Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Boswell: If that policy was described as ``children first'', my hon. Friend begins to put me off my enthusiasm for giving the child paramount importance. Was there not also a correlation with the fact that Nottinghamshire's LEA was extremely reluctant and tardy in granting statements to children? The problem was not just a matter of provision, but was related to the fact that the authority tried to keep statements to a minimum.

Mr. Hayes: I am reticent about criticising former colleagues and friends, some of whom are still Labour members of that authority with whom I keep in close touch. When I was selected for my parliamentary seat, which was regarded as a safe seat—although I do not believe in such a thing, which is why I work like an evangelist—the first person to ring to congratulate me was a Labour county councillor, a gentleman whom I shall not name but who later became chairman of the county council. I therefore do not want to be too critical of my former colleagues and friends in Nottingham. That said, I have a long record of involvement in this matter. Even as shadow chairman of education in Nottinghamshire, I expressed scepticism about the policy, which, through the closure of special schools, was resulting in limited choice for parents. The figures speak for themselves.

Mr. Levitt: The hon. Gentleman is criticising a Labour local authority for having closed special schools 10 years ago. Am I not right in thinking that school closures at that time would have had to be approved by the Secretary of State, and were, therefore, approved by a Tory Secretary of State?

Mr. Hayes: I should have briefed the hon. Gentleman in advance so that he could have fed me that line. I was involved in saving Foxwood school, in Nottinghamshire, which the Labour local authority wanted to close. A benevolent Conservative Secretary of State intervened. The school became grant-maintained, so I could go one step further and celebrate that—

The Chairman: Order. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the amendment. It would be a pleasure for us all if he were to refer to it.

Mr. Hayes: I was again encouraged to stray from the straight and narrow by the hon. Member for High Peak.

I was making a point about the part of the amendment that deals with the issue of choice. My case—which I believe that I made with some success, although the Committee must be the best judge of that—is that special school provision is unevenly distributed. In some parts of the country it is very uneven. Authorities with similar numbers of schools and school populations have widely different numbers of special schools. In authorities with few schools, the parental choice identified in the amendment as important is being limited.

I end my survey of the country—because we do not want it to become a travelogue, do we, Mr. O'Brien?—with a brief consideration of the situation in London. I pick as an example, for objective reasons alone, the region of Barking and Dagenham, where there is only one special school out of a total of 58 schools. In Redbridge, however, there are five special schools out of 89. Although the problems and practical issues are different in conurbations because people travel across boundaries, that variation in number is indicative of the differing views taken by local authorities. Those views seem to cut across the objectives set out by Baroness Warnock and the 1981 Act, and the broad intentions embodied in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which pinpointed discrimination against people with particular needs. They also contradict what we have heard about the spirit behind this Bill from its authors and proponents, who reassured me that they understood the need for diversity and choice and for parental involvement.

Our case in the first part of the amendment is that parental choice is dependent on not only information, which everyone agrees should be available to parents, but proper availability of provision. The simple fact of the matter is that it would be difficult for parents in Nottinghamshire to find a place for their child in a special school, even if they wanted one because they thought that it was the best thing for their child, and even if the child's statement suggested that it was the best option. The policy that has prevented schools from being retained also prevents parents from exercising a proper choice.

Under paragraph (b) of the amendment, the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales should have regard to not only

    ``the need to ensure a balance of local provision''

so that there is an effective choice but

    ``the need to develop strategies for meeting particular problems''.

The situation is dynamic and the changing nature of the provision, to which earlier contributions have already alluded, requires some view to be taken of the distribution of the population and of special schools.

The needs of individual children also change. During a previous sitting, I said that we should not assume that children go either into the mainstream or into special education and that there is no movement between the two. I spoke at some length on the nature of dynamic special needs and the flexibility that those dynamic needs require if the child is to receive the most appropriate education. There is a real need for children to move in and out of mainstream provision. A view should be taken about the changing nature of not just provision but demand—both for individual children and for children as a whole.

Paragraph (c) of our amendment provides for

    ``periodic reviews of the appropriateness of current provision both nationally and at local level for meeting special educational needs.''

