|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
"In our view it is unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, are being home educated or are otherwise not in school."
We agree that there is a real issue, but the challenge for the Government is to get the balance right, and we do not believe that they have done so. We agree with many of the criticisms made in the Select Committee's report, and we would like to suggest the potential for consensus on a number of points, because on such subjects it is important to seek to come to a conclusion, if we can, before this Parliament ends.
The one area in which we do not agree with the Select Committee is its conclusion that any scheme of notification or registration should be voluntary. It seems strange that the Committee can, in one sentence-the sentence that the Secretary of State cited earlier-say that it is unacceptable that local authorities do not know accurately how many children of school age in their area are in school, being home educated, or not in school. It may be that that element of the Committee's conclusions reflected a desire to gain a compromise between individuals with very different views. I am not a member of the Committee, so I do not know whether that is true, but that is certainly the impression given.
However, we have concerns about two issues. The first is the nature of the registration process and whether the Government are in danger of presuming to be able to judge, at this stage, what a suitable education is, and of presuming to give individuals in local authorities the power to take away people's ability to home educate when there is no clarity about what a suitable home education is. Under the Government's proposals, individuals will not only be required to notify local authorities, but effectively be registering, and by registering will be
required to prove their ability to home educate and prove that they are delivering a suitable education.
I put it to the Secretary of State that the only way that local authorities can reasonably do that job is by having a set of very detailed criteria for home education. Necessarily, the concern of home educators is that if the Government or local authorities seek to do that job without any agreement on what a suitable home education is, many individuals could suddenly find themselves having to comply with exactly the type of rigid state education that they have tried to escape by leaving formal schooling and going into home education.
Secondly, it is very regrettable that education and safeguarding have become so mixed up in the Badman report. An assumption that local authority inspectors should have to check whether all home educators meet safeguarding requirements is inappropriate. The scope for local authorities is to consider whether a suitable education, however defined, is being given, not to assume automatically that local authority inspectors should look at the safeguarding circumstances. The intrusiveness in that part of the Bill is quite extraordinary.
Under the Bill, a local authority must ascertain the child's wishes in relation to home education in all circumstances. It must check on the child's welfare in all circumstances, automatically assuming therefore the duty to prove that there are no welfare concerns, rather than simply picking up any that arise. In addition, a local authority must make at least one home visit and hold one meeting with the child each year. The cost-benefit analysis assumes that 100 per cent. of children will receive one in-year visit, with 50 per cent. receiving additional monitoring. There is a description of the statement of education, which has not yet been clarified in its detail but must be produced. In other words, the change in the regulation of home education is very significant and will mean that home education is regulated as never before.
We would like to suggest a way to improve the current regime, without perhaps creating some of the problems of the disproportionate response that are involved in the Government's proposals. First, we do not support the voluntary approach that the Select Committee advocates, but we suggest in the first instance that the Secretary of State ought to consider whether the scheme could involve notification, rather than registration. Notification would oblige everyone who is home educating to declare that information, without undertaking a registration process initially that proves in some way the suitability of the education.
Secondly, we suggest that a review over a longer time scale is needed, to consider what suitability means in home education. It would be dangerous to give local authority officials the responsibility for making judgments on suitability without any detailed guidance. I put it to the Secretary of State that we are simply not able to give that guidance, based on the debate so far and those that we are likely to have in Committee.
Thirdly, we obviously want more support for home educators and more training for those local authority staff who must oversee such things, and we will debate that in Committee. I should have thought that that was an area of common ground. The Government would have a better chance of gaining a consensus if we separated educational inspection from safeguarding. That has been one of the things that home educators
have found most provocative. We would like the process to focus on the quality of education, not on safeguarding. We would like the Government to reflect again on how they can introduce a much lighter touch inspection regime, where the actions taken by local authorities are proportionate to the perceived risk, rather than presuming that every home-educating household in the country must be inspected in the ways set out in the Bill.
I hope that the Secretary of State is willing to take those proposals seriously. Outside the Committee's proceedings, we would be willing to take part in cross-party talks with him and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath if that is necessary to try to reach an agreement on proposals that could command cross-party support.
The second area about which we have considerable concerns is the pupil and parent guarantees and, tied to that, the home-school agreements. I shall not rehearse all the objections, because they came out very effectively from the exchanges, or lack of exchanges in some ways, between the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State. It was interesting that the Secretary of State failed to explain why the one-to-one tuition guarantee in primary education is different from that in secondary schools. There was no explanation of why the Government know better than head teachers and schools about whether tuition should be delivered one to one or in small groups and why one model is right for primary schools and another is right for secondary schools.
The Association of School and College Leaders and the TUC are right to criticise such measures and to say that they could open the floodgates to increased litigation, that they could involve a huge bureaucratic burden, and that the problem with pupil and parent guarantees in so many areas is that they are not meaningful, not always deliverable and not rationally designed. Many hon. Members would not object to some of the pupil and parent guarantees if they were meaningful, sensible and respected the fact that the Secretary of State does not know better than 23,500 schools across the country how to run education.
