That the Bill be now read a second time.
My Lords, there is a difficult balance to be struck between the rights of parents to have the education for their child that they choose and the rights of the child. That is what I have tried to do in this Bill. We need to get that balance right. Let me be quite clear that I have always been in favour of home education. It is a perfectly reasonable choice for a parent to make, as long as they feel equipped to do it and able to accept help if they run into difficulties in any form. One thing that has troubled me for some time is that there is no registration of children out of school in this country—for either children who are not registered for a school in the first place or those who are taken out of school and disappear. For reasons that I will explain in a moment, this is becoming a much bigger problem than it used to be. The issue is not whether some parents can do it well; it is about how we help those who cannot do it well and protect the rights of the child.
Some years ago, when I first raised this in a blog on the House of Lords, I was inundated with opposition. I am delighted to tell the House that, on this occasion, the majority of letters, emails and phone calls I get are in favour of the Bill. There is recognition now that registration is important. Part of the reason for that, which I will expand on in a moment, is that children are now known to have disappeared and been abused, radicalised or put into extremist situations. We have to deal with that. We cannot ignore it, for the sake of both the child and society as a whole.
In recent years, the increase in home education has been massive and I will give examples of that. I have had help from across the board, but two of the councils that have been most helpful to me on this are Hampshire and Kent. They have given me information that I hope the Government will see in due course. I should say in passing that these are Conservative-controlled councils, but this issue goes across the board and is not party-political. The problem is throughout the United Kingdom, although the Bill applies only to England and Wales because in Scotland education is a devolved responsibility.
As I said, the expansion in home education has been considerable. Let me quote from the House of Commons report on home education. For those who have copies, I will read from page 2, which says:
“In July 2014 local authorities in England recorded 27,292 home educated children. The figure for July 2013 was 23,243. Overall, the number of home educated children increased across the country by 17% between July 2013 and July 2014”.
It then goes into further detail for those who want to pursue it.
The other report that I thought significant comes from Kent County Council, which, as I have indicated, has been very helpful with its information. It says:
“There were 1,203 new registrations during the 2016-17 academic year, which was an increase of 17.1% on 2015-16. That is just one year”.
Importantly, because this indicates where some of the problems are,
“1,003 registrations were closed during 2016-17 academic year”,
which Kent says demonstrates the numbers transferring in and out of home education status. It is in a constant state of flux, causing significant disruption to children’s education and to the school. In other words, the child is taken out for a period and then goes back in, which is disruptive for both child and school. Kent goes on to say that it believes some of this is because of parents using it to avoid school attendance orders and associated fines.
The numbers have increased dramatically. Hampshire, which, as I have indicated, took the initiative by contacting me after seeing my Bill, currently has 1,422 children registered as home educated, and those are only the ones that they know about. That number has tripled over the past five years. Again, that is common across the country. Incidentally, the BBC did a survey through local authorities and found that 32,262 were missing from school for substantial periods. Even more worrying, and I will come back to this, 3,987 could not be traced at all. That is where we have a very serious problem, which we are not facing up to.
I was pleased when David Cameron’s Government considered including an inspection for out-of-school settings. But my Bill deals with a different part of that problem, which is the issue of parents who do not register their child for school at all; therefore, we have no idea where they are or what is happening to them. Then there are those who are taken out during the course of the school year and then go back in.
I have not had a great deal of involvement in education and I do not claim that much knowledge of it, but one reason why I got involved with this issue goes way back in my own past, to many years ago when I was a probation officer. I knew then that the parents of children who took them out of school seeking to abuse them knew that they could hide the child. I must stress that, because sometimes we see such cases in the paper and we think that the parents look hopeless and incapable. That is often true, but it is also true that parents who abuse children, either sexually or physically, are very often clever, intelligent and incredibly manipulative. Social workers, psychiatrists, probation officers or anyone else dealing with such parents have to be very hard-headed and clear-sighted because it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is all right and that the black eye came from the kid falling down the stairs or something of that nature. We cannot afford to do that.
That is one reason why I have always been troubled that in this country, almost alone among the developed countries, we do not register children. Very importantly, we also do not offer much help to those who home educate but need help to do it well. We just leave them to it. Countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia not only have a system of registration, which obviously varies from state to state, but also offer great help. That is necessary if you are in a very large geographical area where home education is often the only alternative to boarding. As I say, these countries recognise the need both to register and to provide help. We do not do either.
In a moment I shall go through the Bill, but perhaps I may make a final point. When I saw the Minister the other day, I referred to two cases which are just the tip of the iceberg. One concerned a child in south Wales named Dylan Seabridge who was taken out of school. He was not known to any other local authority or organisation. The next thing that was known about him was some years later, when a 999 call was made. The child was taken to hospital but it was too late and he died. He had been starved to death. There was a similar case in Birmingham only a few years ago. Today, interestingly, I learned from a very reputable source, a local authority officer, about a child who was taken out of school at the age of about eight. He disappeared and nothing was heard any more until some months later when that child, along with his baby brother and his mother, were found buried in the garden of the house. No one knew where that child had gone. He was taken out of school, he disappeared, and then he was found dead.
The Government have been very good about issues like children being taken into slavery or those at risk of sexual abuse and so on, but unless we know what happens to children who are taken out of school and disappear or who are not registered for school, we are not doing our duty towards the rights of the child. That is why this is important.
As I say, the Bill tries to strike a delicate balance between the rights of parents and the rights of the child. I want to say straightaway that I will table certain amendments. Those who have read the Bill carefully will know that two phrases that will trouble people are the requirements to check on a child’s physical and emotional development. I put them in in the first instance precisely because of my worry about the minority of abuse cases. However, having thought about it for a week or so, it is clear that that is unrealistic. I will seek to amend the Bill to take those words out of the Long Title and subsections (1) and (4) of the proposed new section in Clause 1(2).
What I really want is a system where the majority of parents who home educate very well and want to be left alone are not caused any hassle by the Bill. We need to let them get on with it. That would be the other amendment I might possibly have to table, apart from others that may be suggested by the Government or others. If parents are subject to one inspection and the local authority feels that everything is going well, there is no reason why that should ultimately become an annual inspection. However, if parents either need help or are asking for help, or if the local authority is worried about the welfare or education of the child, inspections might need to be carried out more frequently. The wording I include in proposed new Section 436B(3) in Clause 1(2) would ensure that there was a minimum of one inspection per annum and that it would continue normally thereafter. Again, I emphasise that the majority of parents who take their children out of school are committed to educating them well.
However, there is a second group of parents—I suspect that they might form the largest group—who may want to educate their children well but they struggle. That may be because they do not have access to all the facilities they need or because their circumstances change, such as perhaps taking on a more demanding job or something of that nature. What often happens at the moment is that these children are taken out of school and then put back in again a year or so later. That is very disruptive both for the child and the school. Another issue has been pointed out to me by a representative of Kent County Council; it is something that I did not know about. There is considerable evidence to suggest that children are taken out of school to avoid attendance orders and fines. I think that the Minister ought to look at the authorities that are reporting this problem. I have been told that taking children out of school to avoid fines is a major cause of this issue for local authorities. Again, this goes across the board politically.
The Bill is straightforward in most senses. It seeks to amend the Education Act 1996 in such a way that there is a requirement on local authorities to register. Once we start registering, we can then start to help, advise, direct and protect. The trick here is to get that balance right. I want to work closely on this with the various education bodies, with the Government, in particular, and with local authorities to make sure that we do it well. I know people will say, “Well, at the moment, local authorities haven’t got the resources and can’t do it themselves”, but if we look at the numbers I gave earlier and bear in mind the problems of abuse, radicalisation and extremism, we cannot ignore this any longer.
On radicalisation alone, I would simply say that as more cases come to light, as they do, media interest in and public pressure on this issue will grow. It is no accident that 10 or 15 years ago I faced more opposition than support to what I was saying; now, I get more support than opposition. Interestingly, some of the letters I have received were from people who wrote to me 10 or 15 years ago and who are now saying, “I got it wrong. I think we have to have this, but please do it in a way that doesn’t put too much pressure on me, because I am doing it okay”. I understand that and I want to achieve it.
New Section 436B would put the duty on the local authority to monitor children receiving elective home education. As I have indicated, in Committee I will try to delete “the physical and emotional development of children”. I do not think that anybody will object; I think the penny will drop that we could not monitor that, as it did with me after I drafted the Bill in the first instance. I think also that those words troubled the people who are doing home education well; many of them wrote to me saying that I am Mao Tse-Tung in drag, trying to impose state control on all these people. Let me reassure this House and people outside that I am not Mao Tse-Tung in drag. I want a light-touch regulation for people who are doing home education well and I want to help those who are not. I also want to protect those children who are at serious risk.
