Clause 5
Children, Schools and Families Bill
2:30 pm

Home-school agreements: parenting contracts and parenting orders

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment 137, in clause 5, page 7, leave out lines 1 to 3.

Clause 5 ties the discharge by parents of their responsibilities under home-school agreements to parenting contracts and orders under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. Amendment 137 is a probing amendment to explore the significance of local authorities and governing bodies being given responsibility in relation to the parenting contracts, because proposed new subsection (6A) of section 19 of the 2003 Act makes it clear that a parenting contract will impose a duty on the parent in relation to the discharge of the home-school agreement, but will also need to include a statement by the local authority or governing body that it agrees to provide support to the parent for the purposes of discharging those responsibilities. Although that is understandable, I want to test the Government’s expectation of the level of support that will be provided by local authorities or governing bodies and the circumstances in which that support is likely to be necessary.

I want the Minister to reassure us that in circumstances in which there are seriously negligent parents who have not been supporting the school or abiding by the home-school agreement, they will not simply be able to evade their responsibilities as a consequence of making an excuse about the support that the local authority or governing body is supposed to be giving under this provision. Clearly, the prime responsibility needs to be placed on the parents to abide by the home-school agreement. We do not want to create a system of policing the statements that allows people to unreasonably blame other agencies. Will the Minister explain the extent of the support that will be required under the proposal and the extent to which parents who are seen not to be delivering on their responsibilities will be able to argue for no action to be taken against them because the local authority or governing body has not given the support?

2:45 pm
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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

This is a useful probing amendment, and I want to explore what the Minister means and who is covered by the agreement and the statement by the local authority or governing body. In the case of academies, and possibly of foundation trusts, it might well be that the local authority has no locus whatsoever in the school. Therefore, it might not be able to offer its services to the individuals concerned because the governing body will take on the task, although it might be singularly unsuited to do so. Would a local authority have the right to intervene on behalf of the parent or child so that the child could get the full and proper counselling and assistance from the local authority to which a child in a community school would be automatically entitled?

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

Amendment 137 would remove the duty on local authorities or school governing bodies to provide support to parents who had entered into parenting contracts following non-compliance with the behavioural expectations set out in their home-school agreement. I  know that all hon. Members will agree that all children should be able to learn in an environment free from disruption. Pupils, school staff and parents share responsibility for ensuring that that is the case. All parents need to understand how they can help schools to manage poor behaviour in the classroom and what schools in turn will do.

Sir Alan Steer’s recent review of behaviour in school notes the fundamental importance of the engagement of parents in the education of their child, particularly when the child is experiencing or causing problems in school. To help with that, parents need to be able to understand how they can help schools to manage poor behaviour in the classroom. Once their child has been admitted to a school, parents will be expected to sign the home-school agreement every year, and they will face consequences if they fail to live up to the responsibilities set out in it. As long as the child behaves well and attends school regularly, no further action will be required.

However, a small minority of children can cause difficulties for schools and distress for teachers, and disproportionately affect the learning of other children in their class. Parents who do not fully understand their own and the school’s respective responsibilities can contribute to poor behaviour in the classroom. Clause 4 makes new provisions for the personalisation of home-school agreements that will allow schools to include behavioural and attendance concerns in the agreements as soon as they emerge, and outline parents’ responsibilities in helping schools to address them. If parents fail to adhere to the commitments that they have made to address those issues, and their child’s poor behaviour or attendance continues, the school can ask the parents to enter into a voluntary parenting contract. Clause 5 will amend the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 so that the personalised home-school agreement will form part of that contract, alongside any other action expected of the parent.

