HC Deb 10 July 2001 vol 371 cc744-65

9.6 pm

The Minister for School Standards (Mr. Stephen Timms)

I beg to move, That the draft Special Educational Needs Code of Practice, which was laid before this House on 20th June, be approved. The draft code of practice is designed to replace the current code of practice on the identification and assessment of educational needs, which was introduced in September 1994. The code of practice puts flesh on the provisions of part IV of the Education Act 1996, as amended by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. The intention to revise the code was signalled in the Green Paper "Excellence for all Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs", which was published in 1997. The draft reflects the concerns expressed in the Green Paper and subsequent developments, especially under the new Act.

Regulations made under the 1996 Act and laid before Parliament on 19 June provide the detail of the statutory requirements for assessments, statements and reviews of statements of special educational needs in England. They will replace the 1994 regulations. Separate regulations, which were laid on the same day, set out information that local authorities must provide about their arrangements for special educational needs. Amendment regulations were laid on 10 July to ensure that the six-week time limit within which LEAs must respond to a parental request for an assessment also applies to requests for assessments by schools and other responsible bodies.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

I thank the Minister for giving way so early. Given the Government's intention to bring in private sector companies to run many schools and local authorities, would a private sector company be regarded as one of the other responsible bodies?

Mr. Timms

The school will be regarded as the body, with the local education authority. If some partnership involving the private sector were to affect the LEA, the provisions would apply as to an LEA in any other circumstances. I do not think that the involvement that the hon. Gentleman has in mind would change either the code or the regulatory position.

Mr. Willis

What would happen if a private company such as Nord Anglia were to take over the running of a school or group of schools? As a private sector company that is trading on the stock market, would it be regarded as a responsible body?

Mr. Timms

The code of practice would apply to the school and local education authority in precisely the same way. The duties set out in the 1996 Act, the regulations and the code of practice requirements would have to be met in the normal way. I do not think that the situation that the hon. Gentleman envisages would change that. I hope that I have managed to make that point clear.

Section 314 of the Education Act 1996 provides for the Secretary of State to revise the code of practice from time to time, and where she proposes to do so, to consult upon a draft, consider any representations made and modify that draft as she sees fit. The Secretary of State, in those circumstances, must bring a revised draft to Parliament for approval under the affirmative procedure, which is what we are doing.

The current code of practice has undoubtedly done much to improve the identification and assessment of special educational needs. Ofsted reports on the implementation of the code of practice have shown that it has helped schools considerably in identifying children with special educational needs and matching appropriate provision to their needs.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

A number of my constituents have taken a close interest in the development of the new code. That interest is borne out of battles that they have had with the local education authority, past and present, over the provision of special needs for their children. When the parents have won, the battles have shown them to be right.

The current code provides that a statement should normally be specific, detailed and quantified" — I stress "quantified"— in terms, for example, of hours of ancillary or specialist teaching support. During the development of the new code, Ministers at various times have said that provision should be quantified as appropriate, or have said that the new code will advise LEAs that there may often be a need for statements to say how much help a child should need. Will my hon. Friend take the opportunity to clarify that in the new code LEAs should normally be expected to quantify special educational provision in statements of special need?

Mr. Timms

Many people have been following the debate closely and I know that they have been in touch with their Members about it. I know also that my hon. Friend has taken a close interest in the matter.

The phrase that appears in the draft code is "quantified as necessary". I shall set out the thinking behind that, and my hon. Friend may want to come back to me on the important point that he has raised.

The network of special educational needs regional partnerships, which my Department is supporting, adds an important new dimension to the SEN framework by encouraging collaborative working and sharing of good practice among schools, parents, local education and health services and voluntary agencies.

The draft code of practice is about removing barriers to participation and learning and raising the attainment of all children. Providing effective support for children with special educational needs is an essential feature of an effective school. In some instances, children with special educational needs may not be seen as a great catch by some schools. We need to maintain our focus on high expectations and high standards. At the same time, we must find ways of celebrating the impressive achievements of schools which succeed with pupils who have special educational needs, of which there are many. The work that we are doing on value-added performance tables can play an important role.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Before the Minister departs too far from his answer to the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard), I shall ask him about quantifying where necessary. It is vital to understand that for parents who have real concerns, a statement is no good unless accompanying it is a properly signed up and agreed quantity of special care or special education that will go with it as support. If the Minister is to leave the provision as vague as quantifying where necessary, the code will be seen as not being worth the paper on which it is written. The issue needs to be probed and clearer answers should be given.

Mr. Timms

I intend to devote some time to the issue in recognition of its importance and the fact that many people have raised concerns about it. In a few minutes, I shall give the matter ample attention.

I want to set out some of the background to our thinking on the new draft code of practice. It places greater emphasis —this has been widely welcomed —on early identification of children's special educational needs, including a new chapter on the early years. We are supporting that greater emphasis through the £25 million that we are making available over the next three years to help LEAs and their early years development and child care partnerships to improve local provision for young children with SEN, and through the multi-agency working party that we are setting up to consider the needs of children under two with SEN and disabilities and the needs of their families. That will help us to produce guidance for health and education practitioners on early identification and help for those children.

Early identification is not just relevant to the early years. Children can have special educational needs at different stages of their school career. We have therefore developed the guidance in the draft code of practice on school-based intervention to focus less on procedures and more on improving teaching and learning. We have given proper recognition to the role that class and subject teachers play in identifying children's SEN and in tailoring their approaches to address those needs. We have reduced the number of school-based elements from three to two and cut the paperwork on individual education plans to free up time for teachers to concentrate on helping children to learn.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is still the enormous problem of schools, parents and medical practitioners not recognising conditions such as dyslexia? The children often develop all kinds of behavioural and other problems because it is not recognised. It becomes expensive for everyone later. There is little incentive for a school seriously to assist with identifying dyslexia. Often, it is expensive for the school. That worsens the problem, rather than mitigating against it.

