Schools Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education
Lord Blackwell Portrait Lord Blackwell (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly in support of Amendment 112A, which relates to a point that I raised at Second Reading. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, there has to be a check on parents to avoid those who might abuse the freedoms. The local authority may be the right place to do that but the merits or otherwise of home education versus school education, and the structure of the curriculum, can end up as matters of educational doctrine. If a local education authority takes a view that starts as biased against home education and the freedoms within, it may well take a view that is prejudicial to the parents, in the way in which my noble friend Lord Lucas said.

There has to be a right for parents to go to some appeal process, whether in the form of the amendment or the ombudsman proposed by my noble friend Lord Wei. It may well be that the objections to the way in which the local authority runs its schools is the primary reason why somebody wants to educate their children separately. To have that education authority then be judge and jury over whether the child is being given an adequate alternative education just allows one set of educational doctrines to run roughshod over other people’s rights.

I completely accept the need for checks on parents but, as others have said, my noble friend the Minister needs to think about how, when the Bill comes back, there can be proper provision to deal with this matter—whether in the form of the amendment or something similar.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I may have omitted to declare an interest as chair of the Department for Education stakeholders’ group and other similar interests listed in the register. If so, my apologies.

I have added my name to Amendment 143I in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I should make it clear that it is the increase in fines and custody that I have difficulty with. It might be better to do away with fines altogether.

I am heartened by the statement in the department’s factsheet that

“The government does not intend to criminalise parents”

in respect of school attendance orders. But Clause 50 does not achieve this aim.

When I was a magistrate, I recall cases of parents who, with the best will in the world, simply could not control their children. They were rarely parents who could manage the fines prescribed. As for the custodial option, the Farmer review emphasised how

“disruptive and costly short sentences are to family life”

and ties. What does the imprisonment of a parent do for a child’s attitude to school?

There are deep reasons for school refusal that should be investigated, as I also recall from my time as a teacher. Different means to ensure the essential participation in education that children must have must be developed, and indeed in some schools are adopted, but in this time of a cost of living crisis, at least we should not increase the penalties, which can be justified in very few cases.

In conclusion, I take issue with the “hammers and nuts” of the noble Lord, Lord Wei. The nut of not being in school is a very large nut indeed. Of course there are parents who educate their children well and who are going to have no trouble with a register, although I quite understand that there needs to be some clarity, but children who are badly educated or not educated account for a much larger number. It may be that noble Lords do not come into contact with these children very often. In other debates in this Committee, we have spoken about where these children are and why they are not educated. It would take a lot of time to go through this, but it is a much larger number than the number of children who are well educated. We really must do something about this. That is why the register is a good idea.

Lord Wei Portrait Lord Wei (Con)
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My Lords, I will clarify my position. A number of noble Lords have mentioned—and perhaps implied—that what I was trying to say was that we do not go after these bad actors and do not pursue those using home education as an excuse to provide a poor, non-existent or abusive context for learning or non-learning. That is not what I am saying. I am actually in favour of strengthening the use of other means for the identification and pursuing of families, parents or caregivers who are not home educating and are instead using it as a cover for their practices. Personally, I think we should be as hard as we can on that and strengthen our response as much as possible, whether through data, local authorities or other action.

Right now, some people are using home education as an excuse to say, “Stay away; don’t look here; go away”. However, if the ombudsman, or any other mechanism, were to agree with the local authority that there are good grounds to pursue families such as these and ask for any kind of information it wants—and if, on the evidence, if it looks as though home education is not happening—then, yes, let us go after those many families who are thought not really to be home educating. In addition, let us support those families who are struggling. I did not want to be misunderstood on that front.

