Bishop of St Albans speaks in a debate on the Schools Bill (HL)

On 20th June 2022, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Schools Bill in committee. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I rise to speak to six amendments standing in my name. Amendment 101 removes from the register any requirement to record the means by which a child is being educated—something that ought to be discretionary on the parents. It replaces it with a less intrusive requirement to record only those details that demonstrate that the child is receiving a suitable education in accordance with the existing duty on parents to secure compulsory education for their child or children.

Amendment 105 curbs the local authorities’ proposed power to contain within the register

“any other information that may be prescribed”—

it is very broad and open to abuse—solely to instances where the safeguarding of the child is a concern. Surely that is the point.

Amendment 108 removes the wide-ranging power for local authorities to collect any other data they consider appropriate. Again, this is a highly undefined power that could be used to target individuals with protected characteristics, and it makes the state ever more intrusive. The amendment replaces this new subsection with a more clearly defined power permitting local authorities to collect special category data—such as ethnic origin, philosophical beliefs and sexual orientation—only in cases where the safeguarding of the child is concerned.

Amendments 111 and 112 ensure that parents are properly informed about the data collected: how it will be stored, shared, published, and when it will be deleted. These amendments are complementary to the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, requiring the Secretary of State to introduce regulations related to the not in school register, which I welcome.

Finally, Amendment 127 safeguards any data collected by local authorities when directed by the Secretary of State to provide information on the register. This is done by requiring that all data is either aggregated or anonymised unless there is sufficient reason for the Secretary of State to request information relating to an individual child, the sufficient reasons listed being safeguarding concerns or issues of public safety and criminality.

At this stage, these are probing amendments. However, they reflect a number of serious concerns that many of us have about the danger that this Bill poses to home educators and the right they have to decide on a suitable education for their child. I do not oppose, in principle, a register containing information about home-schooled children in a local authority’s area. What concerns me is that the implementation of such a register as it exists within the Bill poses an attack on the principles of a free society where parents retain the discretion to educate their child in accordance with their own values. Without meaningful safeguards, this register could be the thin end of a slippery wedge resulting in Ofsted in the home: parents being mandated to teach specific things in a specific way, or being directed by law to send their children to school to receive a particular type of education.

After tabling these amendments, I decided to try and explore the rationale between the wide-ranging powers they sought to give to local authorities. I presumed there would be a vast array of evidence of why we desperately needed to have the collection of all this information. Well, the House of Lords Library kindly prepared a briefing at my request. The Government’s guidance from April 2019 stated that there was

“no proven correlation between home education and safeguarding risk.”

Furthermore, the Library was unable to provide any information on the exam success rates of children receiving an elective home education. However, from a cursory glance online, there is quite a lot of evidence to strongly suggest that children receiving EHE outperformed their counterparts in state education, so it is entirely reasonable to ask the Government why they believe local authorities should have the right to collect highly sensitive data pertaining to things that are not necessarily relevant to the child’s education. A register simply to track the number of home-educated children, at its core, is a sensible proposal. Likewise, there may be understandable instances where information beyond that needed just to register the child is required, but surely this should be the exception not the rule.

Her Majesty’s Government need to provide the rationale behind this proposal to give local authorities the right to collect to contain “any other information” they consider appropriate. This must be more specific so that there exists a clear legal boundary determining what information a local authority can collect, and for what specific reasons. Currently, this broad ambiguity allows local authorities to request entirely inappropriate special category data without good reason.

I suspect the reason is to allow local authorities to collect information as set out by Amendment 102, in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. Although I do not oppose this amendment, on the principle that the parents retain the discretion and freedom of conscience to home educate their child, and that the state has no right to inquire as to their specific reasons, at least these noble Lords are honest as to the sort of data that they wish to contain within the register.

The Government appear to be hiding behind a discretion placed on the local authority to decide what information is appropriate. Amendments 105 and 108 

would set fair boundaries on what information is circumstantially, rather than unilaterally, appropriate to collect. Furthermore, Amendments 111 and 112 would add additional safeguards to any Secretary of State’s regulations so that parents can feel confident that the data contained in the register is secure, respects privacy and is subject to the proper consent of the data subject where sharing and publication are concerned.

