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Baroness Blatch: I support the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. It is important that we make clear that there will be specialist schools, whether they are independent selective schools or subject specialist schools, and their right not to select should be preserved in the interests of all children.
Baroness Blackstone: Let us deal with Amendments Nos. 91A, 92A and 92B. The Bill will outlaw discrimination on the grounds of disability in the provision of education--every field of education and every provider of education. It will place duties on schools to help to remove the barriers which disabled pupils face in accessing education. Seven per cent of children are educated in the independent sector and we believe it is right that independent schools are fully covered by the new duties on schools. Independent schools are already fully covered by the Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act. We believe that pupils in independent schools should be protected in the same way as those pupils in maintained schools. I am sure the Committee would agree with that approach, which completely underpins the Bill.
Amendment No. 92A would allow a school to refuse to accept an application for admission from a disabled child, on the grounds of his disability, if refusing that application would be in the best interests of the child. I assume that I am right in saying that the intention behind this is to ensure that schools--including independent schools--could refuse to admit a disabled child if they did not, for example, have the facilities to provide for that child and felt that they could not adequately meet the child's needs.
This reopens the very significant debate we have already had in respect of amendments on Clause 1. During that debate, we discussed at some length how the best interests of the child might be represented, in deciding which school the child should attend. It would not be wise to repeat that discussion here, but I stress that with the right support most children could be included in mainstream schools. The test of whether the children should be educated in mainstream schools should be limited to what parents want and to safeguarding the interests of other children. Clause 1 and the SEN framework will provide that.
However, we do not expect all schools to have to admit any child, no matter how profound their needs. Disabled children with more severe needs will have a statement of SEN. Under the SEN framework, LEAs are responsible for arranging suitable school places for children with statements where the child's needs will be adequately provided for. Under the new disability duties a school may be able to justify less favourable treatment or a failure to make reasonable adjustments in certain admission cases. However, once the disability duties have been in operation for a while, more and more schools will be able to cater for children with a range of disabilities.
The aim of Amendments Nos. 91A and 92B is to ensure that independent schools can continue to select pupils on the basis of ability or aptitude. We expect schools that currently operate genuine selection arrangements to be able to continue to do so. The Bill
While there is no need to maintain a particular standard when selecting pupils, independent schools will be expected to change their selection arrangements. A case in point might be selection on the basis of a written exam. Obviously, a school could not refuse a place to a child using a wheelchair who had passed the written exam on the grounds that the child would not be able to participate in the cricket team. We expect the DRC's code of practice to provide detailed guidance on that.
Schools that are able to select on the basis of ability or aptitude should make such reasonable adjustments to the selection arrangements as may be necessary to ensure that disabled pupils are not substantially disadvantaged. For example, if a school selects on the basis of an entrance examination, it will have to consider taking reasonable steps to ensure that a disabled child with, say, dyslexia, is given more time to complete the exam. After such reasonable adjustment to the process of the entrance exam, the results of the exam will determine which children are offered places at the school.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, asked specifically whether a school can accept one disability but reject another. Yes, a school could not admit a child if it could not cater for that child's needs. The school would have to provide justification that it could not cater for that need, but if it could provide such justification, it would have the right to refuse a child. Justification will be explained and illustrated in the code of practice. There will also be a consultation process on the code. I trust that that helps the noble Lord and that he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Northbourne: I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. I shall certainly have to read what she has said because there seems to be a conflict there. On one hand, if a child wants to go to a school, the school has to provide the facilities. On the other hand, the child can be rejected if the school does not have the facilities. I will try to understand that. If the noble Baroness would like to take deal with Amendment No. 121A as well, as she has her notes there, I can speak to it quite simply. Indeed, it speaks for itself.
Baroness Blackstone: Amendment No. 121A would limit in various ways the duty on independent schools to plan to increase the accessibility of their schools. The limitation of the duty would apply only to the principal parts of the school. We are clear that a duty on schools to plan to increase accessibility should cover all school buildings and premises. A child in a school wants to make use of all the facilities available, not just the main parts. It may be that a school decides
Secondly, the amendment seeks to limit the planning duties so that schools do not have to make any alterations which may change or damage features of historical or architectural significance. I can assure the noble Lords that the planning duty will not override regulations covering listed buildings. We would not expect schools, for example, to widen the doorways and install lifts in a Grade I listed building. That would clearly be ridiculous. But there are other things that can be done.
I realise that some independent schools are housed in buildings of historical importance. They, too, will have to comply with a duty to plan for increasing the accessibility of their schools for children with disabilities. These schools will have to consider what they can do within the statutory framework governing historic buildings. This might include installing hearing loops or specialist IT equipment
Thirdly, the amendment delays the implementation of any physical changes until 20 years after the plan has been prepared. It would be quite unacceptable to allow any school 20 years before they would be expected to start implementing their plans. We want to make progress in removing barriers to learning now and not in 20 years' time. I am sorry to be impatient, but I think that it is right to be impatient about these things.
Let me stress, as soon as the planning duty is implemented, we expect independent schools to start planning for increased disability access and for implementing their plans. In considering implementation, independent schools will, of course, have to consider available resources, but they will also consider whether adaptations could be linked to other planned building works or refurbishments. That is understandable and would make adjustments and adaptations less costly.
Finally, the amendment seeks to require that plans will be based on recommendations by independent schools inspectorate. Certainly my officials will be consulting with the sector about what guidance will be required for independent schools in taking forward the planning duty. The proposal that plans should be based on recommendations from independent schools inspectorate will simply delay.
It is interesting to note that only about half of all independent schools belong to an association affiliated to the Independent Schools Council which inspects member schools. It would not therefore be appropriate to expect all independent schools to base their plans on recommendations by the independent schools inspectorate.
In summary, I reiterate that independent schools must be covered by these new provisions, like other schools. Disabled children should not be discriminated against whatever kind of school they are in.
I have spent 40 years on the governing body of the independent school that I attended as a child, so I am deeply familiar with it. The school has 11 staircases on four different levels, two teaching rooms up one tower and another teaching room up another tower, and there are differences in levels within each floor. It will be very difficult to provide wheelchair access to all those areas, so presumably the areas that do not have wheelchair access will have to be discarded or used for some other purpose. Are we really at that stage? Is it as bad as that?
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