– in Westminster Hall on 27th March 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petitions 594065 and 617340, relating to home education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank the petitioners, Kilby Austin and Laura Moss, for their campaign. Laura is here today and I welcome her to Westminster Hall. The petitions received more than 35,000 signatures between them, so it is right that the House discusses them. The petitions state: “Do not impose any new requirements on parents who are home educating” and “Do not require parents to register home educated children with local authorities”.
First, I will speak about the current position on where responsibility lies. We have a system in which it is the parent’s duty to educate their child but not to school them. There is also a duty on local authorities to ensure that all children have a decent education. As a way to discharge that overall duty, many local authorities use an informal register, but some do not.
Does the hon. Member agree that local councils still have a duty of care to children who are home schooled? Local authorities cannot be left in the dark; there must be a register to assist them to ensure that all children are receiving a good education and being looked after.
That is what we are here to discuss. I will look at both sides of the argument, as I do when I lead petitions debates.
As a member of the Education Committee, I spoke to the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, when she kindly attended an evidence session on this subject. Only last week, we met again through the Petitions Committee. In her role as Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel wrote to all local authorities on this subject. The feedback was patchy in many areas. Dame Rachel was concerned that no one really knows how many children are not in school.
The Centre for Social Justice recently published a report entitled “Lost and Not Found”, written by Alice Wilcock. The foreword was written by my hon. Friend Mrs Drummond and spells out the problem: 140,000 children were severely absent from school in summer 2022. That is a staggering number considering the fact that “severely absent” means they are missing more than 50% of the time. My fear is that many of those children will be off-rolled from school by parents simply to stop the letters and fines. The Centre for Social Justice made seven recommendations to tackle the problem; although the Government have put additional protections in place, I hope they will read the report and take note.
We can see that there is obviously a problem with school attendance, but would a register help? The children who are severely absent are already on a register. The biggest problem comes when they off-roll from school: when a parent informs the school that they are going to home educate their child, that is it. When the child falls off the register, the letters and fines stop and the school no longer has any obligations to the child. There is no more register. As Dame Rachel de Souza has stated, there is an ongoing duty of care on local authorities, but the data is patchy. Herein lies the problem: a child can be taken out of school for many reasons that are not necessarily in their best interests.
In recent months I have heard from parents across my constituency who feel they have no choice but to home educate their children due to age-inappropriate sex education that exposes infant children to information about adult sexual acts. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as legislators and as parents, we have a duty to protect the innocence of our children, and that this debate should reflect the reasons why parents are choosing to home school their children?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend and will address that issue later in my speech.
I am sure that many of us believe that the situation is simply not acceptable. There will be some children who have never attended school at all. A child’s last engagement with anyone in authority could quite possibly be the midwife when the child is two, but many fail to attend that appointment. Are these the real lost children? I am told that 1.1% of children are home schooled, but in the Traveller community it is 6%; for children of young offenders it is 6%; and for children with a social worker it is 3%. We can agree that complex backgrounds have a bearing on the numbers, and that is what many professionals would like to tackle.
There is another cohort of home-schooled children. They have dedicated parents who make huge sacrifices to educate their child at home and do an excellent job. I spoke to the petitioners Kilby and Laura last week, and both appear to be very dedicated. I have also spoken to other parents who home school, and they speak of the joy it brings to them and their children. These days, there are huge resources available on the internet, and many home-schooling communities have joined together for some lessons, such as sport, music and art, so the children have opportunity to mix but also have the benefit of one-to-one tuition at home.
Done properly, home schooling has many benefits, and it saves the taxpayer money, too. It gives parent the opportunity to educate their child as they wish. It also enables a parent to teach the subjects that they feel are most beneficial to their child. More importantly to many, it enables them not to teach the subjects that they do not think are beneficial. We have all heard recently of some of the totally unacceptable topics being taught to our children. Although the Minister is meeting me to discuss the issue and the Prime Minister has ordered a review, unacceptable material and politically contentious issues are being taught as we speak. I would seriously consider home schooling my children if they were of that age.
Why are Kilby and Laura so against a register? Kilby feels it would fundamentally change the opt-in process for schooling. The law puts responsibility to educate children on the parents, and they can choose to opt into schooling if they wish. She believes that a register would be more like an opt-out system and could end up making school attendance mandatory. Laura believes that the implementation of a register would be the first step to more oversight of parents who home educate. I can see their point: it would be a fundamental change in the relationship between the state, parents and children.
