Grand Committee

September 12 2011

Education bill: Amendment 123 Moved by Lord Avebury

123: After Clause 50, insert the following new Clause-

“Promotion of education of vulnerable children

The Secretary of State shall issue guidance on how local authorities can promote and improve the education of vulnerable children in their area.”

Lord Avebury: My Lords, this new clause is about the way that local authorities deal with vulnerable children. The group that I am specifically concerned with, as your Lordships may be aware, is that of Gypsies and Travellers. I declare an interest, as president of the Advisory Council on the Education of Romany and other Travellers, ACERT.

Statistics show that GRT children are severely deprived. They are in fact the most vulnerable of any ethnic group by a long way. The National Foundation for Educational Research showed, in a report produced last October for the department, that absence rates in primary schools were between 19 and 24 per cent, compared with the national average of 5 per cent. In secondary schools it was between 23 and 27 per cent, compared with a national average of 7 per cent. There were more than eight permanent exclusions for every thousand GRT boys, compared with less than two per thousand of all boys nationally. The figure for fixed-term exclusions of boys, mainly for persistent disruptive behaviour, was a staggering 25 per cent, compared with a national average of 10 per cent. Some 20 per cent of GRT pupils failed to make the transfer between primary and secondary education. For every 100 GRT pupils in year 6, only half get to year 11, compared with a national average of 92.4 per cent. From the cohort that did get to take GCSEs, the number achieving five A to C grades at that level in 2010 was 8.3 per cent, compared with a national average of 55 per cent.

These appalling figures do not tell the whole story by any means. More than half of all the children belonging to these communities do not identify themselves as such, fearing the discrimination and bullying of which they are unfortunately likely to be victims if they are known to be Gypsies or Travellers. Obviously they do not include, either, the high proportion of children from these communities who are not on school rolls. The children in these two groups are likely to be at the bottom end of the scale of vulnerability, and if they could have been included the record would almost certainly have been worse. Manifestly we have failed to do enough educationally for GRT children in the past, and that is one of the reasons why they are also at the bottom of society in every other respect as well.

Let us next see whether these children are likely to be picked up by the definition of vulnerable children who are covered by the coalition’s statutory framework, as was set out in the Minister’s very helpful letter to me of 31 August, which I hope that some other noble Lords will also have seen.

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SEN children are covered by a code of practice that details what should be done to ensure that they get an appropriate education. They will be assessed by a statutory education, health and care plan, which was outlined in the recent Green Paper. A revised legal framework will deal with about 87,000 looked-after children, on which there is also statutory guidance to local authorities. For those looked-after for six months or more, the pupil premium of £430 will chip in.

Children in need-those who are unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development, including the disabled-are supported under a general statutory duty laid down in the Children Act 1989. Again, that is reinforced by a range of guidance.

The Minister concludes by saying that he hopes that those statutory frameworks and their associated guidance make clear the importance of local authorities and others with duties to improve the educational outcomes of vulnerable children, but, unfortunately, there are some gaps for GRT children. I shall try to explain why that is so.

Under previous legislation, the Traveller Education Support Service was ring-fenced, but after 2007 the sums previously allocated to that service were subsumed into general grounds aimed at disadvantaged children. Local authorities have therefore been dismantling the TESSs. It is predictable that, with the pressure on educational budgets, they will disappear altogether in a few years, despite their considerable achievements, particularly in getting a higher percentage of GRT children to attend and stay on in schools. The specific expertise that they have amassed over the years will not be inherited by the mechanisms that already exist or are being developed to cope with the needs of the three categories of vulnerable children cited by the Minister in his letter. Nor will the staff concerned with vulnerable children generally be likely to devote the same amount of time and effort to the specific problems affecting the GRT children as TESSs have done.

I now come to the special needs that are not covered by any of the three categories of vulnerable children in the Minister’s definition. There is undoubtedly a much higher proportion of children missing education among GRT communities than in any other sector of the population. Those children are exceptionally vulnerable, as an Ofsted survey in June 2010 concluded. It referred to the former DCSF’s statutory guidance for local authorities on the circumstances in which a child may not be receiving suitable education. They included membership of the GRT ethnic groups. Ofsted looked at 15 authorities, large and small, urban and rural. It found that none of the service departments in the authorities was confident that it was aware of all the children living in its area. The consistent response from officers was, “We don’t know what we don’t know”.

