Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Page 22, line 24, leave out ("includes") and insert ("shall have a majority of members who are members of the local education authority and shall include").

The noble Baroness said: After that long debate, I am wondering whether there is any point in speaking to these amendments. They represent a fall-back position, an attempt to improve the organisation committees. We are not in agreement with them and do not believe they are the correct democratic way forward.

Amendment No. 98 would guarantee that the local education authority had majority control of the school organisation committee. It underwrites the points made earlier by my noble friend Lord Tope. It underwrites the principle that the LEA should have the final say over the recommendations from a school organisation committee. It should be for the LEA to decide whether the nominees were drawn from a range of political groupings, or whether they should represent the controlling group. The important point is that the LEA would remain in control of a school organisation committee. The proposal backs up our first amendment proposing that the SOC should be an advisory body. Amendment No. 99 is consequential on Amendment No. 98.

The purpose of Amendment No. 104 is, again, to make the best of a very bad job. It adds to the categories of representatives who must sit on a school organisation committee. It insists that the committee has members who are on the receiving end. At present, there is an absence of any requirement to include representatives from the schools involved. That highlights the general drift of this legislation; namely, that schools are to be organised by new, mini--or perhaps not even mini--quangos. We have put forward clear arguments today, supported not only by Members on these Benches but by many other noble Lords, and we shall shortly debate whether the clause should stand part of the Bill. I shall

1 Jun 1998 : Column 31

therefore not pursue points now that I shall make in that debate. I beg to move Amendment No. 98, also standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Tope.

Lord Rix: On the assumption that there are to be school organisation committees--which seems in some doubt--I wish to speak to my Amendment No. 100; I spoke to Amendments Nos. 58 and 64 in Committee on 19th May. I am supported by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and my noble friend Lady Darcy de Knayth.

Last time, I was alone and loitering in the Stygian gloom of midnight, when the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, added to my taedium vitae by turning aside my amendments to secure a clearer place for special educational needs on the face of the Bill. For noble Lords not present on that occasion, he used these words:

    "the education action zone will bring together 10 or 20 schools. That could mean the membership of a forum swelling rapidly--if everyone were included--to 50 plus. That is unlikely to constitute an effective decision-making body".

I very much agree with that. Unfortunately, he continued a little later:

    "It is therefore, in our view, not sensible to lay down that all these constituent bodies should always be members of an education action forum".--[Official Report, 19/5/98; col. 1585.]

I found that very difficult to understand. If 20 per cent. of all school populations have special educational needs--which is the accepted average--one can be certain that schools involved in education action zones have a percentage much higher than that of pupils with special educational needs--maybe 30, 40 or even 50 per cent. I would have thought that a guaranteed place could have been found for someone with expertise in special educational needs; but, alas, the witching time of night seemed to cause the noble Lord to turn a deaf ear. I am therefore trying again with school organisation committees and hope that, between the dark and the daylight, the Minister will see the need for a person with SEN experience to be on every school organisation committee. To borrow a phrase:

    "You know it makes sense".

Baroness Blatch: I wonder whether it would help the Minister if I speak to my Amendment No. 105 with this grouping. It is separately grouped, but I am happy to deal with it now if it saves the time of the Committee.

Like the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, Amendment No. 105 represents a fall-back position. We would rather not have school organisation committees at all. However, if there are to be such committees, we need to address ourselves to the question of composition. Very little is said in the Bill about the composition. The only three categories of membership mentioned are the LEA, the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Beyond that, there is nothing definitive at all. Amendments have been tabled by my noble friend Lord Lucas, who is not here at present to speak to them. I believe that grant-maintained schools, if they exist, need to be represented. If, as is likely, the Government have their way and they do not exist, they will all become foundation or voluntary-aided schools. It seems to me important that

1 Jun 1998 : Column 32

foundation schools, which will be part of the family of schools, should be represented on that committee. I hope that when we come to Amendment No. 105 it will be accepted.

Lord Swinfen: Like the noble Baroness, I do not understand why Amendments Nos. 101, 105 and 105A have not been grouped with the amendments which we are discussing. Perhaps I may speak for a moment on the groupings list. I looked for one this afternoon before the House sat. Eventually I was able to prise a list of the groupings out of the Government Whips' Office at 2.35 p.m., while the House was at Prayers; there had been none before then. I wonder whether the Government could make certain that groupings lists are available at a reasonable hour. Under the previous administration, groupings were supposed to be available at five minutes past two at the latest, which gives an opportunity to prepare for the debate. I know it is not the responsibility of the Ministers on the Front Bench, but it is a matter on which they should chase their friends. There were no lists in the Printed Paper Office, none in the Prince's Chamber and none in the Peers Lobby. Eventually I obtained one that was still hot off the photocopying machine from the Government Whips' Office while the House was at Prayers. I believe that the Government have let the House down in this respect.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, my name is also to Amendment No. 100. I know that there are different areas of special educational needs and I accept that it may not be possible to have someone with expertise in all those areas on a school organisation committee, but I hope that the Minister can give an undertaking that there will be a member of the committee with special educational needs expertise. If the area of special educational need which has to be discussed is not within the member's narrow field, that member will at least know where to obtain the information. In this information age, it is a matter of knowing where to find the information that one requires rather than having it all at one's fingertips.

