Moved by Lord Lucas
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, at end insert—“436AA Duty of local authorities to collect and share information where the proprietor of a school has received written notification from parents that a pupil is receiving elective home education.(1) A local authority must make a return to the Department for Education in such form and at such intervals as may be specified on children removed from roll at each school in its area where the proprietor has received written notification from parents that one or more pupils are receiving elective home education.(2) A return made under subsection (1) must include information as to whether the children concerned have Education and Health Care Plans.(3) A local authority must record and keep up to date the names and addresses of all such children and of their parents.(4) When so requested by the Department for Education or on their behalf, a local authority must write to some or all of such parents as are specified in subsection (3) in such form as the Department may specify.”
My Lords, there has been considerable noise in the press and elsewhere about off-rolling: the idea that schools are pushing the parents of troublesome pupils into home education. Looking at the statistics for Northamptonshire, which I happen to have, there does appear to be some evidence of a move in that direction. During the 2016-17 academic year, 1,182 pupils in Northamptonshire were known to be home educated, and by the end of the year it was 784, which is double the rate of two years previously. The pattern of home education in that county is a level of about 60 pupils per national curriculum year—that is, from the beginning, so those are presumably the dedicated home educators. Then, from year 4 to year 10, the rate of home education picks up rapidly. By the time you get to year 10, 180 pupils are being home educated. A chunk of those—about an eighth—had exclusion problems before being home educated and about one-third are children who have had some contact with social services. The analysis by school shows that some schools are notably excluding very few pupils relative to others and sending a lot to home education. There seems to be evidence that some schools are making it a practice to tip children into home education.
That is not, in itself, a wrong thing. In the circumstances of an individual child, family and school, home education may be the best alternative. Some children who have been suffering in school will flourish in home education. You just do not know, without going into the details, whether this is malpractice or good practice. In too many places in this country, the alternative to home education is exclusion, and the pathway from exclusion is into desolation. We ought to provide, but do not, a strong system of alternative education for children who are persistently excluded.
Does the noble Lord think that, rather than parents being obliged to home educate their children because of the danger of exclusion, a better solution would be to be much more restrictive about exclusions in the first place and not to allow them except in extremis? In that way, we would not have this huge extension of home education that is taking place at the moment, which is a covert form of excluding pupils from school.
My Lords, that is quite possible, but schools and parents can deal only with the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is the parents’ duty, in particular, to make the best of what they can. I agree that we ought to emphasise much more looking after those children who find school hard to deal with and bringing them through to success. There is a lot to do in that area and, as the noble Lord and I know from our long careers in this place, it has proved difficult to successive Governments. But that does not mean that we should not try. I believe that we are having another go at it and I commend the Government for that. In the local circumstances of an individual school, it may be best to encourage home education.
Home education is something that we should be prepared to support. It seems to me very strange that the Government’s attitude to children who have had such difficulty with the state schools they have access to that their parents have been forced to take them home is to immediately cut off funding and support. That seems a weird way of treating those who are finding life hardest in school. Throughout today, I shall be urging the Government to look at this from the point of view of supporting home education. Why, when a child moves into home education, does the money just disappear? Why does it not move to the local authority, or at least a decent proportion of it, so that the local authority can continue to support the education of that child, particularly in circumstances where it is clear that this is a matter not of some middle-class choice but of the best interest of the child?
The amendment is pretty technical. It is aimed at making sure there is a flow of information to Ofsted that will enable it, when it inspects a school, to understand what the school is doing, and whether the moves to home education have been well advised or whether they are a covert form of exclusion. Ofsted tells me that it currently cannot get at the data. When it visits a school, it knows that children have moved into home education, but it has no way of finding out why that has happened. There is no record, information or contact with the parents involved. It just has to accept the school’s explanation. I would like to see circumstances where Ofsted has access to proper information so it can properly evaluate what a school is doing.
I particularly commend to the House the practice of the Magnus Church of England Academy in Newark. Its attitude to pupils who get into trouble is that it retains ownership of them. Even if they end up in the local PRU, Magnus keeps them on roll. It accepts the responsibility for the rest of their education. It accepts that they have gone to the PRU because that is the best choice for the child and that the results they achieve through that method will belong to the school. We should impose that attitude on all schools. I do not think that we should allow schools, whether by way of exclusion or off-rolling, to throw children away, to absolve themselves of responsibility for them. Children should stay on schools’ registers for the purposes of performance tables until the next point of measurement —key stage 2, 4 or 5—so that the decision the school takes about where a child goes, if they leave the school, is one for which the school will be held accountable. That would be the right way to move in this direction to produce data and evidence so that we can watch how these decisions are taken. That seems vital.
In the general context of the Bill, we must be careful to be fair and not to single out the home educated just because some of them are different. There is not any evidence that they are a source of great problems. Sometimes what people say about the home educated just sounds like the fear of others—the sort of thing that I was brought up with, when I was told, “Don’t play with the Gypsy children”. If we want to judge what we are proposing for these people, we should imagine that the state has a supervisory role on the quality of our parenting. Would we let the local authority barge into our houses and interview our children alone to establish whether we are being good enough parents, without any evidence that we are not being good parents? That is the sort of thing we are in danger of asking of home educators in the context of education. We all have duties to bring up our children and to make sure that they are educated well.
An awful lot of the time what parents are doing with their children is commonplace in the state systems of other countries or in the further reaches of schools that we appreciate in this country. If we look at the range of schools, from the religious to the irreligious, from Summerhill to the schools run by the Plymouth Brethren, we admit a wide range of educational practice in this country. Most of what happens in home education is well within that.
We get hung up on the idea of pursuing the voice of the child, but children have no choice which school they go to. The parents decide that. Parents send children to boarding schools. I forgive my parents for that—I had a horrible time of it—but it was what was done at the time. I was not given a choice and I would not be given a choice now—a voice maybe, but not a choice. We must put things in the context of the ordinary decisions we take. We must recognise that if we are looking at removing a child from home education we are removing them not to some nirvana where everything is perfect, but to the local state system where things may well be far from perfect. We therefore should not seek perfection in what we ask of home educators. We should just ask that they are doing, by ordinary standards, a good job. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and his amendment, primarily because this is the first chance we will get to dig out some detail here. Many of the questions I have about this are directed at the Government Front Bench, because the Government’s attitude is crucial. There is undoubtedly a problem with home education, with the fact that it is totally unregulated and we do not really know what is going on. That is the nub of it.
Everybody who comes to see me over this reckons that they are doing a pretty good job in producing something. We on these Benches had as a party group a meeting with some home educators. The interesting thing was that, within about 20 minutes, they were arguing among themselves as to what was the true essence of home education in quite a heated way. The only consensus we got was when I asked them whether they agreed that a child has a right to an education that equips them for adult life afterwards. That was the only degree of agreement we got.
Most of this is dictated by people talking about things such as the rights of the parent. The rights of the child are there. The essence of keeping a record of those who are being home educated is fine. I do not think that there is anybody who would disagree with that. However, I am afraid that I have quite a lot of problems with the detail on this. I am not sure how it will work. There is far too much undiscussed government regulation that will be relied on afterwards and so on.
If the Government are paying attention to this, it is largely as a result of some classic cases of neglect or cruelty where a person has been hidden away. Throughout the communities I have spoken to about this, everyone agrees that there are cases where there are seven or so children and they just cannot be bothered to deal with them, so they home educate them and nothing happens. That example has literally been said to me. I was not given any dates, times or names, but I was given that example. What do the Government intend to do to find out what is being done there?
Then, when it comes to regulation, you start to get into very muddy waters. I have had briefings from the local government authority which say, “This is great, but we do not have any power to enter a home”. I do not know whether or not that is right. Does the Minister have an answer to that technical question? All the powers for registration and assessment do not matter if you cannot get into the home. I suspect that is wrong and that other legislation could be used, but you will need a mechanism to identify and cross-reference. Is that not fun? Is it not easy to do? It would be asking a bit much of a Private Member’s Bill to get anywhere near that. Can we have some answers from the Government about what they are prepared to do on this? If we do not, we will not know what the intention is on whether there will be the back-up and authority to go through with this.
Following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, we should remember that many people are home educating because they feel the system has failed them. I do not often make an intervention in an education debate without mentioning dyslexia, and I draw the Committee’s attention to my interests in that field. It may have been more common in the past, but it still happens now that people may go into the system without an early enough identification of their special educational needs. They have a bad experience and the school gets into a series of appeals about what used to be statements and are now plans. A conflict situation develops with the education establishment, and some people say “Enough is enough” and pull out.
As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, also said, the state then seems to more or less wash its hands of the pupils and many home-educating parents ask, “What is the state’s duty to ensure that we have some assistance?”. If children become school phobic because they have failed or have special educational needs—for example, if they have been overloaded with inappropriate maths and English tuition and help which dyslexics cannot absorb and makes life a living hell for them—what is the state going to do? Dyslexia is a difficulty with short-term memory and an inability to sequence, which anyone who has tried to organise my diary will know manifests itself in me on occasion. If they have to go through this, what is the role of the state to support them? It is a complicated issue. The question of resources also arises. Will we do this? If help is made compulsory, this would lead to a situation in the current world where home-educated pupils would get more assistance than they would do in the school system. It gets more and more complicated.
Can the Minister say what the Government think should happen now? What is their thinking on this? It is clear that the noble Lord, Lord Solely, has enjoined a process of kicking the Government into action, but what are they doing? That will be covered in the rest of this discussion. Is this Bill merely a footnote, a forlorn hope or a part of the process? We need to know because that will colour everything that happens in the rest of today, the future of the Bill and on this issue over the next couple of years. If we are to get this legislation through, it must be fit for purpose.
My Lords, I agree mostly with what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said about home education and I commend my noble friend Lord Solely on his Bill.
I would like to direct the attention of the House and the Minister to the issue of school exclusions, which is getting more and more serious in communities up and down the country and directly relates to home education. Yesterday in Gateshead—having addressed the north-east chamber of commerce, ably led by the son of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who I am delighted to see in his place—I met social workers and school leaders to discuss the big challenges they face. The single biggest issue that they raised with me was the problem of school exclusions, pupil referral units and what they call “off-rolling”—a term which, even as a former education Minister, I had not come across before. Off-rolling is managing people off school rolls into pupil referral units or into no provision whatever and often calling it home education. This is simply to get pupils off the rolls so that they do not engage in disruption in school—disruption which, frankly, the schools for the most part should be managing—and do not count in performance and league tables which are published for schools at the end of each academic year.
