Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 9:17 pm, 11th January 2010

I want to make a very brief contribution on a few topics. On the first two, home education and personal, social and health education, it is interesting to note that the Government's current stance represents a U-turn. However, there are interesting contrasts in their approach to the two issues.

There are a number of reasons for home education, and it clearly is not one homogenous entity, which makes a heavy-handed and rushed approach to legislating seem singularly inappropriate. I have long been concerned about the lack of support for those home educators who would like to access certain support, and I shall briefly give a constituency example. I have a letter that states:

"This is the last straw. I have heard today that children who are excluded from school will be given home tuition through computers all financed by the government. Where is my Help?

I withdrew my son before he was excluded and we get no help what so ever, not even the right to sit free GCSE's."

So it goes on. I wrote to the local authority and established that there was no help. That was in 2007. I also wrote to the Government, because I was concerned about that mother, who had withdrawn her child from school for the very best of reasons-to ensure that he could make something of his life. I received a letter from the then Schools Minister, Jim Knight, stating:

"We recognise that it is a fundamental right enshrined in law that parents should be free to educate their children at home if they so wish. But when deciding to do so or not, parents are strongly encouraged to plan ahead and think carefully about the costs associated with educating children at home. This is because there are no funds directly available from the Government for parents who decide to home educate their children. We believe that school is the best place for the vast majority of children to receive education, therefore funding is devoted to maintaining the state system of schools from which those children benefit. There are currently no plans to change this."

That is quite a statement, which obviously reflects the Department's stance. That stance has affected the culture in the Department and in local authorities. I welcome the fact that the Government and Badman himself identified the need to provide support, but before rushing into legislating, one needs to work on the culture and training. Indeed, I cannot understand why the support that is to be introduced needs legislation.

Furthermore, when we had revised education guidelines for local authorities-in 2007, dipping into 2008-the Government did not move far. They suggested a few examples of additional support, such as using the library, but certainly nothing like supporting entry into examinations.

I welcome the U-turn on support, but the problem is everything that comes with it. When we examine the diverse nature of home education, we realise that a large group of competent parents wishes to pursue education for their children and is clearly capable of doing that. Those parents probably removed their children from school because they wanted to escape the straitjacket of the national curriculum. The greatest fear is that, under the Government's proposals, registration and all the strings attached mean that there is no control over the direction of home education. That is why I understand home educators' concerns. It is a complex topic, which needs time. We should deal with it step by step, starting with the important subjects of support and training. We should be wary of a registration scheme, which could represent the most heavy-handed approach and perhaps destroy some imaginative education.

I want briefly to consider PSHE education. I welcome the fact that it may be made statutory. I have proposed that on several occasions when considering other Bills, and been defeated. The difference between that U-turn and the previous one is that once the Government decided to follow that route, they engaged in pilots and a great deal of consultation. There is much to be commended in the proposals. I should have liked the process to start many years ago, but I respect the fact that it has happened. A great deal of engagement with the school, parents and the local community is important, as is high-quality provision. We are placing such high expectations on the provisions that we must all show great leadership. They have the power to deliver a great deal, but they could be just a damp squib if we are not careful.

It is important to dwell on the relationships provisions because they are about empowering young people to say no, whether to alcohol, following the gang or engaging in violence, as well as sex. I am therefore concerned about the opt-out of sex and relationship education at 15, because some aspects are crucial to young people's development. We can usefully explore that in detail in Committee.

I want to consider clause 9, which deals with exceptional provision for ill or excluded children-I do not think that anyone else has referred to it. I am all in favour of improving the education on offer to excluded children. It is one way of stopping the downward spiral of exclusion, truancy and disillusionment with school. However, it is important to get the education right for children and young people who have long-term health conditions. I am not sure what clause 9 offers them. There are parents in my constituency who say, "I'd get more help with home tuition if my child was excluded rather than ill." That cannot be right. I recently had a constituency case of home tuition being needed for someone in the sixth form. It was extremely complex. I was told:

"The Learning and Skills Council allocates funding to local authorities for such cases but the matter rests with Connexions services in discussion with the school concerned on whether this additional support is merited."

There were months of discussions with different bodies, but the child was perhaps let down at the end of the day. In that case, the young person had myalgic encephalomyelitis. She needed to get a secure package to ensure that she could make a sound start to sixth-form studies-probably a mix of school and home tuition-but she failed to get it.

Finally, I echo some of the comments made by Mrs. Cryer and my hon. Friend Mr. Laws. Will the Minister give some clarification on whether there is a loophole in section 58 of the Children Act 2004 that allows certain adults who do not have legal responsibility to use physical punishment on a child in their care? Whereas teachers for the most part are prohibited in law from using such sanctions, the prohibition may not extend to teachers providing under 12.5 hours' education a week, such as those in Sunday schools or madrassahs. That is important, and I would appreciate some clarification.

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