However, in a Times Educational Supplement survey last February, 12,000 children were listed as officially missing, and it was clear that the number would have been much higher if all the authorities had made as much effort as Leicester, which employs a full-time member of staff to trace CME, assisted by 20 educational welfare officers. Martin Narey, the former chief executive

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of Barnardo’s, said that the situation was deeply troubling. If my noble friend is not prepared to add CME to the categories of vulnerable children, I hope that he can tell your Lordships what alternative solution he has to offer. The Government acknowledge that the current guidance on CME is defective, because they are planning new guidance to be issued by the end of the year, but if that is all that my noble friend has to say on this after the Government have had the devastating Ofsted information for well over a year, I shall be very disappointed.

In the case of GRT children in particular, who must make up a significant element of the TES numbers, in the response by the inner London consortium co-ordinator, Brian Foster, to the Ofsted survey, it was pointed out that the TESSs’ relationship of trust, developed with those communities over time, had made it more likely that they would get information and that their development of a cross-borough database of families minimised the number of unidentified CME. Such arrangements may be discontinued with the disappearance of TESSs and the lack of any local authority responsibility for CME who are not covered by any of the three headings.

One thing that the local authorities covered by the Ofsted survey knew was that excluded pupils’ vulnerability was significantly increased because of their potential exposure to drugs, alcohol, crime, pregnancy or mental health problems. It is not clear whether excluded pupils are included within children in need. Without explicit guidance they may not be covered. Nor are local authorities obliged to keep a register of children in need, as they should be required to do in guidance. Here again, GRT pupils are far more likely to be excluded than any other ethnic group, with over one-fifth of Gypsy or Roma boys and one-quarter of Irish Traveller boys excluded in the course of an academic year. Ideally, CME should be added to the Minister’s three categories of vulnerable children, but if that is unacceptable because it is too broad, a way of picking up some-perhaps most-of the CME would be to add a category of “mobile child”, meaning a child who starts other than at the beginning of their phase. These are defined by authorities such as the London Borough of Hackney as “mid-phase admissions”.

The pupil premium of £430 in the current year does not necessarily cover these children who dip into education from time to time, including not only those of GRT origin but, for example, asylum seekers or the dependent children of migrants coming here for work. The proposal in the schools funding consultation to extend the payment from children currently in receipt of free school meals to those who have done so in the past three or six years would dilute the per capita grant because the total sum available would not be increased. It still does not necessarily cover these mobile children, who are disadvantaged because they are engaging with school for the first time or after an absence.

Some GRT parents say that they electively home educate their children just to give a reason why they are not attending school. It is very doubtful that the parents are competent to teach or that the lessons they give, if any, would enable the children to participate effectively in wider society or to earn a living in any

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skilled employment. They are likely to remain in the closed communities of their families, cut off from the rest of the population. Graham Badman’s recommendations-that parents should register a child who is to be home educated, submit a yearly statement of their educational approach, intent and planned outcomes, and accept home visits by the local education authority-might have focused more attention on these children and enabled local authorities to offer parents advice and assistance. However, as the Committee will recall, the report stirred up a hornet’s nest among parents who were effectively home educating their children as measured by their outcomes, and it sank without trace. I take it that the Government have no intention of revisiting the question of what to do about EHE, although some of the children ostensibly being home educated-not only those in the GRT communities-may be extremely vulnerable.

A further suggestion would be to add those who cease to attend at any point in their school career, particularly at the point of transfer between primary and secondary school, to the list of vulnerable children. We need to make far greater efforts to improve the attendance of secondary school-age GRT children, considering that one in five drop out at the end of primary school and just over half drop out before school-leaving age. Only 38 per cent of Irish Travellers go all the way through school so the disadvantages that they suffer, and their lack of affinity with the social system, are being transmitted to the next generation.

A final thought that I offer the Minister is that virtual schools should be given a chance to cover children missing education. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of a child looked after by them. By virtue of Section 52 of the Children Act 2004, that includes a duty to promote the child’s educational achievement. Outcomes were driven up by virtual schools for children in care in the pilot authorities, and the idea was rolled out in all but three local authorities by July 2010. If the virtual schools continue to benefit children in care, is it not likely they could do the same for CME?

