Clause 76

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 1:00 pm ar 28 Chwefror 2008.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Independent educational institutions

Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I trust that we are all refreshed and invigorated. By way of recap, Mr. Bayley, clause 76 introduces a new definition of independent educational institutions. The new definition includes independent schools providing full-time education for pupils of compulsory school age. It also includes part-time institutions that are the  main provider of a child’s education, as defined by the number of hours of operation per week over a period of weeks in one year.

It might be helpful if I took this opportunity to respond to some of the points made when we opened the debate this morning, which were mainly about home education and comments made by home educators in response to our consultation. I will explain how current education law and proposed changes in the Bill affect home educators.

Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 requires the parents of every child of compulsory school age to cause their child to receive—by regular attendance at school or otherwise—efficient, full-time education suitable to that child’s age, ability and aptitude and to any special educational needs they may have. “Otherwise” in this context may be education at home or in an institution that is not registered as a school.

During 2007, we commissioned research to assess the number of children educated at home. The researchers estimated that around 20,000 were known to local authorities, but that there could be a further 20,000 or more who had not identified themselves to their local authorities. A home is not an institution, and our policy is clear. When parents deliver or supervise education that takes place in the home, they are not conducting an independent educational institution.

We clarified arrangements for monitoring home education in November 2007, publishing the document the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred to, “Elective Home Education Guidelines for Local Authorities.” That underwent extensive consultation, generating over 900 responses, most of them from home educators who have a keen interest in legislation that could affect their freedoms. I am pleased to say that home educators broadly welcomed the guidelines. Only 4 per cent. of respondents to the consultation thought the guidelines unhelpful.

A small number of parents opt to educate otherwise than at school, using unregistered settings where children are supervised and taught by adults who are not their parents. Tyndale Academy—which I mentioned in response to questioning from the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton—is one such institution. Tyndale has varied its hours over the years, but its website currently states that it is a tuition group that operates from 9 am to 2 pm, five days per week. Earlier I named the other three institutions, which we have referred to in parliamentary questions and elsewhere.

In all four cases, children attend for a substantial part of the school day and are not supervised by their parents. If the institutions were registered independent schools, they would be registered and inspected against the regulatory framework introduced in September 2003, following the Education Act 2002. That framework ensures that all children in registered schools have suitable learning opportunities in a safe and secure learning environment. The requirement to register part-time institutions, which are not currently subject to any regulatory or monitoring framework, will ensure that the same safeguards are in place for children in those settings. Should such a part-time institution use corporal punishment, for example, that would then be regulated and the law outlawing corporal punishment applied. The clause applies to  institutions that provide 12.5 hours for primary-age children and 15 hours for secondary-age children, for 28 weeks a year or more. That equates to more than half of a typical school week for more than half of the school year. The institutions are providing the majority of a child’s education, and it is therefore right that they meet the minimum standards.

The independent school standards are flexible and are adapted successfully to a wide range of settings, including Steiner schools, schools following the curriculum of other countries, pupil-referral-type provision and schools that cater for children with severe learning difficulties. There is no question of independent schools having to follow the national curriculum or employ teachers with specific qualifications, and therefore no reputable institution should have difficulty complying with the statutory requirements.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton referred to opposition from consultees to extending the scope of regulation to part-time education institutions. I agree that there was opposition, but it came mainly from home educators who thought—wrongly—that the proposals would affect home education. In our first consultation in November 2006, 156 of the 175 respondents identified themselves as home educators, individuals or “others”. Local authorities and registered independent schools were in favour of our proposals. Respondents who disagreed with the consultation proposals were worried about how we would define “a major part” of a child’s education. My Department responded to those concerns by issuing a second consultation in August 2007, which made it clear—we thought—that home education was to be excluded from the proposed changes. However, 50 per cent. of the responses were from home educators who opposed the proposed changes because they thought that the changes might restrict their freedom to come together to deliver group activities as part of a home education programme. There were also objections from sporting bodies which thought that sport or other supplementary provision might be caught by the new definition. Therefore, in drawing up the legislation we paid close attention to those representations. The Committee will see that we no longer attempt to define the main provider on the face of the Bill, because that would be open to misinterpretation. Rather, the definition works by reference to a lower bound of hours, as I have set out.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis referred to the policy statement on clause 76. It is not the intention of the proposals to remove parents’ rights to educate their children at home. Home education, supervised or delivered by parents, either in the family home or elsewhere, and any arrangements used by parents to supplement home education which do not exceed the thresholds, will not be included in the regulatory regime. Some parents supplement home education with provision that includes group tuition by private tutors employed by parents, or tuition by groups of home educators themselves, for drama, sport or music. Only where a parent is delegating responsibility that exceeds the minimum hours thresholds will that provision be subject to the regulatory regime.

Further, to ensure that no provision is unintentionally caught by the new definition of independent educational institutions, clause 76 provides for certain settings to be  excluded. Those exclusions will definitely apply to hospital schools, to home tutorial services organised by a local authority, and to home education—a point I reinforce because some people involved in that activity clearly find it difficult to believe what we say. More detail is given in the policy statement that I circulated this week to the Committee.

Other settings that either do not meet the proposed threshold or are not the main provider will remain outside the definition of an independent educational institution. Examples are summer schools, sports clubs, music tuition, and revision and study support groups undertaken in support of a child’s main education. I say yet again, to be absolutely clear, that we do not believe home education is affected by the definition.