This is a big issue. To give a concrete example of what is happening in Gateshead at the moment, one of the social workers at the meeting said that the pupil referral unit in Newcastle, where many of the students from Gateshead are referred, until recently had nearly 400 pupils in it, which is almost the size of a small secondary school. Of those pupils, only 80 to 90 were formally part of the pupil referral unit; all the others had been “off-rolled” or managed into it. For the most part, they did not turn up. They were lucky if they were there for an hour a week. Indeed, it was said to me that if they did all turn up there would not be provision for them.
This a huge social crisis which is taking place in this country at the moment. It is at the root of many of our problems, including in educational underperformance and in the criminal justice system. Many of these children, particularly adolescent boys, are basically not playing any part in schools and are being managed out of them by the age of 14 or 15. They do not get any qualifications or into a culture of learning or work—and we all know what happens to them thereafter.
The relationship with home education is problematic. As a former Minister, I was constantly being told by home educators that it was an essential social right that people should be able to home educate. I believe in principle that that is the case for people who have philosophical views on how education should be conducted—noble Lords will know of people for whom that is true—but for most people home education has nothing whatever to do with philosophical preferences about the style of education but everything to do with failure at and rejection by schools, which often happens. In some communities, particularly Traveller communities, people often do not want their kids to go to local schools because their relationship with the local schools is so poor, and the cultural issues and alienation are so great, that by the time they come, particularly, to secondary level, they do not want to play any part in the local schools.
We all change our views over time. When I was a Minister, I was worried about seeking to limit the power of schools on exclusions. This is a deeply difficult issue because nothing holds back schools and pupils more than disruptive children, and getting the balance right is difficult. My view now, after engaging in this issue for many years, is that Parliament needs to adopt a much more robust approach and that temporary exclusions should be banned. There are hundreds of thousands of temporary exclusions a year. The idea that the punishment awarded for low-level disruption in schools should be chucking kids on to the street for a day or two—as if somehow that would be an incentive for them not to misbehave in future—is one of the biggest misconceptions in the way we handle discipline in schools.
However, for serious disruption, my view is that schools should not be allowed to permanently exclude pupils unless there are issues of violence at stake which simply cannot be managed inside the school. That is not to say that seriously disruptive pupils should be able to disrupt classes. Rather like the way in which we handle special needs, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, schools should have additional resources for managing challenging behaviour. It may be that in some cases the provision should be outside the classroom —although, again, this should managed properly—but getting pupils off the rolls of schools so that no one has responsibility for them at all, which is happening at the moment, is an absolute derogation of our duty as Parliamentarians to see that all young people are educated. To put the euphemistic label of home education on it is to betray a generation of young people who then, in very large measure, end up on the streets, underemployed, unemployed or in the criminal justice system.
My noble friend makes a good point, but I want to remain constructive. Great though my admiration for my noble friend Lord Soley is, fundamental changes in the law rarely take place by means of Private Members’ Bills. My noble friend is working on it and this Bill may be the harbinger of great change thereafter. We are extremely hopeful and there is no one better at producing those changes than my noble friend.
I want to ask the Minister a specific question. This is clearly a steadily growing social crisis. Would he meet me and other Peers who have a keen interest in this to discuss what should be done about the specific issue of school exclusions? I see that my noble friend Lady Morgan is in her place. She played a big part in the academies movement. I hope that we can meet leaders of the academies—indeed the Minister is himself an academy sponsor—to understand the need to reconcile school autonomy in academies with responsible behaviour and ensuring that we do not throw children on to the scrapheap. If the noble Lord would agree to that meeting, I would be very grateful.
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s reference to philosophical preferences, my recollection, as a Member of Parliament some years ago, was that in a number of cases one wanted to support home education, but there were deep concerns about the motivation of the parents in seeking such an arrangement. Does he not think that a wider approach that allows for preferences is harmful to many children who are deprived of the association with others that they need? Are we not moving towards a form of designer education, which would be utterly undesirable?
I understand what the noble Lord is saying, but it is quite difficult for the state to start making judgments about the philosophical preferences of parents when it comes to home education. The point I seek to make to the Committee is that while there are some forms of home education of which I personally strongly disapprove, I do not believe that is the big social issue facing the country. The major issue is home education that means no education, not home education that means better education. It is about getting at the fundamental problem of home education that means no education and throwing children on to the scrapheap that we have to deal with.
Does my noble friend agree that part of the problem is the weakening of local authorities and their diminishing control over schools in their area? They are unable to take an overview of the needs of the area. That break-up is one of the most significant disadvantages of the development of schools policy in recent years.
My noble friend and I could debate academies over a good deal of time, and indeed we have done over the years. I do not believe there is any inconsistency between strong and autonomously-led schools and social responsibility. That has always been at the heart of the reforms that I and others have promoted over the past 20 years. Schools should be free to succeed, not free to fail their children. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made a number of very good points about the important role that Ofsted should play in this process. When it inspects schools, Ofsted should pay much more attention to what is happening to children who are basically off the register and being treated very badly.
My Lords, I apologise for not speaking at Second Reading—please forgive me. I have to declare an interest, and here I address my remarks to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I was a child who was excluded from school, which meant that I had an incredibly impoverished education. When I brought up my own children, I started by putting them through the system where they failed and fell because they had inherited many of the problems I had. Poverty and crime and all these things can be passed on to many generations. They do not just fall off the map because you change your postal code.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis: my problem is that we fail 37% of our children in schools. When the noble Lord was the Schools Minister, he was a part of that failure in the same way as Justine Greening was, who reminded me that the failure rate is not 30% but 37%. Let us not do what I think is being done today, which is to bring together two considerations. The first is this. I have home schooled my children. If you meet them, you will find that they are the most socialised people I know. My grandchildren have also been home schooled, and I can swear on the lives of them all that their dignity, their citizenship and their quality of life have been increased incredibly by the beautiful opportunity we have to give parents and children a choice.
I am in love with that system, but I am aware that we cannot leave it to become a free for all. I have spoken to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, about this. However, I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, please not to bring two things together here. Social exclusion from school is a killer. I must have been one of the first pupils whose headmaster said, “You don’t have to come to school, Tony Bird. We will tick you off”. He did not call it home education, he sent me out shoplifting. It was a good Catholic school just down the road in Sloane Square—a lovely and beautiful school. They do not do that now.
The point I am trying to make is that we should not conflate these issues. The Bill drafted by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is interesting because what it means is this: let us make sure that there are no perversities. However, school exclusion is a separate argument. I will be 100% with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, as an example of a person who was violated by an education system created after the Second World War. They set up an underclass through the secondary modern school system, where all we were was being lined up to do jobs that had disappeared in the 1930s. That is one of the problems.
My problem is that I do not agree with the pedagogy in the school system today. It is preparing our children for 1972 while we have the fourth industrial revolution coming down the road. We should be preparing them for that, but I will leave that issue for another debate.
My Lords, before I turn to the amendment, I want to say that of course no one wants to see pupils being excluded, but I have to tell noble Lords that all the meetings in the world with the Minister will not change things unless we are prepared to put in the resources to support special educational needs and to deal with all the other things that cause children to get into trouble in our schools. Teachers have a right to teach and pupils have a right to learn. A disruptive pupil can often destroy a classroom and a school. We want to change that system, and I agree that we should not have exclusions, but it is about resources.
I support the amendment. It is absolutely bizarre that, as a society, we do not have a clue how many children go missing from the education system or how many are being home educated. We have responsibilities towards children. There are very good home educators. I have been looking at the guidance for parents on home education. It is a charter to do exactly what you want.
What is the legal position of parents? You can decide from an early age that there are no requirements. What is full-time education? There is no legal definition; you are not required to do this and you are not required to do that. If your son or daughter is enrolled in a school and you decide to take them on holiday in term time, guess what. You end up in court, but there are no legal requirements on parents teaching their children at home to do anything. On the curriculum, we had a long, anxious and worrying debate about British values. If you are home educating, you do not have to teach those values at all. The guidance to home educators, which we proudly say is the full guidance on what has to be done, is a charter to do absolutely nothing.
What should we be doing as a minimum? First, it is right that we should ensure that local authorities have to record those pupils who are being educated at home. Parents should have to register that fact. But there are other issues linked to that, one of which is resources. When there is a problem, we often blame local authorities, but when there is a difficulty, we often ask local authorities to do something about it. If we are going to ask local authorities to do this work, there have to be the resources for them. You cannot just say, “Right, we’ll pile this pressure on local authorities”. Local authorities that do this work will need additional resources.
Again, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was right when he said in passing, “You know what, every pupil is worth a sum of money”. When that pupil is taken out of school and home educated, that money is lost to the education system; it goes back to the Treasury. Would it not be nice if that sum of money were used in some way, perhaps to support young people and excluded children or to give some resource to local authorities to ensure that this area is monitored properly? I support the amendment.
My Lords, I rise to speak in your Lordships’ debate with some trepidation because education is not my subject and never has been.
First, I follow my noble friend Lord Bird in apologising for not having spoken at Second Reading. I followed that debate quite closely and I think the best words I can use to cover my feelings about it are those of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in debate on the withdrawal Bill: noble Lords must “get real” if they think that home education is the way to deal with excluded children. I say that because my third daughter—a video editor by profession—went to her local authority in a fairly poor part of north London one day and said, “I really want to do something. Seeing the number of excluded children in this authority, I’d like to offer my services because, having been a freelance video editor, usually working on film sets, I may be able to help these children in some way”. She has done so; over a number of years, I can safely say that she has been of some help. If they are willing and she has spotted them as being possibly suitable for this kind of experience, she has met children who have been excluded for violent behaviour, come from very poor backgrounds and have not co-operated at school at all, for whom exclusion is an option—although I deplore it. Like the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—if I understood him correctly —I think exclusion is an absolute disgrace. My daughter thought she could see something that came within her field in the children she had spotted. She said she would encourage them to come up with an idea, either fictional or from their experience, and give them the opportunity to learn how to create a story and put it in visual terms—in others words, they were going to film it together and produce four to five-minute films. She has been doing this for three years and shown a number of examples of her work with these children, including in your Lordships’ House.
I would say, as would noble Lords who have seen some of it, that her work tells one something about excluded children: they generally come from very poor backgrounds and bad homes, so it cannot be said automatically that if school does not suit a child, they should be educated at home. The kind of homes that the children taught by my daughter come from would not be interested. That is why those children are what they are and have imaginations that have turned negative —which she tries to turn positive and creative again—so it would not work. Now a raft of pupils has passed through her hands and some of the films have been quite brilliant. Those children, who would hardly speak to anybody and found it difficult not to resort to violent behaviour, have found being encouraged to use their imaginations and being taught to turn that into a film an enormous success. I say that without exaggeration and without exception. First of all, the children generally get praise for what they do. When you begin to use your imagination as a child, it shuts out all kinds of resentments that you might have following a poor home background and a lack of success at school.
