We have sent a letter to the Secretary of State and Baroness Barran on behalf of coalition members and supporters, asking the Department to withdraw Part 3 of the Schools Bill.
The Schools Bill passing through Parliament poses a grave threat to the most marginalised or vulnerable children in society and will make them less safe, not more. The more rapid route to criminalisation for non-attendance will wipe out hard won trust between schools and parents of children with irregular attendance patterns especially as a result of long term illness, additional educational needs, or the lack of access to children and young people’s mental health services.
We ask the new Minister to remove the dangerous new registration duties on parents, as drafted in Clause 49 and the unnecessary associated powers of part 3.
Michael Gove summed up well in 2008, why the big data project, ContactPoint, had to be scrapped and the same reasons apply here. “ContactPoint can never be secure. We are taking this action because we are determined to protect vulnerable children from abuse, ContactPoint would increase that risk. The government has proved that it cannot be trusted to set up large databases, and cannot promise that inappropriate people would not be able to access the database. It would be irresponsible to implement something that is such a danger to our children. After all the problems we have with this government losing sensitive data we need to do things differently. We need to invest in people. Strengthening relationships, not building another Big Brother system.”
Part 3 is simply unnecessary since its aims can be met with existing legislation and it adds nothing desirable over and above current policy on children not in school or school attendance. The adjustments made after Committee Stage do not address these issues.
Let’s take a look at the dangerous power grab that is Part 3 Clause 48 of the Schools Bill. And be very clear from the start: this is NOT a register of only children who are not on school rolls today. It is far bigger than that.
First consider what will be different from today? Today, Local Authorities have a duty under the Education Act 1996 s436A to establish the identity of children in their area who are not registered pupils at a school and are not receiving suitable education otherwise
Today, if any child is extraordinarily taken off the school roll, the Local Authorities track this deregistration under fifteen different categories as set out in the Pupil Registration (England) Regulations 2006. This image is of these reasons is set out on p24-25 from Bristol Council CME Guidance.
Today, children have a right to education under Article 2, Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights (protected in the UK Human Rights Act) and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That includes parental rights to choose the type of education a child receives.
In future, Clause 48 will make it compulsory for parents to inform the local authority of a child for registration, provide the authority with unlimited information that is can be required without any upper limit on how often, and keep it up to date.
There are punitive outcomes for parent non-compliance in future, including enforcement in Schedule 31A 436E, for failures to:
register the child
provide whatever information the Local Authority demands as often as they demand it
pay the monetary penalty on time.
If a person does not pay the whole or any part of a monetary penalty within the time limit in the penalty notice it will be recoverable as if it were payable under an order of the county court thanks to new section to be added via the Bill, 31A 436E. (Today that means deductible straight from wages or welfare support).
In future, a Local Authority in England must maintain a register of children under Clause 48 (s436B) and it’s NOT only as often described capturing children not-in-school. It is far bigger than this and the HenryVIII powers make it open-ended.
The serious issues with this proposal include asking who are ‘relevant’ children. Children in (5)(b)(i) of new section 436B are already on school registers. Why are already tracked children (often also on the Alternative Provision registers) to be included at all?
What can be collected? A register under s436B must contain some data and can include any other personal information the local authority wants. (Unlimited how it could be expanded by the Minister or how often a Local Authority could demand information from parents.)
Who can it be given to? Local authorities can provide information from the #SchoolsBill register to an open-ended list. This is weak protection. Without oversight it could become like national pupil data today, given to anyone the LA or DfE decides.
Let’s not forget that the DfE Minister will be given the power to define (and re-define) what “prescribed information” means. Local Authorities can expand it at will (without consistency or oversight or any upper limits on frequency. See p35-44 https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/4)
There’s broad feeling that this is about an enforcement register, a truancy register. Any child seen out of school is “a bad’un”. Any parent protesting registering a child is a risk. It ignores rights and pits families against punitive authorities.
Children in and out of school need #SafetyNotSurveillance. Children missing education (“CME”) is an importantly narrow definition to address specific needs in the appropriate ways, not conflated with children educated outside schools.
There’s lots of misinformation on children out of school and “not returning” after COVID-19. In March 2022 attendance was 92.3%. So why *is* the government trialling national level real-time attendance data tracking of named children?
If the intention is to ensure child safeguarding then it should address how. A register cannot address this need and the Impact Assessments ignores this question. Even Robert Halfon acknowledged that in a letter to Gavin Williamson at the end of 2020, after their enquiry findings. The new powers in Clause 48 disproportionately target families who don’t want it, and children who don’t need it.
The Assessment of the Bill omits the human costs and rights implications of the register not of itself but its implications that would require active disproportionate monitoring of children educated otherwise than in school.
The rights assessment omits any meaningful impact wrt. Protocol 1 Article 2: The word “respect” means more than “acknowledge” or “taken into account”; …it implies some positive obligation on the part of the State (Campbell and Cosans v. the United Kingdom, § 37).
The future data risks are concrete. With increased #SchoolsBill datafication of children comes increased risk of automation of service provision and decision making. This needs safeguards to prevent use in high-risk unsuitable systems, such as AI for predictive child protection.
The DfE cannot be trusted with more data. They began secret transfers of pupil data to the Home Office for immigration enforcement. It gives away personal confidential data to businesses of 23 million people. And government plans reforms to the Data Protection Act.
The fundamental principle at stake is the right to respect for private and family life. The Schools Bill Clause48 will fundamentally shift the balance of power forever between families and State.
Counting children UK is a coalition of organisations and academics with intersectional interests from across the fields of safeguarding and child protection, education, SEND, data protection, law, and human rights. We are concerned about current quality and standards in debate about children out of school. We see harmful effects from inaccurate use of facts and figures by senior politicians, institutions, and their apparent lack of understanding about law and practice on children’s databases in England and Wales.
We want to draw attention to the concern we have with
(a) the accuracy of debate around counting children who are out of school used by the Department for Education and its arms length bodies;
(b) the conflation of different characteristics of children out of school for different reasons that creates misleading numbers and associated inferences; and
(c) the various proposals for the collection of more children’s data in a new national database and new unique single ID number in order “to find them all”.
We have been carrying out our own research with Local Authorities to better understand these questions since mid-2021 and will publish it when it is complete. In the mean time, it is important to properly and accurately discuss how the government is already counting children outside schools in England.
Our goals are to
increase the level of informed knowledge in public discussions and media;
create a place to stay up to date with proposed policy and legislation;
understand shared concerns and consensus, and any areas of disagreement;
create a pool of expert and experienced voices for better evidence-based policy.
We advocate for
Safe children, families and services
Respect for the rights of every child and family
Trusted access to public services
Transparent use of data by institutions
Informed families on “who knows what about me”
Minimised data with trustworthy oversight
Purpose limitation and prevention of scope creep
Supporting the 5 safes of data (safe people, safe settings, safe projects, safe data, and safe outputs).
Counting children correctly matters, and should be a non-partisan aim, free from party politics. We are not affiliated as a coalition with any collective political, religious or philosophical beliefs. Each organisation or individual may have their own.