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Lord Lucas: My Lords, my Amendment No. 33 should be in this group. I think that my noble friend Lady Blatch has said almost everything I would want to say. The time parents really need help is when they do not know what is going on. In those circumstances it is very difficult for them to know where to turn. They should be able to rely on a local authority at least for help on where they should go and how they find out about these difficult and often hard-to-get-to-the-bottom-of conditions from which children in quite large numbers suffer.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it will come as no surprise to the House to recognise that the Government share the broad intentions behind the amendments. We want parents to have the maximum relevant information as a contribution to the development of their child's education. I have what I hope the noble Lord, Lord Baker, will regard as just a minor quibble with his amendment. It specifies the wrong line, and technically is therefore not quite acceptable, but I fully understand the intent behind it and I shall address myself to that.
The Bill provides for advice and information to be given about matters relating to special educational needs and about how the system works. Parental rights under the legislation, as well as a wide range of options, are open to parents. I repeat the assurance given by my noble friend Lady Blackstone at Committee stage that the revised code of practice will clearly set out the provision of advice and that
It is not for the parent partnership service to seek to promote or champion any particular type of placement or to seek to persuade parents to accept a certain type of provision. Rather, their role is to give parents accurate information on the available options to help them make informed decisions for themselves. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Baker, that we will cover this within the minimum standards we expect all parent partnerships to achieve. I hope that, given these reassurances, he may consider withdrawing his amendment.
Amendment No. 32 would give absolute rights to information and advice to parents who simply claim that their child has special educational needs. Parent partnership services must not be open to possible misuse. As my noble friend the Minister said during Committee stage, we will be making clear in the revised code of practice and the accompanying good practice guide that parent partnership services must be flexible in their approach. It will be made clear that they must not turn away any parent out of hand.
We know already that they do not draw any hard and fast lines and we shall encourage this flexible approach. My noble friend acknowledged at Committee stage that there are cases where a child's special educational needs may not have been recognised or identified, and parent partnership services can help by supporting parents in pursuing the matter with the school or the LEA. This was a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.
Some parents may think their child has special educational needs when in fact they do not. They may simply not be doing as well at school as their parents had hoped. Parent partnership services should not be expected to provide advice and information on non-SEN related matters. Their prime role is to help the parents of children who really do have these needs. I am sure your Lordships would not want parent partnership services to be diverted from their prime function. That would be at the expense of the very people we have identified as needing advice and support.
This is a sensitive issue, which I believe is better suited to guidance when matters can be set out in detail. I hope, having heard my assurances that parent partnership services will act flexibly and sensitively and will not turn parents away out of hand, that Amendment No. 32 may also be withdrawn.
Turning to Amendment No. 36, I understand that it is meant to ensure that parents know about the various sources of professional advice open to them at the time the statement is issued. We believe that all parents with children who have special educational needs should have access to advice from a range of professions at any stage and not just when a statement is issued.
I believe I can be helpful to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Although we think this amendment overlaps with the provisions of Clause 2(3), we agree it is essential that parents know where they can seek advice at the point when a statement, or proposed amended statement, is issued. I happily give an assurance that we will use the regulation-making powers provided for in Schedule 27 to the Education Act of 1996 to require LEAs to remind parents about the range of advice and information available from the parent partnership services at the time a proposed statement or proposed amended statement is being issued. I hope what I have said will meet the points raised by the noble Baroness.
Turning to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, this would give an absolute right to information and advice being given to anyone who may have a general query about special educational needs. That is not really the prime function of parent partnership services, as I indicated earlier. Their main focus must be on those who have a real need for help and support; that is, parents whose children have special educational needs. As I said earlier, we are seeking to avoid the parent partnership services being open to misuse by those asking rather more general educational questions about their children who may not fit into the category for whom the parent partnership services are designed to meet.