My proposed new Section 436B then lists the duty of the local authority to monitor children. New subsection (2) is, in a way, the key one, because it requires registration; it brings the issue into the modern world, where we register it. New subsection (3) covers the issue of whether the assessment will be done annually, or more than annually; as I say, the key there is to allow it to be done annually for people doing home education well. We may even move to a situation where, because everybody is certified, we take that provision out altogether. We must have a minimum of annual assessments in order to allow other assessments to take place when we are worried about a child or the quality of the education, and so on. Obviously, we are concerned about the quality of education on the basics of reading, writing and numeracy, as the previous Minister and Government were, because many children—particularly those who are taken out of school and then put back in to avoid fines and attendance orders—would be left in a very vulnerable situation.
Clause 2 will give various powers to the Secretary of State to make regulations by statutory instrument if necessary. I have tried to phrase this in a way that enables the Secretary of State to consult widely and issue guidance, as and when necessary. That is a fairly normal procedure, which I happen to think will be quite important in this area. Guidance relating to elective home education—covered by Clause 2—is important because it requires that the updating of guidance by the Secretary of State must have regard to elective home education providing instruction in writing and numeracy, and take into account the child’s age, aptitude, ability and any special educational needs. That is because in the present situation there is troubling evidence—I am afraid that I cannot put a number on it at this stage—that children are taken out of school because the parent feels, often rightly, that the required special educational needs are not being met by the local authority and that they can do a better job with the child out of school. Those parents need help. It is a matter of saying not that they have to put the child back into school but that a child with special educational needs will need additional attention. The clause would give the Secretary of State the ability to offer guidance and, in Clause 2(2)(b), to take into account the views of children and parents.
As an aside related to that, we need to commission some research into this area. I hope the Government can do something about it fairly soon. We have no idea of numbers or, as I have indicated, how many children who were taken into home education have ended up in situations of abuse or being killed. Those figures should be available. I know that in the Welsh case, for example, it was stated in the court case afterwards, and it will have been stated in other cases where children have been killed, but it will also have been stated in cases where the police have been involved and the child had been put into situations where they had been radicalised or exposed to extremism. We ought to be able to get those figures. If the Minister does nothing else, I ask him to take that away in the near future and try to get some research done. It is very important.
The interpretation of the Bill is the usual straight- forward thing. Clause 4 goes on to say that it applies only to England and Wales. I stress that I have already drawn this to the attention of the Scottish education authority because I know it has a similar problem. I have looked at some of the numbers in Scotland. They too have a problem, but it is essentially an issue for the devolved Administration. I will forward it to them.
What I want to do more than anything else is work with the Government and any other bodies concerned about this. I do not pretend that I have got the Bill exactly right. I want to make changes in Committee, but I would be very happy to make changes put forward by other people to achieve this end. At the very least we need registration, with some understanding of what is happening to these children who disappear. We cannot go on with the situation where we have thousands who disappear.
I hope the Government will work with me. I understand that the Minister is very new to his job and I want to be very cautious today, but I ask him to look at this very carefully. Several disasters have already happened and we know there are more in the pipeline. It does not do anyone any good to turn a blind eye to this. It is time for us to act. I therefore beg to move that the Bill be read a second time and I will work in co-operation with all who would like to do so.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on devising the Bill and on securing a Second Reading and debate. Home education is an unknown part of the education system. A debate such as this allows a searchlight to be directed to what is a very clouded, obscure and unknown part of the education system. Very little is known about home education.
It is rather different from Victorian times, when home education was very strong indeed. The only schools that taught beyond the age of 11 in those days were the grammar schools, so, as noble Lords will know from Victorian biographies and memoirs, many middle-class families educated their children at home with the advice of a tutor. A tutor was often employed by them and often lived in the home. It was a career for many thousands of people in Victorian England.
Home education is not like that today at all. In my time it was very small. The only cases that ever came my way concerned special educational needs, where parents felt their children were not getting the proper attention in an ordinary school and they could not get into a specialist school, so they asked what they could do. There were also complaints about the curriculum. In those days there was no national curriculum. Every school could devise its own curriculum. If you had a good school you had a good curriculum, a mediocre school a mediocre curriculum and a poor school a poor curriculum. Some of the curriculums were so poor that parents decided they would do better if they educated their children privately. They were very small in number.
I quite agree that there should be a right for parents to withdraw their children. There might be cases where the children have been bullied at school and it has not been properly dealt with. Parents might be deeply offended by the teaching on a very sensitive matter and withdraw their children. I can understand such cases. Parents have rights, but children also have rights. Children have the right to a well-informed education that goes well beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. That is the first right. Their second right is that they can study in a community, however small or large, that is secure and safe, with safeguarding of their interests.
Safeguarding is critical in education. If a school is found in an inspection not to have done the safeguarding of its pupils, it goes straight to special measures—it is as important as that. I am not at all satisfied that there is proper safeguarding in the present arrangements for home-educated children. Home education is awfully difficult for a family. In every family there has to be a breadwinner, so the breadwinner does not see the child for eight or nine hours a day and it is left to the other parent. It does not matter whether the breadwinner is male or female, the husband or the wife. So it is very challenging, particularly for secondary age children, to secure a really good education.
What stage have we got to at the moment? There was an improvement in the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2016, which ensured that schools have a duty to report to the local authority the names of pupils who are withdrawn. That is quite a big step forward; at least we have the basis of a database, but that is about as far as it goes. There have been two reports recently on this problem—the Casey report and the Wood report. The Wood report made some very interesting recommendations on home education that have not really ever been mentioned by the Government. It said:
“They point to the fact that public agencies do not have the right to gather information on the children in such settings and have no way of assessing the level of risk children face. This issue is not covered in multi-agency arrangements”—
this is not only on the education side but on the side of the social services, the police and others—
“and it needs to be”.
It acknowledged that some parents co-operate very closely with the local authority while some do not. However, the report said:
“In both of these cases the local authority is not able to assess either the quality of education being received by the child or whether there are any safeguarding issues that require attention. This needs to be addressed urgently”.
There has been no comment from the Government on those recommendations in the Wood report, which is very disappointing.
As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, there is no real number of those who are in home education. The Guardian did a survey of local authorities and came up with a figure of about 30,000—17,000 of secondary school age and 13,000 primary. These are infinitely higher than any of the figures in the past—there is absolutely no doubt about that. It has become a really big issue and I do think that the Government can remain so ignorant about it as they are at the moment. The Minister who is about to reply answered a Written Question as to how much the Government know about this and the answer was that they do not keep any record at all of home education. That is simply unacceptable.
However, the most devastating evidence of what is wrong comes from the letter that Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote to Nicky Morgan a little over a year ago, in 2016. He was looking to the unregulated schools that suddenly emerge in the background in large conurbations particularly. He said:
“In January, I recruited a team of seven experienced inspectors to work exclusively on this critical area of child safety. Since then, these inspectors, working closely with Department for Education (DfE) officials, have identified more than 100 suspected unregistered schools across the country”.
He goes on to say that the inspectors have already asked for seven to be closed, and I expect that he will ask for more. He said:
“The evidence that they have gathered so far during this short period firmly reinforces my belief that there are many more children hidden away from the view of the authorities in unregistered schools across the country than previously thought”.
Many of the parents of children in home education cannot cope, so they send them to the little school around the corner, which is unregistered. In the work that Sir Michael Wilshaw did examining these schools, he said that the accommodation and the buildings were usually totally inadequate and that staff and volunteers who were working in these schools,
“have not been properly checked or cleared to work with children”.
That is a fundamental need for every school. Every teacher and anybody who comes to work there, even on a temporary basis, has to be cleared. The non-teaching staff have to be cleared but nothing of that happened at all. He went on to say:
“Evidence inspectors have gathered over recent weeks has also reaffirmed my belief that there is a clear link between the growth of unregistered schools and the steep rise in the number of children recorded as being home educated in England over the past few years”.
We could put an equal sign between home education and unregistered schools, as most of them will be in those sorts of schools—and they are pretty grim. I had to close some and I am sure that the present Secretary of State will be closing some.
Sir Michael went on to say this, which is very important:
“I have previously voiced concern that many of those operating unregistered schools are unscrupulously using the freedoms that parents have to home educate their children as a cover for their activities. They are exploiting weaknesses in the current legislation to operate on the cusp of the law”—
a nice phrase, that. He continued:
“Many are charging parents thousands of pounds to send their children to these unregistered schools. In doing so, many are providing a sub-standard education, placing children at risk and undermining the government’s efforts to ensure that all schools are promoting British values, including tolerance and respect for others”.
That series of inspections was very much done in the wake of the Trojan schools issue in Birmingham, where the governing bodies of certain comprehensive schools were trying to turn them into Muslim faith schools. Sir Michael said that that was also happening in home education, so something has to be done.