Similarly, why do Her Majesty’s Government believe that the Secretary of State has the absolute right to access information relating to an individual child without providing a just reason? This is highly sensitive data, and the Secretary of State ought to be able to provide a suitable reason to access information relating to an individual child. This would be remedied by Amendment 127, which requires the Secretary of State to have a clearly defined reason when accessing individual data from the register. Without this requirement, the state could essentially snoop on parents without providing any justification for doing so.

I remain concerned by the idea that local authorities can collect

“such details of the means by which the child is being educated”.

The “means” by which a child is being educated is only one degree away from requiring the actual content of what a child is being taught. However, even the idea of the “means” implies that there is a correct means and an incorrect means—correct content and incorrect content. In fact, the way a child learns can vary, and it strikes me that the parents are best placed to decide how a child needs to be educated. In my opinion, as set out in Amendment 101, all that needs to be proved is that

“the child is receiving a suitable education”.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Storey (LD): My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans is right that parents should have the right to choose the educator for their children, whether they choose a voluntary aided school, a maintained school or an academy, or to home educate. I would be extremely concerned if they chose an unregistered school which in many cases would fail an Ofsted inspection every day it was inspected because of some of the practices that go on, but we do not know that because we do not have that information.

We probably all agree, including in respect of the amendments that I have put down, that we need to take a chill on this and think it through carefully, because I can see that there are issues here. We need to know what the real information is that we want, and why we want it in the first place. But let us not kid ourselves that it is just about this. For example, parents give all sorts of data when they apply for a school—far more detail than some of the requests that are in this Bill. Voluntary aided schools, for example, will ask the faith of the family. Why do they ask that? In a Catholic-run school, for example, they will have a percentage of children who are non-Roman Catholic who can take up places, and that is why they want that information. I make no comment on whether that is right or wrong.

Believe it or not—and I am not particularly keen on this—individual schools, even primary schools, have informal application forms that parents fill out. I remember only a few years ago that one of the questions on the informal application form was what the occupation of the parent was. There is a whole gamut of information out there and we need to rein some of that in.

My final point is that we must ensure that when we have had this pause and perhaps reflected on what we really want, this data is not retained at the end of a child’s schooling. The notion that the data is retained by schools or local authorities is not very helpful. That would be my concern.

Baroness Barran (Con): I turn to Amendments 104 to 109, tabled in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans. Under the new measures, local authorities will be able to require parents to provide them only with the information prescribed in legislation. They may, however, record any other information in their registers that they consider appropriate and have collected through other channels.

To be clear, local authorities will be able to require parents to provide them only with the information that is prescribed in legislation; in this case it will be secondary legislation. I hear the concerns raised by noble Lords, particularly in relation to proposed new Section 436C(1)(d). I will take that away and reflect on your Lordships’ comments.

Amendments that limit this ability could cause local authorities to act with unnecessary caution in relation to the collection and inputting of information. There may be cases where data, such as special category data, is collected that may not be initially deemed directly relevant to safeguarding a child or in their best interests but could in future be critical to protecting that child from harm. (…)

(…) I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for Amendments 98A, 101A, 104A, 110A and 126B, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for Amendments 111, 112 and 127, which raise the important issue of data protection. Regarding data retention, the Bill already allows for regulations to make provision about the format and keeping of registers, as well as about access to and publication of the register. It is the Government’s intention to use this power to stipulate how local authorities must keep the information on their registers up to date and whether and how information is to be published. The requirement in the Bill for local authorities to provide prescribed information to the Secretary of State will help inform policy development; for example, in relation to the types and level of support needed by families and whether particular groups need more support than others. (…)

(…) I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans for Amendments 100 and 101. Regulations are likely only to require details of where a child is being educated and the proportion of time there. This will help local authorities to ensure that children are receiving a suitable education and identify those who are missing education or attending illegal schools.

Amendment 97D withdrawn.

Amendments 97E to 112 not moved.

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