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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the needs of the child being paramount. It is rather surprising that we have had to table this new clause. One would assume that, as the Government have said how important it is to introduce the Bill to help children with special educational needs and disabilities, such a provision would not be missing from it. The children about whom we are talking are the very children whom the Bill is supposedly designed to help.
I know that there is probably general support for the Bill's principles, but I have a little difficulty with it because of experiences that I have had in my constituency. I do not want to take up too much of the House's time in going over the ground that I covered on Second Reading and in Committee, but I have some concerns about what is happening in special educational needs at the moment.
I accept that many children with SEN can be included in mainstream schools. Many already are, including children in my constituency. In Gloucestershire, however, the Labour party and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats on the county council seem determined to challenge the need for so many special schools, and even to embark on a programme to close such schools. As I have said in the House before, a school in Stroud, Bownham Park--it is not actually in my constituency--is scheduled for closure. We are challenging the decision, because it is felt that if that school is closed a number of other schools in Gloucestershire will also be closed, which would reduce the amount of SEN provision in the county.
Although it is possible to provide special education in mainstream schools, it is important for a number of special schools to be available for children to attend if that is their wish and the wish of their parents. I have already accepted that many children can go to mainstream schools even if they have special needs, and that many do; but if children, or their parents, decide that education in special schools is really necessary, the facility should be provided.
Many children at special schools are currently feeling rather challenged. They sense that their schools are under threat, and fear that their voices are not being listened to. There is a great movement towards inclusion, which is justified in many instances; but many children are frightened by the Bill. They are frightened by the prospect of their schools' being closed as a result of political correctness or party dogma, and they want people to listen to them.
Last month, I welcomed a delegation from Alderman Knight school, in my constituency, to the House of Commons. One girl who knew that she had special educational needs spoke to the meeting, very bravely. She came out with a phrase that I will never forget for as long as I am elected to this place: she said that no one was listening to her.
Surely politicians in all parties have a duty to listen to what is said by those whom we are supposed to be trying to help. I support the new clause because I fear that we are not listening to expressions of concern from individual pupils with special educational needs.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): New clause 2, which I support, deals with the challenging tightrope that the Bill attempts to walk. On the one hand there is the commendable and correct principle of including children with special needs, in order to further their integration in society and help them to develop as fully as possible. No one argues with that. On the other, there is the reality: it may be in the best interests of both child and school for some SEN children to be educated in schools that focus specifically on their needs. I consider it essential for what the new clause describes as the "best interests of the child" to be enshrined in the Bill.
I spoke to a number of teachers in my constituency this week, in order to be briefed on their views and those of their schools about the new clause and the Bill in general. They expressed concern--this is their opinion, not mine--that the Bill might force children into mainstream schools when that would be manifestly unsuitable owing to their needs. A clause ensuring that the best interest of the child was always a priority would be invaluable.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): The hon. Gentleman said that the phrase "best interests of the child" was in the new clause. I cannot find it there. There is a distinction to be drawn between the needs of a child and the best interests of that child.
Mr. Leigh: No doubt we shall discover the Liberal Democrats' view later, but I do not think that we should trade debating points. We are discussing a serious issue. Whether we refer to the best interests or the paramount interests of a child--I do not mind what we call it--we are talking about people with severe difficulties. Let us put them first.
Mr. Levitt: At every stage, Ministers and those of us who support the Bill in its entirety have made it clear that the Bill not only provides a framework for the successful integration of children with special needs in mainstream education, but strengthens parents' right to make informed choices about where their children are educated. Can the hon. Gentleman give us any evidence--apart from hearsay, originating from people who may not yet be familiar with the Bill--to demonstrate that the Bill will not achieve what it sets out to achieve?
Mr. Leigh: If it is indeed true that those who have framed the Bill are determined to give parents freedom of choice, I do not see why they should be concerned about the admirable wording of the new clause. We have not yet heard from the Minister, who, of course, may accept it. The new clause simply suggests that the Secretary of State should treat
Ofsted put the rate of closure of special schools at 30 per cent. last year. If that continues--this directly answers the question asked by the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt)--parents will have little choice in regard to where they send their children. It is a mockery of the notion of choice to say that parents can decide at the statement stage of discussions with the local education authority to put that child in a special school--which may be the best solution for the child--and then be told that the nearest special school is miles away, or has just been closed. That is the point that we are trying to make in the new clause, and that is why we must ensure that the child's interests are paramount.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I think every Labour Member accepts, and has reiterated throughout debate on the Bill, that nothing in the Bill will stop the special education of children who cannot be integrated in mainstream schools. The hon. Gentleman, however, refers to the distance that a child may have to travel to find a special school. That is why it is so important for smaller units in mainstream schools, or attached to them, to deal with children who have severe disabilities, enabling them to be closer to their homes. The children will not be in special schools; they will be in mainstream schools,
Mr. Levitt: The hon. Gentleman seems to assume that all special schools are the same. Even when there were more special schools than there are now, if a child needed a particular type of special school--say one that specialised in the education of autistic children--parents might have had to travel a long way and pass several other special schools. The hon. Gentleman also misses the point that many special schools were closed under the previous Government and 13 have opened in recent months under this Government.