HC Deb 26 April 2001 vol 367 cc511-8

'In carrying out area inspections, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools must report in connection with any report on the education of children with special educational needs on—

  1. (a) the adequacy of local choice of settings for parents of such children;
  2. (b) the mechanism for ensuring that the funds intended to meet the special needs of the individual child are so provided and spent; and
  3. (c) the adequacy of arrangements for the reception and induction of children with special educational needs into educational establishments situated within the area or serving its pupils.'.—[Mr. Boswell.]
Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Boswell

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

The new clause relates to an important aspect of the Bill to which the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), referred several times. It deals with the role of Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools and the inspectorate to keep tabs on what is to happen as part of the new inclusion framework. Although we do not have much time, it is opportune that we should spend some of it on how inspections work. We must bear in mind the important caveat that the Office for Standards in Education is an independent department. It is not directly beholden to Ministers. One of its great strengths is that it can say what it thinks.

As evidence to support my remarks, I have a letter from Chris Woodhead—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Excellent man.

Mr. Boswell

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's robust remark.

The letter is almost Chris Woodhead's valedictory contribution as chief inspector, and it is specifically on this subject. It was sent to me on 30 November last year in response to a parliamentary question that was referred to him because of convention, and it has been lodged in the Library. Even though Chris Woodhead was sometimes a controversial figure, I do not think that any Member would take exception to anything in that letter. It was very trenchant and to the point, and I will return to it in a moment.

I must point out to the House that there may be a technical error in the new clause. [Interruption.] The Government Whip the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), wants me to sit down, but he should hear what I have to say.

The error reveals my personal background in further education because it refers to area inspections. I think that the Minister is aware, and has been briefed accordingly, that it was my intention to deal with all inspections carried out by the chief inspector, including those of local education authorities and of areas under the Learning and Skills Act 2000, so the new clause goes wider than further education, taking in schools, colleges, the lot.

A few general remarks are called for about the inspection of special educational needs provision. I tabled my parliamentary question last November because I felt that insufficient attention was paid to that. It was also in my mind that as we move towards our stated intention of greater inclusion, or of the right to inclusion wherever possible, the role of the inspector will become ever greater. It is one thing for an inspection to be carried out in a special school—it has already been pointed out that many of those are excellent and appropriate to the job that they are doing—but it is a little more difficult to focus on special needs provision in mainstream schools. It is not an impossible task, and the inspector's letter to me, to which I referred, makes it clear that inspections can be general. There is no reason why they should be confined to special educational needs.

The letter said: For the inspection of provision for pupils with Special Educational Needs in mainstream schools, contractors are instructed that in some circumstances inspectors are required to have additional skills or expertise to inspect pupils effectively. If an SEN 'unit' or resourced provision in a mainstream school has a significant proportion of pupils with any of the following"— he then lists a number of difficulties— then the inspection of these should be led by an inspector endorsed to inspect that specialism. Those are the assurances that the House wants to hear about the inspection of, for example, dedicated special provision in a mainstream school.

The inspector also pointed out that Ofsted has commissioned four short documents that focus on pupils with SEN, boys and girls, gifted and talented pupils and ethnic minority backgrounds as being specialist areas of concern. There are also forthcoming reports on the implementation of the national literacy strategy in special schools and on the evaluation of the national numeracy strategy in special schools. A lot is going on in the inspectorate, which is entirely welcome, and not as many of us are aware of that as we should be. It is clear that as we move towards greater inclusion, there will also be greater dispersion of the activity that caters for special educational needs, and it is important that the inspection process should reach into those areas so that inspectors can satisfy themselves about what is going on.

I want now to make more specific remarks about the new clause, which is designed to reflect the particular context that the Bill will change and the move towards the new inclusion framework, as well as the concerns that we have expressed in debates about the Bill. New clause 3(a) invites the inspector to look at the adequacy of local choice of settings for parents of children with special educational needs. It is very well for Ministers and, I dare I say, my hon. Friends and me, to express an opinion; we all have a position and we all have local constituencies which, we hope, we know. We are lobbied on particular schools and interests. From my constituency experience, I know that parents often lobby on special education, and I am pleased that they do. They sometimes have an interest in inclusion and may have their heart set on a school that is not appropriate for their child. That situation may exist and may need testing, but it should not arise accidentally as a result of machination by the local authority.

5 pm

In our debates we have already emphasised that informed and genuine choice is important. Burrowing into SEN structures, one cannot but be struck by huge disparities. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) may wish to speak about that when he moves a subsequent new clause. However, I noticed a large disparity in the levels of statementing by different local authorities that were set out by the Minister in a recent written answer. In my own county of Northamptonshire, for example, 2.8 per cent. of the school population have statements, and that percentage is broadly similar in Leicestershire. In Nottinghamshire, the contiguous county to the north of Leicestershire, also in the east midlands, 1 per cent. of the school population has statements. My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who knows that county well, has referred to a tradition of not statementing.

