Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg

Children, Young People and Education Committee

29/06/2022

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Buffy Williams AS
Heledd Fychan AS Yn dirprwyo ar ran Sioned Williams
Substitute for Sioned Williams
James Evans AS
Jayne Bryant AS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Ken Skates AS
Laura Anne Jones AS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Jeremy Miles AS Gweinidog y Gymraeg ac Addysg
Minister for Education and the Welsh Language
Sian Jones Pennaeth Cefnogi Cyflawniad a Diogelu, Llywodraeth Cymru
Head of Supporting Achievement & Safeguarding, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Jennifer Cottle Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol
Legal Adviser
Michael Dauncey Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Naomi Stocks Clerc
Clerk
Rosemary Hill Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Sarah Bartlett Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk
Siân Hughes Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Tom Lewis-White Ail Glerc
Second Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:02.

The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:02.

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso i gyfarfod y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg heddiw. Bore da.

Welcome to this meeting of the Children, Young People, and Education Committee today. Good morning.

Good morning. Welcome to the meeting of the Children, Young People, and Education Committee. The public items of this meeting are being broadcast live on Senedd.tv, with all participants joining via video-conference and some Members are here in the room as well. A Record of Proceedings will be published as usual.

Aside from the procedural adaptations related to conducting proceedings remotely, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place. The meeting is bilingual and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. There are no apologies this morning. Are there any declarations of interest? I can see no declarations of interest.

2. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42(ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd ar gyfer eitemau 3, 6, 7 a 8
2. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public for items 3, 6, 7 and 8

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd ar gyfer eitemau 3, 6, 7 a 8 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public for items 3, 6, 7 and 8 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

We move on to item 2, and item 2 is to meet in private for items 3, 6, 7 and 8. So, I propose in accordance with Standing Order 17.42 that the committee resolves to meet in private for items 3, 6, 7 and 8. Are Members content? I see all Members are content. We will now proceed in private.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 09:03.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 09:03.

09:15

Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 09:19.

The committee reconvened in public at 09:19.

4. Absenoldeb disgyblion—sesiwn dystiolaeth 7
4. Pupil absence—evidence session 7

Welcome back to our evidence session of the Children, Young People, and Education Committee. We're on evidence session 7 of our pupil absence inquiry. I'd like to welcome the Minister, Jeremy Miles—it's good to see you—and with you you have Sian Jones, head of supporting achievement and safeguarding, Welsh Government. Welcome, both. Bore da. So, Members have a number of questions to ask you and we've got quite a lot to get through this morning, so we'll make a start with questions from Ken Skates.

Thanks, Chair. Good morning, Minister. I'm going to ask some questions about the reasons for the increase in pupil absence, if I may. To begin with, I should say that the committee's heard from stakeholders that mental health issues are one of the main reasons for absence. So, what do you think the impact of waiting times for child and adolescent mental health service referrals is having in terms of pupil absence? 

09:20

Well, I certainly agree, and I've read the evidence and it chimes very much with work that we've been doing in the Government that mental health issues can be a significant contributor to pupil absence, but I think that's the whole range of mental health and well-being concerns, not solely limited to those at the more significant clinical intervention. And I think our approach, therefore, has been to ensure that we try and address these concerns before they require specialist intervention. You will know that the work that I've been doing with the Deputy Minister, Lynne Neagle, in relation to the whole-school approach to well-being—we've increased the funding in that space very significantly in order to address some of those concerns. So, some of that will fund both targeted and universal well-being interventions in schools, some of it is around training teachers, some of it is around support for young people in pupil referral units and those who are educated other than at school where we know that they need particular support. So, that's very much the set of interventions that we have already been developing, reflecting the wider range of mental health and well-being concerns that might be behind some of these cases of absence. 

Thanks, Minister. Just a very small and specific question. This may be one for your official. But just out of interest, is school absence data, and intelligence on school absence, utilised as an early marker for mental illness amongst young people?

I'm not sure I have the detail on that, Ken. I don't know if, Sian, you can help with that?

No, I'd have to follow up.

That would be really helpful, thanks. We've also heard evidence that there may be capacity issues for young people accessing counselling services. Do you believe that this is having an impact on pupil attendance, and does the Welsh Government have any plans to support an increase in capacity for school counselling? I know that you've announced in the past year a very welcome increase in funding for school counselling, and I think there's been a desire to see that counselling funding going directly to the school counselling services. Are you able to just add a little bit more detail in terms of where the funding is going to be going?

Sure, yes. I'm not sure I've seen hard evidence that makes the direct link between pressure for counselling services and absence, but I'm certain that, in the way that I've just responded in the first question, there's a link between absence and broader mental health and well-being issues. One of the purposes to which we're putting the new funding is to improve and expand school counselling provision. You've probably seen the statistical release that we published back in March, which gives a very clear breakdown of how the service was being used between September 2020 and August 2021. I think it's interesting for the committee to look at that; it gives quite a good flavour of the nature of demand on the services. So, the funding that we're putting in will be specifically in order to extend the service, and also to extend services in primary as well. We recognise that's something that is needed. The service is popular. It isn't appropriate for everybody, by the way; it's a very specific intervention. It isn't one that works for all young people. But where it is taken up, it has been effective, and so we see the need for expanding it, certainly.

Excellent. Thank you. And to what extent are you aware that long COVID is impacting on pupil attendance?

Well, I think—. I saw the evidence of some other witnesses who I think were talking about this perhaps in an anecdotal way, if you like. We don't have the data for it, but it may the case that it is long COVID. If you look at the absence data for the last published figures, I think it was 0.7 per cent that were absent due to a known COVID-related reason. But the broader picture here is that pupils aren't expected to be in school if they've got a recurring illness or a long-term, or even a short-term, illness. The cause of that is, obviously, important, but there will be a range of causes behind it that are health related. And I think what we need to make sure is that when pupils are coming back to school after a period of ill health, and we have guidance specifically around this, and published guidance, we need to make sure that the emotional hurdle, if you like, of coming back to school after a period of illness is really taken into account. There's flexibility in the system that enables schools to respond to individual pupils' needs with a reintegration plan, if you like, which has a flexibility to it, and a gradual way of bringing pupils back into school. So, I think that guidance is a good source, I hope, of advice to schools.

09:25

Thank you. Now, the committee has also heard that learners, and for that matter, actually, their parents or carers, may have a slightly more casual attitude to attending school following the disruption from the pandemic. Do you think that this is the case, and if so, how are you seeking to address it?

Well, I think the broader context of this is that we are probably all, certainly speaking personally—. I'm sure that many of us will have felt a little bit of a sense of dislocation and being out of kilter at least at some points over the last two years, and readjusting to life in school, at work, or whatever other responsibilities one has, is obviously not straightforward. And there's no reason to think that children and young people wouldn't be affected in the same way, not least because the last two years is clearly going to be a larger proportion of their life span to date. So, I think that's a reasonable assumption to make.

I think the communication of both expectation and what the world of the school is like is an important part of the picture here. I announced a few weeks ago, as Members might recall, in the statement, that we are looking at a communication strategy so that we can encourage parents and learners back into school. And I saw the evidence that I think it was Professor Ann John gave, or perhaps it was the children's commissioner, which was around the messaging being most effective when it's local and school-based. So, there's a need for a national set of messages but also local messages as well, so we'll be working and testing some of those most effective messages. I was very struck—in fact, this was Ann John's evidence—by her reference to schools reminding learners and parents that they are places of belonging and connectedness, I think was the phrase that she used, which I thought was a very powerful way. And I think most people would feel the need to remake those connections and remake that sense of belonging in whatever walk of life we're in, and I think it's the same for schools.

Absolutely. I attended on behalf of the committee an outstanding twenty-first century school in Rhosymedre in my constituency last week and heard from teachers there about the challenges that the pandemic has posed. What struck me was that they were saying that, more widely in society, there is a feeling of disharmony that is impacting in many service areas and is causing a great challenge for the teaching profession as well. Do you believe that the current curriculum offer in schools in relation to vocational education specifically now, particularly for more disadvantaged learners, has had an impact on school attendance? We've heard that this may be the case from experts that have given evidence.

