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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we resist this amendment, which would have the effect of making LEAs incur greater costs in making special educational provision than is necessary. Local education authorities are required to provide education as efficiently as possible for all children, including those with special educational needs, but not of course to make the most expensive provision available.
If LEAs did not take into account the cost effectiveness and value for money of the provision, they could justly be accused of wasting public money. The Government certainly do not want that. Of course, if LEAs fail to make acceptable provision for pupils with SEN, they should not hide behind arguments about prohibitive cost to excuse themselves. However, if a parent considers the content of a statement of SEN to be unacceptable, he or she can already appeal to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Rights Tribunal. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment may investigate other complaints about possible unreasonableness or failure to act in accordance with the statutory duty of LEAs. The amendment therefore seems to us to impose a quite unnecessary straitjacket on local education authorities.
In addition, should LEAs spend more than is necessary on provision for young people with SEN, other deserving children might be prevented from having the support that they deserve and need, which would be to the detriment of their education and future attainments. That would be a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation, but I fear that that may happen if more articulate and well-informed parents choose to exploit the opportunity that would be offered by the proposed new clause. Local education authorities must be free to decide what would be most suitable for each child. Less costly provision can often serve the child as well as, and sometimes even better than, more expensive alternatives.
I also point out that LEAs that seek to make an efficient use of resources do not necessarily have to settle on the least expensive provision for a child. The one does not always equate to the other. For example, it might be an efficient use of resources to opt for more expensive provision in the short term so that a child needs less help, and less funding, in the longer term. It is right that LEAs should be able to consider each case on its merits.
I hope that the explanation that I gave when I moved the amendment was concerned not with the cost of establishing the schools but with the necessarily comparable cost, which is unavoidable, that arises when there is a choice between one type of school and another, both of which may have been established with the greatest economy but which nevertheless are not identical. The principle is that the child with SEN should not be prevented from going to whichever school is most suitable merely because the cost of one is a bit more than that of the other. That is all that my
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the first occasion on which we consider the advice that is made available to parents when they realise that they have a child with SEN. Some parents of course realise that when their child is at a very early age, because the symptoms are so observable. Other parents come to that view rather later. Some parents with a child with learning difficulties are often reluctant to recognise that their child has SEN and tend to blame the school. Whatever the stage, parents recognise at some stage that their child has SEN, and they have to search around for the best advice.
I hope that the Minister will agree to the amendment in the light of the gist of what was said in Committee. When a similar amendment was moved I was unfortunately absent that day. However, it was moved absolutely brilliantly by my noble friend Lady Blatch. In reply, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, was very optimistic and encouraging. She said:
My point in the amendment is that when the code is redrafted and when guidance is given, it should be stated that alternative schools outside an LEA should also be drawn to the attention of parents. I beg to move.
Your Lordships will note that the child's parents were not included in the list of persons who make a preliminary assessment. However, is it not highly probable that the first people who will note some difficulty or aberration, or the fact that something is not quite right with the child, will very often be the child's parents? After all, they are with the child more than anyone else. No doubt such parents will make an informal visit to the school and ask the teachers whether they have noticed anything unusual about the child. Whether or not the teachers confirm the parents' concern, the parents will still think that there is a possibility that the child has SEN, even if the parents have, until that point, never heard of the expression, "special educational needs". They may well say, quite simply, that the child is having difficulty learning or is not behaving normally, or they may find another explanation for whatever the apparent problem appears to be to them. They will want to know where they can go for further professional advice. Of course, it reinforces their case if the school also believes that something is amiss, but in the early stages of a difficulty it is likely that it will be the parents who will notice that there is a problem.
I am arguing for statutory requirements, as provided for in the Bill, enabling the LEA to give advice and information or to point the parents in the direction of such advice and information not only if a child definitely has special needs but if the parents believe that it has. We are talking about advice and information to parents at this stage. Such a request from parents is not going to be made capriciously. No parent likes to believe that there is something wrong with their child. They will not voice their concern to the LEA or anyone else unless they have good reason to believe that something is wrong.
All the talk that the noble Baroness gave us in Committee about the development of the parent partnership services or about guidance being avalable at some future time is never going to meet the particular situation of my amendments, where the parents of a child who has special educational needs must know where to go for further advice and information. Such advice may well confirm their fears and point them in the direction of assistance or it may reassure them that their perceived difficulty does not amount to special educational needs.
After all, we are agreed throughout the Chamber about early intervention and we should not be hung up as to who spots the need for it. If it is a parent, that ought to be given a place in the Bill. It should be a duty on the LEA to provide advice and information to all parents who need it and not just to those who are thought by the LEA to need it.
At Committee stage the noble Baroness appeared to have a lack of sympathy for such parents. Certainly I found her refusal to put this simple provision in the Bill quite unacceptable. If a parent is genuinely concerned that the child has particular learning difficulties, it is important that advice should be available when they seek it.
My Amendment No. 36, which refers to Schedule 27 to the 1996 Act, provides that when an LEA makes a statement on a child the LEA shall make certain information available in writing to a parent.
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