That extraordinary disparity in special educational needs clearly derives from the traditions of different local authorities and is the kind of matter to which Ofsted may wish to return. Similarly, the House will be familiar with the different patterns of provision affecting the balance between special and mainstream education and the types of special school provided by different counties and LEAs. In carrying out inspections, it is important that Ofsted takes an interest in that matter, is able to draw its concerns to the attention of Ministers and the general public, and then—this point is often forgotten—something will need to be done about the problem. Hence my earlier exchanges with the Minister about what will happen if Ofsted points to a problem under the inclusion framework.

Mr. Andrew George

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting and telling points about the adequate provision of local settings on which parents can make an informed choice. What assessment has he made of the challenges which, inevitably, will be posed by remote rural areas? Clause 39 deals with the extension of provision to the Isles of Scilly, where providing special needs education will be particularly challenging, as there are small groups of children on islands and in remote rural communities. Surely there is a particular challenge in such areas.

Mr. Boswell

I strongly endorse that point. The challenge applies particularly to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but he will be the first to acknowledge that it is not confined to it. The matter should be resolved by the professional judgment of Ofsted in the light of all the circumstances. However, living only hundreds of yards from a county boundary, I believe that other factors must be borne in mind. Most hon. Members will be familiar with the fact that much of the delivery of special education is outsourced across local authority boundaries because of the need to match needs to provision and find the best solution. Ofsted should take an interest in exactly that kind of matter.

Mr. Bercow

I recognise that my hon. Friend is describing an inspection, rather than a consultation, function. Nevertheless, will he confirm that, under new clause 3, the chief inspector would consult the LEAs in the areas in question, but his work would not consist exclusively of consultation with such bodies? Instead, it would involve listening to the views of parents and consultation with them, educational organisations and others.

Mr. Boswell

My hon. Friend is on to an important point. It is right that in carrying out the inspection, the inspectorate should look for itself and see what is happening, and that it should not be nobbled by any particular interest. Thank God that the present chief inspector is an independent person who will want to take into account everything that is going on, but will not adopt a view necessarily aligned with that of the local education authority. Our concerns about practice in the past suggest that it would be unfortunate if some LEAs were allowed to get away with their traditional practices. I shall not comment further on that. Independence is important, and Ofsted is probably the right vehicle to deliver it.

My second point, relating to subsection (b), may be summed up in the single word "transparency". Right across the SEN world and within the consortium, although there is general satisfaction with the Bill there is some concern about whether funds provided to LEAs and through LEAs, in accordance with the special educational needs of children and the stages set out in the code, are delivered and expended on those children. It is an opaque area.

In Committee I mentioned Dr. John Marks, who has shown that there is a high expenditure which may broadly be called SEN expenditure, that it has risen fast, and that nobody knows a great deal about it. It is an important professional role of the inspectorate to identify what money came in, what money was allocated for provision and on what basis, and whether it was delivered and spent on that provision. That is in the interests of parents and children with special educational needs and of mainstream parents as well.

The third point, which is set out in subsection (c), concerns the adequacy of arrangements for the reception and induction of children with special educational needs into educational establishments situated within the area or serving its pupils. That covers the point made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) about cross-boundary provision.

Educationally, induction—the moment of arrival—is the most difficult. I have come across distressing cases of children who have been well served in special schools, and have then been moved forward through an inclusion agenda or an inclusion philosophy to secondary schools where they enter mainstream provision. The arrangements made for their induction, including the training of teachers, which is critical, were not as good as they should have been, and the result has been a great deal of distress, usually leading to a retreat back into special provision. That is not satisfactory by anyone's standards, and I am sure that it is not what the Minister wants. It is a matter to which the inspectorate should pay particular attention.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

As my hon. Friend knows, there has been a change of provision in my constituency, which has been a bitter experience. Residential pupils were asked to go to a different facility because of the closure of another one, and girls were transferred into what had previously been an all-boy environment. Subsection (c) addresses precisely the difficulty that occurred in that case.

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that constructive point and the way in which he expressed it. Whatever we may say about the Bill, and however much people may or may not be enthused by inclusion, there are always practical problems, and it is foolish to try to minimise them or sweep them under the carpet.

In our earlier discussion of new clause 1 we dealt with matters related to mobility and independence, and the education and preparation of pupils for that. It was agreed in all parts of the House that those are important matters, which go a little wider than simply educational provision. It seems to me that Ofsted could, at least in principle, be the gatekeeper in this matter. It could draw attention to areas where it feels that there is no holistic approach to the needs of the child. It could also have a role when an important provision that bears on these matters, but which is not strictly about a special educational need, is not being adequately discharged.

That is the sort of arrangement that we have in mind. I emphasise to the Under-Secretary with responsibility for school standards—in fairness, I think that she has already made this point—that Ofsted has a heavy responsibility with regard to inspections not only of special schools, but of mainstream provision for special educational needs and the new inclusion framework. Indeed, its responsibility is greater than ever. We want the process to be successful and comprehensive, and we know that it will be professional. As new clause 2, which concerns the rights of the child, was not agreed to, such an arrangement seems an especially sound basis for ensuring that the possibility of inadequate provision, recriminations and the need for remediation is identified and dealt with.

