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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I agree entirely with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), especially her comments on the importance of spelling out in the Bill the importance of special educational needs and of striking the right balance between mainstream and special schools. I strongly support both new clause 14 and new clause 20, as they would add considerably to the Bill. As my hon. Friend said, they would also send a clear message that education authorities must explicitly consider special educational needs.

In my previous constituency, I had experience of a school for dyslexic children, which was in the independent sector, and was greatly concerned to learn of the many cases in which parents struggled to obtain the right education for their child. So often, some education authorities refused point-blank to accept that a dyslexic child had a special educational need, although an independent school could have met that need. Although some authorities--curiously, they were Labour-controlled authorities, such as Derbyshire--were strongly supportive and realised that a certain school could meet a child's needs, other authorities were not supportive.

Local education authorities too often feel that they can cope within their own boundaries with almost any difficulty that a child may face, but they cannot. I wish that local education authorities would own up to the fact that they cannot possibly meet every special educational need, as children may have one of many difficulties.

I should like there to be much greater co-ordination between local education authorities so that, although they cannot provide for every special educational need, they can join other authorities in providing and rationalising special provision for children. That would not only relieve them from thinking that they must make all provision within their boundaries, but greatly extend provision by producing economies of scale. Consequently, special schools in the maintained sector could attract children from a wider area and become viable, as counties would not be competing with one another.

My own constituency is in the extreme north-eastof Hampshire and abuts Surrey. For some of my constituents, the closest special educational need provision in Hampshire is 10 or 20 miles to the west, whereas precisely the right provision is available only a couple of miles away, just across the border in Surrey. However, Hampshire county council says, "That school would not be appropriate for that child, and we are not prepared to make an out-of-county placement." I therefore hope that the Minister will use her persuasive powers on local education authorities, so that they realise the benefit of rationalisation, which I am sure is the answer.

5.45 pm

I hope that the Minister also appreciates the points made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) on the role and importance of special schools. There are, of course, advantages in

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educating children in mainstream schools, not only for children with special educational needs, but for those without such needs. Children with special educational needs in mainstream schools do not feel that they have been separated from other children. However, I agree whole-heartedly with the hon. Gentleman that there is a case for children being educated with their peers if he means that those with a specific disability benefit by being educated with others with a similar disability.

At Maple Hayes hall, which is a school for dyslexic children in my previous constituency, I met children who had behavioural difficulties. I met one child who, at his previous school in Essex, had stabbed a Biro through the hand of the child next to him. The act was attributed to behavioural difficulties, but that was wrong. He was expressing frustration because his special educational needs were not being met. Fortunately, he was able subsequently to attend Maple Hayes hall. He told me, "This place saved me. If I hadn't come here, I probably would have ended up in prison."

I therefore believe that there is a case for children with some special educational needs to be educated together. They would not have to explain anything to their peers, and would derive enormous self-confidence by being with others with a similar disability.

I hope that the Minister will listen to the case that has been made--almost by both sides of the House--for passing the new clauses. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) made an interesting and useful speech. Including the new clauses in the Bill would send a clear signal that, although educating children in mainstream education is preferable, there is a very strong case--educationally and socially--for encouraging schools that provide for specific educational needs.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I support new clause 14. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) generously commented on how greatly knowledge and understanding of special educational needs have increased in the past 20 years--the truth of which is undoubtedly reflected in the emphasis that we are giving to the subject in this debate and have given in other debates in the House in recent months.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) adopted a rather tired and old-fashioned agenda in his concern about which element in society has benefited most from the attention that has been given to special educational needs. It was inevitable that, as awareness has grown of what can be done to improve the performance of children with SEN, some sections of society have become more aware of those needs than others. Although, hitherto, middle-class families may have benefited more from the resources given to special educational needs, those benefits can be extended to all families.

It is negative to imply--as Labour Members have occasionally in our debates on the subject--that expenditure on SEN is a middle-class fix and the result of special pleading by middle-class parents for an extra share of the education cake. That is not the case at all: the children have a genuine need and we have to recognise it.

The situation would be improved if new clause 14 were implemented, because in the course of agreeing education plans with local authorities, a wider awareness of best

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practice could be generated. If plans were discussed with a particular focus on special educational needs, there is no doubt that the success stories would spread to other areas and thereby SEN provision could be improved across the board.

Mr. Steinberg: I am sorry if I unintentionally gave the wrong impression. I was trying to say that, in many cases, statements were being made for children because their parents had insisted on the resources. I do not want to bring too much politics into the debate, but resources have been scant in mainstream schools because of the unfortunate policies of the previous Government, and statements were one way in which parents sought to obtain extra resources. I was not saying that they did not deserve those resources or that they were cheating the system; I was merely making the point that that was one way of getting resources and that it was the vociferous middle class who realised that.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am not sure where that leaves the hon. Gentleman's concerns. Certainly on other occasions it has been implied that a disproportionate advantage was being taken, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has been able to clear that matter up.

Provision for special educational needs in the mainstream falls into three categories. There are children who have some physical handicap but tremendous academic potential. It must help the whole school to learn to cope with, and help the development of, such children and to see them develop alongside their peers. Then there are children who have latent academic ability but suffer from a mental block that needs to be overcome. In such cases, special educational attention within the mainstream ensures that their problem is overcome while in other aspects of their development they continue alongside their peers.

There will, however, always be a group of children for whom being in the mainstream is not appropriate. It has to be recognised that it may be appropriate to take them out of the mainstream for a short period. Skills can be developed to enable those children to go back into the mainstream and the objective of many people working in the sector is to ensure that children who come into their care are enabled, so far as is possible, to return to mainstream education. That is where it becomes important that the children's problems are discovered and recognised as soon as possible. The longer problems are allowed to build up, the longer it will take outside the mainstream sector before they are well equipped to re-enter it.

One of the objectives of new clause 14 is to improve what might be called the response time of local education authorities when parents alert the LEA to the fact that they believe that their child needs special educational provision. In previous statements, the Minister has indicated her belief that too much money is spent on the assessment of special needs and on the appeals process and that redirecting those funds alone would unlock a rich purse that could be spent on actual provision, although Conservative Members have expressed scepticism about that. What is important is that methods of good practice are promoted by her Department to ensure that there is prompt recognition of need by local education authorities throughout the country. I have received representations

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from interested bodies who have found that LEAs' response times and willingness to respond is patchy and varies significantly from one area to another.

It would be helpful if the Minister clarified the Government's attitude towards the provision of special educational needs by the independent sector. We are not certain about whether the Government are in favour of building bridges with the independent sector or are in favour of blowing them up, as they have done or have tried to do on several occasions. There is clearly an important role for independent schools in special educational provision. A great deal of progress has been made and it is likely that some of the discoveries will emerge from schools that are outside the remit of local education authorities and the state system. It is important that, in developing plans that spell out how special educational needs are to be addressed in any area, a role is identified for such schools so that their innovative work can be encouraged and built on for the benefit of all children with special educational needs.

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