However, my main concern is about where there are miscarriages of justice and we get into matters of educational philosophy. I ask noble Lords to consider Finland, where education is not really monitored until the very end. Nevertheless, Finland has pretty much the best education in the world because it does not spend 30% of time in education—as we do—monitoring, testing and checking the learning; the Finns just let the learning happen and train the teachers. I believe teachers there are given the equivalent of bankers’ salaries to make them some of the best education and learning facilitators—if you like—in the world. I would therefore just caution against this monitoring and the need to know what people are doing—I do not think we need to do this. If we have suspicions that what is going on is bad, we need to pursue this and use every power we can to sort that out. However, I am not sure that it is the right approach to ask about everyone in the country who is doing home education—whether good or bad—just because they might be doing something wrong. The ombudsman would make sense of this; it would also make sense not to put families under such an investigatory lens for too long. I have friends who have waited two years for national insurance numbers for their teenagers. Imagine a home-educating family having to wait two years, just to be told that they are not abusing the system but are instead teaching well.

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Lord Lucas Portrait Lord Lucas (Con)
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My Lords, I have some amendments in this group: Amendments 136A and 137A are timing amendments, and we have covered that subject already.

Amendments 140A, 143A, 143C, 143D, 143E and 143H are of a technical nature. I think the quickest thing would be for me to listen to the Minister’s reply, because I think I have made my intentions clear in the amendments.

Amendment 143IA goes back to an earlier discussion on the relationship between local authorities and home educators. It suggests that having Ofsted report on the quality of the home education provision in a local authority, and on the quality of the work that it does on school attendance, would be a useful way of redressing the balance between home educators and a local authority, and that it would direct the attention of the local authority to the need to perform well in this area, and would have similar benefits in the case of attendance.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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My Lords, I have in Amendment 143G a very simple provision that, on acquittal for breaching a school attendance order, that particular school attendance order dies—no ifs, no buts. Surely, natural justice mandates that the court’s decision is respected for that specific attendance order.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, the general thrust of these amendments is to make school attendance order conditions easier for parents by, for example, increasing the information handover period, compelling consideration of the child’s relevant medical conditions—looking at the child holistically.

An important factor that has not had enough mention is that of the impact of poverty on attendance. Poverty affects school attendance for a variety of reasons, and in the third decade of the 21st century some children are unable to attend school because their parents cannot afford fuel or travel costs, or they are more likely to be absent with sickness as their families cannot afford heating or hot water, or to provide a healthy diet.

For some children, not having the right uniform and missing breakfast are barriers to them setting foot in school. Children are having to take days off school due to unwashed, ill fitting or shabby clothes. This often leads to bullying, which is a huge concern when children are unable to dress like their peers and have poorer-quality clothing, shoes and school bags. I have seen and experienced these issues first-hand as a barrier to attendance, and teachers themselves often provide for children in these desperate circumstances. It cannot be right that in a society as wealthy as Britain, we still have children living like this. Poor attendance adds to the inequalities that they face.

We know that schools are often the first point of contact when dealing with such inequalities, so it is important that we have the correct resources and tools to deal with them. Our Amendment 144 ensures that schools’ attendance policies consider how to support staff who have been given new responsibilities for implementing the policies. This whole Bill will give hard-pressed teachers even more responsibilities, so we require recognition of that and to get them the support that they deserve in those areas.

Naturally, none of these measures will increase the resources for education, financial or physical. In the debate on Monday, I noted to your Lordships the paper-thin state of local government finances, and schools are finely balanced within that equation. Such an increase in monitoring and evaluation of attendance policies will be yet another job for an already hard-pressed member of the senior management team in a school. I have served in that capacity for decades; it is an extremely stressful occupation. This is one reason it is increasingly difficult to recruit heads and deputies in the secondary sector.

Our Amendment 146 will mandate the Secretary of State to produce a breakdown of those fined to allow assessment of disparities and compel them to consider the measures to address this. If we examine the data, attendance fines and fixed penalty notices are vastly skewed towards women, who are more often caregivers, and less affluent people, who are more often dealing with truant children. The Secretary of State should be forced to recognise this injustice and tackle it. I pose the question: where is the levelling-up agenda here?