I recognise that in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was concerned about parents who believe that their children have special educational needs having access to advice and support. At that stage, the Minister said that there are cases where the child's special educational needs may not have been recognised or identified. Of course, the needs of those parents must not be overlooked. Parent partnership services can help by supporting parents in pursuing the matter with the school or the LEA. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that we do not want to divert the services from their prime function. That would be at the expense of the people who need their advice and support. These issues are interesting and challenging, but I hope in the light of what I have said that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the broadly sympathetic reply that he has given to these amendments. There is little between us. Clearly, one would like to see more on the face of the Bill, but I accept that codes and guidance are a way of proceeding in educational matters.
However, the parent partnership services should not, as the Minister said, advocate one school or another or one type of school or another; they should lay out the possible alternatives. My point is that when a child has severe disabilities, such as being blind, the parents should be aware of the special schools for the blind; if a child is deaf, the parents should be aware of the special schools for the deaf; and if a child is very severely physically disabled, the parents should be aware of the small number of schools that deal with severely physically disabled children. I hope that that specific recommendation of mine is taken on board in the guidance.
Several times this evening, in relation to a variety of matters, the Ministers have given reassurances that the concerns expressed on all sides of the House will be met in the revised code of practice and the revised guidelines. I express the hope that, if that is the case, they should be circulated well before Third Reading so that we can reflect upon them. It would be unfair if we do not see them before Third Reading, because so much of the Government's case is that there is no need to worry because our requirements will be catered for in the code of practice and in the guidelines. Clearly, we shall have another day on Report, after which there will be a gap before Third Reading, and so it should be possible to issue a draft of the guidance.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the draft guidance is already available and has been subjected to wide consultation. If the noble Lord is saying that the final version should be ready before Third Reading, I am afraid that that would not be possible. I assume that he is talking about the broad lines of the draft.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, the Minister has said that he will accept the broad intentions of what we say. I believe that all sides of the House are interested in the narrow acceptances. Much of what the Government have said tonight has inferred that we should not worry because this and that concern will be dealt with. As they have specifically said that, I believe that the Minister owes it to the House to say exactly how the guidance or the code will be modified. That is only fair, otherwise we shall drift off into the unknown. I ask him to reflect upon that by Third Reading. On that semi-undertaking from the Government, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I emphasise the point made by my noble friend on guidance. Constantly, we are told in response to these amendments that something will happen in guidance that will achieve what we want. If that is the case, we need to know that that is definitive advice and that what the Minister has said will appear in the guidance.
The guidance was in a fairly finished state and the draft code of practice was almost complete. There should be no reason why we should not have them before Third Reading, unless the Government have plans to alter them substantially.
The record books are littered with parents who have ended up at tribunals in regard to their children. They have spent months, and sadly even years, trying to convince someone that there is a problem. Eventually someone at a tribunal agrees that that is the case and
No one is asking for an entitlement to an assessment, but this modest amendment simply says that where a parent is sufficiently concerned to go to the LEA and/or to the school saying, "I believe that my child has special educational needs"--it is likely that they will go to the teacher in the first instance--they should be given advice and information at that point.
The parent partnerships that the noble Lord believes will be the answer to everything will not be the answer to the sort of parent to whom this amendment is aimed. I come from a rural district in Cambridgeshire where there are isolated families who will not have access to committees and sub-committees. At the end of the day, parent partnerships will have an office building somewhere and people who sit on committees and they will not be the kind of people whom parents can approach. Parents want to be able to approach a school teacher to say, "I believe that my son/my daughter has a problem", and they will want information on where they can seek help. I believe that that should be an entitlement.
Lest the noble Lord believes that I am simply being negative, I, like my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking, welcome the reassuring remarks made in regard to the other amendments, particularly Amendment No. 36. I thank the Minister for that.
I believe that parents should have an entitlement to advice and information. It should not be left to the happenstance of a parent partnership or some other formal committee picking up such matters by chance. If this Bill is about anything, it ought to be about responding to parents in that way. I beg to move.
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