One reason why many home schoolers do not want to register is the overreach of some local authorities with the powers that they already have. Some are far too overbearing when, quite simply, an experienced officer could see that a home-schooled child is happy in a good home and is being educated well. Some home-educating parents have children with special educational needs and disabilities, and they have removed their children from state education because their needs were not being met. Some of the parents have had particular difficulty with local authority officers not being equipped to assess the complex situation. That begs the question: is a register necessary? Or should local authorities just do a better job with the resources and powers that they have?
Section 437 of the Education Act 1996 states that “if it appears” to the authority that a child is not receiving a suitable education, it can apply for a school attendance order to send the child to school. Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 states that local authorities
“have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm”, they can make inquiries and, if need be, make an emergency protection order for the safety of the child. Therefore, if a child who is persistently or severely absent is off-rolled, the local authority already has the power to deal with the situation.
When we investigate further than a headline, we see yet again that good people who are doing a good job are threatened with more state overreach because of the poor behaviour of the few.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. In Staffordshire, we saw a large pre-pandemic increase in the number of children being home schooled, and the trend is continuing post pandemic. Of course, many brilliant parents are doing great work in home schooling, but the underlying issue is that we should be concerned about a number of children who are being labelled as home schooled but not actually getting any schooling at all. Is a register not just a proportionate measure that could help to make sure that all children get the type of education we really want, while still protecting the rights of parents to home school their children?
I completely understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from. As I continue, Members will hear some thoughts on that. I thank him for his contribution.
What is the answer? As I have just said, we will discuss that today. I want to protect our children as much as anyone else does. I see the damage done by kids not being in school. I see the antisocial behaviour. I see the organised crime gangs stepping in where parents, schools and the state have let children down. This is happening in my city of Doncaster and we need to do something, but I also understand the desire and the right of responsible parents to educate their children at home.
With the Government seemingly wanting to push forward with a register and the Education Committee, the Children’s Commissioner, Members of Parliament and my local authority, at least, agreeing that it is a good idea, I can see that the petitioners will not be pleased. The Government need to be careful with any legislation. There have been issues in Scotland and the Isle of Man when registers have been introduced, let alone any issues with the general data protection regulation. I therefore suggest that if we go ahead with a register, we need to put in place new safeguards and protections for parents and families who are doing a good job and, as is their right, home educating their children.
As I have mentioned, I have spoken to home-educating parents who have concerns about the state being handed more power over how they educate their children. Let us be clear: it is a parent’s right to home educate their child. However, there is no doubt that there exists in our society a presumption that children will be in school, and there is therefore suspicion around home education. Parents have told me about their rough treatment at the hands of local authority inspectors who have assumed rights of inspection over the nature of families’ home-education decisions that they do not have. A new registration requirement could, then, be accompanied by a much clearer statement of the limits of the local authority’s role when a child is home educated, and a clear complaints process for home-educating parents. After all, I suspect the sector is likely to continue to grow. I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members on this complex issue.
Order. Members who wish to be called in the debate should bob. I call Naz Shah.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate Nick Fletcher on securing the debate.
Every parent has a right to choose whether they send their child to school or home educate them, and that right should be respected. Although I recognise the need for change and reform, it is also important that local authorities have clear guidance on how to work with home-schooling families in a manner that supports the needs of children as well as the rights of parents to home school their children. Many constituents have come to see me about how local authorities have overreached and gone into people’s homes in a manner that is, as my constituents put it, akin to a police-style investigation. I have been told of one occasion on which inspectors came into a home, went around recording with a video recorder, and livestreamed it to somebody else back in the office. This is clearly invasive and conflicts with people’s rights to a private and family life.
It is because of such actions that so many people who are home educating their families are worried about the introduction of legislation and the infringement of their rights. Sometimes legislation can be well intended, but without the correct guidance, checks and balances, it can have unintended outcomes and consequences. That is why we need further developed guidance, training and support to be provided alongside statutory safeguards for children. It is easy to have opinions on home educating —there are some that I share when it comes to child safety and safeguarding—but the guidance for such legislative changes has to be formed with and informed by the support of those who have real experience: home-educating parents themselves.
