A formal review a decade on from the tragic death of an eight-year-old boy has concluded that the Welsh Government failed in its duty to protect the rights of children who are home educated, and children in independent schools.
The review, carried out by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, 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 seven years.
It is the first time the office of the Children’s Commissioner has used its legal powers to review the Welsh Government – which insists it takes its responsibilities regarding education “extremely seriously”.
Dylan died at the family’s Crymych home, but despite showing symptoms, his parents Julie and Glynn Seabridge told police they thought Dylan had “growing pains”. He had not been seen by the authorities for seven years and had not been seen by a doctor or a dentist in his short life.
Since Dylan’s death there have been numerous calls for tighter regulation of home education, including calls for a register or database, and to make sure that children are seen by professional services.
Dylan Seabridge’s parents, Glynn and Julie Seabridge
(Image: Wales News Service)
Other cases have also highlighted the need to strengthen home education law, according to the Children’s Commissioner.
In respect of home education, the review found as follows:
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 made several recommendations to be brought forward in the sixth Senedd term, including:
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.
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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.
Publishing the review, Professor 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 has until April 7 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.”
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We take the responsibility for protecting the rights of children receiving home education and those in independent schools extremely seriously.
“Both the First Minister and the Minister for Education have both expressed their disappointment that the Government has been unable to progress this important planned work – in normal circumstances, work would have by now been nearing completion. However, we are not in normal circumstances and the Government has had to fundamentally shift its focus thus having an impact on completing this work.
“We have noted the findings in the review and will consider the report in detail before responding more formally.”.