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Lord Rix: In speaking to Amendments Nos. 58 and 64, I seem to have been granted a solo spot on the Cross-Benches, which is perhaps appropriate for a rapidly ageing thespian at this hour of night. The Minister and a handful of noble Lords who were present on Second Reading, some of whom are present tonight, may recall that I confessed to studying the 248-page document while waiting for a train--any train--to get me back to Euston from Crewe. But the enforced delay did allow me to note that there were few substantial references to special schools or special educational needs in the Bill, and I reported that fact on Second Reading. The Minister responded quite positively. I shall not quote her response now because of the lateness of the hour.

As my concerns arose in Crewe and as the Government--or, rather, a senior Minister in the Government--fairly recently decided that Crewe can be bypassed, I am naturally concerned that special needs, too, can be treated in the same cavalier fashion unless specific commitments are made to them on the face of the Bill. Hence my amendments today and others for future days, or nights, in Committee. They have the support not only of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and my noble friend Lady Darcy de Knayth but also from outside this Chamber. That support comes from the Special Educational Consortium, which includes such renowned voluntary bodies as Mencap, the Council for Disabled Children, Barnardos, The National Autistic Society, Scope (plus many others), as well as teaching unions and local government organisations. No one can be in any doubt as to our sincerely held convictions.

The purpose of the two amendments is as follows. Amendment No. 58 is designed to ensure that at least one person is included in an education action forum who has experience and expertise in special educational needs. Amendment No. 64 would ensure that everyone who is part of an education action forum has to have regard to the code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs.

I hope and believe that the Minister will accept my amendments or propose others worded in a similar vein on Report. If she does not, I can only paraphrase the late, lamented Marie Lloyd:


Furthermore, I think I can persuade the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, to use his undoubted operatic talents to underline the point in song once this session is over. That, I am convinced, will persuade the Minister; of that I am absolutely certain.

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Midnight

Lord Lucas: I hope the Minister will agree with me that Amendments Nos. 60 and 63 are particularly "daffy". Amendment No. 60 suggests that the governing body of an education action zone should reflect the,


    "balance of interests and experience"

of a set of governing bodies which have, almost by definition, failed in what they might have thought of as their mission to provide education up to the standard they wish. I hope that the Government will not seek to hamstring an education action zone in this way. Amendment No. 63 introduces the concept that standards in the provision of education can have due,


    "variation by sex or race".

Surely no such variation can possibly be acceptable. The concept expressed in Amendment No. 63 must be totally unacceptable.

Lord Whitty: All of these amendments, directly or indirectly, deal with the membership of education action fora. Clearly we had to consider how we establish the membership, given all the constituencies which have various demands they wish to be represented. There are, however, two difficulties with the concept that we allow all such constituencies to be represented. First, the education action zone will bring together 10 or 20 schools. That could mean the membership of a forum swelling rapidly--if everyone were included--to 50 plus. That is unlikely to constitute an effective decision-making body.

The second issue is one of flexibility. Within the education action zone concept, different relationships will exist between governing bodies and the fora in different areas. As we have heard, in some cases governing bodies will cede their powers to the forum; in others they will not unless formal arrangements apply. In any case the way in which the fora will operate will require consultation and consensus so that the views of teachers and of other bodies will be represented through their governing bodies and other means of consultation within their areas. It is therefore, in our view, not sensible to lay down that all these constituent bodies should always be members of an education action forum. The compromise we arrived at was to leave membership decisions on the forum to those who were putting forward the proposals. They will know the ways of working they have in mind. It is important that we do not restrict them in that way. It is important on the other hand that we ensure that each governing body in an education action zone area which wishes to be represented should be represented. That is the only thing we have laid down.

On the point about local education authorities, we expect local education authorities to be represented on the action fora. Of the 60 applications we have received so far, LEAs are a partner in 58 of them, and so will naturally be represented on the fora. We need to bear in mind exceptions. There is the possibility that a different set of partners--for example, a group of schools working with a private sector company, or a voluntary organisation--make a strong application that deserves consideration, but which is not involved with a local

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education authority. In an extreme case it is possible that a local education authority is either not interested or is deeply opposed to what is being proposed. Obviously that opposition would be given due weight, but where we seek to go ahead with the education action zone it would not be sensible for the LEA to have a veto over an application by reserving to itself a place, even if all the other parties know that is done only to be obstructive. That situation is extremely unlikely, but nevertheless we must recognise that it could arise. It is certainly not borne out by the experience of the applications received under the non-statutory programme so far, but nevertheless we must preserve that flexibility.

Amendments Nos. 60 and 63 contain the phrase,


    "without undue variation by sex or race".

We would expect the organisations involved in the forum to reflect the make-up of the schools involved in the wider communities in which they operate. We would not expect to see any gender under-representation.

The Minister for School Standards has already had some discussions with the Commission for Racial Equality on this issue. Sir Herman Ousley has indicated that he supports the EAZ concept. It will be necessary to design strategies to make sure that we raise achievement in particular sections of the community which are under-performing. That will be reflected in the requirements on EAZs rather than in the formulation in these amendments.

On the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, particularly Amendment No. 64 relating to the SEN code of practice, I can assure the noble Lord that there is no question that regulations would allow the SEN code of practice to be disapplied or bypassed in education action zones, whether in Crewe or anywhere else. These regulations will--indeed, from the wording on the primary legislation, they can--only affect the way in which certain functions are passed from governing bodies to the forum where both the governing bodies and the forum agree that such a transfer is sensible. That does not affect the need to observe other responsibilities in other important documents and regulations which would certainly include such fundamental documents as the SEN code of practice. Therefore, in our view the objectives of Amendment No. 64 are met and the amendment is unnecessary.

We are therefore adopting a process of flexibility in this area. The prime proposals for membership of each education action forum will be from the proposers themselves. Obviously the department will have to make a judgment on those proposals, but that is the original flexibility which we would wish to see. With that understanding and that principle of flexibility, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able not to press the amendment.

Lord Swinfen: When inviting proposals from people who are prepared to set up special education zones and fora, will the Government be asking the proposers what their ideas and proposals are on dealing with special education needs and how they intend to handle them? I know that this only covers, as a general rule, a small

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proportion of pupils but it is a highly specialised and highly skilled sector which needs special handling. There is a danger, because of small numbers, that these specialist cases could fall through the net and be neglected. Although they may have special education needs, they are people who, if properly taught, could offer a great deal to the country in due course.

Baroness Blatch: When the noble Lord replies, can he also pick up my point? The noble Lord said that gender balance, ethnicity and even special needs interests would be addressed. But each school is an entity within the zone. Each school will put forward its representative on to the forum. How will it be addressed? Will the school be told, "Sorry, you cannot have another woman from your school", or "You cannot have another man from your school", because the numbers seem to indicate too many women or too many men?

What will be the means of seeing that those issues are addressed--for example, if the area has a high ethnic presence in the community but not enough ethnic people are put forward by individual schools? The schools will be dealing with the most appropriate representative of their schools. It may not reflect the local community, gender balance, ethnic balance or, indeed, specific interests in special needs. How will that be managed?


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