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Mr. Kenneth Baker (Mole Valley): It is a pleasureto follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton(Mr. Kilfoyle), who brings practical experience to our debates. I find myself much in agreement with what he said. We may differ as to the means of achieving it, but the objective for both sides of the House is similar.

I notice that the hon. Gentleman twice chided my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for being "damp". Yes, my hon. Friend is a bit damp, but he is redeemed by the fact that, as he is my partner in the House of Commons bridge team, I can assure the House that when he bids he is very dry. He bids boldly and strongly, and I trust that he will do some of that this afternoon.

One of the advantages of the Bill is that it has allowed the House to focus on an aspect of education that we seldom debate--nursery education for children with special educational needs. I can recall few occasions on which the House has debated such provision for the under-fives.

My interest in and knowledge of the subject comes not only from my time as Secretary of State for Education and Science but from the fact that, for the past 18 months, I have had the privilege of raising money for that centre of excellence, the Royal London Society for the Blind school, at Dorton house, Sevenoaks. The hon. Members for Walton and for Barking (Ms Hodge) have visited the school, and it is a splendid institution.

The staff there are over-qualified--or, I should say, fully qualified--and, because of the support that the school has had, they provide a wonderful range of services to children who are either totally blind or seriously visually impaired, and who sometimes have other serious physical disabilities, too. The staff do a remarkable job, train the children for GCSEs and NVQs, and give them the chance to share in life.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Walton that if the process can be started before the age of five, so much the better. There is no doubt that if children with such difficult handicaps can be helped, their sense of isolation can be reduced. Any child who is deaf, blind or seriously physically handicapped has a sense of isolation, and to be brought into contact with other children and with teachers who give them lots of attention and love is an enormous step forward, beyond their family associations.

The social skills are important, and so are the steps towards learning, because education must be there--the capacity to start learning the fundamentals of numeracy and literacy. Such education is very expensive. In the hospital schools, which deal with the most severely handicapped children, the teacher-pupil ratio is 1:1.At schools such as Dorton house, it can be 2:1 or 3:1. Blind children have to be led around, or carried when they are very young.

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Such provision is somewhat patchy. For post-five children, local education authorities have fully developed systems to help children with special educational needs. Few children aged two are statemented. Statementing usually begins at some time during the third year, might not be completed in the fourth year and may be done again in the fourth year, rising five.

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Provision for such children is the duty of the local education authority. The single most important residual duty of an LEA is the provision of special education, either from the local authority's resources or from the non-maintained sector. Schools in the non-maintained sector are not spatchcock schools but have considerable skills and facilities and their premises are usually adequate. Although they are not in the maintained sector, they get a great deal of support from the Government in that their post-five children are funded by local education authorities. In the schools that I know, that is not enough. Extra money has to be provided by charitable subscriptions, which is what I have been involved in for the past 18 months.

In Dorton house, there are some 10 to 15 children in the nursery sector--we have just raised money to build a nursery school and there will be more. For those 10 or15 children, Dorton house gets no money from local education authorities. I think that that also applies to the school in Hereford and Worcester. The children who go to Dorton house have not been statemented, either because the process has not reached that stage or because parents have not asked for their children to be statemented even though they clearly have educational needs. Sometimes such children are halfway through the statementing process. One or two have been statemented, but their parents feel that the provision at Dorton house is better than that offered by the local education authority.

How can we help such schools? On Second Reading,I proposed differential vouchers. That did not find much favour with Ministers or with the Labour party. It was savaged by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), if that is not too strong a word to describe his oratorical style, and dismissed. I still believe that one day we will have a differential voucher system, but that is for the future. I have discovered that education reform is a growing and progressive process.

Dr. Hampson: My right hon. Friend took the big bang approach.

Mr. Baker: The Labour party opposed almost every part of my big bang reform but now supports large parts of it, which I welcome. I do not make a party political point: the Labour party has come to see the wisdom of our proposals. I suspect that in years to come there will be a differential voucher scheme.

Dr. Hampson: My right hon. Friend's great reform Bill embraced a great deal. It is interesting that, yet again, in the past couple of days, the Liberals have accepted a fundamental tenet of Conservative policy--loans for students.

Mr. Baker: That is right. During the passage of the Education Reform Bill, the Liberal spokesman was the

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present leader of the Liberal party. He had only a tentative and fugitive knowledge of the Bill. His view was formed as the Bill went through. As we know, his knowledge of the subject is rather shallow, but I welcome the conversion.I am glad that the Liberals have accepted student loans.

Mr. Kilfoyle rose--

Mr. Baker: I shall give way in a moment. I am accepting the support of the Liberal party. Am I going to get the support of the Labour party as well?

Mr. Kilfoyle: Does the right hon. Gentleman think that, if a differential can be built into vouchers not only on a regional basis, as is apparently being considered by the Government, but for given areas, at the behest of hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson), to cover what were formerly educational priority areas, it is beyond the wit of Whitehall to produce a scheme that allows special educational needs to be met in the same way? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the Labour party's view that, instead of a differential on vouchers--I doubt whether the Government will have the opportunity to effect it--there should be differential entitlement?

Mr. Baker: On the hon. Gentleman's first point,it would be possible to devise a scheme of differential vouchers, once a voucher scheme has been established. We are in the early days, with four authorities at the experimental stage. As I well know, there will be a bedding-in process over the next two or three years.I hope that the Labour party will not decide to abandon the general voucher scheme, because it is an effective way of dealing with under-fives education. That broadens the debate and I want to stick to my point.

I shall deal with entitlement. We all agree that more assistance should be provided for such needs. How best should that be done? The hon. Member for Walton has proposed new clause 2 to seek to do that. As I understand it, Government amendment No. 35 fulfils much the same purpose--I shall come to the money side in a moment--by extending the power of LEAs to make grants to non-maintained schools or other bodies at the moment when the local education authority has determined that extra help is needed and the authority or other person involved does not have it. I welcome that. We will have to see how it operates in the experimental scheme.

In the four authorities, there will be children with special educational needs who were at stage 3 of the code of practice with whom local authorities cannot cope and in respect of whom they must find extra help. They may be able to provide it from their own resources in LEA schools or send the child to a maintained school and provide some extra assistance, such as an extra therapist or part-time help. Let us see how it works. I believe that it is a step forward.

Mr. Pickthall: Has not the right hon. Gentleman described the present situation? My local authority has done that for many years. I suspect that many others have, too.

Mr. Baker: As I said earlier, local authority provision and activity are varied and patchy. From my close involvement with Dorton house over the past 18 months and my experience of other schools that deal with blind

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children, I know that what I have described does not happen. I agree that it can happen. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman's local authority does that.

The hon. Member for Walton mentioned that, if the power is exercised, greater costs will be incurred by LEAs. It is no good giving LEAs that power unless resources are provided. The hon. Member for Bridgend is rubbing his fingers as I suppose he does when he waits for the national lottery draw each Saturday night; he wants some money. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will intervene in a moment and not only explain Government amendment No. 35 but say that, to the extent that local authorities use that power, they will be reimbursed through the normal procedures of the revenue support grant. If he says that, I hope that the Labour party will not seek to divide the House on the matter. We have always tried not to divide the House on special education. It is a subject on which there should be agreement across the Floor. I hope that if my hon. Friend can give that assurance, the matter will rest; it will rest only for the moment, because I suspect that this is only the first step on what will be a very long road.

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