The Bill will set up greater surveillance, which I think would work without eroding a parent’s right to remove. As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has said, the Bill is capable of being amended but the principle is there. I do not expect the Minister to say that he will accept the Bill willy-nilly. But I hope he will not say that nothing should be done, because if we go on as we are, and if one or two really serious cases of sexual abuse of children who are at home occur, that will blow up under the department—and, I may say, under the Minister as well. The line the Government are taking is, “We will wash our hands of it. It is not really part of our job or responsibilities”. That is totally unacceptable, so I hope that the Minister will be able to say that his department will do more work on this. There are three things that we should ask him to consider.
First, he should consider whether to give local authorities the power to see the children and check on them. That is key to safeguarding, probably including talking to the children in the absence of their parents. Secondly, he should give local authorities power to enter homes and assess the standards of education. That would be entirely reasonable. Thirdly, he should ensure that some form of inspection is available.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has devoted a lot of his active political life to this issue, apart from being the chairman of the Labour Party in the House of Commons, and I wish him well. He has done good service by presenting the Bill and I hope that it will lead to significant changes.
Before the Minister gets up to say that my speech should have been seven minutes, I remind her—she is a new Minister—that on Second Reading, people can speak for as long as they want. It is not a matter for the conduct of this House or a Minister to intervene at this stage, so I have protected your Lordships’ rights to speak for as long as you wish.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Baker, has the habit of stealing everybody else’s thunder—but I have never seen him take out the entire Government Whips Office before. There we are: we live and we learn.
The Bill is very interesting and undoubtedly the best thing about it, and something that must be carried on, is the heading of Clause 1: “Duty of local authorities to monitor children receiving elective home education”. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has effectively put his finger on something of a black hole. We do not know how many children are in this group. We do not know what is happening to them and that is really where we should have concern. Indeed, if only a one-clause Bill comes out of this with only that and some form of basic inspection or chasing up in it, we will have done a very good service to the entire education structure.
I say that because the minute you start looking into something you suddenly find something that affects the little world that I come from, with my interests as a dyslexic and president of the British Dyslexia Association and my business interests in assistive technology. In relation to Clause 2(2) and monitoring and support for education—that is, reading, writing and numeracy—it has to be said that the general provision within the educational establishment for supporting those with special educational needs is patchy at best. The framework for the core content of initial teacher training was put out in July last year. Section 5 mentions for the first time that a few of the most common SENDs should be included in teacher training. It is that tenuous. If you have an institution such as this, how in hell is it going to monitor that you are doing this properly if you have taken your child out of the education system because it is not doing it? Suddenly, with the best of intentions, the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has caught his toe in a bear trap. However, I am prepared to prise it open for him by saying that the monitoring of education, and some reference to it if he wants to keep it in there, would be better.
Now that we have good voice to text/text to voice technology, there is an argument about when you start using it for a child who is severely dyslexic—to go to what I know best. There is a huge argument there. “No, you must have spelling standards”. Let me give a personal example: my daughter’s spelling was better than mine when she was seven. A person who has anywhere near the degree of problem I have—very few do—is never going to learn to spell or write correctly, and the correct thing for them to do is to start using the very up-to-date technology that is creeping into everything now and is becoming more mainstream. You would not ask somebody in a wheelchair to complete a cross-country course, so you have to be careful about this. That is a traditional group, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. We have both come across it; we have both met people who have taken their children out of those situations because the school cannot cope, will not cope, does not have the money or does not understand. It goes on and on. That group must be catered for in this because they are doing the state a service by providing relevant help. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has acknowledged that. We have to make sure we take it into account.
However, I agree with everything else that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said. I suspect that we have been briefed by similar people because I have many of the same points—of course not made as well, but there we are.
People are disappearing—I will come back to the point about special educational needs—into very substandard education. As the noble Lord pointed out, children, too, have rights in education. Lots of arguments are going on about inclusion. I have always said that the child’s right to an education comes first. We should bear that in mind. I hope that we will be able to bring this forward—but if you want to take a journey, you should start well. The first line of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, is a very good start. If we can take that and develop it, we will be going down the right path.
I hope that the Minister, when he answers, will be able to let me know how we are progressing on initial teacher training. I have not given him any warning of this question, so a letter will be fine. I hope we will be able to go on about that so that we can get an understanding about how that core group, which used to dominate this market, is being dealt with in the current education system, and also get an idea of the thinking about people who are taking spurious steps and, particularly, about private schools which are operating under the cover of home education. In the future, we need to talk more about those two things that have come out of the Bill.
My Lords, I also welcome the Bill that has been put forward by my noble friend Lord Soley, and congratulate him on the work that he has done. I also want at the start of the debate want to recognise the work done by Graham Badman some time ago. I suspect that if Graham Badman’s report, which was about to be put into effect in 2010, had been allowed to come into force, we would have already addressed these issues. I know my noble friend Lord Soley said he tried to speak to Graham Badman and build on the work that he has done.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, was absolutely right. When he said he thought back to his time in office and what he did about home education, that made me think back to my own time in office. In truth, we did not do much either. At that time, the principle of a parent’s right to educate their child other than at school trumped everything else, but times were different. It is not about justifying whether that was right or wrong, but things have changed since the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and I were in office. In two chief respects, the context now is different.
First, as a society, we do more now to accept our joint responsibility for the well-being and protection of every child. We have always thought we do that, but so many cases in recent years have shown that we have not always done it. That is at the top of everyone’s agenda. The obligation that we owe as adults, as a society and as policymakers to every child to do what we can to protect their well-being is paramount.
Secondly, we accept more now the right of the child to have an education, which may sometimes trump the right of parents to decide that their child should be educated in a particular way.
The third factor in play here is that if you are the Minister, you can claim that there is guidance of a sort that deals with this issue. However, the guidance was published a decade ago by two Ministers who are now sitting in this House and relies on a trick that often happens in government. It says that they have the right to check that every child is well and getting a decent education, but then denies them every power that they would need to carry out that job. You can tick the box and say that there is guidance, but the bottom line is that you say to a local authority that if it suspects anything is wrong, it must do something about it, but you deny it the right to collect the information, the right to go into the home, the right to ask questions, the right to speak to the child.
Times have changed and it is quite clear that there is a problem to be solved. People will say we do not know the extent of the problem, because we have not taken the powers to collect the information. I thought about the groups that could be included in this, and part of the problem is that, understandably and rightly, the most vocal group is that of parents who do the job well and who for whatever reason have decided that the type of education they want their child to have is better delivered outside the formal school structure. Often the children are very gifted or have great special educational needs, but the way the parent wants to structure that child’s learning is one that the system of education has not been able to deliver for them, or they have been dissatisfied with the provision of education they have had. They are the articulate group and the ones who complain whenever we try to address this issue. I do not want their rights threatened—they are doing a good job, although it is not what I would choose for my child, and I absolutely respect their right to do that. But their voice should not take away from our obligation to protect children who are not in that group.
Another group being educated other than at school are those who are deliberately hidden from society and are mistreated and abused as a result. They are not supported to flourish and thrive in society and are maybe, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, radicalised, or brought up and educated in a way that does not give them the skills, the attitude or the social skills to thrive as citizens.
One growing group that absolutely appals me are those parents who feel obliged to educate their child at home because they have been excluded from school and are advised by the school that the best thing would be to educate them other than at school. This is not a deliberate choice on the parents’ part, but a set of circumstances brought about by a school that wishes to exclude the child, which leads to the child being educated at home. So there is a linkage, and I suspect the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, might say something about this, between unregulated schools and children being educated at home, which I had not clocked until the previous HMCI spoke more about it last year.
The principle in the Bill that we need to know more about these children—who and where they are and why they are not in school—has to be right, and I very much support the aspect of the Bill that would do that. If we want to collect those figures, we must have a way of doing so. If we want to safeguard the well-being of the child, we have to know about them and talk to them. We have to know who is educating them and where they are being educated. We have to check what is happening to them. But those provisions in the Bill have to be right.
Where the Bill is also right but far more contentious, and I was pleased that my noble friend Lord Soley indicated that in his opening comments, is on where we say to society, “Thou shan’t make judgments about the quality of education being delivered”. I think we should make some judgments but I do not pretend it will be easy. This is the most difficult part of the Bill. In the interests of every child and of safeguarding a child’s right to education—a child’s right to education is a United Nations provision—I think there are things that we as citizens can agree on: a child should be literate and numerate and have access to physical activity, the arts, culture, science and all those wondrous things. In truth, though, while the state is very good at inspecting within a very regulated framework, it is less good at exercising judgment and discretion where people are not absolutely following that framework and regulation but are nevertheless doing a decent job. Most of us have talked to teachers and head teachers who have complained about the present inspection framework, and I can well imagine how nervous some parents are that they are going to have that conversation with some sort of regulator.
