My Lords, I almost feel that the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield—indeed, as we discovered in a debate in this House, my noble kinsman Lord Lingfield—should be the one opening this debate, because he has the more substantive amendment. Having said that, I think that I know better than to try to put words in his mouth.
My Amendment 41 concerns a part of the Bill that says, and I think it is best if I quote it, although I am beginning to wish I had put my glasses on:
“The governing body of an institution in England within the further education sector must … from time to time review how well the education or training provided by the institution meets local needs”.
I tabled the amendment because I do not know what “from time to time” means. I have absolutely no idea what “from time to time” means. Does it mean once a decade? Every six months? I have absolutely no idea.
This is a small point that starts before the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, comes in. Put simply, I would like to know what the Government think “from time to time” means. Does it have a timeframe on it, or is it something that will be inspired by events—for instance, if you lose an employer or another one is coming in? Are they having a look at what the needs are in these situations? That is really what we are trying to get at. If we can establish that, then we will be able to assess whether further action should be taken on this. Because the fact of the matter is that it is basically a recipe for confusion at the moment, if you are looking in from the outside. However, I hope that the noble Lord does not take this as a criticism of his amendment, which uses the same wording.
I remind the House of my interests yet again in special educational needs. If you get special educational needs wrong, you are effectively cutting out X number of people from training. It becomes very difficult to train them properly if you do not take this into account and you do not have the training processes in place that allow you to reach those students. To look just at the neurodiverse conditions—dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, et cetera—they all have different learning patterns, and these are patterns that apply differently to different subjects.
For instance, “Dyslexia does not affect maths.” Yes, it does, because you have a bad short-term memory, which means that you do not remember things like equations. I know this—I have the maths retakes to prove it. Dyscalculia is probably not officially recognised by the Government, but it is one where you have a difficulty with the concept of maths. If you know how to deal with this in your structures, and if you have people who can address this in the way they are working, life gets easier. Other conditions have other things—there are various gradings when it comes to autism and other things such as learning difficulties, et cetera. It is a very complicated structure. If you can learn if you have spikes in certain groups and communities going through, I personally feel that you should always try to find out exactly what you are dealing with. It is a very straightforward thing, but one that has very big implications. You are talking about slightly changing the way you deliver lessons, with flexibility, I suspect.
I do not know whether my noble kinsman thinks that this is exactly the same thing that he is implying, but I look forward to finding out. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 43, 44, 45 and 46 and, in doing so, remind noble Lords of my registered interest as chairman of the Chartered Institution for Further Education, which is a growing Russell-type group of the most distinguished FE colleges in the country.
Briefly, this amendment adds a requirement for institutions to review, from time to time, how well they are meeting the special educational needs of students in their areas. I read the guidance published after I put down my amendment, and it makes a short reference to special educational needs and disabilities, as did the Minister, my noble friend Lady Berridge, in her reply at the end of Second Reading.
The role of further education colleges in developing SEND provision is central to ensuring that those who have the most significant barriers to learning improve their life chances and are given the opportunity to develop new skills, establish independence and contribute to the local economy.
The parents of special needs students find that the best further education colleges provide their sons and daughters with safe, productive and supportive environments in which they can have confidence. I have been struck by the readiness of FE student bodies to welcome special needs colleagues and to extend friendship and help to them.
The best colleges are very good also at progressing special needs and disabled learners into employment. These institutions encourage close co-operation with local employers to provide work experience opportunities for SEND learners, often by supported internships.
All these young people gradually become less reliant on local support services and acquire an ongoing sense of achievement and self-esteem. Many develop a special level of expertise in certain vocational areas and are welcome additions to the local workforces in their areas.
In the past few years, far more companies have become more sensitive to the needs of disabled employees. There is no regulation in this country that requires the employment of a quota of staff with special needs, as there is in certain European countries, but I know a number of firms that have made the gratifying effort to ask colleges to steer disabled students in their direction.
We tend to think of FE students with some kind of special needs as being in a very small minority. Last week, I received the statistics from four excellent colleges in various parts of the country. They support the figures quoted briefly on Second Reading of around 20% of students requiring special support, rising to 25% of those under 19 years old.
For far too long, further education has been, as my noble friend Lady Berridge underlined earlier this afternoon, the Cinderella of this country’s education service, underfunded and often neglected as it has been. Too much of its provision has become mediocre today. If that were not so, this Bill would not have been necessary. The Government have woken up, at last, to the fact that high-quality vocational education is absolutely essential to our country’s competitive performance in a post-Brexit world, and all this is very welcome indeed.
However, too many colleges have still to improve, and as special needs and disabled students’ numbers are visibly on the increase, the regular legal requirement for review of the needs of SEND students becomes even more needed. With such a considerable proportion of the FE student population in this category, it is clear that we owe them a special duty of care. It is my view that the face of the Bill should reflect this in the way my amendments make apparent.