Just to say as a caveat at the start, I don't think we should, and I know we are not making an assumption that—. Disadvantaged learners have a range of opportunities in school to follow the best course for them and there is a range of pupils who will be drawn to vocational qualifications and learning. So, I think the picture is—just to give that broad context. But I think it is the case that making sure that your curriculum includes vocational subjects is likely to improve the attendance and behaviour, perhaps, of some learners who have otherwise been somewhat disengaged. You, I know, will know that we have a commitment as a Government to the parity of esteem between vocational and academic subjects, and each school already has a set of requirements. So, effectively, before 16, I think it's at least three vocational qualifications in their key stage 4 local curriculum offer and then five qualifications in their post-16 offer. So, that is already a requirement in the system, but we have a programme for government commitment, and it's in the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, to look at vocational qualifications generally.

You'll know that I've just commissioned a review of that, which Sharron Lusher will lead, and part of that will be about made-in-Wales vocational qualifications, but much more broadly as well. I think it's really important for us to bear in mind that, as the new curriculum is rolled out from September, there will be an increasing emphasis in that on skills for life, if you like, and I think the new curriculum really provides a very good opportunity to re-engage learners who otherwise might be disengaged, just because of the tailored, bespoke, learner-centred way in which it's designed. So, we mustn't put all our weight on that, because there is a wide range of things that we need to do, but I think that will be a step change in how we can go about re-engaging learners with the life of the school.

Thank you, Minister. Just a few more questions, if I may, Chair. One concerns evidence that has been given by many people during the course of this inquiry, concerning a range of factors, such as the external examination system, the cost of attending school, particularly in the cost-of-living crisis, the cost of school transport, pressure from teachers on pupils for higher attainment. To what extent do you think these are factors that are contributing to high levels of absence, and is the Government carrying out any form of assessment of each of these?

09:30

Well, I think you've heard evidence from others about how important it is to start the analysis from the experience of the learner in this, and so there'll obviously be a range of reasons why individual learners are feeling reluctant to come to school, and I'm sure that some of the things that you've talked about now will absolutely be playing their part in the decisions of individual parents and learners to not be at school. So, for each of those areas that you listed, we've already identified, if you like, the risk of that and have been taking steps in order to try to mitigate the effects of that. Perhaps the most current, in a way, just because we're coming to the end of the exam season, or we have come to the end of the exam season today, in effect, has been for those learners in exam years where attendance has been particularly challenging. The experience of sitting external exams for the first time will be extremely stressful, clearly. They're stressful enough when you have experience of them, but doing them in the context when you haven't clearly is a particular challenge. So, we've provided a range of ways of trying to address that, and I hope that will have been of benefit to learners. But there will be some who clearly have found that an obstacle.

On the costs aspect, I think this is a very challenging picture, given the overall pressure on the cost of living, which we're all familiar with. You'll have heard, maybe, the First Minister's answer in the Chamber yesterday in relation to the question of school transport, so I'll just refer to that rather than repeat it here. There is a review under way, and where the levers have been in my hands as education Minister, I've sought to alleviate some of the pressures in school, in particular around the increases in the PDG access funding overall, but the in-year increase of £100 for that as well this year. And I think the work that Children in Wales have been doing for us and the guides that they've provided to schools are being taken seriously in all our schools, given the pressures on pupils and their families, and some of that is about best practice for how you minimise costs of the school day.

Thank you, Minister. Now, the teaching unions suggested that enrichment programmes and events are non-uniform wearing and, as a consequence, could stigmatise and discourage disadvantaged learners from attending. I certainly know from my own experience, I used to hate no-school-uniform days and events where you didn't have to wear a uniform. Do you think that there could be unintended consequences of initiatives, such as the Winter of Wellbeing and the pilot on extending the school day, not just in terms of the stigma that's attached to many young people during non-uniform days, but other factors that could contribute, albeit without an intention?

Well, I think ,on the additional activities, we're obviously evaluating those at the moment and listening to the voices of learners and parents. Anecdotally, it's been, actually, immensely popular amongst learners and parents. I haven't yet persuaded all my partners in the trade unions that that is the case, but certainly that's the anecdotal evidence so far. So, we'll see what the evaluation says, but we will need to listen to exactly this range of questions. But, just to be clear, one of the key motivators for both those policy areas is to enable learners to re-engage with the world of the school. The evidence suggests that they are doing that, and to boost their well-being by building friendships, re-engaging with their peers, time at play, which we know is good for well-being, and the anecdotal evidence, subject to the evaluation, suggests that that has been of benefit. That's certainly the informal feedback we've had to date, but we'll all be able to look at the evaluation when it's available.

Lovely. Thank you. Chair, just one more question, if I may. A huge cohort of young people, as a consequence of the pandemic, will now be suffering from unresolved trauma, and that could go on for some time unless they get specialist help, particularly through talking therapies, and so I guess an unprecedented degree of support is required for young people in particular, and that requires prioritisation of mental health across ministerial portfolios. Just out of interest, where does the mental health of young people sit in terms of the list of priorities for Ministers at this moment?

09:35

It's extremely high, Ken, on the list of our priorities, and Lynne Neagle and I—. My next meeting, in fact, after this committee appearance is with Lynne to discuss some of our shared priorities for the joint forum that we chair with partners across the school system. It's very delivery focused, if I can put it like that. So, we use that forum to bring all partners together to make a reality of the whole-school, whole-system approach to well-being. As you will know, the budgets for that have been increased significantly, which is a clear sign of our commitment as a Government. But it touches on all portfolios is the truth of it, so I'd just reassure you it's a very clear cross-Government commitment.

Thank you, Chair, and thank you, Minister, for joining us this morning. I have some questions on eligible-for-free-school-meals learners and pupils with additional learning needs. What do you see as the main issues affecting the attendance of pupils with additional learning needs, to what extent do you believe that the ALN reforms will improve pupil attendance, and how would you respond to the suggestion that schools may be reluctant to provide support for pupils with attendance issues?

On the suggestion, if there is evidence of that, I'd be interested in seeing it, but it's perhaps speculative otherwise. But I'd be very interested in seeing evidence of that if you're receiving that evidence from other witnesses. I think that, for pupils who have additional learning needs, the reforms are our best chance of being able to re-engage them and encourage them back to school where they are absent, because the premise of those reforms is one where the learner is at the centre of the planning, isn't it? So, that's a set of policy interventions that is bespoke to the learner, and I think the general consensus is that the reforms are likely to enable us to help improve the attendance of learners with additional learning needs. But there's a whole-system reform, if you like, and some of that is around making sure that we provide the right professional learning for the teaching profession to be able to encourage pupils back in, and also, crucially—and this is a theme across the entire range of attendance policy, if I can use that term—spreading best practice through the system. There is very, very good practice in a number of schools, and one of the challenges, one of the opportunities, for us is to make sure that all schools have access to that, and that's also very true in the space of additional learning needs.

The committee has heard that the way that the attendance data is published currently does not allow further analysis that may be useful. What plans do you have for publishing and sharing greater cross-analyses of attendance statistics?

Actually, we do a lot of recrunching of the data in response to queries that we get as a Government. Officials are in a pretty constant process, I think, of re-evaluating and analysing data, and so if you're getting requests from other witnesses to do that in a different way, I'd be very open to considering that. We will be very happy, where we get specific questions from people about how to approach some of the data, and we'll look to find ways of making that publicly available if there is demand for it. I'm very keen to do that. In the autumn, we're looking at publishing a summary of the last two years' attendance patterns, and cutting that data by reference to additional learning needs, gender, free-school-meals eligibility, year groups and other cohorts, which I hope will provide a rich source of information for this kind of discussion and others, really.

There's already a mechanism at a local authority level. Where local authorities have particular initiatives, or perhaps concerns or trends that they are themselves seeing, they can attach their own codes to some of the attendance data that already exists to reflect any local patterns. So, that flexibility is already in the system, but, as I say, if the evidence the committee gets is that we could share that data differently, I'd be really happy to look at that, certainly.

