Children, Schools and Families Bill

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Mr. Gibb: We now reach probably the most controversial element of the Bill: home education. Schedule 1 implements the Badman report. The report and these provisions have infuriated the parents of 20,000—or is it 50,000 or 70,000, according to the Secretary of State, or 80,000—children in home education. As the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), said on Second Reading:
“I am deeply concerned about the additional bureaucratic burden that will now potentially be placed on thousands of our fellow citizens whose only crime is to want to devote themselves as fully as possible to their children’s education. It is a basic right of parents to be able to educate their children in accordance with their own wishes, and to educate them at home if they so wish. There may be many reasons why parents take that decision: they might be dissatisfied with local provision; their child might have a specific educational need that they feel can be better supported at home; or they might have philosophical objections to the style of education on offer at the local state schools that are easily accessible.”
He went on to say:
“Ultimately however, this is a basic human right that every parent should have, and I feel the Bill erodes that right, because, as I read it, it allows the state to terminate the right of a family to educate a child at home if the education offered is not deemed suitable according to regulations that the Secretary of State writes.”—[Official Report, 11 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 456.]
Infuriating the home-education community en masse can only be a sign that the whole issue has been badly and insensitively handled.
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As Education Otherwise reported in its written evidence, one local authority told the DCSF:
“The review and its recommendations will be perceived by home educators as a direct and unprecedented attack on the family, striking at the heart of the relationship between parents and their children, and could damage the relationship between Las and home educators where there has previously been good and open dialogue”.
There seems to be confusion at the very heart of the policy. In a letter to the Secretary of State, Graham Badman said:
“In January, you asked me to review the arrangements for home education in England. In particular, you asked me to look at whether there are any barriers to local authorities and other public agencies in effectively carrying out their safeguarding responsibilities in relation to home educated children. You also asked me to investigate suggestions that home education could be used as a ‘cover’ for child abuse. Finally, you asked me to look at whether local authorities are providing the right support to home educating families.”
There was nothing in the terms of reference about the quality of education. I asked Graham Badman in our evidence session about the primary purpose of the review, and whether it was the issue of safeguarding, with home education as a potential cover for abuse or whether it was a worry about the quality of education being provided. He replied:
“On the basis of the quantum of evidence submitted by local authorities, I think my first concern would be the sufficiency and quality of the education received by a number of students.”——[Official Report, Children, Schools and Families Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2010; c. 52, Q70.]
That difference is revealing, and it matters because the policy prescription for tackling hidden abuse is very different from that of concerns over the quality of education. By conflating the two, the Government have created an unworkable and deeply unpopular policy that ends up implicitly accusing tens of thousands of sincere and honest parents of being potential child abusers at the same time as intruding into their approach to education.
If the prime concern is that of safeguarding, the purpose of a register or notification is simply to assist with ruling out parents in the hope of isolating those who might be problematic. If, on the other hand, the issue is education, we must ask ourselves against what standard will home education be measured, given that it will by its very nature be eclectic. It is a road that will lead nowhere. There is no way in which an inspector can judge the quality of such education unless he or she has a set of standards against which he or she is to judge it. Without such standards, the judgment will be sufficiently subjective to have no validity if sanctions are imposed. For someone to draft such standards would either be impossible or would constrain and constrict the very type of education that parents want for their children, hence interfering with the basic and fundamental parental rights.
In the policy statements, the Government stated:
“Our existing guidelines make it clear that a suitable, full time, efficient education cannot be determined by the same methods that apply in schools. Children normally attend school for between 22 and 25 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year, but this measurement of “contact time” is not relevant to home education where there can be almost continuous one-to-one contact and education may take place outside normal ‘school hours’”.
The guidelines go on to state that the type of educational activity undertaken can be varied and flexible. The policy statement continues:
“Home educating parents are not required to:
teach the National Curriculum
provide a broad and balanced education
have a timetable
have premises equipped to any particular standard
set hours during which education will take place
have any specific qualifications
make detailed plans in advance
observe school hours, days or terms
give formal lessons
mark work done by their child
formally assess progress or set development objectives
reproduce school type peer group socialisation
match school-based, age-specific standards.”
