Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 15:

("( ) education (other than higher education) suitable for the requirements of persons with learning difficulties or disabilities (or both) who are above compulsory school age but have not attained the age of 25 and whose progress in education has been delayed by their learning difficulty or disability (or both),").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I asked for my Amendments Nos. 15 and 93 to be separated from Amendments Nos. 13 and 14, as mine deal specifically with people with learning difficulties or learning disabilities, and the latter comprise a group in which I have a particular interest. I am saddened to hear in advance that the Minister will resist Amendment No. 15, even though I have not yet voiced my arguments.

Your Lordships may recall that I moved an amendment in Committee which was not dissimilar to Amendments Nos. 15 and 93 before the House this afternoon. My earlier amendment sought to extend fundamental learning opportunities up to the age of 25 for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. During the course of that debate the Minister was kind enough to commit to remedying a disparity in which students with learning difficulties and disabilities have to be turned down by mainstream providers in order to be deemed eligible for specialist provision. For this I, and I am sure other noble Lords, are most grateful. Important though this is, my amendment also sought to address another substantive issue, one on which I would welcome the Minister's specific attention, although to a certain extent I already have advance notification of that.

The amendments before the House this afternoon seek to make provision in the Bill for an entitlement to access further education provision for a narrow group of young people who are currently at risk of exclusion. The group of concern are young people whose early education has been inhibited or delayed as a direct result of their learning difficulty or their learning disability, with the consequence that they may not reach further education until shortly after the age of

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1323

19, but would expect to move on before the age of 25. My amendment endeavours to capture only those students whose progress has been inhibited as a direct result of their learning difficulty or disability. I am therefore confident that it will not have the effect of opening the floodgates in terms of demand.

I believe that the proposed amendments, supported by appropriate guidance, confirm the principle of entitlement for students with learning difficulties or disabilities up to the age of 25, while providing a mechanism for limiting the numbers to whom the entitlement would apply.

The Minister kindly wrote to me this morning. I am aware that she is giving this matter serious consideration in spite of her earlier statement about resisting the amendment. I look forward to hearing her response from the Dispatch Box. I beg to move.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I wish to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Those of us who are involved in one way or another with the provision of education for young people from the ages of 16 to 19 who have learning difficulties or disabilities--I think that your Lordships will be aware that I am the president of a charity which maintains a successful college for blind and visually impaired students--will know that students of this age group who have learning difficulties or disabilities travel at their own speed. By the age of 19 some will have acquired skills, or even possibly the level of certificated attainment; others will not, not through any fault of not trying but as a result of their learning difficulties. Yet the axe falls at 19 and they have to go. They may not even be able to acquire a job at that stage. I do not believe that that axe should fall.

I emphasise the point that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, made; namely, that we are not talking about masses and masses of people. This is not a matter over which the Treasury need have nightmares. We are talking about a relatively small number of people who are, nevertheless, important as individuals. They should not be thrust out of colleges and told that it has all come to an end. I believe that the Government should move on this issue. I have had sight of a letter which the noble Baroness has sent to the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Clearly the Government are moving in this area. We shall obviously ask for a little more, but, first, I should thank the Minister for what she has done. When you ask for more, you should begin by giving thanks for what you have already received. That is an error that Oliver Twist made; not that the overseer of the Poor House would have changed his attitude in that particular case. I thank the Minister as she has made significant improvements in recognition of the problems that disabled students face, particularly as regards amendments to Clause 113.

I suspect that the noble Baroness will suggest in her letter of reply--I hope that she does not mind my saying so--that one way forward would be to make an assessment of the 19 to 25 year-old students I am discussing. That is certainly a step forward, but only a

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1324

modest one. An assessment does not constitute an entitlement. It is halfway there. We wish to push for something more than a halfway measure.

As regards any amendments which the noble Baroness introduces at Third Reading, will she bear in mind some specific points? First, the measure should apply to all students from the ages of 19 to 25, and not to those who may just have been assessed in their final year under Clause 113 at 16. Secondly, I hope that she will make the process simple. The parents of many 19 year-old students find that they are embroiled in an enormous administrative nightmare in discussions with the FEFC to continue their children's education and training beyond the age of 19. It should be a simple and straightforward process.

