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Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne: I rise to comment on this most interesting and constructive amendment. I perceive the reasoning behind it. I am aware of several special needs schools that accommodate children of five to 16 years of age, cover the four key stages and yet perhaps have only 25 or 32 children, costing £46,000 a year per child. My point is not the cost but the fact that, however comforting for parents or warm and friendly for the children that school may be, with that small number it cannot offer the educational provision of the national curriculum.

However, the amendment may not address fully a group of children about whom I have a concern. I refer to children with low incidence disability and with uneven distribution nationally. It is possible that if this amendment were passed it could do those children a disservice by excluding them, possibly inadvertently, from the best education on offer in the United Kingdom. Instead of supporting the amendment, my answer is to argue for fewer but better special schools, particularly for children with low incidence disability and with uneven national distribution and to regard them as a national resource that is not geographically bounded, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, argued strenuously this evening.

Earlier, in Amendment No. 209, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, talked of the admission of children with special needs to mainstream education. I fully support that. Normally, as is identified in Amendment No. 216, children with special needs in mainstream education sounds correct; it is a non-divisive approach. It is a proper inclusion of all our young people into the national education resource, the public sector, irrespective of background, ability, disability or any difference.

I am concerned that the amendment which is put forward in the best of faith by two of the people I admire most profoundly in this Chamber tilts the balance towards exclusion from special needs and might perhaps lead to an undesirable outcome.

I suggest that no parent can ever believe that their child is ordinary. Every child, their child, is special and unique. Each child's birthright is its own package of balance and challenges. I suggest that we must have special schools for extra special children, whether this is for the Yehudi Menuhin violinists or for children who present themselves and their carers with special challenges. I think that those children need specialist teachers and the most advanced technology of all because you need to have a critical mass of knowledge and experience to meet those children's challenge.

Take deafness, for example. Every year 450 profoundly deaf babies are born in the United Kingdom--a very small number--whose cases and needs I had the welcome opportunity to discuss on Friday last with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I thank

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the noble Lord for that excellent and helpful meeting. Take blindness--another small number. Both are acute sensory deprivations. In minor forms, between them they afflict most of the population at some point during their lives. But from birth I would argue that they interfere drastically unless curtailed by modern science and advancement and the best of teaching, with the acquisition of formal and informal education. Indeed, we can perceive that by looking at the outcomes where deaf and blind youngsters have to take jobs, if they can find them at all, at levels far below that which their talent would normally attain. Blind in Business, a small charity I used to chair, has instigated job covenants with business to try to achieve a higher goal.

Why not mainstream, therefore, as this amendment would suggest, for all those children? Because mainstream cannot offer the special provision and the pool of educational teaching talent which those children need in order to flourish. I can give examples. A very wealthy individual approached me recently asking for help with his small son, born profoundly deaf and unable to speak. I went to meet the boy. I took a long time speaking to his father, but two years later he transferred him from mainstream to special school.

All the wealth of Arabia, which had equipped the local public sector school with everything and more a thousand times over for that young boy, could not bring out his speech, his socialising, his capacity for that. He needed the very special teachers of a special deaf education school. His mainstream school, fully funded in every possible way that anyone could imagine, was unable to help because it did not have educational audiologists or speech and language therapists. If all that money could not do it, then special schools are, surely, badly needed.

Over and above the proper thrust for special needs children to be in mainstream education, we must recognise also that there are some forms of disability--the sensory disabilities are the two most obvious--which need what I can only define as a national resource, because the numbers are so small and the spread so uneven and so unforecastable that there has to be a better way of doing that than bringing those children into mainstream education.

If mainstream education were to have many of the provisions which the special needs schools have, then the children with lesser sensory deprivation could well be catered for. On deafness, for example, acoustic conditions and lighting, training for teachers, small class sizes, because of one-to-one teacher interaction with the children, and other improvements are badly needed to promote speech and language development. Classroom amplification aids are an example. Many things could be done. I believe that they will be done. I welcome the Bill and I welcome the amendment, but as of now I beg the Minister to turn down the amendment and to address the point that I put to him, that national resources, looked at in a special way--fewer, better, well-sized special schools, alongside and in co-ordination with better resourced mainstream schooling--would help all those children.

