Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 6:22 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families) 6:22 pm, 11th January 2010

I accept that they are highly speculative. None of us can possibly know what the right numbers are, but the hon. Gentleman, who is, I believe, a member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, signed up to a report that includes a lot of information about the patchy quality of home education. Some parents and families did not see themselves as having a duty to continue home education beyond key stage 2. He also signed up to a report-the Secretary of State quoted this earlier-that said:

"In our view it is unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated or are otherwise not in school."

We agree that there is a real issue, but the challenge for the Government is to get the balance right, and we do not believe that they have done so. We agree with many of the criticisms made in the Select Committee's report, and we would like to suggest the potential for consensus on a number of points, because on such subjects it is important to seek to come to a conclusion, if we can, before this Parliament ends.

The one area in which we do not agree with the Select Committee is its conclusion that any scheme of notification or registration should be voluntary. It seems strange that the Committee can, in one sentence-the sentence that the Secretary of State cited earlier-say that it is unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, being home educated, or not in school. It may be that that element of the Committee's conclusions reflected a desire to gain a compromise between individuals with very different views. I am not a member of the Committee, so I do not know whether that is true, but that is certainly the impression given.

However, we have concerns about two issues. The first is the nature of the registration process and whether the Government are in danger of presuming to be able to judge, at this stage, what a suitable education is, and of presuming to give individuals in local authorities the power to take away people's ability to home educate when there is no clarity about what a suitable home education is. Under the Government's proposals, individuals will not only be required to notify local authorities, but effectively be registering, and by registering will be required to prove their ability to home educate and prove that they are delivering a suitable education.

I put it to the Secretary of State that the only way that local authorities can reasonably do that job is by having a set of very detailed criteria for home education. Necessarily, the concern of home educators is that if the Government or local authorities seek to do that job without any agreement on what a suitable home education is, many individuals could suddenly find themselves having to comply with exactly the type of rigid state education that they have tried to escape by leaving formal schooling and going into home education.

Secondly, it is very regrettable that education and safeguarding have become so mixed up in the Badman report. An assumption that local authority inspectors should have to check whether all home educators meet safeguarding requirements is inappropriate. The scope for local authorities is to consider whether a suitable education, however defined, is being given, not to assume automatically that local authority inspectors should look at the safeguarding circumstances. The intrusiveness in that part of the Bill is quite extraordinary.

Under the Bill, a local authority must ascertain the child's wishes in relation to home education in all circumstances. It must check on the child's welfare in all circumstances, automatically assuming therefore the duty to prove that there are no welfare concerns, rather than simply picking up any that arise. In addition, a local authority must make at least one home visit and hold one meeting with the child each year. The cost-benefit analysis assumes that 100 per cent. of children will receive one in-year visit, with 50 per cent. receiving additional monitoring. There is a description of the statement of education, which has not yet been clarified in its detail but must be produced. In other words, the change in the regulation of home education is very significant and will mean that home education is regulated as never before.

We would like to suggest a way to improve the current regime, without perhaps creating some of the problems of the disproportionate response that are involved in the Government's proposals. First, we do not support the voluntary approach that the Select Committee advocates, but we suggest in the first instance that the Secretary of State ought to consider whether the scheme could involve notification, rather than registration. Notification would oblige everyone who is home educating to declare that information, without undertaking a registration process initially that proves in some way the suitability of the education.

Secondly, we suggest that a review over a longer time scale is needed, to consider what suitability means in home education. It would be dangerous to give local authority officials the responsibility for making judgments on suitability without any detailed guidance. I put it to the Secretary of State that we are simply not able to give that guidance, based on the debate so far and those that we are likely to have in Committee.

Thirdly, we obviously want more support for home educators and more training for those local authority staff who must oversee such things, and we will debate that in Committee. I should have thought that that was an area of common ground. The Government would have a better chance of gaining a consensus if we separated educational inspection from safeguarding. That has been one of the things that home educators have found most provocative. We would like the process to focus on the quality of education, not on safeguarding. We would like the Government to reflect again on how they can introduce a much lighter touch inspection regime, where the actions taken by local authorities are proportionate to the perceived risk, rather than presuming that every home-educating household in the country must be inspected in the ways set out in the Bill.

I hope that the Secretary of State is willing to take those proposals seriously. Outside the Committee's proceedings, we would be willing to take part in cross-party talks with him and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath if that is necessary to try to reach an agreement on proposals that could command cross-party support.

