New Clause 1

Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 12 March 2008.

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Information on school provision

‘(1) Section 332A of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1) insert—

“(1A) Information provided under subsection (1) shall include information on all types of school provision available in any local educational authority area which the authority determines is relevant to them.”

(3) At the end of subsection (3) insert—

“which shall include the annual publication of information provided under subsection (1).”’.—[Annette Brooke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am conscious of the hour and happy to take guidance so that we can finish on time and perhaps return to the matter on Report, so I leave it in your hands, Mr. Atkinson, to indicate whether I have been talking for too long.

In 2005-06 and 2006-07, the Education and Skills Committee touched on the issue of the provision of information for parents. It has already been suggested that we should be child-orientated, and I do not doubt that we should, but some parents are more able than others to establish what provision for special educational needs is on offer.

I am sure that the best local authorities provide all the information that the new clause refers to, but all too often—I think this will resonate with hon. Members—parents come to our surgeries and say, “We have been offered only this school, but having visited it, we do not think it is right for our child.” The process can be very prescriptive, with the local authority knowing what is best. Although we have the so-called independent advice within the local authority, as I have mentioned, sadly there is not a great deal of trust that that advice will be independent.

The purpose of the new clause—I must thank the Bill Clerks for putting it in this form for me—is to amend the Education Act 1996. I simply envisage each local authority having a clear publication that covers the special schools within its area, the nature of any specialities within them and the schools where there is inclusion but perhaps also a special unit on site.

It is difficult for parents who do not have a background knowledge of education and schools to know that there might be a special dyslexia unit, for example, on the main school site. There might be a special unit that gives additional support for the deaf. I do not think that that information is available for all parents, and I feel that the child benefits when the parent is motivated to do the very best for the child.

Parents want the best provision for their children, but feel so thwarted at the moment and get doors shut in their face. This is basic information. With more specialist SEN, provision in a neighbouring LEA may need to be accessed. Each LEA has this type of information in a very simple form, and making it available would make life so much easier for parents. Let us face it: parents go through a constant battle when they have children with SEN. This change would make life so much better for them as it offers clear, honest and simple information. It would not place a huge burden on the local authority.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I applaud the hon. Lady for raising the issue, whether or not the new clause is accepted. It goes right to the heart of the problem of special needs: the interface between the parents of a child with difficulties and the local authority. The more that can be done to help at that level, the better we will be able to deal with these problems in future. Most of us have had serious difficulties with local authorities when they think that they know best and they do not. In the end, with my support, parents have won special provision for their children against the wishes of the local authority.

A local authority may not be that keen on presenting information on what is available because more parents will come forward saying that their child has problems and wanting them to be dealt with in a particular way. The issue will go on and we will debate it further. I want the Government to make recommendations to local authorities on special needs provision in their areas and not allow local authorities to backslide, either for financial reasons or, often, for ideological reasons, because they do not believe that special needs provision is appropriate and are perhaps blanket inclusion ideologues. I have come across such examples, too.

I support the hon. Lady in raising the issue. It may not get into the Bill, but we should discuss it for the future.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I want to say a few words on the new clause. Many aspects of it overlap with issues that we have already debated in relation to the annual publication of information, and the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on provision of information for parents and the importance of transparency echoed parts of my amendment No. 3. We are not working together on this, yet there are many similar elements.

Rather than pushing the matter to a vote, I urge the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West to look at how the Bill might be amended on Report to reflect some elements of the new clause, particularly the importance of transparency in the information that is available for parents. That is something I know about on a constituency level. I have had cases of girls with autism and tried to find the most appropriate ways of supporting them. That is very difficult, and the information is not readily available.

Again, there is a need for information collected under the Bill to be presented in a usable format for hon. Members and those beyond the House.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I shall be as brief as possible. There is a laudable aim behind the amendment, which is to ensure that parents of children with SEN are provided with full information on the range of provision for such children in their own and surrounding areas. There is, however, an existing duty on local authorities to provide information on their arrangements for SEN, including information on planning and reviewing SEN provision in their area.

Last year, in relation to parent partnership services, we published further exemplary guidance, which set out what we considered minimum good practice and best practice, and encouraged local authorities and services to aspire to the latter in relation to providing that information.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

That is a valid point about the parent partnership. One problem with the parent partnership is that it is still controlled by the LEAs. Will the Minister look at a way to empower the parent partnership in its own right, rather than as part of an LEA, to do the job that he rightly and eloquently suggests that it should?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Section 332A of the 1996 Act, as inserted by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, ensures that authorities must have regard to any guidance from the Secretary of State in making such arrangements. It requires them to take any steps that they consider appropriate to make the parent partnership services known to parents, head teachers and proprietors of schools. As I said, we have issued exemplary guidance to encourage them to aspire to and follow best practice in their dealings with parent partnership services. At this stage, it is appropriate that they should be linked with the local authority and that the local authority should follow best practice as laid out in the exemplary guidance that we set out just last year.

Under the Childcare Act 2006, furthermore, local authorities will have a duty from 1 April to provide information, advice and assistance to parents or prospective parents of children and young people up to the age of 20. Our guidance makes it clear that information that may be of benefit to parents includes information on schools, including details of their location, composite prospectus, behaviour units and so on. That further strengthens parents’ rights to information, and I therefore encourage the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

The new clause relates to a new section of the 1996 Act that was inserted by the 2001 Act. That new section ensures that parent partnership services are made available to parents of children with special educational needs.

