Schools Bill update: Minister responds to letter from a home educating parent…

Thank you for your email 5 July, enclosing correspondence from X, regarding the proposals in the Schools Bill for a system of registration for children not in school. I am sorry for the delay in providing you with a response.

Firstly, regarding X’ point regarding the legal basis for processing special category data, a response has been sent directly to X from a departmental official in the data protection team.

On the point about holding the system to account, there are several existing routes through which parents may raise their concerns about how their local authority (LA) has carried out its obligations under the registration duty. Parents aggrieved by the decision of a LA should first pursue that grievance through the authority’s internal complaints procedures. If they do not receive a reply or their complaint is not resolved within 12 weeks, they may then also raise their concerns with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, who may investigate the authority’s decision and make recommendations on how the issue may be resolved. Where the concerns relate to the handling of data, the Information Commissioner’s Office may be called upon to investigate and give a ruling. The Secretary of State may also use his powers under the Education Act 1996 to
intervene where concerns are raised that a LA has acted unreasonably in the exercise of its duties.
In those instances where a LA has refused to agree to a parent’s request to revoke a school attendance order, the law also enables the parent to apply to the Secretary of State for him to intervene and decide on revocation.

As part of the implementation of the Bill, we will update our existing guidance for home educating parents to clearly outline these various routes of complaint as well as exploring further options for appeals. We will also create new statutory guidance for LAs, which will include advice on how to promote positive engagement with the home education community. This legislation will not change parents’ right to educate their children at home. Many parents who educate their children at home provide a high-quality education and do so in the best interests of their child. It is a demanding commitment for parents to undertake and I commend those who do it
well. However, feedback from LAs suggests that not all children educated at home are being educated suitably or having their needs met. With LAs also reporting increasing numbers of home-educated children for reasons other than a commitment to home education, there is greater need for LAs to be able to identify these children to assure themselves about the
education being provided.   Creating a system of registration will also help safeguard those children not in school who require protection but who are not currently visible to those services
that are there to keep them safe.   Notification from parents that a child is receiving home education, and the LAs’ collection of information on children who are not in school (except for those who are exempt from registration under the regulations) will help LAs to plan
and target resources to children who are truly missing education and provide support to those who need or request it.

Regarding X’ point about punitive measures and support, parents will be able to access support, if they request it, under the new support duty on LAs. However, where a child is in receipt of an unsuitable education and the LA has issued a School Attendance Order, which the parent then breaches, it is essential that action can be taken. Parents who prove that their child is receiving a suitable education will not be found guilty or sentenced. Where parents are unable to prove this on the balance of probabilities, the level of the penalty is at the discretion of the court (a fine of up to £2500 or up to 3 months imprisonment). However, sanctions will not be pursued lightly, and imprisonment would only take place in the most extreme cases.

X asks how individuals with no experience of home education will accurately establish the suitability of education. LAs should have the in-house expertise to make these decisions, but if they do not then they can and should consult a suitably qualified external expert. The department’s elective home education guidance for LAs already details eight components that they should consider when determining whether a child is receiving a suitable education. This includes enabling the child to participate fully in life in the UK; education not conflicting with Fundamental British Values;
and isolation from a child’s peers indicating possible unsuitability, to name but a few. We remain of the view that a centralised definition of ‘suitable’ education would not be in the interests of home educating children, families or LAs.

On the issue of mental health and the Bill, the impact of the Bill on various groups has been considered as part of policy development, including as part of Equality Impact Assessments, and we continue to engage closely with stakeholders on this.

X also asks if a child with a school attendance order will ever be forced to attend a failing school. LAs should choose a suitable school for the child. If there are no suitable places available in the LA’s area, the LA can name any school within a reasonable distance of the family. If an LA identifies more than one suitable school for a child to attend in a school nomination notice, a parent can select which school they would like to be named on the school attendance order. Parents can also apply for a school place as normal, and if the child is accepted, that school should be named on
the order.

The department is aware that the relationships between some home educators and LAs are damaged. We want to see this addressed and hope that the proposed Children Not In School implementation group, our ongoing engagement with LAs and home educators and reworked elective home education guidance will go some way toward remedying this. We are also exploring options regarding appeals for parents where they feel LAs have not behaved as they should.

The registers are there not just for safeguarding reasons, but also to aid LAs to undertake existing responsibilities to ensure education being provided is suitable; and to help them to discharge their new duty to provide support to educating families. It is therefore vital that Children Not In School
registers contain information of all children who are educated not in school, not just those where there may be concerns. We are aware that the registers may not necessarily include all eligible children not in school right away. The duty on providers to share information on request will help identify those children who are not on registers but should be. Those who do not want to be found, for example to avoid safeguarding scrutiny, will also become more evident.

As part of the Children Not In School duty for LAs to provide support to home educators, our intention is that LAs should have the scope to provide support as they consider appropriate to the needs of individual families, but could include, for instance, offering advice to home educators, examination support, or support for home education groups.  The government’s recommendations on what support should be provided are subject to further consideration and assessment of need, how it could be achieved, and the costs involved. We will work closely with stakeholders on this process, prior to issuing statutory guidance to LAs on how they should be implementing their support duty.