Amendment 64B

Schools Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 18th July 2022.

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Lord Wei:

Moved by Lord Wei

64B: Clause 49, page 42, line 9, at end insert—“(5A) Condition C is not met if the parents of the child have made alternative arrangements to satisfy the duty in section 7 (duty of parents to secure education of children of compulsory school age).”Member's explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to exempt home education from mandatory registration, where the standard of learning is such that parents are compliant with their duties.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment 64B I shall also speak to other amendments in my name. I declare an interest, as I have before, that I am from a home-educating family, which I am proud of. I wish there were more noble Lords in this Chamber who had the privilege of being part of home education.

As was discussed earlier, the Bill really should not exist in its current form. It has been thoroughly gutted already, and there were good reasons for that. The reasons for gutting the earlier parts of the Bill are no different from the reasons for doing the same to the end of the Bill, which I am afraid is just as much of a mess.

We live in an age of change. There is more remote working and people want to take more control over their health, and they want to do the same for education. I fear that this Government, and Governments generally, are on the run. More and more parents are choosing to take control of their children’s education, which is their right in this country. We as parents have a duty to educate our children. When we want to, we hand over responsibility to the Government, academies, trusts and so on to fulfil that duty, but in this country it is parents who are legally obliged to provide education for their children, and that is only right. We are not some other countries where the opposite is the case.

In this time of change, where perhaps people are taking back control—though maybe not always in the ways that we might have imagined—that forms a threat, in health and to local authorities. I am afraid I have documentary evidence, which I shall share with the House today, about how that perceived threat has led to real injustices under the current regime, even before this Bill becomes law.

Without protections and, frankly, without a wholescale redesign of this law, on which I may push a vote several times today, we may end up with a circumstance in which the injustices that many families are already experiencing today will be heightened and worsened, and we will see many willingly go to prison to stand on this principle. Having spoken to the Minister and colleagues in the department, I do not think the Government truly understand why anyone would go to prison on principle in order not to have their children on the register. They do not understand why. Is that because they do not have any children who they home educate? I would love to see survey results on how many Ministers, people in the department and people in local authorities home educate their children. If they did then they would take a very different view of what they are trying to do today.

I start by apologising to my colleagues on the Benches who have had to come here in such heat—although, thank God, we are well air-conditioned in this Chamber—to potentially vote on my amendments and those of other Peers. I am truly sorry that my amendment was put in early on the Marshalled List so that they have had to take that kind of heat. However, I ask the House to imagine that they had to face that heat every day for four or five years with no end in sight.

As I start to present my amendments, I shall read the House a few excerpts from a testimony that has been shared with me which has broken my heart. It is under the current regime—the current legal means by which local authorities can monitor and vet home education. I will not share the name of the lady concerned but I want the House to hear her story because there are many similar ones that I and other Peers have been sent. Again, this is happening under the current regime and existing laws.

This lady, a teacher of 20 years’ standing, decided to home educate after a parents evening where her six year-old daughter’s teacher announced that she “would not set the world on fire”. This is a teacher saying that a child will not do anything good in their life, basically. She decided, quite rationally, as is her right, to home educate and the child thrives. In fact, in Kent, where the family started to do this, the local authority visited them, with consent, saw the learning that was going on and valued it so much that it highlighted all the information and resources that were available to support this family. Soon after, the local authority said that it would be a waste of its time and resources to continue to visit this family. Clearly, education was a priority. They were always available and they did not need to have the level of monitoring that they initially had. They were happy for several years.

London, where my children are home educated, is an amazing environment for home education with all kinds of groups. However, this family then moved to Bromley. I am sorry that I have to mention this local authority by name, but it is one of many, according to the letters that I and other Peers have received, that have behaved atrociously under the current regime, which we are about to tighten, by the way. We already have many injustices and many families facing difficulties—I will describe the kind of things that happened to them—but we are about to give the authorities a great deal more power and not even to track down and deal with the bad actors that my other amendments try to start to deal with.

I will fast forward, because of time. This local authority visited the family, asked for lots of information and samples of work, which were kept on record over a long period. The authority’s job was to identify children missing from education. This eventually became unnecessary intrusion. After four years, the family still had no answers; they were still under investigation. Their immediate request for information held about them—remember GDPR, which we will discuss later—was not heard. The family decided not to provide any more information, because the situation was getting ridiculous after four years of constant hounding. It got to the point where the children were scared of the postman coming.

The family requested information. They wrote to Ofsted and they wrote to the department. This is all relevant to my amendments, so forgive me for taking a little more time. Bromley was given a great report for the way it treated this family. Eventually, the family was given a school attendance order, after requesting information being held about them under GDPR rules, with the Information Commissioner’s Office saying that Bromley had to comply. None of the ICO’s requests was followed through. The information that was held about the family was not provided and a school attendance order was slapped on them. The home education was of a very high standard—there was no reason to do that.

We have found out since then that this is a common occurrence. School attendance orders are used to silence families who kick up a fuss, because you cannot complain to the Local Government Ombudsman. I would love to hear from the Minister whether she disagrees and whether she has audited this kind of behaviour, but I hear that it is very common. Most families do not know that it has happened to them; they cannot appeal and they are silenced because they now have a school attendance order. We are about to make this process stronger in the Bill, forcing people to send their children to school where, ultimately, if they do not comply or provide information, prison is what awaits. The Secretary of State has not replied. We have heard before that there is provision for appeal, but both routes are closed for these families. Again, I have other amendments to create better ways to hear their voices.

