Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me a second time, and I appreciate the moving examples he has cited. However, does he accept that similar examples could be offered of children who plead to be allowed to go to special schools?

Mr. Willis: I certainly agree that it is not an either/or proposition. People who say that it is are wrong. Each child must be considered as an individual: my premise is that no child should be denied access to mainstream education simply because of his or her special need or disability.

Thousands of examples of children such as Ricky, Carrie or Mark could be cited, but I contend that the real advantage of inclusive education is felt not by the child with a disability, but by the rest of the community. That important principle needs to be understood. We live in a world that is embarrassed by physical, sensory or

20 Mar 2001 : Column 241

cognitive impairment. People who are different are perceived as a threat, but I assure the House that that does not happen when children grow up together in school communities. Ensuring that children grow up together in that way will help to overcome a great many barriers.

On 1 March, Lord Baker said in the House of Lords that never in his 30 years as a Member of Parliament had parents of a child with a disability or with special needs come to him and asked that their child be allowed to go to a mainstream school. I found that a really sad comment, because parents come to me with exactly that request all the time. The real crisis in my constituency, and with the local authority with which I worked, is that so many parents want their children to be normal and to enjoy the same opportunities as other children. I am saddened that we cannot give them that chance.

The hon. Member for Kingswood was right when he mentioned all the organisations that have written to us. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury has not received the same series of letters--perhaps they have not been sent to Gloucestershire.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I wonder why.

Mr. Willis: So do I, but I am pretty sure that all the disability and special educational needs organisations are not conspiring against Gloucestershire. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury will receive the letters.

All the organisations want the Bill to go forward, but a number of matters need to be addressed. We touched on the question of resources earlier. We can use all the fine words and say all the nice things that we like, but they will come to nought without the resources to back them up. As the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) pointed out, the Secretary of State's response to me was totally inconclusive: the Bill is littered with resource implications, but he did not say where the extra resources would come from.

Plans cannot be made for access programmes in every school in a local authority area without incurring a bill of significant size. I accept that £222 million over three years is being made available for access, but that will just scratch the surface. That total, divided by all the schools in England and Wales, comes to about £10,000 a school over three years. The research by the NUT and Scope entitled "Within Reach" said that £625 million was needed to meet access needs in schools.

No mention has yet been made of the fact that the Bill also covers further and higher education. In the further education sector, £172 million has been allocated for access, but the small print makes it clear that colleges can get that money only if they find match funding. So £172 million will have to be taken out of further education budgets that are incredibly tight already in order to access the £172 million from the Government. That is not acceptable, given that the Bill is a piece of primary legislation that requires colleges to act.

The next problem has to do with revenue funding. The Secretary of State has made vague commitments--and he was vague again today--about money coming from the standards fund. Other hon. Members may know differently, but my experience is that every school that I visit is using its standards fund money to the hilt. There

20 Mar 2001 : Column 242

is no spare money sloshing around in that fund at the moment, which means that something would have to be cut to provide the necessary extra resources. I hope that the Minister, when she responds, will not say that the £25 million announced today is sufficient to meet all the requirements: it is not.

Two major elements of expenditure are involved in ensuring access to the curriculum. The first is staff training: inclusive education means that every member of staff in a school has to be trained. There is nothing in the Government's proposals to say that that is a requirement or need, or that what goes on in teacher training establishments will be changed. However, if inclusive education is to be the norm, the question of staff training must be dealt with.

The second element of expenditure arises out of ensuring access to the curriculum. It is no good if children can access buildings but not the curriculum. The Secretary of State rightly mentioned the impact of information and communication technology. The effect will be profound, as children with sensory, physical and sight impairments will be able to use equipment and machinery. However, it is enormously expensive to put loops into every classroom, to invest in ICT that is supportive of youngsters with disabilities, to acquire adapted technology, and to establish the necessary support in the school infrastructure. The Government must come clean and say where the extra resources will come from.

My final point on the question of resources has to do with statements. All hon. Members in the House today--and, I presume, over the past 10 years--will be used to parents saying at surgery meetings that what is contained in the statements that they have received is not being delivered. To be fair to the Secretary of State, he has made a clear statement today about responding to criticisms of the code of practice, and we must praise him for that. However, it has been noted already that there has been a 27 per cent. increase in the number of statements issued since 1994. We have been told that resourcing for that is not guaranteed, but statements make no particular difference if they are not supported by the necessary resources. Again, I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond to that point in due course.

I shall conclude by dealing with special schools. One myth is that those of us who fervently support the inclusive agenda are somehow against special schools, and that the proposition is therefore either/or. Another myth is that special schools are closing by the day, that soon none will be left and that no one will be able to make a choice in the matter. In that regard, Gloucestershire is clearly different from the rest of the United Kingdom, but I must take the word of the hon. Member for Tewkesbury on that point.

I mentioned earlier that the number of youngsters going to special schools has been virtually unchanged for the past 10 years. The reality is that it is unlikely to change in the next 10 years as well. We will still need significant special school education provision for many of our youngsters. However, the disabilities and needs of children in special schools are becoming ever greater because the inclusive agenda ensures that youngsters who can move into mainstream education are doing so. We must therefore look at special schools in a different way.

We must re-examine the role of special schools in our school communities and education services. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is no

20 Mar 2001 : Column 243

longer in his place, touched on this. I see special schools not simply as centres of excellence but as research and development establishments for good practice that can be spread across the entire education service. Special schools need to be linked, in research terms, to universities to make sure that we are always at the leading edge of education provision, in terms not simply of teaching aids but of teaching methodology elsewhere.

This is an interesting and worthwhile Bill. I earnestly hope that the hon. Member for Maidenhead, who has, like the grand old Duke of York, marched her troops to the top of the hill, will decide to take them back down again and support the Bill's Second Reading.

7.1 pm

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): For the reasons so well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), I support this very good piece of legislation.

I am sure that this debate will attract many expert and informed contributions, such as the one we have just heard from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Unlike many of the other hon. Members who may seek to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, I have no such experience on which to draw. I have no significant background in the issues with which the Bill deals. However, when I practised law, I was regularly in front of the sheriff court representing families whose children should have had records of needs--or statements, as they are known in England. I also represented families whose children had records of needs but whose local education authority could not provide the resources necessary to fulfil the demands that those records of needs entailed. I always felt that that was a distinctly inappropriate way in which to deal with matters relating to education.

The second half of the Bill applies to Scotland and if it improves the situation there in any way, it will have served a significant purpose. I will come back in a few moments to the role that the sheriff court plays in education in Scotland.

Next Section

IndexHome Page