HL Deb 22 January 1996 vol 568 cc852-61

6.59 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Baroness Denton of Wakefield) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st November be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this order has been the subject of consultation with a range of educational interests in Northern Ireland. All of their comments were carefully considered and a number of changes have been made to the draft order as a result of their constructive and largely supportive responses.

The order introduces new provisions relating to the education of children with special educational needs; empowers boards of governors to decide whether pupils should transfer to secondary education a year early or later than normal; redefines the four key stages of the curriculum; and fulfils the Citizen's Charter commitment to provide lay involvement in school inspection teams. It also makes a number of amendments to existing legislation relating to administrative procedures. I believe that it will be helpful to the House if I say a few words abut the main provisions of the order.

The largest single element in the order consists of provisions relating to special educational needs which mirror those introduced in England and Wales by the Education Act 1993. Specifically, the order will introduce new rights of appeal for parents and will establish an independent tribunal to determine all appeals; it will enable parents of children with statements of special educational need to take the initiative and express a preference for a particular grant-aided school; it will require the Northern Ireland education and library boards and schools to draw up special educational needs policies; it will provide powers for a code of practice to be introduced and for the time taken by boards to assess and statement children to be regulated; and it will restate the duty to integrate statemented pupils with their peers in mainstream schools, so long as that is consistent with parental wishes, with the needs of all the children concerned and with the efficient use of resources.

A number of provisions are not given direct effect by the order itself but will be the subject of further full public consultation before being introduced in detailed form. Among these is a code of practice which will establish workable guidelines for schools, boards and others in relation to the identification of children with special needs, the process of assessment, the making of provisions to meet their needs and the procedures for making statements. Regulations will also be drawn up under this order for establishing rules and procedures for the new appeal tribunal.

The appeal tribunal will determine appeals by parents against decisions by education and library boards and will assume the role at present exercised by the Department of Education. This will ensure that appeals are heard independently of government. The tribunal will have a legally qualified chairman sitting with two other people selected from a panel of lay members, and its decisions will be binding on all parties.

The remainder of the order contains a number of miscellaneous provisions, the most significant of which are new arrangements for children transferring to secondary education a year early or a year later than the normal age for transfer. Each year a number of children are considered to have the ability to benefit from early transfer to secondary education, while others benefit by remaining an extra year in primary school. Currently the Department of Education is required to give a direction in each case. The order provides that a child may transfer to secondary education a year early or a year later provided the board of governors of the school consider it to be in the child's best interests and the parent agrees. Parents will have a right of appeal to an independent tribunal if they believe that the board of governors did not reasonably comply with the department's guidance.

Articles 40 and 41 provide for a limited incorporation of schools and colleges of further education respectively. These articles will ensure that members of boards of governors will not be held personally liable for actions arising from the responsibilities of the boards.

This order implements the Government's commitment to develop the lay principle in all inspectorates, including the Department of Education Schools Inspectorate. This will bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales. The primary intention is to enable persons outside the education establishment to assist, on a voluntary basis, the department's inspectorate in the inspection of schools. Lay members will not be involved in matters of professional teaching. Rather they will bring a fresh but common-sense approach to the inspection, for example, of a school's organisation and financial and personnel management.

These are the main provisions of the order. We believe that they will bring significant improvement to the education of children in Northern Ireland, in particular those with special educational needs. It is a very worthwhile order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 21st November be approved—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yet again I am most grateful for the courtesy and clarity with which the Minister introduced this order. Once again, unfortunately, one finds that the people of Northern Ireland are dealt with after a delay which many may find regrettable when one thinks that the Education Act 1993 is, as the Minister said, the essential base model for this order.

One welcomes the general thrust of the order, in particular in respect of the provision for children with special educational needs. I am happy to pay tribute to teachers and head teachers who have to deal with such children, whose education is often an extremely delicate art. Is the Minister able to indicate the kind of level of financial resource that will be available for such children? In particular can she say whether or not on an annual basis there will he careful auditing to establish whether the funds intended to he spent on children with special educational needs have been put to their intended object?

Perhaps I may ask the Minister to cast her eye over Article 3(3) of the order on page 6. I am happy to say how grateful we are that: A child is not to be taken as having a learning difficulty solely because the language … in which he is … taught is different from a language … spoken in his home". Had it not been for that clear indication of government policy, the formidable Lord, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, would be here and the revered and respected Lord, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, would be here, as well as me, to complain bitterly about the suggestion that someone who came from a Welsh-speaking home was a child who had special educational needs rather than one who has infinite educational advantage and benefit over the monoglots we know.

