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Queen's recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

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5.10 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move,

Regulations made under the Education Act 1996, which were laid before the House on 23 October and referred to in the draft code of practice, provide the detail of the statutory requirements for assessments, statements and reviews of statements of special educational needs in England. Those consolidate the Education (Special Educational Needs) (England) Regulations 2001, the Education (Special Educational Needs) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2001, and the Education (Special Educational Needs) (England) (Amendment No. 2) Regulations 2001, which themselves replaced the 1994 regulations.

We have been here before. On 10 July, I stood at the Dispatch Box to open a debate to consider a draft of the revised SEN code of practice. We had a lively and informative debate. Hon. Members will recall that, in closing it, I promised that the Government would reflect very carefully on the concerns that were expressed by a number of those who contributed, many on behalf of parents, about the guidance in that draft on quantifying the provision in children's statements of SEN.

As hon. Members will know, following the debate, we withdrew the then draft code of practice from Parliament to reflect on those concerns, and the concerns raised by Members in another place. We have made changes to deal with those concerns in the draft now before the House.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Can the Minister explain why he was voting for this measure and we were voting against it at the same time as his Department withdrew it?

Mr. Timms: In closing the debate last time, I made it clear that we would listen very carefully and consider very carefully the points that were made to us. That is what we have done. The version of the code of practice that is before us reflects the results of our deliberations.

In the debate on 10 July, it was clear that a number of hon. Members were concerned that the guidance on quantifying the provision in children's statements of SEN could be interpreted as encouraging vague statements. Let me make it clear that it was never the Government's intention to weaken the position of children with statements. The guidance in the previous draft made it clear that a statement should describe all the child's special educational needs clearly and in full; set out the main objectives that the special educational provision aims to meet; specify clearly and in detail appropriate provision to meet each of the child's needs; and describe the arrangements for setting shorter-term objectives for the child and any special arrangements for the annual review of the statement. It stressed the importance of the school's monitoring and evaluating the child's progress during the year. It placed new emphasis on the importance of the local education authority monitoring with the school the child's progress towards identified outcomes.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): As the Minister knows, I have had a certain passing interest in these matters. Is it

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not in fact only because many local authorities' practice fell far short of the ideal prescribed or encouraged by all Governments that the argument and the controversy in relation to which he has now conceded the point has taken place? Is it not the fact that many local authorities either could not—or in certain cases would not—make adequate and specific provision that has brought this debate about?

Mr. Timms: First, I pay tribute to the close interest that the hon. Gentleman has taken in this matter over a long period and to the contributions that he has made to previous debates. Certainly, concerns have been expressed as to how the system has worked, although not exclusively in the aspects to which he alludes, and they have led to the need to revise the code of practice—hence the version that we are considering this evening.

All the advice in the earlier version of the code, to which I have drawn attention, is also included in the current version. The draft code, which we debated in July, advised that appropriate provision for each identified need should always be specified in clear, specific and detailed terms. It made it absolutely clear that LEAs must not have blanket policies such that provision is never quantified in statements—there have been some difficulties in that regard. Following helpful interventions during the debates in another place on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the section in the draft code on assessments was strengthened to make it clear that professionals giving advice can comment on the amount of provision that they consider appropriate for a child, and that LEAs must not have blanket policies that would prevent that.

The draft code makes it clear that provision in statements should normally be quantified in terms of hours and of starting arrangements, for example.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): While the Minister is dealing with paragraph 8:37 of the draft code, can he give the House an example to show where provision should not be quantified?

Mr. Timms: In a moment, I will give the House an example of when such provision might not be appropriate.

The draft code also recognises—as does the current code of practice—that there will be cases where some flexibility is required to meet the changing needs of the child concerned. A code of practice can never dictate the precise details of the provision to be made for each and every child. There must be some flexibility so as to respond specifically to the individual needs and circumstances of different children.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for an example. In the case of a visually impaired child in a mainstream school—an example to which I have referred in a previous debate—it may be that the child or the school require advice or help from a specialist teacher of the visually impaired, but it may make no sense to specify the number of hours in the statement. Alternatively, a minimum number of hours may suffice, if the time needs to fluctuate with the changing needs of the child, or their teachers, for support. Similarly, the child may need low-vision aids and information and communication technology equipment. As the child matures or curriculum requirements change, that provision might become out of date, in which case the specialist teacher, with the school, will identify more

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appropriate aids. I hope that that example enables the hon. Gentleman to see that there will be cases where it makes sense to be flexible about precisely how needs are specified in the statement.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Will the Minister confirm that that example represents an exception, not the rule, and that there will be flexibility only in exceptional cases?

Mr. Timms: I can confirm that we would normally expect the quantification to be in the statement. So that there is no confusion on that point, I reiterate the comments made last week in another place by my noble Friend Baroness Ashton: she pointed out that the word "normally" means that, in the majority of circumstances, we would expect to see provision in a statement quantified. In some circumstances there needs to be flexibility but normally we expect LEAs to quantify.

It is clear from the wording in paragraphs 8:36 and 8:37 of the draft code that LEAs should normally quantify provision in statements, but that there will be cases where some flexibility is required. It is equally clear that decisions must be taken on an individual basis by a careful assessment of the individual child's difficulties and the educational setting in which the child may be taught.

I have spoken first about quantification as it was the issue that most concerned the House, and I hope that I have provided reassurance on that point. However, changes have also been made that address other issues raised by hon. Members in July. First, the advice in chapter 7 of the draft code relating to children with medical needs clarifies that, where a child has medical needs that impact on his or her access to education, LEAs should consider whether there is a need for a statutory assessment by reference to the detailed guidance set out earlier in that chapter under four broad areas of need.

Secondly, the advice on school placements in chapter 8 now makes it clear that school governing bodies cannot refuse their school being named in a child's statement, but can only argue against it. The changes that we have made to schedule 27 to the Education Act 1996 ensure that schools are always sent copies of proposed statements before decisions are made about placements. That will place LEAs, schools and parents in a better position to consider and discuss placements at an early stage.

Thirdly, the draft code of practice and the associated regulations clarify that those who give advice can comment on the type of provision they consider appropriate if they wish, but they cannot, as now, give the name of a school. The draft code makes it clear that that should not, of course, pre-empt the parent's statement of a preference for a particular school or the LEA's eventual decision about the school, type of school or education otherwise that it considers appropriate.

Issues were also raised in the earlier debate about the advice in the draft code of practice on LEAs' duties to identify children with special educational needs who may need statements. The draft code is clear on that. Indeed, it sets out new requirements for LEAs to publish their arrangements for identifying children with special educational needs from July 2002.

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