HC Deb 09 May 1994 vol 243 cc24-52 3.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I beg to move,

That the draft Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs, which was laid before this House on 13th April, be approved. The code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs has been eagerly awaited in this House and, indeed, in the other place, and by local education authorities, schools, voluntary bodies and all concerned with children with special educational needs—not least parents. If the code is approved by Parliament, it will set the framework for special educational provision for many years to come.

The code of practice springs from the Education Act 1993. Part III of that Act builds on the principles of the Education Act 1981, covering the same sort of matters. It seeks to ensure their more effective application in practice, to the benefit of all children with special educational needs and their parents. There was a clear need to review and revise the 1991 legislative framework—that was agreed by all—and the 1993 Act was the result. Regulations made under the Act and laid before Parliament at the same time as the code embody the detail of the new system.

The code of practice which we are now considering provides guidance to all concerned on the exercise of their duties under the Act and the regulations. Schools and LEAs, health services and social services must have regard to that guidance. The code seeks to create a purposive partnership among those bodies and between them, voluntary organisations and parents on behalf of all children with special educational needs.

Section 157 of the 1993 Act requires the Secretary of State to issue a code of practice. Section 158 requires him to consult upon a draft and to bring a revised draft to Parliament for approval under the affirmative procedure, which is what we are now doing.

The draft before us today contains six sections. Part 1 sets out the main principles which inform the code as a whole. Part 2 offers guidance to schools as to how they might fulfil their duties towards pupils with special needs who do not require statements, and lays a particular emphasis on partnership between all concerned. Part 3 deals with statutory assessments—in particular, the time limits for making such assessments, guidance as to when such assessments should be made, and how such assessments should be conducted.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have just had passed down the Bench a letter from the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People—I say this to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris)—in which he repudiates much of what he said last week, and now gives a completely new interpretation of events. In the light of what has happened, I wonder whether you should consider this correspondence, which was literally handed down the Bench moments after you gave your ruling, from the Leader of the House of Commons.

Madam Speaker

Of course, if the hon. Gentleman lets me have the correspondence, I shall look at it, together with the point of order that he raised earlier.

Mr. Forth

Part IV deals with statements of special educational needs, including the form and content of statements and choosing the right school. Part V covers children under five with special educational needs, and part VI deals with the annual review of statements and transition to adult life. At the end of the draft code, there is an appendix covering transitional arrangements from the 1981 Act to the 1993 Act, a full glossary of terms and an index.

The code itself, as presented to Parliament, is bound between a foreword and a copy of the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994, neither of which is part of the code itself. The foreword aims to explain the status of the code, and other matters which I shall touch on in a moment. The regulations, together with regulations governing the information that schools must publish, have been formally laid before Parliament alongside the code.

One of the main purposes of the code is to promote partnership. In earnest of that intention, the draft code itself has been developed in partnership. I take this opportunity to pay a tribute to all those who helped us to produce the consultative draft and the draft before us today.

Throughout the process, we have been most fortunate in being able to draw on the help of expert individuals from the voluntary world. We have discussed successive drafts with representatives of the local authority associations and the Society of Education Officers. Senior academics and administrators, teachers and governors have given us their time in commenting on drafts. While I readily take full responsibility for the code and its contents, the production of the code has been a co-operative effort, designed to promote co-operation on behalf of children with special educational needs. I am most grateful to the many individuals and organisations who have helped us.

On a personal note, Madam Speaker, I am happy to acknowledge, pay tribute to and thank my officials in the Department for Education, who have worked tirelessly with dedication and sensitivity to bring the code to fruition and to the House today. Without their work, it would not have been possible.

The revised draft is also the result of extensive consultation. We issued over 30,000 copies of the consultative draft. We attended meetings of teachers, parents, governors, the health services and social services across the country. We received over 1,000 written responses and analysed them closely. I hope that those who took much time and trouble to contribute will consider that their efforts are reflected in the revised draft which is before the House today.

The consultation process revealed a general welcome for the principle of issuing such a code and for the main principles of the draft, including the emphasis on the role of parents, the emphasis on pupils who have special needs but who do not require statements, the guidance on when assessments and statements should be made, the emphasis on clear, thorough statements, and the stress on partnership among all agencies.

The consultation also revealed areas of concern. There were calls for greater clarity about the status of the code, about what it means to have regard to the code, and about what will be expected of schools and others when it comes into effect. There were concerns about schools' capacity to follow the guidance of the draft code and about the implications for professional development and in-service training. There were important concerns about the draft's coverage of co-operation between the services involved, and about the sources of advice and information available to parents. The revised draft code, read together with the draft foreword, is designed to meet those concerns, and I am confident that it does so.

The new draft foreword explains the code's status. Local education authorities and schools, when fulfilling their functions under part III of the 1993 Act, must have regard to the code. So must any bodies that help them perform those functions—for example, the health services and social services.

The code itself offers wide-ranging guidance. It recommends, for example, that LEAs and schools should adopt a staged approach, matching action to each child's needs, but it is up to the LEAs and schools to decide exactly how they should apply the code's guidance. It is not a prescriptive straitjacket: it is there to help schools and LEAs, and help children with special educational needs. But whenever they, the health services and social services take action on behalf of such children, they must consider what the code says.

It is our intention that the code should come into effect on 1 September this year, but we do not expect that all schools will have systems in place at that time which will all match the code's aspirations. We do expect all schools to have regard to the code from that date, and we do expect the effect of their having regard to the code to develop over time. As I shall explain, we shall be monitoring their progress closely.

During the consultation process, we listened very carefully to what schools had to say. We recognised that they were worried that the code, while admirable in principle, might not be realisable in practice. We recognised, too, that they were worried about pressures on their time, and about bureaucratic burdens.

We have revised the code accordingly. We have made it clear that the way in which schools react to the code will vary in the light of their particular circumstances. We have set out as guidance an example of a staged approach, which we have kept to basic principles and which emphasises the importance of gathering information at stage 1, developing individual education plans at stage 2 and consulting outside experts at stage 3. I hope that schools will welcome these changes, and that the code now represents an effective and feasible way forward.

We recognise, too, that schools and LEAs will need to think carefully, in the light of the code, about how they manage money to secure maximum benefit for pupils with special educational needs. Substantial sums are already available, and I believe that the code will ensure that they are put to best use.

LEAs, for example, will wish to give careful thought to how the funding allocated to them is distributed to schools. That is a matter for the LEAs themselves, but the code should help those who wish to do so to introduce moderated audit schemes reflecting the numbers of pupils with special educational needs in schools.

Schools themselves will wish to think hard about how they use the money they receive, whether allocated by audit schemes or by proxy measures. Schools' SEN policies must set out the principles by which funds are allocated to and amongst pupils with special educational needs, and their annual reports must tell parents how the money has been used.

The consultative draft emphasised partnership. I hope that the revised draft reinforces that message. Part II contains new material on the way in which the health services should be organised to help children with special educational needs. Nowhere is partnership more important than in providing help for children with speech and language difficulties.

To help to develop that partnership further, my Department and the Department of Health will jointly make available £50,000 in this financial year to back a development project designed to maximise the use of speech therapists' time. The results will be widely disseminated.

There is new material, too, on SEN support services. The development of the role of the named person, who can help parents in all their dealings with LEAs, is also a new incentive for voluntary organisations to become directly involved in the process.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Will the resources available to the speech therapy service be related to the number of children whose special needs have been formally recorded?

Mr. Forth

Not in the direct sense that the hon. Gentleman suggests, or requests. Given the way in which speech therapy is delivered and the way in which the needs of children, for example, are identified, I do not believe that one can make that direct comparison.

Obviously, the Department for Education and those responsible for speech therapy services—my colleagues in the Department of Health and their agencies—will want always to be satisfied that the number of speech therapists is adequate to the need. I think that I am right in saying that, given the increase in the number of speech therapists nationally in the past few years, we can have some confidence that that will be the case. It is one of the things that will be monitored. I should like to come back to that point later. My remarks might help to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.

