Vocal Peers Press for Swift Action on Unregistered Schools and Home Education Registers

Vocal Peers Press for Swift Action on Unregistered Schools and Home Education Registers

In response to a question from Lord Warner, Lord Addington summarises his colleagues’ disappointment at the loss of the Schools Bill, “We did not like the first bit but we did like the second, and the Government dumped it all.”

Warning: ‘MegaByte’ – longer than usual read!

What’s been said?

On Wednesday 5 July, Lord Warner (Lab) asked an Oral Question under the title “Unregistered Schools.” [transcript or video] During the ten minutes allocated for supplementary questions, Baroness Barran, Minister for the School System, responded to questions from Lord Warner and nine other members. It is almost eight years since Michael Wilshaw, then Ofsted’s Chief inspector, first associated home education with ‘unregistered schools.’ He wrote to then Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, saying “there is evidence to suggest some of these schools are using the freedoms afforded to genuine home educators as a cover for their activities.”

Whilst Wilshaw’s letter carefully avoided referring to the cultural/religious nature of “Bordesley Independent School,” the one school he cited, The Guardian did not shy away from so doing, describing it as an “illegal Islamic school.” It was no surprise therefore when Lord Warner quickly sought to conflate “illegal schools” with religious ones as he responded to the Minister’s answer to his question:

“I assume that the Minister and her colleagues are familiar with the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the recent Bloom Review, both of which reveal widespread child sexual abuse in religious settings.”

Baroness Whitaker (Lab) continued:

“My Lords, I add to the plea for urgency by drawing attention to recent media coverage of former pupils from such settings. Some did not speak any English at school and others had no English, maths or science taught to them, only a very narrow religious curriculum. It is very important to rescue those children; surely they deserve an urgent response from the Government.”

After Lord Addington (LibDem) had interjected with his plea quoted above to reintroduce the second part of the Schools Bill, Baroness Blackstone (Lab) returned to criticising these schools:

“These are institutions that describe themselves as carrying out religious instruction, yet the pupils – and they are pupils, because they are there all day long and they are not getting any other form of education – are being treated appallingly, with a lack both of any proper curriculum and of safeguarding, so abuse of a really serious kind is often taking place.”

If those allegations were accurate, then these peers would appear to have a valid concern, but it should be noted that there is no evidence of any politician having visited any of these legal but unregistered religious out of school settings to verify whether the press reports they alluded to reflect the outcomes for the majority of the young people who receive part of their education in such places.

Lord Lexden asked if there was some way of using existing legislation to regulate the schools in question. Barran replied:

“My understanding is that we would need primary legislation to address the specific instance in which schools are offering a purely religious education.”

It was the Minister who first raised home education directly, in her reply to Baroness Burt of Solihull (LibDem), who had repeated the narrative of a narrow religious curriculum, “with no English, maths or science available and not even speaking English.” Barran responded:

“We are obviously extremely concerned on their behalf. Children who receive the kind of exclusive religious education that the noble Baroness refers to often receive the rest of their education at home – not exclusively but frequently. The noble Baroness will be aware that we are tightening up and reinvigorating our efforts in relation to elective home education registers so that every local authority can track whether every child is getting a suitable and safe education.”

Her ministerial predecessor Baroness Berridge returned to the register[s] in the final question:

“My Lords, as my noble friend outlined, some of these children fall into home education. She outlined renewed efforts in relation to this, but part of the Schools Bill that we lost was to have a register. Is it my noble friend’s view now that that can be done through other initiatives or are we going to get legislation on it as well?”

Why does it matter?

There are clearly multiple layers of motivation behind brief parliamentary exchanges such as this. Here we shall consider just two.

First, it is clear that many peers remain deeply disappointed at last December’s loss of the Schools Bill. Before that announcement there had been intense lobbying for parts 3 & 4 to be retained. With the new year, these efforts found fresh momentum in, for example, the recent Ten Minute Rule Bill – which will not now receive its Second Reading as Parliament is to be prorogued around the end of October. Recently we reported on Flick Drummond’s and Ian Mearns’ efforts to pressurise ministers to adopt its intentions. In many ways Lord Warner’s question was nothing more than an opportunity to reinforce this pressure. Robin Walker, Chair of the Commons Education Committee repeated this appeal more recently (17 July) during questions to the Education Minister, and was followed up by a Topical Question from Flick Drummond.

