HL Deb 03 February 1993 vol 542 cc219-23

2.47 p.m.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether adequate resources are available to support children with special needs attending mainstream schools.

The Minister of State, Department of Education (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, it is for local education authorities to decide on the level of funds to make available to mainstream schools and for those schools to decide how to deploy the budgets at their disposal.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree with the HMI Audit Commission of last year which states categorically that the number of statemented children has increased substantially, but that the amount of money available has not increased with the number of statements which have been given for children?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I certainly agree with some findings of the Audit Commission's report, which talks not just about the escalation in the number of children being statemented, but also about the process, the way in which it was managed, and indeed the fact that some children were being considered for statements where it was not appropriate. So there is the question of the management of the process. I hope that the noble Baroness will be pleasantly surprised when the Education Bill arrives in this House because there are a number of measures which will make the situation much better. We have gone a long way as regards amendments and clauses to the Bill to make sure that moneys are safeguarded for the purpose of serving the needs of children with special needs.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that most mentally handicapped children are unable to keep pace with other children in mainstream schools and that sometimes they delay the progress of the other children and the teaching in those schools? Does she agree that public money would be much better spent by keeping mentally handicapped children in special schools where they are more suited and where they cannot hold up progress as in mainstream schools?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I know that this is a subject about which my noble friend feels very strongly. I can agree with him to the degree that the provision made for a child with mental handicap should be appropriate to needs. It will be important to keep a balance of provision that deals with those children in separate units or establishments, but for some children with special educational needs who have mental handicap, the provision may be more appropriate in mainstream schooling. Where that can be done appropriately and effectively then it should be.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, if it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to encourage schools to opt out of the state system, who will provide the money for opted-out schools to take in statemented children?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the funding for LEA-maintained schools is replicated in the funding for grant-maintained schools. They have additional money to reflect their additional responsibilities: that comes from money held back at the centre by local authorities. The noble Lord makes an important point about how statemented children are funded. The responsibility will be with the local education authority and, for that purpose, the money will remain with the local education authority. Therefore, the money will follow the statemented child whether the child is in a grant-maintained, an LEA-maintained or, in some cases, an independent school.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the extreme degree of anxiety felt by large numbers of people (and particularly by parents of children who are not doing well at school) about children in mainstream schools who do not have statements but who are in need of special arrangements? Is she also aware of the fear that as more and more schools seek grant-maintained status they may simply not make provision for those children if the money for them remains with the local education authority? Perhaps the Minister is aware that there is a great deal of confusion in people's minds about where the money for non-statemented children in maintained schools is coming from.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Baroness makes. The local education authorities will be responsible for providing for children with special needs. Some of that provision will be fed into the formula for schools. As the noble Baroness knows—and was responsible for saying—there were 20 per cent. of children with special needs over and above the norm and 18 per cent. of those were in mainstream education. That will be built into he formula, and whatever is built into the formula for an LEA-maintained school will be replicated for grant-maintained schools. The encouraging sign is that a survey of the first 100 or so grant-maintained schools has found that not only are they keeping pace with their obligation to serve the needs of children with special needs but that they are even going beyond that and are totally fulfilling their obligation to meet the needs of all their children, including those with special needs.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, if a child is statemented and the fees for the place which the psychiatrist, psychologist or teacher wants the child to attend are expensive and if the city treasurer says that they cannot be afforded, what is the position?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is an interesting question with a complicated answer. If, after going through all the due processes under the new Act—not as the situation is at present—all the people who are party to the decision (first, about the diagnosis of the child's problem and, secondly, about the child's placement) agree, the placement will have to be funded. As my noble friend knows, sometimes that is an expensive provision within an independent institution. Indeed, it is an expensive provision within an LEA institution. Where there is a dispute, there will be a tribunal to come to an agreement. When the placement is finally determined it is very important that the resources to make proper provision are made available.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, could the Minister—

Lord Rix

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I think that the House will want to hear both noble Lords. I believe that the noble Lord at the Front Bench was first in the queue.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, can the Minister explain once again the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards the integration of children with special needs into mainstream education, given that Mr Eric Forth said in Committee on the Education Bill last week: I am uneasy about attempts to try to put ever more children with statements into mainstream education provision just for the sake of it".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee E, 26/1/93; col. 1100.]

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the attitude of the Government is to make appropriate provision for the needs of all children. Therefore, if it is appropriate for the children—and the presumption is in favour of integration if that is at all possible—there will be integration. However, where it is not appropriate I have to go along with my noble friend and say that the needs of the child must be absolutely paramount in these matters.

Lord Rix

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that increasing numbers of children with special needs are being returned from mainstream schools to special schools because of lack of facilities in the mainstream schools? We can provide hard evidence to this effect. What plans does her department have to look into this rather sad and sorry state of affairs?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not aware of it being a substantial problem. At the moment, it is an imperfect system, as the noble Lord knows. The Bill that will be introduced into this House in a very short time will address these very points. The important point is that there will be a duty on the local authority to make provision and an obligation—so long as all the due processes are gone through—on the institution, whether it is a grant-maintained or an LEA-maintained school, to accept the child. They cannot bounce the young pupil around from school to school on a whim or simply because they do not want to educate that child. I believe that the noble Lord's particular concern will be addressed by the new Bill.

Lord Parry

My Lords, the noble Baroness has always been very reassuring personally on this issue and has given assurances to the House. How does she propose to see her will carried out in the case of schools which have to act as hosts to children with very special needs, but which do not have any prospect whatever of obtaining those resources from current allocations?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, when a placement is being made for a child with special needs, the considerations must be not only the needs of the child and the appropriate provision for the child but the optimum and most effective use of resources. That might be a matter for the local education authority. It might be a matter for the individual establishment. In other words, it becomes a key factor in whether a child is placed in a particular establishment. One must also guard against a particular school being overburdened with too many problems, thus making it impossible for that school to serve the needs of the children effectively. So this is an interesting debate and one which is being considered at the moment. The funding for such matters is very complex. We want a sensitive enough formula for funding special needs provision but, at the end of the day, we want to get as close to providing appropriate provision at a cost that makes sense both to the authority and to the establishment making the provision.