The point of my first amendment today is that we need to provide protection. One of the ways that we can provide protection is simply to exempt home educating parents who are delivering a high standard of education, in line with current law, from this register. It is, in my mind, ludicrous that those who are doing a good job are put on a register in an open-ended way. At any time, their home education can be interrupted. Those who complain can be forced to send their children to school, so they do not complain or appeal. There is no recourse and no time limit and there is no easy way to overturn this.

We have registers: we have registers for sex offenders and we have registers for criminals. Those who commit crimes are put on the criminal register. Those who commit a sex offence are put on the sex offender register. One of my amendments, Amendment 72A, which I want to talk to later, provides a means essentially to use a warrant mechanism to pursue families that are using home education as an excuse, to investigate possible breaches of the law such as neglect, sex abuse or just not providing an education of any standard at all. But for those many families in the home education community who do educate well—sometimes better, frankly, and sometimes because they have had to remove their children from schools that were not providing a good education, as we have seen in this example, and there are many others that I could share—there are other ways to do this. There are other ways to pursue the bad actors.

I ask noble Lords to think seriously about this. What we are about to do, if we let this clause pass, is create a very dangerous situation. We are two years away from an election. I am speaking here to my Benches, but it applies to other Benches as well. A future Government could come in and, conceivably, change the curriculum to ban a particular philosophical ideology; they could say that free markets are bad or that communism, socialism or green philosophies should not be taught in school. If you then choose to take your children out of school and home educate them, because you feel that it is important that they get a rounded education and that what is missing in schools should be taught as well, suddenly an inspector could come around, because you would be on the register by law, vet what you are doing, ask what you believe politically, observe how you teach your children and make a subjective decision that what you are teaching is not in line with what the Government want your children to learn. At that point you would be given a school attendance order and have no choice and not be able to get out of that system. They have you in your house, as well as at school.

God forbid—I hope that this never happens. I am young, but many of us have lived long enough to see countries around the world where this has happened. Many in this Chamber have left countries where this has happened. It is not beyond possibility that this could happen. On these Benches, we could put this Bill into law and find, in two years’ time, that another Government come in and use the Act against us to go against what we believe is right and proper and say that we cannot teach that to our children.

By all means, let us go after the bad actors. Amendment 72A provides a warrant mechanism, as the police have, in limited means and under certain conditions, to pursue families who are clearly using home education as an excuse. That, in my view, is the biggest problem right now. The authorities need to investigate. Fine, investigate, but do not investigate everybody. Do not put everybody on the register when they are doing a good job and, frankly, need to be left on their own to do that good job. If they do not do a good job and the authorities find out about it, the law already provides the means to pursue them: the Children Act and the Education Act. There are many powers that enable local authorities and other authorities to find and root out bad actors. If we do this, the bad actors will leave the country, they will get into their camper vans and drive around and we will never see them, and they will go into farms, or they will go to prison and it will be on noble Lords’ heads. I have warned today that there are many who feel so strongly about this that they will go to prison. They will take the Government to court and there will be judicial reviews. I have spoken to QCs. The Government’s own report on human rights says that Articles 8 and 9 are under threat.

There is a clash of values: the right to educate children, with free speech and freedom of conscience and faith, with the right to look after children. We need to find the right balance, so I call upon my fellow Peers to support Amendment 64B to exempt parents who are educating their children to the standard required by law from this register. Let us have people on the register who have taken their children out of school but do not intend to educate them to a good standard. Let us have people caught by this amendment who are not doing that, but do not put this on every parent who wants to educate their child in their way and to a high standard. Even former teachers are being pursued, persecuted and threatened. In fact, this lady is prepared to go to prison; she is under this open-ended process that has already ruined the lives of her children for four or five years.

There are other amendments that I want to speak to, but I will stick with Amendment 64B for now and tie it together with Amendment 72A on having a warrant, because the two go together. If we decide to exempt legitimate home-educating parents from this register, we need to catch those bad actors. Amendment 72A goes together with Amendment 64B to provide a mechanism for catching bad actors. We are saying not that we do not want to catch them but “Don’t use the register as a catch-all”, making everybody guilty before they are proven innocent.

I have also tabled Amendment 85A because it is clear that local authorities and even the department itself, I am sad to say, have not been following GDPR rules. When you ask them for information, they drag their feet and do not provide it or agree to remove it if it was unnecessary. I am greatly fearful that, even though the argument will be that the GDPR law is already sufficient, it is not being followed by local authorities or departments, so we need to do something about that. If a local authority abuses the information that it is given there should be consequences, but right now there are not. Right now, there is a flagrant disregard of the law on GDPR in that respect, and we have received lots of evidence in relation to this that I could present if I am pressed.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 3:45 pm, 18th July 2022

I gently remind the noble Lord of the Companion, which says that speakers

“are expected to keep within 15 minutes”.

That is not a formal limit but an advisory one. It says that

“on occasion, a speech of outstanding importance, or a ministerial speech winding up an exceptionally long debate, may exceed” the limit, but the noble Lord has now been going on for 17 minutes.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative

Thank you, I will wrap up.