In your written evidence, you note that learners who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to have persistent absenteeism compared to non-EFSM learners. What are the reasons behind the higher rate of absenteeism for this cohort of learners? And what actions, if any, are the Welsh Government taking to support EFSM pupils who have higher absence rates? I know that, in schools that I visited in my constituency, this is a real issue for them, and I'd be really interested to hear what you have to say on this.

09:40

It's an issue across Wales. It's definitely a pattern that exists elsewhere as well, and if you look at the headline date, the description that you've given of the gap is a fair reflection. In the work that I've been doing, the statement I gave in March, and the speech I gave to the Bevan Foundation a few weeks ago on closing the attainment gap, I'm very, very mindful of the fact that the attendance patterns for pupils who are eligible for free school meals is a significant issue. That's why the work around the family engagement officer funding that we've provided—the school engagement with those families, those learners specifically, for a tailored, bespoke approach—is so important. There is a range of ways in which we can respond to attendance, and we are, but at the end of the day, again reflecting the evidence you've already received, speaking to those learners and their families and developing a trusted relationship with them is important. So, that funding we've made available for family engagement officers will be really important in that.

Can I just say one thing? I know this is not the sense in which you were using the term, to be absolutely clear, but I've seen in the discussion and the public discussion a reference to 'absenteeism'. I myself have chosen not to use that term because I think it sort of implies absence without good reason, and I think, actually, what we're trying to engage with really is to work out what the reasons are and to take the learner's experience as the starting point, really. So, just to note that in passing, if I may, Chair.

Thanks, Chair. Good morning, Minister. To what extent do you believe that pupil absence should be the Welsh Government's highest education priority, or at least near the top?

It's a really high priority for us. We are bringing in a range of reforms into place in schools and across our education system. Of course, we passed the Bill yesterday at Stage 4, so there's a whole set of other reforms coming as a consequence of that, and, in order to benefit from those reforms at school, pupils need to be in school. So, clearly, it's a very, very important priority, and I hope that both some of the measures we've already taken and some of the investment we've been committing will be a signal of the seriousness with which we take that. I think the role that Estyn plays in this is important. Clearly, they have been looking at ways in which pupil attendance can be a more central part, if you like, of their reporting requirement as part of that broader equity in education agenda. So, I very much welcome that—that absolutely reflects our priority as a Government as well.

It's just on the back of teaching unions perhaps suggesting that looking into extending the school day should take a back seat when this is so concerning to everybody right now, and we can't actually have an impact on children unless they are in schools. I think that's what has come across so far quite clearly.

If I may, just on that, Chair, clearly, the overwhelming majority of children are in schools and they're entitled to our reforms. And so I think it's a question of making sure that we continue with our reform agenda. However, just to reiterate the point I started with, you need to be in school to get the full benefit of that. So, that's why it's such a high priority for us.

Thank you, Minister. What do you understand to be the main reasons why more families are choosing elective home education? Do you have any concerns about the increases, which are quite significant now, in home educating? Thanks.

Yes, I absolutely have a concern about it. We've commissioned Data Cymru to analyse the returns that we get each year from local authorities. The detailed breakdown of that is imminent, but the top line of it, if I can put it like that, is that the three most common reasons that families have given for withdrawing children from school are what they describe as 'lifestyle', which is 29 per cent, COVID-related anxiety, which is 12 per cent, and school-related anxiety, which is 11 per cent. So, that is the broad breakdown. As I was saying in response to your earlier question, in order to get the full benefit of reforms, children need to be at school, so I want to see children coming back to school. There's been a significant increase, as you say in your question, during the last period of COVID. For the overwhelming majority of children, being in school is far and away the best way of getting their education. Obviously, parents are entitled to make a different choice for their children, but the key thing is the right of the child to receive a suitable education, obviously.

09:45

Those who want to be home educated, that’s their choice to be home educated, as you quite rightly said, but it is those people who have come—. The evidence we’ve seen is that children are staying off now for a variety of different reasons that we’ve already outlined in the committee today, and that's—. It’s whether they’re getting the support. Do you feel that they’re getting the support that they need to get back into school in terms of mental health, anxiety, all that sort of thing? Do you think that will have an impact on the number of home learners, if we set that as a top priority? Obviously, we can’t put that onus completely on schools, because they’ve obviously got so much else to do.

Yes, it’s a system-wide approach, certainly. I completely see that. So, in terms of support for those families where the parents have chosen to home educate, we have, I think, in Wales already the most generous package of support that is available to home educators across the UK, and we’re keen to continue that. For people who’ve recently made the choice—. There are some very long-established choices here, aren’t there? But, for people who’ve recently made the choice, I would be particularly keen to find ways of connecting with those families, to encourage them to bring their children back to school. I think it’s key generally in this area for us to move, I think, from a sense that the approach is one of compliance, if you like, to one where it’s about establishing a relationship, and that different kinds of relationships can exist with the school. So, we’re looking at ways in which, for example, Hwb can be made available to parents who home educate their children, improved access to local exam centres, career support, resource and guidance, handbooks—a set of ways in which the resources available in school are more porous, if you wish, so that parents who are choosing to home educate can make use of them, and I hope can develop a different kind of relationship with the school, and make it easier for those parents who have maybe recently made the decision to encourage their children back. So, I think it’s quite a complex set of initiatives and I absolutely agree that it’s not something we can expect schools to do on their own, certainly.

I welcome that, Minister, and concur with what you said. That would be good. You said there’s a generous package for home learners, but do you think, to maybe ensure that the people learning from home are getting exactly the support that they need, that there absolutely needs to be more data available on who is home learning, what their situations are and what they need? Estyn stated that the Welsh Government does not publish a breakdown of the learners that have moved to elective home education, so, as well, that would obviously be really useful data to have. So, around data, there’s a lot of data around home learning that’s just not available. Are you working on that? Is there something that’s going to come forth from that?

Yes, the work that Data Cymru’s doing for us, which—. I don’t know the publication date for that. I’ll look to Sian. I don’t know if you know, Sian.

No, I don’t, I’m afraid.

But obviously that will be available, and that provides a detailed breakdown of learners who are home educated, which will be helpful. Obviously, it’s anonymised, clearly. And that will be helpful, I think, for the committee’s future considerations, perhaps, Chair. I’m obviously very happy to discuss that with you if you would find that helpful.

Just on the broader question, you’ll be aware that we have plans—which were, unfortunately, paused during the pressures of COVID—to provide a database of those who are home educated. Those plans have been restarted. The work that we’re doing has been restarted, and I’m hoping that we’ll have proposals in place by April of next year. We’ve been slightly delayed, partly because of COVID, but also because of waiting for some particular pieces of evidence. I was hoping to be in a position to publish some proposals before the end of the summer term, but I’m not going to be able to do that, so it’ll be September before I’m able to do that, which, in terms of the school year and the Senedd year, isn’t that much of a delay. But just to give you that warning, Chair, if I may.

Thank you. A final question, Chair, is that Estyn have stated that local authorities have very limited powers and responsibilities in respect of elective home education, and the lack of statutory guidance is of some concern. What plans do you have in place in relation to that and providing local authorities with greater powers or further statutory guidance? Thank you. 

09:50

Yes, that's entirely—. That's what I was just referring to, in fact, so sorry if that wasn't clear. So, we are looking at regulations that will provide strengthened statutory guidance, and local authorities will be able to rely on that. 

Yes, thank you. Minister, with regard to people educating their children at home, some things that I have heard in my constituency are about the delivery of the ALN plan and actually the support for parents who have got children with additional learning needs in schools and inconsistency across the schools estates for delivering ALN support. A lot of parents are pulling their children out of school because their children have got very big anxiety problems, they don't feel they can go back to school again. And getting parents to trust the local education authorities—that they can actually deliver the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 and the plans that are put in place is very hard for them to understand. So, that drives up absenteeism as well. So, what are you doing, Minister, to make sure that inconsistencies in delivery of the ALN Act across Wales are removed so that, actually, when a person sends their child to school who has got an additional learning need, that they actually think they're going to be treated properly and not pushed in a classroom on their own because actually the school can't deal with them because they haven't got the support to do that?

