Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Randall: Bog-standard.

Mr. Hayes: I hear my hon. Friend, but do not want to go down that path.

That view may prevail at dinner parties in Islington and elsewhere, but it is not about the specific educational needs of the child. The important word of our amendment is ``educational''. I am dubious about those social and cultural arguments, strong though they may be, replacing the specific educational arguments.

Mr. Laurence Robertson: I agree that educational requirements should be paramount. Does my hon. Friend also accept that the social requirements are not met when the child does not successfully integrate into a mainstream school? In fact, the reverse is true.

Mr. Hayes: The social requirements may be met for other children, but not for the child concerned. There is a balance of advantage. The optimum is when children are included in a mainstream school, prosper, do well educationally, socially and culturally, and when the children who mix with them and become their friends benefit as well. That is often the happy result of integration into the mainstream.

There are many other permutations, however. Sometimes other children benefit, but the educational progress of the individual child is not as great as it would have been if he or she had had the advantages of a special education. Sometimes the child is not happy in the new environment. Sometimes parental wishes do not coincide with the process. Many issues must be taken into account.

Earlier, I intervened on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. Two considerations cannot both be paramount. Incidentally, I said ``almost invariably''. [Interruption.] I have been asked to turn around, Mr. O'Brien, because I was not speaking through you. Heaven forbid that I should break with protocol.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was right that only one consideration can be paramount. The educational needs of the child are, indeed, paramount. We know from experience that the educational interests of children will usually—if the hon. Gentleman does not like the term ``almost invariably'', I shall use the word ``usually''—coincide with their wishes and those of their parents. However, parents may take different views—many parents are separated or divorced—or there could be differences between child and parent. In those cases, the educational needs of the child should be pre-eminent. The Bill establishes a structure to deal with disputes, so it should also take those other factors into account.

No one has yet mentioned the pro-inclusion zealots—perhaps we are too polite—but some people would include children in mainstream at all costs. Some people have a positive distaste for special education. That does not apply to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, or to the Minister, who takes a typically moderate and balanced view.

Mr. Boswell rose—

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is about to tell us that he is not typically moderate or balanced.

Mr. Boswell: I am happy to be bracketed with the Minister as a moderate and non-ideologue. Would my hon. Friend not agree that one of the difficulties is that inclusion could result in a progressive spectrum of costs and a diminishing level of benefit? As special needs increase, so the task of inclusion becomes progressively more difficult and more expensive. I do not preclude the need to examine inclusion and pursue it whenever possible, but I acknowledge the reality that it may not be possible to allow inclusion for 100 per cent. of the population.

Mr. Hayes: I did not fully understand that intervention, Mr. O'Brien. I therefore remind my hon. Friend of the words of Arthur Balfour, a former distinguished Member of the House and Prime Minister. He said that he did not much mind being praised and that he was not terribly concerned about being criticised, but that he shuddered when people tried to explain him. Perhaps my hon. Friend was trying to explain me; it certainly sent a shudder through me, as I found his comments almost incomprehensible.

I shall flesh out that second point a little more fully. The inclusion zealots seem to have a hidden agenda, which is that all children should be integrated regardless of need. I acknowledge that the Bill provides certain safeguards, but my experience of such matters, which stretches back 15 or 20 years, is that even though special education has been available in most parts of the country—I shall return to that point in a moment, because provision is patchy—the presumption has long been held that children should be integrated.

Jacqui Smith: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's view of pro-inclusion zealots. Does he not agree that they would fall in behind the amendment, so what he is saying is therefore slightly contradictory?

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend the M for Daventry has already spoken about the perverse effect of the amendment. It could be used to force children into the mainstream, or protect them from it. I acknowledge the problem that arises over how such a provision in the Bill would be used and interpreted. I suspect that that would need to be tested first in tribunals and, ultimately, in law. However, the danger of not including such a provision in the Bill is that local authorities with a rather less moderate, balanced and reasonable view of matters would put children into mainstream education whether or not they or their parents wanted it. That practice has been going on for some time.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a county councillor, a member of an LEA and shadow chairman of education in Nottinghamshire, I worked with parents in just that position. They were bamboozled by the system, and felt that not enough account was taken of their child's needs and their opinions. Other people wanted to put those children into mainstream schools, and special school education was made more difficult to obtain. I am thinking particularly of out-of-county provision and even out-of-country provision, which, as hon. Members will know, has been a feature of certain local education authorities. However, the same thing applies within counties when children in mainstream schools struggle and, despite desperately wanting to return to special education, find it very hard to do so because of the local authority regime.

Local authority records in this regard are very variable. Many local authorities do a splendid job in dealing with special educational needs, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) pointed out, that is by no means universal. The universal quality of provision that we all want has not really existed under Governments of either party. I know that my hon. Friend is scrupulously honest about such matters, but if he were to discuss what happened before 1997, he would no doubt readily acknowledge that, even in those halcyon days of Conservative rule, special educational needs provision was patchy. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) tries from a sedentary position to cast doubt on my analysis. I find that surprising.

Mr. St. Aubyn: The difference between the Ofsted reports for this year and those from our time in government is that we fought a battle for many years to improve education provision across the board. We were winning that handsomely. The new report states that there is little evidence of improvement in the performance of LEAs in this respect. It is the lack of improvement that we should all find particularly depressing about the Government's performance in the past year.

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is robustly partisan and none the worse for that. I am a moderate, particularly when elections are in prospect. Although my hon. Friend may be right, and performance may have deteriorated since 1997—certainly there has been no improvement—my experience of the 1980s was that provision was patchy.

Kali Mountford: On what does the hon. Gentleman base his analysis? Does he recall when Ofsted began its involvement in special educational needs? Can he draw any conclusions from that?

Mr. Hayes: I am drawing on my direct involvement in special education as a member of a local education authority. I first took an interest in the issue at about the time of Warnock and the Education Act 1981. Throughout the 1980s, I worked with a number of parents whose children were not receiving the education that they needed to allow them to fulfil their potential. Most usually, though not exclusively, that was because they were denied a place in an establishment providing special education, whether within the county, out-of-county or even out-of-country.

To be fair, I also dealt with cases of children who wanted a mainstream place and could not get it. I have encountered such cases since and I expect that other members of the Committee have, too. That cuts both ways. As the Committee seems to be strongly in favour of integration, it is important to point out that many parents and children are quite fearful that the further closure of special schools will remove the quite proper choice of a special education for the children most likely to fulfil their potential through such provision.

        It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

        Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee: {**ql**}
O'Brien, Mr. Bill (Chairman)Barnes, Mr.
Begg, Miss
Benn, Mr. Hilary
Betts, Mr.
Boswell, Mr.
Ennis, Mr.
George, Mr. Andrew
Griffiths, Mr. Win
Harris, Dr.
Hayes, Mr.
Hodge, Ms
Levitt, Mr.
Moffatt, Laura
Mountford, Kali
Randall, Mr.
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
St. Aubyn, Mr. Nick
Smith, Jacqui
Squire, Rachel
Whitehead, Dr.

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