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Education is the gateway to a better world. Nothing should be done to prevent children from flourishing and learning in the environment best suited to them, in
school or out. As many Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged, education is primarily a parent's responsibility, not that of the Government. It is up to parents to select the form of education most beneficial to their children. For a variety of reasons, the schools system is not for everyone. Some just choose the home; others fear bullying or the increasing size of schools and the associated problems, and some children are not allowed to thrive within the system.
Although every child must receive an education, schools are not the only way to deliver it. Obviously, such a gap can be filled by the work of parents through home schooling their children. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 80,000 are currently home schooled. Though some may disagree, I argue that home educators understand the responsibility placed on them. They understand that the responsibility for a child's schooling falls on nobody but the parents. Unfortunately, in yet another example of a Government obsessed with conformity, the independence that home educators currently enjoy is to be placed under threat. The plans in clause 26 to ensure that home educators conform with the requirements of the national syllabus will stamp out the individuality that many home-educated children cherish. Is not the whole point of home schooling the provision of an alternative channel for education?
Before Christmas I met a group of constituents, all home educators, who were concerned about the recommendations of the Badman report. I also met some of their children, who were some of the most articulate and erudite young people I have met. Most of the parents spoke of having schedules for teaching, but in keeping with educational flexibility so as to best fit a child's needs. One of them told me of her son spontaneously developing a liking for Roman history. Because she retained responsibility for her son's best interests, she was able to take a trip to a Roman villa the next week. Such a trip would have been impossible under the annual education plans that the Bill may well set in stone. If modern society has taught us anything, it is that we have to acknowledge everyone's uniqueness. The Bill appears designed to move us in the opposite direction.
My other concern revolves around the level to which the Bill extends the state yet further into people's lives. One of its provisions is to allow local education authorities, when neither child nor parent objects, to interview home-schooled children on their own. The phrasing of that part of the Bill, particularly the use of the word "may", has been constructed far too loosely to be of reliable guidance. How can a measure confer a power on a local authority without detailing the full criteria for fulfilling that responsibility? Furthermore, under the Bill, interviews will be conducted in
"a place where education is provided to the child".
What would be the consequences of a parent's not consenting at any stage to a child's being interviewed on their own? Such interviews may place the child in a distressing environment. They also underline the contradictions at the heart of the Government's approach. Pupils are not interviewed about teachers, so why should sons and daughters be interviewed about their mothers and fathers? Furthermore, interviewing children alone
gives the impression that parents are not to be trusted or have done something wrong. Indeed, the level at which the Government aim to monitor parent-child relationships is tantamount to saying that a parent willing to spend time with their child is somehow in the wrong.
Such intrusiveness into parents' lives is bad enough, but the detrimental effects on children's education and well-being are even more dangerous. The Government seriously need to reconsider the case for granting the new powers and requirements-not only the powers, but the Government's perspective on the issue. I understand the Government's wish to achieve the best for everyone, but their methods simply do not work.
Before attending to home education, the Government must first deal with those already in the system who do not achieve as they should. They should tackle those who are absent from education partially or altogether. Too many bright futures have been sucked into the mire of destructive social circumstances. The Bill is directed at the wrong children in the wrong fashion.
Indeed, no Bill has dealt successfully with those who have sex when under 16. Conception rates for those under 16 have increased from 7.8 to 8.3 per 1,000, which is 8,200 pregnancies. Those children are far too young to become parents.
Of course, I am aware that children's well-being is one of the Bill's motivations. The Government are concerned that home schooling may be used as a cover for child abuse or forced marriages. Certainly, that must be dealt with, but in a far more consultative manner. Greater consideration must be given to the vast majority of home-schooled children who benefit immensely from their parents' dedicated work.
A scheme of self-regulation, rather than imposed conformity, is the best way to balance children's education with children's safety. One must not be sacrificed for the other, because education is the gateway to a better world. The longer we prevaricate on the most fundamental decisions and the longer we institute misguided legislation such as the Bill, the longer we deny the next generation the greatest opportunity to realise their fullest potential.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When I first examined the Bill, it made me consider how best to assess a measure on Second Reading. I have the advantage of chairing the Children, Schools and Families Committee, and therefore the further advantage of considering, in the past two years, the three main pillars on which educational reform was founded 20 years ago. My remarks today are in that context.
We have considered testing and assessment and the national curriculum and, last week, we published our report on school accountability. The Bill is about all those matters. The measure is a bit of curate's egg. All Governments should learn that legislation is best when it has been tested and piloted or, if not, given to people who genuinely know about the subject so that they can conduct an independent inquiry. Even better, if there is time, is a pre-legislative inquiry by the Select Committee. We have not conducted such an inquiry on the Bill.
