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"the wider evidence that we received illustrated the potential value of the requirement for annual meetings between home educating families and local authority officers for the purpose of supporting home education provision. We believe that local authorities need a guaranteed means of engaging with these families."
It is vital that people in local authorities are properly trained. The Bill makes it clear that there is no right for a local authority to see the child of a home-educating family on their own, without the parents there. There is no such right in the Bill.
I say to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), who is a member of the Select Committee, that it is not possible for local authorities to know where the children are, and that they are safe and learning, if they do not know how many there are, and which homes they are in. We cannot know that without a registration scheme.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does the Secretary of State not understand that the hyper-mobility and hyper-diversity in many of our cities means that it is very difficult to have a register of the exact number of children at any one time? To go back to his previous point, he made it absolutely clear that home educators-he believes that there are 70,000 of them, but I think that there are actually rather more than that-provide education at home for a variety of reasons. Does he not see that the Badman report effectively takes a one-size-fits-all approach, which is directly opposed to the fact that there is a whole variety of different reasons why home educators keep their children at home and educate them there?
Ed Balls: I hear the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but with respect, I do not agree at all. The Badman report sets out the range of reasons why children might be home educated. In some cases, that is because it is the philosophical view of the parents that they do not want their children to be educated in a school, in a class with other children. Often, children are home educated because of problems that have arisen due to a temporary lack of places, or for reasons to do with bullying or a special educational need, which means that things have broken down. There is a wide range of provision. We should not have a one-size-fits-all policy; I completely agree.
The only obligation in the Bill-it does not say what home-educated children are to learn, or set out detailed content-is to make sure that children are safe and are learning. That is what the Badman report recommends and what the Bill does. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the detail, and does not listen to the hyperbolic comments made by some Members present-that is opposed to the sensibleness of most of the views in the Select Committee report-he will see that the diversity of the home education community is being properly respected.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is not the point that we have had a voluntary scheme for years and years? Anyone has been able to register and make themselves known to their local authority if they want to, but the majority have not. For those who argue for the importance of voluntary scheme, we have had one, but it has not worked. That is why we are in such a mess now: we have no idea about the quality of education of thousands of children.
Ed Balls: These would be interesting debates for the Committee, and it would be dangerous to allow the Select Committee to repeat its internal debates on the Floor of the House at this point. But the fact is that a voluntary registration system only takes us so far; it does not deliver the conclusion of the Select Committee's report: local authorities should know where those children are. In the vast majority of cases, home-educating parents will want to co-operate fully-this will be very light touch indeed-but in the small minority of cases where things go wrong, there is a balance to be struck between the rights of the parent and the rights of the child, and we must ensure as a society that children are safe and are learning. We should not have one rule for children in schools, where we have a duty to ensure that they are safe and are learning, and another rule for children who are home-educated, which is that if their parents do not want to tell, no one is obliged to find out; that would not be the right approach.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Would not some of the problems with non-registration be helped by the rolling out of ContactPoint across the country in September? When the Secretary of State talks about registration, he also talks about the safety of the child. Would he like to define the difference? If such registration happens, should it not be about the education of the child? Is that not where the real problem lies? People fear local authority bureaucrats, many of whom they would not want to look after their children, coming into their homes and telling them what to do about something they know nothing about.
Ed Balls: I understand my hon. Friend's point. It is really important to get that right in training and guidance. A local authority currently, before the Bill becomes an Act, has a right in law to see a child if it fears that there is a child well-being, safety or child protection issue. That right already exists, including for home-educated children. The issue is whether they are being educated and whether they are learning. There is no right in the Bill for a local authority to go in, demand a visit and see children on their own. The vast majority of parents would be happy to let that happen, but if they choose not to do so, that is a choice for them. The local authority then has an obligation to ensure that those children are safe and are learning, and consequences will then follow from that. But the right to go in and demand a meeting will not exist for education purposes under the Bill.
Ed Balls: I will give way to my hon. Friend, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He has made one intervention already, but he is the Chairman of the Select Committee and his Committee's views have been extensively debated.
Mr. Sheerman: I am grateful for all the publicity of the Select Committee's report. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one problem that the Select Committee found when we discussed this in great depth-it will be discussed seriously again in Committee-is that the Government propose a compulsory register with no penalties? We thought, "Why not try it for two years on a voluntary basis? If that does not work, we move to a system even with penalties."
Ed Balls: I understand my hon. Friend's point, although adding penalties would further inflame the minority of home educators who do not like the current provisions in the Bill. I do not want to air further the debates about voluntary or compulsory systems; we should discuss them in Committee.
"We support the recommendations in Clause 26 and Schedule 1 of the Bill to establish a registration scheme for children who are educated at home in England. However, it is important that workers who undertake home visits receive specialist training to identify possible signs of child abuse or neglect."