The first half of this year has also seen a steady flow in sensational reports in the media both about absenteeism – using the catch-all phrase “Ghost Children” – and gaslighting headlines about home educated children in several newspapers. Seemingly these have been published in order to push the Government into reintroducing legislation with similar objectives to the second part of the Schools Bill. We have chosen not to highlight these over-egged articles, for on the whole they recycle well-worn, grotesque caricatures of the reality they seek to discredit. That they do so highlights the poverty of the arguments used, but it is a matter for concern when prominent politicians choose to repeat them without checking the facts for themselves.

That said, there is one subject which the charity Full Fact has challenged five times in the last two years. Recently they checked Ian Mearns’ claim that “140,000 children were completely missing from formal schooling.” In response, Mearns told Full Fact that “I took this figure, in good faith, from part of a series of articles on Sky News on the issue. I now understand that this figure is not accurate.” One would think that politicians would carefully research claims made by the press before citing them, but it appears they don’t!

In this light it is important to recognise that many of the claims from the Peers who added their support to Lord Warner’s question were drawn from the very media reports we have chosen to ignore. We did so because we recognised the hallmarks of well-established lobbying campaigns.

This recycling of old dirt is unsurprising because for some years now one large organisation, which is well supported in Parliament, has been consistently vocal about its desire for the registration and monitoring of children being educated outside the school system. That group, Humanists UK, was quick to publicise its support of Lord Warner and the other Peers who had questioned the Minister. Their headline the following day read, “Peers challenge Government over inaction on illegal schools.”

Since Michael Wilshaw first raised the matter of ‘illegal schools,’ Humanists UK have made this phrase their own, applying it to Jewish Orthodox yeshivas in particular. However, the simple fact is that whilst these institutions are not to everyone’s liking, they are not illegal. As quoted above in response to Lord Lexden, Baroness Barran was confident that schools which offer “a purely religious education” are not required to register under current legislation. If they were, new legislation would not be required. The rhetoric of “illegal schools” continues however, not because it is true, but because it is both memorable and misleading.

Whilst Humanists UK is not formally affiliated to the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, it does provide it with secretariat services. Their recent article names Lord Warner and Baroness Burt as Vice Chairs of the APPG, and Baroness Whitaker as a member. (Note: The Humanist APPG does not maintain a published list of members, but their Officers are listed on the Register Of All-Party Parliamentary Groups.) As there is no obligation for members of either House to declare their membership of an APPG in debates, it is unclear whether any other participating Peers are members of that APPG.

It should be noted that Humanists UK are not shy about their role in the pressure which is being put on the Government. In their recent article they explained:

“Humanists UK, which since 2014 has led the campaign to close down illegal schools, many of which are highly religious in nature, worked with Lord Warner to get the question tabled and briefed peers ahead of the debate. It agrees with Lord Warner and is calling for the legislation to return before the next election.”

This is a change of tone from their response to the dropping of the Schools Bill:

“Getting the Bill before Parliament was itself a major achievement, and followed on from eight years of campaigning by Humanists UK, six years of calls for reform from Ofsted, and four years of legislative development by the Government. However today’s news means all progress on this important issue is now halted, and the effort was potentially all in vain.”

It did not take them long to recover from this setback, and the supply of negative articles started on 4 January this year with a “Warning children will be ‘lost outside system’ as homeschooling soars after pandemic.” The tag line focused on union leaders calling for the register[s] to be brought in urgently. Whilst the article featured some positive comments from parents who had elected to HE following lockdowns, the message behind it was strengthened by a comment from Dame Rachel de Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, who told the Independent that it was an “absolute priority” to get children back into school. She added:

“I truly believe that school is the best place for children, not just in educational terms, but in terms of wellbeing and safeguarding too.”

