Children, Schools and Families Bill

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Ms Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is quoting some research, but it is clear that there is a lack of good research in this area about home education versus schooling. From the analysis done of the limited research that is available, the problem seems to be that often the groups of parents who nominate their children to be put into such studies have some of the brightest children, and they are self-selecting, so those studies do not give a full, accurate picture of home education across the piece. Does he accept that?
Mr. Stuart: Any academic exercise—I want to be rude and say, “unless it was dreamed up by the DCSF”—would seek to ensure that it took out all those biases: that is what academics do. However, former local authority officers who are asked to come to a predetermined outcome do not get rid of the biases. When they contact local authorities and get 74 of the 152 respond, it seems that they do not ask themselves the question that the Minister asked me. The Minister’s impact assessment is based on the responses of the 74 self-selecting local authorities that replied to Graham Badman’s request. Why would a local authority choose to reply? Perhaps because it is a local authority that has a problem with home education. Perhaps because it is a local authority that has not got it right and does not understand the existing legislative guidelines, and has therefore decided to fill in the forms and send them back. Where is that self-selecting bias represented in any of the Government’s views? It is absolutely absent.
The Minister sits there, dismissing serious academic research from all over the world—as did Graham Badman, because it did not fit with the outcomes that he had predetermined for him by the Department, and that he duly delivered. Yet his own efforts at gathering data were subject to no such rigorous academic scrutiny and, in fact, every time anyone has questioned them, they have been shown to be false. When the Minister gets a chance to respond—when I sit down—I am particularly looking forward to hearing her defence of the numbers, such as the 20 per cent. of young people not getting a suitable education.
I hope that the Minister will also help us with the contradictions that seem to be so frequent. We were told that the regime would be light touch, but then we read about it and it is the opposite. We heard that the whole purpose, from the Government’s point of view, was to give more help to home-educating parents, yet Ministers have successively said that there is no money to support home education—the right hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), when he was Minister with responsibility for schools, wrote saying that to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole. A few weeks ago, when looking on the DCSF website, we found the programme that allows children to have a home computer—I forget its name—in the small print at the bottom of the page, and it said specifically, “but not if you are home-educated”. No access to IT then. The website said that on the very day the Minister told us how the Government wanted to change things.
The Chairman: Order. As I have decided to broaden the debate to cover all the amendments to schedule 1, the hon. Gentleman may wish to refer to his later amendments, and hon. Members who have already spoken may wish to speak again, briefly. However, we want to allow time for the Minister to respond, so I urge hon. Members to be as brief as possible.
Mr. Stuart: Thank you, Mrs. Anderson.
The Minister’s intervention was extraordinary. Time and again we get the circular argument that we need registration before we can provide support. We have 20,000 home-educated children who are known to be registered with their local authority. Has that led to any provision for them? It has not. That is extraordinary. People have registered even when there is nothing in it for them, but why, when something comes along that they could be given, do the Government put in the small print at the bottom of the website, “But not for you, I’m afraid, even if you are registered”? Why should those people have any trust or belief?
It gets worse. On 12 November, in a written answer, the Minister said:
“So far as local authority support for the education of home educated pupils is concerned, we plan to strengthen the school census guidance for the January 2010 return to ensure that all local authorities are aware that they can already include in the Alternative Provision Return for Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) home educated pupils whom they support financially and who have a statement, or have significant special educational needs that have not been formally recognised through a statement”—
they can already include that—
“and pupils whom they fund to attend college for post-14 qualifications including GCSEs and Diplomas. These pupils will then count as a unit for DSG purposes.”.—[Official Report, 12 November 2009; Vol. 499, c. 988W.]
The Minister said on 12 November that in January local authorities would be urged to register home-educated children known to them, for whom they were providing support, so that funding could be provided. However, DCSF guidance notes for alternative provision, dated 28 January 2010—a few days ago—state:
“Pupils taught at home only includes those pupils who are receiving LA funding (i.e. this excludes those educated at home by parental choice)”.
