Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: I welcome the spirit of the Minister's remarks. Her clarification has been helpful, and she has levelled with the Committee by acknowledging that anomalies exist. They have occurred in legislation before, but in this instance there are good underlying reasons for them, and she has done her best to explain those reasons to the Committee.

My main purpose in rising is to affirm that it was appropriate to probe such issues. However, I accept the Minister's assurances, and the feelings of the higher education sector. I do not think that the route chosen is wrong, but it was necessary to pause to find out why it is right, and we have done that.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 31 to 33 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 34

Removal of certain duties of funding bodies

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Boswell: We have already had exchanges on this matter, and as the proposals have been productive, it is unnecessary to escalate our proceedings into a bickering match about the duties in the 1995 Act and their effect on higher and further educational institutions.

The Minister wished to take the matter further, as did the disability rights taskforce. I do not object to that: I am glad that we are able to take the matter forward. However, given that the clause concerns local authorities' policies and statements on disability and that we do not wish to overload those bodies with unnecessary bureaucracy, does she feel that their attempts to have bodies consider their policies may be lost in the wash? Will that be secured in other ways? Have we not thrown out a small baby—or drowned it—with a lot of bath water?

Ms Hodge: I do not wish to spoil the Committee's proceedings by entering into political bantering when a general election is so distant, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman believes that the original clauses had some impact. My experience, especially in the further and higher education sectors, was that that impact was limited. I was shocked by some of the cases brought to my attention of people who experienced outrageous discrimination in access to courses, especially in FE and HE. HE has probably been the most difficult sector with which to deal in its acceptance of both moral pressure or pressure from existing legislation to ensure civil rights for disabled people in education.

Mr. Boswell: Does the Minister concede that disabled employees in higher education—lecturers—have expressed genuine concern about whether their treatment has been appropriate?

Ms Hodge: I certainly accept that, and it shows what I often point out: with the law, we can provide a floor of basic rights, but we need to engage in the final task of challenging attitudes and preconceptions to ensure that people act according to the spirit as well as the letter of the law and do not act discriminatorily.

We are removing the provisions not out of political spite but because they have become redundant and we no longer require them. It would be unnecessary, and burdensome on the authorities, to retain them. The duties in part IV are anticipatory, and institutions will have to keep their policies and practices under review. Under the new part IV, deeds, not just words, will test whether institutions comply with the new duties.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 35 to 37 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 38

Relationship with other parts of the 1995 Act

Mr. Andrew George: I beg to move amendment No. 25, in page 33, line 9, at end insert—

    `(5A) In section 19(3), at the end insert—

    ``(i)the provision of examinations in respect of education and training.''.'.

The hon. Member for Daventry provided a prelude to the amendment by referring to it earlier. As this sitting has been long and it seems likely that we shall have another, I shall not detain the Committee unnecessarily. I shall humour the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, although not as entertainingly or articulately as the hon. Member for Daventry did.

The amendment parallels a Greek tragedy. The Antigone behind that rather sad tale is suffering as a result of the clauses from a rather harsh, Creon-type interpretation of the Bill. The amendment would ensure that examinations undertaken as part of education could not place unnecessary barriers in the way of disabled candidates. A major anomaly exists between examinations used as part of training and those used following a course of education. Examining and awarding bodies are exempted from the DDA when, and only when, their examinations are used at the end of a course of education. When an examination is used for the assessment of a course of training, it is not exempted from that Act but must comply with part III, which covers the provision of goods and services. In some cases, that means that the same examination may be covered by the 1995 Act and may sometimes be exempt, depending on whether the learning that preceded it was training or education.

6.30 pm

The national vocational qualifications and the Scottish vocational qualifications are especially affected by that anomaly, which could lead to an inequality between learners in different groups and make a mockery of the Bill. What is the point of an institution, whether it is a school or a college, being prohibited from discriminating against disabled pupils and students when the examination boards that provide examinations can discriminate with impunity? How can colleges be expected to ensure that disabled students receive the reasonable adjustments that they require when the examining board, which is the final arbiter of whether an adjustment to an exam is allowable, is not subject to the same rigorous requirements not to discriminate?

Recent research by the Royal National Institute for the Blind demonstrates that examinations pose particular difficulties for blind and partially sighted learners, typically because they cannot rely on receiving examination papers in the correct format and on time. The research shows that one in four of the pupils questioned did not always get test or answer papers in the right format. One in five said that test or exam papers had not always arrived on time. One third of the university students had received late exam papers on at least one occasion, as had at least 11 per cent. of further education college students.

The problem sometimes lies with the school or college for failing to notify examination boards of students' needs or make adjustments. At other times, however, the examination boards are at fault for failing to make proper arrangements. Examining boards, in addition to agreeing to candidates having exam papers in their preferred format, arranging transcription and ensuring that the papers are sent out on time, need to agree a host of other reasonable adjustments in advance, if blind and partially sighted candidates are not to face substantial disadvantage in the examination process. Those adjustments include allowing candidates extra time because it takes longer to read large print or Braille; arranging for candidates to present their answers in a preferred format, whether it is hand-writing, word processing, dictation or in Braille; and agreeing that candidates can do the examination in a separate room with a separate invigilator if need be.

Most blind and partially sighted students are given extra time for exams and other forms of reasonable adjustments, but there are too many who do not. The Royal National Institute for the Blind tells me that one in 10 of university and two in 10 of further education students told the organisation that they were not given enough extra time.

The main reason for examination boards failing to meet the needs of blind and partially sighted students in a uniform fashion is that the guidance that they receive is not strong enough and no clear actionable duty is placed upon them. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, for example, has bemoaned its inability to force standards on examining boards. Any failure on the part of examining boards could have a major impact on the future of educational and career prospects of blind, partially sighted and other disabled learners. At present, there is not a sufficiently powerful incentive for them to get the process right or to provide effective redress for a disabled learner if things go wrong. The obvious solution is to bring examining bodies within the scope of the DDA so that they are all covered by part III, whether they provide examinations for learners in training or in education.

I hope that the Minister will respond to that technical interpretation which, if I am correct, could provide a get-out and result in less favourable treatment for disabled students who are welcomed to courses but find that they are discriminated against when it comes to examinations.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Member for St. Ives has performed a service to the Committee in raising the matter. We all want the fairest possible arrangements in examinations so that any functional difficulties encountered by disabled people, let alone anomalies between various sectors, are redressed. There is also concern about equal opportunities in certain rigorous examinations in universities and the higher education sector—for example, whether women have sufficient stamina when they must cope with menstruation and so on to achieve well in examinations.

At the opposite end from the examining bodies, I have been in correspondence with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on statutory standard assessment tests in schools concerning a child with a severe sight problem. The matter was drawn to my attention by the special needs co-ordinator in the school and I then corresponded at the top of QCA and eventually got its ruling on the time provided and the provision of computer alternatives reversed. I was pleased about that because I was told that it was a test.

In another context, the awarding bodies want to be fair and they set out to be fair. That is not window dressing and they are anxious to adjust their procedures to secure fairness. I believe that we will eventually secure that, but there is a problem, which needs attention, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

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