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Lord Addington: Very briefly, (though not very quietly), I support the noble Lord in these amendments and certainly in their thrust. According to some of the briefing I received on this Bill, "He'll grow out of it" must be the greatest mantra for virtually all children with disabilities, particularly those of the hidden kind. If we do not have some process for looking at this, it will be, "Put him to the back of the class". Also, in very young classes, there is always the temptation to push them quietly back and say, "He's not very good at writing yet; let him play and draw for a bit". Those things do happen; they have happened in the past. The noble Lord is pointing out something that has a real historical basis. This would be one attempt to address the problem.

Lord Morris of Manchester: I thank my friend the noble Lord, Lord Rix, for having moved this amendment. A question of fundamental importance for the Minister is whether she can confirm that LEAs will be required to provide educational support to children and their parents post-diagnosis and up to three years of age. It is a question of particular importance for children with disabilities such as deafness, whose lives can be revolutionised by the benefits of early intervention and the harnessing of new technology before and after speech and language acquisition. Moreover, those benefits will significantly increase the chances of a child's successful mainstream

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education. Given all that, is it not crucially important to have it confirmed on the face of the Bill? I know my noble friend will reply as helpfully as she can.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): The amendment would require early years education settings and early years development and childcare partnerships--which I will refer to from now on as partnerships--to set out their policies on plans for children with special needs or disabilities. It would also require local authorities to supply goods and services to support children with SEN in an early years setting delivering Government-funded early education.

We do not believe the proposed changes are necessary. However, having said that, perhaps I could respond immediately to the question put by my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester. LEAs do not have the same duties towards children under two as they have in respect of those over two. However, they have the power to make and maintain a statement for children under two if they consider it necessary, and they must carry out an assessment of a child with SEN if they need to determine the special educational provision that the child needs and the parents request an assessment.

To a large extent, practice has shown that the most effective interventions for very young children are those that involve the input of services other than education. Such children may be "children in need" under the Children Act 1989 and, therefore, their parents can expect support, advice and appropriate provision from both social services and the health authority. The Children Act places a specific duty on local authorities to provide services designed to minimise the effect on disabled children within the area of their disabilities and to give such children the opportunity to lead lives that are as normal as possible.

For children under three, it is common practice for LEAs to provide educational services through portage home visiting services or peripatetic sensory support services where they are needed. Those services are provided without statutory assessment or a statement. Such educational support is usually allied to support from the other statutory services such as health.

Appropriate provision for young children is very important, so I entirely support what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester have just said. We would be very happy to discuss the matter further with interested parties before Report stage if that would be helpful.

I shall say a little more about why we think there are other routes to achieve what lies behind the amendments. I reiterate that the Government accept the importance of early identification of special needs and the provision of appropriate support for young children with SEN and disabilities, so I am grateful that this concern has been raised.

Let me deal first with Amendment No. 87. This seeks to put a requirement on the face of the Bill to ensure that early years settings delivering government

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funded early education have an SEN and disability policy. I do not think that that is necessary. Perhaps I could take the opportunity to update the Committee on the kinds of actions that have already been taken.

All partnerships are required under the School Standards and Framework Act to admit a plan for approval by the Secretary of State. To meet the criteria for approval, the plans are expected to provide information as requested in the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership Planning Guidance. For 2000-01, the partnership plans had to include an annex addressing special educational needs and disabilities and this will also be a criterion for future years. Among other things, the guidance asks, in relation to children with SEN or a disability, for an implementation plan and details of how children will have equal access to childcare and early years services.

All early years settings delivering government funded early education for three and four year-olds must be registered with their partnership to receive any grant. It is a condition of registration that providers agree to be bound by the conditions of grant and for periods during which they are claiming grant.

It is also the case that all early years settings in receipt of government funding are required by law to have regard to the SEN code of practice.

The 2001-02 revision of Requirements of Nursery Education Grant will make it a full condition of grant for settings to have an SEN policy. Setting such a requirement is currently an option for LEAs but making it one of the full conditions on which grant is dependent makes a very significant strengthening of the arrangements. All settings providing early education and/or childcare will be subject to disability duties under the DDA, once the Act is in force.

In due course we will issue specific guidance for partnerships and their early education settings to help them to understand and implement the requirements of that legislation. The Disability Rights Commission's code of practice on Part III of the DDA and on the new disability duties to be imposed by the Bill will provide detailed guidance on the disability duties contained in those provisions.

We have set targets for all partnerships to make sure that by 2001-02 they deliver the foundation stage, and by the end of 2001-02 an SEN co-ordinator--sometimes known as a SENCO--responsible for establishing and implementing the settings for SEN and equal opportunities policy.

It is also the case that the latest version of the Ofsted Handbook for Inspecting Nursery Education in the Private, Voluntary and Independent Sectors requires the inspectors to obtain copies of the settings' SEN and other policy documents for consideration as part of the inspection. There is thus a genuine means of monitoring and enforcement which underpins our very great commitment to seeing improvements in this area.

Finally, the Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage, which was published in June last year, sets out the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment. It makes clear that practitioners need to

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plan for each child's learning requirements, including those with particular needs. We will support partnerships and settings by issuing specific guidance to help them to understand and implement their obligations to children with special educational needs and other disabilities.

Let me turn briefly to Amendment No. 88. Currently, local authorities are granted powers under the Education Act 1996 to supply goods or services to help with special educational provision for children with SEN in early years settings, delivering the government funded early education. This amendment seeks to change these powers to a duty but that is not necessary.

Many LEAs and local partnerships are already working very effectively to support children in early year settings within the private, independent and voluntary sectors.

In the 2001-02 version of the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership Planning Guidance, we have asked the partnerships to make sure that they have developed a clear strategy to allow all children to have equal access to childcare and early educational services regardless of their special educational needs or disability.

In 2001-02 we are making available 41.5 million to partnerships, via their LEAs, to fund training and development for early years practitioners, including the SENCOs so that there is much better infrastructure support than there has been.

We are working with partnerships to increase the early identification of SEN and for them to intervene where it is required so that there is better access to appropriate support and services. Those actions demonstrate our long-term commitment to improving the provision.

I turn now to the final amendment in the group, Amendment No. 89. Again, the Government do not believe this amendment to be necessary. We have set partnership targets in their plans to improve SEN support and provide help where it is needed, by establishing SENCOs and developing networks of area SENCOs.

I hope that I have reassured both noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and my noble friend who asked me a specific question, that early years and childcare development partnerships, working together with their early years settings, local authorities and other support services are making significant advancement.

The special needs of young children must and will be identified early; that is absolutely paramount. Partnerships will ensure that the appropriate course of action is taken. On that basis, and with a suggestion that further discussions can take place on how to really make this work, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

3.45 p.m.


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