Children, Schools and Families Bill

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Mr. Laws: I agree completely with my hon. Friend on those important points.
I draw the Committee’s attention to two other deficiencies, both of which the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has mentioned. It is relevant to registration as well as monitoring that a lot of concern has been expressed about the extent to which the new apparatus for the oversight of home education would pursue issues not only of education, but welfare and child protection. It has caused great resentment among the home educating community. It thinks that the Government and the Badman report, intentionally or otherwise, has associated home education with welfare and safeguarding concerns for children. Sometimes, Ministers have said that the intention is not to oversee home education, but in spite of those statements of good intention, we see from the policy statement issued by the Department that that is exactly the intention.
The Government’s view is that the job of the architecture under schedule 1 is not only initial registration and the policing of education, but policing for all home-educating families of welfare issues, whether or not there is cause for concern. That is set out clearly in paragraph 40 of the policy statement. It makes it clear that the responsibility of the regulator will not be to check whether education is suitable, which is difficult enough to define at the moment but at least seems to be a core competence of such regulations, but whether education
“accords with their application for registration; what the child’s wishes and feelings about education are”,
“whether it is harmful for the welfare of the child to continue with home education”.
We do not agree with the presumption that the state should not only be seeking to satisfy itself that some home education is going on, but essentially whether all home educating families throughout the country should be presumed to need some sort of welfare check. That is something that has driven the Bill, and many of the groups that are passionate about children’s rights outside this place are clear about their motivations in that regard. I respect them. They view it as important that, at the moment, children who do not come into contact with schools and other agencies should have some other oversight. They are concerned about the scope for the abuse of a tiny minority of children, who might be away from schools and other secondaries. I understand that, but I do not believe that it is right for the architecture of the system to presume that there is a need to inspect the welfare of children in every home educating family.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that the sort of people who are most terrified by such an intrusion are those whose children have been bullied? Presumably, any local authority officer who heard of bullying would do everything that they could to prevent it. Given that that fail-safe has already let down such families, what does the hon. Gentleman think is likely to happen to any family worried that their bullied child is again being inspected by a local authority? If they feel that the local authority is failing them again, what are they likely to do?
Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point to which the Minister rather than I should respond. The point is that, as far as I am aware, we have not established that there is a difference between the vulnerability of the most vulnerable children—not the average child—in home-educating families and in school settings.
The final area in which the Bill is deficient—
Mr. Stuart: The effect—there has been little comment on it so far, because so much horror has been expressed about the Bill’s general provisions—is that the most traumatised and vulnerable children and their parents, who have been let down so badly by schools, will cut off all links with the local authority in response to the provisions. In order to escape from those who have let them down the most, they will seek to elude and escape the attention of the local authority. They will not seek to use its facilities. The Bill should be responding to an agenda to open up public services and support to home-educated children, particularly the most vulnerable, but its effect on those whom we care about most could be precisely the opposite.
Mr. Laws: I agree strongly. The hon. Gentleman brings me to my next point, which is the Bill’s lack of support and positive reasons for home-educating parents to engage. I take seriously his concerns that it will drive many home educators away from dealing with local authorities. I did not particularly welcome the evidence that we took from some home educators who said that they would not adhere to the law and the regulations if the Bill were passed, because none of us likes to hear people say that they will break the law. It is a serious concern. If people feel that the laws imposed are unfair, unreasonable and inconsistent with a liberal society, we are driving them not to comply.
What I would have liked to see—in notification procedures, not application procedures—is linked support so that notifying, if it became part of the Government’s policy, would include a series of potential measures, funding support and access to other means of support open to home educators. That might be the type of environment in which a home educator might receive something from the process that was actually of value to them.
That is why we tabled these and other amendments. I will refer briefly to the ones in the present group. If you will excuse me, Mrs. Anderson, I will not comment on those tabled by others, as our time is seriously limited. Amendment 210 would change the process of registration and application to make it a process of notification. In other words, it would require compulsory notification by every home educator, but it would not require them to submit the same type of information required by the Government’s proposals, which essentially turn notification into a process of application.
If I had thought about it at the time and seen the people from the Chard Home Education Centre early enough, I would have tabled an additional amendment linking notification to the provision of direct support as a consequence of notifying, which might enable access to the support that we have been discussing. That might take the form of vouchers or other entitlements, so that people who notify can see that they are getting support of the type that many home educators do not receive at present.
Amendment 211 would ensure that parents of home-educated children needed to provide only a limited amount of information to the local authority rather than having to go through the complex process of registration and application proposed in the Bill. Amendment 217 sets out what types of information we think would be necessary for a light-touch notification rather than the type of application and registration envisaged in the Bill.
Amendments 213, 215, 216 and 214 are all pretty similar and would strip out the elements of welfare oversight from what should, in our view, be an attempt to oversee the issues of education. Amendment 212, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, would give a specific period of time within which to register what, under our model, would be a notification.
3.15 pm
I should like to finish by saying while we have the concerns that I have set out, we also take the view that the Committee has had a seriously deficient amount of time to consider such an extensive Bill. We have only one and three quarter hours left to deal with 92 amendments and new clauses, and a very complex debate. I have always hoped that the Government might reconsider this excessive legislation and come back to us with a much more limited scheme of notification, with some incentives to notify, because that is all my party would be able to support.