Mr. Timms

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is in response to concerns of that sort that there is the new focus on early identification in the new draft code. We hope that that will help to deal with precisely that sort of difficulty.

The role of education and other professionals is central to the SEN framework, but the child has a unique and important perspective to offer on his or her own needs, so the draft code places the voice of the child at the heart of the provision. There is a new chapter on pupil participation, which carries an expectation that schools and LEAs will seek and take account of the views and wishes of children with SEN throughout their school lives.

Partnership with parents is given fresh impetus with the guidance in the draft code on the new duties on LEAs under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 to provide parent partnership services and a means of resolving disagreements between parents, the LEA and schools. The draft code makes it clear that those services in no way affect the rights of parents to appeal to the SEN tribunal.

The key principles of the new statutory framework for inclusion introduced by the 2001 Act are also set out in the draft code of practice. Inclusion can improve the education experience of all children —those with special educational needs and disabilities and their peers. It helps children to recognise that they are good at different things.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

The Minister is talking about inclusion, but does he recognise that many parents who have children with special educational needs feel that a mainstream school is not the right environment for their children? Many in my constituency have talked to me about the particular problems that their children face. They feel that their education is being held back by their presence in mainstream schools. Indeed, I have been the governor of a first school where an entire class suffered because of the problems faced by one child, who should not have been in a mainstream school. Does he therefore recognise that, although in some senses—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a new Member and I try to do my best, but his intervention is far too long. I shall allow the Minister to reply to the point that he has raised.

Mr. Timms

The key thing is that the needs of the child be met in the best way for that child. That is the principle that underpins the measure. That is what we are taking forward with the new draft code of practice.

When we consulted on changes to the current code of practice, teachers and local education authorities said that it was too bureaucratic and did not focus enough on teaching and learning. We have addressed those concerns in the draft code. We consulted extensively. We sent out more than 30.000 copies of the consultation draft of the revised code between July and October 2000, and received more than 1,000 responses from a wide range of organisations and individuals. Officials took part in many conferences and meetings to listen to people's views. Most favoured the main changes that we proposed. They liked the focus on identifying special educational needs early, and the focus on stronger school-based provision to meet those needs. They liked the reductions in paperwork for teachers, and the emphasis on involving children with SEN in decisions about their education.

A number of other issues were raised during consultation. We listened to people's views very carefully, and have made changes to the draft in response. In chapter I we have brought together the strategic planning functions of school governing bodies and LEAs in regard to SEN, to make it easier for parents and others to know who is responsible for doing what.

We have referred to the requirement for LEAs, through the Special Educational Needs (Provision of Information by Local Education Authorities) Regulations 2001, to publish a range of information on their policies for special educational needs, any development plans, and their arrangements for monitoring services for SEN and keeping them under review. That will include details of what LEAs would expect schools to provide for children with SEN during the "school action" and "school action plus" phases—school-based SEN provision in the draft code—and what LEAs themselves would expect to provide by way of support. LEAs will need to work closely in partnership with their schools to draw up the information, which will mean better information for parents on how support is provided locally.

We have provided fuller guidance for LEAs on the services that they are expected to provide for parents through parent partnerships, and on resolving disagreements with schools and parents. We have strengthened the guidance on seeking and taking account of the views of children. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of the draft code give stronger support to the role of the SEN co-ordinator in helping school governing bodies and head teachers to raise standards of achievement for children with SEN, and recognise their need for support in schools.

The guidance on assessments in chapter 7 has been strengthened by clarification of the terms on which LEAs should seek advice, and making it clear that they should seek the views of the child. We have enhanced the guidance on specifying provision for individual pupils in their statements, and highlighted the accountability that schools and LEAs share for children with statements when funds are delegated. That is in chapter 8. We have been able to address issues raised during the consultation, and have improved the existing code of practice in the process.

Many people expressed particular concerns about the section on specifying special educational provision in children's statements in the consultation draft. They feared that it could be read as weakening the position of children with statements. It has been suggested that the draft code is unlawful in what it says about specifying provision in statements. I do not believe that it is. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), formerly Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), formerly Under-Secretary of State, described the changes that we planned to make to the consultation draft. Let me explain how we want them to work.

The draft code makes it clear that a statement should describe all a child's special educational needs clearly and in full, set out the main objectives that the special educational provision aims to meet, specify clearly and in detail the provision required to meet each of the child's needs, and describe arrangements for setting shorter-term objectives for the child and any special arrangements for the annual review of the statement.

The code stresses the importance of the school monitoring and evaluating the child's progress during the year, and places a new emphasis on the importance of the child's progress towards identified outcomes being monitored by the LEA with the school.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) said a few moments ago, the current code of practice advises that provision in a child's statement should normally be specific, detailed and quantified". The draft code that we are considering today advises that appropriate provision for each identified need should always be specified in terms that are clear, specific and detailed. It advises that provision should be quantified as necessary, and explains that that means according to the needs and circumstances of each individual child and that, in detailing appropriate provision, local education authorities may often need to quantify it.

The draft code is consistent with the law and does not deny help to children who need it. Provision in children's statements must relate to their individual needs and the context in which they may be taught, as that will be part of the provision. We want statements to be clear about what is to be provided, how it is to be provided and for what purpose. That is why we have emphasised in the draft code that statements should set out the arrangements for monitoring the child's progress towards identified outcomes, to check the effectiveness of the provision over time.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

Do Ministers intend to issue to schools further detailed guidance, with examples if necessary, on quantifying the support that has been identified as necessary to meet the child's specified needs?

Mr. Timms

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know follows these matters very closely. I confirm that our intention is to issue guidance dealing with those matters.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West)

Will the guidance notes include references to mechanical aids and other teaching aids that may be considered necessary but might be expensive? Computer programmes, for example, can be extremely helpful to children suffering from dyslexia.