I am sorry if this sounds like a Second Reading speech—I have apologised for not being there—and I hope that I am not ruffling too many feathers. I know that there are a lot of education professionals in the House—I often listen to them and wonder what I am doing here—but I think my daughter’s work and her success qualifies me to stand up and say to your Lordships that the Bill is a nonsense. I say that about the way it is expressed; I am not saying that anything done by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is a nonsense. If noble Lords generally think that recalcitrant children will benefit from being educated at home and that this will answer all the questions—in a way, I agree to an extent with what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said—they are living in cloud-cuckoo-land. We have to identify the children, of whom there are plenty, who want to be different but have to break out of the prison they have been in with their families and because of their lack of success in school. In fact, from the children my daughter has dealt with, who have produced these remarkable films, one young boy—who was totally out of control—has now been accepted at a drama school as a potentially successful actor. My daughter has been asked by a number of drama schools to talk to them about what she has done with excluded children, because the pupils—not the teachers; we all know what teachers are like—are very impressed and fascinated that children from such backgrounds have broken the chains of deprivation.
Absolutely. The connection, which may upset people, is that I think the Bill is total nonsense in the way it is being followed through. I do not think that the teachers of this nation, most of whom are very dedicated people, are meeting the requirements—which they could do if they “get real”, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, again. My daughter, through what she does, has put around 100 young people into a new frame of mind, having lost all their instincts for violent reaction and such things. That is the way forward.
My Lords, those of us who were present at Second Reading were clear about the importance of keeping things simple in the Bill. When there has not been an education Bill for a long time, there is always a tendency for all sorts of things to be raised. Those of us who have taken part in this debate over months, if not years, are clear that there is a precise need to start to move forward on this issue, which we will do by moving forward on registration. There is a time and place for wider conversations and today is not it.
I take the noble Baroness’s hint. I shall wind up my discourse by saying this. If we are to see in children of the background that I have described a change in their behaviour, their mood and, one hopes, their enjoyment of life, the best way to bring it about is to get people such as my daughter who are volunteers to do the work in the home, because the parents will not be any good at doing it. As is often the case in this country, the voluntary sector needs to be involved. I have much more faith in the voluntary sector than in the teaching profession and education generally. On that rather contentious note, I will now allow the House, with apologies, to continue in its normal vein.
Please can we stop bringing things into the debate, as the noble Baroness said? Why do we need to deface the brilliant dedication of our teachers? This is not an anti-teacher movement. I am sorry that I missed the Second Reading. I could probably have said some brilliant things then, so I will try to do so now. Please, let us concentrate on the very sensible Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, which is about making sure that we do not send our children into a hinterland of non-education.
I am grateful for that last-minute intervention. Anybody who believed that home education could not produce some pretty emotional responses should have listened to this opening debate or been involved with me in the many meetings and discussions that I have had, including one via Skype for Business, with people all over the country. I think that I have been able to allay some of the fears that people have.
Before I turn briefly to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, let me put all this in context. This Bill is about creating a register. We need to know what is happening and to be able to help. It is a helpful Bill; it is a Bill which we can build on. I commend the Government and the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Addington, to whom I talked yesterday, who are working with me to try to get it right. More needs to be done on it, but we need the Bill because we have no idea where some children are. I have said for many years that some people who home educate do it extremely well and the results are very good. One of my frustrations is that there is virtually no research in this area, and we need some—I have asked some universities to think about that.
A second and bigger group are people who need help in home educating. Precisely as my noble friend Lord Adonis said, children who have been pushed out of school sometimes need help because their parents might want to home educate but cannot, or there may be others who do it but find it a struggle or have difficulty accessing the resources they need—access to laboratories, for example, or access to exams and to having them paid for.
Then there is a small group who have always worried me deeply: those who are taken out of school to be home schooled when in fact it is about radicalisation, trafficking and abuse. Anybody who ignores that is ignoring something very serious.
I agree with the amendment and with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we need to look at this. Following my conversation with him yesterday, I think that I need to look at another area where I may be able to help him, because I know that he has a particular concern which will perhaps come up on a later amendment. I also want to thank the Government for having embarked as a result of this Bill on a wide-ranging consultation which enables us to take into account many aspects of the amendments that have been put to the House. I also thank my own Front Bench and my noble friend Lord Watson, who has been incredibly helpful to someone who does not know that much about education in the round but knows a lot about the problems of children caught in impossible situations, not least in trafficking, abuse and radicalisation. The House has to take that very seriously.
I have no problem with the amendment but, if we spend as much time on all the other amendments as we have on this, this Bill will fail. I do not want to discourage people from speaking, but I say to noble Lords that it would be helpful if we could focus on the amendment and keep it brief because, otherwise, there will be no Bill and the Government, whom I commend for working closely with me on this, will be not be able to get through the consultation process that we need to build a Bill that is more fit for purpose than my present one—I believe myself, of course, that it is almost perfect, but I will accept significant changes. I think that we can do that, and it will be to the benefit of home educators who are doing it well and, above all, to children who are at the moment getting a pretty raw deal.
My Lords, I declare an interest as patron of an organisation called SkillForce, which is probably doing more than any other organisation in the country to help those excluded. It had its genesis when a Territorial regiment in Northumberland was declared redundant. The commanding officer went to the local head of education and asked, “Can you use my NCOs in any way helpful?” He said, “They would be most valuable going round the difficult schools in the north Tyne area and persuading the potential excludees to come back into the school system”. It started under the MoD and it is now an independent charity. It uses ex-military to go into schools to persuade people not to be excluded. When I went into a school in Slough which was at the bottom of the pack, I was told by the headmistress that SkillForce had been responsible for turning her school round, not least because it had persuaded some potential excludees to join the right way.
One reason for my supporting the amendment is the register, because what SkillForce has to do might well benefit some of those being home educated. At the moment, there is no way of connecting the two. I also support my noble friend Lord Falkland, whose daughter’s films I have had the privilege of seeing. They are remarkable attribute.
My Lords, I note my noble friend Lord Soley’s request to be mindful of time constraints and will say that this is the only time that I intend to speak today. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that I recognise the amount of time and effort that he has put into framing the amendment. We support it, although I would not wish it in any way to detract from the key aim of the Bill, which, as my noble friends Lord Soley and Lady Morgan said, is ensuring a form of registration.
I shall repeat what I said at Second Reading, in so far as we support the Bill and are concerned about the situation regarding children in non-school settings. Elective home education is a right established under the Education Act 1996. I am certain that in the clear majority of instances, such a decision is right for the children involved and is supported by parents who have an understanding of the educational needs of their children and the ability to ensure that they are met. Many work well with their local authority to ensure that a good education is provided. In those cases, home schooling is appropriate and such out-of-school settings do not present cause for concern. I say to noble Lords that these are not the people at whom this Bill is primarily aimed, nor is it aimed at the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and his family, because nothing in the Bill would have prevented the rich home education that his children and grandchildren clearly had.
The problem that must be addressed is that many children who are either never presented to school or subsequently withdrawn do not enjoy such a benign experience. For the few parents who abuse their children, home schooling offers the perfect environment to keep that abuse and those children hidden. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, the question of exclusions is a further concern in this regard. I listened with great interest to the comments of my noble friend Lord Adonis, particularly informed by his visit to Gateshead yesterday. Pupil referral units, which I mentioned at Second Reading, are often very much part of the problem and very rarely part of the solution.
There are other concerns as well, because in some schools we know that some teachers will, shall we say, encourage parents to find a more suitable school, perhaps with an eye to improving the school’s exam outcomes. Putting that pressure on parents is invidious and should not happen; it is not the parents’ role in those circumstances to deal with a child that the school, for whatever reason, has decided that it cannot deal with. Indeed, some parents, with the best will in the world, are incapable of finding alternative mainstream education and they therefore turn to home education very much as a last resort. Sadly, that is something for which few parents in those pressure situations are equipped. It is also sad to note that in many cases this involves children with special educational needs or disabilities. For whatever reason, not all home education is genuinely elective education. As I said, for some parents it is the last resort.
I believe that it is a question of protecting children. While home schooling can be a suitable and nurturing environment, concerns arise when the education provided is not suited to the child’s aptitude and ability, or when the choice to educate at home is perhaps a further component, in some way, of abuse and neglect. The Casey review into community cohesion published in 2016 highlighted the fact that the lack of duty on parents to register their children as home schooled means that local authorities do not have any sure way of knowing the extent of home education. The statement, if any, that should cover this debate is that the Government just do not know how many children are in non-school settings: that is a very worrying fact. The Casey review should interest the noble Lord because it links with the Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, issued last month, in many ways. To repeat the point, we believe that the focus should be on safeguarding rather than on an education check. It is obviously important that children are being properly and appropriately educated, but from a safeguarding perspective, nothing is more important than that parents registering their children do so from a position of strength, not weakness.
I have one point on an event that has happened since Second Reading: the Government—after some delay, it has to be said—published a response this month to the consultation on out-of-school settings, including proposals about providing intensive education and the number of hours that that involves, powers for Ofsted and so on. It is very disappointing that the Government concluded that they are not going to pursue the model proposed in the consultation or take forward new legislation at this stage. It is particularly disappointing because there is a gap where education Bills normally sit: there is certainly no lack of opportunity for those issues to be pursued. Although it is not part of my noble friend Lord Soley’s Bill, and while the question of out-of-school settings and unregistered schools is not for today, it is notable that more than 50% of respondents to that out-of-school settings consultation were faith groups. It is for another day but those issues are very much linked with out-of-school education and we have to be aware of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Storey, made a point about British values which is important here. Some respondents actually highlighted the fact that being forced to teach British values could run counter to their religious teachings. That in itself would be a worry and it sounds to me like a ringing endorsement of the need for the Bill. The safety of children should not be allocated to a category marked “Don’t know” by the Government. Child protection is surely too important for that to be the case, but as things stand, it is. My noble friend Lord Soley’s Bill aims to ensure that information is provided in future to the maximum extent possible through legislation and that is why it is worthy of support in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, on
We know that there are concerns about the efficacy of the current framework and the lack of hard information about numbers to address the actual needs of children being educated at home. Indeed, at Second Reading noble Lords spoke about the need for more evidence. We know that involved in this is the potential of increasing exclusions or, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred to it, “off-rolling”. I would welcome a meeting with him and other noble Peers on that subject, but we should not get it too tangled up in the simpler issue of the Soley Private Member’s Bill. This is why we published a call for evidence on
I take this opportunity to reassure my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Bird, that we support home education that is done well. We want to find ways to support families that are achieving this. I am very conscious of the amount of work needed to educate a child properly at home. It is entirely consistent with our aim of ensuring that every child has a good education within a diverse system that allows for maximum parental choice. We should aim to help good home education, but also to ensure that poor home education is dealt with quickly. To address the queries of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about the Government’s position, the consultation is open until
My Lords, I am very encouraged by that reply from my noble friend, particularly his last sentence. I very much hope that the Government are thinking of taking advantage of the Bill to take forward the results of the consultation when they are available. In that context, I think the noble Lord, Lord Soley, need not worry about the Bill failing if we run out of time today. Today is about talking to the Government, even though they do not answer much: it is about getting them to listen to us, as an input to the consultation and to inform their intentions for the future of the Bill more generally. I very much hope that if we run out of time today we may find space on a subsequent Friday to complete its passage before the Government have to let us know their opinions, which will presumably, with luck, be in September or October. Without government support, the Bill will fail; with government support there will not be any problems, so I hope that although we will not waste time today, we will none the less make sure that the Government have heard our opinion on things.
