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Lord Alton of Liverpool: I strongly support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. I entirely agree with what my noble friend Lord Rix said in moving his amendment about the requirement that should be placed on schools and local education authorities to meet the needs of parents who have children with special needs. I worked in that sector for five years some years ago and I share my noble friend's concerns. As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, no one in the House has more experience in these matters. We are indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for raising the issue.
I have considerable concerns, however, about the possibility of creating talking shops. I do not believe that the forums will be able to deliver the objectives that my noble friend Lord Rix has described so eloquently. The real danger is that we shall only raise people's aspirations and hopes. They will go to a forum thinking that it can deliver their requirements, but will be disappointed when they find that that is not true. That will bring local democracy into further disrepute. Some local education authorities have education committees which address issues such as special needs education. Like me, other noble Lords may have served on such committees. The committees have proper appeals mechanisms that allow parents to make their representations, and include real local councillors with real local political clout who can put right some of these problems.
As we discussed in an earlier group of amendments, it is possible that the forums could be used for mischief making if someone has a particular axe to grind. As I said, I fear that they could simply become talking shops. The more we discuss the issue, the more I am taken by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about the lack of debate about these issues in another place. I suspect that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, had that in mind when she spoke earlier. We have not yet really answered the questions of principle about whether these forums are necessary. That issue should have been debated extensively in another place. I hope that, between now and Report, we shall reflect on whether they are needed at all.
Baroness Blatch: One of the issues raised by the amendments in this group is the degree to which parents of children with special educational needs are properly satisfied by admission arrangements and appropriate provision. This is "Autism Awareness Year", and only yesterday evening, as noble Lords may have seen, the "Newsnight" programme had a report that included the views of an organisation
I share the concerns just expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. There is a danger that the creation of forums will simply raise expectations. The forums have no clout; they have no more than advisory powers. Consequently they could be no more than talking shops. The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, is right that the local education authority has the legal obligation to make provision for school access for young people. We should not support or underwrite anything that would inhibit the local authority from meeting its legal obligation.
From his record in the House, I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, is territorial about the way in which this end is achieved. The important thing is that it is achieved. We want to ensure, first, that nothing in this Bill will inhibit proper provision for children with special educational needs. Secondly, we want to ensure that, as far as possible, provision for children with special needs is appropriate to their educational needs.
I believe that there was a body calledI cannot recall its precise name; perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, can remind methe informal resolution procedure procedural body. It addressed issues such as appropriate admissions for children with special educational needs and resolved disputes before they became candidates for the tribunal system, thereby keeping them out of court. It would be very helpful, not for education forums but for local authorities, to have an annual appraisal within local education areas to detail where gaps exist, the degree to which proper provision is being made for children with special educational needs, and the degree to which those gaps are not being filled. I do not mind how that is achieved. However, there needs to be a body to submit a systematic annual report to the body that has legal responsibilitythat is, the local authorityand to codify the degree to which special educational needs have been met. It could also report the extent to which that is due to wrongful admissions. I support what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, wants to achieve, but I am not absolutely certain that it is achieved by the amendment.
Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to all Members of the Committee who have participated in this truly enlightening debate. I wish to begin by emphasising one or two cardinal principles behind our thinking. There is nothing in the proposals with regard to the forum that in any way, shape or form detracts from the provisions which, as the noble Baroness,
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Brennan expressed anxieties about whether representations to the forum on individual cases would be met with the same effective response as that given by the relevant legal authority which, as my noble friend Lord Brennan reminded us, is the local authority. I emphasise that the forums are not the places to discuss individual grievances. It is not expected that parents will lobby forums on behalf of individual grievances. Forums are not extensions of the appeal machinery; they are areas in which policies with regard to admissions in general are discussed and evaluated. Forums are consultative bodies. I hope that I have reassured my noble friend Lord Jones that it is not a question of the Government losing confidence in local authorities but rather of enhancing the services that local authorities offer by creating a consultative framework within which these matters can be discussed. Local authorities will thus be able to reach more intelligent, effective and better informed judgments on the basis of the work that the forums do.
