Schools Bill

By Lord Wei of Shoreditch on 18 July 2022
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My Lords, in moving Amendment 64B I shall also speak to other amendments in my name. I declare an interest, as I have before, that I am from a home-educating family, which I am proud of. I wish there were more noble Lords in this Chamber who had the privilege of being part of home education.

As was discussed earlier, the Bill really should not exist in its current form. It has been thoroughly gutted already, and there were good reasons for that. The reasons for gutting the earlier parts of the Bill are no different from the reasons for doing the same to the end of the Bill, which I am afraid is just as much of a mess.

We live in an age of change. There is more remote working and people want to take more control over their health, and they want to do the same for education. I fear that this Government, and Governments generally, are on the run. More and more parents are choosing to take control of their children’s education, which is their right in this country. We as parents have a duty to educate our children. When we want to, we hand over responsibility to the Government, academies, trusts and so on to fulfil that duty, but in this country it is parents who are legally obliged to provide education for their children, and that is only right. We are not some other countries where the opposite is the case.

In this time of change, where perhaps people are taking back control—though maybe not always in the ways that we might have imagined—that forms a threat, in health and to local authorities. I am afraid I have documentary evidence, which I shall share with the House today, about how that perceived threat has led to real injustices under the current regime, even before this Bill becomes law.

Without protections and, frankly, without a wholescale redesign of this law, on which I may push a vote several times today, we may end up with a circumstance in which the injustices that many families are already experiencing today will be heightened and worsened, and we will see many willingly go to prison to stand on this principle. Having spoken to the Minister and colleagues in the department, I do not think the Government truly understand why anyone would go to prison on principle in order not to have their children on the register. They do not understand why. Is that because they do not have any children who they home educate? I would love to see survey results on how many Ministers, people in the department and people in local authorities home educate their children. If they did then they would take a very different view of what they are trying to do today.

I start by apologising to my colleagues on the Benches who have had to come here in such heat—although, thank God, we are well air-conditioned in this Chamber—to potentially vote on my amendments and those of other Peers. I am truly sorry that my amendment was put in early on the Marshalled List so that they have had to take that kind of heat. However, I ask the House to imagine that they had to face that heat every day for four or five years with no end in sight.

As I start to present my amendments, I shall read the House a few excerpts from a testimony that has been shared with me which has broken my heart. It is under the current regime—the current legal means by which local authorities can monitor and vet home education. I will not share the name of the lady concerned but I want the House to hear her story because there are many similar ones that I and other Peers have been sent. Again, this is happening under the current regime and existing laws.

This lady, a teacher of 20 years’ standing, decided to home educate after a parents evening where her six year-old daughter’s teacher announced that she “would not set the world on fire”. This is a teacher saying that a child will not do anything good in their life, basically. She decided, quite rationally, as is her right, to home educate and the child thrives. In fact, in Kent, where the family started to do this, the local authority visited them, with consent, saw the learning that was going on and valued it so much that it highlighted all the information and resources that were available to support this family. Soon after, the local authority said that it would be a waste of its time and resources to continue to visit this family. Clearly, education was a priority. They were always available and they did not need to have the level of monitoring that they initially had. They were happy for several years.

London, where my children are home educated, is an amazing environment for home education with all kinds of groups. However, this family then moved to Bromley. I am sorry that I have to mention this local authority by name, but it is one of many, according to the letters that I and other Peers have received, that have behaved atrociously under the current regime, which we are about to tighten, by the way. We already have many injustices and many families facing difficulties—I will describe the kind of things that happened to them—but we are about to give the authorities a great deal more power and not even to track down and deal with the bad actors that my other amendments try to start to deal with.

I will fast forward, because of time. This local authority visited the family, asked for lots of information and samples of work, which were kept on record over a long period. The authority’s job was to identify children missing from education. This eventually became unnecessary intrusion. After four years, the family still had no answers; they were still under investigation. Their immediate request for information held about them—remember GDPR, which we will discuss later—was not heard. The family decided not to provide any more information, because the situation was getting ridiculous after four years of constant hounding. It got to the point where the children were scared of the postman coming.

The family requested information. They wrote to Ofsted and they wrote to the department. This is all relevant to my amendments, so forgive me for taking a little more time. Bromley was given a great report for the way it treated this family. Eventually, the family was given a school attendance order, after requesting information being held about them under GDPR rules, with the Information Commissioner’s Office saying that Bromley had to comply. None of the ICO’s requests was followed through. The information that was held about the family was not provided and a school attendance order was slapped on them. The home education was of a very high standard—there was no reason to do that.

We have found out since then that this is a common occurrence. School attendance orders are used to silence families who kick up a fuss, because you cannot complain to the Local Government Ombudsman. I would love to hear from the Minister whether she disagrees and whether she has audited this kind of behaviour, but I hear that it is very common. Most families do not know that it has happened to them; they cannot appeal and they are silenced because they now have a school attendance order. We are about to make this process stronger in the Bill, forcing people to send their children to school where, ultimately, if they do not comply or provide information, prison is what awaits. The Secretary of State has not replied. We have heard before that there is provision for appeal, but both routes are closed for these families. Again, I have other amendments to create better ways to hear their voices.

