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Schools: Special Needs and Disabilities

Volume 720: debated on Thursday 15 July 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government who will be responsible for promoting opportunities in schools for students with special educational needs and disabilities to have access to new and innovative technologies, following the decision to close down Becta.

My Lords, the Government are committed to supporting those with special needs. This is demonstrated by our commitment to the full assistive technology package for those with special needs, as part of the home access programme. As we manage the closure of Becta, we will work closely with it to ensure that appropriate frameworks continue, and we will of course look with particular care at the requirements of those with special educational needs and disabilities.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response, but I would ask for a few more details. The home access programme, as I am aware, ceases to be funded after March 2011. Can the Minister guarantee that it will continue beyond that time? On the question of local authorities being made more responsible for technological services for people with disabilities, is he aware that the House of Lords’ ruling some time ago has meant that local authorities can take resource implications into account when considering their duty to provide support? So, if they are short of funds, which they are likely to be at the moment, a disabled child can literally be without a voice. Is that the Government’s wish?

No, my Lords, it clearly is not the Government’s wish that that should happen. On the noble Lord’s first question, as the whole House will know, I am not in a position to give forward commitments on funding, because we have to go through the spending review first. However, as I think the noble Lord will know, because my honourable friend Sara Teather announced it at the launch of a campaign with which I think he was associated, there will be a Green Paper in the autumn particularly to do with children with special educational needs and disabilities, and the raising of educational attainment is one of the specific issues we want to look at in connection with that. I am sure that he will make representations on that. I completely accept the thrust of his question, that as we look at what will come after Becta, we need to make sure that absolute priority is given to ensuring that children with special educational needs get the help with technology that they need.

My Lords, will the Minister assure us that the help needed and the legal obligations entered into are seen as priorities in any new negotiations? Will he also bear in mind the expense of giving assistance in terms of man hours as opposed to the comparatively cheap technology packages which are available at the moment? Will he also please remember that any reorganisation can become a cock-up—look at what happened to the student loans scheme?

I will very much bear in mind the noble Lord’s warnings as we work our way through the replacement arrangements for Becta. I also accept his point about the advantages of technology in delivering assistance to our neediest children. We have under way a number of pilots to test approaches, particularly for blind, visibly impaired and dyslexic children, and those are demonstrating the powerful effect that technology can have.

My Lords, the Minister spoke of frameworks being developed to ensure a smooth transition between Becta closing and future delivery. Can he say a little more about that and tell us what stage of development that has reached? In particular, can he say how technology will be supported in schools? I declare an interest as the chair of Livability, which has two colleges and one special school for children.

I am afraid that I am not able to go into further detail at the moment. However, given the noble Baroness’s interest, I would be happy to discuss with her subsequently her thoughts and views and to take them into account.

With regard to children with special educational needs, do the Government accept the view of the House, which was overwhelmingly carried earlier this week, about special educational needs provision in the Academies Bill? Secondly, will he give his view on the fact that Becta played an important role in child safety on the internet in our schools—not just for those with special educational needs but for all children? What will happen to the role that Becta fulfilled as regards child safety on the internet?

I will take the noble Baroness’s second point first. As regards child safety and many other functions that Becta has delivered, we will look at ensuring that there are appropriate arrangements for the important bits of the job that it did. There is widespread acceptance that Becta has done very useful work over a long time and we will certainly take that into account. On the noble Baroness’s first question, the House made its view very clear and it is now for the other place to decide what happens next.

My Lords, is the Minister able to assuage the fears of families with children with disabilities and special educational needs that the reforms in health and education and on the issue that we are discussing now will make it more challenging for them to meet the needs of those children? I declare an interest as a grandfather of a child with special educational needs.

My Lords, I think that it is fair to say that the Government are extremely aware of and sensitive to the issues to which the noble Lord refers. He is probably aware that a group has been set up including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, which was launched at a meeting at Barnardo’s by the Deputy Prime Minister. That made clear that one priority of that group, looking generally at children and family life, was a specific focus on the challenges faced by and support necessary for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

My Lords, will the Green Paper to which the Minister referred include proposals to make it easier for schools to obtain funding for structural alterations, in order that children with special educational needs can attend and play a full part in the life of those schools?

The Green Paper to which I referred is a very pale shade of green at the moment. It will be brought forth in the autumn. I invite the right reverend Prelate to feed his views into the review and into the Green Paper; I am sure that we can take them into account.