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Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con):
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. We have heard some interesting contributions, although, as ever, one of the most revealing comparisons was between the contributions of the Front-Bench spokesmen for the
two main parties. We should compare the partisan, petty approach taken consistently by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families with the thoughtful and responsible approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove).
In truth, there are not so many things that divide us: we are all committed to creating an education system that is fit for purpose and in which teachers are valued and their roles recognised. Most important, we must do everything to ensure that educational opportunities for the most vulnerable children from the poorest families are as great as for those from better-off families. In order to make progress, we must recognise the reality of the situation.
The debate is not just a sterile exchange of data. The truth is that the Secretary of State said repeatedly that the gap between rich and poor had narrowed. Despite being prompted repeatedly, he failed to provide any evidence for that. We always end up with a slightly mixed picture, depending on the data that we look at, but the truth is that most independent assessments suggest that the gap between rich and poor has not been narrowed. That is something that all of us across the House should be worried about. We should work consensually to provide a framework for teachers, schools and parents to ensure that the current injustice in opportunity through education is addressed.
I plan to focus my remarks on the proposals that we are told will be in the Children, Schools and Families Bill to deal with elective home education. Elective home education is where children who have either never been to school-some parents may never put their children into school-or been taken out of school, which can happen for various reasons, are educated at home. I want to put on record my tribute to the commitment, enthusiasm and success of the many parents and children involved in elective home education. They have been shocked and horrified at how they have been portrayed. Even in yesterday's Queen's Speech, the Government's proposals for the compulsory registration of all home-educated children was put under the heading of "safeguarding", suggesting, as Ministers have done repeatedly, that there is some stigma or safeguarding problem with home-educated children.
The picture is complex. There are children who are electively home educated because the schools have effectively pushed them out, because they do not want children who are not succeeding to lower their percentages for certain targets. There are also children suffering from bullying, children with special needs that are not recognised and sometimes even children with special needs that are recognised, but who are deeply miserable at school. A complex set of people are covered by elective home education; but have the Government, if they are serious and concerned about it, set out to get a comprehensive understanding of children who are electively home educated? Have they tried to get robust data? I would put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Government have not done that.
"Our own data concurred with the DfES (2007) report, that there are around 20,000 children and young people currently registered with local authorities."
"We know that to be an underestimate and agree it is likely to be double that figure"-
"if not more, possibly up to 80,000 children."
After people involved in home education challenged the Badman review's findings, which suggested that more of the children involved had child protection plans, Badman went out again, to gather additional data. He then came back and told the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that children with child protection plans-that is, children about whom local authorities have the greatest concern-accounted for 0.4 per cent. of electively home-educated children, which he compared with the national average for all children of 0.2 per cent. He therefore said-he said it on the record, in a letter to the Committee-that the percentage of home-educated children who are subject to child protection plans is double the percentage for the population as a whole. Yet his numbers were based on the 20,000 who were known to be registered, and he himself said that the figure was probably at least double that. When challenged by me in the Committee, he failed even to understand and, in a later letter to the Committee, again failed to accept the basic point that if there are at least 40,000 home-educated children, as appears to be the truth from his evidence, and if every child on a child protection plan is known to the local authority by necessity of being on such a plan, it is clear that the percentage of home-educated children with a child protection plan is, if anything, probably lower than the national average overall.
Therefore, the whole idea that there is a special risk around the home-educated population appears to have no supporting data. I would say that children who may be a cause for concern to local authorities are sometimes taken out of school, perhaps to disguise behaviour, abuse by parents and the rest of it. Then there are issues with Traveller communities. We have no information, particularly from Badman, about the number of children moving around the country all the time. Children in a number of categories may or may not be greater cause for concern. However, it is clear that for the broad number of dedicated electively home-educated children, the risk of their being on a child protection plan and thus at risk of abuse appears to be less than for the population overall.
The fundamental basis of Badman and the Government's approach-that there is a problem from a safeguarding point of view that needs to be solved-seems to be statistically flawed. The Government should not be rushing forward with legislation to introduce compulsory registration and possibly to erode the civil liberties of the families concerned; they should be building a much better understanding of the system overall. What do the Government's proposals mean for children's services, social workers and those involved in home education? More work load and yet another database.
"In my 30 odd years of professional life in education I have rarely encountered a process, the entirety of which was so slap dash, panic driven, and nakedly and naively populist."