Lord Addington: I wish to address primarily Amendment No. 100. As the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said, it would be ludicrous not to have direct advice when special educational needs are being dealt with. There are so many areas of special educational needs. If there is a delay in obtaining the right information, there will be a delay in obtaining the right help. Pupils with special educational needs within schools are in the process of catching up. If they do not receive the help they need quickly, they are ultimately doomed to fail, or at least will take far longer over their education. Unless there is someone who knows where to find the assistance needed, these pupils will be almost guaranteed to be failures, at least within their own age group. Unless there is some way of getting the relevant information, we shall fail in an important area--possibly the major area--which has brought this type of organisation into being.

Lord Whitty: These amendments deal with school organisation committees and their membership. I do not

1 Jun 1998 : Column 33

wish to stray too far into the debate we had earlier about the role of those committees. The essence of the committees is clearly one of partnership. We wish the membership of the committees to reflect that partnership. As we said earlier, LEAs will retain key responsibilities. Amendments Nos. 98 and 99 provide for majority membership of the committees. Local education authorities may be the major providers of schools, but they are not the only providers, and there is therefore no reason for putting on the face of the Bill that local education authorities should have a built-in majority on the organisation committees.

All decisions have to be unanimous. There is no suggestion that any of the bodies referred to in these amendments should not be consulted, but we make clear on the face of the Bill that in all cases the diocesan authorities should be involved in the committees and we make clear in the note lodged in the Library that we would expect there to be a schools group, which would vary in its composition, authority by authority, and that for certain purposes there should be representation from the Further Education Funding Council.

As far as the schools group is concerned--and this touches in part on the question of special educational needs and on Amendment No. 105--the note sets out:

    "The group should include governors from a primary, a secondary, and a special school (and a middle school where appropriate). It should also cover community, foundation and voluntary schools (other than those maintained by the Church of England or Roman Catholic dioceses). But the way in which it does so should vary according to circumstances, including the size of the authority and the proportions of schools within particular categories. We would normally expect community, foundation, and non-diocesan voluntary schools to be represented in the group in proportion to the number of pupils in the LEA that attend their schools." That will allow for representation of a range of issues and it will be different as regards each authority.

I turn to Amendment No. 100 and the issue of special educational needs. We recognise the important responsibilities that school organisation committees will have in relation to provision for special educational needs both in mainstream and in special schools. Clearly it is important for school organisation committees to have access to appropriate SEN expertise and we are committed to achieving that.

It might be worth pausing to consider for a moment the range of issues that might arise, including the alteration and closure of special schools; the location of SEN special units in mainstream schools; the availability of appropriate facilities, including physical access; the availability of particular expertise in SEN amongst teaching staff; and the impact on transport of the location of SEN facilities, and any changes to their location.

As noble Lords will appreciate, it will be difficult to secure representation of SEN interests on the school organisation committee that can cover that wide range of issues. That is why we want to look at how best to ensure that SEN issues are taken into account as widely as possible in the consideration by the school organisation committee of school organisation plans and of individual proposals. There are a number of ways in which SEN expertise might be provided to school

1 Jun 1998 : Column 34

organisation committees. We are clear that SEN providers should be represented in the membership. But we might also want to explore other ways in which SEN expertise can be made available to the committee. That might include the appointment of experienced and expert practitioners as advisers to the committee in respect of specific proposals.

We are committed to getting right both the membership of the committee and the advice that is available to it. We shall seek specific views, when we consult, on how that might be achieved, particularly for special educational issues.

In relation to foundation schools and Amendment No. 105, the statement on school organisation makes it clear that we shall include foundation schools within the schools group and, where there are foundation schools in LEA areas, they will be represented broadly in proportion to the numbers for which they are responsible. We will consult on the detail of how that may be achieved, but it is a level of detail that is more appropriate to regulations than to the Bill. I note the amendments relating to the FEFC and neighbouring authorities which are in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. They have not been referred to, but they are grouped with this amendment. However, I shall not comment on those at this stage.

The intention is clear. We want not only the major providers but also a range of interests to be represented by the schools group and elsewhere on the organisation committees. Our intentions are clear in the document that is available in the Library and I hope that my words this afternoon will reassure those who are particularly concerned with special educational needs. We shall take fully into account in regulations and in practice the way in which SEN expertise can be brought, authority by authority to school organisation committees. In the light of those remarks, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment and that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will consider his position when we reach that stage.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Young: Before the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, sits down, perhaps I may follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. The whole issue of special educational needs is extremely important.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, if I understood him correctly, listed at least six specific difficulties with regard to special schools or parts of mainstream schools which have units for special educational needs. It is true that specific difficulties can arise. However, if one chose to, one could make out specific difficulties for mainstream schools; for instance, those that may specialise in languages. Are those to be considered also?

I do not know what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, feels about the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. However, it is not satisfactory to leave it as it stands. The committee must have a unanimity of view. If there is a question of closure of a special school when there is no representative on the committee and it has, at best, an adviser, difficulties may arise. This is something which needs to be looked at. The noble Lord,

1 Jun 1998 : Column 35

Lord Whitty, may not be able to give an answer today--I shall understand if he cannot--but it would be helpful if he will undertake to bring back an answer to this important point before we leave the Committee stage of the Bill.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page