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6 pm

Mr. Blunkett: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Under-Secretaries, my hon. Friends the Members for Redditch (Jacqui Smith) and for Barking (Ms Hodge), and to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who was the Whip in Committee, for the enormous amount of work that they, and other Members on both sides of the House, did in Committee, and for ensuring that we reached this stage this evening.

Perhaps such Bills do not receive the publicity that they deserve. Perhaps there is not the interest in the media--but there is enormous interest among our constituents and in the education service, and there is an enormous gain to be made in approving such Bills. I am very proud that--together and, I hope, with unanimity tonight--we have been able to take the Bill through the House and ensure that it becomes an Act, and to take sometimes modest, but important and valuable steps towards greater equality of opportunity.

Legislation can play a part, but only a part, in changing attitudes and restructuring the culture, and in ensuring that people think a little more about what is necessary and about how they can help. During the consideration of the Bill, there have been disagreements about certain points. The debates have been important. Some hon. Members have said things that they may regret when they read them in print, but that has happened very little. Most of the discussion has been about the nuances, and hon. Members have agreed to differ, rather than fundamentally opposing the Bill, and that is how it should be. Given the assurances that have been obtained during the passage of the Bill in the Lords and in Committee in the Commons, and given that people have been able to hear that there is unanimity on so many of the points that have been made, I hope that we can make progress tonight.

It is fair to say that there are times when people feel that others have different attitudes, when they have nothing of the sort. I am sure that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) will forgive me for referring to the fact that on Second Reading, he implied that my experience of specialist residential provision for special needs had coloured my view. It certainly did so when I was a youngster and in my early political life, but I hope that we all mature to the point where we can balance our experiences with the needs of others.

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On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman said:

Well, I did enjoy some of it and I put that fact on the record, as some of my old teachers are still alive and they might have felt that they had been maligned.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his brother-in-law and his wife's sister, who have major sight problems. He said that their experience had been very different and that I had all the power and they had none. Let us forget all that. The Bill is not about power and different experiences; it is about getting the balance right between supporting inclusive education properly and making residential and specialist provision available where it is needed. It is about maintaining the right balance for the individual child, and about how that can be made acceptable to schools, by changing attitudes and practices. As was said at the beginning of our debates this afternoon, there is a need to provide, in the classroom and the school, the support systems that make it possible for youngsters to experience genuine inclusion.

I shall conclude my remarks by recalling the case of a parent whose little five-year-old child could not see, but attended a school in my constituency. The policy of inclusion had resulted in that youngster being isolated in the school playground. He was desperately lonely, feeling that he had no future. His parent came to me and asked whether we could do anything about that. I said, "Yes. First he has been included inappropriately; secondly, he has not been supported; thirdly, his cry for help has not been heard; and fourthly, we need to get him into a setting where he can learn the skills, obtain the tactile provision and receive the support for mobility and confidence so that he can be re-included in future if that is right for him." We must get it right for every individual child. I am committed to that, and I sincerely believe that Members from all parties are too.

6.6 pm

Mrs. May: I join the Secretary of State in his congratulations to the members of the Committee on the thoughtful and careful way in which they considered the Bill. It was a good example of the way in which the House works at its best. As he suggested, such work is not always seen by those outside this building. I also include in my congratulations the Members of another place who started the work on this Bill; after all, much of the work was carried out there. They should be congratulated on the thoughtful consideration that they gave to the Bill.

As the Secretary of State said, we all have the same aim. It is to try to improve the educational opportunities for disabled children and to ensure that children with special educational needs have their needs properly provided for, so that they can develop to their full potential and in a way that is right for them.

It is unfortunate that some Labour Members have sometimes appeared to suggest that anyone who questioned any part of the Bill was against disabled children and wanted to destroy the concept of inclusion in mainstream schools. Nothing is further from the truth. It is essential that we get such a Bill right, and essential for the interests of children that their needs are met. We must ensure that what we do in the House, albeit with the best of intentions, does not, inadvertently or otherwise,

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act against the interests of children. That is why it was necessary to ensure that the Bill received careful scrutiny, and to consider the implications of its implementation.

