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Session 2007 - 08
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Education and Skills Bill

Education and Skills Bill



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: John Bercow, Hugh Bayley
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Lammy, Mr. David (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op)
Marsden, Mr. Gordon (Blackpool, South) (Lab)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Soulsby, Sir Peter (Leicester, South) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Nick Walker, Tom Goldsmith, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 26 February 2008

(Afternoon)

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

Education and Skills Bill

Clause 65

Assessments relating to learning difficulties
Amendment proposed [this day]: 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.’.—[Mr. Gibb.]
4 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Mr. Bayley, I trust that, like the rest of us, you are refreshed after our short break.
The clause requires local authorities to arrange learning difficulty assessments for young people with statements of special educational needs who are expected to leave schooling during or at the end of the current school year. Every Child Matters and Youth Matters signal the Government’s commitment to giving local authorities responsibility for Connexions services, and those assessments are currently carried out by Connexions.
There is a statutory transition planning process for young people with special educational needs statements beginning in year 9 and continuing until the young person leaves school. Connexions, and specifically personal advisers, take the lead in supporting young people with learning difficulties at key points of transition. For example, the personal adviser might decide that a young person with learning difficulties would benefit from school-college link courses, or from work placements. Personal advisers also make sure that young people are aware of the various learning options, such as diplomas or the foundation learning tier, available to them.
Carrying out a learning difficulty assessment is part of supporting and planning for transition, working closely with professionals supporting young people with special educational needs to ensure that all the young person’s needs are fully met. In completing the assessment, the Connexions personal adviser works closely with the professional service that has been supporting the young person through school, and other specialists help. The personal adviser also works closely with the young person and their family and/or carers to ensure that the learning difficult assessment adequately reflects that young person’s needs. Once a young person has started a new course, Connexions will also follow through to check that the provision is suitable.
The transfer of legal responsibility for the assessments to local authorities would put local authorities’ accountability for them in law on a sure footing. The Bill widens the circumstances in which the assessments should be carried out to cover not only those who are leaving school at the end of their compulsory schooling, but those who remain in school after the age of 16 but subsequently leave to pursue education or training elsewhere. That might be the case if a young person wishes to remain in school to improve his or her GCSE results, for example, and a year later, having done so, wishes to attend college. Or it might be that a young person simply changes their mind about what provision best meets their needs.
The extension is a necessary measure arising from our reforms of 14-to-19 learning and the proposals to raise the age of compulsory participation in learning. It means that those young people who are subject to a statement of special educational needs who leave school to pursue further learning at any point after the end of compulsory schooling, rather than at the end of year 11, will have their future needs assessed.
The clause requires the assessment to be carried out at any point during a school year. For young people who have very clear long-term plans, the assessment would ideally be carried out in the autumn term of their last year of schooling, to support applications to colleges and other forms of higher learning. That will be set out in guidance to local authorities. However, some young people change their minds and decide to go into further education or training quite late in the school year, so it is right that the local authority should carry out the assessment at whatever point in the year is sensible for the young person involved. Stipulating a certain time in the year when the assessments need to be carried out risks local authorities missing hundreds of young people who make the decision to continue in learning after that point.
The amendment is intended to ensure that if young people with special educational needs in their last year of compulsory education change their plans at short notice, the duty to arrange an assessment applies. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton that this is already the case and that the amendment is therefore unnecessary. If a young person is of compulsory school age, the local authority is already under a duty to arrange for the special educational provision set out in a statement. It does not matter whether that provision is delivered in a school or in other appropriate settings, although the statement may need to be amended to take account of the new environment. During year 11, if the young person intends to carry on in further education, training or higher education, they will receive a learning needs assessment.