I say to my noble friend Lord Soley, the proposer of the Bill, that he was absolutely right to acknowledge that that is an issue, but it is not one that we should not take on. It is just one where we have to be sensitive, and I hope that in considering the implementation of the Bill we will talk to those parents who are doing a good job of educating their children and do not want to have to change too much. We should make sure we can accommodate their needs. To ask a state regulation system to accommodate innovation and quirkiness almost does not go together as a request, but somehow we have to get this right.
I welcome the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend on bringing it to the House; he has a long record of taking an interest in this issue. Primarily, it will set us on course to deliver more effectively our obligation to protect every child and ensure that every child has access to a good education. We should tread warily, however, and fear that we may damage some good provision, but these problems are no greater than those we face in implementing any legislation or bringing in a policy that we know at its heart is good. I hope the Bill will get a Second Reading and I look forward to the debates that might ensue.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, who has such a long-standing commitment to education. I hope he will be able to move this forward.
As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, there is a growing consensus that registering home-educated children is essential. That is a change, and it relates partly to the growing numbers; we do not know what the numbers are, but we know from local authorities that they are growing. It is important to understand, as previous speakers have said, that home education is no longer the preserve of a small group of bohemian parents or parents whose children flourish better at home because they have experienced bullying or have special educational needs that, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, are not necessarily being adequately met. If I may say so, the latter is a separate issue but it is still very important.
That is no longer what home education is simply about, and a lot of people are somewhat out of date in imagining it as such. Precisely as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, has just outlined, because the good parents are quite vocal and articulate, it is easy to overlook that there are now a substantial number of parents whose desire is to isolate their children from mainstream society and from liberal British values. As was referred to earlier, there are also parents who are set on various forms of abuse, which is simply horrific, but the other group is probably—hopefully—larger.
I speak as someone who, with the Cabinet Secretary, commissioned the Louise Casey review of integration and opportunity. Among many other things, that review expressed deep concern about the effect of home education on some children who are already almost excluded from society and will face much greater problems and lack of opportunity in future.
I was also involved in commissioning the Alan Wood review of local safeguarding children boards, which, again as previously described, expressed the important point that there is no way for multiple agencies to get together to share this information and no way for local authorities to assess the very real risk to some of these children. There is a lacuna in the law, and we are effectively sabotaging local authorities’ duty to safeguard children by not closing this loophole.
It is an outrage that the Government do not know how many children in this country are being home educated. As previous speakers have said, we have some impression of the number of children who are being withdrawn, but we have no idea how many children have never been registered. I recently did an interview for Radio 4 with Ofsted’s chief operating officer. He made it very clear that he believes that there may be as many as 50,000 children in this situation. There are tens of thousands of children whom we do not know about. That does not mean that they are all at risk, but it is something that surely we need to know.
The other issue that concerns me deeply is the correlation between home-educated children and the growth of unregistered out-of-school settings. It is easy to imagine home-educated children sitting around the kitchen table or in a cosy sitting room. The reality is that some of them are not at home at all: they are going out every day to tuition centres, often Islamic tuition centres, some of which are legal, some of which are illegal, and very few of which are monitored. To give one example, the director of the Siddeeq Academy in Whitechapel was one of nine people arrested by the Metropolitan Police counterterrorism squad a few years ago. The academy has now been closed, but if you talk to the very small unit at Ofsted which is trying to identify and close down these schools, it will openly tell you that it is very difficult to identify their number. Registration would be the absolute bedrock that we need to enable the system at least to identify and follow those children.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, understandably said that some of the clauses—about emotional development and so on—are unrealistic. It is absolutely right that we do not create a monstrous bureaucracy around this and that light-touch regulation is essential. But if the Minister is willing to look at this properly he will need to consider to what extent we are asking social workers to fulfil their duty under safeguarding rules, which they would do and should be allowed to do anyway, and to what extent we also want to involve Ofsted, which would be very different. That would be an investigation and analysis of the education that children are receiving, and that is an open question. Personally, I think that registering the children is essential, and I would hate anything to derail the possibility of achieving that. Perhaps it might be left to another time.
I hope that the Government will now take this seriously. It is time to act. There were a huge number of interactions between the Government and the previous and current Chief Inspectors of Education on this issue. It is not a new issue, but it is now much clearer that it is a real problem and I hope that the Government will act.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of my noble friend Lord Solely in his aim to introduce a register, which I think would be a significant and relatively straightforward step forward. This is an emotive and emotional subject, probably because, as we have already heard, there is a minority of vociferous parents who undertake home schooling perfectly well—in fact, very well, in many cases—and because of the minority of cases where home schooling is undoubtedly not in the interests of the relevant children, with grim consequences. One difficulty is that we do not know what we do not know: that is, we really have no idea about the scale of the problem.
I do not want to take an overly partisan view of home schooling. This Bill is an appropriate response to issues of concern, while maintaining the right to home educate for those parents who really want to do so. I know the boundaries between the rights of parents for their children’s well-being and intervention by government is very tricky, and we have seen that in recent medical cases. But that is not a reason to close our eyes to this. I recognise that, for some children, home schooling works well. With short-term physical or mental illness, home schooling may be the answer for that child, as well as when there are particular special educational needs—although sometimes I think that it is because the system is failing to meet those needs. Obviously, children may have had bad experiences at school, particularly in relation to bullying, and in that case home schooling is really the most supportive thing to do, at least for a period. In other cases, parents absolutely believe that they are giving their children the best possible education; they do not like the options available to them and want to emphasise particular curricular areas. Personally, I am somewhat sceptical that children’s social development is best served by not being in school, but I know that parents can make huge efforts to deal with that challenge.
Above all, it is our responsibility to ensure that we safeguard all children, yet there is no statutory duty on any public body to monitor the quality, impact or outcomes of home education. There is no evidence on the educational attainment or socioeconomic progress made by home-educated children. Parents still do not have to co-operate with local authorities or schools in tracking or supporting pupils, and local authorities have no powers to gain access to pupils without going through the process of performing a well-being check. Parents are not legally required to tell their local authority or any other public body, for that matter, that they are home educating their children. They have the right to teach their children at home up to the end of the compulsory school age, and there is no checking through the system at all on that. As we now know, learning takes place in a variety of locations and does not have to be limited to the child’s home. That is an increasing trend, as we have already heard, and I will not rehearse those arguments.
Crucially, it is parents alone who choose to home educate their children, and they are the people responsible for ensuring that the education provided is “efficient”, “full-time” and “suitable”, whatever that means. Suitable education is set out in guidance and case law as an education that,
“primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he”—
“is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as it does not foreclose the child’s options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so”.
So on the one hand, for most children, there are clear national guidelines around the curriculum including, for example, arguments about evolution against creationism, the need to understand different religions and cultures and, more recently, British values, but essentially a void for home schooling. It is also worth noting that one argument for free schools was that a group of parents could come together to develop new provision where they felt very strongly that they wanted a particular focus. Indeed, there are now many studio schools that focus on a particular curricular area. Of course, those schools are within our overall schooling and inspection framework.
I declare an interest as a former chair of Ofsted. When I was there, there was a growing concern about home schooling. There had been an expectation after the Badman review in 2009 that a compulsory register would follow. Indeed, the idea of the register was included in the Children, Schools and Families Bill, introduced in 2009, but it was dropped in the later stages of the parliamentary process pre the general election in 2010. So we have been here before. Since then, however, and most crucially, concern has grown dramatically and is now pretty widespread. Ofsted, the Wood review and the Casey review all drew attention to the dramatically rising numbers of home-educated children—and, of course, the extremely murky area of unregistered schools and significant weaknesses in current legislation.
Quite simply, as we have heard already, there is no national information collected, which is really an outrage. Local information is extremely patchy and variable. Collectively, if we are honest, we all know that there is a problem here. So I hope that the Minister will commit to helping us to sort this out. Everyone here is willing to help constructively on this. We know that the Bill as drafted is not perfect, and I think that everybody will co-operate fully on a Committee stage, which I hope that we will reach, to take that issue forward. So I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
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.
My Lords, perhaps I should start with the one thing on which I unequivocally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, which is that we ought to have some evidence. I urge the Minister to set about collecting a decent set of evidence. We do not even know whether overall there is a problem here. Are home-educated children ending their education more or less well educated than children who have been to school? We do not know. Are they more or less likely to be abused? We do not know. There is no data about this, even to identify whether overall we have a problem. Surely we must start with evidence.
We say that we have no information on the number of children being home-educated, yet they manage to come up with a figure in Wales. The Welsh system works well. You do not need extra legislation to find that information; if we want to know the number, just do what the Welsh do. I think we do want to know, so can the Government please organise it? Google certainly knows what home-educated people are up to and the NHS knows where they are. The data is there. Let us find a way of getting that information without putting additional pressures on people who want to live their own lives. Let us move towards getting the data we think we want to have using the data we already have.
