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Volume 621: debated on Monday 29 January 2001

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(" . In the 1996 Act, insert the following section—

"Duty to research.

318A.—(1) The Secretary of State may fund research into the operation of this Part, and into the effectiveness of alternative methods of educating children with special educational needs.

(2) For the purposes of such research, a local education authority shall collect such data as the Secretary of State may require.

(3) For the purposes of such research, a school shall provide a local education authority with such data as may be required for the purposes of subsection (2) above."").

The noble Lord said: We are looking at spending a great deal of money on special educational needs and putting the future of a great many of our children at risk on the basis of decisions on how to spend money on their behalf. We ought to know that it is being spent effectively. I do not know any way of doing that other than by research into what is done on behalf of children in deciding which way is best.

It has taken us an astonishingly long time to come round to that in medicine, but we now have proper evidence-based medicine. We are gradually reaching the point of chucking overboard some long-established and ineffective practices and supporting some effective practices that had been confined to the wilderness. In education we have not yet reached that point.

This is a good place to start. The noble Baroness was kind enough to write to me with a description of the three current SEN research projects. It is a very short list of projects—not at all the 20 or 30 pages that I had hoped to receive and that one ought to receive into such a difficult, complicated and long area, which should be the subject of a great deal of long-term research and a lot of looking forward to 10 years hence when we will really understand what works best.

I hope the noble Baroness will be able to reassure us that what we have learned in health will be applied to education. I beg to move.

This is an interesting amendment. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, reminded me that when I was Secretary-General of Mencap, many educational theories were put forward—not necessarily in this country, but in America and Hungary—that divided parents forcibly. There were many rows and high costs were involved for parents to undertake these experimental educational processes outside this country. It would be very good if such research were undertaken by the appropriate authorities and parents could be told with certainty how specific educational processes might work for their child. There is no doubt that a great deal of money has been wasted by parents in chasing will-o'-the-wisp educational methods in the past 20 to 30 years. All of us touch wood when we have a disabled child born to us, but touching wood in education seems to have been a very expensive process. I welcome the amendment, although it may not be correctly worded at the moment.

I support the principle of ascertaining the best way of helping SEN children, but I cannot help wondering whether that is best done by research or by assessment and dissemination of best practice.

I support the amendment. I am glad to see subsection (3), because schools are currently inundated with requests for data, largely from the Department for Education and Employment. It is good to protect them from that and to put the duty on the local education authority rather than the school.

Evidence-based practice is a very good idea. I should like to come in in support of the social sciences as distinct from the medical sciences. There has been a great deal of very distinguished research in the educational field. We have a number of extraordinarily good institutes such as the National Foundation for Educational Research. Over the years they have published a great deal which has not always been adhered to by politicians.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the noble Lord, Lord Rix, know, I am very much in favour of having good research to back up policy making and in support of parents who need as much information as they can possibly get about special educational needs. Good research providing evidence about ways in which we can best help children who have special educational needs is really vital if we are to make progress.

Amendment No. 51 confers a power on the Secretary of State to conduct research and in particular points to the possibility of research into the effectiveness of different methods of educating children with special educational needs. There are also duties requiring LEAs and schools to collect data.

The amendment is unnecessary. The Secretary of State already has the power to fund research into the operation of the special educational needs framework. Indeed he has the power to fund research into any element of activity across his remit. The Secretary of State has used his existing power to fund a number of projects on special educational needs and I set out a few examples in my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I could give another 10 or 15 but I shall not go through a long list because I do not think that that would further the purpose this afternoon. I am happy to give the noble Lord a longer list if he would like it. There is a great deal going on, far more than the examples that were given.

On the collection of data, I can assure the noble Lord that, once again, these powers already exist in Section 29 of the Education Act 1996. The Secretary of State can require LEAs to provide him with such information as he may require, and in particular information about the provision of education for children with special educational needs. LEAs are obliged to compile such information and to make arrangements for conducting or assisting in conducting research for this purpose.

Section 537 of the Education Act 1996 allows the Secretary of State to require governing bodies to provide him with the information that is needed.

Having set out that the powers are there and are being used, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Of course I shall withdraw the amendment. However, I should like access to the long list of the research that has taken place, in whatever form the noble Baroness finds convenient to provide it, particularly if it is on the web. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

moved Amendment No. 52:

After Clause 2, insert the following new clause—