Well, I think, if you accept that this is a long-term challenge, it seems unlikely to be the case that the implementation of the reforms that started in September of last year is likely to be the key driver, but it's absolutely important to maintain the trust of families, that they know the reforms, which are being introduced, and we are nine months into a three-year implementation programme of the new reforms—. It's absolutely important to make sure that we retain or regain the trust of those families who, perhaps for reasons in the past, have made those choices. 

What we're already seeing, though, I think, is that the support that we are making available has led to better engagement, actually, between local authorities and those who make the choice to educate their children at home. I think, over the course of the last year, the figures I have are that about 122 children who were not previously known to local authorities have now come back into the school environment. So, I regard that as a positive step. There's obviously much more to do. But I think at the heart of your question, really, is a principle I would agree with, which is that we need to move from a relationship between home educators and local authorities that is one of a policing relationship, if you like, into one that is one of mutual support and trust. And I think that there are very, very good examples of that happening in local authorities in Wales, and the task for us all, I think, is to universalise that across Wales. 

Thank you. Thanks, James. You've referenced our evidence that we heard from Professor Ann John recently as well, which was incredibly powerful, and she has also posed another question, really. She suggested that—given the levels of absence in Wales post COVID, how are we addressing it, or what sort of interventions are we putting in place, because it's likely to have a huge impact on future generations? And she says that there are capacity issues that mean we're at risk of managing absence in a punitive way, with children potentially being off-rolled.

Well, I think all I've said so far suggests I don't think that is, obviously, the right way of proceeding, and there is a range of ways in which we are supporting schools and parents to bring their children back into school. So, the report that Meilyr Rowlands did for us, which I think is a very, very strong report, has a range of recommendations. I think there are only a couple of them I would struggle to accept, in honesty. So, I think it's the whole range of those interventions that we need to look at. And obviously off-rolling children is not appropriate in those circumstances. 

Okay. Thank you, Minister. We have got some questions from Heledd Fychan. Heledd.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Gadeirydd, a diolch, Weinidog, am fod efo ni y bore yma. Gaf i ddechrau jest drwy ofyn, efo'r pwynt rydych chi newydd ei wneud, byddai gen i ddiddordeb mawr—a, dwi'n siŵr, gweddill y pwyllgor—o ran pa rai o'r argymhellion rydych chi'n anghytuno efo nhw o adroddiad Meilyr Rowlands, a pham?

Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you, Minister, for being with us this morning. May I start just by asking, regarding the point you've just made, I would have great interest, and I'm sure the rest of the committee would, in what recommendations you disagree with in Meilyr Rowlands's report, and why?

Efallai y dylwn i fod wedi disgwyl y cwestiwn hwnnw, yn sgil yr ateb rydw i newydd ei gynnig. Roedd un yn cynnig ein bod ni'n gwneud review penodol o'r fixed-penalty notices. Fy marn bersonol i yw bod yn rhaid edrych ar hyn mewn ffordd holistaidd. Felly, dwi ddim yn gweld bod achos dros wneud review penodol o'r fixed-penalty notices. Ond, wrth gwrs, rydyn ni'n edrych ar y fframwaith—yr all-Wales attendance framework—yn ehangach, a hefyd, fel rŷch chi'n gwybod, yn edrych ar wneud adolygiad o'r exclusions guidance. Felly, ynghlwm wrth hynny, wrth gwrs, fydd edrych ar rôl y fixed-penalty notices, ond mae e wir yn bwysig ein bod ni'n edrych ar yr ystod a'r amrediad ehangach o gamau ar y cyd.

Felly, dyna'r peth cyntaf, a wnaeth e hefyd wneud argymhelliad ein bod ni'n parhau i ariannu placements ar gyfer athrawon sydd newydd gymhwyso. Wrth gwrs, fe wnaethon ni hynny yn nhymor cyntaf y flwyddyn academaidd ddiwethaf yn sgil y pwysau penodol oedd yn codi oherwydd COVID. Fe wnaethon ni ymestyn hwnnw i'r ail dymor. Roedden ni bron yn gwbl sicr na fydden ni'n ymestyn e i'r trydydd tymor, i fod yn onest, ond gan fod pwysau dal yn y system, fe wnaethon ni ddarganfod y gyllideb i ymestyn hwnna ar gyfer y trydydd tymor. Felly, mae blwyddyn gron o hynny wedi digwydd eisoes, ond dwi ddim yn gweld yr amgylchiadau hynny'n parhau i wneud hynny am flwyddyn arall.

Ond dyna'r unig ddau roedd gyda fi gwestiwn yn eu cylch; roedd popeth arall roeddwn i'n gweld yn argymhellion y byddwn i'n barod i'w cymryd ymlaen, os hoffwch chi. A gyda llaw, dwi ddim yn anghytuno gyda'r egwyddorion yn y ddau arall, ond jest y ffordd o fynd ati. 

I should have expected that question, following on from the response I've just given. There was one proposal that we undertake a specific review of the fixed-penalty notices. My personal view is that we have to look at this in a holistic manner. So, I don't see the case for a specific review of the fixed-penalty notices. But, of course, we are looking at the all-Wales attendance framework in the wider sense, and, as you know, we are looking at undertaking a review of the exclusions guidance. So, related to that, we'll be looking at the role of the fixed-penalty notices, but it is truly important that we look at the wider range of steps together. 

So, that's the first instance, and he also made a recommendation that we continue to fund placements for newly qualified teachers. Of course, we did that in the first term of the previous academic year, following on from the specific pressures as a result of COVID. We extended that to the second term. We were almost sure that we wouldn't be extending it to the third term, to be honest, but, because there were still pressures in the system, we did find the funding to extend that to the third term. So, there's been a whole year of that, but I don't see those circumstances continuing for another year.

But those were the only two recommendations that I had questions about; everything else we saw as being recommendations that we would be willing to proceed with, if you will. And, by the way, I don't disagree with the principles behind the other two recommendations, just the way of going about it. 

09:55

Mae hynny'n fuddiol iawn. Diolch, Weinidog. Un argymhelliad gan Meilyr Rowlands oedd y dylid archwilio'r angen am ddull strategol o addysgu a dysgu digidol i fynd i'r afael ag anghenion y rhai nad ydynt neu na allant fod yn bresennol mewn ysgolion. Yn eich barn chi, beth ydy'r rhwystrau i gynnig dysgu cyfunol i ddisgyblion? 

That is very beneficial. Thank you, Minister. One recommendation from Meilyr Rowlands was that there should be an exploration of the need for a strategic approach to digital teaching and learning to meet the needs of those who can't be present in schools, or who are not present. In your view, what are the barriers to offering blended learning to pupils?   

Rŷm ni wedi ymrwymo i wneud hyn, i edrych ar ffordd strategol o fynd i'r afael â dysgu digidol, dysgu—dwi ddim yn gwybod beth yw'r gair Cymraeg am blended learning, ond beth bynnag yw e. Felly, mae amryw o elfennau i hynny. Mae sicrhau'r cwricwlwm newydd a'r pwyslais yn hwnnw ar sgiliau digidol, wrth gwrs, yn elfen greiddiol. Mae parhau i fuddsoddi mewn kit, mewn offer—. Rŷm ni wedi buddsoddi'n sylweddol iawn—rhyw £180 miliwn, rwy'n credu, o gyllideb i hynny. 

Yr her arall yn sgil hynny, wrth gwrs, yw sicrhau ein bod ni'n gallu cefnogi'r gweithlu i wneud y gorau o'r adnoddau hynny. Byddwn i'n dweud ar hyn o bryd fod hynny efallai angen bod yn fwy o bwyslais na darparu'r offer. Mae cymaint o offer yn y system erbyn hyn; mae'r cam pwysig nesaf yw sicrhau bod y sgiliau gan ein hathrawon ni, ein cynorthwywyr ni, i allu gwneud y gorau posib o'r offer hynny yn y dosbarth. Mae hynny'n caniatáu i ni edrych mewn ffordd amgen, neu ehangach, yn sicr, ar rôl ddigidol yn y cwricwlwm yn ehangach, ond yn benodol yn y cyd-destun hwn, i allu annog plant nôl i'r ysgol. 

