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Lord Rix: Perhaps I may say a few words. The Special Educational Consortium says briefly in regard to Amendment No. 59:


Lord Lucas: Perhaps I may raise on the back of my noble friend's last amendment the disparity between the Clause 1(4) list of schools, and the list of schools we find in Clause 3(8). There are differences in drafting which I find confusing. For example, in Clause 1(4) we have in (a) "a special school", whereas here we have a school approved under Section 342. I presume they are the same. If not, what are the differences? I cannot see why we use two different words for the same group of schools in the same legislation.

We have defined "mainstream school" in Clause 1(4). If we were to carry that definition through here, that would seem to be a way of shortening this section considerably and making at least the use of definitions consistent throughout the Bill.

I do not understand why these two sets of definitions do not mesh. I do not understand how they do not mesh nor the reason why they do not mesh.

Lord Davies of Oldham: I thought this was a straightforward debate, and noble Lords are asking me questions about definitions that I know I will be struggling with. Let me deal with the parts I can immediately, and I hope reasonably positively.

I have some reservations about Amendment No. 60, which no doubt the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will have anticipated. I shall come to those in a moment. The other amendments tend to develop the strong theme which ran throughout the debate that there was support for the plans of the Government to require all LEAs to establish arrangements which clearly include an independent element to avoid or resolve disputes between parents and schools, and parents and LEAs. I am confident that we shall ensure that we minimise the disruption to pupils' education and prevent damaging long-term breakdowns in relationships which have occurred in the past and which, where they occur, are obviously to the detriment of the education of the individual child concerned.

I recognise that these are amendments directed towards the constructive part of the Bill. Let me deal first with Amendment No. 54. This seeks to limit access to the new informal arrangements for preventing and resolving disputes between parents of children with SEN and schools. It would mean that this new additional service would only be available to parents of children who have SEN statements. Only about 3 per cent of pupils are in that category. The amendment would have the effect of denying access to the new service to the vast majority of parents whose children have special educational needs but not a statement. It can often be traumatic for parents when their child has SEN. This can lead to misunderstanding and disagreements.

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The Government believe it is essential that the new dispute resolution arrangements are widely available. Disputes can occur regardless of whether the child has a statement. The new arrangements should therefore extend to the parents of all children with special educational needs, whether or not the children have statements.

Increasingly, we need to find more informal and quicker ways of preventing and resolving disputes. It can often be traumatic for parents when they first find out that their child has special educational needs. The issues can be complex and hard to understand, and can lead to disagreements between parents and schools, or parents and their LEA. That is why we want the service to be provided as widely as possible. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, to consider withdrawing the amendment.

On Amendment No. 55, the Government recognise that it is essential that those helping to avoid and resolve disputes should have a wide range of skills, knowledge and expertise. Such expertise should include not only knowledge of special educational needs issues, but also, for example, counselling and negotiating skills, the ability to listen and the ability to establish and maintain communications.

I am happy to give the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, an assurance that the revised code of practice will set out that it is desirable for the independent persons appointed to facilitate the resolution of disagreements to have these skills and a sound understanding of SEN systems and procedures.

We are providing 2 million from April 2001 to support the independent element of the new dispute resolution arrangements. Resources will also be made available in the subsequent year. The resources will support training for those helping to avoid and resolve disputes. I hope, therefore, that, given this strategy and these assurances, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness may consider that they can withdraw their amendments.

Turning to Amendment No. 56, I can assure noble Lords that the Bill already provides for facilitators to be independent. That will not mean, however, that they have no connection whatsoever with local authorities or schools, otherwise they could not deal with the authority or school concerned on more than one occasion. What is important is that facilitators should have the necessary skills, knowledge and expertise that I mentioned a few moments ago.

Some have called for impartiality rather than independence. Parents who responded to our consultations on the Green Paper, Programme of Action, and the response to this Bill, clearly signalled that they wanted a degree of independence in the new arrangements. The code of practice accompanying this Bill would clearly set out guidance on who an independent conciliator should be. What we propose simply delivers the services that parents want.

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Turning now to Amendment No. 58, again we recognise the vital importance of resolving disputes between parents and schools and parents and LEAs as quickly as possible. This is particularly important where a child has special educational needs. This is the very reason we are seeking to place a duty on all LEAs to establish informal arrangements for preventing and resolving disputes where they occur. Far from slowing down the process, we would expect the new services to speed up the resolution of disputes. This will ensure that we minimise the disruption to pupils and to their families. The revised SEN code of practice will set out that the new informal arrangements for preventing and resolving disputes should seek to find solutions as rapidly as possible. I hope that, having heard these assurances, the amendment will not be pressed.

Turning to Amendment No. 59, I can assure noble Lords that the Government recognise that it is essential that parents know that engaging in new, informal arrangements for preventing and resolving disagreements does not in any way compromise their right of appeal to the SEN tribunal. I know that we have referred to this point before in Committee, but I seek to emphasise it again. We believe that this is best achieved through regulations.

I am happy to give an assurance that we will use the regulation-making powers provided for in Clause 8 and Schedule 7 of the Bill to require LEAs to inform parents about their arrangements for preventing and resolving disputes, and that if parents take advantage of those additional services it will not affect their entitlement to appeal to the tribunal in any way. LEAs will also need to inform parents of the statutory time limit for lodging an appeal and that dispute resolution can run alongside the appeals procedure.

We also envisage that Chapter 2 of the revised SEN code of practice will reiterate the need to inform parents about how the arrangements will work and that they do not affect their right of appeal. I hope that having heard my reassurances, Amendment No. 59 will not be moved.

Lastly, the effect of Amendment No. 60 would be to place a duty on an LEA to provide the new arrangements for preventing and resolving disputes to parents who have exercised their right to send their child to an independent school. That would place an inappropriate burden on the LEA to provide a service where the LEA has no direct involvement in the education of the child.

The Government recognise that, where a parent has exercised their right for an independent school placement for their child, it would not be appropriate for an LEA then to be asked to pay from the public purse for a service to that parent in relation to the new arrangements.

The Government recognise that the new arrangements for the prevention and resolution of disputes should be available to parents whose children have been placed in an independent school by a statement and the LEA is either funding the place in full or in part. The responsibility of the LEA in those

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circumstances is clear. But where parents have exercised their right to pay for an independent school place for their child, they should not then be covered by the new arrangements. Their relationship with the school is a private matter and the Government are reluctant to interfere in that. That is why I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Before my noble friend rises to reply, I think I should say to the Minister that he has not quite got the effect of Amendment No. 60 correct. If he refers back to Amendment No. 21, which was moved by me in our last consideration in Committee, he may find that helpful. There are a number of special independent schools which are not approved under Section 342 and which clearly should be in this process if the object of the exercise is to speed it all up and move things forward more smoothly before the tribunal stage is reached.

As usual, I declare an interest in that my daughter went to a special independent school that is not an approved school under Section 342 and therefore, unless my noble friend's amendment is accepted, all those schools would be excluded at this stage of the procedure by the wording of the Bill as it stands. I do not know how many there are, but there are probably at least 50 in the country that are really good schools--helpful to local authorities and to the whole process.


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