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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?