Rŷm ni wedi bod yn gweithio gyda'r rhai sy'n darparu gwasanaeth mobile i sicrhau bod y cyfyngiadau data sydd ar gael i deuluoedd yng Nghymru yn fwy hyblyg. Ond un o'r pethau sydd wedi llwyddo'n fawr yn hyn o beth—. Roeddwn i'n sôn jest nawr am rôl Hwb i gefnogi'r rheini sy'n addysgu plant adref. Mae Hwb erbyn hyn wedi ehangu; mae mynediad i Hwb wedi ehangu yn ddramatig iawn. Ar hyn o bryd, bob eiliad, mae 50 log-in yn digwydd i Hwb, sydd yn ffigur aruthrol, os hoffwch chi. A beth rŷm ni'n ei wneud ar hyn o bryd yw sicrhau bod Hwb mor hygyrch â phosib i'r gynulleidfa ehangaf; felly, gwneud e'n haws i ddarganfod pethau, gwneud e'n haws i ddod o hyd i le mae pethau'n cael eu categoreiddio. 

Felly, mae'r gwaith yna'n digwydd. Mae e'n waith parhaus, fel mae'n digwydd, ond mae'r diwygiadau hyn yn digwydd o bryd i'w gilydd i sicrhau ei fod e'n hygyrch i bawb.

We've committed to doing this, to look at a strategic way of undertaking digital learning—I don't know what the Welsh word for 'blended' is, but blended learning. So, there are a range of elements associated with that. Ensuring the new curriculum, and the emphasis there on digital skills, is, of course, a vital component. It's about continuing to invest in kit, in equipment—. We've invested significantly—around £180 million, I believe, of funding for that. 

The other challenge as a result of that is to ensure that we can support the workforce to maximise the benefits from that. I'd say at the moment that perhaps we need to place more of an emphasis on that, rather than on the provision of equipment. There is so much equipment in the system at the moment; the next important step is to ensure that our teachers and assistants have the skills to maximise the benefits of that equipment in the classroom. That allows us to look in an alternative or wider way at the role of digital in the curriculum, but specifically in this particular context, to encourage children back into school. 

We've been working with those who provide mobile services to ensure that the data restrictions on families in Wales are more flexible. But one of the things that has been a great success in this regard—. I was just talking about the role of Hwb in supporting those who teach children at home. Hwb has now been extended, and access to Hwb has expanded dramatically. Currently, every second, there are 50 log-ins to Hwb, which is a huge figure. And what we are doing is ensuring that Hwb is as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience; so it's about ensuring that it's easier to access things, find things, and making it easier to find where things are categorised.

So, that work is happening. It's ongoing work, as it happens, but these reforms are happening to ensure that it is accessible to everyone.  

Diolch, Weinidog. Os gwnawn ni aros efo adroddiad Meilyr Rowlands am funud, mi awgrymodd adroddiad Meilyr Rowlands hefyd fod canllawiau cyfredol Llywodraeth Cymru yn ddigonol, ond bod angen eu hailddatgan. Ond, yn amlwg, rydych chi yn cynnal adolygiad cynhwysfawr o'r holl bolisïau sy'n ymwneud â phresenoldeb disgyblion. A allwch chi roi rhagor o wybodaeth i ni am eich cynigion i adolygu canllawiau a pholisïau Llywodraeth Cymru mewn perthynas â phresenoldeb mewn ysgolion? Ydy hyn yn ymgorffori'r gwaith a gafodd ei wneud cyn y pandemig? 

Thank you, Minister. If we stay with Meilyr Rowlands's report for a minute, his report suggested that the existing guidelines of the Welsh Government were sufficient, but that there was a need to restate them. But, clearly, you are undertaking a comprehensive review of all the policies relating to pupil attendance. Can you provide us with more detail regarding your proposals to review the guidance and policies of Welsh Government in relation to attendance in schools? Does this incorporate the work that was ongoing before the pandemic?  

Yr argraff fras, byddwn i'n dweud, o adroddiad Meilyr Rowlands oedd yn gyffredinol bod yr ystod o ymyriadau polisi yn y man iawn ar y cyfan. Roedd ambell gwestiwn penodol ynglŷn â persistent absence, er enghraifft. Rydyn ni, wrth gwrs, yn edrych ar hynny. Ond, roedd y dirwedd polisi ar y cyfan yn darparu'r hyn roedd ei angen, a lle roedd angen y ffocws oedd sicrhau bod yr arfer da yn cael ei rannu a bod ysgolion yn cael eu cefnogi i allu gwneud y cysylltiadau hynny gyda theuluoedd. Dyna'r argraff fras. Mae mwy o fanylder na hynny, wrth gwrs.

Ond, er hynny, rwy'n credu, yn sicr, bod angen edrych eto ar y fframwaith Cymru gyfan ar gyfer presenoldeb. Felly, bydd rhan o hwnnw ynghlwm â rhannu arfer gorau, rhan ohono fe'n edrych ar yr FPNs, a wedyn, ar y cyd â hynny, gwaith rwyf wedi bod yn trafod gyda'r comisiynydd plant ers rhai wythnosau erbyn hyn, gwaith i ddiwygio'r cyngor a'r canllawiau ar exclusions. Mae'r rheini'n rhyw dair blwydd oed erbyn hyn, cyn cyfnod COVID, felly mae'n rhaid edrych ar hwnnw eto i weld a ydy'r ymyriadau o ran llesiant ac o ran monitro, a'r canllawiau iawn, yn eu lle.

Roedd Ken Skates yn sôn yn gynharach am y trawma, a byddwn ni'n edrych ar y canllawiau yma o safbwynt hawliau ac o safbwynt trauma-informed approach i sicrhau bod y canllawiau yn y man iawn. Ond, fel roeddwn i'n dweud yn gynharach, maen rhaid edrych ar y pethau yma ar y cyd i sicrhau eu bod nhw'n cael yr effaith rydyn ni eisiau ei weld.

The general impression from Meilyr Rowlands's report was that generally the range of policy interventions were in the right place, on the whole. There were some specific questions in terms of persistent absence. We are, of course, looking at that. But the policy landscape, on the whole, provides what is needed and, where focus was needed, to ensure that good practice is shared, and that schools are supported to be able to make those connections and links with families. That's the general impression. It goes into more detail than that, of course. 

But, despite that, there is certainly a case that we need to look again at the all-Wales framework for attendance. So, part of that is about sharing best practice, part of it is looking at the FPNs, and, together with that, the work that I've been discussing with the children's commissioner for some weeks now, work to reform the advice and guidance on exclusions. That guidance is around three years old now, it predates COVID, so we need to look at that again to see whether the interventions in terms of well-being, welfare and monitoring, and the right guidance, are in the right place.

Ken Skates spoke earlier about the trauma experience, and we'll be looking at the guidance in terms of rights and in terms a trauma-informed approach, to ensure that the guidance is in the right place. But, as I said earlier, we need to look at all of these things together to ensure that they have the impact that we want them to have. 

10:00

Diolch ichi. Rydych chi hefyd wedi dweud, Weinidog, y byddwch chi'n adolygu'r diffiniad o absenoldeb parhaus. Beth ydy pwrpas cael diffiniad cenedlaethol o absenoldeb cyson, a beth ydych chi'n gobeithio fyddai canlyniad adolygu'r diffiniad?

Thank you. You've also said, Minister, that you will be reviewing the definition of persistent absenteeism. What is the purpose of having a national definition of persistent absenteeism, and what do you hope the outcome of reviewing the definition would be?

Mae e'n drothwy, os hoffwch chi. Rwy'n credu fy mod i'n iawn i ddweud mai, ar hyn o bryd, gyda ni mae'r trothwy uchaf o ran disgwyliadau presenoldeb cyn bod yr ystod o ymyriadau pellach yna yn dod mewn i weithrediad. Felly, o ran y gwasanaeth llesiant addysgiadol ac ati, dydyn nhw ddim fel arfer yn cael rôl flaenllaw tan ein bod ni'n cyrraedd y trothwy o fod yn absennol am 20 y cant o'r amser. Yn y cyd-destun presennol, mae'n sicr bod angen edrych ar hwnnw eto. Byddwn i'n credu bod angen i'r trothwy hynny fod yn is na 20 y cant. Dyna fy hypothesis i yn mynd mewn i'r adolygiad. Ond, mae'n sicr yn amserol i edrych ar hwnnw eto. Beth fyddai hynny'n ei olygu, wrth gwrs, yw bod y lens o ba ddisgyblion, pa bobl ifanc, sydd angen cefnogaeth bellach efallai yn cael ei ddefnyddio'n gynharach yn y llwybr o fod yn absennol nag yw e ar hyn o bryd. Rwy'n credu bod hynny'n amlwg yn synhwyrol.

