|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Boswell: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we can persuade this Government, or a future Government, to introduce universal neonatal hearing screening on a national basis as soon as possible, we could pick up those problems at an earlier stage? We would then both create a problem for ourselves and require that we answer it.
Mr. Levitt: I certainly sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's desire to achieve that aim. Typically, the children to whom I referred are tested by the health visitor distraction test at seven or eight months, but the test is not infallible at that age. Certainly, I agree that we need improvement by one means or another.
That leads me to a situation that I have encountered in my constituency. In Derbyshire, four-year-olds have traditionally gone into primary schools early. We now have universal pre-school education for four-year-olds whose parents want it, and thanks to the Government's policies, we now offer it to three-year-olds. What happens to the two-year-old or three-year-old with special needs? There is a little confusion, to say the least, about who has the responsibility for finding the right help for those children.
I find that people who run pre-school schemes for three-year-olds in the voluntary and private sectors are very uncertain, and indeed scared, about the idea of a child with special needs wanting to enter their group. They call the social worker, but they are not sure whether the problem should be dealt with by social services or by the education or health services. They might have been running the group for only a couple of years, and their basic training will not be sufficient to diagnose special needs properly. Now that we have the opportunity to extend pre-school education to three-year-olds, we have the chance to improve the diagnosis of special needs. We can then address the thorny problem of statementing a child of that age.
I want the statementing process to be speeded up. I want to see "easy win" assessments being carried out within days of referral. The whole pre-school sector should be given the same support and opportunity to help children with special needs in their care.
Another constituency case, which hopefully will have been resolved today, involves a girl at the other end of the age spectrum. At 16, she has been in a special school for children with multiple learning difficulties. Had she been born a year earlier, the careers service would have led her into a full-time residential place in further education. Had she been born a year later, the Learning and Skills Council would have placed her in full-time residential education. This year, however, it appears that the careers service is pulling back from its former role and the Learning and Skills Council is not yet up and running. Parents have been left facing weeks and weeks of uncertainty about what is happening to their 16-year-olds with severe learning difficulties. Those children will go to a new school in September, but parents need a reliable framework to assist them in meeting their children's needs and in exercising the choice that we have all said we want the Bill to preserve. I am sure that it will do so.
There are excellent initiatives in special needs education. Many of us attended a fringe event at last year's Labour party conference where we were privileged to have conversations with young people with special needs. That might not sound unusual in itself, but they were young people with whom I could not previously have had a conversation. They were using the latest speech synthesis technology, which is very expensive. By using synthetic speech, those children, who have very little muscular control and no speech, were able to have bright, engaging and intelligent conversations. That was an example of how technology can come to the aid of children with severe communication difficulties. It was a tremendous evening; children were liberated and I and others were educated.
Undoubtedly, children with all manner of special needs and disabilities are able to be integrated in mainstream education. I visited every school and college in my constituency. I went to see the work that Godalming sixth-form college is doing. At Badshot Lee and Broadwater, I saw the special units for children with various disabilities. Much can now be done in mainstream education and with new technology, and I endorse the point that training and investment in information and communications technology is enormously important in enabling more children to release their potential. I remember our excitement in the Department of Health when cochlear implants were going to be made available on the NHS. Young people with all manner of physical disabilities can be released from the constraints under which they have lived, and lead full lives as active citizens.
It is not, however, my view that the mantra of social inclusion is necessarily always the right one in education for children with special needs. I say that having worked for many years--when I had a proper job before entering Parliament--in a child guidance unit, having been the chairman of a magistrates court, and having worked at some of the special residential schools that the then Inner London education authority set up amid great grandeur all over the home counties.
Many young people need special assessment and special provision, and coercive social inclusion is counter-productive. I do not dispute the degree to which having a fellow pupil with a disability reduces the fear, ignorance and stigma shown by the other, able-bodied members of the class, but I do dispute the idea that all children should be forced into this socially inclusive pattern.
