Amendment 74

Schools Bill [HL] - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 18th July 2022.

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Lord Lucas:

Moved by Lord Lucas

74: Clause 49, page 45, line 24, at end insert—“(A1) Local authorities must—(a) recognise that the first responsibility for educating a child lies with its parents,(b) be supportive of those who elect to educate their children at home,(c) recognise that home education is of itself not a safeguarding issue, and(d) acknowledge that in many instance the decision to home educate reflects failures by other institutions of the state.”

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment 74 I will speak also to Amendments 75 and 78. It is important in the context of the relationship between local authorities and home educators that there is a very clear statement of that relationship. I have set out a couple of versions of that in Amendments 74 and 75. I would be content if this was to find its way to the top of the guidance, which is a document that both local authorities and home educators will need to be able to refer to and get clear guidance from. Amendment 74 contains a statement of the fundamentals of the relationship which seem important to me.

On Amendment 78, I will defer to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, when she speaks to Amendment 77. I am thoroughly in support of what she is proposing. That home-educated children should be enabled to take exams has been a long-running problem and ought to be one of the things that we and local authorities are doing to support them.

I am also very much in favour of the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath and Lord Storey, and look forward to hearing from them. If we happen to have the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, on the line, which I hope we do, I think her direction of asking local authorities to take account of expert advice is important. I know of several occasions when local authorities have said, “It doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter. We’re interested only in what we hear directly from the parent. Expert advice is not something we listen to.” I do not think that is the right attitude; the attitude described by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is right. I beg to move.

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

My Lords, Amendment 77 is in my name, and I am delighted to have the support of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. This is a very modest amendment so I hope the Minister can agree it without too much difficulty—one always lives in hope in this place.

Home educators save the country thousands of pounds because they are not using state-funded education systems, but they often have difficulty finding a test centre for their children when they want to take public examinations, and when they do find one they have to pay exam fees, which can amount to hundreds of pounds, for the privilege of doing so. Of course, many home educators are not wealthy and struggle to find the money for the fees, but surely home-educated children are as entitled as other children to have public recognition of their learning in the form of examinations. This amendment would guarantee that home-educated pupils had a place at which to sit their national exams and financial assistance to ensure that no child is denied recognition of achievement because their parents cannot afford the fees.

As I say, it is a very modest amendment and I hope the Minister will look on it favourably.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Hunt, who is in the Moses Room grappling with procurement, I will speak to his Amendment 79, to which I also put my name. It would require a local authority to have regard to the case of a SEND child and to listen to the wishes of the child and the parent around provision decisions; the information and support necessary to enable participation in those decisions should be present.

It is an important amendment, given that in so many of the cases that we have heard about where parents are anxious about the Bill’s measures in respect of home education, they are parents of children with some form of special educational need or disability. They have felt that their child’s needs are not being properly addressed in the maintained sector and have therefore chosen to home educate their children. It is important that there is some safeguard for that group in particular, so that the parents’ and child’s wishes are properly considered in the context of what we are trying to do in the Bill.

I also support Amendment 74, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. The amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, which I supported in Committee, makes an important case for support for sitting national examinations and the cost of doing so. By consequence, I support Amendment 78.

Finally, having listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Wei, on the previous grouping, and given the problem that the Local Government Ombudsman does not apply in the cases of parents of home-educated children, I think it is important that there is some kind of independent complaints service or ombudsman service. I shall be interested in the Minister’s response on how that independent voice to handle complaints about local authorities, with the diverse range of services that they might provide to support home-educating parents, might be provided.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it might be appropriate if I speak first to Amendment 76, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend. As the noble Lord, Lord Knight, just mentioned—and I thank him for his support—and as I think we have heard from around the Chamber, if you are dealing with a very rare condition, a teacher or the school cannot be expected to know everything about it.

