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Baroness David: My Lords, having been involved for a long time in the whole special educational sphere I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, as I think that I agreed with everything she said. I congratulate the Government on having paid such attention to the matter even though it has taken quite a long time to get the draft code revised. From all that has been said around the House it appears that it has had a warm welcome. There may be a few criticisms and warnings but I think that they will be attended to. I have great faith that the Minister will follow up everything that has been said tonight.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, who during the passage of the 1996 Act went to an enormous amount of trouble to consult on the code. We have moved on a further stage. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that I believe the Government have accepted that special schools are necessary. I am sure also that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, with all his experience will be paid attention to.
I congratulate the Minister and the Government on the great success of the draft code. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that I too support paragraph 7:85 on the views of the child. I believe that that has now been generally recognised and accepted everywhere although that was not the case some years ago.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I welcome the revised code. I apologise for not being present to hear all of the Minister's opening remarks. I was late as I was attending a charity fundraising event for the special school of which I am president. I declare that as an interest. The school in question is Dorton House, a school for blind children. It is a centre of international excellence and takes in children from the age of two to two-and-a-half and takes them through to a further education college at the age of 25.
The Minister will know from the briefings she will have had on debates that took place earlier this year that long hours were devoted to the relationship of special schools to the Government's policy. The Government's policy is to put many children with disabilities through mainstream schools. That policy was initiated a long time ago under a Conservative government. When I had responsibility for that policy I soft pedalled it as I was never enthusiastic about it. However, the foot has now been put on the accelerator and the Government are keen on the policy. I continue to have misgivings about it. I think particularly of children with severe physical disabilities and children with profound behavioural problems which make them ungovernable and children who have what are called low incident disabilities such as blindness or deafness. I am fairly certain that those children's needs are best met in special schools whether in the non-maintained sector--Dorton House is in that sector--or in the maintained sector. I find it rather depressing that some special schools in the maintained sector are being closed. I believe that is a mistake.
I understand the advantages of inclusion. Many children benefit from inclusion but there are many children who will not benefit from it and will benefit much more from receiving the degree of support and services that are available in special schools. I realise that the Government have not set their mind completely against special schools although some of the replies we were given earlier in the year were fairly cool and distant and rather frosty. Therefore, the revised code is welcome, particularly paragraphs 8:36 and 8:37 which have already been mentioned.
We were concerned that the statement, which is the critical element in determining what should happen to a child, should be much more specific. The noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite will recall some earlier briefs on the matter which were unspecific and which told us, as it were, not to worry as the needs would be met. I am glad to see that other counsels have prevailed. I do not know whether this is the first instance of the Government moving even a few inches
I should also like to see in the document a reference to equipment. It is not just a question of hours of provision and staffing arrangements. Equipment for dealing with the specific needs of the blind and the deaf is costly and it changes almost yearly. For example, one can now obtain software packages that verbalise e-mails. I should think that Ministers should have that equipment, quite apart from blind people. It is a good way to access one's e-mails but it is expensive. That is just one small example. I refer to all the devices that are available on an ordinary computer "qwerty" keyboard to help blind people. Those are continually being improved.
I am not against maintained schools providing services for blind children, but the costs of that will be enormous. I do not believe that the Government appreciate the consequential costs of the policy on which they are embarked. They will now give parents a greater degree of information on school and LEA provision. That can be easily compared with the degree of expertise provided by special schools. For example, in our nursery for blind children the pupil/teacher ration is 1:2 and 1:3. For those children who suffer in addition from serious behavioural problems, the ratio is almost 1:1. Local authorities will be hard pressed to afford that kind of provision.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, said that money is being diverted from special to general education. When a local education authority is faced with the degree of provision that is needed to deal with a small minority of pupils there will be enormous pressure not to provide that. But if an LEA is transparent, parents and children will be able to see what is being provided.
I received a very helpful letter from the Minister today. Our school wondered whether it could become a special school under the initiative by which I started city technology colleges. The first reply that I received was rather distant and cool. I do not know whether the Minister has made changes since she has been in office. The first reply that I had was fairly stifling, but the reply received today was rather optimistic because it stated that state-maintained special schools will be included in that programme. I believe that that is a tremendous step forward and I welcome it. I hope that the programme might also be extended to the non-maintained sector.
I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that the schools about which I am talking are not schools run for profit. They are all run by charities. They must raise an enormous amount of money. A great deal of state money goes into them through the provision of per capita grants for the children. Therefore, these are rather special cases. I hope that in a year or so the Minister will be able to say that she has extended the scheme to special schools, too. With that proviso, I certainly welcome the code tonight.
Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, for me and, I hope, for other noble Lords, this has been a fascinating and very useful debate. I shall attempt to answer as many of the questions as I can. I apologise if I fail to answer any. If I do, I shall certainly write to noble Lords and shall continue to do so.
Perhaps I may begin by saying to the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, that I am very pleased that Dorton House has been working with the south-east SEN regional partnership to share its excellent expertise with mainstream schools. That is a very important role for our special schools. The noble Lord may know that I met the head teachers of all the schools for children with visual impairment. I had an interesting and very enjoyable day. We talked about the continuing value that the Government place on special schools.
The number of young people at special schools has remained constant. I shall look carefully at their future role to ensure that there is nothing cool and frosty about the way in which we view them. We shall also ensure that that role is open to them both for children who should be educated by them and for those within the mainstream sector.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, made a similar point about specialist schools. As I said, we are very clear about their role. We are also concerned that children within the state sector who have special educational needs should not suffer from bullying. It is a requirement that head teachers deal with bullying and draw up measures to prevent all forms of bullying against pupils. That, of course, includes children with special educational needs.
We are concerned to ensure that teachers of children with special educational needs have appropriate qualifications. We also intend that the experience of teachers who have worked successfully with children with different special educational needs is shared to ensure that that expertise is used to the full.
I return to the subject of children with visual impairment. We hope that, alongside its other roles, the under-twos working party will be able to consider the early identification of children who have visual impairment.
I turn to the question of the number of children with special educational needs being excluded from school. The noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, referred to my earlier comments, and I shall not repeat them. However, we are looking very carefully at investing in tackling disaffection. We want to ensure that we are able to keep children within schools. We recognise that children who are not able to stay in schools because of particular behavioural issues need to have full-time education. That is a key priority for us.
The noble Baroness also talked about the blanket statements policy and the need to consider the time that it takes us to examine complaints. I assure her that we are constantly working to sharpen up our practice so that cases are dealt with as quickly as possible. We continue to work in partnership with LEAs with a view to improving their practice. That, in particular, is the case in relation to our SEN regional partnerships and the work of the partnership unit. However, we want to be sure that we have all the evidence that we need in order to establish the facts of the matter. Sometimes that takes a little time.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, was concerned about funds for special educational needs being directed to other purposes. As the noble Lord will know, school governing bodies must report to parents on the use of those funds and must, under Section 317, use their best endeavours to meet the needs of children. Of course, we want to ensure that funds are used specifically for those children. However, it is also true to say that people who work with such children often play a valuable role within the classroom above and beyond that. I do not believe that we want to take anything away from those people while we recognise that their function is to support the children in their care.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, also talked about the possibility of the reference to the efficient education of other children being abused as a way of denying mainstream places to children. Concerns have been raised about that. Questions have been raised as to how the efficient education caveat within new Section 316 of the Education Act would work in practice. We believe that it would be possible only to demonstrate that the inclusion of a child with a statement was incompatible with the efficient education of others in a small number of cases. We envisage that that would occur where it could be clearly demonstrated that a child's behaviour was so challenging that the safety of other children could not be guaranteed or that other children's learning would be persistently and systematically disrupted. In such cases, in our view a mainstream place should not be provided.
The noble Lord, Lord Rix, should also be aware that the monitoring of efficient education will be carried out by HMCI--in particular, Section 316(3)(b)--both at school and LEA levels. I hope that that will provide him with some reassurance. In responding to the noble Lord, I should add that we are aware of the concerns expressed in a recent Mencap report, Don't Count Me Out. Officials have discussed these issues with Mencap and have promised to consider its views further. I look forward to hearing what has happened in relation to those discussions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, talked about the identification of children with hearing impairments. We are supporting a bank of training materials, innovative activity in the next tranche of the LEA excellence centres and support through the SEN standards fund in order to promote early intervention in relation to such children.
The noble Baroness also referred to the fact that mobility education is not included in the draft code. LEAs can make arrangements for mobility training if they wish, but we do not consider that we should make it obligatory. There needs to be good liaison with health services locally and, indeed, with voluntary and social services to look at those issues. We shall, of course, try to ensure that that happens.
Clearly I need to say a little more about parents who educate their children at home. I hope to clarify their position. The provision in Section 324(4A) of the Education Act does not place new duties on parents. The duties on parents who home educate their children are contained in Section 7 of the Act. This requires parents to ensure that their children receive efficient full-time education, suitable to age, ability, aptitude and special educational needs.
Section 324(4A) relates to LEAs' powers, allowing them not to name a particular school in a child's statement where they are satisfied that the parents have made suitable arrangements for the child's needs to be met. We need to make clear that an LEA must arrange for the provision specified in the children's statement unless the child's parents have made suitable arrangements. The LEA could assist the parents to make their arrangements by providing help in some circumstances. However, we do not suggest that parents must carry out exactly what is written within the statement. It is for the LEAs and the parents to work together to ensure that the child receives suitable provision, recognising that provision within a school is different to that provided at home. We are not keen to take away the responsibility of LEAs to ensure that children's statements are reviewed annually, that they are monitored and that we ensure that the child receives the best possible provision. It is not meant to place additional burdens on parents.
A number of noble Lords have talked about the issue of specification and quantification. We have said that we would always wish to see specification take place. I underline the word "always". Noble Lords have talked about the difficulty of interpretation. I am very conscious that we need to be clear about what we
I give an example. If an LEA refers to the provision of speech therapy "as necessary", that is not properly specifying provision for speech therapy. The provision must be specific as to what is provided and it must be quantified in most circumstances.
However, I am clear that in some circumstances we need to be flexible. I do not want to suggest that, by having flexibility, we have provided a get-out clause for any LEA. The vast majority of cases are well catered for. Where there are exceptions we have ensured that there are methods for parents and LEAs to sort out, through the parent partnership services and eventually through the tribunals, the issues under dispute. We do not wish to have blanket policies. We believe that there is a need to have a little flexibility. But I put it on record that that does not mean that LEAs should do anything other than normally quantify.
A number of noble Lords spoke about resources. I recognise that I need to wind up this debate in order to allow other business to take place. But I am conscious that today I have announced an additional £9 million in the SEN standard funds for this coming year, making the total available for SEN £91 million, to help support training on the revised code of practice and to give direct practical support to inclusion. We have been talking through eight regional conferences with a variety of schools, LEAs, the National Children's Bureau, and the National Association for Special Educational Needs to make sure that the code, if approved by your Lordships' House, is able to be implemented, which is the most fundamental part of the matter.
I hope that I have dealt with many of the questions which noble Lords have raised. I am indebted to the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, the organisations which have made representations, and the parents and the children who have given me their views. I firmly believe that the implementation of the revised code will improve the experience of children and young people with special educational needs and their families. I commend the draft code of practice to your Lordships.