It's a threshold, if you will. I think I'm right in saying that, at present, we have the highest threshold in terms of attendance expectations before the range of further interventions come into play. So, in terms of the educational welfare service and so on, they don't usually have a prominent role until we reach that threshold of being absent for 20 per cent of the time. In the current context, we need to look at that again, certainly. I would suspect that the threshold needs to be lower than 20 per cent. That's my hypothesis going into this review. But, certainly, it is timely to look at this again. What that would mean, of course, is that the lens in terms of which pupils, which young people, need further support is perhaps used earlier in that absence journey than it currently is. I think that is sensible.

Diolch. Yn amlwg, Weinidog, mae yna lu o newidiadau yn dod o ran addysg yng Nghymru, fel rydyn ni wedi clywed eisoes y bore yma, megis efo'r cwricwlwm newydd. Ydych chi'n gweld bod yr holl bethau rydyn ni'n trio eu datrys, megis presenoldeb cyson, yn rhan o'r diwygio hwnnw fel un pecyn, yn hytrach na phethau ar wahân? Yn amlwg, wrth ddatblygu'r cwricwlwm newydd, mi edrychwyd ar enghreifftiau rhyngwladol hefyd. O ran datblygu polisïau ac adolygu presenoldeb, oes yna waith yn cael ei wneud i edrych ar gymariaethau rhyngwladol wrth inni edrych ar yr arfer gorau, er mwyn trio datrys rhai o'r heriau a'r problemau rydyn ni'n eu hwynebu?

Thank you. Clearly, Minister, there are many changes facing the education world in Wales, as we have already heard this morning, for example, the new curriculum. Do you see that all the things we're trying to solve, such as persistent attendance, are part of that reform as one package, rather than separate issues? Clearly, in developing the new curriculum, international examples were considered. In terms of developing policies and reviewing attendance, is there work being done on looking at international comparisons as we look at best practice, to try to solve some of the challenges and problems that we face?

Mae dau bwynt pwysig iawn yn fanna, rwy'n credu. Y pwynt cyntaf yw, o ran deddfu a chraffu a'r broses o ddylunio polisi, mae temtasiwn ambell waith i edrych ar y pethau yma ar wahân. Ond, ym mywyd yr ysgol, rydych chi'n profi'r pethau yma ar y cyd, onid ydych chi, ac mae hynny'n gallu bod yn heriol, wrth gwrs, ac mae'n bwysig ein bod ni wastad yn cadw llygad ar hynny. Ond, y cyfle yw ein bod ni'n defnyddio'r diwygiadau yma i ateb mwy nag un her. Felly, os edrychwch chi ar gyd-destun y cwricwlwm, rwy'n gwbl ffyddiog, yn sicr o drafod gyda phenaethiaid sydd yn frwdfrydig dros y cwricwlwm newydd, ei fod yn gyfle, fel y gwnes i sôn yn fras ar y cychwyn, i allu ailgydio dychymyg rhai disgyblion mewn bywyd ysgol. Holl bwrpas y cwricwlwm newydd yw llwybr bespoke, os hoffwch chi, i'r dysgwr, ac mae hynny'n mynd i roi cyfle i allu ailgydio dychymyg y rheini sydd efallai wedi ffeindio bod yr ysgol yn her. Mae hynny'n rhan bwysig o edrych ar y darlun cyfan.

O ran diwygiadau anghenion ychwanegol, eto, mae hwnnw'n golygu bod cynllun unigol, pwrpasol i'r unigolyn, ac mae hwnnw yn debygol eto o'n galluogi ni i fod yn fwy llwyddiannus i annog pobl nôl. Ond mae'n rhaid edrych ar bopeth ar y cyd. Fel y cwestiwn yn gynharach, os nad ydych chi yn yr ysgol, dŷch chi ddim yn mynd i allu manteisio ar y cynnig ehangach yma, felly dyna pam mae e mor bwysig. 

There are two very important points there. The first point is that, in terms of legislation and scrutiny and creating policy, there is a temptation to look at these things separately. But, in school life, you experience these things all at the same time, and that can be challenging, and it's important that we continue to keep an eye on that. But, the opportunity is that we use these reforms to respond to more than one challenge. So, if you look at the context of the curriculum, I am confident, particularly from discussion with school leaders who are enthusiastic about the new curriculum, that it is an opportunity, as I mentioned briefly at the beginning, to re-engage some pupils in school life. The intention of the new curriculum is to provide a bespoke pathway for the learner, and that's going to give us an opportunity to re-engage with some of those who found school and school attendance a challenge. So, it's looking at the whole picture.

There are reforms to ALN; again, that means that there is a bespoke pathway for an individual, and that's also likely to enable us to be more successful in encouraging people back. But we do have to look at all of this together. There was a question earlier on; if you're not at school, you're not going to be able to take advantage of this wider offer, and that's why it's so important. 

10:05

Yn olaf, a gaf i jest bwyso arnoch chi o ran y cymariaethau rhyngwladol, Weinidog? Oes yna waith yn cael ei wneud yn edrych ar gymariaethau rhyngwladol? Yn amlwg, mae rhai gwledydd Sgandinafaidd lle mae yna esiamplau o ran dim ond eich bod chi'n cyrraedd y nod, does yna ddim pwyslais gymaint ar bresenoldeb. Yn Japan er enghraifft, mae'r syniad o free schools, lle rydych chi'n gallu dewis eich gwaith, bod yna ddim pwysau yn cael ei roi ar wisgo iwnifform, neu bod eich gwallt chi'n gorfod bod mewn ffordd arbennig ac ati. Oes yna gymariaethau rhyngwladol rydych chi'n edrych arnyn nhw sydd efallai yn mynd i fod yn cyd-fynd mwy efo ethos y cwricwlwm o ran sut rydyn ni'n trio gwneud nid dim ond haf o hwyl, ond gwneud yr holl broses o addysgu a bod yn yr ysgol yn hwyl ac yn brofiad pleserus i bob unigolyn hefyd?

Finally, may I just press you on the international comparisons? Is there any work ongoing looking at international comparisons? For example, in Scandinavian countries, as long as you reach a certain point, there's no pressure on attendance. In Japan, there's an emphasis on free schools, where you can choose your work, there's no pressure being placed on wearing a uniform, or that your hair has to be in a certain way. Are there any international comparisons that you can look at that perhaps are going to correspond more with the ethos of the curriculum in how we're trying not only to have a summer of fun, but make the whole process of learning and being at school a fun activity and a pleasurable activity for every individual as well?

Ie, sori, dyna oedd yr ail bwynt; gwnes i ddim cyrraedd yr ail bwynt. Ymddiheuriadau. Ie, yn sicr, rŷn ni'n gwneud hynny. Mae'r berthynas sydd gyda ni â'r OECD yn un sydd yn ffrwythlon iawn, yn caniatáu i ni ddwyn ar gymariaethau rhyngwladol a gweld beth sydd yn digwydd yn dda mewn mannau eraill. Rŷn ni wedi bod yn arloesol yn y system addysg yma yng Nghymru, ond rŷn ni'n gweld arloesedd hefyd mewn gwledydd eraill. Felly, mae hi wir yn bwysig ein bod ni yn gwneud hynny.

