Amendment 114A

Schools Bill [HL] - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 22 June 2022.

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Lord Lucas:

Moved by Lord Lucas

114A: Clause 48, page 42, line 26, leave out from “1(a),” to “days” in line 27 and insert “the period of 30 school”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment, along with other amendments to Clause 48, page 42, and Clause 49, page 47, in the name of Lord Lucas, are intended to simplify the immediate duty to one of registration, leaving it to the local authority to then inform the parents of the other requirements, and to increase the timescale to accommodate for additional responsibilities on parents. “School days” are used to exempt parents from having to disrupt holidays to provide the required information.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, Amendment 114A is the first appearance of an amendment that deals with longer time limits. Such amendments seem to be scattered through a number of groups. I will try not to repeat myself, or indeed focus on them at this moment because there are many more of them in later groups.

The principle I am working to is that the time limits being set should work for a reasonably together, reasonably collaborative parent. We have to allow for the fact that children go on holidays and that out of term time, it may be hard to get hold of them. We should look at longer limits than are set out in the Bill, and at the concept of “school days”—the parental equivalent of working days—as the form these limits should take.

I am interested to know where my noble friend finds herself on this and all the other amendments on time limits. I am aiming to help the Government produce a system that works fairly. If we have a system that trips parents easily into school attendance orders, then we need to allow parents time to react first. I particularly think that we need to give parents time to get it wrong first. I know how often I managed to get things wrong. Reading through my amendments in putting together these groups, I can see that my drafting has not exactly been perfect. We ought to have human time limits. They should not be overlong, but they ought to allow for the real lives of the home educators involved. After all, local authorities are not known as the fastest people in the world when it comes to responding to inquiries. There ought to be some equality of allowance.

In this group, Amendment 122C questions whether, in this section of the Bill, the Government intend to catch hired home tutors—people picking up an individual from a tutor supplier and saying, “We’d love you to come in a couple of days a week to support us in home education”. Would they be caught by Amendment 122C? Where is the boundary between organised provision of education and a parent asking an individual to come in and help?

Amendment 126A asks that we look at the benefit of registering tutors, in much the same style as we have done with parking operators. The Government are expanding the number of tutors and their use in the schooling system, but we do not have a system that in any way is protective of the public. There is no useful form of registration for tutors. To my mind, this is a subject to which the Government should be bending a thought. The best I can hope for from my noble friend is, “Yes, we’re thinking of looking at it”, but I do think that they should be.

I have read through Amendment 128A before. This does need to be said somewhere, and I suspect it is in the guidance my noble friend has been talking about. The basis on which local authorities are supposed to be interacting with home education need to be made clear to them.

All the other amendments in this group—apart from Amendment 140B, which is just an example of an appeal—consider ways in which the support the Government mention in the Bill but do not, as far as I can see in the impact assessment, provide any money for, might be provided. They look at things that good local authorities already do. Amendment 173 suggests that this support should be in place before we pitch into activating the registration system.

The point was made when considering the last group that home educators are actually saving the state a lot of money. My noble friend said we should not start giving money to home educators, and that this was a decision they had made. Yes, but we should give money to local authorities so that their support for home educators is properly funded. In previous iterations, I have suggested that half the money the Government save should go to local authorities—with no undue ring-fencing—the intention being that it is a fund to provide for their support of home educators, to be used in a way that works best locally. That is not in the impact assessment at the moment, and I very much hope that the Government will have a figure in front of us before the Bill leaves this House. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I remind the Committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is taking part remotely. I call the noble Baroness.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, the comprehensive introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to the wide-ranging amendments in this group has once again set the tone for many of us with concerns about this part of the Bill as originally drafted. I think that everyone, including the Minister, has said that they want to see the relationship between home-educating parents and their local authority start from a position of trust and support, while ensuring that there is a system that protects children too.

I am pleased that at the end of his speech the noble Lord mentioned that there should be some money for local authorities to help support home educators. That was one of the points I mentioned about the northern California home educators I saw at Sierra College, just outside Sacramento. That was exactly what had happened. The school board here understood that it could help parents without changing parents’ way of educating their children. As a result of that trust, the entire tone changed between the home educators and the school board.

