Children, Schools and Families Bill

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Mr. Gibb: Chloe Watson, who is highly educated and capable, is technically regarded as a NEET, because of the strange way in which some of the measurements are taken.
Mr. Stuart: Yes, and there are many other cases. It would be welcome if the Minister were to confirm that the NEET numbers are not robust, cannot be relied on and are not an excuse for legislation that further invades the right of families to home educate.
It is important to remember the context. We talk about difficulties with home education, but, in 2009, 19 per cent. of school pupils did not achieve a single GCSE at the end of key stage 4. In 2007-08, 35 per cent. of all pupils at the end of key stage 4 did not achieve five good GCSEs or their equivalent, and over 52 per cent. of all school pupils failed to achieve five good GCSEs including English and mathematics. Therefore, we are not talking about a perfect system in schools. Yet the impact assessment assumes that any child who is picked up and driven back to school will automatically achieve the average outcome.
Given, as we have heard in evidence, that the number of children who are home educated and who have special needs is higher in proportion than that of the average population—they may be autistic—the likelihood of their achieving the national average outcome is extremely unlikely.
The hon. Member for Keighley, who is no longer in her place, said that in certain parts of this country, we must be careful about where children are attending at a given time. However, schedule 1 will do nothing to bring to light children below the radar or taken out of school for forced marriage or other purposes. There is no obligation on parents to register their children—as before, it will be for local authorities to find them and catch up with mobile families. That is what makes the policy so problematic. Some of the people in the home-educating community about whom many local authorities doubt and worry have specific qualities. The legislation will not allow local authorities to pick up on them, and therefore will not make any difference.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley said that this is an opportunity to try to improve things in terms of notification and support. It is important to remember what Beth Reid of the National Autistic Society told the Committee:
“Currently, it looks like a very one-sided system. Without that support, the proposals will not make a difference to children with special educational needs.”——[Official Report, Children, Schools and Families Public Bill Committee, 19 January 2010; c. 68, Q104.]
Schedule 1 has no guarantee of support to home-educating families, no provision for ending the postcode lottery of support from local authorities and no voice for consultative forums as recommended by the Badman report.
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Schedule 1 is a solution without a proven problem. It will take the institutional bias against home education and give it statutory backing. Home educators should not have to sacrifice their liberties simply to make life easier for local authorities; government should work for us, not the other way round. Elsewhere in the Bill, there are pages dedicated to guarantees for parents of children educated at school, yet there are no such guarantees for home-educating parents. All the power is given to local authorities. This is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The hon. Member for Yeovil talked about putting the cart before the horse and he is dead right on that.
Paragraph 12 of the Department’s policy statement says:
“The regulations and guidance on registration and monitoring...will recognise that the interests of the child are of paramount importance.”
And yet, nowhere does that appear in schedule 1. We have Ministers saying that the system will be light-touch, but when we look at it, we find that it is anything but. We have Ministers saying that the interests of the child should be paramount, but when we look at the legislation, we find that the interests of the child are not mentioned.
I will now move on to the amendments. Amendments 254, 255, 256, 263, 264, 266, 269, 270 and 285 reflect a desire to shift from registration to notification for the purposes of support. This should be a voluntary notification system. The Government have again and again stressed the importance of knowing where children are and of local authorities knowing those who are not in school. The hon. Member for Yeovil has used that as a reason why he and his party support the illiberal measure of compulsory notification. I put it to him, as I have before—I hope that he may yet change his mind—that compulsory notification, albeit with no penalty, is unlikely to provide a full picture.
As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, we will see many parents deliberately hiding themselves from the local authority. For local authority purposes, I believe that it is good for them to ascertain to the best of their ability, without imposing on parents, all the children in their areas who are not at school. If they interrogated child benefit, NHS and other records, they would find a far higher percentage of the children in their areas than they ever would hope to achieve through registration, even if it was nominally compulsory.
Mr. Laws: That is the point on which we disagree. The Children, Schools and Families Committee’s review of elective home education came up with a voluntary scheme, which I suspect was something of a compromise among its members. It also concluded at paragraph 62 of its report that it considers it:
“unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated”
I assume that he signed up to that part of the report, so is he really confident that the mechanisms that he is suggesting can deliver that outcome efficiently and economically?