Jacqui Smith

I welcome the responsible way in which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) introduced the new clause, but I believe that it is unnecessary. Ofsted has the power to monitor SEN provision, and it does so. We believe that the arrangements that are currently in place and which are being introduced for monitoring SEN provision and related matters are sufficient. I hope that I can reassure him by speaking about some of them.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the skills of those who are involved in the inspection. He will be aware that the personnel who are selected to carry out inspections and the way in which their inspections are conducted are matters for the chief inspector of schools. Ofsted issues guidance to its inspectors on the inspection of SEN provision, and Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools already has the power to advise the Secretary of State at any time on any matter related to the provision of education. The inspector also has a duty to provide advice and to report on such matters as the Secretary of State specifies in a request.

On inspections of individual schools, Ofsted inspectors evaluate and report on the quality and range of opportunities for learning that are provided by a school for all its pupils, including those with SEN and disabilities. They also consider schools' policies and plans, which include, for example, their SEN policies. That consideration will involve information on how resources are allocated among pupils with SEN. Of course, the hon. Gentleman spoke about transition, reception and induction, with which I shall deal in a moment. I am sure that he will be reassured by the fact that, as inspection of early-years settings becomes more prevalent and we ensure a proper SEN policy for them, the inspection regime will also bite in that context.

5.15 p.m.

The inspectors must report on whether schools manage their resources effectively, including those that are spent on SEN. The hon. Gentleman spoke about transparency in relation to such spending. I am clear about the importance of ensuring transparency in respect of money that is delegated to schools and spent by local education authorities. That is why the Department for Education and Employment is working on how to identify good practice in authorities that delegate provision. We are also working on how to ensure that LEAs have more responsibility to demonstrate how they are delegating money for SEN and to make it clear what they expect from schools in terms of that money.

The Secretary of State can use his powers under section 2 of the School Inspections Act 1996 and section 38 of the Education Act 1997 to require a report from Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools on any school or local education authority functions that relate to education. As the hon. Member for Daventry pointed out, when the Bill was being debated in another place the Government made a commitment to ask the chief inspector to consider the impact of clause 1, especially proposed new section 316(3), on inclusion when the Bill is enacted. The chief inspector said that he would do that. That commitment was welcome in the House and in another place. We will also look to Ofsted to take account of schools' implementation of the relevant guidance in the revised SEN code of practice in future inspections.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned local education authorities. Her Majesty's chief inspector already has the power to inspect LEAs. Special educational needs is one of the four core activities of an Ofsted LEA inspection.

New clause 3(a) deals with choice of settings. The changes that we are making in SEN provision will give parents of children with SEN and a statement a better deal than they currently have. They will offer better chances of securing a mainstream place for their child. Although there has never been a duty on LEAs to provide a choice of settings, they must arrange sufficient SEN provision in their area. However, as they have never had a specific duty to provide an adequate choice of settings, Ofsted cannot properly comment on that.

Local education authorities have to present for approval school organisation plans which cover the way in which they will make sufficient provision, including SEN provision, for children in their areas. Under its framework for inspection, Ofsted must comment on the key functions of the LEA, including the provision of sufficient school places and the preparation of the school organisation plan.

Mr. Boswell

I want to put on record that although there is historically no specific obligation on LEAs to require a range of choice of settings, section 11 of the Education Act 1996 obliges the Secretary of State to exercise his powers with a view to … improving standards, encouraging diversity and increasing opportunities for choice. I presume that that duty on the Secretary of State is also likely to cover local education authorities' discharge of their responsibilities. It should be viewed as an encouragement of the desirable aim of diversity and choice, which is supported in different ways by all parties.

Jacqui Smith

The hon. Gentleman has achieved his aim of putting that on the record.

I was dealing with an LEA's role in ensuring sufficient school places and preparing the school organisation plan, which requires local education authorities to provide adequate places for children with special educational needs. That is part of an LEA's key functions, which would be inspected in an Ofsted inspection of a local education authority.

The framework also provides for Ofsted to comment on the allocation and provision of resources across all local education authorities' functions, including provision for special educational needs. I think that that covers some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised about transparency. The Bill provides for the normal inspection framework for schools and local education authorities to cover functions relating to their duties to plan for improving accessibility, including the preparation, quality and implementation of such plans.

The new clause also draws attention, as did the hon. Gentleman, to the importance of adequate arrangements being in place for the reception and induction of children with special educational needs. I agree with him that that is a particularly important part of the transfer from one educational establishment to another. That is why the revised code of practice will reflect the importance of the transfer of information between all relevant parties when children or young people transfer, and of the particular arrangements that address this issue.

In reporting on schools, Ofsted will comment on the quality of the provision for all children, including those with special educational needs. If Ofsted feels that the arrangements for the reception and induction of such children are adversely affecting the quality of provision for those children, it can draw the school's attention to that as part of the school's inspection.

Given the reassurances that I have given to the hon. Gentleman about the current scope for Ofsted inspections and about future plans, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Boswell

In the light of the Minister's helpful assurances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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