What we expect teachers to deal with now has expanded. Special educational needs have been spoken about already, and we have a better understanding of them: it is not some fad or anything that is made up about various conditions. I refer the House to my declared interest in dyslexia; that is just one. All these conditions will be present in the classroom, and we now expect schools to deal with them. Expecting them to deal with every medical condition that might affect the way children should be taught is beyond the pale. Commonly occurring ones? Yes. The rest of them? No. There should be a duty on the school and the education authority to communicate and to take it on board when something else arises. That is quite straightforward.

Indeed, many of the amendments in this group are about establishing that supportive relationship between such bodies and home educators. I hope that we hear some supportive words from the Government on that, and on Amendment 84, in the name of my noble friend Lord Storey, which makes provision for some sort of co-ordination of support for those who are home educating, and a relationship. I am hopeful that the Minister will have something positive to say in this area. We need to support those who are, let us face it, at the most basic level, saving the public purse some money. If they are doing it properly, let us help them.

Photo of Lord Wei Lord Wei Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 118 and in support of Amendment 74. As I said before, I have real concerns. I accept the intentions of the Government as stated by my noble friend, and I hope that this summer will provide an opportunity to come up with independent appeals processes which are not operated just by local authorities or the Government. The current regime, where something like that is already in place, is clearly insufficient. Families are being left in the lurch—often, as I said, for a very long time.

I shall not speak for long. I have already spoken about my amendment in the previous debate, so others can refer to Hansard on that, but the principle is that we would have a voluntary, independent person who would serve as an adviser to local authorities where they want to investigate what is going on in home education, but also provide a mediation resource for families so that they do not have to resort to expensive and lengthy processes such as judicial reviews. I was speaking to some judges over lunch last week who said that there is a massive waiting list in the courts. Why should we add to that through the Bill? Instead, we should provide an independent means by which issues can be resolved, such as the one I described here in London and elsewhere.

That is why I tabled Amendment 118, but I support the idea captured in Amendment 74 that there should be recognition that home education itself is not a crime or anything negative; in fact, it is positive for society. I think the noble Lord, Lord Soley, would agree on that point, so let us make sure that those hard-working, hard-pressed officials who are trying to work with home educators truly understand that in law.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 5:15 pm, 18th July 2022

My Lords, in the debate on the last group, I completely forgot to say thank you to the Minister, who is not in her place at the moment, for meeting me not once but twice. She also met two home educators, and I like to think that that influenced the amendments. I have never had as many emails and contacts as I have had on home education, so it would be very good if the Bill’s changes could be expanded to include the concerns of those people.

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

Did the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, want to speak to his amendments in this group?

Photo of Lord Hacking Lord Hacking Labour

I thank the noble Baroness very much. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was giving me a signal from the other side of the Chamber, and I was wondering what it was, but now I know, and I am very grateful for knowing.

I must start with an apology to the whole House for the massive number of manuscript amendments tabled by me to remove, one by one, all the clauses in Parts 3 and 4. This was a mistake by me. When I went to the Legislation Office this morning, I said, “Can I table a simple amendment that runs on the lines ‘leave out Parts 3 and 4’?” I was told it could not be done that way, but only by individually asking for each clause to be left out of the Bill. I should have realised that I needed only to give one example of my proposal, and then your Lordships would not have received this massive number of manuscript amendments. For that, I again apologise.

I should also say that I have not, save for one occasion, which I will come to in a moment, spoken so far on the Bill. I sat through parts of Second Reading and many of the sittings in Committee, but I did not intervene. The one exception was in Committee, when the Clock of our House was stuck at 10 minutes to 3 pm. I thought a literary comment could be brought into the Bill’s proceedings and I reminded the Committee of Rupert Brooke’s poem, “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, which ends with a reference to whether the village church clock in Grantchester was still standing “at ten to three” and was there “honey still for tea”. That was my little contribution as a matter of literature on a Bill which, after all, is to do with education.