Beth fyddwn i'n dweud fel jest rhybudd, heb eisiau bod yn negyddol—ac mae'ch pwynt creiddiol chi yn un rwy'n sicr yn cytuno gydag e—yw dyw'r cymariaethau rhyngwladol ddim wastad yn trosglwyddo yn uniongyrchol. Mae'r system addysg ynghlwm yn sylfaenol gyda diwylliant a hanes a chyd-destun economaidd a diwylliannol pob gwlad, pob cenedl. Felly, dyw jest copïo beth sy'n digwydd yn rhyngwladol—nid eich bod chi'n awgrymu hynny—ddim yn debygol o fod yn llwyddiannus. Ond mae gweld beth sy'n gweithio mewn mannau eraill, a gosod hwnnw yn ein cyd-destun cenedlaethol, cymunedol ni yn rhywbeth cynhyrchiol, ac rŷn ni'n sicr yn gwneud hynny yn y cyd-destun hwn hefyd. 

Yes, sorry, that was the second point; I didn't reach that second point. Apologies for that. Certainly, we do that. The relationship that we have with the OECD is one that is very fruitful. It allows us to have those international comparisons, and to see what works well in other places. We've been innovative in the education system here in Wales, but we see innovation in other countries too. So, it's truly important that we do look at those things. 

What I would say, just as a slight warning, without wanting to be negative—and your core point is one that I certainly agree with—is that international comparisons don't always transfer directly. The education system is fundamentally linked to the history, culture, economics and so on of every nation. So, just copying what happens internationally—I know that isn't what you're suggesting—isn't likely to be wholly successful. But seeing what works in other places, and placing that in our national and community context, is something very productive, and we're certainly doing that in this context too.

Gwych. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Diolch, Gadeirydd. 

Excellent. Thank you very much. Thank you, Chair. 

Thank you, Heledd. Just following on from Heledd's questions, Estyn told us that they've got growing concerns about the number of reduced timetables that are being used with young people without appropriate reviews. What oversight is there of the length of time and appropriateness of reduced timetables?

Yes, I saw that evidence. I think there is a range of roles, if you like, for timetabling and solving some of the challenges that we're looking at today. I think they can be, when deployed properly, an effective tool for encouraging some learners to return to school. We talked a little bit earlier about flexible timetabling in the context of learners that had been off from school due to ill-health, for example. The key point, it seems to me, is that we would absolutely not advocate any reduced timetabling that eats into the time that young people have for their break times, for example. I think there have, over the past two years, been some examples of that, for reasons that we would all understand, and they've been very limited. But there is evidence that timetabling in different ways can also free up time for pupils to spend time together. We've seen some of that around the extended school provision. So, I think there is a case for looking at some of this, but the key thing is, obviously, it must not compromise the school's ability to deliver its curriculum, firstly, and any changes to the timetable need to be done in consultation with parents. And, so, those are both central features of any variation, if you like. 

Thank you, Minister. The committee's heard different views about the role of fixed-penalty notices for non-attendance. What will the scope of the Welsh Government's review and research into the use of fixed-penalty notices be, and do you think that there's a role for fixed-penalty notices as an early intervention tool?

Well, just to say, on the review, I am not doing a specific review of fixed-penalty notices. We will look at fixed-penalty notices in the context of the broader review of the all-Wales attendance framework, but I think it's really important to do it in that holistic way. So, that will be how we approach that question and I think we will expect to see some guidance coming from that. The role of fixed-penalty notices is limited—they’re only appropriate in the most extreme cases. All our schools want to do their absolute utmost to re-engage parents and learners by having a relationship with those families and encouraging them back to school. That is the focus of effort across our school system. But is there a case, in the most extreme circumstances, that I can envisage fixed-penalty notices being appropriate? Well, the answer to that is 'yes', but they are the most extreme cases and they are effectively the last resort, and not for—I think you used the term—early intervention. I would not regard them as appropriate for early intervention—they are last resort. I think that that is how schools and local authorities would also want to use them as well.

10:10

Can you understand how some people would see it as unfair about the different types of fixed-penalty notices? For some families, it's going to be a huge extra pressure, and others think that they could perhaps go on holiday and it wouldn't actually affect them in the same way. What would you say to those people who'd say it's unfair?

I would say to them what I’ve just said earlier, which is that they’re used only in the most extreme cases. I would regard them as being unfair if they were the first port of call, but that will be a failure of the system, if that’s what’s happening. There is a range of ways in which we are encouraging and supporting, I hope, schools to be able to encourage pupils back and that is the area where schools are focusing. But if the question is whether there are absolutely no circumstances in which a fixed-penalty notice is appropriate, I don’t think the answer to that question is that there aren’t—there clearly will be, but they need to be used judiciously, and I think that they are, in general terms.

Thank you, Minister. Do you agree with Meilyr Rowlands's assessment that, prior to the pandemic, there was a broad consensus around what constituted best practice for improving attendance, and do you think that's changed at all?

I think the challenge has changed, hasn’t it? Because the context in which pupils are not attending is different from pre-pandemic. I'll defer to him on whether there was a broad consensus—I'm sure there will have been. The question now, and what’s motivating our review of the framework—although that wasn’t a specific recommendation—is the assumption that consensus has been coloured by the experience of the last two years, and so we need to take that into account. But we are all operating in different contexts after the last two years, and school is very much a part of that broader societal response.

Thank you. Just moving on to the questions around funding, in your written evidence, you noted that funding was made available in 2021-22 for local authorities to provide additional emotional, mental health and well-being support to young people. Have you been able to evaluate how successful this approach has been in supporting learner attendance?

We’re going to get returns from local authorities for September this year, which will then enable us to do the evaluations. So, when we have that evaluation, obviously, I’d be very happy to share that with the committee, if you were to find that helpful. 

Anecdotally, if I can qualify it in that way, we know that schools have been using the funding to appoint education support workers quite often, which is around the sorts of interventions we’ve just been talking about—encouraging parents to bring their children back to school. Some have used it to focus their efforts on students with attendance rates of between 30 per cent and 70 per cent, so those with very low attendance. Some have used them to strengthen existing pastoral support systems in schools to expand the capacity. So, I think there have been a range of, it seems to me at least, quite innovative and interesting ways in which the money has been spent. What I’ll want to be very clear about is what’s been most effective and to make sure that schools everywhere have access to that information. Because they have plenty of burdens; if we can take some of that away and say that this is what we have discovered has been effective, I hope that’ll be welcomed by school leaders.

Thank you. We have heard, through our oral evidence sessions, people suggesting that, although the funding has been very welcome in the short term they're a bit concerned about what will happen in the future, longer term with that funding. Is that something that you would look at along with that best practice, really?

10:15

Yes, the funding position is extremely challenging. The funding settlement this year has been very good, but in future years it's looking challenging across all of public services. What we have been able to say is that the funding support for family engagement officers will continue for the next two years, so there will be a three-year window for that, which I think has been welcomed. Obviously, it allows more capacity to plan, but you will know, in a different context, the funding that we've made available to respond to the pandemic—the renew and reform funding—is available in subsequent years. Obviously, it diminishes, and I think one of the tasks for us, really, is to make sure that we're using that significant extra funding in a way that meets some of these objectives as well. We can't expect pupils to be able to recover their lost learning if they're not in school. So, I think there's a way in which we need to look at the things in the round, if you like.

Thank you. With regard to the funding to support learners in year 11, do you have any information on how that funding was used to support learners' attendance and the level of success that these approaches had?

Well, some of that is being used at the moment, so we expect that data to be available in September as well. So, that will be part of that overall evaluation, Chair.

Brilliant, thank you. Now, some questions from James Evans. James.

Diolch, Cadeirydd. Minister, we did touch on this earlier, around the communication with parents around the importance of getting the children back into school. I wonder if we can go into a bit more detail on that, if that's okay, Minister. Are you going to be communicating with parents around the importance for educational attainment of getting their children back into school, about the reforms that we've talked about? Or, is it going to be around, as well, reminding parents of their legal obligations and what could potentially happen if they don't send their children back to school? I was just wondering where does the balance lie here, and if we could have a bit more information about that, I'd be grateful.