The stream of articles painting the worse possible picture of home education and unregistered, but legal, educational settings has continued throughout the year. As many will be aware, these have been accompanied by Drummond’s Ten Minute Rule Bill and multiple questions in both Houses, with this particular one from Lord Warner being claimed by Humanists UK as part of their campaign.

Long in the tooth home educators know that this pressure has existed for longer than just eight years. The HE Byte regularly refers to Labour’s Ed Balls’ request that Graham Badman review EHE, which became the springboard for an attempt to bring about registration of HE children in 2009. The then ‘British Humanist Association’ responded to an associated consultation, and their submission is still available on the rebranded Humanist UK website. The third paragraph of this reads:

“For us, the guiding principle should be what is best for the child. Frequently this will be what the parent believes is best for the child, which may be something other than the model of education delivered in the national curriculum. Currently, however, the statutory system is too strongly weighted towards the rights of parents (to educate their children in accordance with their religious or philosophical beliefs) with the consequence that the rights of the child (to a “suitable” and “efficient” education) may be inadequately met.” [Emphasis added here and below]

This embedded mistrust of parents, based ironically on the organisation’s own “philosophical beliefs,” has spread and become more predominant in the subsequent decade. Perhaps Baroness Barran was signalling that she at least is beginning to recognise that the pendulum has been pushed too far when, in response to Baroness Whitaker’s question (above), she asserted:

“The Government need to strike a very delicate balance. I think we in this House would all agree that parents are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their children get a good education. Local authorities already have significant powers to check the quality of that education, and we are working closely with them and with parents, updating our guidance in this area, because we are all committed to making sure that every child has a safe and suitable education.”

Whilst other aspects of Barran’s answers are not as welcome, she should be thanked for reminding their Lordships that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26c.

What can I do?

The philosophical motivation behind Lord Warner’s question has been explained at length because it is important for home educators to recognise that the continuing efforts to undercut parental responsibility for the education of their children is not a matter of one particular political party’s policy. This agenda has grown much wider roots in recent years.

Most readers will be aware that new guidance has recently been published by a Labour Government in Wales. In Scotland it was the Scottish Nationalist Party which tried to introduce the Named Person Scheme which threatened home educators. The Liberal Democrats were very supportive of HE in response to Ed Balls’ efforts in 2009/10, but a few years later they changed their UK-wide policy to registration and two mandatory visits a year, and it appears that they did this under the influence of the Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats. Since 2017, Conservative Ministers have also been carried along by this sustained push for change.

Recognising that today politicians from all the main parties have embraced an ideology which implies that parents aren’t capable of nurturing their own children goes a long way to explaining why your parenthood is being undermined. However, whilst it’s always worth complaining to them about their bad policies, this may not muster the support of the majority. Therefore it seems the time has come for parents to ask themselves how determined they are to protect their children from being squeezed into a mould designed by others who care far more about their own values being universally accepted than they do for your family’s welfare.

Lord Warner tabled his question as being about “unregistered schools,” but he made it very clear from the outset that his main concern was about religious schools. In order to avoid being classed as either racist or discriminatory, the agenda he supports is being prosecuted against all unregistered settings. Also caught in this net therefore are those of a secular nature which seek to work with parents and children outside the standard school model. In April we highlighted a report written in collaboration between the Centre for Self Managed Learning and home educators. Called “A Suitable Education For Every Child,” the second part focuses on the inherent weaknesses within the school system which prevent it from providing a suitable education to many children as well as properly safeguarding them. It also provides examples of how many children thrive in settings which are both different from and free from state supervision.

Finally, it is ironic that the day after the aforementioned exchanges in the Lords, Reuters News Agency published three items about the determination of the Strictly Orthodox Jewish community in the UK to resist efforts to prevent them from passing on their values to future generations. The lead item was a six minute video entitled, “‘Leave us alone’ UK Haredi Jews fear school intrusion.” This was accompanied by a segment of a podcast (starts at 7:30 mins) and an article. If this sector of British society is unfamiliar to you, perhaps these will help you appreciate that difference is not a thing to be feared, but appreciated. After all, those families who choose to home educate have plenty of experience of being viewed as ‘strange,’ for no other reason than their choice being different from the majority’s.

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