My request to the Government is for them to work with stakeholders and the families of home-educated children to ensure that the safety of children is considered, and that they have their rights protected and can carry out their choices. What are the Government doing to ensure that, as outlined by the hon. Member for Don Valley, there is a one-size approach, as well as a legislative framework and guidance, so that when people do checks of the register, they have statutory guidance to follow to ensure they do not overstep the mark? If I was educating my child, I would not like somebody to walk into my home with a video recorder or livestream me—that would not be okay. What are the Government putting in place to police that kind of behaviour by local authorities that are not behaving in the right way? Who has that responsibility? Will there be separate units or people in each local authority who are designated to carry out those specific roles? Are we looking at parents through a security lens or a social-worker lens? What approach are we taking to ensure that children are safeguarded?
Some of my constituents who came to me have two older children who are now at university, and they have others who are going through the education system. I was shocked, surprised and had a huge learning experience when those parents told me about the benefits that their children had: they could stagger their GCSEs and work to the strengths of their children. I get all that; it makes reasonable sense. What safeguards are the Government putting in place to ensure that parents have a right to privacy and to raise and educate their children as they see fit?
We have talked about the issue of relationships and sex education, and many of my constituents share those concerns. Many communities across the UK share concerns about their children being exposed to things that are not necessarily in line with their freedom of religion, or who want to safeguard their children from being exposed to images that they feel their children are too young to see. Where do we draw the line on all of this and how do we support the children? Those are the questions I would like the Minister to look at.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I commend my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on the level-headed way in which he introduced the debate.
All of us have enormous sympathy for any parent whose child has been bullied at school, or has ended up with poor mental health as a result of experiences they have had at school. As a parent, I can completely understand the natural instinct to want to withdraw one’s child into the safe bosom and cocoon of family, and get them away from bullying if the school is not able to protect the child or help to stabilise their mental health. That is a real issue that we must take seriously.
I am acutely conscious that when we talk about home education, we are talking about a huge spectrum. There are some parents who are incredibly dedicated and do it exceptionally well. I give enormous thanks for their dedication, time and sacrifice. It needs the lightest of state supervision and overview if the parents are doing a good job and the child is happy, well adjusted and learning well. That is fantastic, and I thank those families and those parents. But we have to be honest that there is a spectrum, and at the other end there are parents who cannot read or write who are “home educating” their children. I believe passionately that every single child has the right to fulfil their God-given potential, and I worry about children who are not being equipped with the widest possible education and who are unable to fulfil their full potential.
My hon. Friend touches on a point that is important in my constituency of Great Grimsby, where more and more children are severely absent from school and disappearing from school rolls. When we find them wandering the streets in the middle of the afternoon, we are told they are being home schooled. They are now prey to county lines and other forms of illegal activity, and their parents or carers are often unable to provide teaching and home education. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to look seriously at that?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises a very important point. I have seen exactly that in my constituency: school-age children in and out of shops in the middle of the day. My area is also subject to the terrible scourge of county lines. There are huge safeguarding and criminal concerns about what is happening to some of these children, and we need to take them seriously.
My concerns are shared by the Education Committee, which recently stated:
“the status quo does not allow the Government to say with confidence that a suitable education is being provided to every child in the country.”
Those concerns are shared by Ofsted. The Department for Education has stated that there is “considerable evidence” that many children who are home educated
“are not receiving a suitable education.”
It is instructive to compare England with other countries. I am indebted to the Centre for Social Justice, which points out that oversight and assessment of educational progress is commonplace across Europe but that there is no such quality assurance in England. In Germany, I am told, it is actually illegal to home educate a child. I think that that is a step too far—as I said earlier, I thank those parents who do a great job and whose children progress well, and I would leave them well alone—but what other countries in Europe are doing is instructive. They ensure regular checks on attainment and progress in home language, maths and so on.
For about 20 years, I was a school governor of my village school. At one point, I was the safeguarding governor, and as such, I was required to read a lot of guidance from the Minister’s Department. At the time, the guidance was “Keeping children safe in education: statutory guidance for schools and colleges”, from September 2016—there may be updated advice. That statutory guidance was very prescriptive and the matter was taken very seriously. Let me quote briefly from it:
“Local authorities have a duty to establish, as far as it is possible to do so, the identity of children of compulsory school age who are missing education in their area.”