I have signed the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans’s Amendments 115, 117 and 119, which extend from 15 to 30 days the period in which parents must register their child and provide the information. Other amendments in this group do the same. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, talks about “school days”, not just “days”, and that is very helpful and supportive as well. Amendment 129 from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will ensure that children or teachers get the support for any special educational need or disability that they would have already got.

In previous groups I have talked about the problem that many parents have had of not getting the support they need for their child, even though they may be entitled to it. If they have had some support, it has not been enough to provide the specific support that the child needs, whether for special educational needs, disability or a mental or physical health problem. I have given examples of that before. As a result, some parents have been forced to withdraw their children from school, often because they felt that their child was literally not safe—perhaps a medical procedure requires a school nurse to do it but there is no longer a school nurse available. Sometimes parents have been threatened with off-rolling by the school. Sometimes the promised special educational needs support has not happened.

In the last group the noble Lord, Lord Soley, gave a further good example of children being withdrawn from school because of their challenging behaviour. It is important to recognise that children with this challenging behaviour should also get support. If they end up out of school with their parents trying to cope, that is a very big burden for parents. The behaviour of parents, when accused by the local authority of not doing things, often causes friction. Local authorities should always come from the approach that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, outlined: that of teachers always wanting to help, understand and get to the root of the problem and provide the support that will change the child’s behaviour.

I believe the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is vital. A child with SEN, a disability or a health problem who is out of school should have the support that they would have got in school. They need it wherever they receive their education. His amendment needs to succeed.

Photo of The Bishop of Blackburn The Bishop of Blackburn Bishop

My Lords, I will speak briefly to the amendments in this group, of which Amendments 115, 117 and 119 were originally tabled by my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans, who is unable to be present in the Chamber today.

As he is absent, I will focus on the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which also extend the relevant period in which a parent must comply with registration and provide information, as requested from a local authority, from 15 days to 28 days, 30 days or 30 school days respectively. I know my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans would have been happy to support these amendments, as do I, given their shared principle that giving parents sufficient breathing space to comply is helpful.

Fifteen days is simply too short a timeframe to register a child or provide any information necessary in accordance with the register. To begin with, parents may not even be aware of the obligation to register their child in the first place, making it imperative that there is a reasonable timeframe to inform the local authority that the child is eligible for registration. Home schooling is not subject to the traditional school calendar, meaning that a two-week holiday, far from unusual, would take up the entirety of the relevant period to comply. Fifteen days appears somewhat punitive and may unintentionally mean that parents fall foul of it, particularly where circumstances make it impossible to comply. I am not aware of any specific rationale behind this compliance timeframe of 15 days, so I would welcome the Government’s reason for it.

As it stands, I do not believe that the Government have reasonably considered the complexities of some families’ lives and the multitude of reasons for delays that could occur. Rather than being unnecessarily tight, as currently stipulated, the relevant period ought to reflect a more reasonable timeframe. I hope the Government will provide home-schooling parents with a relevant compliance period that reflects real-life circumstances, whether that is 28 days, 30 days or 30 school days.

Finally, I add my support to Amendment 128A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which helpfully defines the correct relationship between local authorities and home-schooling parents, and the constructive and non-judgmental attitude that local authorities should have when dealing with elective home educators.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:15, 22 June 2022

It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and I absolutely agree with everything he has just said. I rise to speak to Amendments 116, 118, 125 and 126 in my name. I tabled these amendments on behalf of home educators. There are quite a lot of them so I crave your Lordships’ indulgence.

As we have heard from the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, the first two refer to wishing to lengthen the relevant period in a number of different situations. My amendments lengthen from 15 to 28 days the period in which parents are required to comply with duties imposed by local authorities, but I would be happy to go along with the 30 days in the other amendments. Parents would argue that they may need time to consult, possibly obtain legal advice or, at the very least, consider all the implications, and 28 or 30 days is a much more reasonable timeframe for that than 15.

