To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to respond to the National Children’s Bureau report, Children Missing Education, published on 31 January; and what plans they have to improve the collection of national-level data on such children.
My Lords, in September 2016 we introduced a duty on schools and local authorities to work jointly when carrying out inquiries to establish the whereabouts of children to ensure that they are safe and receiving suitable education. We have a commitment to review the impact of these regulations by September 2019. The review will take into account the points raised in the National Children’s Bureau report issued in January this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that almost 50,000 children were missing from education between 2017 and 2018. How will the Government build an accurate picture of who these children are, where they live and what their needs are? How will they form a strategy to deal with this problem when there is no national data on these children?
My Lords, we believe that part of the reason for the awareness of more children being home educated is as a result of the duties we placed on schools in the 2016 guidance, which I mentioned in my first Answer. The next stage is to ensure that local authorities are using all their existing powers to investigate cases of where home education might be occurring or where children are missing. Yesterday, in our integration strategy, we announced further measures on that.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that these children will form a high priority for the teaching of English, reading and writing, given that they are most likely to be among the three-quarters of a million people in the United Kingdom who do not speak our native language?
Obviously, children who are missing from education are one of the highest priority categories that we have to worry about. In the integration strategy document announced yesterday, we launched a consultation on the guidance and enforcement of independent school standards—a lot of children can end up in such small schools—and guidance on unregistered schools, which will deal with similar issues.
My Lords, some groups particularly at risk of missing education include disabled children, those with special educational needs, young offenders and children in care. Surely these young people should be known to social services, the police, doctors or other authorities. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to encourage these authorities to liaise with the education authority to ensure that these children get the education that they need and deserve for a better life?
My Lords, it is already a requirement following the issue of our guidelines in 2016 that, for any child registered as SEN, permission must be sought from the local authority to move them to home education. We are strengthening that guidance, as announced yesterday, and have indicated that we will carry out an exclusion review, which will of course begin with these vulnerable children.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness; I did not see her standing up. In England and Wales, 70% of children excluded from school have learning difficulties. Many exclusions are not even officially recorded—they are soft exclusions. We are in danger of creating an underclass of young people who are lacking basic education, are alienated from society and might become criminalised. Unlike the point made by my noble friend Lady Massey, this data is known and is available. What are the Government doing about it?
My Lords, it is important first to differentiate between temporary and permanent exclusions; the ones of concern are, I think, the permanent exclusions. The figures on that have not increased dramatically in the past few years—it has gone up from 0.07% to 0.08%. However, as I mentioned in my earlier Answer to the noble Baroness, we have announced an exclusion review, which will look at many of these issues. The other point I would like to raise is that we have opened a number of alternative provision free schools over the past few years, and they are dealing with some of these issues.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that some of these children will be denied any form of education and, perhaps even more serious, those who are being denied it are also being excluded from the safeguarding arrangements in this country and therefore are exceptionally vulnerable to abuse, neglect and exploitation?
My Lords, I accept that this is a vulnerable group of children, but local authorities have a number of powers of intervention. The guidance that we will be issuing shortly will clarify that to ensure that they aware of all the tools that they have available to them.
My Lords, we are a tolerant and diverse society in which home schooling plays a part. However, there should be a register of these institutions to ensure better safeguarding, and certainly premises should be looked at from a health and safety point of view. Who is driving the agenda for secularisation? Will the Minister remind Ofsted that the humanists are not the only minority group with opinions? Does he agree it is bizarre that it is they who are the most intolerant and are being evangelical in wanting everyone to conform to their views?
My Lords, we try to represent a broad coalition in education. I am proud that we live in one of the most tolerant and inclusive countries in the world—as I said in an article in the Times today—and we have to meet the concerns of all people. The humanists have to be reasonable, as do any of the other religious groups, and my job is to ensure that we reach a compromise for all concerned and that children are safe.
The Minister referred to home education in his Answer to my noble friend Lady Massey, although that is not mentioned in the Question. He avoided the Question on the collection of data, which is important. The Government do not collect data on the number of children whose parents claim they are being educated at home or elsewhere. The same is true of national statistics on unregistered schools, which are an increasing problem. No one knows how many children are being educated in unregistered schools, although Ofsted estimates it as many as 6,000. Surely the time is now right for the Government to place a legal obligation on parents to register children not attending school, as proposed by my noble friend Lord Soley in his Bill which is going through your Lordships’ House. Will the Minister signify his support for that?
My Lords, as I made clear at Second Reading, we are aware of these concerns and have been motivated by the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Soley. We shall watch its progress in Committee with interest. I am not able at this stage to give a unilateral commitment on registration, but I am sympathetic to the arguments made by the noble Lord opposite. We have to be aware of the nuancing around this. For example, if we insist on registration, what do we do about the parents who refuse to register? If that does not solve the problem, they remain missing. What do we do with parents like the one who said in the newspapers the other day that she would go to prison rather than co-operate in any way? This is an open area for discussion, and I have an open mind.