I must stress that we do not disagree with this clause in principle. I set out earlier that we must ensure that the children at greatest risk attend school regularly, but I must press the Minister on what her department’s hard evidence is—whether behavioural science or otherwise—that fines will increase the information given or get more absent children into school. Children with poor attendance need support and staff need the resources to help them deal with it.

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Moved by
143J: Clause 53, page 57, line 12, at end insert—
“(c) that those policies take into account shared protected characteristics of registered pupils, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would require schools to take greater account of gender, ethnicity, religion etc. when designing attendance policies.
Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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My Lords, although this amendment was scheduled to be in the last group, amendments have been moved around a bit. I am sorry I missed it.

The rationale of Amendment 143J is that attendance policies should respect protected characteristics—that is, those that are cardinal to a child’s identity and enjoin small, short absences such as for religious or other festivals or necessary travel by parents. I beg to move.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
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My Lords, the Government understand the importance of schools developing their attendance policies in a way that considers the characteristics of individual pupils, including those with protected characteristics that may mean they face greater barriers to attendance. The Equality Act 2010 protects pupils with certain characteristics, such as race, disability and religion, from discrimination in their educational setting. Schools have clear duties under the Act, and we expect them to develop all policies, including attendance policies, in line with those duties.

The department recently published attendance guidance, Working Together To Improve School Attendance, which we intend to put on a statutory footing through the Bill. In addition, through this guidance and their own Equality Act obligations, academy trust boards and governing bodies of maintained schools are expected to ensure that their schools have an attendance policy that considers their obligations under the Act.

As I believe the amendment to be unnecessary, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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I am grateful for the Minister’s reassurance and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 143J withdrawn.
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Baroness Meacher Portrait Baroness Meacher (CB)
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My Lords, I want to speak to Amendments 147 and 152.

I applaud the Government for including in this Bill Clause 56, which seeks to ensure that schools currently avoiding registration and inspection are included in Ofsted’s remit in the future. This is a far more important issue than we may have considered it. This country has been standing by while an unknown number of extremist, fundamentalist, isolationist schools are teaching children to reject the values of the country in which they are growing up. What will some of those children do when they grow up? Will they join a terrorist organisation? We simply do not know.

Ofsted has written to me to give us the benefit of some of its information, which is worth quoting. It says that at least 6,000 children are being educated in 900 unregistered schools, or, as it puts it, likely many more. It is very concerning that Ofsted has issued more than 100 warning notices to those it believes are running illegal schools, and 40 % of those settings have not changed to comply with registration as a result. These are people who do not respect the law, so we have to be very tough with them.

It is worrying that children are not learning the most fundamental subjects, including maths and English. Not only is the narrow religious curriculum in many unregistered schools unacceptable but these schools may have unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Ofsted says that it found settings with severe health and safety hazards, and other problems. No one is able to check on these things so long as schools evade registration.

I want to thank Rob Cann of Humanists UK for his very detailed briefing and the precise wording of these amendments.

In Clause 56, the Government are seeking to extend registration to independent education institutions—that is fantastic—but only to those which provide all, or the majority, of the child’s education. Herein lies a significant loophole. The proprietors of some such settings know that if they are inspected, they will have to choose between changing to something very different and closing down. They are therefore very wily and will do all they can to continue to evade regulation and inspection. They will use every loophole they can find to wriggle out of their safeguarding duties. Amendment 146B would limit registration to establishments that provide 18 hours of teaching for 39 weeks of the year. That would be something, but I believe these schools would adjust their regime and continue to avoid registration.

Without doubt, as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, these proprietors—who all know one another; there are little groups of them—will get together and split their provision into separate morning and afternoon settings, or some other configuration such as one teacher taking kids in the morning, another in the afternoon. Neither will then be subject to registration under Clause 56 as it stands, and I would be grateful if the Minister would comment on this loophole and whether the Government are content to see these extremist schools escape the important purpose of this Bill.

