Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Before my hon. Friend leaves the point about resources, does he accept that some local education authorities see the Bill as a means of saving money, rather than as a way to ensure that the money from special schools follows the child?

11 am

Mr. Boswell: We may well want to put our heads together on the margins of the Committee to consider an amendment. My hon. Friend will remember the delegation from Alderman Knight school to whom I and other hon. Members spoke only last week. Its members were concerned about the situation in Gloucestershire and somewhat concerned, to put it mildly, about the attitude of the local education authority. I do not come from that area, though my hon. Friend does and may want to make a contribution on the matter. Undoubtedly, behind the unexceptionable objectives of the Bill—the wish, that we all share, to do right by children with special needs—there is an undercurrent of concern about resources. Within the debate there is an undercurrent of concern about how local authorities may seek to dispose of, or allocate, the relevant resources.

I want to deal first with the behavioural side of the matter, or, rather, to give a personal, potted and undoubtedly not comprehensive view of the kinds of disability and impairment that are relevant and their impact in the matter of inclusion. In a strange way, physical impairment is the easiest matter to tackle without affecting the efficient education of other children. The Committee needs to understand clearly that a main impairment may be accompanied by other impairments that may be contributory factors in, or bring about alterations to, the appropriate provision. With respect to physical impairment, matters can be accommodated.

I have vividly in mind visits that I recently paid in one morning to two schools in my constituency that are fairly close to each other. They are different types of school, though both are primary schools. In the first, the former head teacher's daughter had a serious physical disability, from which, I believe, she has since, sadly, died. A sensible and sensitive set of solutions had been found to the physical mobility problem, although the school is not modern and has a number of estate and buildings problems. No doubt the head teacher perceived the need, and representations were made to the local authority. Ramps were put in, and stairs could be coped with. That course of action is neither easy nor cheap, but it is not impossible, and it was carried out for that example of special needs. The school is now irreversibly equipped and will not need to provide those facilities again.

The issue of learning difficulties gives rise to greater sensitivities, but I have no problem in principle with inclusion. In a relatively small rural primary school in my constituency, I saw a boy with Down's syndrome, who was perfectly happy and well integrated and central to the school. The approach, in the context, was exemplary, and I have no problem with it. My only caveat is that the teachers said that as he grew older—he was in year 5—a growing gap was appearing in educational attainment, and that what had been easier was in some senses becoming less so. The children were seen to be growing away from each other; but even that can be handled.

East Hunsbury school, on the edge of Northampton, is in a suburban setting in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke). It has recently imported a new head teacher—Mrs. Angela Shaw, for whom I have the highest regard—from a school in my constituency, and it still takes a significant number of children from my constituency. Apart from a general need to inform myself, I visited that school because parents of children there, including constituents of mine, were most anxious that the quality of the education provisions that the children had enjoyed at primary school should be continued at secondary school. They did not wish their children to receive secondary education in a special school, or did not like the special school that seemed to be the follow-on option. Incidentally, my LEA is reviewing its special education provision. Nothing has been settled, but it wanted to make its point early.

I report what I saw at Hunsbury school because it is useful to have hands-on experience. It is a large primary school in a suburban setting with fairly modern housing, but children from elsewhere attend it. Its dedicated special provisions are excellent. The children go in and out of their dedicated education; they join their form mates in a variety of activities and return to dedicated provision for other activities. To me—it is also the strong view of the teachers and governors—that arrangement is exemplary.

I stress that the Opposition have no objection in principle to inclusion, if it is conducted properly, the parents are happy and the children are successful. In a sense, that assists with the caveat, which the Government are keeping in place, on the provision of efficient education for other children. I agree with the comment made on Second Reading that well-conducted inclusion policies can benefit the other children in the school as well as those with special needs; it may create a social context in which they feel comfortable. It should not be forgotten that they will need inclusion in the adult world. I think, for example, of the role of Mencap, which created its own employment agency to get people out into the world. Those people are terrific employees, which is great, as I am sure that both sides agree. However, the biggest problem—I emphasise that these are broad rather than precise conclusions—is with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Frankly, it is possible for botched inclusion policies to be inappropriate for the child in question and extremely disruptive to other children. The Minister needs to respond on some of those matters.

I have previously mentioned a worry that I touched upon on Second Reading—it was referred to at the meeting that I attended in Essex—which is that inclusion is often not done properly.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): What the hon. Gentleman is asking for is already dealt with. The Bill provides both for the parents' wishes to be taken into account and for the efficient education of other children. The Bill makes provision for one child who is disruptive of the education of those around him.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. My purpose in moving the amendment was not to subvert that provision, but to try to discover the Government's reasoning and whether it might create a problem. The Committee will know that some disruptive children can make a nuisance of themselves. Wider problems exist—I will not stray too far—in the Government's overall policies and the mismatch between targets for exclusion and penalties for exclusion. Those penalties might loosely be termed the stick—talking of which, I notice that the Government Whip has now returned to assist the Committee—if the carrot is how best to deal with the child. Many head teachers, including those who were at a meeting I attended not long ago in Essex, are worried about losing their effective right to exclude—after consultation with the governors—and about finding themselves pilloried or losing financial resources if they exclude.

It is possible for one child to have a disruptive effect on the education of 29 or so other children, even without his necessarily being formally statemented, or having recognised special educational needs. If the Government's intention in providing the safeguard is to acknowledge that—and I think that it is—they should explain that that is what they have in mind.

The issue of resources keeps recurring throughout the Committee as a sort of leitmotif, to borrow a Wagnerian phrase. Whether we discuss it in terms, or whether you, Mr. O'Brien, would select an amendment on the subject, is perhaps something to be decided later. We are not considering an ideal world in which children are nearly always included, there is wonderful provision and everybody is happy. We live in a world where resources are stretched, where LEAs are trying to do their best and where head teachers have to get along with what they have. Two issues arise, both of which concern resources. One is the head teacher's right—or otherwise—to refuse a child if the package of resources is inadequate. When a child has difficulties, whether physical—that is not ruled out—or with learning or behaviour, the school will be under pressure if the resources are not made available. That has to do with what I call inclusion on the cheap. The school must to make do and, because resources are not available, it cannot manage properly. It cannot do as good a job as it would wish. That has an effect not only on the children concerned but on the others around them.

The Minister should explain the mechanisms that ensure that money is derived properly, initially within the standard spending assessment and the allocation to individual authorities under the present arrangements—we shall discuss alternative arrangements later. He should also explain how it is devolved through the local authority to the school, and how there is transparency in funding. We may not see eye to eye with the Special Educational Consortium over every issue, including the timing of the Bill and what will happen to it. I know that the consortium is keen that it should not be lost, but it has expressed concern at a number of meetings that we should all know more clearly where the money is, how it is paid out and whether it is used to achieve good value.

Mr. Levitt: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Special Educational Consortium because I understand that neither that body nor its members support the amendment. Can he tell us which organisations in the special needs field do support it?

Mr. Boswell: If I table amendments they are for the purpose of the Committee's discussions. I have sole responsibility for them and for making the arguments in their favour, just as the Minister has sole responsibility for replying to them. I notice that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who has now joined us, is nodding vigorously, and I look forward to his contribution. We shall make our point. We have discussed constructively with the Special Educational Consortium how they feel about it. I am sure that, if there are differences between us, they are essentially of tactics rather than principle. I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak about that: we are arguing not about the theology, as it were, but about how best to deliver the service. There is a specific problem for the child if the resources do not arrive, and there is also a specific problem for the system of trying to work out the most efficient way of using those resources.

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