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The hon. Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) made some interesting points about the possible causes of some special educational needs and offered one or two observations about activities that might deal with them. I have to say, however, that this Opposition day debate has been characterised by an absence of Conservative party policy on what we should be doing to meet the needs of children with special educational needs.
I want to give a local example of a strategynot just a one-off contribution that is a particularly good way of responding, but a complete strategy that is in accordance with the Government's policy and demonstrates how to deliver special education in a whole area. I am talking about the county of Northamptonshire, where the Labour county council has a reputation for having a very high-quality special educational needs policy. Indeed, a recent Ofsted report described the local education authority's strategy on special educational needs as excellent and as reflecting the national agenda, with a key commitment to the principle of inclusion. Interestingly, Opposition Members talked about watchwords of choice and diversity, but failed to use the word "inclusion" as a key principle in approaching the question of developing education for children with special educational needs.
I have practical experience of the situation in Northamptonshire. Studfall junior school in my constituency has achieved the full integration of children with special educational needs. To pick up a point made by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), that includes children with hearing impairments. I witnessed fantastic educational opportunities during a Christmas event, when the whole schoola group of deaf children with hearing childrensang "Silent Night" using sign language. That was astonishing, because the hearing children were doing the signing. Both deaf and hearing children benefit from that kind of inclusiveness in our education system. To include is to provide opportunities for all our children, not just those with special educational needs.
Although Northamptonshire has been recommended by Ofsted as having an excellent system, it wants to go further and is now considering the Government's agenda to decide how better to go forward. It has drawn up a series of principles that will underpin a major review of its provision. Those principles comprise a model that we might wish to apply elsewhere. They hold that the needs of pupils must be paramount; that there must be early identification and intervention for all pupils with special educational needs; and vitally and interestingly, that every pupil with a statement, wherever they are placed, must be put on the register of a local mainstream school. So even a pupil with a statement who attends a special school will be registered with a mainstream schoolin effect, they are dual registered. That is a practical step towards linking together the needs of children in the mainstream and special school systems to ensure that those needs are met.
In Northamptonshire, the council is going to create a continuum of special education provision. To support an inclusive educational system, it will create a network of specialist centres with an agreed specification of expertise. Those centres will be directly linked to mainstream local schools so that the geographical distance is minimised to allow for ease of movement of pupils and teachers between them and mainstream schools. New partnerships of training, management, professional advice and expertise will be established, so that instead of isolated silos that children cannot move between, there will be an integrated network of specialist centres, mainstream schools and designated special provisionthat is, a mainstream school with a designated special unit on sitethat provides a real, multi-agency network of support within the school system. That will mean that young people can move freely and are not pigeonholed, boxed up and left uninspired in a place that cannot take them forward.
Of course, other children in mainstream schools will also have opportunitiesthe traffic is not one way. The provision in specialist centres is available to mainstream school children if they need it, and special needs children can use the mainstream school. Outside that, there will be a proper system of quality monitoring and control to ensure that the facilities meet the needs of all children.
I want to mention two examples of excellent practice that underpin the changes. It is vital that parents should be at the centre of the debate. My hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and others have emphasised that. In 1994, we created Parents in Partnership in Northamptonshire. This afternoon, I spoke to the founder member of the organisation, which is now called SNIPSpecial Needs in Partnership. It is a funded organisation that is run by volunteers and covers all children up to the age of 19. When a parent contacts it and says, "I'm not sure whether there's something wrong with my child; something is not quite right," a response is received in 24 hours. In days, someone from the organisation visits the family to talk through their problems, needs and worries.
The family may already have a child with special educational needs, or may be trying to get a child statemented. The parent may simply be worried. The service means that parents can have an advocate or mentor beside themsomeone who understands the system and can draw on other resources, such as the voluntary organisations and specialist groups that were mentioned earlierto be with the family. It is a fantastic service which is core funded by the county council. I am talking not about funny money but about real, sustainable money. There are paid and volunteer staff. This is a model of good practice that integrates the community, the voluntary sector and the local authority in providing parents with the support that they need.
Support for very young children is vital. No hon. Member has mentioned the portage service. Children with special educational needs that are identified early are visited by a portage home visitor, and a family with very small babies benefits from a tightly prescribed method for helping their child. The parents are shown what to do and, over a fortnight, they undertake activities every day with the child and keep a record. The volunteer from the portage service visits them again, assesses what has happened and describes the next series of activities. Consequently, the parents do not wonder what to do or feel isolated and the child does not get worse through lack of support.
The child is thus actively and practically supported by the parent, as the first educator, through the expertise and support of the service. The local education authority funds the service, but 50 volunteers provide it across the county. It is the largest service of its kind in the country, and many people could learn from it.
Time is not on our side, but I hope that I have shown that we have a good track record in Northamptonshire of providing services. We have new principles on which to base a reorganisation of those excellent services so as to be in tune with the Government's core aims of partnership with parents and inclusiveness for all children in our communities.
We should pay tribute to the staff, pupils and heads of mainstream schools for their efforts to integrate children with special educational needs into their schools. They have done a terrific job, and everybody in the schools has benefited enormously from their actions.
As well as the recurrent theme of encouraging inclusion in schools in my constituency, another theme has run through meetings and conversations with head teachers. That is the issue of whether children with special educational needs should always be included in mainstream schools. I shall cite a couple of examples, because we need to stop and think about how far this agenda should go, and about what action we should take in consequence.
One head teacher has cited the situation in which an included child can absorb more resources than are funded by the local authority. As a consequence of that child's needs not being met by the additional funding, the classroom assistant or the teacher has to devote disproportionate time to that child's education, to the detriment of the other children in the class. There is concern that the education of other children suffers when there are insufficient resources available, and that the education of the child with special educational needs is not being fully supported in the way that we believe it should be. As a consequence, that child will not get the full chances in life that we all think he is entitled to.
The other example that I have come across in my constituency is one in which the support given to a child, and that child's ability to access the mainstream curriculum, is so limited that, although he is being educated in a classroom alongside his peers, the isolation is such that it would be unfair to say that he was being included. It would be more accurate to say that he was being co-located with his peers. The interests of that child are not being properly considered if he is simply being educated alongside a class, rather than as part of it.
The long-term consequences of pushing a short-term inclusion agenda will cause difficulties for children in that situation, because they need more care and educational supportprobably in the form of the more supportive surroundings of a special schoolthan they are getting by being part of a mainstream school. We need to ensure, in providing the special education that children need, that we think carefully about their needs, in terms of the LEA, the parents and those who provide support and guidance to parents.
I am conscious that we are reaching the time when we shall start to get letters from constituents about statements and the needs that are specified in them, and about the support and help that children need. We should look to LEAs and voluntary groups to work more closely with parents to ensure that the statement of need produced as part of this process is really supportive of the long-term needs of the child, and not driven simply by the need either to cut costs or to pursue an inclusion agenda.
Other methods of special education, which LEAs do not fund, exist outside the school structure. In my constituency, the Rainbow Centre provides conductive education for children with cerebral palsy from across the south-east of England. The centre is not funded by the Government, and I ask the Minister to look carefully at that issue. At present, the centre's valuable work is funded entirely by the tremendous efforts of volunteers, many of whom have put much effort into providing this form of education. I ask the Government to consider funding educational methods that are used outside the mainstream education system funded by the LEAs. I also hope that the inclusion agenda will not be pushed to such an extent that it works against the interests of the very children whom we hope to protect and support in the years ahead.