We contend that the Secretary of State should have regard for a balance of provision. That may be between maintained and non-maintained schools; I have already cited distribution figures that show a mix between the two. It is perfectly reasonable to consider the fact that there are a large number of non-maintained special schools in an area, even if there are few maintained schools. If those non-maintained schools are providing a proper function by offering a widely available choice, we can assume that a balance has been struck. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry made clear, we do not preclude provision from a variety of sources, but the Secretary of State should have regard to that balance. The Secretary of State should also take account of the dynamic nature of the needs of particular children and the relevant changing policy issues, and should carry out reviews.

That is all uncontroversial. I find it hard to believe that the Minister will not grasp this opportunity with both hands. The amendment is not destructive; it is highly constructive. It does not fly in the face or go against the spirit of the Bill; it would not disadvantage or prevent anyone who wants to gain a place in a mainstream school from being included and integrated if they believe that to be right, if that is in their interests and if that is consistent with their statement. The amendment supports diversity and reassures those who feel that there is a hidden agenda to close special schools—I do not necessarily subscribe to that view, but it has been broadcast. By so doing, it adds to and improves the Bill.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Given the full speech that my hon. Friend has just made, in which he covered many different areas, I do not intend to detain the Committee for long, especially as today is the 43rd anniversary of my birth and I know that Committee members will want to buy me a drink at lunchtime—not all of them, hopefully, otherwise I shall not be able to speak this afternoon. On that basis, they probably all will.

I want to underline some of the points made by my hon. Friend. The two important words in the amendment are ``balance'' and ``local''. As my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, national provision is not necessarily equally reflected locally. To draw an analogy, there are various guidance notes about planning, but there is provision that guidance should be interpreted locally—and rightly so. Local planning guidance varies because of local difficulties. That is also true of education. National policies are not always equally interpreted across the country. I do not want to test your patience, Mr O'Brien, or bore the Committee by talking too much about Gloucestershire again. I have made my point about Gloucestershire in Committee and in the House, so I shall not go into that, other than to say that it is a good example of what my hon. Friend described. If a local authority wants to unbalance provision in its area either because it is misguided or it has bad intentions, parents have no choice. Choice in education will not be preserved if there are no schools to choose between.

During our second sitting, I asked the Minister how we ensure special school provision in a given area. To turn the question around, if we accept—I do not entirely go along with this interpretation—that there is no desire to close special schools, how do we ensure that special schools remain? The Minister replied that the Bill neither guarantees special school provision

    ``nor makes it less likely. The local education authority must ensure adequate provision for special educational needs''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 27 March 2001; c. 55.]

I accept that that is the Government's guidance—and the Committee's—but how are we to ensure that it is put into practice? The amendment, and in particular new paragraph (a), reinforces that aim.

10.15 am

As my hon. Friend said, even where there are special schools, it can be difficult to obtain a place, especially in the current climate of scrutiny of special educational needs provision, with a presumption in favour of inclusion. In Gloucestershire, several parents pay quite a lot of money to transport their children from one end of what is quite a big county to the other, simply to obtain the special education that they feel their children need.

Information to enable parents to assess which school they would prefer for their children is another area of difficulty, which my hon. Friend also touched on. I mentioned on Second Reading a young man called Brian Beard, an 11-year-old whose parents felt that they had not been given full information or any choice about where their son should attend school. He went to a mainstream school, where he could not cope. He was temporarily taken out of school, with a view to trying for a place in a special school. The school understood that to be a withdrawal and has since said that it does not expect him to return. The local education authority has not provided for him to attend a special school. As a result, since September—and it is now March—that young man has had no education. Hon. Members would all accept that that family's predicament is not acceptable.

What has happened is due partly to the shrinking number of special school places, but also to the complexity of the effort to find the right school for a pupil. That needs to be simplified. If I had drafted the amendment, I might have made it even stronger, but I hope that the amendment will contribute to simplification.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), who is not in his place at present, pointed out that some local education authorities, whether for reasons of resources or of philosophy, do not provide adequate special education, and therefore do not do their duty in that respect. As I pointed out in an intervention, the notes to the Bill suggest that 20 per cent. of pupils have special educational needs at some stage in their school careers, which is a serious matter. The Committee should do what it can to ensure that local education authorities or, indeed, the National Assembly for Wales, have a responsibility to provide a balance of schools to suit parents' requirements for their children.

I do not want to say more, other than to emphasise, at the risk of trying the Committee's patience, that what is fine in theory is not necessarily so on the ground. Experience from Gloucestershire drives me to continue to tell the Committee and the House that in some areas—Gloucestershire is not the only one—the situation is not as it should be.

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