The second area about which we have considerable concerns is the pupil and parent guarantees and, tied to that, the home-school agreements. I shall not rehearse all the objections, because they came out very effectively from the exchanges, or lack of exchanges in some ways, between the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State. It was interesting that the Secretary of State failed to explain why the one-to-one tuition guarantee in primary education is different from that in secondary schools. There was no explanation of why the Government know better than head teachers and schools about whether tuition should be delivered one to one or in small groups and why one model is right for primary schools and another is right for secondary schools.

The Association of School and College Leaders and the TUC are right to criticise such measures and to say that they could open the floodgates to increased litigation, that they could involve a huge bureaucratic burden, and that the problem with pupil and parent guarantees in so many areas is that they are not meaningful, not always deliverable and not rationally designed. Many hon. Members would not object to some of the pupil and parent guarantees if they were meaningful, sensible and respected the fact that the Secretary of State does not know better than 23,500 schools across the country how to run education.

In our last debate, I gave a particularly striking example from the list of 38 pupil and parent guarantees that relates to pupil guarantee 5. I invite the Secretary of State to respond in a way that he did not last time and to tell me how on earth the local government ombudsman is remotely supposed to police guarantee 5, which says that

"every 11-14 year-old enjoys relevant and challenging learning in all subjects, and develops their personal, learning and thinking skills so that they have strong foundations to make their 14-19 choices."

That is motherhood and apple pie, and we are not supposed to know whether or not all schools are doing that-presumably, they are not, as we are told in the White Paper:

"This will be phased in by September 2010."

I put it to the Secretary of State that it is not only impossible to measure a supposed guarantee that is so loosely defined, but impossible for the local government ombudsman to police it, yet it is possible that a parent might want to refer a complaint under that guarantee to the local government ombudsman.

We have already debated guarantee 13, which relates to one-to-one or small group tuition. It is totally unclear why the arrangements for primary and secondary schools are different, why there should be one-to-one education in one setting and education in small groups in another, and why a certain number of sessions should be guaranteed, rather than focusing on the outputs. I should have thought that that was one of the things that the Secretary of State had learned during his time at the Treasury.

On the parental guarantees-Nos. 5, 6 and 7-that relate to home-school agreements, it is unclear why the Government should make them compulsory for every school in the country. Why on earth do we need to make home-school agreements compulsory, even in schools that do not regard them as beneficial? Why is it necessary to personalise them for each child, when that will add enormously to the bureaucratic costs, which must therefore be regarded as unrealistic, as shown in the cost-benefit analysis associated with the Bill.

The third area about which we have major concerns is that of family courts and access to sensitive information. That is, of course, a Home Office lead issue, but as we will have no one with Home Office responsibilities involved in the Bill, I should like to make some comments. This is the one area on which we as an Opposition party have so far received the greatest criticism from outside bodies, not only children's bodies such as Barnardo's, the NSPCC, the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children and the National Children's Bureau, but the Bar Council, Resolution-the much-respected family law group-and the department of social policy at the university of Oxford.

All those representations have a common theme. They accept the need to make family courts more transparent, but they believe that the proposals are rushed and lack sufficient consultation. They cannot understand why they are being pushed through at the same time as other measures to pilot the improved transparency of court decisions are only just being rolled out. All those groups believe that sensitive information linked to individuals could be released and that such legislation could be against the interests of children and deter them from giving evidence in some cases.

Almost universally, those outside groups have proposed a number of solutions to the deficiencies that they see in the Bill. They believe that any change should follow an independent evaluation of the April 2009 changes, which are only just being piloted. They believe that any changes should be delayed so that there is time for consultation and consideration in relation to these new and controversial proposals, which seem to have been driven through only to meet the needs of a number of lobby groups in the media. They also believe that if the proposals are to be implemented, they need to take into account the delay and cost implications of going through each case in turn, and look at assessments about any reporting restrictions that are necessary.

We have three major concerns about the Bill, and we hope that the Government will be willing to listen to them. If not, we hope that a large part of the Bill will not go through before the dissolution of Parliament. The Bill could have concentrated on areas where we might have found some consensus with the Government, in particular the need to reform the funding of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the need to introduce a pupil premium with real additional money, not money simply shifted around the system, the urgent need to restore credibility in relation to educational standards, which has not happened so far in spite of the earlier comments from the Secretary of State, and the need to devolve more power and freedom throughout the system, rather than accruing more power to the Secretary of State and introducing more bureaucracy.

The Bill is disappointing. We will do our best over the next few weeks constructively to amend some of the key parts of it, but at this stage we intend to vote against it and we hope that most of it will not get on to the statute book.

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