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Mr. Coaker: Some important points have been made. To begin with, allowing different home-school agreements for resident and non-resident parents is entirely at the discretion of the head teacher. I would think that the hon. Member for Yeovil would welcome that, because most of his later amendments berate us for not allowing discretion, and the clause provides for discretion.
Mr. Gibb: The Minister is right that proposed new subsection (3) allows discretion:
“Where the head teacher considers it appropriate to do so, the head teacher may provide different parents of the same pupil with different home-school agreements.”
However, it is compulsory for the school to
“provide each registered parent of the pupil...with a home-school agreement”,
which must be tailored. Proposed new subsection (1) says that each head teacher “shall” issue home-school agreements.
Mr. Coaker: The desire and intention behind the Bill is that a head teacher may decide whether it is appropriate to give a home-school agreement to the resident or non-resident parent. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley made a point about information sharing. There is specific protection to ensure that the home-school agreement can be tailored to prevent inappropriate sharing of information. That is why there might be different home-school agreements for each parent.
Caroline Flint: Will my hon. Friend give me an example of inappropriate information?
Mr. Coaker: Well, the resident parent might not want the non-resident parent to know exactly where the child is or the various things that they are doing with the school, but the non-resident parent might still want to be involved in their son’s or daughter’s education. My right hon. Friend makes an important point when she says that there are considerable difficulties now. There are many different types of families. The intention of the arrangements that we are discussing is to ensure that people with parental responsibility and those without direct responsibility who are non-resident can still be involved appropriately in their son’s or daughter’s education.
My experience in schools shows that there are sometimes huge tensions between the natural mother and natural father, to the extent that they will hardly speak to each other, yet they are both devoted to their son or daughter and want to help them with their education. That is what the measures will allow for, and that is why we have provided discretion.
Mr. Purchase: That is absolutely admirable, and the many different relationships that we see in society today make us wonder how to gain clear consensus about who should know what, when and why. Will my hon. Friend assure me that it need not be the head teacher who does all the explaining, perhaps to obstreperous parents who would disagree in any event about which direction matters should take, but that such a task can be delegated to someone with the time to do it?
Mr. Coaker: In practice, the head teacher would make a decision whether such action was a good thing but, of course, others might work with the non-resident parents to draw up the home-school agreements. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot expect the head teacher to be involved in drawing up the agreements in each circumstance, but they are in a position to decide what agreements should be drawn up, because they understand the needs of a particular child, while others will help in drawing up the details.
Mr. Purchase: I want to give my hon. Friend an example. My youngest daughter is now in her 40s, but when she was in her final year at primary school, she was the only child in a class of more than 30 children with two parents extant. I am sure that he can understand the work load that could be involved with non-resident parents.
Mr. Coaker: I cannot agree more with my hon. Friend. Notwithstanding the parents’ difficulties, most of them still want to be involved in the education of their son or daughter, and we frame measures with that in mind. The home-school agreement could be difficult in such circumstances, and I absolutely accept my hon. Friend’s point about the challenge that it could bring. He was right and proper to cite such an example from his personal experience but, from my professional experience, it was really difficult to ensure that we involved both natural parents who could not stand the sight of each other, but who both wanted to be part of their son’s or daughter’s education. It is important when framing provisions for home-school agreements to recognise that they must be sensible and proportionate. I take into account what my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said about the sharing of information, and that should be allowed. That is why such matters should be discretionary.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The right hon. Member for Don Valley referred to an important matter that I was about to bring to the Minister’s attention. Notwithstanding the pertinent comments made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East about spending a lot of time on the agreements, the Government need to issue clearer guidance. I have had to write to a school on behalf of a non-resident father to ask it to release his child’s report, to which he was entitled. There was some confusion in the school about what it could release because of what the resident parent had told it, which might not have been within the confines of a court order.
Surely the default position must be that, unless there is a protection order set by the courts, non-resident parents should be entitled to a record of what is going on with their child at school. Concomitant with that, they should be involved in some form of the home-school agreement so that they are providing their side of the bargain, particularly when the child might occasionally be resident with that parent.
Mr. Coaker: I agree. Is that consistent with the amendment? Amendment 44 would remove the provision enabling head teachers to provide
“different parents of the same pupil with different home-school agreements.”
That is, if the head teacher considers it “appropriate to do so.” We are trying to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman outlined. Of course, home-school agreements should be appropriate for resident parents as well as non-resident parents. This is about sharing information. Of course we want to involve non-resident parents. They have an absolute right to be involved. However, if there are protection or child safety issues, of course information should not be shared. He is right to make that point.
However, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was making the point—if I am mistaken, he can reply—that provision should be made for separate home-school agreements, because different information for the resident and non-resident parent might be wanted.
Mr. Coaker: Nobody disagrees with that. Interestingly, what we are debating is how to make home-school agreements for different parents appropriate while ensuring that those with parental interest and responsibility can be involved with their children. Of course we will take on board the hon. Gentlemen’s comments about clarification and guidance, but this debate is not about having separate home-school agreements for different people.
I was asked to justify having different home-school agreements. Maybe resident and non-resident parents will have different agreements, but the fundamental principle is to keep people involved in their son’s or daughter’s education. All the evidence points to the fact that that is good for fathers and for the young people themselves. It is interesting that as this debate has gone on, we have begun to debate how to make different home-school agreements for different people work rather than debating the principle.