The NSPCC is right: we need specialist training, but it is right to have a registration scheme. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will move on and we can debate those things further in Committee.
The basis of a world-class education system is also a world-class work force. We now have more than 40,000 more teachers than in 1997, supported by more than 180,000 more teaching assistants. The Bill builds on our commitment to a masters-level profession by introducing a new licence to practise similar to other high-status professionals, such as doctors and lawyers.
It is important-this will be extensively discussed in Committee-that the Bill continues the process of improving confidence in family courts by opening up proceedings in a careful and staged way, with a clear sunset clause and review before we potentially move to any further opening up beyond the first stage provisions in the Bill, while ensuring that vulnerable children are safeguarded.
Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): The Secretary of State spoke earlier about the NSPCC's support for his plans for home education. Does he accept that the NSPCC has reservations about his plans for opening up the family courts, and that he ought to listen to it on that point as well?
Ed Balls: Again, it is not possible for us all to agree at all times with every stakeholder who has a view on these matters. The NSPCC, the National Children's Bureau and others have concerns about opening up the family courts and have made those concerns clear. On the other hand, many people think opening up the family courts is important for our democracy and for the stability and fairness of the courts' proceedings. We are trying to strike a balance. That is why we will not move further without a clear sunset clause and review provisions.
I hope the issues will be extensively debated in Committee. These are Ministry of Justice clauses and it is the expert in these matters, although we have discussed them in detail because we have a joint responsibility for family policy. We are taking matters forward in a steady and sequenced way, mindful at all times not to put children, particularly vulnerable children, in positions where their welfare might be undermined. I think we are getting the balance right, but it is a topic that we will discuss in Committee. Given the hon. Gentleman's knowledge on these matters and commitment to child welfare, perhaps he will be on the Committee and be able to participate in those debates.
John Hemming: I thank the Secretary of State for giving way on this point about accountability and transparency in the family courts. I congratulate the Government on upsetting those on both sides of the debate-the Newspaper Society, by trying to gag people, and the NSPCC with their other proposals. Will the right hon. Gentleman review the detailed proposals in the light of all the representations being made? It is clear that there is little support for the details of the Government's proposals.
Ed Balls: Upsetting those on both sides of an argument is often the best way to get to the right outcome. I hear the hon. Gentleman's point. This is a Second Reading debate. The purpose of the Committee is to allow such scrutiny of the provisions, and I am sure the scrutiny will be robust and thorough, as always. Hopefully, it will not involve an all-night sitting this time, as on our Bill in the previous Session, and we will be able to move forward consensually.
A world-class education system is only now within our grasp because of the progress that we have made in school improvement. In 1997, more than half of our schools-over 1,600-were not getting to the basic benchmark of 30 per cent. of pupils achieving five good GCSEs, including English and maths. That has come down not just to one in two schools, but to one in 12 schools-from 1,600 schools to just 270. Because of the work that we are doing with schools and local authorities around the country, in our national challenge and academies programme, our aim is to get that number down to zero by 2011.
The Bill takes further steps that will help us to back school leadership and school improvement, by making the process of establishing an academy easier, by reducing bureaucracy so that, like colleges, universities and voluntary aided schools, all academies are guaranteed charitable status, and by strengthening collaboration between schools by updating the role of school improvement partners and through new accredited education providers, which will include academies, state schools, universities and FE colleges as well. We are consulting on those provisions.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am not opposed to any school having charitable status, whether it be independent, state, academy or whatever-the recent debate about public benefit and charities has been helpful in that respect-but why is he bringing back the status of exempt charities for academies, especially as the Charities Act 2006 effectively brought that status to an end?
Ed Balls: The reason why is that we now have a large number of academies, with the figure heading towards 400, and the separate and independent regulation of each academy would be bureaucratic for academy sponsors, for accredited schools groups and for the school system. Some 7,000 voluntary aided faith schools are exempt from the 2006 Act, and so are many further education providers and universities. It is clear to me that a school, funded by the taxpayer to provide free education to pupils, is charitable in its purposes, and such institutions will be regulated by the Young People's Learning Agency-something that the Minister with responsibility for the third sector, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), is proposing if the Bill is enacted.
I know that there are concerns within the Charity Commission about the measure's wider ramifications, but, seen as an education policy, this legislation represents a sensible piece of deregulation and a reduction in bureaucracy. It will make the system much simpler and more streamlined, without every school having to go through a separate check when the issue is absolutely clear.
