Education and Skills Bill

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Clause 65

Assessments relating to learning difficulties
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 44, in clause 65, page 35, line 7, after ‘person’, insert
‘or the person was participating in School Action or School Action Plus programmes,’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 45, in clause 65, page 35, line 16, after ‘age’, insert
‘or the person was participating in School Action or School Action Plus programmes,’.
Mr. Gibb: Clause 65 which inserts new sections into the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the effect of which, as the explanatory note states,
“is to transfer to local education authorities, and to expand, the existing duty of the Secretary of State to arrange for assessments of a person’s educational and training needs in certain circumstances, and his power to arrange such assessments.”
The notes go on to state that the clause
“places a duty on a local education authority to arrange for an assessment of a person in respect of whom they maintain a statement of special educational needs, who is either in his last year of compulsory schooling or over compulsory school age but still at school, at some time during the person’s last year of schooling.”
We will return to the matter of someone who is in the last year of schooling later. My concern is about the phrase used in the notes, which suggests that the assessment applies only to someone with a statement of special educational needs.
The National Autistic Society has taken a close interest in the Bill and is concerned about the narrowness of that requirement. In its brief to the Committee, it says:
“The references to learning difficulty and special educational needs are welcome but not sufficient. In particular, the duty to assess education and training needs (clause 65) should not be restricted to those young people who have a statement.”
Inspired by those concerns, which we share, we tabled the amendment, which would include children who are subject to school action and school action plus programmes and therefore fall short of qualifying for a full statement of special educational needs under the provisions of the clause.
The National Autistic Society says:
“The requirement upon local authorities to assess the education and training needs of certain young people is welcome and this information should be used to inform the development of support services for young people.”
It emphasises the point:
“If this requirement is considered important and worthwhile it should be on offer to a much broader range of young people than those with statements of special educational needs.”
It goes on to say:
“Government policy is to encourage local authorities to reduce reliance on the use of statements, and there is considerable variation in access to the statementing system across the country.”
I am sure that many hon. Members, both in Committee and in the House, could give examples of constituents who have had enormous difficulty obtaining a statement of special educational needs for their child. Obtaining even an assessment can be very difficult and may require legal action. That is why the National Autistic Society go on to say:
“The use of statements as a passport to an assessment of education and training needs will therefore further exacerbate uneven access to support for many young people with special educational needs.”
It cites the example of young people with Asperger’s syndrome who
“may be less likely to have a statement of SEN than those with autism but would still benefit greatly from an assessment at 16. Although these young people are able academically, without the right support they are likely to struggle or even fail.”
The purpose of the two amendments is to ensure that those children who do not qualify for an SEN assessment will nevertheless be given an assessment under the clause.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Good afternoon, Mr. Bayley. I rise not only to support the amendments, but to prove to you and the Minister that I have not taken any Trappist vows since our proceedings ended on Thursday. I hope that you are reassured by that.
The amendments are important and link with amendment No. 160, which we will discuss later. They are necessary to ensure that the increasing focus of statements on a small minority of pupils does not mean that we miss out on diagnosing the needs of other young people who are covered by School Action and School Action Plus and who may well need support to continue in education and training post-16.
The briefing that the Local Government Association provided to the Committee comments very briefly on the clause. All it says is:
“It is conceivable comments may be passed on the adequacy or otherwise of local authority SEN provision/assessments under existing regulations.”
12.45 pm
Many of the outside lobby groups have drawn our attention to the fact that the Government have a policy for all youngsters in school of trying not to statement excessively. They want to use School Action and School Action Plus more frequently than in the past and, on the whole, that is quite sensible. We do not want to create a vast bureaucracy around many young people. We want a lot of their needs to be dealt with as flexibly as possible, both at school level and by enabling local authorities to cascade additional resources down that do not require the same level of bureaucracy and intervention as is inevitable when statementing is involved.
Because of that trend in Government policy, there is an even greater risk that some of the youngsters on School Action Plus in particular, but School Action as well, could have quite high needs that require support beyond the age of 16. As well as the concern about rationing and inconsistencies across the country, there is the concern that if the Government’s policy is to reduce statementing, we could have quite a few youngsters who are not statemented but who, because of their School Action Plus or School Action status, have high needs. Many times in Committee, we have commented on the difficulties that will be encountered in keeping young people with high needs in education beyond the age of 16. It is therefore important that the Bill ensures that there is a proper assessment and appropriate support leading from that assessment for young people beyond the age of 16. I hope that in responding to these amendments and to amendment No. 160, the Minister can reassure us about the way that this will be handled.
The Chairman: We shall deal with amendment No. 160 later. We are currently considering amendments Nos. 44 and 45.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I am sympathetic to the amendments. The Government are rightly seeking to encourage local authorities not to rely too heavily on statements of special educational need and to move increasingly towards School Action and School Action Plus. Clearly that leaves open the risk that were the provision to be specified only in terms of those with statements of special educational need, those on the autistic spectrum and others might lose out. I hope that if the Government cannot support the amendment, my hon. Friend the Minister can at least reassure the Committee that there will be other ways in which the needs of those in the relevant age group who do not qualify for a statement of educational needs can none the less be met.
Jim Knight: Under the clause as it stands, a local education authority is under a duty to arrange for a learning difficulty assessment for young people with a statement of special educational needs during their last year of compulsory schooling. The duty also covers statemented young people who stay on at school after the end of compulsory schooling. The duty applies where the authority believes that the person will leave school at the end of that year to receive post-16 education or training.
