Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 8:51 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 8:51 pm, 11th January 2010

I appreciate the opportunity to make a brief contribution to the debate. Given the time constraints, I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I focus on the aspect of the Bill that is of particular interest to me: home education.

Almost exactly one year ago, the Department for Children, Schools and Families launched an independent review of home education by Graham Badman. Fearful that it represented another attempt by the Government to intrude into their lives, two home-educating parents from my constituency, Tina Robbins and Helen White, came to meet me in Parliament to see what could be done. Home educators have long suspected that the Government are uncomfortable with the idea of parents providing an education that cannot be monitored, tested or accounted for. That applies, I suspect, to Governments of all political colours, and of course to local education authorities. In many ways, the outcome of the report confirmed that suspicion.

I have to admit that in my initial meeting with my two constituents, I had misconceptions that a home education might produce an unsocialised, precocious child, unable to interact with his or her peers and shielded from all negative influences. However, the more I listened to the two mothers talk, the more I was impressed and excited by the passion and enthusiasm that they displayed for home education. Each parent was able to provide their child with an individualised learning experience, tailored to that child's ability and interests.

Inspired by that dedication to individualised learning and that determination to fight Government impositions, in a Westminster Hall debate last June I decided to defend home educators against some of the most controversial recommendations in the Badman report-compulsory annual registration; annual home visits by local authority officers, which we have heard about; and a right for local authority officers to interview a child away from their parents.

I must confess that I was absolutely overwhelmed by the reaction to the speech that I made that day. Not only did it receive extensive support from my constituents, many of whom I had no idea shared a passion for the subject, but I received countless letters and e-mails from home educators across the country. The important point to stress is that home educators are a very diverse group of individuals with no single voice. There has been a great lobby, but it should be stressed that we are talking about individuals, to a large extent. So sacred is their independence that for a long time they have chosen to remain under the radar. However, nationwide, in the past year, they have felt compelled for the very first time to stand up and demand that their voice be heard.

The results are quite remarkable. As we know, the Department has been flooded with correspondence. Meetings have been set up with numerous MPs from every mainstream party. There has been a massive co-ordinated internet campaign, too. As Members know, that all resulted, only last December, in the biggest mass petition ever seen in the House.

A review of elective home education by the Children, Schools and Families Committee has also broadly assisted the cause. Released just before Christmas, the Committee's report rejected the idea of compulsory registration of home-educated children and made clear the Committee's disappointment at the

"less than robust evidence base that the Badman Report and the Department have presented with regard to the relative safeguarding risk to school and home educated children."

The report went on strongly to discourage the notion that local authority home-education teams should be given a more overt safeguarding role and questioned the Department's somewhat optimistic cost estimates for more robust monitoring by local authorities. It concluded:

"The way in which the Department has handled the Badman report has been unfortunate-from the way in which it framed the review, through to its drafting of legislation prior to publication of the related consultation findings. We trust that the Department will learn from this episode".

In the light of the outcry of home educators and the criticisms of the review, I question how the Government can proceed with the plans in the Bill. Home education has been under constant scrutiny since the Children Act 2004 enshrined the Government's Every Child Matters agenda in legislation. Home educators with whom I have engaged conclude only that either the Government have no faith in the previous reviews or the Badman report was from the start a superficial exercise designed to allay public concern-a bid somehow to make good other failures with frenetic activity; or, worse still, that child welfare concerns were being used as a cover for a Government obsessed with monitoring and targets to interfere in a sphere over which they currently have little influence.

Home educators vigorously reject the attempts by the Government to mix concerns about child welfare into any review of home education, and I believe that they are right. They believe that the Government's concerns in this regard are in line with the misguided understanding that a child is safe when seen once or twice by a local authority. I am not diminishing in any way some legitimate concerns about child abuse and I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the problems faced by the Government, particularly in other Departments, in preventing cases similar to the appalling ones that we have recently seen, but we must be clear: local authorities already have powers to get involved in a family when there are concerns about abuse.

The uncomfortable truth is that no amount of legislation will ever remove all risk. The task of the Government is to balance the rights of all individuals. Given that home-educated children are not proven to be at any greater risk, it is inappropriate to throw away the liberty of parents to choose how to educate, particularly when it is equally possible for a child to go to school and be abused when they return home or, indeed, for children in the care of the state to suffer abuse.

On top of all the concerns over the conflation of education and welfare are fears about the implications of monitoring home educators. Monitoring is not a neutral activity and is likely to require tick boxes to ascertain whether a child is receiving a suitable education. Although a seemingly harmless word, the definition of "suitable" is worryingly subjective.

If a more formal monitoring system is implemented, it will come with severe practical and cost implications. Of course, for any monitoring to be worth while, staff will have to be trained. If no extra funding is forthcoming-a likely scenario in these difficult economic times-budgets currently allocated to ensuring the welfare of genuinely vulnerable children could be diverted to such things. That would be a real waste and, of course, a risk when the Government have already stated that they are confident that the great majority of home educators are doing a first-class job.

That majority feels that the Government are incapable of trusting parents to do the best for their children. Yes, parents fail sometimes, but, let us be honest, so too do the Government. Without being able to prevent all cases where a child is abused or not provided with a decent education-of course, such cases can happen just as often when the state is involved-it is for Governments to assess risk and ask which areas warrant most attention.

Increased intervention makes little financial sense and has the potential to divert resources from truly vulnerable children. It also further infringes the rights of parents to make what they believe are the right decisions for their children. Current legislation is perfectly adequate but all too often poorly understood. Any Government must guard the sacred right of parents to educate their children, while vigorously tightening the current system when it comes to child welfare. After that, the Government should look to their own ability to fulfil the Every Child Matters objectives, rather than continue to pursue those who put their faith, time and passion into home education. I believe that these proposals should be firmly rejected.

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