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Mr. Hayes: With typical perspicacity my hon. Friend has anticipated the summary point that I was about to make. He will not, however, have anticipated that I have a copy of the letter to which he refers. He is right in saying that the lady who wrote to him and the two sets of parents with whom he has corresponded are anxious that the statement should be specific in detail and quantified in terms of the number of hours of ancillary or specialist teaching or support required in order to meet the statement, and that the statement will not be so vague or woolly as to allow the local authority to place a child in a school which would be unable--perhaps not unwilling--to meet the needs of the statement in terms of the education it provided. There are real doubts about that.
Earlier in today's proceedings organisations and umbrella groups were cited. Members may be familiar with Action on Entitlement, an umbrella organisation which includes Action Support for the Special Needs Child, the Advisory Centre for Education, All Children Together, the Association for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus, the Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education, the Child Growth Foundation, the National Deaf Childrens Society--I could go on. It makes the very point that my hon. Friend has made and which his constituents are anxious should be articulated in the Chamber today. They ask that the code of practice which will accompany the measure is absolutely specific on the nature of the child's educational needs and the amount and frequency of special educational provision required to meet them. The statement should specify the kind and quantity of special education provided. This is the quantifiable and adequacy point that we seek to reinforce through our new clause.
There are real worries about what the legislation will do in this respect and what the code of practice may not do to supplement it. Unless the code of practice reinforces the very points made by Action on Entitlement, my hon. Friend, his constituents and Committee members, it may be--to paraphrase the hon. Member for Colne Valley whom I only wish was here to hear herself quoted a third time--a green light for all sorts of measures which no hon. Member would wish to see in terms of watering down the quality and quantity of good special needs education, be it in mainstream or special schools.
In those interests and with that cause in mind I propose the new clause. It adds to and reinforces the good principles which lie behind much of this legislation and which certainly lie behind the intentions of hon. Members throughout the Chamber.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I do not intend to detain the House for long. This has been one of my long-standing interests. I came in to listen and found myself becoming increasingly concerned about the tone of the debate.
We seem to be encouraging parents to use a statement as a weapon against the local education authority or other provider of services. I agree that this has been the only weapon that parents have had in the past. While resources were run down under the previous Government, local education authorities were finding it extremely difficult to provide for children with special educational needs. As a result, parents grasped the idea of statements as being a tool against local education authorities in the battle for resources. I feel uncomfortable about that. Local education authorities should be on the parents' side. They should be trying to raise standards and raising standards by giving children with special educational needs the resources that they need to meet those needs. So I feel uncomfortable about the tone of the debate. We should be encouraging much more co-operation and trying not to set up this rather confrontational position that we seem to have got ourselves into.
My main reason for attending the debate is that I, too, have received a letter from the parent of a child with Down's syndrome. She expresses concern about the proposed change in the code of practice for special education. Indeed, there must be a national campaign, because the quotation read out by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) equates closely to words in the letter from my constituent. However, there is obviously real concern that unless the statement is specific, parents will not receive the help and provision to meet their child's special educational needs.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien: I do not want to pursue the matter too far, but there is clearly a coincidence of interest between the hon. Lady and me, given the respective letters that we received from our constituents. I shall put that into the context of her opening remarks, which slightly concerned me although I bow to her greater experience in these matters. Does she agree that, rather than a weapon against local authorities, what parents most want is confidence in circumstances that are often stressful, difficult and protracted, when ultimately it is they who
Mrs. Campbell: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I agree that maximum partnership and co-operation between the LEA, the school and the parent are in the best interests of the child. That is the best way to meet those interests.
Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary assure us that the Government want to encourage that co-operation and partnership, and that the changes in the wording do not mean that children will be deprived of the resources that they need?
Jacqui Smith: I thank the contributors to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) on his self-proclaimed panache and charm. To show hon. Members how well informed I am, I wonder whether they might be interested to learn that "panache" is the name of a weak French beer--although I am sure that the 1958 vintage was splendid.
The first point relates to the different degrees of statementing in different local education authorities. It is, of course, impossible to set up hard and fast national criteria for SEN provision, when the nature, complexity and pattern of individual children's needs and the pattern of school provision vary so much. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) pointed out, a child might require an SEN statement in one area, but might not need one in another where, for example, there was more school-based provision. That does not necessarily mean, however, that there is a difference in the quality of provision made for each child.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge pointed out, the confidence of parents is crucial. In the past, parents believed that obtaining a statement was the way to get the provision that they wanted for their children. I hope that the improvements in parent partnerships and support for parents--not only in the revised SEN code of practice but in the Bill--will help to make parents feel more confident in the system.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings raised the issue of the different lengths of time that local education authorities take to issue statements. He quoted the Audit Commission figures, which actually show that there has been an improvement in the performance of authorities in England in recent years. In 1996, only 40 per cent. of draft statements were produced within the time limit, but in 2000 that figure was 77 per cent. None the less, we have asked, and continue to ask, poorer performing authorities to explain why their performance is disappointing, and for evidence of improved performance. We have provided good practice guidance and reported from the best performers to those whose performance could be improved, and we shall continue to take steps to help bring all authorities up to the standard of the best and to improve overall performance, not least in the improvements that we intend to make in the new code of practice.
The proposals represented in the new clause are unnecessary and would not necessarily serve the best interests of children with statements. Its requirement for the LEA to have regard to the need for adequacy of provision is unnecessary. Local education authorities are required to carry out a statutory assessment of the special educational needs of children for whom, effectively, they believe that they may need to maintain a statement. Those assessments are a thorough investigation of a child's learning difficulties. They involve a range of advice, and the LEA has a duty to seek and consider that advice before deciding whether to issue a statement for a child.
The revised SEN code of practice will set out the expectation that LEAs will also seek and consider the ascertainable views of the child. If, having completed an assessment, they decide to issue a statement, they must set out the special educational needs of that child in light of the assessment, and they must specify the provision to meet those needs. By its very nature, the process requires the LEA to specify provision that is adequate: it must meet the child's needs.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings also raised the issue of quantification. If the new clause is designed to establish a need for local education authorities to quantify provision in statements, whatever the needs and circumstances of each individual child, I believe that it would not be in the best interests of individual children with statements of SEN. There will be occasions when it would not be appropriate to quantify provision. Given the shortness of time, I shall give only a brief example.
A child with a speech and language impairment could be expected to progress rapidly in some areas. The content and detail of speech therapy provision will therefore need to change, often weekly. A deaf child who needs help specifically with communication skills from a specialist teacher of the deaf for a certain time each week may have a statement that specifies access to such a teacher, perhaps for a minimum amount of time, which could be revised in light of progress towards the objectives set out in the statement. The key point is that we monitor progress toward objectives.
The point of the example is to illustrate the importance of the principle of specifying provision--which is not necessarily the same as quantifying it in all cases--for each child individually, according to their particular needs and circumstances. That principle is enshrined in the current statutory requirement in section 324 of the Education Act 1996, backed up by the requirements of the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the sincere views that are held on this issue, and I am aware of the responses to our consultation on the code, so I emphasise the fact that we considered the matter extremely carefully, and have responded by making changes to the guidance in the final version of the code. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have said many times that we have no intention of weakening the legal protection for children with statements, or of encouraging vague statements. Vague statements do
The right way forward is to make the guidance in the improved SEN code of practice better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has outlined how we intend to do that, and said that we will retain the requirement in the SEN regulations for provision to be specified, matching the terms of the duty for LEAs set out in the Education Act 1996. On quantification, the code will make it clear that there may often be a need for provision--