Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 9:26 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Conservative, Beverley and Holderness 9:26 pm, 11th January 2010

In the few minutes that I have, I shall address the subject of home education, as my hon. Friend Mr. Field did in an excellent speech. From the Front Bench, my hon. Friend Michael Gove spoke a lot of common sense on the topic, as did Sandra Gidley, who addressed it in the first half of her speech.

Under clause 26 and schedule 1, local authorities will have a duty to run a licensing system-that is what it is-for all home-educating parents in their areas, complete with monitoring by local authority inspectors, who will have to be hired and trained and sent out in order to have all their meetings. Local authorities may revoke a parent's licence to educate their own child or refuse to give one if the inspectors do not think that that child is receiving a suitable and efficient education, if they deem the families to be unco-operative-God forbid that any family should be unco-operative when an inspector from the local authority comes knocking on the door- or if the parents fail in any of the administrative requirements imposed on them by the Bill.

It has always been the duty of parents, not the state, to educate their children, and they may choose to do so through school or otherwise. That historic settlement will be turned on its head by the Bill, which tears from parents and gives to the state the decision as to how a child is to be educated. We have heard much about guarantees in this debate, but for many parents, the freedom to choose how their child is educated is the ultimate guarantee.

A small minority of parents elect to educate their children at home, for a variety of reasons-I will not go into that, but various speakers have mentioned the diverse nature of parents who home educate. Under the current legal framework, parents are trusted to do the right thing by their child unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Of course, some home-educating parents do not do a good job of educating their child, but overwhelmingly, what evidence we have suggests that that is a tiny minority, and nothing said by Ministers has done anything to dispel that view. To deal with that tiny minority, the Secretary of State wants to set up a huge licensing bureaucracy with a long list of reasons why home-educated children can be sent back to school, whatever the opinion of the parents and the child. Because of this Bill, the cloud of suspicion will be extended to the many, not the few.

As I understand it, the Government have three principal motives for introducing the licensing inspection proposals: first, the Department for Children, Schools and Families says it has evidence from serious case reviews and other such things that under the guise of home education, some children are at risk of suffering harm or being denied an education; secondly, Ministers point out that they intend the measures to give the state the power to guarantee that every child receives a suitable education; and thirdly, Ministers say that to allow local authorities to provide greater support and other services to home-educating families, they need a better idea of the numbers.

As we heard from Annette Brooke, the Government made no effort before introducing such a major licensing system-this draconian set of powers-to support home-educating families. Indeed, they wrote to her specifically to say that absolutely no money was available for home-educating families. On the Department for Children, Schools and Families website today, in the small print on the page about the home access scheme, which is designed to provide grants for parents to look after their children, it says that home-educated children are specifically excluded. That is the history under this Government, of which home-educating parents are well aware. There has been lots of suspicion, but no support, and now Ministers tell us that their approach is all about education, support and a more co-operative relationship between parents and local authorities. However, I am afraid that none of the home-educating families out there feels the same.

There has been a lot of concern about the fact that the consultation on the Badman proposals was not published before the Bill was published, despite the Cabinet Office guidelines, to which the Department is a signatory, which say that Departments must ensure that any consultation is meaningful and can properly influence decisions. I thank the Minister for Schools and Learners, with whom I had a meeting last week, for saying that he would do everything possible to ensure that as much information as possible was provided, but the response to that consultation was published yesterday. That hardly helps to inform our deliberations too well today, except for those who are particularly astute.

The numbers were 230 in favour, 4,497 against and 106 unsure, yet Ministers keep making out that it is a minority of people who are opposed. It is not a minority. A system is being set up, supposedly for the benefit of home-educated children and their families, to create, according to Ministers, a co-operative atmosphere, yet that system is being forced on to families, practically none of whom wants it. Ministers should ask themselves whether they want to bring such help to families who are so adamant that they do not want to receive it.

It is not that families do not want help or would not welcome access to the home access scheme, or to libraries or other facilities-the points that the Badman report makes on that have been fully supported by the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families-but where is the guarantee of support in the Bill for home-educated families? The Bill is full of guarantees, but anyone who searches through it for such guarantees will find that there are none. There is no evidence of any additional money and no evidence that home-educating families will be treated fairly as taxpayers and citizens. What is guaranteed is a large licensing scheme. What is also guaranteed is that the local authority will impose a school attendance order on those who fail to put their child on the register, regardless-it specifically says this in the legislation-of the quality of the education provided to that child. In other words, the administrative convenience of the local authority is to be put ahead of the interests of the child. That is what is in the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath touched on this issue, but in connection with the Badman review, on which Mr. Anderson spoke last week, it is also worth mentioning that bad data lead to bad decisions. That is what the legislation is based on. One member of the Badman review's expert reference group described the review as

"slap dash, panic driven, and nakedly and naively populist".

That is the basis on which the Government have moved forward.

As I mentioned in an intervention on the Secretary of State, New Zealand had a similar monitoring and licensing system. It ran the system for several years and found that there was no problem with home-educating families. It therefore scrapped the scheme last year, saying that it was a waste of time and money. Is it not time that Ministers learned from that experience and did likewise?

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