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7.35 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Today has been quite an experience, because I welcomed 50 people to the Jubilee Room from the Alderman Knight school in my constituency. The school feels very much under threat because of the policies pursued by Gloucestershire county council and an unholy alliance of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.

The county council has already proposed the closure of Bownham Park school in Stroud and I have written to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to ask him what judgment he will make on that proposal. People in Gloucestershire are certainly not persuaded that the school should close, and his decision will give us an indication as to his views on special schools.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in the future of the special schools in his constituency, but does he accept the point, which I have made to him previously, that the final decision is not for the Secretary of State, but for the local school organisation committee? If it is not unanimous, it will then be a matter for an independent adjudicator.

Mr. Robertson: Yes, I accept that, but the school organisation committee has failed to be unanimous, so it will be left to an adjudicator to make the decision. Therefore I do not accept that the decision is entirely out of the Secretary of State's hands. [Interruption.] Well, we shall see what happens. Certainly, Gloucestershire county council was sparked into action by the Government's Green Paper and is proposing to close the special schools.

If the Bill is accepted in its present form, it will be a triumph of theory over practice. When the people from the school visited the House of Commons, almost the entire Conservative Front-Bench team came to listen to their views. Although Ministers were asked many weeks ago to attend and were reminded this week, not one member of the Government team could find even a couple of minutes to call in. Perhaps that reflects their views on special schools. Ministers are shaking their heads, but I do not know why. The invitations were sent out many weeks ago and they were reminded again this week.

A young boy called Brian Beard has not been educated in any school since September, because the local education authority will not recognise his parents' wish for him to be educated in a special school. He was present today, as was another girl. She was in tears as she described how she simply could not cope in a mainstream school. Eventually, she was placed in a special school and she has developed considerably since she has been there.

For many children for whom inclusion has taken place, it is the correct policy. However, it is important to recognise the needs of individual children and they and

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their parents must decide the best place for their education. The Bill will not give parents that ability. It states that if there is no statement, the child will have to be educated in a mainstream school. The problem, however, is that local authorities are not efficient in their statementing.

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend the Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that local education authorities have to take account of parents' wishes for their child to be educated in a special school. Nothing in the Bill will change that. If that does not happen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, it is up to him to make sure that it does.

Mr. Robertson: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me how to do that without bringing it to the attention of the Secretary of State and Ministers. It is my job as a Member of Parliament to raise issues with them. That is what I am doing and what I have done many times before. Only a few hours ago, I got the permission of the young boy's parents to give Ministers his name and address if they want it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has good intentions, but the boy has not been educated since September.

Miss Begg: I am slightly puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's statement. He describes the situation as it pertains today. Nothing in the Bill will make that the norm. If anything, the Bill will help to ensure that children are appropriately educated, according to the wishes of their parents. He should welcome it.

Mr. Robertson: My reading of the Bill is different. I can only base my comments on the experience in Gloucestershire since the Green Paper was published. The other parties in the council have got together to drive through a programme of closure of special schools. That is the reality. We can talk in this place all we want, but that is what is happening on the ground. I am paid as a Gloucestershire Member of Parliament to bring that to the attention of Ministers and I hope that they will respond.

Many hon. Members--in particular Labour Members--have claimed that children are being denied access to mainstream schools because of their special educational needs. I fully recognise that that might happen. However, no parent has written to me about that problem. Instead, many parents, including those who were here today, have complained that they cannot get places in the special schools that they believe their children deserve.

Heads, teachers, governors and pupils at mainstream schools are concerned about the inclusion policy. They know that if children struggle in mainstream schools, other pupils will suffer as a result. They are not being selfish, and neither are the parents. They merely recognise the reality that children need to go to an appropriate school. As one or two Labour Members stated, that has to happen by considering the needs of individual pupils.

Let me tell the House--not for the first time--where I was educated. I was excluded, in the sense that I did not successfully negotiate the 11-plus examination all those years ago. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that and, if I could have my time over again, I would not change the secondary school that I attended. It was a good Church of England school, with a good ethos, and it was right for me. Whether it was the best school in the area is irrelevant.

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The girl who spoke at the meeting earlier today was brought to tears when she said, "Nobody is listening to us." We are sat in this place and councillors are sat in Shire hall in Gloucestershire. We come out with fine theories, but no one listens to the parents and pupils who know that they are better off in special schools. The closure of those schools in Gloucestershire makes them wonder why they have elected representatives. The parents, teachers, governors and children in many schools throughout Gloucestershire are expressing a clear wish that is being ignored by hon. Members and members of Gloucestershire county council. No wonder those people are dubious about the role of politicians and have no faith in the democratic process.

