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Lord Addington: I would like to make one or two comments on this amendment. When talking of special educational needs we often have this argument about the most appropriate type of education and the benefits of the sheltered environment as against greater integration.
Sensory deprivation and problems of a sensory type of impairment are always going to be the most difficult type for integration across the board, because they affect the way in which you absorb information. My noble friend Lady Nicholson said that that was going to be one of the most difficult areas because the structure of lessons and learning is often difficult. That is in purely educational terms.
It is easier to integrate into classrooms pupils with movement impairment. However, there are so many variations on the themes that one cannot make hard cases either way. The amendment is probably the best attempt I have seen to square the circle. It does not achieve the objective and the refusal is purely on financial grounds. Can the noble Baroness tell us why? What exactly needs to be done? We have danced around the problem for long enough. Surely we should take this opportunity to try to correct it.
Lord Whitty: This has been an interesting debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth, my noble friend Lady David and others who have put their name to the amendment for sharing their thinking with the department. It has helped our thinking to move on.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked whether this was the right amendment for achieving objectives which, broadly speaking, we all share. I would argue that it is not the right amendment either technically or strategically. Technically speaking, as many noble Lords who know better than me the complexity of the law relating to special educational needs will be aware, the amendment seeks to change Section 316 of the Education Act 1996, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, stated, re-enacts provisions which were in the 1993 Act and to some extent in the 1981 Act.
Section 316 seeks to secure that a child with a statement of SEN shall, if that is what the parents want, be educated in a mainstream school, subject to the LEA being absolved from meeting that general preference where to do so would not meet the child's needs or would be incompatible with the efficient education of other children or with the efficient use of resources. The amendment seeks to do away with the latter two conditions but not the first.
There is an interaction, however, between Section 316 and Schedule 27 to the Act. In fact, Schedule 27 comes first because the LEA proposing to issue a statement for a child with special educational needs must, under the provisions of that schedule, name the maintained school--mainstream or special--that is preferred by the parents unless the same three exemptions apply. Section 316 comes into play only where parents do not express a preference for a particular school or where their preference for one mainstream school is not being met. Section 316 provides that if the LEA is not obliged
The overall effect of the amendment would be to retain all three specific conditions which LEAs must consider when deciding whether a school should be named in a statement, but it would somewhat illogically remove some of the conditions which would be available for an LEA to pray in aid under Section 316 when not complying with a parental preference for a specific school under Schedule 27. That is the main technical reason why this is not the appropriate amendment, although there are other issues. While it is attractive, we should need to examine carefully the wider implications of the amendment's reference to securing the ascertainable wishes of the child, sympathetic though we are to taking more account of the views of children with SEN.
Moreover, there are strategic reasons why at this stage we would not wish to support the amendment. In our Green Paper on SEN we gave a commitment that we would strongly promote the inclusion of children with SEN in mainstream schools, as is the objective of this amendment. The issue of inclusion has already provoked far more comment than any other aspect of the Green Paper. The department has been carefully digesting those views. The great majority were in favour of a cautious move towards more inclusion; but they also indicated that there are some very real issues to be addressed, some of which were addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson.
It is quite clear that some parents of pupils with SEN, either through experience or because of their own feelings, do not believe that their child's need can be properly met in a mainstream school. We accept that there are clearly some children for whom a national provision in fewer and better special schools would be more appropriate. It is also unfortunately true that other parents of pupils who do not have special needs fear that their increased inclusion would disrupt their own children's education. There are also teachers, worried about their ability to cope with pupils with a wider range of needs. All these responses need to be taken into account and indicate that we must move sensibly and sensitively.
The Government have in train two related courses of action to secure the objective which lies behind this amendment. The first is the SEN Green Paper itself, the consultation for which has been concluded, and the Government will put forward an action programme in the light of the responses, to be issued shortly after the Summer Recess. The second course of action which is also relevant to this is that the disability task force, chaired by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, will, among other things, specifically review the present exclusion of education from the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act.
It may well be that we shall propose to Parliament measures which will have the same effect as the present amendment, but they will be part of a coherent overall package which will take account of all of these concerns. At that stage we will want to propose practical legislative arrangements for children with SEN--arrangements which will work and which will last. We do not consider that deciding to adopt this amendment in the Bill at this stage would help that situation. Piecemeal changes are no substitute for the full review on which the Government are now embarked.
Having said that there are both technical and strategic objections to this amendment, we do share the objective behind the amendment. I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise the very real commitment to move in the direction proposed. With that commitment from the Government I hope that the noble Baroness is prepared to withdraw her amendment, at this stage at least.
Baroness Darcy de Knayth: I first of all thank all noble Lords who have spoken: the noble Baroness, Lady David, who, as she said, has been on this since 1981, as I have myself, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who offered her support; the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her thoughtful question and support, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, for many of her remarks. I do appreciate and understand what she said, but I hope she has equally understood my reply. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her question, her very serious consideration of this amendment and for her broad support. I welcome that very much indeed. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who as usual puts his finger unerringly on the matter. I am extremely pleased that he thinks it is the best attempt yet to square the circle, and I am very grateful for that.
I turn now to the response of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. He is really refusing this amendment on two grounds--technical and strategic grounds. I may not have totally understood the technical grounds and I should like to read again what he said. I am not sure that he was right about that but I shall read very carefully what he said.
That disappoints me enormously. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, says that it will remove the barriers to inclusion and is part of a coherent, overall pattern which will demonstrate pure commitment. The Green Paper gives a very firm commitment as regards moving towards inclusion but if that is to be anything more than mere aspiration, the LEAs must be prepared to offer and be offering mainstream education throughout the country. I do not like the expression "a level playing field" and I have never used it before but I may have to on this occasion so that the Committee will know what I mean.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, knows that the noble Baroness, Lady David, and I were in communication with the department. I said that I would not divide on this amendment but I emphasised that I would like a very clear message from the Minister to those LEAs which are reluctant to respond. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will realise that I mean no discourtesy to him: I do not feel that the message is very strong in any event but I feel that a ministerial message of encouragement to LEAs comes rather stronger when it is from the lips of the Minister herself. I understand that the Government do not feel like doing that at the moment.
Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will agree to discuss this matter before the next stage of the Bill. I do not ask the Government to pre-empt the Green Paper but could we not try to smooth the way towards offering an equal opportunity for children wherever they live?
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