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7.18 pm

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): Like the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), I am neither an education expert nor an expert in special educational needs--I apologise for that. I have four brief points on the Bill.

A cross-party consensus, in which I share, has already been expressed. It was referred to by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). There is cross-party consensus on the desirability of mainstreaming pupils with disabilities wherever possible. As noted by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, that was the thrust of section 316 of the Conservative Government's Education Act 1996. Furthermore, our agreement reflects an international consensus--the UNESCO Salamanca statement in 1994 was in favour of inclusive education.

The first of the four points that I want to make is that there is this consensus among the well-meaning. Among hon. Members, including myself, the basic philosophy is that, wherever possible, children should be fitted psychologically and educationally for life in normal society, and alongside that consensus we have the necessary set of buzzwords--if I may dare call them that--"integration" and "inclusiveness". Who could possibly be in favour of disintegration and exclusiveness?

My second point is that the history of social policy tells us that well-meaning intentions often give rise to unexpected and, indeed, perverse consequences. It is now generally accepted that the classic case of that was the Seebohm report and its consequences on provision for the

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mentally ill. Even in the relatively limited and more recent field of special educational needs provision that rule can be seen to work.

Last year, the Centre for Policy Studies published a pamphlet, by Dr. John Marks, on special educational needs. It showed how the numbers involved have increased well ahead of the expectations when the legislation was introduced and suggested some reasons for that, not all of which I agree with. Let me put the figures on the record. Since 1991, the number of pupils with special educational needs, but without statements--the English nomenclature--have increased from 11.6 to 19.2 per cent. of those in primary school, and from 9.6 to 16.5 per cent. of those in secondary schools. The numbers of pupils with special educational needs has increased from 0.8 to 1.6 per cent. of those in primary schools, and from 1 to 2.5 per cent. of those in secondary schools.

Dr. Marks speculates that one reason for that growth may be the coincidence of the introduction of the special educational needs policy with that of national performance tables for schools, which gives incentives to schools, he argues, to protect themselves from complaints about low performance by increasing SEN numbers. That is one explanation. Another, perhaps more plausible, explanation, which will ring a bell with all of us who have had the experience in our surgeries that has been mentioned several times, is that parents may believe that they have an interest in getting their children statemented--recognised as having special educational needs--so as to attract additional support and funding to their children. So I come to my third point.

One of the reasons why good intentions in social policy so often miss their mark is that insufficient regard is paid to the economic incentives that changes in policy bring into play. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has always spoken strongly on that point, and I agree with him about it. Let me illustrate that with some rough figures. A statemented child in Oxfordshire is likely to receive on top of the provision for ordinary children about 10 to 20 hours a week of "learning support assistance", which will add roughly 50 per cent. to the normal unit costs for an ordinary child. That has at least two economic consequences.

First, as I have said, parents become very interested in the extra provision in our generally under-financed state education system. So there are the strong pressures, with which all hon. Members are familiar from their surgeries, from parents on LEAs and schools for more and better statements. Incidentally, the procedural reforms in the Bill, which I support, represent an attempt to address those pressures, but the Bill will do nothing about the underlying economic forces that drive the process.

The second economic consequence is that the LEAs and ultimately the Treasury--we must never forget the power of the Treasury, which hovers like a shadow over all our proceedings--are undoubtedly increasingly concerned about the rising cost. That brings me to my fourth and last point.

The concern about the mounting costs of special educational needs provision threatens the range and quality of special needs education. That is the point referred to in the amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench. Again let us consider some figures. Oxfordshire's special schools use a

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banding system. A child in band 3, with moderate learning difficulties, attracts current funding of about £3,000 a year. A child in band 7, with profound and multiple learning difficulties, attracts about £7,000 of current spending a year. Relative to the cost of the current provision for an ordinary child, those are high figures--multiples ranging from two to six are involved. And of course the figures are also high in relation to the cost of provision in mainstream education for special needs children, with or without statements.

Cynicism would not be an appropriate note to strike in a debate of this kind, where we are all being high-minded, but I wonder whether we could not speculate a little on whether the growing consensus, among us well-meaning people, in favour of mainstreaming might have something to do with the economic incentives to reduce the unit costs of the growing demands for special educational needs provision.

