Education and Health

Part of Bills Presented – in the House of Commons at 3:03 pm on 19th November 2009.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 3:03 pm, 19th November 2009

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate. We have heard some interesting contributions, although, as ever, one of the most revealing comparisons was between the contributions of the Front-Bench spokesmen for the two main parties. We should compare the partisan, petty approach taken consistently by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families with the thoughtful and responsible approach taken by my hon. Friend Michael Gove.

In truth, there are not so many things that divide us: we are all committed to creating an education system that is fit for purpose and in which teachers are valued and their roles recognised. Most important, we must do everything to ensure that educational opportunities for the most vulnerable children from the poorest families are as great as for those from better-off families. In order to make progress, we must recognise the reality of the situation.

The debate is not just a sterile exchange of data. The truth is that the Secretary of State said repeatedly that the gap between rich and poor had narrowed. Despite being prompted repeatedly, he failed to provide any evidence for that. We always end up with a slightly mixed picture, depending on the data that we look at, but the truth is that most independent assessments suggest that the gap between rich and poor has not been narrowed. That is something that all of us across the House should be worried about. We should work consensually to provide a framework for teachers, schools and parents to ensure that the current injustice in opportunity through education is addressed.

I plan to focus my remarks on the proposals that we are told will be in the Children, Schools and Families Bill to deal with elective home education. Elective home education is where children who have either never been to school-some parents may never put their children into school-or been taken out of school, which can happen for various reasons, are educated at home. I want to put on record my tribute to the commitment, enthusiasm and success of the many parents and children involved in elective home education. They have been shocked and horrified at how they have been portrayed. Even in yesterday's Queen's Speech, the Government's proposals for the compulsory registration of all home-educated children was put under the heading of "safeguarding", suggesting, as Ministers have done repeatedly, that there is some stigma or safeguarding problem with home-educated children.

The picture is complex. There are children who are electively home educated because the schools have effectively pushed them out, because they do not want children who are not succeeding to lower their percentages for certain targets. There are also children suffering from bullying, children with special needs that are not recognised and sometimes even children with special needs that are recognised, but who are deeply miserable at school. A complex set of people are covered by elective home education; but have the Government, if they are serious and concerned about it, set out to get a comprehensive understanding of children who are electively home educated? Have they tried to get robust data? I would put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Government have not done that.

The Badman review, which the Government commissioned, failed to tackle the issue. Badman said in his first report:

"Our own data concurred with the DfES (2007) report, that there are around 20,000 children and young people currently registered with local authorities."

However, Badman was not even certain about that:

"We know that to be an underestimate and agree it is likely to be double that figure"- in other words, more like 40,000 young people-

"if not more, possibly up to 80,000 children."

After people involved in home education challenged the Badman review's findings, which suggested that more of the children involved had child protection plans, Badman went out again, to gather additional data. He then came back and told the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families that children with child protection plans-that is, children about whom local authorities have the greatest concern-accounted for 0.4 per cent. of electively home-educated children, which he compared with the national average for all children of 0.2 per cent. He therefore said-he said it on the record, in a letter to the Committee-that the percentage of home-educated children who are subject to child protection plans is double the percentage for the population as a whole. Yet his numbers were based on the 20,000 who were known to be registered, and he himself said that the figure was probably at least double that. When challenged by me in the Committee, he failed even to understand and, in a later letter to the Committee, again failed to accept the basic point that if there are at least 40,000 home-educated children, as appears to be the truth from his evidence, and if every child on a child protection plan is known to the local authority by necessity of being on such a plan, it is clear that the percentage of home-educated children with a child protection plan is, if anything, probably lower than the national average overall.

Therefore, the whole idea that there is a special risk around the home-educated population appears to have no supporting data. I would say that children who may be a cause for concern to local authorities are sometimes taken out of school, perhaps to disguise behaviour, abuse by parents and the rest of it. Then there are issues with Traveller communities. We have no information, particularly from Badman, about the number of children moving around the country all the time. Children in a number of categories may or may not be greater cause for concern. However, it is clear that for the broad number of dedicated electively home-educated children, the risk of their being on a child protection plan and thus at risk of abuse appears to be less than for the population overall.

The fundamental basis of Badman and the Government's approach-that there is a problem from a safeguarding point of view that needs to be solved-seems to be statistically flawed. The Government should not be rushing forward with legislation to introduce compulsory registration and possibly to erode the civil liberties of the families concerned; they should be building a much better understanding of the system overall. What do the Government's proposals mean for children's services, social workers and those involved in home education? More work load and yet another database.

One expert from the reference group to the Badman review said:

"In my 30 odd years of professional life in education I have rarely encountered a process, the entirety of which was so slap dash, panic driven, and nakedly and naively populist."

The statistical evidence collected by the review was so weak, as I said, that the author had to collect the data again.

However, the Secretary of State seems to have made up his mind. He talked today of giving parents the support that they need, but we know that he has been described by Mr. Sheerman as a "bit of a bully", and we know what happens to parents who reject his support. Parents on benefits, whose children stand little chance today of getting the grades that they need to help them escape poverty, are told to be grateful for all the money that Labour has spent, despite the fact that the outcomes have not been delivered. Parents who go to desperate lengths to avoid the inadequate school dished out to them are labelled as failing to do their duty. And parents who want to set up their own school? Not in the Secretary of State's name.

As for parents who reject the Secretary of State's school system entirely and sacrifice their time and career to bring up and educate their children themselves, they are stigmatised as more likely to be child abusers than normal people. It is an absolute affront to those in the home education community, and it is baseless. The scheme is all about getting home educators in a headlock and forcing their children back into the Balls fold.

On the cost of the proposals, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has estimated that the registration and monitoring scheme would cost £21 million to set up and £7 million a year to run. That would pay, just about, for 1.5 additional staff members for each local authority in England. Is that enough to cover the additional demands of registration, database maintenance and additional inspections? A former head of research at Citigroup estimated the cost of launching and running the scheme at £500 million. Whatever figure one wants to choose-I imagine that it is somewhere between the two-a huge resource will be spent setting up a registration system.

Annette Brooke, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, said that she has been persuaded that a light-touch registration scheme for home-educated children would be appropriate. At first glance it looks as if that would offer benefits, just as with ID cards it seemed obvious at first glance that they would provide us with defence against terrorism and make us more secure. The more we gained an understanding of how ID cards would actually work and of the nature of the terrorist threat, the more the efficacy of ID cards to help us in that regard melted away. I would suggest that the idea of light-touch registration to make children safer or to make it more likely that they will get a suitable education will, on closer inspection, also melt away. I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that people who move around the country will not be caught by the net, but the typical people who will be caught by it are those who live in one place, who are committed to elective home education yet have to face someone from a local authority coming and knocking on their door.

I was interested and reassured to hear the Secretary of State's earlier intervention, but it is a shame that the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ms Johnson, is not in her place, because the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that, contrary to the Badman recommendations, he would not bring forward into the Bill-there is no draft Bill as yet-the recommendation to allow local authorities to enter people's homes as of right. If that concession has been made and that is not going to happen, it is a tremendous breakthrough. I am certainly pleased about it, but I would like to hear it repeated from the Front Bench again.

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