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Lord Addington: Let me briefly add a few words of support because I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has found a real flaw in the drafting as we read it. In the process of obtaining help, the identification of that help is the most important part. If we give advice, we will often end up dealing with the problem quickly. It is self-evident that the early recognition of problems is one of the most important factors here. Primarily that is because, in the education system--especially now--there is very little chance of going back and repeating things. For good or ill, having a national curriculum means that we are on something of a conveyor belt and it is therefore essential to deal with matters quickly. If we can get a parent to obtain advice; to know what they are looking for and dealing with, it will make the situation much better. It will also cause less stress for the parent and the child. The noble Baroness grasped a very important point here.
Baroness Blackstone: I should like to begin by saying something about parent partnership services. I was glad that during the debate at Second Reading there was very broad support for our plans. That mirrored the support that our proposals received when we consulted on them last year. All English LEAs have established a parent partnership service and, as a result, parents are becoming better informed. Disputes or misunderstandings are being resolved much more quickly and parents feel more able to play an active role in their child's education; in deciding what is best for their child. The Bill will help to ensure that we build on good practice and deliver much greater consistency throughout the country. First and foremost, parent partnership services provide a flexible range of services to parents whose children have special educational needs. They aim to empower parents to play a valued and informed role in their child's education. Our decision to include a whole chapter in the revised SEN code of practice was warmly welcomed in last year's consultation.
The aim of the two amendments is to ensure that parent partnership services support parents who believe that their children have special educational needs. While I have a great deal of sympathy with this view, we do not believe it is a good idea to put it on the face of the Bill. There is not a drafting problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington said.
We recognise that in some cases parents are concerned that their child may have special educational needs, but the school or LEA take a different view. Such parents are likely to discuss their concerns with a variety of people, including other parents, their own family, their child's school and the local parent partnership service. These services have to be flexible in their approach. We are not asking them to draw any hard and fast lines. They will be required to consider parents' concerns carefully, not to be dismissive when inquiries for help or information are made.
I stress that the service is designed specifically to help parents whose children really do have special educational needs. However, I am happy to assure the Committee that when we finalise the section in the revised SEN code of practice on working in partnership with parents, we will explain that parent partnerships will be expected to be flexible and sympathetic in their dealings with parents, even where there might be a difference of view between parents and the school or the LEA. We have underlined that cases where parents believe their child has SEN but the school or the LEA takes a different view must be handled very sensitively.
Specifying such issues on the face of the Bill could divert resources away from those parents whose children have been identified as having SEN. In other words, the people who really need access to the great deal of support that these services provide might then lose out. I hope that noble Lords agree that that would not be in the best interests of those parents or their children.
Baroness Blatch: I found it slightly baffling for the noble Baroness to say that the amendment would not be in the best interests of those parents and their children. I have been speaking on behalf of those parents who genuinely believe that there is a particular difficulty and that the educational needs of their children are not being met or need to be recognised more fully. Some celebrated cases have ended up in the courts--not just the tribunals--after parents have become highly frustrated trying to get someone to take notice of them.
It would be relatively simple to do two things. First, a parent who believes their child has a problem should be treated sympathetically and taken more seriously. The teacher and the school or LEA should look into what the parent believes are the problems and come to an agreement on whether there is an educational need, which could then be challenged.
Secondly, to underpin that the parents must have the right to advice and information. I am not asking for a full assessment. I am simply asking that a parent who believes that their child has a need for special educational provision should have a right to advice and information.
This is an important amendment. The noble Baroness does not sound sympathetic and believes that, as long as people are sympathetic and the issue can be written into the code of practice, that will suffice. I genuinely believe that parents who want advice and information ought to have a right to receive it or to be pointed in a direction where they can receive it.
Baroness Blackstone: There is a slight difference of emphasis between the Government's view and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I did not wish in any way to suggest that it is not in the interests of those parents to get as much advice and information as they can have. I was suggesting that if we were to put this matter on the face of the Bill and give them an absolute right, it might spread resources very thinly in relation to those parents whose children have been agreed by all parties to have special educational needs. It was that group to which I referred. I wish to correct that slight misunderstanding.
I do not believe that the parent partnership services will turn away parents who are seeking advice and information. Wherever possible they will provide it but there is a matter of priority here. Where children definitely have special educational needs--that has been agreed by the school, the local education authority, educational psychologists and others--they need to have access to this advice and information. They must have priority.
We shall make it absolutely clear in guidance that we expect the parent partnership services to try to help and support any parent who wants information. We think that that is the right place rather than placing an absolute right on the face of the Bill.
Baroness Blatch: Under the procedure in the Moses Room, all that is left open to me is to withdraw the amendment. I may well return to it. I hang on to what I believe was a pledge on the part of the Minister: that there will be specific reference in the code of practice not only to children with special needs but to children whose parents believe that they have special needs. If that is the case, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
With or without prejudice to whether he would have supported my amendment, my noble friend simply says that in advising and providing information to parents all the alternative options on matters relating to the special needs would be incorporated. It is a straightforward issue. It is important that advice and information should not be limited only to what the LEA wishes but that advice and information are given in a much wider context; and that alternative options should be made available as a matter of information and of right to parents who seek advice and information. I beg to move.
Lord Addington: Amendment No. 48 standing in my name and that of my noble friend reflects the experience of many parents who seek the best for their child under the current law. They spend vast amounts of time usually through voluntary bodies trying to find out the law and what they can do.
The situation is not as bad as it was but it can still lead to horrendous situations where people waste vast amounts of time. They do not find out what they are legally entitled to often because people do not know or do not regard it as their duty to tell them.
If we put some provision like this into the Bill, or some form of legal framework, we shall at least know when the people in power are not doing their job. Whether we like it or not, people have commented time and again, "We didn't know"; "They didn't tell me"; "I didn't know you could do that"; or "Oh, really, can you do that?" I am sure that case studies can be provided very quickly.
I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that this experience is almost universal to the parents of those with special educational needs. The amendment is one way of addressing the issue. I hope that the Government will give it a fair wind.
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