Register plan risks ire of Wales' home educators
In the dying days of the last Labour government in Westminster, ministers were forced to abandon controversial plans for a home education register in England. But now politicians in Wales are preparing to risk the wrath of the vocal home education lobby by not only resurrecting the proposals, but taking them further.
Education minister Leighton Andrews wants to introduce compulsory registration and monitoring of all home-educated children in Wales, claiming that current legislation has "shortcomings". At present, there is no legal requirement on parents to tell a local authority that a child is being home educated, making it difficult for councils to ensure children are being suitably taught, Mr Andrews said.
But he is likely to have a fight on his hands. An attempt to set up something similar in England just over two years ago - amid concerns that existing rules failed to safeguard children from abuse - provoked fury among home educators and was criticised by an influential group of MPs.
A review led by a former director of children's services at Kent County Council, Professor Graham Badman, mooted a light-touch voluntary registration scheme that would become compulsory after two years. But the Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee criticised the plan, claiming it was "flawed" and that the review was "badly handled." The proposal was dropped from the Children, Schools and Families Bill a month before the 2010 general election.
Home educators are already lining up to attack the Welsh government's plans. Mike Fortune-Wood, who edits the journal Home Education and has written three books on the subject, called it a "retrograde step."
"This would fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between parents, children and state," he said. "Education is primarily the right and responsibility of parents. This will remove the right of parents to decide. They are essentially saying the state knows better than parents."
Mr Fortune-Wood, who lives in North Wales and educated all four of his children at home, added: "A specific education based around our children's needs is best. We provide a first-class education to our children and generally speaking they do extremely well. Local authorities will see this as a way of preventing home education. They will simply impose their standards."
New figures released last month suggest that the number of pupils educated at home in Wales is on the rise. In 2009-10, 722 pupils were recorded as being home schooled, but in 2011-12 the figure stood at 986. Just under a fifth of the total were aged 15. But the exact number of home-educated children is unknown because of the lack of a legal requirement to register.
Behaviour expert Professor Ken Reid recommended a registration scheme as part of his groundbreaking review of attendance and behaviour for the Welsh government in 2008.
"No one can be completely sure how many children are being home educated, and I think the latest figures are really just a best guess," he said. "The Welsh government is absolutely right to take this forward. The intention to have a register is the very minimum they could be expected to do. It is a safeguarding issue more than anything else.
"What some of these home educators seem to be concerned about is they think they are going to see a national curriculum for home education imposed on them, and that's not the case."
Wendy Charles-Warner, an advocate of home education from Denbighshire, North Wales, said research in other countries had proved that registering and monitoring makes no difference to children's outcomes. "The only thing it does is put home educators into conflict with their local authority," she said. "It's adversarial. Local authorities in Wales are failing in their educational duties anyway. The government should back off. It needs to put in place proper support for home educators and make sure local authorities get their own house in order."
Mr Andrews was keen to allay any fears. "Home educators are not required to follow a particular curriculum or adopt school-based approaches, nor are their children required to take national exams or assessments," he said. "The proposals do not change that position."
But the education minister added that parents are required by law to ensure their children receive a suitable education. "The information gathered as part of the registration process will allow local authorities to assess that the legal requirement is being fulfilled," he said. A consultation runs until the end of November.
Despite the fallout from the 2010 Badman review, the issue of home education is still being considered by the coalition government in Westminster.
The government said it respects the right of parents to educate their children at home, and recognises that most parents do a "very good job".
"Ministers are still considering in detail the policy for home education and whether any changes need to be made to the existing arrangements," a spokeswoman said.
"Ministers are aware of the strong views expressed by both home educators and local authorities, and will take these into account in considering what, if any, changes need to be made," she added.