|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 3 heads a large group of amendments, which I believe are the most important amendments we shall discuss today. They are Amendments Nos. 3, 7, 13, 14 and consequential Amendments Nos. 22 and 23. The other amendments in the group are Amendments Nos. 5, 6, 8, 10, 11 and 12.
We discussed in Grand Committee amendments which sought to ensure that the mainstream school was in a position to provide the education necessary to meet the needs of the child and that the education to be provided was appropriate to that child's needs. However, having witnessed the result of the Division on Amendment No. 1, I now find that notion deeply disturbing. In rejecting those amendments the Minister accepted the concerns expressed by myself, by my noble friend Lord Baker, and by other noble Lords, but she sought comfort in the words of the statement issued upon the child. She also said that the code of practice to be produced by the Government after the Bill became law would cover the point.
Neither of those reasons for rejecting the amendments holds water. It seems that noble Lords on all sides of the House agree that if the child with special needs--I would say with or without a statement--is to be placed in a mainstream school, that mainstream school must be in a position to make proper and
We all know that the statement issued upon a child is by no means sufficiently specific to ensure that the means to provide the necessary and appropriate education for that child are in place at the maintained school before that child joins the school, or at least at the time the child joins the school. Therefore, recourse to the statement is by no means equivalent to specifying on the face of the Bill that the education must be appropriate and must be available at the school. That is all that the various amendments sought to do--to give protection to all concerned by ensuring that the needs of the child are met before enforcing a placement in a mainstream school.
The other reason the Minister gave--she virtually agreed with those of us who said that a statement was not enough--was to say that guidelines, or, as she put it, a code of practice, would at some time be issued. That is not good enough; it is not legislation. In the last analysis it is not binding. The only thing that is binding in law is that regard must be had to the measure, not that it must necessarily be followed. There is no good reason, therefore, for the amendments to be resisted. If we all agree that the child's needs should be met, and we all agree that the child should not be placed in a school where they cannot be met, we must have an amendment to that effect on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.
Lord Rix: My Lords, I hope that no one in your Lordships' House will have any doubt about my concern to support the needs of the child. However, at the risk of alienating many of my friends now present I feel that I am unable to support these amendments which will not achieve that for which we are all striving. I fully support the desire to take into account the needs of the child in determining the most appropriate education, but I believe that that is already adequately taken care of by Schedule 27 to the 1996 Education Act and, indeed, by the statementing process.
For many years I, and other disability rights campaigners, including the Disability Rights Task Force and the Special Educational Consortium, have sought the removal of this condition from Section 316 of the 1996 Act on the ground that it has been used to exclude children from mainstream education who could have been well accommodated by such provision. This denies them rights afforded to other children and has been a wholly unacceptable state of affairs. I fear that the amendments we have before us today could be a retrograde step.
Furthermore, the 1989 Children Act requires the authorities to take into account the needs of the child. I believe the amendments at best superfluous and at worst to be adding to the danger of letting discrimination once more slip through the net.
I speak to Amendments Nos. 5, 6, 11 and 12. In Grand Committee the noble Baroness said on several occasions that the Government believed that it was best, wherever possible, for SEN and disabled children to be educated in mainstream schools. She said,
For almost every special educational needs child some support will be needed if he or she is to succeed in a mainstream school and become successfully integrated into the community of that school. That support will comprise either additional facilities or additional trained staff. Can the noble Baroness tell the House what proportion of mainstream schools today have provision for special support for all disabilities? How many have not yet got any special provision at all? I believe that in the Bill the Government are putting the cart before the horse. In effect they are saying that the only way they can get schools to install the necessary provisions is to push a lot of children into them and hope that the schools' conscience will make them do something about the position. That is totally wrong. It seems to me that the right way to proceed is to ensure that the provision is in place and only then to move the children into that mainstream school.
The Government's policy will inevitably need to be implemented with flexibility to deal with individual children and individual schools. But we are putting these requirements into primary legislation. Primary legislation is not flexible. Once we have passed this legislation another Act of Parliament will be required if experience shows that the measure needs to be changed.
