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Children, Schools and Families

Children, Schools and Families Bill



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. David Amess, Janet Anderson, Mr. Clive Betts
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Flint, Caroline (Don Valley) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Johnson, Ms Diana R. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Sarah Davies, Sara Howe, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 28 January 2010

(Morning)

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Children, Schools and Families Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House
CS33 PSHE Association
CS34 Randall Hardy
CS35 Newspaper Society
CS36 Society of Editors
CS37 Autism-in-Mind
CS38 Education Otherwise (additional memorandum)
CS39 Children’s Rights Alliance for England
9 am
The Chairman: Good morning, everyone. Before we begin consideration of amendment 39, I wish to alert members of the Committee to the fact that I am currently not minded to allow a clause stand part debate, for obvious reasons. I take the view that the issues have already been debated thoroughly.

Clause 1

Pupil and parent guarantees
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 1, page 2, line 25, at end insert
‘, the signing of which shall be a condition of admission to the school;’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 43, in clause 4, page 6, line 33, at end add—
‘(12) Section 111 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(13) For subsection (4) there shall be substituted—
“(4) The governing body of a school to which section 110(1) applies or the local authority where it is the admissions authority for such a school may—
(a) invite a parent or carer to sign the parental declaration at a time when the child in question has not been admitted to the school; and
(b) make it a condition of a child being admitted to a school that the parental declaration is signed in respect of the child.
and in this subsection “admission authority” has the meaning given by section 88(1).”.
(14) Subsection (5) shall be repealed.’.
Mr. Gibb: Welcome back to the Chair, Mr. Amess. Amendment 39 amends clause 1(5) on parent guarantees, paragraph (b) of which introduces the guarantee of a home-school agreement. It would change the provision so that such a home-school agreement
“shall be a condition of admission to the school”.
Amendment 43 would amend clause 4 on home-school agreements and would enable a school or admission authority to make them a condition of admission. The Bill acknowledges that home-school agreements have not been an effective means of ensuring compliance with school rules or of ensuring good behaviour. They are good in that they set out the ethos of a school and what is expected of pupils, but because schools are not permitted to make the signing of such an agreement a condition of admission, they lack enforcement.
According to the explanatory notes, clauses 4 and 5 explicitly acknowledge that, by tying the
“discharge by parents of their responsibilities under home-school agreements to parenting contracts and orders”.
They say that the legislation will be amended so that, in every parenting contract,
“there is a statement by the parent that they agree to discharge their responsibilities set out in the home-school agreement”.
The concern about the effectiveness of home-school agreements was made even clearer in the impact assessment, which states on page 8 that
“existing HSA legislation is ineffective in underpinning parent/school relationships.”
As the hon. Member for Yeovil said on Tuesday, the assessment goes on to say that
“HSAs are largely ineffective at present: bureaucratic process with few real benefits.”
It is clear that the Government share our view about the lack of enforcement provisions of home-school agreements, but their proposals to tackle the problem seem extreme and unlikely to be realised.
Invoking the parenting contract and parenting order legislation when parents or pupils fail to comply with the home-school agreement seems to be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Paragraphs 2.8 and 2.9 of the White Paper state:
“At the moment, all schools have a Home School Agreement, but not all parents sign on. So we will now strengthen Home School Agreements so that all parents and pupils understand their responsibilities to follow the school rules and support good behaviour from the outset.”
So far, so good, but the White Paper goes on to say that
“We will therefore ensure that when applying for schools for their child, all parents will receive each school’s behaviour policy as it will appear in their Home School Agreement. In applying for a school place every parent will now agree to adhere to these rules. If parents have difficulty understanding the requirements, we will ensure that they get the support they need.”
That sounds like a requirement to sign a home-school agreement, as a condition of admission, except that it then states:
“It would be wrong to make signing the Home School Agreement a condition of admission, as this could unfairly deny a child a school place. However, once their child is in school the parents will be expected to sign the Home School Agreement each year, and parents will face real consequences if they fail to live up to the responsibilities set out within.”—
that is all very tough, but—
“We will bring forward changes to the law so that parents’ unwillingness to sign up and support their school’s behaviour policy can be used by schools to support applications to the courts for Parenting Contracts and Parenting Orders.”
