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Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: I should like briefly to support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. As the Minister knows, special educational needs have occupied the education authorities of this country for a considerable amount of time this century. We are entering into a difficult area, but I felt on Second Reading that perhaps the Government had not given enough attention to the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and my noble friend Lord Swinfen. I am sure that that is unintentional, but I believe that considerable thought should be given to what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has said. It is a very sensitive and delicate area. There has been much controversy about how one copes with this.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, is right to say that the matter should be mentioned on the face of the Bill. I said at Second Reading that I felt that not enough attention was given to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Rix. I hope that the Government will be able to address the issue.
Lord Swinfen: I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, said in support of Amendment No. 110 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lucas. I shall not go further into that as it is getting late. I also support Amendment No. 111 to which my name has been added. As already mentioned, one-fifth
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I am happy to respond to all three amendments. I recognise the good intentions of all of them. I do not wish to repeat what has been said about school organisation plans. However, I must say once again that they are an important part of the new arrangements for local decision making on school organisation, not because they replace the proposals for change for individual schools but because they provide a context in which those proposals can be submitted and considered. The preparation of a school organisation plan will be subject to consultation. It will be published and there will be opportunities to object to any of its content. In that way we can reflect the developing consensus and partnership at local level which is at the core of our policy. It is therefore at the core of my response to each of these amendments.
The essential point is that we intend the school organisation plans to be drawn up at local level. The more these plans comprise concessions and even agreement with particular interest groups such as special educational needs--"interest group" is far too narrow a description for a movement which permeates all our views on education--and the more we agree further elements to a school organisation plan in addition to what is prescribed on the face of the Bill, the more we move away from the fundamentally local character of the school organisation plan. We have said that we do not intend to be over-prescriptive. We expect a school organisation plan to include demographic information and statements of policy relevant to the provision of places as the basis for reaching conclusions on the need to add or to remove places within an authority's area. We expect the plan to make a specific link between the organisation of school places and raising standards. Beyond that the plan should cover those issues which seem to LEAs and to school organisation committees to be relevant to the provision of places in their area. It should reflect local concerns and the views of local partners on the provision of school places.
I now turn to Amendment No. 110 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I refer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood. Diversity can mean two things. It can mean diversity as regards different kinds of organisation of schools or as regards the educational ethos of a school. The previous government used diversity as a cover-up for an attempt to get schools away from local authorities into the grant-maintained sector and under the direct control of the Secretary of State and the Funding Agency for Schools. Therefore "diversity" has to be a dubious word so far as we are concerned.
However, leaving that on one side, of course we agree with the noble Lord. We want a system in which schools, as autonomous institutions, whatever their organisation or category, can develop their own strengths within a framework that treats all schools equitably. There is no place for arrangements under which schools compete with each other to cream off certain groups of pupils.
The school organisation plan will provide an opportunity for an agreed local vision in relation to the provision of school places. The procedures for consulting on and agreeing to the plan will provide an opportunity for individual schools to say whether the plan is consistent with the way in which they want to develop. That is the only way in which I can see diversity being achieved. The plan itself, in particular the material on demographic change, will contribute to the schools' own planning. I suggest to the noble Lord that that is a step forward. It reflects the fact that these are issues that should be resolved locally. We propose not to be too prescriptive.
On the matter of popular schools, the same argument applies. Yes, of course there are advantages and difficulties in expanding popular schools. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, it is not always a bad thing that that will result in falling rolls in other schools--although it could be a bad thing, as I think the noble Lord will recognise. We expect local education authorities to balance supply and demand in relation to school places in so far as that is possible. This is nothing new. It has been happening in education authorities since they began in the last century. Supply and demand in school places has always been a difficult balance to strike. The key must be that the local authority, the schools and the parents in an area should decide how far the school organisation plans cover that issue, rather than having it placed on the face of the Bill.
I now turn to the question of special educational needs. I was glad to have confirmation from the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that he recognises the importance of the Green Paper, Excellence for all children. As I think the noble Lord will know, the department is working with representatives from local education authorities and other organisations to set up regional pilot projects which will explore how to take that forward.
I can say to the noble Lord, if it helps him at all, that regulations will provide the broad framework for the content of school organisation plans. However, we believe that the place to cover the content in any detail is in guidance that we intend to give to local education authorities, including advice on how the plan should reflect provision for pupils with special educational needs. But again, it is guidance rather than regulations, and even more so, rather than by accretions onto the face of the Bill. We believe that that will provide an opportunity to build on the work that is about to start in the pilot areas. We are open-minded about it; we know that these are pilots. Although we think that guidance is the best approach, if in the future it appears that school organisation plans do not satisfactorily reflect proposed
However, the over-arching arguments for agreeing the plan locally are also important. I hope that we can reassure noble Lords who have put their names to this amendment that this is the way in which special educational needs concerns can best be addressed. There will be a draft plan with wide opportunities to comment and object. At that stage, if not before, there will be opportunities for special educational needs groups to offer explicit views on the impact of special educational needs provision on the authority plan. The authority will be obliged to pass any such comments on to the school organisation committee when it comes to the school organisation plan.
Baroness Young: Before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he would like to reconsider a statement he made in response to the important amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, when I think he described special educational needs and those representing them as an accretion on the face of the Bill. I wonder whether that is how he views pupils with special educational needs. Most of us who take education seriously would not describe pupils who fall into that category in that way. I do not think it helps the Government's case to do so.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I think the noble Baroness detected that I realised that my wording was unfortunate as I was speaking. I sought not to cause offence to anyone concerned, as all noble Lords are, with special educational needs. The noble Baroness is right. The thinking about special educational needs must permeate our educational thinking. If I used any words which went against that, I apologise to her and to the Committee. I do not apologise for using the word "accretion", which is an objective word; it describes putting something else on the face of the Bill. I would rather not do that, for the reasons I explained.
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