I have two final amendments in this group. Amendment 86A in my name relates to a refusal to provide info not being sufficient reason to impose a school attendance order on a family. In this instance, the fact that the teacher or home educator did not provide information was seen as evidence that they were not educating their children properly. If you do not provide education and choose on principle not to provide that information, that should not mean that you are not educating your children well or that a school attendance order is put on them. This amendment is to prevent such occurrences happening again.

Finally, I support Amendment 118C on a code of conduct, but others will speak to that. I will give way and let them do that now.

Photo of Lord Geddes Lord Geddes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

I assume that the noble Lord would like to move his amendment?

Photo of Lord Geddes Lord Geddes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, as I previously advised, I now invite the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to speak.

Oh, I have been advised that the noble Baroness does not wish to speak.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

I was going to get a glass of water, but that is going to be difficult. I thought for a moment that maybe the noble Lord, Lord Wei, was not going to move the amendment. I would have advised him not to. I am sure that he is well intended—I do not doubt that—but he has missed many of the debates on this over the years. I ask him to understand that, when I put the Bill forward on home education, that was five years ago. I never heard from the noble Lord then or had any involvement with him. He did not seem to be interested in it, but I consulted very widely. I consulted by all sorts of measures: I had meetings in the House; I had Zoom meetings up and down the country; I had emails and all those things. I was dealing very much with a small group of people who objected to the register. Most of them came on board; a small minority have not, but the majority support the Bill and the register. They do so because they know it is beneficial.

I think one of the things the noble Lord, Lord Wei, has missed quite seriously is that the provision is designed to be supportive. It is not a punishment, but he does not seem to understand that. In other words, for the first time a home-educating parent will be able to say to the local authority, “I want help to do this bit of home education, which I cannot deliver myself.” It might be in advanced science, music or art; it might be any of those things, and the local authority has to do it. It is supportive, not punitive, and the noble Lord’s whole speech was on the idea that it is punitive.

I say to him, as I have said in previous debates, some home educators are very good at it, but that does not mean that they do not need help at times. Just because you are able to teach certain things does not make you a good teacher without that support and backup which might be, as I say, in advanced sciences or whatever. The noble Lord’s amendment would deny them that and actually make it worse for them.

My line on this—I give credit to the Government, who have adopted most of my Bill here—has been about doing it well, and they have. I had some doubts about the appeal system. I wrote to the Minister about this and she gave me certain assurances in her reply about how that system will work. I made other suggestions too, but I think the Minister is saying that the appeal mechanism is there for both the parents and the authority. We should remember that this is a two-way street. The noble Lord, Lord Wei, says that he has had complaints from people about the way that a local authority has behaved. I say to him: listen to those people, mainly children who are now grown up and had complaints about the way that home education was done to them or, importantly, where it was done partly as a cover for something else. You do not have to think just about abuse here: it is about a child working in a shop and then being told “Well, you’re learning mathematics”; it is about trafficking, too.

Listening to the noble Lord, I think he has no concept of this. His speech was all about the terrible state and the wonderful home-educating parent. Most parents who home-educate in the way that he described do it well. They really have nothing to fear from this because what they will get is support from the local authority, if they ask for it. At the same time, they will have to demonstrate that the child is being properly educated. Is that really wrong?

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative

Just to clarify a few of my remarks, I want to credit the noble Lord, Lord Soley, the Minister and the Government for doing research. That is important and I hope that the research and consultations that will take place, moving forwards, will bring out more of the data and evidence that we sorely need. I feel that the most recent consultation, which was very short, did not get enough of the opinions of home educators. Many of those who oppose the register are painted as a minority, but that is not necessarily the case. A lot of people—

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

Will the noble Lord give way? My understanding is that it is not normal to have a backwards and forwards between Back-Benchers. I am getting nods from the Front Bench, which is a very rare occurrence from either Front Bench. I am going to speak to my amendment—oh, sorry.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 4:00 pm, 18th July 2022

I had not finished. It is very unusual to intervene on an intervention. I was speaking and I was giving way to the noble Lord, Lord Wei.

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

My Lords, it is probably worth clarifying that on Report a Member should speak only once unless it is the Minister. I think we will finish the remarks we have heard; then if the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, wants to make her contribution separately, I am sure we would love to hear it.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

The noble Lord, Lord Wei, asked me to give way, which I did, but I am quite happy to continue as I have nearly finished.

I emphasise again that there has been far more consultation than the noble Lord, Lord Wei, is aware of. I did not spend the last five years arguing for this Bill just for the fun of it. I did not ignore people. I have had people say to me what they have said to him: “I’ll go to prison rather than this”. Mind you, in a very long career in politics of 40-odd years I have heard an awful lot of people say they would go to prison for one thing or another, but very few do. The poll tax was a near exception, but by and large they do not.

I was saying to those people—to be fair, I won over a lot of them—“Think of this as supportive”. The noble Lord is falling into the trap of a tiny minority who say that this is a wicked state that is going to do terrible things. He has taken that as a fact; it is not. It is not even in the Bill that way. This is supportive. It is not a punishment. He is not doing himself or the House any favours in implying that it is anything other than supportive. I ask the House to reject the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I am going to be very quick. I would like to speak to my Amendment 86B and later amendments which are essentially saying the same thing: that this Bill is dreadful and ought to be taken away and thought over completely.