They are not required to do any of those things in the guidance. It begs the question, how can someone go into a home and judge education? It is hard to know what the visitor is meant to assess. The annual cost of between £130 million—
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman keeps talking about certain aspects of my constituency, but I have been living there for a long time and the children are very dear to my heart. What if an inspector went into a home and discovered that the parent who had decided to home educate spoke no English? What is the hon. Gentleman’s remedy if we are not to have inspectors?
Mr. Gibb: Those issues apply in other parts of the education system. The hon. Lady has been complaining that there are children who are not getting English lessons in the schools that they attend, so I do not think that that is an issue solely related to home education.
Mrs. Cryer: I have never said that children do not get English lessons. They could not possibly join or perform in the school if there were not dedicated groups of reception class teachers teaching them English on arrival. My complaint is that there is no English spoken in the home so they are thrown in at the deep end once they arrive at age four.
Mr. Gibb: I have friends who speak only French in their homes. It is not for me to object to the way those parents bring up their children. We have to be careful what powers we take for ourselves as the state, and this issue treads over the line between the duties that the state has and those that families have for bringing up their own children.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Gibb: I will give way to the hon. Member for Battersea and then the Minister, and then I will crack on, if I may.
Martin Linton: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he and his party would be happy if children in this country were educated without any knowledge of English?
Mr. Gibb: No, I am not. The issues are very difficult and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath said during the debate on Second Reading, things are not satisfactory at the moment, and we will have to look at this issue. But this is not the right approach to tackle such difficult matters. In the words of an old clichÃ(c), it is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and it is offending tens of thousands of people. That is the problem. We have to consider this again, more sensitively, to tackle the problems that both hon. Members have highlighted.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ms Diana R. Johnson): Will the hon. Gentleman comment on one of the recommendations of the Select Committee? On home education, it believes that the prospect of a child gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills and a breadth of education is right. How does that fit with the hon. Gentleman’s comments on having perhaps only one language in the home, which is not English?
Mr. Gibb: There are many schools in this country where 8 per cent. of young people are not learning to read. The way the Government are trying to tackle such matters is not right. For one thing, it is costing between £130 million and £567 million a year, which will be completely wasted if their approach is designed to change the way children are home educated.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I wonder, following the Minister’s intervention, whether—from what she said about the system of local authority inspectors looking to see that a suitable education is being provided— any family who cannot demonstrate suitable English skills will automatically be deprived of the right to home educate? That seems to be the logical conclusion of what the Minister suggested. If that is the message she wants to send out to people in such a situation in this country, perhaps she can say it more clearly.
Mr. Gibb: I am sure the Minister will respond to that point.
In my judgment, the state will be far better using that money—£560 million a year—to provide assistance, pay exam entry fees, give access to exam centres or help to pay tutors than wasting it on inspecting an eclectic type of education that will ultimately be inconclusive. Local authorities should be focusing their efforts on the one in three schools judged not good enough by Ofsted, the 40 per cent. of 11-year-olds who leave primary school still struggling with the basics; and the 8 per cent. of boys and 4 per cent. of girls who leave primary school completely illiterate.
I want to leave time for others, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness, who has worked tirelessly and with great principle in fighting for the rights of home educators. Therefore, I shall not touch on home visits, the rights of local authority officials to meet the children each year—possibly without parents present—and the sinister warning in the schedule of a revocation of registration
“by reason of a failure to co-operate”,
which parents fear may include simply refusing a meeting with the child without the parent being present, even though that right is enshrined in proposed new section 19E(4).
My amendment 152 proposes that the register should not be a public document—whether a parent educates their child at home is a private matter and should be left as such, notwithstanding the measures.
Amendment 151 requires a local authority to decide about entering a child on the register expeditiously, stipulating 20 days—the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil states 10 days. Either would be good; we need to ensure that parents are not kept waiting for many weeks before a decision is reached about whether their child is to be included in the register and, therefore, whether they are permitted by the state to continue to home educate.
Amendment 70 takes out the request for the application process to include
“a statement giving prescribed information about the child’s prospective education”.
Amendments 107 and 108 are consequent upon amendment 70.
