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Lord Renton: My Lords, this is the most important group of amendments that we have to consider on Report. Not all of them can be accepted, but I hope that the Minister will take very seriously the anxieties that are felt not only by a few of us in your Lordships' House but by many people outside about the Government stressing and prioritising the education of children with learning difficulties in mainstream schools. Of course, some are suitable for that, but we have to consider the needs of the child above all else.
I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking. As this is the first time that I have intervened in the proceedings on this Bill, perhaps I may declare that for nearly 30 years I have had reason to be closely involved with this matter. I have a daughter, now in her 40s, who has very severe learning difficulties and an incurable physical condition. When I retired from the Bar 26 years ago I became involved with Mencap. I was treasurer for two years, chairman for four years and president for six years. I am glad to say that the best thing I ever did for Mencap when I was chairman was to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Rix, to become the secretary-general. That was very valuable. Perhaps I may say how disappointed I was when I heard him speak very briefly. He is entitled to change and improve his mind, if I dare to say so.
My association with Mencap and my general interest in mentally handicapped people caused me to visit not only some special schools but also several mainstream schools, especially in my Huntingdonshire constituency where pupils with learning difficulties were having a hard time. That worried the parents who asked me to consider the matter.
Having children with learning difficulties in mainstream schools causes serious problems. The first is that the children become more conscious of their mental handicap which gives them an inferiority complex. Alas, sometimes they are bullied and often
How do we achieve that? Various ways have been suggested. But surely, above all else, when considering the drafting of Clause 1 we should place an obligation on all concerned to consider the special needs of children with learning difficulties. If that were written into Clause 1 it would do the Government no harm. It would not impair their policy, but it would mean that they were meeting the special needs of children with learning difficulties.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and other noble friends who have spoken. I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said when he referred to the old practice of local authorities using the words in the 1996 Act and not even thinking about a child with a statement. The child is bunged into a special school because that is easier for the system and one does not have to think about the problems of providing a place in a mainstream school.
However, under the Bill we are in danger of going too far in the other direction. Let us imagine a blind child in a mainstream school which cannot provide for that child. The child is quiet and docile and presents no problem, so the local authority cannot suggest a specialist school under Clause 1(3)(b). The parents may be perfectly content with a quiet education in which the child learns how to get on in the real world
We have completely taken away the power of the local authority to do the best for the child. As far as I can see, the local authority has no ability to improve matters. It is true that we are dealing with the problem of malevolent local authorities, but we are putting the whole burden on the child. We are going to dump children in mainstream schools in extremely unsuitable circumstances and offer them no way out. That is not acceptable. Although the previous system was bad, it was a great deal better than the one we are about to adopt if this Bill goes through as it is.
Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, we have had a long debate about this group of amendments concerning the needs and interests of individual children. At the very outset perhaps I might say how grateful I am for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, in resisting these amendments, as I shall. I believe that he was right in the short and pointed way in which he made clear the position of those who are knowledgeable about special educational needs. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that I entirely accept that there are anxious people and I take those anxieties very seriously. I was, however, very shocked by one comment that he made. He claimed that inclusion has no positive impact. That is simply not true. I do not believe that that view is held by anyone who spoke at the Committee stage of this Bill or who has spoken so far today. There is excellent independent research, not carried out by the Government but by Barnardo's, which concluded that inclusion brings both social and educational benefits to pupils with and without special educational needs.
Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords, this is Report stage and we should get on. Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to finish. I reiterate that I entirely accept that there are some children whose special educational needs are such that they need to be educated in special schools. I shall say more about that later.
I wish to deal first with the amendments focusing on children who have special educational needs but who do not have a statement, and conclude by considering the amendments which focus on children with statements. Amendment No.3 seeks to remove the requirement that a child without a statement of special educational needs should be placed in a mainstream school in all but a few exceptional circumstances. Amendment No. 7 seeks to insert a parental opt-out in the very section that Amendment No. 3 seeks to
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and to others who have spoken in this debate, that of course we want any child in a mainstream school to have a positive experience. I cannot give precise figures about how many mainstream schools could at this point provide the specialist help and resources needed to enable more children to come into the mainstream system. It would be ridiculous to try to do that in advance of the reform. No mainstream school can make arrangements without knowing about the individual needs of a particular child who has SEN. I was asked a totally unanswerable question. Moreover, I do not think that it would be possible for a local authority to make provision in mainstream schools in advance of changes that might be made after the Bill's eventual enactment.
I state categorically to the noble Lord that there is no intention for children to become guinea pigs under the legislation; far from it. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, that we certainly do not want to short-change children. Of course, if we were to agree to Amendment No. 3 there would be no provision within Section 316 to ensure that the majority of children who have SEN but who do not have a statement are educated within the mainstream system.