However, the Secretary of State seems to have made up his mind. He talked today of giving parents the support that they need, but we know that he has been described by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) as a "bit of a bully", and we know what happens to parents who reject his support. Parents on benefits, whose children stand little chance today of getting the grades that they need to help them escape poverty, are told to be grateful for all the money that Labour has spent, despite the fact that the outcomes have not been delivered. Parents who go to desperate lengths to avoid the inadequate school dished out to them are labelled as failing to do their duty. And parents who want to set up their own school? Not in the Secretary of State's name.
As for parents who reject the Secretary of State's school system entirely and sacrifice their time and career to bring up and educate their children themselves, they are stigmatised as more likely to be child abusers than normal people. It is an absolute affront to those in the home education community, and it is baseless. The scheme is all about getting home educators in a headlock and forcing their children back into the Balls fold.
On the cost of the proposals, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has estimated that the registration and monitoring scheme would cost £21 million to set up and £7 million a year to run. That would pay, just about, for 1.5 additional staff members for each local authority in England. Is that enough to cover the additional demands of registration, database maintenance and additional inspections? A former head of research at Citigroup estimated the cost of launching and running the scheme at £500 million. Whatever figure one wants to choose-I imagine that it is somewhere between the two-a huge resource will be spent setting up a registration system.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, said that she has been persuaded that a light-touch registration scheme for home-educated children would be appropriate. At first glance it looks as if that would offer benefits, just as with ID cards it seemed obvious at first glance that they would provide us with defence against terrorism and make us more secure. The more we gained an understanding of how ID cards would actually work and of the nature of the terrorist threat, the more the efficacy of ID cards to help us in that regard melted away. I would suggest that the idea of light-touch registration to make children safer or to make it more likely that they will get a suitable education will, on closer inspection, also melt away. I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that people who move around the country will not be caught by the net, but the typical people who will be caught by it are those who live in one place, who are committed to elective home education yet have to face someone from a local authority coming and knocking on their door.
I was interested and reassured to hear the Secretary of State's earlier intervention, but it is a shame that the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson), is not in her place, because the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that, contrary to the Badman recommendations, he would not bring forward into the Bill-there is no draft Bill as yet-the recommendation to allow local authorities to enter
people's homes as of right. If that concession has been made and that is not going to happen, it is a tremendous breakthrough. I am certainly pleased about it, but I would like to hear it repeated from the Front Bench again.
Annette Brooke: I endorse the hon. Gentleman's point. Does he agree that one of the big problems is the confusion of education and child protection? If I am teaching in a school, I am hopefully trained to recognise signs of child abuse and will report it to the appropriate authorities, which will not have to set out to solve it. Is not the problem the attempt to wrap this all into one, instead of being clear about what the issues are?
Mr. Stuart: The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the two issues-safeguarding children who might be at risk and ensuring a suitable education for all children-have been mixed up. As I say, the data on the safeguarding issue suggest that elective home education in and of itself is not a problem area, although there may be groups covered by that heading and certain children who need greater support. We do ourselves no favours by mixing up the two issues.
"That designated local authority officers should... have the right of access to the home".
That right applies not after being given cause for concern or because the local authority has reason to believe that the child is not being properly educated or that the child is at risk or because of any issue whatsoever. This is a profound right to enter the home as the local authority sees fit. The recommendation also states that those officers should
"have the right to speak with each child alone if deemed appropriate".
The Badman review thus recommends that local authorities, some of which will have significantly let down the families and the children concerned by failing to tackle fully any under-performing schools or by leaving children and families traumatised and upset, should be given the right to march into the home to start monitoring and make an assessment of the child's education. That is fundamentally wrong and if the Secretary of State's intervention on the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) means that that will not happen, it is good news. I say to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who is in his place on the Front Bench, that I would be most grateful if that assurance could be repeated in the summing-up speech. That would provide enormous reassurance to people.
If we think about light-touch registration, it sounds perfectly reasonable at first. We do not want children below the radar or children who are not known to anyone-that is what moved the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and one can go along with her on that. If, however, we look at the detail of how it might work, we need to think about what "light touch" actually means. Does it mean that there is a registration system at local authority level and that the local authority then does nothing with it, or are we going to ensure, as Badman recommends, that every child who registers is visited within one month of registration? Local authorities do not have the resources to provide for that, so I can easily see that instead of the scarce resources of local authorities being used to give support where it is most
needed-to families that are crying out for the extra support-we will end up with a bureaucratic procedure whereby the limited, overstretched staff will be forced to go around visiting family after family after family even though there are no issues and no concerns.
