Ministerial Oral Answer

Ministerial Oral Answer

Ministerial Answer at 2mins:

Elective Home Education

2. Mr Attwood asked the Minister of Education to outline the reasons for the draft policy on elective home education giving greater power to education and library boards than is currently the case under section 13 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. (AQO 6217/11-15)


Mr O'Dowd: Legislation places specific responsibilities in the education of children other than at school on parents and the five education and library boards.  That includes those who are educated at home.  The boards have directly prepared guidance that reflects the existing legislative requirements, and they are consulting on it.


I consider that the consultation process provides an important opportunity for views and ideas to be provided to the boards on how they best strike the balance between ensuring that the rights and needs of the children concerned are appropriately protected and facilitating parental preference for home education.  As Minister of Education, my focus is on ensuring that the needs of children and young people are met.  Therefore, I have indicated that I expect the boards to ensure engagement with as wide a range of stakeholders as possible, including young people and their families, as part of that consultation and to ensure that the feedback that they receive is considered very carefully in reviewing the draft guidance.  I have also made it clear that I will wish to review their guidance once it has been subject to consultation and reviewed and refined in response to that engagement once it has taken place.


Mr Attwood: I thank the Minister for his answer.  He stressed that there was a legal requirement to do what he is proposing.  Will you confirm that it is your view that, under the 1986 order, there is a legal requirement, and will you explain why your predecessor said in answer to a question that there was no legal requirement for home educators to register with the library boards?  In any case, do the requirements that you are laying down not go too far by having to register children, inspect homes and approve the curriculum etc?  That goes far beyond what happens in England and other jurisdictions.


Mr O'Dowd: With respect to the Member, it is clear that he did not listen to my response.  I am not proposing anything.  The education and library boards are currently in a consultation process on issuing best practice for homeschool education.  There are balances of rights in that.  There are the balances of the parent and the parental home, and there are the balances of the right of the child to receive a good education.  There is also the legal requirement on the education and library boards and my Department to ensure that children have access to education.  All those things are being consulted on.


I am not consulting on anything.  My Department is not consulting on any matter in that regard.  However, I have made it clear to the library boards that I want the consultation process to be open and transparent for everyone to be able to make their views known.  I expect the new guidance to be presented to me before it is finally signed off.


Mr Storey: If the Minister did not initiate the process, who did, given that I understand that his Department sits on a regional strategy unit with the education and library boards?  Following Mr Attwood's comments, we would like clarity on where this came from.  Will the Minister give an assurance that this is not an attempt by some to require registration and make it more difficult for parents, particularly those from an evangelical Christian perspective, who take a personal view of ensuring that their children are educated at home in an environment that is conducive to their learning, to do what they have always done in a way that is honourable and within the law?


Mr O'Dowd: I understand that the process came about as a result of legal advice given to the North Eastern Education and Library Board, which then proposed consultation on guidance.  The other boards, which now seek to work in greater cooperation with one other, also believed that it was the right time to consult on the matter. 


As I said in response to Mr Attwood, there is a balance of individual legal rights in this debate, but I urge Members not simply to follow those who shout the loudest.  At the very heart and centre of the consultation process is the children's right to education, whether in the home or in school.  I assure the Member opposite that I am not aware of any agenda to stymie the rights of anyone, including evangelical Christians, to educate their children at home, if that is their wish. 


My understanding of the process is that it is to ensure that the rights and entitlements of children to education and the rights of all others involved are being upheld.  I will ensure that that is the case before signing off or approving any guidance at the end of the consultation.  Mr Attwood suggested that the boards overstepped the mark in relation to the Education order 1986.  I will satisfy myself whether that is the case before any final guidance is issued.


Mrs Dobson: Minister, you will be aware that I raised this issue with you recently.  You know that this has caused anger among parents who choose to educate their children at home, especially the idea of people entering their home.  When will the Assembly and the Committee be given the opportunity to debate and shape the future of elective home education?


Mr O'Dowd: It is for the Assembly's Business Committee to decide which topics are debated in the Assembly, and it is for the Education Committee to decide what is discussed there.  I have no say in either.


Mr Allister: The Minister is anxious to point out that the guidance is not his.  Does he accept that the guidance issued for consultation gold-plates what section 13 of the 1986 Order requires?  Surely even he can see that.


Mr O'Dowd: No, I do not accept that; nor do I deny it.  There would not be much point in the education and library boards having a consultation process if I, as Minister, were to stand here in the middle of it and say, "This is how things are".  The consultation process is ongoing.  Members of the House, political parties and individuals are perfectly entitled to respond.  When the outcome of that arrives on my desk, I will satisfy myself that all the questions raised here today and others that I am aware of have been answered.   I will also seek legal advice on whether the boards have gold-plated section 13 of the 1986 Order or whether, as Mr Attwood suggests, they have overstepped it.  All those things will be satisfied before any final decisions are made.