There is no doubt that in the past, some children with special educational needs who would have benefited from education in a mainstream school setting have been denied such education. It is entirely right that we should attempt to ensure through legislation that no children lose out in that way in future. Those children for whom a mainstream education is right and appropriate and who would benefit from it should have such access. However, it is also true that education in mainstream schools for special educational needs children will often work only if the proper level of resources are provided to back up the support within the school. Otherwise, physical inclusion can become educational and social exclusion in the school--the Secretary of State provided an example.

Therefore, we should be cautious and take note of the resource implications of the Bill. If it is to work well and if children with special educational needs are genuinely to be given the opportunities in mainstream schools from which they will benefit, resource provision needs to be made to support them. Without it, their experience in the mainstream school may be far worse than it would be in alternative provision. I make that point because the issue of resources was not addressed in the debates in the Chamber as fully as it might have been. I recognise that it was considered in Committee, but the question of resources has not been brought to the fore as much as it should have been on Second Reading, or, for the obvious reason that we had to consider specific amendments and new clauses, on Report.

Some children with special educational needs will certainly benefit from the opportunity that the Bill provides to be in a mainstream school. However, we must accept that for others the special school environment is right and appropriate. Labour Members, including the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith)--in her response to new clause 2, I think--said that it was scaremongering to suggest that special schools were closing, and that that was not the intention. However, many local authorities are using the push for inclusion of SEN children in mainstream schools as a means of reducing numbers in special schools, which they then close.

I have met parents throughout the country who are worried that the intentions behind those decisions by some local authorities are not always driven by the best interests of children, but by the efficiency of being able to close a school, perhaps because the site can then be sold and the asset realised. That is unfortunate. We must send a clear message that what matters is providing for the needs of children. We must make it clear that we do not want local authorities or others to think that they are being pressed to meet a political agenda on inclusion instead of making decisions on inclusion that are in the best interests of children.

In the debate on new clause 2, I referred to Old House school in Twickenham, which I visited only yesterday. It is for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. In my experience, schools for EBD children and children with moderate learning difficulties find that the greatest pressure to close comes from local authorities. In the case of Old House school, the local authority has stopped statementing and referring children to the school in recent

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years. The numbers have dwindled to the point at which the authority can say, "Well, we need to do something about the school because it has such low numbers."

That practice is going on, and it puts pressure on special schools. Parents are concerned that their children are not being properly provided for. Teachers are worried not only about their situation, but about children for whom the particular expertise that they need is not available from teaching staff. They fear that children will not be able to make the best of their educational opportunities because of the closure of special schools.

Teacher training has been mentioned in various debates, although it did not receive much of an airing today. An important aspect of providing places in mainstream schools for children with special educational needs--notwithstanding additional support that they might receive from classroom or special needs assistants--is ensuring that teachers have the expertise necessary to encourage, help and support the children in their classes.

We need to examine the provision of special needs training within the teacher training curriculum. Some people have told me that only half a day was spent on special needs during their teacher training. That is wrong, and we need to ensure that teachers receive much more training so that they can meet the needs of children with special needs who are in their classes. If that is not done well, children with special needs will be in a class, but not receiving the education that they deserve and that we would wish them to have.

The whole point about providing extra access to mainstream schools is to enable children to have the best education. It must meet their needs and ensure that they develop their full potential. That has been the aim of the amendments and new clauses that we tabled in both Houses. The Bill aims to improve educational opportunities for children, and we have tried to ensure at all times that we do just that. We do not want clauses that can have a counterproductive interpretation or attitude taken towards them.

Attitude is of course very important, and I am sure that all hon. Members are struck by the experience of mainstream schools that have included children with special educational needs, in particular disabled children. Those schools say that inclusion is a benefit not only for individual children, in that it improves their educational opportunities, but for other children in the class. That experience benefits not only that educational environment, but society as a whole.

It is important that we improve opportunities for disabled children and provide for the needs of children with special educational needs, but in doing so we need to keep a balanced provision. We need to ensure that parents can choose between mainstream and special schools, and that special schools do not close because local authorities believe that they should meet a political agenda rather than the needs of children. In everything we do, we must ensure that we are genuinely improving educational opportunities for children and meeting their needs.

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