There are several stories going around, such as the one concerning Dylan Seabridge in Wales. The Welsh Government were supposed to produce a report but they have never done so. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, the authorities knew a year in advance that there was a problem—they were notified— and chose to do nothing. About the only thing one knows about him is that he was a child who was a vegetarian and died of scurvy. How is that possible? If you are going to eat an all-vegetable diet, scurvy is about the least likely disease to die of. You cannot build a system for 40,000 people on the basis of an odd case in the backwoods of Wales. We have to know a lot more about what is going on; otherwise, we are in danger of legislating for these people because they do not do as we do and therefore we are frightened of them. We have to be reasonable, inclusive and welcoming.
I would not like to see this Bill leave the House without radical and extensive amendment, because I think it is set the wrong way round. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, said several times that we ought to be helping and doing better. So we ought. If we did that and lived up to our obligations to these parents and children under existing legislation, I do not think we would have a fraction of the worry and problem that we have.
As a Conservative, I am perfectly comfortable with the idea that parents should be responsible for their children’s education. I believe that, by and large, the state does not make better decisions than parents about children. Even if the state knew everything, it still would not make better decisions. I do not much like the Bill as drafted, but there are better ways of doing these things.
A lot of powers are not used because of lack of money or lack of quality staff. That is another thing that we could do better. I do not like the Bill’s proposal for extensive supervision, which would cost a lot of money when that money could be better used. There is not a statistically valid basis for taking decisions about how well an individual child is being educated, particularly when they are pursuing a non-standard course. There is too much statistical noise in trying to take a decision on that basis, which is why Ofsted will not take decisions based on small numbers of pupils—and that is in a pretty standardised, regulated system. If we are to have something that has validity, you are after spending £1,000 a year on inspecting the children. Why not spend £1,000 a year on helping the children, which would mean that the numbers that you need to inspect would be much smaller?
Some people home educate on principle. We should do our best to embrace that. We should not require such people to conform to a state methodology. We need a methodology to run schools. Schools need a methodology because they handle a lot of pupils; they have to put them through parallel lines through the same system or it just does not work. You do not need that in home education. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said quite wrongly that the parents who took their kid out of school for a week—I agree that that does not work with the school system—demonstrated that there was a problem with home education. No. A lot of these children, particularly those whose parents home educate them on principle, spend their education out in museums and on trips, doing and experiencing real things and coming back to sort out the academic side online in the evening. You can do many things in home education that you just cannot do in schools. We should not seek to regulate away that freedom. I would never home educate, because I could not put my life under the strain and stress that it would involve, but where people have done it—and a lot of people have done it well—we should applaud and support it.
Another group of home-educated people are those who have been failed by the state, because their special educational needs have not been well looked after or they have been bullied and their parents have felt that anything was better and decided to take on the strain of educating them at home. Again, our answer should be to support them. We should make sure that the people who decide to home educate are helped with the SEN and that their problems with the schools are sorted out. That is a failure of state; it is not a failure of the people who are home educating.
There are also people who have been rejected by the state education system and illegally off-rolled to improve the school’s result. We have seen that at the top end in St Olave’s. It happens at the bottom end, too, with kids being chucked out of school and told, “Don’t come in, because we don’t want to see you in our results”. The parents are completely unsupported in the resulting home education that they are supposed to provide. They should be brought back into the supported system. However, this is a failure of the state and not of home education provision.
There is a lot of state-sponsored alternative provision at the moment. Who exactly oversees it? What is going on? Again, this is a problem with the state. When it comes to radicalisation, we talk in a blasé way of these 100-plus illegal schools. Why? If they are doing something illegal, we should shut them down. It should not be a problem. Either these schools should reform or they should be shut down. They seem to wander on for years waiting to be told to improve. Schools should not be allowed to carry on when they are illegal and not doing things right. They should be remanaged and stuck in an academy chain. If that is not possible, they should be closed. Why do we allow this? It is a problem of the state, not of home education.
As for home education for attendance order avoidance, the existing powers deal with that perfectly well. Clearly, if a parent is doing that and the school confirms it, the existing powers can be used to get that kid back into school. There is no difficulty whatever with the existing legislation. If we really want to improve things for home education, there is no need to be punitive.
We could look, for example, at Birmingham, which is perhaps not the local authority we would immediately turn to for good practice, but in this area it is doing really well. It is concentrating on drawing home-educated children into its orbit. All the services it offers to children in school are now offered to home-educating parents. It is willing to listen and works in partnership. The result is that most of the home-educated children in Birmingham are known to the local authority and seen regularly in settings to which the authority has access. The worries that people have expressed disappear, just by the authority being helpful. We could do so much more in that area. The money that we would have to spend on the sort of structures in this Bill could provide literacy and numeracy support.
We could provide access to qualifications. There have been complaints about how many GCSEs these kids take. We do not make it easy for these kids to take GCSEs. They might have to travel three hours to find a centre that will allow them to sit exams. Some GCSEs are structured so that it is difficult to take them as external candidates. These are things that we, as a state, could do to improve the situation. In the past, there has been a system of flexi-schooling, where kids can be in school for a couple of days a week and out for the rest. Why have we not supported that? These are all ways in which we can deal with this problem by being supportive.
We would be much better off with a Bill that concentrated on support rather than one that focuses on punishment. There will be some residual problems, but they will be much smaller and easier for local authorities to deal with so that they can focus a clear gaze where it is needed, not over the whole spectrum, which we could better deal with in other ways.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to give support for both aspects of the Bill—the registration and the assessment that would go with it. When I was preparing for this debate, I had a conversation with one of the elective home education advisers and gained a lot from what she said. Currently, the only way that a local authority knows about a child of school age being educated at home is: if the child had previously been registered at school and then been withdrawn, and as we have heard, there are still problems with that; if the family is known to social services, although not the NHS; or if the parents have asked for advice from the education authority about education at home.
While most local authorities employ elective home education advisers, their role is very limited. They can make informal inquiries only if they hear of children who are at home and not in education. They can offer advice only if it is asked for and they have no right to enter a home unless they are invited. The Bill proposes to make registration mandatory, and I think every one of us who have spoken has felt that that is a complete necessity.
The Bill accepts that home education is a viable option and that many children do well in a home environment with responsible parents. There are different reasons why parents would choose this option. Some feel that the education offered in the local school is inadequate or inappropriate for their child. These are often well-educated parents who either have the time to give to the education of their children or financial resources to employ tutors. There are some families where the parents’ employment means that they cannot settle long in one area and they decide that home education is the only way to provide the continuity of education that the child might not otherwise get. For some, it is a cultural or religious affiliation that leads them to withdraw their children from school. In the area in which I live, it is a frequent occurrence for Roma families, particularly those from Poland, to withdraw all girls as soon as they reach the age of 11. Many Jehovah’s Witness parents in our area choose to home educate.
There are some who for cultural, educational or religious reasons use well-established frameworks for education. One that is often used in my area is known as the ACE Christian education course. It is an American-based system that is very expensive, but gives good training to parents and provides a structured if rather rigid pattern of learning, with local groups for activities and an annual conference. But as we have heard in the debate, some families make use of unregistered and unregulated schools. This is of great concern as regards safeguarding and raises issues around the education being offered and radicalisation.
In other homes there are less positive reasons behind the decision to keep children from school. There are inadequate and disorganised parents who simply cannot get their children ready in time to go to school; ill-educated parents who do not value learning for their children; parents with mental or physical health problems who depend on their children for support in the home; parents with anxiety who cannot let their children out of their sight; and homes where, as we have heard, the children are enslaved or abused. The Bill would put on local authorities a duty to monitor the education that a child receives and to assess annually their educational, physical and emotional development. However, there is a question mark over whether emotional development should be tested. I would be reluctant to see that go, in part because some children are put under undue pressure by their parents to succeed and in part because so little is expected of other children that little educational achievement is ever made. I raise also the issue of the emotional implications of dealing with only one set of people, which can perhaps be rather intense. I note that the assessment is to be done by regulation following consultation.
I hope that the Bill goes through to the Committee stage because there are one or two things I would like to see changed. There should be some recognition of and guidance to cover situations where children are being home educated not because the parents have elected to do so but because no school place was considered adequate for the child’s needs. I hope that these can be included. Not all authorities are able to provide schooling for children with special needs, and currently children who refuse to go to school or who frequently play truant are considered under the mental health team rather than the educational team. However, their educational needs should also be assessed.
I want to question whether “supervised instruction” is an adequate description of modern educational practice; I would like to see something a little wider than that. Alongside educational, physical and emotional needs, I would also like to see some recognition that the social development of a child is part of its essential development. Missing the experience of the school playground and meals eaten in common with other children is a significant loss for those educated at home, as is the experience of difference that is so much needed in our society.
It might be helpful to include in the guidance section a reference to the qualifications, training and supervision of those who will need to be employed as assessors since this will be crucial to the success of the outworking of this important Bill. Perhaps there should also be some acknowledgement of the financial cost to local authorities in adequately resourcing the conditions of the Bill. It is my understanding that around £4,000 per child is paid by the Government to the school, but no financial assistance is currently given for the support of children educated at home. Perhaps this might also be addressed in the Bill.
