Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 880-899)


22 MARCH 2006

  Q880  Mr Wilson: We have had a lot of reports in the last year or so: Baroness Warnock, the Conservative Party's Commission, Scottish changes have all identified a number of faults in the system. Taking that into account, why have you ruled out a major review?

  Lord Adonis: We have not seen any evidence that would lead us to a fundamental change. The sorts of fundamental changes that are talked about are replacing statements or replacing local authorities. There are some people who would like to have the whole of the statementing and assessment process done nationally. It has never, in my experience, been made completely clear what it is that people who do not like local authorities do want, whether it is a regional structure, a national structure, how it is actually going to work, but we do monitor very closely the representations that are made. I have read all the evidence given to your Committee, and my senior officials have been in Scotland recently looking in detail at what has been happening there. I would not want you to think that we are in any way complacent about the wider debate about change, we take it immensely seriously, but I think we, like you, would need to be convinced that fundamental structural reforms are what is needed to deliver the qualitative improvements in outcomes for people with special educational needs that we all seek.

  Q881  Mr Wilson: If you do not believe that a major review is required, why are you holding these private ministerial seminars on SEN and why is the Treasury undertaking a root and branch review of funding for children who have more complex needs?

  Lord Adonis: That may sound like a slightly loaded question. I hold private Ministerial seminars the whole time. It is what you would expect me to do as a Minister. They just happen to be meetings. I meet with SEN regional advisers; I meet with the Special Educational Consortium. It is my duty as a minister to meet with all of the stakeholders in the system.

  Q882  Mr Wilson: There must be something wrong if you are holding seminars?

  Lord Adonis: Frankly, I see it as my duty constantly to meet people in the sector, to hear their representations and to discuss with them the state of provision.

  Mr Wilson: Do you have seminars about things that are doing particularly well?

  Q883  Chairman: Let the Minister finish.

  Lord Adonis: I am very happy to answer that. I often have seminars on things that are working well because, in my experience of government, one of the best things government can do is to look at things that are working well and seek to spread them more widely across the system; so I pay just as much attention to success as to failure.

  Q884  Mr Wilson: So it is not part of a broader rethink?

  Lord Adonis: No.

  Q885  Mr Marsden: Minister, in your opening statement you picked out as particular key issues in this area further education in specifics and what you call "transition periods" in particular. The Adult Learning Inspectorate, you will be aware, has produced a report which has been sharply critical of the provision for learners in FE. You mentioned again that initiatives would be coming forward in the FE White Paper and those will be very welcome. Can I ask you about a particular area, and that is the issue of autism spectrum. The Committee had sight on Monday of an excellent DVD about the work of a National Autistic Society school, the Robert Ogden School in South Yorkshire. One of the things that struck me about that (and, indeed, I have had it anecdotally in my own advice surgeries) is the particular challenge facing boys with autism, and particularly Asperger's syndrome, at both ends of the spectrum: those who have severe learning difficulties but also those who are quite gifted. I wonder if you could expand on how, in particular, your strategy or anything that may or may not be said in the White Paper will address those particular issues?

  Lord Adonis: What I am very struck by looking at institutional arrangements in this area is that often it is not the institutional structure that is the issue, it is getting the right professional support to interact with it. If you look at pupils coming up to the point of transition, there is a requirement, if they have a statement, that there should be a transition review plan for them agreed in year nine, that that should be annually assessed, it should involve the Connexion Service, that there should be adequate provision in respect of further education, ditto inside the FE sector itself, and, of course, these are all intended to be multi-agency as well. These review meetings are intended to be multi-agency; they are intended to bring to the school, to meet with the pupil and their parents, all of the professionals who can input into the best decisions for those pupils. The issue, of course, is having suitably trained staff, professional staff and staff in the schools, who can make those judgments and recommend the right provision. In respect of autism, that is a continuing issue. We are seeing that teachers are sufficiently trained in the range of autistic spectrum disorders to be able to offer good quality advice and the local specialist support services are available too. The Little Report, which I think is the report you are referring to in respect of FE, makes a number of particular suggestions about the need for the FE sector to invest in provision for pupils with learning difficulties in colleges and to give this work a higher profile. The Learning and Skills Council has accepted that report. It is now working with local Learning and Skills Councils to see that they all have a proper investment strategy to upgrade their provision and we will be taking forward further work in the White Paper next week.

