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The Chairman: Colleagues, we have only 15 minutes left. At least four people want to ask questions, including a colleague who wants us to move on to clause 28. So I call the Minister.
Q 114Mr. Coaker: Chloe, what you just said is very interesting. Everyone would be delighted by what you have achieved. You point out some of the anomalies in the system: you are regarded as NEET, when that clearly seems nonsensical to you and to everybody in the Committee. However, it is interesting that we could all have the Government we absolutely dreamed of and there would always be a tension between the pursuit of what anyone would regard as the public good and where that butts up against individual rights and individuals’ right to go on in an unfettered way, irrespective of the state and completely free from state interference.
A debate goes on all the time about where that interface should be. At its extreme, it is easy, but as it closes up, it gets more difficult to draw the line and the balance. We in Government felt that issues were coming to our attention, so we asked Graham to conduct a review. We were not trying to outlaw people or say that things were draconian or terrible; we were simply conducting a review to find out what was going on and analyse the numbers and some of the issues.
As a consequence of that and some of the things that have been said, none of us here would question the desire to ensure that we understand who is missing. There may be people outside the system whom we know nothing about and who may be suffering in some way that we do not understand or know. Alongside that are quality issues and, for a very small number, issues of safeguarding. If the Government step back from that, my question is whether it would not be an abrogation of Government’s responsibility to say, “Isn’t this something that we should try to understand and do something about?”
While accepting people’s right to educate their children—we respect that and do not want to undermine it—do not we as a state also have a right to ask whether we are doing all that we should to protect young people, understand who is missing and look at the quality of what is going on? We recognise the right of people such as you to be home educated and of the people whom Fiona represents to be home educators.
Chloe Watson: I am not denying you the right to ask the question; I am saying that people will not accept you coming into their homes before you have collected any real evidence. All the evidence that has been used to justify the measures either is in dispute or has been overturned in the eyes of home educators.
On the abuse statistics, although I am not personally involved with the project, freedom of information requests about abuse have been made to all the local authorities in Britain, and the percentages show that it is approximately one quarter the rate of national abuse. That is 48 children so far who have been abused in the home educated community, against 142,000 who are in school.
I am aware that it is not good that there are 48—I was shocked by that, actually—but I do not believe that the difference between saying, “There are 48; that’s not very good,” and saying that we are at higher risk can be just ignored. We were told that we were at higher risk of abuse than every other child, but actually it turns out that we are not, according to all the evidence that we can find. I am afraid that is the only evidence I am willing to rely on. Evidence for educational achievement has shown in all cases that home educators achieve well.
Until there is evidence to the contrary that we as a community can accept and understand and that is not backed up by statistics with which we disagree, we cannot accept that your changes will be good for us. You are welcome to inquire and do research into long-term outcomes, but because nobody really understands how autonomous education works, for instance, or any one-to-one flexible education—nobody knows why or how it works—you cannot judge it according to the same criteria as school education, which is the only way that the Government are judging it at present. I am convinced that the only way to judge education is by the outcome. If home educated children end up happy and healthy, with a house over their heads, what can we say against it?
The Chairman: Would Mr. Stuart and Mr. Laws put their questions one after the other, and will the witnesses then respond? After that, we shall have a little time for clause 28.
Q 115Mr. Stuart: This will be a question for Mr. Badman. We cannot get over the fact that we should get the evidence before we act. No one disputes the Minister’s point about acting if the evidence is there.
We should consider other similar systems. For instance, Mr. Badman, you said in your report that New Zealand had demanded that home educated children be taught at least as regularly and as well as in registered schools. Why did you not mention the fact that for the second time in a number of years they decided that their monitoring and licensing scheme was a waste of time and money and dropped it altogether? Why did you not mention Ontario, which decided that it was a waste of time and money? In New Zealand, many people said that it was similar to the UK and that the incidence of problems was so small that it did not justify the cost, saying that the money would be better spent on support than on bureaucracy and licensing.
Q 116Mr. Laws: I have two brief questions. The first is to Chloe and Fiona. Do you accept the Select Committee’s conclusion that it is unacceptable that local authorities should not know accurately how many home educated children there are in their areas?
My second question is for Graham. Is it your view that local authorities have a responsibility to all home educated children to ensure that their welfare and safety are secured? Graham, as you have the easy question, do you want to go first?
Graham Badman: I shall take the easy one. Yes, it is my view that just as local authorities must have regard to the quality of education in school so should they have regard to the quality of education that young people receive at home. I took great pains in the report to stress that the home is first and foremost a home, but if people choose to use it as a place of education—
Mr. Laws: I said welfare, not education.
Graham Badman: I’m sorry. Welfare has a broad meaning. Local authorities must have regard to the safety of young people, wherever they are. Welfare is too flexible a word, but I would take it as meaning safe from harm, safe from abuse; it is something for which local authorities should have a function.
Q 117Mr. Laws: Fiona and Chloe, do you agree with the Select Committee’s conclusions?
Fiona Nicholson: I return to the point that I made in evidence to the Select Committee. I find it surprising that some local authorities will say that they have no idea how many home educated children they have in their area. When we went through their consultation responses, some local authorities said that they felt that they had a pretty fair idea.
Q 118Mr. Laws: Is it unacceptable that they should say at present that they do not know? Is that unacceptable to you?