There are various other pretty severe injunctions. It is curious that there is a significant body of safeguarding guidance for children who are in school but, as far as I can see, none to speak of that can be properly enforced for children who are home educated.
Before the debate, I had a look at article 28 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which states:
“States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively”, there is a requirement to make
“primary education compulsory and available free to all”, and to offer
“different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education”— that is important. The article goes on to say that measures should be taken
“to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates”, and that state parties should take that seriously in order to contribute
“to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world”.
We are a signatory to that. Article 28, to which the UK has signed up, as far as I am aware, is really important. I ask the Minister: how do we enforce that right for children who are being home educated by parents who cannot read or write, or are not making any effort to teach them English, for example? I think we are in very serious breach, actually. I am afraid to say that we have averted our gaze from a contentious issue because it is inconvenient. The children do not vote, and the parents, who have a different view, do, so we are not doing what we should.
Responsibilities for home schooling are set out, as they are for every child, in section 7 of the Education Act 1996, which states:
“The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him”— as the father of three daughters, I think it should say “or her”—
“to receive efficient full-time education”.
Rather bizarrely, it goes on to say later that they are not required to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, and do not have to follow the national curriculum. Central Bedfordshire Council, which gave me a briefing before the debate, stated:
“The local authority has a legal duty under Section 437 of the Education Act 1996 to act ‘if it appears’ that a child of compulsory school age is not receiving suitable education, although the Education Act does not give powers to the authority to insist on seeing the child, visit the family home or see the work that the child is completing.”
It is pretty challenging for the local authority to assess how well the child is doing if it cannot see the child, visit the family home or see the work the child is completing. Some local authorities manage to do that, which is tremendous, but I worry about the fact that we have not given them the powers to make sure every child is receiving an “efficient full-time education” that is suitable for them. That should concern us.
If a child is in a mainstream school or an academy, the school is expected to enter them for national curriculum assessments. There is also a statutory duty on all children to be in education or employment with training up to the age of 18. I agree with both those requirements, but the reality is that that is not happening for a number of home-schooled children.
I am also aware that when some parents claim their children are being home schooled, they are actually in unregistered schools, of which there are a number. I read an article in The Economist last year about a young man of 18 who had been in an unregistered school—I think his parents claimed that he was home educated—and sometimes had schooling for 14 hours a day, but when he left at 18 he could not read or speak English. Are we really saying that that is acceptable? That was an unregistered school, and Ofsted has a duty to do something about that, but it is quite hard for Ofsted to get on top of the issue because a lot of parents say that the child is being home educated. What about the right of that young person to read and speak the mother tongue of their home country? Do we care about these things or not?
In my constituency, like that of the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson, whose presence graces us today, the numbers of children being home schooled have gone up very significantly. On
I would say that across the Chamber, whatever political party we are from, we are all concerned about the life chances of children. We are all concerned about ladders of opportunity. We are all concerned about social mobility and the elimination of poverty. However, how will we achieve any of those things when a significant number of our children are not having the education it is their right to have? We talk about the rights of parents and I believe, as a parent myself, in those rights, but I think that children have the right to a proper, broad-based education to enable them to achieve everything that they are capable of achieving.
That is why I encourage the Minister to progress down the route that the Secretary of State has said she wants to go down. Of course we need to do it sensitively. I do not want heavy-handed officials going into people’s homes in an inappropriate manner. It needs to be a decent, civilised conversation on how the child is progressing and we cannot afford to just look the other way, as I believe we have done on this issue for far too long.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Mark.
I start by thanking Nick Fletcher for securing the debate. We have had a number of contributions and interventions from Members on both sides of the House after the views of parents, school leaders and local authorities were shared with right hon. Members and hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Don Valley gave a balanced speech in response to the petitions, covering the problems of school attendance and the helpful research by the Centre for Social Justice. My hon. Friend Naz Shah talked about the importance of guidance for local authorities, training and support for safeguarding, and the need to engage with parents. Andrew Selous made a number of characteristically helpful remarks about the value of proportionate interventions by Government to address the concerns, as well as sharing the views of the Education Committee.
Let me begin by saying that Labour recognises and supports parents’ right to choose their child’s education. For parents who opt for home education, Labour respects that choice and will support them in enabling their children to thrive. It is important that parents who choose to home educate their children are supported to provide an excellent education.