  Q886  Mr Marsden: You mentioned specifically Connexions. As you know, the proposals in the Youth Green Paper and things around it will transfer responsibilities for much of that work to local authorities. Are you confident, in terms of the evidence that you have seen, that the multi-agency work which you describe in principle is actually working effectively (and I am thinking particularly of the links between local authorities and between FE colleges and practice), because the evidence that I have seen is that it is highly variable?

  Lord Adonis: I think I would accept that it is highly variable. I would completely accept that. There are two dimensions to this, are there not? There is, firstly, the need for better co-ordination between public support services, which is precisely why we have created both Children's Services Directorates, bringing together children's social services and education, and also children's trusts. One of the Pathfinder children's trust's prime functions is to see that services are properly co-ordinated, including with the NHS, which is one of the main providers of specialist services in this area. The other area, of course, is proper co-ordination between schools and colleges. I think there is, of course, partly, an issue to do with specialist training of teachers in both sides, having SENCOS and other support staff in the schools who are well trained in their special needs responsibilities and who know how to access all services outside the school effectively. That is an important issue, I accept, but there is also clearly an issue about effective co-ordination between schools and colleges. There we believe that the 14-19 agenda and a promotion of much stronger collaboration between schools and colleges, which will come from a much stronger sense of shared interest because of curriculum design and progression which is common between them, will benefit all pupils and I believe will benefit pupils with special educational needs as well, a higher proportion of whom, of course, are likely to proceed to further education rather than to stay in school sixth forms and study traditional A-level programmes.

  Q887  Mr Marsden: Do you feel that the new emphasis on vocational qualifications in the 14-19 strategy poses particular challenges for SEN provision in FE?

  Lord Adonis: I would genuinely say, in this case, it provides opportunities. Of course a high proportion of pupils with special educational needs are at the lower performing end of the spectrum and are those who the education system, let us be frank, has traditionally failed, who have got to 16 not getting decent qualifications and not getting effective progression routes. It is part of this wider failure that we have had to develop high quality vocational education. If we can get the 14-19 system working well and, for example, looking at best practices being developed in Knowsley, where George Sweeney has been a pathfinder in the development of really strong links between schools and colleges to promote progression, including vocational programmes for 14-16-year-olds which actually take place in the college for a day or two a week, if we can get those sorts of programmes right and embedded and nationally available, I believe, as we must all hope, that this will lead to a step-change in opportunities for people who are less able.

  Q888  Mr Marsden: I endorse all of those points and initiatives, and the Knowsley reference, in fact, was touched on by my colleague, the Member of Parliament there, in the schools inspection debate, but can I ask finally what mechanism you are going to have to monitor this sort of co-operation and collaboration so that good practice actually works?

  Lord Adonis: We are piloting the introduction of the diplomas; so that will give us good evidence of how the relationship between schools and colleges is developing in the areas of the pilots, and we will learn from that as we seek to roll out the specialised diplomas nationally. We have, of course, Ofsted, and we will expect it to pay particular attention to the development of this new area of provision. Ofsted, in my experience, is never slow in coming forward and telling us when it believes there are problems in this area. The other thing I would say is that we also have a lot of money here, and, in my experience of education reform, you can accomplish a huge amount where you have a resource to put behind it, and we have made it clear that we are prepared to put a significant resource behind the development of 14-19 pathways. When I look at Knowsley and other places that have engaged that, it was the pilot funding that was available for new forms of 14-19 collaboration that drove it. I was very struck in Knowsley, when I visited there recently, that part of the reason why the schools were so collaborative with the college is that they did not have to pay much for the additional provision: they were getting a significant additional element to their curriculum which enlarged opportunities for their pupils without sacrificing large parts of their budget. As always in this game, getting the funding incentives right will be absolutely crucial to promoting effective collaboration and seeing that we get the outcomes that we want.