Partnership with parents is a vital aspect of each part of the code. We have placed in the Library a draft of the guide for parents, which we intend to issue and distribute very widely alongside the code. We are backing our commitment to partnership by making some £3.5 million support available through grants for education, support and training for LEAs to develop parent partnership schemes. I am delighted to say that every LEA has bid for and received funding for such schemes this financial year.

I have outlined just some of the changes that we have made in the light of the consultative process. We recognise, of course, that more is needed if the code is to effect change. If its messages are to have a real impact, training and professional development, energetic dissemination, and careful monitoring will be essential.

Paragraph 2:26 of the code recognises the importance of in-service training. References are made to the training needs of all teaching staff, non-teaching staff, SEN co-ordinators and governors. Under the new special educational needs information regulations, a school's SEN policy must describe the school's training plans. Funding of almost £10 million in 1994–95 will be available for this purpose through grant for education support and training.

GEST funding will also be available for the development of schools' SEN policies, for the professional development of SEN co-ordinators and for governor training. In February, I announced a £2 million increase in the support available in 1994–95 through the wholly new GEST grant 23—giving a total of some £5.6 million. With separate financial support from my Department, the Council for Disabled Children and the university of London institute of education are preparing a distance learning pack to help schools develop policies. That pack should be available early in the autumn.

Subject to Parliament's approval, the code will be published next month. It will be distributed promptly to all schools and other interested parties. With the help of the Council for Disabled Children and the National Children's Bureau, we shall then launch a major dissemination exercise at conferences that we have arranged up and down the country.

I am delighted to report that the local authority associations and the Society for Education Officers will join us in that exercise. Other organisations such as the National Association for Special Educational Needs have taken their own most welcome initiatives in arranging conferences to get the message across.

I now turn to monitoring. Registered inspectors will carefully examine schools' SEN policies and their implementation in the light of the code. The Office for Standards in Education's special educational needs team will devote particular attention to the code. It will look, for example, at the impact of special educational needs support services.

The Audit Commission, which already monitors LEAs' performance in making assessments and statements, will have its vital role to play. There may well be a role, as appropriate, for the research community. We will draw all this information together and, of course, keep Parliament fully informed.

The issue of the code of practice represents a major step forward for special education. The code reflects and builds on the principles of the report of the Committee chaired by Baroness Warnock, the Education Act 1981 and the many positive developments in the field since that Act came into effect.

Importantly, the code also reflects good practice in schools and LEAs across the country. It is challenging, but it is realistic. I hope that it will receive the support not only of the House but of all concerned with special educational needs throughout the country. I hope that it will represent a quantum leap forward in the provision for special educational needs.

3.54 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

First, I reiterate what the Minister has heard me say before—we welcome the code of practice. We only wish that the Government had introduced other major pieces of legislation in a similar way. From the beginning, when they were challenged in Committee about how the new processes would work, Ministers were heard to say, "That will be a matter for the code of practice," or, "That is too difficult to answer now, but we will look into it when we draw up the code of practice."

In all fairness, great efforts have been made behind the scenes to ensure that, by and large, the code meets the problems and concerns raised in Committee. It is also obvious that, having issued the draft code, the Government listened to representations they received during consultation as changes have been made and have further improved the code.

I therefore hope that, despite the fact that I shall concentrate on remaining matters for concern and potential problems, some of which could be fundamental, the House will not doubt that we welcome the code as a significant and important step forward in dealing with children's special educational needs.

The code is the most recent in a long line of decisions taken by Ministers, starting with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who instituted the Warnock committee which brought about the Education Act 1991. The code of practice is another landmark decision.

I hope that the Government will accept that I am raising concerns that many organisations have pointed out to me, and other matters about which I am worried.

My first concern is about training, which is at the heart of whether the code will be successful. The Government have already listened to concerns about the role of the special educational needs co-ordinator and the fact that we should not place so much responsibility on that person or persons in any school.

We also welcome the funding that is made available through grants for education support and training—GEST—and the fact that the Government have been careful to ensure that provision will be made for the training of special educational needs co-ordinators and all staff, whether teaching or non-teaching, and governors.

Some aspects still worry me, however. For example, the Minister referred to paragraph 2:26 of the code, which is found on page 12, but its description of what might happen is the wrong way round. The end of the paragraph states:

A school contemplating a particular special educational needs in-service training programme may wish to inform itself of the LEA's in-service training policy and may also wish to consult other schools in the area with a view to securing economies of scale and sharing expertise. It should not be an option. Each local education authority, in concert with all the schools, should draw up the necessary in-service training plans. Training should not be optional: it should be something that all schools and the LEAs are involved in from the beginning.

Over the years, the actual requirement for teachers to have expertise in and knowledge of special education has diminished. I believe that the current Education Bill, which will be considered in Committee from tomorrow, will cause further problems, because it will be difficult to ensure that new teachers receive the range of expertise during school-based teacher training that will be required if the code is to be implemented successfully. The code demands that all teachers should be special education teachers.

I welcome the money that the Government are making available for training, developing partnerships with parents and ensuring that governors are aware of their responsibilities. What about the special needs co-ordinator? In most schools, the person undertaking that job will be performing a new specific, additional role. That person must be rewarded for that.

In the early years of the working of the code, I can envisage that, in some large comprehensive schools, it might be necessary to appoint several special needs co-cordinators. In the short term, as the code begins to operate effectively and picks up children with special needs and ensures that those needs are met, more money must be made available for that purpose.

The Government have said that, in the next few years, they expect that more children will be statemented. In the short term, therefore, significant additional funds will be required to ensure that the code is introduce effectively and the needs of children are properly met. In the long term, however, as those needs are picked up earlier, as should happen under the code, I am sure that number of statements made will fall.

On page 10 of code, paragraph 2.15 refers to the work of the special needs co-ordinator and what schools might need to do to ensure that that job is done properly. It is worrying to note that that requirement is considered in the context of the resources available to schools. That is one of the issues that has bedevilled the provision of special needs since 1981. Very often, parents and local educational authorities have been involved in a battle royal over provision because of fears about costs. I fear that that could happen again, even though the code has been introduced.

When the Minister appeared before the Select Committee on Education, he was questioned about the monitoring of the code. He believed that such monitoring would be carried out by parents, governors, LEA inspectors, OFSTED and the special educational needs tribunal. Governors and LEAs might, however, become more concerned with keeping spending within limits rather than the effective implementation of the code. OFSTED inspectors will usually visit schools in a four-year cycle, which is hardly sufficient for monitoring that code. That means that monitoring will be left to parents and the SEN tribunal. It is clear that parents will need help.

The Department for Education has given OFSTED a monitoring remit to offer advice in the run-in period, but I believe that it should be given a further remit to carry out monitoring beyond the scope for which it has the resources at the moment. In other words, OFSTED should have a stronger remit than the four-yearly assessment of schools, in connection with the implementation of the code of practice in its early years. The Government have said that they intend to review what local education authorities are doing—considering how long statements take to be made and so on—and I should be interested to hear more about the precise way in which that will work.

There is a danger of disputes arising between schools and LEAs, because, although the Government are making, and have made, great efforts to develop partnerships between parents and schools and schools and LEAs, there could be disputes between the school and the LEA about the five-stage system and the criteria for assessment.

For example, if the schools and the LEAs have not agreed on the respective means for operating the five-stage system—which, I am pleased to say, does not have to be mechanically followed—there can be an agreement between the two, but there is a danger of an LEA saying to a school: "We are not happy with the way in which you have gone through the stages, or your adaptation of the stages, before coming to us and requesting an assessment." I hope that that danger can be tackled.

In addition, there could be a grey area between what the school is expected to provide from its resources and what the LEA is expected to provide on the basis of the needs stipulated in the statement. The draft of the code before us puts a stronger emphasis on the role of the LEA in that respect. I hope that such disputes will not take place, and that the Government will be prepared to issue further advice and guidance if questions arise.

The code has made great efforts to improve liaison between local education authorities, health authorities, health trusts and social services departments. Many of the problems of providing a statement in six months have often occurred with agencies over which the LEA has no control. The code attempts to ensure that everyone keeps in step in meeting the timings that are required; nevertheless, I know that LEAs are still fearful that, especially at the final stage, there may not be sufficient time for them to properly complete the statement, and that therefore they could have recourse to the several provisions in paragraph 3.43 to enable them to take a little longer.

