What on Earth is Happening to the Schools Bill?

What on Earth is Happening to the Schools Bill?

A Prime Minister resigns, three Education Secretaries within thirty-six hours, their Noble Lords are in revolt and the Department for Education tries to pretend there is nothing wrong with Parts 3 & 4, even though they have sacrificed every Clause in Part 1!

What’s been said?

If the futures of thousands of children were not being directly threatened by the lax drafting and ideological intentions driving the second half of the Schools Bill, the events which have been playing out in House of Lords would be one of the most hilarious Whitehall farces of all time. So much so that many are finding it difficult to keep track of what is happening between and during each debate. So what should home educating families focus on from recent developments?

Most will not need to be reminded of our newly-emerged champions, outstanding amongst whom have been Baroness Jones, Baroness Fox and Lord Wei, but there have been others. We should not forget Lord Lucas who has sought to mitigate many of the worst aspects of the Bill, even though, as he said, his “wish in the Bill is to find ways of improving it in its detail rather than attacking the principle of the register.” [Emphasis added]

For the sake of clarity, it important to note here that any acceptance of registers for children in receipt of elective home education is a rejection of the historic position in law that parents have the prime responsibility for the education of their children. This Bill, combined with the significant shift in LA oversight introduced by the 2019 Guidance, provides the foundation for a de facto regime which will effectively require a LA to grant parents permission to educate their children – a permission which will become harder and harder to obtain in the future.

Lord Wei’s comments about the lack of protection for home educating families in this Bill clearly rattled Lord Soley, who incredulously insisted “that the provision is designed to be supportive.” Several other opponents of EHE freedom also sang the praises of LA registers. However, these exchanges were not the most significant in the 18 July Report Stage debate.

It is important to understand that the purpose of tabled amendments in the Lords is not to force change upon an unwilling Government, but to reason with them how their proposals should be improved. It is the Commons which, in theory, has more power to force amendments on a Bill. That said, it is now very much the opinion of many Noble Peers that the Schools Bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation to have been put before Parliament for some time. They have been so strong in this view that it has resulted in major Government concessions. However, the Department has still tried to bamboozle Peers into setting aside their responsibility to properly scrutinise the revised clauses concerning schools when they are finally inserted into the Bill. The DfE’s most recent attempt was to postpone the Third Reading from before the House rose for recess until 14 September.

Peers were politely incandescent with this further attempted sleight of hand, and made their feelings known to the Minister, Baroness Barran. So much so that she meekly responded, “The Minister has heard loud and clear.” Sadly though, she went on to add, “the Bill is not beyond repair. There are significant parts of it – relating to the children not in school register and illegal schools – that are definitely not beyond repair.” (It should be noted that many of those seeking to delay the progress of the Bill do support the registers.) If you have not read or watched the first sixteen minutes of the debate, you will find it very informative.

Some will have seen a series of Tweets from Baroness Jones on Wednesday 20 July in the wake of this debate. In the first she declared a “Red Bench Revolution” led by former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Judge, who had threatened to stop the passage of the Bill. Jones soon realised that she had not noticed that Third Reading had been delayed until 14 September. By lunchtime she provided a further update “Lord Judge says his motion will happen in the autumn before 3rd reading.”

In the light of these comments, what on earth is happening to the Schools Bill?

Why does it matter?

The concerns of many Peers were apparent in the First sitting of the Committee Stage in June. Repeated attempts to allay their objections by the Minister, Baroness Barran, were proclaimed to be insufficient. Delaying the Third Reading until September was the last of such attempts.

Consequently nine Peers, led by Lord Baker, rose to express dissatisfaction at the Department’s further fumblings. On top of their anger about the original abundance of Henry VIII clauses, they highlighted the uncertainty being generated by the search for a new Prime Minister. “We will have a new Government in September, and then it will be up to the Prime Minister. This Bill may disappear completely – we do not know,” asserted Lord Kennedy. Lord Baker had argued that if the Third Reading took place as planned, “there is no way that amendments would appear in the Commons until early spring next year.” Lord Hunt opined, “It could take very much longer.”

