Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Jacqui Smith: The provisions of the clause will ensure that, when an LEA notifies the SEN tribunal that it will not fight certain appeals, the appeal will be treated as decided in the parents' favour. I am not sure that that has been stated clearly. The LEA will have to take action to meet the parents' wishes within a period that will be set out in regulations.

The provision will encourage the early settlement of cases by giving parents the assurance that LEAs will be obliged to fulfil any commitments that they make in agreeing that a case can be resolved without going to the tribunal, even though it will not require the tribunal to make a formal order. For that reason, the provision will be doubly beneficial.

The change will encourage parents and LEAs to reach early agreement about how the child's needs might best be met, without delaying until a formal tribunal hearing is convened, thereby shortening the time in which the child may not be receiving the provision that would be important for him. Encouraging parents to accept LEA concessions will also help to avoid unnecessary tribunal work and expense on cases, some of which are withdrawn at the last minute—to the benefit of no one. For example, in 1999-2000, more than 1,200 cases were withdrawn before being heard. The provision will help the parent and make the system more efficient to the benefit of all.

2 pm

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the process of assessment and determining the statement might be the subject of the parents' argument. It is worth pointing out that the clause affects only appeals against decisions by the LEA not to make a statement of SEN, not to reassess an existing statement or not to substitute a school named in a statement for a different school named by the parents. Other more complicated types of appeal have been excluded, such as those against the contents of statements. Those appeals will need the tribunal to consider the parents' appeal in detail and to make a more appropriately detailed order than need be the case in such circumstances.

However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must make sure that the statements function most effectively, and that is part of the reason behind our revision of the code of practice. I agree with him that the funding and proposals that the Government have introduced for parent partnership schemes and for conciliation in dispute resolution will be important, but so will the revisions that we are making to the code of practice. Given the representations that have been made about the proposed changes to the code, it is worth emphasising that we have no intention of weakening the legal protection for children with statements, nor of encouraging vague statements.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that vague statements do nothing to secure the right help for a child with SEN nor help a school to know what is required of it to assist a child to learn and progress. It might be helpful if I repeat some of the clarifications made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Second Reading. We will make it clear that LEAs are required to specify provisioning statements, as they always have been. We will retain the requirement in the SEN regulations for provision to be specified, matching the terms of the duty on LEAs set out in the Education Act 1996.

Furthermore, the code will state clearly that statements should describe clearly all the child's special educational needs in full. They should set out the main objectives that the special educational provision aims to meet and specify clearly and in detail the provision required to meet each of the child's needs. The statements should describe the arrangements for setting shorter-term objectives for the child and any special arrangements for the annual review of the statement, and stress the importance of the school monitoring and evaluating the child's progress during the year. They should emphasise the importance of the local education authority monitoring the child's progress towards identified outcomes with the school. The revised code will be a significant improvement over and above the current code. I hope that it goes some way towards reassuring people who have been worried about such matters.

The guidance will make it clear that there may often be a need for provision to be expressed in terms of hours, equipment or personnel. It will make it clear that local education authorities must not have blanket policies not to quantify provision in statements. In another place, we also made a commitment to enhance guidance on assessments so that it clearly states that LEAs should not introduce blanket policies to prevent people who advise them from commenting on the amount of provision that they consider appropriate for a child. Given those reassurances on the statementing process, and my account of what we hope to achieve through the clause, I recommend that it should stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister's statement has been helpful. It substantially repeats the Secretary of State's equally helpful statement on Second Reading, as well as reassurances that were given in another place.

It will, perhaps, not be possible to finalise some details concerning the specifications until the code is produced. However, every Committee member wishes, as far as possible, to clarify the matter. That is our common endeavour. We wish to ensure that situations do not arise in which local authorities are either wilfully vague or—to paraphrase the Minister's injudicious words—shut their eyes and face towards the possibility of receiving advice or of excluding entire categories of applicants or types of provision from a specification. The Committee has almost clarified that matter, and I do not wish to contest the clause.

I am sure that the provision for unopposed appeals will be helpful. However, I want the Minister to confirm that it is intended to address what I might term non-determination of a request for a statement. If an argument were to arise about the content of a statement, the matter would be considered by the tribunal, which might properly make recommendations that were not fully consistent with the wishes of either the parents or the local authority but might be their own choice. Have I understood that correctly?

Jacqui Smith: Yes. The clause relates to appeals against a decision by a local authority not to make a statement of special educational needs, not to reassess an existing statement, not to make an assessment of special educational needs, and not to substitute a school named in a statement for a different school named by the parents.

More complex types of appeal have been excluded for the reason mentioned by the hon. Gentleman: it might be appropriate for the tribunal to consider the parents' appeal in greater detail—for example, it might be helpful for a tribunal to consider the contents of a statement.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Duty to Inform Parent where Special Educational Provision made

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I beg to move amendment No. 23, in page 6, line 30, leave out ``inform the child's parent'' and insert

    ``secure that the head teacher inform the child's parent''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider amendment No. 16, in page 6, line 30, after ``parent'', insert ``in writing''.

Dr. Harris: This is a probing amendment. I want the Minister to explain the phrasing of proposed new section 317A. Subsection (2) states:

    ``If the school is a pupil referral unit, the local education authority must secure that the head teacher informs the child's parent that special educational provision is being made for him at the school''.

That applies when a statement has not been issued but special educational provision is being provided.

Similar terminology is employed in subsection (3), which states:

    ``In any other case, the governing body must inform the child's parent that special educational provision is being made for him there''.

My amendment seeks to make it clear that the responsibility of the governing body is to secure that the head teacher has a duty to inform the child's parent, or to delegate that function. It is obviously an important section because parents must be are informed of their child's special educational needs and the provision that the school is making to meet them. If that is not already part of the school's procedure, the position should be rectified. However, the matter should be handled sensitively and those imparting the information should have the necessary expertise to answer any questions that parents might raise.

The Government may intend that governing bodies will normally delegate the role to the head teacher, acting as a chief executive. However, if they are not explicit, the danger exists that enthusiastic governors may take it upon themselves to do that; with the best of intentions, the chair of governors or the SEN governor may take on the responsibility. I speak without any malice towards those people, but there is a worry that that might be done inappropriately or insensitively.

A body representing secondary heads has argued that for a body or a member of a governing body to discuss a pupil's progress or needs with a parent is not in keeping with the Government's intentions in existing regulations or in their recent consultation document. As a governor, I have read that document, which emphasises that governing bodies have an overriding role with the head as the chief executive. My amendment should not affect the governing body's accountability in that respect, because the governing body should call heads to account when they fail to inform parents.

Section 317(2) of the 1996 Act defines the responsible person as being

    ``in the case of a county, voluntary or grant-maintained school, the head teacher or the appropriate governor''.

It does not necessarily follow that the responsible person with the duty to pass on the information or delegate it should not specifically be the head teacher. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify the phrasing and tell us why my amendment is inappropriate.

Amendment No. 16 refers to passing the information in writing, which seems logical and usual when sensitive matters are being discussed. I note in passing that, if the amendment proved acceptable, the same provision would have to apply to pupil referral units and an extra amendment would be needed.

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