I am not optimistic that the Minister can give your Lordships much reassurance on this amendment, which asks so little in the face of a task that has been ducked by successive Governments throughout the half-century of my political life. Gypsy, Roma and Travellers belong to a minority that clearly is not popular, as evidenced by the racism in the comments threads of the media whenever they publish articles on the subject. Now, having at least prided ourselves in the past on our human rights and equality law, we are under fire from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing over the inhuman eviction of Travellers from the Dale Farm site, due to start a week today.

6.45 pm

We are also at risk of adverse comment from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which already said in its draft report on the UK three years ago that significant inequalities persist with regard to school achievement of children living with their parents

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in economic hardship. Several groups of these children have problems being enrolled in school or continuing or re-entering education, either in regular schools or in alternative educational facilities, and cannot fully enjoy their right to education, notably, among others, children of Travellers, Roma children, drop-outs, non-attendees and so on.

The Committee will no doubt want to be convinced that in the Bill the Government are taking positive and constructive steps to meet this criticism. I hope that they will not only accept this amendment but set out a convincing case that will satisfy this Committee and the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they mean business in satisfying the needs of vulnerable children. I beg to move.

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on the amendment to which I have put my name, I wish to say how grateful I was to the Minister for rapidly arranging a meeting to amplify the points that he made in his letter to the noble Lord on 25 August. He and his team, in the person of Angela Overington, have been helpful in sending us again the current guidance to local authorities.

The amendment refers to vulnerable children of any kind, so I should make it clear that one group or another is not being singled out. The essential point of any guidance, and the reason why it should be mandatory, is that it must be specific about the different kinds of children who miss out on education and how differently to target them. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said so tellingly, Gypsy and Traveller children are perhaps the most significant of such groups in terms of the extraordinarily high proportion who do not get to school in the first place, especially secondary school, and drop out or are excluded if they are there. As the Minister knows, the Children’s Commissioner is looking at Gypsy and Traveller children as part of her first inquiry into exclusion.

This apparently discriminatory outcome needs specific attention. As long ago as the Plowden report on primary education-is that over 40 years ago?-targeted measures in respect of Gypsy and Traveller children were called for, and they seem to come and go in fits and starts, which do not achieve an acceptable solution. I need hardly describe in this place the importance of school education for finding work, fitting into society and becoming useful, law-abiding citizens, quite apart from self-fulfilment. The Ofsted report, Children Missing from Education, published last August, suggested that local authorities struggle to track pupils who are out of school.

The rapidly disappearing Travellers Education Service had some success. In 1997 it was estimated that only 5 per cent of Gypsy and Traveller children stayed on for key stage 4. The figure now is closer to 50 per cent, but schools that are focused on “the importance of teaching”, which we all support, cannot reasonably be expected also to secure the inclusion of all marginalised children, some newly arrived, some unfamiliar with or fearful or mistrustful of education. If local authorities had the sort of safety-net responsibility that the amendment provides, schools would remain free to concentrate on their core business.

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The Minister told us in his letter that local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure the education of some vulnerable children-those with SEN, looked-after children and children in need, which is now a developmental criterion. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, pointed out, there is no duty to tackle the missing education of all vulnerable children, which would include Gypsy and Traveller children and others not in the above three classes. The current statutory guidance has a few passing references to Gypsy and Traveller children. Among 26 groups of children who might miss out, it lists mobile children such as those of families in the Army or of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. However, by no means all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are mobile, especially Roma. There are some other reasons why Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children who do not live in caravans still do not get schooling.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will accept this amendment and undertake that the accompanying guidance will define vulnerability so as to include Gypsies, Roma and Travellers as a specific group, as they are in law, and set out more developed measures to get them the education to which they have a right.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I support the amendment and pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for their longstanding advocacy for Gypsy and Roma children. I recall the noble Lord tabling a debate on the education of Gypsy and Traveller children 10 years ago.

I am also reminded by this debate that I once taught a nine year-old Traveller boy. What really comes back to me is how enthusiastic and keen he was to be a part of the group and one of the boys. I imagine that many of these young boys and girls want to be a part of a group, and it is tragic that this opportunity to bring them into society is so often lost.

