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Lord Rix: I rise to support briefly the amendments proposed by my noble friend, Baroness Darcy de Knayth. The noble Baroness has explained their aim much better than I could have done. They would ensure that the parental rights to be heard, to deal with a well briefed local authority that had some sense of urgency and to appeal to a tribunal were not put at risk by technicalities.

The principles of the noble Baroness's case are not open to serious challenge. I cannot imagine that the restrictions she has explained were ever intended. As she has pointed out, we are not seeking fresh statements where the amended statements will do perfectly well, but the simple and economical procedure of amending rather than re-doing must not

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remove basic rights. I trust the Minister will be able to set our minds at rest by offering her own answers to these very real problems.

Baroness Blatch: I, too, support the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth. My amendment is complementary to hers and would ensure that all was done in good time. School medics or school nurses are often the first people, after parents--although sometimes instead of parents--who see signs of physical or special needs. As qualified people, they should be able to insist on a statement within a reasonable time scale. My aim is to provoke a response on the possibility of specifying that in the Bill.

As many of us said at Second Reading, we are all aware of the importance of a child's special educational needs being addressed as early as possible. I have tabled the amendment to ensure early intervention. After a child's parents, a school medical officer or a school nurse is best placed to see signs of need for these children. Their particular qualifications and professional opinion should carry weight when a request for a child to be statemented is made. When a request to the local education authority for a statement is supported by a professional of the kind I have described, a statement should be forthcoming within a reasonably short timescale. All too often there are delays in obtaining a statement for a child.

Special educational needs identified by professionals in primary schools are not always picked up before the child is ready to transfer to secondary school. As we all know, too often when the child come to secondary school he may have several terms when everybody goes back to first base to note what his special needs are. Having defined what the child's needs are, a third placement may be needed at a different school from the secondary school.

I am especially concerned about pupils who make this transfer from primary to secondary. A number of studies have discovered this weak link in the system when children move from primary school. Sometimes there may be a reluctance on the part of the primary school to do this work; it is then left to the secondary school. I believe that it is in the interests of the child for a statement to be made, prior, if at all possible, to any transfer where a school medical officer or a school nurse thinks that a child has special educational needs. I am suggesting the new clause. Part of me believes that we could go as far as requiring local educational authorities to provide a statement for a child within a particular timescale. I believe that I can pre-empt the response of the noble Baroness. There needs to be some flexibility where the timescale cannot be met. I should like to think that there would be a presumption in favour of a six-month timescale. Six months is a long time when a child is waiting to have a definitive statement on his special needs. I support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness.

Baroness David: I, too, rise to support this group of amendments. It seems to me they make very reasonable demands on the LEAs, make for clarification and would help both the parents and the

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children themselves. I think they are very reasonable and I hope that the Minister will be able to give a sympathetic response to them.

Lord Northbourne: I support Amendment No. 91ZA. When we last met I spoke about the long delays occurring within certain local authorities in getting children statemented-- sometimes on the excuse that there are not enough psychologists. I was director of school which has many children who are not statemented but--my goodness--they have a problem. The local authorities drag their feet on getting them statemented because they do not want to have to meet the bill for special education.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I support the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. From the arguments put forward by both the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, it does not seem likely that in the 1993 Act the government sought deliberately to curtail parental rights in this way. It seems a plausible argument and the proposed amendment extremely sensible.

I support Amendments Nos. 32 and 91ZA. One of the problems which arises time and again is that of local education authorities dragging their feet in terms of statements, perhaps seeking professional advice but not including in the statement a specification of the precise amount and duration. Amendments Nos. 43 and 44 pick up those issues. It is a real problem and one that we need to address.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Lucas: I, too, support those two particular amendments. Amendment No. 32 appeals to me particularly because one of the features of the years of local authorities trying to control their SEN budgets has been that they have said to educational psychologists, "If you produce a report that we can't use in whatever way we want, we won't employ you again." Many educational psychologists now produce reports that are so bland and meaningless that the local authority can do as it wants with the child. That is a perversion of professional ethics that we should not allow to continue. Educational psychologists should be independent and produce meaningful reports. If we cannot do that by giving them some status as a profession with a body of their own to protect their ethics, we should start to do it in the way proposed in Amendment No. 32, by making sure that what they produce is of use to parents and their advisers as well as suiting the requirements of local authorities to control costs. It is important that we use the Bill to make some progress on that matter in some way.

