Baroness Darcy de Knayth (Crossbench)
I support all three amendments. The noble Baronesses who have spoken have been very eloquent and rather brief. I am afraid that I shall not be quite so brief.
All the amendments are aimed at the protection of the vulnerable, to use the Minister's words. My amendment—No. 22—originated with the Independent Panel on Special Education Advice, of which I am a patron. IPSEA is a member of the Special Education Consortium, which is the source of the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford. My amendment goes wider than Amendment No. 16, proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, but Amendment No. 17—in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford—is preferable to my amendment because it covers children with disabilities under the DDA. So, I would plump for Amendment No. 17, but, for the moment, I shall speak to Amendment No. 22.
I am grateful to the Minister for our long and helpful meeting. We all understand the Government's intention to open up the possibility of innovation and progressive development of educational practice by adventurous LEAs. Their aim is to improve schooling for all children by relieving LEAs of certain legal duties. I shall not go into the question of whether, in the case of most children, legislation is necessary; we have had enough of that today. I support the contention made by both noble Baronesses that children with special educational needs already have the freedom; it is the protection of the statement that they need.
I shall try not to be too repetitive, but with regard to the arrangements for the assessment and statementing of children with special educational needs, set out under the Education Act 1996, I need to make two specific points. I shall be boringly specific after the glorious eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, but I am afraid that it is necessary.
Seeing the noble Lord, Lord Peston, reminds me that during the passage of the 1988 Act we were worried about the freedom which teachers were given under the curriculum to disapply it to children with special educational needs. At that point, the worry was reversed. Teachers do have the freedom.
On the positive side, statements already allow educational provision to be tailored for individual children. A feature of that individual tailoring can be relieving LEAs and schools of specific duties which are not appropriate in terms of meeting the special needs of individual children; thus allowing innovation with regard to the education of individual children with statements. For example, under the 2001 SEN regulations, an LEA can apply whatever modifications or even exclusions that it considers appropriate to the application of the national curriculum in respect of an individual child. Furthermore, an LEA can decide upon any provision for his education otherwise than at school. It currently allows a wide variety of provision other than attendance at school; for instance, split placements between schools and specialist units; early attendance at colleges; home-based education with support from the home tuition service, and so forth.
In short, the device of a statement already allows an LEA maximum flexibility to be innovative with educational arrangements to the benefit of individual children with special educational needs. It does not need the benefits which the Government believe that Clause 2 will bring to all our children. Secondly, on a more negative note, there is potential for great hazard in Clause 2 for children whose needs require them to have assessments and statements of special educational needs made and maintained under the 1996 Act.
The Minister spoke about teachers knowing the law and she said how important it was to have an understanding of SEN law. The main purpose of statements is to protect the provision for children with special educational needs. The important point is that that protection depends on a linking together of several separate duties created by separate sections of the 1996 Act: the duty to identify from those children for whom they are responsible those who have special educational needs under Section 323; the duty to assess a child who has, or probably has, special educational needs which require the authority to determine the special educational provision called for under Section 323(2); the duty to make and maintain a statement of special educational needs when assessment shows that to be necessary under Section 324(1); the duty to specify in a statement the special educational provision to be made for the purpose of meeting an individual child's needs under Section 324(3)(a) and (b); and the duty to arrange the special education provision specified in a statement under Section 324(5)(a)(i).
The point is that as with any chain it would take only one of those links to be removed (through an LEA being relieved of one of those legal duties by a future Secretary of State) for children's legal entitlements to special educational provision to be totally undermined. Those entitlements would fall and with them Parliament's settled intention for more than 20 years for provision to protect those children's needs. The Minister described it as the protection of the vulnerable.
I am grateful to the Minister for her most useful guidance as regards the power to innovate. Page 1 contained a cheering piece stating that it was the view of the Government that weakening the accountability framework would not lead to higher standards overall. She stated that proposals may raise standards by strengthening the accountability framework. That is immediately followed by:
"Proposals to simplify or make the accountability framework less bureaucratic will also be considered".
Alarm bells ring as anyone involved in special educational needs knows that it is a common complaint to LEAs that the assessment and statementing procedures are too bureaucratic and too complex, yet a child's legal entitlements to appropriate provision are absolutely dependent on the procedures—the links in the chain—being adhered to.
With regard to children with special educational needs, a removal or simplification of any of the existing procedures set out in the 1996 Act risks undermining children's legal entitlement to a statement which genuinely protects their provision—the ultimate protection of the vulnerable.
I look forward to the Minister's reply and I hope that we shall be able to have a good many conversations outwith the Chamber. For the moment, I firmly support the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp.