HL Deb 05 December 2002 vol 641 cc1287-9

3.22 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they intend to take in the light of the report from the Audit Commission on children with special needs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, we welcome the report, which recognises the action we are taking to address many of the priority issues it identifies. We will publish next year a programme of practical measures to improve outcomes for children with special educational needs through earlier intervention, better co-ordination of education, health and social services, support for inclusion and action to raise the attainment and recognise the achievement of children with special educational needs.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is she concerned that the Audit Commission report showed that many parents of children with statements were finding great difficulty in getting those children into the school of their choice, with the implication that schools are excluding children with special needs in order to protect their position in the league tables? Given that the report also states that, schools have struggled to balance pressures to raise standards of attainment and become more inclusive, and that national targets and performance tables fail to reflect the achievements of many children with SEN so that inclusive schools appear to perform badly", is it not time to abandon these misleading and damaging league tables and to introduce a system which properly measures the successes of children and schools?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is evidence from the Audit Commission—largely anecdotal—of the unwelcoming attitudes of some schools towards children with special educational needs. Noble Lords will recall that from July 2002 there is a requirement for education authorities to publish their arrangements for monitoring the admissions of children with special educational needs. This will be part of the discussions of the statutory admissions forum in order to ensure that we are dealing with the needs of these children. Many schools are inclusive and achieve high standards. The introduction of value added measures will help to support schools which are inclusive and which work well and hard with children of differing needs. We hope that they will give a more rounded picture. We are looking at ways in which we can recognise the wider achievements of schools and pupils as part of this action programme.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, the Audit Commission identified particularly the difficulties that children with autism spectrum disorders experience in school admissions. I declare an interest as the father of an autistic daughter. What action are the Government taking to address this problem?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, work has gone on between the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Health which has produced guidance to help promote good practice and work with local education authorities. However, this is an area in which we have more work to do. In considering an action programme, I am concerned to ensure that we are supporting children on the autistic spectrum effectively. That means working closely and as well as we possibly can with local education authorities and organisations which support these children.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the Government bear in mind the vital, overriding factor that a high proportion of children with special needs are in need of special education? To send them to mainstream schools not only deprives them of that, but obstructs the general giving of education for normal children in mainstream schools.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, there is much evidence to support the fact that many children who have special educational needs can be taught well in a mainstream school, to the benefit of all the children in that mainstream school. We have 1,098 maintained special schools. A working group is currently examining how best the department and the Government as a whole can support special schools, working closely with heads and others involved in special schools, to see what more we can do to ensure their rightful place. I agree with the noble Lord that they are valuable for our children with complex needs who are best educated in special schools.

Lord Addington

My Lords, Recommendation 8 in the Audit Report in regard to the monitoring of the progress of special needs is probably one of its most damning because it suggests that we do not know when we are getting it right and getting it wrong. Will the Minister give an undertaking that we shall shortly have enough information to be able to make assumptions on all the legislation on this issue that we have passed through Parliament? Without it, we shall not know whether we have wasted at least half our time.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord the assurance that he seeks. The information currently coming through from the data identifies, first, the special educational needs of children within a framework; and, secondly, the attainment of those children. So from next year, for the first time, we shall have the kind of detailed information that will help us to work out the right level of support; to enable us to ensure that schools are more successful in supporting these children; and to help us to value their attainment, for reasons which are obvious to the noble Lord.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister recognize—I am almost certain that she will—the very real increase in the number of young people who are now diagnosed as having autism? Some of the difficulties they are having, both with local authorities as well as with schools, has more to do with the lack of support in the classroom for the teacher, who ultimately has to cope. Any disruption which arises from that will impact on the other children in the class. Does the Minister agree that the real issue is more to do with support in the classroom to enable teachers to cope and less to do with league tables?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness. More children are being diagnosed with autism or with being on the autistic spectrum. From the evidence that I have seen, this is in large part to do with the fact that we are more able to recognise the three areas that denote someone who should be on that spectrum. We are looking very carefully at how we can support these children. I agree that it is a matter of what more we can do in the classroom. We are looking at how we can better support our teachers, particularly in their induction year as they begin teaching. We are looking also at how we can provide support through additional resources, including extra support on behavioural issues. We want to identify children with behavioural problems associated with special educational needs, including autism, in order to help them and to make sure that the support is there.