If I understood correctly what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, I was concerned to hear that specialist services for these children may be being lost. Trust is very important. If these services have developed trust with those communities, it is very important to maintain that relationship.

There are also things that schools, if they are well informed, can do. For example, the special experience of Gypsy and Traveller children can be a bonus for the pupils generally. A boy from a Traveller community can talk about the involvement with animals or other activities that his community has and celebrate that with the other children. Alternatively, for example, a head teacher can involve the mother-it would usually be the mother-of a Gypsy or Traveller child. Even if she cannot write, she can help the child with his homework. The head teacher can ask the mother to put a sign by her son’s work to say that that boy sat quietly for half an hour to do his homework. That is her job and she can communicate that to the head teacher. Therefore, it is possible to engage with those parents. It is possible to think about these things in a very constructive way, and I hope that the Minister can give a positive response to the amendment.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford: Before the Minister speaks, perhaps I may ask whether he will address a particular point in his summing up. The point raised

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by my noble friend is very important in the light of the education system-or lack of an education system, if I may put it like that-that will arise if all the Government’s changes go through. The very important question is: who will be responsible for looking after the very small groups of children who are, by definition, not very visible because they are small in number but are none the less, for all kinds of reasons that noble Lords have identified, very disadvantaged when it comes to taking up opportunities for education? Given that local authorities will not have any locus in local areas if the Government’s objective of the majority of schools being academies and free schools comes to fruition, I should be grateful if, in responding, the Minister could say where responsibility will lie for looking at the achievement, or lack of it, of these small groups of children, working with schools in some way but without the power and leverage to do so. Who will ensure that schools do better by these very small groups of children? In the new world that the Government will take us into where academies are going to be everywhere and will not be focused on disadvantaged children, I cannot see where that responsibility will lie and where the leverage with individual schools to do better by these children will come from.

Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, it is clear from this debate-as has often been the case-that promoting the highest possible quality of education for the most vulnerable children in society is a subject dear to the heart of the Committee. We have set out in our schools White Paper, published last year, and more recently in our Green Paper on special educational needs and disability, our overall plans on how we want to achieve this,. These include the pupil premium, which will deliver an extra £2.5 billion a year by 2014 to support the education of the most disadvantaged children. My letter to my noble friend Lord Avebury on 25 August set out the overall the statutory framework and range of measures in place to support vulnerable children. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hughes of Stretford, the White Paper was absolutely clear that the local authority retains its responsibilities for vulnerable children, and the Bill does not affect its statutory duties in any way.

However, the nub of this debate is around Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children, who are of particular concern to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and to my noble friend Lord Avebury. He is absolutely right that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils continue to underachieve significantly relative to their peers and are still much more likely to leave school without completing their formal education. This year, under one-quarter of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved level 4 in English and maths at the end of key stage 2, compared with 73 per cent of all pupils. At key stage 4, just 10.8 per cent of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils achieved five or more good GCSEs, including English and mathematics, compared with about 55 per cent of all pupils. These are stark differences. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils have the worst attendance of any minority ethnic group and there is a marked decline in enrolment between primary and secondary school level, a point that has been made. They have the highest levels of permanent and fixed-term exclusions.

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Local authorities have a key role to play in addressing this issue. They are under a statutory duty to ensure that education is available for all children of compulsory school age that is appropriate to their age, ability, aptitudes and any special educational needs they may have. This duty applies regardless of a child’s ethnicity, immigration status, mother tongue or rights of residence in a particular area.

Along with schools and colleges, local authorities have a range of safeguarding duties for vulnerable pupils, as well as duties to establish as far as possible the identities of those children of compulsory school age who are missing education. We are currently revising statutory guidance to clarify how local authorities can best carry out their duties to identify children who are missing education. I say to my noble friend that we expect to strengthen current references to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils in the revised guidance and I should be happy in due course to share that in draft form with him, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and anyone else who is interested.

It is also the case that Ministers in my department are working, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, with a range of government departments to ensure that the range of inequalities faced by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are properly addressed. That working group expects to publish before the end of the year a report on how the Government will tackle the issue, including a package of measures designed specifically to raise educational aspirations, attainment and attendance. We are grateful to the work carried out by the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education stakeholder group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Avebury, for the contributions that it has made so far, and I look forward to working with the group over the coming weeks to develop further plans in that area.