In the meantime, under a system that is supposed to ensure the provision of education and safety for children, what will actually happen-and it is typical of this new Labour Government, who are so wedded to bureaucracy and databases-is that the families most in need will be let down, because local authorities will not have the resources that would allow them to do something positive with the information that they are given. What else could happen? If local authorities obtain, in one way or another-from central Government or from their own resources-additional funds to invest in home education, and if we follow the Badman recommendations, we shall see local authority officers repeatedly entering homes and monitoring educational progress.
A fundamental principle of our system of government has been that parents are responsible for delivering the education of their children. It is parents who should take the lead, not the state. I fear that this draft Bill may change fundamentally the relationship between the state and parents, and that from now on the overarching responsibility for the welfare and education of children will be assumed to rest with arms of the state. The state will have to come in and satisfy itself that local authority officers cannot be sued and that their defensive position is watertight. We do not want them to get into trouble, so if we follow the Badman recommendations, they will have the right to enter homes.
I have another reason for asking the Minister to ensure that we hear a repetition of the Secretary of State's earlier pledge that local authority officers would not go into homes-if, indeed, I heard him aright. In June the Secretary of State wrote to Badman, saying that
"LAs need greater powers to monitor...home educated children must be seen regularly in their education setting".
That clearly suggests that local authority officers would go into the homes of home educators, but it also suggests that the Secretary of State fails to grasp the nature of much of home education. There is not necessarily a classroom in the home. Home-educated children are educated in libraries, in local leisure centres, in the park and when visiting country houses. They are educated everywhere, and a great deal of their education takes place on an autonomous basis: in other words, the child leads the education.
Academics have studied this matter, including one at the Institute of Education in London. He said that he was sceptical at first, but has become convinced that autonomous education, including many of the alternative approaches adopted by home educationists, is tremendously effective, ensuring that children are educated in a way that is sympathetic to their needs and interests.
I hope that the Minister will tell us what percentage of home-educated children the Government expect to register. Will only families in one place be pursued and possibly prosecuted? Will peripatetic families escape the net? How much will be spent on ensuring that all children, or as high a percentage as possible, are registered
on the various local databases? And-this is a key question for many home educationists-should failing local authorities be allowed to decide what a suitable education looks like, when so many of their own schools and institutions are not delivering? Is that right? Is it right for the state to take away from families the overarching responsibility to ensure the education of their children?
Why cannot the Government adopt a humbler approach? Why can they not invest more money in research, enabling us to gain a better understanding of who is not at school and who is being educated at home? Why can we not be given a better understanding of where problems might lie among electively home-educated people? Why can we not have a voluntary registration system, perhaps involving additional financial support for families educating children at home? The present position is absurd. A home educator told our Select Committee that one father had to pay £1,000 to cover the cost of GCSE exams taken by his daughter, although he was a taxpayer like the rest of us.
Why do we have to go down the compulsory route? Why do this Government always think they know best? Why can they not work with people on a voluntary basis, build up the picture and then and only then-with a complete picture and a real understanding of the risks in respect of safeguarding and education-come forward with proposals, which might involve compulsory registration if there is due and proper cause. Due and proper cause does not currently exist, and I sincerely hope those aspects of the Children, Schools and Families Bill that deal with home education will not become law.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): First, may I make something clear for the record? Earlier in the debate, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) seemed to think that my generally cheerful and happy demeanour meant that I disagreed with his points about child pornography and the internet. I wish to state that I felt he made some very sensible, solid and powerful points about the protection of children, with which I wholly agree.
May I also say that it is a pleasure to follow my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke)? She made some excellent points about the protection of children. I know she feels strongly about that and has done a lot of work on it. It was nice of her to talk about Poole maternity hospital, too-and I know that she enjoys being a grandmother. All of us in Poole want to have a better maternity hospital. We all have an expectation of this project going ahead, and I hope we can somehow get through the current financial problems so that Poole can have a maternity hospital of which we can all be proud, and which is fit for purpose for the century.
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