I am especially worried about speech and language therapy, because I am not happy that, by the provisions in paragraphs 4.34 to 4.36 of the code on page 82, the Government have cleared up who should pay for that therapy and in what circumstances. I do not understand why the Government did not opt for the procedure that is followed in Scotland, where it would appear that the service is being provided in a way that is welcomed by health authorities, LEAs, parents and schools.

Better provision is made in the code for under-fives. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a case for improving such provision. There should be specific provision for special educational need co-cordinators to be provided in nursery schools or for local education authorities to make specific peripatetic provision to cover nursery schools, nursery classes and playgroups, in all of which there will be a need to ensure that the special educational needs of children are picked up as soon as possible.

I hope that the Government will consider provision beyond the age of 14 in more detail. They have instituted a system for children from the age of 14 onwards, which will be better for those children who previously had statements. Nevertheless, it leaves children with learning difficulties but without statements in a position where they will not necessarily get the help they require once they leave school. Will the Government consider extending the operation of the code to 19-year-olds?

I have received many representations on the need to mention autism in the code of practice. I have spoken about that issue to people working in the health service and schools, and to parents. It is reckoned that some 30,000 children may be affected by difficulties associated with the autistic continuum. There is now strong evidence that autism is under-identified and therefore under-provided for by local education authorities.

The Departments for Education and for Health are undertaking research, with the good offices of Professor Elizabeth Newson, director of the child development research unit at Nottingham university. An interim report has been published, but I understand that a complete report expected last September has not yet been published. I hope that the Government will respond positively to that research if it becomes apparent that a stronger and more specific reference to autism needs to be made.

The "named person" is also a welcome improvement, but have the Government considered the difficulties that may arise for parents whose children have emotional or behavioural problems? Over a wide spectrum of special needs, many voluntary organisations work in that area, but help may not be so forthcoming for emotional and behavioural problems. I should welcome a response from the Minister on that issue.

Have the Government compiled, or are they in the process of compiling, a list of lay members with expertise in special needs and local government to serve on the tribunals?

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Griffiths

I am pleased to see the Minister nod.

Paragraph 6:12 on page 100 refers to people who should attend the special annual review but makes no compulsion. A local education authority should be obliged to have a representative at the annual review, because, under the code of practice, schools now play a much greater role than previously. Schools should be properly resourced for that work.

My last specific point concerns a matter that appeared in the original document but does not appear in this draft—the requirement for schools to specify the special educational experience and qualifications of members of staff. While much is said about what schools must do in terms of providing information about training, nothing is said about the experience and qualifications of staff. Why were those matters dropped from the code? It is valuable information, which parents should have.

On the framework in which the code will operate, a recent Court of Appeal decision will allow parents to sue local education authorities if they believe that the authorities have failed to provide appropriate special education for their children. It is important that the code of practice is seen to work properly.

Then there are the pressures on learning support services caused by other Government policies. There is much evidence that such services are under great pressure; there must be concern about whether there will be enough support at the centre to ensure that schools have access to them in developing their own policies and practice, and identifying and meeting special educational needs.

A survey conducted by the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf, for example, reveals a decline in the number of such teachers. Let me give just one example: in the midlands region, between 1991 and 1993, there were 380 more children with hearing impairments, but 16 fewer teachers of the deaf to deal with them. In the same period, the number of vacancies for educational psychologists increased from 42 to 70. If the code is to work properly, however, extra responsibilities will be imposed on such people—especially at stage 2—as they must help with preventive work in schools.

Another survey, carried out in a Merseyside authority, showed a loss of 28 special needs support teachers in 28 schools, at a time when the number of pupils with special needs had increased in more than 50 per cent. of those schools. I am worried about the ability of local education authorities to provide for schools.

In that context, too, the local government reforms pose a problem. My education authority, Mid Glamorgan, currently employs either three or four educational psychologists; when the county is divided into four or even five separate education authorities, there will not be enough psychologists even for one to be employed in each authority. Local authorities in both Wales and England must be brought together to ensure that they provide such services.

The problem is that the Government seem to see schools as self-sufficient units, to be judged principally on their examination results, and the meeting of special education needs is not considered as important as it should be. The increase in the number of exclusions is very worrying; I know that the Government are trying to deal with the problem, but—although the code has tremendous possibilities and is very welcome—I am concerned about potential problems that could damage its implementation if they were not prepared to monitor it carefully and perhaps, in its third year of existence, conduct a major, far-reaching and independent review.

4.17 pm
Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

I should, perhaps, declare my interests, as both the parent of a child with a statement and a parliamentary adviser—unpaid—to the National Association for Special Educational Needs.

I welcome the code of practice. I welcome it in principle: it offers an amplification of the Government's objectives and recommendations. It is not rigidly prescriptive in regard to method and leaves proper scope for professional judgment and discretion. At the same time, it has authority and legal standing derived from the Education Act 1993 and from the requirement for the tribunal to have regard to the code in forming its judgments. That authority is reinforced by the intention—mentioned in the foreword—for registered inspectors and the Office for Standards in Education to monitor the code's implementation.

I think that the Government have struck the right balance, leaving scope for independence of judgment while making it clear that they attach great importance to the implementation of best practice on the model set out in the code. I applaud the substance of the code. It strikes me as a fully considered, imaginative exposition, setting out and underpinning best practice in schools and local education authorities. I may differ from the Government over one or two points of detail in the code, but most of the document I find admirable.

The document valuably clarifies the responsibilities of all concerned. In their document "Getting in on the Act", the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's inspectorate called for clearer definitions of objectives and responsibilities and for improved accountability. We could not possibly ask for those requirements to be better met than they have been in the code.

Promulgation of the code will also, I believe, mitigate some of the difficulties that I had feared would arise from the absence of a planning framework. I spoke about that during proceedings on the Education Bill last year, on 2 March. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, with colleagues, I met the Secretary of State to pursue a discussion on that last summer. The code is a positive and constructive response in that regard.

For instance, I am interested in, and welcome, the proposal that there should be moderating groups, as set out in paragraph 4.7, although I should have liked the tone of that section to be rather less tentative. It is a good idea and it should be pursued vigorously. Similarly, I welcome the recommendation that standard formats for record keeping should be used. Again, I should have liked paragraph 2.25 on this subject to be rather firmer in tone. Standard formats should be used nationally, not just within a local education authority. In that way, we can help to promote equity and to minimise discontinuity. The discrepancies and gaps between primary and secondary phases, between different schools in an authority's area and between different education authorities have been a justifiable source of discontent. I want pressure to be maintained in the direction of more equity and consistency of provision.

Some have said that consultation on the document was somewhat too restricted, but it seems clear to me from the revision that we are debating today that Ministers and officials have listened and have responded to proposals put to them in consultation. Certainly, they have significantly redrafted the document.

I greatly welcome the inclusion of the foreword. I was pleased to note that even the rather dauntingly legalistic notice to parents, which is fairly intractable material to make user-friendly, had been rewritten and is now fractionally less forbidding.

I know that the National Association for Special Educational Needs is grateful for the constructive consideration given to its representations. I also know that the British Dyslexia Association has welcomed the passage in the revised code on the criteria for achieving multi-professional assessments of dyslexia and the new section on resolving parental complaints at school level.

I offer my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) my warmest congratulations on his achievement. I believe that it marks a most valuable advance for parents, children, teachers and all practitioners in this field.

The time scale held out for implementation seems sensible and realistic. The foreword in which the regulations are explained makes it clear that it is not expected that the systems will instantly come into being and emerge fully fledged by 1 September. At the same time, it is made equally clear that schools and LEAs are expected to get down to their task and to develop systems to put them in a position to publish information on their special educational needs policies by 1 August 1995, and thereafter to keep them up to date and to make them clear in prospectuses and annual reports. That is reasonable.

I do not underestimate the demands that the code will make on the teaching profession and indeed on all the relevant professions, but the right balance has been struck in the time scale that the Government envisage.