I have thought very carefully, particularly last weekend, and concluded that, in the interests of the whole House, Parts 3 and 4 should be removed, not as a wrecking amendment but as a constructive one, so that the provisions in Parts 3 and 4 can properly be looked through and thought about. I am supported in that view by my noble friend Lord Grocott, who said at the beginning of the debate that the Bill is beyond repair. The Opposition Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, said that the Bill is in a very bad state. That supports my general proposition, that the entirety of Parts 3 and 4 should be removed.

In making this proposal to the House, I am not denying that the many improvements that noble Lords have added should be considered. As part of a reconsideration of this Bill, those improvements might well find themselves in it. I recognised at the weekend that a new broom needs to be taken to the whole of Parts 3 and 4.

Coming back to this House after an absence of 22 years, one is struck by the increasing disease in all our Bills of what I would call particularisation. If I have invented that word, I apologise, particularly to the editors of Hansard. I refer to the ever-increasing perceived need to place everything in the Bill, to the point where our Bills are becoming more detailed and more complicated—and pretty incomprehensible. We seem to think that our job is done when the Bill passes and have insufficient thought for the users of our Bills. Look, for example, in the previous Session, at the police Act, the health Act, or the Nationality and Borders Act, and think of those who must enforce them—police officers for the police Act, health workers for the health Act, and customs officers for the Nationality and Borders Act, to say nothing of the tasks that are thrown up to judges and lawyers who interpret the terms of our Bills.

This Bill, in its present form, has no fewer than 40 pages of obligations on home schooling and local authorities. This is a vast section of the Bill, and it is those 40 pages that I ask your Lordships to reconsider. It is as though someone in the Department for Education has been thinking of everything under the sun—and, I must add, the moon—which can be put into this Bill, the result being these 40 pages. This must come to an end.

I now come to a problem that was entirely new to me. I met the five home-schooling mothers, several of whom are listening to this debate. As the Minister may remember, I introduced three of them to the Ministers when we were in Committee, the noble Baronesses, Lady Barran and Lady Penn, who kindly had a word with them about their concerns, although it was only brief. I am not denying that a lot of noble Lords have expressed a concern and I am not at all deriding all the work that has been put into the Bill by noble Lords.

When you come back to this House after a long time, you also have a freshness when looking at the issues. In this case, I looked at the Education Act 1944, a very important social Act brought in under Rab Butler, later to become Lord Butler of Saffron Walden. I also looked at the more recent Education Act 1996. I have several cited cases, one in 1980, when Lord Donaldson presided, and one in 1985, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, presided, for which they each provided further help and guidance over the application of the then provisions. As recently as 2019, the Department for Education issued statutory guidance. I am not going to read the terms of those two Acts or the statutory guidance. Suffice it to say that for both Acts, the recent statutory guidance gave clear support for home schooling, and little interference.

What then has gone wrong? It appears—I emphasise that word—that education officers in a few powerful local authorities have set their face against home schooling, believing that pupils should be at the school with which they were provided. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, spoke of abusive behaviour by certain local authorities. I emphasise “appears” because the Minister, when I spoke to her, was strongly of the view that this was not the right interpretation. However, we have heard a different view from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Therefore, why have these provisions gone into the Bill? This is quite different from the stance taken in 1944 and 1996. It appears that the views of those education officers in a limited number of boroughs—I will not name the boroughs here but will in a meeting with the Minister—have wrongly persuaded the Government to bring in the Bill in the way that we find it.

I have already told the Minister that I will not divide the House and that remains my position. The Minister has kindly agreed to see me and some of the concerned home-schooling mothers and their advisers.

Finally, I ask the Minister not to forget the World War I poets. I could name them, as I did just now in a conversation with the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, but I just leave that as a final thought among the Ministers. I hope that she will not neglect those poets, and the literature that they produced, when she sums up.

