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Mr. Coaker: I am not sure what the law is in that respect, but I think that we should look at anything that would help to overcome the difficulty that we are trying to address.
Caroline Flint: It is clear from the consensus in the room that grappling with modern families and keeping absent parents in the loop is vital. I hope that the amendment will not be pressed to a Division, but I also hope that my hon. Friend will hold further discussions with his colleagues in the Department about how the policy will work in practice, given the seriousness of the responsibility on both parents if further action has to be taken against them. They should also consider the way in which the agreements will fit in with other information that should be provided when appropriate, such as school report cards, notification of parents’ meetings and so on, because there is a lack of clarity in that area, too. If he can assure the Committee that he will hold such further discussions, perhaps that will help us to move on and return to the matter at a later date.
Mr. Coaker: The social policy challenge is as I laid it out, but the practical details of how it is met are a matter for debate. I am perfectly happy to hold discussions with whoever to get things right and to ensure that we achieve our aspiration and policy objective to which, I am sure, no member of the Committee is opposed. People are concerned about the detail of how the system will work and the practical consequences.
The intention behind the amendments is to move away from the concept that the head teacher might decide, for the educational benefit of the young person, that different home-school agreements for the parents would benefit their son or daughter. I do not want to lose that flexibility—it is the prize. However, if we need discussions to understand better how this will work in practice, I am happy to go along with that.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for being so patient with hon. Members. Will he clarify that the issue will arise only when a non-resident parent requests that he or she should be party to a home-school agreement? I assume that there will be no element of compulsion in respect of a non-resident parent.
Mr. Coaker: The policy is a bit more proactive than the hon. Gentleman’s describes. It will be about contacting and working with the non-resident parent. The crucial point is discretion, and we shall consider what he said about that. I am grateful for the latitude that has been allowed in respect of our debate on the amendment. We have had an important discussion and lots of pertinent issues have been raised.
I go back to what I have just said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. I want to achieve the social policy objective of ensuring that, when appropriate, both parents are involved with their children’s education at school. Notwithstanding the difficulties, what a prize that would be. Of course there are practical difficulties that we need to understand and, as I said when I gave my commitment to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and the Committee more generally, I am happy to consider how the policy will work in practice. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Yeovil to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Laws: I am grateful to the Minister for his response and for his usual patience in taking a wide range of questions. Although I still have a few worries about the way in which the provision will work in practice, I accept two of the hon. Gentleman’s points: first, that this is one of the few aspects of the clause that is an option and that a duty will not be placed on head teachers and schools, which is at least one welcome thing; and, secondly, that all of us accept that so many original parents have broken up that there is a real problem with involving them in their child’s education and encouraging them to be part of it. We obviously want to do that, but I am still struggling with a number of issues.
Although the provision is an enabling power, there might be expectations among parents that they should be able to have individualised home-school agreements—different ones for different parents. Schools will be expected to consider that, so they will need a clear understanding of what is intended and how they should respond. Parents might worry when they understand that the home-school agreement of which they have sight is not the same agreement that the other parent has seen, and that might cause a lot of resentment. I would like the Minister to ponder these points and respond to them today or in writing.
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Will the Minister tell us as clearly as possible when such a possibility will arise? I assume that the duty that we have been talking about is one to supply a home-school agreement to every “registered pupil”, but I am not quite sure what that means. Is that presumed to be the parent with care, or is there possibility, as the Minister indicated, that schools will have to be proactive by tracking down non-resident parents throughout the country to give them an option of a personalised home-school agreement? That would represent a pretty horrendous bureaucratic burden. If there was an expectation for both parents to sign different agreements, things could get complicated. Indeed, under a Conservative amendment, if one parent signed the home-school agreement and the other did not, we would not know whether the child would be able to attend any school at all. There are some serious concerns.
I would also like to know whether there will be an entitlement for a parent to see the home-school agreement that the other parent has signed—although I assume that the answer is no. However, if I was a parent in such circumstances, I would want to know the arrangements and understandings relating to my child during the part of the week that they were not with me, but with the other parent. I would be quite concerned about things being kept secret, and the process could end up being part of a war between parents who have broken up, which is often pursued through a number of different routes, such as the Child Support Agency. The process could get messy and complex, so we need to be clear about the expectations and entitlements.
I am still quite nervous about why the measure is in the Bill. I do not believe that it is there simply so that the addresses of parents should be kept secret, for reasons that many of us will understand—because of the disagreements that may arise. I assume that there would be some sort of provision to deal with that. I can only assume that the matter has arisen because of the Government’s intention for the home-school agreements to be personalised and to have all sorts of detailed information about expectations. However, are we really going to encourage head teachers to break down the parents’ responsibilities for delivering the expectations so that the agreement states that one parent will be responsible for delivering them on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the other parent on for the other days, because a child is with one parent for part of the week and with the other for a different proportion? Will there be an expectation that one parent will do a bit more maths or English, with the other doing geography? That sounds rather silly, but I do not understand why we would want to get down to that degree of distinct personalisation between parents, because it would create a nightmarish, complex mess. While head teachers could opt out of the process, they might decide to opt in, or be encouraged by parents to do so, and once they have opted in, they might face such problems regarding the responsibilities of a non-resident parent. This seems to be a bit of a minefield that needs clarification.
