” The legal opinion prepared by David Wolfe QC and submitted by PHEW as part of last year’s consultation, argued very clearly that the Welsh Government were selective in their appeal to the rights of children under international law.

Wolfe’s opinion, along with well-informed submissions from the HE community, has delayed the planned progress of Williams’ proposals, but when she announced that more time would be needed to consider the “complex technical, policy and legal matters” raised by responses to the first consultation, she also expressed an ongoing intention to introduce both aspects of her proposals.

Reports on the first of the current round of Table Talk Workshops suggest that the Minister and her officials are finding it very hard to accept that their views are wrong. It appears that through this consultation they continue to look for responses which affirm their views, whilst hoping to ignore those which challenge them!

What can I do?

In situations such as these, it is important to hold politicians’ feet to the fire by impressing upon them that they are required to rule justly and not be led by unevidenced hostile claims. Having made an effective response to last year’s consultation, it is important that the British HE community pulls together in making a robust response to this present one and all which follow.

In the short-term, if you have requested a place at either of the next two workshops but have had no response from the organisers, still turn up. If you are able to contribute, we encourage you to make sure that you do so firmly but politely – expressing uncontrolled frustration will achieve very little. (Please let us know how you feel the session went.) There is still time to register – you can do so here.

Wherever you live, try to respond to the current consultation by the deadline of 22 April. You can find the details linked from our Welsh Consultation page. We have already published an initial comment on it and hope to follow that up in the near future.

If we don’t safeguard our children’s and grandchildren’s educational futures, who will? Can any of us trust succeeding governments to do so?

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  1. Pingback: Latest HE Byte article on the Welsh Consultation – Protecting Home Education Wales

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