Parenting contracts are voluntary, two-way arrangements between parents and the school or the local authority, and the duty to provide support is dependant on which party signs the home-school agreement. We have not prescribed in legislation the type of support that a parent might require, and have left it to the individual local authority or governing body to decide. Our guidance on parenting contracts provides information on the type of support that could be provided to parents. It would be for academies to provide support to their pupils because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East knows, academies must have home-school agreements. It is also the case that we do not want people to evade their responsibilities in the way in which the hon. Member for Yeovil suggests. Citing parental support advisers or the offer of support as a way of trying to evade responsibility is not acceptable, and we do not want that to happen. However, we understand that some parents might need support to fulfil the obligations of a contract or the obligations that the home-school agreement sets out.

Whether children are in an academy or an ordinary school, there are parents who might wish to support them but struggle to do so. They deserve some additional support to help them fulfil the terms of the home-schools agreement. I realise—as, I am sure, do my hon. Friends and other members of the Committee—that there is a fundamental difference between parents who wilfully  do not try to support their children in school, and those who go out of their way to support their son or daughter but, despite their best intentions, struggle to do so. I have met such parents, as I am sure we all have. They use all the different means at their disposal, yet there are problems with that young person.

In such a situation, despite all the efforts that that parent has made, it would be appalling simply to say, “You have failed to honour the home-school agreement.” In some circumstances—when a mother or father has tried everything possible to ensure that their child goes to school, and has worked with the school with respect to homework, uniform and any of the other issues—it is only right and proper to provide support. There is a clear difference between those parents and others who simply do not give a damn. It would be irresponsible for us to ignore that difference, because we have all seen it ourselves. We are trying to say that parents sometimes need support to deal with the problem.

Providing parental support is a good thing—not so parents can evade their responsibility under the contract, as the hon. Member for Yeovil suggested, but because sometimes people need support to be able to deal with such situations. As parents, I am sure that we have all sometimes experienced that difficulty ourselves. That is what we are trying to deal with. This issue is really important, and we try to make that distinction all the way through the Bill.

Sometimes people’s responsible parenting does not achieve the desired outcome. Those people need support and help—sometimes not from the state, but from friends. There are other people who do not really put themselves out and a parenting contract and then a parenting order is appropriate for them. We would not want to see those who try, but have difficulties, made subject to a parenting order. We want a parenting support adviser or other type of support provider to work with them to try to help with the difficulties they have had, and that is the purpose of the measure.

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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

I do not disagree with a word the Minister is saying. The objectives are fine and proper. However, I would like him to explain a little more clearly why there is a dichotomy in that it must be the

“local authority or governing body”.

I put it to him that in a foundation or an academy with which the local authority might already be involved, there might be a conflict of interest. The role that the local authority plays in the governing body of the school—not in a community school—could be compromised by the view it has to take about involving other departments of the local authority. However, it would be more likely that when the local authority has no role—as in many of the academies now established across the nation—it will not necessarily have a role in assisting the parent to overcome such difficulties. That would lead to a two-tier service between those who automatically receive assistance from the local authority—perhaps in a community school—and those who could be entirely at the mercy of a governing body that might or might not have anyone remotely qualified to deal with the kind of problem outlined by the hon. Member for Yeovil, which he rightly brought to our attention.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

My hon. Friend knows that local authorities have no formal involvement in academies in that sense. Academies must have home-school agreements. We have deliberately ensured that these provisions apply to academies, as is the case for other measures in the Bill. For example, local authorities obviously still have responsibility for pupils with special educational needs at academies. My expectation would be that even if the local authority was not involved, if a child at an academy was experiencing the sort of difficulties that we were discussing earlier—poor behaviour, being a victim of bullying or even doing the bullying—other services would need to be involved to support that child.

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Caroline Flint (Don Valley, Labour)

Proposed new subsection (6A)(b) provides for

“a statement by the local authority or governing body”.

