Amendment 114A

Part of Schools Bill [HL] - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 22 June 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 6:15, 22 June 2022

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.