We want an inclusive education service to offer excellence and choice and we believe that parents' wishes should be listened to. However, we also firmly believe that a mainstream place is right and in the best interests of the vast majority of children who have SEN. As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, said, that may involve up to 20 per cent of children who do not have a statement.
We acknowledge that there will be a small minority of cases in which a child has SEN but does not have a statement for whom a special school is more appropriate. We have previously acknowledged that. Those "exceptional circumstances" have been set out in the Bill. The exceptional circumstances provide sufficient flexibility to ensure that a child who does not have a statement but who needs to go to a special school can do so. At a time when we are seeking to strengthen the right to a mainstream place for children who have statements, it would be bizarre to unduly limit access to the mainstream in relation to children who do not have a statement. In the light of that, I hope that the amendments will be withdrawn.
The remaining amendments--Amendments Nos. 8, 10 to 14, 22 and 23--seek to protect the interests of children who have statements. In effect, they reinstate provisions that are equivalent to the first caveat of the existing Section 316. As I said when discussing earlier amendments, the Government do not intend to do that.
I was interested in the history of SEN and special schools and the account of how they are treated given by the noble Lord, Lord Baker. I must say, however, that his speech was more appropriate for a Second Reading debate and was not absolutely confined to the amendments. Never mind: a great deal of his historical comments were absolutely right. I cannot go back as far as he did, but I can state that during the past five years the number of places in special schools has been static. About 1.2 per cent of all children are provided for, which amounts to approximately 97,000 places. Under this Government, there has not been an attack on special schools. I said throughout the Bill's Committee stage that the Government greatly respect the important work that special schools do.
We thought very carefully about the nature of the changes that we wanted to make to Section 316. We have always balanced the promotion of inclusion with the need to ensure that the education of all children is safeguarded. We did not drop the first caveat in order to downgrade or disregard the interests of individual children with statements. It was dropped--I repeat myself again--because we had clear evidence that it had been used inappropriately to block inclusion and that parents were ill placed to argue against such a judgment. Equally, we firmly believe that there are sufficient safeguards elsewhere in law to ensure that the needs of both the individual child and all pupils are protected. Of course, many children, such as those who are blind or deaf, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Baker, referred, will need the support of a special school.
In our approach we have the support of the Special Educational Consortium. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that he is a little out of touch with recent thinking on those matters. I am sure that his successor at Mencap, my noble friend Lord Rix, will confirm that. The SEC's position is that it has publicly welcomed our removal of the caveat relating to appropriate provision for the child because in practice that has often led to LEAs putting unnecessary barriers in the way of the need to provide a child with a mainstream place. The consortium supports increased access to appropriate mainstream placements that the removal of that caveat represents.
The whole point of identifying and assessing a child who needs a statement, and making a statement, is to ensure that the child receives the special educational provision that he needs. Under Schedule 27 to the 1996 Act, an authority is not required to comply with a parental preference for a maintained school if it is,
When parents believe that an authority has named a school in a statement that cannot meet the needs of their child, they have the right of redress to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Rights Tribunal. Members of the tribunal consider each case on its merits and take full account of the special educational needs of children. That affords an additional level of protection. I hope that the informal arrangements contained in Clause 3 for resolving disputes will also be helpful in this context.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that Section 317 means that governing bodies of maintained schools must use their best endeavours to secure SEN provision for children with learning difficulties. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp--I hope that this will provide her with the assurance she sought--that we shall enhance the guidance in the final version of the revised SEN code of practice. We will make it absolutely clear that the statement should: describe clearly all of the child's SEN needs in full; set out the main objectives that the SEN provision aims to meet; specify clearly and in detail the provision required to meet each of the child's needs; describe the arrangements for setting shorter-term objectives for the child; describe any special arrangements for the annual review of the statement; stress the importance of monitoring the child and evaluating his or her progress during the year; and emphasise the importance of the LEA monitoring the child's progress towards identified outcomes with a school.
I hope that that provides reassurance. Your Lordships will recall that I signalled during Committee stage our intention to ask HM Chief Inspector of Schools to monitor the new inclusion framework. The Secretary of State has now written to him and, once confirmed, this additional accountability will help to prevent any potential abuses and ensure that the needs of the child are safeguarded.
We do not therefore believe that it would be right to reinsert provisions that might be seen as equivalent to the old first caveat. I do understand that these concerns have been raised solely by the wish to ensure that the interests of all children are safeguarded. I really want to try to be helpful. I am happy to give a commitment today that the statutory guidance which
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