Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

[back to previous text]

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Minister. She will not always be able to quit while she is ahead, but she has made a genuine effort to respond to our concerns. She and I—and those who advise her—will realise that we are somewhat detached from the process of reasoning in the legal exchanges. I assure her that I have listened carefully and will re-examine the record, but I appear to be sufficed. She is responsible for our exchanges, and we are in classic Pepper v. Hart territory. If something goes wrong—for the sake of all the children, we would not want that—she will bear the responsibility. We may, however, have succeeded in solving the problem, and I do not suggest that there is any back-door attempt to create substantive change by legal means. We can leave that aside.

I am grateful for the Minister's assurances on balance. All will be explained, in English, in the guidance to local education authorities and others. That is important because I do not want anything to go wrong when the message goes out to local individual providers or LEAs securing provision.

The Minister gave helpful general assurances about balance and about funding for the non-maintained special sector. However, because of the complexity of the matter and of the concerns expressed about regional partnerships, it will be difficult to sell this clause—in a genuine, not in a public relations sense—to the non-maintained special sector, which was not happy before. If the Minister shares our spirit in trying to secure provision for that sector and if those who work in it are not happy, fences must be mended. We need not do that in Committee, and certainly should not do it in a partisan spirit, but the Minister must persuade those who work in non-maintained schools that the clause will work and is not against their interests. She must persuade them that there is no hidden agenda—to borrow a phrase that I have already used—to squeeze them out.

I am sure that the Minister has approached the matter in good faith. For that reason, despite the fact that Oppositions are required to be professionally cynical, I believe that she has given as reasonable an assurance as she can. Subject to a re-examination of the small print and further representations from the sector, I accept the basis of her legal and educational assurances, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.45 am

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 11, at end insert—

    `(9A) In drawing up guidance the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales, as the case may be, shall—

    (a) have regard to the need to ensure a balance of local provision to afford to parents a genuine choice between mainstream schools dedicated to special provision and special school settings and between the maintained and non-maintained sectors;

    (b) have regard to the need to develop strategies for meeting particular problems as they may arise, as well as the need to cater for the changing needs and educational development of the individual child; and

    (c) carry out periodic reviews of the appropriateness of current provision both nationally and at local level for meeting special educational needs.'.

I am sorry that I was not able to join you at the start of the Committee, Mr. O'Brien. I was refining my research about the important matters that we are about to consider. Those matters concern the mix of provisions for children with special needs, which arose in a previous sitting and require clarification. Conservative Members are anxious—I hope that anxiety is spread across the Committee in the spirit that has permeated our affairs thus far—that there should be as much diversity of provision as possible for children with special educational needs.

I shall draw the Committee's attention to the specifics of the amendment that deal with the role of parents. The Warnock report has been regarded as highly significant from the time that we first started taking these matters seriously. During and following the report—in the late 1970s and early 1980s—Baroness Warnock made it clear that a pivotal factor in getting special educational needs right was the availability of information about the range of options open to parents and children. Chapter 5 of the report states that information should be available to parents about facilities and supporting services when their child's handicapped condition is disclosed. The report suggests that a handbook is made

    ``available for each area giving information about local facilities for children with special needs and their parents, and where such a handbook is not already available it should be produced under the aegis of the appropriate Joint Consultative Committee''.

Baroness Warnock was essentially saying that giving information to parents is a critical factor in allowing them to exercise their proper choice about the best way forward for their child, once the special need had been properly identified, analysed and found form in a statement.

If there is agreement about the role of parents—I believe that there is broad agreement—and about the fact that parents should be as well-informed as possible, we must consider the second matter: that of choice. It is fine to provide people with information but, if the information does not allow them to make an effective choice, we are simply going through the motions rather than offering real options.

Choice depends on availability, practicality and diversity, and the Committee must address each subject. We have heard from a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), about the declining number of special schools in particular parts of the country. Counter claims have also been made. It is worth placing on the record that the Minister gave a written answer to me on 24 November 2000 about special schools closures. She revealed that in January 1999 there were 93,018 pupils in special schools, whereas by January 2000 there were 91,708 such pupils. That is a significant decline of about 1.4 per cent.

Over a year, there was a significant decline, which the Minister has made clear was part of a pattern. I do not suggest that special school closures did not happen before 1997. There has been a steady decline in the number of special schools and special school places. That is partly explained by the proper integration of children into mainstream schools, and when that accords with the parents' wishes and is the most appropriate solution for the child, that is entirely right.

However, we must measure that figure against the equally startling growth in the number of children identified as having special needs. Just as special school provision has declined, so the number of children with special needs who receive statements has grown. Notwithstanding the good practice surrounding integration, some, perhaps more direct, correlation may have been expected between the growing number of children with special needs and the provision of special school places.

