Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: I am sure that we all wish the hon. Member for Tewkesbury a happy birthday. I am concerned that his Whip would not give him the day off.

The amendment would define what the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales should have in mind when drafting the new statutory guidance on inclusion. In explaining why we resist the amendment, it will be useful if I say what we envisage the guidance covering. It will back up the new inclusion framework and provide practical advice to help schools and LEAs in partnership with parents to determine whether a mainstream place is right. Clearly, we believe that parents' preference for a mainstream place for their child should be refused only when the school or local education authority can clearly demonstrate that the child's inclusion would be incompatible with the efficient education of other children.

We envisage, in particular, that the guidance will cover how new section 316 and schedule 27 operate and interact with other legislation, including section 348, which governs publicly funded placements in non-maintained schools. It will explore the steps that maintained schools and local education authorities can consider taking to ensure that a child's inclusion is not incompatible with the efficient education of other children. It can consider the type of children for whom a mainstream place may not be appropriate because of their effect on the education of other children, underlining that, when a mainstream place is not appropriate or when parents want an alternative placement, consideration should be given to the range of appropriate alternative provisions. It should set out clearly the safeguards that protect the interests of individual children with SEN and all pupils. In explaining the guidance, I hope that I have partly exemplified why we do not consider the amendment appropriate.

In response to the point made by the hon. Member for Daventry, the National Assembly for Wales and the Department are working closely together on the guidance to ensure that, while recognising the different legal aspects in Wales and England, it provides consistency, especially for schools.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister make it clear to the Committee whether the code will be owned jointly or whether there will be potential for disparity?

Jacqui Smith: I am not clear about what matter the hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Mr. Boswell: The revised code.

Jacqui Smith: We are working on the code with the National Assembly. I shall clarify matters later if the hon. Gentleman is still not clear.

The amendment refers to the need to ensure a balance of provision to afford parents a genuine choice, the need to develop strategies to meet children's needs and to monitor the appropriateness of SEN provision. That is not what the guidance on inclusion is designed to cover. Such issues are dealt with adequately elsewhere. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings rightly emphasised the important role of parents in the education of children with special educational needs and more widely in the education system. It is important to recognise that more parents are choosing mainstream placements.

Although we believe that the special school sector is safe, it is worth while recognising, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak did, that parental confidence in the system's ability to provide for pupils special educational needs in a mainstream setting is growing. That is why the percentage of pupils with statements who are placed in mainstream schools has grown steadily growing since 1996. There is a modest trend towards inclusion in new statements. In 1996, some 66 per cent. of new statements resulted in a mainstream placement. In 2000, that had increased to 74 per cent. That reflects parental confidence in the ability of mainstream schools to be able to deal excellently, in many cases, with the range of needs and disabilities that pupils may bring to their education in those schools.

Mr. Hayes: It may indeed reflect that growing confidence or it may reflect the shortage of special school places and the decline in the numbers of those places. Those statistics could be used to justify either of those cases, but I suspect that there is a mix between the two. Does the Minister agree?

Jacqui Smith: No, I do not believe that the trend results from a shortage of special school places. In fact, we know from independent reports and surveys such as the National Autistic Society's study entitled ``Inclusion and autism—is it working?'', which was published last year, that parental confidence in inclusion is growing. The study found that three quarters of the parents that they surveyed were satisfied with the education that their children received. Some 80 per cent. of those with children in mainstream schools said that their child had been better served by being in a mainstream school. Professor Sue Buckley's report on the education of individuals with Down's syndrome also highlighted the many benefits that inclusion can offer and the excellent work being done in many schools.

It has been suggested that the special school sector is somehow under attack. I reiterate our important figures about the proportion of children placed in special schools. In 1991, 1.3 per cent. of children were in special schools and that that figure fell to 1.2 per cent. by 1995. It has since remained constant. We do not believe that that will change radically because of the Bill.

Mr. Boswell: Not necessarily now, but perhaps at a later stage, will the Minister say, while breaking down the figures that she has already given, what proportion of children educated in special schools are educated in the maintained or non-maintained sector? That is germane to the amendment and might be of general interest.

Jacqui Smith: I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman on that subject, although I thought that the argument related more to the need for special school provision as opposed to mainstream provision. The clause relates to that relationship, strengthening the right of parents to get a place for their child in a mainstream school.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made much of distribution and location of special schools. The location of special schools is often the result of history, as with all schools. Some LEAs will always have a good record of supporting pupils in mainstream schools, while others are still developing. One size does not fit all. Some excellent special schools take children from all over the country, so their physical location does not necessarily represent an ability among local children to access special education.

The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out a distinction in the number of special schools in different parts of the country. I note that Gloucestershire, for example, has the highest number of special schools in the south-west area.

The special educational needs regional partnerships aim to help redress variations in the quality and the type of response that pupils receive. I accept that we should ensure that all children, in whichever local education authority area, should receive the best possible opportunities for their education, whether in a mainstream or special school. That is clearly an important role for the SEN regional partnerships established by this Government, and a key theme of our SEN programme of action.

On the concern raised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury and others about LEA provision, it is important to reiterate the need to ensure a balance of provision for parents. Section 14 of the 1996 Act requires LEAs to secure sufficient schools for pupils. In doing so, they must have particular regard for the need to secure special educational provision. The Act ensures that provision is available to meet pupils' needs. Each year, each LEA must submit a school organisation plan to the local school organisation committee for approval, setting out how sufficient provision for pupils in its area will be secured. It must include the provision proposed for children with special educational needs. In doing that, LEAs must listen to what parents want.

10.45 am

Mr. Boswell: For the avoidance of any doubt, my understanding is that the 1996 Act is neutral on whether the provision for special educational needs is in special or mainstream schools.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Member for Tewkesbury appeared to be suggesting that there was nothing to ensure that children in his area received the high-quality education that we seek to give children with special educational needs. Section 14 ensures that LEAs offer that provision. There may be arguments at a local level about the balance of provision between special and mainstream schools, but there is protection in law to ensure sufficient education for children with special educational needs.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I am concerned that if special schools are not retained, there will be no choice for parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry pointed out, section 14(6) of the 1996 Act provides for securing special educational provision, not schools. There is a difference.

Jacqui Smith: The key point is that we all aim to achieve the best educational provision for our children. Section 14 is neutral on special and mainstream provision, but the educational provision, whether in a special or mainstream school, must be suitable—we would aspire to excellent—for all our pupils. LEAs and others making proposals are encouraged to have regard to the advice to school organisation committees, which underlines the factors to be taken into account: whether the proposals enable pupils' special educational needs to be met and will improve educational standards in the area, how they increase inclusion, and whether there is a need for a particular type of special educational needs provision in the area. As I made clear on Tuesday, school organisation committees will include representatives from special schools in the area. I am sure that those representatives will be clear, as will the others, about the need to maintain good provision.

The second paragraph of the amendment refers to ensuring flexibility in the system to respond to the particular needs of children as they arise. I assure hon. Members that ensuring that strategies are developed to meet the needs of children as they arise and change is part of the statementing process. The system for evaluating and providing for SENs is set out in the SEN code of practice. Its aim is to ensure that the special educational provision called for by pupils' needs is made. Some hon. Members have spoken about the need for flexibility between special and mainstream provision for individual children, and I agree with that. We believe that there is sufficient flexibility to allow children to spend time in special schools as well as in mainstream schools. Many children with special educational needs are supported by dual placements, which will continue to be available. As I spelled out on Tuesday, we are encouraging all special and mainstream schools to work together, support each other and better meet the requirements of children with special educational needs.

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