When news broke that the Opposition had decided to use one of their allocated days to debate ‘Children Not in School’ registers, the fear was that they were reaching out to secure other parties’ support to swiftly enact what the Conservatives had failed to do. However, it soon became obvious that their actual intention was to score political points in the run-up to the election.
What’s been said?
As is the way of national newspapers, the Guardian publishes selected content from the following day’s edition around 11pm the previous evening. Thus, news began to circulate just before midnight that the next day, Tuesday 23 January, Labour were to trigger a debate aimed at pushing the long promised CNiS registers through before the election. However Education Correspondent, Sally Weale, fairly quickly revealed Labour’s lack of understanding when she stated that this was “part of plans to tackle persistent absenteeism.” This was to prove important by the time the debate began.
The Order Paper for the day contained details of the upcoming debate. After the Bill’s title, “Children not in school (national register and support),” came the prime purpose of the motion: “this House condemns the Secretary of State for Education for her failure to tackle the crisis of persistent school absence;…” There followed a long and detailed description of how, if successful, the business of the Commons on 7 February would be devoted to getting the newly presented Bill through all its stages in one day! This was very similar to the historic motion in September 2019 when MP’s took “control of the agenda” of the House away from the Government over Brexit.
Labour’s approach in raising this debate made very clear that their Front Bench team – Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and Bridget Phillipson – who had all put their names to the Bill, were more concerned about scoring points over the Tories than they were about helping children! Even if they had understood the difference between electively home educated children and absent school pupils, the attempt to seize control out of the hands of the Government ensured that not a single opposition MP would back their motion. Therefore, at the end of the two hour debate MPs voted 303 to 189 against the motion, and this attempted coup fizzled out.
That said, the debate did provide some valuable take-home points which could be helpful to anyone preparing to write to their MP to complain about the recent consultation, no matter what party they are from. If you want to reference the debate when contacting your MP, see the Hansard transcript or the ParliamentTV video.
Why does it matter?
First we might consider what the debate tells us about Labour’s understanding of EHE. The short answer is that their leadership don’t have a clue! This needs to be pointed out to Labour MPs, and it is evident from the wording of the motion. It is also demonstrated by how quickly Phillipson, the Shadow Education Secretary, moved from speaking about registers to school absence! The opening sentences of her speech read:
“Today, we seek the permission of the House to make time in the weeks ahead to pass legislation to protect the interests of children who are not in school; to use a day of parliamentary time to put their concerns first and them at the heart of our work; and to make real for one day the promise that only a Labour Government can bring – the promise of a Britain where children come first – because it is a national scandal that every day and every week so many children are not in school. Absence from school is not simply a problem in itself; it is a symptom of deeper problems and a cause of further problems.” [Emphasis added here and below]
That said, by the third paragraph she did mention EHE children – though the platitude will sound very familiar:
“Before I go further, I should emphasise that some parents choose lawfully and properly to educate their children at home. Many of them do so very well, very effectively and to a very high standard. Those children are not the focus of our concern today. Their parents do not have anything to fear from a register of children not in school – the register of the sort that the Leader of the Opposition and I seek the permission of this House to consider in a Bill next month.”
Those with the time to review the whole debate will see that contributors from the opposition benches were mostly there to plug a particular interest of their own, and the majority didn’t mention EHE at all. Ashley Dalton (West Lancashire) mentioned it [transcript / video] and so did Catherine McKinnell, Shadow Schools Minister, (Newcastle upon Tyne North) [transcript / video,] though it seems she had very little choice!
Turning our attention to the Conservative benches, there were more speakers who were aware of EHE, and it did not take Schools Minister Damien Hinds [transcript / video] long to attack Labour’s ignorance:
“The motion starts by saying that the Government are not tackling persistent absence. Let us set aside for a moment that that is plainly nonsense, as I will come to shortly.
There then follows the most colossal conflation – a massive non sequitur – about a register of children not in school because they are home educated. Obviously, absence and “not in school” sound pretty similar, but if the hon. Lady really thinks that the issue around absence is all about children being home educated en masse, she has failed to grasp the issue. [Interruption.] I simply point the hon. Lady who speaks for the Opposition to the motion as it is printed on the Order Paper, which clearly connects the two statements with nothing more than a semicolon between them. We do think that local authority registers are important: they would help improve oversight of those children who are not on school rolls, but they would not directly address the larger group of children who are on a school roll but have been persistently absent from that school.”
Home educators have been pointing out for several years now that their children cannot be “absent from school” because they don’t attend schools, yet our voices have not been heard. All of a sudden, when it was politically expedient, a Minister has understood the obvious! However, we should also remember that Hinds was the Minister of State for Education in a previous Government, and it was during that time that the phrase “Children not in school” was coined by the Department for Education. Writing in the Telegraph on 2 April, 2019 – the day the current EHE Guidance was published – he stated:
“That is why we are proposing to introduce a register of children not in school. This will help support councils in their duty to make sure every child is receiving a safe and suitable education.
This register will provide a mechanism to catch those children who may ‘fall through the cracks’ of our education system by providing an immediate picture of where children are being educated, which will enable local authorities to offer support quickly and effectively if it is needed.”
