Jesse Norman is the Member of Parliament for Hereford and South Herefordshire. Follow Jesse on Twitter.
The Children and Families Bill, whose Second
Reading is today in the House of Commons, is a huge and hugely important piece of legislation.
Among other things, the Bill seeks to remove barriers to adoption, transform the provision for those with special educational needs, extend the use of Direct Payments, reform support for looked-after children and their carers, and improve flexible working hours and childcare for working parents. There is a massively welcome emphasis throughout on spreading excellence and protecting the rights of children.
It is a great tribute to Michael Gove, Ed Timpson, his predecessor Tim Loughton and other ministers that this Bill has been every bit as much a priority for them as all the other major reforms launched by the Department for Education since 2010. All the more so since the Bill has been subject to considerable pre-legislative scrutiny and consultation, including a Green Paper, publication of draft clauses, Committee reports, expert input and responses from outside bodies.
My own particular interest in the Bill lies in the area of special needs education, in which Herefordshire has built a significant body of expertise despite very low levels of public funding, due to excellent school leadership, teaching and parental engagement.
Local schools like the wonderful Blackmarston primary and Barrs Court secondary schools will welcome the Bill’s insistence that the new education and health care plans be effective for young people all the way up to 25 years old. Why should a young person with special needs be treated any worse than one without?
Key to the Bill’s approach will be an important new duty on local authorities to set out a “local offer” of suitable schools and institutions for each individual with special needs. But this carries with it a risk: that the new duty will be interpreted in a purely local and parochial way, cutting out national providers with specialist expertise in particular areas.
The Royal National College in Hereford, for example, has superb facilities for the blind and partially sighted, dedicated both to the skills of learning and living. It combines this with a track record of innovation over several decades ranging from special new Braille technologies, to flexible learning methods for the visually impaired, to the development of blind football and other sports at an international level. No local provider could match the RNC for expertise and deep understanding of the highly complex special needs associated with visual impairment.
But there appears to be a straightforward solution to the problem of parochiality: to require that local authorities include national specialist providers as well as regional and local ones in their “local offers”. This has three benefits: it maximises choice, it promotes competition and it preserves the national providers’ deep reservoirs of expertise. And it perfectly fits with the Bill’s distinctively conservative emphasis on excellence and institution-building. It deserves close consideration as the Bill progresses.