Amendment 120

Schools Bill [HL] - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 22 June 2022.

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Baroness Garden of Frognal:

Moved by Baroness Garden of Frognal

120: Clause 48, page 42, line 32, leave out “15” and insert “28”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment, and others to Clause 48 in Baroness Garden’s name, are intended to lengthen the “relevant period”.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I shall move Amendment 120 and speak to Amendments 122, 123 and 134 in my name. I can be brief because we have effectively discussed all this already. The first three amendments all refer to wishing to lengthen the relevant period from 15 to 28 days in a number of different situations but, of course, I would be very happy to accept the amendment that suggests 30 days. I really will not go into detail on each of them, although Amendment 134 does ring the changes, as here, for some reason, it is 14 days. One wonders why, when we have had 15 all along, suddenly here only 14 days are given to challenge a monetary penalty. Could the Minister explain how these periods are arrived at? It would be helpful if we knew how the Government decided that some should be 14 and some 15. Anyway, my amendment does not waver. We still consider 28 days a reasonable time for such representations. I will not repeat previous arguments but will just say that that is a much more reasonable period in which to challenge and work out an appropriate response. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I have a couple of amendments in this group. My noble friend covered the government arguments on this subject clearly under the previous group. I expect to come back at her in one form or another when I have the time to analyse the detailed timescale she is looking at—in other words, the whole distance between a worried local authority saying that a child is not being looked after properly and being able to enforce, and how that all works together. But I shall not move my amendments at this time.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, this is a technical question and compassion for parents who are often struggling to deal with vulnerable children must be factored in. These amendments are intended to simplify the immediate duty to one of registration, leaving it to the local authority then to inform the parents of the other requirements and increase the timescale to accommodate additional responsibilities on parents. School days are used to exempt parents from having to disrupt holidays to provide the required information. These all seem sensible alternatives to what is currently proposed by the Government. I conclude by asking the Minister what analysis lies behind the Government’s choice of a 15-day period in these proposals.

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

My Lords, again, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, represented tonight by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, for Amendments 120, 120A, 121, 122 and 122A. As debated with your Lordships earlier this evening, the relevant period has been set at 15 days to minimise the amount of time that children are potentially not in receipt of a suitable education and to allow local authorities to use their powers effectively. Therefore, extending this timeframe could reduce local authority visibility where, for example, a child might be missing education, and prevent them quickly redirecting their resource, where a child ceases to be eligible for registration, to those children and families still eligible. As I said in the earlier group, our approach to this has been to look at the total length of the process and consider the balance between the requirements placed on parents and providers with the rights of the child to access a suitable education as quickly as possible. As I said, the amendments would increase that from 51 days to 120 days, and I am sure all the former teachers in the Committee will be able to convert that into a term or more in a nanosecond. That is the reason we would resist these amendments.

Turning to Amendment 124 from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, the response time for providers has been set to 15 days for similar reasons—so that local authorities can be sure that their registers are accurate and they are discharging their duties effectively to ensure that children are in receipt of a suitable education. By extending the timeframe, local authorities would not be able to identify where certain children are receiving their education or, at worst, if they are attending unsuitable settings such as illegal schools.

Finally, turning to Amendment 134: we consider extending the 14-day period unnecessary, as a person served with a warning notice is already able to extend their period to respond to 28 days if they provide notice that they will be making representations. Therefore, I would ask the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to withdraw her Amendment 120 and other noble Lords not to move theirs.

Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:45, 22 June 2022

I thank the noble Baroness for her response. I am not sure she entirely agreed with us; still, I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment 120 withdrawn.

Amendments 120A to 134A not moved.

Debate on whether Clause 48 should stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I oppose Clause 48 standing part of the Bill to enable us again to have a full discussion of the issues in this part. Part 3 has drawn significant criticism from home educators and I want to put their significant anxieties and concerns about the introduction of the children not in school register to the Committee. They are very fearful of its consequences and its unintended consequences for their children and their children’s education. Sadly, many feel demonised by the tone of this part. As we have heard from the Government, their intention behind this part of the legislation is to tackle the increasing number of pupils who are disengaging from schools and increasing non-attendance. I hope, therefore, that this debate will allow the Minister to explain to the Committee, and put on record comprehensively, the reasons this part is being introduced. More importantly, I hope it will give the opportunity for the fears and anxieties of home educators to be alleviated, to allow the Government’s significant reassurances to be given to home educators and for this Committee to hear those comments before Report.

I think all of us in this Committee would recognise that home-educating families begin and continue with home education as they passionately believe the home is the best setting for their children to learn and thrive. There are many reasons why school is not a suitable environment for some children. Often, it is because the specific needs of the child cannot adequately be accommodated by a school, which may already be managing a lot of competing needs of the children in its care. By way of illustration, may I spend a few minutes giving the situations and views of two home-educating families?