Amendment 86B is to delete Clause 49 entirely because it is such a far-reaching clause that it will create a bureaucratic nightmare for thousands of families. At the same time, it will fail to achieve the Government’s stated policy aims. I am also completely puzzled about how overstretched local authorities will be able to implement these new powers and duties. Having been a local councillor, I know how hard they work and how overstretched they are already—even before the recent government cuts.

Overall, I am convinced that Clause 49 will turn out as a total legislative failure and will leave a trail of destruction that will probably be ignored because home-schooling families are a minority in this country. I wish the Government would see sense on this and support the deletion of this clause, as they have with significant other parts of the Bill which they acknowledge were also unworkable. Within that, I would like to include my deletion of other parts of the Bill in Amendments 93A, 95A and 95B.

Finally, on my Amendment 118C, the government amendments are a step in the right direction, but a long way from the necessary protection that families need from these new powers. A code of practice would address the data protection concerns that many parents have. I urge the Minister to think about that.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I have several amendments in this group. If I were to say one thing to my noble friend the Minister, it is that I really hope the department will use the time it has while dealing with Part 1 to advance its thinking on the guidance and other aspects of the Bill so that, by the time it gets considered by the Commons, its thinking is rather more detailed and matured than what we have had the chance to look at. That would be a real help.

My noble friend Lord Wei raised some issues of true Conservative principle, which I hope home educators will find the opportunity to discuss with the candidates during August. Home education is a matter of freedom. Although the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend both say that the Bill is supportive of home education, in many details it is not.

As my noble friend Lord Wei said, many letters are reaching us describing situations in which local authorities have been, frankly, abusive to home educators without any obvious good reason. I have pursued some of these matters with local authorities. I will not name the one I have talked to, but it is clear that they allow the difficulty that they have with some families to spill over into the way that they deal with those who are, on the face of it, doing a pretty good job—for instance, harassing a child who had a stroke aged six and saying that the child, rather than being cared for specially within their family, must be cast into school, not accepting independent reports about this child and saying that they must have more, different evidence. That is not in any way conducting their relationships in a supportive way. There have been cases where they have made really unpleasant remarks about home educators privately, and then, by mistake, copied others into emails. This shows that among a good number of local authorities there is a very unsatisfactory attitude to home education.

I am very keen that the Bill contain safeguards which put home educators, particularly good ones, in a position where they can reasonably hope to argue their case. We will come to some more details of that later. My noble friend Lord Wei espouses some true Conservative values of freedom and family which the Bill does not recognise sufficiently. One could also argue for efficiency, in that the best local authorities seem to do a very good job and, with the same money, go beyond what is achieved elsewhere by building up a pattern of trust which enables them not to spend time harassing people who are doing a good job.

The Bill as it is at the moment is not efficient, nor does it pay sufficient attention to all those occasions when the state is failing children. We have an amendment later, which I applaud, which says that children who have been excluded should not be placed in unregistered institutions. Oh, my golly—that is the state doing that. Why are we fussed about what good private educators are doing when there are things like that being done by the state?

There is a flavour in some of the remarks I have read from local authorities of a difficulty with difference which we should surely not allow. Local authorities have to deal with a lot of very different people, including Gypsies and others who choose to live a lifestyle which is not at all in accordance with the normal. Fear or dislike of difference should not be something one finds in a local authority. I entirely understand where the noble Lord, Lord Wei, is coming from, but my wish in the Bill is to find ways of improving it in its detail rather than attacking the principle of the register.

Amendment 65 looks at the

“means by which the child is being educated”.

That is widely seen—I think correctly—as permitting the Government to inquire deeply into the exact way in which a child is being educated. That is one of the ways the worst local authorities have adopted to oppress home educators. They ask for more and more detail. They ask for things that home educators are not doing, like having a timetable. There is a whole structure of education which is necessary in school but does not apply to home education. Home education can be centred on the child and be very different. The question is: is it effective and sufficient? Is it doing what it should do to bring out the qualities of the child? The structure of what is being provided should not be open to question and attack if the outcome is sufficient.

Amendments 65 and 66A suggest alternative ways of dealing with that, and in Amendment 66 we will come to another, when the right reverend Prelate speaks to it. With Amendment 66A, we are looking at a limit to who is providing the education. The Government want to know what outside people are providing the education that a child is receiving. That seems to me to be a reasonable bit of information to ask for, and is well short of the worrying implications of the wording as it is.

In Amendment 85, I come back to a subject I raised in Committee. One of the justifications for the register is so that we know what is happening to children. I find that quite persuasive, but if we are going to do that, we ought to know what is happening to all children in this country; we should not leave bits unexamined. At the moment, your standard independent school does not return data to the Department for Education on the children in its charge. I do not think it takes legislation to change that; it just takes the Government to decide that they want that, and to ask for it—they have the power. But if the justification for a register on home educators is that the Government ought to know what is happening to children, that same thought ought to apply to independent education too.