It is important to remember that the local authority must arrange for an assessment to be conducted at some time during a young person’s last year of compulsory schooling. That duty applies whether the young person has clear, fixed long-term plans or makes a decision, or changes their mind, in late August, say after their GCSE results. In the latter case it might be that, for practical reasons, the assessment is not carried out until early September, but that does not stop the duty to arrange the assessment from applying.
The amendment, as worded and as positioned in the clause, would apply only to young people in compulsory schooling. However, I am also happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, should a young person beyond the age of compulsory schooling decide that school is no longer the right environment in which to learn and transfer to alternative provision, either immediately or at the beginning of the next year, the duty will still apply. Again for practical reasons, if the young person leaves school at short notice, the actual assessment might take place after they have left and quite possibly are already undertaking alternative provision. That does not stop the duty from applying.
On the basis of that fairly full explanation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am reassured that the circumstances envisaged by the amendment are already covered by existing legislation. However, the clause as drafted seems to say that new section 139A(2) of the Learning and Skills Act 2000 will apply only if the local education authority
“maintains a statement of special educational needs for a person, and...believes that the person will leave school, at the end of his last year of compulsory schooling”.
Only if those two conditions are met will the requirement that
“The authority must arrange for an assessment...to be conducted at some time during last year of compulsory schooling.”
apply.
Will the Minister briefly explain why the duty still applies and why the person who is staying on to the sixth form will still get an assessment? If the young person is not leaving school, I would have thought that the condition in proposed new subsection (1)(b) would not apply and that, therefore, the assessment under subsection (2) would not be required. I am happy to rely on the Minister’s assurance, but it might be clearer if that particular point of principle was addressed, if he is able to respond to that point.
Jim Knight: I am trying to work out the detail in order to answer the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly reasonable question. The answer is not coming to me immediately, but if he bears with me for a second, I am sure that my swift reading of the clause will help.
Perhaps the best thing for me to do would be to write to the Committee, reiterating that staying on in sixth form with a statement lasts until 18. I will signpost for the Committee exactly how that works in the wiring of the Bill, because I do not have that immediately to hand.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the Minister for that promise. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): I beg to move amendment No. 160, in clause 65, page 35, line 22, leave out ‘may’ and insert ‘must’.
Mr. Bayley, I apologise for my late arrival at the sitting.
I say at the outset that the proposed amendment is probing; I will not be asking the Committee to vote on it this afternoon. Also, some of the ground covered by the amendment has been covered previously in Opposition amendments. I was encouraged by some of the assurances that my hon. Friend the Minister was able to give and the importance that the Government attaches to the position of young people with special educational needs in the context of the Bill and specifically in the context of assessments.
The amendment comes from the Special Education Consortium. I emphasise that the fact that it is a probing amendment in no way diminishes the importance of the subject matter. The purpose of the amendment, which deals with some of the issues we have discussed from a different direction, is to give local education authorities, which, through the transfer process, are taking on onerous responsibilities for the first time, a duty to conduct a school-leaving assessment for all young people who have learning difficulties, not just those who have an SEN statement.
As we have already heard, currently the Bill contains only a power for LEAs to assess those young people with SEN but without a statement. It was the poet Stephen Spender who said that power ends in weariness and duty, but in the context of the amendment, power and duty are separate: power, is only a pale imitation of duty. It is the concern that that power will not empower young people with special educational needs that brings the various organisations in the Special Educational Consortium, including Barnardo’s, I CAN, the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the National Autistic Society to voice their concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and I expressed those concerns when the Bill that became the Education and Inspections Act 2006 was going through Parliament, so this is not new territory for me.
The consortium is concerned because the proposal to extend to the age of 18 the requirement to stay on is a crucial one for disabled pupils and pupils with special educational needs. It is decidedly not the case that all those young people who fall into the category of having special educational needs have statements. We have heard again some of the arguments for that. For example, the Disability Rights Commission found in a 2003 survey that non-disabled young people are twice as likely as their disabled peers to transfer to sixth form or college at 16-plus. That has a significant impact on their life chances. According to DRC statistics, by the age of 19, 9 per cent. of non-disabled young people are not in education, employment or training, whereas three times as many, 27 per cent. of disabled young people, are NEET. Because of this, disabled young people and young people with SEN have the most to gain from participating in education and training between the ages of 16 and 18.