Amendment 125 finds itself in this group. It seeks to ensure that the less structured but enormously beneficial forest schools and farm schools are not overlooked. Both teach a great deal to pupils and get them out in the open, with fresh air and acquiring a new understanding of natural surroundings, animals, crops and all the other invaluable work of farms. My daughter teaches four year-olds, who really love their forest school lessons. It is some of the most pleasurable and productive learning they achieve. It is particularly beneficial for town and disadvantaged children, who may never have walked through woods or seen a cow.

Amendment 126 ensures that someone who has made strenuous efforts to provide information should not be penalised if the information is deemed inadequate. People can do only their best, and we would not wish to see parents fined for matters that were not their fault.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendment 129. I put my name to this because I saw it and said, “Yes, this is right”. What level of support are you going to give to a certain group with special educational needs, particularly if they do not have the plan? Anyone who has looked at special educational needs knows that there is a great struggle to get the plan. We have a bureaucratic legal system in which whether you get it often depends on the lawyer you have employed. I know that this was not the original intention of the Bill, because I did it. Going through this process, there was supposed to be something called a graduated approach involved. Can we have some indication of what the Government feel the process will be in future? I assume that the new review of special educational needs will come up with something that is an improvement.

The law of unintended consequences, or the cock-up theory of history, means that we have a mess in special educational needs at the moment. I do not think anybody seriously disputes that, but I hope that in future we will not be so dependent on the plan, the statement mark 2, the gold star tattooed on the back of your neck or whichever way you identify special educational needs; you will not be as determined on the higher classification. Many people are getting the plan now because they are not getting any support, their education is deteriorating and they are suddenly finding themselves in the higher-needs group.

I did the Bill and the noble Baroness did not, so maybe this fault falls more on me than on her, but that is the state of affairs at the moment. Some indication that the Government will intervene before they get to this crucial point would be very reassuring, at least with regard to their thinking and lines of progression on this. It is not happening at the moment, and some assurance that it will happen in future, or at least that the Government plan for it to happen in future, would make life a little easier.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

I was slightly diverted there. I am going to be very brief. I am diverted because—is Amendment 123 in this group? Yes, it is.

I will perhaps ask the Minister a question. Any teacher who is teaching children in a school has to have disclosure and barring clearance. Regarding the practice—and I do not complain about this—where some home educators use teachers either to teach their own children, not all the time but occasionally, and maybe a group of children, presumably those teachers have to also have safeguarding qualifications. What I am trying to say in this amendment is that there are cases—and this actually was raised with me by some home educators—where, for example, and I think this is very good practice, the children will meet other adults who are not qualified teachers but have particular expertise in a particular area to instruct or teach their children. What this amendment seeks is to ensure that those adults also have safeguarding clearance. I do not know what the current situation is on that.

I also want to respond to the point in Amendment 129, which my noble friend Lord Addington signed. This is the issue which I still struggle with. For those pupils who are permanently excluded from school—and in the vast majority of cases they are young people with special educational needs—if there is not a pupil referral unit on the site of the school, they get moved to an alternative provider. As we have discussed, I think in Written and Oral Questions, many local authorities, often because there is a shortage of places or because they have not got the money, look for the cheapest provider. I had a meeting yesterday with Ofsted, which told me—I was absolutely horrified by this—that one unregistered provider charges £50 a day plus taxi fares, including the £50, almost just to look after that child. That child could have special educational needs, so this cannot be allowed to go on. We need to take a firm hand. I am sort of having a second go at this, because I was chairing the session today at the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education. The Minister on special educational needs spoke about this and I was very reassured, but hoped I could be reassured from our Minister on this issue as well. Other than that, that is all I want to say.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I do not want to repeat much of the good stuff that has been said, but I shall just mention our Amendment 128, which amends Clause 48 on sharing data between local authorities when a child moves. We are just pointing out that we must have regard to child protection and the safety of their parents when this is done. We are concerned that, where there are circumstances in which a parent is moving as a consequence of domestic violence or is a victim of or witness to crime, that they are protected. To be absolutely clear, we want to make sure that information can be shared, and that it can be shared safely and quickly.

