Baroness Sharp of Guildford (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, we now move on to Clause 39 and the next section of the Bill, which concerns the determination of local authority budgets and, indeed, the ring-fencing of those budgets. In moving Amendment No. 67, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 70.
These two amendments are concerned with special educational needs. They come from the Special Educational Consortium, which has very real concerns that the increased delegation to schools, while desirable in many ways, will have a detrimental effect on special educational needs services.
In many local education authorities, the delegation of the special educational needs support services has led to their erosion. When they are delegated, it is difficult to maintain the expertise that once existed in the service. There is concern that the high levels of delegation now expected in LEAs is eroding the specialist expertise in local support services, particularly where staff from hearing impairment and visual impairment services have been absorbed into general services.
Concerns are now at such a level that a number of organisations are worried that the expertise in their specialism is threatened. The RNIB, the RNID and Sense have all expressed concern. However, this matter relates not only to services for hearing and visually impaired pupils and for speech and language-impaired pupils; it is a problem in other areas where there is an acute need to build up expertise in schools—for example, in understanding the special educational needs of pupils with autistic spectrum disorders. The National Autistic Society also shares those concerns.
Without specialist services to support and develop the capacity of schools to work with a range of pupils with special educational needs, national policy on developing effective inclusion is likely to be limited by the pace of the slowest school. We discussed that issue at length when the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill came before the House. At that time, it was made clear that one needs to use the specialist services that are available at local education authority level or within special schools to ensure that they are available to help other schools and other teachers to develop their specialisms in this area. In so far as those specialist services are being eroded, it is far more difficult for that to happen.
This Bill proposes new ways of calculating the LEA's budget and the schools budget. The intention behind the amendment is to ensure that the funding of SEN support services is located where it will not be subject to pressures to delegate. However, there are some doubts as to whether that will really be achieved.
Amendment No. 70 relates to the overall pressure on SEN support services. There is concern about the lack of clarity in regard to the respective responsibilities of schools and local education authorities for children with special educational needs. It is not possible to see the effect of the new regulations requiring LEAs to set out what schools are expected to fund from their delegated budget and what LEAs will fund from their retained budget. These regulations have only just come into force, and it is too soon to assess the extent to which they may be able to help to ease the situation.
This amendment is modest. It would give schools a guideline for special educational needs spending. Such a guideline would, first, provide a benchmark for special educational needs spending in schools in the LEA area; secondly, it would combine with the new regulations so that schools would have a guideline on what they might purchase with their delegated budget and how much they might spend on it; and, thirdly, it would provide a basis for professional discussion between the LEA and the school about the delegated budget. All that can be done within the context of the LEA-schools relationships code of practice and its guiding principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success.
There is some feeling that Amendment No. 70 is too modest. There is a feeling that in order to stop the erosion of services and to start to build up the capacity of schools in response to the range of needs of pupils who may be placed in mainstream settings, there is a requirement for a far more radical approach to restructuring what had been the old SEN budget and a new and significant injection of funds.
Both amendments derive from the current apparent erosion of specialist expertise and doubts as to whether these budgetary arrangements will be able to stop that erosion. I beg to move.