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Home Education

12.57 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome this opportunity for a short debate about home education, which is an important but sometimes neglected tributary of mainstream education. I am delighted that the Minister for School Standards will be replying.

I confess to having known little about the subject before meeting the Medlam family in my constituency. They proved to me both how successful and rewarding home education could be, but also explained how some hurdles that confront families who educate their own children might be lowered. Therefore, after securing this debate I spent the bank holiday weekend, appropriately, educating myself at home about home education.

When I was Minister with responsibility for housing, I remember coming across self-builders. They did not want to buy an off-the-peg house; they wanted not only to design their home themselves, but to build it. I suspect that my then Department regarded them as inconvenient eccentrics, likely to make a hash of a difficult task best left to the professionals. However, having met some of them, I was deeply impressed by them and their homes. I took the view that the role of government was to enable them to find out what was involved before they decided to embark on their project and, once they had, to ensure that they got the support and encouragement that they needed.

The same should be the case with home educators. In the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition on the European constitution, we should "live and let live." In one sense, we are all home educators; any rigid demarcation between education that happens at school and non-education that happens at home is misguided. For most of us, educating a child is a continuous partnership involving both parents and teachers. Some parents—we do not know how many—heroically choose to do the whole thing themselves, and information technology and the internet may make that a more practical option today than it used to be. Those parents deserve more support and encouragement than they presently receive.

The Department's draft circular—perhaps the Minister can clarify its exact status—and the speeches made by Ministers have sounded a bit sniffy about home education:

That reads as though the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), was giving planning permission for a nudist colony.

We have to read only what is said at recent teachers union conferences to see why parents who cannot afford or do not want private education opt out of the state sector and educate at home. Stressed teachers are unable to give pupils the attention that they need, are grappling with a more and more prescriptive curriculum, and are coping with increasingly violent children who bully one another and assault the staff, against a background of endless standard assessment tests and Ofsted inspections and an ever-growing pile of circulars from
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the Department. That is the view of some teachers. I applaud the work of teachers in my constituency. Indeed, I visited three schools last Friday—Amport, Shepherds Spring junior and Ashford Hill—which all provide quality education.

Children are diverse individuals. If a system of education were to be devised with the aim of suiting every child, it would have to be infinitely flexible and accommodating. That clearly is not possible. Home education is an essential right for children whose learning styles, personalities, abilities or needs cannot be adequately met in school. It is also an important right in a free society for parents who wish to educate their children rather than entrust them to the state, particularly if they have lost confidence in state provision.

The previous debate on this subject was held was almost a year ago on the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall). I shall pick out four points from the reply of the Under-Secretary and then ask some questions. Home educators will then be able to work out what progress the Department has made since its last examination.

The first point, which stems from the Education Act 1996, is that parents who educate at home are not required by law to inform the local education authority of what they are doing. I believe that they should be obliged to do so. That would lessen the risk of children falling through the net or being accused of truancy. It would enable LEAs and the Government to know how many children are being educated at home. LEAs could be more proactive in offering targeted help and could put home educators in touch with one another. I do not want a heavy-handed, intrusive registration system, just a requirement to notify. I am aware that it is the duty of parents to ensure that their children are educated, but society is entitled to know who is exercising that duty for individual children.

Secondly, there was no sign of the Government seeking to promote best practice among the LEAs. The Under-Secretary referred to some LEAs providing

However, he could not bring himself to suggest that all LEAs should do so. Even in the draft circular to LEAs, the Department was unable to move to exhortatory mode:

That guidance appears to have been written by Treasury Ministers preoccupied with containing public expenditure, rather than Education Ministers concerned with raising standards.

Some Departments, notably including the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, have a specific mission of raising standards among local authorities and promoting best practice. Some education authorities are good—for example, Cornwall, Stafford and Essex. According to my e-mails, other authorities are obstructive. What are the Government doing to bring the backmarkers up to speed so that home educators throughout England get a good service?
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The Under-Secretary went on to say that

That statement sits uneasily with Dr. Paula Rothermel's study, which showed that all children benefited from home education, with children from the lowest socio-economic groups doing best. She found that 65 per cent. of home-educated children scored more than 75 per cent. in a general maths and literacy test, compared with the national figure of only 5.1 per cent. The average national score for school-educated pupils in the same test was 45 per cent., whereas that of the home-educated pupils was 81 per cent. She concluded:

If the Government do not accept those findings and say that there has been no evaluation, they should get on and do it. We do not know how many children are involved. A year ago, the Under-Secretary estimated the figure to be between 50,000 and 100,000. What plans are there to undertake an evaluation?

The Under-Secretary then referred to the inequity of access to further education for those educated at home, and particularly the under-16s:

That was against the background of evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge that home-educated children aged under 16 are charged £1,800 per subject for a college place to study for GCSE, whereas other children get free places. I regret that there has been little progress in the past year towards putting that right. One of the biggest problems remains the funding for under-16s who want to take courses at local colleges of further education. Many of them, if they manage to get places, have to pay, whereas the 16 to 19-year-olds do not. That is one of the most important issues for those who educate at home. Parents are passed from pillar to post by the Department for Education and Skills, learning and skills councils and LEAs. The Department's draft circular makes it clear that parents are liable to pay all the fees unless their LEA is willing to provide funding. That does not sound like a level playing field.

I assume that, through the revenue support grant, local authorities are getting some funding for those children—certainly their parents are paying council tax. Perhaps the Minister can shed some light on that; the LEAs deny that they get funds for home-educated children, but my understanding is that the RSG is calculated per head of the population. Who has the funding to enable the children to attend college and how should parents set about getting places for them?

A related irritation is examination fees. The Government want more children to go on to university, but they cannot get there without A-levels. If they go to an LEA school, their exam fees are paid for them. The draft circular confirms that if one saves the LEA and the taxpayer about £20,000 by educating one's child at home, one has to pay examination fees. That is certainly the case in Hampshire. It is difficult to explain the justice
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of that to home educators. Perhaps the Minister would like to have a shot at it. Parents also have difficulty in finding examination centres, some of which charge exorbitant fees. So, against the Under-Secretary's request a year ago for a level playing field, what has his earth-moving equipment been up to?

What was not in the speech? One dog did not bark. The Government are in favour of voluntary organisations, as I am. Usually, in debates such as this, the Minister can point to some help for the voluntary organisations active in the area under discussion. However, I understand that there is no financial or non-financial support for the voluntary organisations that support parents educating children at home. The Home Education Advisory Service may wish to maintain its independence and not receive direct funding, but it could certainly be a conduit for funding to help, for example, with part-time attendance at FE colleges or for GCSE entry fees. Several years ago, the other major organisation, Education Otherwise, received a national lottery grant to send out a booklet to all LEAs, but that is the only grant that I know of. Like the HEAS, EO is funded by member subscriptions and donations.

The Minister's Department refers professionals to the helplines of both EO and HEAS for legal information and advice, and the LEAs also make referrals. The Government's own bully helpline refers parents to EO. Tomorrow will see the national launch of the Government's £125 million fund for voluntary groups at the Emmanuel centre, Westminster. I hope that Ministers make it clear they will welcome applications from groups active in home education.

My interest in the subject, as I said at the beginning, originated with a family of home educators in Hampshire. I asked them the question about social isolation that people always ask. This was their reply:

A sample of one may be unsound, but I was relieved to read in other research that home-educated children are socially well-adjusted folk. Since this debate was announced, many home educators have been good enough to e-mail me. I quote Annelies Scott:

Last year, the Under-Secretary's speech ended with the following less-than-ringing endorsement for home education:

I hope that the Minister can find a better peroration today.

1.10 pm

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The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband) : It is a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall serving under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing the debate, which follows up the debate secured by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) last year, and thank him for being good enough to send a copy of his speech to the Department this morning. Thanks to that courtesy, we have been able to do further research.

The right hon. Gentleman said that we are all home educators, and he is absolutely right. The roles of parents, grandparents and the wider family in supporting youngsters at home are an important part of the education system. I am glad that he recognises that we do not want to split the issue into two camps—one group of children for whom parents are responsible, and another for whom the state is responsible. For those in the maintained sector, responsibility has to be shared.

On a less consensual note, I was sorry that the right hon. Gentleman rehearsed some negative views about the education system, although he ended his comments by saying that they were the views of only some teachers. He also said that such views were directly contradicted by his own constituency experience. The media image of an education system out of control—I do not know whether these were his exact words—with appalling children and teachers unable to control them is not a modern image of that system, and I am glad that the three schools that he visited on Friday belie it.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that not only children, but adults, are diverse individuals. It must be right that the education system should have the flexibility to cater for individual student needs, interests and aptitudes. That is what we call personalised learning. That is not a phrase that trips easily off the tongue, but it speaks to his understanding that different youngsters have different kinds of intelligence and learn at different speeds, have different interests and get different support from home.

Some parents may believe that home education is right for them, and I shall deal in a moment with why they might hold that view. I agree that such parents should have the right to exercise that choice. For the others, it must be right for the state to seek an education system of sufficient flexibility, a teaching force of sufficient adaptability and out-of-hours provision of suitably high quality to meet those diverse needs. I do not think that that cuts against the national curriculum and some other things that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

As Minister for School Standards, home education is not virgin territory for me, although some details are new territory. Our priority must be to raise the quality of the schooling offered in the maintained sector. The right hon. Gentleman referred to some parents who leave the maintained sector because they are not happy with the standards. I put parents who choose to home educate or to go to the private sector in the same category, because they are withdrawing their children from the state sector. It must be right that the focus of our attention should be to raise standards and the quality of schooling in the maintained sector.

