Clause 76

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 28th February 2008.

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Independent educational institutions

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

We now come to part 4 of the Bill which presents a case study in how not to legislate. I think we have just had such a case study—when Ministers are not focused on what is happening in the Committee, it makes it very difficult for the Opposition to express a  view when it is not clear precisely whether or not the Minister is in favour of a clause.

We come to another example of poor legislation: a series of proposals that is based on an inaccurate understanding of the facts and that has an accompanying impact assessment that is factually wrong; a consultation document that contains errors of materiality that go to the root of the proposals; and a consultation process that involved no genuine consultation prior to the proposals being formulated with the organisations directly affected by the measures. We had a consultation process affecting 1,300 schools that took place between 27 July 2007 and 19 October 2007—the majority of that period was during the school summer holidays—and the result of the consultation process was entirely ignored except for one tiny concession about delaying the transfer until Ofsted was more able to cope with the extra work.

We will come to each of these issues, and more, when we address the appropriate amendment; for now, I will confine my remarks to clause 76. The clause introduces an additional definition of an independent school to include part-time education. The proposal goes back to a Department for Education and Skills—as the Department was then—consultation in November 2006 on guidance regarding what constitutes full-time education in independent schools. The reason given by the Department for needing such a definition was that:

“patterns of schooling are changing, and there is a greater diversity of approach to education, with some parents opting for home education which includes part time tuition at tutorial colleges or schools.”

The consultation document went on to say:

“Parents must ensure that their child receives an education suitable to his/her age, needs and attitudes, either at school or otherwise. In cases where this is achieved by a mix of part time attendance at school and part time education at home, this must be agreed with the school, with both parents and schools having a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Both should be able to describe and evidence the part each plays in contributing to a broad and balanced curriculum meeting the needs of the individual child.”

It therefore appears that the initial reason for embarking on this consultation and revision to the definition of an independent school was to ensure that home educators were able to demonstrate that their children were receiving an adequate education. However, the consultation document goes on to say that the proposals

“will ensure that any settings providing all, or a major part, of children’s education will be registered, and required to meet the minimum regulatory standards.”

My first question for the Minister is, which of those two reasons is the prime reason for launching the policy revision?

The response to the November 2006 consultation document was overwhelming opposition—72 per cent. disagreed with the proposal that any setting that provided more than 20 hours of education a week should be treated as an independent school and thus subject to registration. According to the Government’s summary of responses,

“The majority of those opposed were home educators, who believed that it was the responsibility of parents to provide and educate their child rather than the responsibility of the state. They were concerned about what was meant by a ‘school’ in this context, and wanted clarification about whether the DfES was planning on changing the legal definition of a school.”

In the light of this overwhelming opposition the Government consulted in August last year on revised proposals which were meant to take on board the concerns of home educators. The revised consultation says:

“We have now had time to consider these points and have concluded that the best approach is to adjust the definition of an independent school so as to specify that an independent school is the main organiser of a programme of education for children of compulsory school age, unless provision is excluded through regulations.”

The consultation document goes on to say:

“We would propose that regulations exclude: schools maintained by a local authority; non-maintained special schools; temporary provision e.g. summer schools; any institutions providing less than 12.5 hours per week tuition (primary) and 15 hours (secondary) for individual children; further education colleges; hospital schools; home tutorial services organised by a local authority; education supervised or delivered by parents”

Those proposals, too, were overwhelmingly opposed by respondents: 79 per cent. disagreed with the main proposal that settings that are the main organisers of education for children of compulsory school age should be regulated, subject to the list of exceptions that I have read out, and 74 per cent. opposed the list of exceptions.

The main concern of Education Otherwise, as summarised in the Government’s summary of responses, was that

“the proposals would have an undesirable impact on home educating families, compromising their educational freedoms.”

The Home Education Advisory Service also disagreed with the proposal. The summary of responses reports:

“They believe that some of the highly individual arrangements that are made by home educating parents should not be subject to the same registration procedures as independent schools which have premises, teaching staff and a specific curriculum.”

Despite the opposition to the proposals from respondents to the consultation process, the Government have decided to proceed with the revised definition, as contained in the clause. They say:

“We will consult further on draft regulations in the coming months, but are committed to providing examples in relation to those institutions to be excluded from the requirement to register, eg: home education, including part time teaching in the home by tutors, home education through correspondence courses, and collaborative arrangements where home educators come together for part of the week to jointly educate groups of children; sports clubs, and language colleges, which offer specialist coaching in limited subjects; local authority organised home tuition; temporary provision; summer schools.”