In our last debate, I gave a particularly striking example from the list of 38 pupil and parent guarantees that relates to pupil guarantee 5. I invite the Secretary of State to respond in a way that he did not last time and to tell me how on earth the local government ombudsman is remotely supposed to police guarantee 5, which says that
"every 11-14 year-old enjoys relevant and challenging learning in all subjects, and develops their personal, learning and thinking skills so that they have strong foundations to make their 14-19 choices."
"This will be phased in by September 2010."
I put it to the Secretary of State that it is not only impossible to measure a supposed guarantee that is so loosely defined, but impossible for the local government ombudsman to police it, yet it is possible that a parent might want to refer a complaint under that guarantee to the local government ombudsman.
We have already debated guarantee 13, which relates to one-to-one or small group tuition. It is totally unclear why the arrangements for primary and secondary schools are different, why there should be one-to-one education in one setting and education in small groups in another,
and why a certain number of sessions should be guaranteed, rather than focusing on the outputs. I should have thought that that was one of the things that the Secretary of State had learned during his time at the Treasury.
On the parental guarantees-Nos. 5, 6 and 7-that relate to home-school agreements, it is unclear why the Government should make them compulsory for every school in the country. Why on earth do we need to make home-school agreements compulsory, even in schools that do not regard them as beneficial? Why is it necessary to personalise them for each child, when that will add enormously to the bureaucratic costs, which must therefore be regarded as unrealistic, as shown in the cost-benefit analysis associated with the Bill.
The third area about which we have major concerns is that of family courts and access to sensitive information. That is, of course, a Home Office lead issue, but as we will have no one with Home Office responsibilities involved in the Bill, I should like to make some comments. This is the one area on which we as an Opposition party have so far received the greatest criticism from outside bodies, not only children's bodies such as Barnardo's, the NSPCC, the Interdisciplinary Alliance for Children and the National Children's Bureau, but the Bar Council, Resolution-the much-respected family law group-and the department of social policy at the university of Oxford.
All those representations have a common theme. They accept the need to make family courts more transparent, but they believe that the proposals are rushed and lack sufficient consultation. They cannot understand why they are being pushed through at the same time as other measures to pilot the improved transparency of court decisions are only just being rolled out. All those groups believe that sensitive information linked to individuals could be released and that such legislation could be against the interests of children and deter them from giving evidence in some cases.
Almost universally, those outside groups have proposed a number of solutions to the deficiencies that they see in the Bill. They believe that any change should follow an independent evaluation of the April 2009 changes, which are only just being piloted. They believe that any changes should be delayed so that there is time for consultation and consideration in relation to these new and controversial proposals, which seem to have been driven through only to meet the needs of a number of lobby groups in the media. They also believe that if the proposals are to be implemented, they need to take into account the delay and cost implications of going through each case in turn, and look at assessments about any reporting restrictions that are necessary.
We have three major concerns about the Bill, and we hope that the Government will be willing to listen to them. If not, we hope that a large part of the Bill will not go through before the dissolution of Parliament. The Bill could have concentrated on areas where we might have found some consensus with the Government, in particular the need to reform the funding of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the need to introduce a pupil premium with real additional money, not money simply shifted around the system, the urgent need to restore credibility in relation to educational standards, which has not happened so far in spite of the earlier comments from the Secretary of State, and the
need to devolve more power and freedom throughout the system, rather than accruing more power to the Secretary of State and introducing more bureaucracy.
The Bill is disappointing. We will do our best over the next few weeks constructively to amend some of the key parts of it, but at this stage we intend to vote against it and we hope that most of it will not get on to the statute book.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): There is probably nothing more important to our future as a prosperous country than the need to ensure that every child has an excellent education. I feel very grateful for the education that I had at my local country primary school, Lylehill in County Antrim, and my wonderful grammar school, Belfast Royal Academy. Despite a few people trying to close all the grammar schools in Northern Ireland, they are still operating and doing extremely well.
On the country primary school, I realise that such a Bill cannot include everything, but we should remember that in 2006 the Government launched the Learning Outside the Classroom manifesto, which aimed to give every school student the opportunity to experience out-of-classroom learning in the natural environment, yet in 2008 well over half of all school-aged children would never have had a visit to the countryside or an opportunity to understand anything about the countryside. I feel particularly strongly about that, because I am the chairman of the Countryside Alliance and, more importantly, because of my inner-city schools. Using a great deal of charitable money and donations, we try to get all the primary schools in my constituency at least one visit to the countryside. That makes such a difference to the children. I hope that can be considered.
There are many aspects of the Bill with which I agree, because some of them will help to ensure an excellent education, but I share some of the concerns expressed to me by head teachers that many of the proposals in the Bill could have waited or are not necessary and will add more bureaucracy to schools, particularly to the heads. Much more time and money will be spent on ticking more boxes to satisfy monitors about things that do not necessarily need to be monitored or could have been monitored in a different way, especially where schools have good leadership.