Turning to Amendment No. 91ZA, I too see the need for speeding up the procedure. It is an unenviable position in which local authorities find themselves. They are told by Mr. Blunkett that they have to delegate 85 per cent of their expenditure. They have 5 per cent plus on SEN, 5 per cent plus on transport and a little scrap left over for their central costs. That is a very hard regime and they have no flexibility to

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find more money to spend on SEN, so much of their effort goes into controlling it. That is not the way in which we should write the legislation. The local authorities' duties should be clear and we should deal with the resulting cost pressures through the Treasury or in other ways.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I begin by saying that we have some sympathy with the intentions behind the amendment. I have some constructive words to offer to the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, with a reservation about Amendment No. 32 that I shall talk about in a moment. I have greater difficulties with Amendment No. 91ZA that I shall need to present to the Committee and I apologise for the length of the arguments.

We consider that Amendment No 32 is unnecessary. The Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994 already require that the advice provided by professionals for statutory assessments should relate to the educational, medical, psychological or other features relevant to a child's educational needs; how those features could affect his educational needs; and, the provision that is appropriate in the light of those features. To go further and require those giving advice to specify the particular amount of provision would be inappropriate. That is a matter for the LEA which must consider the advice it receives from various sources in the round and determine the provision to be specified in a child's statement after taking that advice. It is, after all, always open to the LEA to back to those giving advice if it needs more details. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 seek to secure a more consistent way for parents of children with statements to express a preference for a school of their choice and to have a meeting with the LEA where their child's statement will be changed following a statutory reassessment or an annual review. Currently, parents only have that right the first time the LEA carries out a statutory assessment and issues a proposed statement. It is true that where the LEA carries out a subsequent statutory assessment and in the light of that assessment wishes to change the existing statement, or where it wishes to change a statement following an annual review, it must by law amend it. As part of the process of amendment, parents do not have a formal legal right to express a preference for a particular school or to require the LEA to arrange a meeting with them to discuss the proposed amendments.

But the LEA is obliged to give parents formal notice of the proposals for amending the child's statement and to allow them 15 days to make appropriate representations. It is quite usual for parents, as part of their representations, to express a preference for a particular school and, indeed, to seek a meeting. Many LEAs comply and many offer a meeting when they send the formal notice to the parents.

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Under paragraph 8 of Schedule 27 to the 1996 Act, parents may also once a year ask the LEA to specify a different school in their child's statement. Ultimately if, having taken account of parents' representations, the LEA amends the statement and the parents disagree with the amended statement, they have, of course, the right to appeal to the SEN tribunal in relation to the description of the child's needs and the provision as well as the named school.

Amendment No. 37 appears to have no material effect if taken alone. It is designed to ensure that parents can appeal against the wider contents of an amended statement, rather than the amendments that have been made following a reassessment or review. As I have just explained, they can do that already. The amendment would therefore appear to be unnecessary. However, we propose to consider Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 to see if there are ways of achieving greater consistency and therefore any possible effect such amendments may have in relation to Amendment No. 37. I shall ask the noble Baroness to withdraw Amendment No. 32.

Amendment No. 91ZA would require LEAs to make a statement for every child under five whom a health authority or NHS trust believed had, or probably had, special educational needs. This would not be appropriate. It is for the LEA to decide, in the light of appropriate advice, whether the child has special educational needs and, if so, what action should be taken.

Under Section 332 of the Education Act 1996, where a health authority or NHS trust are of the opinion that a child under the age of five has, or probably has, special educational needs, they must inform the child's parent. After giving the parent the opportunity to discuss that opinion with an officer of the authority or trust, they must bring it to the attention of the local education authority. It is then for the local education authority to decide what action to take. It may decide that the child's educational needs can be met without an assessment or a statement.

A child attending a nursery school or early education setting may have his or her needs met from within the resources of the school or setting without any need for further intervention by the LEA. This may be by way of an individualised programme tailored to their particular learning needs, access to some specialist equipment or perhaps some advice on a one-off or occasional basis from the LEA support services. In many such cases, the local health professionals will already be working with the special educational needs co-ordinators to assess any underlying physical or sensory difficulties that may be causing problems and providing advice on the programmes or strategies that could be used to help.

