Thanks to proactive engagement on the part of their constituents, some contributors to the recent Westminster Hall debate had investigated ‘further than a headline’ – and it showed
What’s been said?
A recent Byte gives the background to a Westminster Hall debate on home education scheduled by the Petitions Committee in response to two e-petitions. The debate took place on Monday 27 March. Proceedings may be viewed on parliament TV, and the transcript is available here.
Earlier in March, the Petitions Committee had emailed signatories with the following request:
“To inform the debate, we would like to hear from you about your experiences of and views on home education, including the Government’s proposal for local authority administered registers for children not in school (CNiS).”
Prospective respondents could submit feedback anonymously. A summary of responses would be published on the Parliament website, shared with MPs and might be referred to in the debate or within other parliamentary documents.
This summary was published on 22 March and is an extremely worthwhile read. Despite the short response window, the Committee heard from just over four thousand five hundred people, 64% of whom self-identified as home educators, and the remainder as ‘interested individuals.’ Perhaps the most significant statistic is the amazing 82% of respondents who said they opposed the creation of local authority registers for children not in school.
Nick Fletcher opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee, and in attendance were Nick Gibb (Conservative Minister of State for Schools), and Stephen Morgan (Labour Shadow Schools Minister).
Why does it matter?
As survey respondents were reminded, petitions debates are ‘general’ debates which allow MPs from all parties to discuss the important issues raised by one or more petitions, and put their concerns to Government Ministers. They do not conclude with a vote to implement the request of a petition.
Though sparsely attended, this debate did indeed shed helpful light on what those MPs present perceived to be the problems, and how they have come to believe that a CNiS register would contribute to resolving some of these.
Fletcher’s opening speech was both comprehensive and balanced, acknowledging the obvious problem with school attendance, but posing some fundamental questions about whether a register would help. Were registers necessary? “Or should local authorities just do a better job with the resources and powers that they have?” Observing that complex backgrounds have bearing on the numbers not in school, he also noted that “that is what many professionals would like to tackle.”
His summary of the petitioners’ concerns demonstrated that he had engaged meaningfully with them on a number of issues including, “I can see their point: it would be a fundamental change in the relationship between the state, parents and children.” [Emphasis added]
Potential overreach by local authorities had already been mentioned by Fletcher, but it was Naz Shah (Bradford West) who really went to town on that one. Reiterating some of Fletcher’s concerns, she emphasised the need for “the correct guidance, checks and balances” without which even well-intended legislation can have “unintended outcomes and consequences.” She then appealed for the Government “to work with stakeholders and the families of home-educated children to ensure that the safety of children is considered, and that they have their rights protected and can carry out their choices.”
It was less encouraging to hear how readily some MPs had picked up the standard narrative, whilst seemingly less engaged with the lived experience of stakeholders. Input from Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) was presented in a very ‘reasonable’ but long-winded manner, reiterating familiar concerns about county lines, and the need for reassurance about a ‘suitable education’ expressed by bodies such Ofsted or the Education Committee.
He also voiced additional concerns about illiteracy amongst HE parents within GRT communities in his area, appealed for Government consideration of UNCRC Article 28, and urged comparison with other European countries on the matter of regulating HE, due to the fact that England is an ‘outlier’ in this regard.
Using emotive language and rhetorical questions and appealing to Members’ better nature, Selous concluded his lobbying by urging the Minister to “progress down the route that the Secretary of State has said she wants to go down.”
Brief interventions were also made by other attendees, including one from Andrea Jenkyns (Con. Morley & Outwood) on how concerns about the content of RSE were driving an increased uptake of home education in her constituency.
Ministerial responses brought the debate to a close. For Labour, Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan reiterated praise for those families making a good job of HE, but had clearly taken on board the familiar conflation of educational and safeguarding concerns. He was more realistic, however, about what registration could and could not achieve, “While a register in itself will not keep children safe, it will assist in our understanding of how many are being home educated and help us to identify those who are vulnerable to harm.”
Predictably, he then challenged successive Conservative-led Governments’ ‘inaction,’ and pressed for clarification of “when the legislative timetable allows” might mean.
For the Government, Nick Gibb did his best to walk the tightrope of keeping all parties satisfied, referring to what had struck him from the survey, reiterating the Department’s commitment to establishing a LA-administered registration system, but at the same time reminding members that the Government had not agreed with the Education Committee that greater assessment of home educators was required. ‘Existing powers are sufficient for reasons I have set out,’ he asserted.
In response to repeated and emotional questions about timing from Marie Rimmer (Lab. St Helens South and Whiston), Gibb restated the Government’s determination to “press ahead with the provisions in the Schools Bill relating to the introduction of a compulsory register.” One new on the record commitment, however, was the Department’s intention to review their guidance for local authorities and parents “later this year.”
Whilst affirming the Department’s ongoing opinion that a centralised definition of “suitable education” would not be in the interests of children, families or local authorities, there were worrying allusions to criteria such as following ‘a broad and balanced national curriculum’ or ‘the undertaking of public examinations’ which the Department – Gibb included – was said to believe “would constitute strong evidence that the education received by a child is suitable.”
Nick Fletcher’s closing words were well chosen, though space precludes quoting them in detail. He was at pains to put on record that it was not he who had secured the debate; this was down to the Committee. Probably the most significant point he made was with reference to his own journey of understanding about the matter of registration:
“I came into this thinking, “Yes, let’s have a register. Forget about it – just let’s do a register.” But when we delve into this subject, we find out what the issues really are and why people are concerned about it, so it has definitely been an education for me.”
What can I do?
Read the summary of survey responses, and keep it on file for future reference.
Listen carefully to the debate or read the transcript, noting key points to think about or discuss with other HE families you know.
Fletcher’s and Shah’s contributions serve to remind us how valuable it is for home educators in each constituency to make the time to engage with their MPs. As stated in a previous Byte, “…personal connections are generally more productive than just letters. You don’t have to go alone; in the first instance, members from two local HE families could be a helpful combination – for you and for them.”
In this instance we can be thankful for those who initiated the petitions, speaking up for parental freedom and warning against intrusion of family privacy. We can also be glad for Fletcher’s and Shah’s constituents who made the effort to engage with them. These MPs could so easily have just absorbed the prevailing parliamentary and media narrative, without giving the issue further thought.
Every home educator resident in the UK has an MP, and there is a high probability that there will be home educators in almost every constituency. When a front bench Labour MP has the humility to acknowledge publicly that she had “a huge learning experience” through listening to home educators in her constituency, what are we waiting for? Carpe diem!