None the less, the home educated have particular needs. I promise the right hon. Gentleman that I will draw the points that he made to the attention of the
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Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), who is responsible for the particular needs of the home educated. I am sure that I will be no substitute for my hon. Friend in depth of knowledge and enthusiasm, but I will go through some specific points that the right hon. Gentleman made about the home educated.

Sir George Young : The Minister said that he places children educated at home in the same sector as those who attend independent schools. Does he realise that that may not be wholly fair? Those who educate at home may not have the income to send their children to an independent school. It therefore might be a mistake to bracket them as he does, particularly with regard to examination fees.

Mr. Miliband : I did not say that those children were in the same sector; they clearly are not. The independent sector is not the same as the home schooling sector, but I said that the parents in those sectors are in the same category in that they have decided not to educate their children in the state maintained sector. I am happy to overcome any confusion on that point.

It is important to remember that there are two types of home education. The right hon. Gentleman did not draw that fact out, and it is important that I do. Home education can mean two things: education provided at home by parents who elect to educate their own children, which is what I have focused on so far, or home tuition provided by the local education authority for children who cannot attend school for a period owing to illness or exclusion, for example. We must remember that there are those two types of home education.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that there is a good deal of confusion, or at least uncertainty, about the number of children being home educated. During last year's debate, the figure of 50,000 to 100,000 was used, and we do not have any greater intelligence now about how many such children there are. I will comment later on the Government's role in securing the rights of children who are home educated, and I was interested in what he said about registration, which I shall come to later.

The reason why we have not gone for a national survey or another such headcount is that we have not been convinced that its benefits would outweigh the bureaucratic costs to parents, teachers, schools and local education authorities. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, it is the Government's responsibility to provide education in schools, but it is the fundamental right of parents to decide not to educate children in the maintained sector. The Education Act 1996, which I think he mentioned but did not quote, states:

Parents choose to home educate for a number of reasons. The decision is prompted sometimes by the particular circumstances of the local school and sometimes by the particular needs of the child. The legal position is that when parents elect to provide home education once a child has already attended school, they must tell the school in writing of their intention to
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deregister the child. Children and young people with special needs can be educated at home, but when a child has a statement of special educational needs that names a special school, his or her name may not be removed from that school's register without the education authority's consent. There is some liaison in that system.

Local authorities have a general responsibility to ensure suitable education provision in their areas. Although parents who educate at home are not required by law to be "registered" in any way, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that local authorities have the right to make reasonable inquiries to ensure that children who are withdrawn from school to be electively home educated are receiving appropriate education. The authorities can intervene if that is not being delivered.

The right hon. Gentleman did not refer to the Children Bill, which is being debated in another place today. The Green Paper that preceded the Bill tried to address the issue of "unknown children", and he will be interested to know that clause 8 of the Bill provides for a database to hold information about every child, including the services that they are using. Some difficulties in this matter are brought home to me by the fact that many home educators say that they are unhappy about that requirement. I understand that he believes that the requirement should not be bureaucratic, but there is a difficult line to tread. Some home educators are unhappy about the provision, but it exists and it is important for this debate.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, LEAs have no legal right to enter a home to see a child, but it is the parents' responsibility to ensure that enough evidence is submitted to an LEA to satisfy it that the child is receiving a suitable education. Parents may choose to meet an LEA officer at home or at a neutral location, and we believe that that strikes the right balance. When an LEA is not fully satisfied that a child is receiving a suitable education, it may decide more regularly to contact the parents and/or the children who are being home educated.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specific questions about funding. The LEA does not get any funding for children who are educated at home because it does not have to deliver any services for such pupils. I dare say that his knowledge of the local government finance system is more long standing and, in all humility, much greater than mine, so he will know that the educational formula spending share has two components. The schools block is based on pupil numbers, and includes children educated at home only if the LEA is responsible for making the arrangements. Pupils who are educated at home through parental choice are not included, just like pupils who are sent to independent schools through parental choice rather than under LEA arrangements. My earlier analogy is relevant in that regard. Neither are children who are educated at home included in the count for the LEA block—the block of money for LEA services. Although that is based on the three-to-18 population, the relevant data are drawn from school returns and therefore do not include those who are not in school.

I shall return to the right hon. Gentleman's point about 14-to-16 education, but I want first to touch on the issue of children with special educational needs. As he and I agree, not all children have the same needs.
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Although children and young people with statements of special educational needs can be educated at home, LEAs remain responsible for ensuring that the education that they receive is suitable. He did not dwell on that point, but I am sure that he will agree that it is right that they should have that responsibility. The statement of special needs must stay in force, and LEAs must ensure that parents can make suitable provision, including for their children's special educational needs. If parents' arrangements are suitable, the relevant LEA is relieved of its duty to arrange provision directly, but it remains its duty to ensure that the child's needs are met.