Photo of The Bishop of Carlisle The Bishop of Carlisle Bishop

My Lords, I speak on behalf of my right reverend friend the Bishop of St. Albans, who has two amendments in his name, Amendments 66 and 94. His name is also listed on Amendments 65 and 66A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

Amendments 65, 66 and 66A continue to take issue with the proposals for details of the means by which a child is being educated to be included on the register. Amendment 66 would replace this with a determination of suitability, and provide for visits by the local authority for determining that suitability to be recorded. However, further to communication with the Department for Education and the Minister, we understand that their interpretation of the word “means” does not relate to the educational content or methods of home educating but simply to the providers of the education, since separate rules for registration will pertain to out-of-school education. We have been informed that this framework will be set out in the future statutory guidance. This is a much more positive interpretation than had previously been supposed, but if this is the interpretation I am not sure why it could not have been contained within the primary legislation rather than prescribed at a later date. Amendment 66A, from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would naturally resolve that problem.

We are most grateful for the Minister’s communications with the Bishops’ Bench to clarify this matter. However, the terminology remains unhelpfully ambiguous. I hope that the Minister can alleviate the concerns of home-schoolers and state on the record that this simply means inquiring into who is providing the education and not the substance of the education or the methods of teaching.

I turn now to Amendment 94, which would insert a new clause after Clause 50 and seeks to provide protection for the institution of home schooling against any undue or unfair interference. The proposed new clause would ensure that any contact between the local authorities and home-schoolers respects protected characteristics, as well as Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights, as in the Human Rights Act, in making sure that

“the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

The point is that the way in which this Bill is framed could be seen to cast a cloud of suspicion on all home educators. The noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Wei, have already raised that point. Some parents are also worried that this register is the thin end of an invasive wedge that could lead to undue state prescription with regard to home schooling.

That is not to say that home schooling itself is not sometimes prescriptive. Some individuals opt for home schooling precisely because they disagree with certain materials being taught in school, when it conflicts with their deeply held beliefs. However, there is a difference between the state being prescriptive in trying to mould individuals into a specific world view and the liberal principle of allowing parents the right to determine the values and beliefs with which they want their children to be brought up. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of all faiths or none home-school on account of this. What is important is the principle that the state does not have the right, under normal circumstances, to supersede the rights of the parents in determining how they ought to raise their child.

The misunderstanding that has occurred from the initial framing of this Bill has been unhelpful. I think it has harmed the prospective relationship between home educators and local authorities. Amendment 94 reassures home educators that their fears are unfounded. It would put into law where the Government place the limits of intervention in home education and ensure that there is sufficient accountability for local authorities and the Government in upholding the principle of home education.

I suspect the Minister may argue that these provisions are unnecessary, as they are already contained in the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, or are responding to things that do not currently exist in law. Nevertheless, a positive statement clearly outlining on what grounds interference is not acceptable, alongside a further commitment from the Government to reaffirm the fundamental principles of home schooling, would counter many of the underlying concerns home educators have about the implications of this Bill.

I know that the communication the Minister has had with my right reverend friend the Bishop of St. Albans has been greatly appreciated. It would be tremendously useful if she could confirm on the record how home educators will be both consulted and reassured as we move towards the statutory guidance that will underpin many of the provisions on home education.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 4:15 pm, 18th July 2022

My Lords, I am very supportive of Amendment 64A. Amendments 65, 66, 66A and 94 are also ways of reassuring and protecting home-schoolers in the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, made the point that, over his many years in politics, many have threatened to go to prison for their beliefs and rarely do. We all recognise that point. But it is also true that, over the many years that I have been involved in politics, I have been reassured that many a law is supportive and not a punishment or threat, and I have learned not to take much notice of that either. The notion that if you are a good actor you have nothing to fear is actually quite chilling, because then you have to ask who decides who the good actors are—who will define what a good parent is, in this instance. It is a little unfair that people who feel so strongly that they say they would go to prison are dismissed, because it speaks to the fact that this Bill has created uncertainty. The Minister has gone out of her way to be reassuring—I do not dismiss that; that is something to be taken seriously—but all that these amendments are trying to do is to codify that reassurance in a variety of ways, rather than just having it on word of mouth.

It is not helpful to say whether it is a minority of home-schoolers who are worried about the register or a majority. In a way, who cares whether it is a majority or a minority? It is the principle, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has made that very clear. I emphasise that there is a principle of freedom here that we should not just throw out or dismiss as some sort of inconvenience to more pragmatic concerns.

The problem with the register is that it is not just a register; it ends up looking as though it requires far more on details of means, as the right reverend Prelate just explained—more than you need in a register. It does not just tick a box. That is why many home educators are very anxious about it. I am not a home educator and have never been home educated; to be frank, I am not interested in home educators per se, but I am interested more broadly in a situation where the state collects so much data and information—a database of children—and interferes in our freedom in a democratic society to home educate, if that is what we want. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle explained, the cloud of suspicion being created that this is a potential assault on deeply held religious and philosophical freedoms is something we should all take seriously as democrats who support a free society.

The suspicion that some home educators have of the state and the way that education is conducted is what we should be discussing in relation to this Schools Bill—if it were not such a basket case of a Bill that we cannot get anywhere on what we ought to be discussing, which is irritating. We have a problem when many parents believe that the state cannot be trusted to educate their children. All sorts of controversial issues come up. I do not think it is a criticism of home educators that they do not trust the state or think that it does not provide the kind of education that their SEND child or bullied child needs, or that they do not want someone to be exposed to the kind of materials in sex and relationship education that we will probably discuss later, which have been all over the news. These are reasonable philosophical ideas to hold; they, and religious freedom, are things that we should be protecting in this House.

