The million dollar question was eventually answered by Gillian Keegan during an Education Committee Accountability Hearing on Wednesday 7 December, three months after rumours had begun to circulate!
What’s been said?
“What is happening to the Schools Bill?” has been a question preoccupying the minds of parliamentarians and home educators alike. For some this may have been expressed in terms of “What about the registers of children not in school?” but essentially all the questions reflected an ongoing lack of certainty following the political upheavals of the summer and a new DfE team who had not clarified their intended direction of travel.
In such a climate it is all too easy to speculate or draw premature conclusions. Hence a reticence to say anything definitive before now. But on 7 November, Gillian Keegan MP, Secretary of State, Department for Education cleared the matter up whilst giving evidence at a Select Committee Accountability Hearing.
The full version may be accessed via the transcript or video, or there is a five minute video compilation of the key segments of the hearing on our Schools Bill page. Most of the key points can however be picked up from the plethora of press reports.
Sky News opened with “In her first appearance in front of the Education Committee in her new role as secretary of state, Ms Keegan told MPs that the Schools Bill will not progress to its third reading,” whilst Schools Week headlined “Schools bill axed in current form with most academy legislation shelved, but ‘priority’ proposals like out-of-school register still on table.” [Emphasis added in both cases]
On 24 November Flick Drummond MP (Con) had already voiced her concerns during an Independent Review of Children’s Social Care debate that “the Government might be slipping back from the long-held position that there should be registration of children being home-schooled.” On 30 November she had asked a similar question at Prime Minister’s Questions.
She now pressed Keegan for a timescale about this, but was told that she could not “commit to dates or times.” It was obvious from Keegan’s response to Chair, Robin Walker MP, that wider events had necessitated some major reshuffling of parliamentary priorities:
“Obviously there’s been a lot of things that we’ve had to focus on, and the need to provide economic stability and tackle the cost of living means the parliamentary time definitely has been re-prioritised.
“We all know we had to do that because of the pandemic aftershocks, but also the war in Ukraine, and we needed to support families.”
Children & Young People Now reported at length on Keegan’s words of reassurance to Drummond:
“We do definitely remain committed to legislating for children not on the school register and we will continue to work until we know that they are all receiving a safe and secure education.”
However, she added: “I can’t commit to a date or a time because there is a process you have to go through, and I don’t have full control over that, but it is as much of a commitment and a priority to me as it is to the committee.”
Other key points they chose to highlight are:
- DfE is “continuing to support local authorities with their non-statutory registers for children not in schools”.
- “We have published new guidance for schools on supporting children with regular attendance.”
- And “the government is expected to respond to both the SEND review and Independent Review of Children’s Social Care before March,” but Keegan said “we are aiming to do it earlier than that”.
November had already seen ongoing questions about home education or registration in the course of Parliamentary business. The responses are still worthy of consideration as they provide further insight into the Government’s position. On 21 November Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) had responded thus to David Morris MP’s (Con) Written Question asking “what steps her Department takes to monitor the education of young people who have been moved from in-school to at-home education.”
“It is the responsibility of Local Authorities to ensure that all children receive a suitable education, including those who are electively home educated. The Government’s view is that existing powers, if used in the way set out in the Government’s guidance, are enough for a Local Authority to determine whether the provision at home is suitable.” [Emphasis added]
On 22 November, the Education Select Committee had heard evidence from Amanda Spielman at a previous Accountability Hearing. Concerns about off-rolling and rising numbers of children in home education led to these closing comments in Q.141-142. The Chairman’s response is indicative of the Committee’s position on the issues raised by Spielman.
“There are various ways of putting together administrative records, but we do not have a complete picture of the children in the country and of where they are being educated, which is why I have been saying for many years that a basic register of who children are, where they live and who is taking responsibility for educating them and where is absolutely fundamental, in my view.”
Chair, Robin Walker:
“I suspect that you will not find much disagreement around the Committee on that front.” [Emphasis added]
When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded to Flick Drummond’s question (mentioned above) on 30 November, he stated:
“We support the right of parents to home-educate their children and we know that many do well. However, that is not the case for all, which is why local authorities must seek to identify those children missing education. We have published guidance on the arrangements that they should be following and, indeed, ensured that they have oversight of elective home education.” [Emphasis added]
Why does it matter?
All this goes to show that the issues which spawned legislation such as Parts 3 and 4 of the Schools Bill are long-lived, deep-rooted and well entrenched. Lobbyists would not go to great lengths to influence the narrative if this were not so. The Centre for Social Justice’s November 2022 report “Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Shining a light on home education in England” is a classic example of this, with its pre-publication prime time Newsnight interview of key proponents, Dame Rachel de Souza and Amanda Spielman on 15 November. [A transcript of the Newsnight segment is available here.]
Recent ministerial changes in a Department or membership changes in a Select Committee, of course, are no guarantee of a sea change in the underlying objectives of the policy makers. The desire to implement registers of children not in school has outlived several Secretaries of State for Education, and quite a few Prime Ministers. Civil servants too wield significant influence, working steadily behind the scenes to keep agendas moving forward.
What can I do?
So the year draws to a close with a sense of relief and thankfulness that the demise of the Schools Bill has finally been announced after months of uncertainty, but this has to be mitigated by continued vigilance because it is so evident that the accompanying agenda remains alive and well.
Many home educators have made contact with Parliamentarians about the Schools Bill, and it’s important to keep these conversations live on a regular basis, particularly if your MP happens to be on the Select Committee. As well as opposing moves towards registration, we can try to raise awareness of the benefits of elective home education, and in so doing familiarise them with the variety of means by which many children who are not on school rolls do receive a suitable education – an education which prepares them for adult life. Other educators outside the mainstream, such as small learning communities which do not meet the current requirements for registrations, would also find themselves adversely affected by CNiS registers. It is therefore really important to keep emphasising how widely detrimental such measures would be.
A 24 November Teachers Talk Radio podcast entitled “What can we learn from home educators?” may provide some inspiration and encouragement in this regard. Presenter Holly King-Mand chats with two home educating mums, both with previous experience as teachers. A very worthwhile listen, and a very helpful piece to share with others including your MP, local councillors and anyone else who doesn’t ‘get’ elective home education. You can listen below (the news/advert breaks lasts for ten minutes.)