In many cases where a child under five and over two is referred by a health authority to an LEA, he or she will have demonstrated a significant cause for concern. These children may have severe and complex needs that are likely to be resolved through a statutory assessment and a statement to ensure, for example,

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access to a particular service such as home-based teaching or a developmental play programme and to continuous monitoring and review. In those cases the LEA must complete the process within an overall period of around six months. Again, if the health services have been involved all along, the time taken to conduct such an assessment will be reduced since a lot of the information required will already be available.

Where children under two are referred to the LEA, it is probable that their parents or the child health services will have found that they have a particular condition or major health problem very early on. In some areas the Sure Start programme will have not only identified the child but also co-ordinated access to relevant services. When they decide they need to carry out an assessment, they will have a great deal of information already. Children under two need not follow the normal statutory processes for assessment, shortening the time taken for a decision. If it is decided, following an assessment, that a statement is needed, it can usually be made very quickly, well inside six months.

The current SEN code of practice advises that, where a health authority refers a child to an LEA, there should be agreed procedures for acting speedily to ascertain whether the child's needs require specific intervention from the LEA. The draft revised SEN code of practice also emphasises the importance of early intervention and joint working between local education authorities and health and social services to meet the needs of children with SEN as quickly as possible.

We are developing guidance for health and social service professionals to complement the revised code of practice to promote closer co-ordination and good practice in this important area. We are also strengthening the arrangements for identifying children with SEN as early as possible.

During Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asked what in the Bill will improve early identification and intervention for children with a range of conditions such as autism, sensory impairment and dyslexia? Other noble Lords emphasised the importance of early intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of early intervention and I shall say a little about what we are doing to encourage it. However, in response to the noble Baroness's question, this Bill is not the vehicle by which to achieve better early identification and intervention.

Legislative provisions under the 1996 Act already set out arrangements LEAs should follow for the assessment of SEN for children over two and empowers them to make their own arrangements for children under two. The Act also places a duty on health authorities and NHS trusts to inform LEAs where they believe a child under five may have SEN.

But legislation on its own cannot ensure efficient early identification and intervention. We are encouraging that through a range of key initiatives. Programmes such as Sure Start, to which I have already made reference, Quality Protects and early

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excellence centres all promote multi-agency early intervention. Early years providers' ability to identify SEN and respond appropriately is being developed through conditions on government funding of early education, stipulation on early years development and childcare partnerships, and through the Foundation Stage Curriculum introduced in September 2000. Approaching 13.5 million for early years training and development, including training to identify SEN, is being provided this year. And QCA research has shown that almost three-quarters of the local baseline assessment schemes are being used effectively as warning indicators of possible impairments.

In the short term, we aim to disseminate good practice in this area to bring all schemes up to the standards of the best. In the longer term, the introduction of a national baseline scheme in 2002-03 presents an opportunity to improve that figure since it will incorporate the features of the best local schemes.

Screening for specific conditions can have a role to play. At the close of the Second Reading debate, mention was made of the Department of Health's neo-natal hearing screening programme. Checklists for autism in toddlers for use by health visitors enhances the possibility of early detection of autistic spectrum disorders. However, early screening is not, of course, the complete answer. The difficulties of children with Asperger's syndrome, for instance, may only become fully apparent once they are in a school setting and pre-school screening for dyslexia would not be reliable, producing a large number of false positives.

We believe the improvements we are making to identification of the full range of children's special educational needs--where they present singly or in combination and whenever they occur in a child's educational career--will provide the surest way of identifying those needs.

I return, therefore, to Amendment No. 91ZA, which would require a statement to be issued for every child referred to a local education authority by a health authority or NHS trust. That is not necessary since, in a number of cases, appropriate help can be provided without a statement. The current arrangements allow for action to be taken quickly where assessments are necessary and fast-track arrangements are possible for children under the age of two. We have taken steps to ensure that children with SEN are identified as early as possible and to promote closer co-operation between local education and health authorities so that children's needs are met at the earliest opportunity.

In the light of what I have said--and I apologise for having spoken at such length--I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will consider not moving her amendment.

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