The main danger for a child who cannot cope in a mainstream school is that he will fall dreadfully behind, not understanding what is going on. That will lead to his rejecting education, truanting, exclusion
It is interesting to note that the money paid to schools to educate a child is of the order of £2,500 a year. The cost per year per child of a special day school is of the order of £11,000. With colleagues I had the privilege of visiting recently the Medway Secure Training Centre. The cost per child per year at this centre is £156,000.
The ideal solution could be for all mainstream schools to have special units to cope with all types of physical, mental and emotional disability. But most mainstream schools do not have them. To achieve that solution will take time and money. In the meantime, children will suffer. Children should not be used as guinea-pigs. Support systems should be in place before children with disabilities are sent to mainstream schools.
My amendments would give all concerned some flexibility with regard to what is best for the child. I recognise the fears of some organisations that disabled children are prevented by local authorities from going into mainstream schools by the loopholes in previous legislation. Surely there must be a better way of solving this problem than to push children into schools where the necessary support is not available for them.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, Amendment No. 8 stands in my name. The issues raised are common to all the amendments in the group. They provide different ways of achieving the objective. I believe that Amendment No. 8 provides the best way, but that may not win universal support.
The purpose of the amendments is to secure for a child with special educational needs the education appropriate to him. Clearly, it is not a party political matter. It is a non-controversial Bill. I hope that the Bill, suitably amended, will get to the statute book. However, I do not believe that it goes far enough. Successive governments have got into a muddle over special education. Some 20 or 30 years ago, in the definition of the department and in public debate special education referred to children who had clear physical disabilities, a clear mental handicap, who suffered from a hereditary genetic disease like cerebral palsy or Asperger's syndrome, who were visually impaired to the point of being blind, or were hard of hearing to the point of being deaf. That, broadly speaking, was what special education referred to some 30 years ago.
Those children represent 20 per cent of the school population. About 3 per cent of children have acute educational needs. The remainder are those whom I have described. I believe that with proper assistance and proper teaching those children can be accommodated appropriately within a mainstream school. I do not object to that. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, has been associated with that cause over a number of years.
I am concerned about the children who have more complex difficulties, who now find it difficult to get into special schools. A number of special schools have closed. The number has been roughly halved in the past 20 years. Despite what the Minister may say when winding up, it is well known that the department has not been too favourably disposed to special schools. It was not particularly favourably disposed to special schools in my time.
We must ensure that if children are to be thrust into mainstream schools, they have appropriate provision for the complexity of the needs for their education. That is why those of us who are associated with special schools do not believe that the Bill as drafted is adequate. We seek to ensure an entitlement for the child: the LEA has to state specifically the educational regime that the child will receive.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, said that he did not support that aim because he believes that the statementing system works and provides that. I refer him to a document which has been sent to all Peers. It is not a group with whom I am associated. The document is headed Action on Entitlement. It cites the case of a boy called Jonathan who was born with cerebral palsy and therefore is subject to epilepsy. He was statemented. His statement said that he must have speech therapy but did not state how much. So he went to a mainstream school with a special unit. His parents contacted the speech therapist to inquire how much speech therapy Jonathan would receive. The speech therapist explained that she was used mainly in a consultative capacity, visiting the school once a term. His parents were told that Jonathan would probably get 20 minutes therapy a term. Jonathan's need for speech therapy has been identified, but there is no obligation on the local authority to provide it.
What happened? Jonathan's parents appealed to a special needs tribunal which ordered the LEA to rewrite the statement to specify weekly speech therapy. It also ordered the LEA to name a different school in
Noble Lords may know that I am the chairman of the Royal London Society for the Blind which maintains one of the leading schools for the blind in the country. I asked some of the teachers in that school to tell me the school's teaching methods and what it provides. It is a charitable school. It is independent, but virtually all the fees are paid by the LEA, the state. It is a fantasy to believe that it is a sort of Eton world; the fees are infinitely higher than at Eton and parents cannot afford them.
