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Mr. Clarke: I appreciate the general welcome given by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and I confirm his view that the subject is not a matter of party political difference, whether at local government level or across the Chamber. As far as I am aware, politicians and people from all parties are committed to broadly the same approach.

On the three specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I agree that the process of improving services must be a question of levelling up, not down. That has to be the right approach. I focus on quality because we must improve professional practice, so that people can see what good practice consists of and how they may

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apply it in particular areas. The regional networks to which I referred will help us to do that in a variety of ways.

I stand by the letter from my Department last July, which stated that there should be no blanket policies. A critical point—I emphasise it—is the importance of judgment. To go down to the position where everybody either is or is not in a special school is a hopeless way of going about things. We talk too much in terms of categories when we are talking about people with special educational needs. The point behind the philosophy that every child matters is that each individual, with their particular special need, is a special person who needs to be taken into account. Obviously, that is difficult to achieve—the task is massive in respect of resources and in other terms—but that must be the right approach, rather than saying that everybody in one category should be treated in way X and everybody in another should be treated in way Y. The point I want to stress is that such an approach requires high-quality judgment in each locality, which is why we wrote the letter about no blanket policies.

On the hon. Gentleman's third point about a co-ordinating one-stop shop, it is critical that that judgment is made in co-ordination with the health and education professionals concerned, voluntary organisations and parents, too. Sometimes, parents feel isolated from the process that involves their child. That is not best practice, but it happens. I am sure that we have all experienced situations in which both individual parents, concerned about their child, and groups of parents, concerned, for example, about the closure of a special school, are passionately engaged but are left outside a decision-making process from which they feel alienated. The answer is to ensure that there is co-ordination and judgment.

That is why I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asked in his second question, that we would have a moratorium on all closures of special schools. We should not adopt that type of blanket position, but should say that in every locality people must look at the particular circumstances and decide what to do. The great shift in the document that we published today is that we talk about special schools as part of a local network of collaboration, through liaison both with the specialist schools' programmes and as centres of excellence working with local schools. The more that we see a special school not simply as serving the children within it but as part of the local educational provision, the better the basis for taking the decisions that have to be taken.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement? Like the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), we are at one with the right hon. Gentleman in trying to improve special educational needs. Both the previous Government and the present Government have good records on tackling some of the key issues.

I am a little disappointed that there will be no changes to the legal framework, because although the Education Act 1981, pioneered by Baroness Warnock, which introduced the idea of statements, was a major step forward, it is now a hurdle that many schools, and many parents, find it difficult to get over, so I hope that the Secretary of State will revisit that issue.

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May I put on record my praise for teachers, in both mainstream and special schools, who work with some of the most difficult youngsters in some of the most difficult circumstances? They do a brilliant job and no one doing such work should regard the statement as suggesting that they do other than an excellent job.

We all found the Audit Commission's 2002 report an incredibly chilling document. Questions must be asked about why Ofsted did not pick up some of the major concerns earlier—I hope that the Secretary of State can respond. What role will Ofsted play to ensure that in future we do not have the Audit Commission reporting that things are difficult?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has not tackled some of the obvious barriers. He referred to the specialist school movement and to church schools. Will he examine how many such schools have children with special educational needs? How many of the children attending those schools receive free school meals and how many of them are in care? Many special needs children throughout the education system come under those three categories and are disappearing from the specialist schools. That is a challenge. These comments are not party political, but we must address the issue.

On early identification, there is no doubt that the first six months are crucial. Will the Secretary of State work with the Secretary of State for Health to expand birth-to-six screening, especially for cognitive and sensory development? Will he commission research, which could probably be undertaken by the research council being set up under the Higher Education Bill—[Interruption.] You never know. Will the Secretary of State commission research into low birthweight and families at risk? There is a correlation between low birthweight and later special needs problems, and adequate research has not been carried out.

On funding, will the right hon. Gentleman consider following the Dutch model in which children are funded from six months onwards according to their need? That would avoid a bureaucratic process later on and children could get support where and when they need it.

