Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Barnes: Should not even a probing amendment be tabled on the basis that its provisions could be put into the legislation? Such amendments should not simply arouse a discussion around the topic, although that is part of the reason for them. There should be some logic behind the proposals that are made.

4.45 pm

Mr. Hayes: If I were a logical man, I would not be here. I would be earning a lot more money doing a flash job in the City. I hope that the Minister, my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman are here because we are men of courage, conscience and vision—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): And women.

Mr. Hayes: And women, yes. I was using the generic term, being neither a student nor a supporter of political correctness. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows very well, from his long experience on Standing Committees, that probing amendments are designed to enable proper and thorough debate of issues that otherwise would not be aired. The hon. Gentleman, with his great experience and wisdom, may have made that point tongue in cheek—I will put it no more strongly than that.

That brings me to my concerns about resources. Such concerns were aired extensively on Second Reading, and I do not want to repeat what was said then. They were also explored in the debate in the other place, and I particularly note the contribution to that debate made by Lord Ashley of Stoke, who, in moving an amendment, mentioned that the Royal National Institute for Deaf People had sent him some striking examples of unreasonable fears about children being included and resources being inadequate. He referred to teachers who refuse to wear neck loop microphones with a deaf child in the class, preventing that child from taking part in normal teaching and learning.

There are many examples that one could use to support our concern about resources. They centre on physical difficulties, such as the case I just mentioned, and on the problem of access, with which we are all familiar. The provision of appropriate information technology is also an issue, and I welcome the Government's commitment to that.

However, the concerns also centre on the skilling and support of teachers, because that builds the confidence of teachers in mainstream schools and allows them frequently to adapt their skills to educate children with particular needs. That matter has not received the judgment or the attention that it deserves from any Government since we began seriously to bring children into mainstream education, post-Warnock and after the Education Act 1981. It is not sufficient to say to a teacher, ``There's another child in the class, they have a statement, do your best for them.''

The particular needs of certain children must be considered most seriously. Those needs are not always straightforward. In the context of disability, we tend to envisage people with spinal injuries or with a permanent or visible disability, but when a teacher is dealing with different types of learning difficulty and physical impairment, the needs are complex, subtle and often changing. Teachers need to be skilled and supported so that they can identify those needs, have empathy with them and adapt their teaching styles and the learning process to deal with them properly. They must be able to support children with those needs.

Mr. Boswell: I am sensitive to my hon. Friend's points. Does he agree that it is crucial that teachers are provided with proper training in the induction process, because when children move from the more protected environment of a special school to a mainstream setting they may experience initial problems from which they never recover?

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend is right. History shows that children who are integrated into mainstream schools from special schools and have a bad experience in the first few weeks or months often end up returning to special education and never get back into the mainstream.

The induction process is critical, as is the age of the child. The Committee will remember that the Office for Standards in Education report that was referred to earlier in proceedings specifically dealt with the issue of children going from the primary sector into the secondary sector, and the difficulties that children without special educational needs often experience—particularly boys, according to the report—at that stage of their education. If a special educational need is added to that cocktail, there is the potential for a poisonous experience that will damage the child, and perhaps also deter teachers from dealing with future challenges regarding children with special needs.

We must support our teachers. That is the other reason why I am concerned about the issue of

    ``efficient education for other children''.

I fear that it could be used once again as an excuse not to provide sufficient re-skilling, retraining and resources to allow for the increase in the number of children who will be educated in mainstream classes in mainstream schools—hence, probing amendment No. 2.

New clause 1 brings me to the issue of dynamic special needs, which was not debated at great length in the Lords, and has not coloured our consideration of the Bill thus far. I am joint chairman of the all-party disablement group, and I should like to put on the record the fact that it does not share all my concerns about this issue. We have discussed it, and my views are not shared by the majority of members. I am also secretary of the all-party group on acquired brain injury—a subject in which I have taken an interest since I came to this House and before. The needs of a child who suffers from an acquired disability, and therefore acquired special educational need, can change dramatically during the course of his or her education.