Mr. Stuart: We have a system, which he highlighted the costs of, proposed in the Bill. If the Secretary of State is right about the number of home-educated children he mentioned on Second Reading—70,000—the costs of the monitoring and licensing system will be around £500 million over the next 10 years. The child benefit records already exist; the claimant rate for child benefit is astonishingly high. If that database was interrogated, along with others, the cost would be a fraction of the cost of setting up a registration system. Therefore, unless the hon. Gentleman has reason to believe that that is not true, I do not understand why he would think that setting up yet another database was a better and more economical way of finding out what we both desire local authorities to know.
Mr. Laws: I am not sure whether the evidence that the Select Committee received justifies the view that it is possible to prepare confidently an estimate of those young people in home education by working back from the indicators that he has mentioned. The cost he cites is the cost of this hugely bureaucratic mechanism for oversight which he knows we strongly oppose.
Mr. Stuart: That is a fair point. When the Select Committee heard from our clerks that the Government had intimated that they did not think existing databases could be used I wondered why that could possibly be. Why could we not use existing data? If we need to give local authorities the right to access that data, we could do so simply and easily in this Bill. I cannot see any blockage to using existing information. This Bill is far more invasive than simply looking at existing figures. The hon. Gentleman knows that as from last September we have ContactPoint, which provides a list of all children in the area.
Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting issues. He knows that both our parties are committed to abolishing ContactPoint, so there is a limit to the extent to which we can fall back on that solution. He has raised an interesting point. I hope that the Minister will take that on directly.
Mr. Stuart: We are opposed to ContactPoint precisely because, like the Bill, it is universal rather than something that targets limited resources on those with greatest need. The compulsory notification system proposed by the h M for Yeovil would force parents to notify the state of how they were educating their children only if they were home educating. Although I am sure that there are other ways of notifying the state, I am not aware that parents who send their children to independent schools have to fill out a form and register the fact that they are doing so.
Annette Brooke: Is the hon. Gentleman not concerned that even if we could get all the information from the other data sources, we would merely establish the total number of children not at school? We would not establish which children were being home educated. We would be including in that children who have gone missing, children who have totally disappeared—a whole host of children. That is why we feel that the notification scheme must have a firm basis.
Mr. Stuart: That is a fair point. The Select Committee said that there should be visibility. If it interrogates existing databases, it will have that. It can then go out and try to ascertain within the powers that it currently has what the situation of those children is. The big point that people have made is that we need to narrow it down. We need to find the children below the radar. If all the children below the radar are identified it will be possible for the local authority to make inquiries. I do not know whether parents who send their children to independent schools have to register in some way. That itself is an interesting question. Parents who educate at home would have to go through registration, even under the Liberal Democrats’ proposal, and yet those at independent schools do not.
Annette Brooke: Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that there is an inconsistency in that he wants to send inspectors to every single family where there is a child who is not at a main school?
Mr. Stuart: I think we all agreed that it would be best if local authorities had that data and could then make judgments on how to act on that. It would be a different Bill from this that looked at what they did. This takes me on to another interesting aspect of this whole notification argument. The serious case review information with which we have been provided, and the information that the hon. Lady and I get on the Select Committee, show that the most vulnerable children in this country are not of school age. They are under five. That is one of the most peculiar things about this. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, who is an expert on these matters, knows full well, children under five are subject to the greatest level of abuse and are the most vulnerable to abuse. Are the Government coming forward with any form of registration system for them? No they are not. They are doing it for school age children, who would be in school for only 9 or 10 per cent. of the year—that is the average amount of time that a child in a maintained school spends at school. We are setting up this vast panoply of registration just in case there might be a problem, even though we know from international research, from New Zealand and around the world, that home-educated children do not have those problems.
New Zealand has a very similar jurisdiction to ours, and it introduced a system very similar to the one proposed by the Minister. What has it done with it? Last year it decided to stop operating it because it was a waste of time and money. It found that incidents of poor education were sufficiently small—just around 5 per cent.; so much less than the educational failure found in its own school system—that it could not justify the monitoring and inspection regime for a system that produced much better outcomes and a far lower level of failure than state schools. Of course, we call home education a system, but it is not—it is diverse and varied. New Zealand decided that, if it was to take an additional sum of money to improve education, it was best spent on an area where there were known problems—failing schools would spring to mind immediately—rather than on pursuing the families of home-educated children, with 95 per cent. of whom the local authorities could see no problems.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley gave a very thoughtful speech. The question that I am sure she would be asking the Minister is why are we doing this if those who have done it elsewhere have found it to be a waste of time and found that there were no problems with home education. Do we have any special reasons? I am sure that she could be convinced to bring in this kind of draconian system, as indeed could I, if we saw that there was a serious problem that needed to be tackled. No such serious problem has been established. The Badman report came up with the pre-determined outcome, as the Church of England put it.