I welcome what the Minister said about his plans to explain the code and to encourage and to build confidence on the part of all who will have to operate it, by means of a series of conferences and training events. I am pleased that he welcomes the partnership with voluntary organisations and that he at least does not regard pressure groups as subversive of all that is best in our national life.

It will not be enough just to distribute the document, although it is important to distribute it as rapidly as possible to all schools and voluntary organisations at local and national levels. We still need to overcome some apprehension and misapprehension among teachers. At the weekend, I spoke to an experienced and dedicated special educational needs teacher who was teaching seriously disabled children in a difficult inner-city area. She had not had the opportunity to read the draft code, which I do not think was distributed to all schools, and she was fearful of what it might mean. She had heard about the five-stage model and she was worried that it was one more bureaucratic incubus from the Department. She was even apprehensive that teachers might boycott the code.

Teachers need not have any such fears. In paragraph 7 of the foreword, Ministers sensibly and helpfully explain that the detail of what schools decide to do may vary according to the size, organisation, location and pupil population of the school. Paragraph 12 states: In practice, the precise definition of the stages and the number of stages adopted are matters for schools and LEAs to decide, consulting each other, in the light of the Code. That is sensible and, when understood, should allay any fears. It will be important to explain and reassure as soon as possible.

Implementation of the code will entail taking a clear view of resources. There is no question but that the proper implementation of the code will cost money, but no one should exaggerate what it will cost and no one should exploit the fact that it will place a new set of demands on the system. Everyone should seek best value for money.

Some unavoidable costs will arise—for example, the appointment of the special educational needs co-ordinator, who should be properly rewarded for the demanding task that he or she will have to undertake. Other teachers may well have to take over some of the former responsibilities of the SENCO—the special educational needs co-ordinator. Consider the activities to be undertaken not only by the SENCO, but perhaps by all colleagues.

They will involve developing overall school procedures, assembling information about individual children, recording, consulting parents, ascertaining the wishes of the child, co-ordinating with other services, generating letters and holding meetings, assessing, planning and reviewing. That will involve far from insignificant resources in stages 1 and 2 and stage 3 will involve the cost of outside specialist services. Account has also to be taken of the cost of training, which, if properly done, could be the biggest cost.

The identification of budgetary resources applied to special educational needs school by school will be essential in the interests of accountability and so that we can know whether resourcing will be adequate. It is natural for people to say that resources will not be sufficient—people will always say that schools do not have enough—but we should at least be clear what resources they have. I am glad that paragraph 2:7 of the revised draft emphasises the obligation on the governing body to establish the appropriate funding arrangements.

Paragraph 2:11 places an obligation to include in the annual report information on how resources have been allocated to and amongst children with special educational needs over the year". Local management of schools formulae have varied significantly in relation to special education needs across the country. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would comment on the evolution that he foresees of the LMS methodology. It is important to ensure not only transparency but the maximum fairness and consistency between authorities. Arbitrary variations between one local education authority and another of resources applied to special needs have been a source of puzzlement, and all too often people have felt a sense of unfairness and disappointment.

In another place last year, my noble Friend Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State at the Department for Education, made a helpful and important comment. During proceedings on the Education Bill, Lady Faithfull, who knows a thing or two about local authorities, asked whether there might be a risk that a local authority treasurer might say that it was too expensive to provide a statement. My noble Friend said unequivocally: The child is diagnosed as having special educational needs. Those needs are set out in a statement and then the education provision consistent with those needs must be found. It is reasonable for the treasurer to say to those involved in making that professional judgment that they must look for the most cost-effective solution. But the cost-effective solution they come up with must be wholly consistent with the statement, whatever the cost."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 April 1993; Vol.545, c.562—63.] I do not know whether my noble Friend was then upbraided by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but I have not been able to find any such unequivocal and sonorous statement in the code. Perhaps the Minister will reaffirm that resources must be found to match the statement and that that will be put into the final code.

Mr. Forth

I shall try to answer that important question now in case we run out of time. There are two important aspects. One is in the interesting current variation in the number of statements provided by different local authorities—for example, fewer than 2 per cent. of pupils in some authorities to nearly 4 per cent. in others. That shows that most authorities can find the money if they can justify it and support the mechanism.

The other crucial new factor in the equation is that for the first time, the special educational needs tribunal will have powers to bind local education authorities on the statementing process and will do so quite impartially. Those two factors lead me to suppose that the money will be found where it is necessary under the constraints of the new standardised, but more rigorous, approach.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he well understands the great importance of this issue. If his intentions in the code are to be truly fulfilled, we must not slide back to resource-led statements with all the evasions, the frustrations, the sadness and the waste of children's potential that they have involved.

Mr. Win Griffiths

I welcome what the Minister has said, but why was it necessary in paragraph 2.15 on page 10 of the code to say: Governing bodies and head teachers may need to give careful thought to the SEN co-ordinator's timetable in the light of this Code and in the context of resources available to the school"? Surely the SEN co-ordinator's role should be developed and resources should be found to make sure that the co-ordinator is able to do his or her job properly.

Mr. Howarth

It is not for me to answer that question but I think that all hon. Members, and those on the Front Benches, agree that the necessary resources must be found. Of course that applies not only at school level but, as the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) suggested in his speech, what the noble Baroness Blatch said has an important bearing on LEA resourcing. There are legitimate concerns about the contraction of special educational needs support services in LEAs. If we are to make the code's aspirations a reality the support services at LEA level should be sufficiently resourced.

The principle of integration of children with special needs into mainstream education and the requirements of the code carry, massive implications for initial teacher training, in-service education and training and for specialist training in the special educational needs field. Training is the ghost at the feast in the code. I note what is said in paragraph 2.26 and I noted what the Minister said.

Although I welcome the Department's support for the development of distance learning packages, relatively little about training is explicit in the code, while there is much that is implicit. The code assumes a formidable range and depth of expertise. Every school will have a so-called responsible person. There are implications in the document for the training of heads and deputies and of governors, whose responsibilities will be enormous, special educational needs co-ordinators and all teachers in all schools.

Training will be the fountainhead of success or failure. The code rightly raises expectations and sets better standards. We understand, for example, that some 300,000 schoolchildren have dyslexia. The code has important and constructive points to make about their entitlement. Teachers in all schools will need to know how to identify and respond to specific learning difficulties. The development of that competence will need to be embedded in initial teacher training and reinforced in INSET—in-service training—through the GEST—grants for education support and training—programme.

I welcome the fact that GEST funding for special educational needs training is due to rise from £6.6 million in 1991–92 to £9.7 million in 1994–95. I am not sure how many schools the country has now but in my time in the Department, they were thought to number 27,000. On my reckoning, that amounts to £360 per school and the LEA must provide an additional 40 per cent. Given that standard spending assessments are tight, how confident is my hon. Friend the Minister that the necessary training will be sufficiently resourced? There must be enough good training and sufficient resources must be provided. Training must draw on the latest and best practice in schools nationally and internationally.

I welcome the requirement that one member of the Teacher Training Agency should have knowledge of special educational needs. I hope more than one member will do so and that that experience and knowledge will be fully up to date.

I am concerned that the Government envisage that initial teacher training could be offered by schools without collaborating with higher education. Although some schools have highly developed expertise in special educational needs, all too many do not, and no school can reasonably be expected to keep absolutely up to date with latest developments.

How can the generality of schools, which have considerable leeway to make up, take responsibility for developing the content of training, to provide their own teachers and prospective teachers with the knowledge and skills demanded by the code? My hon. Friend the Minister may say that the criteria for the accreditation of courses will provide a safeguard, but what if schools fail to satisfy those criteria? Where will training come from then?

I understand that my hon. Friend does not envisage schools running specialist training on their own without input from higher education, but the Education Bill does not preclude it either. Special education is, by definition, special. Teachers of children with special educational needs must provide teaching that is additional, to and different from, ordinary education. Their training must correspondingly inculcate special knowledge and skills. I should be most concerned if training in special educational needs were cut off from access to national and international developments.

A recent conference on integration organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed that special educational needs are a rapidly developing field in many countries. We must not deprive ourselves of the ability to learn from international experience. Rather, we should ensure that, where appropriate, it is rapidly translated into the practice in our schools. Schools alone cannot possibly achieve that.

