Official record of Scottish Parliament’s Stage 3 debate on Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Bill, in which an amendment was agreed to issue statutory guidance on home education.
- Mr Brian Monteith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con):
There was some debate about home education at stage 2 and a number of amendments were discussed. With this new amendment, I hope to allow for the issuing of guidance by Scottish ministers to local authorities on how to determine how home education can be administered or allowed.
For those who did not follow the stage 2 debate, I should explain that the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 gives parents the legal right not to send their children to school. Some parents choose to educate their children at home. If a child has never previously attended school, parents do not have to inform their local authority or seek the authority’s permission. However, if a child is registered and has started at school, they do.
Parents may decide, for a wide variety of reasons—bullying, because they are unhappy with the child’s education or because the child is unsettled at school—to educate their child or children at home. Although local authorities cannot unreasonably withhold consent, in practice it can take a considerable time for consent to be granted. In the meantime, children and parents are subjected to great distress.
Practice among local authorities across Scotland is not consistent. Some local authorities are quick to provide consent, others are slow and some, sadly, are even obstructive. By issuing guidance, a more consistent approach could be established. The matter was discussed at stage 2. With this amendment, I want to see whether the minister will accept the idea of issuing guidance. At stage 2, he suggested that he was keen to do so. However, any guidance must be helpful if it is to improve the situation. There is still some concern among parents that guidance will not be enough and could even worsen the situation. I wait to hear what the minister has to say about the purpose and style of any guidance that he may seek to bring forward if the amendment is passed.
I move amendment 25.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
I call Mr Stone to speak to amendments 35 to 38.
- Mr Stone:
I will speak to all my amendments at once. They are tidying amendments that were recommended to me by the Law Society of Scotland. I do not feel particularly strongly about them, other than wanting to ensure that the wording is absolutely watertight. I will respect the Deputy Minister for Children and Education’s response. It is obvious what I am trying to do, but I will take on board whatever Mr Peacock comes back with.
- Donald Gorrie:
I would like your guidance, Presiding Officer. After discussion with Sir David, I submitted to him a drafting amendment to amendment 25. In discussions with the various people involved, I gathered that the minister and many other people supported the thrust of Mr Monteith’s amendment, but felt that the wording was not consistent with the bill in various ways. The drafting amendment suggests amending the wording to read “The Scottish Ministers may issue guidance”. That would enable Mr Monteith’s amendment to fit in tidily to the bill, which seems a legitimate thing to do.
I move the amendment to amendment 25.
- The Deputy Presiding Officer:
Let me give some guidance to the chamber on this point, which has already been raised with Sir David. Sir David is minded to accept the amendment under rule 9.10.1, which states that, provided there is no dissent:
“Amendments to a Bill shall be in such form as the Presiding Officer may determine.”
This is a grey area. If there is no dissent, in the first line of amendment 25, “shall” will be replaced by “may” and the words
“and may at any time revise”
shall be removed. Is that agreed?
Amendment to amendment 25 agreed to.
- Mr Mike Rumbles (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD):
I am delighted that that amendment to amendment 25 has been agreed to. I was going to say that I was concerned that the bill may be interpreted as eroding parental choice in children’s education outwith school. I would like to place on record my wholehearted support for Brian Monteith’s amendment. Now that it has been amended by Donald Gorrie’s amendment, I certainly intend to vote for it. I urge every member to do the same.
- Nicola Sturgeon:
I, too, speak in favour of amendment 25. Brian Monteith has covered the arguments for this amendment. It is a reality that some people—although only a small minority—choose to educate their children at home. For some that is a positive decision, as they think that it is the best way in which to educate their children. For others it is a negative decision, as their child may be unhappy at school: the child may have been bullied at school or have special needs that the school cannot cater for. It is important that the rules are clear and consistent, and that they ensure the greatest possible protection for children.
At the moment, parents need local authority consent before they can withdraw a child, and the process of obtaining that consent can be lengthy and frustrating. The most worrying aspect is that the attitudes of local authorities vary considerably. Some local authorities seek to expedite the process, whereas others drag it out. If the process is being dragged out, the effects on a child who is having severe problems at school can be extremely detrimental. The danger for children is that parents who are faced with those circumstances may try to circumvent the rules to have their child removed from school. There is a possibility that we will allow children to slip through the net and through the safety procedures that local authorities have in place.
I am glad that Peter Peacock is accepting this amendment—he said at stage 2 that he would accept an amendment on guidance—but I ask him to enter into early discussion with people who have an interest in this matter. There are active organisations that represent the views of parents who educate at home, which have clear views about what the content of the guidance should be. I urge the minister to enter into discussions with those organisations before finalising the guidance, to ensure that we get it right.
- Ian Jenkins (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) (LD):
I endorse what Nicola Sturgeon has said. At stage 2, I felt uncomfortable with the attempts to help the home education movement. The technicalities of the motions and amendments at that point were difficult to vote for. I am delighted that this amendment has been lodged and I urge the minister to ensure that the guidance is helpful to those who want to opt out for good reasons, while protecting the children from use of the legislation as a way of avoiding schooling for less happy reasons.
- Peter Peacock:
I am happy to accept the amendment as amended by Donald Gorrie. We would have accepted it had it not fallen foul of the slight drafting requirement. I said at stage 2 that we would issue guidance, and, in doing so, consult widely those who have an interest in this matter. I repeat that undertaking now. We will ensure that there is wide consultation with those who are involved, to ensure that this matter is dealt with properly.