Mr. Coaker: I would like to confirm what I said at the end of my speech. Many members of the Committee agree with the hon. Gentleman about some of the difficulties that he is raising. I agreed that I would look at them and see what we could do. As with the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley and my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, I will look at his points. For me, the prize is not saying in Committee, “We will need to look at this to see how we can deliver it in a more practical and sensible way,” but delivering the social policy objective of involving both parents as successfully as possible.
Mr. Laws: That is helpful. Will the Minister write to members of the Committee before the Bill is considered on Report so that we can decide whether to table further amendments?
Mr. Coaker indicated assent.
Mr. Laws: That is also helpful.
I would like to underline the issues that we particularly need to understand: the possible extent of the personalisation; whether the non-resident parent has to opt in or whether there is any compulsion to try to get them to sign home-school agreements; and whether a parent is entitled to see the other parent’s home-school agreement. Given the Minister’s helpful assurance, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment 45, in clause 4, page 6, leave out lines 20 to 26.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 135, in clause 4, page 6, line 22, leave out ‘shall’ and insert ‘may’.
Amendment 136, in clause 4, page 6, line 25, leave out ‘must’ and insert ‘may’.
Amendment 46, in clause 4, page 6, leave out line 33.
Mr. Gibb: Amendment 45 would remove subsections (8) and (9) of proposed new section 109A of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998, which clause 4 introduces. Subsection (8) states:
“The head teacher...(a) may review a home-school agreement from time to time, and shall review each home-school agreement at least once in every school year after the one in which it was first provided... (b) may revise an agreement following a review.”
Subsection (9) states that consultations with parents
“must form part of any review”.
The NASUWT brief summarises its position and ours:
“The Union is...concerned about the potential for these agreements to become a hugely bureaucratic and unmanageable process and is particularly concerned by the proposal that they should be reviewed annually and signed following the review. The administration of the home school agreements must not place excessive and unreasonable burdens on schools. Therefore the provision to review every agreement annually should be on the basis of change in circumstances.”
Not only do home-school agreements have to be bespoke for every child—there might be more than one for every child, as we have just debated—but they need to be reviewed every year, perhaps redrafted every year, and signed every year. The absurdity becomes more and more obvious as the debate continues.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley made an interesting point about personal learning plans. Will the Minister tell the Committee what kind of things will be in a personalised home-school agreement? Will they relate to the behaviour of the child or their educational achievement? Paragraph 15 of the policy statement says:
“HSAs must capture each child’s personalised goals and targets around learning”.
Does that mean that every piece of curriculum knowledge—in history, geography, the sciences, maths and English—will be set out in the home-school agreement? Will a particular year’s home-school agreement state that we expect the child to have learned about Bismarck, or that we will be disappointed if he has not learned quadratic equations by the time he is 15? Will they address all the knowledge in the curriculum? I suspect not.
The policy is wrong not just because of its bureaucratic nature, but because it is an extension of a wider approach to education that has been tried time and again in this country, Australia and America. It is called outcomes-based education, and it is a progressive approach to education in which what matters is not the knowledge of the child, but their outcomes and their skills, so it is a skills-based approach rather than a knowledge-based approach. Kevin Donnelly talks about the complaints about an outcomes-based education in one of his excellent books, stating:
“The excessive number of curriculum outcomes, especially at the primary school level...overwhelm teachers and promote a check list mentality in deciding what should be taught”.
He says that the outcomes are “jargon-ridden” and generalised too much, that they are “superficial and patchy” and that the
“nature of the outcome statements...work against students learning essential knowledge, understanding and skills associated with”
traditional subjects. We will come back to that when we talk about the primary curriculum.
The concern here is that the statement goals will have nothing to do with the curriculum knowledge that children are expected to learn by a certain date. They will be amorphous targets for skills that are understood by very few people—parents, teachers and children. Even if the targets are understood, they do not relate to the actual curriculum knowledge of the child. The approach is not only bureaucratically heavy on schools, but something that has failed children wherever and whenever it has been tried around the world, and of course it always fails children from the least privileged backgrounds the most.
Amendment 45 would remove the requirement for an annual review. Amendment 46 would remove from the Bill the provision that the home-school agreement lapses when the pupil
“ceases to be of compulsory school age”.
I do not understand the need for that provision. Surely the home-school agreement lapses only when the pupil ceases to be a pupil at the school, whether that is at the age of 13 because they move house, the age of 16 because they leave school, or the age of 18 because they are going on to further education. Surely a 17-year-old in a sixth form needs to conform to the rules of their school every bit as much as a pupil below the age of 16.
Mr. Laws: As the hon. Gentleman explained, amendment 45 would remove proposed new subsections (8) and (9), which relate to the head teacher reviewing the home-school agreement and having to consult parents. We have tried to achieve something similar with amendments 135 and 136, by turning a “shall” into a “may” and a “must” into a “may”. In other words, we do not see why head teachers should, under such a bureaucratic, dreadful and centralising provision, be compelled to review the home-school agreements each year for the sake of it, and nor do we understand why it is necessary for them to consult parents about that as a matter of course. In an education system in which we have some faith in head teachers, such things should be devolved to them.
We agree that amendment 46 raises interesting issues about whether the home-school agreements should lapse when pupils cease to be of compulsory school age, and we will be interested to hear the Minister’s response to what has been said.
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