There is a shortfall of available specialist teachers. The number completing courses in teaching pupils with severe learning difficulties fell from 200 in 1989 to 80 in 1993. The number of teachers of hearing-impaired children qualifying has fallen from 150 to 110. The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf reports an average age of more than 40 for new trainees and a serious fall-off in younger teachers. Special schools and support services are having difficulty in filling appointments with qualified people. If there is to be further doubt about the viability of specialist training courses in institutions of higher education, I fear that numbers will fall even further. Yet the code, for example, in paragraphs 3:78 and 3:79 on the assessment of children with hearing difficulties, makes assumptions and, indeed, explicit requirements that imply considerable specialist expertise.

We must ensure that we will the means as well as the ends. A great deal of training is needed. It must be adequately resourced, and the processes of training must not be cut off from the centres of expertise in higher education—for example, the university of London institute of education and the education department of the university of Manchester, which have a great deal to offer, as we all know.

Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be willing to ensure that the Education Bill will require, training for special educational needs to be carried out in collaboration with institutions of higher education. I welcomed his undertaking on Second Reading, in response to an intervention from me, to reflect further on that. If we fail to ensure appropriate training, the volume of appeals will ineluctably soar and, after all, we do not want the tribunal to be busy. We must not see the aspirations of the code turn to bitter disappointment on account of failure in training.

The code and the legislation will be helpful in achieving better collaboration between services, but, like the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), I have some worries in that regard. I am concerned that delays in the processes of assessment and statementing might be generated from agencies other than local education authorities—particularly from health authorities.

I remain dissatisfied with paragraphs 4:34 to 4:36 on speech and language therapy, which simply recapitulate the existing unsatisfactory status quo at law. I would add that they look at the existing pattern of provision somewhat through rose-tinted spectacles. The availability of speech therapy remains deficient in too many health authorities. In the gap between what is described as educational and non-educational provision and what is referred to as "prime" and "ultimate" responsibility, a great deal of time can be lost—precious, irrecoverable time—for children, whose development every week and month is crucial.

The case law has helped to clarify responsibilities, but as the wording of the code demonstrates, they are still not nearly clear-cut enough. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Schools last year asking him whether he would use the opportunity provided by the Education Bill to define beyond doubt where responsibility lay. I believe that the duty to provide speech and language therapy in schools should rest clearly and inescapably with the local education authority, which should buy in the professional services it needs from the health authority, or where ever. Will my hon. Friend therefore look for an opportunity to act on that and at least strengthen his expression of expectation in the code?

I want to end on a positive note. I believe that the tone and style of the code are exactly what are needed. It is written in plain English—it should be submitted for a prize for that. It is humane in spirit. It is undogmatic. It makes it clear that its provisions are not set in tablets of stone and that it will evolve as a living document. The emphasis on partnership—with both parents and children—to which my hon. Friend drew attention, is right and necessary. All that is humane and sensible.

Throughout the code, there is a sensitive recognition of the stress, anguish and even depression that parents of children with special needs can experience. In the past, the processes of assessment and statementing have, all too typically, been antagonistic and dragged out. I welcome, for example, the provision in paragraph 3:11 for a "named person" to be a friend to parents when the assessment and statementing process is being carried forward. I welcome also the desire, expressed in paragraph 3:12, to avoid confrontation.

The code contains imaginative touches, such as the recommendation that the letter telling parents that a local education authority intends to undertake an assessment should be delivered personally. The code requires that parents should be treated with respect and dignity. They are entitled to receive all the reports and are encouraged to express their own preferences for the school at which their child should be placed. I was pleased to note that they were not discouraged from expressing a preference for a non-maintained special school.

The requirements for targets for progress and for time scales to be observed will be exceptionally valuable for children and their parents who, all too frequently in the past, had to face the prospect of almost endless struggle to achieve what they ought to have. I hope, however, that my hon. Friend can assure me that OFSTED and the Department will be vigilant to ensure that stages 1 to 3 do not become excessively prolonged as the stages preliminary to assessment and statement. I know that that is a concern of the British Dyslexia Association.

I welcome the tribunal. That was an idea that was under consideration during my time at the Department. I am very glad that my successors have carried it forward. It should mean an end to local education authorities being judge and jury in their own case on appeals and to the protracted and bitterly legalistic and antagonistic process of appeals to the Secretary of State.

If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State can ensure sufficient resources and if we have sensible arrangements for training, with the code, the interests and prospects of children with special educational needs will be enormously enhanced.

4.45 pm
Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

When The Times made its recent appeal for donations to help AFASIC—the association that represents children and young people with speech and language impairments and their families—the outcome was not only one of much-needed financial help for a voluntary organisation whose achievements are held in admiration on both sides of the House: the appeal also made hundreds of thousands of people much better informed of the extent of unmet need for speech and language therapy among children and young people in this country.

It is about AFASIC's reaction to the code of practice that I want to speak in this debate. I do so, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) recalled, as the former Minister for the Disabled who, in the 1970s, was principally involved in the setting up of the Warnock committee. As the House knows, my interest in the debate arises also from my Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the first ever statute specifically to legislate for children with dyslexia and autism, as well as those with the devastating dual handicap of blindness and deafness.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) said that he was ending his speech on a positive note. It is on a positive note that I begin my speech. Let me make it clear at once that AFASIC welcomes many aspects of the code, not least its recognition of the importance of early identification, assessment and provision. The association also welcomes the code's emphasis on partnership between schools, parents, the local education authority, other agencies and the children and young people themselves; its clarity in establishing stages of assessment and provision and the identification of responsibilities at each stage; and its time limits for the assessment and statementing process.

AFASIC's concerns about issues raised by the code of practice include the onerous responsibilities placed on the individual special needs co-ordinator within the school. The association is concerned also about whether special needs co-ordinators will be given training, more especially as there appears to be no money in the 1994–95 grants for education support and training—GEST—budget; the need for a Government lead in regard to the training of teachers, therapists and other professionals in order to ensure effective implementation of the code; and the worrying assumption that measures detailed in the code can be implemented with no adjustment to the level of resources available.

The issue of resources is made all the more important by wider public understanding now both of the extent of the need for speech and language therapy intervention in the school-age population and of the pace at which need is growing. Nearly a quarter of a million children today have some speech and language impairment or disorder. Of those, 6,000 or 7,000 have severe, long-term difficulties. Some 10 per cent. of all pre-school and school-age children have difficulties which could interfere with their educational progress at some time; and 5 per cent. of all children enter school with noticeable speech and language difficulties.

In England and Wales, responsibility for ensuring that there is provision for speech and language therapy is currently divided between local education authorities and district health authorities, with the result that many children do not receive the therapy they need, or (10 so only as a result of strong parental persistence. Many parents, of course, are sadly in no position to exert such pressure.

The code fails to clarify who is responsible for ensuring that therapy is purchased for those children—an issue of increasing concern to public representatives, voluntary groups like AFASIC, professionals and families. Again, the distinction in the code between "prime" and "ultimate" responsibility is of little help to purchasers, providers or parents.

The Council of Local Education Authorities—CLEA—recently compiled a dossier of evidence from LEAs of shortfall and confusion in the provision of speech and language therapy to children who are acknowledged to need this help in order to progress with their education. I give the House two sample quotations from that dossier. The first is: One of our health districts, covering a school population of approximately 20,000, provides no service to children in mainstream schools over the age of eight, whether statemented or not. Our special school for children with autism/communication disorders is underfunded to the tune of one full-time equivalent speech therapist. Our six moderate learning disorders—MLD—schools require an additional two full-time equivalent speech therapists to meet the needs of children placed there. The provision of speech and language therapy is (apart from dyslexia) the issue which chronically prevents the LEA from developing reasonably harmonious relationships with parents. My second quotation is about differing levels of therapy services. It shows that, in effect, the level and availability of therapy services depend not on the urgency or extent of need, but on where one lives. I quote again from the dossier: We liaise with six different health authorities which offer widely varying levels of therapy services. Achieving coherent delivery of this service is therefore particularly difficult and has been further exacerbated by the developing purchaser/provider split in the health authorities themselves. Agreements with the purchasers do not necessarily hold with the provider … the DHA is placing children on ever-lengthening waiting lists and there is increasing evidence of disagreement over whether cases are educational or medical in origin. A recent joint LEA/DHA working group showed that a disproportionate amount of speech therapy time is devoted to adults. That is the background, some might think sombre background, to the Minister's statement today that it has always been the Government's policy to match speech therapy provision for children to their needs.