It may benefit the right hon. Gentleman to know that about 3.2 or 3.3 per cent. of all children have statements of special educational needs, although those numbers vary enormously between LEAs and schools. He may know that, in addition to those numbers, 13 or 14 per cent. of children have special needs that are not listed in a statement.

As I said, two types of children receive home education. LEAs may provide home tuition for pupils who cannot attend school for reasons such as sickness, exclusion or teenage pregnancy. There are more students in that category than is often realised—particularly those who are not at school because of sickness. A substantial proportion of the 50,000 to 100,000 figure is accounted for by youngsters who are too sick to attend school. Their education is provided through home tutors and e-learning, which allows schooling to be made available through virtual communities. It is set up in pupils' own homes, or in libraries for groups of young people. Such projects can lead to children obtaining several qualifications.

LEAs can pay directly for home tuition. The right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the Department is providing support for the project, which I am glad to say is not an project, but one that offers IT-based education for disaffected children.

I promised the right hon. Gentleman that I would move on to the issues of 14-to-16 education and the support offered to home educators by LEAs and the Government. There is no legal duty on LEAs to provide financial support for parents who educate their children at home, but some provide free national curriculum materials or other forms of support to such parents. We think that it is right that such decisions are made locally, but he is within his rights to ask what the Government are doing to make information about home education available to parents. I can provide some reassurance about something that he may be unaware of: to help to support parents, the Department provides general guidance in the form of an information pack on elective home education and the legal responsibilities of parents, which has links to other useful information on issues such as the national curriculum and assessment arrangements, and to websites created by home educators.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about education provision for 14 to 16-year-olds in college. He will know that that area is new, but growing fast. He will also know that the Tomlinson committee, which is considering the provision of 14-to-19 education, is currently sitting. Its interim report referred to the need for a significant
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number of youngsters in the 14-to-19 age range to be educated not only in one institution, but in two, or in some cases three. It wants youngsters to have a home base in school, but to receive the benefit of vocational courses from a local college or even a local workplace.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the Learning and Skills Council was set up to take care of post-16 education. Indeed, the hon. Member for Uxbridge raised that matter last year. The LSC does not have statutory responsibility for learners under 16, although it can provide limited support generally for the vocationally related provision in further education colleges for young people aged 14 to 16. That is operating through a series of pilots that I know from experience have been widely welcomed. The increased flexibility programme for 14 to 16-year-olds is a policy to let local partnerships between colleges and schools decide on provision, and home educators are welcome to request involvement in that programme. I do not know whether he will agree, but in my experience the greater number of children educated at home are younger and towards the primary school age range rather than older.

Sir George Young : Would home educators have to pay if they took part in the programme?

Mr. Miliband : I shall look into that and write to the right hon. Gentleman about it. The plans are local, so I shall need to check what is happening in each locality. From memory, there are 39 pathfinder areas for the new provision. He is right to say that provision is patchy. That is because it is new and we are only beginning in such matters.

I wish to mention two other points. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Rothermel study of the quality of home education. He was right that the anecdotal evidence from many parents who opted for home education was positive. They speak enthusiastically about the benefits that it provides and cite independence, maturity and keenness to learn among pupils. Others have pointed to the high grades that home educators receive. Last year, the Under-Secretary said that there had not been an independent, systematic, national evaluation of such matters, but I have been informed that the Rothermel study took place in a particular part of the country and in respect of a specific group of parents who volunteered to be a part of the process. The study was not claimed to be a representative sample. The Under-Secretary's statement was made on that basis.

Finally, I come to tomorrow's launch of the future builders fund, which will be governed through the Home Office and which, as the right hon. Gentleman said, has £125 million to support voluntary activity in five priority service areas: health and social care, crime, community cohesion, education and learning, and support for children and young people. Obviously, the fourth and fifth priority areas include the education service. The fund exists to deliver an increase in the scale and scope of public service delivered by the voluntary and community sector. It will invest in exemplar service and delivery operations in the areas to which I have referred. I shall find out for him whether there are any
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restrictions on who can apply, but I understand that the programme will be open to cover as wide a range of people as possible.

Sir George Young : Before the Minister finishes his response, will he clarify the status of the draft circular on home education that I found on a website? Is it a spoof or is it genuine? If it is genuine, when will it be published?

Mr. Miliband : Much as the Government seek to entertain the public, we do not issue spoof documents. The circular is not a spoof. I think that the right hon. Gentleman was asking about the force behind it. It exists to provide exactly what it says it provides—guidance to local education authorities. He said that he was disappointed by the peroration at the end of the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Uxbridge, but it was perhaps neither the time of day nor the audience for a great peroration. We take seriously the need to choose—

Mr. Bill O'Brien (in the Chair): Order. Time is up.

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