The point of my first amendment today is that we need to provide protection. One of the ways that we can provide protection is simply to exempt home educating parents who are delivering a high standard of education, in line with current law, from this register. It is, in my mind, ludicrous that those who are doing a good job are put on a register in an open-ended way. At any time, their home education can be interrupted. Those who complain can be forced to send their children to school, so they do not complain or appeal. There is no recourse and no time limit and there is no easy way to overturn this.

We have registers: we have registers for sex offenders and we have registers for criminals. Those who commit crimes are put on the criminal register. Those who commit a sex offence are put on the sex offender register. One of my amendments, Amendment 72A, which I want to talk to later, provides a means essentially to use a warrant mechanism to pursue families that are using home education as an excuse, to investigate possible breaches of the law such as neglect, sex abuse or just not providing an education of any standard at all. But for those many families in the home education community who do educate well—sometimes better, frankly, and sometimes because they have had to remove their children from schools that were not providing a good education, as we have seen in this example, and there are many others that I could share—there are other ways to do this. There are other ways to pursue the bad actors.

I ask noble Lords to think seriously about this. What we are about to do, if we let this clause pass, is create a very dangerous situation. We are two years away from an election. I am speaking here to my Benches, but it applies to other Benches as well. A future Government could come in and, conceivably, change the curriculum to ban a particular philosophical ideology; they could say that free markets are bad or that communism, socialism or green philosophies should not be taught in school. If you then choose to take your children out of school and home educate them, because you feel that it is important that they get a rounded education and that what is missing in schools should be taught as well, suddenly an inspector could come around, because you would be on the register by law, vet what you are doing, ask what you believe politically, observe how you teach your children and make a subjective decision that what you are teaching is not in line with what the Government want your children to learn. At that point you would be given a school attendance order and have no choice and not be able to get out of that system. They have you in your house, as well as at school.

God forbid — I hope that this never happens. I am young, but many of us have lived long enough to see countries around the world where this has happened. Many in this Chamber have left countries where this has happened. It is not beyond possibility that this could happen. On these Benches, we could put this Bill into law and find, in two years’ time, that another Government come in and use the Act against us to go against what we believe is right and proper and say that we cannot teach that to our children.

By all means, let us go after the bad actors. Amendment 72A provides a warrant mechanism, as the police have, in limited means and under certain conditions, to pursue families who are clearly using home education as an excuse. That, in my view, is the biggest problem right now. The authorities need to investigate. Fine, investigate, but do not investigate everybody. Do not put everybody on the register when they are doing a good job and, frankly, need to be left on their own to do that good job. If they do not do a good job and the authorities find out about it, the law already provides the means to pursue them: the Children Act and the Education Act. There are many powers that enable local authorities and other authorities to find and root out bad actors. If we do this, the bad actors will leave the country, they will get into their camper vans and drive around and we will never see them, and they will go into farms, or they will go to prison and it will be on noble Lords’ heads. I have warned today that there are many who feel so strongly about this that they will go to prison. They will take the Government to court and there will be judicial reviews. I have spoken to QCs. The Government’s own report on human rights says that Articles 8 and 9 are under threat.

There is a clash of values: the right to educate children, with free speech and freedom of conscience and faith, with the right to look after children. We need to find the right balance, so I call upon my fellow Peers to support Amendment 64B to exempt parents who are educating their children to the standard required by law from this register. Let us have people on the register who have taken their children out of school but do not intend to educate them to a good standard. Let us have people caught by this amendment who are not doing that, but do not put this on every parent who wants to educate their child in their way and to a high standard. Even former teachers are being pursued, persecuted and threatened. In fact, this lady is prepared to go to prison; she is under this open-ended process that has already ruined the lives of her children for four or five years.

There are other amendments that I want to speak to, but I will stick with Amendment 64B for now and tie it together with Amendment 72A on having a warrant, because the two go together. If we decide to exempt legitimate home-educating parents from this register, we need to catch those bad actors. Amendment 72A goes together with Amendment 64B to provide a mechanism for catching bad actors. We are saying not that we do not want to catch them but “Don’t use the register as a catch-all”, making everybody guilty before they are proven innocent.

I have also tabled Amendment 85A because it is clear that local authorities and even the department itself, I am sad to say, have not been following GDPR rules. When you ask them for information, they drag their feet and do not provide it or agree to remove it if it was unnecessary. I am greatly fearful that, even though the argument will be that the GDPR law is already sufficient, it is not being followed by local authorities or departments, so we need to do something about that. If a local authority abuses the information that it is given there should be consequences, but right now there are not. Right now, there is a flagrant disregard of the law on GDPR in that respect, and we have received lots of evidence in relation to this that I could present if I am pressed.

I have two final amendments in this group. Amendment 86A in my name relates to a refusal to provide info not being sufficient reason to impose a school attendance order on a family. In this instance, the fact that the teacher or home educator did not provide information was seen as evidence that they were not educating their children properly. If you do not provide education and choose on principle not to provide that information, that should not mean that you are not educating your children well or that a school attendance order is put on them. This amendment is to prevent such occurrences happening again.

Finally, I support Amendment 118C on a code of conduct, but others will speak to that. I will give way and let them do that now.

Source: Hansard