Mr. Timms

I am sure that it will contain references to those matters. However, my hon. Friend will have to wait to see the actual document to see how that will happen. I shall make a couple of points on that in just a moment.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms

I need to make a little more headway, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, but I will then gladly give way to him. This is a very important subject about which many questions have been asked and I should like to explain the Government's thinking on it.

The Government believe, and I think that hon. Members will agree, that the quality of provision and its effectiveness are of prime importance. When a child's special educational needs and circumstances are such that provision must be quantified to meet those needs, we expect that to happen. That is the basis of the guidance in the draft code of practice. It may help if I give some examples to illustrate our thinking.

A child in a mainstream school with severe language difficulties might, for example, require a daily or weekly period of time to be provided by school staff to deliver an individual language programme. I would anticipate that, in most such circumstances, the amount of time would be quantified.

Let us, however, take another possible example, involving a visually impaired child in a mainstream school. That child or his school may require advice or help from a specialist teacher of the visually impaired, which is specified in the statement, but it may make no sense to specify the number of hours in the statement, or a minimum number may suffice as the time required may fluctuate with the changing needs of the child or his teachers for support.

The child may also need the type of aids described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best), such as low vision aids or computing equipment. As the child matures or curriculum requirements change, such aids become out of date and the specialist teacher at the school will identify more appropriate ones. It therefore makes sense to be flexible about how they are specified in the statement. The new code seeks to avoid undue rigidity, which was a risk when interpreting the wording of the old code.

Mr. Laws

What effect does the Minister expect the change in wording to have on the provision of special educational assistance in schools? In particular, can he sum up in a sentence the reason he believes that the wording will be in the interests of our constituents as opposed to the old wording, which many feel is more in the interests of children in schools?

Mr. Timms

We are seeking to achieve a focus on quality, rather than just quantity. There are instances where flexibility is needed in the best interests of the child. We do not want to take people automatically down the route of quantification if the best interests of the child can be expressed more effectively in another way. That is why the code refers to quantification where necessary.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

I remain deeply concerned about the quantification aspects of the proposal because my local authority is trying to close a school in a cost-cutting exercise, saying that the school is too expensive to run. With respect to preventing and resolving disagreements, we all want to ensure that all children receive the same quality of service, wherever they reside in the UK. How will the Minister ensure that each authority deals with disputes in an equitable manner? Is there any intention to take reports from each authority to ascertain how effective the dispute forums are?

Mr. Timms

I hope that the dispute forums are effective; that is our intention. The provision made in particular schools for particular children with particular kinds of support needs may well differ depending on the circumstances that prevail. We need that flexibility to ensure that the best support is provided. It is important that the dispute mechanism to which my hon. Friend refers is addressed. I want to assure her and the House that we are anxious that this should be done correctly and that the code should allow the most appropriate provision for children in every part of the country.

The draft code is designed to ensure that, as the law requires, local education authorities consider each child's needs on an individual basis and specify the right sort of help in their statements. That is why, for the first time, we are making it absolutely clear that LEAs must not, in any circumstances, have blanket policies never to quantify provision in statements. That advance has been widely welcomed. It is also why we are supporting the guidance on specifying provision in statements with changes elsewhere in the draft code to the guidance on assessments.

Following helpful interventions during the debates on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 in another place, we have now made it clear that professionals giving advice can comment on the amount of provision that they consider appropriate for a child and that LEAs must not have blanket policies preventing that. Again, that has been welcomed.

Mr. Hancock

The issue of the quantity of care is vital. Would parents have grounds for objecting to a statement if the quality of care was acceptable, but the quantity was not? As the measure is worded, I sense that parents would not have the right to object on those grounds. That might make it easier for an LEA to avoid spending the right amount of money on a child who might have to go to a special school, perhaps even out of his area. Without the quantification criteria being addressed properly, the LEA would find it easy to do that.

Mr. Timms

The form of words in the code is "quantification where necessary". Those who draw up the statement will decide and parents and, indeed, the children themselves will have the opportunity to make a contribution to the process. If parents are unhappy, they can appeal to the SEN tribunal.

The draft code of practice will, I believe, help significantly to improve provision for children with special educational needs. The changes reflect changes in education since the original code was introduced and will allow for better attention to be given to children's needs. I commend the draft code to the House.

9.36 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

It is important to say at the outset that the discussion thus far has been conducted in a constructive and co-operative way. The Bill that became the Special Needs and Disability Act 2001 was dealt with constructively in Committee in both the Lords and the Commons. We all want to do our best by children with special educational needs.

This is not a party political matter. There are differing views across all parties. There are, however, important differences between myself and the Minister and between my party's and the Government's position. The debate in Committee focused essentially on the importance that we placed, both here and in the other place, on the individual, specific needs of the child. We tabled amendments that the Government rejected. We feared that unless those specific needs were written into the Bill they would be lost at a later stage. I have to say, more in sorrow than in anger, that that is what we are seeing tonight.

Ministers assured us time and again that the code of practice would reinforce the individual, specific needs of the child—but it does not. If anything, it weakens the interests of the child by being increasingly imprecise about those needs and failing to specify and quantify what is needed in a way that would be the guarantor of decent provision by local education authorities.

That stands in stark contrast to the assurances given by the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment on Second Reading of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill. He said: We shall make it clear that education authorities are required to specify provision in statements, as they always have been. We shall retain the requirement in the regulations for provision to be specified, matching the terms of the duty on education authorities set out in the Education Act 1996. The code will state clearly that statements should 'describe clearly all the child's special educational needs in full; set out the main objectives that the special educational provision aims to meet; specify clearly and in detail the provision required to meet each of the child's needs; describe the arrangements for setting shorter term objectives for the child; describe any special arrangements for the annual review of the statement …'"— [Official Report, 20 March 2001; Vol. 365. c. 218.] In the Lords, we were told by Baroness Blackstone that the code would reinforce the specification and quantification of needs, and Lord Davies of Oldham said: In the revised code of practice, we shall insist that the child's statement should describe clearly all the child's special educational needs in full; set out the main objectives that the special educational provision aims to meet; specify clearly, and quantify as necessary, the provision required".— [Official Report, House of Lords, 29 January 2001; Vol. 621. c. CWH 92.] Those assurances were given to quell some of the disquiet felt about these matters by Conservative Members, some Labour Members and many people outside Parliament. Those people were alarmed in the first place by the infamous Green Paper published by the Government in 1997, which was described by one Labour Member as a green light for the closure of special schools. The aim was to weaken and dilute the statement, which has been an important guarantee of the interests of special needs children and their parents.