We should remember the Telford report, which I just finished reading over the weekend. We have to be careful when the state starts saying that the people acting suspiciously are the parents. I also read the Oldham report, in which state actors—councils, schools, the police and all sorts of people—ignored in plain sight the sexual grooming and abuse of thousands of young people. I am not prepared just to say that I trust the state. It is perfectly reasonable when people do not, but we at least have to reassure them about their freedoms to withdraw from state schooling. After all, it is not the law that you have to school your child, simply that you have to educate them. I trust those parents to educate them as much as I trust the state. Where there are bad actors, you act, but you do not treat everyone all the time as potential bad actors.

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

My Lords, I said at Second Reading, putting the register aside for a moment, that we as a society have a responsibility to ensure that all our children are safe, secure and educated. If that is not happening, we need to ask why and what we can simply do to make sure that every child is safe and educated.

Over the last seven or eight years, I have put down a whole series of Written Questions asking how many children are missing from our school rolls, such that we do not even know where they are. The answer is that we do not know. The best we can do currently—this goes back to 2018-19—is information from the National Crime Agency, which, by the way, identifies as missing anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and who may be the subject of a crime or at risk of harm to themselves; examples include child trafficking, getting involved in drug pushing, et cetera. It concluded that there are 216,707 children missing whose whereabouts we do not know. That is a very low figure. I think it is considerably higher than that.

For me, that is what this debate is about: protecting children and making sure that they are safe, secure and educated. That is why I welcome these measures on home education and congratulate the Government on having the courage to pick up this political hot potato and try to do something about it—it is not perfect; I take it for granted that there are some concerns—and about unregistered schools.

Of course, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle was right about parents’ rights and values, but society has to make sure that, when children are in schools which are not subject to any checks or inspections, they are not being taught the most appalling practices, which Ofsted highlights in its reports. There have been a couple of cases where it has taken those schools to court and managed to close them down—the right reverend Prelate would be horrified if he knew. One such school, which was not unregistered, was a Christian school as well; I am happy to talk to him privately about it.

Let us understand where we are coming from in this debate. We all have anecdotal evidence of home tuition and teaching. I listened with great interest to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, and his worries about what might happen. I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, is absolutely right that there have been some appalling practices by local authorities; there have also been some fantastic practices by them, which should be the model for how we behave. That is why I will suggest in the next group that local authorities appoint home school co-ordinators.

I have been struck by the number of emails I have had—I think it was 82 at the last count—from home educators. They have concerns, of course, or they would not be emailing me, but I come away thinking, “Wow, what a tremendous job you’re doing.” I have met some of them. I met one last week, who told me about how she had ignited an interest in the Tudors in her daughter. I thought again, “What a tremendous job you’re doing.” However, those actually doing the work of home tuition are perhaps seeing problems that will not be there.

We need a simple register which collects some simple information. I did not know and was quite surprised to learn that independent schools do not provide any data—that is a new one on me. They should be doing so. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, rightly said, we should know where all our children are—whether they are in school, home educated, in an unregistered school or in the independent sector. Let that be the rallying call from these amendments.

Photo of Lord Hacking Lord Hacking Labour

My Lords, I am in a bit of a dilemma. My noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, if I may so refer to her, has spoken to all the clauses she would like to have taken out of the Bill. When I was last in the House, during my 26 years, the issue of whether a clause remained in the Bill came up only in debates of clause stand part. At that stage only did the argument come forward, if someone wanted to make it, that a clause no longer stand part of the Bill.

The logic of that was quite plain. It was only when the clause had been all the way through the House that a decision was taken, not on the state of the Bill as printed but on the state of the Bill as amended. In this particular case, even on Clause 49, there are a number of substantive amendments by the Minister, and so it is a bit of a dilemma.

I want to record that I support entirely the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, in deleting those clauses from the Bill. For my own part, I want every single clause in Parts 3 and 4 to be taken out of the Bill, but that must come later. So, what I propose to do is not speak until the second group of amendments where my amendments are identified, but I do not want it to go past this House that I am not supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my friend, in her amendments; she is asking for all the clauses in this Bill, from 49 to 52, to be removed. So, if I may, I will speak on the substantive issue in the next group of amendments.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 4:30 pm, 18th July 2022

My Lords, on the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Wei, we disagree in principle on this. Of course we respect the ability of parents to educate their own children, but nothing in this Bill prevents parents from educating their children at home. The sad truth is that home education is being used, sometimes, as a front for neglect, or even abuse. This is happening, and many of us here have seen too many examples of this, but there are multiple examples of great practice too—of course there are—and examples, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, quite rightly said, of local authorities playing a supportive role. Clearly, there are situations where this relationship has not been successful, and I would be interested in what the Minister has to say about what she is planning to do to make sure that that is prevented wherever possible.

But registration does not mean that children will be forced to attend school. The reference of the noble Lord, Lord Wei, to the sex offender register was unfortunate and inflammatory, and the noble Lord’s Amendment 72A, on the obligation to provide information, raises great concern for me, where it says that

“A local authority may only require parents to provide the information under this section if the local authority suspects that the parents are educating the child in such a way that it may lead to the child conducting violence or sexual or physical abuse against others.”

