Labour warns of 'disparities' in special educational needs provision

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Labour has sounded a note of caution about potential geographical variations in the level of support provided by the government's new framework for special educational needs.

The Children and Families Bill, which was debated at report stage on 11 July 2013, brings in Education Health and Care (EHC) plans to meet the special educational needs of children.

Local authorities will be responsible for identifying and assessing a child or young person's education, health and care needs and drawing up an EHC plan to meet them by preparing a local offer of services available.

Shadow education minister Sharon Hodgson said that while Labour welcomed a "great deal of the reforms" in the bill, "we still fear the government's plans for local offers, as currently drafted, could lead to greater disparities in services across the country".

She argued for "a baseline expectation from the department of what should be in it [the EHC plan]", otherwise "they may not be worth the paper they are printed on".

Graham Stuart, Conservative chair of the Education Committee, compared the bill to the Disability Discrimination Act in terms of its importance.

But he also voiced some concerns about the role of local authorities in delivering EHC plans: "I wish to see the power and role of parents enhanced by this legislation, not diminished."

He made the case for setting out on the face of the bill the right of parents to educate their children at home, "because without this, councils may steamroll over home education parents trying to do the best for their children".

Several MPs spoke about the importance of the "health" element of the Education Health and Care Plans, which aims to make it easier for schools to meet the needs of those with long-term health conditions.

Labour's John Healey said diabetic children often faced "a lack of recognition and appreciation of staff at school about their condition, a lack of knowledge about what they had to do in order to manage it for themselves".

It was a theme taken up by Adrian Sanders, Lib Dem chair of the all-party group on diabetes, who said: "There remains something of a blind spot in schools, with staff often unaware of the implications of the disease, let alone being able to help children with their condition."

He introduced an amendment which would have required schools to draw up healthcare plans for pupils with long-term illnesses and give teachers more training on how to deal with health conditions in the classroom.

Replying for the government, Education Minister Edward Timpson rejected Labour's argument about regional disparities.

"Central prescription would stifle the very innovation and responsiveness we want to see the local offer trigger, and stipulating minimum standards for the local offer would weaken local accountability," he stated.

On pupils with health conditions, the minister resisted Mr Sanders' amendment: "It's right that every child with a health need is entitled to a high-quality education. Their needs must be identified and addressed promptly so that they can achieve their full potential.

"Imposing, however, further statutory duties on schools to ensure that, is not necessarily the answer."

MPs accepted his assurances and the clauses relating to EHC plans were passed without a vote.

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