Thankfully, that Green Paper has been consigned to history, if not the rubbish bin, and we came to believe that its proposals would not be implemented —until we read this new code of practice. I shall set out some of our specific concerns. The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has stated: Our view is that children's best interests would be served if Parliament refused to approved the new code. By failing to quantify provision as expected, it weakens the position of children with special educational needs. I shall give some examples of that. The code omits to give guidance to local education authorities on how to fulfil their duties, it omits to tell them how to identify children who have special educational needs, and it omits to mention that they should undertake assessments of children with medical problems that constitute a barrier to them being able to access education provision.

As the Minister rightly said, in the current statement it is required that a child's needs are stated clearly and in detail, and that they should be quantified and specific. However, the new code suggests that the statement should quantify provision "as necessary". Frankly, that is an open invitation to those LEAs that do not take seriously their responsibility for statementing to act in a way that is not in the interests of children or parents.

We should acknowledge that the performance of LEAs in respect of statementing is patchy. As the Minister knows, some authorities are slow to statement children, and some are resistant to the very principle of statementing. I am not making a party political point, as the problem with the LEAs to which I am referring crosses party boundaries. If the Minister gives those LEAs any opportunity to weaken provision, we must conclude that some will take that opportunity —yet that is precisely what the code does.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I confirm that it can be an enormous struggle to get children statemented. Until recently, my LEA was dominated by Labour. Parents who do not know their rights and who do not contact their Member of Parliament have no hope of securing a statement for a child. Giving LEAs more room to stall and prevaricate will make the problem much worse for some of the most vulnerable children in the system.

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. There are two problems: some LEAs are inefficient when it comes to statementing, and some are resistant to issuing statements at all. An analysis of the number of children statemented by LEAs, and of the time that that process takes, shows that the performance of LEAs is enormously variable across the country. There is no consistency in the approach of LEAs to the matter of statementing, which is very much left to local choice and judgment. In some cases, that judgment is not all that it might be. Again, I make no party-political point when I say that, as the LEAs to which I refer are run by all parties.

The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has tested the matter with lawyers. It has taken legal advice that suggests that the new code will be unlawful. Its barrister has said that the code will be challenged on the grounds that it is reducing the requirement for quantification and provision. That will reduce the protection for children and encourage vague statements, and so achieve exactly what the Department for Education and Skills says it is trying not to achieve.

The Department for Education and Skills has told the public that it does not want to weaken the position of special needs children. Ministers in this and the other place have told us repeatedly that their intention in bringing more children into mainstream education is not to dilute the quality of education that they receive but simply to alter the place where it is provided. The code however, with its lack of specification and quantification, would damage the provision for special needs children.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are already many examples of cases where provision is not specified sufficiently clearly? If the new code exacerbates the situation, pupils with special educational needs will lose out even more.

Mr. Hayes

As has been said, performance is patchy throughout the country. I want to strengthen the position of those who require special education and their carers, not weaken it. That was my position long before I came to the House when I was a member of a local education authority and was heavily involved in such matters. It has been my position outside of my responsibilities on the Conservative Front Bench, as co-chairman of the all-party group on disablement, and it is my position in the role that I am performing now.

I said that I did not think that this matter was party political. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and agreed with every word he said in his brief intervention. I have also listened carefully to other Labour Members who have intervened from the Back Benches. Their comments clearly reflect the widespread concern about the matter. That causes us some difficulty, as we do not want to frustrate the good intentions behind the code and the legislation. There is much in the code and in the legislation that it attempts to put into practice with which we agree. On the other hand, we would be failing in our duty to the children concerned and their carers if we did not point out that we have these fundamental concerns.

Another example of where the Government have gone wrong is that the original consultation version of the code contained a section that talked of children's best interests being fulfilled by giving LEAs a duty to gather information from schools about registered pupils who live in the LEA's area for whom schools are intervening through School Action Plus. LEAs should also be aware of children of statutory school age who are not attending schools, whether they are excluded, educated otherwise at school or educated at home. In other words, the draft code was particular about the responsibilities of LEAs, whereas those responsibilities have been made woollier, weaker and more vague as a result of the amendments to and the omissions from the original draft. That is surprising in the light of the consultation exercise. The people consulted did not take a collective decision that LEAs should be given less clear instructions, nor did the organisations consulted suggest that. If anything, it was suggested that they should be given clearer instructions—more specificity and more obligations to provide their services equitably.

While I do not want to delay the House tonight, there is profound concern on both sides of the Chamber about the weakness of the code. In good faith and in the spirit in which this matter has been conducted thus far, during the debate on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill and in the Standing Committee that dealt with it, I must warn the Minister that unless he comes up with firm answers to some of the queries raised from those on the Conservative Front Bench and other parts of the House before the matter is debated in the other place, I suspect that my hon. Friends there and many others will want to consider the code critically and may not be able to bring themselves to support it.

9.49 pm
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I shall be brief as there is only an hour and a half for the debate and many Members want to speak. I hope that the Minister for School Standards will have the chance to reply to the debate and that he will seriously address many of the concerns expressed on both sides of the House.

People in my constituency have expressed concern that the draft code of practice was only published on 22 June, and we are already debating it. I suspect that if our debate had been delayed, more Members would have wanted to contribute. Indeed, more organisations might also have expressed concern.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred to local education authorities, whose role is extremely important. The Minister might reflect on the trends in education policy that have often served to reduce and undermine the role of LEAs in favour of direct funding to schools. LEAs are crucial. They are the only line to ensure that children with special needs—with disabilities and all that goes with them—receive what they require. If that is left to individual schools, without an LEA to enforce national policy, it will not happen.

