Kirsty Williams AM, Cabinet Secretary for Education, announced the Welsh Assembly’s consultation on elective home education recently. The inclusion of compulsory registration and inspection was widely expected. In a surprising turn of events, it didn’t happen. Williams revealed that there wil be no compulsory registration, despite calls for this following the death of Dylan Seabridge.
She acknowledged that Wales (and this is also true of England) has the lightest touch legislation on elective home education of any government in Europe. That makes it the envy of many other countries, including America. That light touch may well continue, but don’t be too easily persuaded. Two definitive statements stand in stark contrast in the speech: ‘let me be absolutely clear: we will not be compelling parents to register that their child as being home educated’ (so far, so good) followed by a declaration that ‘the Government has a moral duty to ensure that all children receive a suitable education’ (probably not so good). Williams explained in some detail how this will be implemented. The responsibility will rest with Local Authorities to know where the children in their remit are being educated. To facilitate this, LAs will be required to maintain a database, to which independent schools will be have to contribute.
But that doesn’t mean that EHE parents are home and dry. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has raised the issue of children’s rights and that is part of a much more sinister trend of governments across the UK to ‘rebalance’ the rights of children against their parents – the Named Person strategy in Scotland is the most overt attempt. The only possible outcome of rebalancing is for the state to assume all rights over a child’s upbringing. With rights and responsibilities removed, parents become nothing more than biological hosts for the next generation of society. It’s also a key indicator of a totalitarian regime.
There is also the issue of who defines ‘suitable education’ – this was described in the debate as a key litmus test. Very few home educating parents have sympathy with the current culture of measurement which values children solely by exam grades. But Williams is clear ‘that local authorities will act on their legal duties to intervene when children are not receiving a suitable education or may be experiencing neglect’. So this isn’t just about safeguarding. In fact, as with all other debates about the rights of parents, safeguarding is only a convenient smokescreen – a useful mechanism for garnering public support. At first reading, it seems like a good deal. On closer inspection, one might reasonably assume that the Welsh government has decided it can’t get away with walking through the door, but it’s certainly intending to climb through a window.
Little is said about the parents of special needs or disabled children who are increasingly removing their children from formal schooling because their needs are simply not being met. Other parents are choosing to home educate because they don’t consider the state offer to be appropriate for their children. Increasingly, there is anecdotal evidence that some schools are themselves encouraging parents to home educate their children, rather than face an expulsion which will remain on their record. None of these children is receiving a ‘suitable’ education from the very state which assumes moral superiority.
So what does this mean for England? Various high profile cases have hit the headlines recently, including mass ‘return to school’ notices in East Anglia, and a similar notice to the child actor who took the role of Matilda in the West End hit musical last year. The bigger picture suggests that Local Authorities in England are pushing hard to ensure that they are being seen to do their duty, but also to demonstrate the urgent need for compulsory registration.
A government consultation is expected in England any day now, so it will be interesting to see whether any notice has been taken of the approach preferred by the Welsh Assembly. Lord Agnew would be well advised to take note of Williams’ answer when asked why she wasn’t making registration compulsory:
‘a compulsory register that would potentially criminalise parents if they failed to register—relies on those parents to do that. The issue is that that legislation would only be as good as our ability to enforce it, which means you need to know who hasn’t registered.’
Applying the Rumsfold formula to the situation, if you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t take any action. So the very children most at risk of harm, or radicalisation, or neglect, can remain hidden from authorities if parents are determined to keep them so.
During the debate in the Welsh Assembly , Williams made the following statement:
‘This Government is committed to ensuring that every child and young person receives an education that inspires, motivates and equips them with the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfil their potential.’
Perhaps it might occur to those trying to limit, or oppose, the rights of parents that this is exactly the reason why home educators do what they do, rather than leave their children’s potential and wellbeing to the vagaries of the state.