Moreover, more children are involved due to medical improvements, greater understanding of particular disability and a more refined approach to analysing need. Therefore, the population of special schools, which is changing because of those factors, could also have been expected to grow. The matter relates to numbers of schools and places. I have no doubt that that has had an impact on choice.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): The hon. Gentleman is correct in his observation. I believe that other explanations may be involved, too. Over the years, there may have been changes in policy as a result of changes in the control of local authorities. Between 1987 and 1997, 300 special schools closed. Since 1997, the figures show that three opened in 1997, five opened in 1998, 10 opened in 1999 and 13 opened in 2000. An ebb and flow is involved: it is not a one-way street.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is right. There is an ebb and flow, as there was before 1997. The figures before 1997 show that schools were opening as well as closing. The traffic is not one way and never has been. The world did not suddenly improve in 1997 when we started building new special schools.

Mr. Boswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the figures are disaggregated, those for developments in particular local education authorities may cause anxiety? In some areas, many more schools may be shutting than opening, or a particular element of provision, whether mainstream or special, may be faltering either by accident or as a matter of overt policy.

Mr. Hayes: Indeed, and as the hon. Member for High Peak said, that policy may change. Local authorities have adopted different strategies in dealing with special educational needs. Some have taken a view similar to my own and that of members from both sides of the Committee that it is important to have diverse provision in order to facilitate choice. Others have taken a narrower view, as is well revealed by a glance at the distribution of special schools. We should not become too preoccupied with the total number of places or even the total number of schools. We need to examine the distribution of schools.

Mr. Levitt rose—

Mr. Hayes: I am about to do so in some detail and at some length, but I happily give way to the hon. Gentleman first.

Mr. Levitt: In the past, children may have received special education because of a severe physical disability that could not have been catered for in a mainstream school. However, as a physical disability does not equate to a learning disability, perhaps those children are now rightly being educated in mainstream schools because there was never a justification for their receiving special education.

Mr. Hayes: I agree. I have stated that such children can be successfully integrated, especially those whose disability is readily identifiable, static and straightforward—although I hesitate to use that word, as the notion that any disability can be straightforward is open to challenge.

I also agree that it has been easier to integrate children with the special needs to which my hon. Friend referred. The typical cohort for special schools has changed in the past 20 years: a different range of children now attend special schools, partly because of factors to which the hon. Member for High Peak referred. Before the Education Act 1981 and Warnock, a crude view was prevalent on such matters.

I want to remind hon. Members of some comments made during the debate on the Education Bill in 1981 about parental wishes and diversity of provision. The Secretary of State said that the Government believed that

    ``parental wishes should be respected wherever possible. By no means all parents with handicapped children feel that their children's interests are necessarily best served by education in an ordinary school.''

In the past few days, I have reread that debate and the Warnock report, and have been alarmed by some of the language employed in them, although I am sure that no malice was intended. However, the way in which people with special needs and disabilities are discussed has moved forward.

In 1981, the Secretary of State also said that

    ``our aim is not simply integration for its own sake. It is the provision of appropriate education for individuals.''—[Official Report, 12 February 1981; Vol. 998, c. 30.]

My party believes that the specific educational needs of the child should be paramount. My rereading of the 1981 debate and Warnock has made it clear to me that, at that time and since then, everyone who has taken a serious interest in the matter has advocated offering a range of provision that facilitates choice. Some children will receive a better education in special schools; others should be integrated into mainstream education.

It might be possible to accept the decline in the number of special schools on the ground that that is an inevitable and necessary part of the process of integration into the mainstream—although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury does not share that view. However, the uneven distribution of special schools is not acceptable, because that disadvantages those parents of children with special educational needs who believe that their child would be better educated in a special school.

It is worth glancing at some of the issues associated with the distribution or population of special schools. Cheshire, which has 382 schools in all, has 17 special schools, two of which are non-maintained and 15 maintained. However, Liverpool has 234 schools in total and 23 special schools. In the Yorkshire and Humberside region, Kirklees has 209 schools in total and nine special schools, whereas Sheffield has 205 schools in total and 14 special schools.

10 am

In my county, Lincolnshire—God's own county—where the liberal bourgeoisie are, thank God, at a minimum, there are 401 schools in total, which are widely spread, and 19 special schools. In the neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire, where I lived my whole adult life before moving to Lincolnshire, there are just 12 special schools, despite the fact that there are 411 schools in total. From my knowledge of Nottinghamshire LEA, I can tell the Committee that there are fewer special schools in Nottinghamshire precisely for the reason identified by the hon. Member for High Peak. Ten years ago, Nottinghamshire county council adopted a policy that was, ironically, known as ``children first''. Essentially, it was a policy of closing special schools, for which a Labour local authority was responsible. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. O'Brien, for making a partisan point, such as the Minister admitted to making earlier.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 29 March 2001