Clause 2 - Advice and information for parents

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 29th March 2001.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 10:45 am, 29th March 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in page 3, line 33, after `authority', insert

`having regard to the importance of securing a fair and informed choice of school,'.

We had a good debate on clause 1. Many of the amendments that follow are designed to obtain elucidation about safeguards and the operation in practice of what I have no problem in admitting is a reasonable architecture for the Bill. We are not trying to subvert the Bill or niggle at it; nor are we being awkward on purpose. We are merely considering aspects of how it may operate in practice, testing the Minister's intentions and expressing our anxiety about what has happened in the past.

Clause 2 relates to advice and information for parents. We would all agree that that is an essential component of their ability to make an informed set of parental choices. If they do not have that advice and information, they will not be able to make those choices. We are not dealing with experts. They are experts in the defence of the interests of their children and are deeply committed to their children—at least, we hope that they are, and normally they will be—but the circumstances are often unusual and, sadly, unanticipated by them. Such circumstances may be distressing and have wider family implications. Therefore, the situation is sensitive. As many of us know, it may work immensely well within a family, and between a family and the education provider, but in other cases will be difficult and fraught.

It is essential that the local education authority that is offering provision should do so in a straightforward, legitimate and open manner. I have no objection to the Government providing that there should be advice and information. Our sole reservation, and the purpose for tabling the amendment, is to ensure that the advice and information is sufficiently objective and full so as to secure informed parental choice.

I avert to another area, of which I have longer and more continuing experience. The Minister will know what I am talking about in practice. When young people reach school-leaving age—irrespective of whether they have special educational needs—and are advised and guided about their choice of future educational establishment or career path, there is a potential clash of interests. For example, some maintained schools will attempt to keep pupils in the sixth form, even if that is not in the pupils' best interests. That is highly advantageous for the school because the packet of funding is introduced at the average, rather than at the margin. I know personally of cases in which, effectively, that has happened.

One may examine the matter in terms of further education colleges. Although such colleges have a statutory opportunity for their material to be offered in schools, sometimes that is more honoured in the breach than the observance. There is a worry that must lie behind any concerns that we have with the clauses to be considered: whatever is in the comprehensive 1996 Act, with its many provisions on SEN, the practice is otherwise. We regret that, and I think that the Minister does also.

As constituency Members of Parliament, we frequently have to fight local education authorities, and tell them that they are not doing as well as they should. That can be done in two ways. One can attribute many malicious or other motives to them or, more realistically in nearly all cases, consider that the offices of local education authorities and education committees are under severe pressure for resources, desperate to make money go round to the best effect, and are trying to avoid commitments that they feel would unbalance their provision.

I think that I have already mentioned my personal feeling that, eventually, mainstream parents, who have no contact with SEN, will bring a case under the Human Rights Act 1998 claiming that a LEA has organised its affairs to give too much to SEN and not enough to children without SEN. The parents may win such a case. However, whatever we do, the LEA must operate within the framework of its resources. A further matter may be that, even if there is no intention specifically to rig the course to statements or SEN provisions, the LEA may not be good enough at its job, or good enough to get the material out.

We have tabled the amendment with such underlying fears in mind. The amendment is probing because the Minister may want to say how the matter will be secured by guidance or by the code, so that local authorities do better than some have done previously. The purpose of the amendment is to state that the authority should give regard to the importance of securing a fair and informed choice of school.

The duty that is set out in the proposed new section would require local authorities to provide advice and to

```have regard to any guidance'''.

The Committee discussed the guidance in an earlier debate. The proposed new section would also require the local authority to

```take such steps as they consider appropriate for making the services provided under subsection (1) known to—

(a) the parents of children in their area,

(b) the head teachers and proprietors of schools in their area, and

(c) such other persons as they consider appropriate.'''

Those requirements might seem satisfactory, but an authority that has a hidden agenda, or is dysfunctional, could not be obliged proactively to inform parents of them. Such an authority could claim that it had discharged that duty if half a dozen scruffy leaflets were placed in the waiting room of the special educational needs officer with whom a parent was discussing his or her case. I want that matter to be clearly addressed in the guidance. The themes that should be emphasised are consensus and partnership, and they should also be key considerations with regard to the following clause.

