My Lords, I shall speak to my Amendment 171X on the proposal for an ombudsman to provide protection for home educators. I support many other amendments in the group. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Lucas for putting this focus on the need to provide protection from overzealous local authorities.
I also need to apologise for not speaking at Second Reading due to a variety of home and personal health matters. I also need to declare an interest, in that I am part of a family that home educates. I cannot disclose all the details, which are private, but I have two sons whom primarily my wife home educates. She is incredibly well qualified for that work. They are teenagers and their education is going incredibly well. I fear I might be the only Peer in that situation, but if there are any others we might be able to form a little club.
I want primarily to speak from this perspective, as somebody from a home education family, on the Bill and the relevant clauses. First, as many others have done, I honour the many parents and caregivers, including my wife, who work tirelessly to raise their children, often at no cost to the state, for their outstanding outcomes and work in a variety of different contexts and for a variety of different reasons. If noble Lords want to find out more about how amazing home education can be, an exhibition has just been announced in Parliament in the Upper Waiting Hall, commencing the week of 4 July, which I highly recommend noble Lords pop in and see.
I need to start by saying that I cannot support the Bill. I believe much of it was designed after consultation merely to make the lives of officials in the department and at large in local authorities easier. Not enough is in it to help parents and families, or indeed society. It feels like it was a bit of a one-sided consultation.
We shall see how colleagues in the other place view the Bill. Arguably, the way it is currently drafted in many parts is an affront to freedom and makes a mockery of our claims to be about rolling back the state and enabling ordinary citizens to take back control. If it transpires, as has been reported in the press, that the Bill was launched without proper political vetting and that it will be radically altered by the other place when the politicians have time to look at it, then we all have to ask why our time is being wasted with what appears to be an incredibly lazy piece of legislation, designed to make officials’ lives easier, not those of citizens.
Frankly, I would rather that this part of the Bill, on registration of children who are not at school, which includes many in home education, did not exist, especially in its current form. It has not been thought through; more consultation is needed. Registration is a hammer to crack a nut, the nut being bad actors—I commend the noble Lord, Lord Soley, on raising this very real issue; it is not one that we want to sweep under the carpet—such as those in informal schools who, frankly, would raise children to oppose the existence of this country, or commit future generations to violence against citizens of this country, or inflict neglect and abuse. Many of these situations have been talked about.
Largely, I feel that this has been designed to fix an IT problem. As much was confirmed to me by a government representative, who I will not mention, who I discussed this with. I said that the Government could get this data anyway: we have birth certificates, local authorities ask who is in households and we have pupil registration in formal schools. We could triangulate that data—I come from an IT background; that is the kind of thing we can do with IT—to find out who was not in school. But of course, that is too difficult for the Government to do right now; IT is a very difficult area. So, to make us do all the work for local authorities and government, a registration programme is to be brought in when we could have fixed it with good IT and good use of the powers that already exist to safeguard children who are suspected of being abused or neglected. This is on top of a risk that the data, once collected, could be used intentionally or unintentionally to harm, or get hacked, which has happened.
I will not say much more on this point because I want to get to my amendment, but I suggest that registration could be voluntary to begin with but highly incentivised, perhaps using the Oak National Academy, the online school set up by the Government, as a resource and a referrer, which could provide amazing data if parents consented to it being provided and analysed.
What incentives might there be for signing up voluntarily to such a scheme? We talked about the cost of exams and paying for them. It costs £150 to £200 per GCSE; I am feeling the pain of that right now. Many families have to fork out a huge amount of money for those exams.
Another incentive might be the provision of forecast grades in the event of situations such as Covid. This was brought home for many home-educating families, whose children basically had to resit because no resource was available; children in school could get forecast grades from their teachers. The Oak National Academy might be a place that could provide such forecasts, based on its data.
We should require publicly funded providers of education, such as museums, to support home education. Many do so generously, and London is probably one of the best places in the world for home education. From a very young age, my children went to science lectures at the Royal Institution to get science teaching from some of the world’s best scientists.
Many home educators understand the need to catch bad actors and to design mechanisms to do this, but I do not believe that compulsory registration as a first resort is the way to achieve this; it is certainly not the way to carry them with you. I push back against the notion that this legislation will improve the lives of children by collecting lots of data and doing lots of monitoring, when there are already many other ways to achieve the ultimate goal of catching those bad actors.
I acknowledge that there are bad actors out there; there is off-rolling and abuse. If we have to do something, I suggest that we limit it to very defined situations and collect the least data possible, and only when specific criteria have been met—not, as I have been told, to catch home educators who perhaps are not teaching their children some of the things in PSHE at primary age that they would rather their children did not learn until later—or to catch those who are using illegal schools and faking it, and many of the other scenarios that have been talked about. I believe that in those situations, officials should be granted some powers to query home education as the excuse for practices we have already talked about—essentially like a warrant—but only in those special cases and not as a blanket power.
This brings me to the main issue I want to raise through my amendment. Even if the other place passes this Bill, despite the clear issues around data privacy and freedom and the way it has been written without much proper consultation with the home education community, I do not believe it will be implemented for many years, because some in the home education community are incredibly well resourced. They will take the Government to court, put injunctions on this legislation and do everything to block it. It will make the migration controversy we have had in the last few weeks look like a walk in the park, because some of these home-educating families past and present are incredibly well networked in the legal world and so on. Why go through all this trouble and cost to make an enemy of the home education community by doing this, when you could work with it and still achieve the same end goal?
Why push many of the bad actors, who, even when you have the legislation, will just go into the black market and disappear? They will go to a farm where you cannot find them or to another country. The very people you are trying to protect from radicalisation or other issues of concern might not even be on the system once you have built it, and lost all this good will.
Despite the assurances given, and given the determination to rush through this mandatory registration, the vague and wide-ranging reasons for requesting data and the risk of mistaken situations or intentions, I feel we need an ombudsman, ideally independent from government. I have been told that there are ways for parents to appeal to a local authority, the department or the Minister if they suspect there is a problem, but I am not sure that those representatives would truly understand home education, which is culturally so different from public education and schooling—in fact, that is its strength. It would be like asking the cat to listen to the mouse’s appeal.
The fact that Part 3 of the Bill is called “Children not in school” evidences a total lack of understanding of how home education works. They are learning. They are in a school of sorts, just not a school run or paid for by the Government.
Such an ombudsman would listen to parents if they felt persecuted but also be a sounding board for local authorities and prevent court cases through mediation. It should ideally be voluntary, in that the role should be filled by somebody who is doing it voluntarily, as many home educators are, and not paid for by the Government or any other party. They could even work with the Oak National Academy to improve the resources, skill levels and data sharing made available to home educators, with consent, which would then enable local authorities to focus on going after the bad guys and not the vast majority of home educators, who need help, not hindrance or overzealous monitoring.