Confusion over who is responsible for ensuring the purchase of speech and language therapy is exacerbated by shortages among the providers. Figures to demonstrate this shortfall are scarce. That is due in part, AFASIC believes, to fear on the part of purchasers and providers of identifying needs they are unable to meet. No such fear was shown, however, by the Greenwich healthcare speech and language therapy service. In a survey last June, it identified a shortfall of 5.8 full-time equivalent speech and language therapists for children in mainstream schools and a shortfall of 5.6 full-time equivalent speech and language therapists for children in special schools.

Mr. Forth

If I do not have an opportunity to reply formally to the debate, as I want my colleagues to have an opportunity to speak, I will write to everyone who has participated in it.

However, with regard to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), against the background of the general increase in the amount being spent on speech therapy over the past few years, I hope that he will acknowledge that, for the first time, in the Education Act 1993, we made provision for a much more explicit and formal co-operation and co-ordination between local education authorities and local health authorities. I hope that that will be helpful.

Later this year, my Department will have further discussions with AFASIC and others to determine the nature of any continuing and on-going problems and the best way to resolve them. We have not by any means seen or heard the last word on this matter. We will consider very carefully what the right hon. Gentleman has to say.

Mr. Morris

I am very grateful to the Minister. I wish him luck with the Treasury in securing more resources for the very needful children about whom we are concerned in this debate. I hope that the debate itself will arm the Minister with compelling arguments for more resources for these children.

I was referring to the Greenwich healthcare speech and language therapy service. Its disturbing findings were made at a time when there were also 417 pre-school children among the service's case load and a further 213 children awaiting an assessment.

In a survey carried out in September 1992, the Canterbury and Thanet service identified a shortfall of 4.1 full-time equivalent speech and language therapists for statemented children in mainstream schools. At the time of that survey, 288 children in Canterbury and Thanet mainstream schools had no speech and language therapy provision, despite demonstrating a need for it.

I turn now to the performance of health authorities in helping speech-impaired children and young people. Unlike education authorities, health authorities have only a general duty to provide services. They have no specific duty to individual children; indeed, there is evidence that some health authorities, such as Stafford, are refusing to provide any speech and language therapy at all to children over the age of eight.

As the Minister knows, the "NHS Efficiency Index" encourages health authorities to spend on health care items which will most obviously demonstrate a return. That urges DHAs towards provision of acute services and discourages them from investing in community services such as paediatric speech and language therapy. Health authorities know that LEAs are the providers of last resort and thus have little incentive to provide services themselves. Fundholding general practitioners are also purchasers of speech and language therapy, a role for which many will have been inadequately prepared.

AFASIC can find no other instance in which a health authority is responsible for meeting specified educational needs and, on the association's behalf, I now ask the Government to clarify beyond doubt who is responsible for ensuring the provision of speech and language therapy services to children of school age.

In Scotland the education authorities have been allocated funds in the local authority settlement to purchase therapy from the health boards. The Government have indicated that this is working well and I believe that it could serve as a useful model for England and Wales. I suspect that the Minister, who has been very generous in responding to points that have been raised in the debate, is rather envious of the arrangements in Scotland and would like, as many of us would, to see them repeated here. I ask the Government also to commit themselves, first, to monitoring the implementation of the code of practice with particular reference to speech and language therapy; and secondly, to revisit the code no later than 1996 to put into place any amendments which may have been shown by the monitoring process to be necessary.

Not to give speech-impaired children the right help, in the right place and at the right time is to endanger their future. In some cases, it can lead to a lifetime of preventable handicap and dependency for children whose claim to the attention of the House ought not to need emphasising to Ministers. If they want to make certain that the code of practice succeeds in safeguarding such children, they can do no better than to keep in close and continuing rapport with AFASIC about its implementation and to respond positively now to the association's concerns.

5 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

First, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for introducing the code of practice. I do not want to reiterate everything that hon. Members have already said, but I hope that my hon. Friend will take it from me that I warmly welcome the code. I know that much consultation has gone into the document. As we are under pressure of time, I shall simply go quickly through one or two matters which are of concern to me and which I hope my hon. Friend will monitor as the code is implemented.

Many hon. Members mentioned the question of speech therapy. I shall repeat what a speech therapist in my constituency told me in my surgery: because of the introduction of care in the community, the peripatetic speech therapists who work primarily under the umbrella of health find that they are spending a lot more time travelling to people's homes to assist stroke victims who necessarily need help early after they are discharged from hospital. That is taking up a lot of their time—time which must often be shared with children who need speech therapy. Although I welcome the increased number of hours that speech therapists are giving nationally, I suspect that they are being asked to cover a much broader area. That area must be examined.

I certainly welcome the partnership with parents. I hope that my hon. Friend will monitor carefully circumstances where parents elect the person alongside them, especially at the appeal stage, perhaps to have knowledge of a particular disability. That has often been a problem. In the statementing process, there has often been a conflict between educational psychologists and clinical psychologists. Often, the clinical psychologist has a much greater knowledge of a specific disability, especially if it is clinically based. I hope that the presence of psychologists, if necessary, will be recognised when they stand alongside parents and represent them.

Many hon. Members mentioned resources, especially with regard to disabilities. As autism has been mentioned by Labour Members, I should perhaps declare an interest as an unpaid special counsellor to the National Autistic Society. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I have been in correspondence with him on several aspects of the subject.

When we consider resources and the anticipated number of children with special educational needs, including that segment of children who require statements of need, we are still working on the excellent report of Baroness Warnock in the 1970s, which was put into statute in the Education Act 1981. Although Baroness Warnock mentioned autism and dyslexia in her report—I have made this point to my hon. Friend before—those two disabilities were not in the final list at the back of the report where she identifies areas where statements of need may be necessary.

Hon. Members mentioned the figures relating to both disabilities. I do not think that resources have increased because there are more people with dyslexia or autism; I simply think that our awareness of the two conditions is much more enhanced now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. In terms of resourcing and meeting the need, it is likely that Baroness Warnock's figures need reappraisal in the 1990s in terms of the scale of the problem.

I recognise that for local education authorities, the Government and even schools, it is something of a Pandora's box to take the lid off and say that the area of need is much greater than the figure on which we have been working since the 1970s. In aggregating statistics as a result of the much more strictly run statementing and special needs process, I hope that we will be able to identify the scale of need of all the categories of children.

Mr. Forth

I do not think that we should attempt to put things in boxes in that way at this stage—we have rightly resisted that temptation. However, I recognise the desire of people from specific needs groups to have their requirements identified and recognised.

First, I simply ask my hon. Friend to accept that the Audit Commission, in its excellent report about two years ago, did not identify a shortfall of money; it identified the fact that the money was not always efficiently used, and the code will be a major step forward in that direction. Secondly, we should recognise the variation in existing LEA practice and existing special needs provision. There is no indication that there is a lack of money; there is an indication of an unacceptable variation in the way in which the money is brought to bear.

Mrs. Browning

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall make two final points. The first relates to the money side. We must be careful when using the Warnock statistics, because LEAs which reach a 2 per cent. target of statementing of special needs feel that they have reached the target. I suggest that that is a somewhat artificial level and that other children below that 2 per cent. may need statementing. As the process is now being speeded up because of the six-month rule, there may be a tendency in some areas not to statement children who otherwise deserve it.

My final point relates to teacher training. Recently, I met many dyslexic children and I was horrified when they told me that teachers in their school referred to them as thick. When it comes to in-house training for existing teachers, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that we have a long way to go in spreading throughout the education establishment the message that dyslexic children are not thick, and that existing teachers require training in special needs as much as new teachers.

5.6 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

This is an important debate. As time is short, I intend to keep my remarks brief. I join hon. Members who have already spoken in welcoming the code of practice, and pay a warm tribute to all the organisations that took part in the consultation exercise.