As we know, excellent education has the power to transform lives. It can raise aspirations, broaden horizons, create knowledge, start lifelong friendships, build confidence, inspire greatness and break down barriers to opportunity. So often, an excellent education is what home-educating parents provide. There are so many reasons why parents believe that home education is right for their child, whether because of personal circumstances and learning needs, personal beliefs or wider factors. For some, home learning is chosen to meet the needs of children with mental health conditions or special educational needs or as a result of bullying.
As we have heard already, and as highlighted in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice, what is more concerning is that an increasing number of children are being home educated after having been subject to safeguarding concerns, including about abuse, neglect, criminal exploitation and child employment. As Members highlighted, many children being educated at home are educated by incredibly dedicated parents who provide learning that is right for them, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. However, we should not hide from the fact that there are some cases in which children are not provided with a suitable education.
Studies by Ofsted have demonstrated that some home-educated children have been left without access to appropriate quality of education. As we have already heard, in its recent report “Strengthening Home Education”, the Education Committee concluded:
“the status quo does not allow the Government to say with confidence that a suitable education is being provided to every child in the country.”
The DFE itself has stated that there is considerable evidence that many home-educated children are not receiving a suitable education, yet Ministers have not acted. This is a problem that has been created by the inaction of successive Conservative-led Governments at the expense of children and our nation’s schools.
Some home-educated children have also been subject to safeguarding concerns. In 2020, the child safeguarding practice review panel uncovered 15 incidents of harm involving children reported to be in home education, including severe harm such as serious neglect and emotional abuse. In three of the cases, the children had tragically died. The panel concluded:
“these children were often invisible;
they were not in school and did not receive home visits.”
Once again, Ministers condemned those actions but have failed to tackle them.
When the Schools Bill finally came forward, Labour supported measures to have a register and visibility of home schooling. We welcomed and backed plans to create a duty on councils to keep a register of children not in school. There would also be a duty on parents to provide information to councils for the register, out-of-school education providers would have been required to provide information to local authorities on request, and councils would have to provide support to registered home-educating families where required.
At the time, the DFE said:
“While we know many parents who choose to home educate are very committed and do so in the best interests of their child, in some cases the reasons for home educating are not for the best education of the child and the education being provided is unsuitable.”
However, as we know, the Schools Bill and the register were shelved by the Government last year. At the time, the DFE said it would introduce the long-delayed register of children outside school “in the new year”, but up to now it has provided “no update”.
There is no time to waste. While it is not known how many children and young people are home educated in England, there is evidence of an increase in recent years that has accelerated during the pandemic, as we have heard. The latest Association of Directors of Children’s Services annual survey on elective home education estimates that in 2020-21, more than 115,000 children were educated at home—a 34% increase on the previous year. It is thought that that is very likely to be an underestimate, and it is therefore of concern. Many families may also have slipped through the net during the pandemic, meaning that they are no longer on local authority radars. There is a risk that some of these parents are not able to educate their children effectively at home, or that the children are simply not being educated at all. There have also been increasing concerns surrounding children who have been off-rolled or forced out of school. These children—often among the most vulnerable—are potentially being left without support and protection.
In conclusion, the highest priority for the Department for Education must be to protect children’s safety and wellbeing. All children have a right to learn in an environment that is safe and regulated and that supports them to thrive, wherever they are in the country. Parents’ right to educate their children at home must be recognised and respected, but we do not have the means to ensure that all home-educated children are learning in a suitable and safe environment. England is an international outlier in not having a register; oversight and assessment of educational progress are commonplace across Europe, but England has no such quality assurance. While a register in itself will not keep children safe, it will assist in our understanding of how many are being home educated and help us to identify those who are vulnerable to harm. The Department has repeatedly said it remains committed to implementing a home-schooling register, which would progress
“when the legislative timetable allows”.
I hope the Minister will outline when he foresees that taking place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher on his effective and balanced opening speech in this important debate on elective home education. The Government support this parental right and want to ensure that parents who choose to educate their children at home have access to local support to enable them to do this well. The Government’s priority is to continue to raise educational standards so that children and young people in every part of the country are prepared with the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need to reach their potential. Education should be provided in a safe environment, whether that is at school or at home.
