Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: As the Minister has just referred to dual placements, will she brief members of the Committee, if the figures are readily available—as she briefed us helpfully on another point that I made—on the number of statemented pupils who have such dual placement arrangements?

Jacqui Smith: I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman and other Committee members with the information available on that issue.

The need to monitor the appropriateness of SEN provision is covered by the fact that Ofsted already monitors the quality of provision via school and LEA inspections. Furthermore, Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools will monitor the impact of the new inclusion framework. Given that the three issues—ensuring a balance of provision to afford parents a genuine choice, developing strategies to meet children's needs and monitoring the appropriateness of SEN provision—are more than adequately covered and protected in other areas, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Hayes: As ever, the Minister presents her case with eloquence and charm. However, I am a hard man to charm and I have several concerns.

First, her defence based on the 1996 Act—section 14 of which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry rightly pointed out, is neutral on special schools and mainstream provision—is hollow. We all take the view that it is important that we maintain high quality across the whole education service, and we believe that it is vital that, wherever children are educated, they are educated to the best possible standards. However, that is hardly an argument against an amendment that seeks a balance of provision between the special school sector and the mainstream. The first of her defences is therefore unpersuasive.

Secondly, the Minister accepts that flexibility is necessary and vital, and I am minded of the words of Baroness Warnock in chapter 8 of her report, which stated:

    ``The facilities and expertise should be more widely available to provide intensive specialised help on a short-term basis and sometimes at short notice''.

That is the flexibility to which I referred earlier. The hon. Lady said that she supports it and rightly drew attention to it. However, that ability for children to move between sectors, facilitated by a dual statement, is supported only from the parents' and the child's point of view on the basis of availability. There are real issues in practical terms about availability, unless we ensure that a balance is maintained.

I am not only worried about the existing distribution, to which I drew attention earlier, but concerned about what may change as a result of the Bill. Members on both sides of the Committee have reminded us of the destructive effect of the Green Paper—that sad incident in the life of the Government which caused so much distress throughout the country. Earlier I reflected the words of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), who is not in Committee at the moment, when I said that it was used by some local authorities as a green light for the closure of special schools. If that was a green light, heaven knows what would happen if we were not to maintain the importance of balance in the Bill by supporting the amendment. It is not just the existing distribution that is the worry, but the potential distribution as local authorities respond in various ways to another green light in relation to the provision of special needs education.

Mr. Boswell: Is not the crucial issue the point at which a Secretary of State or, if necessary, a court would be able to say that the local authority had gone outwith the bounds of the statute and no longer offered that choice of provision? Is not the important thing the fact that we are trying to tie that down, so that the choice is within an acceptable range, with variation, and it is not possible to move to one end of the spectrum or the other with impunity?

Mr. Hayes: When the 1996 and 1981 Acts were discussed, emphasis was placed on the need for safeguards relating to the nature of provision and the balance of provision between special and mainstream schools. It is precisely that spirit of providing a safeguard, or longstop, that lies at the heart of our desire to press the amendment to a Division. I do so not in the interests of defending a particular side—which my hon. Friend describes as a theology—but because I believe that it is vital to reassure all those who take a legitimate interest in the matter that the spread of provision and the flexibility that it provides, and the choice that that facilitates, will be preserved, and that the Secretary of State will be mindful of its preservation and will intervene if necessary if he feels that that balance is at risk.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 12.

Division No. 2]

Boswell, Mr. Tim
Hayes, Mr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Robertson, Mr. Laurence

Barnes, Mr. Harry
Benn, Mr. Hilary
Betts, Mr. Clive
Ennis, Mr. Jeff
Griffiths, Mr. Win
Harris, Dr. Evan
Hodge, Ms Margaret
Levitt, Mr. Tom
Moffatt, Laura
Smith, Jacqui
Squire, Rachel
Whitehead, Dr. Alan

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Advice and information for parents

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 3, line 33, after `authority', insert

    `having regard to the importance of securing a fair and informed choice of school,'.

We had a good debate on clause 1. Many of the amendments that follow are designed to obtain elucidation about safeguards and the operation in practice of what I have no problem in admitting is a reasonable architecture for the Bill. We are not trying to subvert the Bill or niggle at it; nor are we being awkward on purpose. We are merely considering aspects of how it may operate in practice, testing the Minister's intentions and expressing our anxiety about what has happened in the past.