In responding, will the Minister tell the Committee what is his estimate of the number of compulsory school age children who are currently home educated, whether that figure is rising or falling, and why? Clause 76(3)(a) states that regulations may

“provide that a specified institution or an institution of a specified description is not an independent educational institution by virtue of subsection (1)(b)”.

Will he say whether those regulations will include all the types of education listed in the Government’s summary of responses to the consultation process, including home education or groups of parents collaborating together on the education of their children?

In its response to the consultation, Education Otherwise said that its main concern with the proposal to broaden the definition was that many home education families  could end up being affected. The Government’s policy statement on the clause, circulated by e-mail to members of the Committee on Tuesday says:

“It is not the intention of the proposals to remove parents’ right to educate their children at home. However, we believe that it is essential that institutions which are the main provider of a child’s education are subject to the regulation and inspection which the independent school legislative framework provides.”

That statement of policy is highly ambiguous, given the word “however”. An explicit and unequivocal assurance by the Minister on this point would go a long way towards assuring the tens of thousands of home educators that the underlying purpose of the clause is not to undermine the growing trend towards home education.

I am sure that the Minister will say that these proposals were never meant to affect home education, despite the initial consultation document of November 2006, which made explicit reference to home educators. I am sure that he will say that this measure is all about dealing with a small number of independent schools that are part time, but are none the less the main providers of a child’s education. My understanding is that the matter relates to four institutions. The Minister’s answer to my parliamentary question of 16 January said that there were four unregistered settings:

“The four unregistered settings are as follows: a small tuition group which provides a curriculum based on Christian principles for children aged 4 to 11 and operates for five hours a day for up to 20 children; a support centre for home educators”— so there we are, some home educators—

“which provides academic lessons for 18 hours from Monday to Thursday and optional recreational based activities for three hours on Fridays; an establishment providing 16 and a half hours of education from Monday to Friday for three to six-year-olds as part of a home education programme where parents also provide five hours 15 minutes a week; a centre educating both pupils placed by local authorities and others. Pupils attend for a total of 20 hours from Monday to Friday.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1269-70W.]

Will the Minister let the Committee know the names of these four institutions and his assessment of the quality of provision in those four institutions? The more open and transparent the Minister can be, the better for the functioning of this Committee. In particular, will he confirm whether or not Tyndale Academy is one of the four schools?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 10:15 am, 28th February 2008

It is a pleasure to be able to make a contribution this morning and to have been able to move on to part 4 at such an early stage in the Committee’s proceedings.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton started with a series of allegations, which I could reject one by one, but for the sake of the efficiency of the Committee, it is probably better that I do that when we reach the appropriate amendments rather than in the context of clause 76, to which the allegations were not really specific.

Clause 76 introduces a new definition of independent educational institutions. The new definition includes  independent schools which provide full-time education for pupils of compulsory school age. It also includes part-time institutions which are the main provider of a child’s education, as defined by the number of hours of operation per week over a period of weeks in one year.

I do not have the names of all four institutions to hand—in response to his last set of questions—but I can confirm that Tyndale Academy is one of the four and, from memory, Kids Company is another. I cannot remember off the top of my head what the other two are, but it may come to me in the course of my response.

Independent schools are already required to register and are inspected against the regulatory framework introduced in September 2003 following the Education Act 2002. Independent schools, incidentally, are defined in statute by section 463 of the Education Act 1996. It is worth noting, in relation to what I will go on to say regarding home educators, that an independent school has more than five pupils, unless they have one pupil who has special educational needs or who is in public care. A home is also not defined as an institution, which is part of the protection to home educators in the way the clause is drafted.

Incidentally, the other two of those four institutions are the Headstart Learning Centre and The Children’s Garden.

The framework that I have referred to, introduced in September 2003 under the 2002 Act, ensures that all children in these schools have suitable learning opportunities in a safe and secure learning environment. The requirement to register part-time institutions, which are not currently subject to any regulatory or monitoring framework, will ensure that these same safeguards are put in place for children in those settings. I am sure the Committee agrees on the importance of ensuring that every child who is being taught in a school, full time or part time, should be safe and secure in their learning environment.

The clause applies to institutions that make 12 and a half hours’ provision for primary age children and 15 hours for secondary age children for 28 weeks a year or more—that equates to more than half of a typical school week for more than half of a school year. These institutions are, in our opinion, providing the majority of a child’s education, so it is right that they should meet minimum standards. We strongly believe that, where parents delegate the education of their children to others, the state has a responsibility to ensure that children have appropriate learning opportunities and learn in a safe and secure environment. On the inclusion of part-time institutions, although they are limited in number at this stage, patterns of education are changing and we want to ensure that we have the regulation in place before they change further.

It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairmanadjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.