I will talk a little more about the international context, because the Minister may have seen the memorandum from Kelly L. Green, a parent from British Columbia who home educates. My heart sank when I first read it, which must show a certain errant prejudice on my part, but I read her submission and found it to be excellent. Canada has large heavily populated jurisdictions with excellent regulatory models including the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.
In the United States, 10 states make no legislative demands of home educators—none. They include the heavily populated states of Texas, Illinois and Michigan. Some 14 states require notification only of intent to educate at home. They include California, Wisconsin and Delaware, so at least they are with the Liberal Democrats. Some 20 states have moderate regulation, meaning that parents may be asked to submit materials in a portfolio, test scores or evaluation. Only six states have what is considered to be heavy regulation. Even the heavily regulated states make no demands on home-educating families who home educate akin to those proposed in schedule 1. Kelly L. Green says:
“To the best of my knowledge, no state demands home visits, and no state requests to interview home-educated children.”
The vast laboratory of the United States, where there are far more home-educated children than in any other part of the world and they must know the subject better than anyone else, has no state demands for home visits and no state requests to interview home-educated children. Yet here we are with the Government pressing ahead with something that has no base.
Ms Johnson: I wonder, while we are touring around the world, whether we might just go back to New Zealand, where I understand that parents must receive approval for home-based schooling from its Ministry of Education. It is a complicated registration process and they are given an annual grant to help with the cost of learning materials. I understand that in Ireland and France there is a registration scheme. Some countries are highly regulated and in the US, Pennsylvania has a highly regulated scheme in place for those families who wish to home educate. We need to have some balance when we look at what happens around the world.
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Mr. Stuart: I was seeking to provide that balance, because in Badman’s report he mentions New Zealand a great deal and did not mention that it had just given up the very proposal for monitoring and registration that he was suggesting.
Greater regulation of home education does not produce better results. A peer-reviewed academic article on that topic in “Academic Leadership”, called “State Regulation of Homeschooling and Homeschoolers’ SAT Scores” and dated 11 August 2009, made the following observation:
“The authors of this study find no evidence from their analysis that supports the claim that states should exercise more regulation of homeschool families and students in order to assure better academic success”.
They looked at all the different states—they had all the laboratories, as states in the United States are often referred to—and compared outcomes to find out whether they were better in more heavily regulated states. What a fantastic opportunity to do that in respect of so many different jurisdictions and approaches. That article found no link at all between the level of regulation and the outcomes. So we are talking about bringing in legislation that could cost £500 million, even though the only evidence that we have from international studies suggests that it will bring no educational benefits at all. That is not reassuring when we are considering giving this measure the okay.
The article continues:
“On the contrary, the findings of this study are consistent with other research findings that homeschool students perform well academically—typically above national averages on standardized achievement tests and at least on par with others on college-admissions tests — and do so regardless of whether they live in a state that applies low, moderate, or high governmental regulation of homeschooling.
I have mentioned previously another particularly interesting bit of research that I ask Government members of the Committee to think on. It states:
“Research conducted on home-based education indicates that, unlike traditionally schooled students, home-educated students whose parents have less formal education achieve similar academic results to those whose parents have more academic credentials.”
In other words, home education levels the playing field between the more educated and the less educated parent.
A 1999 study by Dr. Lawrence Rudner, vice-president of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which is the testing company that runs the GMAT test in the United States—the primary test used there—observed:
“Home schooling’s one-on-one tutorial method seemed to equalize the influence of parents’ educational background on their children’s academic performance. Home educated students’ test scores remained between the 80th and 90th percentiles, whether their mothers had a college degree or did not finish high school.”
I would have hoped that hon. Members throughout the House would be excited at that prospect. Home education could have a transformational effect on the chance of children from the poorest homes getting a good education—if the parents had the commitment and the desire to do it—even if their parents did not have a good education themselves. He continued:
“Students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentage points higher than public school students from families of comparable educational backgrounds.”
In other words, although that cannot be guaranteed for all by any means, not least because of the economic realities, parents who are not well educated and who live in a deprived community and are prepared to show such commitment will none the less make a huge difference to the outcomes for their children, who are of course most likely to fail at school.
We should support home education rather than using measures that suggest that the only way we are going to improve it is by forcing children back to school.
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