Firstly, we will want to test these messages to see what is most likely to be effective. At the end of the day, that's what we need to make sure we're doing. My assumption, going into that, is that we are likely to find that positive messages about the value of being back in school are much more likely to be effective than a compliance-based set of messages. We're dealing with very complex choices and very complex experiences over the last couple of years, and I think one of the balances that we will need to strike is what is a set of national messages, and what is a set of school-based local messages. I think you've heard evidence already that people's assumption is—and it seems sensible to me—that the local communication is much more likely to be impactful. We all expect that to be the case, I suppose. But the key is that we will be testing some of those messages, working with schools and providing them with the support they need to send the messages to parents as well.

Okay. Diolch, Minister. During evidence sessions, parents reported to us, as I said earlier, mixed experiences and support they've received from schools and local authorities with regard to getting pupils back into schools. On home learning, one local authority got in touch with the parent four months after they pulled their child out of school, saying, 'Oh, I didn't realise you'd pulled your child out of school—what can we do to help you?' It's very mixed across Wales. So, how is Welsh Government intending to ensure there is consistency with the local education authorities right across Wales, so we have a base to go off and not, 'It's very different in Blaenau Gwent, Powys, et cetera'? Not that I'm picking on Blaenau Gwent or Powys.

Well, difference isn't always a bad thing, because it can respond to local circumstances, is the first thing to say, but I take the point about the need for a consistent approach. There are, I think, two or three things we can probably do as a Government. One is to make sure that, where we can, we're able to provide some extra funding. So, the family engagement officer policy is one of those areas, and I've just indicated that funding is available over more than one financial year, and that is funding that goes to local authorities, because they can then make the judgments about which schools are most in need of it. Different schools will have a different profile in terms of absence and different communities that are being served. That's one aspect. The second is to make sure that there is consistent guidance across Wales. So, our review of the framework, our review of the exclusions guidance, will set expectations that are consistent. There is, I think, variability in some of that at the moment, so it will be an opportunity to set a new set of expectations and provide guidance and support around it. And thirdly—and I think this is a significant opportunity, really—is where we can make sure that we are universalising best practice, so making sure that schools are, as we’ve already discussed, responding to a range of changes. The role we can have as a Government is to say, 'We have seen evidence of where this works well and this is how you can do that,' and to provide those resources both as professional learning resources and other resources, so schools can draw on that. We’ve got a professional learning entitlement for all teachers and teaching assistants that is being launched for the next academic term, and I think there’ll be an opportunity in that to provide additional support for the profession in relation to some of these questions as well.

10:20

Diolch, Minister. I think it’s very important to have that guidance set out, isn’t it, so it is clear for local authorities what is expected of them. In written evidence, you touched on community-focused schools and that Government are going to provide an additional £660,000 to actually employ the community-focused manager positions across Wales. To what extent do you believe that community-focused schools can actually help with pupil attendance, and who will take the lead on ensuring that all schools are community focused across Wales? 

I think the evidence for this is clear both internationally and also already in Wales, where it works well, and I know that there are Members here—. The Chair’s constituency, for example, has very good examples of community-focused schools, and I’m sure other Members will be able to point to the same as well.

You mentioned that sum of money, but we’ve also made available a capital pot of £20 million, which is enabling schools to make their facilities more accessible to the community. Some of that is around safety, lighting, storage, access—the kind of practical things that remove the obstacles to schools being more accessible to their communities, and I think that’s been welcomed. Some of it is around community-focused schools managers, as you were talking about. That’s a trial, if you like, to see what extra capacity might be helpful. But I think there’s a range of ways in which schools could be working to becoming community-focused schools. We're developing a framework again around that, which will guide and support schools, I hope, to become community-focused schools. But it will need a collective effort across the system. I absolutely think it’s worth it, because just as we were talking earlier about the relationship between the school and those who make the choice to educate at home, I think there’s a way in which we can make that relationship stronger to encourage parents to look at schools in a different way. Some of that is about facilities, some of it is about services, some of it is about an approach to family engagement, and there’s a lot of good practice happening in different parts of Wales. Some of it is a capital challenge, some of it is operational, and we want to make sure that all schools are on that journey in Wales.

Good. Diolch, Minister. And finally, I do want to talk about family engagement officers. I know the Welsh Government are investing almost £4 million in family engagement officers. Can you just explain the role and what they’re going to do? Is it the intention that all schools across Wales will have access to their services, and is there an ongoing commitment from Government to continue to fund these roles, and, if so, what targets and measures are the Welsh Government going to put in place to make sure that they are delivering for the money that they are receiving to make sure that young people are getting the support they need across Wales? Diolch.

I’m not inclined to set specific targets for this specific pot of funding. The targets we’re looking at are the ones that, I think, have motivated this committee’s inquiry, which is the overall attendance target and we will want to see what is the most effective way of doing that from the blend of measures that we’re proposing, already delivering, and funding.

On the question of which schools have access to this particular support, that will be a judgment for local authorities to make, knowing the mix of schools that they have in their area. The visibility of that funding I’ve already talked about. The service they provide is very valuable. I know you’ve had evidence which says schools can’t simply, as it were, absorb all these additional roles, and I obviously understand that. So, the skill set and the experience that these officers, these individuals, bring, is one of developing positive partnerships. They’re dedicated to this function, building those relationships with perhaps some of those families who have been hardest to reach, for whom maybe absence has been most persistent and prolonged, understanding what that’s about, going back to the family and the learner themselves, understanding what the cause of it is, and working in quite a tailored way, and that's the benefit that they bring. And I think where—obviously, these people are already employed—people are employed in these roles already, there's already good evidence that they bear fruit. So, we want to make sure more schools can access that.

10:25

Thank you, James. We've been engaging with families and organisations to try and speak to those around persistent absence, and we'll have a report—a transcript, really—of those discussions that will go with our own report, which will be published, but I just wanted to highlight two things that came out of that, really. One was around bullying, particularly around the transition years and how people had said that they felt that—young people felt—that was an issue about them going back to school, and another one was around caring responsibilities. The young people who participated talked about the number of learners that they knew who were young carers, and that was having an impact on their attendance. They said that much of the time they were too tired to attend school, and that was reflected in the staff members who spoke to us as well. I just wondered about your reflections on those two particular issues, and how your discussions, perhaps with other Ministers, were around that as well. 

Really, those are all very interesting, important areas. So, on the bullying issue, obviously we are refreshing our entire approach to anti-bullying guidance at the moment, so this will be very much a focus in that work, for sure. On the transition years point, it's a very well recognised issue. You will recall that, with the renew and reform funding, which responds specifically to COVID but there will be some touch points with the absence concerns as well, one of the areas of weighted funding in that overall package has been transition years. As you also know, the work that we've doing specifically around year 11 absence has been around encouraging them to look at broader options and the transition into FE and so on. So, that is a well-established issue, and I feel we're responding to it in a way I hope the learners you spoke to would benefit from.

On the last point, I had a very broad-ranging discussion with Julie Morgan about this—I can't remember how long ago it was; it's probably about five or six weeks ago at this point—where we both identified the need, I think, for us to do more to identify the support that young people who are themselves carers in school need. In some ways, it's quite a hidden issue, because it's one of those—. Teachers will generally have a sense of those individuals, but not always, and there are particular challenges that arise in the context of being a young carer, and they've been particularly challenging over the last two years. So, if the committee would find it helpful, I'd be very happy to come back and talk about this, and I'm sure Julie would probably want to as well, because I think there's a programme of work that we can and hope to be able to take forward in relation to this.

Okay. That would be really helpful, and any sort of updates that you have around that, we'd be pleased to receive those. Thank you. Does anybody have any final questions? No. [Interruption.] We've only got two minutes. No questions to fit in the two minutes. I'd just like to thank you, Minister, for coming, and your official this morning for joining us. You will, of course, receive a transcript in the coming days. So, I very much appreciate you giving evidence to this inquiry. We see it as an incredibly important issue, so thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I'm very much looking forward to the report, Chair. Diolch yn fawr.

5. Papurau i'w nodi
5. Papers to note

So, we'll now move on to item 5, and that is papers to note. Full details of the one paper to note, which is quite unusual for us—only having one paper to note—is on the agenda and in the paper pack. Are Members content to note that paper? Yes. I see all Members are content.

As agreed previously, under item 2, the remainder of this meeting will be held in private.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 10:29.

The public part of the meeting ended at 10:29.