Clause 72 - Closure of special schools: statutory consultation

Education Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 22nd March 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

With this it will be convenient to take Government new clause 18—Proposals relating to maintained special school.

New clause 11—Closure of special schools: authorisation.

‘(1)No special school in England shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State.

(2)The Secretary of State shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow him to perform his duties under this section.

(3)No special school in Wales shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Assembly.

(4)The Assembly shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow it to perform its duties under this section.’.

Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Minister of State (Education and Skills) (School Standards)

I would like to speak to new clause 18, and reassure hon. Members that we have accepted the intention of their lordships with regard to clause 72. However, as in the previous discussion on  rural schools, because of technical weaknesses, the clause as drafted would not have had the effect intended by the other place.

The existing provision on consultation in the case of the closure of special schools is contained in section 31 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 as well as in guidance from the Department. The 1998 Act provides that when an LEA or a governing body intends to discontinue a maintained special school or make prescribed alterations to it, it must, before publishing any such proposals, consult such persons as appear to it to be appropriate and, in doing so, must have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly.

The proposed Government new clause does not affect the substance of the clause. The requirement for consultation in the clause has been inserted into section 31 of the 1998 Act, where the existing provisions regarding special schools lie. The wording of the new provisions has been made consistent with existing legislative provisions. The provision is restricted to community or foundation special schools in line with the existing wording of section 31 and, indeed, the new clause goes wider than what was introduced by their lordships on Third Reading in another place. It imposes a specific statutory requirement for the local authority or governing body to consult parents of registered pupils and the placing local authority not only prior to the publication of any proposal to discontinue the school, but prior to any proposal to make a prescribed alteration to the school. For example, that would cover a proposal to reduce the number of pupils in a school so dramatically that the school was no longer viable.

The drafting makes separate provision in respect of proposals to establish new special schools, maintaining the status quo in this regard, and the wording in proposed new subsection (4A)(a) and (b) is not applicable to new schools. The new clause retains the requirement that in exercising the specific statutory duty to consult, regard must be had to guidance. I am pleased to inform hon. Members that we have made contact with their lordships through the usual channels, and they have said that they are happy with what we propose. I therefore trust that our new clause will have the support of Members on both sides of the Committee.

New clause 11 is unnecessary, as the current system provides an objective and independent balance between proposals submitted by local authorities and the needs of the local community. The new clause would introduce an unnecessary additional layer to the decision-making process in which the existing safeguards are sufficient.

Members on both sides of the House are aware of the often difficult, complex, and sometimes emotive issues that can surround the closure of special schools. However, we should also acknowledge that other closures, such as one or more special schools closing to move to a more modern facility, have secured local agreement. I hope that the Committee will agree that  there is no good reason why decisions such as that should be referred to the Secretary of State or to the National Assembly for Wales.

In Wales, any disputed proposals are already referred to the National Assembly for its decision. The new clause would require even closure proposals that are accepted by parents and other local interested parties to be approved by the Assembly’s Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning.

I reassure hon. Members that there is no question of local authorities being allowed to decide to close a special school arbitrarily. There is an established process for formal consultation before proposals are published. After publication, there is a two-month objection period, during which anyone can submit their formal objections to the authority. Any such statutory objections must be sent to the school organisation committee or, in Wales, to the National Assembly.

A proposal put to a schools organisation committee may be implemented without reference to any other body if it is approved unanimously. If the committee cannot decide unanimously, the case will pass to the independent adjudicator for determination. Adjudicators look afresh at all cases that are referred to them. They consider each case on its merits and take account of the reasons for disagreement at local level. The adjudicator may reject the proposals, approve them without modification, or approve them with modification subject to consultation. Decisions taken by adjudicators are binding on all involved. They can be challenged only through judicial review.

In Wales, the function of assessing disputed proposals on the balance of the arguments and of taking a decision that can be challenged only by judicial review rests with the Assembly’s Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning.

Local authorities are best placed to respond to the needs of pupils and parents in their areas. That is why the Government deliberately strengthened local participation in decisions about patterns of provision. In England, they deliberately removed Ministers from direct involvement in those decisions.

New clause 11 would introduce an unnecessary additional layer to the decision-making process. These are difficult, complex and important decisions. Consultation is vital, and concern in our communities is understandable when consultation does not run properly. The provisions that I have outlined are the best way of ensuring that decisions are taken at local level. In the light of that, I hope that the hon. Lady will not press her new clause.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

This is a subject close to my heart. I predicted that the Minister would start by telling me that my new clause was unnecessary, but it seeks to halt the closure of special schools.

Since 1997, there have been 70 closures of special schools, yet the number of children in mainstream schools with special needs has risen by 49 per cent. We know that about a quarter of all pupils will have some sort of special needs in part of their school career, if not  throughout it. There has also been an increase in the number of children with behavioural problems, which is almost a separate issue.

The new clause states:

“No special school in England shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State ... The Secretary of State shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow him to perform his duties under this section.”

It continues:

“No special school in Wales shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Assembly ... The Assembly shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow it to perform its duties under this section.”

The needs of special needs children are so diverse that it is impossible to generalise. Many children with special needs—with physical disabilities, health problems or other reasons that give rise to special educational needs—do well in mainstream schools. Others do not. Some children with special needs, no matter how sympathetically or well a mainstream school tries to cope with them, need the more protected environment of a special school, such as the smaller classes. Some of those whose needs are profound are unable to cope, so if they were placed in a mainstream school, it would place a huge burden on teaching staff and the time that they would need devoted to them would be detrimental to the other children.

We need a balance. We need provision in mainstream schools for special needs students who can cope and with whom the school can cope. At the same time, the demand for places in separate special schools is growing. For example, in the whole of Greater London, only one special school caters for children who are profoundly deaf. Lots of deaf children cannot get a place in that school. It is just one example of a range of health problems that means that children need special school provision.

Rather than see any more closures, I wish to see more special schools established where demand has been shown. The purpose of new clause 11 is to halt the closure of special schools and to give us cause to reconsider inclusion, because that is not right for every special needs child. It is right for some but not others. We need to keep the range available, so that children have the ideal provision to suit their purposes.

Question put and negatived.

Clause 72 disagreed to.

Clause 73 ordered to stand part of the Bill.