Without being too pernickety, in some situations we might need “and” instead of “or”. There may be occasions when something comes up and the governing body will need to talk about what the school should do, but it could be something on which the local authority would also have a part to play. For example, cases of truancy or special educational needs would not be an either/or situation; both bodies would need to make a contribution to the parenting contract. I wonder whether my hon. Friend will consider that with his officials; he might wish to deal with the issue in later proceedings.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

My right hon. Friend makes a reasonable point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East knows the local authority’s power with respect to academies. We are trying to ensure that certain things apply to academies as much as to the rest of the education system and to the structure for secondary education. I am reading into the record—I hope that it is of some help to my hon. Friend—the importance for young people who may find themselves in difficulty of the support that can be given by services outside the school. Schools are often seen as the only way to resolve a situation but sometimes, when working with parents, they need the involvement of other services. As I say, one would expect that to be the case for academies as well as other schools.

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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

And so would I. Problematically, the record shows that schools that are not community schools have a much higher rate of expulsions. That might be a temporary phenomenon or things could be set—I am not making a judgment. However, that is the reality at the moment.

Many foundation schools have a basis in religion. We support that, but regrettably some of them believe that they are the only true voice when it comes to helping people through their difficulties, and they might be very reluctant to involve the local authority, perhaps because it does not carry out the kind of work with which the school foundation would agree, given its religious standpoint. The provision ought to require a statement by the local authority that it agrees to provide support, whether the child is in a community school or not. Religious schools, in particular, will deliberately want to keep local authorities out of the equation.

3:00 pm
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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

As I say, I know that I have not totally satisfied my hon. Friend. I agree with him in principle; it is important to ensure that young people get the support that they deserve when they have particular problems. His concern is that that support might not always be available, and he referred earlier to the possibility of a two-tier system.

I cannot stress enough the importance I put on the involvement of other services to support the school in delivering home-school agreements, standards of behaviour in schools and support for parents. It goes back to what I said to the hon. Member for Yeovil. I think he said that this was a probing amendment, but I hope that he understands the fundamental point that I made at the beginning. There is a real difference between people who deserve support in order to achieve what they want to achieve, but who despite all of their hard work and best intentions are finding it difficult to do so, and those who simply refuse to engage with the system, do not care and dump the problem on the school and say, “You sort it out”. That is not acceptable and goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton about parental responsibility. Parents have a responsibility to look after their children, to try and bring them up properly and to work with the school. The state and the system also have a responsibility to support those who, despite their best intentions, need help with health problems, mental health issues, or basic parenting skills. That is what we seek to do by saying that in some situations it may be appropriate for somebody—instead of having a contract, or indeed even an order—to receive support and help through some sort of adviser, or other mechanism. That should take place in local authority maintained schools and elsewhere in the system as well.

I hope that with that reassurance, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

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David Laws (Yeovil, Liberal Democrat)

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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Caroline Flint (Don Valley, Labour)

I think that this is a very important part of the Bill. If we are to have home-school agreements, it is really important to understand what will happen when they break down. The feedback from schools in my constituency sometimes reflects a lack of understanding, and concern and frustration about what they should do when home-school agreements break down.

The Committee has received representations from a variety of organisations, and I take on board their concerns, particularly about children with autism, enforcement of the agreements, sensitivity to the needs of autistic children and the challenges their parents face, and the support that they need. At the same time, we must not allow that to get in the way of addressing the really serious problems of poor behaviour and its impact on others in school, and the rights of other children and parents to some of the guarantees that we talked about in clause 1.

The voluntary parenting contract is one of the things that should be addressed. The guidance that accompanies the Bill will be important in defining how far a local authority or governing body should go in supporting  the parents. I have been out with the police in my community, in safer neighbourhood teams. I am afraid that they told me stories about how some parents in our community think that it is the job of the police to bring their children, who are way below the age of 16, home at night. I would hate it if a parent of a child who was not getting to school on time said that they expected—I am not suggesting that this would happen—someone from the local authority to turn up at 8 am to wake the child up, dress them, wash them, give them their breakfast and take them to school.

Some parents in receipt of carer’s allowance have put it to me that, even though they are not at work, they would like the local authority to take their child to school. I accept that such people represent only a minority, but unfortunately we have to appreciate that some parents choose to play the system in whatever way they can. I hope that the guidance that accompanies the Bill will cover what is practical, realistic and reasonable to expect from a governing body or a local authority.

