All 1 Baroness Deech contributions to the Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill [HL] 2017-19

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Fri 24th Nov 2017

Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Home Education (Duty of Local Authorities) Bill [HL]

Baroness Deech Excerpts
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 24th November 2017

(6 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Deech Portrait Baroness Deech (CB)
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My Lords, this Bill is the mildest possible remedy for what has long been recognised as a risk—a situation that is not good for children or society. I have supported the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on this before and I am very happy to do so again. If I had my way, school education would be compulsory unless parents could prove that they had good reason to avoid it. Then there would be compulsory inspection and assessment of the home-schooled child’s results in national exams. I am aware that there is an almost hysterical reaction from home educators to any proposal that might be seen as protecting their children. That reaction is in itself good reason to want to keep an eye on the situation.

There are, however, even more reasons today to want to pursue this Bill, which provides for nothing more drastic than registration and assessment. Ofsted has raised concerns about radicalisation and has pointed out that the right to home educate may be exploited to avoid registration of schools—that is, that the children being educated at home may actually be attending unregistered schools, quite likely orthodox religious ones, which may well not provide either a comprehensive education or one in accord with British standards and the rule of law or in line with children’s rights and welfare.

The Wood review, in 2010, pointed out that some directors of children’s services have raised the question of the lack of effective statutory provision about children in unregistered schools and home education. There is no way of assessing the level of risk that those children face. As far back as 2009, the Commons Select Committee review of home education found it unacceptable that local authorities did not know how many children were kept out of school.

The right to educate a child at home is not absolute. In 1983, the case of Family H, in the European Court of Human Rights, established that requiring a parent to co-operate in the assessment of the child’s education is not incompatible with the parent’s rights. Throughout English child law, the welfare of the child is paramount: courts can consent to medical treatment of a child even though the parents will not and children can be taken away from their parents on grounds of welfare. The home is not sacrosanct either. Planning officers can enter without consent, and a whole host of other officials can enter with the proper authorisation.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has reported on the UK and the right of the child to be listened to. A home-educated child who is never inspected or spoken to by an outsider is muffled and unable to say that they would prefer to be elsewhere. In the recent Supreme Court case of Platt—the father who took his daughter out of school term time for a holiday—the judgment emphasised the importance of constant school attendance and how absence, even for a few days, can adversely impact teachers and other children. How much worse then is the total absence from school of a child?

There has been centuries-long progress towards free and compulsory school attendance in this country, not without struggle. In 1870, state-funded primary education was provided and was made compulsory in 1880. We can hardly imagine otherwise. Section 444 of the Education Act 1996 provides:

“If a child of compulsory school age who is a registered pupil at a school fails to attend regularly at the school, his parent is guilty of an offence”.

How can the right of the child to express her views or how can social mobility be advanced, if children are below the radar and not at school? How do we know how well they do at national exams, or whether they even take those examinations or progress into higher education?

The number of home-schooled children has allegedly doubled. Many parents no doubt have good and well-meaning reasons for avoiding school, but it has been suggested by education authorities that more parents are removing children to avoid prosecution for poor attendance or because the child is at risk of exclusion. The worst gap is to be found among children who have never attended school. We cannot count whether they have been removed or what has happened to them. Parents who have good reasons for home schooling ought not to be afraid of explaining and justifying them.

If it makes it into law, which I profoundly hope it will, this Bill will provide the first reference to home education in a statute. It mostly reinforces existing law, the new element being the requirement for parents to register. Where a parent fails to register a child and this is discovered, there should be a sanction, and where a parent is required to provide information, it should be within a reasonable time period and should also be reinforced by sanction. Inspections should take place at least once a year and it should be noted that there may be a referral to social welfare services where local authority officials have not seen the child and have not had any response to a request for information about the child. This was established in an unreported case a few years ago. Section 175 of the Education Act 2002 provides that the local authority has safeguarding duties, which must be upheld. It is also not possible to see how Prevent principles can be applied, and there are many accounts of out-of-school activities that inculcate in children hatred and extremism.

This is a much overdue and very welcome Bill, which needs only strengthening but is a start. The Government should not be deterred, as they have been in the past, by the vocal protests of home-educator parents. Their children are silent, and that is what must change.