Schools Minister quizzed about CNiS registers by Education Committee

Schools Minister quizzed about CNiS registers by Education Committee

MPs press the Government on attendance figures and urge prompt action on registers

What’s been said?

On Tuesday 27 June, the Education Committee held the final oral evidence session related to its inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. The meeting was chaired by Robin Walker. The two witnesses on this occasion were: Nick Gibb Minister of State for Schools, and Graham Archer, Interim Director General for Families Group, Department for Education.

Transcript available here, video here, and a Sky News report on the meeting here.

After questions from various members about driving down the current rate of absence, Flick Drummond was keen to introduce the matter of registers, saying (Q201):

“That brings me to my next point, the out-of-school register, on which I have a ten-minute rule Bill. I hope the Department will take it very seriously and take it forward as soon as possible. Is it still a priority for the Department?”

This part of the meeting (Q201-209) is worthy of careful scrutiny, as it yielded some clearer insights as to the Government’s present position on this:

Gibb responded:

“Yes, it is. We think a register of children not in school is important and we consulted on it. Again, we do not have a legislative vehicle to introduce it, but we are still committed to doing so.”

After Drummond pressed for reassurance that her ten minute rule bill would be progressed in short order, Gibb then revealed that discussions about ways and means were already ongoing, saying:

“I think our officials are talking to you about the vehicle in Parliament that we can use.”

Both Drummond and the Chairman were quick to affirm the level of cross-party support, with Walker reminding the Committee that the Secretary of State had described the register as her “top legislative priority.”

Discussion around the figures for children potentially missing education later afforded Drummond another opportunity to emphasise the importance of the register.

Gibb’s response was more nuanced here, noting that children missing education was a “more general issue.” On the one hand he was at pains to stress that the Government “take it very seriously,” and do “want to make sure that we know where children are, because there has been an increase.”

On the other, he stated that “Home education is a perfectly acceptable form of education for children,” and referred to constituents of his “who educate their children brilliantly.” He then went on to detail a range of associated concerns, such as parents unable to find SEN provision for their child, parents struggling with home educating after a fall-out with the school, HE being used as “an excuse for attending more extremist forms of education in unregistered settings,” and “other safeguarding issues.”

Overall, Drummond appeared very satisfied with the outcome of her queries, concluding:

“Brilliant. That is a good commitment, on the microphone, that you are definitely going forward as soon as possible with the register.” [Emphasis added in all cases]

She also confirmed that she looked forward to talking to the officials; “They have not approached me yet, but I want to push this forward as quickly as possible.”

Ian Mearns, a long-time supporter of registration, weighed in next, noting that the Government were “hardly over-burdening Parliament at the moment,” and pressing for urgent action “in this parliamentary session.”

He also pressed Gibb hard about the reduced number of Education Welfare Officers, believing that whilst local authorities have the responsibility, “they do not have the resources or means to do this effectively.”

Why does it matter?

The subject of this particular inquiry concerns school attendance and disadvantaged pupils, but the usual tendency to conflate pupils and children serves only to perpetuate existing confusion in the minds of parliamentarians. The boundaries of discussion are then frequently extended to include children from various sectors not directly concerned with HE where members may have potential concerns. (The term “children not in school” should not automatically be equated with children not in receipt of a suitable education any more than “children in school” equates with being in receipt of one.)

This ties in with the more fundamental and very familiar conflation of safeguarding and education, and the boundaries of parental and local authority responsibilities. Blurred understanding in these areas have somehow led to registration coming to be viewed as the silver bullet to address every problem. Any thinking person knows that simply having a child’s name ‘on a list’ will achieve very little. The vast majority of children with other issues are already known to children’s services, with their names already on several lists.

Developments over the next few days further illustrated how unacceptably high levels of school absence are motivating increased pressure for CNiS registers, though discerning observers will not overlook the ongoing, underlying agenda re monitoring and assessment.

Ian Mearns took the discussion beyond the Committee Room, and raised the matter of registers in the Commons Chamber twice in the following days. On Wednesday 28 June he asked the Prime Minister (or video):

“Last year, 1.7 million children missed more than 10% of their schooling, 125,000 were absent more than they were in school, and a further 140,000 were completely missing from formal schooling. This safeguarding and educational catastrophe is happening on the Prime Minister’s watch. Yesterday, the Schools Minister told the Education Committee that primary legislation is required to initiate a national register of children missing from education so that we can find out where they are. Will the Prime Minister commit to bringing forward the necessary legislation as a matter of urgency to combat this crisis for our children?”

Rishi Sunak’s answer was vague, and seemingly unsatisfactory to Mearns. (Sky News report on this exchange here.)

The following day he pressed Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House, on the same theme during a Business of the House debate (or video). Attaching his question to his other feedback as Chair of the Back Bench Business Committee, Mearns continued his campaign:

“Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would find time for primary legislation on the scourge of the indeterminate number of youngsters—roughly 140,000—who are missing from school altogether in England. The Education Secretary nodded when I asserted, having been told by the Minister for Schools, that primary legislation would be required to set up a national register to track those children and first, keep them safe, and secondly, try to get them into education. Will the Leader of the House please use her efforts in Cabinet to find time for primary legislation for this very important piece of work?”

Mordaunt was sympathetic, and her response revealed more about behind the scenes strategies:

“The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this very important issue of so-called ghost children. It is vital that local authorities really understand where those children are and whether they are in school settings that are not Ofsted inspected, as opposed to being home schooled. I know that the Education Secretary is looking at this matter with urgency. I have had discussions with her and her officials about it. The hon. Gentleman is right about primary legislation, but we are also looking at the data held by different Departments to help us get a clearer picture now of where those children are.”

What can we conclude from all the above?

The Education Committee are pressing hard on this matter. Their concerns centre around the lack of a legislative vehicle, and the potential for the matter to be shelved due to lack of parliamentary time. They are also worried by the reduced number of EWOs.

Subsequent remarks in both the Education Committee session and in Mordaunt’s reply tell us that ongoing discussions are going on behind the scenes, with alternative means of accessing the necessary data being considered in the short term, in the absence of a primary legislation route.

What can I do?

The ongoing value of engaging with your MP was apparent from Gibb’s reference to his home educating constituents.

Keep abreast of parliamentary discussions as much as you can. Parliament TV recordings can sometimes be easier to digest than ploughing through columns of written text.

Despite her dogged insistence about CNiS registers, Drummond is to be commended for raising wider issues affecting school attendance. In Q248 she referenced the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report which says there is an unacceptably large proportion of children unhappy with school and it is getting worse, and she challenged the Minister on what he intended to do about this “increasing number of children [who] do not want to go to school.”

An iNews article from 26 June entitled “More traumatised children are refusing to go to school – they and their parents are paying the price” provides further insights into some of the complex issues around ‘attendance,’ and might help you to feel better prepared for conversations in your local community, or with MPs. A similar article was published the following day in the Times.