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Welsh Home Education Guidance
The Welsh Government published new home education guidance for local authorities on January 9th 2017 [via this page]. The guidance is non-statutory since there is no provision in law for the Government to issue statutory guidance on home education. Shortly afterwards, Home Education Information for parents and carers also appeared.
The BBC quotes a Welsh Government spokesman as saying "We have listened carefully to concerns about safeguarding children who are educated at home. As the cabinet secretary indicated in her written statement, this new guidance will form part of a package of measures she is considering, including the potential for introducing legislation."
The written statement mentioned by the BBC is here. Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams said:
"While our new guidance seeks to strike a balance between the rights of children to receive a suitable education, to be listened to and be safe, and the rights of parents to home educate, I believe we need to adopt a more robust approach to education provision for all children, regardless of where that education is provided. This guidance will form part of a package of measures I’m considering to support local authorities, the home educating community and alternative providers, including the potential for introducing legislation. Those other measures will take time to develop. In the meantime, we will be offering training to local authorities on using the new guidance."
The reference to "part of a package" and "education provision ... regardless of where that education is provided", combined with a mention of "alternative provision" means the "potential legislation" is most likely NOT related to elective home education. Education outside school also includes registration of part time settings which was floated as a possibility last year (details here), or increasing regulation of the altnernative provision [Education Other Than At School] sector for excluded pupils including unregistered Pupil Referral Units, plus revising the threshold for providers to register as an independent school as recommended by Estyn. Introducing registration of part-time schools would certainly require a change to the law.
In early 2016 the Welsh Government said that publication was being delayed because of waiting on the child practice review into the death of Dylan Seabridge. When the Assembly discussed the Dylan Seabridge case the Minister indicated that the new Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014 would strengthen and reform safeguarding services.
Home educated Dylan Seabridge died age 8 in December 2011. The cause of death was later found to be scurvy. In 2009 Dylan's mother, who had been off work sick for 3 years, was dismissed from work on ill health grounds and the family took the case to an employment tribunal. Her employer was Ceredigion council. The BBC reported that during this tribunal it became apparent to the council that Mrs Seabridge was suffering severe mental ill-health and concerns were raised with social services who decided it wasn't necessary to refer this to the neighbouring council where the family lived. More
The review finally appeared in July 2016. The author noted the newly implemented Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act which she said "advocates for a much more integrated partnership approach." Link. Commenting on the Dylan Seabridge review, Carl Sargeant, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children said “the home-education element is just one part of this particular case ... we are, again, looking at the whole principle of well-being ... about how that will look, and I’ll continue those discussions. I had a team meeting today, across the departments, to start looking about what we are going to do about this particular case, and what the lessons learnt will be, and how we will interpret them, in terms of legislation or otherwise, if we need to do that ..., my personal view is that I don’t think a register will fix this problem." Link, July 2016
Sally Williams, the Children's Commissioner for Wales says she is disappointed by the guidance. This comes as no surprise. Back in October 2016 the Commissioner said "At the moment, the indication from Government is that they’ll be publishing non-statutory guidance...I don’t think that’s going to be strong enough...what I’m calling for, which I think is not a big ask of parents, is that they should inform their local authority that they’re educating their children at home...And I think it should be a requirement that the child should be seen by somebody from outside the family — an educational professional visiting from time to time — to be asked about their education experience and how they feel about it, because they have that say, they have that right, independently of their parents...If the Government does go ahead and only publishes non-statutory guidance, I will express my disappointment..." More, October 2016
Vote Against Compulsory Registration
Towards the end of 2016, Carl Sargeant said "We have revisited and strengthened our elective home education guidance and this will be published in the next coming weeks." Sargeant went on to say “We will need to consider and consult carefully on whether to move beyond that, but I want to be clear that our careful approach is about ensuring the best practical safeguards for all children." At this point, Plaid Cymru pushed for a vote on "strengthening the registration requirements of elective home education" but only 8 members were in favour, with 35 against. Darren Millar Conservative Shadow Minister for Local Government said “I think that the Government is taking the right approach here in terms of cautiously moving forward without leaping to a conclusion that there needs to be compulsory registration of home-educated children...we know as well, of course, that, particularly in Dylan Seabridge’s case, this family were known to statutory authorities; they were known to the professionals in different organisations, and a whistleblower did contact the local authority to express concerns about the family, and these things did not trigger, in my view, the appropriate responses from the authorities. So, we don’t know what the outcome would’ve been had things been handled differently, but I suspect very much that simply having a compulsory register would not have made that much of a difference." More, November 2016
The current balance of power in the Welsh Assembly is critical in trying to assess whether there will be any follow-up to the guidance. (Best guess is there won't). The Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, is a Liberal Democrat, indeed is the only Liberal Democrat Assembly Member. By appointing a Liberal Democrat to a Ministerial position, the minority Labour government in Wales inched towards a majority and this was cemented by Lord Elis-Thomas resigning from Plaid Cymru, plus saying he will now be supporting the Government. We can also see that both Labour and the Conservatives have not been persuaded by the Children's Commissioner.
Social Services and Wellbeing Act
The new Home Education Guidance should be read in conjunction with Partnership Arrangement Regulations and new statutory guidance on Partnership Working which support Part 9 of the Social Services and Wellbeing Act Wales 2014. Pages 12 -13 of the statutory guidance set out the specfics of Integrated Family Support. There is now a requirement for the Regional Partnership Board to refer a family to IFS if it reasonably believes or suspects that a parent has a mental disorder and that as a consequence the family is (or will be) in need of care and support. This was a crucial omission in the Seabridge case.
At first sight the final version of the 2017 Home Education Guidance appears largely unchanged from the 2015 consultation draft but in fact, there are some significant differences. In my view this can largely be attributed to the new legislation. The 2017 Guidance notes that the Social Services and Wellbeing Act "provides a strengthened legal framework for safeguarding children and has introduced a ‘duty to report’ to the LA and defines a ‘child at risk’". For a detailed comparison of the two versions, click here.
There is also less of a suggestion now that the local authority ought somehow to obtain a child's view on his/her own home education in case it conflicts with that of the parent. Unfortunately, the new guidance takes a misleading position on "Parents' Rights", saying "The right to home-educate is not a fundamental one. It is conditional on parents providing their child with an ‘efficient’ and ‘suitable’ education" The language of "parents' rights" doesn't make sense in this context. The law in England and Wales doesn't talk about the right to home educate but rather about what parents must do for their children [cause them to receive education]
Other points of note in the new guidance relate to additional learning needs, flexischooling, and School Attendance Orders.
The new guidance repeats the message from the previous Guidelines (though not from the 2015 consultation draft) that home educated children with a statement of SEN don't really need a statement. Some home educating families may prefer this, as it means less involvement (usually for no benefit whatsoever) with the LA, but in my view it risks short-changing children with recognised special educational needs/additional learning needs who would require special educational provision/additional learning provision in a school and who therefore are entitled to a statement More. It is a surprising thing to find in a document which purports to be about Children's Rights, and may lead to more tribunals.
A new short section on flexischooling has been added to the final guidance which is notable for not taking a position on how the register should be marked, although the answer Code C has been given here. With regard to School Attendance Orders, unfortunately, the new guidance still signposts to the All Wales Attendance Framework which incorrectly states that there is no defence against failure to comply with a School Attendance Order, whereas in fact the defence is that the child is receiving suitable education otherwise than at school.