The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his views on how current regulation should be changed. That, after all, was what the Badman report and our Select Committee report were all about.
What I am discussing today—I do not want to take up much more time—is the current law, which is clear, although it is not properly represented by many local authorities. I will not go through all the legal aspects, but I will mention the 2007 guidelines on elective home education for local authorities, which were produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2007. It is still available on the departmental website, subject only to the need for an update to take into account changes in the rules governing children missing from education. The report stated:
“Local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education on a routine basis.”
If there is no evidence that education by home educators is inferior to that provided by the state, what is the role of the state? Apparently it is to stick its nose into families that have often been let down by the same instruments of the state and impertinently to try to impose exactly the same kind of regimented approach to education that failed for those children. That is why the parents made the massive sacrifice of taking their children out of school in the first place.
We must defend freedom and a principle that is perhaps even more important than that, which is that the law, as it stands, must be enforced. If Mr Sheerman wishes to campaign to get it changed and is successful in convincing this place, what he wants will then become the law. Local authorities must honour and observe the law as it stands and not overstate it because they happen to agree with the hon. Gentleman. They cannot make the law up as they go along because they do not like the current settlement. The current settlement is clear: local authorities have no statutory duties in relation to monitoring the quality of home education.
I have already dealt with Tameside, so let me touch quickly on Barnsley. Its elective home education information leaflet says that
“the law allows parents to educate their children at home instead of sending them to school, if they fulfil certain conditions.”
That is subtly done. I am not sure whether it is strictly inaccurate, but it is suggestive enough to make it sound as though the council decides whether those conditions are fulfilled. It goes on to make it clear that that is precisely its conclusion:
“Barnsley MBC will need to be satisfied”— in other words, the council will need to be satisfied—
“that a child is receiving suitable education at home, and the Assessor”— these people are even called assessors; who do they think they are?—
“will ask to meet with the family in order to talk to the parents and to look at examples of work and learning.”
That is beyond the law. I want the Minister to confirm that he will make sure that local authorities no longer produce misinformation like that and use it in order to abuse their power over families.
Sheffield provides another example. Parents there are told:
“You must show that the opportunities being provided are helping your child to learn and that development is taking place appropriate to their age, ability and aptitude.”
It is fair enough for parents to have a duty to provide suitable education and meet those requirements, but local authorities have no right to interpose themselves and decide that that is not happening. If they have reason to believe that suitable education is not being provided, they have a duty to challenge, but only in that event. They do not have the right routinely to monitor and interfere.
Sheffield city council continues:
“The Children Service Authority (CSA) is responsible for ensuring that the arrangements provide a suitable education for your child.”
That is not true.
“When you have given the CSA a plan stating your ideas an appropriately qualified”— unlike you—
“Senior Inclusion Officer (SIO) will arrange an initial home visit and make a preliminary assessment”— in your home—
“of the education provision the child is receiving.”
It is disgraceful.
South Gloucestershire council is advertising for someone who will provide
“information, support and challenge to parents…The service is responsible for assessing the suitability of the education provided to children educated at home”.
The Lancashire local authority, in one of the most egregious examples, states:
“Lancashire Officers will take the lead on this because they have the responsibility to ensure the safety of all children as well as to monitor the quality of education received by children educated at home.”
That is a nice one, neatly conflating the issues of safety and home education. No one has yet arrived at my house during the summer holidays just to check up on the safety of my children, who are, after all, spending months at home with me. Who knows what my wife and I might get up to, or what the younger or older sister might do? Who knows what visiting relatives might do? What we need are visitors from the local authority, just to make sure. I do not want people such as the director of children’s services in my local authority to lose a moment’s sleep because they feel that they are not pursuing every possibility of intervention to cover their own backsides and telling me how I should run things in my own home. That is precisely what the local authority suggests should be done in the case of home-educating parents, who deserve its intervention no more than the rest of us. The document continues:
“Thus, when a practitioner or professional becomes aware that a child is being educated at home, they should use local information sharing arrangements to help the Lancashire Authority to fulfil both its duty to be confident”— so it has a duty to be confident now—
“of the well-being of the child and its duty to assure the quality of the education provided.”
That, too, is not true.
As far as I can tell from one evening spent looking at their websites, council after council is entirely misrepresenting the legal position, and I hope that the Minister will put that right.