HC Deb 27 October 1989 vol 158 cc1332-4
Mr. Fearn

I beg to move amendment No. 473, in page 28, line 38, at end insert 'either by regular attendance at a school or otherwise'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 474, in page 29, line 26, at end insert— '(9A) Where a local education authority proposes to make an application for an education supervision order they shall—

  1. (a) advise parents of their rights and options under the law with specific reference to section 36 of the Education Act 1944; and
  2. (b) where applicable allow a reasonable time limit for the provision of "otherwise education".'

No. 475, in page 103, line 23, at end insert— '(aa) to inform the child and his parents of their rights and options under the law relating to education;'.

Mr. Fearn

I am glad that you have seen these amendments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you missed my other amendment, No. 481. They have been tabled on behalf of the Children's Home-based Education Association.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that any action taken by education officers is in keeping with section 36(5) of the Education Act 1944, which gives parents the duty and the right to ensure that their child is educated by attendance at school or otherwise. It is the "otherwise" element of the clause that is relevant here because it means that parents have a right by law to educate their children in the home or by some other means than regular attendance at school.

Problems with education arise in various ways. A parent may be unhappy with the lack of basic education in a particular school. The child's potential may be unfulfilled, or it may have special needs, or suffer from school phobia—a real condition which causes sheer panic. Sometimes there is a situation in the home or elsewhere that affects the child's attendance at school.

A parent's first course of action when a problem arises is usually to approach the school. That is not always successful, whereupon the local education authority is called in, either at the parents' or the school's request. It is here that there is often a lack of communication which ends up with the child, or the parents, becoming the subject of a court case, with the threat of a care order.

An article that first appeared in an "Education Otherwise" newsletter explains what could happen when matters get to that stage: To encourage children to attend school, our LEA has been experimenting with the procedure of repeated adjournments in the Juvenile Court. Each time the child appears, and it may be at intervals of a week, a fortnight, or more, depending on progress, the child's attendance is reviewed. If attendance has not improved, an interim care order is made as an 'encouragement' to attend school. If this does not work, a full care order is made. The chairman of the magistrates tells the child in no uncertain way of the consequences of poor school attendance, stating, 'Next time bring a bag with your night things. You'll be going away'. To me that extraordinary system is unnecessary and a great waste of Government and court resources. Much heartache caused by children being taken into care for non-attendance at school could be avoided if parents were informed of their rights and given a reasonable amount of time to set in motion plans for alternative means of educating their child.

Under the law, parents are perfectly within their rights to educate their children at home even for short periods and, if they were advised of the help and support groups that can assist them, many of the problems could be wiped out and the child could return to school. That is a more sensible approach. We need to get away from the idea that if children are not educated in school then they must be up to no good. The Government go some way to recognising that by introducing an amendment referring to the place of education rather than just to the school. The main purpose must be to inform parents of their rights before it becomes necessary to take out a supervision order. Earlier and better communication, information and advice will result in fewer problems and is the better way to protect the interests of our children.

Mr. Mellor

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) for moving his amendment and recognising that in part we have already tabled our own amendments to try to meet his points. Amendment No. 473 is unnecessary because the existing wording in clause 33 does not specify where proper education should take place and does not exclude education outside the school setting. Therefore there is no conflict with the provisions of the Education Act 1944, which provides for some children being educated outside school, subject to the overriding necessity that the child receives a suitable education.

On amendment No. 476, we accept that the Bill as presently drafted could imply that education wholly equates with schooling. That was not the Government's intention, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing it out. His amendment No. 191 clarifies that point.

Amendment No. 474 would require local education authorities, before applying for an education supervision order, to advise parents of their rights under education law. That amendment is not necessary, because a court cannot make an education supervision order if the parents are fulfilling their duty under the Education Act to ensure that their child is being properly educated. In making the decision, the court would consider representations by the parents and the local education authorities.

Amendment No. 475 would require supervisors—where an education supervision order is in force—to give the child and the parents details of their statutory rights and options. However, it would not be practicable in statute to impose a blanket requirement to give information about the range of educational rights and options. In suitable cases, where parents have expressed a wish to educate their child outside a school setting, the supervisor would—as a matter of good professional practice—make relevant information available to them.

I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman information that enables him to further advise the groups with whom he has been discussing the matter. Obviously, if they feel that there are continuing problems, I should be glad to hear from him. I hope that amendment No. 191 has cleared up the one loophole revealed by the hon. Gentleman, and that he will not seek to press his amendment.

Mr. Fearn

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Mellor

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In order that we might have time for a Third Reading debate, an indication has been given that the remaining Government amendments could be moved en bloc. Also, hon. Members who have tabled their own amendments have agreed not to move them. I hope that that will meet with your approval.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Given the circumstances, I willingly agree to that suggestion, as it would be helpful in terms of procedure. I know that the Minister and the House will not take that as a sign that the Opposition endorse every dot and comma.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If no hon. Members objects to proceeding in that way, I will put the remaining Government amendments en bloc.

Amendment made: No. 83, in page 29, line 17, leave out from 'shall' to 'before' in line 19.—[Mr. Mellor.]

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