Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): Funded.

Mr. Willis: I fully accept that: we must also have entitlement to funding. All hon. Members have had representations from parents about the new SEN code of practice, and the worry is that there will be less funding and less entitlement as a result of that code. I hope that the Government will address that issue in their response to the debate.

Parents who have presented their children for inclusion in mainstream schools have been turned away, perhaps too readily, with section 316 of the Education Act 1996 being used as a legal excuse. My experience in Leeds showed that league tables and perceptions may have had more of a bearing. Equally, parents who have wanted their children to be educated in the special school system have been forced to take a mainstream place because of LEA policy. That cannot be right either. We must offer parents a choice.

The most difficult tensions arise when parents of children with severe learning difficulties, emotional and behavioural difficulties, or a mixture of the two, want them to have access to mainstream schooling. During my

8 Dec 2000 : Column 275

time as head of John Smeaton community high school in Leeds, I encountered many of those concerns when my highly dedicated staff and I pioneered the inclusion of children with severe learning difficulties--mostly Down's syndrome--in our school community. Incidentally, we went on to include children with sight and hearing impairments. I well remember our first totally blind youngster from a depressed local council estate going off to study law at Keele university. He now works as a barrister in a leading London practice. That is achievable with inclusion.

I am a passionate believer in inclusive education. Children with disabilities and special educational needs already begin life facing barriers not of their own making, so they should not also have to encounter barriers of our making. It was never right that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 failed to cover education. We will never overcome the fact that only 6 per cent. of disabled people are in work, compared with 85 per cent. of their able-bodied peers, unless we remove the barriers in our schools, colleges and universities. The Government's input this year of £200 million to improve access is a generous start, but the investment that is needed in staff development, curriculum and planning will require a great deal more.

Furthermore, LEA schools must be held accountable for those resources. All too often, general delegation of LEA budgets for SEN and disability fails to be sufficiently targeted. I hope that the Bill will provide new requirements. I hope, too, that it will create coherence between the arrangements for SEN and for disability. The definition of disability in the 1995 Act is broad and would cover many children currently classed as SEN. Indeed, many children with SEN also have a defined disability. The last thing schools want is two sets of competing regulations, so I hope that the Bill will create coherence.

However, if the Bill is to be a landmark in the education of our young people, it must begin with the premise that all children have a right to inclusive, mainstream education. The onus must be on parents, schools and other professionals to say why that is not appropriate. Section 316 of the 1996 Act--especially the reference to "efficient use of resources"--must not be used as an escape, and we will be looking for that provision to be radically changed.

Inclusion should not present a threat to special schools. There will always be a need for specialist support, especially for children and young adults with complex needs. Special schools must be seen as a resource centre for learning communities, not stand-alone institutions.

The Queen's Speech may be small--

Jacqui Smith: But perfectly formed.

Mr. Willis: It may be perfectly formed. It may have many critics, but if the SEN legislation is adopted, as many of us hope, it will be one of the notable Queen's Speeches of this Parliament.

11.25 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): I should like to follow up the last points made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He made a constructive contribution on this aspect of the Queen's Speech. I was pleased that, in response to my intervention,

8 Dec 2000 : Column 276

my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State emphasised the importance of disability rights in education. I want to move forward just a little to the importance of advocacy and choice.

Choice was mentioned from one extreme by the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and from the other by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I do not believe that special educational needs can be met unless we underline the paramount importance of parents being given that choice. Equally, it was spelt out in the Children Acts that the rights of the child are paramount. I am sure that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and the House will agree that it is pivotal to our approach to these matters that the individual needs and rights of a child be properly assessed and responded to in a way that is consistent with disability rights.

Much of my own thinking on these matters is based on the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986, which I piloted through the House. I want to know how that is being brought up to date and how it relates to disabled people, especially in education.

I welcome the major change in administration that has been made since the new Government came into being--I am delighted that responsibility for disability rights has been switched from the Department of Social Security to the Department for Education and Employment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), have shown progressive thinking, which is reflected in many of the measures that they have introduced, including those in the Queen's Speech. Before, disability rights were the responsibility of the DSS. The Leader of the Opposition and I had an exchange the other day. There was a feeling, which I am not saying he shared, that with disability went spending. Perhaps disability was seen as a burden, whereas under the DFEE it is seen as being about jobs, opportunities and potential. That is very welcome.

The Queen's Speech, short as it is in the circumstances to which right hon. and hon. Members have referred, gives priority to these very issues. In a spirit of charity, which is appropriate for this time of the year, I shall give the hon. Member for Maidenhead the benefit of the doubt. She spoke about the worries of parents with children who seek a response to their special educational needs. She may have caused, perhaps inadvertently, some concern and alarm that I genuinely do not believe was justified by the content of the Queen's Speech and the legislation that my colleagues have already put before the House or will be introducing in due course.

I want to reassure the hon. Lady and parents, including those in my constituency, because this does not sound to me like a Government who are not taking on board the success of special schools. The first page of the Queen's Speech refers to

On the second page, it says:

That shows a sense of priorities and a commitment to, above all, the choice that is so important when parents, carers and teachers must deal with difficult circumstances, as often happens.

Mrs. May: I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that the reference to specialist schools applies not to

8 Dec 2000 : Column 277

schools dealing with special educational needs, but to colleges specialising in technology, language, arts and sports.