Perhaps, a little more seriously, I may suggest that Articles 17 and 22 need quite careful attention. It is good that there is a tribunal (Article 17, at page 17) which is available to a child's parent. Article 22 sets out essentially the method of selection and the composition of the tribunal of appeal. As the Minister has said, subject to a case stated to the High Court, the decisions will be binding on all.

I have noticed increasingly lately in Northern Ireland, across a wide spectrum of view, a very great feeling, which is sometimes a feeling of anger, about the inexorable growth of quangos and quasi-judicial tribunals. This will be yet another. I ask the Minister whether she can give an undertaking—if not, I can well understand—or at least transmit—the feeling that when the personnel to be appointed to such tribunals by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and his department are being considered, there ought to be the minimum requirement of consultation with the president of the Law Society of Northern Ireland and the chairman of the Bar, Mr. Eugene Grant. It seems to many people that there is legitimate concern that appointments are being made to public bodies of great importance and power (and consequence in this particular context) without a feeling that those who might have some useful input have been fully consulted.

We know that there are substantial delays in England and Wales in the operation of similar tribunals. Can the Minister tell us that she is satisfied that there will be enough personnel to avoid delays? After all, a delay of six months, nine months or a year in the context of a child's education is a very significant delay indeed. Once those months have passed, they can never be recovered, in the sense that the child's education can be restored fully to what it ought to have been.

My only other question relates to Article 32 and corporal punishment. Article 32 (page 32) still entitles a member of staff or someone on behalf of a member of staff to assault a child in his care, though such punishment cannot be justified if it is inhuman or degrading. Whether it is inhuman or degrading depends on the circumstances of the case, including various different criteria. Why is it, in 1996, that a child who goes to a state school is not allowed to be hit, assaulted or beaten, even if the parents wish it, whereas a child whose parents pay for private education is likely to be hit, assaulted or beaten? Is it not time the Government attended to such recent reports as the Gulbenkian Report, which seriously questioned whether a child should any longer be struck simply on the artificial distinction of whether or not the parents have paid for the child to be hit?

I have no further questions. I believe that the last time we met I wished the Minister a happy Christmas. I wish her a happy new year and God bless Tiny Tim.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, among the tiny band of us who pursue the affairs of Northern Ireland in this House there is always a welcome level of mutual courtesy which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, reinforces each time he stands up. Perhaps I can do my hit by thanking the noble Baroness for the way in which she presented the order. She is busy, but always has time for us and is clear and helpful in her presentation.

An order of such importance underlines the need for progress on the political track of the peace process. It is not acceptable that matters of this importance to the people of Northern Ireland should be dealt with by a handful of Members in this House. How much better it would be if Northern Ireland legislators debated key Northern Ireland proposals like this in a proper devolved body of their own. In that context, though it is a long way removed from the order, perhaps I can take the opportunity to wish good fortune to Senator Mitchell and his colleagues in the last days of their deliberations. A lot depends on their progress and we look forward to their report.

I welcome the wide-ranging consultation done by the Government. It has been extremely useful. On the whole, it means that the order is a sound order, though I have several anxieties and points that should like to raise with the Minister.

First, in relation to Articles 36 and 37, the noble Baroness knows my enthusiasm for the cause of integrated education in Northern Ireland. There is steady progress. There are now 28 integrated schools in Northern Ireland, including nine secondary schools. However, only 2 per cent. of pupils are taught in integrated schools; but there is growth of two or three schools a year. I believe I am right in saying that currently three schools, Rathenran Primary in Antrim, the Hilden Primary in Lisburn and the Kircubbin Secondary in County Down, are awaiting ministerial approval. I hope that that comes through. The order allows boards of governors to have only one positive resolution, rather than two, before the issue of integrated status can be put to the parents in a ballot, which makes it slightly easier for a school to achieve integrated status.

I take this opportunity of pressing the noble Baroness on the question of funding for integrated schools. The transitional costs of becoming integrated, of increasing the number of governors to make them more representative in providing a balanced school make-up, and so forth, are not always minor matters and need to be considered. I hope that the helpful change in Articles 36 and 37 can be taken as a development whereby the Government are moving from being neutral towards the schools to being actively in favour of them. However, I suspect that is not the case. The noble Baroness may like to comment on that in her reply.

The most important part of the order is the question of special needs, about which the noble Lord, Lord Williams, spoke. He is right to pay tribute to those involved in special educational needs. Special needs require special dedication from both teachers and parents. I welcome the recognition in Article 8 that it is better for pupils with special educational needs to be educated with other pupils rather than to he set aside or segregated. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I am somewhat suspicious of the funding for special needs education.

Article 8(2)(c) says that special needs funding must be compatible with the efficient use of resources. I am certainly in favour of efficiency, but that sounds suspiciously like a Treasury insert into the Bill. I hope that in supporting the order we are not supporting staff cuts where fewer teachers teach more pupils or fewer books serve more students. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that we need regular auditing and review to be sure where the money is spent. If there is any doubt about that, we should consider the ring-fencing of special needs education which, from these Benches, we support in England and Wales.

