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Norman Lamb: The Disabilities Trust makes the point about the crucial need for early diagnosis and assessment. Lost years can have a fatal effect on a child's development. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more training needs to go into early diagnosis and assessment?

Mr. Woodward: I agree with that, and towards the end of my remarks I shall have a suggestion for my hon. Friend the Minister that will involve a dialogue with the Treasury.

Part of the Conservative party's criticism of the Government's approach to education is that it is too centralised. However, the hon. Member for Epping Forest should look more closely at the report from the National Autistic Society that is cited in the Opposition's motion. The society wants local education authorities to receive a strong lead from the centre so that they can deal with the problem. It wants central Government to tell LEAs to direct their resources to tackling autism and to concentrate them on providing teachers with more specialist training in dealing with the problems of children with autism. That is not a question of one size fits all; those at the sharp end of dealing with autism say that a lead from the centre will bring about fundamental changes.

We have heard much talk about what has been achieved in hon. Members' constituencies, and it gives me great pleasure to refer to my constituency in St. Helens. Luckily, we have just succeeded with a bid for a new school in St. Helens for children with special educational needs. Through the work of my LEA and its successful leader, Susan Richardson, we received the top award of £5 million. The LEA is providing the extra £1.5 million, and in two years the school will open in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. It will take 170 children, with specialist teachers and specialist training. That must be a step forward, and I am grateful to the Government for providing the money.

However, no matter what we do, the solution for some children with autism will not be found in mainstream education. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said, early intervention is crucial. If we meet the children when they are two or two and a half and intervene intensively on a one-to-one basis, there is a chance that, with special help, they can be integrated into mainstream education when they are five or six. I am sure that all Members would want that.

I recently came across the case of a young boy called Toby. He was three when he was diagnosed with autism in 1996. He lives in Camden with his mother, who went to the local authority and said that she needed special help for her boy. Camden had a school for children with special educational needs, but no special provision for children with autism. The boy's mother, who is an enterprising and energetic woman and works in the theatre, got the resources together to create a project called the Treehouse school. Five or six years later, that school has 30 children of primary school age.

I have been carefully complimentary about the Government's policies, so I shall direct my next remarks to my hon. Friend the Minister. The Treehouse school

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wants to expand its facilities so that it can take 80 children. There is no other such facility in Camden, and all but two of its 30 pupils are paid for by LEAs.

The school is running an appeal to raise nearly £11 million for its expansion, but £2.5 million of that is for VAT, which will find its way to the Chancellor. I am sure that he will find excellent ways to redistribute that money round the country, but I ask the Minister whether it is sensible to expect the school to raise those extra funds before it can build facilities for children whose places will be paid for by an LEA. After all, we are trying to tackle the problems of children with autism and we are encouraging the charitable sector to come up with creative solutions. The school in Camden is an excellent solution, and it fulfils a need that was not previously being met. Treehouse is an excellent model. It is doing pioneering American work that is changing the treatment of autism among young people and children of primary and secondary school age. If we mean what we say, and if we are a reforming Government in every area, we may need to consider reforming VAT to help special schools to do their work.

In their motion the Conservatives call for the Government

The hon. Member for Epping Forest spoke about vision, and I have to say that not only have the Government displayed vision since their time in opposition, when they published a paper on the subject, but there has been action, in my constituency and throughout the country.

Today I asked charities, such as the one cited in the motion, what they thought of Government policy. First, they are delighted with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Secondly, they feel that the legislation is better than ever before in enshrining the rights of every child with special educational needs. Thirdly, they commend the national autism good practice working group and the national initiative for autism screening and assessment. The people at the coal face think that the Government are doing well.

Mrs. Laing: The theory that the hon. Gentleman puts forward is right, but does he not agree that there are thousands of parents who have to fight to get what is due to their children? A statement of need is issued and parents are told that the child has certain rights, but the local authority, the health authority and social services are unable to honour those rights because the necessary infrastructure does not exist.

Mr. Woodward: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and she is making a wonderful case for championing the most vulnerable children. I only wonder, in light of what she said, why special educational needs was not a central part of the speech made by the leader of her party earlier today, in which he said that he would champion children. I have just read the press release of that speech, and I cannot find a word about children with special educational needs or autism.

I know that last week, which was national autism week, the Conservative party carried out a survey, and surveys are important in raising awareness. In the same week the party published its first important document on

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education—10,000 words of it, after eight months of intensive work. It is all about how we might begin to modernise education, but in 10,000 words there was not one word about autism and only half a line about special educational needs. There was not a policy or a proposal.

Mrs. Laing: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Woodward: No, I am about to finish my speech.

This is an important subject, but if there is to be anything more than combat, and if the leader of the Conservative party means to champion children, he must take the most vulnerable, those who need to be championed, and include them in his speech. Of course the hon. Lady's speech in the House this evening was important, but is she saying that it was more important than that of her party's leader? Last week was national autism week, so why did the Conservative leader not refer to autism if it is important enough to dominate the party's parliamentary time? It is important to match the rhetoric with action.

In the report on education that the Conservative party produced last week, there was nothing about autism but a great deal about Gladstone. When I was at school I learned about Gladstone in the context of the 19th century being a period of reaction and reform. Gladstone was indeed a radical reformer; the problem with the motion is that it is all reaction and no reform.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I point out to right hon. and hon. Members that there is not a great deal of time left in this debate, so brevity would be helpful?

