Schools Bill progress

Jenny raised the concerns of home schoolers at the Committee and Report stages of the Schools Bill by tabling a number of amendments, including proposing the deletion of parts of the Bill. She also supported amendments which would have changed the approach to one of offering genuine support, recognising the right to home school, and stopping the coercive approach proposed. Plus we, and many others, have called for the Bill to be halted and a new approach taken.

The Lords are now letting the Bill through to the Commons to give the Government the chance to do what it has said it will do, i.e. put in amendments in the Commons to send back to us. But if we are not happy with them, then, before the next 3rd reading in the Lords, a motion will be put to dismiss the whole bill.

Jenny’s speeches to the House at Committee and Report stages are below

It is good to see such a broad coalition of Peers with concerns about this part of the Bill on the so-called children not in school register, who are bringing so many amendments to this part of the Bill.

I disagree slightly with Lord Soley; no, in fact I probably do not. He talked about the three groups, but part of the problem is that the Government are trying to fix all three with one piece of legislation, and they are extremely different. We should be trying to find children who will receive no education or a dangerously poor education. However, the net is cast far too wide and it risks trapping many home-educating families within a web of unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape. I am standing up to speak on this only because some of my grandchildren were home educated and it has served them extremely well, so I feel that I have a voice in this.

A great many families are worried about this prospect in the Bill, and I am sure that they have contacted many Lords about their concerns. Some concerns are fairly simple, such as the time limits being too short and the registration requirements being unclear. However, others are much deeper, such as the breadth of discretion granted to local authorities to decide whether a child is receiving an adequate home education or should be subjected to a school attendance order. If the Government’s intention is to extend the grasp of the state into the lives of home-educating families, they should be explicit about it, but so far the Government justify this policy as being about helping children who are not receiving any education. If that really is the policy intent, there must be a better way of legislating for it than this bureaucratic mess.

I am sorry—I should have thanked the Minister for meeting me and two concerned people. I have not seen any letters in return but I am sure that they are winging their way.

It does not make sense to foist these powers and duties on to local authorities when the rest of the Government’s education policy is so focused on removing powers and duties from local authorities. Far from perhaps giving them more time to do this work, in fact it might mean that they lose those skills because they are not involved any more. Schools are becoming academies to supposedly free them from the bureaucracy of local authority control, but home-schooling families are having their freedom constrained by bringing them under local authority control. It does not add up. I would like to hear from the Minister about how this will have some sort of coherence.

The finances will not add up either. Ever-stretched local authorities are being lumbered with new duties but no new funding. They already struggle to provide their statutory special education and disability functions, and adding a whole new layer of registering, investigating and prosecuting home-educating families will give a lot of opportunities for grievance and mistakes.

All these factors feed into my Amendment 172, which would require the Government to review their home-education policy and consider what less intrusive measures would achieve it. This legislation is clearly the wrong way to do it. I do not really understand why the Government are trying to bring these measures in when they have not done their homework.

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Part of the fallacy on this children not in school register is the idea that local authorities do not already have the information about children who are not in school, but that is not true. For the most invisible children, who have had no contact with any service at all, of course it might apply; otherwise, the truth is that local authorities have a great deal of information about almost every child, whether they attend a school or not. Instead of adding yet more data collection, there should be an overhaul of how local authorities collect and process this data, and perhaps some sort of universality about it. That overhaul should be made in a code of practice, as set out in my Amendment 171S.

I have three other amendments in this group, which are basically probing because I feel that the legislation just does not have the detail that we need to understand exactly what it is going to do. Turning to the new registration requirements, I think the Bill really ought to be clearer about what information must be provided by home-educating parents to the local authority. We are left at the moment with “other information”, which leaves a large void of worry for the parents who will have to provide this information, which could be very probing and intrusive. I would much rather see such broad wording removed altogether or made subject to being necessary and in the child’s best interests. This group contains a range of possible ways forward, but the general gist is that the Minister must convince your Lordships’ House that any of this intrusive bureaucracy is needed in the first place.

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I oppose Clause 49, and the other clauses and the schedule set out in the group, standing part of the Bill. I do so partly because the Bill is such a mess. Lord Grocott, pointed out that a lot more discussion is needed on it, but we also need to facilitate a debate on the rights of home-schooling families. That is not clear to the families themselves, nor to me because of the Bill.

We have already had extensive debates on this on previous groups, so I will not go on, but I will briefly reflect the worry that many home-schooling families have expressed to me and to other noble Lords. The Minister said on Monday that the Government are not criminalising anything and that it is dangerous to talk in these terms, but that is the sort of language that we have heard from home educators; that is how they feel. If that is not right, they need to be told, and told clearly. They are genuinely fearful that their way of life will be trammelled by this legislation and that the state will use the legal system against them.

Can the Minister please take this opportunity to make a clear statement to home-schooling families about what the legislation means for them, what safeguards will be in place to protect their way of life and what work the Government will do to ensure that positive support, rather than coercion, is provided by local authorities? There are some points from Monday’s debate that might be worth reiterating, but I am aware that it is getting on and it would be wonderful to get through the Bill today.

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I would like to speak to my Amendment 86B and later amendments which are essentially saying the same thing: that this Bill is dreadful and ought to be taken away and thought over completely.

Amendment 86B is to delete Clause 49 entirely because it is such a far-reaching clause that it will create a bureaucratic nightmare for thousands of families. At the same time, it will fail to achieve the Government’s stated policy aims. I am also completely puzzled about how overstretched local authorities will be able to implement these new powers and duties. Having been a local councillor, I know how hard they work and how overstretched they are already—even before the recent government cuts.

Overall, I am convinced that Clause 49 will turn out as a total legislative failure and will leave a trail of destruction that will probably be ignored because home-schooling families are a minority in this country. I wish the Government would see sense on this and support the deletion of this clause, as they have with significant other parts of the Bill which they acknowledge were also unworkable. Within that, I would like to include my deletion of other parts of the Bill in Amendments 93A, 95A and 95B.

Finally, on my Amendment 118C, the government amendments are a step in the right direction, but a long way from the necessary protection that families need from these new powers. A code of practice would address the data protection concerns that many parents have. I urge the Minister to think about that.

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In the debate on the last group, I completely forgot to say thank you to the Minister, who is not in her place at the moment, for meeting me not once but twice. She also met two home educators, and I like to think that that influenced the amendments. I have never had as many emails and contacts as I have had on home education, so it would be very good if the Bill’s changes could be expanded to include the concerns of those people.

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