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Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister. We have had a long and fairly exhaustive debate. I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 176 not moved.]

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 176A:

"( ) The authority shall make available to the forum information about the views on and experience of admissions policies and practices of disabled children and children with special educational needs and their parents.
( ) The authority may establish sub-committees of the forum to assist the forum in preparing advice on inclusive admissions policies, or for other purposes."

The noble Lord said: Even though we are now approaching the Ten O'clock News, before I speak to the amendments standing in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I should like to thank the Committee for the generous way in which it accepted my enforced absence last Thursday. I should especially like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, for moving the amendments in my name and the Government for their generally helpful response.

In speaking to Amendment No. 176A, which stands in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 182 and Amendment No. 198A, which I have had decoupled from its grouping with Amendments Nos. 199 and 200 because the earlier amendments deal

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with admission arrangements and Amendments Nos. 199 and 200 deal with admission appeals. I should also like to point out that Clause 47 stand part should follow Amendment No. 200, not precede it.

Collective responsibility for regulating the admissions process makes sense and I do not disagree with the principle behind this innovation. However, we need to clarify the relationship between the new forums and the existing requirement to monitor admissions of pupils with special educational needs and disabled children. It is essential that when schools are working corporately, as well as when they are working separately, they should be helping to develop policies which ensure the best possible appropriate education for these children.

Admissions forums should support a fair selection process which does not unfairly discriminate against pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. I also expect such a scheme to ensure that one mainstream school in a group—perhaps the school with the less favourable local reputation—does not become the special needs school.

Amendment No. 176A would guarantee that forums are proactive in ensuring a fair admissions process for these children. It would also allow the authority to form a sub-committee to advise the main forum on special educational needs policies. I am aware that Clause 44(2) of the Bill enables authorities to establish a sub-committee. However, my amendment goes further and suggests a specific use of a sub-committee. I am putting this forward as another option and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Amendment No. 182 would require local education authorities to publish information from the monitoring of admissions of children with special educational needs. This information should be used to inform the work of admissions forums and the development of any local education authority admissions schemes.

In speaking to Amendment No. 198A, I am aware that the Special Educational Consortium is concerned that any scheme to co-ordinate admissions in local education authorities might impact disproportionately on disabled children and children with special educational needs. The consortium would therefore want to make sure that parents of pupils with special educational needs and disabled children are consulted about any scheme to co-ordinate admissions. Amendment No. 198A seeks to achieve this and ensures that the voice of the child is also heard, even though it is not possible for the voice of the child to prevail. I would add on the basis of quite a lot of experience that having a learning disability, even a severe learning disability, does not stop a child having views about his or her schooling.

The Government's thinking behind these innovations is that the forums will make the admissions process work better for vulnerable children, including those with special educational needs. However, there is nothing in the Bill or in the draft policy document which states that. We have heard a number of references to a portmanteau clause

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to cover this gap in regard to SEN and disability. I am happy to say that today Mencap has submitted a suggested draft clause to fit into the general interpretation of the Bill, the draft going to the department and to the SEC for further comments and advice. Let us hope that it, or something of a like nature, will eventually meet with general approval and appear on the face of the Bill.

In the meantime, I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify what will be the impact of regulations on forum responsibilities for special educational needs policies. As the evening wears on, I shall be more than happy at this stage to accept assurances. I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: I add my support to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, on this issue. Last year, we spent a good deal of time debating the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. The issue of inclusion is very important. We were all agreed at that time on the procedures that should be followed.

For many children, the process of selecting and attending a new school is a very important one—the more so for those with special educational needs or disabilities. I entirely endorse all three amendments proposed by the noble Lord.

Lord Jones: The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, are persuasive. I hope that they will have satisfaction. They certainly have a great deal of experience.

Perhaps I may briefly raise the question: do the Government have confidence in the local education authorities? In one day, Ministers have proposed two forums. Are the LEAs, therefore, falling down in their tasks? Are the LEAs hostile to consultation? Are they deaf to representations from parents and from head teachers? Is it the case that the Government have little regard today for the local education authorities? Do Ministers seek to trim the powers of the LEAs? Are the proposed forums government devices to make good the defects of LEAs? I hope that is not the Government's approach. However, given that two forums have been proposed, and given the topicality of the future of LEAs, the Minister may be able to set out the Government's thinking.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I am in no way qualified to follow the wise counsel of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, whose experience in these matters is well known throughout this place. However, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs in the other place produced a report on children with special educational needs in the context of the Province. On the strength of that experience, I have particular sympathy for Amendment No. 182 spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Rix.

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The Minister may tell us that the amendment is not necessary and that such an obligation already exists. But if he does not, I am strongly in support of the noble Lord in making sure that we get that particular detail on the record.

Lord Brennan: The purpose of Amendment No. 176A is to assist admission forums to ensure that disabled children and those with special educational needs are properly catered for. On a careful reading of Clause 44, I advise the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that the amendment is not necessary, because the Government, local education authorities and admission forums should take those matters into account in any event.

Be that as it may, whether the amendment is needed or not, local communities will regard admission forums as having a special advisory responsibility in what one might call an emotional and sensitive area. I have two matters to raise. The first is the public perception of admission forums. If the idea goes about that this is the system by which the community can express its desires on admission policies in local schools, the community will expect results. If the idea is that disabled children and those with special educational needs will be carefully considered within such a system, their parents and families will expect the forum to be their advocate. It is therefore essential that the forums have credibility and that advice in this very important area is not ignored or swept aside by a local education authority simply on economic resources arguments. That would destroy the beneficial objective of the forums.

Secondly, and equally importantly, my noble friend the Minister must make it abundantly clear to the Committee that the system of admission forums is not intended to detract from or to replace the statutory responsibilities of local education authorities to cater for these children in need. It is their responsibility. It is not the responsibility of an advisory body, whose function is to bring local needs in that area to the attention of the local education authority.

Why is that important? It is not only for humanitarian reasons, but also for legal reasons. It would be a shocking result if the local community got the idea that if an admission forum had agreed with a proposal then it was going to happen, and then it did not. The community would wonder what was the function of the forum, what was the division of responsibility between it and the local education authority and how they could remedy what they thought to be a wrong.

I want to reassure the Committee that there is a small group solicitors and barristers who concentrate on educational cases purely out of dedication and at little or no profit to themselves. In the past 10 or 15 years, they have ensured two things legally. First, local education authorities are required to be consistent in the way they apply the law for the general benefit of children. Secondly, by bringing test cases they can achieve results that apply to the many. I do not want a state of affairs in which families and the lawyers who help them have no idea whether they should be seeking recourse from the admission forum, the local

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education authority or both—or what? That would be a very unhappy result. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will ensure, as I think she said a moment ago, that LEAs are still required to observe statutory admission criteria and cannot foist their responsibilities on to the forums.

I adopt the sentiment of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rix, whether necessary or not, but bearing in mind the cautions that I have just expressed.

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