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Baroness Blatch : My Lords, I had the privilege of taking the 1993 Act through the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, was very much involved. Part III decreed by law that the educational needs of the child should be paramount in all cases. If the parental preference was consistent with the educational needs of the child, it should be acceded to. Since then what has happened in the courts has thrown that into some confusion because it seems that local education authorities under the law can plead resources. Where problems normally arise is not in choosing mainstream education for a child with special education needs but choosing special education provision because it is a costly provision for the LEA. Because resources are always finite for the LEAs, they will want it to be cost-effective as well as educationally effective. I do not know how this amendment fits in with the provisions of the Act. I was disturbed by the case cited by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, mainly because the educational needs of the child, the parental preference, supported by everyone who knew that child, seemed to argue in favour of the child moving into mainstream education. I wonder

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whether the tribunal system set up by Part III of the Act was not effective and whether the review has thrown up a deficiency which needs to be addressed.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, without following the noble Lord, Lord Rix, too far down the path of footballing analogies, I must observe that I find it difficult to imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, could ever be elbowed out in any rush. However, the provisions in Section 316 of the Education Act 1996 say that a child with special educational needs must be educated at a mainstream school provided that is what the parents want. But--and it is a very important but--the section goes on to give local education authorities three reasons why they may legitimately not meet a parent's preference for a mainstream place. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, alluded to them indirectly. I do not think I need go through them. They are familiar to noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

There are strong and cogent arguments that the conditions built into Section 316 in practice make it possible for LEAs to override perhaps a little too easily parents' preferences for mainstream education. There is concern that, rather than safeguarding parents' rights to secure a mainstream placement wherever possible, Section 316 is now seen by some as an obstacle to inclusion.

The House will be in no doubt as to the commitment of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and indeed of the whole Government to the principle that children with special educational needs should be included in mainstream schools wherever that is what parents want and provided it is consistent with meeting the child's educational needs. That must be paramount. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We are determined to make progress in that direction.

I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, for saying that one should not be rushed in this area. We want real and lasting progress. And it must cohere with the broader improvements that we seek for disabled people generally. The task force, which my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment is leading, will therefore address such issues when it looks at the relationship between education and disability discrimination legislation. If that works and the continuing scrutiny of the education barriers to inclusion confirm a need to change these provisions, we shall be ready to do so. But the House will know how complex and sensitive this area is. If changes are made, we must ensure that they are the right changes and that they will work for everyone--for parents and children who want special schools; for parents and children who want mainstream schools; and for those parents and children who do not choose to express a preference for a specific school. It is essential that each child receives appropriate educational provision and that the schools they attend feel confident that they can address the pupil's full range of needs.

I hope that noble Lords will be patient on this point. I do not believe they will have to wait too long. I can give an unequivocal undertaking on behalf of the Government that we shall make whatever proposals we believe to be necessary to promote inclusion and to

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ensure that inclusive education is of high quality. Those proposals, if appropriate, will include the possibility of changes in the law. But it would be premature to give a definitive commitment until we have been able to consult on specific proposals. Our expectation is that we shall propose such changes. In doing so, we shall equally safeguard the rights of those parents who wish to express a preference, as some do, for a special school placement for their child. That is important.

It would greatly assist the Government's deliberations in this area if we can continue the department's most helpful dialogue with noble Lords in whose names the amendment stands. I know that my honourable friend, Estelle Morris, the Minister with responsibility for special educational needs, would value an opportunity to discuss this subject further and will be writing to noble Lords to suggest a meeting.

In following up the responses to our consultation on the Green Paper, we will also be drawing the attention of LEAs and others to the requirement of the law and reminding authorities of their general duty to provide a mainstream place if that is what parents want. We know that some LEAs and some schools are much better equipped than others to include children with special educational needs, and it will be a major part of our programme over the next few years to increase greatly schools' and LEAs' ability to provide properly for those children.

On the noble Baroness's more specific question, as we have said previously the timing of our follow-up to the Green Paper will be linked to the availability of resources. I cannot anticipate the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, but I can assure the House that we will be seeking to ensure that resources are included to support work on moving towards increased inclusion.

I hope that from what I have said the noble Baroness will be reassured of our commitment to do whatever is necessary to ensure that legislation works in a way that was intended and that she will therefore be persuaded to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Darcy De Knayth: My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their support. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rix for his staunch and enlivening support. I agree very much with what he said about bullying. I hope that will help enormously. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his support once again. I regret that there is space for only four names on an amendment. The noble Lord said that the amendment has a lot to recommend it. I am pleased that the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, when I re-read him in Committee, said that the legislation will be forthcoming if it is necessary. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her thoughtful questions and support.

I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging the difficulties of Section 316 and the problems there have been with the loopholes. I note what she said about the task force. I hope that if the task force takes a lot longer than the Green Paper the Government will consider changing the law, if that is found to be necessary.

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I am grateful that the Minister will be writing to noble Lords to arrange a meeting and to LEAs to draw attention to the matter. I feel that we have progressed a great deal today and I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 92 [Fixing admission numbers]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 171A:

Page 71, line 17, leave out from ("of") to first ("the") in line 19 and insert ("fifteen working days of the date of the proposal").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 171A I seek to reduce the length of time mentioned in the Bill from two months to 15 working days. There is a requirement to lift the admission numbers to above the set limit, which is particularly relevant to small and medium-sized primary schools and those which have mixed-year groups.

The schools face difficulties when a child is newly moved into the area or a child qualifies for a priority place for a special social reason. In that regard, one of the schools of which my husband is a governor--and this is why I particularly move the amendment--has a one-parent ratio of 70 per cent. Therefore the movements in and out of the school during the term is very rapid and continuous. Obviously if numbers are set and more children want to come in, they would have to wait for two months. That is a long time to wait.

If the Government are going down the road of being very proscriptive, they must make arrangements to deal quickly with such matters. The amendment would ensure a more rapid response to the admission numbers. I hope that the Minister will consider it. I beg to move.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, where a proposal is made to an admission authority by either the governing body of a school or the LEA for an increase in admission numbers, enough time should be allowed for the proposal to be properly considered. The admission number for the school cannot be lower than the standard number. A child may not be refused admission to a school on the grounds of prejudice to efficient education or efficient use of resources unless the number of applications for admission exceeds that minimum number.

The standard number can be changed only in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 23, which requires the consultation of interested parties. Admission authorities may publish an admission number higher than the standard number if they want and must then admit up to that number. Where a proposal to an admission authority to increase admission numbers is rejected, the proposer may seek an increase in the standard number.

It is right that admission authorities should have proper time to consider the consequences of any proposal. We consider that two months is appropriate. The provisions in the Bill regarding this matter directly reflect existing provisions under the Education Reform Act 1988 and are consolidated in the Education Act 1996, introduced by the previous Government. There is

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no change in the legislation in this Bill and we see no reason to make such a change. Having explained that, I hope that the noble Baroness is able to withdraw her amendment.

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