I understand the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, but the only way for home-educated children to be fully supported is to register them, and the only way to gain evidence of what is happening with them is to register them and assess their achievements and well-being.
My Lords, at the tail end of our reflections on this important Bill, I want to comment on an aspect not yet touched on: the Bill’s relevance to the children of Gypsy and Traveller families. Since the Government do not collect any information on how many children are educated at home, they have no idea what proportion of them come from Gypsy and Traveller communities; nor have they any idea what curricula are used.
An analysis of Department for Education figures, carried out recently by the Traveller movement, indicates a disproportionate number of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils attending alternative provision—which is broader than home education—or pupil referral units, and a highly disproportionate number of Traveller children in that situation: a much larger proportion than there is in the school population. A survey by the eminent former HMI Arthur Ivatts found that in 2005 up to 35% of home-educated children were from Gypsy, Traveller or Roma families; it also recommended registration. The reasons for this large proportion are not always the same as for other home-educated children. For instance, there is anecdotal information that some local authorities promote the option of home education to Traveller parents in a way they do not with the families of other ethnicities. If this is the case, it amounts to breaches of several legislative obligations.
Why would they do this anyway? People of known Gypsy, Traveller and Roma heritage face persistent discrimination at all stages of their life, which is particularly distressing and damaging for children. In some schools—thankfully not all—this heritage is not understood or acknowledged, let alone celebrated. Teachers’ attitudes are often not such that they correct the ignorance and prejudice of other pupils, as they might with other forms of racial discrimination. I have heard of many instances of children being bullied and no one standing up for them in school. A recent report by the Traveller Movement found that this was a common experience for many Gypsy and Traveller children. One 14 year-old was told to “tone down the Traveller thing” when she reported racist bullying to the head teacher.
Is it any surprise that parents do not want their children subjected to this? Or, I am afraid, do schools and education authorities think it would be easier to get such children out of school? There is considerable evidence of bullying of children by children in school; it is absolutely not confined to children from Gypsy, Traveller or Roma communities. Some time ago, the National Children’s Bureau found that bullying was a significant cause of drop-out from school, particularly secondary school. While bullying is likely to be a substantial route down a path that leads to home education for Gypsy and Traveller children, it is not the only one. Among some communities, there is a general mistrust of the education system—indeed, of all public authorities—engendered by the discrimination and prejudice I referred to earlier. There may be insufficient understanding of the crucial role that education plays in employability, or of its influence on personal and social development—all of which I think are better done in schools.
There is the important structural influence on that small minority of Gypsy and Traveller families who travel of fitting school round a travelling livelihood and lifestyle. Distance learning could be a boon here, if there were the political will to engage with the problem. I should add that since the Government’s new, discriminatory definition of Travellers, there has been an increase in the number of unauthorised encampments, which has resulted in the inadvertent punishing of children who want and need to attend school by constantly moving their families on. The Bill would enable very many children to receive an education that fitted their circumstances and better fulfil their potential.
My noble friends have mentioned the Badman report. Its recommendations were accepted by the Labour Government for the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009 but fell through lack of all-party support in the wash-up before the 2010 general election. Tower Hamlets is one of the few local authorities that does as the Badman report recommended. It is time to bring it back. So far there has been no government political will to make arrangements that implement every child’s right to education. My noble friend’s admirable Bill will go far to start that process.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, for introducing this important debate and to noble Lords for their insightful and caring contributions around the House. Home education arouses strong feelings, not only between those who support school against home education, but within home education supporters, where there are significant differences of opinion, as we have witnessed from the briefings we have received for this debate. This is hardly surprising considering that every home-educated child will have a slightly different reason for being home educated. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and others have said, this is a cloudy and murky issue. On these Benches we would wish to accentuate the positive about home education
It is interesting to note that there is little information on the Government’s website bar a referral to your local council, and there is little uniform advice from local councils. As has been mentioned, there appears to be no central register of home education of children and no record of how many home-educated children there may be. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, quoted some figures, but as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, we need evidence. We need to be sure of it.
I was struck by a comment from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who said that as a society we now feel more responsible for children. This may be one reason why this issue has surfaced again, but there is also an underlying feeling that the Government do not wish to know what might embarrass them or cost them money.
We know that if parents inform a school that they are taking their child out of the school, it is required to remove the child’s name within three working days. They may inform the local authority, but then what? As has already been mentioned, if the child is below compulsory age and has never gone to school, parents do not need to inform their local authority; they do not need to inform anybody. There will be no record for that child, who could remain for ever unacknowledged. Various noble Lords set out the iniquity of this position.
I welcomed the intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, about Gipsy and Traveller children. She is a great champion of these people and she understands the issues well. I hope the Minister will heed what she says and give a positive response.
We could all surely agree that the option of home schooling must always be chosen because it is in the best interests of the child. I have some sympathy for the wish of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that school should be compulsory for everyone. I feel that parents’ wishes and interests should never be allowed to prevent a child attending school where that is the child’s preferred option. Yet we have heard of children being home educated because the parents insist even when the child would prefer school. That is surely not right. The noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, eloquently raised concerns about such children. After all, schools have the resources, professionalism and skills to provide young people with the full range of learning opportunities. These include access to not only academic, and, I hope, vocational learning and skills, but sport, music, drama, art and social interaction with their peers, learning to be part of the community. But as we have heard, and as we know, there is a wide variety of reasons why, for some children, the advantages of attending school are outweighed by the disadvantages, and home education is deemed to be the preferred option.
We have many examples of excellent home education which does the students proud and equips them very well for life. I heard the other day of a five year-old excluded from school for biting, hitting, shouting and generally being out of control. His parents find themselves having to home school because their little person is showing every sign of being a little monster. What support and advice is available for those who find themselves unwilling home educators in such circumstances? As the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Richardson, referred to, what if no place can be found and the parents, who do not wish to home educate, have no option but to do so? What is the Government’s response to that?
The two main issues at stake are the quality of the education and safeguarding. On safeguarding, we know that it is possible for children to fall off the radar of any authorities. If they never attended school, they will not have a pupil number and tracking their whereabouts and their progress will be difficult, if not impossible—although it was interesting to hear that the NHS ought to be able to track them.
Alongside home education is the issue of unregulated schools. The noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, made reference to Muslim schools, and we know there are some, but there are other faiths and, indeed, unregulated schools of no faith at all. where the quality of the education is unknown. There is a much greater possibility of physical and mental abuse of children who are outside the remit of anyone with a duty of care and where the staff, as has already been mentioned, may not be qualified in any way or may have no safeguarding qualifications. What action are the Government taking about unregulated schools?
We are in the strange position, as has been mentioned, that councils retain duties to oversee home school arrangements, yet lack the necessary powers to check unregulated schools or the nature of home education that children are receiving. This is one of the key issues in the Bill. There is case law, such as Phillips v Brown of 20 June 1980, where we hear that local authorities may make informal inquiries of parents who are educating their children at home but,
“parents will be under no duty to comply. However it would be sensible for them to do so.”
Indeed, the noble Baronesses, Lady Morgan and Lady Richardson, pointed out that parents are under no legal duty to respond to inquiries from local authorities and that perhaps they should be.
There is much evidence of parents who home educate and do a great job in ensuring that their children develop and learn in a happy atmosphere where they can flourish. Most parents work closely with their local council to ensure that they can take advantage of all the opportunities for their children to access academic learning and socialise with their peers. The concerns will always be with those who do not engage or communicate. How can local authorities ensure that those children are receiving suitable education, are not subject to neglect or abuse and that their future achievements and prospects are not being put at risk? We believe there is a case to be made for visits, as set out in the Bill, but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soley, about the deletion of the physical and emotional parts and question the value or feasibility of these being “assessments”.
I note my noble friend Lord Addington’s concern over those with special educational needs. Assessment would need specified criteria and benchmarks, which may not align with the method of home education being followed or with special educational needs. I also note the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, that specialist assessors would be needed to undertake this and that there would be associated costs. Formal assessment would take time and expertise, which could put considerable burden and costs on local authorities. Home educated children may acquire skills and knowledge in a different order and timescale from those in mainstream schools; they may still be learning and developing, but of course, with no requirement to follow the national curriculum, this could be in a completely different way and in a completely different order.
It would be more productive for the visits to be supportive and advisory. That could be done alongside investigating, if it appears that no education is taking place. If that is the case, it should trigger further inquiries and action, but building positive relationships between home educators and local authorities is more important than tasking hard-pressed officials with attempting to undertake formal assessments of educational development. We certainly support what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, aims to do with his Bill, and look forward to amendment and clarification in Committee to ensure that it achieves its aims to provide a safe, supportive and educationally fulfilling environment for all those children for whom school is not the answer and whose families can meet all the demands and requirements—and the costs—of learning and developing from within their own resources.
