Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making another powerful point. The issue creates a great deal of emotion. My hon. Friend was kind enough to come to the Jubilee Room last week to meet parents, pupils and governors of, and local councillors connected to, Alderman Knight school in my constituency. The school feels that it is under great threat. We shall have to wait to see what happens. The first decision to be made in Gloucestershire is about Burnham Park school, but there is great fear as to what the knock-on effect will be on Alderman Knight school.

Miss Begg: The hon. Gentleman could use the Bill to make the case for the retention of the school that he so wants to save in his constituency. My local authority—and I know that this part of the Bill does not apply in Scotland—proposes to close a school for children with severe behavioural problems and to integrate them into one of the local secondary schools. I shall be at a meeting on Thursday night supporting the community against that proposal, and I shall quote the Bill in my favour. Labour Members are not saying that all integration is right and that it must happen regardless of the wishes of parents or of the provision of efficient education for other children. Caveats have been put into the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman should use them with his local authority.

Mr. Robertson: I wish the hon. Lady every success in trying to save her school. I do not know why it is under pressure. I only know why schools are under pressure in my area, where the Green Paper was seen as a green light for closure. I accept the argument of other hon. Members that that should not be the case, but it is the case.

I shall finish soon. I did not want to make a long speech—in fact, I have made a short one, but the interventions have made it long. However, I should like the Minister to address first my point. What happens if there are no special schools in an area? What will happen to parental choice in Gloucestershire if that is the case? That is the scenario that we face.

My second point is that all hon. Members should ask parents and, particularly, pupils who are involved with special schools what they think. Many will have done so already. Some will not. Such pupils overwhelmingly believe in the role of the special school. They know that, in many cases, they cannot cope in mainstream schools. They know that they would suffer in such schools, and a number of people attached to mainstream schools know that the pupils in those schools would suffer as well. We can all quote examples. There should not be an over-presumption on inclusion. Every decision should be based on the needs of the child. I should like to repeat the quote that I gave on Second Reading from a young girl—I think that she was aged about 15 or 16—who spoke at the Jubilee Room last week, very bravely, in front of 50 or 60 people. She just said:

    ``No-one is listening to us.''

It is a very sad comment on the political process if a young girl feels that. I ask the Minister to make sure that that is not the case.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for raising the concerns of those involved with special schools. My wife is a governor of a special school in my constituency, Godsen House, which has had two Ofsted inspections in recent years, both of which resulted in excellent reports. The commitment to education, and the knowledge and expertise of the teachers who work in that school is truly impressive. They will tell anyone who cares to listen how many more children could benefit from a period in their school.

When discussion takes place about whether children should be in the maintained sector or in special schools, the notion seems to be lost that a period in a special school—the investment of new and additional educational vision in their development—can be of lasting benefit when they return to the maintained sector. Many special schools see it as their primary role not to maintain the children outside mainstream society, but to give them the building blocks to go back into the mainstream, more effectively and more successfully than they could have done before. Too much of the discussion about putting such children into mainstream schools misses the point. Part of the rationale behind the amendments is to ensure that the additional provision is available to children when they need it, promptly and effectively, so that they then go back into the mainstream. One of our fears is that the Bill will mean that too many kids will fail to receive the extra provision that would give them strength to deal with the maintained sector in the future. Instead, they will be put in the mainstream from day one, and will never perform quite as well as they might have done.

A few hard facts about the current system need to be spelled out. They come from the most recent annual Ofsted report. It is alarming that Ofsted tells us that one third of the LEAs inspected were judged less than satisfactory. The institutional mechanisms that surround the children whom we are discussing are not performing as well as they might. The overview of last year includes something even more alarming. Page 82 of the report states that support for SEN is often the weakest aspect of the work of LEAs, and that almost half have no adequate SEN strategy. In fact, the report states that 45 per cent. of authorities have unsatisfactory strategies for SEN support.

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware that, according to the notes provided with the Bill, about 20 per cent. of children will have some form of special educational need at some time. Given the number of pupils affected, is it not terrible if LEAs lack the relevant provision?

Mr. St. Aubyn: I am sorry to alarm my hon. Friend further, but I am afraid that things get worse. Not only do 45 per cent. of LEAs fail to operate a satisfactory SEN strategy, but 35 per cent. fail to offer value for money in their SEN provision. I suppose that the two factors are connected. A great deal of education authority resources seem, according to Ofsted, to be misapplied. Paragraph 358 of the report states:

    ``Support for special education needs continues often to be the weakest aspect of the work of LEAs, with little sign of improvement.''

Ofsted states that ``only one in five'' authorities is any good at discharging its statutory functions. That is pretty serious, given that the Bill deals with statutory functions, particularly those of local education authorities.

Mr. Boswell: My hon. Friend is deploying some shocking figures. I think that we were all uneasily aware of them, but it is useful to have the stout facts on the record. In the light of those figures, and given the fact that many local education authorities may not fulfil existing legal requirements, as well as the fact that the new law on disability discrimination is embodied in the Act, will not the matters in question increasingly be the subject of legal challenge, to the detriment of the public good? The lawyers will arrive to do what LEAs are unready or unwilling to do themselves.

Mr. St. Aubyn: When the Government came to power, they told us that they would provide many more resources for special educational needs, by cutting out bureaucracy and time spent in court and in disputes. The money used on those activities would be rediverted to the educational needs of children. That sounded like a halcyon prospect, but as we change the law, we need to recognise that there are already failures in the system. Perhaps the Minister will correct me, but as far as I am aware, the amount being spent on disputes, over statements, for example, has not significantly reduced during the term of this Government. Will the Minister give the Committee the figures, on a like-for-like basis, for spending on disputes in the year to 1997 and subsequent years? We need to know how disputes mechanisms are being handled before we can get to grips, in our debate on the amendments, with the future operation of those mechanisms.

The point of treating the needs of the child as paramount is partly that, if that is the starting point, the likelihood of legal dispute between parents and children on one hand and LEAs on the other will be diminished. Clearly, the parents and the child will start from the view that the child's needs are paramount. If they feel that the starting point of the professionals involved in the complex debate about the child's future and specific needs is different, conflict is likely to arise and the parents and the child are unlikely to trust the professionals' instincts.

12.30 pm

Often, there is a serious battle about resources. To send a child outside the mainstream sector can easily cost between five and 10 times more than the standard spending assessment of a child in a mainstream school. In some cases, it costs as much as 30 times more. The battle over resources can be acute, and if the parents and the child feel that officials do not come from the same standpoint as them—that the needs of the child are paramount—that will be a recipe for many more legal disputes in future. If that is taken together with the failure of LEAs to discharge their current functions and duties, a red light should be flashing in the Minister's office. Not only did Ofsted find that barely one in five LEAs was good at discharging its statutory duties, it found that 14 per cent.—one in seven—were unsatisfactory.

Mr. Win Griffiths: Is not the burden of the hon. Gentleman's argument that there can be huge differences in professional opinions about what are the needs of the child? The burden of his argument is not about the educational needs of the child being paramount, but concerns the availability of resources to meet the perceived needs of all the parties involved in any one case. Legislation already exists to say that the needs of children are paramount. What makes the process so complex and the amendments so unnecessary is the need to balance all the issues at stake—the needs and desires of the parents and the child; the availability of resources; and the different professional opinions that may exist on any case.

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