I agree that it is important for parents not to be given the wrong impression about what is happening, but does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about the genuine worry felt by parents when a special school that is providing well for their children is closed by the local authority? Such parents may find it difficult to obtain a statement about their children's special educational needs, because the local authority is concerned about the resources that it may have to provide. They may also be worried when they see in the code of practice a wording change that could water down the requirements and affect the statement.

Mr. Clarke: One reason for my wish to make my speech today, on a Friday, was my desire to underscore that point; but I would prefer to put it another way. I think the hon. Lady shares my concern. I shall say more about that later, especially in connection with the legislation that I have mentioned--and, of course, in the context of my constituency.

I am delighted that the Queen's Speech mentions legislation to deal with discrimination in other aspects of education. I argued for such legislation when we were in opposition; I am sorry that I did not persuade the present Leader of the Opposition, who was then the Minister responsible for such matters. Perhaps it is because of that departmental change that we have achieved a breakthrough, but the Government certainly deserve to be congratulated. Their approach covers not just schools but colleges, community education and further and higher education. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 definition of disability, covering people with moderate and severe learning disabilities, is very much in their mind.

Let me say something about the crucial importance of involving other aspects of education in disability discrimination legislation--aspects other than those affecting schools, important though such aspects are. Like the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I want to see much more physical access for disabled people. I want to see, for instance, more induction loops and information technology not just in schools but in colleges--in higher education institutions, including universities. The Queen's Speech addresses that need.

However, I also consider it crucial for schools to have adequate staff to deal with special needs. That makes training essential. We have drifted into a problematic situation, especially in colleges of further education. When the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) had some responsibility for replacing the poll tax, he did something that affected Scotland as well as England. He took colleges out of local authority control, in order to reduce council tax. He did not do that in the light of the education arguments that ought to have been involved, or as part of any education strategy.

One reason why I welcome the focus on these issues is that we can consider why some colleges appear to have cut courses in, for example, horticulture, personal hygiene and hairdressing, which are often relevant to people with special needs. Transport has gone as well. I am keen to ensure that education is available to people--in every sense--whatever their disabilities happen to be, and on the basis of genuine choice.

8 Dec 2000 : Column 278

Under the new legislation, it seems that cases involving school-age children will be heard by tribunals rather than courts. That is very significant. I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take on board my view that, in this as in so many other contexts, advocacy is of the essence. I know that my colleagues who specialise in health, particularly mental health, are going quite far towards embracing advocacy, as I, along with many others, wish to do. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Sheffield Advocacy Alliance has been much to the fore in this regard.

However, given that important choices are being made in education, I entirely support the involvement of parents. I welcome the duty to give them advice and information; I also welcome the more sensitive approach to resolving disputes.

I unreservedly welcome--here I come to events in my constituency, as they relate to the debate--the right of children with special needs to be educated in mainstream schools when that is what parents want. Such provision should be properly funded, and there should be adequate training, which is essential.

I welcome choice. I welcome the new role of the Disability Rights Commission in providing codes of practice. I feel no fear on that score, perhaps because I have so much confidence in the commission. I also welcome the Government's clear declaration that there will be cases--especially cases involving severely challenging behaviour--in which the provision of mainstream places will not be appropriate. I think the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough would agree with that.

I believe that we can offer best practice in my constituency. I refer to the remarkable success of Drumpark special school. In a recent debate, fears were expressed--unfounded, I am delighted to say--that the school was under threat. I congratulate Margaret Sutherland, the head teacher, on the leadership provided by her and her 25 colleagues, and on the forward-looking and visionary way in which they deal with special needs. Physiotherapists, speech therapists and occupational therapists are there, when and where they are needed.

I want similar opportunities to be available elsewhere. I want that best practice to be reflected in other parts of the country. In my constituency, staff are trained to deal specifically with such issues, and in response to the necessary curriculum. Many have experience of teaching in mainstream schools, and are able to bring a fund of accumulated experience to their task.

Let me try to convey the pride that I felt a few weeks ago, when some of those children and their teachers were invited to Cherie Booth's Christmas party at No. 10. I was extremely proud of the self-esteem displayed by the children, and of their articulateness: they were able to tell the Prime Minister's wife about their visit to France, for instance.

That may or may not have been possible for children in mainstream schools. Obviously, I want to stress the need for absolute choice, parents' rights and the paramountcy of the rights of the child in both contexts, but I hope that what the hon. Member for Maidenhead has said does not give the impression that anything in the Queen's Speech would deny such rights to parents in my constituency, and would remove the excellent service provided by schools such as Drumpark, which I am sure can be, and is being, repeated elsewhere.

8 Dec 2000 : Column 279

I welcome the measures announced in an inevitably short Queen's Speech. They are progressive, and it must be remembered that they are in addition to the education achievements already experienced in just three and a half years. I welcome the progress towards advocacy, although I want more progress to be made. I welcome the additional funding. However--here I pray in aid Mencap, which, like many other voluntary bodies, has done so much--I want to be sure of another development. Mencap says:

It goes on to say:

In addition, however, it makes the fundamental point about funding, which is so essential: we can set many objectives, but unless they are properly resourced, we simply will not achieve that which we set out to achieve. In that spirit, I congratulate my colleagues warmly. They are moving ahead, taking a progressive approach to those matters. I know that that is welcomed in my constituency. I hope that, in due course, they will be given the opportunity to introduce even more progressive legislation, particularly in that sector.

Next Section

IndexHome Page