On Amendment 129, about the support provided by local authorities to children with special needs or disabilities, we are very interested in supporting this. We take the points raised on time limits and school days and would be sympathetic to any reasonable amendments along these lines at Report.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I turn to the second group of amendments, starting with Amendment 128A, in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas. I would remind the House that the law is already clear that parents have a right to educate their children at home. The Government continue to support this where it is done in the best interests of the child. Our guidance on home education for local authorities is clear that elective home education, of itself, is not an inherent safeguarding risk, and local authorities should not treat it as such. We are also aware that there are a number of reasons why parents may choose elective home education. Sometimes, as your Lordships have already raised this afternoon, this may not be their choice, for example due to off-rolling, which is why we believe it would be valuable to require the recording of reasons for home education, so we can identify some of the wider system issues which my noble friend rightly points to in his amendment.

On Amendment 128, from the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, the information held in registers will of course be protected under UK GDPR, like any other data, and the Bill only enables data to be shared with prescribed partners where the local authority feels that it is appropriate and proportionate to promote the education, safety and welfare of children. I am very familiar with the issues that she raises in relation to domestic abuse and just how devious some people can be in trying to track down a former partner, which is why that proportionality of risk is so important.

I would like to thank again my noble friend Lord Lucas, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for Amendments 114A through to 119. We believe that the timeframe of 15 days in which parents or out-of-school providers must provide information for a local authority register strikes the right balance between minimising the amount of time a child would spend in potentially unsuitable education and allowing sufficient time to send the required information. In addition, defining the period in terms of “school days” would, we believe, be an inappropriate and impractical measurement for home-educated children who, as we heard in the debate, by definition do not necessarily follow a school calendar. But I think the issue with the timings and those proposed by my noble friend in later amendments on the school attendance order process is that, if you take them all together, it would more than double the length of time that a child would be without suitable education. It would take the total number of days to 120, instead of 51 on the Government’s proposed process. I think that is the way I would ask your Lordships to think about it. Each individual step may look tight to some of your Lordships, and to some home educators and proprietors of education institutions, but when we look at it in the round, the fact that a child could be in unsuitable education for 120 days, versus 51, is the point I would ask your Lordships to reflect on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, proposed Amendment 126. The monetary penalty for failing to provide information, contained in the new Section 436E, only applies to persons who provide out-of-school education to children without their parents being present. Parents who fail in their duty to provide information, or who provide false information, for the register would not be subject to any financial penalty. Rather, as I mentioned earlier, the local authority will be required then to initiate the process of finding out whether a child is receiving suitable education. That is obviously the central point of their inquiry. If they find that a child is not receiving this, then it could lead to a school attendance order. And if that attendance order is not complied with, it could eventually result in a fine being imposed, but only if the parent convinces neither the local authority nor the magistrates’ court that their child is being suitably educated.

Turning to my noble friend Lord Lucas’s Amendment 140B, as raised earlier in this debate there are already a number of options for parents who want to query or challenge a school attendance order. We are not convinced that introducing a further route such as this to appeal a local authority’s decision would be the best use of effort and resources. As I have already mentioned to the Committee, we recognise the importance of having a system that feels fair and is trusted. We will do what more we can to support parents and strengthen independent oversight.

I turn to Amendments 129 to 129F, from my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The Bill already includes a broad range of examples of the types of support local authorities could provide. I think behind the noble Lord’s amendments, if I have understood correctly, is not just what is provided but how it is provided. As I have mentioned, we plan to publish statutory guidance for local authorities which will include further and more detailed examples, and—again I repeat myself—we will work with all key stakeholders to do this.