In an earlier intervention I mentioned dyslexia, a condition experienced by many people. During the previous Parliament, I tabled several questions about what happens to people whose dyslexia is not identified and who do not receive the obvious special help that is necessary. A disproportionately large number of such people do not achieve in education. They may end up in prison or have many problems, simply because a basic need was not identified at an early stage when help could have been given. People with dyslexia can achieve just as much as anyone else and, in many cases, much more. It is a question of identification.

If there is a financial system that militates against the school identifying the problem because it costs the school money and there is an endless rigmarole of delay before the LEA responds to a request from the school, we are clearly failing to give children what they need. Will the Minister reflect on that point in his reply?

There are many parents in my constituency for whom English is not their first language. Indeed, many of them barely understand any English at all. Their children often have special needs. The children of refugees are often extremely traumatised and suffer from stress. If there are no translation facilities so that those parents can understand what is going on, many of the children lose out. I realise that this point is not necessarily part of this debate, but I hope that the Minister will be aware that because of the effects of housing policies, some asylum-seeking children have to move house, hostel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation so often and change schools so often that they drop out of the education system altogether. They have no opportunity for full-time education.

Will the Minister address the transitional arrangements for school students with special needs of any sort after the age of 14? The draft code does not seem to include a specific requirement for either local education authorities or individual schools to follow up such pupils, who might end up by dropping out of the system altogether. Will the Minister deal with that point?

Will the Minister also comment on fixed time limits for requests for statementing? Unless such limits are laid down for local education authorities to reply both to parents and schools on statementing needs, the lack of resources or the unwillingness of LEAs to identify such needs means that they will not be met. I hope that specific timetables will be included in any changes to the code.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings noted that LEAs would be allowed to quantify as necessary. We cannot allow such latitude. If we do so, the resources will not be made available and as a result children with definite special needs will lose out. Everyone is aware that the standards of treatment of special educational needs differ greatly between local authorities.

I understand what people are trying to do with the code of practice; they are trying to introduce some uniformity across the country. Obviously, I welcome that approach, but I have been advised by many of those involved, and I am afraid that the draft code of practice contains too many loopholes. I hope that the Minister will address those points in his reply and that he will promise us that there will be an opportunity for a greater tightening up of such matters than has been demonstrated hitherto.

9.55 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

This is an important issue, and I regret that we are spending an hour and a half on it late at night, given that many hon. Members would have liked a full debate. That is important.

I have been involved with this issue since the enactment of the Education Act 1981. It is interesting that 250,000 pupils in England and Wales now have statements. That is a huge number of young people. It is also interesting that local authorities and schools spend £1.3 billion on supporting special needs, so this is a big issue and it is rather sad to rush the code of practice through when there are so many uncertainties. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that, as well as on the debate, before the code of practice goes to the House of Lords on Thursday.

There are obvious concerns, and hon. Members have commented on the closure of special schools. The reality is that, in the past 20 years, special schools have not closed in the numbers that people think. There are still roughly 100,000 youngsters in special schools—the same figure as 100 years ago. The great success of the education system since 1981 is that many more youngsters who would have gone into special schools have, in fact, been educated with their peers. That is important.

The hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) raised an important issue, which the Government have tried to address in the code of practice. A great fault is that, since 1981, if a school has recognised that a statement is needed but a parent has not agreed, for whatever reason, it has been impossible for the school to go ahead with the provision, so the child has missed out. I have worked in communities with children from 26 nationalities, and it has sometimes been very difficult to persuade parents that their children have had special needs because they have thought it a stigma to be avoided. The perverse fact is that middle class parents are now knocking on school doors saying that their sons and daughters need statements because they recognise that the system involves additional resources.

We welcome a great deal of what the code of practice involves. We particularly welcome the involvement of parents and students. We also welcome the increased amount of information that will be available. In particular, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has said, there is an opportunity to resolve conflicts under the regulations, to which the Minister did not refer, but which is very important. Conflicts need to be resolved before they go before the tribunal. I am also pleased that the role of SEN co-ordinators is recognised in the code. Far too often, SENCOs have to do their job, with all the bureaucracy that that involves, in no time at all. Many of them also have full teaching timetables. I hope that the Minister will go further than simply providing advice about time by ensuring that time is actually allocated.

Mr. Hayes

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the need to involve parents in conflict resolution at an early stage. He will know that the new terms refer to the need to express the provision in terms of hours, equipment or personnel, but does he agree that the failure clearly to quantify the required provision will lead to greater conflict with parents, who can, at present, usually expect statements to be absolutely clear about the explicit terms of the provision?

Mr. Willis

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point, and agree with him wholeheartedly. That is one of the reasons why we might vote against the code. We are uneasy about it and particularly about those provisions. I shall come to them shortly.

Several provisions in the code must be strengthened. Although we welcome chapter 10 on "Working in partnership with other agencies", the language in it is so loose that it beggars belief. For example, paragraph 10.16 contains the ideas that Connexions should be involved with young people particularly from key stage 4 onwards, and no one would disagree with that. However, schools and local authorities have no control over Connexions and, in this paragraph, the Government optimistically say that the Learning and Skills Council and local education authorities should work together. Frankly, the council, which the Government set up, and the LEAs are at odds with each other and, unless the code clarifies how the council and LEAs will work together to provide for youngsters aged between 14 and 19, those youngsters will fall through the bottom again as they have done for so long.

I come to a point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North. One of the key issues in getting the provision right is for LEAs to have some control over admission rights. The comments of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings, who speaks for the Conservative party, were a bit rich because his party went into the last election saying that it wanted 24,000 separate admission arrangements. Each school would have been able to deny access to children with special needs if it so wished. It is sad that Conservative Members have not admitted that that was a huge mistake although I accept that the hon. Gentleman has distanced himself from that policy by supporting an appropriate candidate.

