Bishop of Blackburn speaks on amendments to the Schools Bill

On 22nd June 2022, the House of Lords debated amendments to the Schools Bill (HL) in committee. The Bishop of Blackburn spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I will speak briefly to the amendments in this group, of which Amendments 115, 117 and 119 were originally tabled by my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans, who is unable to be present in the Chamber today.

As he is absent, I will focus on the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which also extend the relevant period in which a parent must comply with registration and provide information, as requested from a local authority, from 15 days to 28 days, 30 days or 30 school days respectively. I know my right reverend friend the Bishop of St Albans would have been happy to support these amendments, as do I, given their shared principle that giving parents sufficient breathing space to comply is helpful.

Fifteen days is simply too short a timeframe to register a child or provide any information necessary in accordance with the register. To begin with, parents may not even be aware of the obligation to register their child in the first place, making it imperative that there is a reasonable timeframe to inform the local authority that the child is eligible for registration. Home schooling is not subject to the traditional school calendar, meaning that a two-week holiday, far from unusual, would take up the entirety of the relevant period to comply. Fifteen days appears somewhat punitive and may unintentionally mean that parents fall foul of it, particularly where circumstances make it impossible to comply. I am not aware of any specific rationale behind this compliance timeframe of 15 days, so I would welcome the Government’s reason for it.

As it stands, I do not believe that the Government have reasonably considered the complexities of some families’ lives and the multitude of reasons for delays that could occur. Rather than being unnecessarily tight, as currently stipulated, the relevant period ought to reflect a more reasonable timeframe. I hope the Government will provide home-schooling parents with a relevant compliance period that reflects real-life circumstances, whether that is 28 days, 30 days or 30 school days.

Finally, I add my support to Amendment 128A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, which helpfully defines the correct relationship between local authorities and home-schooling parents, and the constructive and non-judgmental attitude that local authorities should have when dealing with elective home educators.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Garden of Frognal (LD): It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and I absolutely agree with everything he has just said. I rise to speak to Amendments 116, 118, 125 and 126 in my name. I tabled these amendments on behalf of home educators. There are quite a lot of them so I crave your Lordships’ indulgence.

As we have heard from the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, the first two refer to wishing to lengthen the relevant period in a number of different situations. My amendments lengthen from 15 to 28 days the period in which parents are required to comply with duties imposed by local authorities, but I would be happy to go along with the 30 days in the other amendments. Parents would argue that they may need time to consult, possibly obtain legal advice or, at the very least, consider all the implications, and 28 or 30 days is a much more reasonable timeframe for that than 15.

Amendment 125 finds itself in this group. It seeks to ensure that the less structured but enormously beneficial forest schools and farm schools are not overlooked. Both teach a great deal to pupils and get them out in the open, with fresh air and acquiring a new understanding of natural surroundings, animals, crops and all the other invaluable work of farms. My daughter teaches four year-olds, who really love their forest school lessons. It is some of the most pleasurable and productive learning they achieve. It is particularly beneficial for town and disadvantaged children, who may never have walked through woods or seen a cow.

Amendment 126 ensures that someone who has made strenuous efforts to provide information should not be penalised if the information is deemed inadequate. People can do only their best, and we would not wish to see parents fined for matters that were not their fault.

Baroness Barran (Con): I would like to thank again my noble friend Lord Lucas, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, for Amendments 114A through to 119. We believe that the timeframe of 15 days in which parents or out-of-school providers must provide information for a local authority register strikes the right balance between minimising the amount of time a child would spend in potentially unsuitable education and allowing sufficient time to send the required information. In addition, defining the period in terms of “school days” would, we believe, be an inappropriate and impractical measurement for home-educated children who, as we heard in the debate, by definition do not necessarily follow a school calendar. But I think the issue with the timings and those proposed by my noble friend in later amendments on the school attendance order process is that, if you take them all together, it would more than double the length of time that a child would be without suitable education. It would take the total number of days to 120, instead of 51 on the Government’s proposed process. I think that is the way I would ask your Lordships to think about it. Each individual step may look tight to some of your Lordships, and to some home educators and proprietors of education institutions, but when we look at it in the round, the fact that a child could be in unsuitable education for 120 days, versus 51, is the point I would ask your Lordships to reflect on. (…)

(…) My Lords, again, I thank my noble friend Lord Lucas, the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, represented tonight by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, for Amendments 120, 120A, 121, 122 and 122A. As debated with your Lordships earlier this evening, the relevant period has been set at 15 days to minimise the amount of time that children are potentially not in receipt of a suitable education and to allow local authorities to use their powers effectively. Therefore, extending this timeframe could reduce local authority visibility where, for example, a child might be missing education, and prevent them quickly redirecting their resource, where a child ceases to be eligible for registration, to those children and families still eligible. As I said in the earlier group, our approach to this has been to look at the total length of the process and consider the balance between the requirements placed on parents and providers with the rights of the child to access a suitable education as quickly as possible. As I said, the amendments would increase that from 51 days to 120 days, and I am sure all the former teachers in the Committee will be able to convert that into a term or more in a nanosecond. That is the reason we would resist these amendments.

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