7.44 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Even if we were not having this Second Reading debate, there would be every reason to discuss and celebrate what the Government are doing for children with special needs and disabilities. They introduced the schools access initiative, which received £45 million in the first three years and will get £220 million in the next three. The grant that is available to disabled students who go into further and higher education has doubled. The new deal for disabled people has ensured that they get access to training and skills, which has been a tremendous success. Those measures and the Bill fit into a framework that includes the Disability Rights Commission, the disabled persons tax credit and much stronger disability discrimination legislation, which is better than the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 that we inherited.

We have not heard much about the 1995 Act. Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen have not given a feasible explanation as to why education was excluded from it. That omission gave the message to young disabled people they have the right to gain access to a pop concert, a pub for under-age drinking or a video shop, but they do not have the right to gain access to their schools. That is nonsense.

I appeal to the hon. Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) to withdraw their amendment. All three have been--and, in some cases, still are--active members of the all-party parliamentary disablement group. I cannot believe for one moment that they are happy to lead their troops through the Lobby to vote in favour of the amendment and against the Bill on Second Reading.

Mr. Boswell: Having expressed disbelief about our alleged attitudes on some matters, will the hon. Gentleman ponder on the fact that we might have reservations about the Bill? It does not seem odd to me to reflect that in an amendment.

Mr. Levitt: What seems odd to me is to vote for an amendment that, if successful, will defeat the whole Bill. Surely the hon. Gentleman should ensure that the Bill is agreed to on Second Reading so that he can take up his concerns in Committee. That is the logical response.

Dr. Ladyman: Is my hon. Friend as baffled as I am by the comments of Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen?

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Has it occurred to him that they have not read the amendment and do not realise that it will prevent the Bill from making progress?

Mr. Levitt: At least two of us have told Conservative Members that. Perhaps there will be a change of heart before 10 o'clock.

There is little disagreement about the principle of inclusion. After all, we meet disabled people every day, we live in a mixed-ability world, and there is wide acknowledgment that it is a positive experience for non-disabled children to mix with disabled children. On the other hand, it is possible that in the past we paid lip service to special educational needs. Perhaps we allowed some special schools to become out of sight and out of mind. Perhaps units within our mainstream schools share a postcode but little else with the school to which they are attached. Perhaps--I speak as a former teacher--some teachers might be quite happy for the special needs department to get on and do the job, as long as they do not have to sully their hands.

I commend the report by Scope and the National Union of Teachers. "Within Reach 3" says that, in 90 per cent. of schools where access initiatives have been implemented and schools have become more inclusive by introducing into the mainstream disabled children and children with special needs, attitudes towards children with disability have improved. There is less bullying, less exclusion and more physical inclusion.

The Bill assumes that education will be inclusive rather than exclusive. It gives all parents the right to send their child to a mainstream school, but it also reserves their right to special education if that is best. I have sympathy with those people who defend the special schools cause for at least one good reason: I think that I am the only Member of Parliament who can use sign language to any extent. I am certainly the only Member of this House who is a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, although Lord Ashley in the other place is another.

I was present in the Chamber a couple of years ago for an Adjournment debate in which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) sought to save a school in her constituency which was operated by a London borough and provided a sign language environment in which young deaf children could grow up. She asked the then Education Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), for permission for a trust to be set up to help the school to survive the policies of the distant LEA, which would have closed it, and to set itself up as an independent school. My hon. Friend gave that permission on the night, and I was pleased that we would retain an institution in which deaf children were educated in an environment where sign language was the norm. That is an example--perhaps an ironic one--of a listening Government.

Another example of our listening Government deserves mention. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to it briefly. I refer to the code of practice for statementing. My postbag, particularly in December and January, was full of letters from people complaining about proposals for that code. As a result, the Government withdrew the document that had been put out for consultation and allowed the existing code of practice to proceed. It will not necessarily remain unamended, but

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the Government listened and said, "Perhaps we haven't got these proposals right. Let's go away and think about them again."

Turning once more to children with a hearing impairment, I want to place on the record the fact that only 14 per cent. of deaf pupils in mainstream schools achieve five or more A to C grades at GCSE, compared with 44 per cent. of hearing children. Some children with a sensory impairment have to travel 20 miles a day to have their special needs met, and many will have had to stay in a special unit or school when integration and development of lip reading and speech skills might have been better for them. That is a different group of children from the one to which I referred a moment ago. Where there are questions of language development, it is particularly important that we accommodate the children concerned.

Some 840 babies are born with a significant hearing impairment each year; 400 of them will have that impairment detected by the age of 18 months, but 200 will not have had it properly detected at the age of three and a half years. That leads us to question whether those children are receiving the right education, help and diagnosis from that early stage.

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