We welcome the special needs tribunals and particularly the assurance from the Minister of State that it will be conducted "with the minimum formality" and that legal aid will be available. Quangos have a habit of persisting; it is easier to set them up than it is to get rid of them. The Minister went on to say that the tribunals would establish a number of precedents and then, at some point in the future, will be used far less. We need to keep such a system under review. If the tribunals become redundant we shall need to think again. If they establish a set of precedents we shall need to consider those as well. I suggest that we review the working of the tribunals after two years.

Perhaps I can also press the Minister on the question of special needs and the issue of consultation with parents. Article 5(2) gives the Department of Education in Northern Ireland discretionary power to consult such persons as it thinks relevant. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that includes, crucially, parents.

I agree with everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in relation to corporal punishment. Throughout Europe the practice of corporal punishment in schools is rightly seen as brutal and medieval. Can we not take the violence out of education as we encourage others to take the violence out of politics?

Finally, on the question of the history syllabus, Schedule 3 sets out the need for history to be taught at key stages 2 and 3. What progress, if any, is being made towards at least an element of common history syllabus for Northern Ireland? It must be true that until the two communities in Northern Ireland—the two main communities—can begin to accept each other's history and therefore a history they share, the prospects for a lasting settlement are not good. That mutual understanding—reciprocal acceptance of each other's history—should start at school. When the noble Baroness replies perhaps she can say whether she sees that as a desirable aim and what the Government arc doing to promote it.

With the exception of those questions, from these Benches we have pleasure in supporting the order.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their input and, as has been rightly said, their courtesy. Of one thing I can be certain: I have always spent considerable time pointing out to people, in relation to Clause 4 and opportunities for women, that it is always the quality that counts and not the quantity. The same can be said about our Northern Ireland representation in the House of Lords.

I am constantly delighted by the commitment and the concern shown for the Province from the Benches opposite. That is something that is also respected and welcomed by Members from Northern Ireland. We seem to look at the overall as well as the individual legislation under review. Of course, we would like to see movement towards an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to be involved in the legislation to a greater degree.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for the good wishes he sends to Senator Mitchell's commission. Anything we hope to achieve in Northern Ireland will be better achieved in an absolutely solid, peaceful atmosphere. In working towards a political solution, we bring benefit to the community as a whole. I shall take back to my honourable friend with responsibility for education those items on which noble Lords have expressed concern and where they would like to see further activity. I am sure that their views will he taken into account as we work forward.

Before I go into detail, perhaps I may say that one of the greatest treasures in Northern Ireland is the high level of education, which has benefited many. But at the same time as it benefits many, we have to be certain that we protect the individual who has less advantage. In bringing forward legislation on special needs, we are doing that.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, commented on the delay in bringing forward the provisions of the Education Act 1993. It is important that in Northern Ireland we have full and proper consultation. We have had that. It was extensive. I should not like to bring before the House Northern Ireland legislation on which we had not consulted. The noble Lord asked us to ensure that we consulted on the appointment of people to the tribunals. It is important that we listen. Changes have already been announced in appointments to public bodies in Northern Ireland. We have the advantage that it is easier in a Province of 1.6 million to talk to people quickly and to meet them quickly. The appointment of special educational needs tribunal chairmen and members will follow consultation with the Lord Chancellor and the chairman of the Bar. I shall pass on the noble Lord's comments to my honourable friend the Member for Devizes in another place.

The noble Lord referred to resources for special educational needs and asked how they are administered. Special education has recently substantially benefited from additional recurrent allocations of £2 million in 1994–95 and £3 million in 1995–96, plus additional teaching staff to the tune of £1.6 million. Among other things, that has funded a significant number of additional educational psychologists' posts, which is where it is estimated the greatest pressures currently lie. We increasingly have the benefit in Northern Ireland that people who would not have contemplated coming to the Province to take up a professional post are now able to recognise the quality of life. That also helps with the ability to fill posts. In the LMS funding arrangements allowance is made for pupils with special educational needs. That means that schools receive additional funding for such pupils. Under the financial delegation arrangements it is a matter for each school to decide how it makes use of these funds. The schools arc accountable to parents at the annual parents' meeting. It is important that parents take responsibility. We encourage that. The provision made for pupils with special educational needs is looked at by the education and training inspectorate in the regular conduct of school inspections. Again I would stress that there is the benefit of closeness which allows us to be well aware of what is happening.

