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Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Baroness said "the two Members who turned up" in such a manner as to imply considerable criticism of my noble friend Lady Young. I assure the noble Baroness that my noble friend Lady Young sent me a note to say that she deeply apologises for the fact that she was unable to be here this afternoon. She was expecting to be here but other commitments went on longer than she was expecting and she was originally expecting, as many of us were, that this debate would take place considerably later--probably at an hour not dissimilar to this. For that reason she put down her name to speak but unforeseen circumstances--the shortness of the proceedings on the Education (Scotland) Bill--prevented her coming.
Like most noble Lords, I have been overwhelmed by the number of letters I have received on the Bill, all strongly opposed to it. But still we hear Ministers declaring that they are extending choice, that parents are the prime consideration and that it is their requirements that must be met.
In a response in another place to a proposal that an expansion of places should build on the good practice developed in many local authorities in partnership with voluntary and private sectors, Robin Squire replied,
It is on that subject that I would like to address my remarks. The Special Education Consortium was set up at the time of the Education Act 1993. It is a group of 140 organisations that came together to protect and promote the interests of children with special educational needs. It has been a most effective body. But it is very critical of the Bill. It welcomes the injection of £185 million of new money into the system. However, it believes that proposals will not lead to the development of good quality provision for children with special needs. Indeed, it fears significant harm may be done to the provision for them. They are particularly concerned for those children who do not have a statement (perhaps 18 per cent.). Many of these children now receive additional support through home-teaching schemes, early access to nursery education (often at three years of age), and informal access to the additional expertise in support services.
This support is threatened, first, by the reduced ability of LEAs to plan services, with a predictable budget made available to them at the beginning of the financial year; secondly, the focus on four year-olds which will
The effect of this is likely to be that more parents of children under five will seek a statutory assessment and a statement, to make sure to gain access to appropriate resources. Any increase in early statements will have some undesirable consequences: first, a higher percentage of LEA budgets will be tied up in fixed commitments to individual children; secondly, a reduction in the ability of LEAs to deploy resources for preventive work; and, thirdly, the likelihood of increased use of appeals to the SEN tribunal.
Most of your Lordships here today will remember the care and hard work of Ministers (particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch) and of noble Lords (particularly Lady Faithfull, whom we so sadly miss today--she did not approve of this Bill) in creating in 1993 the code of practice for coping with children with special needs.
In the current proposals, all providers will be required to publish their policy. This will cover the admissions policy, the facilities that exist for children with special needs, knowledge and skills in special needs and the links with agencies. However, the consortium argues that unless policies are developed in the light of the code, they may merely become a description of inappropriate or unacceptable practices.
There is anxiety about what will happen in reception classes. There will be incentives to increase the number of four year-olds in them. The consortium is concerned that an enlarged reception class may not be the best setting for four year-olds with special needs, particularly for the youngest of them. In a nursery class or school, class size has been limited in two ways: by the pupil/adult ratio, by a recommendation that half the adults should be teachers; and by the 1981 regulations on teaching accommodation and recreational space. Reception classes, however, are not limited in these ways. There is cause for anxiety here, particularly as the 1981 regulations are to be replaced in September. Anxiety is also expressed on the inspection arrangements. But we shall follow up all these points in Committee. With the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I hope very much that we shall get the provisions for children with these special needs made much clearer in the Bill.
It is our understanding that instead of making a clear requirement that institutions providing early years care and education, including those involved in the voucher scheme, must not use corporal punishment, the current proposal is only to require that institutions in the scheme do not use corporal punishment on "voucher-bearing" children. This would leave a range of institutions free if they wish to use corporal punishment on other young children. This flies in the face of two formal recommendations which the Government have received from the highest relevant authorities on human rights. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in January last year and the UN Human Rights Committee in July, formally recommended that the Government should extend prohibition of corporal punishment to cover all pupils in the private sector. We tell other countries they must respect international human rights and the decisions of monitoring bodies. Surely this demands that we should respect them ourselves.
The Government's approach to the issue represents a depressing U-turn from their own policy expressed so clearly last year in the initial report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which states,
We do not want to hear any more bogus arguments about parents' rights to pay to have their children beaten in private institutions. The rights that parents have derive from their responsibilities for their child's welfare. As the Minister will know, all the organisations concerned with early years care and education are strongly against all corporal punishment. The NSPCC is most concerned about this issue. And in the private schools sector, both the HMC and the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools favour extending abolition to cover all pupils.
We would like an assurance from the Minister that this matter will be urgently reconsidered; that the Government will accept their international obligations and take this opportunity to at least protect all children in early years care and education wherever there may be institutional corporal punishment.
My final word is to remind your Lordships that the home is also a nursery for young children and that training and support should be available to parents as a child's first and most important educator. I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, referred to that. Although good professional nursery education provides many
The message that I want to give to the House is that parents are educators and they are entitled to training and support. We intend to bring forward amendments in Committee to make grants available for parenting education programmes. I hope that they will have your Lordships' support.
Lord Northbourne: My Lords, all noble Lords who have spoken have supported the Government's enthusiasm for nursery education for four year-olds. I endorse that enthusiasm, but with the qualifications which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, made. The advantages of nursery education are very much more marked in the case of children who are deprived of the support that they need from their families and are very much more marked when the quality of the nursery education is very high.
I am afraid that I shall infuriate my friends on the Opposition Benches by saying that I strongly welcome and support the voucher experiment--
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