The former Select Committee on Education and Skills considered those matters. We have heard previously how important it is that the support that is given to young people with special educational needs is continued post-16 in a way that it has not been in the past. The direction of Government policy is to reduce reliance on statementing. The guidance issued by the Department for Education and Skills in 2001 highlighted all the advantages of that approach, but the Department showed its concern about the statementing by asking the Select Committee to look again at the question of separation of funding from statementing. We have heard in a previous debate about some of the pressures that may bring some local authorities to duck out of statementing.
Overall, however, there is no doubt that new legislation needs to support and not undermine the cultural shift against statementing. LEAs do vary in their policies on issuing statements. It is not always the case that, for example, young people who come under School Action or School Action Plus have missed out of statements. It is not as simple as that; the process is much more complex. Furthermore, there is great variation in LEA statements in practice. I can confirm that from the evidence that was taken in the Education and Skills Committee’s SEN inquiry.
What I am asking the Minister to do this afternoon is to reflect further on some of the points that have been made and to go away and talk with his officials about how some of the guidance might be beefed up. There is a real concern in the SEN community that, as an unintended consequence of the transfer process, the situation in which we have first-class and second-class special educational needs young people—those who go through a proper assessment process and those who do not—could, in some cases, be at risk of expanding. I know that that is not the Government’s intention, nor the intention of anyone on this Committee, but because those concerns exist in the community, I ask the Government to reflect further on what more they can do to ensure that those fears do not become a reality.
4.15 pm
Jim Knight: My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South seeks to amend the clause to extend the duty on local education authorities to arrange for learning difficulty assessments to be conducted so that all young people who appear to an authority to have a learning difficulty, whether or not they have had a statement of special educational needs, are assessed. The extended duty would apply to young people who are in their last year of compulsory schooling or who are over this age but not yet 25 and are expected to undertake further education, training or higher education.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on consistently championing the cause of young people with special educational needs. Earlier this month at departmental questions, he pressed my ministerial colleagues and me on what more could be done to improve provision for young people over the age of 16 with special educational needs. I understand that the amendment is supported by the Special Education Consortium.
As I set out in an earlier discussion, I do not think that it is in the best interests of all young people with learning difficulties to put them through a formal assessment automatically, when one might not be necessary. Obviously, I will reflect on what my hon. Friend has been saying and discuss it with ministerial colleagues. We do not want the two-tierism that he and some others fear in which different individuals get different treatment.
Children who are the subject of a statement of special educational needs have the most severe and complex needs. Therefore, it is right that the local authority has a duty to carry out a learning difficulty assessment when they leave school if they are moving into further education, training or higher education. However, even though young people with learning difficulties but without an SEN statement are not covered by the duty, the local authority has the power to arrange for such a assessment. There will be many instances in which it will be appropriate for such young people to receive an assessment, and where a young person would clearly benefit, the local authority would be expected to arrange for an assessment using that power.
Local authorities could be legally challenged if there is an unreasonable failure to exercise the power to arrange for an assessment that the clause gives them. We will issue statutory guidance to support local authorities in their decision making in this area. In effect, we will have something that feels a lot like a duty and a power but is judged on a case-by-case basis and with the sort of flexibility that some hon. Members on the Committee would want. I do not believe that it is right that we should compel assessment for every person. It is right that we should take a case-by-case approach.
On the basis of what I have said and my promise to continue to listen to the arguments and discuss them with my noble Friend Lord Adonis, who is responsible for such matters within the Department, I hope that my hon. Friend will withdraw his amendment.
Mr. Marsden: I am reassured by what my hon. Friend the Minister has said. On the basis of the assurances that he has given, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 65 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
 
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Prepared 27 February 2008