Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Robertson: When I spoke on Second Reading, I referred, perhaps rather unkindly, to the Bill as a triumph of theory over reality. That is certainly true of the first clause, and I said it because I feel that there is an element of political correctness running through the Bill. One of my main concerns is that there seems to be a presumption in favour of inclusion. Hon. Members may say that that is desirable, but we have not achieved full inclusion throughout the education system.

On Second Reading, I spoke about my education, which did not take long because there was not much of it. I did not successfully negotiate the 11-plus, whereas my sister, with whom I discussed the matter over dinner last night, did. We went to the same primary school and sixth form, but we went to different schools in between. She went to a grammar school and I went to a secondary modern. I would not change that for one minute.

Miss Begg: How many pupils at the secondary modern had severe physical disabilities? I suspect that the answer is none, because they were excluded from such education. The hon. Gentleman's example is not relevant because it relates to mainstream education, from which large sections of the disabled population have been excluded until now.

Mr. Robertson: Many children with physical disabilities do not want to go to mainstream schools. I accept that the opposite is also true, but the purpose of my example is to emphasise that there were grammar schools and secondary modern schools, and as one hon. Member has already said, the Government have done nothing to bring about the end of grammar schools. They have made a half-hearted attempt to encourage the demolition of grammar schools, but in this Parliament, they have not ended that system or the independent school system—

The Chairman: Order. We are discussing the amendment, not the abolition of grammar schools. I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep to the amendment.

Mr. Robertson: I take that advice, Mr. O'Brien. My point is that we must be careful about what ``inclusion'' means. The Government have done nothing to bring about greater inclusion by narrowing the types of school, each with a different ethos, that provide different forms of education.

Mr. Levitt: I should, perhaps, declare something of an interest in that I taught in comprehensive schools in Gloucester for 10 years. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that special needs teachers and others in Gloucestershire comprehensive schools are doing some excellent work on inclusion.

Mr. Robertson: I certainly would not dispute that. Many children in Gloucestershire are included in mainstream schools. I do not know how recently the hon. Gentleman taught in Gloucestershire—

Mr. Levitt: Ten years ago.

Mr. Robertson: Before I was there. Certainly, many head teachers, teachers, governors and pupils are very nervous about the Government's policy on inclusion and how it is being interpreted by Gloucestershire county council. Some 32,000 people have signed a petition in protest against the closure of special schools in the county. That is about 5,000 or 6,000 in each constituency.

Miss Begg: I think that the hon. Gentleman is misleading the Committee by generalising from a specific example of one local authority's problems in order to deny children and young people access to mainstream education. They should have that access by right. No one is saying that parents should not have the choice of sending their child to a special school, and nothing in the Bill suggests that that choice will be taken away. However, if the hon. Gentleman's line of argument is followed through, those with special educational needs and disabilities will not have the option of going to the mainstream school of their choice. It does not happen now; but it should.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady is snapping at my ankles like a terrier. I am willing to accept that some children are excluded from mainstream schools. I made that clear on Second Reading, and I thought that I had made it clear this morning. However, it also happens the other way round. I have had school pupils come to the House—my hon. Friends have met them—begging and pleading for their special schools to be kept open because they know that they will not be able to cope at mainstream schools. I hope that the hon. Lady will not deny that.

Miss Begg indicated assent.

Mr. Robertson: She suggests that she would not deny it. I am grateful.

Mr. Boswell: Further to the hon. Lady's intervention, what really matters to parents is that they may be denied a choice between special and mainstream provision. If the arrangement is not working as it should, we should not miss the opportunity to redress the problem.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is right. I am rather uncomfortable about clause 1 for the reasons given by my hon. Friend, which is why I support the amendment. I make no apology for discussing Gloucestershire. As a Member of Parliament, I am paid to represent a constituency there. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) suggested that the authority was not carrying out its duties properly, if that is an accurate summary of her words. That was the effect of the Green Paper. I cannot blame the Bill, as it has not yet been enacted. It is wise to consider the effects of the Green Paper.

The closure of Burnham Park school, Stroud, has already been proposed. The schools organisation committee was not unanimous about that decision, so the adjudicator must decide the school's future. That is not theory; it is the reality of what is happening in Gloucestershire. The Minister wrote to me—I thank her for the letter—saying that such decisions are now being made locally. However, letters to the adjudicator have to be sent not to Gloucestershire but to Darlington. I am not sure how that means that such decisions are made locally, but that is slightly off the point. Given the county council's policy, allowing that school to close would surely give a green light to closure of other special schools in Gloucestershire. I should explain that the county council is not controlled by the Conservative party, as the Secretary of State once made the mistake of thinking; it is controlled by an unholy alliance of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has told us of the political make-up of Gloucestershire county council. I share his opinion of the Green Paper; a similar thing happened in Kirklees. Would he not accept that following consultation on the Green Paper, the proposals changed substantially? Some councillors, perhaps including those in Gloucestershire, may have taken pre-emptive action; but they should study the Bill and should review any decisions that were based on the Green Paper. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is more than able to deal with his local authority and tackle that problem.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Lady makes a good point, but there are no signs of a change so far, although it may be different when the Bill is enacted. The proposal to close Burnham Park school in Stroud is still before the adjudicator, and he will make a decision one way or the other. She is right in theory, but this is another case of theory over reality, and, in reality, the decision will not be reversed. The decision could be reversed if the make-up of the county council in Gloucestershire changed, if the Prime Minister had the nerve to hold elections in May. That is the only way in which the special schools in Gloucestershire will remain open.

12.15 pm

We are talking about parental choice and what is best for the child. I shall put a genuine question to the Minister in all innocence: if there are no special schools left in Gloucestershire, where is parental choice? Does she have responsibility, in this Bill or existing Acts, to ensure that the county has special schools? Parents, teachers, pupils and even the LEA would have no choice whatever if there were no special schools.

Mr. Levitt: I am enjoying the nostalgia, as I used to live about 400 yards from Burnham Park school. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that about 300 special schools closed in this country between 1987 and 1997? Would he care to hazard a guess as to how many of them closed due to falling demand or places not being provided in the right areas? Is he aware that the number of special schools opening is increasing? It went up from three in 1997 to 13 last year.

Mr. Robertson: I do not know of those figures, but I am more than happy to accept them.

It is curious how the figures on the closure of special schools because of demand or lack of it can be manipulated—not, of course, by the hon. Gentleman, but by LEAs. The Bill will make that problem worse. If an LEA does not statement a child, that child will have to go to a mainstream school. That could reduce the numbers in special schools. We have all seen schools closed by stealth before. An LEA puts it about that a school might be in danger, so parents do not send their children there. That means falling numbers, so the LEA says that the school is unsustainable.

Mr. Hayes: I want to correct the record again. The rate of closure of special schools has been steady and continuing since 1997. It has not changed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the hon. Member for High Peak was right to say that there were closures before 1997, but there has been no let-up in them. In that context, my hon. Friend might like to consider the number of children with statements and the demand for special education, which seems as inexorable as the closure programme.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point well.

Mr. Boswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that the trauma of closure of any school, special or otherwise, is greater than the benefit of the creation and opening of a new school? Simply to say that special schools have been replaced by others elsewhere does not take away the concern that parents feel in such circumstances.

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