Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman speaks with great integrity and knowledge on the subject. He acknowledged that I have a personal interest in the matter, apart from a philanthropic interest. When I was a member of an LEA in Nottinghamshire, I dealt with a case which was exactly as he describes—profoundly deaf parents with a profoundly deaf child, who fought to get that child into special education. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that that could be a bridge into mainstream education. At the very least, it was necessary for the child to have a period of specialist education outside the mainstream to make crossing that bridge easier.

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Mr. Levitt: I accept that point entirely. I said on Second Reading that the GCSE achievements of children with hearing impairments are considerably lower than those of children without such impairments. That suggests that, at some stage, the language environment has been the real issue at stake. I commend localities in which hearing children have been taught sign language as a way of better integrating a deaf child whose first language is sign language but whose parents have chosen to use the mainstream route. The important point is that parents should make informed choices. Having made those choices, they should have the opportunity to exercise them. That should be overseen by a local authority, and, when necessary, by mainstream teachers—as well as special teachers—who are well versed in the problems of children with special educational needs.

Jacqui Smith: We have had a wide-ranging debate, and I shall try to address the wide range of issues that have been covered.

It would be useful if Committee members were to cast their minds back to the issue of partnerships. The hon. Member for Daventry rightly highlighted the need to establish partnerships to ensure that we obtain the best services for our children. My argument against including that provision in new clause 1 is that we are already making good progress in that area, which is exemplified by the use of speech language therapy, to which he referred. We have already considered how we can use the flexibilities introduced under the Health Act 1999 with the support that we have made available through the standards fund and piloted speech and language projects, which are aimed precisely at bringing together education and health. That allows education, health and social services to work in partnership, including pooling resources to provide a joined-up approach.

Through our regional partnerships, we have already championed a co-ordinated approach. In 11 areas, they have brought together local partners from health, social services, education, employment and the voluntary and private sectors, and are bearing fruit. From this April, we shall be taking a far more strategic approach, including improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the special educational needs provision and services. Regional partnerships are particularly championing inter-agency work locally and regionally. I should be happy to make available to the Committee copies of the initial impressions report on the work of those regional partnerships, which was produced by the evaluation team from Manchester university.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way at such an early stage in the proceedings. As she knows, I have a certain interest in those partnerships. I am sure that all members of the Committee would like to see the report. I wish to flag up a worry of the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, which has been passed on by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale). The head of the school writes:

    ``I have major concerns about the apparent lack of openness or an apparent lack of consultative and collaborative involvement of NASS (National Association for Independent and Non-Maintained Special Schools) and Voluntary organisations.''

I ask the Minister to reflect on that. I am sure that a copy of the letter can be made available to her. Will she ensure that such matters are properly tied up so that the partnerships have greater continuing and developing credibility?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The involvement of such organisations is crucial, which is why the chief executive of NASS is on the national steering group for regional planning projects. I am willing to make the report available to the Committee, and the first two case studies arising from the regional partnerships, which focus on developing services for children and young people with autistic spectrum disorders in the west midlands and on the use of out-county and out-city provision in the east of England. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the significant progress that we are making in the important area of partnerships.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings spoke of his worry about acquired brain injury. I have had a productive meeting with organisations representing children with such injury. Following that meeting, we made arrangements for those organisations to establish a presence in our inclusion site to help to raise awareness. I agree with members of the Committee about the need for awareness among teachers about what is involved in working effectively and properly with children with different needs. We shall also include references in the guidance for health professionals on special educational needs that we are developing with the Department of Health. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts my assurance that we are talking practical steps to develop important partnerships.

Amendment No. 1 and new clause 1 have caused much key discussion on the need to safeguard the interests of children with special educational needs. It was suggested, although in a reasonably friendly manner, that the Government are not concerned about the needs or the interests of children with special educational needs. That could not be further from the truth. We believe strongly that amendment No. 1 and new clause 1 are unnecessary because, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said, there are safeguards elsewhere that protect the interests of children with special educational needs. To reiterate an earlier point, that is one of the reasons why the Special Educational Consortium supports our approach.

The whole point of the Education Act 1996 and the special educational needs framework is to ensure that children's needs are met. Clause 1 does not stand on its own. It works in conjunction with other provisions, both legal and monitoring. It is worth while reviewing the provisions of the Education Act 1996 that protect children with special educational needs. Section 7 requires parents to cause their children to receive full-time education that is suitable to any special educational needs that they may have. Section 9 ensures that pupils are educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents so far as that is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training. Section 14 requires local education authorities to ensure that sufficient schools are available for their area to secure special educational provision. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Hayes: When I asked the Minister in a written parliamentary question in November how much time was spent training teachers in the skills required to teach children with special educational needs, she said that the information was not collected centrally. Although there is now a requirement for teachers to show that they have grasped the basics in that respect, I am not sure that there is consistent training or that those skills are being applied. The Minister must acknowledge, as I would acknowledge about the previous Government, that performance in this field is patchy.

Jacqui Smith: I suspect that I went on to point out the significant improvements that have been made in teacher training in this field. As the hon. Gentleman has already accepted, changes have been made to qualified teacher status, and teachers must now show evidence of recognising special educational needs and understanding what is required to deal with them. That is subsequently followed up in their induction year.

We have worked with the National Association for Special Educational Needs to help provide resources to schools and teachers to back up the specialist standards that have been developed alongside the Teacher Training Agency. Significant resources are being provided through the standards fund. Indeed, more has been provided for the training of teachers and learning support assistants in the SEN standards fund this year than was provided in the entire SEN standards fund for 1996-97.

Mr. Boswell: If I may pick up the point that the Minister has just made in response to my hon. Friend's point about the training and competencies of teachers, we began work on the matter—I was anxious for us to do so—in the mid-1990s, and I am glad that it is coming to fruition. She rather skated over the duty in section 9 of the 1996 Act to educate children in accordance with their parents' wishes. She made an omission that, unless I have overlooked something, it is relevant to place on record. She referred to compatibility with the provision of efficient instruction and training, but she stopped at that point without adding the words, which are, I believe, still in the 1996 statute,

    ``and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure.''

I mention that not to correct the Minister but to draw attention to the underlying fear in the minds of many local education authorities and people who do not have a particular axe to grind that policies of what might be termed theological inclusion are likely to give rise to exactly those anxieties about huge expenditure for little benefit. She needs to respond to that in relation either to this matter or efficient education, which we shall discuss in a moment.

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