Perhaps unusually from the Opposition Benches, I pay a warm tribute to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools because I believe that his personal interest and involvement in the issue led to the code of practice being a model of clarity that has achieved considerable support across the political spectrum and from all those involved in the world of education.

As the Minister admitted, the code of practice is long awaited, arising, as it does, out of the Warnock report and the Education Acts 1981 and 1983. Nevertheless, it is now with us and, as I said, has received a great deal of praise from many people because it distils the highest aspirations of local education authorities and includes many examples of best practice as regards special educational needs work up and down the country. The code rightly stresses the issue of the continuum of need, and for the first time clearly delineates the responsibilities as between individual schools and local education authorities. That will go some way at least towards resolving some of the problems that local education authorities face with regard to the pressures of statementing.

The code of practice is welcomed by governors, head teachers, teachers and local education authorities; I suspect that that renders it almost unique among documents produced by the Government over the past 15 years, certainly in the field of education. I welcome it for that reason, and I hope that it will be the first of many such documents.

Perhaps the main reason why the code has been so successful is that the Minister and the Government listened to the views of different professionals; that is especially true of the way in which they have adopted the concept of special educational needs as a whole school issue and accepted the case for a five-stage model. The Government have rightly incorporated throughout the document the theme of partnership and parental involvement. They have also, perhaps for the first time, recognised the importance of listening to the views of pupils.

I said that I would be brief and I shall not rehearse many of the concerns that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber because it is important that the Minister has an opportunity to respond. I shall merely pick up briefly two or three points that I do not think hon. Members have touched on.

Mention has been made of the concern about the four-year period between one OFSTED report and another. The Minister may wish to comment on the suggestion that, while there is a requirement for governors to refer in their annual reports to their special educational needs policies and to the allocation of resources, a clear statement should be incorporated within those reports of what action has been taken each year following an OFSTED report to move towards meeting any criticisms that may have been raised.

Mr. Forth

In a sense, I can do better than that. We anticipate that OFSTED will prepare a first interim report on the operation of the code in respect of a limited sample of schools as early as March 1995 and will follow that with a more extensive report in December 1995. We will not have to wait for the four-year cycle. In addition, OFSTED will be concerned with giving overviews about the effectiveness of the code early on, and will do so more regularly than on a four-year cycle.

Mr. Foster

I am sure that many people will welcome what the Minister has said, but I do not think that it takes away from my point about the way in which individual schools meet the best practice and guidance contained within the code.

There is one respect in which the Minister will not give the House the satisfaction which I, for one, would like. The importance of early identification of special educational needs has been quite rightly included within the code; reference has been made to dyslexia, autism and other aspects of special educational need. I say gently to the Minister that one new practice that the Government could introduce that would help dramatically in the early identification of special educational needs is the widespread provision of nursery education. I shall leave the Minister to ponder that.

Let me make a brief point about speech therapists. In addition to the points that other hon. Members have raised about who is responsible for identifying which speech therapist should provide assistance to whom, and from where the money should come—the point about the shortage of speech therapists was made forcefully by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and others—there exists the further concern that the move towards the establishment of more and more national health service trusts is fragmenting the speech therapy service and is beginning to remove any notion of a career structure within speech therapy. That in turn may have implications for the recruitment of speech therapists in the future.

My final point concerns the crucial issue of resources. The Minister has said that there is no indication of a lack of money. On the other hand, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) said that it was absolutely crucial that the necessary resources must be there. There is a mismatch between those two statements. All the evidence that I have seen, when visiting many schools and talking to many people, suggests that there are not sufficient resources currently available to meet the special educational needs of pupils in this country. I am influenced by the evidence provided by local authority associations, which suggest that the implementation of the code in all its aspects may cost an additional £100 million.

The Minister has said that some new money will be found, and I am grateful for his statement about those amounts. However, if I have added the figures up correctly—perhaps the Minister will give a summary of the various amounts in his winding-up speech—the total amount of new money, or at least money which will go to special educational needs which is not going to them at present, is less than £20 million.

We need to hear what the real figure is and whether we are talking about new money or money taken from elsewhere. Although the code is very welcome, it represents only one half of the solution: without sufficient resources to back it up, those aspirations will never be met.

5.15 pm
Mr. Peter Butler (Milton Keynes, North-East)

My intention is not only to be brief, which is relatively easy, but to be succinct, which is more of a challenge.

I join hon. Members on both sides of the House in welcoming the code of practice, which is clearly and successfully the result of an extremely wide consultation. It is an example of a case in which those consulted have taken the opportunity to exploit the consultation, and that does not always happen.

My interest in special education goes back to my involvement in the founding of a school for what were then termed maladjusted children, who are now known as emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children. I gained a postgraduate teaching qualification and was involved in the running of that school for some 17 years, until two years ago. On the basis of that experience, I give great credit to all who are involved at every level of special education, which is one of most challenging ways imaginable of earning a living.

I have been concerned about three aspects of statementing over the past few years. My first concern is about the delay in starting the process: from my observation of one particular school, I can say that the average age for statementing—and therefore the average age of placement—has risen by three or four years during the past few years. Frankly, that means that children are statemented and placed almost too late to benefit from the proper effects of special education. I am pleased to see that that matter is covered by the trigger arrangements for stage 1, and I welcome that. I remain concerned, however, about a situation in which a parental expression of concern does not lead to an assessment, which leaves the parent with little recourse.

My second concern is about the length of time that is spent in the process of preparing the statement. I congratulate the Minister on that matter, as it has been fully covered by the code.

My third area of concern is the recent growth of non-specific or generic statementing. A simple conclusion that a child needs additional help in the classroom is almost a futile exercise and gives no reassurance to parents, little guidance to teachers and little hope to the child. I am pleased to note that the draft statement, and the lay-out of parts 3 and 4 of the former statement which is attached as the appendix to the draft code, deals extremely thoroughly with that question. I welcome that without any reservations.

Despite the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), I do not perceive an even-handed approach to maintained or non-maintained schools. I see a clear desire for children to be placed within a maintained school—whether it is maintained, grant-maintained or grant-maintained special—rather than in a non-maintained or independent school. I greatly regret that. The document seems to assume that a non-maintained or independent placement will arise only from a successful representation made by an unusually well-informed and persistent parent.The notice to parents confirms that in its wording on the right to make such representations, which is included in paragraph 5. It is not even mentioned in paragraph 3.38 of the draft code, which says only that, on receipt of a proposed statement, parents have a right to state their preference for the maintained school that their child should attend, and to make representations to and hold meetings with the LEA.

Although the ability to suggest that the school should be independent or non-maintained is buried within the draft notice to parents, it is not brought out within the draft code of practice itself.

Mr. Forth

The debate was conducted at some length in 1993 in the confines of the Standing Committee on the Education Bill, as it then was. For better or worse, we took a decision about the relative merits of the maintained and non-maintained sectors, the position of parents and so on. The code reflects faithfully what is in the Act—and, since it is now in the Act, it is difficult for it not to do so. We must now hope that parents will take the clues and hints given in both the code and the Act and make the best possible use of them. I am confident that they will be able to do so.

Mr. Butler

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for that response. Of course, the method of funding of the school is irrelevant. The only question is whether the school can help, and possibly where the school is geographically situated. That is particularly important because, even with a specific learning disadvantage or disability, the need to recognise, for example, the effect of the peer group within which the child would be educated if he was accepted at that school is vital to the achievement of success. That is recognised in paragraph 4:41, which says: The placement must be appropriate to the child's needs, while also compatible with the interests of other children already in the school and"— the final part is slightly worrying—

with the efficient use of the LEA's resources. Many of us saw during the 1980s what were termed "out-to-in" policies. As well as not being placed, children were removed from independent non-maintained schools out of county and placed in maintained schools within county. That was often based on imaginative accounting to demonstrate that the in-county school was cheaper, and therefore represented a more efficient use of LEA resources. I am concerned that that practice should not be repeated or continued in future. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for the suggestion, which I think I read in his response to me, that the matter will be watched carefully.

I rose to make a small but important point and to give an overall welcome for an excellent draft code.