My Lords, I first need to declare my interest as chair of the National Society. I should also apologise that I was unable to take part in Second Reading because of other engagements; my noble friend the Bishop of Leeds spoke in my stead. I also need to apologise for a complete error on my part in not being available to speak to Amendment 11, to which my name was added, during day one of Committee; that was entirely an administrative error at my end.
However, I now enter into the debate on a very small matter, on Amendment 41, on which I simply want to endorse the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, about the phrase “from time to time”. The language seems too loose. The word “regularly” implies something more frequent without expressing exactly what that regularity is. Put simply, regular review that connects with potential changing local needs makes good sense. The amendment simply tightens this up.
But I want to connect Amendment 41 to Amendment 43. My local college, Bishop Auckland College, which is an excellent example of FE provision, in reviewing the support for SEN in its own context, also found itself reviewing the wider provision for the students with SEN who were coming into the college. That led it to recognise that there was a serious gap in provision locally, which has led it further to now open a campus for a school specialising in special educational needs support for those who need the provision of a specific school with all the facilities provided. That means that the local FE has now added to the provision in the area. It also means that it has developed, or is developing now, a much longer-term vision for support for these students. It will see them through their secondary education and then into the FE itself. There are potentially all sorts of long-term advantages, I believe, for some of the students in this provision.
I think that Amendment 43 makes complete sense, as the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, has so helpfully outlined. I wish to add my support to both Amendments 41 and 43.
My Lords, my role in this group is really to add support to my noble friend Lord Addington, who knows more than I ever will about special educational needs. He and the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield, are a formidable team for these amendments. Obviously, these two noble kinsmen disagree on the use of “from time to time”, but that is not as important as the fact that they call for reviews to take place on these matters.
What matters is that colleges should be fully aware of the skills, talents and opportunities, but also the limitations, of those with special educational needs. As I said previously in this debate, FE does lend itself to those with SEN because of the breadth of practical subjects that can be studied. I hope the Minister will appreciate how important it is to have those with SEN on the face of the Bill.
My Lords, I am sure I am not alone in finding that there are times when I come across something that makes me look at it and look at it again and think, “Well, that’s stating the blindingly obvious.” That was my thought when I read Clause 5(1), which says:
“The governing body of an institution in England within the further education sector must—
(a) from time to time review how well the education or training provided by the institution meets local needs, and
(b) in light of that review, consider what action the institution might take (alone or in conjunction with action taken by one or more other educational institutions) in order to meet those needs better.”
Certainly, any principal or governor of an FE college reading that would have reacted with genuine astonishment, along the lines of: “Wow, that’s a great idea—why didn’t I think of that?” Actually, any principal or governor of an FE college would have reacted with astonishment, probably with language that might politely be described as “unparliamentary”.
I am not going to claim that every one of more than 200 FE colleges in England are faultless in how they go about their business or in the quality of their teaching. They employ around 120,000 full-time equivalent people and have a key role in developing career opportunities, enhancing skills, creating future leaders, transforming lives and serving businesses.
Not satisfied with having dug themselves into a hole in the form of Clause 5, the Government and the DfE then managed to dig even deeper with their attempt at an explanation for this clause in the Bill’s policy summary notes. On page 11, they ask themselves the question: “Why is legislation needed?” They answer their own question:
“Creating a statutory duty will ensure that aligning provision with local needs is a priority for the governing body of the relevant providers, alongside their other statutory duties, and strengthens accountability for this aspect of their performance.”
I have read that two or three times, and it always reads, to me, like gobbledegook.
I do not really see the point of Clause 5. But to whatever extent some colleges might be run to a higher standard—of course we are not denying that there are several cases where that is true—do noble Lords really believe that those colleges do not “from time to time” review how well the education or training they provide meets local needs, and then follow that process by considering what action the institution might take to meet those needs? That is a fairly safe assumption. For the Government, or whoever drafted this clause, to feel the need to include such wording in the Bill suggests that they have a very poor understanding of how FE colleges operate, and an even poorer appreciation of the value of the education and training that colleges provide as a benefit to their local community. I hope the Minister will use her remarks at the end of this group to tell me in no uncertain terms that such a suggestion is entirely mistaken, while demonstrating why that is the case.
On the amendments in this group, I might have been tempted to say something similar to the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Lingfield, because neither provided evidence to support their implicit contention that, in general, the needs of students and potential students are not regularly considered and reviewed in decision-making, as set out in their explanatory statement. However, I know and accept that that was not their intention and not what they meant, and I aim no criticism in their direction.
Amendment 43 is of course more specific, highlighting the needs of students or potential students with special educational needs in their local area. That is indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, outlined in moving this group, a very real issue, albeit one that colleges should neither require legislation to alert them to nor to make them take the necessary steps to make their institutions as inclusive and welcoming as possible.
In summation, Clause 5 is in itself unnecessary and adds nothing worthwhile to the Bill. But on the assumption that it will remain, Amendment 43 is important and should be supported, even if only to ensure that all colleges reach the level of support for SEN students that those students and their families have a right to expect.