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

My Lords, I will start with Amendments 74 and 75, tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas. The law is clear that parents have a right to educate their children at home, and local authorities should already be working collaboratively with parents to ensure the best outcome for the child. We are keen to ensure that home-educating parents, and local authorities, are fully supported in ensuring that the education received at home is suitable. Therefore, as my noble friend Lady Barran said, as part of the implementation of the Bill we will be reviewing our existing guidance and publishing new statutory guidance for local authorities on their “children not in school” responsibilities, which will include advice on how they should discharge their new support duty.

As my noble friend said, we will develop this collaboratively, prior to public consultation, with the new implementation forum we are establishing of local authorities, home educators and safeguarding partners to support the introduction of the registers, ensure the system works for everyone and that parents have the support that they need. As I think my noble friend acknowledged, statutory guidance is the appropriate medium to outline best-practice examples of how local authorities and home-educating parents can engage positively to achieve the best outcome for the child, while also encouraging local authorities to maintain a consistent approach.

In addition, the registers will help local authorities and the Department for Education to identify where decisions to home educate are in response to failures by particular institutions, perhaps in relation to special educational needs provision or bullying, and where those issues are common or recurring. That would allow for targeted action to be taken to resolve the underlying issues and improve education provision overall.

I think that is also relevant as I turn to Amendments 76 and 79 from the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I reassure noble Lords that local authorities are already legally required to take into account all relevant factors, including the views of the child or their parent, where known, when making decisions and are able to consult experts, such as a child’s doctor or social worker, when they consider it appropriate to do so in the context of the individual case.

Similarly, on Amendment 84 from the noble Lord Storey, all local authorities should already have the in-house expertise to provide suitable support to children not in school. In most cases they will have an elective home education lead in place but if they do not, they can and should appoint a suitably qualified person.

As I have referred to previously, the new statutory guidance will set out clearly what factors local authorities should take into account when discharging their new support duty. This may include the types of experts it may be appropriate for local authorities to consult and factors they should consider when determining how best to respond to a request for support.

Turning to Amendments 77 and 78, we of course want home-educated children to be able to access exams like their counterparts in schools. For many home-educated children, finding an exam centre is not a problem. Candidates use private exam centres or approach schools and colleges to arrange to sit exams with them. A new database run by the Joint Council for Qualifications now enables candidates to locate the nearest centre available to sit their GCSE, AS or A-level exams. Where parents or children are not able to make their own arrangements, local authorities would already be able to provide support with this as a way of discharging their duty. However, the Government do not believe that setting out in law exactly how the support duty should be discharged, as proposed by my noble friend Lord Lucas, would be the best outcome for home-educated children. Decisions are best made locally, reflecting both what the parents want in terms of support and the local authority’s assessment of the needs of the child and the wider needs of families in the area.

On the issue of cost, as my noble friend the Minister has said before, parents electing to home educate accept full responsibility for their child’s education and its cost. Under the duty, local authorities will consider requests for different types of support, again taking into account individual and wider circumstances. Support with exam fees would already be a valid way of discharging the duty, and we could outline it as an example in the new statutory guidance depending on the outcome of the collaboration and the public consultation.

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 5:30 pm, 18th July 2022

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. If she has any kind of assessment of the cost of requiring local authorities to cover that cost for parents, it would be really useful to share that with noble Lords taking part in the debate.

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

I am not sure whether that assessment has been made. If it has, I will be happy to share it. As we have said several times, there are at least two more stages to go on the guidance. One is a collaborative process to produce the draft guidance, and then a consultation process. There are plenty of opportunities as we go along to look at it—for example, whether exam costs would be included in the statutory guidance. I will find out whether we have that assessment and, if we do, I will share it.

I turn to Amendment 118 from my noble friend Lord Wei. As we have already discussed, several routes for complaint already exist for home-educating parents. But, as my noble friend said in response to the previous group, we have heard concerns raised by noble Lords about whether the different current routes of complaint are sufficient. We are also continuing to consider what more we can do to support home-educating parents and strengthen independent oversight of local authorities, such as exploring alternative routes of complaint.