I believe that the proposals strike the right balance between protecting children and ensuring that they receive a good education, and allowing parents to make arrangements that they believe are in the best interests of their child. They leave a parent’s right to home educate intact and ensure regulation for all settings in which a material part of a child’s education is delegated to others. On the basis of those many reassurances and answers to the hon. Gentleman’s many and varied questions, I hope that he will be happy to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

We may not think people are listening to our debate, but during the lunch break I had a couple of e-mails from people who were listening, regarding our proceedings just before lunch. There is a concern among home educators that, if they form a group of parents to educate their children collectively, and exceed 12.5 hours of primary education or 15 hours of secondary education, they will constitute an independent institution and will therefore require to be inspected. The Minister confirmed that in his response. That is a concern to home educators, because they do group together and provide education on a collective basis, and they do not believe that that should be considered a school.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

This Government have been responsible for the parent-promoted Elmgreen school. It is the policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party also to encourage parent-promoted schools. Does he think that they should be regulated?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Yes, because they are schools. Parents who get together because they want to home educate their children—which they are entitled to do under the law—do not wish those institutions to become schools with all the expense that that would entail.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

How then would the hon. Gentleman differentiate between a parent-promoted school and one where parents have come together to form an institution for home education?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

It need not be an institution—just parents getting together to home educate their children. It is difficult to be an expert in maths, geography and science. A group of parents may well get together and collectively educate those children in one of their homes, and this provision will mean that that will  constitute an independent educational institution. That is why home educators are concerned, and the Minister has done nothing to alleviate that concern. As for health and safety, as one of my e-mail correspondents this morning said, there is already plenty of legislation under which local authorities can intervene if they feel there are safety issues affecting children.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I hope that it will help those listening if I say that the regulation will exclude those arrangements where parents are, collectively, as a sort of mutual organisation, educating each other’s children, and the parents themselves are present. However, if it starts to look like an institution, I think it fair and reasonable that it should be regulated as an institution.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I do not think that that will alleviate concerns either, because parents may well wish to employ specialist teachers—a music or piano teacher, for example—to assist with their tasks. When there are legislative changes, I like to know what problem the regulation is seeking to solve. What problems has the Minister become aware of that have led him to propose the clause? If he can reply, I have a number of other questions on that point.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

To give an example, I am aware of one institution, currently unregulated, that practises corporal punishment. That is illegal and it should be regulated.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

That brings me to the real purpose of the clause, which is to deal with one particular institution: the Tyndale Academy. Because of that, it is dragging into these provisions 20,000 or 40,000 or—according to some estimates, 50,000—home-school educators in this country. I do not have a view one way or the other. I have not visited the Tyndale Academy. I have just received submissions from it that I think ought to be aired. The principal of Tyndale Academy, Ferris Lindsay, has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) stating that the Department’s first step was to write to Tyndale in an officious manner, and that the academy was threatened with criminal prosecution if it failed to register within 30 days. After that threat was withdrawn, the Department started consulting on the measures.

The principal says that the academy believes that it is being victimised by the Department in an officious, over-zealous way and that that has led to this clause, which is designed to deal with only that one institution. He states:

“The reason for such single-minded resolution on the part of the DCSF has, we believe, been because of an unstated aversion to the discipline policy at Tyndale.”

He further states:

“With parental permission, tutors at Tyndale are able to use a smack on the hand to correct a persistently disobedient child. This sanction was used about a dozen times during the academic year 2005-06. The Department recognises the legality of the  situation and, rather than prosecute the proprietor, it has sought to embrace the provision at Tyndale under a framework that would render the policy illegal.”

The academy believes that that is a misuse of departmental power and resources. There have been several hundred pieces of correspondence between the Department, the school, the local authority and the Member of Parliament for that area.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Ceidwadwyr, North East Hertfordshire 1:15, 28 Chwefror 2008

Can my hon. Friend offer the Minister any idea of what the literacy and numeracy levels are like at that academy?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

An Ofsted inspection has judged it a good school, with good behaviour and academic standards.

Will the Minister respond to the point that the institution can use minor corporal punishment if it has parental permission, but that it will no longer be able to do so if it becomes an educational institution, because it will be subject to the rule that corporal punishment cannot be used in schools? At the moment, as a collective of parents, it can do that with their permission. Is that not the drive behind the clause?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I do not propose to get drawn into a specific discussion on the Tyndale Academy because we are not proposing the legislation merely to deal with one institution. As we have already set out, it would currently apply to four institutions.

As I have set out previously to the Committee, our intention is to ensure that, if a child is receiving the majority of their education somewhere that could be defined as an institution, it is safe and secure. If any one of those institutions were to operate at fewer than the number of hours that we have specified, I have set out the circumstances in which that would become unregulated activity. It is then up to those parents what goes on there, as long as it is within the law with respect to safeguarding the children.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

That is not the view of Ferris Lindsay, who has e-mailed me this afternoon to say:

“This chapter of the Bill was specifically drafted with one aim in mind. It was added to the Bill very late and prejudged the findings of the Consultation, which supposedly “justifies” it. We have letters from Jacqui Smith (2004) and Lord Adonis (2007) to our own MP Stephen Timms stating that Tyndale was the only establishment that the Department has come across which has not registered as an independent school when asked to.”

I feel that there is some persecution of that school. I have not seen it and I do not know what it is like. However, I wanted to air the strongly held views expressed to me and others by the academy about the clause and the activities of the Department over the last couple of years, which seem to have been over-zealous and officious towards the school. It is in a deprived part of London and is providing a much higher quality of education in that area than is being provided currently by the state system.

Clause 76 ordered to stand part of the Bill.