Let me comment quickly on some long overdue aspects, beginning with the special educational needs provisions. The Lamb inquiry was set up by the then Education
and Skills Committee, predecessor of our current Committee. It made strong recommendations on special educational needs and was a fine report-I think that one member of that Committee is still in the Chamber this evening. We made strong recommendations for giving special educational needs students a proper chance so that they are not faced with a patchwork of provision throughout the country, with provision depending on where they happen to live. Some students and families were getting the right support while others got poor support.
I note that the Bill does not contain something to which we always thought we would go back-one never has time to revert to all the things that one discovers when conducting an inquiry. It is the dreadful lack of capacity, support and opportunity for special educational needs students when they get to 16. That is crucial. The ages of 16 to 18 are extremely difficult for special needs students, even when they have had a good deal, good support, been statemented and got everything that they should have. The ages of 16 to 18 are difficult, as are the ages beyond. Perhaps the Select Committee will have time to revert to that.
I was more hesitant about the reform of the primary curriculum and about including Sir Jim Rose's proposals and recommendations in legislation. Our report on the national curriculum showed that we need a much more coherent approach. People ought to know where they are travelling, starting at the earliest stage, when a child is born, and continuing right through to the ages of 18 and 19. There should be a coherent national curriculum that joins up. At the moment, we have bits of curriculum and great disjunctions in it. The most famous happens at the age of 11, but they happen even at seven, and then at 16 and 18. A person setting out on the journey of life and education is not, even with best endeavours, offered a curriculum that makes sense to both the child and the parent.
Jim Rose conducted an inquiry on the primary national curriculum, and there was also the Cambridge inquiry, which the Government did not like as much, but neither inquiry was right. The results did not mesh with what comes afterwards or with the important foundation stage, which the Select Committee supports wholeheartedly. Bits of the curriculum for specific years are taken, an inquiry is conducted and proposals are made, without seeing those bits as part of one offering.
Most of us agree that putting personal, social, health and economic education on the timetable is a good idea. I am not sure whether it should be in the national curriculum; when we examined the national curriculum, we said it was overfull. We pointed out that academies had much more choice and flexibility and could choose their priorities after the basic subjects had been included in the national curriculum. We asked why, if that approach was good enough for them, it was not good enough for the rest of the schools.
The national curriculum is too full. Although I like the idea of everyone having decent PSHE education, simply placing it in a compulsory curriculum, which is already full, without changing it and granting more flexibility, is worrying. Ken Boston once told me that the trouble with PSHE and things like it is that they are given to the gym teacher with the gammy knee to
teach. We need high-quality people who are trained to do PSHE well if it is going to be taught to its full extent.
Mr. Allen: If we are going to have anything at all in the national curriculum, it must be the basics. Every child should be entitled to them. Hitherto, we thought that that meant maths and English, but actually, in order to learn and come to an appreciation of any academic subject, people need those basic social and emotional capabilities. Without them, the rest of the curriculum is denied to people. That is why PSHE has to be in the national curriculum-for areas such as mine and my hon. Friend's, where many people cannot access it.
On the accountability framework, the Committee published a report on accountability last week. We looked at the matter right through from governing bodies to Ofsted and the new school report card. We found in favour of the school report card and rather liked the school improvement strategies that it underpinned. However, we also found that Governments only ever introduce new forms of accountability, and never take one away, and we are worried that there are now five levels of accountability. The Government are well intentioned and want to move away from the reliance on the publication of tables of the results of tests and examinations, and the school report card will help, but I suspect that it will not be enough to strike the balance that most people in our schools-heads and teachers-want.
Heads and teachers feel tremendous pressure from the different forms of accountability. In particular, they are very worried about accountability through Ofsted. The Committee found Ofsted to be over-large and overburdened-it has now extended into child protection-and we wonder whether an inspection over a day and a half is as good as it could be. Does a lighter-touch inspection, if it is too light, lead the Ofsted inspectors to rely much more heavily on the statistics and test results that they read on the card before they go into the school to do an assessment? The school is where the vital thing happens, but the quality of teaching in the classroom carries much less weight in the balance.
On the licence to practise, I take it that at last we have got to the stage-this seems to be the subtext-at which we have a highly regarded work force with proper qualifications and a five-year renewable licence. I believe that that is probably the way to go, but we will not get there without offering high-quality continuing professional development. Death by PowerPoint is not the way to deliver CPD. CPD must be high quality and delivered alongside that licence to practise. I suspect that part of the Government's agenda with the licence to practise will be to weed out teachers who are not up to the job, which I suppose is a very important aspect of it.
