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Lord Ashley of Stoke: I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and speak in support of my Amendments Nos. 10 and 61 to couple with her amendment. These are about the child's wishes having regard to his age and maturity. The child's views are obviously very, very important, and they are the people who know just what makes them happy.
We have had lots of briefings on all these provisions from the Special Educational Consortium and all the voluntary organisations, in my case the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. I should like to declare an interest as I will be quoting from those briefings as a president of RNID. I do not know if my noble friend knows anyone who is deaf but the RNID put forward the example of a child who may be profoundly deaf and who wants to go to a special school which has signing where he can consort with his friends and feel at home because the method of communication is the same as at home. This could be the child's wish. However, the parents may want the child to be educated in what they see as mainstream schooling. That is a kind of ideal, a kind of "normal school" in the eyes of the parents. There is, therefore, a conflict between what the child rightly wants and what the parents rightly want. Unless we ensure that the child's views are fully taken into account in the Bill, we shall get nowhere. There are pressures on the child and on the parent. I believe that the amendments I am discussing will get over this problem.
I would like to point out in closing that the United Kingdom Government are party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which lays down that the child's views should be given due weight according to age and maturity.
Baroness David: My name is to Amendments Nos. 9, 39 and 40 and I very much wish to support strongly what the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has said. I raised this matter of hearing the children's voice at Second Reading, but the Minister did not make any response. So I hope today that we shall have a very full reply and a very sympathetic one. I think that it is a very important matter.
This whole group of amendments asks that the child's voice is heard when decisions are being made about school placements. The amendments include the assessment process and the review of the special educational needs statement. Similar amendments are on the Marshalled List and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has spoken to his.
My Amendment No. 9 is a probing amendment to gauge the support of the Government. I hope that, with the display of all-party support which is evidenced in Amendments No. 9, 39 and 40, the Minister will take it away and come back with a government amendment or a commitment to achieve the same end by secondary legislation.
It is currently only the parents' views that are taken into account in the process of making the decision about a mainstream or a special school during the statutory assessment and in the drawing up of a statement. These are times when decisions are being made which crucially affect the child and about which children may have strong views themselves.
The draft revised code of practice makes it clear that the Government's intention is that greater account should be taken of the views of children. I understand that this was broadly welcomed during the consultation period. The SEN tribunal proposes to take greater account of the views of children in coming to a decision on an appeal, yet in between the school stages and the appeal to a tribunal children's views drop out of the picture. The guidance in the draft revised code of practice on including pupils' views is not specifically linked or applied to the statutory stages, statutory assessment, drawing up a statement and making a decision about a mainstream or a special
The voice of the child is often absent when decisions have to be taken in education. It seems to be a concept that is not recognised in education law but the Children Act 1989 takes note of the views of children. Before a placement is made, the authorities have to ascertain the wishes of the child. There seems no reason why this should not be the case for an educational placement, the more so when a child has special educational needs. The confidence that it can give a child when he knows that his voice is being heard and acted upon can boost his morale and it can help a young person and assist those who have to decide on the placement. The LEA and school, with the parents' support, would make a better decision. The need to listen to the voice of the child is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 12 requires states to provide the child with the opportunity to be heard in an administrative proceeding. This does not happen at the assessment and statementing stage. It can happen at the school assessment stages and it can happen at the SEN tribunal. But why is there this gap in the middle where decisions are taken about the nature of the special educational provision for a child?
A child's views could be crucial over a decision to send a child to a special school or remain in a mainstream school and maintain existing friends. That is very important but, until we find a way of ensuring that the child's voice is heard, there is always the possibility that decisions will be made in ignorance of what the child wants. I think that that is very important for the future successful education of that child. I do think that these are important amendments and I hope very much that my noble friend can give a very sympathetic answer.
Lord Rix: My name is down in support of Amendments Nos. 9, 39 and 40. However, the grouping has made it into a lucky dip. It is a question of which plum you pull out because they are so similar. Amendment No. 7 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, is possibly preferable because it is the only one which talks about the best interests of the child, an issue to which we have returned again inadvertently.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. I believe that the child's interests and wishes should be taken into account, particularly as regards whether that child goes to a specialist school or a mainstream school. The parents could well have philosophical prejudices against one school or the other. I believe that the child should be allowed to express his view.
Children with a learning disability are perfectly capable of expressing their views if only people give them the time and space in which to do so. Unfortunately, I do not believe that that is often done. I have handed to the Minister's officials some of the stories told by people. Simone Aspis handed these to
Lord Northbourne: This group of amendments is about the voice of the child. I agree with everything that has been said on the subject. As regards Amendment No. 8, I feel rather like someone who has got on the wrong train and has been carried off to Penzance when he meant to get off at Reading. There was a misunderstanding with the Public Bills Office and my amendment was intended to refer to "the best interests of the child" and not "the best wishes of the child". "Best interests" are equally as applicable to a child who is statemented as to a child who is not statemented. It seems to me that there is a drafting issue here. The Bill states at Clause 1(3)that,
Surely it should be the statement. If the statement requires him to be in a special school it should be mentioned. Alternatively, my best solution, the best interests of the child, would achieve the same objective.
Lord Morris of Manchester: I rise to support in particular amendment No. 10. In doing so, I have in mind the view of my friend, the admirable Simone Aspis, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has referred. Her problems as a child with special needs and her achievements since then are known to Members on both sides of the Committee.
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