On the interesting suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, I think Skillforce would find very good relationships, certainly in some areas, between local authorities and home educators, which would give wide access to the home educating community. It is not true in every area, but there are some where you will get pretty complete coverage from what is there already.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, is a Member of this House. Every time I listen to him, he adds to my understanding of the world. I am just an observer of home education; I honour him as someone who has done it. I do not think I would ever have the strength of character and energy to finish that. I am entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in tackling this problem in the round and very happy to line up behind him in any meeting or effort. These children are our children; they are part of our community and we absolutely ought to treat them that way. It hurts us all that we do not. I am going to pursue the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, on the matter of his daughter. I have a project running in Eastbourne which would benefit from her advice.
There is much to be done here but, generally, I am delighted by the reaction to this amendment. I hope the Government will see it as an example of how the Bill might be used to address the wider problems. It trespasses into the whole area of safeguarding, trafficking, abuse and radicalisation, which concern us all so much. That is not the same as home education but the two get mixed up. There are educational concerns but enforcing educational orthodoxy ought not to be seen as a way of tackling safeguarding concerns. They are separate. Both need to be addressed but we need to think of them separately, particularly in the context of home education. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
I hope this will be very brief as it is a simple amendment. It would change “monitor” to “assess”, and I propose that because in conversations with home educators, there was some concern that the current word was too heavy. I am told by various legal experts and others that there is not much difference between the two words in such a Bill. However, there was a preference among those who spoke to me for using “assess”, so this is a recognition of their concerns. I simply ask the Committee to agree this quickly and, in effect, change “monitor” to “assess” as in Amendment 2 and the associated group of amendments. I beg to move.
Amendment 2 agreed.
This amendment is slightly more complicated but it has the same sort of background. When I wrote the Bill some considerable time ago, I put “physical and emotional” in among the things to be assessed. That was partly because of my concerns about radicalisation, abuse and so on but, having thought it through, it is very difficult to do that. Additional resources would have to be put in.
One thing that various expert bodies pointed out to me was that if a teacher or an education welfare officer goes in to assess in the normal way, they will be good enough to spot when there is serious abuse. If the child is just not there or, as the Minister will know can happen, they are but there is some concern about them being sent to an illegal school at times and then brought back, in effect you need a power for the local authority to continue to visit and, if necessary, trigger additional support from health or other services to make sure that the emotional and other safeguards for the children are there. On that basis, I think there is no real disagreement on this and I know that many home educators will be pleased to see these words go. I am very happy to move that Amendment 4 and the group associated with it be accepted by the Committee.
Amendment 4 agreed.
My Lords, the function of the amendments in this group is, I hope, to demonstrate to the Government that they can use the Bill to clear up some of the uncertainties that have bedevilled the administration of home education regulation for local authorities. You get so many different interpretations and understandings of what particular terms mean because they are not defined in legislation and not well-defined in practice. If we are to get consistent and good practice across the nation, people need to understand what we are talking about. What is home education and how do we define “full-time”? These things matter and I hope that, as a result of the Government’s consultation, we can move towards a system where everybody is clear what we are talking about.
Local authorities tend to be understaffed and the staff in this area are often inexperienced or subsidiary to quite fierce people in the enforcement and safeguarding divisions. It can be difficult for them to maintain things that, when they are brought back to government, are absolutely clear. My noble friend Lord Agnew has made it clear in his consultation, which has been a great help. But clarity is to be aimed for and I have tabled these amendments just to show that the clerks would allow them, and that the Bill would accommodate them.
Amendment 28 has an additional purpose on a point of debate. It is to pick up on a feeling I get from the Government’s consultation that although they clearly expect people who have taken up home education for philosophical reasons to offer generally good practice, they are concerned about people who have been forced into home education. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, is an excellent example of someone who was forced into home education and a lot of people do a very good job in that situation. They accept home education because they know they have the capacity for it: they may be teachers, nurses, senior administrators or lawyers. These people know that they have the financial and intellectual capacity to take this challenge on and do the best by their children.
That is a reflection of something that has not gone right in the education system and we should absolutely try to put the underlying education right. But a lot of people who have been forced into home education and, as it were, made their own decision to take their children out are doing an extremely good job. Many of the stories of home educators I come across are of people in those circumstances, so Amendment 28 would just recognise that. It is about not only initial choice but a reaction to doing the best for one’s child in the knowledge that one can. I beg to move Amendment 5.
My Lords, if Amendment 27 is agreed to in this group, I cannot accept Amendment 28 by reasons of pre-emption.
I am quite interested in the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has put. We have had a number of discussions on areas such as this and he has been extremely helpful. The only point that I have had made to me is that there is a problem with the definition of full-time and part-time, However, the noble Lord has made the point that this is something the Minister’s consultations and discussions should take into account. That would be helpful and I have no objection to it in principle, although there may be difficulties about definition.
I hesitate to stop progress and I apologise for not speaking at Second Reading because I was otherwise detained then. As the Minister knows, for some time my concern has been—I think this was a concern of previous Ministers in the department—the overlap between home education used inappropriately, unregistered schools and unregulated madrassas. I am normally an enthusiast for definitions in legislation because they introduce clarity. On this, I am a bit less certain. I am not clear—I would very much welcome the views of the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Soley, here—about whether this set of amendments, excluding Amendment 28, would make it easier for someone who had a child who was flitting between home education, an unregistered school and a madrassa to use this definition to carry on doing that, because they did not meet the requirement of the length for “home education”. I wonder whether there would be an escape route for people doing that if we accepted this precise definition, but I would very much welcome the views of the noble Lords on that issue.
My Lords, these definitions are by way of illustration only, and I entirely accept the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, asked.
The group of amendments that includes Amendment 12 takes another look at this. I am very much in favour of the Government taking advantage of the Bill to make clear their power to stick their nose into any and all educational situations and arrangements that might give them safeguarding or radicalisation concerns. There should not be any hesitation by local authorities in getting to know what is going on somewhere where they do not know what is going on. I would very much like the final version of the Bill to deal with that, but I will come on to that more under Amendment 12. I utterly support what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for putting his name to this amendment. This is the only other amendment I have put down, which shows how perfect my Bill was in the first instance. Mind you, what I have been writing at home is another matter. This amendment relates to an important issue. It goes to the heart of what I have been saying for some time, which is that we do not offer enough support to people who are home educating, whether they are doing it very well, not so well or, in some cases, very badly. This amendment places a duty upon the local authority,
“to provide advice and information to a parent of a child receiving elective home education if that parent requests such advice or information in relation to their obligations under this section”.
I was tempted to put in the word “support” as well. I have used “advice and information” largely because in a Private Member’s Bill there would be all sorts of problems about financing that and where the money came from, and there is a problem of local authority resources generally. However, I emphasise that this is a direction in which we have to move. If we are serious about helping people who are home educating and the children in that group, we need to put some money, resources and thought into it. At the moment, that is not there. Imagine, for example, a parent who is doing a remarkably good job home educating generally, but who suddenly spots that the child is quite good at, for example, chemistry but has very little access to a chemistry lab. If advice and information was available, it could enable that parent to be directed to an area where they might be able to get it. In the long run, I would like to make that option much more possible. There are many other examples—music, mathematics or whatever—where children have a particular skill that the parent cannot meet in home education.
That is my reason for this amendment, but there is another reason, which is very important. When I launched this Bill, inevitably I got attacked from all sides, as one does, but particularly from home educators who thought I was intent on destroying the family. They referred to me as Mao Tse-Tung in drag. I am not Mao Tse-Tung in drag and I am not about destroying the family, although sometimes I feel like destroying various families, but we will not go into that in any great detail. That is my background as an MP in certain areas, I guess. There is real concern among some parents who are doing this that there is a constant attempt to take away the right to home educate. It has never been my view that we should do that. I have always made it clear that I regard it as a right. It is a complex area where you have to balance the rights of the parent with the rights of the child, which is an area which causes parents concern.
By putting this wording into the Bill, it says to parents who are anxious about this that they have a legal right to home educate. It recognises in a legislative form that there is a right to home educate. I do that because of the concern of some people who are determined to believe at almost any cost that there is a killer on the loose about to devastate every family in the land. I am not. It is working quite well. If people want to see some of the discussion on this, the interviews I did around the country last week on Skype for Business are now on the Lords of the Blog site. They are all there, and many parents were worried about this.
So I ask the House to accept this amendment for two reasons. First, it requires advice and information to be given by local authorities to parents who request it and opens the door to longer-term support. I hope that in the consultation period and the discussions with the Government we will build up a proper support system for parents who are home educating. Secondly, it puts in legislative form the right to home educate. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support this amendment. I understand the limitations of a Private Member’s Bill. The noble Lord has done extremely well to stretch it as far as he can to get here. I say to the Minister that we really must look at proper support. To return to what I said on the first amendment, looking at the data from Northamptonshire, by the end of schooling three-quarters of children being home educated have got there not through the initial choice of their parents but because they have failed out of school. Our reaction to children for whom schooling has proved impossible to maintain for whatever reason—depriving them of all funding—is, frankly, perverse and wrong. We really ought to look at saying that these parents have taken on the burden, but they need help and we can provide it. It is probably a great deal cheaper.
From talking to home educators, I think we could probably manage special needs provision on about one-quarter of the budget that it takes to provide it through the state because the parents are doing so much of what needs to be done, but they need outside help. Even if it is fairly straightforward—just behavioural issues, not some abstruse special educational need—parents need help. They may not be good enough at teaching mathematics. They may know that. They might really like to drop their child into maths classes or literacy classes or give them a chance to play games with other children, not just with home-educated children, or get them access to the swimming pool, the library or the other things that happen occasionally in good local authorities. They should be there and be supportive.
I urge the Government to consider the idea that a budget should be given to local authorities to provide educational assistance to home-educated children. The Government are saving so much by these children coming out of school: £5,000 per year per child. The Government should not pocket the whole of that. There is no reason to. The Government should recognise that they have a continuing duty actively to support these children.