My Lords, Clause 5 places a duty on governing bodies of institutions within the further education sector to periodically review their provision against local needs and to consider changes that might improve the way that those needs are met. Regular reviews of provision should be a key part of strategic curriculum planning within every college, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, pointed out. As well as reflecting the priorities set out in any local skills improvement plan, the reviews should cover the whole of the education and training offer and the needs of both current and future learners.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that this clause is not introduced with the intention of second-guessing practices that already take place within local providers or their value. But by placing a legal duty requiring reviews to be published, Clause 5 strengthens transparency and accountability around decisions on provision that are vital for local communities.
I turn first to Amendment 41, from the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points he made on clarifying the timing of reviews, including their frequency and regularity. In the draft statutory guidance—which we have been able to produce for this clause and which supports the new duty proposed in Clause 5—we set out the principle that reviews should be timely and undertaken at least once every three years. The term “from time to time” is often used in legislation, and can have the advantage that it can accommodate reviews that may, for very good reason, take place at different intervals and therefore could not, strictly speaking, be described as “regular”. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, himself asked whether you could have more frequent reviews or a review at a different point, perhaps in response to changing local needs or circumstances, and so “from time to time” is aimed at allowing for such circumstances.
I hope that there is a broad level of agreement across the Committee around the importance of reviews taking place on a timely basis, and that my explanation of the Government’s approach and the contents of the draft statutory guidance provide some reassurance that the proposals in Clause 5 will achieve that goal.
On Amendments 43 to 46 in the name of my noble friend Lord Lingfield, I completely agree with his remarks on the importance of provision for students with special educational needs, including those with an education, health and care plan. Provision for these students is an integral part of the education and training provided by an institution. Again, the draft statutory guidance published by the department makes clear that the review should include consideration of the needs of learners with SEND, including those with education, health and care plans, when governing bodies are considering the needs of different groups of learners locally. The existing statutory obligations on colleges relating to SEND, including the public sector equality duty, are a key reference point for the governing body when carrying out the review.
Colleges and other FE sector institutions already do fantastic work for students with SEND, and that provision is an integral part of the education and training that colleges offer. For that reason, we consider it essential that it is considered as part of any review of their wider provision, rather than through a separate or parallel exercise. To re-emphasise, in reviewing the college’s education and training provision under Clause 5, the governing body must do this in a way that is consistent with its existing statutory obligations in relation to SEND, and that is underlined in the draft statutory guidance supporting the review.
I hope that I have provided some clarity to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on the use of the term “from time to time”, and he will feel able to withdraw his amendment, and sufficient reassurance to my noble friend Lord Lingfield that he will not move his amendments when they are reached.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her reply. I understand the Government’s views. I particularly thank my noble friend and kinsman Lord Addington for his support. He is one of the House’s experts in the area of special needs and always worth listening to. However, it is a sad fact that not all further education colleges and suppliers of further education are up to the level of the very best ones, and a regular review, clearly required by the Act instead of being hidden in guidance and regulation, would be an important incentive to those that are mediocre to improve their offering to these vulnerable young people. I hope that my noble friend might think again, and I hope to return to this at the next stage of the Bill, but I shall not press my amendments.
My Lords, I think we are in agreement on the importance of special educational needs being included in the reviews undertaken by providers. The noble Lord, Lord Watson, asked what the point of the provision of this clause is. The regular production and publication of these reviews might enable noble Lords and others to hold colleges more easily to account on how they have taken on that guidance, which is clear that the special educational needs of students have to be taken into account, and how they have taken that on in the conduct of their own reviews. I am sure that many colleges do an excellent job in that respect, but the additional transparency of having these reviews produced and published on a regular basis will aid in that job.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. My probing amendment got the reply, “Yes, we actually know what it means: it’s in the guidance”. If it had been put on the face of the Bill, I would not have asked. So, there we are.
As I have said, the more substantive amendment was from the noble Lord, Lord Lingfield. We should have a look at this. As we started speaking, we both went to different groups in that very big group that has special educational needs. As the Minister will accept, that means you have two different sets of needs, or different groups that have a variety of needs that interlock and overlap. It is a very difficult thing you are expecting an institution to do to meet all of those needs. It is not easy. If it was, we would not be banging on about it. It is difficult. The Minister said that they have to have a plan. I shudder every time I hear that, because most disabled youngsters do not have a plan. Most do not have parents who can fight to get one for them, or they have very severe needs, which are dealt with.
People who have a moderate difficulty and who may well, with a little bit of help, find a place in training, are the group we are worrying about here. Certainly, I am, and I think my noble kinsman is talking about the same thing as well. We need to have more clarity on this. It is a way in to giving a better description of what is supposed to be done, so that everybody knows. The Minister should listen to her noble friend; some colleges are not as good as the best. Aspiring to get there is what they should be doing. I agree that we should look at this again on Report, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 41 withdrawn.
Amendments 42 to 46 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.