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Mr. Boswell: The Under-Secretary has made an excellent start to her speech, but does she agree that even if skills training is not given in school, it will still be required somewhere and will have to be given outside that setting? It might as well be done in the most appropriate place.

Ms Hodge: That training needs to be provided in the most appropriate place and by the most appropriate people. Perhaps that will become clearer as I develop my remarks. As the hon. Gentleman said earlier, the purpose of the Bill is to equalise opportunities, so facilities for visually and sensorily impaired children are integral to it.

As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend acknowledged, a range of agencies are involved in providing support for the children to whom the Bill relates. I pay tribute to the active and helpful role of Sense and the RNIB, both of which I meet frequently, and of others in promoting mobility and independence. Those organisations have worked effectively with local education authorities throughout the country to provide training where it is needed.

LEAs do and must work in partnership with health authorities, social services departments and voluntary organisations to ensure that children get appropriate support and training. As the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) acknowledged, not all the services will be funded through LEAs. The way in which a service is funded and the agency that is selected to provide it will depend on the individual circumstances and needs of the child in question.

I hope to give some reassurances to all hon. Members who have participated in this short debate. LEAs are required to specify in a child's statement the special educational provision that is necessary to meet his or her special educational needs. They are also required to set out the non-educational needs of the child and the provision that is needed if he or she is properly to benefit from that provision. Indeed, the non-educational provision that is necessary to enable the child to benefit from his or her education provision can also be specified in the statement. That can encompass all needs, including those that relate to mobility and independence.

Our current code of practice and framework for special educational needs are somewhat different from what is suggested by the new clause, which would require LEAs by law specifically to assess mobility and independence as part of the statutory assessment of every child with visual or multi-sensory impairment. It would also require them to specify as educational provision in their statements the provision of mobility and independence training. I am not sure that such legislation is either necessary or appropriate.

As I hope that I have demonstrated, the current SEN framework allows for the holistic approach that we all acknowledge to be necessary for the children. It allows for the consultation of specialist teachers in appropriate individual circumstances when a child's special educational needs are assessed--a matter that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend. When we

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establish our policies, we will require a framework that encourages all the agencies that have a role to work together.

Mr. Win Griffiths: I accept everything that my hon. Friend says, but let me point out the problem that is apparent from research and surveys carried out by the RNIB. Although children get the help and support that they need in specialist schools, such support is not always available in mainstream schools because of the different standing of such provision within the statement. Will she assure us that the new code of practice will ensure equality of treatment? That would be very encouraging.

Ms Hodge: I acknowledge that the standard of current provision is not as high as we want it to be, and that it is not as integrated as we want it to be. I hope that my assurances about the steps that we are taking will show my hon. Friend that we are genuinely trying to achieve the aims to which he and the organisations in whose name he makes his representations aspire.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that it is important for us to establish a framework that facilitates, encourages and demands multi-agency working, rather than one that allows some of the agencies to opt out of their responsibilities in respect of dealing with the children's needs. As the new clause deliberately specifies the obligations in terms of the LEA, it might enable social services and health departments to opt out of their legitimate responsibilities in that regard.

Mr. Boswell: Those are helpful remarks, but I am not sure whether the Under-Secretary can secure her intentions in the Bill. Does she at least agree that it is incumbent on all agencies, whether they are specifically educational or not, and whether they are national or local, to collaborate and exchange information so that the overall holistic solution can emerge? I understand her point about not shifting their responsibilities away, but one of those responsibilities must be to work with other agencies in order to achieve the right outcome.

3 pm

Ms Hodge: I accept that those responsibilities must be shared and that collaboration must occur. One of the challenges that we face in trying to provide and improve services is finding methods of enhancing collaboration, thus ensuring that the needs of the child are central, and replacing traditional attitudes and practices, which tended to leave people in funnels. We want to encourage work across the professions.

The current SEN framework allows a holistic approach to need. We must ensure that it is appropriate to the needs of every child, and acknowledge that they may differ. The new clause would constrain our response to shifting the burden on to one authority. That may be inappropriate for some children, who may require more input from social services or health departments on mobility, independence or other needs. The disability provisions will ensure that every school makes reasonable adjustments to its policies, practices and procedures, and to access to the curriculum and the building. That will ensure that all children, including those with visual impairments and sensory impairments, are fully included in the life of the school.

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I acknowledge the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend made about low incidence impairments. We want to take advantage of the experience and expertise of specialists, yet enable children to be taught in mainstream schools in their locality when possible. The new clause shows that there is much work to be done and I do not pretend that we have achieved our aim yet. As my hon. Friend said, we need to spread the best practice of specialist schools in mainstream schools.

The aim of many of the SEN and social inclusion policies of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary with responsibility for school standards is to fund, through SEN regional partnerships and the SEN small programmes fund, mechanisms that will enhance the capacity for specialist schools to pass on their knowledge, experience and expertise to the mainstream sector. I am delighted that we have been able to increase so substantially the money that we are putting into the standards fund, which will support the training of teachers in mainstream schools and others to deal with impairments, especially low incidence impairments.

We need to do much more on early identification and intervention. We spent much time in Committee, as did another place, on that subject. If we can improve that, we will ensure that children can develop their full potential and live a more inclusive life. We are therefore investing a large sum of money in special educational needs in the early years, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on Second Reading. We have also announced the establishment of a multi-agency working group to develop guidance on identifying the special needs of children under two so that necessary provision can be made for them at the earliest opportunity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend raised another issue, about which I share his anxiety. We need to try to ensure greater consistency in provision throughout the country, especially for low incidence impairment. We have therefore issued our consultation document on quality standards in education for children and young people with visual impairments. As hon. Members know, it is designed to secure the right sort of services to help pupils to be independent learners. We refer specifically to the need to ensure support for mobility training when needed. We await the final comments from the consultation exercise, and we shall then distribute a final version to local authorities. I hope that we can use the document to ensure greater consistency across the country.

Multi-agency working is the key to ensuring a holistic approach. Several Government initiatives will support that. From sure start to the Bill, our policies will provide a framework based on the needs of the child rather than the interests of the professionals.

Clearly, we need to continue to seek improvements in our response to the specific needs of children with visual impairments and other sensory impairments. Together with the RNIB, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Opsis, we are funding a one-year research project, which considers the mobility and independence needs of children and young people from two to 16 and the training needs of those who work with them. That research will help inform future policy decisions, and we shall keep the issue under review.

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I hope that I have been able to persuade my hon. Friend to withdraw the new clause, and that we can proceed with introducing the much-needed Bill.

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