The education allowance under the public expenditure survey was good. The settlement for education gives an uplift of 3.5 per cent. and is still in real terms a plus of 0.7 per cent. Resources for schools are up almost 2 per cent. in real terms. The sooner we can take the costs of fighting terrorism totally off the agenda the more we can spend on the important matters of education, health and training. In the education and training areas we are already spending funds that were released from security forces' overtime. We should like to see it possible to take much more out of the security area to invest in the future of our people.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about the volume of appeals we would expect in Northern Ireland. The record is extremely low compared with the number of appeals in England and Wales. For example, last year there were only four such appeals and the maximum number in any recent year has been 15. That compares with more than 1,000 appeals registered during the first year of operation of the tribunal for England and Wales. Our most generous estimate is that the appeal number in Northern Ireland may increase to some 50 a year under the new legislation because it rightly draws attention to rights which are available to parents. We believe that no problems are likely to arise in funding the tribunal at this level of operation. I assure the noble Lord that it is something of which we have been conscious. In bringing forward legislation later we can learn from practice here. We will be well able to protect the need to deal with them.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about individual appeals and precedents. The essential purpose of the special educational needs tribunal is to determine individual appeals made by parents, not to establish precedents for use by boards. However, boards will take account of the tribunal's decisions in so far as these may affect and inform future decisions in similar cases. I shall ensure that my honourable friend takes note of the noble Lord's remarks. The consultation process required by Article 5(2) of the order will include all bodies, groups and individuals with an interest in special educational needs in Northern Ireland. We would find it difficult not to take those needs into account.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. The reassurance I was specifically seeking was that the Government intended under Article 5(2) to consult parents.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I can safely say that this Government have a commitment to consult and inform parents on all our education legislation. However, I shall come back to the noble Lord in writing on this matter in order to give him absolute reassurance.

Both noble Lords expressed concern on the issue of corporal punishment. The purpose of the article in this order is to bring Northern Ireland into line with the relevant legislation in Great Britain. The article provides that corporal punishment in an independent school should not contravene Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which outlawed treatment or punishment which is inhuman or degrading. It would not he appropriate to go further than that in terms of actually prohibiting corporal punishment at independent schools in Northern Ireland, where it is a matter of parental choice that pupils should attend such schools. The independent schools sector is extremely small. There are only about 20 small independent schools attended by under 1,000 pupils, and there is ample alternative provision for those pupils in the grant-aided sector should parents so wish.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked about religious education. It is important that we should look at history and religion in order to allow people to understand different views and arguments. Not only are we required to adhere to the statutory core syllabus for religious education, but parents have a right to make a formal complaint if they are unhappy about the way religious education is being taught or to withdraw their child from religious education and collective worship in exercise of their conscience. We are very aware of the different views. In history, which is also communities building up an understanding of each other, Key Stages 1 to 4 are currently being revised and updated. The new programme will be operated from September 1996. One hopes that future generations will benefit from opportunities met.

We have all learnt lessons from the past in Northern Ireland. I assure the noble Lord that the Government are not neutral on integrated education whether for new schools or the transformation of existing ones. The Department of Education for Northern Ireland has a statutory responsibility to encourage and facilitate the development of integrated education. Immediately the integrated schools have satisfied the department as to their potential by ability, they receive 100 per cent. recurrent funding.

As the noble Lord pointed out, we see growth in this area. It is steady, but there is evidence that it is successful. We have made our financial commitment very visible. Spending on grant-maintained integrated schools has risen from £6.7 million in 1993–94 to £12.7 million in 1995–96.

I shall read Hansard carefully and if there are any points that I have missed in my reply I shall write to the noble Lord. This order is introducing changes to the education system in Northern Ireland which will be for the good of the education service as a whole and will ensure that the children and young people of the Province continue to receive a high standard of education of which parents, children and the Government are rightly proud. We are grateful to the people who nurture the youngsters in the Province and who give them the right to look forward to a bright future. We all work constantly towards that. I commend this order to your Lordships.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, may I coax her on two matters which both the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and I have raised? Does she not agree that a parents' meeting cannot do the job of an audit, and neither can the inspectors? Our concerns remain unsatisfied on the question of audit. I would welcome a firm commitment, even in writing.

Can the Minister offer in a sentence or two the intellectual, moral, social or educational justification for the distinction between a parent who pays and who has his child hit and a parent who does not pay and whose child is not hit?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I shall deal with the second question first. I was not suggesting that there was a distinction between them. I was suggesting that there was provision in grant-maintained schools for parents who choose specifically not to have their child subject to corporal punishment. In the independent schools, which are not supported by government, there is a choice for the parent. I was saying that and not that the Government were saying that there was a right to pay or not to pay. As regards an audit, I shall consult my colleague and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as always, I am most grateful to the Minister.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until two minutes before eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.32 to 7.58 p.m.]