Thirdly, I echo the point made by the noble Baroness on the Cross Benches on the previous amendment when she said that the provision should not be related to a student's attainment. The very fact that from the ages of 19 to 25 someone who has learning difficulties and disabilities is going through the process of education is in itself an enrichment process which should be continued until the age of 25. To give a little more teeth to the measure, apart from just making an assessment for 19 to 25 year-olds, I hope that there will be a requirement for LEAs to take that assessment into account. That takes the measure a little further. Without that requirement, the assessment will remain on the record book. Some LEAs will respond to such an assessment; others will not.

I support these amendments. I am sure that there will be progress, but we should like to go a little further than the Government have in mind at the moment.

Lord Addington: My Lords, I support the amendments. This is a rather odd debate. We have a rough idea of the Minister's attitude towards the amendment and an idea of what will be her argument. Nevertheless, we should try to remind the Minister why we propose the amendment.

The amendment concerns young people who have not achieved their potential. It seeks to push the arbitrary barrier further back in order to give them another bite at the cherry. If those in a particular group of people have not attained a certain level of education through no fault of their own, surely extra opportunities should be extended for that group. If we take into account certain other groups, those with what are commonly called "hidden" disabilities--I know most about dyslexia, but one could bring in milder forms of autism--which are not diagnosed early enough, suddenly we are faced with a group of people who have not had a realistic chance of a first bite at the cherry. If we want to help them, we have to extend their opportunities.

I know that discretionary awards are allowed, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, virtually everyone involved in any charity dealing with education or any other kind of care, spends a vast amount of time advising parents or carers how to get through the bureaucratic system. If what the amendment seeks to

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1325

achieve is contained in the Bill, such people will not waste anywhere near that amount of time. It also means that people with learning disabilities may not spend quite as many years up to the age of 25 in further education because they will have less trouble getting into it in the first place.

The amendment addresses real concerns about such people. It will enable them to get on with their lives as opposed to spending years chasing around trying to bully officials and crying on the doorsteps of local politicians in order to obtain something which should be theirs by right.

Baroness David: My Lords, my name is also attached to the amendment. The case has been ably put by those who have already spoken. I support the amendment. It would not be fair if these young people were left out. They would risk exclusion altogether. It is a terribly important amendment. The number of people affected is not very vast.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I support the amendment. It has been made even more necessary as a result of information which has reached me since we last debated the Bill in Committee. I should again declare my interest as the father of a 19 year-old Down's syndrome daughter whose future education her mother and I are now in the throes of trying to clarify after she leaves her present school in July.

As this is Report stage, I should perhaps save the detail of what I have to say for the further Bill that the Minister has said the Government are to introduce later in this Session. Nevertheless, two areas are sufficiently worrying to put before your Lordships now in support of the amendment.

First, there appears to be a growing habit among some local education authorities to cut off funding for students as soon as they reach their 19th birthday. My noble friend Lord Baker referred to this. If someone turns 19 in the last year, or even the last term, of a three-year course, funding may stop. This is obviously very disturbing for the student who cannot complete the course or take part in the special events which may take place at the end of it. It seems that such LEAs consider that their responsibility ends abruptly when a student reaches 19 and that they do not have any duty towards continuity. That must be fairly clear discrimination against students with mental handicaps or learning disabilities. I cannot believe that it would happen to ordinary students who are funded for a particular course regardless of when their birthdays fall. This practice must also waste resources because much of the good achieved by the course is wasted if the student cannot complete it.

I do not know yet how widespread is the practice. Apparently it has become more so in the past three years. I can reveal, however, that this problem hit three students when they were leaving my daughter's school. One has had to go onto a social services placement which does not have any educational component at all;

13 Mar 2000 : Column 1326

another will turn 19 next January and the LEA will commit funding only until then. It is not a convenient month in the educational calendar in which to be cut loose.

The FEFC is not blameless either. The parents of a student in the year ahead of my daughter did not learn that the FEFC had granted funding for the requisite special residential school until last September when the course had already started in August. Apart from anything else, this must be traumatic for such a student. I am quite sure that the parents would have been trying to obtain FEFC approval for at least a year before that. Very late on in the negotiations, the FEFC required the student to look at two unsuitable local colleges, which must also have been very upsetting. These are clear examples of the post-19 gap or trap, to which I referred in Committee, into which fall so many of our young people with mental handicaps.

Together with other noble Lords, I welcome what the Minister said about the Government's intentions. If the Government could accept the amendment, that would go a long way towards meeting some of the problems I have outlined because the LSC would have a clear responsibility for solving them. Without it, I fear the muddle may continue. I support the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page