Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hayes: I want to add briefly to the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for St. Ives and for Daventry.

There is an issue concerning pressure on people with disabilities who want to pursue further or higher education. We have discussed access and the importance of ensuring that the admissions process does not discriminate against disabled people. However, if at the end of a course of study students are aware that they will face an examination or test that is more onerous for them than for others because they are particularly disadvantaged, they may not embark on the course in the first place. The examination process at the end of a course of study could be a disincentive that may contradict everything else that we have tried to achieve in ensuring that people have the confidence actively to pursue higher education and further education courses.

I have some sympathy with the matter that the hon. Member for St. Ives brought to the Committee's attention. We should be consistent and coherent from the beginning to the end of the process to ensure that people with a range of disabilities are not disadvantaged.

In introducing the topic, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry has done us a service of Greek proportions—I mean heroic, not tragic. I do not wish to detain the Committee, and emulate Pericles in the process, so I will leave the matter there, and ask for the Minister's response.

Jacqui Smith: I never passed an examination in Greek, so I feel at a slight disadvantage. I assure the hon. Member for Daventry that that was not because I was a woman, bogged down with the difficulties of menstruation.

The hon. Member for St. Ives has rightly identified the area as complex. I agree with the clear objective that Committee members wish to achieve. Examinations are an important part of an education course and students with disabilities must be able to access assessment, while the standards of examinations are maintained. I shall return to that.

On the legal position, as the hon. Gentleman recognised, awarding bodies will be covered by part III of the DDA when they are providing a service to the public. Whether they are doing so will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The hon. Member for St. Ives highlighted the distinction between education and training. That distinction exists under 1996 regulations that we will revoke when we implement the Bill. The issue is not straightforward, as the disability rights taskforce recognised.

I have made it clear that bodies that can be defined as qualifying bodies are covered by part III of the DDA when they provide a service to the public. However, they are covered under the legislation's employment provisions relating to sex discrimination and race discrimination, rather than under its education provisions. The distinction between employment and education is important because the Bill deals with the DDA's education provisions. As I mentioned earlier, the disability rights taskforce included its recommendation on qualifying bodies in its employment, not its education, chapter. The implications of that need further consideration and, in due course, consultation, but the taskforce's approach to the qualifying bodies seems to reinforce our arguments.

Exams, and access to them, are important, and I will clarify where the Bill will positively affect assessment arrangements. It includes arrangements made by schools and by higher and further education colleges under the wide definitions of ``education and associated services'' and ``student services'' respectively. Part IV will cover internal and admissions examinations set by the institutions subject to the legislation. It will also cover arrangements made for pupils and students sitting externally set examinations. The Bill will impose a duty on institutions in which such examinations take place to ensure that disabled people are not treated less favourably. The institutions will also be subject to the reasonable adjustments duty, which means that they might have to make adjustments, for example, to seating, lighting or timetabling to meet the needs of disabled pupils and students.

6.45 pm

I have already covered part of the issue, raised by the hon. Gentleman, of the examination body.

As I suggested, the examination body may take responsibility for the way in which papers are produced and for arrangements for accommodating candidates' special needs. Whether that is caught by part III of the DDA will depend on whether it provides a service to the public. Our objective, which is clearly stated, is to ensure that arrangements are in place to protect the assessment needs of disabled candidates, and I hope that I can reassure the Committee that those exist. For example, the regulatory authority's arrangements for accreditation of external qualifications require an awarding body to ensure that no unnecessary barriers to assessment prevent candidates from effectively demonstrating attainment. That covers special arrangements to meet particular assessment requirements caused by disability and special consideration for those with a temporary condition or illness.

The hon. Member for St. Ives highlighted concern expressed by the RNIB about the availability of examination papers and the formats in which they are produced. I am reassured by the fact that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland the joint council for general qualifications has published regulations and guidance relating to candidates with particular requirements that covers, for example, the delivery of GCSEs, GCEs, AVCEs and GNVQs. It is an excellent document, and I assure hon. Members that it contains the kinds of special arrangements that the hon. Gentleman rightly suggested might be appropriate for students with a range of disabilities. Indeed, it is an exemplar of best practice.