Clause 2 relates to advice and information for parents. We would all agree that that is an essential component of their ability to make an informed set of parental choices. If they do not have that advice and information, they will not be able to make those choices. We are not dealing with experts. They are experts in the defence of the interests of their children and are deeply committed to their children—at least, we hope that they are, and normally they will be—but the circumstances are often unusual and, sadly, unanticipated by them. Such circumstances may be distressing and have wider family implications. Therefore, the situation is sensitive. As many of us know, it may work immensely well within a family, and between a family and the education provider, but in other cases will be difficult and fraught.

It is essential that the local education authority that is offering provision should do so in a straightforward, legitimate and open manner. I have no objection to the Government providing that there should be advice and information. Our sole reservation, and the purpose for tabling the amendment, is to ensure that the advice and information is sufficiently objective and full so as to secure informed parental choice.

11 am

I avert to another area, of which I have longer and more continuing experience. The Minister will know what I am talking about in practice. When young people reach school-leaving age—irrespective of whether they have special educational needs—and are advised and guided about their choice of future educational establishment or career path, there is a potential clash of interests. For example, some maintained schools will attempt to keep pupils in the sixth form, even if that is not in the pupils' best interests. That is highly advantageous for the school because the packet of funding is introduced at the average, rather than at the margin. I know personally of cases in which, effectively, that has happened.

One may examine the matter in terms of further education colleges. Although such colleges have a statutory opportunity for their material to be offered in schools, sometimes that is more honoured in the breach than the observance. There is a worry that must lie behind any concerns that we have with the clauses to be considered: whatever is in the comprehensive 1996 Act, with its many provisions on SEN, the practice is otherwise. We regret that, and I think that the Minister does also.

As constituency Members of Parliament, we frequently have to fight local education authorities, and tell them that they are not doing as well as they should. That can be done in two ways. One can attribute many malicious or other motives to them or, more realistically in nearly all cases, consider that the offices of local education authorities and education committees are under severe pressure for resources, desperate to make money go round to the best effect, and are trying to avoid commitments that they feel would unbalance their provision.

I think that I have already mentioned my personal feeling that, eventually, mainstream parents, who have no contact with SEN, will bring a case under the Human Rights Act 1998 claiming that a LEA has organised its affairs to give too much to SEN and not enough to children without SEN. The parents may win such a case. However, whatever we do, the LEA must operate within the framework of its resources. A further matter may be that, even if there is no intention specifically to rig the course to statements or SEN provisions, the LEA may not be good enough at its job, or good enough to get the material out.

We have tabled the amendment with such underlying fears in mind. The amendment is probing because the Minister may want to say how the matter will be secured by guidance or by the code, so that local authorities do better than some have done previously. The purpose of the amendment is to state that the authority should give regard to the importance of securing a fair and informed choice of school.

The duty that is set out in the proposed new section would require local authorities to provide advice and to

    ```have regard to any guidance'''.

The Committee discussed the guidance in an earlier debate. The proposed new section would also require the local authority to

    ```take such steps as they consider appropriate for making the services provided under subsection (1) known to—

    (a) the parents of children in their area,

    (b) the head teachers and proprietors of schools in their area, and

    (c) such other persons as they consider appropriate.'''

Those requirements might seem satisfactory, but an authority that has a hidden agenda, or is dysfunctional, could not be obliged proactively to inform parents of them. Such an authority could claim that it had discharged that duty if half a dozen scruffy leaflets were placed in the waiting room of the special educational needs officer with whom a parent was discussing his or her case. I want that matter to be clearly addressed in the guidance. The themes that should be emphasised are consensus and partnership, and they should also be key considerations with regard to the following clause.

I want LEAs to act in good faith. They should take parents into their confidence and offer them genuine choices, rather than blind them with science. An LEA should inform parents of their options concerning their children's education and advise them about key considerations, such as the time it would take their children to travel to a certain school, and the kinds of provision that it offers. In short, local authorities should level with parents.

I am sure that the Committee will not disagree with that. However, the Minister must give an assurance that the new system will ensure that parents of children who have special educational needs are provided with informed choices about their children's education more frequently and consistently than in the past. Those parents and their children deserve that.

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