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The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment I should apologise for not having been able to take part in your Lordships' Second Reading on 19th December. If I had been able to do so, I would have welcomed the Bill's good intentions but would have joined those of your Lordships who feared that the human and financial resources available to see those intentions succeed may simply not be adequate.
I would also have joined noble Lords who fear that the Bill may move the agenda too far in favour of inclusion to the detriment of special schools and of those children who should be educated in them. I am, of course, encouraged by the words of the Minister, particularly in her winding-up speech at cols. 705 and 706, when she sought to lay this fear to rest.
The Minister and the Committee will be aware that I have an interest to declare and that I am the father of a child with severe learning disabilities, or mental handicap, as many of us still prefer to call it. That child is now 20. She has, therefore, just been through the school system and it is that experience and the experience of many other families with similar children, which lead me to table this amendment today.
I suppose that the main inspiration of this Bill must be that there are many parents of SEN children who want their children to have a mainstream place but who are denied it by their LEAs. That is fair enough and, as I hope I have made clear, I respect that aim.
It seems to me that this Bill enshrines in law the wishes of those parents who want a mainstream place but it does little on its face for those who want a special school. I say that because the present wording of Section 316 of the 1996 Education Act contains much the same wording in this respect as the revised wording under the present Bill. The present Act provides that,
I do not pretend that the amendment's wording is perfect and it may even be that it or something like it would be more appropriate in that part of the Bill which deals with the SEN tribunals. There are very many cases which I could put before the Committee where the LEA has refused a special school place in those circumstances. In my own daughter's case, she was fully supported through school in an independent special residential school but the problem arose when she turned 19. Everyone who knew her well agreed that she needed to stay in a sheltered, residential setting but when our application to the Further Education Funding Council was duly made, it was torpedoed behind our back by a single social worker--known as a transition care manager--who had unshakeable ideological views about the benefits of inclusion at any price but who scarcely knew my daughter at all. I should add that my own daughter's handicap is such that she really cannot contribute helpfully to the decision as to where she should go to school.
We were fortunate, not only because we could argue our case with the FEFC perhaps better than many parents, but especially because we could afford to pay for an expensive independent assessment of our daughter's needs. That assessment eventually persuaded the FEFC to fund her place in the college of our choice against the advice of her social worker.
I know my experience falls outside the strict scope of the Bill, but there are far too many cases where LEAs and social services have pursued an agenda of inclusion against parental wishes and the best interests of the children, particularly those with more severe mental disabilities or handicaps. I do not say that parents are always right, but they are usually right. They are most likely to understand their children best and to know what is in their real interests, so parents should be given the benefit of any doubt.
The Bill acknowledges that position for parents who want a mainstream place for their child. Amendment No. 11, or something like it, would do the same for those parents who want a place in a special school. It would also ensure that the Government's most general and laudable commitment to parental choice was fully reflected. I beg to move.
Lord Astor of Hever: I strongly support the spirit of my noble friend's amendment. I also very much regret that I was not able to take part in the Second Reading debate, as I very much wanted to do. I declare an interest as the father of an eight year-old autistic and dispraxic daughter--I have a lot in common with my noble friend on that point. My wife is also suffering high levels of stress trying to do the best for her child's education.
Many parents feel that the system is loaded against them, and far too often their wishes do not prevail. I have received a number of letters on this point, as I am sure have other noble Lords. Many people working in the LEA sector are well-meaning, knowledgeable and helpful, but I fear that many others are not. Too many case workers and other LEA personnel are inflexible, unavailable and talk down to parents in a most insensitive way. As one parent said to me, the three most important words in their LEA vocabulary are no, no, no. I very much hope that the Minister takes on board the spirit of my noble friend's amendment.
Baroness Blackstone: Yes, I certainly take on board the spirit of what lies behind this amendment, which seeks to clarify the weight that is attached to parental wishes in deciding whether a child receives a mainstream place--although the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, went a little beyond that.
I want to reassure both noble Lords that the wishes of parents are very important and are always going to be taken into account. As I said when we were discussing the previous amendment, where a parent wants a mainstream place for their child we should do all that we can to provide one. The new code of practice will underline the need to involve parents more throughout the process of the child's education.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, was particularly concerned about the claim that has been made by some people that the Bill will make it harder for parents to get a special school place for their child. That is not true. We want an inclusive education service to offer
I categorically assure noble Lords that the existing right of a parent whose child has a statement to make a positive choice and express a preference for a special school place will be fully maintained. It is important that LEAs listen to what parents want and where a parent wants a special school place and an LEA refuses it, parents can appeal to the SEN tribunal. The new informal arrangements provided under Clause 3, which we have not yet reached, for preventing and solving disputes I believe will help to ensure that a solution that is acceptable to all sides is reached amicably and rather more quickly than sometimes happens.
In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, will feel able to withdraw the amendment. I shall not go into the issues about further education which are not relevant to this part of the Bill, but I am delighted that in the end he was able to obtain the support for his daughter that he wanted in an FE college.
Lord Lucas: I confess to being rather confused, although I am sure the problem is mine. When we were discussing the last amendment, I was abusing the Bill for not giving the child the right of audience in Clause 1(3). However, the Minister has just said effectively that the child does have a right of audience because the LEA can say, "No, this child will not go to a special school because we have been looking at this child and she does not want to and we think she is right". The matter then goes to the tribunal. If that is right, my problems with the previous amendment were entirely misconceived. I am sure that the Minister thinks that they were anyway, but I would think that. I should be much comforted if the Minister will confirm that I am right.
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