8.50 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I am delighted to have the chance to contribute to this debate on a very important subject. I should like to start by saying that it should be absolutely evident that there is no political disagreement about the importance of special educational needs, but that is not the same as saying that there is no disagreement throughout the education system about how those needs are best met. Perhaps more than on any other issue, there is constant and vigorous debate between professionals and parents about the relative merits of special schools and supported education in mainstream schools.

I shall reply briefly to the points made by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward). He cannot imagine that the document published last week or the speech made today represent the Conservative party's final words on education, and we have initiated this debate to raise a number of issues, including autism.

The watchwords for this debate, as for other education issues, should be diversity and choice in so far as they can be achieved, especially in rural areas, and flexibility in the system, bearing in mind the variety and complexity of the educational needs of the children we are talking about and the fact that those needs are rarely static. To those watchwords we should add the need for the fullest possible information for, and the involvement of, parents and the best achievable co-ordination of the different responsible agencies locally.

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What has been interesting about this evening—it would be equally interesting if we had more time—is the fact that we all bring our own experiences to this debate. We have heard about some moving examples from hon. Members' constituencies. I know, because I have heard him say so on many occasions, that the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, now the Secretary of State for the Home Department, having himself attended a special school, is very much in favour of inclusiveness and educating children with special needs in mainstream schools. Although the Government of whom I was a member certainly stressed the importance of moving towards, where possible, as much inclusion as we could, my own experience of more than 30 years in education, one way and another, has influenced me to differ from the right hon. Gentleman's view.

My memory goes back to my experience of a post-war primary school in rural Norfolk, where the concept of special needs education, except for the blind and deaf, was quite unknown. As a result, in my 30-pupil primary school, children with pronounced special needs were not educated, but seated and, when possible, kept occupied next to the teacher and alongside us. That same teacher, in a two-teacher school, was also the head teacher. She was responsible for organising the work of about 15 children of all abilities between the ages of seven and 11. As a result, the special needs children got no chance at all.

When some residential special schools were opened in Norfolk in the early 1950s, the life chances of the children alongside us and their counterparts in all the other schools were transformed beyond all imagining, especially given some of their family circumstances.

In the intervening many decades since then, the pendulum of educational fashion has swung back and forth. We are currently in a phase that is worrying many heads of special schools. We heard what the Minister for School Standards had to say this evening, and I hope that we shall hear further reassurance from his colleague, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, when she makes her closing remarks. However, given the number of closures that have taken place and the examples of the LEAs' attitudes that we have heard about, there is no doubt that many head teachers of special schools feel that those schools, and the loving care and devotion that they and their staff provide, are under threat.

No one could seriously argue against the rightness of inclusion for all pupils, especially those who throughout their lives, because of their disabilities, may in any case feel excluded from mainstream life. It is a question of how best to balance the needs of any particular child at a given point in his or her life, and how best to equip that child to realise his or her full potential. That, surely, is the point of inclusiveness.

What is needed—we are not there yet, and we were not there in my time either—is the utmost flexibility between the special school system and supported education in mainstream schools. It is a pity if the dedicated work done in special schools is somehow devalued in the eyes of those who work in them because of the swing of the pendulum. We need both routes for these children, but with many crossing points between them at every stage.

Because of the need for crossing points, an essential feature of the education and continuing development of children with special needs is the closest possible

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co-ordination and co-operation at local level. We can all give excellent examples of that. Because of the time constraint I will not give lengthy examples from my constituency; I merely say that it is possible for a special school to work closely with a local training centre, which can in turn work closely with a further education college.

I did not agree with what was said by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who is not here now, about what went on in FE colleges. In my experience at any rate, the work of FE colleges has been one of the great unsung successes of our age. The excitement and satisfaction gained by young people from their status as students is an object lesson in real inclusiveness, which I hope will not be adversely affected by the new regime of training and skills councils.

The main difficulty is coping with the anxieties of parents. They need to know their rights with regard to statements, and they need the greatest possible reassurance at all times. In no area is collaboration between all relevant agencies more vital. Like every other Member, I find that the most distressing letters in my postbag have come from parents who know that something is wrong with their children but are having to put up with delays and, sometimes, failure to communicate on the part of the various agencies. They feel that they are being pushed around through various kinds of bureaucracy, while having to cope with the appalling uncertainty involved in suspecting that their children may be different from others.

Many such parents are reassured by the knowledge that their children will be catered for by the specialised skills of a special school. Despite the best will in the world, a child inappropriately placed in mainstream education, even with support, may be a source of continuing worry and uncertainty for parents. Parents worry about whether the next class teacher will be as understanding as the present one, whether the child is being mocked or bullied and is not telling anyone, whether the support assistant will stay in her job, and whether the hours of support will be reduced.

That is not to denigrate the excellent work done in mainstream education for children with special needs. Clearly the appropriateness of a child's placement is the most important issue; but the parents' interests and peace of mind should not be overlooked, and nor should their responsibilities to the other members of the family. I think that a special school placement can help a whole family to survive, providing support that comes not least from other parents of children at the school.

It has been a privilege to speak in the debate. Let me end by saying that there is no one right route. There is a variety of routes, which can be opened through facilitation of the links between the two main pathways. We did not achieve that, and the present Government are not achieving it yet, but that is the direction in which we must go.

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