I strongly support the aspiration--which has been expressed on both sides of the House, including by the Secretary of State--in favour of maintaining a range of high-quality special schools alongside the important trend of mainstreaming children with special educational needs. However, I agree with my hon. Friends on the Front Bench that that aspiration may need to be more fully articulated in Committee. I need not reiterate the arguments for special schools alongside those for mainstreaming, but I am concerned about the underlying trends that I have described.

Again, let me propose a simple economic equation. The more special educational needs children are mainstreamed, the fewer will be available to attend special schools, so the unit costs of provision in those schools will be higher. Some of us have already picked up the dialogue and know that arguments of the following kind will be articulated. Some may say, "Of course these kids' needs are very serious, but surely it isn't fair that they should get such a large share of the cake." Some may say, "Any way, inclusion and integration are best for the children." The bottom line is that others may say, "The truth is some parents are too pushy."

The Bill is a well-meaning measure, but I do not believe that some of the important facts of life in special education are fully recognised in it. To that extent, it will not improve the situation as much as we all hope it will. That is a matter of regret. The problems are real; our aspirations are for the best, but, as the poet said:

7.28 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): It gives me enormous pleasure to support the Bill, which will do so much for children who require special education and their parents. May I say from the outset that I vehemently support neither mainstream nor special schooling; they both have a serious place in the education system. However, I would fight to the death for parents' ability to choose the sort of education that they want for their children. That is precisely what the Bill will do; it will facilitate education and give parents a more equal footing on which to fight for their children's needs, so that they can get exactly what they believe their children should have.

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Much has been said in this debate about the loss of special schools. I have to tell the House that Crawley is losing two special schools, but we are going to have one beautiful, new special school, costing more than £6 million. It will be sited close to our mainstream schools to allow integration between schools and to ensure that all services are properly integrated.

I am here also to convey very grateful thanks from all the parents in Crawley. We are still reeling from a recent announcement that there will be £60 million pounds of investment in secondary schools. We cannot believe that that has happened after decades of neglect in Crawley new town. The schools in which I was educated are still using the same equipment, and they can hardly believe that they will receive the investment that they wanted so much from the Government. I wish to highlight that fact, because parents are delighted and want me to thank the ministerial team for making it happen.

Let me make a few comments about new build. Most of us would assume that access for pupils with mobility problems is a given in new buildings. Sadly, that is not true. Many of us have seen examples of new buildings and we cannot quite believe that they do not offer accessibility to pupils who do not have full mobility. Those pupils cannot get into the buildings to use their facilities with their fellow pupils. It is important to focus on that issue. The Bill will ensure that not only do we focus on the needs of individual pupils, but that every new building in the education system is accessible to everyone.

There are many ways to do that, and Crawley gives us an example of good practice. The town access group, known as the TAG team, is at the heart of the planning process in the education system and throughout the town. It consists of people with varying disabilities--some are wheelchair users, some are not sighted and some are deaf--but for all sorts of reasons they have become mobilised to ensure that everyone has access to buildings. The group will be very much involved when the planning process for new schools comes to fruition. It will be shown the plans and encouraged to take an interest in what is going on, so that we avoid the disaster of building a beautiful new school only to find that pupils who wish to go there cannot make their way around it safely and easily. What a message that sends out to young people with disabilities.

Such young people should have access to new buildings without first having to make special arrangements, so that they can take advantage of the new facilities. I hope that the Bill will put that issue at the fore as it proceeds through the House. The party has not finished in Crawley; people are delighted and are looking forward to the time when the schools are up and running.

The other issue that I wish to raise relates to something that most of us would consider to be a hidden disability. It is rarely discussed in school circles, because it is a difficult subject. I am a member of the all-party group on AIDS. Although the number is thankfully still relatively small, a growing number of children have HIV and even more suffer from the hepatitis B infection. Those children want to play a part in mainstream schooling, but their small numbers sometimes mean that it is difficult for them to obtain the education and care that they rightly deserve. That is especially the case for children with HIV who become ill. I hope that the Bill will take account of their needs. As I said, the number of such children is growing and they should be recognised in the Bill.

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I hope that the House will give the Bill the fair wind that it deserves, because it will help all parents. We know that inclusivity benefits us all and allows us to flourish as a civilised and healthy nation. I hope that the Bill has a smooth passage, so that we can hold up our heads knowing that we have done the right thing for children with disabilities in the United Kingdom.

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