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Schools: Disabled Pupils

Volume 670: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2005

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

What views the Department for Education and Skills has expressed on the implementation of the proposed duty on schools to promote equality of opportunity for disabled children.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills
(Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I am pleased to confirm that we very much support the proposed general duty to promote equality of opportunity for disabled people and we are keen for schools to play their full part.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the acute concern among leading disability organisations that the Government have not included schools in a key part of the specific new public sector duties under the Disability Discrimination Act? Does he not agree that those specific duties, which require key bodies to draw up disability equality schemes and to monitor and report on their progress, would provide an important framework which would greatly help schools to fulfil their statutory responsibilities? For example, there is no requirement to monitor the present accessibility plans. Last year's Ofsted report showed that fewer than half of schools had those plans, which should have been in place two years ago.

What justification can there be for any delay in setting out specific public sector duties when there is clear evidence that the existing policy and legislative framework are ineffective in tackling the profound inequality of disabled children, which leads to a lifetime of social exclusion?

My Lords, as my good friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said recently, we are committed to giving every child the best possible start in life. Those are not mere words. We are thinking carefully about whether it is appropriate at this time to place further specific duties on schools. That decision will be made later because such decisions are reached when regulations are made under the Act rather than now.

In coming to such an assessment, we shall be looking at the legal obligations that are currently on schools and the force of those obligations. We shall consider the accountability and performance of schools and how those are going to be strengthened as we roll out Every Child Matters, joint area reviews and Ofsted improved inspections, and how the Secretary of State has powers to report on how the whole system is working. The third area we shall consider in making the decision is whether there are other levers to reinforce those changes—for example, through building schools for the future. We are putting massive investment into primary and secondary schools, and we shall make it an obligation on all schools to meet disability standards as part of that massive increase in funding.

My Lords, during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Bill in this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, mentioned that the Government were creating a resource hank to help schools to make adjustments to their policies and practice to prevent discrimination against disabled pupils. Can the Minister provide us with an update of how that scheme is progressing and when it is likely to be operational?

My Lords, the preparations for it are going well. They are part of a wide range of preparations for supporting what schools do in practice. That touches directly on the question of what schools will find most helpful in accelerating their performance so as to achieve better outcomes for disabled children. By that, I mean: do they simply require the production of another plan or do they need effective actions of the kind mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to show them how to do it in practice and tougher accountability through Ofsted joint area reviews relating to whether they have succeeded or failed?

I am strongly interested in practical action that shows schools how to prevent such discrimination, and tough sanctions if they do not do so. There is a need for that action together with early interventions and early support; we also need to listen to children and their parents on the quality of support that they have in schools, to work with the DRC and children's charities, which I have committed to do this week, and to look at how between us we can push this agenda further and faster.

My Lords, if there is not a specific duty in this area and we still find that children with disabilities are failing and not achieving their full potential, as they currently do, is the Minister effectively saying that there will be an increasing role for specialist and special schools because educational standards are the priority?

My Lords, I think that if the noble Lord unpacks his question, he will find that it is a non sequitur. The degree to which schools meet their existing duties under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal and their clear and strong duties under Every Child Matters are inspected through joint area reviews. We very much hope and expect that schools will accelerate the rate at which they improve. The question of the form of provision for children with disabilities—whether it should be in mainstream schools or special schools—is a completely separate issue which needs to be addressed with an open mind and non-doctrinally. There needs to be a radical challenge to both special schools and mainstream schools to improve their performance.

My Lords, am I right in saying that in many cases, although not so much in relation to physical disability, making provision for disability involves additional staff? Can the Minister give an assurance that extra funding will be available so that existing pupils will not be disadvantaged by funds being switched from them to fulfil these new obligations?

Yes, my Lords, that has been part of our policy to date and it will continue to be so. The funding operates at two levels. One concerns the overall increase in funding in the educational system, which is fundamental to raising standards. The second level concerns delegating more of that funding to schools so that they have the ability to shape a pattern of support for children—particularly disabled children. Schools can thus better meet the needs of children without in all cases thinking that they will obtain more provision only by going for a statement, which we know is not how the issue should be addressed. Therefore, it is a question of how that increased funding, the support referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and the wider framework of accountability and pressure collectively raise the standards for disabled children—standards which we must achieve.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that it is up to him and his department to repair the damage caused by the failure to impose specific duties on schools, as discussed during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Bill, which went through the House of Commons and House of Lords a few weeks ago? That failure has caused the present problem. Some schools are bound to refuse to promote equality for disabled children and the children will suffer unless the policy is reversed, and reversed quickly.

My Lords, as always, I defer to the expertise of my noble friend Lord Ashley in this area. However, at the moment we have not made a decision one way or the other on this point. The decision will be made downstream, through regulations. The criteria that we will bear in mind when coming to a decision, and the fundamental test that I and my ministerial colleagues will use will be what will achieve the best outcomes for disabled children. We shall not shrink from that. We shall not shrink from being intellectually tough in doing that or in having the very strong dialogue that I intend to have with the Disability Rights Commission and the four children's charities to which I offered a strategic delivery partnership when I met them last week to improve outcomes for disabled children.

My Lords, the Minister has spoken about early intervention. What progress is being made with local education authorities and schools concerning children with ME, where the boundary between them being sick and becoming disabled is affected by the way in which schools treat them? If those children are pushed too hard they will become disabled. What is being done about that and about home tuition for such children?

My Lords, I can speak generally about our experience on early intervention, but I am not up to date on the specifics concerning children with ME. I am keen to pursue that and I shall write to the noble Baroness on the subject. Our story on early intervention generally—we have now found ways of doing it through the Early Support programme—is that, by intervening early when a problem with a child is identified by the parent, one can make a relationship with the parent and transform the nature of the relationship between the parent and the school or the early-years setting. It is crucial that the input is felt earlier and that the parents feel that the state, at local and national level, is working with them rather than against them. I am sure that that general principle applies to children with ME. I look forward to exploring that with the noble Baroness.