THE CHILDREN, SCHOOLS AND FAMILIES BILL
Threat to HE parents or a storm in a tea cup?
The Children, Schools and Families Bill was presented to Parliament on 19 November 2009.
This Bill received its Second Reading debate on 11 January 2010.The Bill at first sight looks pretty innocuous to most observers, with some wondering whether it is necessary. It make provision, for instance, for pupil and parent guarantees, home-school agreements, parental satisfaction surveys, children with disabilities or special educational needs, school and other education, governing bodies’ powers and school teachers’ qualifications and so on, but to some, at least, perhaps with a keener eye for detail it is worrying.
Schedule 1 of the Bill covers Home Education. The Bill introduces a new registration scheme for home educators, with a duty on local authorities to identify all home-educated children and to ensure that they are receiving a suitable education.
Most parents would not make home-based education their first choice. But there are some parents who believe either that the state has seriously failed their child or that they want to opt out of the prescriptive national curriculum. Currently, this choice is lawfully available to all parents. However it would seem that if enacted, the bill would – for the first time – transfer responsibility for a child’s education from the parents to the state. This might be presented as a threat to all parents. It might also conflict with Human Rights law.
The Home Education lobby certainly smells a rat.
They believe that the 70,000 or so home educated children’s interests are already protected in law. So, a change in the law is unnecessary. The Government is using a sledgehammer to break a nut. They also believe, and they appear to have a case here , that the Government rushed through consultation in the wake of the Badman Report on new measures, and didn’t actually consult in any meaningful sense, the key stakeholders. They also believe that officials have lumped together genuine home educators ie those who have made a distinct choice for their children to opt out of state education while providing alternative provision for their children, with those parents who don’t bother to ensure that their children go to school either regularly or in some cases at all. This latter group, obviously, present very real grounds for concern.
Parents are already required by law to provide an education suitable to the age, aptitude and ability of their children, and to any special educational needs they may have. Indeed, Local authorities already have the powers too to take action if parents do not do this.
Schedule I appears to indicate that local authorities will be given the power to deny parents permission to home-educate, at any time, unless parents adapt their educational approach to fit in with the requirements of the system.
The Home Education lobby had a letter published in the Guardian (Monday) with a number of significant signatories including Lord Lucas (who describes himself as a libertarian conservative), and Professors Furedi and Scruton ,Graham Stuart MP Chair, all-party parliamentary group on home education, and others which articulated these concerns and added that ‘Schedule 1 contravenes two principles of the government’s own children’s plan: that families bring up children, not governments; and that services need to be shaped by and responsive to children, young people and families, not designed around professional boundaries.’
A recent select Committee report suggested that the Government had precious little data on Home Education or Home Educators, and certainly not enough to help inform policy. The report sent out too some conflicting signals, saying for instance that voluntary registration should be tried and if not satisfactory, then made compulsory.
There are a number of questions that need to be answered regarding the new arrangements. Its costs, the bureaucracy it will generate, the lack of relevant training in LA staff are but a few. Ofsted are setting out to inspect home education in 15 local authorities and this at a time when some believe that Ofsted has already become too stretched and unwieldy.
In the Commons Second Reading debate on 11 January Ed Balls sought to give early reassurances to Home Educators. He said “The vast majority of home educating parents provide a good education for their children, and I am fully committed to the principle that parents who choose to home educate should be able to do so. It is parents, rather than the state, who are in charge of taking the ultimate decision on how their children are educated.” The Bill also 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. However given the level of distrust and bad feeling between the Government and the HE lobby these assurances will probably not be taken at face value.
Nonetheless lets hope that Parliamentarians from all parties do their duty, holding the Executive to account and properly scrutinize this Bill, seeking the necessary clarifications and assurances through carefully targeted questions and probing amendments in the committee stage.