Previous speakers have commented on home-school agreements. I cannot understand how all the effort, work, time and money involved will improve by a single iota the education of a child in primary school.
Kelvin Hopkins: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I shall not take too much of her time. As we know, she is from Northern Ireland, which has a fine record for quality of education. Is there something about the teaching methods employed in Northern Ireland that is an advantage that we have missed in the rest of the United Kingdom? Will she advise us on that?
I think that what makes a good school is a good head teacher being given as much freedom as possible to get on with doing a good job. That is why, if
I may say something positive about the Bill, I welcome the measures which, hopefully, will make it easier for successful schools to sponsor new academies and new types of school. Some of the outstanding schools in my constituency want to do more and have a record of changing lives in the area. We must make it easier for those, with the right leadership, to go ahead and do greater things.
I have some aspirational primary schools in Vauxhall. One, Durand primary school, has hugely important visions for future growth. I want to see the Government support such a school-for example, the Durand aim of developing its own all-through academy, with boarding provision from the age of 13 to A-levels. The school and the governing body want to move forward on that, and they have substantial funding in place. They know that central Government are on their side and they have already proved that they can deliver, having transformed a failing primary school in a socially deprived area of Stockwell into an outstanding provider, cutting class sizes, offering all sorts of organic food, providing subsidised after-school clubs-doing everything that makes it an ideal primary school.
The school does that because it has a visionary head and visionary teachers. They take a fairly sceptical view of the local authority telling them what to do. They get on with it. As a foundation school, it now wants to deliver an all-through academy which would offer free of charge boarding to children in its catchment area. It will not be a boarding school for the privileged few- 40 per cent. of the children who attend Durand live in overcrowded households, more than 50 per cent. receive free school meals, and more than 95 per cent. come from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
Durand's proposals and other proposals from primary and secondary schools would offer life-changing opportunities for such children and create much-needed additional secondary places. We need a legislative environment-I am not sure that it is in the Bill, but parts of it may be-that will allow a school such as Durand to go forward and do what it does best, which is creating excellence for children.
Michael Gove: Like the hon. Lady, I am a great admirer of Durand school and its head teacher, and I very much enjoyed the visit that she helped to facilitate. Unfortunately, the Bill will not be able to help Durand, which is a primary school. The Bill does not allow primary schools to sponsor academies. Indeed, when I suggested that primary schools themselves become academies, the Minister for Schools and Learners said that that idea would send a shiver down the spine of every parent. I presume that the hon. Lady, like me and like many other members of her party on the Back Benches, agrees that primary schools should be allowed to become academies.
Kate Hoey: I personally agree with primary schools being able to become academies. I am not saying that I speak for my colleagues on the Back Benches. I probably do not speak for some of them, but I would like to see that. I want to see a Bill-the present Bill may not contain such provision-that gives powers that make it easier for the vision of state schools such as Durand to become a reality. Much of that involves making sure that local authorities do not become a barrier to progress.
A number of Members feel strongly about home education, and I have listened keenly to the debate between those on the two Front Benches. For an inner-city
area, I have a substantial number of home-educated children, for all sorts of reasons, as Members know. Although it is important that the local authority knows who those children are, that should not impose a straitjacket on home educators.
It is rather sad that we seem to have put the cart before the horse. I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said about educating and providing training for local authority staff to give them a better understanding of home education, but I am not quite as trusting. I would like that education and training for local authority staff to be in place before I allowed them to be let loose on home providers in my constituency. When the Department talked about registration, it said:
"Home Education registration involves more than just providing a name and address. In particular, it will require home educating families to provide information about their approach to home education".
That is very dangerous, because we are now saying that we actually want to interfere in how children are educated at home. If we believe that families have first responsibility for such education, we have to allow them it. However, that is totally separate from anything to do with safeguarding children in their homes, and that is why I feel that ContactPoint, which will come on stream in September throughout the country, will give local authorities the information that they need. A good local authority, which works with such parents positively and is not seen as going in and telling them what to do, will then be able to find ways of supporting home educating parents. They want to be supported, but they need support, not the regulation that is seen as coming in from above.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I agree with a lot of what the hon. Lady says, but I do not see how ContactPoint will distinguish between all those children who, for one reason or another, do not attend a mainstream school. Unless there is a notification system, there will not be a category of home education, but there will be a lot of children who do not attend a mainstream school. There may be all sorts of reasons why: they may be children about whom we are really concerned-children below the radar.
Kate Hoey: Every home educator to whom I have spoken in my constituency recognises that somebody, somewhere needs to know that children are being home educated. They are not even against people from the education department visiting and, with the right agreement, learning how they educate, because there is no doubt that a lot of home educators-probably 99.9 per cent. of them-are very good educators indeed.
I am disappointed by the fact that we seem to be rushing through the legislation. The Badman report was rushed, too. I do not agree with every word of the very fine report by the Children, Schools and Families Committee, but I agree with a lot of it.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|