Caroline Flint: The Minister is being open and helpful with his answers, but I return to my earlier point. Our previous debate was about what happens when somebody does not sign a home-school agreement and what that might lead to in terms of further action and the courts getting involved. What if one parent signs, whether before or after the child starts school, and the other parent does not? Who will the head teacher decide is primarily responsible for the delivery of the home-school agreement?
It seems to me that part of the home-school agreement will be standard—getting to school on time, good behaviour and what the school offers to the parent and pupil. The other part is personalised. For want of a better phrase, I call it an individualised learning plan. The agreement gives information, but there is also a responsibility to help deliver it.
In an ideal world it would be great for parents to come together to agree on the personalised home-school agreement, whether or not they were together. I am again trying to think of a scenario. The resident parent might agree with the plan, which could include provisions to meet the child’s special educational needs, for example, but the other parent might not, even though they are not there every day to look after the child, check homework and ensure that they get to school on time. That is a bit worrying.
In my wildest imagination, we might end up in a situation where one parent has signed and the other has not, and a head teacher could be accused of deciding that they do not like the child, going for the parent who has not signed and does not live with the child and commencing proceedings to exclude the child from school. There are some issues tied up with how the home-school agreements are made, and I hope that my hon. Friend will deal with them.
1.45 pm
Mr. Coaker: Many of the points that have just been made are reasonable. In the end, there will be issues regarding who is responsible for signing home-school agreements, but that will be easy to deal with when it is clear who has parental responsibility.
Mr. Purchase: I hate to be awkward, and the Minister is doing a wonderful job of replying, but the material that he has to work with might, in this instance, defeat even him.
I have already referred to my youngest daughter’s school experience with regard to children with only one parent extant. We all know of many instances in which the father has managed to dodge the column for any number of years and has not paid maintenance of any kind, but has suddenly turned up and said that he is interested in his child. We have to try to level that and say that there is something in the old-fashioned idea that people stay together for the benefit of the children. It is tough in the modern world, and the pressures are far different from when that saying had real meaning. No one expects people, with all the social pressures of modern life, to stay together just for the benefit of the children, but I wonder whether we are running a little too far away from the idea that children must come first. We should think about that before we get to this stage.
Mr. Coaker: That is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. There will be guidance alongside the provision. I appreciate the compliments that my hon. Friend paid me, and I take his serious point. I think that all of us agree with the point about people staying together for the benefit of the child, whenever that is possible and it makes sense. I am trying to articulate to the Committee that notwithstanding the difficulties of the modern world, in which some people unfortunately split up, there will be a parent with whom the child is resident. My right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley makes the perfectly reasonable point that such a parent has responsibilities, such as getting the child to school and in relation to homework, that a non-resident parent does not have, for obvious reasons. The parent with whom the child resides will have a home-school agreement and will be involved in their child’s education, but that does not mean that that does not apply to the non-resident parent. If we can find a way of doing this—that is why it is discretionary—all the evidence shows that it will help with the education and growing-up of the young child. Our attempt to meet this challenge throws up the sorts of problems that have been articulated by Committee members. However, the question is whether we say that we will not try to address the matter because it is difficult and challenging—even though we know that it is better if both parents are involved with their children.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East that we have to live in the real world—he is right to remind us of that. This is not wishy-washy liberal thinking about being nice to each other and getting involved. We are saying that having different home-school agreements for the mother and the father—if that is appropriate and if it can be done—would improve the educational entitlement of their child in school. If it is not possible to achieve that, however, the head teacher will decide that it is not worth doing, and it will not be done.
That proposal represents a social policy challenge and a strategic choice. This is difficult, but we should not make the system over-bureaucratic. We must ensure that only the right information is shared. If we can do that, however, we will make a significant contribution to educational opportunity, as well as making some people face up to their responsibilities.
Mr. Laws: I am still grappling with how home-school agreements might differ for the same child, and why one would make them different. Under the old arrangements, the assumption was that the agreements just implied a set of general rights and responsibilities. Will the Minister give us two or three examples, leaving aside issues of privacy and where parents may live, of why someone would want to—[Interruption.] Well, if that is the major reason, I am pleased to have that information, but I am still struggling to understand how a school would wish two home-school agreements to differ.
Mr. Coaker: The only reason I shrugged was because it is so easy to say, “I know there has been one example but can we have some more?” I would do the same in the hon. Gentleman’s place, and if he was in my place, he would have shrugged as well.
Let me try to explain. Imagine being a head teacher, or the person whom the head teacher delegates to draw up a home-school agreement. Imagine a home-school agreement that for most people would be a generic document about the ethos of the school and the various other bits that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley talked about, alongside which is the individual learning. The resident parent sees the child every day of the week—sees them home from school, gets them off to school, packs their lunch and is responsible for their uniform. Let us say that the resident parent is the mother, while the father is 180 miles away—I am exaggerating to make the point. The home-school agreement drawn up for that father would be significantly different because he might not see the child from one month to the next. However, the important point is that we would still be trying to involve that non-resident parent in the education of their son or daughter. I hope that that practical example at least attempts to answer the question that the hon. Member for Yeovil posed.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): In all such cases a custody order will have been made by a court. This might not work, but if there is a dispute that the head teacher is unable to resolve, perhaps he could ask for sight of the custody order to deal with the difficult situation of one parent being 1,000 miles away yet insisting on the same rights as the parent with custody.
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