Fearing that I was not going to catch your eye for a long time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I briefly visited, for sustenance and information, the launch of the manifesto card of the NSPCC, the Child Poverty Action Group--my first employer--and Barnardos. In the material that they have produced, they make it clear that one in five children and adolescents suffer from some form of mental health problem. One of their campaigns, which I applaud, is that
I wish that we had heard more from Ministers about what they are doing to co-operate with health providers, social services and the criminal justice system to ensure that those young people who often end up in the sheriff court--as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne) said--and the juvenile court, as I would have called it, receive the help that they need when they need it. So often with the goal of social inclusion, problems are delayed until a child is really suffering and falling out of the system, and until the teachers and parents are desperate. The great idea that social inclusion is the objective and that special education is somehow a failure or a lesser option is, in my view, misguided and misjudged.
I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had the right of it when she said that children's needs should be given priority. I am sceptical about the mantra of children's rights. Children have a right to be cared for and a right to be heard, but the concept of children's rights is not a wise one because so many children need control, care, support and containment. When hon. Members talk about the disability rights legislation applying the same language and understanding to children as to adults, they misunderstand the nature of childhood.
I strongly support the work done by my noble colleagues in another place, when they talked about the best interests of the child. I spent many years working on children's legislation, including the Children Act 1989, and I believe that to fail to give children the support and care they need is a great error. Children are not adults with adult status, and we fail them instead of serving them if we fail to understand that.
It has been said by a number of my colleagues that there is a role for special schools. I support the comments made by Doug McAvoy, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Goodness, I remember him coming in long ago, when I worked for Chris Patten at the Department of Education. I did not feel, then, that I had many points of agreement with Mr. McAvoy, but I agree with him when he says:
I am also concerned about the role of residential provision. I return to the issue of co-operation over funding. I was deeply influenced by the late Lady Faithfull, who was for many years instrumental in the all-party parliamentary group on children, and also in the Caldecott community. The difficulty of securing funding for residential places continues to be as problematic today as ever.
I ask the Minister to comment on what steps are being taken to achieve co-operation between social service departments, health departments and education departments. It was ever thus that the children who need residential provision often have not only educational needs but social needs. Children with special educational needs come not with one label, but, increasingly, with multiple labels. There is a degree of buck-passing and cost-shunting between agencies in relation to who will fund the provision. There will be few hon. Members who have not had experience of parents desperate for their children to receive a place, but somehow the agencies could not resolve the problems until, all too often, the criminal justice system has to pick up the bill.
I am also worried about the degree to which residential provision, which probably used to be excessive, is under threat. The reasons for a placement are rarely purely educational; almost always social factors are behind it. When we read of the effect of having a severely handicapped child--marital breakdown and family pressure--it is scarcely surprising that social factors combine with educational needs.
I share the profound concerns, represented widely in my constituency, about the potentially adverse effects of the Bill on the independent sector. It is hard to explain, but there is a huge demand, certainly in my area, for placements in the independent sector. There are a number of not-for-profit denominational independent establishments in my constituency which have prestige and cachet. Parents who are coming to terms with their child's disability may believe that if the child can be placed in one of those independent establishments, the school will provide added value. I understand that parents can find valuable the additional contribution that the faith community often provides in those circumstances; I would feel that myself.
My worry is the degree to which the independent sector will be discriminated against in a needless and serious manner. In my area, St. Dominic's school and More house have both provided remarkable care, education and encouragement for many decades, and have given self-esteem to youngsters who were failing to thrive and flourish in the mainstream.
I very much hope that the Government will re-examine the matter and accept the view of the Opposition that choice for parents is important, especially when people are coming to terms with their children's difficulties. All parents want their children to overcome obstacles and be free from difficulty; having a choice can make a huge difference to their accepting the outcome. I hope that the Government will recognise in statute that the best interests of the child should have priority.
I hope that the Government will look again at joined-up government. I am sure that other hon. Members have received letters of anguish from advisory and support services for children and the family court on the Lord Chancellor's proposals for self-employed guardians ad litem. Guardians ad litem do much to ensure that children in the looked-after sector realise their potential and achieve all that they can, given their resources and their adverse circumstances. In the interests of joined-up government, I am sure that the Department will want to