The amendment would extend the duty to include young people who are being supported through School Action and School Action Plus. Let me explain what these terms mean. Under the SEN code of practice, if a child’s needs are not severe or complex enough to justify a statement, their special educational needs are met at School Action or School Action Plus. At School Action, the child’s special educational needs are met entirely out of the school’s resources. At School Action Plus, the child’s needs will mainly be met out of the school’s own resources, but the school will also receive some outside help, for example advice from the local authority’s educational psychologists.
Even though young people who receive support though School Action, or School Action Plus are not covered by local authorities’ duty to arrange an assessment, the local authority has the power to arrange one. There will be many instances where it will be appropriate for young people who have been supported by School Action or School Action Plus to receive an assessment. Where a young person would clearly benefit from an assessment, the local authority will be expected to arrange one. This will be monitored through performance management systems, and if it is clear that a local authority is not exercising its power appropriately, it could be legally challenged. In line with our expectation, we will confirm in statutory guidance that every young person who would benefit from a learning difficulty assessment should receive one.
That is true whether the young person has a statement of SEN or so forth and falls into the group to which the duty to provide an assessment applies, or whether they are supported through School Action or School Action Plus and so fall into the group to which the power to provide an assessment applies. We therefore expect young people with severe or complex needs to receive an assessment whether they have a statement of SEN or not.
Mr. Gibb: Why is one a duty and one simply an expectation?
Jim Knight: I am just about to address that very point, about which I thought the hon. Gentleman, being an intelligent and perspicacious individual, would ask me.
I do not believe it is the right course of action to compel local authorities to arrange learning difficulty assessments for every young person supported through School Action or School Action Plus. Special educational needs cover a wide span of difficulties; those needs may be specific to the demands of a school environment, and be no longer directly relevant when a young person moves into further education, training or higher education.
Angela Watkinson: The Minister will acknowledge that there is an inevitable link between the budgetary constraints on local authorities and the provision of services for children with special needs. Sixteen or 17-year-olds who are on the autistic disorder spectrum, who may face moving on from their familiar school environment to a new, college environment, may not respond well to change. They will need a lot of support, but there may be cases where the local education authority simply does not have the funding to give that support. Will additional funding for local education authorities accompany the requirement, so that they can fulfil their duties toward 16 and 17-year-olds with needs of particular support?
Jim Knight: As the hon. Lady says, it is important that vulnerable young people have the support they need, particularly those on the autism spectrum, for whom that transition may be difficult. On the question of resources, I cannot give her a specific answer in terms of how much, but local authorities have delegated special educational needs funds in some areas, so they would carry out assessments. We believe that local authorities are and should be properly resourced to do this. The fact that we are going to specify in guidance that they must carry out an assessment, if it is appropriate on a case-by-case basis, reflects how important we think it is that local authorities find the resources needed.
It is not in the best interests of a young person or a good use of an authority’s resources to compel the authority to arrange an assessment when one is not necessary. Instead, the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis, with the local authority making the decision in partnership with the young person. In particular, the young person’s personal adviser from Connexions should hold the ring of deciding, with the young person, their parents and their school, whether an assessment is required and whether not to carry out the assessment would be in contravention of the statutory guidance that we will have issued to the local authority.
Mr. Laws: The Minister is surely right to say that there may be some youngsters who will not need support post-16. However, as the amendment focuses on assessment, can he explain why, in his view, there is no need to make the assessment itself, which could conclude that support is not then required?
Jim Knight: Assessments are ongoing. There is the compulsory assessment at the end of the compulsory schooling set out in the clause and the extension beyond, so that there would be considerable understanding of what needs there are on the part of the young person, their parents, the school or other learning institution and the Connexions personal adviser. Assessments continue to be carried out for young people. The power is discretionary but it is a discretion that we would expect to be exercised in favour of those who would benefit. Not all may benefit, so it is right that, where an assessment is considered unnecessary, a local authority will not be compelled to do one.
In many ways I do not think there is much difference between us. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has said we should proceed on a case-by-case basis. There is considerable understanding of the needs of the young people who are on School Action or School Action Plus; and, as I have said, if a young person would benefit from an assessment we will be saying to local authorities through the statutory guidance route that they should carry one out. I do not think there is a difference between us and I hope, on that basis, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Gibb: I remain unconvinced by the explanation of the difference between the needs of a child who does qualify for a statement of special educational needs and one who is subject to the School Action and School Action Plus programmes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster said, given the current budgetary constraints on many local authorities, there is a deep reluctance in some authorities to award many statements. In the past, children who are now on School Action or School Action Plus would probably have been issued with a statement of special educational needs. The Minister says not all children who are on School Action or School Action Plus would benefit from assessment, but how do we know that unless an assessment is carried out? I believe the amendment is important and I would like to test the opinion of the Committee and press it to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.
Division No. 27 ]
Gibb, Mr. Nick
Laws, Mr. David
Watkinson, Angela
Barlow, Ms Celia
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Griffith, Nia
Knight, Jim
Marsden, Mr. Gordon
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Wilson, Phil
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Gibb: I beg to move amendment No. 57, in clause 65, page 35, line 13, at end insert—
‘(2A) If a local education authority in England maintains a statement of special educational needs for a person and if, during the year, the person leaves school to pursue alternative post-16 education, the authority must arrange for an assessment to be conducted early in the first year of the new course.’.
The amendment deals with people who leave school unexpectedly, perhaps after disappointing GCSE results, to pursue an alternative option, or who carry on into the sixth form for a very short period before leaving, having found out that it is not for them. Those people will not have had the assessment that the clause requires them to have had in the last year of education, as it is assumed that they will be continuing with their education. The purpose of the amendment, therefore, is to add a new subsection (2A) to proposed new section 139A of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 providing that an assessment should be arranged for them. That is an appropriate amendment to ensure that those children who do leave unexpectedly do not slip through the net.
It being One o’clock The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at Four o’clock.
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Prepared 27 February 2008