I want LEAs to act in good faith. They should take parents into their confidence and offer them genuine choices, rather than blind them with science. An LEA should inform parents of their options concerning their children's education and advise them about key considerations, such as the time it would take their children to travel to a certain school, and the kinds of provision that it offers. In short, local authorities should level with parents.

I am sure that the Committee will not disagree with that. However, the Minister must give an assurance that the new system will ensure that parents of children who have special educational needs are provided with informed choices about their children's education more frequently and consistently than in the past. Those parents and their children deserve that.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Employment 11:00 am, 29th March 2001

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the amendment seeks to ensure that LEAs publicise their parent partnership services in ways that take account of the importance of securing a fair and informed choice of school for children with special educational needs. However, I hope to convince hon. Members that the amendment is unnecessary.

The Government believe that such partnerships, set up on a statutory basis, should provide parents with information that allows them to make a fair and informed choice about the school that their child will attend. However, parent partnership services will also be expected to provide information and advice about a wide range of other special educational needs matters.

Parents must be informed about the wide range of options available to them, so that they can make the right decision about their children's placement. That is why LEAs already have a duty, when a proposed statement is issued, to provide parents with information about non-maintained schools. Schedule 27 to the Education Act 1996 provides that LEAs must give written notice containing prescribed information before a statement is issued. That information is described in regulation 12 and part A of the schedule to the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994. It currently includes a list of the non-maintained special schools that make special educational provision for pupils with special educational needs in England and Wales, and a list of independent schools in England and Wales that are approved as suitable for the admission of children with statements of special educational needs.

I assure the Committee that we intend to ensure that parents continue to receive information about independent schools and non-maintained special schools. Indeed, we intend to go further by placing a duty on LEAs to provide such information when they propose to amend the school or type of school in a child's statement.

The hon. Member for Daventry suggested that he was concerned that parent partnership services might seek to promote only one option and that parents might be discouraged from seeking a special school or non-maintained place for their child. That would be totally unacceptable. The role of parent partnerships is to disseminate accurate information on the range of options available to help parents make informed decisions for themselves. In addition to the measures that I have outlined, I can repeat the assurance given in the other place that these measures will form part of the minimum standards for parent partnership services, which will be set out in the revised code of practice. LEAs must have regard to the statutory guidance in the code, which will set out the minimum standards that we will expect all parent partnership services to deliver. The Secretary of State can use his powers under sections 496, 497 and 497A of the Education Act 1996 to intervene where LEAs are acting unreasonably, and these powers should help to ensure that LEAs fulfil their duties in respect of parent partnership services. In the light of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I am grateful to the Minister for those assurances. Just as she does not like to accept amendments that she regards as unnecessary, I do not like to press votes that I think are not essential. However, the Minister must keep an eye on the matter. As she said, it will be clear to everyone, through guidance and the inspection process, that the matter must be treated in good faith.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I mentioned earlier, but perhaps it is worth repeating, that when Baroness Warnock produced her report on these matters, she referred, in paragraph 3 of chapter 5, to the provision of a handbook for parents, which would describe all the options open to them. The current law suggests that LEAs should provide lists of options, and, of course, parent partnerships will provide fuller information, but perhaps the Minister would consider the idea of a handbook as a means of satisfying our demands, to which I am sure that she is sympathetic.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

That was a characteristically constructive suggestion. In these days of information technology and desktop publishing, a handbook could be revised and kept up to date very quickly.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

That may be, though some of us would need a printed version in order to read it effectively. However, I am not suggesting that parents should not have it in that format. Much could be done. There is a common interest in improving the situation and, indeed, in exposing local authority practice, if it is less than ideal.

I took great interest in and some comfort from the Minister's reference, for the second time, to clauses 495-497 of the Education Act 1996, relating to the Minister's power to intervene on local education authorities that resort to, what I might loosely call, monkey business. It is important that we should look into that a little more. It has relevance to coming events and to how matters should be conducted in future. I am sure that the Committee agrees that we need to secure good practice and that local authorities will rightly have slightly different approaches but that they must all discharge a proper minimum standard to be fair to parents and, in the long run, to advance the cause of education and of local authorities, because proper provision must be right all round. That said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.