15th February 2023
To Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Gillian Keegan MP,
Cc Baroness Barran, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education
We welcome the announcement that the Schools Bill is not to progress further however are disappointed that the Department for Education remains committed to the so called ‘children not in school’ (CNIS) registers. Part 3 of the Schools Bill posed a grave threat, particularly to those most marginalised and vulnerable in society. The CNIS registers as per the legislation were deeply problematic. Whilst positive amendments were made during the passage of the bill these issues of making children vulnerable through the storage and sharing of their information remained. The increased powers around attendance management and enforcement are also concerning, and these continue even though the Schools Bill does not.
The legislation enabled an escalation of surveillance measures and increase of State intrusion into families, fundamentally shifting the balance of power further from families to the State. At the same time as increasing numbers of families are facing ever more desperate pressures the support made available to them is being cut.
Dangerous expansion of powers to store and distribute children’s information
The DfE’s handling of the children’s information it already holds – including one of the ‘richest’ education datasets in the world – is troubling. In 2020 an audit by the Information Commissioner’s Office found that “data protection was not being prioritised” and this had “severely impacted the DfE’s ability to comply with the UK’s data protection laws”. The 2016 monthly handover of children’s information from the DfE to the Home Office, used in the hostile environment, shows us how high the stakes are for children and families.
The Schools Bill granted expanded powers around the storage and distribution of children’s information. It would have exposed children to additional risks, allowing as it did for individual children’s information be shared with DfE as standard, as well as with other agencies or parties for broad grounds including the promotion or safeguarding of education.
Enabling local authorities to store sensitive information including special category data, collected through other channels, which “may not be initially deemed directly relevant to safeguarding a child or in their best interests” on the basis that it might one day “in future” be useful is unacceptable.
The powers to be granted by this legislation were already excessive but the Schools Bill went yet further. The use of controversial ‘Henry VIII powers’ would have given all Secretaries of State free reign for increasing the storage and distribution of children’s information at national level, as well as enabling unlimited future powers for scope creep at local government level.
Doubling down on punitive attendance measures
The Schools Bill would have put the national framework on attendance set out in the new guidance onto a statutory footing. Whilst this legislation is not to progress the guidance remains. It details a route which schools and local authorities must follow, culminating in fines, prosecutions, custodial sanctions and referrals to Children’s Social Care Services. Families of children who experience barriers attending school already face these but the guidance doubles down on this failed and harmful approach. That fines and punishment do not increase attendance is evidenced and widely accepted, including being acknowledged at an Attendance Action Alliance meeting chaired by the then Secretary of State, the Rt Hon MP Nadhim Zahawi.
The new guidance uses the language of support to children and to families. The reality is that families report that existing measures offered do not help. The systemic issues present in the school system are not being addressed. We welcome your comments at the Education Select Committee which recognise that it is not only a matter of getting children into school that counts. To date there has been a lack of additional support provided for children who experience barriers with attending school, with ever increasing numbers of families of children categorised as having special educational needs and disabilities fighting for support.
Worrying wider measures around attendance
We note with concern that the backdrop to this bill is one of increasing policing powers around school attendance, as well as calls for a unique identifier for every child which the government says could be added into the registers at a later date. We note also that point 49 and 50 of the new attendance guidance includes the live attendance tracking of 9 million school children. Already being rolled out, this “high-risk data collection” gives the government instant access to individual school children’s information, including whether they are in school or not at any given moment, and is intended to be shared with police and other agencies. Together with the CNIS registers this would give Whitehall an unwarranted level of surveillance over all children of school age in England.
Children need safety, but monitoring, tracking and surveillance will not keep them safe. Children and their families need support that address the problems they experience, not scapegoating and sanctions.
The measures – which the Department for Education remain committed to – will negatively impact not only individual children and families, but also society more widely.
Dr Chris Bagley
Professor Andy Bilson
Ruth Ehrlich, Head of Policy and Campaigns, Liberty
Dr Naomi Fisher
Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury
Emeritus Professor Eileen Munro
Kids of Colour
No More Exclusions
Not Fine in School
Parents, Families and Allies Network
Susan Liverman and Maddie Roberts on behalf of the Parents Petition
Dr Harriet Pattison
The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK
York Travellers Trust