We have complete doublespeak. The Minister tells us that local authorities can register, but then, in the guidance given in January—precisely when the Minister said—there are explicit instructions that authorities cannot register someone who is home educated.
A helpful table on page 17 of the guidance sets out the criteria for inclusion in the census return. It says:
“Pupil whose parents have elected to educate at home (EHE)”.
Under “Include?” is a helpful answer for anyone filling it in:
“Include? No. Category: Not applicable”.
That is where home-educated children find themselves now. As Fiona Nicholson, a trustee of Education Otherwise, said,
“The Department will only consider refunding home educated children who are already funded by the local authority”—
it is a Catch-22—
“yet the guidance notes specifically instruct local authorities not to include home educated children in any funding applications.”
Authorities can only fund those whom they are funding, but they cannot add anyone who comes to them for funding. Perhaps the Minister can spell out why that is not an extraordinary set of contradictions.
I am aware of your strictures, Mrs. Anderson. The first set of amendments would make the shift from registration to notification. In the second group, which is now grouped with the first, amendment 273 suggests that, as in New Zealand and Ontario, visits should take place only where there are reasonable grounds for concern about home-educated children. Having heard the debate this afternoon, I hope that all Committee members will see that that is entirely reasonable. Home visits should not take place if there are no grounds for concern. I hope that we will have the chance to push the amendment to a vote.
On the new clauses, I have tried—
The Chairman: Order. May I ask you to repeat for the benefit of the Chair and the Committee which clause or amendment you wanted to press to a vote?
Mr. Stuart: Amendment 273 in the second group.
The new clauses would put into law Graham Badman’s positive recommendations, which, despite all the talk and policy guidance, are not to be found in the legislation. I hope that Members will consider supporting the new clauses.
In the final group of amendments, amendments 115 and 279 would do essentially the same thing. They suggest that refusal to co-operate—assuming, of course, that the Government press ahead with the measures—should be grounds for refusal of continued registration only if the refusal to co-operate is unreasonable. As it stands, the local authority does not even need to show that a parent is being unreasonable. I hope that Ministers will see fit to include my amendments, as our direction of travel is the same, but my amendments ameliorate some possibly draconian impacts. Amendments 287, 303 and 304 are an attempt to ensure that the Bill will do what Ministers say it is supposed to do, which is to put the interests of the child first. I would like to push amendment 287 to a vote, if I may.
Finally, the current bias against home education in schedule 1, which deals with school attendance order proceedings, must be removed. It is absurd that our law says that if someone home educates without being registered, the quality of the education, the needs of the child and so on are to be disregarded. If a parent tried to challenge that and went to court, the court would be told that it must disregard the quality of the education and the interests of the child, because the law says so. I therefore hope that the Committee can support the amendments if, as I fear, the Bill is to continue on its merry way out of Committee. Having spoken for long enough, I will sit down.
Annette Brooke: I will be relatively brief, covering the rest of the amendments. Our starting point must be a recognition of the diversity of the home education community. The biggest category seems to be parents who are so committed that they devote themselves to home educating their children. I have only admiration for that, because it means that at least one parent does not take the opportunity to work and instead supports and provides hour after hour of education, in whatever form it takes. That is an enormous commitment, and it makes me understand how angry those parents feel about what is a real attack on them.
4.30 pm
A second category is parents who withdraw their children from school because the school is not serving them well, and often that is when the child or young person has special educational needs that the school just cannot meet. I have also come across many instances where that has been done, possibly for those with special educational needs, because of bullying. I presume that there is a category of children about whom we know little. The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families discovered that some local authorities have been colluding to keep down the exclusion figures, and that ought to be tackled firmly. It is absolutely clear that that complex situation has been dealt with in a rushed and flawed process, which can only lead to bad legislation in its current form.