In law, it is also clear that the academy sponsor has to be charitable in its standing. So, the academy sponsor will have to be charitable, and the purpose will have to be free education for children. Such institutions are clearly charities, and it is much more sensible to undertake the process in a streamlined, class-based way, as we do with foundation schools, rather than school by school. The school-by-school approach was fine when we had 20 or 30 academies, but-the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) will not like this-given the pace
at which I have accelerated the academies programme, the Bill represents an important but sensible piece of deregulation.
Mr. Purchase: On the point about the ability to run chains of schools, which the Secretary of State has been promoting, I must note that one such chain has been debarred from taking on any more schools. Does he therefore accept that there ought at least to be a default position whereby local authorities can take over an entire chain and re-establish a proper educational approach to such schools? Does he not think that, even at this point, it would be wise to give local authorities the same freedom as universities and other colleges to run an education policy for the schools in their district?
Ed Balls: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I do not fully agree, because the 2006 Act, which I support and am implementing, was a good piece of legislation that split the commissioning role of the local authority from the providing role of schools. More than 50 universities now sponsor academies, and through our academies, through the accreditation of our best schools and through our universities, we are trying to establish in the state school system good providers who can take on wider responsibilities. The local authority's responsibility is to ensure that when there is a problem, it brings in outside support to make such action happen.
We do two different things in the Bill: first, we give local authorities the duty to survey parents' views on local schools to see whether there is dissatisfaction and, if there is, to take action; and, secondly, we give local authorities a duty to act if they are concerned about a school, by issuing a warning notice to a school, with the Secretary of State having the power to direct a local authority to consider that point if it does not take its responsibilities seriously.
Mr. Chaytor: Before the Secretary of State leaves parental satisfaction surveys, I must note that the Bill describes how their results will have to demonstrate "material parental dissatisfaction". Will he give us an example of that? What threshold will have to be passed before a local authority is required to produce a survey response plan ?
Ed Balls: We should discuss in Committee and subsequently the details of how we operate the measure. An example might be too much homogeneity in a local area, or too much diversity and an insufficient number of good local schools. The important thing is to ensure that local authorities listen to the views of parents and see what is being done to raise standards. That is what most local authorities do already, and it is a way of ensuring that we are clearly aware of what is going on with children and their learning.
Rob Marris: In response to my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), the Secretary of State said, in terms, that it did not make sense to have academies applying school by school, and therefore there would be an exemption on the public benefit for charitable status. Why, therefore, is it the Government's position to have academies negotiating, school by school, terms and conditions for their staff rather than going on national agreements? If we want a national system for charitable status, which I understand, why do we not have a national system for pay and conditions in academies?
Ed Balls: That is because some academies are innovating in the way that they organise the school term and the school day, and how they provide their provision. All the information that I have shows that academies are more than delivering on the national agreement on terms and conditions of staff. I have said regularly that if there were clear evidence that they were not doing so, I would be willing to look at it, but so far none has been provided to me. Those flexibilities on the curriculum and on terms and conditions have been an important part of the success of the academies movement, and there is widespread support for them.
Mr. Sheerman: It is an important point; the Secretary of State will know that Back Benchers can intervene as many times as they like if he is gracious enough to give way. A very important part of the Bill deals with the licence to practise as a teacher. Having listened intently to his speech, I do not think that he covered that in any detail. Was that on purpose, or has he missed it by mistake?
Ed Balls: I said a moment ago that we would legislate for a licence to practise that would give teachers the same professional standing that there is for doctors and lawyers. We are discussing with teachers and head teachers the details of how that will operate, and the Bill provides a framework power to introduce it. It is essential to ensure not only that we match professional development and support for teachers with a light-touch way of operating it for the vast majority, but that we are clear that where there is underperformance there is an obligation on the school to ensure that bad teaching is addressed. We are starting to introduce the licence to practise in September with newly qualified teachers and returning teachers who have been out of the profession for some time. Our aim, over time, is for it to apply to all qualified teachers. Some people have expressed concerns-on one side of the argument, that it will be too heavy-handed and therefore make life difficult for teachers, and on the other that it will be too light touch and will not ensure that there is sufficient action in the small minority of cases where teaching is substandard. We need to get the balance right. We will have to discuss that in detail, and the views of the Children, Schools and Families Committee would be very welcome.
There is an alternative vision, some of which we heard about earlier in the regular interventions by the shadow schools spokesman, and which stretches across several different areas of the Bill. On catch-up support, there is a refusal to match our guarantees to primary school and year 7 pupils. On qualifications and the curriculum, there is a commitment to scrapping the national curriculum. On teachers and head teachers, there is a promise to end key stage 2 tests and to break promises on pay and conditions. On school improvements, there is a policy of removing the role of local authorities and expecting parents to have the time and know-how to set up their own schools or to get private sector firms to come in to run schools and make profits while allowing other schools to wither or decline, and watching as some young people are relegated to a second-class education.
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