Lastly, the Committee wrote a good report on home-educated children, and the matter has been much discussed in interventions. A very significant percentage of home-educated children are wonderfully educated. I was very impressed by the parents and children I met, but I also believe that we must know where our children are. The Committee came to a compromise view. As the Government
were offering a system with a compulsory register with no fines, action, penalties or sanctions, we asked them whether they should try a voluntary system for two years as an olive branch. We said that if that method did not work, the Government should go for a compulsory system.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is an eminent Chairman of the Select Committee. I listened with great interest to what he said. He contributes a huge amount to debates on education and to Second Reading debates on education Bills.
I declare an interest as a lawyer and I shall focus on part 2 of the Bill, but I shall also say a few words about the main part of the Bill. We can of course wholeheartedly support some provisions in the Bill. For example, I support the improvement in, and widening of, the appeals system for children with special educational needs, and the idea that academies should be exempt charities. However, what the Bill reveals most starkly is the fundamental divide between the Government and the Opposition when it comes to trusting the teaching profession and professionals generally.
We trust professionals to get on with their jobs and to deliver high professional standards without the need for extremely detailed, top-down prescription. Unfortunately, the Bill is far too prescriptive, the result being that it will mean more bureaucracy and litigation, a reinforcement of the risk-averse culture, and a stifling of professional self-esteem. That very damaging approach flows through and characterises so much of the Bill. The result is that the good parts of the Bill are overshadowed by top-down micro-management.
The Government believe very firmly that Ministers and Whitehall always know best. On the other hand, my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench and I take the view that the way to raise educational standards is to reduce the target culture and bureaucracy and truly trust the profession.
My starting point on part 2 of the Bill is that the rules governing family proceedings must protect children's welfare. That is why a substantial element of privacy is essential, but there is a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Privacy means allowing reasonable access and reporting while protecting the welfare and interests of children, as happens every day in the youth courts in this country. Secrecy is a totally different matter, because it means holding proceedings completely in camera.
For a number of years, there has been growing concern about the lack of transparency and openness in the family courts. It is interesting that the campaign run by The Times in the summer of 2008 was welcomed not only by the different fathers groups, which protested vigorously, but by the legal profession, which had a big input. At the time, the president of the family division, Sir Mark Potter, and a number of eminent High Court judges, said that the lack of openness and transparency was damaging the reputation and image of the family courts. Those judges knew that they were dispensing
justice to a very high standard indeed, and furthermore that the vast majority of decisions being made in the family courts were correct, but unfortunately, their reputation and that of their courts were coming under pressure and being tarnished by adverse criticism by a small minority of litigants.
"Not only would it enable the court's reasoning to be understood; it is likely to justify decisions in the eyes of the wider public. It will certainly ease the frustration felt by many judges that they cannot respond to criticism in the media based on one-sided accounts by aggrieved parents".
We had a whole series of consultation papers from the then Department for Constitutional Affairs, now the Ministry of Justice. We also had a number of other initiatives from the Government. The broad conclusion was that the obvious way to improve transparency and openness was to allow the press and public into family courts, albeit subject to appropriate reporting restrictions and, obviously, the ultimate discretion of the judge. We had a false start with the Government statement in 2007, when they said that they would not go as far as was originally suggested, which triggered the campaign by The Times. We then had the statement by the Secretary of State for Justice, in December 2008, when he announced that the media would be allowed to attend family hearings, subject to the discretion of the judge and reporting restrictions. He then announced that written judgments would be piloted.
I am slightly concerned about the two pilots-the first involves the magistrates courts in Leeds and the magistrates courts and county courts in Cardiff, the second the magistrates courts and county courts in Wolverhampton. Anonymised judgments and reasons will be placed in the public domain, which is something for which we have argued for some time. However, it is incredibly important to get the details correct and ensure a proper and comprehensive evaluation of the pilots. I am slightly concerned that the Bill is moving too quickly and that we should have a chance to conduct a proper evaluation of those pilots before moving to the next legislative stage, with the provisions in the Bill.
As I have mentioned, I broadly support most of part 2 of the Bill. However, I am concerned that many of the revisions are incredibly complex. I declared an interest as a lawyer at the start of this brief contribution, but I had to read the various clauses and the explanatory notes, as well as talk to friends at the family Bar, to get a handle on those revisions, which are very complex. I support what the Secretary of State said about the phasing and the sunset review, but the scope and effect of the revisions are, in places, most uncertain. Unfortunately, the simplicity, clarity and workability of the youth court model has not been followed or emulated in the Bill. It is interesting to read what the Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors, the Press Association, ITN and the BBC said in their recent letter to MPs:
"If journalists are not confident in the application of the rules, they may be deterred from reporting the family courts at all and the central objective of this entire project-greater public accountability and scrutiny-may be"
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