There are great many reasons why the long-campaigned-for registers will not seal the cracks in the state education system. These are expanding every day and will probably continue to do so no matter which political party is in government. However, if you are writing to a Conservative MP, you may wish to point out to them that it was their party which was the first to conflate EHE with the assorted problems of the state-supervised school system, and that the rise in post-lockdowns school absence is just the latest variant of these.
Hinds did mention HE several times later in his speech, offering the usual sop to “hard working parents” and flagging up the consultation and the recently introduced collection of data from LAs.
The next Tory speaker to mention HE was Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) [transcript / video], who has a Private Members Bill on School Attendance awaiting its Second Reading. Ford was very eager to follow Hinds’ lead by pointing out to Phillipson the difference between her Bill and that of her colleague, Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) – “a former Ofsted inspector,” – the latter being about “improving the data and visibility of these [EHE] children, so that councils can verify that they are receiving a suitable education in a safe environment.”
By the time Drummond herself rose to speak at 4:15pm [transcript / video], it was predictable that she would speak of “home education” more than anyone else. She was keen to point out to the Opposition that she understood perfectly well the difference between home education and absence:
“As the Minister stated, the motion conflates two very important but distinct issues. ‘Absent’ and ‘not in school’ sound similar, but if the shadow Minister the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) thinks that absence is all about children being home educated, which is what my private Member’s Bill is about, she has failed to grasp the issue.”
Really, Mrs Drummond? Are you sure you know the difference? It appears not. Whilst she chose her words carefully when she introduced her Ten Minute Rule Bill in May last year [transcript / video], like Phillipson, Drummond’s introductory remarks on that occasion focused on increasing problems with school attendance:
“When schools in England reopened after successive lockdowns, the expectation was that every child would come back to school, excited to return to classroom learning and to be reunited with their friends. The reality has been very different. Despite schools reopening their doors, thousands of children have not returned and, as each term passes, a growing number of children have started to disengage with education entirely.
There has been a catastrophic increase in the number of children who are severely absent. The latest figures on school attendance uncover that 140,000 children were severely absent in summer 2022 – that is the highest number on record. Those are children who are more often absent than they are present. They may still be on their school rolls, but they are hardly ever in class. Those children have become known as the ‘ghost children’ of the pandemic. Getting them back into school is an issue of social justice, and one that must be a priority for the Government.“
Having introduced an emotive connection with absences from school, she went on to say:
“Equally concerning, though, and what my Bill would address, is the number of children who have disappeared from the school roll altogether. Currently, we hold no comprehensive data about how many children are not on a school roll, where they are and what quality of education they are receiving, if any.”
Therefore one has to ask if her volte face was anything more than political opportunism, making her so keen differentiate very clearly between electively home educated children and those who are absent from school on this occasion?
In his response to the debate, David Johnston, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, [transcript / video] made several references to HE, but added nothing essentially new. However, there is one Tory speaker to whom the final word in this report should be given. Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) [transcript / video] provided the only genuine voice of understanding in what was otherwise a political point-scoring, and therefore wasted, afternoon. There is much to be gained from quoting from his speech at length:
“I have a number of concerns about how the situation that we are facing is being handled. For many years I have been concerned at what I see as the state encroaching on the role of parents, and that seems to be happening more and more. I was concerned about this long before I came to this House, and it does not seem to be stopping. I believe firmly that the primary responsibility for the welfare and raising of children has to lie with parents, and although the state can support parents and help them in that role, it should not seek to take over that role.
I was pleased to hear the Minister confirm at the Dispatch Box that the Government’s position is that they will always support the right of parents who wish to home educate their children to do so. That is absolutely the right position to take. Many parents choose to home educate their children for very positive reasons, and I have to say that some of the most mature, articulate, intelligent and well-rounded children I have ever met in my life have been home educated.“
What can I do?
If you are one of Double’s constituents, do write and thank him for his wise and supportive comments. It is not easy to swim against the political tide. He has had contact with EHE families and genuinely respects them. His first-hand experience and heartfelt response is quite clearly foreign to the majority of MPs, as evidenced by this debate, not only by those who participated, but also by those who scurried into the voting lobbies following the diktat of their party’s whips. (You can find out if and how your MP voted from this page.)
So, for all its shortcomings, this debate should prove very useful in providing material for writing to your MP to complain about the recent consultation on the draft guidance. Phillipson’s lack of interest in the lived experiences of EHE children and their families, and her consequent willingness to use them to advance her own and her Party’s ambitions, was on open display. She was not alone in this, but given her prominent role in the Labour Party, it is more than reasonable for those with a Labour MP to take them to task for her ignorance and ask what their Party is going to do before the election to genuinely engage with EHE families and hear from them?
If your MP is a Conservative, then please consider raising how their Party has been responsible for conflating HE with problems in the school system for several years now. You could ask them to thank Hinds for asserting that EHE has nothing to do with attendance, and follow up by asking if the Minister will now clarify that genuinely EHE children should not be conflated with excluded or off-rolled children.
Of course if your MP actually spoke in the debate, make sure to read their contribution and comment directly on it.
This Byte has sought to report on Labour’s Opposition debate and to inspire readers to follow up the consultation by writing to their MPs to complain about the way in which it was conducted. However, this is not the place to go into more practical suggestions. We have therefore created a separate Guide to following up on the draft guidance consultation. Please take time to read it and if you find it helpful, please share with other HE families.