Parents in UK may face a year in prison for failing to comply with undefined local authority powers

The UK’s Family Education Trust (FET) has produced a chilling analysis of the British Government’s Schools Bill currently before Parliament, which we republish with the FET’s kind permission. According to Lord Wei, the Bill “massively empowers local authorities to monitor how parents raise their children … It does this by enabling officials to inspect what is being taught and then, for the slightest, subjective reason, force parents to put their children back into school”. If they refuse to comply, they would face a hefty fine and then up to 52 weeks imprisonment.” The same Bill introduces greater regulation for independent schools, in what Lord Baker, a former Secretary of State for Education, calls “a real grab for power by the Department for Education”. This article originally appeared in the Family Education Trust bulletin, issue 187, autumn 2022.

The Schools Bill raises great concerns as it applies to two areas: home education and independent schools.

The Bill requires local authorities to maintain a register of all home-educated children. Parents are required to provide “necessary information” to local authorities for inclusion on their registers. This information according to Clause 436C of the Bill must include:

“(a) the child’s name, date of birth and home address,

“(b) the name and home address of each parent of the child,

“(c) such details of the means by which the child is being educated as may be prescribed”1

The initial text of the Bill also included a clause (d), which called for the inclusion of “any other information that may be prescribed”. Since this clause gave authorities the right to demand virtually unlimited information from parents it was one of the parts of the Bill most objected to by home-educating parents. While the Bill has been revised since report stage and clause (d) has disappeared, the very next section of the Bill states:

“A register under section 436B must also contain such information about, or in connection with, the following matters in respect of a child registered in it as may be prescribed, to the extent that the local authority have the information or can reasonably obtain it …”

The Bill then lists no fewer than 11 pieces of information that parents must supply to the local authority including the child’s protected characteristics, whether the child has special needs, any previous contact the child has had with the local authority, what types of school the child attended in the past and finally this very broad specification:

“…any other information about the child’s characteristics, circumstances, needs or interactions with a local authority or educational institutions that the Secretary of State thinks should be included in the register for the purposes of promoting or safeguarding the education, safety or welfare of children.”

Further, the Bill goes on to state:

“A register … may also contain any other information the local authority consider appropriate.”

Thus unlimited power is given to local authorities and the Secretary of State to demand information from parents. 

Parents are required to register their children within 15 days of when they begin home educating. Parents who fail to do so will be issued with a School Attendance Order, breach of which “would attract penalty on conviction of up to £2,500 fine or up to 3 months’ imprisonment (51 weeks after the commencement of wider changes to sentencing legislation) or both.”2

A leading home education website has called the Schools Bill “possibly the most significant change in education law with regard to parental responsibilities since the introduction of the state education system” in 1870.3

It is indeed a thoroughly radical piece of legislation. It rejects the long-established idea that parents are the primary educators of their children and that they delegate authority to teachers. The Bill by contrast replaces parents with the state as primary educator and protector of children. Under the proposed regime, parents would receive permission from the state for the right to educate their children.

Additionally, supplying local authorities with all the information they require would be a considerable bureaucratic burden on parents and the processing of necessary forms would be a new time and expense for the local authorities.

Conservative peer Lord Wei, in an article for the Conservative Home website, gives a fierce denunciation of the Schools Bill and its provisions on home education. This is worth quoting at length:

… the Schools Bill … seeks to prevent parents from fulfilling their duty to educate their children as they see fit. It massively empowers local authorities to monitor how parents raise their children, imposing inspections that will bring state intrusion deeply into homes and the lives of families … Should a future government seek to change the national curriculum to further teach woke ideas … our own Schools Bill as currently drafted will remove the ability of parents to take their children out of school and educate them at home.

It does this by enabling officials to inspect what is being taught and then, for the slightest, subjective reason, force parents to put their children back into school using an attendance order. If they refuse to comply, they would face a hefty fine and then up to 52 weeks imprisonment, without recourse to appeal …

… How did we get to a point when such a draconian, statist, and anti-freedom law even gets it onto the desk of our Education Secretary unvetted – let alone makes it to second reading of the House of Lords?4

FET strongly endorses this opinion and would add what we have stated many times previously regarding mandatory registration of home educated children:

Since it is parents who bear the legal responsibility to ensure their children receive a full-time and efficient education, home-education should be viewed as the default position, requiring no registration with the state. When parents educate their children at home, they are no more performing a public function than when they feed them, clothe them, nurse them back to health, and care for them in an infinite number of other ways. It is important to remember that the family is a private institution, not an arm of the state. Parents should not be required to register in order to perform any of the responsibilities they bear towards their children – whether it be feeding them, clothing them or educating them.