The new clause is intended to increase the information available to parents, which is a laudable aim, but it is not consistent with the Bill’s stated objectives. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole talked about signposting and her major concerns about local authorities directing parents to the right schools. The issue is particularly problematic for parents with children who have SEN but no statement.

A statement brings with it more support, and parents can name whichever school they want, but my concern is about children who do not have a statement and who do not necessarily get the same support. Different schools can offer all sorts of facilities, but parents might not know what is available. I have highlighted that problem in my own borough, and I therefore have a lot of sympathy with the motive behind the new clause. It is vital that all parents—not just pushy parents—get the correct information.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North said that, as an MP, he had helped to secure the provision that parents needed for their children. As MPs, we are, to an extent, increasingly having to fulfil the parent partnership role.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned the need for transparency and for information to be available  on schools—this goes back to an earlier amendment—to help parents to find the right school and secure the right provision. She asked me to look again at that, and I certainly will. I will have discussions with the Minister before we consider the Bill on Report to ensure that if such a provision cannot be included in the Bill, we can have some assurances on guidelines.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

Excuse my ignorance, but will the hon. Lady be able to introduce more specific regulations on the issue if the Bill is passed, or is that not part of the process?

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

The Minister will keep me right on the matter, but I do not think that I could introduce regulations. I could have conversations with the Minister, who, in turn, could assure us about the direction in which the matter may go. Our discussion this morning will help that process, but I will also hold discussions on what assurances may be given in that regard.

I hope that the parent partnership service is already providing information on locally available services to the parents of children with special educational needs. If that is not the case, questions definitely need to be answered.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater 11:15, 12 March 2008

What is the hon. Lady’s experience of parent partnership services in her area? Mine is that it cannot do the job that it is set up to do, because of the constraints of the local education authority. The service is not able to encompass the parents whom it should cover, because it is still controlled by the local education authorities, as the Minister rightly said. My experience is not right, and I do not recognise what the hon. Lady is saying.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

The independence of parent partnership services is a matter for consideration. They are supposed to be independent of the local authority and able to give impartial advice. Whether that is the case among all local authorities, I do not know. When my son was statemented in Merton, the parent partnership officer gave me impartial advice and I felt that there was an element of independence, but I do not know whether that is necessarily the case everywhere.

My main concern about the new clause is that it would require local authorities to publish annually all the information that their parent partnership services provide to parents. I do not feel that that would represent value for money or achieve any significant outcome for the support available to children with SEN. It is also important to consider whether any value would be added to overall SEN provision when obligations are already in place on local authorities to publish information about such arrangements. Minimum standards are already in place for parent partnership services and guidance is published by the Government. Of course we should try to avoid minimum targets and encourage targets to be set at a level that delivers maximum support for parents and pupils alike. All those things considered, I ask the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the hon. Lady for her response. I will indeed withdraw the motion in due course, but I should like to revisit the issue on Report.

I was chairman of education at Poole borough council when the parent support partnership was introduced, and I was excited that we had the money and authority to employ such a person. That was probably in 1997. Eleven years on, I am very sad that constituent after constituent tells me that they have no confidence that the advice is independent. I am aware that the system is not working.

The other purpose of the new clause is to give parents an idea of what provision is available, perhaps a mile away, in a separate local authority.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I agree entirely. Would it not be a good idea to have reports from local authorities throughout the country, so that we could look for examples of best practice that could be emulated elsewhere?

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

My new clause is not as ambitious as that, although I am sure that it is a good idea, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The new clause is intended not to be a burden, but simply to outline the provision that is available, so that parents may pick up details easily of the provision that could be only a mile away. In my area, instead of one county council, there are now two unitary authorities and a county council. Special schools, for example, have ended up being located not in the best places for the population or for local authorities seeking to buy places from one another. Action is taking place to conceal provision just over the boundary. I should like the Government to reconsider providing parents with a simple pamphlet, not entangled with wider information from the information services, that contains details on surrounding local authorities as well as their own. I understand that no great progress has been made towards the provision that is supposed to be coming on stream under the Child Care Act 2006. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the Chairman do report the Bill to the House.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

I should like to thank you, Mr. Atkinson, for your chairmanship of our proceedings. The timing has been exemplary and spot on. I thank all Members present for their co-operation in getting through the Committee’s proceedings in one sitting. The Committee has been excellent and the contributions from Members on both sides have been of a very high standard, which demonstrates the knowledge available to us on this subject. I thank them for the time that they took to prepare their contributions, and I look forward to the proceedings on Report.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I echo those thanks for your excellent chairmanship of the Committee, Mr. Atkinson. It is good that such an important Bill has moved through Committee in such a timely manner. I wish the Bill well on Report, and I wish the hon. Lady well in her discussions with ministerial colleagues on some of the issues raised today.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I add my thanks to you, Mr. Atkinson—it would be remiss of me not to. We have had very interesting debates, and I hope that they will move some issues forward. I look forward to the next stage and, most of all, to the enactment of the Bill.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I congratulate my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington,  West, on the professional way in which she presented the Bill. I wish it good fortune on Report.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o’clock.