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(" . The Secretary of State may by regulations made under this Part require local education authorities to reserve sufficient resources properly to discharge their duties under Part IV of the 1996 Act as amended by this Act.").

The noble Baroness said: My noble friend Lord Jenkin is unable to be present because he is engaged in highly technical work on a Select Committee. I have agreed to move the amendment for him.

In pressing the amendment, I want to refer mainly--it is my noble friend's very personal concern--to young people with varying degrees of sight impairment. The points I shall make in speaking to this amendment will, however, apply to many other conditions. I would first refer to a sentence contained within the special needs draft code of practice and it would be helpful to know whether there is any intention to alter this reference. It is paragraph 8.1 on page 69, at the top, which reads:

That is the backdrop to what I want to say to this amendment, which would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring LEAs to hold sufficient funding centrally to maintain specialist support and advisory services for children with low incidence disabilities, such as visual impairment--services which cannot effectively be delivered by delegation to individual schools.

There are 22,000 children and young people under 16 in the United Kingdom whose sight is impaired in such a way that they require additional support for their learning. Visual impairment is a low incidence disability and one for which specialist support is vital from the earliest stage that visual impairment is identified. The funding implications for equipment and support can be enormous and there is significant need for flexibility in order for resources and expertise to be employed as cost effectively as possible.

A sufficient level of funding must be held centrally in order to ensure the co-ordination and provision of support services, to enable statutory assessments to be carried out by qualified specialists in visual impairment. Entitlement for visually impaired pupils to equipment and support must be safeguarded. Access to mobility and orientation services must be guaranteed, an issue which was debated earlier. Access to transport must be provided not only during school hours, but also to make it possible for children and

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young people to participate in after-school activities such as homework and computer clubs and to promote the full inclusion of pupils who are visually impaired.

We have talked about cross-party support for delegation to schools, but we all admit that there is a tension as to how an education authority can fulfil its central duties to provide for special needs and how the schools can meet those special needs unless there is a system of money flowing flexibly in such a way that the children who require the resources receive them.

Most LEAs provide specialist visual impairment services to support blind and partially sighted pupils in mainstream, resourced and special schools in that way. That has proved vital to the process of inclusion of visually impaired children in mainstream schools and special schools for the past 18 years.

The Royal National Institute for the Blind agrees that schools should be expected to presume responsibility for their own development needs and priorities, but it argues that specialist support services for low-incidence disabilities cannot be effectively or efficiently provided and that if sufficient resources are not retained centrally by LEAs for these services, there will be consequences. For example, the early identification of visual impairment is likely to be severely threatened. The LEA advisory services for visual impairment provide that key function prior to statementing, often well before a child even gets to school. Standards could be compromised, as individual heads and governors lack the knowledge and expertise to devise job descriptions and judge the competencies of qualified teachers of the visually impaired. They may not fully appreciate the teachers' need for specific resources and training.

A further consequence would be the loss of the flexibility afforded by central funding of visual impairment staff, which enables them to be deployed where they are needed. Appointing staff to a resourced school may only guarantee employment for a few years to cover a given group of visually impaired children, leaving heads and governors with difficult hiring and firing decisions when children move on. An LEA-wide service can adapt to the needs of children in both resourced and other mainstream schools where children may need more or less support.

While the recent Green Paper on local government finance contains proposals that could begin to improve the clarity and certainty of SEN funding--for example, by giving separate assessment for schools and LEAs and giving LEAs three-year funding settlements--the Government need to issue guidance to LEAs to ensure the future stability of LEA-wide support services for low-incidence disabilities such as visual impairment.

To encapsulate what I have sought to say, delegation will go ahead. My party supports the Government's robust programme on that. We vie with the Liberals as to who was the first to support devolving funds to schools. There is a case for devolving some special needs funding to schools. All schools contain a range of abilities within the 20 per cent of children whom we have come to know as the

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Warnock children, from the low end to the severe end of the special needs scale. However, there is a role for the LEA and I am not suggesting absolute answers.

My noble friend argued for flexibility in the system to ensure that the LEA's responsibilities are properly met and that the LEA properly supports the schools to meet their obligations under the law. It seems sensible to give the Secretary of State a reserve power to ensure that flexibility. I beg to move.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I support the amendment. The important issue of resources was raised on Second Reading and during the first day in Committee. On this occasion I support entirely what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, has said in relation to the role of LEAs. It is vital that they retain an overall function for the supply of support services. There are many specialist support services which cannot reasonably be delegated to schools and where it is much more efficient and sensible to retain them at the LEA level.

While it is important that the regulations make clear that the LEAs have the responsibility we are discussing and that they should retain at the LEA level sufficient resources to be able to carry out that responsibility, it is also important that the Secretary of State ensures that, under the standard spending assessments and the revenue support grants, the LEAs receive enough money to do so.

Baroness Blackstone: While I entirely agree with the gist of what the noble Baronesses have said, I fear that I may disappoint them because the Government do not feel that this amendment is necessary.

The reason that the amendment is not necessary is that it would allow regulations to be made requiring LEAs to reserve sufficient resources to discharge their duties under Part IV of the Education Act 1996, as amended. Part IV covers the main provisions dealing with LEAs' duties towards children with special educational needs.

It is of course important that LEAs continue to spend money in this area, but this amendment is unnecessary because they will retain their statutory duties towards children with special educational needs. Lack of, or failure to reserve, such resources by an LEA would not relieve it of such duties. These duties include those under Section 313 (to have regard to the code of practice), Section 315 (to keep its arrangements for special educational provision under review) and Section 321 (duty to secure that it identifies children in its area with SEN, and for whom it is necessary that the LEA determines the special educational provision for which their learning difficulty calls).

As these statutory duties remain, there should not be a need for secondary legislation to require sufficient resources to be set aside: by definition LEAs already have to plan properly to meet their statutory requirements and, in consequence, ensure that the necessary funding to carry these out is available. We

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think that the law is sufficient here and we do not have any intention to change the words in the code on this point.

Even with the move to greater delegation of funding to schools, LEAs will still retain, as they should, a key role in SEN provision. We have recognised this continuing key role in our October 2000 policy paper, The Role of the LEA in School Education. But we also recognise that schools themselves are, in many cases, best placed to determine the most appropriate provision for pupils with SEN, including those with visual impairment. Governing bodies of maintained schools must continue to be under a duty to use their best endeavours to secure that the special educational provision which a pupil's learning difficulties calls for is made in those schools.

There are many examples of funds being delegated to schools while, at the same time, a high quality service to those schools has been maintained by the LEA. I believe that North Lincolnshire is a good example of a place where this happens effectively.

In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness, on behalf of her noble friend, feels able to withdraw this amendment.

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