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Mr. Straw: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right when he made that statement on 18 June 1997 about the proposals having real teeth. The only problem—this is not his responsibility—is that the jaw attached to the teeth has not closed sufficiently often. Although the proposals on subsidiarity in the draft convention are not perfect, they would go some way to assisting in the matter. Meanwhile, we have a responsibility as a key member state in Europe—my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer share this view—to get to grips with deregulation in Europe. Obviously, some regulations are very important, but British people and British business would welcome lighter touch regulation to try to turn round not malign forces in Brussels but the engine that produces unnecessary regulation without looking more imaginatively at how the particular task in hand could better be achieved.

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Special Educational Needs

1.19 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke): Today the Government will publish "Removing Barriers to Achievement". This is our long-term strategy to give children with special educational needs the opportunity to succeed. The strategy, which I promised to the House last September in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters", sets out the Government's proposals for working together with local authorities, schools, early years settings, the health service and the voluntary and private sectors to enable children and young people with special educational needs to achieve their potential.

The strategy builds on the current statutory framework for SEN. We propose no changes to that legal framework, but our strategy sets out the ways in which we will give real effect to it. I believe that in recent years we have made good progress in improving provision for children with special educational needs. However, there is much further to go. The Audit Commission's report, "Special Educational Needs—a mainstream issue", which was published in 2002, highlighted a number of real concerns. That report stated that too many children wait for too long to have their needs met; children who should be able to be taught in mainstream settings are sometimes turned away and too many staff feel ill equipped to meet the wide range of pupil needs; many special schools feel uncertain of their future role; and that there are unacceptable variations in the level of support available to families from their school, local authority or local health service. Our strategy seeks to address those legitimate concerns.

We have discussed the matters with a wide range of practitioners and policy makers, as well as with children and young people themselves. We have listened to what they say and I believe that our strategy provides clear national leadership, supported by an ambitious programme of sustained action, nationally and locally, in four key areas.

The first key area is early intervention. We want to ensure that children with learning difficulties receive the help that they need as soon as possible and that parents of children with special educational needs have access to suitable child care. Our strategy therefore seeks to embed in practice nationally the principles of the early support pilot programme; to implement a new strategy for child care for children with SEN; to work with voluntary organisations to establish a national early intervention centre of excellence to raise quality; to encourage delegation of funds to schools; and to cut bureaucracy in SEN provision.

The second key area is the removal of barriers to learning. We recognise that a child's learning difficulties often arise because the learning environment is not suitable. Our aim is to develop inclusive practices to meet the needs of every child so that they have the chance to succeed. Special schools are and will be an important part of our specialist programme and we will encourage them to become part of local communities of schools and to play a key role as centres of excellence and expertise. We seek to remove barriers to learning by, for example, creating a new inclusion development

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programme to bring together education, health, social care and the voluntary sector to develop effective approaches to provision for children with SEN.

Initially, the programme will focus on autistic spectrum disorder; behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; speech, language and communication difficulties; and moderate learning difficulties. We will develop practical tools and materials for schools and local authorities, working with the Disability Rights Commission and voluntary sector partners. We will make proposals to improve the quality of education for children with more severe behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. We will improve regional planning of provision and provide practical guidance on reducing reliance on high-cost placements. We will also establish minimum standards for SEN advisory and support services.

The third key area is the raising of expectations and achievement. We will develop teachers' skills to meet the needs of children with SEN and help them to move successfully into adult life. Our strategy puts children with SEN at the heart of personalised learning; delivers practical teaching and learning resources to raise the achievement of all children with SEN; works with the Teacher Training Agency and teacher training providers to deliver initial and continuous professional development, which provides a good grounding in the knowledge of SEN; will measure the progress made by those pupils working below level 1 and collect data nationally from 2005; and will work across Government to improve the quality of transition planning for young people with SEN and expand their opportunities for education, training and work.

The fourth and final key area is delivering improvements in partnership. We intend to build partnership working between education, health, social care and the voluntary sector. We will develop the common assessment framework, multi-disciplinary teams and children's trusts, to deliver joined-up services for children and families. We will align the SEN strategy with the national service framework for children. Above all, we want parents to be confident that their child will get the education they need, wherever they live. There is great variation in the provision made by local authorities for children with SEN, and so we think that there is a need for greater consistency across the country. We will promote that through our network of SEN regional partnerships.

All children should enjoy education that enables them to fulfil their talents and provides a firm foundation for adult life. "Removing Barriers to Achievement" reaffirms our commitment to working in partnership to unlock the potential of the many children who may have difficulty learning but whose life chances depend upon high-quality education. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his courtesy in providing an advance copy. I welcome both his statement on this important topic and many of the specifics of what he has announced today. What he said about the priority that we should all give to children with special educational needs will unite all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

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I wish to press the Secretary of State on a few of the specific proposals. I am sure that those who have campaigned long and hard for the interests of parents of children with SEN will welcome what he said about the need to iron out the sometimes large differences between local education authorities. Given that the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has made it clear that local education authorities of all political colours—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—have, at times, not been sufficiently generous or speedy in responding to SEN requests, does he agree that any action that he can take to level up, rather than level down, will be much welcomed?

Does the Secretary of State stand by the letter that the head of his Department's SEN division sent in July last year to all LEAs, warning them not to apply blanket policies of never quantifying special education provision in children's statements? Does he anticipate that the national guidance that he seeks will be consistent with the judgment made by Lady Justice Hale in the Court of Appeal some time ago, which is regarded by many parents as an important legal statement on the issue?

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State had warm words to say about special schools. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that many children with SEN are most appropriately looked after in mainstream schools, but that some would benefit enormously from special schools. Does he share our regret that 79 special schools have closed since 1997, and would it be consistent with the approach that he set out today to consider the case for a moratorium on further closures? My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) has been calling for such a moratorium for some time.

Will the Secretary of State also consider the case that many parents have made that greater co-ordination between the various responsibilities of different authorities would be welcome if it provided a one-stop shop for parents? There are merits and advantages in those authorities co-operating in greater partnership, as he specified, but a one-stop shop for parents would be very welcome. In that context, I also wish to press him on an issue raised in the other place by Baroness Warnock—I am sure that he recalls that she was largely responsible for setting up the statementing process—that it is now time for a comprehensive review of the process, because it is too combative. He will know that many parents say that they have to fight for the interests of their children. There must be a better approach.If the Secretary of State can clarify those points, I am sure that his overall approach will be welcomed by all hon. Members.

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