Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Boswell: The Minister has done exactly what I hoped she would do, and has made it clear how the arrangement will work. She has provided perfectly satisfactory assurances and our intentions are at one. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 4

Consideration of issues of adequacy and discrimination

    `Issues of adequacy and discrimination in connection with the planning and provision of educational and related services to a disabled pupil on transition from the school sector to further education, may either be considered by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal or may be the subject of civil proceedings, according to the wishes of the pupil concerned.'.—[Mr. Boswell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Boswell: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause deals with larger and different issues from those raised previously, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide assurances on them. Perhaps I may divide my concerns into two categories: procedure and substance.

Our wish as regards procedure—which we have several times expressed, and on which Ministers have typically responded helpfully—is that there should be no black holes in the Bill. I drafted the provision as I did because it occurred to me that there might be a hiatus at the crucial point of transition from school to the post-16 world—typically but not always the world of further education. An individual might not be properly served and the planning of the transition might not be well covered.

By definition, things become more complex, as distinct from complicated, for people with disabilities when they move into post-compulsory education. It may be a matter of physical provision for someone with a mobility problem or a visual or hearing impairment. If a child has been well catered for at school, either in mainstream provision or some dedicated special provision or in a special school, it is important to ensure that similar provision is sustained into the next stage of his or her education. Such young people may have the potential for high attainments and may go on to higher education in the future, but they may also require assistance with their mobility or their sight or the replacement of their sight. That has to be thought out, which is why we were considering transitional planning as far back the Further and Higher Education Act 1992.

Equally, there are real issues for people with learning disabilities. I want to emphasise that point, because I do not think that they have had sufficient attention in the rather truncated discussions that we have had in Committee. I am sure that both Ministers and most members of the Committee will have gone to further education colleges and seen terrifically good provision for young people with learning difficulties. Often, their parents have a large family in which the last sibling has Down's syndrome. The parents worry about what will happen as the young person grows up and goes out into the world, moves away from the world of protected transport and has to do business with adults other than his or her teachers. That is a very sensitive time, and that is why planning the transition is so important.

The new clause is about redress. I have drafted it in a legalistic and slightly quibbling way to find out whether there is complete coverage between school and further education. What, for example, happens during the summer holidays that intervene between those two types of provision? Is there an overlap, or is there a potential gap? As it takes two to tango, I have also suggested that the school should be aligned with the further education college or other institution, and that one way of enforcing that might be for the young person in question to go to the tribunal for school-related aspects of the transition or to the courts in connection with the follow-on further education provision. That is an artificial way of presenting the issue, but it is important that Ministers apply themselves to it and think about it.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): In support of my hon. Friend's argument, I want to draw the Committee's attention to what happens if a young person's difficulties emerge gradually. In the case of a brain-injured person—brain injuries are a particular interest of mine—new difficulties might emerge at different stages of that person's development. Although the short-term impact of brain injury is easily recognised and very apparent, as someone moves through the educational system there may be new challenges and new difficulties. Without communication between institutions, a continuum of care and appropriate study of people's changing needs, people in those circumstances may well be disadvantaged.

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend complements my argument very well. It may be difficult, in purely legal terms, not to shift the legal burden from one provider to another at some stage, and I think that he understands that. Nevertheless, it is important that the two providers and the transitional planning that links them form a continuum of provision. To make a simple point, there should be access to records and other materials. Although such documents would be to some extent confidential, access to them would enable people to examine the development of the young person's situation and to take the necessary remedial action.

There is the legal issue of whether somebody is responsible at all times for the young person's educational provision. If so, is the power of remediation clearly in the hands of the tribunal or the courts? We do not want people to fall through the system and fail to get redress. The Committee will note my suggestion that, at that point of transition, the matter should be determined by the wishes of the pupil. As pupils move from the special educational needs of childhood, they should become more empowered and, unless they are legally incapable, they should be able to express a view about what they want to do. Their contribution to the planning of that transition is important, because they have views and will know what they will be most comfortable with. For example, they may wish to go a particular institution with their colleagues rather than to a strange institution where they may feel less comfortable.

That brings me neatly to what I might loosely call the real world. Some transitional duties already exist but, despite the moral force of the new planning duties that local authorities will be required to fulfil under the Bill, even if transitional planning is not honoured more in the breach than the observance, such duties may not always be as well fulfilled as they should be. LEAs have a duty to drive forward the transitional planning machinery, to hold meetings and consultations, to draw up plans and to prepare young people for further or subsequent education.

Some time ago, in a written question, I asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), whether local authorities were fulfilling their plans. I am not asking her to name and shame particular LEAs, but I realise that, in the real world, the word on the street would certainly be that quite a few authorities are delinquent in fulfilling their existing legal responsibilities. The hon. Lady replied by saying, in effect, that if something was wrong the Department would take action.

I have no doubt that the Department could, would and certainly should take action in extreme cases. However, I warn the Committee that those duties are not performed as well or as thoroughly as they should be, and it is hugely important to young people with special needs that they are fulfilled. I leave it to the Committee to decide whether such cases always require LEAs to intervene rather than to facilitate, but the most important thing is to tie it up trilaterally between the school, further education provider and the pupil concerned—and, if necessary, the parents, to ensure a happy transition.

Underlying our concern is that, whatever the Bill says, and whatever the existing rights of young people with special educational needs, let alone any additional rights including the disability rights that we are about to give them, the system does not work as well or as sensitively as it should. That is a pity, and it is to be regretted. Whatever legislation we might pass—including new clause 4 if the Committee thought it appropriate—it would not of itself transform the situation. The law does not make people comply; perhaps it should. As the Minister said in another context, it is often a matter of making a cultural change to ensure its effectiveness.

I would welcome comments on the deficiencies of the new clause, particularly from those interested in this crucial area of transition. Transition arrangements will vary from one local authority or education authority to another. We need to set a better example. Whenever possible the Department needs to provide mechanisms and encouragement to ensure that the system works better. As I said, this is not the time or place to name or shame, but anything that we can do to point local authorities and providers in the right direction will be hugely important.

Mr. Levitt: I am well aware that the Committee made considerable progress during my absence on Tuesday, so I hope that I shall not slow it down today.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has got so far in his speech without mentioning the learning and skill councils, because my understanding is that they have a significant role in the transitional phase.

9.30 am

Mr. Boswell: Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right. I have been involved with the Learning and Skills Council for six months, and I have not mentioned it this morning. However, it is important to see how everything fits together. The council must provide secure provision for post-16 education, and has a planning duty during the transition. I am sure that it could, if necessary, impose sanctions against delinquent providers. There are several players in the field, and we need to secure a legal framework that prevents anyone from falling into a black hole between the providers and the regulatory authorities, whether the local education authority or the Learning and Skills Council.

We must also ensure, as gently as possible, that existing legislation, as well as the Bill, does what it is supposed to do. No local authority or school is perfect, but I cannot help feeling that this area has not done as well as it should have done, which is probably why we are legislating. More attention to this critical matter in the Committee and the world outside would be beneficial.

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