On the inclusion development programme, will the Secretary of State ensure that there is a key worker for any child who is diagnosed at six months with a cognitive, sensory or physical impairment, so that there is a one-stop shop for the parents as well as for the professionals working with the child? Will he consider taking appropriate regulatory action to ensure that adults in non-regulated early-years settings also have a duty of care for children with special educational needs? At present, they are excluded from that requirement.

Will the Secretary of State consider guaranteeing that when children enter school—be it at five or at any other key stage—teachers and classroom assistants have appropriate training? Far too often, children with special needs are dealt with by classroom assistants who have no specific training. We would not do that with A-level students and we should not do it with children with special needs.

Will the right hon. Gentleman pay special attention to the issue of children with behavioural difficulties? There is a growing incidence in our schools of children with attention deficit disorders, dyspraxia and autism, which

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causes major problems in terms of the inclusion programme, not only for the children themselves but for other children at the school. We have not given sufficient attention to that aspect of the programme, yet it is one of the greatest barriers and threats to inclusion. The Government should play a special role in dealing with that problem.

I agree that special schools have a specialist role, but I urge the Secretary of State to look at the American model, whereby special schools are linked to research departments in higher education institutes. Research excellence is thus developed locally and practice can spread to other schools, especially in mainstream settings.

Respite care is a massive issue for parents of children with dyspraxia, autism and some of the behavioural disorders, but there is a postcode lottery for its provision. Will the Secretary of State pay special attention to resolving that problem?

We very much support the statement, but in the end resources will make a huge difference in ensuring that children who are born with cognitive or other difficulties receive the best that we can give them. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that, in the new comprehensive spending review, this programme, together with higher education, receives special attention.

Mr. Clarke: I am not sure whether that was another claim on the Lib Dem 50 per cent. tax rate, but I shall generously assume that it was not.

The hon. Gentleman made a series of points. First, we thought carefully about changing the legal framework. To be blunt, we came to the view that we cannot take that route until we have really developed the approach set out in the strategy, especially early intervention, in a way that gives parents confidence in the robustness of the current system. The existing statementing process is seen by many parents as a means to give them some assurance about the future of their child. To remove that process, or to fiddle with it, would not be appropriate until we have gone a considerable way down the line in implementing the approach that we have taken. That is the reason for our decision.

On the inspection regime, there is a new inspection framework. We have of course looked at the Audit Commission report in the context of Ofsted's comments, and we shall take it further. There is much dialogue about those matters.

On specialist schools, there is one point on which the hon. Gentleman is not right. Many of the specialist school bids that I have seen include a partnership with a special school in the locality. For example, I remember going to a languages specialist school that had a class from a local special school in the language lab, going through the process. We are seeing much more engagement between specialist schools and special schools, in a variety of different ways, which is a very positive thing.

I come on to the hon. Gentleman's point about EBD—emotional and behavioural difficulties—and attention deficit syndromes of various descriptions. It is important to build a better relationship between special schools and mainstream schooling with professional staff and so on.

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I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about birth-to-six screening, birth weight and the need for research. My view is that we have had a problem with joined-up government, which we are trying to put right. There are three main players: the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the voluntary organisations dealing with the particular area concerned, many of which raise large amounts of money for research. We must get effective co-ordination. We can say that we have been doing that over the past two or three years, but there is still a long way to go. I am in constant dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about precisely that.

I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's point about funding in relation to the child.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the key worker is very important. We shall give that priority.

With regard to adults' duty of care more generally and the question of training, I have to concede that the hon. Gentleman is right. It is a massive issue involving both initial training for teachers and those in other professions, and in-service training and continuous professional development. We highlight this in the document. There is a great deal of work to be done, and we must make steady progress to raise standards across the whole range.

I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's interesting idea of a link with university research departments. There is much to be said for it, and I am grateful to him for the suggestion.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about respite care, too. We are developing a programme with foster respite carers, if I may put it like that, to be able to do work in that field, which will relieve some of the pressures that the hon. Gentleman rightly described.

Resources are always an issue—there are never enough. It is important, first, to secure the best use of resources, which is one of the reasons why the partnership between the different agencies is very important, and, secondly, to intervene as early as possible, because the more we can sort out problems early, the fewer the resource implications further down the line. It is worth investing early in a child's life to make a difference later on, quite apart from the social benefit.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the general support that he has given to the document.


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