On January 4th 2018 Wales Online reported that “Parents home educating their children in Wales will have to join a register”
The following exchange took place in Plenary session Welsh Government on 13/12/2017
Diolch yn fawr, Llyr. The Welsh Government respects the choice that some parents make to home educate their children. I’m considering how we can strengthen the support available to the home-educating community, not just limited to education support and services, but to include universal and specialist support services, where appropriate.
You tell us you’re considering it—I’m afraid it’s been considered for a very long time now, and we know that the child practice review report published last year into the Dylan Seabridge case recommended firmly that changes in legislation were needed to require parents to register with a local authority children who are receiving home education, and also to ensure that those children are seen and spoken to annually. We’re all aware that the Children’s Commissioner for Wales has consistently also been calling for the current guidance to be given statutory force and for it to include a compulsory register for all home-educated children, with clear powers for local authorities to see those children and to speak to them directly about their education. Most recently an evidence-based review on the risks to children who are educated at home commissioned by the national safeguarding children board gives a damning verdict of the status quo, and has called for home-educated children to be registered and regularly assessed. I know local authorities as well have been calling for this and, as you recognise, we also recognise that parents have the right to choose to educate their children at home rather than at school, and home education isn’t in itself a risk factor for abuse or neglect. You say you’re considering the matter. Well, do you not agree that whilst there’s any possibility that a child can become invisible and of another Dylan Seabridge being out there somewhere we need greater action and leadership from this Government? Can you tell us: when will you be taking definitive action?
Thank you, Llyr. I think it is important that you said that being home educated in itself is not an indicator for risk or abuse to children. The Welsh Government did publish revised non-statutory guidance in January of last year, but you will be aware that I have accepted in principle the Children’s Commissioner for Wales’s recommendation for a statutory elective home-education register. Officials are currently working on the further detail of how that can be taken forward. But I have to offer a word of caution: that register would only apply to children of a statutory school age, and it cannot and it will not be the answer to those children who are unseen by the system, because even a register that is brought forward would only apply to children from the age of five and, potentially, there are children who could spend the first five years of their life unseen by services. And I think, whilst we can move forward in this regard, we have to be mindful that this is not the sole answer to the issue of safeguarding children whose parents, for whatever reason, are determined to keep them hidden from authority.
Cabinet Secretary, I’m pleased that you said that you respect the decision of parents who do wish to home school their children. It is a viable legal option and works very well in many cases. But you’re also quite right to point out concerns that children who are home schooled need to be monitored in the same way as children who can also disappear from the system when they’re actually in what you would call a conventional school environment. Given what you’ve just said about the way that a register may well miss some of those children, what other potential is there for making sure that children—I think under the age of five you mentioned—don’t slip through the gaps, whether they’re in conventional schooling or home schooling, and that we are looking out for all our children?
The reason I mentioned the issue of potential gaps is because the powers that we have would allow—and they’re existing powers, it should be said, for local authorities to satisfy themselves that children are in receipt of an adequate education. Those powers already exist, and I have given additional resources to local authorities to gain a greater understanding of the level of elective home education in their own areas and the reasons why parents choose it. Clearly, there will have to be measures undertaken by other Cabinet colleagues to look to safeguard those children who are below a statutory education age, and that’s why, only last week, I, myself, and the Minister for children met with the national safeguarding board to discuss options with regard to children under the statutory education age.
Can I return to the case raised by Llyr Gruffydd earlier, on Dylan Seabridge and the lessons we need to learn from that experience? I’ll just quote from the case review, which specifically said, ‘It is possible that had the child been seen or spoken to by a childcare or health professional in the later stages of his life, they may have been alerted to the fact that he had some health issues that the parents were not seeking appropriate help for.’ I think that does come into the realms of educated at home and the register that you’ve talked about. We also know that the Scottish Government has talked about a named individual for every child, to ensure a continuity of care and to ensure that every child is looked after and has the right safeguarding. Is that something that the Welsh Government is continuing? Or can she add to what she said to Llyr Gruffydd earlier about ensuring that the case of Dylan Seabridge is never repeated again?
Thank you, Simon. As I said, my primary responsibility in the field of education is to ensure that local authorities that have a current duty to know whether a child is in receipt of an adequate education are exercising those functions, and what extra support they need to exercise those functions adequately. I have accepted the children’s commissioner’s recommendation for a compulsory register in principle, and officials are actively working on how that could be established and, crucially, implemented. But I also recognise that, for many families that decide to home educate, there are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes they feel they don’t get the support from the local education authority—whether that be exam entrance or access to Hwb, which they currently are not allowed to have. And working across the department—because it has to be a cross-department approach. Education can’t safeguard every child on its own, and we can only ask questions with regards to relationship with education. There’s some debate whether that conversation should happen in the home, or whether that conversation could happen somewhere else, whether that conversation should happen in the presence of parents, or whether that child should be seen on their own. These are complex issues where we have to balance the rights of the family against the rights of those children, and we will be looking at good practice across the United Kingdom—indeed, across the world—as we, across the Government, look to take this agenda forward. I think we have to recognise that a register with regards to home education, on its own, cannot provide all the protection that I know that you and I would want to see for our children.