My Lords, parents have the right to educate their children at home and many do so very well, sometimes in very difficult circumstances. However, there are some cases in which children are not provided with a suitable education. We remain committed to a form of registration for children not in school. Further details on this will be in the government response to the Children Not in School consultation, which we will publish in the coming months.
The Minister and her predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, have been supportive of the underlying principles of my Bill, and I welcome that. The whole House has given it its support. It was also welcomed throughout the country in the government consultation, so I really ask: when are we going to act on this? It is urgent.
My Lords, unfortunately, I can give the noble Lord no further details on the time. He will be aware that when we launched the consultation on the register in April 2019, we also issued significantly strengthened guidance to local authorities, outlining the current powers and duties they have in relation to children who might not be in school in their local area.
My Lords, parents often choose home schooling to escape the rigidity, values and standardisations of public education. Some people are deeply fearful that a register might seek to reimpose this. Will Her Majesty’s Government assure us that this register is for safety and quality purposes only and that parents will be able to continue to exercise their discretion and freedom of conscience over what and how best to educate their children?
My Lords, obviously within our public schools system there are different ethoses, including, of course, many Church of England schools. The statutory duty on parents is that they have to ensure that their children are receiving a suitable education. Obviously, that can be at home. In the consultation there was an obligation on parents to notify the local authority, because a register without any duty to notify would not be a register at all.
My Lords, the Government are clear that many parents provide elective home education and do it extremely well. The outcomes for their children are excellent, including for many children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, in the consultation it was clear that we need the data to find out where certain children are being electively home educated.
My Lords, I am disappointed that the Minister was unable to give a timeframe for the register. In the meantime, is any work being done to assess the extent to which fundamentalist religious parents, in particular, are preventing their children receiving appropriate education and, indeed, teaching in English?
My Lords, as I have outlined, every parent, regardless of their religious persuasion, has a duty to ensure that their child receives a suitable education. If a parent removes their child from school—and obviously during Covid we have seen a lot of movement of people and removal from the school roll—we have strengthened the regulations so that head teachers have to inform the local authority and have a specific ground for removing a child from a school roll.
My Lords, while a few parents educate their children at home well and have nothing to fear from a register, a very large number of children who are not educated in mainstream schools are in real trouble. Two groups cause particular concern: those who are taught the narrow and often anti-social curriculum of unregistered or illegal schools, which are often also unsafe and unhygienic, and the significant proportion of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children who drop out of secondary school, usually through bullying, and whose parents are not equipped to teach them. How can we leave such children at the mercy of gangs and county lines any longer?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct in relation to unregistered schools. We have been aware of this issue and Ofsted has been resourced to do this. Between 1 January 2016 and 31 March this year, 494 inspections of suspected unregistered schools took place. Some 166 warning notices were given and 91 settings have been closed, so we are alert to this issue. We are aware that it is important that children are on a school roll or being electively home educated because they are exposed to certain risks if they are not in either of those settings.
My Lords, I welcome that answer, which kind of precludes what I was going to ask. Ofsted has spoken recently about sham home education being used as a cover for illegal schools with extreme methods promoting extreme radical views. The Government have committed to cracking down on illegal schools and I welcome the comments the Minister has already made. Do the Government have a schedule of progress? We know that a number of schools have already been identified. Does the Minister have an idea of how many schools have been closed so far? What is the Government’s estimate of how many of these illegal schools exist?
My Lords, as I have said, 91 of these settings have been closed or ceased to operate when they were inspected. We are looking at whether Ofsted needs additional powers when it goes into these settings. Every parent who sends their child to that setting has a duty to ensure that they are receiving a suitable education. We reminded local authorities in the guidance from April 2019, which I mentioned, of the suite of powers and duties they currently have, whether that is prosecution or school attendance orders, to ensure that young people are getting the education they have a right to.
My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister has said, the Government have introduced a voluntary code of practice for out-of-school settings. While this is a start, it is unlikely that the villains who operate unsafe, part-time settings and illegal schools, such as those we have heard about from the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, and others, will take note of this. What steps are the Government taking to protect children in these settings from threats such as unsafe conditions and religious extremism?
My Lords, many out-of-school settings offer a very valuable service, particularly to those who electively home educate, because they offer services to groups of children that parents alone potentially cannot offer. We have issued that voluntary code of practice. Many of those settings are charities so they have responsibilities to the Charity Commission as regulated bodies. We also have given £3 million to local authorities to examine ways in which they can boost local capacity to intervene when there is a safeguarding issue. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard every child in their area.
My Lords, I agree with noble Lords who have said that many parents are able to—and indeed do—successfully home educate their children. However, with respect, that is not the issue here. Is it not a scandal that an accurate figure for school-age children not being educated in school is not available? Local authorities are not required to keep a register and they cannot visit children at home against the wishes of the parents. The latest figure, published by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator in February last year, put it at around 60,000. That was before Covid closures, since when thousands of children have failed to return to school. I hear what the Minister says about the consultation but is it not now time for a compulsory register of home-schooled children, maintained by local authorities as a safeguarding measure? If she will not bring forward government legislation, will the Government commit to supporting a Private Member’s Bill such as the one introduced in 2017 by my noble friend Lord Soley?
My Lords, in relation to the register, that is precisely the reason we are committed to a system of registration so that there is an accurate dataset. We have made it clear that if a child has been in school, the head teacher must have a specified reason for removing that child from the roll. In addition to the two groups of children—those on the roll and those who are being electively home educated—it is important to remember that when a head teacher does not have one of the specified grounds, it may relate to a child missing from education, which is a third group. Local authorities have specific, named people who co-ordinate. A lot of children will have dropped off the school roll in one area during Covid and we have a system to make sure that when they, we hope, appear on the school roll in another local authority that data is connected. Let us not forget that third group of particularly vulnerable children—those who are missing from education.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the tone of her reply so far. Will she take this opportunity to give us an assurance that an assessment of the education provided for a child will be taken in each case and that that assessment will have knowledge of things such as special educational needs so that something accurate can be said about what is happening to that child’s education? Ultimately, the child is entitled to an education.
The noble Lord is correct that “suitable” takes into account different developmental and other characteristics of the child. Any special educational needs that a child has are included in the current statutory definition of a suitable education. What detail the register will or will not include are matters to be determined and will be in the response to the consultation.