Having that fund and local authorities having that duty would produce a supportive attitude and a real reason for parents to engage with the local authority. It means that, rather than being hidden from sight, the vast majority of these children will be seen because they will be engaging in an activity sponsored by the local authority. They will be seen by independent professionals in doing that. There will be very good visibility and the whole problem of how we know that these children are being properly educated becomes easy to solve. It is solved as a side effect of educating them. That surely must be the best way to approach this.
Supportive means actively supporting their education, not just directing what it should be. There is a wide range of good practice out there that we could borrow from and, with good funding, produce something that results in a very large proportion of home-educating parents actively wishing to register. Most of them are not state phobic. Most of them just think the state has done a very bad job for them, and they do not trust some of the individuals involved. If we get to a position where the state is providing a range of helpful services, and there is a decent budget behind that, we would solve most of the problems covered in the Bill.
My Lords, we very much support the amendment. It is a huge decision when you decide to teach your child or children at home. Yes, there is a very large home-school movement in this country. They network together, work together and support each other. In fact they have an annual five-day festival every year of home educators from all over the country. I have been invited to attend this year’s event and perhaps other noble Lords might like to come along and see them at work. However, they are on their own. There is no support and no advice. What happens during the period of exams? Where do the pupils sit their exams? They need help and support in that direction. What happens when they might actually want to use some of the facilities of a local school? Maybe the local school will be anxious to oblige, and the local authority can provide a brokering role. So I think advice and support are really important.
I suspect that the issue of resources is crucial. You cannot do this properly and make those provisions unless those resources are available. I shuddered slightly when the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, mentioned special educational needs, because already in mainstream schools there is a major funding issue over SEN. I do not know how we could make those resources available in the home education system; we should do, but it is quite a complex area. So this is an important amendment to support.
Personally, my Lords, I think we need to be a bit careful with this. Given the conversation on Amendment 1, when we were talking about one of the problems being large numbers of pupils who are now excluded from schools in a way that most of us feel very uneasy about, I would hate us to end up producing something in this Bill that said it was okay because there was a fund that did a little bit to help children who are being home educated. I accept that it is important to have the legal right to home educate but, again, the more that we keep this simple and have the wider conversation about support in the discussion that the Minister has offered on exclusions, the more helpful that would be.
I think it is really interesting that we are talking about the legitimacy of home education. The way I see it is that schools and individual parents who are choosing that route should be going in the same direction. It is about the child, and that is really wonderful. My own children, who, like me, have problems around dyslexia, have used a wonderful system on the computer called Easyread. I would like that to be available to all our children, especially those who have dyslexia. Unfortunately, the chap has to pay for it. I would love it if our schools could get together on this because it is a brilliant method. It took my son from a very low reading age to a very high one in the space of a year.
To sum this up, if I may, I very much welcome those remarks. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, again makes an important point about the involvement of the people doing this job with local authorities so that we can break down some of the barriers of distrust and build up confidence-building methods. There are implications about support and what that would involve in terms of finance and other resources, which is why I did not put the word in there, but the rest of the words stand. The key point here, which I think the Minister accepts, is that we need to consult rather widely on this.
Amendment 6 agreed.
My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to enable some discussion on the subject of registration. I am entirely comfortable with the idea that local authorities, with all their responsibilities, should know where the children that they are responsible for are—where they can reach them and how they can begin to establish that they are, within the duties of the local authority, well looked after.
If we are going to do that, we really ought to have a system that is comprehensive. We do not really have a grip on children who are registered with an independent school. They are not part of the national pupil census. Why not? What is happening in the whole of alternative education? What is happening with children who are just told to stay home, who are held at home waiting for the school of their choice, who are moving between this country and another one that they have a connection with, or are in some other way adrift from the ordinary ways of a local authority keeping tabs on children? If we think it is important that there is a register—various noble Lords have made the case that it is, and I agree with them—then it should be a register of children. Some of that is done already because we know that they are at schools within the local authority or connected with it so that the local authority can get data about them, but it ought to be a comprehensive exercise.
We should not just pick on home education—or, rather, those parents who choose to declare themselves at home educators—because the people who will register are probably not the ones who are causing us trouble. The ones who might cause us trouble are the ones who are not registered, or the ones that schools have chosen to abandon and their parents are really not capable of picking up. I do not think registration just for home education answers the case. I hope the Minister, in all that he is thinking through, when he comes to registration will look at the wider question of how local authorities are supposed to have proper information on which children they are supposed to be paying attention to.
There are data sources that we should be making good use of. Most children, one way or another, will be registered with medical authorities. Many of them will have other contacts with the state through child allowances and so on. There ought to be an integration of that information so that the local authority has a picture of who is there. There has to be a sensible way of dealing with parents moving from one place to another without making it immensely difficult, uncertain and bureaucratic. I do not think there is any sign that that has yet been thought through.
We have a good pupil census that operates in schools, which might well provide the basis for a complete child census. It might give us a very interesting picture on children who go missing. I have not seen anything that I know to be an accurate number, but there appears to be quite a high number of such children and we ought to be paying attention to them. They are children who are really at risk, in capitals, but we do not seem to have good enough systems for picking up on that and being able to investigate where they last were and what has happened.
We want to produce a system that is good value for money. I come back to what I said on the last amendment: all this works much better if we give parents a real incentive to sign up, and all justice says that that is what we should be doing anyway. We as a country should be part of educating these children. It is not like sending your child away to prep school, nor is it just choosing a school outside the state system; this is choosing to educate them yourself and taking on that burden. The state has every right and duty to offer assistance in that, and I hope that will be a consequence of the review that my noble friend is undertaking. I beg to move.
My Lords, I must inform the Committee that if Amendment 7 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 7A or 7B by reason of pre-emption.
My Lords, I strongly oppose the amendment. I do so because the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, seems to be arguing that because we cannot have the perfect system, we should not take a few steps along the road towards such a system. There have been long-standing problems in the whole area of vulnerable children, which the Children’s Commissioner has identified, which would be helped a great deal if the Government could press on with a common identifier for children. The Minister has heard me banging on about this from time to time—I never miss an opportunity to bang on about it—but there is an issue of how the state joins up information about children who may be vulnerable in a number of ways.
Anyone who has been involved in public policy and seen the growth in the number of children claiming to be home educated would be worried whether there was abuse in that system. The sheer growth in numbers and its rapidity should make you anxious as a public policy person, whatever your politics, whoever the Government in power are. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, is trying to address that issue. He may not be solving all the problems of childkind, if I may put it that way, but he is trying in a practical way to tackle one element of the area of vulnerable children. We should not handcuff him in that effort by supporting the amendment.
This is an opportunity to, and I hope the Government will, consider the points made. It is shocking that we have hundreds of thousands—well, not hundreds of thousands, but thousands—of children missing from our education system and no idea where they are. No society should allow that to happen. When teaching started, there were school rolls. A pupil’s name was put on the school roll, there was an annual census, the local education authority collected all the details and they were submitted to the then Department of Education.
During the Labour Administration, there was concern about missing children, so they brought in what was called the unique pupil number. The idea was that when each pupil started schooling, they would have a number which would follow them through the education system so you would know where they were, they would not go missing, they would not fall off the cliff. I was quite comfortable with that and thought what a good idea it was, but it did not work in practice. I recall from my final years as a headteacher a particular issue with a pupil and a family. The family took the pupil out of the school, went to see the local authority, did not get the school they wanted, so moved to a different authority. I wanted to find out what had happened to this pupil. There was information about his progress, special educational needs—a host of information that the receiving school should get. Nobody had a clue where he had gone. It was a legal requirement that a receiving school had to use that unique pupil number, but he just vanished and was never heard of again in the education system.
I did not realise that if a pupil went to an independent school, that number does not go with them either. There is a whole area here that we need to understand. I am not suggesting a Big Brother or Big Sister, but we need to ensure as a society that we know that our children are safe, not being put in vulnerable positions, and part of that safety is understanding the progress of their education and where they go.
I am of the view that it would be better if we had a system where, when a child becomes of school age, they have to be registered at a school of some type, so I support what the noble Lord says, but I cannot possibly do that in a Private Member’s Bill. It is a matter for thought and discussion in government as to whether we consider that further down the line. It would help home educators, who feel a bit pilloried because they are singled out as doing something different, which we do not do if a child is going to a private school, or whatever, so I have that long-term preference, but it does not fit in the Bill, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, recognises. It is part of the discussion with government.
My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 8 in my name I shall brief, because it is really a matter of common sense and practicality. I know that the Minister is in no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. He knows that it is particularly relevant to a large proportion of Gypsy and Traveller children, among others. The purpose of the amendment is further to strengthen the excellent system of registration proposed by my noble friend.
I shall first talk briefly about Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children. This information comes from the casework of the Traveller Movement, one of the largest NGOs in the area. It says:
“we have noticed that parents often aren’t aware of the details”,
of elective home education,
“therefore making them more aware would allow them to make an informed decision. We come in to contact with a lot of parents who think twice about home educating once they’re told you that don’t get provided with a tutor or financial support, for example”.
The proposal is that local authorities must fully inform parents—not, “if requested”, they must. That is because there are many parents who do not know what to ask for, or whether there is anything to ask for. The reason we propose that it should be via a short, standardised film is because a fair number of these parents are not very literate, sometimes not at all literate themselves. This does not apply only to Gypsy, Traveller and Roma people. A film is a completely different way to understand advice, and that is why we recommend it.
The amendment states that the local authority must inform them of their responsibilities concerning home education. It is fair to say that some parents do not grasp that their task is to see that their children are properly educated, and brings with it the support available.
At this point, I refer to two non-Gypsy, Traveller or Roma families. One educates their four children extremely well. The children thrive and are well educated. That mother would have no difficulty complying with any of the requirements in my noble friend’s Bill. In the other, the father took umbrage when a teacher rebuked his child and he withdrew him. However, he did not bother trying to undertake the education himself; it was left to the mother, who has a part-time job and is not terribly well educated. However, she is very conscientious. She got hold of the national curriculum. She tries. That child, whom I know quite well, is really not well-educated. Were the mother to have more support, more information, I am sure that that child would benefit.
The third duty which the local authority would have is to set out the circumstances in which home education is not suitable. Here I refer to the kind of circumstances which my noble friend Lord Adonis described. There are schools where the teachers ought to be doing better. Those schools are where pressure can be brought so that the child can be returned to school. There are circumstances where too much damage has been done to a child, where they are alienated, where the school has not properly coped with bullying. In those cases, properly supported home education is entirely suitable, with support.
The other advantage of the film is that it would ensure that the quality of information across local authorities would be consistent. There would be no postcode short straw in this system.