That document sets out arrangements that should be followed when a candidate considers that special provision was not made or was so inadequate that it did not allow him or her to demonstrate attainment. In other words, it sets out what a school or—if a school contacts it—an examination body must make available. It also sets out arrangements in case there is concern whether special provision has been made.

Of course, some awarding bodies will not have similarly rigorous arrangements. However, the QCA and Awdurdod Cymwysterau, Cwricwlwm ac Asesu Cymru in Wales have set out clear principles on the statutory regulation of external qualifications. The QCA and ACCAC published those principles in a document in summer 2000. The criteria, which are clearly set out in section C of that document, cover what awarding bodies are expected to do in relation to candidates with particular assessment requirements. Section E sets out the sort of processes that awarding bodies should have for inquiries and appeals.

By the autumn, the QCA expects to complete its programme of accrediting qualifications, which will go up to and include level 3, on the basis of those criteria. Accredited qualifications will be subject to monitoring and from 2002-03, in terms of ensuring that those things happen, we expect that only accredited qualifications that have fulfilled those criteria will be approved and eligible for public funding by LEAs and the Learning and Skills Council in England.

I accept that this is not an easy area to regulate. The number of awarding bodies, the vast range of qualifications that they offer and the nature of what they do make it difficult to achieve clarity and simplicity. However, I hope that hon. Members are reassured that the needs of disabled people in examinations are already covered. We can achieve our objective of ensuring that disabled people are not disadvantaged by virtue of their disability in obtaining access to important assessment arrangements.

Mr. Andrew George: This debate has been very useful, in that my probing amendment has clarified the way in which less favourable treatment will be avoided in the examination process—a matter of particular concern to me and certain disability organisations. Like me, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings will doubtless be pleased to learn that that particular tragedy can be averted. In that sense, I am reminded of the need for Creon to show some capacity for interpretation to avoid Antigone's meeting her maker.

The Minister has helped to clarify guidance from the joint council for general qualifications on the format of examination papers, the way in which employment provisions in the DDA will affect the examining bodies and the examination process, and other special arrangements. I also pleased to put my concerns on the record. As the Minister said, we must monitor progress to ensure that possible loopholes in the regulations and guidance do not lead to the meting out of less favourable treatment to disabled people. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 39

Application to the Isles of Scilly

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew George: As the Member of Parliament for the Isles of Scilly, I am grateful for the opportunity to comment on the clause, which I welcome, because the Isles of Scilly are indeed a special case. They are often referred to as the Fortunate Isles, and they were certainly fortunate in 1997, when I was elected as their Member. I am confident that they will continue to be so for many years hence. The Isles consist of five inhabited islands with a population of about 2,000, although they are visited by many thousands of people each year. I hope I am not straying from the terms of our debate in saying that, despite foot and mouth, they remain open for business—a point relevant to the question of education on the Isles.

The Isles of Scilly present particular challenges. They perform all the functions of a county council and a district council. They provide a water authority, which was never privatised, a sea fisheries committee, an airport authority and a number of other authorities. In fact, despite their small population they have more statutory functions than most county councils and metropolitan authorities.

On reading the clause, I was surprised to discover use of the phrase ``as if''. The fact is that, rather than operating as if it were a county council, the Isles' small authority operates as a local education authority and a county council, providing a number of functions that extend far beyond those provided by many other UK authorities. I would therefore question the use of the phrase ``as if''. I am sure that the Minister is right to ensure that the provisions of the DDA apply fully to the Isles of Scilly, despite the obvious geographical challenges that arise from their island setting.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to welcome the clause and to refer to the success of the Isles of Scilly. They are indeed fortunate isles, and I am sure that they will be fortunate to receive visits from many other hon. Members present and not present.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 39 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 40 to 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 43

Short title, interpretation, commencement and extent

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