  Q889  Mr Carswell: I do not mean this question disrespectfully, but personally are you comfortable with the fact that you, who are not elected and democratically accountable at the centre, should have so much power to decide what is right for other people's children out there?

  Lord Adonis: I believe that I am being very accountable this morning, Chairman. I do my best to be as accountable as I possibly can.

  Q890  Mr Carswell: For one hour a year?

  Lord Adonis: Actually I behave as a Minister in exactly the same way, apart from the fact I do not actually stand up on the floor of the House of Commons, for obvious reasons.

  Q891  Mr Carswell: Or stand for election?

  Lord Adonis: Or stand for election, but I fulfil exactly the same Ministerial responsibilities as others do, and I can assure you in these particular areas the House of Lords also takes a very keen interest. I have spent many hours debating special educational needs and provision for disadvantaged pupils in the Lords and there are many people there who have very keen front-line experience, including Baroness Warnock. I think at the last count we have six former secretaries of state there, who are never slow to give me the benefit of their experience. I fully accept I am not elected, and it is a matter for the Prime Minister to decide who he makes his Ministers, but I do hope that I fulfil my responsibilities as you have just mentioned.

  Chairman: There is a long tradition in all parties for education ministers to be from the House of Lords. We are moving on now. Roberta, could you lead us through Future Strategy: planning provision, a national framework with local flexibility?

  Q892  Dr Blackman-Woods: Minister, you will know that the Audit Commission and Ofsted have found unacceptable variations in SEN in different parts of the country, not only in terms of pupils being placed in special schools but pupils with very similar needs having different levels of support depending on where they live. My question is: do you find that acceptable, why do we still have these unacceptable variations and what is your department proposing to do about it?

  Lord Adonis: Ofsted and the Audit Commission have not said that it is unacceptable to have variations in the proportions going to special schools, though we have sought to promote best practice in that regard. I know there has been a lot of evidence given to your Committee about whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for local authorities to have special schools. A lot of evidence has been presented that there are some authorities which have small proportions going to special schools, for example, in terms of the inspection evidence and other objective judgments like numbers of appeals and so on, which seem to perform well in respect of pupils with special educational needs; so I do not regard variations in those areas as being a matter of unacceptable practice, though it is important that authorities learn from each other and that they co-ordinate properly. Part of the problem, as I have gone in detail through figures in respect of special schools and independent special schools, of course, particularly when you are dealing with smaller authorities, is that the statistics tend to record where pupils are placed in school, not necessarily the pattern of provision for pupils within the authority. In terms though of outcomes for pupils, we have always made it clear that we regard wide variations in outcomes as not acceptable and that we expect authorities which are performing poorly in terms of outcomes for their pupils to pay very close attention to best practice elsewhere to see how they can improve; and that is precisely, in respect of SEN, the role that our regional advisers play, to work with local authorities which are performing poorly to see that they do raise their game. Of course, local authorities also have to account to Ofsted in that regard too. Ofsted inspects special educational provision as part of its wider inspections and Ofsted can and does criticise authorities when its special education provision is not up to scratch and they are expected to take action accordingly.

  Q893  Dr Blackman-Woods: You have addressed outcomes, but not the different levels of support that students with very similar needs might get in different areas. What is your department doing about that? Do you see that there is a role for you in helping local authorities to be more strategic?

  Lord Adonis: We do publish a lot of benchmark data now (indeed, some has been provided to the Committee, and I can provide more) on budgets on special educational needs, levels of delegation, levels of delegation in respect of School Action, School Action Plus, the quality of individual professional support services and so on. We are not slow in providing benchmarking data, and, of course, all that data is available to our regional advisers as they interact with local authorities too, but ultimately these decisions are a matter for elected local authorities and, if they can demonstrate that they are achieving good results with different patterns of provision, that is a matter for them in being accountable to their own electors.

