Thursday, February 08, 2018

Baroness Cavendish's contribution: 2nd reading of the bill debate in the House of Lords

Lord Soley's bill was read for the second time in the House of Lords on 24th November, during which a scheduled debate on the subject took place. In this post, after a short overview, I'm going to go through Baroness Cavendish's contribution to the debate interspersing it with my comments as they come up. In future posts I will cover the other contributions, as time allows.

I have already covered Lord Soley's first contribution to the debate, Lord Baker's, Lord Addington's and that of Baroness Morris.

Overview:

The debate was mainly monopolised by people who are in favour of the bill, with the notable exceptions of the Lords Lucas and Agnew, who spoke on behalf of the government. The speakers in favour of the bill listed recent news stories and bureaucratic reports calling for more regulation but mostly avoided mentioning the already existing remedies for concerns, as did the news stories and bureaucratic reports themselves. Lord Lucas mentioned the need for more evidence and the absence of need for more regulation. Lord Agnew announced a forthcoming public consultation into the wording for updated new guidelines, which will clarify the legal position for parents and local authorities. We assume the bill will therefore be deemed unnecessary.

The debate:

Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice: 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.

A "consensus" that so far seems to have been drawn by only one academic, several politicians and perhaps three dozen local authority officers. As ever the opinions of home educating parents or, more poignantly, "the child's voice" have not yet been sought, but the forthcoming public consultation will open the floodgates to those.

That is a change,

It is not. I have been interested in the political approach towards this niche activity for over twenty years now, and the numbers of those wishing to tighten its regulations remain roughly the same.

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.

I'd like to invite Lady Cavendish to reconsider her words here. We don't know what the numbers are, but we know that they are growing? That rather suggests that we do have a very good idea what the numbers are. In fact, we know exactly the numbers of all of those whose local authorities know they are being home educated, which is every child who has been deregistered from a school, plus every child whose home educated status has been reported to their local authority under Section 436A of the Education Act. A child's home educated status can be reported by doctors, dentists, shopkeepers, neighbours, relatives, swimming pool attendants - in fact, anyone to whose attention it comes. This results in the vast majority of home educated children's status being known to their local authorities, the remaining few of which will be mopped up by Section 436A in the near future, or reach maturity. This moral panic about the numbers home educating is just that - or an excuse to try to impose further measures of oversight than mere compulsory registration can afford, in future years in the statutory guidelines.

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.

The so-called bohemian parents, or 'philosophical home educators' as they now seem to be called, are the group that tends to home educate from the very beginning, whose children have usually never attended school. This seems to be the group causing the least concern in this moral panic, and yet this is the only group whose children's educational status might still be not known to their local authority.

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.

What? Home education is about educating children other than at school, as per Section 7 of the Education Act. There is so much spinning in this debate, everyone seems to be dizzy.

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.

Where a local authority .. have reasonable cause to suspect that a child who lives, or is found, in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, the authority shall make, or cause to be made, such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. This statutory guidance makes it very clear that radicalisation is now classed as 'significant harm'.

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.

You also speak as someone, Baroness Cavendish, who is a former aide to Marjorie Scardino when she was the profit-tripling CEO of Pearsons PLC, the digital education giant whose influence on education policy has raised serious concerns. A growing number of home educators is also a growing potentially captive market if it is regulated in a certain way - it transpired that there were digital education providers mysteriously involved in the Badman Review, so we are naturally suspicious about anyone showing an interest in our regulations who has been connected with such companies. Not that I'm suggesting Baroness Cavendish is still connected with Pearson PLC in any way: I do not know whether she is or not.

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.

Any child, home educated or schooled - who is at risk of suffering "..significant harm, the [local] authority shall make, or cause to be made, such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare." The law is already sufficient to address this - in other words, as Lord Agnew points out later in the debate: "We think they already have the tools for the job."

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.

A child is by definition not being home educated if he or she is attending school. That genuine home educators are being threatened with tighter regulations just because the Church apparently cannot be stood up to, is nothing short of scandalous. The illegal schools should be closed and if it appears to a local education authority that a child of compulsory school age in their area is not receiving suitable education, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise, they should serve a notice in writing on the parent requiring him to satisfy them within the period specified in the notice that the child is receiving such education. I do not know the answer to illegal schools being difficult to identify but if they are, then merely knowing the names of children who are being home educated will not help. Visiting them once a year will not help: the only solution is for the state to literally follow the children everywhere they go, which is completely unviable.

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.

As explained above, light touch regulation won't go anywhere near solving most of the alleged problems this moral panic has raised. If this bill ever did make it into legislation it would be an enabling clause, which would give rise to ever stringent annual revisions in the associated statutory guidance.

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.

This paragraph is quite hard to decipher, but I think she might be saying that Ofsted should be involved in investigating and analysing the education we're giving to our children. If Ofsted also wants this, then that might explain their own contribution to the moral panic.

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.

What, Ofted inspecting our provision? Yes of course, it would go into the updated guidance if the legislation ever changed, which does not look likely. Assuming Ofsted beat the local authorities to the job - a battle which I suspect will be left to another time: quite some years hence.

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.

One carefully managed and orchestrated moral panic does not a real problem make.

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