A formal review by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales has concluded that the Welsh Government has failed in its duty to protect the rights of children who are home educated, and children in independent schools.
The review comes a decade after the death of Dylan Seabridge, a boy from Pembrokeshire who died of scurvy after he was not seen by any services for 7 years.
Since his death there have been numerous calls – and a number of commitments spanning many years by Government – for tighter regulation of home education, including calls for a register or database, and to make sure that children are seen by professional services.
Other cases have also highlighted the need to strengthen home education law according to the Children’s Commissioner. Last year a published Child Practice Review detailed a case of severe physical and emotional abuse where one feature of the case was that the family’s children had been educated at home. The report notes that parents had been compliant with their legal duties in relation to home education but the current guidance around this has deficiencies. As part of the Child Practice Review, the children involved said that “…it should be the kids’ choice whether to be home educated” and “education officers should come to the house”.
Last summer, the Welsh Government announced that it had dropped plans for new legislation, citing the impact of Coronavirus on its workload.
It led to the Children’s Commissioner, Professor Sally Holland, reviewing the effectiveness of Government decision-making in this area over several years.
The Commissioner also reviewed the effectiveness of Government decision-making in relation to safeguarding in independent schools.
Currently, there is no requirement for independent school staff to be registered with the Education Workforce Council (EWC) for Wales, the independent regulator for education staff.
This means that the EWC cannot intervene if concerns are raised about independent school teachers or learning support staff.
It also means that independent school staff cannot be struck off the workforce register in the same way that state school staff can, allowing them to keep working with children even if they are sacked following internal disciplinary procedures that are related to misconduct involving children.
There have also been concerns raised about the strength of independent school regulations in respect of registration requirements, including leadership and management.
The Independent School Regulations for Wales were introduced in 2003. Since then guidance in Scotland and England has been strengthened but there have been very few meaningful changes in Wales, according to the Children’s Commissioner.
It is the first time the office of the Children’s Commissioner has used its legal powers to review the Welsh Government.
In respect of Home education, the review found that:
- ‘the current Welsh Government has failed to respond adequately’ following the death of Dylan Seabridge in 2011
- the Welsh Government ‘has not complied with its legal duties’ related to children’s rights in this area
- ‘no substantive change’ has been achieved despite numerous consultations on revised guidance spanning two Government terms, and a number of reports and recommendations from various bodies. Changes have ‘stalled at every turn’
- the now shelved plans first proposed by the Welsh Government in January 2018 to strengthen regulation ‘were limited in their ability to protect children’ and ‘not an appropriate approach to the issues being tackled’
- Primary legislation is needed in the next Senedd to make the necessary regulatory changes to help all home educated children receive their human rights
In respect of independent schools, the review found that:
- the Welsh Government has failed to resolve ‘safeguarding loopholes’ related to independent schools despite some issues being ‘on their radar for at least 18 years’, and despite general acceptance of the need for reform in this area, including from the umbrella body representing independent schools in Wales
- safeguarding concerns raised about a head teacher of a private school in Denbighshire in 2019 ‘should have acted as a catalyst’ to strengthen the law, but this has ‘still not been prioritised.’
The report makes several recommendations to be brought forward in the sixth Senedd term, including:
- introducing primary legislation to make sure that all children in Wales can be seen and spoken to about their education
- substantially updating the regulatory position in respect of independent schools, and to ensure that independent school teachers are registered with the Education Workforce Council.
Publishing the review, the Children’s Commissioner Professor Sally Holland said:
“The lack of progress over several years in these policy areas has been frustrating.
“While I acknowledge the huge diversion of Government resources that have taken place to respond to the pandemic, my concern is that these delays are long-standing and may continue in years to come without concentrated effort to address the issues outlined in my report.
“The actions and intentions of successive Governments have been too tentative, have lacked pace, and ultimately been ineffective in creating meaningful reform.
“It is absolutely vital for children in Wales that in the next Senedd term these issues are tackled with determination, clarity, and transparency. We cannot look back in another decade to find that we as a country still have not moved forward.
“The Government have until 7th April to respond formally to the report recommendations, when I’m expecting them to set out what they plan to do next to take these areas of work forward.
“And I have an important message to pupils who may be home educated or who attend independent schools in Wales: my aim with this work is to protect some of your fundamental rights, not only to be kept safe and well but to receive the very best education and to have your views and opinions heard. I have spoken with many of you who are either home educated or are educated in an independent school, who feel safe, are having fabulous experiences and are thriving – I want to make sure Wales is a country which offers this to every child.”