7 pm

On children missing education, a point that my noble friend particularly emphasised, local authorities, maintained schools, further education and sixth-form colleges have safeguarding duties under Section 175 of the Education Act 2002. Crucially, under the 2006 education regulations, all schools are required to inform the local authority where a pupil fails to attend school regularly, where a pupil has been absent from school continuously for at least 10 days without permission or where a pupil has been removed from the school roll in specific circumstances. Indeed, failure by a school to comply with these provisions is an offence.

My noble friend is right to cite some concerns about how well these arrangements are working, so the Government are committed to reviewing those regulations and to tightening up and extending the circumstances in which schools must inform the local authority when a child is missing school or removed from the register. We will revise the statutory guidance to clarify how local authorities can best carry out their duties to identify children missing education.

I hope that this will provide my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and others with some reassurance that there is an overall appropriate legal

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framework and statutory guidance in place to support local authorities and other services in promoting the education of vulnerable children, and specifically that we are taking steps to try to address the educational challenges and inequalities that we all accept are faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children. With that, I hope that my noble friend feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Avebury raised the question of virtual schools. Perhaps my mind was drifting as I listened to the Minister’s reply but I did not hear him address that subject. Virtual schools provide an interesting way of dealing with genuine Traveller education and providing them with a consistent relationship with school that is not disrupted every time they move, and we should look to encourage that. Does the Minister have a view on this?

Lord Hill of Oareford: We are due to address virtual schools later. I think that my noble friend has an amendment on the subject so we can return to it then. I can respond more fully to my noble friend Lord Avebury at that juncture.

Baroness Benjamin: In the Minister’s efforts to address this issue, could he please include parents? Parents are the key to the problem of these children not attending school. They are essential to making this successful. In my experience as a governor and a chair of governors of an academy where we had Gypsy and Roma children, the parents were the stumbling block. If you can get to them, part of this problem will be solved.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. It is good to hear about the work that his department is undertaking. I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, talk about the demise of specialist Gypsy, Roma and Traveller education services. Maybe the Minister briefly said something about that at the end of his response but, I am sorry, I did not quite catch it. If he could clarify what is going on with those services, I would be grateful.

I apologise if I misled the Committee in any way by describing myself as “teaching” this boy. I was running workshops in a school environment. I am not a teacher; I should make that quite clear.

Lord Avebury: In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, the ring-fenced grant for the Travellers Education Service ceased in 2007, and the equivalent amount of money was made available in the general grant to local authorities for disadvantaged children as a whole. It was from that point onwards that local authorities started to see that there was money that they could use for other purposes and either made officials in the service redundant, in some cases, or did not replace them when they left. There has been a gradual process of running down that, as I said, if it is allowed to continue, will result in the complete disappearance of specific Traveller education services in a few years’ time.

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What the noble Earl and my noble friend said about contact with parents is important. It was an essential feature of the Traveller education services; they managed to link the parents, the children and the schools, which is why they were effective. In the absence of these specialist services, I am afraid we will not have that advantage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, also reinforced the point about mobile children. We are talking not simply about those who still live in caravans and are peripatetic-that is a declining number. What I was talking about when I defined what I hoped the Minister would pick up on-the term “mobile child”-was a child who enters at a point other than the beginning of an academic phase and is therefore potentially disadvantaged because he or she has not hitherto received education or has received it very intermittently. If we could add such children to the definitions that were specified in the Minister’s letter, it would go some way towards covering the children about whom we are particularly concerned.

However, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. We acknowledge the benefits of the pupil premium, which will cover many of the GRT minority. We believe that the revision of the guidance on CME will be effective but we have not seen it yet. I am grateful to my noble friend for mentioning the work of the DfE’s stakeholder group, which has a meeting in the coming week at which I am sure we will want to discuss some of the matters that have been covered in today’s debate. We are in the course of responding to the department’s educational funding consultation. That will also have an impact on how we treat this group. I cannot promise that we will not return to this subject on Report. We have not dealt with all the matters that have been raised. Perhaps we shall cover some of them in the later debates, particularly on virtual schools, which have an important role to play here. However, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 123 withdrawn.