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My Lords, I, too, wish to address the issue of home schooling, which is covered by Clause 26 and Schedule 1. There has been massive representation on this issue from home educators who object to registration and see the provisions as taking away the right to educate at home, whereas it is merely a system of registration and not a very onerous one at that. We do not know what we do not know. There are no firm statistics about the number of children receiving home education, although it is commonly said to be 80,000. We do not know how representative in terms of quality and quantity the home educators who have flooded their MPs, and my blog site, with their views are. They cannot amount to more than 6 or 7 per cent, but the rage and resentment they express, their mishmash of ideological views, their rejection of state interference, their indifference to the rights of the child, their accusations of totalitarianism and their superiority over those who would like to help the child do not paint a good picture of home educators. They made me determined to speak up for the rights of the child, when I had taken hardly any notice of home education until recently. I have now immersed myself in the topic.
Registration is to be welcomed, together with the parent's statement of plans for the child's education, but I have seen no method in the Bill for ensuring that every child who is not being educated at school but, purportedly, at home, is registered. Only those children whose parents apply for registration will be registered and the entire scheme could be scuppered by a failure to do so. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether the children's register, ContactPoint, can be used for this purpose; granted that there can be no accurate assessment of which children should be receiving education at five unless all those born in and who arrive in England after birth are included and tracked.
The existing law is weak. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 states that parents have a duty to secure efficient full-time education suitable for their child. There can be no duty in law unless there is a correlative right, and no right without a correlative duty to secure that right. Children have rights. That is the most important principle of all. It should be underpinning this Bill and must be conveyed to home-educating parents. The rights are clear. Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says that states must undertake to ensure that primary education is compulsory for all and that different forms of secondary education should be available and accessible to every child. Article 29 says that education in all institutions must conform to standards laid down by the state. Article 31 protects the right of the child to play and recreation, and to cultural and artistic activities. Article 12 says that the child has the right to express his or her views-a right which is set to be denied if this Bill does not permit the child to be seen alone by an inspector but only in the company of the parent.
Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights also grants the right to education while respecting the rights of parents to have their children educated in accordance with their views. The European Court has held that this, of necessity, implies state regulation of the education that the child receives. The court held that Germany was entitled to ban home education. It is the duty of home-educating parents to secure for their children the education pledged in international treaties; the parents do not have stand-alone rights to determine that education in any way that they wish without state regulation.
Since home education has no minimum hours, no curriculum and no examinations, there can be no assurance that home-educated children will receive suitable education. There are no statistics about their GCSE and A-level results, or even their 3R competence, let alone university entrance; and the Badman report called for such research to be carried out. There can be no guarantee that home-educated children will receive reproductive, personal, social, health and economic education, as is compulsory-or will be-for others over 15; nor will they receive any guarantee of careers guidance. There is no assurance that migrant children who are being educated at home, even if they can be tracked, are learning English.
I have blogged about this on your Lordships' website, lordsoftheblog.net, along with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and each of us has received about 200 replies. Some use arguments that must have been used in the late 19th century to oppose the introduction of free and compulsory primary education. Others, understandably, withdrew children from school because of bullying, special educational needs, or poor local schooling. Others have a belief that children can just learn autonomously without being taught. I wondered how this worked with, say, physics, and fear that those children are being experimented on in a way that may blight their only chance in a lifetime to be presented with the knowledge and life skills that they will need.
Some of the home educators expressed contempt for the state in all its manifestations. None mentioned the welfare of the child. Some home educators were clearly dedicated and successful, and I could see no reason why they should not register. They seemed overwhelmingly middle class, and it struck me that the provision of home education must be an expensive effort, involving not only the likely sacrifice of a career outside the home by the educating parent, but, as has been mentioned, payment for all the outings and extracurricular activities that are usually provided by the school-not to mention the examinations and equipment. The home educators were insistent that their children had socialising experiences, although whether it is correct to include trips to the supermarket, as one did, or learning French with a grandfather learning at the same time, was open to question.
One does not know how representative they are, and the level of resentment struck me as worrying in itself. It cannot be ruled out that girls in particular, possibly from cultures which expect them to marry early and never work, are denied the opportunities they would receive in school, and might be sent away or into forced marriages, with an even smaller chance of rescue than exists at school. I am not for a moment conflating child abuse with home education, but there is a need to see the child. In albeit very different circumstances, the NSPCC recently called for the law to be changed to allow social workers to see children at risk alone. In Britain, we pride ourselves on the law of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus must extend to our children as well.
It is inadequate that the local authority will be able to see the child only once a year. I should have thought that it would be better-albeit expensive, I appreciate-to produce the child every quarter or six months. The child should have the right to talk alone to the inspector. Fear of strangers is no excuse; or rather that is the very excuse that has been used when there have been failures to meet a child's needs which could have been avoided, had that child been produced. A child cannot go through youth without meeting doctors, dentists, repair men and so on. Two weeks' notice of a visit by the inspectors in the Bill is possibly too long; one week should be adequate, and in cases of concern there ought to be the right to visit without warning. Where a parent appeals against refusal to register, the child should be sent to school at once and not allowed to continue at home, pending appeal.
In sum, our registration system will be weaker than that of most countries. Most US states have a more structured system, and opting out is forbidden in Germany. Your Lordships should not be deterred by the strong wording of the home education lobbyists. There needs to be a way for the home-educated child to be seen and heard, for samples of his or her work to be produced and for rigorous tracking of existence and outcome. I therefore strongly support this part of the Bill.
The hour is late, and I will just say a couple of words about media access. Clauses 32 to 42 and Schedule 2 arguably do not belong in this Bill. They deal with a system for allowing more public knowledge of what goes on in family courts, which has been the subject of controversy. There are arguments for privacy, and there are arguments about knowing what goes on-especially when apparently harsh decisions leak out into the public. For a year, reporters have been allowed to sit in on family proceedings, but only allowed to report the gist of those proceedings. The provisions of the Bill would allow authorised publication; this is rather complicated and time might be wasted on deciding what it is. It is also feared that only one side might be reported as more attention-grabbing-that is the allegations reported, and not the rebuttal.
Clause 40 allows for publication of sensitive personal information to be brought in. It will be reviewed after 18 months, but arguably grave damage might be done in the mean time. There is, I believe, no impact assessment yet; this will be carried out only on review. Nor has there been an impact assessment of media access to the family courts so far. However, the Children's Commissioner for England has funded research to establish children's views on media access and transparency in family proceedings. It will not surprise your Lordships to learn that by and large the children interviewed were opposed to the media being allowed into family courts to hear their cases, because they would be less willing to talk about what had happened to them, they were concerned that their identity might be revealed, and, understandably, they did not trust the newspapers with sensitive information.
The children wanted their views to be considered before deciding whether or not the press should be admitted. This reflects Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which I referred to earlier: the child has the right to be heard, "in proceedings affecting them". One cannot therefore but agree with the view of the Law Society: it may be wrong to introduce this new provision about publication of sensitive information in this last-minute Bill. The system of public access and publication should be reviewed from the point of view of cost and effect, and for now, it says, Clause 40 should be deleted.
The principle of the welfare of the child should guide us in deciding both the points I have raised; the welfare of the child should decide the controversies in the Bill.