Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point when he states the need for sensitivity on this issue. It is a sensitive matter when children have special educational needs and a prescription of provision for those needs is being made. People may be intellectually and emotionally involved, and that needs careful handling.

I am minded of a recent incident involving a school. In 14 years of service in this place, I have not previously experienced such a situation. A racial allegation was made. The matter required the attention of the full governors and a good deal of time from the management of the school. I was satisfied that, in the end, the school had acted entirely properly. In the light of that, and because the parents of one child were especially unhappy about the matter, I suggested to the school that, if such cases were to arise, it might consider building an independent person into its procedures. Decisions would not, in that case, be seen simply as something cooked up within the school system, albeit by the governors.

The point raises wider issues of governorship, which we should perhaps not debate here. I mention it only because it is fresh in my mind, and because we must have regard to the sensitive interface between parents and school. I understand the idea that the right person for the role is the head teacher, which is the substantial point of the hon. Gentleman's amendment. It would certainly be helpful to have the Minister's input. Perhaps she could say how the code or guidance might tie the matter down or encourage such a practice.

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The purpose of amendment No. 16 was more banal but, nevertheless, important. I am not suggesting that the right approach is a cold and impersonal letter, saying, ``Your child has the following problems; this is what we're going to do about them.'' That might be extremely inappropriate. The best approach might be for the teacher to take the parent aside and say, ``We will send you a letter shortly, which tells you about your son or daughter, how we see her or him, and what we are going to do.'' The intention behind the amendment was to return to the issue of specificity, which we debated earlier. If there is a lot of vague talk about doing something for the child, which is not tied down in writing, and no statement is necessarily involved, it will not be clear what would constitute delivering undertakings and meeting needs, and what would constitute a failure to meet needs. Unless there is an audit trail, simply taking the parents aside and telling them what the school will do would not be sufficient for future reference.

We approach the matter in a constructive spirit. We are aware of the sensitivities and anxious that the practice and the legal provision should be right. It would be stupid to create a legalistic provision that required only a narrow and formal response. On the other hand, if we merely provide for a general duty to inform, without an understanding as to how things should be done as a matter of good practice, vagueness might creep in, which could give rise to subsequent recrimination. The matter can be resolved, and I hope that the Minister will do it for us.

Jacqui Smith: Clause 7 is designed to bring clarity and consistency to the information given to parents on the identification of a child's special educational needs. Importantly, it therefore ensures that parents can play a part in meeting those needs, and raise concerns about the provision being made. It provides for parents to be informed when community, foundation and voluntary schools, pupil referral units and relevant LEA-funded nursery providers begin to make that special educational provision. In doing so, it addresses the potentially unsatisfactory situation in which parents are not always told that special educational provision is being made for their children.

Some schools tell parents that their children have been identified as having special educational needs and that provision is being made for them. Some schools tell parents that their children are receiving extra help, but not that they have special educational needs. Some schools do not tell parents at all, which leaves some parents misunderstanding the true position and some ignorant of the fact that SEN provision is being made for their child. Currently, the first time that parents find out that their child has been identified as having SEN can be when the LEA tells them that it is considering whether to assess the child for a statement. It is not only a case of ensuring that parents have information. If parents are not aware that special educational provision is being made, they are not in a position to use their knowledge and understanding of their child to help teachers to meet the child's needs. Clause 7 aims to ensure that the parents of children who have been identified as having SEN, but who do not have statements, are informed that special provision is being made.

In his amendment, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) raises the role of governing bodies and the distinction between the position set out in the Bill in relation to pupil referral units and that for schools. The LEA is responsible for those institutions in the case of pupil referral units, and the governing body is responsible in the case of maintained schools. That is why we have placed the legal duty to inform parents on those bodies. That follows the way in which such responsibilities are generally allocated in education legislation. However, a letter from an LEA informing parents that their child has special educational needs may be intimidating. Parents may be more comfortable if they are informed by the head teacher of a PRU. That is why new subsection 317A(2) makes provision for head teachers at PRUs to inform parents.

