Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to increase parental involvement in provision of education for children with special educational needs; and for connected purposes.
I am aware that the business following my ten-minute rule Bill is of great interest to the House, and so, knowing that you are ever the friend of innovation, Mr Speaker, I shall endeavour to make this a five-minute Bill.
The Department for Education’s current guidance is clear about what parents of a child with special educational needs should expect from their local education authority once a statement has been drawn up: to have their choice of school respected, provided it is a suitable use of LEA resources. In practice, this guarantee is often not worth the paper it is written on. I have met the evidence, so to speak: parents of children with dyslexia or a language disorder, struggling in the aftermath of short-sighted LEA decisions which undermine the principle of an education for all.
In these cases, perhaps the LEA has accepted that a child’s needs should be assessed, but refuses to make an assessment or maybe the parents have pinned their hopes on an appeal against the LEA at the first-tier tribunal only to find that the tribunal panel is the LEA. Alternatively, the child might actually have a statement but the school does not have the right provision, and no one is prepared to provide the enforcement. Alternatively, the child might have a statement but no school place, because the LEA has refused the only suitable provision as it is in the independent sector, even though it would be cheaper than the total cost of state provision. In what is perhaps the cruellest of ironies, some parents, for want of a school place, try to home educate their child, not through choice, but through necessity, only to find that they are cut adrift by the LEA without any support or guidance, and their child’s name is also removed from all waiting lists. As far as the LEA is concerned, that is one fewer problem to deal with.
These parents, some of whom have learning disabilities themselves, have no cards to play, no stick to wield and no hope of redress to ensure that their child has access to an education. In Portsmouth, Martin is due to take his GCSE options next year, yet he has never been to a secondary school. His disability is undiagnosed, and the remedial action required is unrecognised. Iris’s dyslexia was discovered by good teachers and demonstrated by an independent assessment, but the private school that would meet her needs was refused, even though it would involve the same cost as placing her in an LEA school without any dedicated special educational needs support. Joanne’s disabilities mean that she is unable to use public transport and so she has been awarded a travel grant to get her to school, but she must make her own way home. James, who is also without a school place, has been required to demonstrate his level of need by failing at school after school, to the extent that failure is now his state of mind. It is little wonder that when he was asked to describe himself by his last teacher, he said he was “unliked” and “alone”.
Change is needed to strengthen the hands of parents and teachers fighting for these children’s rights and entitlements. Five principal areas must be addressed and although the recent SEN Green Paper has made progress on them, improvements could be made. First, in the manner of the NHS constitution, the rights and entitlements of children must be established in law. We must have a document towards which parents can point stubborn local authorities. It is not acceptable for a child to fall through the cracks, and a clear assertion of children’s rights would help to hold authorities to account.
Secondly, there must be means other than a statement by which a child’s needs can be demonstrated and verified. Statementing needs reform, but it can be the only ammunition that parents have. The Green Paper outlined plans for a single assessment process as a replacement for the statement, but to really strengthen parents’ hands other forms of proof should be accepted as evidence of need, even if this simply guarantees that the child undergoes the new assessment. We must remove an LEA’s power to deny that a child has a special educational need despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The third aspect of necessary change is closely associated with the second; the link between the assessor and the financer must be broken. Currently, local authorities sit in judgment on SEN cases with only one eye on the child’s future—the other is glued to its own bottom line—and that is not a tenable situation.
Fourthly, all providers of appropriate schooling, including independent schools, must be listed by the LEA, as is supposed to happen already. The last area to address is funding. I applaud the Green Paper’s commitment to personalised funding, but for this to work properly funding must truly follow the pupil, as with the pupil premium. But unlike the pupil premium, it must include the per-pupil funding derived from the LEA. I urge the Government to consider, as part of their review, how school funding can become genuinely per pupil, whether on a total or top-up basis.
On hearing about my speech today, Iris, whom I mentioned earlier and who is now being funded to attend an independent mainstream school with a specialist dyslexia unit thanks to the generosity of Portsmouth residents and a livery company, suggested that I should tell hon. Members what she told me, and I can think of no better way to conclude. She said:
“At my old school I felt silly and sad because I didn’t understand. I really love school now. I feel so much happier and I understand everything a lot more. I get lots of help and they make it easy to understand. I have great teachers and lovely friends. Now I want to go to school.”
Question put and agreed to.
That Penny Mordaunt, Mr David Blunkett, Mr Robert Buckland, Charlie Elphicke, Charlotte Leslie, Dr Julian Lewis and Jacob Rees-Mogg present the Bill.
Penny Mordaunt accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December and to be printed (Bill 199).