Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. St. Aubyn: I do not think that that is the route that I am going down. Of course we all recognise that resources are limited, but we are more likely to reach a consensus between the parents and the child on one hand and the officials judging what provision should be made for the child on the other if everyone agrees on their starting point. The Bill fails to make clear that everyone is coming from the same starting point, and that it is therefore a question of how we use existing resources and what tactics we follow, because the strategy is to answer the needs of the child.

To answer a point raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, there is no conflict between judging the wishes of the parents and the paramountcy of the child's needs, because one need of the child is to follow the wishes of the parent. A strategy that goes against the wishes of the parent is unlikely to succeed. If it does not have their confidence, that lack of confidence will be transmitted to the child, diminishing the likelihood of a successful outcome. We shall shortly come to my amendment about the needs of children in care. Not enough has yet been said—I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments—about how we deal with children who do not have parents to bat for them against the system. I look forward to debating that issue later.

Another issue about which I am especially concerned, and to which new clause 1 would provide a better answer, is the role of independent schools, where provision can be bought to support a child's needs. I regret that one result of the way in which the Government have framed the legislation will be to bear down on the role of independent schools, although there are not many of them because LEAs are reconsidering the provision that they offer. Not long ago, one such school in my constituency closed. For smaller LEAs, the opportunity to buy provision from independent schools is an important part of the array of options that they can offer to parents and children.

We had an interesting diversion from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon on the issue of selective schools. In discussing provision for those with special educational needs, we only ever address the needs of half those kids—the 2 per cent. who have acute difficulties. We never address the needs of the 2 per cent. who have intense abilities. The Select Committee, on which the h G and I serve, debated at length whether statementing should apply not only to those with acute learning difficulties but to those who are highly able in one or more subjects, for whom mainstream education may not be able to provide. Some children with special educational needs turn out to have high ability.

For all those reasons, making available a broader range of provision, including selective and independent schools outside the mainstream and maintained sectors, should form part of a sensible strategy, because the peculiar needs of children at the ends of the spectrum are more likely to be met by a diversity of schools. The lack of that diversity will be a weakness of the system. New clause 1 would make it easier for education authorities, who recognise the need for as wide a range of provision as possible, to justify expenditure on such provision.

Another flaw in the Government's argument about moving children with disabilities and special educational needs into mainstream education is the effect that it has on mainstream education. A school in my constituency was in serious difficulties. It was a wonderful school in many ways. It accepted many children with special educational needs and disabilities, but the number of mainstream children who applied to that school was only one third of the number that it had the capacity to take. The school was, in the parlance, ``a failing school'', as the Ofsted report confirmed. That was very upsetting for all those involved. We took a radical approach and brought in the private sector to turn around that school. The success of that Conservative policy was so dramatic that it was endorsed even by the Prime Minister in a recent Green Paper. We welcome that cross-party support for our initiative.

Lord Commissioner to the Treasury (Mr. Clive Betts): Which county was that?

Mr. St. Aubyn: Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene, since I did not hear his sedentary intervention? No, he does not.

That school was a mainstream school, but was characterised by some in the town as the school to which those with special educational needs and disabilities were sent. Although it had the nomenclature of a mainstream school, it was regarded as some sort of special school. There is a danger in the Government's approach that that will happen. I see the Minister shaking her head. I do not want that to happen, and I am sure that nor does she. Perhaps she could explain how she will ensure that such problems are avoided if more kids come out of special schools and are given provision within the mainstream.

If there are problems of behaviour—that was one of the acute difficulties of this particular school—and there is a lack of resources in the mainstream schools to deal with them, schools that otherwise have a good reputation may develop a reputation for being disruptive. Such a school might develop a reputation as the sort of place where kids who want to get on with their work are distracted, or unable to do so, because teachers have to devote so much of their time to dealing with difficult pupils.

I do not want to stigmatise those pupils or ignore their needs, but we must ensure that if more children with demanding requirements come into the mainstream, certain mainstream schools do not become stigmatised in popular opinion as being somehow different and therefore less desirable for parents to send their children to.

I will move on to the issue of children in care later. New clause 1 covers somewhat the same ground as a later amendment, so I will reserve my remarks until we debate that amendment.

Mr. Hayes: I do not wish to detain the Committee. As I said earlier, I will not be able to draw on the literary metaphors and allusions with which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry was able to punctuate his speech. However, it is important to tackle the issues that are implicit in the amendments in more detail than we have done thus far, in three or four particular respects.

First, there is the matter of the educational interests of the child. The discussion on that has been appropriate, and I understand the desire of Members, particularly Liberal Democrat Members, to get to the bottom of why we consider this to be so vital. Let me put it in plain terms: I take the view that our concerns are shared more widely than might generally be thought. It is clear from meetings of the all-party disablement group and from discussions that my hon. Friend and I have had with the main disability organisations, that those organisations generally take the view that getting the Bill through the House and on to the statute book is of such great importance that anything that endangers that process is undesirable.

There are concerns about the absence from the Bill of an explicit reference to the educational needs of the child. Those concerns may not be as profound as ours, but they exist. I do not want to go into great detail and cause embarrassment, but we are sure from our discussions that those concerns exist. However, there is a fear that, if we make too much of them and debate the Bill at too great a length, then because the Bill has been introduced so late in this Parliament, it will not become law. We no longer know for certain whether it is late in this Parliament—but let us say that it is popularly considered to be so.

No draft Bill was published, and the Government are guilty in that regard because that would have allowed an exploration of important matters at greater length. They could have been discussed and talked through, and we could have come to a better resolution earlier.

Other issues arose as a result of the Green Paper. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) was right to say that the Green Paper had a destructive effect on special education, because it was seized upon by some local authorities as a green light to close special schools, and sent shock waves around the community that includes disabled organisations, disabled people, people with special needs, parents, teachers and others. In my constituency, a street stall was dedicated to a petition against the Green Paper because feeling ran so high. For all those reasons, the legitimate debate about the Bill identifying the educational needs of the child has to some extent been suppressed.

12.45 pm

I believe that that debate should be an important aspect of our consideration of the legislation. Without desiring to repeat myself unnecessarily, I say again that I support the Bill in broad terms for three reasons. The first can be illustrated by the entirely well intentioned words used by Baroness Blackstone when she introduced the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry talked about the theology of the matter, but we are more concerned with the liturgy. Baroness Blackstone said that the

    ``commitment to inclusion has been strong and constant...The potential social, moral and educational benefits are significant.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 635.]

That is certainly true. However, the order in which she put those benefits is most interesting. We are concerned about the social, moral and cultural interests of people with learning difficulties, but their educational needs will at times be more significant than any cultural or social benefit that might derive to them, their contemporaries or their schools.

There are good grounds for arguing that social and cultural benefits are derived by whole schools from the inclusion of special needs children into mainstream education. I acknowledge such arguments fully and without reservation. However, there can never be a stronger argument for Conservative Members than the specific educational needs of the child concerned.

It is unfortunate that some people have a bourgeois-liberal view of such matters, although I would not want to accuse any member of the Committee of falling into that category. They say that to educate everyone in one place would be cosy and culturally desirable—one might say comprehensive, if that were still a fashionable word, which it certainly is not.

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