I recognise that Clause 56(2) allows further tightening definitions to be done through regulations. Here, I am going to say something from experience. Nine years ago, I allowed, if you like, the Government to have a little adjustment to my proposal for an amendment on the face of a Bill on the basis that they would introduce regulations and deal with the problem. I thought, “Well, that sounds okay”. Was I naive? Nine years later, nothing has happened, so I am not impressed with the idea that this can be dealt with through regulations. I fear that it simply would not be done. That is a bit cynical, but it really is my experience.

My Amendment 147 has been carefully thought through. By applying registration only to establishments providing at least a quarter of a child’s education, it would not catch common after-school classes in music, sport or, indeed, religion. I very much hope the Minister will feel able to accept it.

Amendment 152 would close off another loophole for unregistered schools. Many of them operate in private dwellings; indeed, 85% of illegal education settings in Hackney, the borough with the greatest prevalence of illegal schools, are private dwellings. If the proprietor puts down a mattress in a school, on inspection, the school may be classified as a dwelling and a warrant would be required under the law as it stands. Without a warrant, the inspection would be invalidated, so, as Clause 63 stands, a warrant will be required for almost every investigation to prevent that. This will generate unacceptable pressure on the courts, the courts will then put a whole lot of pressure on the inspectors to prove that they really need the warrant, and the whole system could be snarled up. It is reasonable to suppose that determined proprietors will disguise their settings as dwellings to try to protect themselves from Ofsted’s new powers. As I said, they will do just about anything.

Clause 63 introduces a requirement that inspectors can enter a private dwelling only if a warrant has been issued, and a request for a warrant is permissible only if consent has been refused. This leaves in limbo the situation of an inspection in what could be deemed a private dwelling where consent has been given. I am sure this is not the intention, but the wording leaves open the situation of those inspections where consent is given but there is a problem; it leaves an issue.

Registration and inspection of schools must, of course, be dealt with sensitively and authorities cannot be given free access to private dwellings without a warrant if consent is not given. Nevertheless, if the first intimation for Ofsted that a school is in a so-called private dwelling is when it attempts to enter the building, it will need to go away, fill in the forms and ultimately get a warrant, which could take a week or more. This will allow lots of time for the proprietors to conceal, dispose of or fabricate false evidence about whether a school was in operation within the dwelling. Surprise is essential in such situations.

Some proprietors will be less cunning than others and perhaps have less need to be, if a proprietor provides access immediately to an inspector arriving at the address. Amendment 152 clarifies that a warrant will be required only where consent has not been given for entry and where the setting visibly appears to be a dwelling. That sounds a bit pedantic, but it is important, on the basis that these people may just put a mattress down somewhere and claim it is a private dwelling. What is a private dwelling? All sorts of things can be done by them.

I hope the Minister will therefore ask officials to give serious consideration to the following two points. First, the current drafting of Clause 63 is poor and risks making matters worse for Ofsted inspectors. The element of surprise is so important, yet Clause 63 seems to reduce the scope for that surprise. Secondly, the clause does not clarify what a private dwelling is. Will the Minister ensure that, if possible, a definition of a private dwelling for the purposes of the Bill is given in it?

I failed at the beginning of my speech to thank the Minister very much indeed for the discussion we had, and I remember that one of her points was: how on earth do you define a private dwelling—it is probably impossible? I hope that efforts will be made to define a private dwelling to avoid what I call the mattress problem.

Again, I emphasise that the Government seek to achieve a very important objective in these clauses. I hope these comments are helpful; they are certainly intended to be.

Baroness Whitaker Portrait Baroness Whitaker (Lab)
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I should like briefly to add my support to these two very sensible amendments, which would stop unscrupulous unregistered schools circumventing the law and speed up the inspection process.

Lord Mendelsohn Portrait Lord Mendelsohn (Lab)
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My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments 171C and 171D. I strongly support the amendments from the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, as well. I think she has a very correct estimate of the challenges and has presented some situations that are rather familiar in how they will be used to try to circumvent the Bill. I express my thanks to the Minister for her courtesy and for the time with her and her officials to discuss the matters raised in these amendments.