Fiona Nicholson: It is not unacceptable to me that they say it.
Q 119Mr. Laws: Is it unacceptable that that is the situation? Do you think that local authorities should know the identities of all home educated children in their areas?
Fiona Nicholson: I do not take the view that they should or should not. I find it surprising that they don’t do so. In 2010, I find it extremely surprising.
Chloe Watson: I consider that it should be down to the parents and children—and the children in particular. I don’t think that children should be forced to notify somebody that they are doing a certain thing. If the local authority finds out, fine, but I don’t think that children should be kept on any record against their will. They should be able to say, “No thanks, I don’t want you to keep track of me.”
Fiona Nicholson: May I say something?
The Chairman: I am sorry, but there is very little time. Was there a response to Mr. Stuart’s question?
Mr. Stuart: Graham, New Zealand had a similar system of monitoring and licensing, but they have just canned it because they thought it was not worth it.
Graham Badman: I am not privy to the data that brought about that decision. Equally, I did not tell you in my report of the success of the Swedish system or of other systems. It was an attempt to draw some form of international comparison. I take the criticism that was levied at me just now, but the report was based on not just the weeks that I worked on it—it was just weeks, I admit, though a substantial number of weeks—but the evidence accumulated over a number of years by local authorities, the NSPCC and Ofsted. It was not something that was just pulled out of the air, but distilled from a huge body of evidence.
Where the line of questioning just now seemed to go was to hark back to a voluntary scheme. We have a voluntary scheme, but it has not worked. That is why we are sitting around this table. Candidly, it has not worked because sometimes the statistics that are used are themselves abused. I looked at research on the effects of home education, but it is on a very small scale, and there is little of it—even Stanford finds it difficult to get that research.
Just to put one other matter right, in terms of the data that were used, no, you are not NEET because you have not registered for Connexions. The Connexions figures were the ones that gave the NEET figures, so those are the ones that were known.
Chloe Watson: I have met with them, but I have not responded to any of their letters since I was 14.
The Chairman: Just before the lead Minister puts a final question to our witnesses, I think Tim Loughton wanted to put a question to Sir Paul Ennals about clause 28.
Q 120Tim Loughton: This seems slightly academic and on a completely different subject. Clause 28 is about local safeguarding children’s boards, apparently giving them considerable powers to request information, the purposes of which are not entirely clear. There are no examples of what that information might be and for what purpose, so there are questions about confidentiality if it is on specific people. Are you aware of what this is aimed at, and the deficiency that it is aimed at bridging?
Sir Paul Ennals: I am afraid that I am not aware. I have not been sufficiently briefed on that, and I have not been party to the discussions that led to it. Apologies, but I do not feel I can give an informed response.
Tim Loughton: Okay. Pass.
Q 121Mr. Coaker: The final question picks up on what David Laws said. If local authorities are saying to us that they know about 20,000 children, but there may be 40,000 children, is it not incumbent on the Government to try to ensure that local authorities know how many home educated children there are?
Fiona Nicholson: May I just say that I do not think anyone can? May I also say this? It is not an answer to your question, but an answer to a question that I just asked myself. When we arrived in London this morning, we had the text of the Bill. Since we arrived, we have been having text messages saying that revised impact assessments have been published, and when I came here, it turned out that there was a piece of stapled paper on the table saying, “Clause 26 and schedule 1” and “Home education policy statement”. It is not dated and I have no idea of the status of it. I would like to put on record that we did not have time to read it before the Bill Committee session, which I find absolutely extraordinary.
Sir Paul Ennals: I will give a brief answer to the Minister. I think we should find ways of establishing the information that the Minister outlines. I am not convinced about the numbers myself but, as has come up frequently in this session, the population data are not strong. That is part of the problem, and I hope that a registration system would genuinely help with that. My own view is that in addition to the 20,000 who have been identified, I would expect it to get up to between 25,000 and 30,000, rather than the higher estimates that I have heard quoted in recent weeks.
Beth Reid: I agree that it would be very helpful to have that information. There then needs to be consideration about what you do with it. It should be used for planning purposes, feedback into children and young people’s plans and into the children’s trust, to ensure that appropriate provision is made—particularly for children with special educational needs—for all home educated children, so that they get the support that they need from the local authorities.
Chloe Watson: May I suggest that to find the numbers of home educated children, it would be good to make contact with the local authority at least palatable, if not desirable, which at present, it is not? Families do not want to know their local authorities—they have nothing to offer, and they have nothing to gain from meeting their local authorities, just the risk of a school attendance order if they meet someone who does not like them. Why on earth at present? Because it is voluntary—to some degree, we cannot deregister—and people do not want to do it, surely that tells you something more about the local authorities than the home educators.
The Chairman: I am afraid, Chloe, that I must interrupt you for a moment.
Mr. Coaker: Just to say, if it is any help to Fiona, if she would like another meeting with Diana Johnson to discuss the various papers that have been published, that can be arranged.
The Chairman: On behalf of the Committee, I would like to thank our witnesses for the time they have spent with us this afternoon. It has been an exhausting session, and an exhaustive one. The evidence that our witnesses have given has been very valuable indeed. We meet again, colleagues, in this room on Thursday at 9 am.
Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Kerry McCarthy.)
7 pm
Adjourned till 21 January at Nine o’clock.
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