I shall read out a list of the provision made at Dorton House and then invite the Minister to identify a school anywhere in the country that can provide similar services for visually impaired children. She will not be able to do so because the information does not lie in her department. I have asked Questions about the issue, and the department is not aware of all the answers. The department is simply saying that the statement is enough and it is up to the LEAs. The Minister is abandoning her responsibility if she is not aware of how the issues are working in practice.
Dorton House school for the blind provides specialist teachers for the visually impaired. It offers small group teaching in classes of six, with braillists. It provides access to the relevant technology and full access to the whole national curriculum, which is geared and presented for visually impaired students. I asked specifically this morning how many hours a week were spent on the four main subjects in the national curriculum--English, maths, science and IT. I was told that there was four hours of teaching per week on each. That means a total of 16 hours of teaching on the basic national curriculum subjects. Which LEA schools can do that?
Dorton House also provides specialist equipment for sport, music and technology, which are critically important to blind children, including appropriately adapted industry standard equipment and an outstanding music technology suite, together with specialist support for individual instrumental tuition. There are also trained mobility staff for all students. Blind children have to be guided around the school, sometimes by other children who have some sight. Some have to be shown how to get from classroom to classroom or to the canteen.
Boarding students receive a 24-hour curriculum and day pupils receive life skills for independent living. A blind child cannot learn how to use a knife and fork by watching someone else, as the rest of us learn. They cannot learn to tie up their shoes by watching how it is done, as we learn. They have to be taught. That requires patience and skills.
Then there are resources. Dorton House provides braillers, Mountbattens, which are an old form of braillers, Eureka and braillites, which allow a teacher who is not visually impaired to speak and the children to record the notes on braille as they go along. There is counselling for those students who are experiencing loss of sight.
All pupils at Dorton House have individual education plans that are reviewed termly. What happened to the individual education plan for Jonathan, the boy with cerebral palsy? It did not exist. Speech and language therapy are available, as well as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and other therapies, including dance and music.
Those are the services provided by special schools. There are other special schools that deal with the problems of the visually impaired and the blind. There are several special schools for the deaf, which also have to provide and create special learning environments.
If there is a presumption that a child should go to a mainstream school, there should be an obligation on the LEA to set out specifically how that child will be educated. There is nothing specific in the current legislation or codes of practice. Ministers know that. They are reluctant to accept the amendments because the resource implications of the Bill are enormous. The Minister has said on several occasions that the Government are providing more money for special education, but every child is entitled to the best that society can provide. That will not be guaranteed without amendments along the lines proposed.
We may not come to a conclusion on the amendments today, but I hope that there will be sufficient agreement across the House to insist that the Government go further to give the parents and the child an entitlement to know the exact educational provision that will be made to cater for the child's disability.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I have some difficulty with the amendments. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said and I am well aware of the extent to which the mealy-mouthed weasel words, "appropriate to their needs" have been used to exclude children from mainstream education. There are three reasons why the Bill would be improved if some move were made in the direction of taking account of the needs or best interests of the child.
First, the words, "the best interests of the child" are used in the Children Act. Those interests should be paramount. Secondly, I am worried that there may be conflict between the two criteria on the face of the Bill: the wishes of the child and what is judged to be in the interests of the efficient education of other children. How will such conflict be resolved? Should we not be looking to what is in the interests of the child?
Thirdly, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Baker. We pressed the Minister in Grand Committee about resources. It is clear that a lot of resources will be provided for capital improvement, particularly in relation to the disability section of the Bill, which we
I recognise that we are taking on a progressive agenda and putting in resources, but without adequate resources in the ordinary school system to support provision for special needs many children will be short-changed. There are too many examples of the statement of special educational needs not specifying sufficiently clearly what quantity shall be provided. We have had some reassurances that the new code of practice will provide for quantitative specification, but I want clear assurances about the provision of resources and about making some allowance for the child. I had hoped that others would table amendments on the wishes of the child. I may well table one on Third Reading. The wishes of the child need to be taken into account if they are ascertainable.