The same considerations are not necessarily true in the case of governing bodies. We want to give schools maximum flexibility in deciding who should notify parents. Governing bodies of schools, to which we have alluded in previous debates, must use their best endeavours to ensure that SEN provision is made for children. It seems appropriate that they should have legal responsibility for notifying the parents of children with special educational needs. Of course, they can choose to delegate that responsibility to the head teacher or the SEN co-ordinator, and we would expect that to be done in many cases. However, schools will have the flexibility to choose, and it is not appropriate to reduce that flexibility, as amendment No. 23 would do, by requiring the head teacher to inform parents in all cases.

Such flexibility is in keeping with our general approach to the responsibilities of governing bodies. For example, the recently issued terms of reference regulations for governing bodies show that they should play a strategic role, which implies that duties should be delegated. I see no conflict in recognising that while legal responsibility rests with the governing body, the responsibility for contact with the parent should, in most cases, be delegated to the head teacher or the SEN co-ordinator.

Mr. Boswell: I want to reinforce the helpful formulation that the Minister has given. I understand that the obligation on the governing body would be to ensure that the information is delivered, rather than to do the delivering. That seems a perfectly reasonable distinction between a strategic and an operational function.

Jacqui Smith: That is exactly right. The hon. Gentleman is extremely helpful this afternoon.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it would be good practice if the communication—presumably in the form of a letter—came from a member of staff at the school rather than a named governor? An important principle has been raised. In my experience as a governor over many years, I communicated directly with parents only if they had raised a specific point with me that related to an appeal function or some such matter. Information about the progress and education of individual children ought, as a matter of form and good practice, to be communicated by a member of staff rather than by governors.

Jacqui Smith: I agree that that would be good practice, and it is in line with our approach to governing body responsibilities. The legal responsibility is vested in governing bodies, and, in this case, they have the responsibility to ensure that that information is provided and for the strategic overview of how that takes place. Although it would be up to schools, it would be good practice for such information to be communicated not simply by a head teacher but possibly by a special educational needs co-ordinator or the pupil's form teacher.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): My hon. Friend is right that the regulations and the law should not exclude a governor from communicating. I can envisage a case involving a primary school in which the governor with responsibility for overseeing special needs had such a close relationship with the staff and the pupils that parents would consider it perfectly natural for that governor to communicate with them. It is right to leave the options open, although I accept my hon. Friend's point that good practice would point to the teacher in most cases.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friends haves shown that the discretion and flexibility that the clause allows schools would be important in such circumstances.

Amendment No. 16, too, would limit schools' discretion in a way that would not be helpful. Schools would always have to inform parents in writing. The clause will not prevent schools from informing parents in writing if they want to do so, but many schools may decide that informing parents verbally might be a better way to fulfil the duty. For example, it might be appropriate for such matters to be discussed at a parents' evening. Alternatively, it might be appropriate to invite a parent who, for the reasons mentioned by the hon. Member for Daventry, might not be confident about receiving a letter, to discuss the matter so that that parent could have his or her anxieties dealt with immediately. Not everyone is as used to receiving a letter as Members of Parliament are, whether it is formal or otherwise. To restrict the communication of such information in that way would be unreasonably inflexible. Schools may prefer the more informal approach, which might be the most appropriate in such circumstances. However, the school should have flexibility.

The hon. Member for Daventry expressed anxiety about whether, by allowing schools not to communicate such information in writing, the Government might leave parents without necessary information. Parents can be assured that they will know what is going on because of the revised SEN code of practice and its emphasis on keeping parents informed of action taken to help their child and the outcomes of that action. The strategies employed to help a child with SEN will be recorded in an individual written education plan that will contain information about short-term targets for the child, the teaching strategies to be used, the provision to be put in place, the date for reviewing the plan, and the outcome of any action taken. The guidance will also make it clear that the individual education plan should be discussed with the child and the parents.

I do not believe that I am being too optimistic in suggesting that there is consensus in the Committee about the importance of keeping parents informed about their children's special educational needs so that they are engaged in the process. That will be beneficial not only because parents have a right to such information, but because it is likely to lead to better educational outcomes for their children, which is our primary concern.

As far as school governing bodies, local education authorities and pupil referral units are concerned, we believe that the clause as drafted puts the responsibility in the correct place. It also provides appropriate flexibility in terms of the method of communication, and on that basis I hope that the hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon and for Daventry feel able to withdraw their amendments.

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