Controlling admission levels is important. It appears that the White Paper will allow private companies to take over schools, private schools to take over state schools and companies for profit to take over schools, so how will we be able to control admission arrangements then? How will be able to ensure that the code of practice is binding on all those organisations? The Minister did not respond to that point adequately earlier, but I hope that he will clarify the position. At the moment, everything is up in the air. If we are saying that only bog standard schools will have to admit children with special needs, we are going back 20 years and before these arguments were even raised.

Liberal Democrats welcome the enhanced roles for LEAs. We are delighted that the code of practice clearly states their responsibilities. We are also delighted that the Minister has made it clear in the code that individual education plans should be crisp. In the school that I came from 400 youngsters were on the special needs register. If every one of them had had an individual education plan for 10 subjects that would have meant that 4,000 pieces of paper were circulating round the school all the time. The Minister must consider the whole issue of individual education plans.

Paragraphs 8.36 and 8.37 are the key to the code of practice. It is totally unacceptable to produce a new code saying that we do not need to quantify what is in the statements. The key issue in the past 20 years has been that successive Governments have said, "This is what your child needs as a special needs statement, but we will not quantify what they will actually receive." A statement may say that a child needs language therapy, but it does not have to make it clear whether it will be given for one week, every week, every month or once a year. The position is never clarified in that sense. The previous Secretary of State, now the Home Secretary, made it clear on Second Reading of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill that quantification would be clarified, and it is a betrayal of the House and of youngsters that that has not happened. There is much about the code of practice that we support. There is also much that we want to support, but the key issue of quantification has not been addressed and for that reason we will vote against the motion.

10.5 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate.

At the beginning of this Parliament, I viewed this occasion as one to be planned without due haste and decided to absorb some of the customs and practices of this place before embarking on my 10-minute voyage. However, such has been the quality of the maiden speeches by my new colleagues, who now have that first notch on their guns, that I decided that the absorption of customs and procedures I have managed to achieve so far would have to be enough. I shall therefore proceed without further delay, lest a bravura performance by another colleague prove impossible to follow.

Before addressing the substance of the debate, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, Keith Darvill. During the past four years, when he was the first Labour Member of Parliament for Upminster, he worked assiduously on behalf of his constituents and was held in high regard and affection by all sections of the community. The election campaign was fought, as it should be, on policies rather than personalities and with courtesy and good humour. The fact that we are able to serve on the same school governing body illustrates the spirit in which the campaign was conducted and I wish him and his family well.

Before that, from 1982 until 1997, Upminster was represented by Sir Nicholas Bonsor. He was Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a distinguished former Army officer who earned a formidable reputation in both capacities during the war in Bosnia. His was a familiar face on our television screens in news bulletins at that time.

For the benefit of hon. Members who are not familiar with Upminster it is, famously, at the end of the District line, at the eastern boundary of Greater London and the county of Essex. In fact, Havering, of which Upminster forms a part, is 50 per cent. green belt, and in that respect has more in common with Essex than with inner-London boroughs.

Upminster is special in that it is a constituency of great contrasts. Its outer-lying areas are very rural, with scattered properties and farms. Indeed, one of the earliest cases of foot and mouth disease in the current epidemic was identified on an Upminster farm only 1 mile away from the abattoir at Little Warley where the disease was first discovered. Several other farms were also slaughtered out as a result. Hon. Members will be all too aware of the distressing circumstances and the long-term anxiety caused to farmers who are worried about their livelihoods as that crisis continues.

The village of North Ockendon has an important claim to fame in that a 17th-century inhabitant, William Coys, created modern beer by using hops instead of malt and water, which made the earlier drink known as wort. I imagine there are many who have cause to thank him for that discovery—going out for a wort and curry on a Friday night would not have the same popular appeal.

In the north of the constituency lies a large post-war housing estate, Harold Hill, which is well designed with plenty of green space and trees. Despite various regeneration projects in the past decade, much more remains to be done in the more deprived parts of Harold Hill to increase employment opportunities and improve living standards.

The loss of one third of their uniformed constables over the past four years has not helped the police in their task of protecting the law-abiding majority from the effects of crime in the area. I have lost count of how many local people have told me that they want a strong visible police presence in their neighbourhood, and I shall miss no opportunity to call for a substantial increase in police numbers so that they can respond to the demands made upon them.

Upminster also comprises the town of Cranham, where Sir James Oglethorpe MP lived in the hall. He became an important 18th-century celebrity when his attempts at penal reform for debtors led him to be involved in the founding of the state of Georgia, USA. The town of Upminster is mentioned in the Domesday book as having 39 inhabitants, rather fewer than the current figure. It now boasts as one of its town centre landmarks a fine example of a smock mill, which is currently in need of funding for its restoration. Emerson Park is the most prosperous part of the constituency and has many large, desirable properties. Harold Wood grew from a small halt on the Great Eastern railway into a large, pleasant residential area, which now includes the only hospital in the constituency.

Its proximity to London and the M25 make Upminster ideal commuter territory. The local economy also relies on 5,000 shops and small businesses. They compete successfully, despite the burden of over-regulation, with the larger neighbouring centres of Romford and Lakeside. Council tax has increased by almost 50 per cent. over the last four years, and Upminster has had the third highest increase in the country this year. The formula used to calculate Government grant does not favour Upminster. It includes such factors as the number of houses in multiple occupation, the number of ethnic minorities and unemployment levels. None of those features very prominently and, as a result, the widening gap between grant and spending requirements has to be bridged annually by ever higher council tax. Upminster residents are being bled white.

The schools in Upminster are popular and attract many families, including my own, to live there. The only complaints about education that I received while campaigning were from parents who were unable to find a place for their children at the school of their choice. Many are over-subscribed, including comprehensive, single-sex, denominational and grant-aided schools, and two excellent special schools, Ravensbourne and Corbets Tey. That demonstrates the demand by parents for choice in education, including special education.