Amendment 153 states that the information requirement for registration should not be burdensome. The policy statement says that the information about the education need only be about two sides of typewritten A4 paper. However, Mr. Badman, in his evidence, seemed to imply that more than two sides might be needed for secondary-aged children.
Chloe Watson, who is a constituent of mine, represented the Home Educated Youth Council, which consists of young people who are themselves home educated and passionately in favour of home education. She said in her evidence to the Committee:
“So far, there is no evidence from an unbiased body that home education is any worse than school education. It is considered equal or better by all authorities that are not local authorities...I know thousands of”
home educated children
“and not one of them has an unsuitable education in my eyes or their eyes.”——[Official Report, Children, Schools and Families Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2010; c. 74-75, Q112.]
We saw that first hand, from the passion of Chloe, who argued her case eloquently and was clearly well educated.
Mr. Laws: I am pleased that we have now finally moved on to what is an extremely important part of the Bill. The issue has probably generated most correspondence to Committee members and has put constituents in contact with their local Member of Parliament even if their MP were not on the Bill Committee.
I start with some comments about our attitude to the schedule, in order to put our amendments in some sort of context and to prevent our having to repeat some of those points later. I do not question the motivations of the Government in introducing the provisions. We understand why the Government are concerned to ensure that every child is receiving a high-quality education. We take seriously some of the evidence given to the Select Committee, in which some of the shortfalls—for a small number of home educating families—were acknowledged.
We acknowledge that the Government are under a great deal of pressure on two sides of the argument. On one side, child welfare issues can come into the public domain, and if children are shown not to be educated, there can be a sudden media uproar about Government negligence. On the other side, when Governments try to take action, they often get criticised for over-regulating. The Government’s job is not an easy one. We understand that in some cases—probably a small minority—there may be concerns about the quality of home education and the effectiveness and ability of local authorities to discharge their current responsibilities.
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However, we also understand the concerns that have been raised by home educators across the country about the nature of the Government’s proposed solution, which we feel is highly illiberal, for reasons that I will go through in a moment. The solution fails a number of tests that we would set for making legislation in this area.
I would like to pay tribute, without taking up too much of the Committee’s time, to all the home educating groups and individuals who have made representations to us, the Government and the Select Committee, and who, in spite of the fact that sometimes they are not, by their nature, part of big, powerful national umbrella groups, have been forceful in making their case over the last few months. I want to refer to some of the people in my constituency in the Chard Home Education Centre and some individuals, such as Tania Berlow, who gave evidence to the Select Committee, which took a lot of time to consider the Government’s proposals.
Turning to the substance of the proposals, we share the Government’s concerns about the existing legislation in two respects. We welcome the fact that Conservative Front-Benchers have made it clear that existing regulations on home education are not perfect and that their party has an open mind about making sensible improvements where possible. We are concerned about two areas in the existing framework for home education.
First, we think it is reasonable that local authorities have, under current legislation—I am cautious about the words I use, because the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has some expertise in this area, and he will jump down my throat if I select the wrong words—some responsibilities in ensuring that no young person is badly home educated. If I was a local authority, with the existing responsibilities under the law, I would be nervous because I would not know many of the children and families who were home educating in my area. Of course, that is the case at present; families can move across local authority areas. I understand why, and I think that many, though not all, home educators also understand why there is some desire for local authorities at least to possess information about who is being home educated. That is directly relevant to the large cluster of amendments that deal with registration and notification.
The second thing on which we agree with the Government is that once local authorities know who is home educating, if they have genuine concerns that the quality of education—I underline education—is poor, and believe that there is no evidence that young people are being educated properly, they need to have sufficient powers to judge whether that is the case and whether action needs to be taken. It would be absurd to give local authorities a responsibility if they had no information and no means of making an informed judgment.
I return to a point made in an earlier debate. Although the vast majority of parents, home educating and non-home educating, are passionate about their children and are responsible—I have no doubt that the vast majority of home educators are deeply committed and are providing an excellent education—there are other people who are home educating for other reasons. Some groups of people do not believe that particular children should be educated beyond a certain age. Evidence was given to the Select Committee about Traveller families who thought girls, for example, should not be educated above key stage 2.
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