First, I have first-hand experience of how a five year-old boy has thrived from being home educated. This little boy, settled now with his new adopted family, can be quite disruptive. In a school environment it became clear that, if bored, he would cause trouble and risked being too easily dismissed as the naughty kid in the class. Through home education this five year-old little boy now has a reading age of eight: he loves Shakespeare and reading about classical Greek mythology. In maths he is doing algebra because he loves it, and does it over and over. He is confident and, although only five, can have a proper conversation with anyone, including me. All that was needed was a different educational environment in which he could flourish. His parents and the home-educating community of which they are a part are terrified by this part of the Bill. His parents can understand the intent behind it, but they feel that

“this legislation is effectively punishing parents for doing what they feel is right by their child”.

My second example illustrates how a child’s specific health needs often mean home education is the only choice. For one mum the health of her daughter was paramount; her daughter developed absence seizures in year 1, a debilitating condition which affected her brain. Despite requests, her school refused to facilitate necessary long-term changes to benefit her health. They asked for her to attend school late once a week, so she could wake naturally, as advised by her consultant. Even though this was trialled prior to lockdown, when the school reopened the family was threatened with a fine. It appeared to the family that the school was far more concerned about the impact on its attendance figures than the needs of their daughter. Now, through home education, in which the family was able to deliver the needs advised by the medical professionals, the young girl has recovered from the seizures and her parents are determined to keep it that way. Her mum said:

“I am terrified the Schools Bill will result in her being forced back into school and the seizures recurring.”

What assurances can the Minister give both these families, and the many others that have contacted us, that the register will not be used by local authorities to force children back into school? For example, condition C in new Section 436B could be read as saying that consent needs to be secured to educate your child at home. Parents—and especially parents of children with special educational needs—need assurances that their child will not be compelled to attend a school that is unable or unsuitable to provide for that child. What assurances can the Minister give that this will not be the case? Will the Government consider tabling an amendment to this condition to ensure that this is not the case?

The renewed focus on reducing the number of children not in school must not lead to an overaggressive approach from schools and local authorities towards home educators. Can the Minister state or comment on whether it is envisaged that guidance about the use of the register regarding home educators will be issued? We already hear reports from home educators of overreach by schools and local authorities, threatening fines and prosecutions, and making parents feel like they are troublesome or elitist and making the wrong choice for their children. There is a lack of empathy and understanding that, for home educators, it is the successful education of their children that is utmost in their mind. How will the Government ensure that the regulation around the children not in school register and any associated guidance will not be used as a stick to erode parents’ democratic right to decide how best to educate their children?

In this part of the Bill, there is a huge increase in information for families to provide—so much so that it is intrusive. Home-educating families are already known to their local authority. Why is more personal and sensitive data needed? New Section 436C(2) states that the register may contain

“any other information the local authority consider appropriate.”

What information did the noble Baroness have in mind when this subsection was drafted? What reassurances can she give that the information requested by local authorities will not grow and be extended in different ways by different local authorities, creating a postcode lottery of registration information?

It is so important to be clear about what data will be published, who it will be shared with and how it will be kept secure, as the failure to provide this data, as people have said in the past, can result in fines and imprisonment.

New Section 436D creates a duty on parents to provide information requested by the local authority, but there must be exemptions for victims of domestic violence. One woman who works with home educators wrote to me to explain that local authorities will now require the names of both parents. The fear of data breaches from authorities is causing terror among some women who have fled abusive former partners. One mother she met through her work has already had to relocate three times, including once to a refuge with her daughter, because both social services and the local authority elective home education staff divulged her address to her former partner who, by court order, was not allowed to hold her or her daughter’s address. This situation happened under the current protections we have in place. How will the Minister protect victims of domestic abuse when the regulation around the register seems to eradicate this protection completely?

Many home educators are part of local groups and networks. They offer each other support and share information. That is why new Section 436E is a concern for those home educators who are part of active home education groups. It could allow for financial penalties to be levied against child tutors, childminders or home education groups where parents share care of their children. I am sure that was not the intent of this section, and therefore ask the Minister to look again to see whether the breadth of this section can be re-examined so that there are no other unintended consequences of this nature.

Finally, one of the stated aims of this part of the legislation is to give more support to home educators. However, it is not clear what support will be afforded to home educators, as it is left to the local authorities to decide what they think is fit. Furthermore, there is no clear and detailed framework to ensure that local authorities assess children’s education fairly and consistently. What support do the Government envisage being given to home education by this part of the Bill and by local authorities?