Having spent 12 years working in a special school, I know that it is impossible to generalise about special needs pupils. The school catered for physically handicapped and delicate children—terms that have long since fallen out of use, but which in the 1970s and 1980s covered a wide spectrum of need. Some of those pupils, with medical problems such as diabetes, epilepsy, heart conditions and even asthma and eczema, would probably have benefited from mainstream education, with the appropriate support. They certainly flourished in the small classes and protected environment that the school provided.

There were, however, others with very disabling conditions, some quite rare, who I think would have experienced extreme difficulty in mainstream schooling, and whose families would have missed the support mechanism that a special school is able to provide. I recall one pupil who arrived, aged five, in his mother's arms, in baby clothes, with a dummy in his mouth. He had Freeman Sheldon syndrome, a rare condition of multiple skeletal deformities, and was not expected to walk or achieve any degree of independence. He quickly developed into a child of cheerful disposition, with high intelligence and a wry sense of humour, who went on not just to walk but at 21 to gain a degree in computer science at London university—a tribute, I believe, to the special school that was able to cater for his needs.

Of course, inclusion has merit for many special needs pupils—those who are able to participate and achieve in, and enjoy, that environment—but we cannot have total inclusion. The need for special schools will continue for those pupils who, for a variety of reasons, need the protected environment and specialist provision that only a special school can provide. I had to look pretty hard in the code of practice for references to special schools, and there were not many. Their role should not be underestimated, and I hope that they may rely on inclusion in the choices made available to special needs pupils.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for drawing to my attention the concerns of the Wiltshire Dyslexia Society on two counts. The first is the failure of the code of practice to require statemented pupils' special needs to be quantified, which has already been mentioned by several speakers. That leads to the obvious concern that adequate funding will not be provided to meet those unquantified needs, which may influence mainstream schools' willingness to accept those pupils.

Secondly, the code of practice requires individual education plans to focus on only three to four targets. Given that some pupils have complex needs, that limitation could lead to some important needs being overlooked. I would have much more confidence in the capacity of the code of practice to make proper provision for all special needs pupils if both those points were addressed, together with a strengthening of the role of special schools in the spectrum of special needs provision.

10.15 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). It is obvious from her contribution that she will make many more assured and expert speeches on issues in education, particularly special education in which she clearly has a great deal of experience. I also thank her for her kind tribute to our old colleague Keith Darvill who, unfortunately for us, is not back in the House. However, the campaign in Upminster was undoubtedly conducted in a generous spirit, and Keith made his mark even if he could not win the seat a second time—who knows, we may well see him here in the not too distant future. It is plain that the hon. Lady is committed to Upminster; she lives in the community and is committed to it, especially to its special education and the children involved. Her concerns are shared by Members on both sides of the House.

As there is only an hour and a half to debate the draft code of practice, it is all too easy to focus on the areas about which we are concerned. I preface my concerns by pointing out that the code of practice has a number of pluses, including more concentration and focus on working with parents when preparing statements of special educational needs and preparing to provide help and support for children with special educational needs. The code also puts an emphasis on encouraging pupil participation—trying to get pupils more involved in the development of special educational programmes and whatever is felt to be necessary to help them in diagnosing and meeting their needs.

The code also includes welcome guidance on early years settings, which are incredibly important; in fact, they are vital. The earlier that special needs are identified, the more likely it is that the education of children with special educational needs will have a successful outcome and that that will be achieved effectively, not only for the child but for the school and the local education authority. By meeting needs with appropriate expenditure at an early stage, it is possible to avoid what can often be heavy expenditure later.

I shall not dwell on all my concerns, some of which have already been raised today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will provide further reassurance that the special educational needs guidance to be issued by his Department will meet all our concerns about issues surrounding the word "quantification". I do not really like the word because, as has been said, the quality of provision is also important. Nevertheless we should not duck the question of specific, detailed descriptions of the provision that children need.

The draft code focuses a great deal on children's needs and the ability to identify them properly. It is therefore disappointing that it does not make stronger reference to identifying the specific provision required to meet those needs. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me on special needs guidance.

Mr. Hayes

The hon. Gentleman made a valuable and important contribution to the Committee stage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Does he accept that referring to quantification "as necessary" is weak? "As necessary" is a euphemism, which usually means "when you fancy" or as you like".

Mr. Griffiths

I do not totally agree with that. Words such as "reasonable" have been used by Governments of all shades of political opinion throughout the years. If we apply a tight definition to "necessary" in the context of all that is said about the need to identify a child's specific educational requirements, we could argue that the word means that those requirements should be properly reflected. I agree that we could have avoided a semantic argument if more had been said about the need for detailed provision. I place great faith in my hon. Friend the Minister in respect of the Department's guidance.

I shall speak about only one other matter because I agree with much that has been said on both sides of the House. I raised mobility and independence training during the Report stage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill, as the Royal National Institute for the Blind brief conveniently points out to all hon. Members who have been able to read it. That organisation expresses anxiety because its report "Shaping the Future" shows that few children who need mobility and independence training get it.

My hon. Friend the Minister responded by saying that the Government supported a multi-agency approach to the problem. I hope that he will reassure me that the SEN guidance that will be issued to schools and local authorities provides some clarity about the requirements for giving children a fair chance in school and in life so that they can live full lives and, when possible, make a positive contribution to society. I hope that he will provide positive information on the guidance's contents in respect of the specific provision that children need.

10.23 pm
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

I shall be brief. I congratulate the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on an impressive maiden speech, which was delivered with impeccable clarity. I enjoyed her tribute to her predecessor, and I found the image of two candidates spending many months on the campaign trail, and attending the same governing body meeting, charming. I am sure that those meetings were of the usual high quality.