The briefings we have received indicate that this is an area of very differing views, with some excellent work but some worrying gaps in provision. In January the noble Lord, Lord Nash, said that the Government were looking at this issue carefully. Can the Minister update the House on this careful consideration? The noble Lord, Lord Soley, has done a service in allowing us to debate home education and to help to support all that is good in this area as well as throwing light on the areas of concern.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Soley on presenting this important Bill. It is undoubtedly timely and we are supportive of its aims.
As many noble Lords have said, elective home education is a right established under the Education Act 1996. In what I have no doubt are the clear majority of instances, this decision is right for the children involved and, supported by parents who have an understanding of the educational needs of their children and the ability to ensure that these needs are delivered, it is beneficial to them. In those cases, home schooling is appropriate and can be nurturing and such out-of-school settings do not present cause for concern.
The problem which has to be addressed, though, is that many children who are either never presented to school or subsequently withdrawn do not enjoy such a benign experience. Some parents, of course, are ideologically opposed to formal education and, indeed, to almost all forms of state intervention—intrusion, as they would describe it—in their lives. I endorse their right to hold such views but it is unrealistic and, in some cases, irresponsible to expect that the wishes of a minority of parents should be permitted to override issues of child safety and protection. The rights of parents need to be balanced with the rights of children.
As my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley said, the world as it was in 1996 is substantially different from the world as we know it today and the numbers in home education are now vastly increased, compared to then. To my mind, the issue of most concern is that, as we have heard, nobody knows how many children in England are being home educated. The reason is that there is no obligation on a parent or guardian to inform the local authority covering the area where they live that their child is being home schooled. If a child attends school and is subsequently withdrawn then the schools, including academies, must inform their local authority of that development. The same applies when a child enters the school roll. The reason for a child withdrawing need not be recorded, so it may simply be the case that the family has relocated. A parent or guardian may tell the school that their child is to be home educated; equally, they may not. This means that the information the school passes to their local authority is necessarily incomplete.
There is also evidence that some parents withdraw their children to avoid prosecutions for poor school attendance or their child being excluded. In addition, as my noble friend Lord Soley said, inadequate provision of special educational needs can be the reason. If it is, then that is a serious issue in its own right and must be addressed. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, highlighted the needs of children with dyslexia. For that ever to be a reason for a parent to withdraw their child is surely in contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to education.
We also know that head teachers are increasingly using pupil referral units as a safety valve to get rid of the most difficult children, often just before they take their GCSEs, with a view to improving their league position by getting low-achieving pupils off-rolled, as it is called. That emerged as recently as this week in evidence to the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into alternative provision. All too often, parents then withdraw their children from the referral units and say that they are opting for elective home education. Again, nobody can say with any accuracy how often that amounts to doing anything more than keeping them at home, if they are indeed capable of doing even that. As an aside, the nutritional effects on those children qualifying for free school meals can well be imagined in such situations.
The educational status and safety of children should not be allocated to a category marked “Don’t know” by government. Child protection is too important an issue for that to be the case but under existing legislation, it is. I have given the Minister notice of a number of questions. The first that I want to ask is one that almost every noble Lord has raised today: why is no information collected centrally on the numbers of children in England whose parents or guardians claim that they are being educated at home?
Although no record exists of the number of home-educated children, the best estimate is almost certainly the most recent, and that was just last month, when the Association of Directors of Children’s Services issued a survey to all 152 local authorities in England to gain a better understanding of the volume of children and young people known to be home schooled. The survey also aimed to assess the support on offer to them and their families. The survey was responded to by 118 local authorities identifying a total of some 35,000 children and young people known to be home schooled in their localities on school census day, which was 5 October this year. Extrapolating those figures for the country as a whole suggests that at this time around 45,000 children and young people are assumed to be receiving home schooling throughout England, but as my noble friend Lord Soley said, the actual figure, including those children of whom local authorities have no knowledge, must be considerably greater. Thirty-seven per cent of local authorities responding to the ADCS survey reported that they were aware of children in their area whose parents or guardians claimed they were being home educated who were actually attending unregistered schools or so-called tuition centres. Serious concerns about the quality of education on offer and the safety and welfare of attendees were also reported.
In the face of such evidence, it is surely incumbent upon the Department for Education to seek a change in the current legislation or, at the very least, a strengthening of the guidelines. Elective Home Education: Guidelines for Local Authorities is an interesting document, not least because it contains the names of the Minister of State for Schools and Learners, Mr Jim Knight, and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, Andrew Adonis. Whatever became of those august gentlemen, I wonder? The guidelines were issued in 2007, and they still apply unamended, so it is appropriate that Clause 2 calls for the guidance to be updated.
However, as I stated earlier, life today is not as it was 10 years ago. The intervening period has seen the spread of unregistered schools, many of them faith schools. Indeed, four months ago the extent of the problem with such establishments led the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, to call for new powers to protect children who are forced to study religious writings full-time in unregistered faith schools. Ms Spielman commented that, since January 2016, Ofsted inspectors had visited numerous establishments they believed should be registered as schools. She said:
“The fact that such places are able to operate, remain unregistered and avoid proper scrutiny leaves pupils at risk”.
I am aware that the Bill does not refer to unregistered schools, but surely it is impossible to separate them from the issue of home education. In total, Ofsted inspectors discovered 286 unregistered schools in England, with around 6,000 young people attending them. In many cases, it was claimed that pupils were being home educated but they were in fact attending those schools each day. Thus the Education Act 1996 is being exploited to enable children to attend those establishments and, for that reason, perhaps this Bill will be amended in Committee to more accurately reflect the extent of the problem.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, referred to Ofsted’s unregistered schools team. On 2 November, in an Answer to a Written Question from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, the Minister stated:
“The Government has had … no specific conversations about unregistered schools with the unregistered schools team. Nor have there been specific conversations between the unregistered schools team and the Children’s Commissioner or Chief Constables”.
In each of these cases, given Ofsted’s estimate of around 6,000 children being educated in unregistered schools, can the Minister explain to noble Lords why the Government reached the conclusion that such conversations are unnecessary? That seems remarkably complacent, given the scale of the problem that has been identified.
The British Association of Social Workers has real concerns over child safeguarding issues. In response to this Bill, the association has said that the vast majority of home-schooled children are cared for by well-meaning, affectionate and passionate parents. However, for the few who abuse their children, home schooling offers the perfect environment to keep that abuse and the children hidden. Surely that should alert the Government to the need for some form of intervention, yet it appears that they remain unconvinced. As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Baker, in 2015 the Government commissioned Alan Wood to review the role and functions of local safeguarding children boards. His report included the recommendation that Keeping Children Safe in Education—that is the statutory guidance for schools and colleges for safeguarding children—should be reviewed to ensure that it covers child protection and safeguarding issues in respect of unregistered school settings, independent schools and home education. Will the Minister say why in their response to that report the Government made no reference whatever to the recommendation in respect of home education?
Furthering the impression that home education is not an issue to which the Government attach any great urgency is the fact that despite David Cameron, when he was Prime Minister, calling for evidence on proposals for the registration and inspection of out-of-school education settings, the deadline for which passed more than a year ago, the Government still have not published the results of that consultation. Why has such an inordinate delay been allowed to occur? Surely the figures presented to the Minister today demand that these consultations are produced as quickly as possible.
I suggest that the Government are guilty of dithering on an issue that is of growing importance—an issue which my noble friend Lord Soley’s Bill addresses in a meaningful manner. For the avoidance of doubt, we are supportive of elective home education and recognise that often it is a very effective means of developing children who do not respond well to a formal school setting. If those were the only children falling under the heading of elective home education, there would be no problem at all. However, for the reasons that many noble Lords have set out in this debate, that is far from being the case.
The UK is currently one of the least-regulated countries in terms of recording and inspecting home education, which is not a situation that, as legislators, we should regard as acceptable. As my noble friend Lady Morgan said, it is now up to the Minister to reflect, in his response, that this should not be seen as a partisan issue. It represents a serious gap in the protection provided to our children and that is a gap that must be filled. I look forward to working with my noble friend Lord Soley and noble Lords on all sides towards that aim as the Bill moves into Committee.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on securing time for a Second Reading of his Private Member’s Bill. In doing so, I recognise the strength of the concerns that have prompted him to bring the Bill before the House. It is, I think, common ground that there has been a significant increase in the past few years in the number of children being educated at home by their parents. It is also the case that the reasons for parents making this choice are more varied. This raises questions about the adequacy of the current arrangements for ensuring that these children receive a suitable education.