Home education works best when it is a positive and informed choice, with the child’s education at the centre of the parent’s decision. For many parents and children, that will be the case but local authorities report an increasing number of children being home educated, exacerbated not only by the covid-19 pandemic, but by other factors, as was ably pointed out by my hon. Friend Andrew Selous. In its annual elective home-education survey, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services estimated that 37,500 children were home educated in 2016. That increased to over 81,000 children by 2021, including a significant jump of 38% between 2019 and 2020—the height of the covid-19 pandemic. The increase in the number of children being home educated is not a problem in itself, but local authorities report growing concerns that the increase is being driven by reasons that are not in the best educational interests of the child, and that some of these children are not receiving a suitable education.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. We know from local authorities that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are over-represented in their cohorts of children not in school. The measures proposed in the Schools Bill would provide a duty on local authorities to provide support for families, which would, of course, apply to those children and their families. The data from the proposed register would also help provide a proper understanding of the scale of the issue raised by my hon. Friend.
For parents, whatever group they are from, who are unfortunately unable to read or write, what are the Minister’s thoughts on whether they are properly able to home educate their children?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is also about attendance at school. There is a range of measures that the Department is engaged in on improving attendance of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, as well as other children who, because of the covid pandemic, are not returning to school. We need to ensure that children attend school.
Sorry, I was actually talking about illiterate parents who are home educating their children. These are children who are not in school—they are being home educated—when their mother and father cannot read or write. To me, that is simply unacceptable. I would like to help the adults as well with adult literacy, but it is completely wrong as far as the children are concerned.
As my hon. Friend and others have pointed out, under the Act, there is a requitement for children to have a suitable education. Clearly, if there is no one at home who is able to read or write, those children cannot possibly receive a suitable education. The local authority therefore has a duty in those circumstances to intervene, to act and ultimately to provide an order requiring those children to attend school.
The two petitions that led to the debate are focused on the Department’s proposals to introduce a duty on local authorities to maintain statutory registers of children not in school. The proposal was included in the Schools Bill 2022. Although the Government confirmed in December last year that the Bill will no longer be continuing, the Government remain committed to legislating on the children not in school measures at the next suitable opportunity.
The Petitions Committee helpfully conducted a survey of those who contributed to the petitions we are debating today. The thousands of responses received have given us additional valuable insight into the views and experiences of home educators. I was particularly struck by the number of respondents who cited special educational needs and disability as the reason for their decision to home educate and the range of experiences people have had with local authorities. I noted in the survey the number of families who cited the positive effects that home education has had on their child’s development and health. Those positive experiences demonstrate how vital it is to support the parental right to choose how best to educate children, and this Government will continue to support and uphold that right.
The current legal framework for elective home education is not a system for regulating home education per se or for ensuring that parents educate their children in a particular way. Instead, under the duty in section 436A of the Education Act 1996, local authorities must make arrangements to identify children who are not receiving a suitable full-time education. Local authorities have the same wellbeing and safeguarding responsibilities for children educated at home as for other children and must take action where required, using safeguarding powers appropriately.
Every local authority has a statutory duty to satisfy itself that every child of compulsory school age is receiving a suitable education, but there is currently no statutory requirement for local authorities to maintain registers, nor is there a general requirement on parents to inform anyone of their decision to home educate, although the Department recommends doing so. That means that local authorities have low confidence that their existing voluntary registers, if they have them, include all children educated otherwise than in school. This can create challenges in establishing whether a child is in receipt of suitable home education or is missing education. In addition, there are inconsistencies between local authorities in the level and quality of information collected about eligible children. Those are some of the issues that the children not in school measures seek to address.
The Department’s commitment to establishing a local authority-administered registration system was first set out in our children not in school consultation response, which was published in February 2022. The consultation received almost 5,000 responses, which were all carefully considered. The Department previously ran a call for evidence on elective home education in 2018, which provided useful information and data.
The children not in school measures, as contained in the Schools Bill, proposed the creation of duties on local authorities to maintain registers of eligible children. The information contained in the registers would help authorities to undertake their existing responsibilities. Parents would be required to provide only the specified information necessary for local authorities to maintain their registers. Failure to do so would require local authorities to begin formal inquiries as to the suitability of the child’s education, because it would create a legitimate presumption for a local authority that an investigation would be required. Only if education was deemed unsuitable following those inquiries would a local authority need to start school attendance order proceedings, as is the case now. Certain providers of out-of-school education would also be required to provide information to the local authority on request, to ensure that as many children as possible who should be on the register are and, in particular, to help with the identification of children who are missing education or attending illegal schools.
