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Children: Safeguarding

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Wood review of local safeguarding children boards, what steps they are taking to assess the risk to children in unrecognised school settings or receiving home education.

My Lords, protection from abuse is a fundamental right for children in and out of school. Local authorities are responsible for safeguarding children in their area, including those educated at home, and, with local safeguarding children board partners, should be assessing any risks to children wherever they are educated. The department is working closely with Ofsted, local authorities and the police to tackle illegal schools. This collaboration has resulted in the closure of many such settings.

My Lords, in the first Question the House expressed its very worthy concern for the learning ability of primary school children. What about the children who are never sent to school at all? The Wood review, Ofsted and Dame Louise Casey have all drawn attention to the lack of power to make parents co-operate in ensuring the quality of home education. The local authorities do not have the power to see the children or check on them. We care about abused children and others. We must take steps to safeguard the children who are not known to schools, who are sent to unregistered schools and who are below the radar. The Government did not respond to the comments on that issue in the Wood review. Local authority officers have written to me to express concern and call for new statutory powers. Will the Government take those necessary steps?

Some home-educated children attend unregulated education settings and we are taking determined action to tackle illegally operating unregistered independent schools. We also remain committed to regulating out-of-school settings and received more than 18,000 responses to our call for evidence, which we are analysing carefully. We know that greater oversight of home education is sought by many local authorities. We are listening to both sides of the debate and considering our position.

My Lords, the Minister might remember that the problem has been raised here a number of times of home-educated children who have not been seen by anybody and are subject to abuse. I am happy to send him the details of another case from the last month or two, of a child who died in hospital and who was home educated, the parents having taken them out of school. I am all for people home educating if they do it well and properly but to say that the state has no responsibility to provide safeguards in some form of inspection, whether of the Badman report type or some other, is frankly unacceptable.

Some people think that they should be allowed to educate their children at home with minimum interference; others feel that society has moved on somewhat in recent years and it is something that we should look at again. As I say, we are looking at this carefully.

On this aspect, as I say, we have received 18,000 responses to our call for evidence and we are considering them carefully. We want a system that regulates out-of-school settings and works effectively but is not overly burdensome, because we know that many of these settings are small and staffed by volunteers.

My Lords, the Minister may recall that I asked him a Written Question about whether the Government,

“have any plans to increase oversight of or the level of responsibility in home-schooling in the light of”,

a 40% increase. In answer, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, referred to his reply of 14 March 2016, which said:

“Some local authorities maintain voluntary registers of children educated at home but as they have no statutory basis, they cannot be regarded as an authoritative source of data”.

If we have no real complete data on the number of home-educated children, never mind those who never go to school, how are we able to safeguard those children? Will he seriously consider now giving local authorities a statutory responsibility in this matter?

My Lords, what is the Minister’s assessment of the reason why a significant proportion of Gypsy and Traveller children are home educated, and of the quality of that education?

Again, we do not have any evidence that they are any more at risk than other children but we are considering this whole area of home education carefully.

My Lords, can the Minister give a picture of the extent of the increase of the home education of children? I think the noble Lord, Lord Storey, referred to 40%. How are the changes progressing?

We have fairly limited visibility on this but I will write to the noble Earl with any up-to-date figures.

My Lords, the recently departed HM Chief Inspector of Schools made determined efforts to uncover and root out illegal schools, and it is certainly to be hoped that his successor will not lose that focus. All schools which cater for five or more pupils full-time must be either maintained by a local authority or registered as an independent school. There is, however, a significant loophole in that schools which operate, for example, four days a week can claim not to be providing full-time education. The Labour Government’s Education and Skills Act 2008 provided a means of closing that loophole but this Government have refused to implement it and seem to be in denial about this as an issue. If that is not the case, can the Minister explain why, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said, the Government’s response to the Wood review made no mention of any action on home education or unregistered school settings? When will the 2008 Act be fully implemented?

We have just had a call for evidence on unregulated out-of-school settings and have had 18,000 responses. We are determined to regulate in this area but we need to tread carefully because many of these organisations are small, open for only a few hours a week and are staffed by volunteers. We do not want a cumbersome regime but one that works.