Having said that, there are plenty of examples of good steps that can be taken. On behalf of schools, I draw attention to the way in which children’s services work with schools. Only too often, based on the behaviour of children, schools have voiced concerns to me, local authorities and children’s services about the fact that they are putting in information and raising the alarm, yet are not receiving feedback about what action is being taken on the ground. Such a position must be resolved, as it is important to make sure that we get the Bill as right as is practically possible and that appropriate support is given to parents. At the same time, schools must expect other partners in the profession to work with them and keep them fully informed.

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Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East, Labour)

I return to the issue of getting children into school. Ofsted makes a fuss about attendance and, rightly so. Many schools in my constituency, anxious to please Ofsted —I would not be surprised if the same applies in Don Valley—send teachers and assistants to gather children and take them to school. That is an example of the difficulties of modern teaching and attendance. Not many members of the Committee will remember the days when a school board man rounded up the kids. It is not exactly a new phenomenon. It is still happening although in a different form but, to be honest, it is an important task for some schools just to get the children into school. If children are not at school, they learn nothing. The fact that they are at school, however they get there, should form part of the contract.

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Caroline Flint (Don Valley, Labour)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Thankfully, he refers to a small number of children, but there is some sense in local authorities taking such action. Organisations like Home-Start do fantastic work with families, but such services should be a temporary measure while making sure that the parents get up to speed with what they are expected to do, rather than an ongoing commitment. Clause 5 is an important part of the Bill. How it works in practice and is interpreted on the ground will be connected with whatever guidance is given, which I am sure will be sensible, practical and outcome-focused.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

My right hon. Friend made a powerful speech, which was reinforced by the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East.  Under clause 5, we are tackling the complaint that, if people do not abide by the agreements—as the majority do—nothing happens. It goes back to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Yeovil. We do not want to get the good with the bad. In areas of social policy, the position is difficult. If we are not careful, we will have unintended consequences.

However, it is important, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley said, that we try as a Government to wrestle with particular difficulties. Some parents completely evade their responsibilities and the point made by my right hon. Friend as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East and, to be fair, to which Opposition Members alluded is difficult and sometimes requires cultural and attitudinal change. Alongside that, Governments can signal through legislation what they think is appropriate and right. Most people expect parents to do their best to ensure that their children conform to school rules, do not act violently, do not disrespect others, do not steal and do their best educationally.

There are difficulties. My right hon. Friend cited the example of children with autism. There will be others with learning difficulties or other challenges. Of course we want to support them and help them. Any home-school agreement would take their needs into account.

We want parents to act responsibly. We want home-school agreements to work, but for that to happen people have to know that alongside the carrot of support and advice is a little bit of stick in that we will tell them that if they evade responsibilities, the state is entitled to do something about it. That is what the clause is about. I agree absolutely with my right hon. Friend that it is a significant piece of the Bill.

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Nick Gibb (Shadow Minister (Schools), Children, Schools and Families; Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, Conservative)

I agree with everything the Minister said about the state having a right here, but who in the state sector does he expect to enforce clause 5? It seems to me that it is all on the school and quite a large burden for a school when it really ought to be the local authority.

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Vernon Coaker (Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families; Gedling, Labour)

I take a completely different view. I think that schools would relish the opportunity of knowing that there was something in place that gave the home-school agreement some teeth and that the state supported them in dealing with the small number of parents who simply refuse to conform to and abide by the rules. It would be a bit of work for the school, but from my experience most schools would welcome that because it would give them a new tool to deal with irresponsible parenting. In that respect, of course, it would be the school working with others, but it may be one bit of bureaucracy that is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East pointed out on Tuesday, there is good bureaucracy as well as bad bureaucracy. Most people would see bureaucracy that helps tackle parental irresponsibility as good bureaucracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.