Parents have a clear legal right under Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 to educate their children otherwise than at school. For most of them, that means educating the child at home. With that, however, the certainty ends. Parents are under no obligation to register or inform the authorities of their choice; for their part, local authorities encounter difficulties in tracking children, although they have a duty to identify, so far as possible, children in their areas who may not be receiving a suitable education. Some local authorities operate voluntary registration schemes, but these will probably not include children of most concern. As a consequence, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, mentioned, central collection of numbers of home-educated children in England is hampered.
If a child is not receiving a suitable full-time education, there is a process which leads to a school attendance order, but reaching a conclusion about suitability is not simple. We recognise that for many families who educate at home conscientiously, these issues are not a concern. We also know that home education as a concept has strong support among those who see it as a viable alternative to school attendance. For other families however, home education is potentially carried out through attendance at unregistered schools or out-of-school settings. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, understandably expressed concern about these children. We have been working with a range of stakeholders across the sector to strengthen our understanding of unregulated settings, which vary considerably in their characteristics. We shall in due course publish a response to our previous consultation on out-of-school settings.
Ofsted did not include in last year’s report a figure for the number of children discovered in unregistered schools. Of the cases that Ofsted has investigated, nearly all settings have ceased to operate unlawfully. Ofsted is continuing to investigate a small number of these cases. The department has recently been pressed by many local authorities and local children’s safeguarding boards to review the current arrangements for oversight of home education. My noble friend Lord Baker is correct that the Wood review of local children’s safeguarding boards also urged that home education arrangements be reviewed. The initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, in bringing forward this Bill gives us a welcome opportunity to consider our position again.
Those noble Lords who have spoken already have illustrated some of the concerns, and we are persuaded that the changing landscape of home education gives sufficient cause to look at the possibility of reform. One of the challenges of home education is the lack of hard information, especially quantitative information, about what is happening on the ground. The efforts of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services in this area must be acknowledged, and I am glad that it has published the results of its latest survey, to which the noble Lord, Lord Watson, referred.
As the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said, the preliminary results of the latest survey suggest that the numbers of children educated at home vary considerably throughout the academic year. It also shows that most children educated at home have previously attended school; most local authorities reported that 80%, or often higher proportions of the total, had attended school at some point. Local authority staff are aware that a proportion of children now being educated at home have some form of additional need, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington.
What is needed initially is a concerted effort to make the existing legal arrangements work better in the interests of parents, of local authorities and most of all the children themselves. We are all too aware that the department’s current guidance dates back to 2007. That is because the law has not changed. However, the types of children moving in and out of home education have changed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, pointed out. We have been talking to local authorities about this, and their view is that revised guidance would be helpful. In particular, there is a need to ensure that, where there is genuine cause for concern about a child, local authorities are clear about the powers open to them. Parents need to be clear about their rights and, importantly, their responsibilities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and my noble friend Lord Baker spoke eloquently about the importance of the voice of the child in home education. This is a point on which I wholeheartedly agree. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, has asked for more information on initial teacher training. I will respond to him in writing.
I note also the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, regarding the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. I am grateful that she has agreed to continue as chair of the department’s stake- holder group for GRT education following its recent re-establishment. The department recently held a conference with local authorities about GRT education, on which she will receive a full report. Home education was raised as a concern during that conference. We want to ensure that the right balance is struck. As the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, said, all parents, including those in GRT families, have a right to educate at home, but it is important for the sake of children that local authorities should be enabled to work effectively. Another activity that we have recently undertaken is to co-ordinate the sharing of good practice between local authorities with significant populations of GRT children.
I was interested to hear that my noble friend Lord Lucas agrees that the Bill, however well motivated, goes too far in proposing a system that would bring thousands of home-educating families into an unnecessary system of regulation. What is needed is an improvement in the way local authorities can go about their task, which is identifying children who may not be receiving a suitable education.
On the other hand, I appreciate very much the concerns that have led the noble Baronesses, Lady Cavendish and Lady Morgan, to support the Bill today. As already outlined, we also acknowledge that by no means all children being educated at home are being educated well. Local authorities need to be able to act in such cases. We think they already have the tools for the job, but we want to hear the view of key participants in this debate. Accordingly, I can confirm to noble Lords today that we intend to publish a draft of revised guidance documents on elective home education for local authorities and for parents, and consult on them. It will be an opportunity for all stakeholders to put forward their views. We will carefully consider all responses and then publish the two guidance documents in their final form. I believe this will meet the point made by both the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend Lord Lucas about the need for more research into this area. I hope it also answers the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, about how the Government’s thinking has moved on since January.
In closing, I want to say two things. The first is to thank the noble Lord for his work in bringing forward his Bill and allowing the House this opportunity to consider these important matters. Secondly, I reassure parents who educate children at home. We know many of them do this for positive reasons and they do it well. We want that to continue with a minimum of fuss and bureaucracy. However, it also appears increasingly likely that there are parents who are not doing this for positive reasons, may do it only because they see no alternative and would prefer not to be doing it for their children. It is time that we looked to their needs as well.
My Lords, I am very grateful to everyone who has spoken in the debate, and I can fairly confidently say that they all know far more about education in the round than I shall ever know. But I do know something about Parliament’s ability to balance competing rights, and there are competing rights here between those of parents who want to home educate—which I strongly support, as I said earlier—and the rights of the child. Incidentally, in British law throughout the United Kingdom, the courts maintain that the child’s rights must be primary. Getting the balance right is difficult, as several Members have said, but it is not impossible.
I welcome some of the concluding comments of the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, to which I shall return in a moment—I do not want to delay the House very long—but some provisions, particularly to deal with certain schools, exist in current legislation. If he is going to issue more guidance on that, I will read it with interest.
I was particularly pleased to hear the views of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and my noble friend Lady Morris, both of whom have held the challenging position of Secretary of State for Education. I was very pleased to hear that they recognise not only the problem but the type of solution that I am trying to achieve, and support it. They are not the only previous Ministers who support it—of all parties. People across the political spectrum support it. That is very important.
I also noted the reference of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, to the letter from Sir Michael Wilshaw to Nicky Morgan, to which I did not refer but which I am aware of. That is a very important letter and deserves a read. My noble friend Lady Morris referred to the Badman report, to which, again, I did not refer, although I saw Mr Badman a few days ago, and that report bears further reading.
I will not go through everybody’s comments, but generally speaking, everybody seemed to be in favour of a register of some type. I regard registration as the first line, as I think the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said. The need for a register is profound, because once you have it, you can look at the detail of how we can help and what needs to be done in selected areas. That is very helpful.
To the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I say, first, that I was not aware that the case in Wales had been referred to an authority—it may have been a medical authority, I do not know—but if he could have a word with me later, I would welcome being briefed on that. But the child still disappeared for a long period, not just a year or two; it was a number of years before it came to anyone’s notice. More importantly, the noble Lord seemed to fear that something in my Bill implied punishment and investigation. It does not. There is no punishment here: there are no fines or imprisonment, or even a conditional discharge. That is for a couple of good reasons. First, it is not necessary or practical. Secondly, I have believed throughout my adult life that if you want to change human behaviour, rewards are far better than punishment. Punishment is necessary at times for community reasons and for the individual—notably in child-rearing situations—but rewards are more effective at changing behaviour than punishment. That is why, in general, we need to be careful before introducing punishment, and the Bill most certainly does not.
The other phrase that the noble Lord used which troubled me was “too much investigation”. This is not about investigation. Yes, it will be in limited cases where it is recognised that something is going badly wrong, but in the vast majority of cases it is about helping. Those parents who I have indicated are doing it well might have one visit per annum, and that will be it. We ought to consider a provision whereby, after a number of years, you can say that you are doing it well, there are no problems, the child is happy and so you should get on with it. But there is a second, probably bigger group of parents who want to do it but are running into difficulties or having problems with special education. They need help and advice, and it may be something as simple as discovering that the child has a special ability in music, physics or biology, for example. It may be that the local authority can point them in the right direction or help them identify a funding source if they have specific skills in, say, music. So a range of help is available, and if the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, could look at this proposal as finding ways to help people, some of his anxieties about it might be reduced.
As I said, I am not worried about parents who do this well. It really does have to be light regulation—I have said that over and over again, and I cannot say it enough. It troubles me when people write to me who have gone to considerable lengths regarding their parental rights, but who never mention the rights of the child. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, might want to consider that, as well. Children have rights, and I am trying to get that balance right. I hope that the Bill can go into Committee, where I shall lean very heavily on government and Members of this House to get this right.
A number of things the Minister said gave me some hope, although there were one or two cautious notes—he may be holding back too much on what the Government could do. Because of the problems of the minority, if we do not do something about this, it will jump up and hit the Government in the face badly. We all know there is a problem, and we have to find a way to deal with it without intruding on the rights of those who are doing well or may just need help. If he can work with me—and I would lean over backward to do so—we can get this right, and he can be proud to support legislation that improves the situation without imposing onerous regulatory procedures. I think that can be done, and I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.