There is nothing about the protection of that child. I could never vote for that, and if the noble Lord chooses to divide the House on his amendments, we will be voting to make sure that they are not included in the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Soley has told us previously that he has been waiting for these measures to be brought into law for some time. He has done sensitive and sterling work for very many years on this issue, and I pay tribute to him for the kind way that he handled responding to the noble Lord opposite, and for the work that he has done over some time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, made important points about the capacity of local authorities, but I note that many local authorities, when asked, have welcomed the approach being taken. Obviously, the proof is going to be in the implementation, and we do not dismiss the concerns about how this Bill will work in practice. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, the balance here between the freedom of home educators, which we recognise, and the safeguarding of children, has not been where it needs to be previously.

We welcome the Government’s amendments in this clause. We agree very much regarding our obligations to support and protect children, and with the reassuring words of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, on this issue. We should be celebrating home education; too often, it has been viewed—and I think home educators themselves have picked up on this—with some suspicion, or even ridicule, not just by local authorities but in society generally. There is no need for that, and having this clearer framework may actually support the recognition of home education as a valid way of educating children.

It would, though, having said all that, be very helpful to alleviate some of the fears of home educators if the Minister could explain to the House what she intends to do ahead of, and after, implementation, to take home educators with her, so that the threat and fear can be reduced, and home educators can be properly reassured.

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

My Lords, I rise to speak to the first group of amendments which relate to the proposals for children not in school registers. If I may, I would like to start by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for their very constructive remarks in setting the context in which these measures are being introduced. I would also like to echo the noble Baroness opposite’s remarks regarding the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and his, as she said, very sensitive and kind work on this. Obviously, sensitivity and kindness are really important, because we are talking about parents who care desperately that their children get the right education, and all of us as parents can recognise how important that is.

Amendments 64B and 72A, from my noble friend Lord Wei, seek to narrow the eligibility criteria for the registers. Local authorities would still need to make inquiries and hold certain information to ascertain a child’s eligibility to be on the register, and indeed to check whether a child is at risk of harm. This is not materially different to local authorities recording this information in a register, except that the effect of these amendments would hinder local authorities from discharging their existing duties. The House has already heard reflections from the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Chapman, about the pressures that local authorities are under.

It is vital that the registers contain information on all children not in school. The registers are there not just for safeguarding reasons but also to aid local authorities to undertake existing responsibilities to ensure education being provided is suitable, to help them identify children who are truly missing education, which will become easier once we know where all children not in school are, and, critically, to help them to discharge their new duty to provide support to home-educating families. As other noble Lords have said, this in no way diminishes the rights of any parent to decide to educate their child at home.

My noble friend talked about the lack of opportunities for appeal and complaints. There are a number of routes for complaints available for parents in relation to school attendance orders. First, they can ask the local authority to revoke the order, and the local authority must act reasonably in deciding whether or not to agree to this. If the local authority refuses, the parents can appeal to the Secretary of State to give direction; the Secretary of State will consider each case individually and will make a balanced judgment on the information available, and has the power to direct the local authority to revoke a school attendance order. The Education Act 1996 also gives the Secretary of State powers to intervene when a local authority exercises its functions unreasonably or fails to comply with duties under that Act. We are also looking at how we can strengthen independent oversight of local authorities and considering alternative routes of complaint for home-educating parents.

I will also write to my noble friend, and to the House, to clarify once again the fact that the failure to provide information to a local authority is not criminal. Rather it starts the whole process for a school attendance order, but in the interests of time I will set that out in a letter.

I also thank my noble friend Lord Lucas and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and, on his behalf, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle, for their Amendments 65 to 66A. The measures in the Bill do not give local authorities any new powers to monitor, assess or dictate the content of education. The right reverend Prelate talked about a “cloud of suspicion”, and I think it would be unfortunate if he was right about that. We have striven to be clear about the scope of the powers and when any new powers are required. We are of the view that local authorities’ existing powers are already sufficient to assess the suitability of the education being provided. Therefore, I would like to be clear that the phrase in the Bill

“the means by which the child is being educated” does not include the content of the education itself. I am happy to put that on the record. It is limited to matters such as whether the child is taught entirely at home or also attends education settings, which settings they are, and how much of their time the child spends there.

It is important to keep this existing drafting to ensure that local authority registers not only include information on where a child is being educated other than at school, such as entirely at home or at out-of-school education providers, but what proportion of their education they are receiving at those settings. Capturing this information will help local authorities identify those children who may be receiving most, if not all, of their education in unsuitable settings, such as illegal schools. Regulations will set out the details of the child’s education provision to be included in registers, as well as whether or not a child is assessed to be receiving a suitable education. I have tabled Amendment 86 to enable these, and other regulations concerning the collection and sharing of data, to be subject to increased parliamentary scrutiny.

Turning to Amendment 67, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that it is already the Government’s intention, through regulations, to require local authorities to record the reasons why a child is eligible for registration, and Amendments 68, 69 and 73 in my name make provision for this. We believe that this information will be invaluable for understanding why parents may be home educating, including identifying systemic issues such as insufficient SEN support or off-rolling—all concerns that your Lordships have raised, rightly, during the passage of the Bill.

It was always our intention that the power in new Section 436C(1)(d) should be used to prescribe the inclusion of information, such as this, aimed at promoting the education, welfare and safety of children, but we recognise the concerns raised about its breadth. We have therefore proposed its removal and replacement with a targeted list of matters, which would allow for the inclusion of information such as reasons for eligibility, the child’s protected characteristics, or whether they are a looked-after child, on a child protection plan or a child in need.