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11.30 p.m.

Baroness Byford: I support the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy. I accept all that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said. I spoke earlier about classes and of the medical needs of some of the children within those classes. Unless I have misunderstood the amendment, my understanding is that it is the wish of the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy, to see as many children as possible who can cope in mainstream schooling, to be able to be part of it, but that parents should be able to have special provision for their children if they so choose. I should like that clarified, because that is my understanding. I appreciate all that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, said, but that was my interpretation of the amendment.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: That was a helpful question. Perhaps I may intervene, because I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, misunderstood what I was getting at. I was not getting rid of special schools in any way. I accept all that she said. I applaud the achievement, for example, of the Mary Hare School for the Deaf, which has no rival. It is terrific. The only tilting of the balance that I was doing was ensuring an even approach by the LEAS in providing the possibility of mainstream education for the children with statements whose parents wanted it and for whose particular education need it would be suitable.

Baroness Blatch: It was the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who put a figure on the number of the children who the report believed were children with special needs. The figure was 20 per cent. About 2 per cent. of that 20 per cent. was deemed to have acute special needs. Then came everyone within the spectrum, from someone merely having difficulty learning to read within the classroom, demanding more of the teacher in the classroom than average, through to the most acute.

My experience of local authorities is that they are not awash with money. So they do not readily accept the expensive provision which special school provision often represents. On some occasions there is great tension when they believe that it is appropriate to place someone in a special school. Their great problem with that is funding.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment. However, it throws up a number of questions. I looked through the Education Act l993, Part III of which was dedicated to special needs. The l993 Act built upon the l981 Act. It is my understanding that the l998 or the 1999 Bill, or whatever year it is, that will flow from the special needs paper will build on the 1993 Act, so that there is a continuing development relating to the provision for children with special needs. It has always been my view, whatever the provision is, that it should be appropriate to the needs of the child. Whatever the special needs of the child are, they should be met in the most appropriate way.

The question it throws up for me is one that I have discussed with the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, and that is the interaction between this amendment and what in fact is contained in the 1993 Act. That is that parental preference is given some

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paramountcy in the code of practice, for example, and at the tribunal, right from the LEA level, where the parental preference is made, and the mechanism is put in place for the parents to continue to challenge if they believe that their own child's needs are not being met in the most appropriate way.

My understanding has always been that where a preference can be met, and where the preference is consistent with the educational needs of the child, it shall be met. The tension that is thrown up only happens where the educational needs of the child are identified, and the parents make a preference which may, in fact, be inappropriate educationally. It would then be a requirement on the education authority to deem what is educationally appropriate, which may be out of sync. with the parents' preference. Of course, that is where the tribunal comes in and makes a judgment as to whether the local authority has done the right thing.

Where the parent makes a preference which is expensive for the local authority, and where the local authority can meet the educational needs of the child and the educational provision is at least comparable to that preferred by the parents, then it is possible for the local authority to presume in favour of the local authority provision and to stand judged about that when it comes to the tribunal. In other words, what still matters is the LEA meeting its obligation under the law to provide appropriate education for a child. I am not sure about the way in which this works.

One of the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson made is that there will always be a number of children with low incidence disabilities, and it is important to get a cohort of children that makes sense in terms of educational provision. Therefore, sometimes that can only be met as a national provision or a regional provision. It seems to me that there will always be the case for that.

If I read the amendment aright, the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, is trying to counter parents having a right to make a preference for a special school provision in the 1993 Act, with having equal rights for the parents to make a preference for mainstream school provision, as long as it is consistent with the educational needs of the child. I have no difficulty with presuming in favour of mainstream provision--and I think that is what this amendment is saying--as long as it is consistent with the parental wishes.

The Minister has to consider the interaction of this with the 1993 Act. He has to consider this amendment with the importance of providing appropriate education for the child, and in terms of it meeting parental preferences and getting away from what I have always thought to be unhelpful--an aggressive integrationist policy. At the end of the day it is a combination of what is right for the child and what is as close as possible to the wishes of the parent.

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