19th October 2022
Open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Kit Malthouse,
Cc the Minister of State for Schools and Childhood, the Rt Hon Kelly Tolhurst and
Baroness Barran, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Education
The Schools Bill poses a grave threat, particularly to those most marginalised and vulnerable in society.
Whilst the passage of the bill has been paused implementation work has continued on the measures contained within Part 3. It is vital that the Schools Bill be withdrawn and that it not be replaced with another containing the same powers. These include the so called ‘children not in schools’ registers as well as the increased powers around attendance management and enforcement. The latter are included in the Department for Education (DfE) ‘Working together to improve school attendance’ guidance, made statutory by the bill.
The legislation enables 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 increasing numbers of families are facing ever more desperate pressures while 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 grants expanded powers around the storage and distribution of children’s information. It will expose children to additional risks, allowing as it does 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 granted by this legislation are already excessive but the Schools Bill goes yet further. The use of controversial ‘Henry VIII powers’ gives the current Secretary of State –and all those who follow – 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
Children and families will be harmed too by the implementation of the national framework on attendance set out in the new guidance. 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 Schools Bill 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. No additional support has been provided for children who experience barriers with attending school. Ever increasing numbers of families of children categorised as having special educational needs and disabilities are fighting for support. High numbers of families are experiencing desperate levels of poverty and deprivation, forecast to escalate further this winter. The Schools Bill will crack down on those already struggling.
Worrying wider measures around attendance
We note with concern that this bill is set against the backdrop 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 school 9 million 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. These together with the ‘children not in school’ registers 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.
We call on you to withdraw Part 3 of the Schools Bill and for there to be a rethink of current policy and practices. The measures included in the bill will negatively impact not only individual children and families, but also society more widely.
Dr Chris Bagley
Professor Andy Bilson
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
No to Schools Bill www.notoschoolsbill.uk is a campaign by Counting Children UK
 Attendance Action Alliance meeting minutes (April 28, 2022) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1073980/AAA280422_minutes.pdf