Thursday, June 04, 2009

Home Education in the House of Lords

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I share doubts, especially those expressed by my noble friend Lord Baker, about whether the Bill will turn out to be a good thing in the end, but doubtless there are good things in it. I start, though, with something which is not in it but which I think the Government intend should be in it, and that is home education.

I smell a rat when it comes to home education. A few months ago we heard very critical remarks from the NSPCC—since withdrawn—about the link between home education and child abuse. This was followed fairly rapidly by the appointment of a review into home education by Graham Badman, who is not at all a bad man but quite a sensible and well integrated individual. None the less, he is due to report this month. A typical pattern would be that we then get a rushed Henry VIII clause inserted at Report, giving the Government power to do what they want with regulations concerning home education. I do not think that is appropriate. First, it strikes at the heart of our attitude to education, which is that it is the responsibility of the parent to educate the child. An attack on that needs to be very carefully considered.

Secondly, many of the people indulging in home education have done so to escape just the sort of situations that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, described of terrible schools, terrible circumstances, insupportable effects on a much loved child and parents giving up their lives to support that child. To be corralled back into school under a Henry VIII clause, however well intentioned, is not something that I am prepared to contemplate.

I have talked to the Minister about this and have offered her two ways forward: she can give me a promise in her speech that nothing will appear in Committee, or on Report or at Third Reading to implement any of the recommendations of Graham Badman’s review, or we can have some long debates in Committee on home education and the many aspects of it which need to be considered, because they do need to be considered.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, there is a move to integrate the whole business of child protection so that many more agencies work together to take an interest in what is happening to children. We have the children’s database, which will mean that for the first time local authorities will know who in their area is being home educated, and will not have the excuse that many of them have used to date for not paying much attention to this and letting parents get on with doing it in their own way. Therefore, the need to understand what is happening, to protect what is happening and to support it where it should be supported is going to get to us one way or another. In my view we should be extremely positive about home education.

We went through an analogous process a decade or so ago with the National Health Service when we started to recognise that people caring for the ill at home were doing a useful job, that enabling old people to stay in their homes was a useful thing and that, rather than standing back and just letting these people suffer and pay on their own, the state should offer support because that benefited everybody. That, I think, is the case with home education. Most of these people are doing an excellent job but receive absolutely no support from the state. They are not even get allocated centres where their children can take examinations. Putting your child in for a GCSE is an immensely difficult thing to do if you are a home educator because there are no facilities for that. Local authorities provide all sorts of facilities for children in their charge—including swimming, first aid and cycling proficiency lessons—that are closed to home educators. The Government could do many things to support home education, and it would be great progress if that happened. It would benefit not only the children but the parents and the Government.

The first thing to do in that direction is to open proper, permanent and well understood communications between the Government and the home education community. All sorts of things are happening in legislation. The current Welfare Reform Bill is one area, but there has been secondary regulation in other areas which impact on home education. The Government ought to understand how home education works, the way in which it will be dealt with when it comes to child protection, and assessing the quality of education needs to be understood and thought through and be done in a positive way. In Committee, I shall be encouraging the Government to take up the suggestion by Education Otherwise, the principal charity in this area, that there should be a permanent conclave within, I suspect, the Department for Children, Schools and Families, where discussions will take place between officials and home educators about how the regulation and support of home education should evolve. That may be the limit of it, or it may be much more extensive, depending on what the noble Baroness says to me.

source (scroll down to 5.25pm)

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