I have reached the conclusion, along with my colleagues in the Commons and the other place, that by trying to botch together this very bad job on home education, the Government have made it almost impossible for the concerns of people outside this place to be taken into account in a sensible way, particularly as there will not even be a serious Committee stage in another place. Therefore, I say to the Government that it is inevitable that we will have to vote against this aspect of the Bill and throw out all the proposals on home education, and I hope that that is something that the Conservative party will support.
None the less, in a spirit reflecting a residual desire to find some sort of sensible conclusion, I say to the Minister that her only way out of this is to bring back on Report a very modest schedule focusing on this limited issue of notification with which we could deal before this Parliament ends. Unless the Government do that, it is our strong view not only that the provisions to which amendments have been tabled should be deleted, but that the whole of clause 26 and schedule 1—everything related to home education—should be dumped before this Parliament comes to its end.
Caroline Flint: I will try to keep my comments brief because I know that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness has done a lot of work in this area and wishes to speak.
When I started to consider this part of the Bill, I wondered why we should not know the position of all our children who, in any other circumstances, would be in our state education system. However, after reading the documentation that was sent to us and listening to the concerns of one of my constituents, I now have some doubts. Gordon Whitehead has brought jobs into Doncaster. He supports learning and opportunities for young people, and wants to offer apprenticeships and opportunities in IT through his company. However, he has huge concerns for his own home-educated children because of what the propositions in the Bill will mean for him and other families who home educate.
I do not want to repeat everything that the hon. Member for Yeovil said, but I have some concerns about a process through which, for understandable reasons, there is a desire to know that if children are not in school, they are being home educated. Needing to know that information has turned this proposal into something that is bureaucratic and overburdening to families and local authorities. Those authorities are not confident that they can carry out the Government’s ask on this matter.
To echo the hon. Gentleman, I have read the statement from the Government about what is not expected of parents who home educate. However, although earlier paragraphs say that parents need to produce only two pages on what they provide, we then find that they will be asked to explain their philosophy as well as other things. I find that very confusing. We are able to read all this documentation and to hear from witnesses, but I wonder how such information will be related to local government officers on the ground.
In submissions provided by parents who home educate, we have found out about—I say straight away that I am sure that this does not represent all local government officers—individuals giving personal rather than objective points of view when they go into the homes of people who home educate. It might not be my personal desire to educate my children a certain way, but I recall one example of a local government officer referring in a report to incense being burned in the home. The family quite rightly questioned the report, saying, “What has that got to do with anything? People use fresheners in their homes all the time.” To be honest, however, there was in that case perhaps implied criticism that the family were rather “brown rice and sandals” and hippy-ish, and the very mention of incense being burned conveyed an approach with which the local government officer did not agree.
The Committee was provided with case studies of child protection, some of which I found rather wanting. There was an example of a woman in Gloucestershire—I think she was a foster mother—who was prosecuted for cruelty to children. If I have understood it correctly, the education services had annual contact to monitor the education at home. Having visited that home on an annual basis, the education service came to the conclusion that things were generally satisfactory and that no child protection concerns were noted, although perhaps that says something about whether the service was looking correctly. However, I could not see how anything in the Bill’s proposals would have made any difference in that case.
Another example was of a young person who sadly died. The serious case review stated categorically that the mother
“complied with all statutory requirements in relation to children in elective home education. She co-operated with visits from the London Borough of Enfield Education Department”
twice in one year. The following year, it was identified that
“The visiting officer had no concerns about the family or their circumstances, and was satisfied”.
What seems to have come out of those various examples linked to child protection is that, even in such circumstances, those on the ground have responded to the Government by saying, “We need something bigger. We need something more overarching to deal with these issues across the piece.”
I am not sure whether the Bill strikes the right balance. Finding a way through this matter is important, as is the language used. We have heard valid points about whether something is seen as a registration or an application.
The law is also called into question. We have received numerous submissions highlighting the role of the local authority in providing those services that it is required to provide, including such things as the national curriculum, child protection and Every Child Matters. However, whether we like it or not, as far as I understand it, the law is different when it comes to provision provided by parents. The locus for the local authority in that case is very different, and I wonder whether—presumably the legal opinion in my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department has given views on this—it might be open to legal challenge by other quarters in relation to the state’s role in providing education, and the ways in which it expects education to be provided when parents choose to do that.
I do not think we will resolve the matter today, but I hope that my hon. Friend will show a willingness to listen—I am sure she will—and engage in trying to find a better way forward. Another approach might be to make an offer that opens up dialogue between those in the community who home educate and local authorities. If there was money available to do that—money seems to be available to train local authority officers to inspect and understand what they need to inspect—it would be better used when linked to some sort of notification system with better co-operation.
During the evidence sessions—I think that Mr. Badman referred to this—we heard positive examples of forums involving home educators that already worked with a local authority. I do not want anyone to misinterpret this, but some of those in the home-educating community might be better gatekeepers for information about possible legitimate concerns.
Mr. Stuart: The right hon. Lady is giving a thoughtful speech. She is sending a much-needed message from this place that the voices of home educators have at least been listened to, because many of them feel that Members are deaf to what they say. Her fellow Labour members of the Select Committee came to precisely the same conclusion about improving the provision—that was Badman’s No. 1 identified need—and then seeing what happens. We should work on a voluntary basis with families before imposing such draconian legislation. If there was a need, and if there was no other way of tackling it, civil liberties and other issues could be put aside. Initially, however, the offer should be to work with families. I hope that the right hon. Lady’s words will influence the Minister.
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