The measures contained a duty on local authorities to provide or secure support, where requested, to registered home-educating families to promote the education of the child. The support element of the measures is an important component in encouraging positive engagement between local authorities and home educators, and helps some home educators to provide good-quality education. The support would include, for example, advice about education; information about sources of assistance; provision of facilities, services or assistance; or access to non-educational services or benefits. The Petition Committee’s survey results show that a high number of home educators would appreciate additional support from their local authority. It remains our intention to work closely with home educators and local authorities on the implementation a new statutory system prior to its introduction.
The Department’s proposals do not feature any additional local authority powers to explicitly monitor education or to enforce entry into the home. The Government’s view continues to be that local authorities’ existing powers, if used in the way set out in the Government’s guidance, are sufficient to enable them to determine whether the provision is suitable. In April 2019, we published revised guidance for local authorities and parents on arrangements for the oversight of home education.
Naz Shah gave examples of local authority interventions that may well exceed the wording in the guidance on elective home education, which is designed for local authorities. Paragraph 5.2 of that guidance says:
“It is important that the authority’s arrangements are proportionate and do not seek to exert more oversight than is actually needed where parents are successfully taking on this task”
of home educating their children. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire will want to know, a local authority may specify its requirements about how effective a child’s literacy and numeracy must be when deciding whether an education being provided to a child at home is suitable.
I am very grateful to the Minister for making that point, but it is still not clear how a local authority would know if a child could not read or write. It is very welcome to hear that the local authority should expect the child to be able to read and write, but if the local authority is not allowed to see the child, enter the home or see the child’s work, how would the local authority know whether that child could read, write or add up?
What the guidance says at paragraph 5.4 is that each local authority
“should provide parents with a named contact who is familiar with home education policy” and who
“ordinarily makes contact with home educated parents on at least on annual basis so the authority may reasonably inform itself of the current suitability of the education provided.”
In other words, if the local authority can gain access—not forced access or a legal right to access, but by having a proper dialogue with the parents—it can reassure itself of the quality of the education. If it was unable to do that, the presumption that the local authority would make would be that the child was not receiving a suitable education in the home environment.
Last year, the Education Secretary said that legislation would come in the new year—this year. Now, the Department is saying that it will come at the next suitable opportunity. Could the Minister be more specific on the timescale that we can expect for the legislation, which will provide a concise and complete list of children who should be getting an education? At the moment, there is no secure way for a local authority to ensure that it has a full register of children within its borough.
I say to the hon. Member that we are serious about wanting to introduce legislation, and she will know the pressures in this building around legislative programmes. We are determined, and it is our intention to do so at the earliest opportunity, but the guidance that was issued in April 2019 was designed to address many of the issues that have been raised on both sides of the debate. That is why we published very cohesive guidance to help local authorities deal with the very issues she talks about.
I have always respected the Minister and the work he does, but it is absolutely necessary that we have a register and that we have it soon. We have children who are vulnerable. They are being exploited, and their families do not have the capacity or the will to do what is necessary. We have young children being exploited by criminals. When are the Government going to get it into their heads that we need to tackle this problem? We are failing in our duty as parliamentarians by not ensuring that children are safe. Will the Minister please treat this issue more seriously? There is nothing more important than children being cared for so that they can live a decent life, contribute to society, enjoy life and not be abused.
I think everyone in this debate would agree with the hon. Member. I certainly agree with what she said and the passion with which she said it.
We are determined to press ahead with the provisions in the Schools Bill relating to the introduction of a compulsory register. In the meantime, the guidance to local authorities is clear: under current legislation, they have a duty to ensure that all children living in their local authority area are receiving a suitable full-time education. The guidance provides a lot of detail about how local authorities can go about determining whether children are receiving suitable home education.
The Government are taking a number of other measures to identify children who are missing education. This is a serious issue in our system and we will have more to say in due course. The proposals set out the responsibility of parents and the steps a local authority can take if it is not satisfied that the education provided by parents is suitable. That is set out in the 2019 guidance, as I said.
The Department’s guidance also details eight components that should be considered when determining whether a child is receiving a suitable education, including includes enabling the child to participate fully in life in the UK, which my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire raised; that education should not conflict with fundamental British values; and isolation from a child’s peers.