  Q894  Dr Blackman-Woods: I will come back to that in a minute. Do you have a view about what the long-term balance should be between special schools and students being placed in mainstream schools? Have you got an idea about whether the number of special school places should be reducing, whether it should be increasing, whether we should be moving to more placements in the mainstream?

  Lord Adonis: Mr Wilson asked me exactly the same question.

  Q895  Dr Blackman-Woods: I just want to get some clarity, if it is possible.

  Lord Adonis: What matters to us is that local authorities are providing properly for the needs of their pupils. We do not have a view about a set proportion of pupils who should be in special schools, but we note that in fact the proportion has remained roughly static in recent years. If that is the view that local authorities take in fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, we are absolutely content with that. We have no policy whatever, I should stress, of encouraging local authorities to close special schools or withdraw resource provision where they do not believe that is in the best interests of their localities.

  Q896  Dr Blackman-Woods: Can you explain why you think it should just be a role for local authorities: because there is a real danger, if you do that, that you do not tackle the variation in different types and levels of support? Can you deal with that, first of all, and then I will come on to the next point?

  Lord Adonis: That is why it is so important, Chairman, of course to promote best practice. It is why it is so important that we have the advisers, we have Ofsted, and we have a large number of monitoring and support services which seek to ensure that local authorities learn from the best in all areas of provision so that the gaps and variations that you have identified do not continue where they are leading to poor outcomes for children.

  Q897  Dr Blackman-Woods: So what are you actually going to do if you think that a local authority is not delivering for its pupils with special educational needs?

  Lord Adonis: Our regional advisers have what I think are best described as "very full and frank" conversations with chief education officers and their SEN teams where they believe that the provision is not satisfactory. If a local authority is not in fulfilment of its statutory duties then of course we have powers to direct, and that is another matter, but a lot of the issues we are talking about are not the fulfilment of statutory duties, they are of course the development of best practice and services. The audit of low incidence special educational needs, which we published yesterday, is another big contribution to that. If you read the report you will see that a good half of it is actually spent highlighting best practices in individual authorities reviewing the evidence of what works. There are a lot of appendices at the back on provision for particular areas of special educational needs and literature reviews on what sorts of interventions and approaches work best. We would expect chief education officers and directors of children's services and their SEN teams to take full account of all of that work and benchmark data as they draw up their policies.

  Q898  Dr Blackman-Woods: There is a significant amount of pressure growing to have some basic minimum entitlement that is available right across the country, provision mapping; what is your view on that so that parents' expectations in a sense can be managed because they know what the minimum should be?

  Lord Adonis: We do not specify from the centre. Obviously any authority has to have a sufficient service in each area to meet their responsibilities. We do not specify precisely what that should be. We do not, for example, specify how many special schools a local authority should have. We do not believe that that is appropriate. We do believe though that they must have provision which is adequate to meet their duties.

  Q899  Dr Blackman-Woods: I think what I am struggling with is why are you not taking from the centre a more strategic look right across the country so there is at least a basic entitlement there for all parents? It is something that you feel quite comfortable doing in terms of the National Curriculum for all other schools. Why is there this resistance to saying that perhaps we should be giving a bit more direction about what is available for SEN?

  Lord Adonis: We do not believe that we are not being very forthright in making clear what we do regard are acceptable and unacceptable practices on the one hand and what is best practice. We do seek to promote that very strongly. As I say, we have significantly enhanced the Department's resource for advising on best practice in recent years with the regional advisers and the networks they are able to put in place. I do not accept that we have not fulfilled our responsibilities there. We have also of course just published the audit on low incidence special educational needs and that has a great deal to say about variations in patterns of provision and factors of which local authorities should take account. The point which I think you are seeking to get to is should we actually specify in particular areas and define I assume you mean, in some quantifiable way what is the absolute minimum?

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