Against that general background I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rix, that we would expect admission authorities to make available relevant information to the forum for all groups of children and parents, not just those of disabled children and children with special educational needs. I repeat my assurance that there is no way in which parents of children with special educational needs will be disadvantaged by the proposals.
Children who have statements of special educational needs naming a particular school have their interests fully protected already and we have made it clear in statutory guidance that admission authorities must treat children with special educational needs who do not have statements and disabled children as fairly as others and may not refuse admission because they consider that they are unable to cater for special needs.
Admission forums will consider how well existing and proposed admission arrangements serve the interests of all local parents and children. They will broker arrangements for ensuring that vulnerable children, including children with special educational needs who do not have statements and disabled children, have fair access to local schools. All admission authorities in an LEA's area will be required to have regard to any advice given by the forum when determining their admission arrangements.
I remind Members of the Committee that from September of this yearthis consolidates the point that I made earlieradmission authorities will have to comply with Sections 28A, 28B and 28C of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, as amended by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. They clearly place legal duties on admission authorities not to treat disabled pupils less favourably than their non-disabled peers without justification and to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled pupils are not placed at a substantial disadvantage in comparison with non-disabled pupils.
I can also give a clear assurance that admission authorities will be able to establish sub-committees of the forum, should they wish to do so. That would not be appropriate for all areassmaller authorities may not find it necessary. We therefore considered that the decision to establish a sub-committee, and for what purpose, should be wholly at the discretion of the authority. If LEAs consider it appropriate to establish a sub-committee to assist the forum in preparing advice, they already have the discretion to do that.
I turn to Amendment No. 182, which is not appropriately placed in relation to this clause, which deals with admission forums. I reassure Members of the Committee that the admissions framework that we have put in place ensures that all admission authorities in an area do not place prospective pupils who are disabled or have SEN at any disadvantage. I reiterate the fact that nothing in the Bill changes that. As I have already said, the Disability Discrimination Act and the special educational needs legislation will apply to access to education for the first time.
On Amendment No. 198A, the aim of co-ordinating admissions is simply to avoid the situation in which multiple applications by parents can lead to some parents receiving more than one offer of a school place for their children while others get none. Co-ordinated schemes will not change schools admissions criteria; they will simply provide general ground-rules for deciding which place an LEA should offer to any given parent if their child is potentially eligible for more than one school. A typical ground-rule, but not the only possible one, would be that the parents should be offered the place at whichever school they ranked the higher. Co-ordinated arrangements will not in any way change the position for children who have statements of SEN naming a particular school. Those children must be admitted to the named school, regardless of the school's general admission arrangements or criteria. Indeed, from 2003, when a child with a statement transfers between phases of schoolingfor example, from primary to secondarythe Education (Special Education Needs) (England) (Consolidation) Regulations require the LEA to amend the statement and to name the school that the child will be attending by 15th February in the year of transfer. LEAs will have to take those allocations as a fait accompli when allocating the remaining places under any co-ordinated admissions schemes for their area.
I recognise the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and her constructive idea about how to refine the way in which we deal with some of the problems associated with children with SEN and how a local authority can handle that with the greatest sensitivity and effectiveness. I shall take that issue away, consider it further and come back with further responses. I do not have the capacity to respond to it in detail at this point. It is an extremely useful suggestion, which I know is prompted by the noble Baroness's concern about those children, which I share.
I hope that I have assured noble Lords that all of the issues that have been raisedthey are tremendously important issuesindicate that the Government are avoiding the division between the talking shop, which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, worried about, and the committee that wiped out the significance of local authorities in Britain to which my noble friend Lord Jones referred. All that I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, is that he will recall that one of the founding fathers of conservatism said that our constitution is balanced upon a nice equipoise; so is the concept of the forum.
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