I suggest to your Lordships that the interests of the majority of the children who are home educated would be better served if this amendment were incorporated. It would help to deliver a proper education for them.
Very briefly, just to comment on the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, it would be interesting to get some feedback either now or later on why other mediums of passing on information are used. I work in a world where I am not comfortable with information coming in paper form—or, indeed, with any written text—but I have found coping strategies to deal with it. However, a film does not have the stigma of something scary. You can open it up and it is a very good way forward; it can contain quite a lot of information. No matter what else we do, I suggest that somebody takes that idea and keeps it in mind. You should use this medium more often, because it is a great way of getting across the essence of what you are doing. I hope that other people will use it more, and the Government will do it and find ways to explain that it is available. The most disastrous situation is that you get a series of texts telling you where on the web you can find the film explaining the text. It happens.
My Lords, I am very attracted by the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. It is a very good approach. I urge on my noble friend the Minister, if they are going down this road, that they should make at least the core of it a national film—because why do we want widely different practice towards home educators and attitudes towards home education across the country? I do not think that we do. It is a common problem and there will always be a local gloss on it—particular local facilities and local people and services that need to be drawn attention to. But the basic message that the noble Baroness outlines ought to be something we deliver consistently and across the country, and it should link through to the obligation to provide advice, which the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, addressed. That is obviously important. We are dealing with particular sets of circumstances—we are dealing with parents who are not expert in the system. Absolutely, they need showing the way through.
Something we might well combine with this educational, supportive attitude to people who are entering into home education is keeping their place open at the school they are thinking of leaving. That can be a really difficult thing. It seals them into home education and seals them off from ways back into the state system if, by coming off-roll in the school and entering into home education, they lose their right to get back into that school. I really do not think it should be such a cliff edge; we should provide a continuing right of the parent to get back. After all, in most cases, the school will still receive funding for the balance of the year for their place, and it absolutely should not be closed off to them. We need time to allow parents to make an informed decision. Many will already have satisfied themselves that they want to do it, but others this is happening to rather willy-nilly, and they ought to have available to them advice, support and time for proper consideration.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for touching on the subject of flexi-schooling in his amendment. That is a very interesting way forward. I was encouraged by what the Government said in their consultation, in that it seemed to open up the idea that they might support it. There are some necessary changes to be made, and it ought to be easy for a school to indicate in their returns that a child is being flexi-schooled. At the moment, there is no code that they can use for that purpose; in one way or another, they have to tell an untruth—either they have to say that a child is full time or that the child is absent with leave, whatever else the case might be. There ought to be a way. It signals, as the earlier amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Solely, signalled, the acceptability of flexi-schooling if the Government make provision for it in their coding systems. We shall come on to my views on that in a later amendment.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, says that we absolutely need registration. I think that we need registration if it is going to achieve something. In all the collection of children whom we do not know about, the children who are being home educated are probably the least vulnerable. By singling them out we are saying, “In some way we think you are the worst—in some way we think you require special attention. In some way, we do not trust you above all others. You are much worse than those who have just been left to wander the streets”.
Can I just explain my position on this? I speak as someone who spent six years as a director of social services safeguarding children, and I came to an eternal truth at the end of that. The more that children are outside any kind of supervision, the more vulnerable they are to abuse. It is actually a truth that has been validated in many hundreds if not thousands of cases. We know nothing about the children who are in home education, but the fact is that those numbers have grown very rapidly over the last few years. I am not making any kind of allegation that children who are home schooled are being abused, but in those circumstances, we need to get a better fix on this subject —not just for educational reasons but, I would suggest, for safeguarding reasons as well. That is not the purpose of the Bill, but it is an assistance in the safeguarding area as well. That is why it ought to be a very clear statutory requirement to register home education, which the Bill as drafted provides for.
Maybe this is not the place to broaden the discussion about home education, but it is so interesting. The late Tony Benn put his children through a wonderful school called Holland Park comprehensive, and the moment they left school they were then ferried to extra maths, extra history and extra this and that, and were taken to their grandfather’s at the weekend to read all his books. There is a concept that we are all involved in the home education of our children, if we follow Tony Benn—and we have a duty. I am a bit worried that we are narrowing down home education to just this period, and I would like it to be broadened out. As far as I am concerned, when you are a parent, you are an educator, and you should be given the chance to create as many opportunities as possible.
The noble Lord talked about what happens when children are let outside of control, but the problem is that sometimes when they are in control they are abused—they are not developed properly. One reason why people like me back home education is that it gives you the chance to bring out of your children things that would never come out, even in the best school in the country.
My Lords, to pick up on what the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, a local authority that has a decent history of being collaborative with home education knows a great deal about people who home educate because it interacts with them, provides facilities and services to them and talks to them—not to everybody, but the core of home education will be known. The local authorities that have trouble are generally those which have adopted bullying attitudes to home education and then get widely mistrusted.
The solution to this problem lies mainly in institutionalising an attitude of support and providing the funding to enable that support to be good and consistent. Under those circumstances, if you are really offering something—not just the possibility of being criticised and attacked and having people trying to remove your right to home educate—then registration serves a purpose. It serves a much better purpose, however, if it is part of a consistent attempt by government to keep in touch with everybody, particularly, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, says, those who are least cared about and least supervised, of whom the home educators are at the best behaved end.
When a child leaves a school by reason of being excluded or just being told not to come in, what real track is kept of them? Who is really in charge of them? The interim education that local authorities offer—are they really good at that? Do we know exactly what is happening? No. This is a pretty woolly area. Those children seem to me to be much more in danger than home-educated children. The statistics on abuse within home education, as far as I can establish, indicate that it is no worse than elsewhere.
We should not be seeking to do something to special education just because it is easy. It comes back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said on an earlier amendment: that providing support and money for home education made it all right for schools to push children into it, because it was provided for. Thought needs to go into that process. Here, we sort of solve the problem of not knowing where children are by picking up a small extra group of children who are not particularly vulnerable and making them register, but it does not solve the important bits of the problem. I urge the Government to look at this question as a whole, and at the need for registration within the context of the need to know where children are as a whole. I am not stopping them taking this in stages, but I do not want it to become like House of Lords reform, where the first, easy step turns out to be the only step. This needs to be part of an articulated plan to make sure that we know where children are and that they are properly looked after. That works with what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was saying earlier about the need to make sure that everybody gets a good education and we do not have a chunk of the community that is just forgotten, neglected and left on one side.
This was very much an opportunity to discuss this issue; I certainly do not intend to press it to a Division now or later, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Amendments 7A to 8 not moved.
My Lords, assessment is a serious problem if it is overemphasised in this context. Of the population of children who are home educated, those who have been taken out of school are, almost by definition, divergent. If they were ordinary mainstream children behaving in a mainstream way, there would probably have never arisen any impetus to get them out of school. They come out of school because some problem has arisen; it usually means that there is something—it can be any of a whole range of things—about the child that puts them at the fringes of the national distribution. Those who have come out into home education or are in it for philosophical reasons develop divergence, because they are no longer constrained by the needs of a curriculum that is designed to make schooling possible.
There are all sorts of things about the way we choose to school children that are dictated by the need to have schools that can run with a curriculum that broadly keeps pace with itself across different schools and with a way of doing things that enables a school to understand where it is supposed to be and for us to judge whether it is doing well. There are all sorts of restrictions that do not need to apply to a home-educated child. You will often find children who are streets ahead in some particular area of interests—at age nine or 10 they are doing an Open University course in astrophysics, or whatever it might be. You will also find children who have entirely neglected some aspect of their education until they find a need for it and then they catch up. It becomes a very divergent, varied pattern of achievement.
There is not any sensible way to assess this in a light-touch way by some sort of standard assessment. Assessments are designed to evaluate what is happening in school, where there are a lot of children and statistics are in your favour; the oddities even out and you get some sort of pattern emerging that tells you how the school is doing as a whole. Even then, there are problems, as we have with Progress 8 at the moment, where the system means that the outliers have far too much influence on the average. If you draw Progress 8 out as a bell graph, however, you can see where the weight of a school is and can make a reasonable judgment on the quality of education being provided there. You cannot do that when looking at an individual child, not simply and not just by putting them through a SATs test. You need far more information. If a parent gets to a point where they are arguing with a local authority about a school attendance order and getting the independent advice needed to establish where their child is and what they have achieved, that could cost a couple of thousand quid. This is an immense resource to apply just to check where a child is. It is entirely pointless and destructive to emphasise assessment carried out by those sorts of means.
The assessment to aim for is of professionals having contact with the child—a good school teacher or someone with a decent level of experience who can say, “Yes, I can see how this child is getting on; I can see that they are well educated and that their attitudes are right. I don’t have any problem”. Much the most effective way of organising assessment is to promote contact between professionals and the home-educated children, and to do that by offering all sorts of support so that home-educating parents will find a need for at least some of it. That way, you do not incur much additional cost on assessment; you are providing money for education. To run this sort of assessment process in a way that is fair to the children and the parents would cost a vast amount of money and all it would be spent on is assessment. To run an assessment system that costs much less risks, because you are dealing with children who are way off centre, a vast amount of unfairness for children and parents. It really does not work as a standard assessment system, and I do not think that we should pretend that it does. Good local authorities employ professional people and trust their judgment; that is what we should be looking at. Local authorities that perform less well hire inexperienced people who do not feel confident in their own judgment and therefore run standard forms of assessment. They have no business drawing conclusions from it, but do anyway and then harry the parents as a result. We have to be really careful about what we are asking for by way of assessment.
There is a quite a good exposition of this in the draft guidance that the Government have produced. They do not require any detailed form of assessment. We need to move to a position, however, where we are quite clearly, and in words that local authorities can trust, supporting their professional judgment. Yes, they will get it wrong sometimes—everybody does, including all professionals. But that is fundamentally the best and most sensible thing we can do, and we should make that level of support the default in everything we do.
In assessment we should provide the means to deal with children who have been traumatised by school or who are otherwise emotionally damaged. One should not just take it as read; if it is said that a child will be scarred by meeting a stranger from the local authority, that is not satisfactory evidence on its own. However, we ought to recognise that there are such children, and there ought to be an easy mechanism for a parent to establish that theirs is one such. Frankly, it ought to be part of the support given to them by the National Health Service; if a child has got itself into that sort of position, there ought to be professionals who can back up that judgment. It certainly should not be a local authority’s unfettered right to send some relatively untrained person—certainly untrained in mental health—barging into a delicate situation. However, we need to provide for such situations in what we do.