Finally, I turn to Amendments 97ZZA to 100F from the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, which would remove Clauses 53 to 66 from the Bill. The overarching purpose of Clauses 53 to 56 is to improve the consistency of attendance support pupils and families receive to help pupils attend their school regularly. These clauses are an important part of the Government’s overall approach to providing more consistent support for pupils and families in order to help children attend school before legal intervention is considered. Clauses 57 to 66 concern the regulation of independent educational institutions and help us to ensure that all children receive a safe and suitably broad education. Extending the registration requirement and improving investigatory powers will ensure that full-time settings serving children of compulsory school age are regulated. Other measures improve the regulatory regime for independent schools, including by creating a power to suspend the registration of a school because pupils are at risk of harm.

I heard the noble Lord’s request for a meeting and my noble friend is very happy to do that because, as I think she has been at been at pains to stress throughout the passage of the Bill, we want to make sure that we engage with a broad range of voices from the home-education community to be clear about what we are aiming to do with the Bill. It is not at all about reducing or interfering with the right to home education, but just ensuring that we have the proper processes in place to make sure that the best interests of all children are protected while doing so.

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

Before the Minister finishes, will she respond to Amendment 77 from my noble friend Lady Garden, about examination costs? Maybe she will have that in mind that when she meets these home educators, as it might be an issue to talk to them about.

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

I believe I responded about examination costs. In fact, I had an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Knight, on it. One of the things I said to him was that in the statutory guidance we are seeking to create, we will look at the support duty. We are looking to work collaboratively with local authorities and home educators to hear all those different views in order to help us co-create that guidance. Then we will also consult on it. We are keen to ensure that we hear those views as part of that process.

I hope that my noble friend Lord Lucas will feel able to withdraw his amendment and other noble Lords will not press theirs.

Photo of Lord Hacking Lord Hacking Labour

Before the Minister sits down, will she receive from me great gratitude for her willingness and that of her fellow Minister to see home schoolers, several of whom are in the House this evening, and those advising them? They have helped a lot and I hope they will help the Ministers a lot too.

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

That is very much appreciated. I also pass on to my noble friend the Minister the thanks of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for engaging with home educators. I emphasise that we see that as a very important part of the process for the Bill.

Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the Government continue to give thought to the question of an independent appeal. The current system, where the first appeal goes to the local authority, is obviously right; you want to resolve as much as you can without going outside. But, beyond that, the idea that the Secretary of State provides a satisfactory route of appeal really does not stand up. First, there are far too many relationships between the Department for Education and local authorities to allow independence. Secondly, I believe I am right—although the Minister may contradict me if she wishes—that, in the entire history of this right of appeal, the Secretary of State has not granted any, but he has come down in favour of the local authority on every single occasion. That may or may not be true—as I say, I hope the Box will be able to confirm it when we return to this issue in two groups’ time—but that there should be an independent appeal is important.

My noble friend Lord Wei’s proposal for an ombudsman is one that should be considered, although there are others. One way or another, there should be a point where someone truly independent casts their eye over what the home educator is doing and how the local authority has handled it and says either, “Yes, come on: get into line,” or “No, I can see here that the local authority has pushed things too far and ought to take a step or two back.” That would make a big contribution to keeping the relationship straight between home educators and local authorities.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Storey—I apologise if it was not—who said earlier that this bit of the Bill meant that local authorities had to give support. I can see nothing that makes it compulsory. I hope we will get the Government to give this a budget so there is an indication that support ought to be given, but at the moment I do not believe there is anything compulsory about it.

My noble friend Lady Penn said local authorities could consult a doctor when they consider it appropriate. I think the right balance is that the home educators ought to be able to able to evince that evidence when they consider it appropriate too, and the local authority ought then to pay attention to it. From cases that I have seen, I rather doubt that that is the arrangement at the moment. However, as my noble friend asked, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 74 withdrawn.

Amendments 75 to 79 not moved.