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6.17 pm

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I was one of the Members who voted against the Government last time, solely on the basis of the wording of paragraph 8:37. Admittedly, it was one of the shortest rebellions in parliamentary history when it was withdrawn within two hours—a form of "codus interruptus", I suppose.

I was concerned about quantification, and I remain anxious about the ability of local authorities to exert flexibility. The Minister's example was not reassuring because I should have thought that the change in circumstances would have been picked up at the annual review. The system proposed already covers that flexibility. However, I am open to persuasion.

When the Minister replies, it would be worth while if he made an explicit statement that could be used by people in defending their rights if there were any possibility of flexibility being abused by local authorities. He could say that flexibility should not be used as a device for avoiding clarity of quantification of a pupil's needs and that any attempt to use it as such would be contrary to the spirit of the guidance.

How will the Minister monitor the use of the flexibility? We have been assured that provision should normally be quantified, but I hope that the flexibility will be used only in very rare and exceptional cases, and that a report would be made to the House if it were believed that an abuse had occurred. That would require a monitoring system.

6.19 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am grateful for the chance to ask the Minister about the number of statemented children in Herefordshire. The current figure is 4 per cent. and I believe that it is due to be cut to 2 per cent. That is of particular concern to me because Wigmore primary school in my constituency has a special educational class with 12 places. It received a gold award from Ofsted for its excellent special educational needs teaching. Since then, I have been told that the number of places is due to be cut to six. That is awkward, because there are seven statemented children in the school. One full-time staff member is expected to go part-time. In a city that is understandable, but in a rural area close to the Welsh border, it is not practical. It means that that person will lose half their salary.

The extra pupil may or may not be able to fit into the school, and the family are deeply concerned. Moreover, we cannot know how many statemented pupils there will be next year or, indeed, in the year after that, which is worrying. It seems that children with special educational needs are being forced into pigeonholes to suit policy enforced by the local education authority. Although the

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matter is still under consultation, the staff in question seem to believe that most of the decisions have already been made.

I hope that the Minister will consider the problem in rural areas, where flexibility does not exist. I also hope that in a school whose excellence has been identified and praised by Ofsted, the present position will be preserved. I am worried by paragraph 1:14, which states that LEAs must

this is the last requirement in the paragraph, and I hope that the House will forgive the grammar, for which I am not responsible—

If the LEA explains that it cannot meet those special requirements because it has no funds, what will happen to children with special educational needs?

6.21 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I first met a child suffering from autism during my second term as a probationary teacher. He had a learning support assistant and was in the fourth form, as we called it then.

I had no idea what autism was; I was never told. I knew nothing about the child's needs. He was in, shall I say, a "lower order" class, which for a probationary teacher was not always the easiest environment in which to maintain discipline. It must also have been very difficult for him. Fortunately, that was a long time ago and things have moved on—partly, at least, thanks to my noble Friend Lady Young, who introduced and worked hard on provisions for pupils with SEN following the Warnock report.

The Government's amendment to the code of practice is welcome—I say that unconditionally—but much work remains to be done. Local authorities must be persuaded to recognise and assist the parents of pupils with SEN. I owe a lot to Claire Franklin—one of the parents of autistic pupils on the Isle of Wight who contributes much to supporting others in the same position—and to Jimmy Spence, a former Isle of Wight councillor, who brought the issue to my attention two or three years ago. I also owe a lot to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who has done much work for youngsters with autism spectrum disorders. She kindly visited the island, and met Claire and Jimmy and many other mothers and fathers of pupils with special needs.

It is not enough to write things down. It is essential for local authorities, whatever their political complexion, to show a commitment—a genuine determination—to meet the requirements of SEN pupils. Let me a give a few examples. In doing so, I do not criticise my local authority particularly, nor do I make a political point.

Mothers—it usually is mothers—with other children to look after may have to spend hours attending, say, a council meeting before they can even ask, in public question time, a question that frustration has driven them

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to go and ask, let alone receive an answer. If they get an answer, it will be read out rather less effectively than things are read out by the Minister. If they must then correspond at length with the local authority and receive no answers, they are not being given the treatment and support that they deserve from the authority.

Such people may subsequently have to go to tribunals and seek support from IPSEA, the National Autistic Society or other outside organisations, in the face of a local authority funded from the public purse—whether or not it considers itself to be fully funded—that may employ solicitors. Many authorities employ solicitors to challenge parents at tribunals, although I am pleased to say that Isle of Wight council does not. If that happens, we are not giving parents the recognition and justice that they seek and need for their children.

I shall concentrate on autism spectrum disorders, but local authorities simply do not seem to understand a huge number of issues. For example, such children cannot travel on a bus unaccompanied because they might get off and wander away—and, if they wander away between leaving home in the morning and arriving at school, who would be responsible? The same applies when children are on the way home. If conditions on the bus are not perfect for children with challenging needs such as autism—and they seldom are—such children will become upset, and be more likely to wander. If conditions in the school playground, let alone the classroom, are not perfect, children may go AWOL and no one may notice until the beginning of the next lesson or, in some cases, the one after that.

Such things are not necessarily written down in statements. A local education authority may make a school responsible for providing a learning support assistant, but the school may not recognise that an autistic child needs constant encouragement from a figure whom he or she recognises. It is no good for such a child to have half an hour from Mrs. X in the morning and three hours from Mrs. Y in the afternoon. It is no good writing things down in a statement if the local authority or the school—or, in some instances, the health authority—cannot deliver. For instance, speech and language therapy are all too often specified in statements and then treated more as hope than expectation because the health service cannot provide them.

I echo the request of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), and ask the Minister to make clear who is legally liable. Is it the school, the LEA, the Government or, as I fear, no one? Who is liable if what is demanded in a statement is not provided, month after month?

There are a number of issues relating to respite care, which I will not go into now, but there is also the issue of social services' support for parents of pupils with autism disorders, and for the youngsters themselves. Parents' preferences should be recognised. I thank the Minister for his reply to my earlier intervention. My point was that when a statement does not name a particular school, does the fact that a child has been statemented prevent the LEA from having to recognise and, wherever practicable, give effect to, the parents' preference for placement in a particular LEA school? I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, but I am talking about cases in which the school has not been named. Are parents in such cases given genuine opportunities to consider independent schools, or are their

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hands tied behind their backs? Is it sometimes implied that considering an independent school implies a lack of faith in the maintained system, which does not deserve to be taken into account by the LEA?

When children transfer from school to school—we have a three-tier system on the island, so there are two transfers for every child—is the review of their needs undertaken in good time not only for the transfer, but for parents to express a preference? If it is not undertaken in the September before transfer, the parent will not be able to express one.

There is great need for those matters to be understood by local authorities and schools. That is why I so strongly support maintenance of the existing special school provision. I pay tribute to Medina House school and Watergate school, in Newport, and to St. Catherine's, which is an independent school in Ventnor, all of which very effectively serve pupils with special educational needs.

The Minister mentioned, and I welcome, work on the early identification of need. However, it is no good identifying need if it then takes three years to create a statement. I hope that all local authorities and all those who cater for pupils with special needs will recognise the urgency of providing them with statements as quickly and effectively as possible, and with not only quantified measures—although I welcome those—but qualitative ones. Parents see the need for that, but we must all see it if those children are to receive the education that they deserve.

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