I have never taken the District line all the way to Upminster, but many years ago, before the M25 was built, I drove from Kent to East Anglia, and had to wend my way through the Ockendons after forcing my way through the Dartford tunnel. I therefore have some memories of the hon. Lady's constituency.

I want to return briefly to what has become known as quantification. I am grateful for the further explanation provided by my hon. Friend the Minister, and I know that my constituents will welcome the examples that he has given, which will partly reassure them, but I should like to explain why they will still view the phrase "as necessary" with some concern. Their unease derives from the battles that I mentioned earlier in an intervention. Many parents have battled with LEAs over many years to try to get the special needs provision that they feel their children deserve and need. They feel that LEAs will use whatever opportunities they can to try to make as little provision as possible. That background suspicion of LEAs is what makes them concerned about the phrase "as necessary".

Will my hon. Friend complete the process of reassurance and tell us that he does not expect the number of cases in which quantification is necessary to be significantly smaller under the new code than under the existing code? Will he send out a signal by giving that assurance, or by telling us that quantification will normally be necessary? If the guidance sent out to schools reflects that message, I am sure that the parents in my constituency who take a close interest in this matter will be reassured and feel grateful to the Government for polishing up a code of practice that is otherwise very good.

10.26 pm
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green)

First I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for being present for this rather important debate. I thought that you might not be in the Chair after the many debates that have taken place today, but I am sure that you decided to pay attention because this one is so important.

The code of practice contains several good ideas, but unfortunately, other aspects suffer in comparison with the current code. I have three areas of concern. The current code advises local education authorities that the provision (in Part 3 of the Statement) should normally be specific, detailed and quantified (in terms, for example, of hours of ancillary or specialist teaching support)". However, the code laid before Parliament on 20 June advises LEAs in the following terms: The statement should … quantify provision as necessary". It also states: there may often be a need to express it in terms of hours, equipment or personnel. In other words, the concept of the norm is now ambiguous. There is no guidance on the criteria that are to be used when deciding quantification of provision. That is not an improvement; it is worse.

The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, from which most of my information comes, has obtained counsel's opinion on the wording of the new code. In short, the opinion is that the guidance on quantification in the code is unlawful. The panel believes that Parliament should withhold approval of the code unless paragraph 8:37 is redrafted. The view of David Wolfe, a barrister from Matrix chambers, is that broadly speaking, the code is unlawful and will be read as reducing the requirements for quantification of provision, thus reducing protection for children. He believes that it will encourage vague statements and achieve exactly what the Department for Education and Skills says that it is not trying to achieve.

I also want to deal with two more matters. There are questions concerning the removal of guidance on the duty to identify children with special educational needs. The Education Act 1996 gives LEAs the duty to identify children with such needs and the existing code of practice advises LEAs that in order to fulfil that duty, they should gather information from maintained schools about children living in their area who have special educational needs at stage 3.

The consultation draft of the new code, which was issued in July, brought the guidance into line with the new proposal on Action/Action Plus, In other words, it required local education authorities to collect information on children at Action Plus. It strengthened the guidance by advising LEAs to be aware of the need to identify children with special educational needs among those who were excluded from school and/or being educated at home. The final version of the guidance excludes most of those provisions, and they should be brought back. They should be part of the guidance.

There is also a terrible omission in the code of practice—guidance when an assessment of a child with medical needs is necessary. I know that you have referred to that. I liked your maiden speech and I congratulate you on it.

The Education Act 1996 suggested that children with medical needs that do not give rise to learning difficulties, but which prevent or hinder them from making use of education facilities of the sort generally provided, are entitled to be considered for statutory assessment. That is broadly speaking what you said. I am most grateful that you mentioned in your maiden speech—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman was not in this place when I made my maiden speech.

Dr. Vis

That is right, Mr. Speaker. I am talking about the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). You are younger than me, Mr. Speaker, so I could have been in the Chamber when you made your maiden speech, but I was not.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Is my hon. Friend advocating that we should vote against the motion? There are many of us who, like me, have not studied the provisions in detail but are concerned because we have received briefings from bodies such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which are concerned because some of the provisions will be detrimental. Does my hon. Friend support the provisions in the code of practice, or does he not?

Dr. Vis

I am grateful for that intervention. I am sorry to say that I will not vote for the motion. I believe that the old code was superior in a number of ways to the draft code of practice. If the vote goes against the Government we shall still have the old code, and we shall be better off. I shall vote against the motion, and I hope that my side will win. I hope that there will then be a reinvestigation of the three areas that I wished to mention.

It is necessary for children with medical needs to be treated—but I shall finish with that, because one of the Government Whips is signalling to me that I should, although I have a great deal to say about these matters. It seems that the code does not pay sufficient attention to the treatment of children with medical needs.

10.34 pm
Mr. Timms

With the leave of the House, I shall reply.

We have had a thoughtful debate, and I know that many people who follow these matters with great interest will be pleased by the care with which Members have considered the issues.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on her maiden speech, which the House much enjoyed. I appreciated her tribute to her predecessor, Keith Darvill, whom I know well. We particularly enjoyed her account of her constituency. It is interesting to know the significance of South Ockendon in the history of beer, which was a new discovery for me. On the basis of the contribution that she has made tonight, the House will look forward to hearing from her on many occasions.

The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) raised three particular concerns: quantification, the obligations of local education authorities and the treatment of medical conditions. A number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have expressed concern about quantification. I will reflect on the points that have been made on that subject. I emphasise that the assurances given by my right hon. and hon. Friends in debates on the matter have all been fully reflected in the draft code that is before us. I refer hon. Members to paragraph 8:35 and those that follow. It is important that we permit flexibility in order to ensure that the needs of children with special educational needs can be met in the best way. We do not want always to have an over-rigid quantitative approach to meeting those needs, as another approach may be more appropriate.

On the other two issues—

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, MR. SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or European Union documents).

Mr. Speaker

I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members


Division deferred till Wednesday 11 July, pursuant to Order [28 June 2001].