Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to place a duty on local authorities to maintain a register of children who are not in school; and for connected purposes.
When schools in England reopened after successive lockdowns, the expectation was that every child would come back to school, excited to return to classroom learning and to be reunited with their friends. The reality has been very different. Despite schools reopening their doors, thousands of children have not returned and, as each term passes, a growing number of children have started to disengage with education entirely.
There has been a catastrophic increase in the number of children who are severely absent. The latest figures on school attendance uncover that 140,000 children were severely absent in summer 2022—that is the highest number on record. Those are children who are more often absent than they are present. They may still be on their school rolls, but they are hardly ever in class. Those children have become known as the “ghost children” of the pandemic. Getting them back into school is an issue of social justice, and one that must be a priority for the Government.
Equally concerning, though, and what my Bill would address, is the number of children who have disappeared from the school roll altogether. Currently, we hold no comprehensive data about how many children are not on a school roll, where they are and what quality of education they are receiving, if any. That was echoed in a recent report by the Education Committee, which concluded that
“the status quo does not allow the Government to say with confidence that a suitable education is being provided to every child in the country.”
That is not acceptable. A quality education holds the key to a brighter future for every child, as well as playing a core role in ensuring our nation’s society and economy thrive.
What is most troubling to me and, I know, to many of my colleagues across this House and in the other place, is that we do not even know whether these children are safe. No one—neither Government, nor local authorities nor schools—can honestly answer the question, “How many children are missing from school?” Therefore, how can we know that every child is safe and suitably educated? These children are out of sight and out of mind. That is what my Bill is about—ensuring that every child is visible, safe, suitably educated and receiving the support they need to thrive. While we do not have the data to fully understand where these children are, it is thought that many of them have disappeared off the school roll and off the radar, under the guise of home education.
I want to take this opportunity to make it clear that I fully believe parents should have the right to choose what education their child receives. That right should always be enshrined in law. Parents are in the best place to make informed choices about what their children need, with many parents providing a high-quality home education for their child. However, that is not the case for every child in home education, with a worrying number being taken off roll for reasons other than their best interests. Additionally, local authorities have confirmed many incidents where they discovered that the home education being delivered was simply not up to standard or, in some cases, entirely non-existent.
Similarly, we cannot surmise accurate conclusions about which groups are more likely to move off roll than others and, in turn, how they can be best supported. From the limited data that is available, children who are moved out of school are disproportionately likely to be eligible for free school meals, have an education, health and care plan or special educational needs support and have a history of absences and school exclusions. These children and families desperately need our support, but we are unable to offer it because we simply do not know who they are or where they are.
While we do not have comprehensive data, there are estimates of the number of children in home education that allow us to track patterns; I stress that these are estimates. Nine in 10 local authorities believe that they have not been able to identify every child in home education, and it is widely accepted that the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. It is estimated that by the start of the 2021-22 academic year, a record high of at least 81,000 children were being home educated—the equivalent to the population of 80 average-sized secondary schools.
The cumulative number of children who were home educated over the course of last year was over 115,000, which is an alarming 34% higher than before the pandemic. In some areas, the total number of children in home education more than doubled. At present, half of all children taught at home were found to have begun their retreat from the classroom during lockdowns, but this is not a new phenomenon that can solely be attributed to the pandemic. Data shows that prior to the pandemic, the cohort of children who are home educated was already growing by 20% year on year.
As the number of home-educated children increases, so should our drive to ensure that parents are able to exercise their right to choose how best to educate their child, that every child is supported to achieve the best educational outcomes possible and that all children are protected equally, whether at home or at school. Implementing a “children not in school” register is the natural first step to achieving that, and it is needed now more than ever.
As I said, parents should always be able to decide where their child is educated, whether in school or at home. However, currently our system is not enabling all parents to make a free and fair choice. Research by the Centre for Social Justice has uncovered a growing number of parents opting for home education because they feel that they have no other option, due to their child’s needs not being met in school. That could be a result of difficulties accessing special educational needs and disabilities provision, a lack of support for mental health, unresolved bullying issues or health concerns following the pandemic.
Most troubling is the number of parents who have felt coerced into home education for reasons other than the child’s best interest, through the scourge that is off-rolling. Evidence shows that families moving into home education following the threat of school exclusion are being left deliberately uninformed about the consequences of being moved off roll. This cannot be allowed to continue. Educating children at home is no small task for anyone, particularly for a parent who felt coerced into removing their child into home education against their better wishes.
I would like to take a moment to pay tribute to the many parents who are doing an incredible and admirable job, providing their children with a high-quality home education at great personal cost, time and effort. Having a “children not in school” register will allow us to offer assistance and resources to these families where appropriate, to support them as they continue to offer a high-quality home education.
Across Europe, oversight and assessment of educational progress is commonplace, but in England there is no such quality assurance. England is an international outlier in that respect, and this change is well overdue. Most concerningly, in 2020 the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel uncovered 15 incidents of harm involving children reported to be in home education. Those cases included severe harm such as serious neglect, emotional abuse and intra-familial harm. In three of the cases, the children had died. The panel concluded that these children were often invisible; they were not in school and did not receive home visits. Such safeguarding concerns have been echoed by local authorities, which have spoken about a range of concerns including county line involvement, gangs and exploitation, as well as child employment.
I appreciate the concerns that some parents have about being registered. However, not every child in home education is receiving the same high-quality education that their child is. Not every parent has voluntarily taken up the home education mantle, fully aware of the responsibility it brings. Not every child is safe at home. We are not seeking to disrupt those families who are successfully home educating. Most importantly, the register will allow local authorities to find and support those children who have been left on the fringes of education and who may be at risk of harm. It is time to bring those children who are out of sight and out of mind back into the light.
This is not just an educational issue but one of national economic importance too. Education is a major route out of poverty, opening doors to greater employment and lifelong learning. If children do not receive a suitable education that allows them to develop the skills they need, it will cast a long shadow over the economic wellbeing of the whole country and have a profound effect on economic inactivity—an issue that I know the Government are dedicated to tackling.
It is critical that the development and safety of children who are not in school can be monitored, so that we can ensure the welfare and education of every child. Introducing a “children not in school” register would facilitate that. It would improve local authorities’ ability to undertake their safeguarding and educational responsibilities related to children who do not attend mainstream education institutions, ensuring that no child falls through the net. I hope the Government will take this opportunity to implement a “children not in school” register, which is so important for the welfare of children, without delay. We must act now, or we will have failed this generation.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mrs Flick Drummond, Ms Marie Rimmer, Andrea Jenkyns, Andrew Selous, Lia Nici, Jonathan Gullis, Dr Caroline Johnson, Edward Timpson, Sally-Ann Hart, Mr Robin Walker, Sir Gavin Williamson and Kim Johnson present the Bill.
Mrs Flick Drummond accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 307).