We ought to take into account in assessment specific respect for parents’ wishes, not as an absolute but as a matter of ordinary courtesy. There are different ways of doing these things, and we ought to adapt to the parents’ way of doing things if we can. The attitude ought to be that it is a collaborative effort, not an imposed effort. We should recognise that assessment is a reflection of the duties imposed on parents by the founding Act and that we ought to tie things into that explicitly and directly. We ought to make sure that where parents are subject to assessment by other agencies, particularly with regard to things like special needs, that assessment can serve both purposes, and should make sure that it is not duplicated.
We also need to understand that in making an assessment, the local authority may need access to information which is sensitive in the family context. There may be absent parents who still have rights of care and access, who should not be able to see things that fall outside their rights and responsibilities. They should not automatically have rights to see all the data that is accumulated as a result of an assessment. This needs to be handled within context.
I feel that we need to look at assessment carefully and that we should not, as the Bill does at the moment, say that you should have “supervised instruction” in numeracy and literacy. Things do not work that way in home education, and they do not have to. What matters is the outcome and not the process, and that we should base our assessments on professional judgment, obtained in the best possible circumstances, and reserving methods of compulsion and intrusion for instances where the local authority has got to the point where it has real concerns. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have a degree of sympathy with this set of amendments. As the noble Lord suggested, some of the problems I see with Clause 2 might be addressed here in some way.
The noble Lord spoke about different types or facets of assessment getting in the way of each other, and that happens. Somebody who has failed at school because of a special educational need often acquires psychological problems—the two of them fit into each other. There is usually not just one thing—it is a package or a spiral, although whether it goes up depends on what is happening. Therefore they have to be taken into account together.
It is essential that we do not get overly prescriptive about people with different learning patterns or needs. If you are to deal with people whose learning patterns and possibilities are different, they will need a different approach, and unless that is taken on board, you will guarantee a degree of failure. The unfortunate thing about schools at the moment is that they are slightly overregulated, which means that you make the possibility —indeed, the probability—of failure higher in certain cases. I therefore hope that the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, are careful to take this on board. If you get prescriptive, you will get it wrong, because you are guaranteeing that your prescription does not fit.
I add to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that there are many ways to skin a rabbit or a fish, or whatever. It is about how we use education, and I welcome the idea that we do not tie it all down. We have a load of educational experts in the country: teachers. Other people are educational philosophers and developers. In Brazil, for instance, you can go to a school where they do not teach you anything at the age of seven except how to make a bike. In the course of the first term, the children come together to make a bike, in the process learning teamwork and other things. Whether you are dyslexic or not is entirely secondary, and it brings everybody together. I therefore believe it would be very wrong to tie home education down to a system chosen by practitioners. Practitioners have to get on with practising their art, which is teaching, and the philosophers, educationalists and psychologists have to look at where we will take our education in 10 or 20 years’ time. That is not the job of a practitioner.
I do not wish to take up the House’s time on this, because I am conscious that there is another Bill to follow this one, and time is tight. I hear the arguments of the noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Addington, on this. I talked yesterday at some length to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about it, and I understand the problem of being too prescriptive. After our talk, I remembered that some months ago I looked at the possibility of having an appeal system for when things go wrong between home-educating parents with their child and a school or educational authority that is challenging the way they are doing it. I would not rule that out. However, again, that is too complicated to go in a Private Member’s Bill. I know the Minister is in listening mode on this, and perhaps this is one of those areas to which we ought to pay some serious attention. Although it is not a matter for the Bill, it needs serious consideration.
My Lords, I strongly support Amendments 16A and 19A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Storey. We cannot ignore the risks associated with this, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, which is why Amendment 16A is important. It is also important that, if there is evidence that a child is going to an unregistered school, someone should be notified of that so that action can be taken.
My Lords, to pick up on the amendments proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, it seems sensible that a local authority should be able to know whether a parent who is home educating would pass the DBS test. However, we have to recognise that we let these people be parents. There is no bar on somebody who has committed one of these crimes having children and bringing them up. So far as I know, local authorities have no special responsibility to supervise their activities at home as parents or to otherwise inspect them. Would the noble Lord feel comfortable if we were to impose, as a matter of course, a requirement that everyone who has a conviction that might bar them from working with children should be inspected before they are allowed to have children?
At what point does being comfortable with them bringing up their own children make one uncomfortable with them educating their own children? Why does that give the noble Lord cause for concern? If these children are seen as a matter of course in the way that they would be at school because the local authority provides a proper level of support and is therefore content that the education is proceeding happily—
Does the noble Lord not accept that anybody working closely or intimately with children, whether in a school setting, a semi-school setting, a youth club, the Scouts or the Brownies, should be safeguard-checked?
I am entirely comfortable with that and I have been through the process myself in the context of working with children. However, we do not require this of parents. As the noble Lord, Lord Bird, pointed out, parents do a lot of educating outside school hours anyway. I do not see—
Perhaps I may clarify that. Amendment 16A refers to “other adults”; it does not say “the parent”. I gently suggest to the noble Lord that if you leave your child unsupervised with a childminder for a number of hours in the day, the sensible thing is to check whether the childminder has been safeguard-checked. I suggest to the noble Lord that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, is simply saying that, if in home education you find another adult who does some teaching, probably in an unsupervised way either in the home or elsewhere, they should be safeguard-checked. That seems a sensible arrangement that many thousands of parents go through all the time when their children are looked after by somebody else.
My Lords, I appreciate that we are near a borderline and that this is a matter for discussion, but a lot of the people whom a home educator leaves their children with are other home educators, as it is a way of sharing the burden. On many occasions I have sent my child off to spend a play day or night in the company of a friend’s child without having the parents checked to see whether they have any relevant convictions. One should be conscious that this is an area where we are quite comfortable to rely on personal judgment. It tends to be when you are putting your child in the company of strangers that you want to know that they have been properly checked, particularly those who are part of an institution where they might expect to deal with children on a regular basis. I am very comfortable with that system but I do not think we should start letting that intrude into personal decisions about with which of one’s friends one should let one’s child spend time overnight in their house or spend time with their children being educated by the parent.
A border seems to be being drawn here on the basis that in some way home educators are worse or more risky than the rest of us. Not only is there no evidence for that but it is entirely unjustified to say it. I keep feeling that people say it because they are different: “They are not people like us and therefore we’re suspicious”. I hope that in many aspects that is something that we can educate ourselves out of—we should not allow ourselves to slip in that direction. Therefore, I feel that the noble Lord’s amendment goes too far, although I understand what he says about it. However, I do not think that it fits with the general pattern of home education.
We will come to the subject of unregistered schools in a later group, and that seems a substantial problem to address. Effectively there are institutions run by strangers that purport to provide education. Children are dropped off and collected later and, because the institutions are not registered or formally classified as schools or other institutions, there may be no DBS or any other checks on them. That is a problem that the Department for Education needs to deal with. We know that there are a lot of such places and that they need attention, but we do not seem to have given ourselves the tools to deal with them.
However, I do not think we should trespass on the privately run institutions, where parents are permitted to drop their children off with friends and acquaintances to receive a bit of education. We all do that at the weekend but we do not for a moment consider that formal checks have to be made. We should recognise the difference between the need to check in the public realm and there being no need to check in the private realm. We should draw a rational and natural division between the two and not let the checks of the public realm bleed into the private. I do not think that that would work. We should trust parents to educate children in the same way as we trust them to bring them up outside school hours and we should be comfortable with the processes around that.
Coming back to the main amendment, I am comforted by what the Minister effectively says in the draft guidance that he has published about how a local authority should establish whether a parent is providing a proper education for their children. I again urge him to accept that this will all work much better if he can find a way of providing a proper level of support. Then, in almost all cases, that assessment can be carried out in the natural way—in the same way as it is carried out by a teacher, observing a child over a period of time and forming a professional judgment.
My Lords, the noble Lord has made some very valid points but I am concerned by the length at which he is speaking. The Committee would much appreciate being able to finish Committee stage today. If he could possibly curtail his remarks, the Committee would very much appreciate that.
My Lords, I do not think that with the point that we have got to there is any great danger of running over the time. I am taking a bit of time on this group because it is the last important and substantive group. There is only one other point that I wish to make at length and that is on flexi-schooling, but I will not speak about that at great length and I do not think that it is contentious. However, I believe that the whole business of assessment is a point of great concern for home educators. Many of them undertake education in their own way. Helping them with that—giving them support, direction and information so that they do it better—seems to be an entirely good idea. However, trying to corral them into a system of education which has largely evolved to make schools work but which is not followed in many schools of which we approve, as well as a lot of schools abroad, seems to be entirely inappropriate. Therefore, if we are to have something that works, and if we are to support and accept home education, we have to be very careful what we say on assessment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
My Lords, the amendments in this group are an attempt to show the Government that this is a Bill they can use to get a grip on settings in which education is provided. We seem to have a considerable range of problems, particularly with regard to radicalisation and the failure to educate people fully and in citizenship in some of the settings that our young people are allowed to attend. It seems that we do not have the power or the ability to deal with that effectively. This group of amendments is very much directed at showing the Government that this is a Bill they can use to achieve that. I will leave it at that. I beg to move.
My Lords, these are complicated amendments that need to be considered in the process that we have been talking about. However, there is a bit of a time problem, and if you talk to the people who are involved in the Bill that is coming up next, they will tell you that there is definitely a time problem. I understand what the noble Lord is saying in these amendments but, again, they are too complex for a Private Member’s Bill. I know where the noble Lord is coming from: it is about having the discussion and asking the Government to consider and consult on it. I am confident they will do so, as we all need to do. This is a complex, important area, but not one for a Private Member’s Bill.
My Lords, if there was a time pressure, my noble friend Lord Cormack would be in his place. If the Whips are concerned about time pressure, perhaps someone might scurry out and get him, otherwise we will have to adjourn before the next debate.
I agree that this group is more directed at showing the Minister what is possible than for discussion today. It is a subject that goes wider than that of the Bill and I am happy to beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 to 22 not moved.
Clause 1, as amended, agreed.
Clause 2: Guidance relating to elective home education
My Lords, Clause 2, and in particular subsection (2), caused me considerable disquiet when first I saw it. Subsection (2) starts with setting out the minimum requirement for home education, which must include,
“reading, writing and numeracy, which takes into account the child’s age”.
Okay, there are some caveats, but my concern is quite simple. I am dyslexic. If you were to put me in a system where I was tested on, for instance, my spelling, I would still be being home educated now. My brain is constructed so that I do not store knowledge easily and cannot deal with it. If you put extra work on to a dyslexic, they will forget more. Problems with short-term memory and recall processes, which allow you to do this, mean they cannot do it. Children with other special educational needs will have other problems, all of them requiring some change in the learning pattern. Subsection (2) mentions “ability” and “aptitude”, but what does that mean here? You would need a complicated assessment to find out.
