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Mr. Laws: What effect does the Minister expect the change in wording to have on the provision of special educational assistance in schools? In particular, can he sum up in a sentence the reason he believes that the wording will be in the interests of our constituents as opposed to the old wording, which many feel is more in the interests of children in schools?
Mr. Timms: We are seeking to achieve a focus on quality, rather than just quantity. There are instances where flexibility is needed in the best interests of the child. We do not want to take people automatically down the route of quantification if the best interests of the child can be expressed more effectively in another way. That is why the code refers to quantification where necessary.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I remain deeply concerned about the quantification aspects of the proposal because my local authority is trying to close a school in a cost-cutting exercise, saying that the school is too expensive to run. With respect to preventing and resolving disagreements, we all want to ensure that all children receive the same quality of service, wherever they reside in the UK. How will the Minister ensure that each authority deals with disputes in an equitable manner? Is there any intention to take reports from each authority to ascertain how effective the dispute forums are?
Mr. Timms: I hope that the dispute forums are effective; that is our intention. The provision made in particular schools for particular children with particular kinds of support needs may well differ depending on the circumstances that prevail. We need that flexibility to ensure that the best support is provided. It is important that the dispute mechanism to which my hon. Friend refers is addressed. I want to assure her and the House that we are anxious that this should be done correctly and that the code should allow the most appropriate provision for children in every part of the country.
Following helpful interventions during the debates on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 in another place, we have now made it clear that professionals giving advice can comment on the amount of provision that they consider appropriate for a child and that LEAs must not have blanket policies preventing that. Again, that has been welcomed.
Mr. Hancock: The issue of the quantity of care is vital. Would parents have grounds for objecting to a statement if the quality of care was acceptable, but the quantity was not? As the measure is worded, I sense that parents would not have the right to object on those grounds. That might make it easier for an LEA to avoid spending the right amount of money on a child who might have to go to a special school, perhaps even out of his area. Without the quantification criteria being addressed properly, the LEA would find it easy to do that.
Mr. Timms: The form of words in the code is "quantification where necessary". Those who draw up the statement will decide and parents and, indeed, the children themselves will have the opportunity to make a contribution to the process. If parents are unhappy, they can appeal to the SEN tribunal.
The draft code of practice will, I believe, help significantly to improve provision for children with special educational needs. The changes reflect changes in education since the original code was introduced and will allow for better attention to be given to children's needs. I commend the draft code to the House.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): It is important to say at the outset that the discussion thus far has been conducted in a constructive and co-operative way. The Bill that became the Special Needs and Disability Act 2001 was dealt with constructively in Committee in both the Lords and the Commons. We all want to do our best by children with special educational needs.
This is not a party political matter. There are differing views across all parties. There are, however, important differences between myself and the Minister and between my party's and the Government's position. The debate in Committee focused essentially on the importance that we placed, both here and in the other place, on the individual, specific needs of the child. We tabled amendments that the Government rejected. We feared that unless those specific needs were written into the Bill they would be lost at a later stage. I have to say, more in sorrow than in anger, that that is what we are seeing tonight.
Ministers assured us time and again that the code of practice would reinforce the individual, specific needs of the childbut it does not. If anything, it weakens the interests of the child by being increasingly imprecise
'describe clearly all the child's special educational needs in full; set out the main objectives that the special educational provision aims to meet; specify clearly and in detail the provision required to meet each of the child's needs; describe the arrangements for setting shorter term objectives for the child; describe any special arrangements for the annual review of the statement . . . '"[Official Report, 20 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 218.]
Thankfully, that Green Paper has been consigned to history, if not the rubbish bin, and we came to believe that its proposals would not be implementeduntil we read this new code of practice. I shall set out some of our specific concerns. The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has stated:
As the Minister rightly said, in the current statement it is required that a child's needs are stated clearly and in detail, and that they should be quantified and specific. However, the new code suggests that the statement should quantify provision "as necessary". Frankly, that is an open invitation to those LEAs that do not take seriously their responsibility for statementing to act in a way that is not in the interests of children or parents.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): I confirm that it can be an enormous struggle to get children statemented. Until recently, my LEA was dominated by Labour. Parents who do not know their rights and who do not contact their Member of Parliament have no hope of securing a statement for a child. Giving LEAs more room to stall and prevaricate will make the problem much worse for some of the most vulnerable children in the system.