Picture a child who is injured in an accident and who has been part of a mainstream school where he was making strong educational progress. At the age of 10, 11 or 12 he is suddenly disabled with a brain injury, and immediately he has very different educational needs, which are likely to be changing and dynamic but also subtle. He might have problems of concentration, temperament or unsuitable social behaviour, and it is difficult for a teacher, a parent or anyone associated with that individual to cope with and to understand those problems. His needs will change. For some of the time it may be in the interest of the child to be educated outside mainstream education. Later, he may return to his original school, if he has not by that stage moved into the age range for secondary school.

We should ensure that the Bill takes account of such dynamic special needs. Historically, our handling of that area of special needs education has not been a great success. There has not been sufficient flexibility to allow movement from the mainstream into special education and out again. Although that is fine for an unchanging need—typically, a physical disability such as the spinal injury which, once dealt with medically, establishes a need that does not alter a great deal over time—it is not suitable for the dynamic need associated with, for example, an acquired brain injury.

It is critical that agencies work together. All those involved need a co-ordinated and coherent approach in order to create the best possible opportunity for that child, and subsequently for that person as a young adult. I have put it in anonymous terms, but through my work in this field I have known many children and young people who have been through that experience.

Existing legislation does not go far enough, and the Bill does not deal adequately with that issue. I believe that most of those associated with special educational needs outside Parliament would agree with much of what I have said. I hope that new clause 1 will stimulate and encourage co-operation and communication such as I have briefly tried to outline.

I did not mention Ovid or Horace, but I may do so later, as I was reading about them during our long lunch break. I hope that the amendments are acceptable to the Government, as they are largely if not wholly constructive. They are not meant to damage or ruin the Bill; they are designed to improve and build on it. We have a sharp and genuine disagreement on amendment No. 1, but it is a disagreement about a common objective. That objective is to allow all children, regardless of where they start, the opportunity to achieve their potential. That is where we stand. I hope that the Committee will support the amendments.

Mr. Levitt: The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings started by saying that he would be brief. I am glad that he was; he has taken almost three quarters of an hour. I shall be considerably briefer. Indeed, I am prompted to speak only because I wanted to comment on three matters mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and if I had tried to intervene, Mr. O'Brien, you might have got bored with me—and my spine might have taken quite a battering.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of skilling mainstream teachers for special needs. He was absolutely right, and I am sure that all hon. Members agree. However, he implied that it was not already happening, but it is. I bring fraternal greetings to the Committee from my mother. Until recently, she was a governor of Horton Lodge special school in Staffordshire. Coincidentally, since she ceased to chair the governing body, that school has received an excellence award and has been given beacon status because of its work in making its skills and training available to teachers dealing with special needs children in mainstream schools. I am sure that the Committee will want to commend the school—and the Department for recognising it and giving the school beacon status.

The hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members seemed to imply that judgments would have to be made outside the school environment. Indeed, it was conceded on Second Reading that local education authorities would have a role to play in assessing the various demands. I commend them for that, but I am intrigued because the previous Tory Government passed legislation that made it unnecessary to have a local education authority. The fact that every LEA survived that change in legislation shows that the Tories were wrong; I am pleased that they have come back to the cause of LEAs.

I do not support the amendment, but I shall speak positively about the remarks of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings on the proper role of special educational schools. I refer in particular to the special education of profoundly deaf children. I know the hon. Gentleman has great empathy with that group of children. Education authorities and the Department for Education and Employment will have real problems dealing with informed parental choice—I put it no stronger than that.

It is simply not good enough to leave parents to choose without knowing the full consequences and implications of what they are doing—for instance, parents who are profoundly deaf and use sign language and have a profoundly deaf child. It would be legitimate for that family to choose for the child to be brought up within a sign-language environment. That may not be the right environment for other profoundly deaf children, or for children with a lesser degree of hearing impairment. However, parents should have the opportunity to choose a sign language environment. I believe--my belief is not wholly shared across the special needs spectrum—that a child who can develop one language will be much better at picking up a second. If sign language is the natural language for that child, it should at least be given a chance to flourish before the introduction of written English.

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