In conclusion, I thank all the organisations and home-educating parents who have contacted me; there have been many, including Education Otherwise, Square Peg and the elective home education art project, to name a few. I hope I have managed to get across their main concerns today. All the themes of their comments were the same: that home educators felt demonised not encouraged, unfairly victimised, and powerless to counter the additional local authority powers and demands. Clearly, this reaction from home educators was not the Government’s intention, so I hope that this debate, and the other debates we have on clauses in this part, will allow the Minister to allay the genuine fears of home educators across the country and consider how this part can be changed before Report.

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

My 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, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, whose introduction to this clause stand part debate was helpful, especially with the examples she provided. I also agree with her about ensuring that no data for victims of domestic abuse should be published or passed on. When doing my work on stalking law reform, I met a woman who was such a victim. She and her son had had to repeatedly move after her violent and stalker husband had found her. After the third move a big red flag was put on her file, but the social worker at the local authority decided to give her ex-husband her address because she felt that he should have access to his son. Unfortunately, he attacked both her and him. We cannot always guarantee the behaviour of people, but in this case we know that victims of domestic abuse are targets for their ex-partners.

The Minister has heard from noble Lords across the Committee over the last two days of debate concerns about this part of the Bill, particularly Clause 48, with questions about the language. My noble friend Lord Shipley raised concerns about the word “expediency”, but plenty of other concerns were raised too. For example, how exactly will data be held and used?

There are concerns too about the tone of the legislation, which is designed on the basis of home educators being a problem, as we have heard from many people speaking today. I know the Minister does not agree with that and is urging us to be careful with our language, but we are hearing from parents that the tone of the Bill is what worries them.

Once again, many parents have said that, unfortunately, their relationship with the local authority has been the root of their problems, which has meant that the child had to be withdrawn from school. Far too many local authorities have taken the view of having a hostile and difficult relationship. It has been helpful to listen to the debate and hear the supportive way in which many amendments, often led by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, have tried to change that tone. It would be good to see that in revisions from the Minister at a later stage.

Concerns about the principles that underpin this clause also worry many. So I completely agree, first, with the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, that we should ask the Minister to respond to the clause standing part, but also with my noble friend Lord Shipley’s earlier comment that, with Report stage starting in under two weeks, it is completely wrong to proceed with this part of the Bill while there are so many unsolved problems: those of principle, language and attitude. Frankly, this means that there must be a delay to starting Report while the Government think again—at least until the autumn.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 7:00, 22 June 2022

I was not going to speak on this group, but I am now. My noble friend Lady Brinton is right: the tone is really important; we underlined that in previous debates.

I am very nervous that we said right at the beginning—I think there was agreement across the Committee—that this was about protecting the vulnerable and ensuring the rights of children. I guess that all noble Lords here have been bombarded with emails from home educators, and we must be careful that we do not believe everything that they tell us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, was talking, I received an email giving a completely different view about how some home educators are suing one other over what they said; some are being told to be quiet. The noble Baroness mentioned a couple of organisations, but, for some people, there is more at stake here. We must remember—I repeat this—that the vast majority of home educators are doing a fantastic job; they want support and to work together. If we ramp up the fear that they will be threatened, they will feel threatened. We should try to ensure that they completely understand what we are trying to do to support them and their child.

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)

My Lords, we are respectful of the right of parents to educate their children at home, but we cannot agree that this clause should not be part of the Bill. There are clearly important measures that we support quite strongly and want to see enacted. We support the principle of a register. However, there have been some helpful suggestions for improvement—particularly on new Sections 436C and 436D(2), inserted by Clause 48—and the Minister has committed to go away and consider those further.

On the issues around data we raised in relation to Amendment 128 in an earlier group, having thought about what the Minister said and the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and other noble Lords, I think it is worth some further consideration, because clearly there are risks and we would not want to rush into anything that would cause more problems. We hope that, with some improvements, this clause will be a helpful and necessary change that will safeguard children. It is not about forcing children back into school; it is about balance between freedom to decide and safeguarding.

On the comments that we have just heard from my noble friend, this Bill is not ready for Report. We do not think that the Government will have time to reconsider some of the issues that have been raised. It would seem appropriate, given everything that has been said, for us at least to wait for the regulatory review to be completed before we take this Bill to Report.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for giving us the opportunity again to ensure that the tone we take when talking about this issue—as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and many other noble Lords in this debate have said—is one of support, of explaining what the Government are seeking to achieve with these measures and of trying to allay some the concerns we have heard, while being clear that we do not lose sight of the importance of protecting a child’s right to education. In doing so, I can reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, that the introduction of registers is not, in any way, intended to undermine or interfere with the parents’ right to educate their child how they choose. This clause includes no measures on monitoring or assessing the education that parents may be providing. Local authorities’ existing powers are already sufficient in this regard, and we have already provided guidance to support local authorities to determine whether education is suitable.