Special educational needs are mentioned at the end of subsection (2). As I have said before, far too much attention has been paid to education, health and care plans. Noble Lords should remember that they are designed to deal only with those at the extreme end of the spectrum. Most people with a special educational need do not qualify for one and should not. A child could have a fairly minor problem and end up in home education because of an unsympathetic teacher or because something has gone wrong—that can happen, and a child can end up in the wrong place. Dyslexics make up about 10% of the population, and if we include those with other special educational needs, it goes up to around 20%. If we put these requirements on children who need different learning patterns, we will be in trouble. That is especially true for those who do not qualify for assessment or who have not been assessed and where there is an emotional need that gets in the way of that assessment. That is why I do not want this included here. We have spoken already in a previous group about what is going on here and that assessments should be more flexible.
When discussing this with my wife, she pointed out to me, “Oh! If it is just reading and writing, there could be one text”. Let us start with a text that is not too scary: the King James Bible. How many books you would get through before you get to Mein Kampf, I am not sure, but it is a process. Reading, writing and arithmetic are regarded as the bedrock of education, but they can be merely tools to acquire an education. A couple of weekends ago, I was at a conference at which we spoke about dyslexia. The main thrust was that more people can learn to read books than can understand what is inside them. I do not think that that is a very controversial point. These are tools for education. If you are obsessed with these tools and their acquisition, you will get in the way of learning.
Are you allowed, for instance, to have a book read to you by the numerous bits of technology we have? I must declare an interest: the firm that I am chairman of, Microlink, provides such packages. If we are going down this route, with technology that turns text to voice and voice to text, which is a perfectly normal way of dealing with certain things—the way that the blind deal with these things is a very related technology—all of it would be under threat if we have this wording in the Bill.
Overloading somebody who does not respond well to these pressures is almost a guarantee of educational failure. Indeed, that is why many people might be removed from that system and I know have been in the past—a teacher says, “He’s dyslexic. Let’s give him extra spelling”, but they just reinforce failure and make a child more resistant. They have made the problem just that bit worse and they will do it again the next day and the day after that.
This wording cannot be in the Bill. Something that suggests an education would be fine; trying to put down an education that is appropriate, having taken advice, is okay. I am fine with that. But the minute you get these caveats and absolutes you are guaranteeing failure for fairly large groups, even with the best tuition in the world. You do not deal with this problem by doing this. Autistics and dyspraxics have another variation on this. Dyscalculics—that is not an officially recognised term, but that is a battle for another day—will have a problem with numeracy. We need to have a great deal more flexibility than we have now. These words cannot be in the Bill if it is to mean anything and it is not to damage these groups.
I do not want to have to stop this and call a Division. At the moment, I think that this would probably be something that we would look forward to on Report. However, I will do unless there is some way of getting this wording out. If we get this into law, we will create more and worse problems. I beg to move.
I discussed this with the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and I understand his strength of feeling about it. He brings a special knowledge to this, which is important, but I think his fears are overstated. I will explain why again. For a start, the beginning of Clause 2(2) says that,
“the Secretary of State must have regard”.
As he and other Members in the House will know, “must” does not carry the same legislative power as “shall”. Straightaway there is an ability for the Secretary of State or Minister to exercise some restraint.
Very importantly, this is not as absolute as the noble Lord is reading it. He said that there was a difficulty in understanding or interpreting the meaning of words such as “ability”. I put to him that there is not. The clause says,
“reading, writing and numeracy, which takes into account the child’s age”.
That is where he freezes on it and gets quite concerned, but the following matters are really important. They are,
“ability, aptitude and any special educational needs and disabilities”.
Things such as aptitude have to be considered here. Aptitude matters and we know what it means. If a child has school phobia that is an aptitude we have to consider. You could call it a disability if you like, but a phobia is not quite that.
The clause also deals with “any special educational needs” and “ability”. It is now many years since I worked in a hospital for what were then called educationally subnormal children. We would not call them that now; it was very different. The treatment at that time, because we had less knowledge and less use of drugs, was pretty awful but we always made attempts to help those children, who had far greater problems than almost anyone in this House can imagine. We tried to teach them to have some basic understanding of numbers, reading and, where possible, although it was very rare, writing. We can do it. The reason for putting the wording in the Bill is to try to meet the noble Lord’s concerns.
I understand this, though. As I said in an earlier intervention, one of the things that we ought to consider that might give the noble Lord added reassurance on this is to look at the possibility of an appeals system to an independent or totally separate educational body, or even an individual with special knowledge and special skills. If a local authority or an individual welfare officer is doing what the noble Lord most fears, it might be that in the final Bill there should be an appeals mechanism. I ask him to think about that.
The problem with taking out this clause, which is what the noble Lord would do, is that it would leave a lot of other children vulnerable. In trying to protect that group that he is rightly concerned about he would put others at risk. We need children who do not have special problems to be able to read, write and be numerate. We know that in some situations of home education, often for children who have been pushed out of a school, they are not getting that information. The noble Lord is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He wants specific attention paid to a small group of children who are very important, but there is a much larger group of children who need to be able to read, write and be numerate. They are often among those people who have been pushed into home education where children are not getting these skills.
I ask the noble Lord to look again at the clause and read it as a whole. It is not an absolute requirement that the Secretary of State is obliged to enforce. It is also true that the Secretary of State has the power to say to the local authority, “You must take these other factors into account, not only age”. You cannot do it just on age, which is what the noble Lord was worried about at first but now feels that this is not enough.
Finally, you have to agree with the parents and the child—that is the second part of it. Clause 2(2)(b) states that,
“the views of children and parents who elect home education”,
must be taken into account. That is why I ask the noble Lord whether he would take away the idea of an independent appeals system. If parents and children felt that it could not work for them, which is what he is worried about, and if, for example, he is right about the case he identified, you will need an appeal mechanism, but you do not want a mechanism which does not allow the provision to happen for other children.
I ask the noble Lord to consider a possible appeal mechanism in the way that I have described so that we can look at it at a future stage in the Bill. I urge him not to torpedo a major part of the Bill which matters to a great many of the children in this situation. An appeal mechanism might meet his concerns and I am happy to continue discussing that with him. I cannot put the Minister in the position of saying he will, but I hope he will also discuss it with the noble Lord. This is too important to fudge. We cannot lose this clause. I understand the noble Lord’s concerns and I am trying to address them.
I apologise to the Committee. I should have made it clear that if Amendment 23, which is currently being debated, is agreed to, I will not be able to call the following three amendments, Amendments 24, 25 and 26, by reason of pre-emption.
Perhaps I may respond to that. Although I am severely tempted, I shall not call a Division now. If we put in “an appropriate education” we will cover these points. It will be a building block. If we put it in as an absolute—“must”, “shall”, “will”, whatever you want—we will be dancing on the head of a pin. It depends on the context in which you take it. We know that because we have all done it. I have had 30 years of playing with those words. If we do that and keep in the age-related provision—even if we put caveats after it—we will still have the initial provision, which means you will have to have discussions on it.
The Minister is studiously looking at a piece of paper but perhaps I may ask him whether we have a legal definition of ability and—I am looking for the Bill; it is nice to know that long sight comes to rival dyslexia in my life—aptitude. He says that they are important but I do not think aptitude can come in if you have not had a proper assessment in the first place. You cannot assess aptitude if you do not have the right range of environment to find out what it is.
There are all sorts of problems here. If you have another form of words you do not need those three provisions in the clause because the number of people affected by it—20% of the population have special educational needs but you can probably double that for this group to 40%, or maybe only 30%—is enough to colour this legislation’s effectiveness unless there is something in there to say that you are not going to place this stress on them. Dyslexics are the biggest although not the only group—they are not the only pattern but they are the most commonly occurring pattern—and, unless we deal with this issue, the legislation will fail a large group of its clientele. We cannot have that. Other forms of words can go in such as an “appropriate education”.
If there is an appeal, the group that will have the most problems dealing with it will probably be the dyslexics and—guess what?—it runs in families. We will be creating more problems than we need. Just change that and make sure that it is done. I hope the Minister will give us guidance that the Government will not look unfavourably on this. If we do not change this it will create more problems than we need to have. Perhaps the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, will have something more positive to say on that comment.
My Lords, perhaps I may speak briefly to my amendments in this group. I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and hope that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend the Minister will agree to suspend the Bill between Committee and Report until we have the results of the consultation. We will then be able to see in context what this Bill says because this clause in particular will work much better when we have a more expansive sight of the full-blown draft guidance to go with it. As it is, I have real concerns and I would definitely join the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on Report. To allow legislation like this to go forward beyond Report would be a great mistake because we need to know much more.
In particular, in Amendment 24 I seek to leave out the words “supervised instruction”. It is just not appropriate for many of these children. It is not the way it is done or the way they learn. They may well be learning entirely by themselves, but what matters is that they are learning. Numeracy, literacy and writing are absolutely core and we should not let children come out of home education illiterate, but we ought not to be prescribing the process; we ought to be prescribing the outcome.
In framing the guidance we must have regard to the whole range of support. The fact that support is available makes much clearer guidance possible because we are not trying to push parents back into taking up patently unsatisfactory school provision; rather, we would be giving them a clear and supportive alternative. Under those circumstances, it is reasonable to make demands of them, but it very much depends on that.
Lastly, I want to draw attention to flexi-schooling, which is one of the possible answers to this issue. I had a helpful conversation with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely. The Church of England is willing to be extremely supportive of this proposal. It has a lot of small rural schools and many of them would really like to become involved in the provision of flexi-schooling, which would suit them well. They are small enough to be flexible and they can provide an environment with space and freedom which will suit many children who feel oppressed by a more restricted city school environment. Also, not many of those schools, in particular the good ones, have the time and space available to do things slightly differently for home-educated children. It also fits well with the provision that these rural schools are already making for Travellers and others for whom a non-traditional education pattern works well.
I would really encourage my noble friend the Minister to talk seriously with the Church of England to see what can be done to establish a pattern for the support of flexi-schooling. Indeed, I do not think that much is needed other than the comfort of knowing that it is a form of education of which the Government approve. Frankly, if a child is receiving flexi-schooling for a couple of days a week, all the worries about whether that child is visible would disappear along with knowing about the quality of their education because they would be closely and properly observed by educational professionals. It is a very good solution to many of the problems that this Bill sets out to tackle. It will not apply in every case, but it is a facility that we should encourage.
My Lords, it may be helpful if I offer to have a meeting with the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Soley, and indeed with my noble friend Lord Lucas to discuss Amendment 23 in particular. I consider this to be part of our broader call for evidence and feedback on the draft guidance that we have issued.
My Lords, given that assurance and the fact that we are going to take a look at this issue, I shall reserve my position to take action at a later point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendments 24 to 26 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Clause 3: Interpretation
Amendments 27 and 28 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4 agreed.
In the Title