Home education does not need to follow a broad and balanced national curriculum or involve the undertaking of public examinations, although the Department believes, and I certainly believe, that doing so would constitute strong evidence that the education received by a child is suitable. We remain of the view that a centralised definition of “suitable education” would not be in the interests of children, families or local authorities. Each individual assessment of whether education provision is suitable must rest on the balance of relevant factors depending on the circumstances of each child. The Department will review our guidance for local authorities and parents later this year.
Following an inquiry into home education, the Education Committee published in July 2021 a report on strengthening home education, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire. In the Government’s response to the Committee’s recommendations, they agreed that there is value in having a form of registration for children who are not in school. We also agreed that there is a need for better data to help Government and local authorities to improve their understanding of these cohorts of children and to improve local authorities’ ability to undertake their education and safeguarding responsibilities. The Government did not agree with the Committee that greater assessment of home educators is required; existing powers are sufficient for reasons I have set out. We provide guidance and outline good practice on what we expect when assessing suitable education.
When the Minister gets back to the Department, would he be kind enough to ask his officials to speak to those in our embassies across Europe to get the best possible feedback on how other European nations monitor the progress of children who are home educated? Sometimes we are a little insular in the way we do public policy; we do not always look to learn from best practice in Europe and elsewhere. We may be able to learn something useful. I ask the Minister, if we are an outlier, to have that international perspective on how we could learn from other countries that are perhaps doing something rather well in this policy area.
I am keen to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion; in fact, it is a suggestion I make in respect of almost every new policy area. We need to look around the world. We are not always the leader on these issues, and there may well be counties that have been through these issues long before we have, so I am happy to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
Finally, I reiterate the Government’s support for home-educating parents. The Department has received lots of correspondence in recent years from proud home-educating parents, and I have met home educators in my own constituency and heard about the positive work they do. Indeed, I have been to visit their homes and seen that home education happening. I remember one particular constituent being home educated, and she is now a mother herself—that shows how old I am.
Our commitment to registers of children not in school will not affect parents’ right to educate in a way they deem appropriate, provided that it is suitable. Notifying a local authority that one is home educating or wishes to home educate one’s child should not be burdensome and will help local authorities to undertake existing duties and help to identify issues with the school system, to identify children missing education and to offer support to home-educating families. I hope that will reassure those home educators who expressed concern in the Petitions Committee’s survey that registers are a step on the road to monitoring education provision, which they are absolutely not.
When we find a suitable legislative opportunity to take forward the children not in school measures, we will do so, and we will continue to work closely with home educators, local authorities and other stakeholders to ensure that the new registration system works for everyone.
The conversation will continue, but I have a few queries. We really need to be asking why parents are not sending their child to school. As my hon. Friend Andrea Jenkyns said, there are concerns among parents about the relationship, health and sex education curriculum. There are also concerns among parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. We need to work with those parents to ensure that we can get as many children into school as possible.
If we are to bring in a register, it needs to be extremely light touch for the ones who are doing well, and we need experienced people to go in and see that and just say, “Yes, this is a child who is doing well.” That is really important. If we are to bring in a register, we need to ensure that it captures the children we are really concerned about.
If we bring forward legislation, it should work and we should enforce it. Local authorities have an awful lot of powers but really do not use them. If we are to create more legislation and it captures good people—such as the petitioners and those who have signed the petitions, who are doing a really good job—yet those who are doing a poor job are still left and the powers are not used, it will have been a complete waste of time. That is something I am extremely concerned about.
I want to wrap up by thanking everybody who has attended today’s debate. I have listened to all that has been said, and there have been really positive contributions. I thank the petitioners and all who signed the petitions. I thank the Petitions Committee, which does fantastic work. I want to put on the record that it was not me who secured this debate but the Petitions Committee. I seem to be winning lots of debates, but that is down not to me but to the Committee.
I thank all who gave evidence: the CSJ, which has spoken to me; the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel; the parents; and lots of other people who are deeply concerned about the issue. I came into this thinking, “Yes, let’s have a register. Forget about it—just let’s do a register.” But when we delve into this subject, we find out what the issues really are and why people are concerned about it, so it has definitely been an education for me.
Finally, I thank you, Sir Mark, and the Minister. As I said, I do hope that if we move forward with a register, the concerns of the petitioners will be taken into account.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petitions 594065 and 617340, relating to home education.