With regard to the quality of education that might be provided, I would like to submit some DCSF evidence to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness. The extension of the “effective provision of pre-school education” study has shown that children with parents who have lesser qualifications and who spend large amounts of quality time with them will perform better that children with parents who have higher qualifications but do not. That is interesting, and in some ways it supports what he has said. The research was carried out by the Institute of Education, based at the university of London.
The provision is such a pig’s ear that the best thing would probably be to vote against it, but we have tried to be constructive and have set out a series of amendments that hang together to scrap the idea of a registration process. I had originally thought that a simple registration process would work, but as soon as we look at the Government’s suggestions, we see that there seems to be no such thing as a simple registration process. We therefore propose a notification scheme. That must, of course, be backed up by other measures in time, but immediately it could be backed up with the supportive measures. Supportive measures should be in the Bill and there should be a guarantee.
We have tabled two amendments pertaining to special educational needs in particular. Although there is support as far as children’s statements are concerned, there are many concerns about parents withdrawing their children from school because they are not getting the extra support that they need there, probably because they are not statemented. If we were assured today that that support would be offered as soon as possible, we would feel much better about the situation.
To give a fair summary, the rest of our amendments try to reduce the prescriptiveness of the Government’s approach throughout. In amendment 225 and new clause 5, we suggest that we should start again with a proper, independent inquiry that people trust so that we can define what we mean by “efficient and suitable” and, equally, establish fully all the support that is needed. We need to do that properly with a full, independent inquiry, and that must be done before we establish the sort of registration scheme that the Government propose.
Mr. Gibb: Was the Badman review not meant to be a full, independent inquiry? It was certainly an independent review.
Annette Brooke: I covered that earlier when I said that the process was rushed, as everyone would agree, so I do not think that it could be counted as a proper inquiry. The fact that the Badman review did not include examples of good practice for home education shows that it was not balanced. That was totally lacking in the report. We are looking for an independent inquiry.
Mr. Stuart: It is worth putting on the record that not one of the people on the Badman review had expertise in home education. It was quite extraordinary. One member of the expert panel described the whole process as the most slapdash in which he had been involved in 30 years of academic life.
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I go back to where I started: we should not have legislation based on that process. It can only end up as bad legislation of which no Government would be proud.
The Chairman: As we have broadened the debate to all the amendments to schedule 1, do you want to make a further contribution, Mr. Gibb?
Mr. Gibb: No.
Ms Johnson: In response to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, I wish to say that Badman contains references to good practice throughout the country where local authorities work alongside home-educating families. I refer the Committee to page 16, which sets out good examples. The debate has been wide-ranging and, clearly, the number of amendments that have been tabled and grouped means that my response will be lengthy. However, I shall try to get through all the issues that have been raised.
On behalf of the Government, I totally refute the idea that we believe that home-educating families are not doing a good job in the majority of cases. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton drew attention to three tasks given to Graham Badman, but the fourth task was to look at whether any changes were needed in the current regime for monitoring the standard of home education to meet the needs and support the work of parents, local authorities and other partners to ensure that all children achieve the “Every Child Matters” outcomes. That was clearly put to Graham Badman as one of the issues he needed to address in his report.
Local authorities have lobbied hard on the education point. On several occasions, they have told the Department that they do not have the powers they need to make sure that children in their localities are receiving an education. As for the needs and best interests of a child not being set out in the Bill, that is because local authorities have a general duty under section 175 of the Education Act 2002, which provides that they must carry out all functions conferred on them in their education capacity
“with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children.”
Having set out the role of a local authority and what it has to do, at the heart of the Bill is ensuring that the interests and needs of children are met, and the basis of our proposals on the registration and monitoring of home education are no different from the basis of other clauses that we have been considering during the past few weeks. Parents have a primary duty to ensure that their child receives a suitable education, and home education is a perfectly valid option. The state is already required to intervene on the child’s behalf when parents fail to fulfil their duty to the child, but the state cannot fulfil its responsibilities towards the child if it does not know that the child is being home educated, and has no means of establishing whether the child is receiving any education, let alone a suitable one. That is the key point that the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness fails to grasp.
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