Consideration for the needs of the child is already included in the support duty, and there are a range of areas where parents and children may need support and resources. Therefore, rather than setting that out explicitly in the Bill, we think those decisions are best made locally. Local authorities already have a statutory duty to secure the provision set out in an education, health and care plan for children with special educational needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked about the situation for children without an education, health and care plan and about the Government’s aspiration. As I am sure he is expecting me to say, the Government’s aspiration through the consultation we are carrying out on the SEND and AP Green Paper is to address some of the issues he highlighted. Our current published guidance to local authorities on elective home education says that

“if the home education is suitable, the local authority has no duty to arrange any special educational provision for the child; the plan should simply set out the type of special educational provision that the authority thinks the child requires but it should state in a suitable place that parents have made their own arrangements under s.7 of the Education Act 1996”.

However, this should be caveated by the fact that our clauses in the Bill would give the local authority a duty to provide some support if the child is registered on the children not in school register, which could include special educational needs support. As I said earlier, this would be at the request of parents and not imposed.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 6:30, 22 June 2022

That was fairly helpful, but we are now overly dependent on the plans; I do not think there is any doubt about that. The Government are effectively saying that an identified need which is either not severe or has not yet gone through the process would still give some form of obligation, recognition and an entitlement to support in certain circumstances.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Under the changes proposed in the Bill—if I understood the noble Lord correctly.

I turn to Amendment 173 from my noble friend Lord Lucas. We would like the system of registration to be implemented as soon as possible to—I hope—reassure those parents who are doing a great job supporting their children at home. It will offer support to those parents who are struggling to provide education to their children at home, help safeguard those children who may be more vulnerable and not in school, and allow local authorities to better target their resources to those families who want or need support. We will take sufficient time prior to the registration system coming into force to ensure the registers work for everyone and that local authorities are clear on their support duty. Therefore, we do not feel it is helpful to set a strict implementation plan for the new support duty in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised Amendment 123. I hope he will be reassured that it is already a criminal offence knowingly to recruit someone to work in a regulated activity with children who has been barred from working with children.

The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and my noble friend Lord Lucas brought forward Amendments 122C, 125 and 126A. A threshold set out in regulations will ensure that the duty to provide information targets only those providers that are used for a substantial proportion of a child’s education. I was not altogether surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised the issue of unregulated alternative provision. I know we are going to be debating it in more detail in a subsequent group, so I hope I can save my remarks on that for later.

There is also a power in new Section 436E(6) to make regulations creating specific exemptions to the requirement for providers to provide information, which could be used to exclude certain settings from scope. We will continue to engage with stakeholders on this. However, where providers are eligible, the duty will be vital in aiding identification of eligible children and ensuring the registration system is effective in safeguarding them from harm and promoting their education.

My noble friend—I mean my noble friend Lord Lucas; I have so many noble friends—referred to the importance of adequate funding. We are still in the process of determining what the minimum expectation on local authorities should be in terms of their new support duty. To ensure that it is as effective as possible, it is right that we undertake the necessary consideration and assessment of need, including how this can be achieved and the costs involved. We will engage closely with stakeholders on this prior to the statutory guidance being issued and we have also committed to undertake a new burdens assessment to identify the level of funding that may be required to support local authorities so that they can discharge their duty effectively and well. Therefore, I ask my noble friend Lord Lucas—

Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour

I have a very quick question before the Minister sits down. She talked about making sure that people have the relevant safeguarding qualifications and going through the process. Whose responsibility is that? Does the parent of a home-educated child have a legal duty to do the checking or does that power and responsibility lie with someone else? If it was a school, it would be the school’s responsibility. I am not sure whose responsibility this is.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I do not know the answer to the noble Baroness’s specific question, but I will get an answer and respond to her.

In closing, I ask my noble friend Lord Lucas to withdraw Amendment 114A and other noble Lords not to move the amendments in their names.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, yet again, I am very grateful to my noble friend for her replies. I assume that the Government have all the powers they need to create this guidance that we are all placing so much reliance on. I hope my noble friend will tell me if that is not the case, but I assume that it is. I look forward to reading her replies in more detail in Hansard and picking up any issues I have with them in correspondence. For now, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 114A withdrawn.

Amendments 115 to 119 not moved.