Amendments 85A, 94 and 118C concern the important issue of safeguarding data. It is our intention that data protection be a key area of focus during implementation, but to provide more reassurance we have sought to introduce additional protections for families. Amendment 70, in my name, will place in the Bill our existing commitment that no data that could identify a child or parent be published or made publicly available.

Amendments 71 and 72, also in my name, will also ensure that the information parents are required to provide is limited to information that is essential for the operation of the registers, which I hope will reassure parents of our commitment to processing sensitive data only where it is necessary. Disclosure of any additional information prescribed for inclusion in the registers under new Section 436(1)(a), such as protected characteristics, which may be more sensitive, will be voluntary. The amendments also remove any possibility for the school attendance order process to be triggered on the basis that a parent has failed to provide information for a local authority’s register that they do not have or know. While the power in new Section 436C(1)(a) would still allow for some additional information to be prescribed, not detailed in the matters listed, noble Lords should be reassured that this is limited, allowing only for information of a similar kind to be prescribed where the Secretary of State considers it appropriate for promoting the education, welfare or safety of children.

It is important that there be flexibility in this power should other types of information come to light as beneficial for inclusion, such as whether a child is subject to a supervision order or is a young carer. However, parents would still have the option not to disclose this, should they wish. The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, invited me to elaborate on how we plan to work with parents. I have said previously, and am happy to do so again, that we will be working with parents, local authorities and safeguarding experts to create the implementation guidance for the register. We hope very much that local areas will watch what is happening with that national panel, and encourage them to do so, and, if they feel it is appropriate, perhaps to consider mirroring it in their local area. The hopes and fears we have heard expressed in the debate will be felt by parents, children, local authorities and safeguarding experts. It is only by bringing all those groups together that we can come to proposals that will, I hope, work in practice but also be trusted and understood by those who are affected by them.

On Amendment 85 from my noble friend Lord Lucas, we will give further consideration to whether it is appropriate to require independent schools to complete the pupil-level school census that state-funded schools complete. But there is no need for any legislation in order to be able to do this. The aim of my noble friend Lord Wei’s Amendment 86A would be counterproductive to the changes to the school attendance order process to minimise the time a child spends in unsuitable education. It would significantly hamper a local authority’s ability to establish the facts of a child’s education and leave it unable to take further action to remedy a lack of education. This is surely an unacceptable outcome. Finally, I hope that the statements I have made today provide the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, with sufficient reassurances on her Amendment 86B.

I ask my noble friend Lord Wei to withdraw his Amendment 64B and other noble Lords not to press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative 4:45 pm, 18th July 2022

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in discussing these amendments and thank the Minister, who I pay tribute to, as many others have done, for her long-suffering forbearance with all our discussions on various aspects of the Bill.

I accept that the Government are taking, and are planning to take, account of some of the concerns that have been raised today. My main issue, and the reason I have shifted from my earlier position on the Bill, is that my concerns have been raised by existing bad practice that we are seeing in the interaction between local authorities, the department and home-educating families. If that were not the case, and there were many more local authorities—which I applaud as well—doing a great job, I would not be standing before your Lordships today. However, sadly, if the current situation is that sufficient protection is not in place for home-educating families, what confidence do we have, until we actually see the detail later on, that these abuses by local authorities will not happen later?

My Amendment 72A, which would provide a warrant, is designed to allow us to pursue bad actors. We also have through the Children Act ways to pursue people who neglect their children, so we can protect the children. However, the problem is that we do not always use properly those rules and laws—or the data that we can collect, in a co-ordinated way, together, to pursue those bad actors. I genuinely still believe that this register will cause bad actors to go under the radar.

Therefore, I would like to test the opinion of the House. I am not saying that we should not have a register but it should be there for parents who do not believe that they are providing the level of education that the law requires them to provide. Those who are uncertain can seek advice and support from the local authority, but those who just want to get on with the job should be given the right not to be interfered with in doing so.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

The noble Lord would give a right not to go on the register to those who he would say are educating their children okay. How on earth are you going to define that without giving the state even more powers? It is contradictory.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative

The law already places a requirement on parents to educate their children to the standards that the law requires; therefore, I would just refer to the law. It is not for me or for us here to specify in detail in the Bill what that looks like, and the moment we do so, we will have overstepped the mark.

I am more satisfied by the Minister’s response on Amendment 85A, that greater care is being taken on the use of the information in this register, and I look forward to hearing about that.

Finally, on Amendment 86A, again, existing practice evidences to me that local authorities are not necessarily respecting parents’ rights not to be interpreted as not providing a good education by not providing information. That misunderstanding is dangerous, and I have not heard anything yet that satisfies me that the plans that will be put forward will solve that problem. If you refuse to provide information, you should not have a school attendance order put on to you. That may create problems, but it should be a principle. We have that in law: when you are arrested, you have the right to remain silent. Why, then, if you do not provide information in this instance, are you forced to send your child to school on the pretext that you are not providing a good education? There are many ways in which local authorities can get information. Forcing parents to do so by saying, “If you don’t do so, your child will be forced to go to school” is the wrong way to go about this. Therefore, I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Division on Amendment 64B called. Division called off after six minutes due to lack of support for the Contents when the Question was put a third time.

Amendment 64B disagreed.

Amendments 65 to 67 not moved.