Statutory registration of home-educated children involves an unwarranted and unnecessary interference in the life of the family and the administration of a statutory register would be a drain on the local authorities’ resources.

Independent Schools

If the Bill’s call for mandatory registration of home educated children were not enough, it also calls for greater state regulation of independent schools.

Reading through the government factsheets on the Schools Bill, one might be surprised by just how much information independent schools are already required to share with the Secretary of State, but the Bill extends this further. In particular it will require the Secretary of State to determine whether the proprietors of independent schools are “fit and proper persons” … Wait a minute, are not independent schools supposed to be independent? Does that not mean that those who run these schools can make the decision as to whether their proprietor is a “fit and proper person”? What does being independent mean in this context when a government official can veto the proprietor of an independent school?

The Bill’s obsession with bringing “unregistered settings” under the purview of the state has caused concern among many religious groups. Orthodox Jews are particularly concerned about the fate of their Yeshiva schools and a group of them have written to the Secretary of State expressing the view that these schools would become effectively secularised if the Schools Bill were to become law. Their fears are certainly justified given some of the statements made by supporters of the Bill. For example, Baroness Meacher stated:

“We know that the education provided in many unregistered religious schools is narrow in scope, predominantly scriptural in content and deeply conservative, intolerant and extreme in outlook.”5

No prizes for guessing what kind of schools the Baroness has in mind.

The dangers of the proposed regulations were noted by a number of the Bill’s critics during second reading in the Lords. For example, Lord Baker of Dorking, a former Secretary of State for Education, called the Bill:

“… a real grab for power by the Department for Education. We must remember that, since 1870, the Department for Education has never run a school. It does not know how to appoint heads or how to determine any of the aspects of running a school because it has never had to do that, but now it is going to take complete control over the education system.”

While Baroness Fox of Buckley said:

“…something this Bill definitely does not prioritise is freedom or choice in education. Instead, it promises hyper-centralisation, more regulation, more bureaucracy and more state control.”

The appeal of independent schools lies in the word “independent” — schools that are free from government oversight and regulation and therefore respond more effectively to the educational aspirations of children and their parents. We believe that attempts at regulation risk making independent schools redundant and indistinguishable from the state sector.

In electing to send their children to an independent school, parents are seeking education provision that differs in certain respects from that provided by the state.

The school system needs less bureaucracy not more, more choice not less and more educational freedom.

Write to your MP: Call to British citizens

The Schools Bill finished its report stage in the House of Lords shortly before Parliament adjourned for the summer. Its third reading in the Lords is likely to take place after Parliament returns in September. The Bill will then pass to the House of Commons, unless the new prime minister and her education team decide to kill it off.

We would strongly recommend our UK supporters to write to their MPs to express their concern about this Bill. You can write to your MP at the House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA

There is a Facebook group called “Stop the Schools Bill” which you can join. This is not affiliated with FET but is a useful page for information and to connect with other parents who are also against the Schools Bill.

John Smeaton, of Voice of the Family, said:

“This Bill, alongside the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which provided for compulsory relationships education for primary school pupils in the UK, as well as sex and relationships education for secondary school children, is another attack on the rights of parents as the primary educators of their children, and on the innocence of children. The British Government has the priority objective of providing children with pro-LGBT, and pro-abortion propaganda, including access to abortion. This objective will be greatly advanced if this Bill becomes law. We must do everything we possibly can to stop it.”

1. Schools Bill, section 436C.

2. Department for Education, Schools Bill Factsheet: “Children not in School”, May 2022.

3. “The Schools Bill has Landed!”, HE Byte, 18 May 2022.

4. Lord Wei, “Will Sunak or Truss finally stop a Conservative Government tabling un-Conservative legislation?”, Conservative Home, 27 July 2022.

5. Schools Bill, second reading debate, House of Lords, 23 May 2022.