At this point Lord Judge rose and fired his warning shot across the bows of the DfE. In less than one-hundred and twenty words he made his intention clear. He explained that, upon hearing that the Third Reading was originally planned for 20 July,

“I drafted a Notice of Motion for the House to decide whether Third Reading should be heard at all. I showed the Notice of Motion to the Chief Whip, he saw it and it was perfectly plain that, if the House agrees, we should not take Third Reading at all until we know exactly what is in the Bill.” [Emphasis added]

Affirming his agreement with the previous speakers that if the Government presses ahead with its plans to rush the Bill into the Commons, he promised to put his Notice of Motion to the vote, its intention being “that we should not consider Third Reading at all.” The Minister fully understood what he was saying, and was no doubt thinking of his determination when she ate a large slice of humble pie by acknowledging that, “The Minister has heard loud and clear.”

No doubt the question on many reader’s minds is, “What happens now?” There are too many variables for anyone to provide confident answers, given the Conservative leadership ballot and the as yet unknown priorities of the successful candidate. These on top of the problems caused by the appalling way in which the Bill was drafted, never mind its content. However, accepting that Lord Judge is serious about tabling his motion should a Third Reading remain imminent, there seem to be four possibilities for the new Prime Minister and their Education Secretary to choose from:

  • Scrap the Bill and go back to the drawing board – such a decision is more likely to be made because of a change in the bigger political agenda than simply because of the problems it has created;
  • Decide not to move the Third Reading until they have worked out their intentions for Part 1 – which probably means the progress of the Bill will stall in the Upper House for some time;
  • Seek to press for the final stage in the Lords with the legislation in its current state, and risk Judge’s motion being approved in the House – if that gamble fails, the Bill may never progress from the Lords;
  • Appease the disgruntled Peers by abandoning the reforms relating to schools, and focusing the Bill entirely on children not in school and unregistered settings – because most Noble Lords support the registers, this would speed the rump legislation through both Houses.

We will not know how the Department’s new ministerial team will seek to progress the Bill until mid-September at the earliest.

What can I do?

Any of the first three options above are preferable to the fourth. However, no matter how much you hope for one of the alternatives, every home educator who is concerned about their children’s future should not let down their guard. We need to continue seeking to preserve our historic freedoms, should the first half of the Bill be sacrificed in the hope of implementing the Children Not in School registers.

Even if the whole Bill falls or becomes log-jammed at this stage, it has to be remembered that senior DfE officials are committed to introducing registration, monitoring and assessment as soon as they possibly can!

Therefore please continue to:

  • Work at building up a positive relationship with your MP and Peers as well as regional and local politicians – this is best done through personal contact rather than forwarding them endless materials written by other people;
  • Continue to talk to family and friends who may not understand your choice to HE – try to help them appreciate that seeking to be a responsible parent is not quirky, and for the state to place itself between every parent and their children is a step too far in the direction of totalitarianism;
  • Encourage every home educator to be engaged in resisting the underlying agenda to the best of their ability – it has been encouraging to see a significant number of Peers, some with no family connections to HE, speaking out as a result of contact from thoughtful home educators;
  • If you are one of those HE families which seeks to remain ‘under the radar’ and is therefore standing back from playing a full part at this time, we understand that view. However, we encourage you to remember that the desire of governments around the world to control the education of every child will inevitably result in more stringent measures as it becomes more aggressive in uncovering every hiding place.

Home educators in the UK have been seeking to hold on to their freedoms for a very long time. We do it not only for our children’s benefit, but also our grandchildren and theirs. In France the freedom to HE has was taken away last year, whilst in Portugal the law has become much more restrictive.

Wherever you live in the UK, please do all you can to resist this mission creep by the state!