As many noble Lords have said, we know that many parents who home educate do it very well—often to a very high standard and in challenging circumstances. However, that is not the case for all. That is a key point I would like to emphasise: this Bill is about establishing registers so that we know who and where home-educated children are; it is not about forcing them back to school.

A school attendance order can be issued only if the local authority is not satisfied that the education provided for the child is suitable. The example raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, of the little boy thriving at home with his new adopted family is clearly a case where the home education being provided is suitable and, if demonstrated as she described, the local authority could only agree with that. Similarly, on her example of a girl in year 1 who developed seizures, if the education being provided at home is suitable—and that is demonstrated to the local authority—the local authority could not reasonably issue a school attendance order. In addition, the current law, supported by guidance, already requires local authorities to take all relevant factors into account when taking a view on whether it is expedient for a child to attend school, including any medical grounds.

I turn now to the noble Baroness’s question about parents needing local authorities’ consent to home educate. I can reassure the noble Baroness that condition C in new Section 436B simply does not do that; it establishes that a home-educated child is eligible to be included on the local authority’s register. That is a statement of fact; there is nothing about consent involved in new Section 436B.

As we heard in an earlier debate, we must recognise that there are growing numbers of children not in school, particularly after the pandemic, and there are concerns that some of these children will not be receiving suitable education—and, in some cases, not at all. We need to be able to assure ourselves that they are receiving a suitable education, and that is what these provisions are all about. While parents of eligible children will be required to provide information to local authorities for inclusion on their registers, local authorities will be able to require only that information which is prescribed in legislation. Any additional information prescribed will be intended to support the promotion of the education, welfare or safety of children.

I have also heard the concerns about data sharing—which was raised not just in this group—and was sorry to hear about the specific situation the noble Baroness described; that absolutely should not have occurred. As my noble friend the Minister has explained, there will be protections in place: the clause allows local authorities to share information only with certain prescribed persons, to be set out in regulations, when they consider it appropriate for the purposes of ensuring the safety, welfare or education of a child—

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)

There is quite deep concern about this issue, and I wonder whether the regulations could be made available to us before Report.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I can absolutely take that point away and see whether it is possible. If that is not the mechanism by which we can provide further detail and assurance, I will look at what else we can do to explore, and reassure on, that issue further.

As my noble friend the Minister said, under UK GDPR, parents have the right to object to any processing where UK legislation requires such processing, which would include the sharing of information to prescribed persons. The organisation responsible for that processing would then need to review the request and decide whether the processing is in the best interest of the child or family, and either uphold the request in the specific circumstances or proceed with the processing. The parent also has a formal route of complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has a range of powers in this area. It is essential, however, for local authorities to be able to share information, if needed, to support multi-agency safeguarding and education efforts, with the appropriate safeguards in place.

On the question of statutory guidance, which the noble Baroness asked about also, this will help ensure the consistency of interpretation and implementation of duties across local authorities. As we said, we will ensure that it is created in close collaboration with local authorities and home educators, and includes advice on how local authorities can best promote positive engagement, as we have heard the concerns from parents where that has not been the case. We have also heard examples of best practice, and that is what we will seek to draw on in drafting the guidance.

There was a concern about financial penalties for tutors or childminders and home education groups. The duty on providers to share information on request will be important in helping to identify those children who are not—but should be—on registers, and those regulations will be used to set a threshold at which an education provider comes into the scope of the duty in Section 436E, ensuring the duty is only placed on providers that provide a substantial proportion of an eligible child’s education. There is also the power to make regulations to create specific exemptions to this duty, and we have indicated our intention to use that power to exclude informal groups of home-educating parents from the scope of this measure.

I thank the noble Baroness once again for the opportunity to reiterate some of those points, and I think we have heard the areas that the Government will take away and look at to ensure that we continue to have a message for support for home educators, but not lose sight of the importance of what we are trying to achieve with these registers.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, that was a good answer, but I feel my noble friend has not addressed the reasonable fears of some home educators about the way this Bill is drafted at present. For instance, in new Section 436C(1)(c),

“such details of the means by which the child is being educated as may be prescribed” is a completely open phrase. This is an area which is used by some local authorities to pressure parents. They pursue parents for timetables, the details of subjects of studied and other things which do not necessarily form part of home education. Home education is not subject bound. Schools have to do it that way; if the Times has its way, schools may not have to do it that way, but they do so at the moment. Home education may follow timetables, or it may be something much looser. The age at which a child begins to read can be quite late in home education, or it can be very early. These things vary enormously from the practice which is necessary in school. That new Section 436C(1)(c) is in this Bill, and opens and then flows through to the school attendance order provisions, is a source of considerable worry, and I think reasonably so.

Clause 48 agreed.

Amendment 135 not moved.

Clause 49: School attendance orders