So the Government do not want to make signing a home-school agreement a condition of admission to a school, but if a parent refuses to sign the agreement, the school should take those parents to court. That is an extreme approach to take.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Mr. Vernon Coaker): Let us envisage a hypothetical situation. If it were made an absolute condition of admission to a school that a home-school contract should be signed, what school would a pupil go to if a parent refused?
Mr. Gibb: I shall come on to that, but I shall touch on it now to the extent of saying that that is a sign, is it not, of a problem with parenting. The Government’s approach is rather bizarre. Surely it is more sensible to make signing a home-school agreement a condition of admission to a school. That would encourage the vast majority of parents to sign and would make all the parents fully cognisant of the fact that their child’s continued place at the school depended on their fulfilling the obligations in the agreement, including on behaviour and homework.
If the parents refused to sign, thereby, as the White Paper said, unfairly denying their own child a place at the school, that would surely be the point at which to question their parenting skills—not when a child swore in class or acted out in the school.
Mr. Coaker: I accept the point about parents, and the necessity for parental responsibility. No one would disagree with that. I am raising the sheer practicality of making it an absolute condition for admission to a school that the parent should sign the home-school contract. What would happen if the parent had not signed it by the time the child was due to start school?
It is all very well to say that the parent should have done so, but that does not overcome the point that a child would have been prevented from going to school by his parents’ failure to sign a home-school agreement. That would be the consequence of the amendment, even though we all agree about the necessity for responsible parenting.
Mr. Gibb: That is the advantage of the independent sector over the state sector at the moment. If parents do not sign up to the ethos of the school, the child cannot go to it. That means that the leadership of those schools has real power in enforcing the school rules.
The Minister raises a good point in asking what would happen to the children of parents who refused to sign. There is no reason why they should not sign. Why should they refuse to sign the home-school agreement? If they do not sign, it is an early warning sign of parenting problems in those schools.
Mr. Gibb: Yes, in a moment.
The Government’s approach is to say, “You do not need to sign, but when you get into the school you are expected to comply with the agreement; and then we will go to court to seek parenting orders and parenting contracts when a child or parent disobeys the rules in the home-school agreement. However, that is a very large task.
Many children, including children of parents who have signed the home-school agreement, will breach the rules by messing up in class, not doing their homework, or persistently behaving poorly; and the Government’s approach means that court action will be taken to obtain parenting contracts in relation to thousands of children. That seems extreme and onerous; and consequently it will not happen. Head teachers will not do that in the numbers envisaged.
It is far better to say, “We expect parents to sign the home-school agreement as a condition of their children coming to the school”; 99 per cent. of parents will do that. It would then be possible to isolate a tiny minority of parents who refused to sign the agreement. Why do they refuse to say that their child will behave in class, or that their child will do their homework on time? It is an early indication of problems.
It is better to focus the resources of the state on the tiny minority of parents who clearly show early signs of poor parenting.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a considerable difference between the attitude of parents who are in a position, and willing, to spend thousands of pounds on a private education, and the small proportion of parents who are likely to be in the group we are talking about, whose children go to state schools and, for all sorts of reasons, perhaps including mental health reasons, may not be willing to sign the agreements?
Mr. Gibb: Of course there is a difference; but the key similarity is that the ability to refuse admission to a child due to problems with behaviour will be the same in both sectors. That will level the playing field to some extent between the state and independent sectors. The hon. Gentleman made a good point. If there is a minority of parents—and there will be—who refuse to sign these agreements, we have to find out their reasons and tackle them. Whatever the problem with a child’s learning—be it dyslexia or other learning difficulties—it is better to identify it early. In that respect, phonics is a good way of teaching children to read, because it identifies children with problems early on, and the same is true here. If we require parents to sign a home-school agreement before their child is admitted to the school, and they refuse for mental health reasons or simply as a result of poor parenting, we will have a good way of picking up problems early.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman may not agree, but we had a short debate earlier in the week about home-school agreements including an individual learning plan, so it would be difficult in practical terms for parents to sign the more general home-school agreement in advance if they have not had an opportunity in school to discuss how the personalised plan will work alongside it. I know that the hon. Gentleman is against including a personalised plan, but it is part of the debate, and if it goes forward, it is difficult to see how parents could sign in advance. However, I agree that they should sign, and they should sign quickly.
 
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