The Education Secretary has reaffirmed the Government’s pledge to establish a register for children not in school, but without specifying a time frame for legislation.
The issue was brought into the spotlight as the Commons debated the King’s Speech, where the absence of a firm timeline drew criticism from MPs.
Lib Dem education spokeswoman Munira Wilson asked for an explanation as to why the previously promised register had not been addressed in the Government’s plans for the parliamentary year.
Gillian Keegan insisted ministers remained “committed to legislating” to establish “children-not-in-school measures” but that these would progress at a “future suitable legislative opportunity”.
Tory MP Flick Drummond (Meon Valley) expressed her disappointment, later saying: “What more suitable opportunity could there be than the one that we have now?”
Legislation to implement a national register of children in elective home education was originally intended to be part of the Schools Bill to address concerns about increased absence since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ms Keegan told MPs on the Education Select Committee in December last year the Bill would have not progressed but added that ministers remained committed to its objectives.
She said the Government would continue to prioritise certain elements of the Bill, including the proposed register.
Intervening as Ms Keegan opened the second day of the King’s Speech debate, Ms Wilson said: “She talks about persistent absence, so could she maybe explain to the House why there was no announcement yesterday about bringing forward legislation for a children-not-in-school register, something ministers promised to do when they scrapped the Schools Bill in the last session?”
The Education Secretary replied: “The legislation we put in place has enabled us to make many of these improvements, but we do remain committed to legislating to take forward the children-not-in-school measures and we will progress these at a future suitable legislative opportunity.
“We are continuing to work with local authorities to improve the non-statutory registers. And we have also launched a consultation on revised elective home-education guidance. So there is work going on, the consultation is open until January 18 2024. So there is a lot of work going on and we do intend to bring forward that legislation.”
Ms Drummond later told MPs she had introduced a Bill which aimed to establish a register, after the measure was dropped from the Schools Bill.
She added: “Parents have a right to homeschool children, and my Bill would have done nothing to prevent them. Its aim is to ensure that vulnerable children are identifiable and can be supported. There is a crisis in attendance post-Covid and we have to tackle it before these children miss out.
“My Bill fell at the end of the last session and I noted that the schools minister committed to introduce legislation at a future suitable opportunity. What more suitable opportunity could there be than the one that we have now? So I was deeply disappointed at the lack of the Bill in the gracious speech.”
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said there is an “epidemic” of student absence from schools and the King’s Speech contained no plans to address the issue.
She said: “Today there is no greater failing by this Government than standing by as more and more children miss school for days on end, term after term. A lost generation, missing from England’s schools.”
Wednesday’s debate, which focused on “breaking down barriers to opportunity”, also saw Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner saying young people were caught in a “vicious Tory doom loop”.
She accused the Government of having taken a “sledgehammer” to the foundations on which a good life could be built, telling the Commons: “People today can no longer be sure that by working hard they will get on and where they come from won’t hold them back.”
Ms Rayner later said: “Today, young people are caught in a vicious Tory doom loop. Denied the opportunities their parents had, left behind by their Government from school to employment, unable to rely on the security of a decent home and a secure job. What the party opposite has successfully built is a boulevard of broken dreams.
“They’ve broken their promises to renters, to leaseholders, to housebuilders and to all those who dream of owning their own home. Like a bad Santa at Christmas, they’re doling out broken promises in every direction.”
Meanwhile, speaking from the SNP’s frontbench Pete Wishart said: “There wasn’t so much red meat in this King’s Speech, it was like last week’s beef bourguignon.”
He added: “This was a last-gasp King’s Speech.”