I must confess that I find the Bill, and particularly the provisions for the regulation of home schooling, deeply troubling. I am sure that many Members will raise the issue, so I shall endeavour to be brief.
Education is the gateway to a better world. Nothing should be done to prevent children from flourishing and learning in the environment best suited to them, in school or out. As many Members on both sides of the House have acknowledged, education is primarily a parent's responsibility, not that of the Government. It is up to parents to select the form of education most beneficial to their children. For a variety of reasons, the schools system is not for everyone. Some just choose the home; others fear bullying or the increasing size of schools and the associated problems, and some children are not allowed to thrive within the system.
Although every child must receive an education, schools are not the only way to deliver it. Obviously, such a gap can be filled by the work of parents through home schooling their children. It is estimated that between 20,000 and 80,000 are currently home schooled. Though some may disagree, I argue that home educators understand the responsibility placed on them. They understand that the responsibility for a child's schooling falls on nobody but the parents. Unfortunately, in yet another example of a Government obsessed with conformity, the independence that home educators currently enjoy is to be placed under threat. The plans in clause 26 to ensure that home educators conform with the requirements of the national syllabus will stamp out the individuality that many home-educated children cherish. Is not the whole point of home schooling the provision of an alternative channel for education?
Before Christmas I met a group of constituents, all home educators, who were concerned about the recommendations of the Badman report. I also met some of their children, who were some of the most articulate and erudite young people I have met. Most of the parents spoke of having schedules for teaching, but in keeping with educational flexibility so as to best fit a child's needs. One of them told me of her son spontaneously developing a liking for Roman history. Because she retained responsibility for her son's best interests, she was able to take a trip to a Roman villa the next week. Such a trip would have been impossible under the annual education plans that the Bill may well set in stone. If modern society has taught us anything, it is that we have to acknowledge everyone's uniqueness. The Bill appears designed to move us in the opposite direction.
My other concern revolves around the level to which the Bill extends the state yet further into people's lives. One of its provisions is to allow local education authorities, when neither child nor parent objects, to interview home-schooled children on their own. The phrasing of that part of the Bill, particularly the use of the word "may", has been constructed far too loosely to be of reliable guidance. How can a measure confer a power on a local authority without detailing the full criteria for fulfilling that responsibility? Furthermore, under the Bill, interviews will be conducted in
"a place where education is provided to the child".
From a civil liberties perspective, that paints a dangerous picture of approving authorities' incursion into private homes.
What would be the consequences of a parent's not consenting at any stage to a child's being interviewed on their own? Such interviews may place the child in a distressing environment. They also underline the contradictions at the heart of the Government's approach. Pupils are not interviewed about teachers, so why should sons and daughters be interviewed about their mothers and fathers? Furthermore, interviewing children alone gives the impression that parents are not to be trusted or have done something wrong. Indeed, the level at which the Government aim to monitor parent-child relationships is tantamount to saying that a parent willing to spend time with their child is somehow in the wrong.
Such intrusiveness into parents' lives is bad enough, but the detrimental effects on children's education and well-being are even more dangerous. The Government seriously need to reconsider the case for granting the new powers and requirements-not only the powers, but the Government's perspective on the issue. I understand the Government's wish to achieve the best for everyone, but their methods simply do not work.
Before attending to home education, the Government must first deal with those already in the system who do not achieve as they should. They should tackle those who are absent from education partially or altogether. Too many bright futures have been sucked into the mire of destructive social circumstances. The Bill is directed at the wrong children in the wrong fashion.
Indeed, no Bill has dealt successfully with those who have sex when under 16. Conception rates for those under 16 have increased from 7.8 to 8.3 per 1,000, which is 8,200 pregnancies. Those children are far too young to become parents.
Of course, I am aware that children's well-being is one of the Bill's motivations. The Government are concerned that home schooling may be used as a cover for child abuse or forced marriages. Certainly, that must be dealt with, but in a far more consultative manner. Greater consideration must be given to the vast majority of home-schooled children who benefit immensely from their parents' dedicated work.
A scheme of self-regulation, rather than imposed conformity, is the best way to balance children's education with children's safety. One must not be sacrificed for the other, because education is the gateway to a better world. The longer we prevaricate on the most fundamental decisions and the longer we institute misguided legislation such as the Bill, the longer we deny the next generation the greatest opportunity to realise their fullest potential.
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