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Special Educational Needs

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether sufficient structures and resources are in place for those with late diagnoses of special educational needs in the light of the extension in compulsory education to age 18.

My Lords, our Children’s Plan includes £18 million of extra funding over the next three years to support teacher training and development in special educational needs and disabilities. We have asked Sir Jim Rose to make recommendations on identifying and teaching children with dyslexia in both primary and secondary schools. The Education and Skills Bill, which raises the education participation age to 18, includes provisions for SEN assessments to be carried out by local authorities for all students beyond the age of 18.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Has special attention been paid to how you explain to somebody of 17, for instance, in a way that they can understand, that the reason they have failed all their exams is not because they are stupid? How do we explain to their parents and carers what they can to do support that person? Unless that person accepts that they have to take new action, virtually anything the education authorities do is bound to fail.

My Lords, I should make clear that the duty on local authorities to carry out assessments begins at the age of 16, not 18 as I said a moment ago, for those who have come to the end of compulsory school-leaving age.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that support for students with special learning needs is unlikely to be effective unless their parents are fully engaged too. The statementing process, as the noble Lord will know, fully engages parents. It is a joint process between parents and local authorities. In most cases local authorities, schools and parents reach joint decisions on the best provision for a student. Of course, many students with special educational needs do not have statements. Schools seek to ensure they have the best possible relations with parents in agreeing patterns of provision. This is one of the prime responsibilities of special educational needs co-ordinators in schools. We are in the process of introducing mandatory training for special educational needs co-ordinators, part of which will be how they can engage as effectively as possible with parents.

My Lords, many young people with special educational needs are extremely bright but if their problem is undiagnosed they can become frustrated and disruptive, and often end up being excluded. Are young people who are persistently difficult screened for learning difficulties?

My Lords, that should be the case but it depends on action at school level. As I was saying a moment ago, one of the responsibilities of special educational needs co-ordinators is to see that schools have in place reliable screening processes which will see that children who may be disruptive or exhibiting serious behavioural issues, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, are screened and, if they have special educational needs, that those needs are properly addressed.

My Lords, many of those young people who do not want to stay on in learning after 16—the ones the Government are now intending to force to stay on—have complex needs. Not only do they have the underlying problems such as dyslexia but they have probably experienced serial failure over many years because of the lack of diagnosis of that problem. Given the Government’s intention to raise the learning leaving age, what are they doing to train those organisations that are supposed to support those 16 to 18 year-olds so that they understand the complexity of their problems and make sure that the resources are there to deal with them in a completely new way?

My Lords, I do not accept the premise of the noble Baroness’s question—that young people with complex needs are less suited to staying on in education and training in some appropriate form beyond the age of 16. In all my experience of schools and colleges, those that have good provision in this area, that engage effectively with parents and have the right pattern of special needs provision engage successfully with students with complex needs. They find appropriate provision for them to stay on. As the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, was saying a moment ago, a large proportion of students with complex needs are not short of capacity to engage in education and training. The job of institutions is to see that the provision is appropriate, including vocational provision and provision tailored for students with special educational needs. Providing that they have that provision in place, we should have the same expectations of success for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities as we have for all other young people.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a late diagnosis is the signal of a tragedy in an individual’s life? His announcement about resources directed at early diagnosis is extremely welcome. As we can see by looking at the prison population, if no other, we have a school population with a very high incidence of undetected dyslexia and it is on the way up. How will those who are caught between the new provisions at 18 and the new provisions for early diagnosis be screened and caught, or will they be left at risk?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: it is a tragedy for the individuals concerned and for society at large if special educational needs are not diagnosed at an early stage. That is why the £18 million of investment, to which I referred, to upgrade systematically the quality of training available to new teachers is so important. However, the fact that diagnoses are not made at the earliest stage in education does not absolve schools and local authorities from their responsibility to see that proper provision is made at a later stage. As the noble Baroness said, if students start to exhibit behavioural issues later in their school career, that should be one of many spurs to ensuring that proper screening assessment takes place and that, where special needs are identified, that provision is put in place.

My Lords, the figures to which I referred concern England, but both Wales and Scotland are making sufficient additional provision in this area too.

My Lords, following up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and in view of the number of wrong diagnoses that have been made, is the Minister sure that enough attention is being given to a second opinion on behavioural difficulties? Perhaps a second medical consultant’s opinion should be sought in quite a number of cases.

My Lords, in most cases, particularly those that go through the statementing process, a range of professionals will be consulted before decisions are reached on the appropriate provision. Of course, it is entirely open to local authorities and parents to seek that range of advice so that an initial judgment does not become the final judgment, under which parents are not satisfied that the required provision is being put in place.