The Bishop of Carlisle spoke in a debate on the Schools Bill in its second day of Report Stage, on 18th July 2022, in support of amendments on home schooling and the home school register. His speech is below, followed by those of other peers:
The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, I speak on behalf of my right reverend friend the Bishop of St. Albans, who has two amendments in his name,
Amendments 66 and 94. His name is also listed on Amendments 65 and 66A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.
Amendments 65, 66 and 66A continue to take issue with the proposals for details of the means by which a child is being educated to be included on the register. Amendment 66 would replace this with a determination of suitability, and provide for visits by the local authority for determining that suitability to be recorded. However, further to communication with the Department for Education and the Minister, we understand that their interpretation of the word “means” does not relate to the educational content or methods of home educating but simply to the providers of the education, since separate rules for registration will pertain to out-of-school education. We have been informed that this framework will be set out in the future statutory guidance. This is a much more positive interpretation than had previously been supposed, but if this is the interpretation I am not sure why it could not have been contained within the primary legislation rather than prescribed at a later date. Amendment 66A, from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, would naturally resolve that problem.
We are most grateful for the Minister’s communications with the Bishops’ Bench to clarify this matter. However, the terminology remains unhelpfully ambiguous. I hope that the Minister can alleviate the concerns of home-schoolers and state on the record that this simply means inquiring into who is providing the education and not the substance of the education or the methods of teaching.
I turn now to Amendment 94, which would insert a new clause after Clause 50 and seeks to provide protection for the institution of home schooling against any undue or unfair interference. The proposed new clause would ensure that any contact between the local authorities and home-schoolers respects protected characteristics, as well as Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights, as in the Human Rights Act, in making sure that
“the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
The point is that the way in which this Bill is framed could be seen to cast a cloud of suspicion on all home educators. The noble Lords, Lord Lucas and Lord Wei, have already raised that point. Some parents are also worried that this register is the thin end of an invasive wedge that could lead to undue state prescription with regard to home schooling.
That is not to say that home schooling itself is not sometimes prescriptive. Some individuals opt for home schooling precisely because they disagree with certain materials being taught in school, when it conflicts with their deeply held beliefs. However, there is a difference between the state being prescriptive in trying to mould individuals into a specific world view and the liberal principle of allowing parents the right to determine the values and beliefs with which they want their children to be brought up. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of all faiths or none home-school on account of this. What is important is the principle that the state does not have the right, under normal circumstances, to supersede the rights of the parents in determining how they ought to raise their child.
The misunderstanding that has occurred from the initial framing of this Bill has been unhelpful. I think it has harmed the prospective relationship between home educators and local authorities. Amendment 94 reassures home educators that their fears are unfounded. It would put into law where the Government place the limits of intervention in home education and ensure that there is sufficient accountability for local authorities and the Government in upholding the principle of home education.
I suspect the Minister may argue that these provisions are unnecessary, as they are already contained in the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act, or are responding to things that do not currently exist in law. Nevertheless, a positive statement clearly outlining on what grounds interference is not acceptable, alongside a further commitment from the Government to reaffirm the fundamental principles of home schooling, would counter many of the underlying concerns home educators have about the implications of this Bill.
I know that the communication the Minister has had with my right reverend friend the Bishop of St. Albans has been greatly appreciated. It would be tremendously useful if she could confirm on the record how home educators will be both consulted and reassured as we move towards the statutory guidance that will underpin many of the provisions on home education.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Baroness Fox of Buxley (Non Afl): The problem with the register is that it is not just a register; it ends up looking as though it requires far more on details of means, as the right reverend Prelate just explained—more than you need in a register. It does not just tick a box. That is why many home educators are very anxious about it. I am not a home educator and have never been home educated; to be frank, I am not interested in home educators per se, but I am interested more broadly in a situation where the state collects so much data and information—a database of children—and interferes in our freedom in a democratic society to home educate, if that is what we want. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle explained, the cloud of suspicion being created that this is a potential assault on deeply held religious and philosophical freedoms is something we should all take seriously as democrats who support a free society.
Lord Storey (LD): Of course, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle was right about parents’ rights and values, but society has to make sure that, when children are in schools which are not subject to any checks or inspections, they are not being taught the most appalling practices, which Ofsted highlights in its reports. There have been a couple of cases where it has taken those schools to court and managed to close them down—the right reverend Prelate would be horrified if he knew. One such school, which was not unregistered, was a Christian school as well; I am happy to talk to him privately about it.
Baroness Barran (Con): I also thank my noble friend Lord Lucas and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and, on his behalf, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle, for their Amendments 65 to 66A. The measures in the Bill do not give local authorities any new powers to monitor, assess or dictate the content of education. The right reverend Prelate talked about a “cloud of suspicion”, and I think it would be unfortunate if he was right about that. We have striven to be clear about the scope of the powers and when any new powers are required. We are of the view that local authorities’ existing powers are already sufficient to assess the suitability of the education being provided. Therefore, I would like to be clear that the phrase in the Bill
“the means by which the child is being educated”
does not include the content of the education itself. I am happy to put that on the record. It is limited to matters such as whether the child is taught entirely at home or also attends education settings, which settings they are, and how much of their time the child spends there.
Baroness Barran (Con): In relation to Amendment 90, in the names of my noble friend Lord Lucas and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, and Amendment 92 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas, the preliminary notice provides parents with the opportunity to evidence that their child is in receipt of a suitable education.
Where they have the evidence, they should provide it to the local authority. If parents could appeal to the First-tier Tribunal at this stage, they would still need to provide evidence that their child is in receipt of a suitable education to enable the tribunal to come to a view. This would result in duplication or additional burdens.