5.20 pm
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I declare an interest in so far as I am the father of a small child with Down's syndrome. I hope that, in an essentially English and Welsh debate, I can make some comments which reflect the Scottish experience and offer comments that are relevant to the whole of Britain. I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the much more authoritative speech of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler).

Before my son was born a little more than three years ago, the impression had been borne in on me strongly, in constituency surgeries and so on that, of all the people who came to see me, those who were most oppressed and psychologically battered were those who had the responsibility of caring for people with learning difficulties and disabilities or physical handicaps. I am sure that that is the experience of many hon. Members on both sides of the House. The phrase that was used over and over again was, "You have to fight for everything you get." Exactly as the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said, if a child had persistent parents who knew their way through the system, they might get what the child needed. If the parents did not have that persistence or knowledge, the outcome could be very different.

Since I have had more personal involvement in such matters, I have had greater cause to reflect on that. Anything that the code of practice does to improve the lot of parents and children across the economic and social range is welcome. The proof of the code's value will be what actually happens over the years and particularly whether the necessary resources are made available to meet the aspirations of the code.

Since my son was born, I have realised that, although it is not unreasonable to expect that a Rolls-Royce system should exist from the cradle to the grave for the relatively small number of children who are born with special needs and will obviously have learning difficulties, the reality is very different. I was initially struck by the extent to which people are left on their own to find out what is best for the child in the early stages.

As the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) said in a slightly different context, there is an awful lot going on in the world. A lot of research is being done in other countries, where exactly the same questions are being asked. There has been a serious failure to bring together all that knowledge and experience to create a well-defined strategy for meeting the special educational needs of the various categories of children with special needs.

I intend to limit my remarks to Down's syndrome children because they are the only ones about whom I have any claim to know enough to take up the time of the House. I shall speak particularly about the assessment of pre-school children. I note that the code sets out a worthy aspiration. Indeed, it is firm on one point. It says that the local education authority may make an assessment of a child's educational needs if the parent consents to it, and must make such an assessment if the parent requests it. It goes on to state: Such an assessment shall be in such a manner as the authority consider appropriate. But then, crucially, it states: Following such an assessment, the LEA may make and maintain a statement of the child's special educational needs". Why is that "may" rather than "must"? Once the need has been defined, why should it not be a duty on local education authorities to maintain a record of those needs?

The Scottish experience is of some relevance. Some time ago, I asked the Minister's Scottish counterpart, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) what was the statutory requirement in Scotland for identifying needs and maintaining a record. I then asked what was the practice in each of the education authorities. The answer disappointed me a little. Although it said, accurately, that the LEA may keep a record of needs from the age of two, it said that the information on what the education authorities actually did was not held centrally.

It did not seem unreasonable to expect that, having set out what local authorities were expected to do, the Government would keep a check on what a dozen education authorities did in practice. So I wrote to the 12 education authorities in Scotland. With great courtesy, all 12 replied. My point is that the practice differs widely, even among the small number of authorities covering Scotland.

In Tayside, most records of needs are opened at 11 to 13. The reply continued: The next largest significant activity is at the point of entry to primary school at age 4–5. The third largest significant activity in opening records for pupils was at age two. So age two is the third largest group. The reply from the director of education of Lothian states: In practice, very few children are recorded pre-school. The reply from Shetland was I cannot say that the Record of Needs is initiated at age 2. In Borders regional council records are most commonly initiated between the ages of three and five. However, Central region said: we would anticipate identifying children with learning difficulties by the age of 2. Grampian similarly said: Referral can take place at any age from 0–6 years but most such children attend initially at between 2–3 years. Strathclyde said:

this authority opens Records of Needs for children with special educational needs from age 2. I have rushed through those examples. The point is clear that, despite provisions on the statute book that the education authority may keep a record of needs from the age of two, the practice is widely different even among the dozen education authorities in Scotland. In many cases, the practice is resource-driven. I have no doubt that in others it is the product of a judgment by the education authority that that is the best thing to do. What concerns and surprises me is that there is not a well-defined national view on what is the best practice drawn from international research and experience of what is the best thing to do for such children.

I agree with hon. Members who have said that the passage in the code of practice on speech therapy is vague and disappointing. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) referred to the Scottish experience. It is not quite so rosy as that. Possibly the formula is right—the education authority purchases from the health authority—but unless the resources are there, the provision will not be there either. I emphasise the importance of the availability of speech therapy to pre-school children, who are my particular concern. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most important facilities with which children with Down's syndrome can be provided.

I do not want to introduce any note of controversy into an otherwise harmonious debate. However, the Minister had something to say on the matter and I am sure that he knows better than I do that he was taken strongly to task for his words in an article in Therapy Weekly, which stated: The remarks made by a government minister on the provision of speech therapy for children have been slammed by the College of Speech and Language Therapists. The CSLT has described as 'appalling' comments made by junior education minister the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools.

The Minister called into question whether pre-school speech therapy was an educational provision and whether it had educational value and should therefore be considered in the context of education. The College of Speech and Language Therapists found the draft code disappointing in that it missed an ideal opportunity to state whether health or education services should provide speech and language therapy.

If nothing else comes from my contribution to the debate I hope that it will at least have been made clear that it would be unthinkable for my little boy and many children like him not to have access to speech therapy from the youngest possible age. So much of the progress that he and others in his position have made is due to the availability of speech therapy as of right. That availability is relevant to their education and educational prospects.

The headline of the article in Therapy Weekly is "Therapists reject minister's claims". I hope that the Minister will make it unequivocally clear that he recognises the need for speech therapy for children with special educational needs from the youngest possible age.

In the purchasing relationship, whereby an education authority buys services from a health authority, a difficulty is arising because unless a record of need is kept, purchasing may not take place. Purchasing is based on the existence of such a record and if it does not exist, children are in danger of losing out. It is even more essential, therefore, that such a record is kept from the age of two or the earliest possible age. Certainly, with Down's syndrome children there is not the slightest doubt, from the day of birth, that they will have special educational needs. Such records must be opened in every authority.

In deference to other hon. Members who want to speak in other debates I shall limit my remarks to that. I sympathise with the problems in England and Wales. Pray God we are never dependent in Scotland on the decisions of hundreds of boards of governors and small committees here and there rather than on the decision of 12 education authorities. Each will have many competing priorities and for many people this priority plays no part in their calculations. Patchwork provision is bound to result. We have to have the muscle of Government and of large education authorities with the resources behind them if the proper facilities and provisions are to be made available to a relatively small number of our fellow citizens.

I have no doubt that enormous good will exists in the House. Every hon. Member has experienced similar problems in his or her surgery, as I said at the beginning of my speech. Everyone is in favour of the best possible provision for children with special educational needs. As attendance here today shows, however, it is not exactly a high political priority. Someone has to make it a high priority, and it will be one only if the Government take the lead and put in the necessary resources to back up that commitment.

5.33 pm
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I wish to intervene but briefly and apologise for not having been here for the entire debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the great interest that he has taken in the subject and for coming to my constituency to address a meeting of parents of children with special educational needs. He was able to encourage them to press their cases more strongly.

The emphasis of the Government's document is that local authorities will have the responsibility for deciding priorities and should make such decisions. Parents should get together and put pressure on councils.

Councils need to press ahead promptly with the preparation of statements. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that Bolton council has been reported to the ombudsman and criticised for excessive delay that occurred in the preparation of statements? I hope that my hon. Friend will remind local authorities of the need to act more promptly. The document calls for the identification of special needs as promptly as possible.

There is much to be gained from parents getting together to form action groups so that they can bring more pressure to bear on councils to review their priorities and give them the proper emphasis.

At a local level, there is a constant call for the Government to decide matters centrally rather than leave such difficult decisions to be decided locally. I believe that these priorities should be decided locally. Substantial amounts of money are provided in local authorities' education budgets and they should decide the priorities in the light of local needs and of listening to parents.

I welcomed the contributions made by my hon. Friends and Opposition Members. I am glad that we have had this debate and I add my praise to that of other hon. Members for the document that my hon. Friend the Minister prepared.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs, which was laid before this House on 13th April, be approved.